Summer 1939, Whitby, England
On hungry cries, seagulls fly as Will and I run down White Point Road towards the beach. Hands clasped, he drives me forward, his long stride powering us off the tarmac onto the grass. Breath catching in my throat, our fingers part, and Will runs on. Heart thumping, I bend, placing my hands on my knees, then breathe, steadying my erratic pulse.
Will slows, looking over his shoulder. “Come on, Rosie.”
Frustration pours from him, and he waves, urging me to move. My head lowers, and he turns, running down the steep embankment, towards the promenade. His dark blonde hair flops about his ears like a lop-eared rabbit. Mum’s shopping bag bounces against his back as he throws it over his shoulder.
No longer forced to match Will’s fast pace, I make my way to the embankment. The skirt of my gingham dress flaps behind me, outlining my slender legs. Arms spread for balance, I jog, following the zig-zag path. Below, Will hits the sand, his brown Oxford shoes leaving a trail of pitted footprints.
From the promenade, near the multi-coloured huts, I watch him move towards the rocks, seeking a break from the wind to light the fire. He looks up, signalling me to join him, and I shake my head, pointing at my shoes. Bag dropping onto the sand, his shoulders meet his ears, arms raising in confusion. Frustrated at my lack of progress, he snatches the bag, continuing along the beach. Not letting his annoyance bother me, I sit on the curb where the grassy embankment meets the concrete path, and slip off my shoes. With my ankle socks pushed inside, I make my way to the steps.
Shoes dangling at my side, I step onto the sand. My long black hair unravels from the pins holding up the sides and the curls I’d spent over an hour creating, drop. I had wanted to look like the actress, Madeleine Carroll, a lost cause, given the length and thickness of my hair. Still, a girl can dream.
“Come on, slow coach!” Will shouts, arms waving above his head.
In the distance, the sea licks the beach as it waits for the tide to turn. Past the rocks, heading for Sandsend, a couple walk hand in hand. A dog runs in front of them for its ball, crashing into the sea. At the rocks, hidden from the couple, Will rolls back his sleeves. His right knee digging into the sand, he removes the kindling from the bag, stacking them. Firelighters protrude from between the thin sticks.
With little protection from the wind, lighting a fire on the beach was difficult. Zip changed that when they invented the kerosene-soaked firelighters in 1936.
The muscles along his back flex as he moves, pulling the shirt tight. Hair dripping over his face, I watch him, enjoying the shift in our relationship.
Until recently, Will and I were just friends, hanging out with James Chappell, and occasionally, Will’s sister, Betty. Jimmy, Will, and I are like the Three Musketeers, banding together to create childish mayhem. We’ve been that way since we were little. But things have changed, and a flame ignites between me and Will. I see the man, not the boy in Will, and that man excites me. My only problem is Jimmy. I’ve known for some time he loves me more than a friend should. How can I tell him I love Will, without causing him pain?
Over the last few months, I’ve become a coward, choosing to ignore Jimmy’s growing feelings, hoping he will see the futility of it. Mum has this saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” As it suits me, I’ve latched onto it, ignoring Jimmy’s lingering glances.
Will, Jimmy, and I were born three months apart. Will in April, Jimmy, July, and me in October. Our friendship made our parents smile, there were “oohs” and “ahs” and all the silly noises parents make when happy with their offspring. Their happiness was short-lived, and the older and more capable we became, the more havoc and trouble we caused. Like mice, we scurried from one drama to another. That’s when our parent’s “oohs” and “ahs” turned to groans. With our hands stifling our giggles, we’d hide, listening to them complain about us. They were fun times.
Out of the three of us, Jimmy is the sensible one. Will and I run headlong, creating a mess, snared in the momentum of our devilment. Way back, before Tom Armitage’s dad, Albert, killed himself, Tom would join us in our adventures. Now he keeps his distance. He’s always been a funny fish, with his quiet brooding. Unfortunately, Albert’s death has amplified his gloominess.
A smile tugs at my lips as I walk past Will, my swaying hips grabbing his attention. From the shopping bag, he grabs the blanket, and shakes it out, near the rocks. I sit down, tucking my legs under me. Fingers pulling out the failing hairgrips, I watch him comb the beach, collecting rocks to place around the small pile of wood. He catches me staring and wiggles his eyebrows at me. With a playful wink, he turns, jiggling his bottom, and picks up a smallish rock as though it weighed a ton.
Hand against my chest, eyelashes fluttering, I mimic Aunt Caroline’s American Southern drawl.
“Why, I declare William Aarons. Aren’t you just the strongest man ever?”
Aunt Caroline is Mum’s younger sister; they don’t get on. Dad uses the word “tolerate” to describe their relationship when Mum isn’t around to clip his ear. Aunt Caroline met Hank Hissop while he was visiting England on behalf of a client, in early 1920. Hank is a lawyer with a big American firm called Barraclough and Co. When I was seven, Aunt Caroline stayed with us for several weeks, and I fell in love with her soft Louisianan drawl. With things strained between the siblings, those few weeks are the only memory I have of my aunt.
Arms raised, Will flexes his biceps as if competing in a Strong Man competition. “And don’t you forget it, Rose Elliott. Otherwise, I’ll turn into the big bad wolf and blow your house down.”
Mouth falling open in fake shock, I suppress the brewing giggle. “I’m not sure Mum will approve of you blowing her house down. I can hear her now, ‘You’re not too old to be placed over my knee, William Aarons.’ She’s right too.”
He laughs. “Your mum’s a scary lady.”
“She sure is.”
The soft wind intensifies, and I turn my face into it as Will finishes collecting the rocks. With the pins removed, my hair spills down my back, blowing in the wind. Enjoying the caress of the late summer breeze on my skin, my thoughts float away, and contentment washes over me.
When I open my eyes, Will is staring at me. He likes it when my hair is down; thick strands of inky blackness pouring over my shoulders and back—wild, and free. I think it raises his testosterone levels, bringing out the man in him. It’s why I keep it long, despite the current fashion.
Sparks of desire shine in his blue eyes, sending a quiver along my body and my stomach flips. It’s like I’m on a ship riding the waves of the ocean. Eyelashes concealing my interest, I stretch out my legs, the skirt of my dress moving, exposing my thighs. With my hands cradling my head, I rest my back against the uneven surface of the rock, relishing in Will’s heated gaze as it sweeps along my body. Warmth spreads inside me, knotting in my stomach as it reacts to the hunger lighting his eyes. Knowledge, as Mum likes to say, is a powerful force. She’s right.
A chill enters the wind, rolling off the sea, killing the mood, and I lower my arms, rubbing my hands on the exposed flesh. Will turns, kneeling by the kindling, reaching for the bag, he removes the matches. Romantic idealism dwindles to irritation, and the sun drops lower in the sky as early evening gathers. Sulphur coats the air as Will strikes the match, and the wind extinguishes the flame.
Cold and fidgety, I curse my eagerness to meet with him, wishing I’d grabbed my cardigan off the kitchen chair, rather than spending the time curling my hair. When I left home, the sun was high in the sky, and my only concern was spending time with Will.
Hidden from Jimmy, we’d peer from between the wheat on the Armitage Farm, our hands covering our mouths, as we stifled our giggles.
Flames leap, eating at wood, sending out warmth, drawing me closer to it. My hands spread, absorbing the heat. Will saunters over, sitting behind me, arms wrapping around my waist.
“Crikey, Will, I thought I was going to catch my death of cold, the time it’s taken you to get the fire going.”
He pulls me to him, chin resting on my shoulder, his arms tightening around my waist. “I wanted to be the one warming you up.”
I lean forward, glaring at him. “What type of girl do you think I am, William Aarons?”
“I think you’re my type of girl, Rosie.”
I giggle; sometimes it’s hard to remain cross with him. Contentedly, I lean against his chest, enjoying the perfectness of this moment. If a genie appeared, granting me a wish, I’d wish for this moment to last forever.
“Do you think we’ll always be like this?” I ask, drawing pleasure from the closeness of our bodies.
“I hope so.”
“Hmm … me too,” I say, watching the flames dance in the wind.
Dread sits in the pit of my stomach, gnawing at my consciousness, as it centres on the growing unrest in Europe. Like a shadow waiting for the light to dim, it fans out, forcing me to acknowledge it. Newspapers fuel my inner turmoil. Their reports on Hitler’s hostility towards the Poles, add to my unease. The old folk are retelling their stories of the Great War, drawing similarities from Germany’s actions. Despite Chamberlain’s reassurances, it makes me nervous. Something big is happening, and I wonder if we are on the brink of war.
I turn to Will, my eyes searching his. “What happens if we go to war? I don’t want to be like Granny Stewart, living half a life, worry coating my days, wondering if you’re coming back to me.”
“You’re worrying too much, have faith in Chamberlain, he’s doing everything to stop war from breaking out. We’ve got to believe in him. Remember his speech, “Peace In Our Time.” He meant it, Rosie.”
I don’t have Will’s faith; talking never prevents war.
My fear refuses to be dampened. We both know war will change everything. Irrational thoughts born from my anguish sink their claws deeper into my flesh. The romantic dreams I have for our future shift, and tiny cracks appear. Their lack of clarity makes me sad, and I feel their loss before I can live them. Not all dreams come true. Reality often differs from imagination. But it makes no difference. I want this dream of me and Will so bad it becomes an ache.
Granny Stewart’s death consumes me, imprisoning me within my fear, and the need to make Will understand overflows.
“Will, I’m scared, I don’t want to be like Granny Stewart. Mum calls her death a love story, but it wasn’t. Aunt Caroline told me the truth. Granny Stewart was in such pain as she waited for Grandad Stewart to return home from the war. She spent day and night worrying. ‘Is this it? Is this the day they come to tell me my husband is dead?’ When they came, she broke, Will. There was no mending her. She died, leaving Mum and Aunt Caroline without either parent. I don’t want to be like that. I won’t be like that. Grief made Granny Stewart a shadow of the person she was.”
Tears congregate, blurring my vision, and I choke back a sob.
Will cups my face. “It won’t come to that, Rosie. Chamberlain won’t let it happen.”
“Nothing’s certain, Will. You know that.”
I stare into his eyes, searching for reassurance.
“If we go to war and you join the fight, I won’t forgive you, Will. You can’t expect me to spend my days wondering if you are alive. I’d be half a person, like Granny Stewart, and I won’t let that happen. I want to be free to live and be happy. Not moping around the place, worrying about you.”
Gaze lowering, I chastise myself for not having the courage to trust in love.
“I’m selfish, I know, but everyone keeps saying, “You’re only young once.” If that’s the case, I want to live to the fullest. Not spending it sitting at home like an old maid living on regret.”
Tears roll down my cheeks, and I press my handkerchief to my trembling lips.
Will’s fingers press beneath my chin, forcing my head up. His lips are soft against mine, and I revel in his sweet taste. Tears coating our lips, I deepen the kiss, wanting to remember the pressure of his lips on mine. There is no questioning how I’m going to stop worrying about him if war breaks out, and he goes to fight. If I ask too many questions, my head will explode, like a cast-iron ball hurtling from the long barrel of a cannon.
Arms wrapping around Will’s neck I pull him closer. “I love you, William Aarons. Don’t you dare leave me.”
“I’m not planning to, Rosie.”