3rd September 1939 Whitby, England
I followed my parents, Jean and Michael, through the front door, as we returned home from St. Hilda’s Church for morning mass. We didn’t speak as we walked. Church was more of an obligation for dad and me. A duty towards mum, then the church itself. We were wise enough to keep our opinions to ourselves and be grateful that another Sunday service had passed. It was time to relax and enjoy our Sunday lunch.
While Father John gave his sermon, I’d often drift off thinking about Hilda, the church’s name sake. Hilda of Whitby was a very important figure in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and is recognised for her wisdom that drew kings to her for advice. I quite liked this fact, being a woman myself. To me she was someone to aspire young women away from the home. Not that I would ever say this to my parents. Mum and dad would laugh at me. There was this old-fashioned belief that a woman’s place was in the home, bringing up their children. I didn’t entirely disagree with this but felt that women were more than just their children and home. I had yet to find my own way in life, unlike Will’s sister Betty, who was a nurse. I was trained in nothing. Still, I was young and had a lot of time on my side to find my place in this world. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want children, I did. I just felt that there was more to life than a husband, kids, and home.
Mum’s calfskin shoes echoed on the Victorian tiles as she walked purposely down the hall to the kitchen, grabbing her pink flowery apron from the stool that sat by the chopping bench. She strung it on over the top of her blue Victory dress with its short puff sleeves, pre- venting it from becoming spoiled as she prepared our Sunday dinner. I closed the front door behind me. I didn’t bother to lock it. Whitby wasn’t that type of place. Like most families here, we only locked our door when we went up to bed.
I turned and followed dad’s limping form into the back-living room. I swear the gout in his left foot was
getting worse. I could hear him complaining under his breath as he stripped off the jacket of his dark blue suit, revealing a pair of red braces on top of a white shirt. He loosened the tie, undoing the top three buttons of his shirt as he made his way to his chair. Dad hated wearing a suit for Sunday worship. He always complained, saying that God didn’t mind how he looked, so long as he paid his respects and was a good Christian. Mum con- tinued to ignore his complaints. I liked getting dressed up. It was probably the best part about going to church.
Father John was old and stuffy. His sermons were more like lectures on our morals, or lack of them, than the bible and the stories it contained. I didn’t have a problem with the bible. One of my favourite passages was John 20:29 about Doubting Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Being the romantic type, I often thought that this related to love as well. Love was an emotion you felt in every fibre of your body. From the blood that heated your veins to boiling point when you were with them, right down to the tingle in your toes.
My only other liking for Sunday, other than roast beef and Yorkshire puddings with roasted potatoes, was that it was the one day when putting on your best dress and the shoes with the little heel, impractical for a seaside town with its uneven paths and sandy beaches, actually made sense. I loved Sundays for this very reason – not that I ever voiced this. Mum would string me up for such thoughts, Sunday being God’s day and all.
I ran my hands over my plain yellow Tea-dress. It fell along my body, slimming down my waist. My brown sandals added three inches to my height. I felt pretty and even if the main thing about Sunday was praying and reflection, the best bit for me would always be feeling pretty. I’d left my hair unbound and the black thickness spilled down my back like ink. I placed my small brown handbag on top of the walnut sideboard as I came to stand by dad’s old wooden framed chair, with its thick, dark green cushions.
Being an only child, I was conscious of the fact that I was spoiled. Unlike most girls my age, mum and dad didn’t make me help around the house like other parents did. Mum had had three miscarriages before I came along. They had left their mark on her. Especially since she had been unable to have any more children after me. It never occurred to me to offer mum some assistance while she prepared our meal. She’d probably be so shocked she’d have a heart attack if I offered.
Dad bent and turned on the radio, which sat on a small table in the corner of the room. Picking up his pipe, he moved yesterday’s paper off the seat, and shook it out, loosening the pages, ready to read it. Deep Purple by Larry Clinton and His Orchestra filled the room. I hummed along, swinging my hips to the rhythm. The sun shone through the window, lighting up the dark yellow, flowered wallpaper. It was another beautiful warm day. I smiled happily to myself. After dinner I’d go find Will, and we could hide in Tom Armitage’s wheat field. Harvesting took place between August and September. If we were lucky, Tom would be running slightly behind schedule and we’d have a lazy day within the wheat. If not, we’d be forced to relocate.
The clock on the sideboard signalled the quarter hour. We’d been home for fifteen minutes when the mu- sic stopped, and Neville Chamberlain’s voice filled the room.
Mum took the few steps from the kitchen into the back-living room, wiping her hands on her apron, her face tight with concern. I lowered my hands off the wooden chair. My heart forgot it needed to beat as a chill of fear ran down my spine. Dad lowered his paper, removing the pipe from between his lips. Together we stared at the radio.
“This is London. You will hear a statement by the Prime Min- ster.”
The radio crackled and hissed briefly, filling the quiet silence as we waited to find out what the Prime Minister was about to say. Each crackle sent my pulse beating harder. The skin around my face tightened in fear.
“I am speaking to you from 10 Downing Street. This morn- ing, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock, they were prepared to withdraw their troops from Poland at once, and a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet, I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different I could have done that would have been more successful.
Up to the very last, it would have been quite possible to arrange a peaceful and honourable settlement between Ger- many and Poland, but Hitler would not have it. He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened, and although he now says he had put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement. The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us. Although they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them, and ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier. His action clearly shows that we cannot expect this man to give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.
In fulfilment of our obligations, today, we and France will go to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part with calmness and courage.
At such a moment as this, the assurances of support we have received from the Empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.
The Government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that lie ahead. But these plans need your help. You may be taking your part in the fighting services or as a volunteer in one of the branches of Civil Defence. If so, you will report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received. You may be engaged in work essential to the prosecution of war, for the maintenance of the life of the people - in factories, in transport, in public utility concerns, or in the supply of other necessaries of life. If so, it is of vital importance that you should carry on with your jobs.
Now, may God bless you all. May he defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them, I am certain that the right will prevail.”
I stared at the radio in stunned horror. Dad got up, leant forward, and turned it off. I felt as though I was drown- ing as the silence in the room became oppressive, settling over us like a thick black smog, cloaked and undetectable by the naked eye. It sucked the air out of the room, until my lungs burned from lack of oxygen. Too scared to move. To breathe. Too shocked to react to the fear that burned inside me.
“Well, that’s that then.” I winced at mum’s words.
The air returned and I took a mouthful of oxygen. I knew she was thinking about Granny and Grandad Elliot. I hadn’t been born when the Great War had ended, but still, it had left its mark on me, as well as those around me. I watched mum, conscious that my perfect world was about to unfold before me. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make what was happening right. I simply watched in stunned silence as a tear rolled down mum’s cheek, unable to comfort her, frozen in place as my fear held me captive. I could offer no comfort that would erase the memories of loss and hardship playing in mum’s head. Inside my chest, my heart beat out a solemn song. I hated each beat. My hands shook. I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt lost on a tidal wave of emotions I couldn’t control. All my fears were falling around me. Like hot volcanic lava, my fear burnt away at my hopes and dreams until there was nothing left of them but brittle little promises.
The front door crashed open, and Will came running into the back-living room, followed by Jimmy. They were still wearing their Sunday best – dark grey suit trousers and white shirts with the black braces clipped into place. Their ties, like dad’s, had long been removed, and were probably disregarded and littering up their homes somewhere. My heart beat faster, pounding in my chest at a wild pace. I looked from Will to Jimmy. I could see the excitement shining in their eyes. While I understood that they didn’t have a choice if they went to war or not, I couldn’t help but feel angry at the buzz of excitement that radiated off them like an electric charge. They probably thought that by fighting, they were doing something worthwhile. Like Richard the Lion Heart galloping off on yet another crusade, while his people were burdened down with taxes.
What about those that would be left behind? In their eagerness, Will and Jimmy didn’t see the destruction or death that war would bring. Mum did. I could see it in her eyes as they glistened with tears. She’d lived through it. I felt the shock that oozed off her. The disbelief. The uncertainty that cast its net round the room, threatening to erupt with emotion. I looked from Will’s blue eyes, to Jimmy’s brown ones. Different colours holding the same unforgivable excitement. Stupid fools with their eagerness to die. No thought for those they would leave behind. Of the worry that would cloud each day as they tried to carry on. Picking up the broken pieces that war brought.
“Don’t you dare, don’t you dare!” I screamed at them. “How could you, Will? You know how I feel.”
I stared at them both, their hair flopping into their faces. They were too young to go and fight. Too young to walk away from life. To lie dead in a trench or field somewhere. That’s all I could think about... all I could see. Their lifeless eyes shining back at me. I couldn’t take it.
“Don’t be like that, Rosie. They need us. We’ve got to fight.”
Will tried to grab my hand. I pulled it away as though his touch burned my skin.
“That’s not true. You don’t have to fight, not if you don’t want to. You could be one of those conscientious objectors. See, they can’t make you fight, they can’t.” I’d heard dad talk about conscientious objectors once. Little ears had listened and taken the information in, ready to be stored and recalled when needed, and I needed it now. I couldn’t care less about the stigma that would taint them, living in such a small coastal town as we did, where most of the young men would be leaving to fight. All I could think of was keeping them safe and alive. That a stray bullet wouldn’t break their skin and pierce their hearts.
“I can’t do that, Rosie. I won’t. You can’t expect me to do something that isn’t me, that I don’t believe in.”
I looked into Will’s blue eyes, searching for something to reassure me that everything would be ok. I saw nothing. It made my heart hurt.
I pulled myself together. Straightened my shoulders. “I won’t wait for you, William Aarons.”
I thought back to when we were sitting on the beach, just the two of us. Our arms wrapped around each other. Life had seemed so simple. Now, only days later, as I looked at Will, everything I had believed in crashed to the floor and shattered into a million useless pieces. It would be impossible to put them back together. The pieces would no longer fit.
This time, when Will reached out for me, I let him. Gently, he lifted my chin. “You have the right not to wait for me, Rosie. I wouldn’t deny you that. But whether you like it or not, things are going to change around here. I’ll take up my role in this war. I lost my uncles and grandad to the Great War, and I stand here today proud of them. One day, I’m hoping to leave that legacy to my children. Our children. I’m not giving up on you, or us.”
“Don’t, Will, please.” If I started crying, I knew I’d never stop.
All I wanted to do was throw my arms around Will’s neck and kiss him so hard, to make him understand how much I loved him.
“My prickly Rose, don’t you see that sometimes a person doesn’t have a choice?”
I stared into Will’s eyes, aware that no matter how much I wished things could be different, they wouldn’t be.
Before I could say anything, Will’s sister Betty came rushing in, her blonde hair framing her square face in soft waves. Tears were running down her cheeks and a white handkerchief was screwed up in her right hand. The cheerful colour of her lilac dress belying the graveness of the situation. I stepped away from Will.
“Oh Rosie, did you hear? We’re going to war.” I stared at Betty, unable to speak. “What’s going to happen, Rosie?”
I didn’t have any answers for her. All I could do was shake my head. For the first time, I wasn’t taking the lead in our friendship. I had no solution for her.
I caught Jimmy looking at me. Tears stung at the back of my eyes. I’m not going to cry. From the look that Jimmy sent me, I knew that he felt and understood my despair and fear.
I watched as he looked from Will to me. Saw the hurt that briefly fell across his face. In that moment, re- alisation had hit him. I was in love with Will. I looked away, unable to bear the pain so clear in his blue eyes. Maybe he felt like a fool for loving me, thinking that he could somehow make me love him. But it was impossible. I had always been Will’s. Despite the fact that his own heart must have hurt, there was still something that told me he would always love me. That he would do anything to make me happy. My heart hurt for him, but I couldn’t do anything about the way I felt for Will. As horrid as it must have been for Jimmy to find out that I loved Will, it was better that he finally knew. It would give him the freedom to look for love in someone else. Someone that could love him like he deserved to be loved. He nodded at me, as though my thoughts had imprinted themselves upon him. Did my face show the emotional torment that raged inside of me?
Jimmy stepped forward, coming to stand at my side. He placed a hand on my right shoulder. I felt its weight. It was the heaviest thing I had ever felt.
“I’ll look after him, Rosie, don’t worry. I’ll make sure that he comes back to you. I promise.”
I looked at Jimmy. He was the kindest person I knew. Despite myself, I burst into tears. I was going to lose them both.
Dad rose from the chair, the disregarded paper falling to the floor. “I’ll be there with you boys.”
Mum looked at dad, her annoyance making her frown lines deepen. “You sit back down, you silly old fool.” She pointed a finger at his left foot. “Look at you. You can hardly walk, never mind fight. You’ll be stay- ing right here where I can keep an eye on you. There’ll be plenty of work to do when they go off to fight.”
Mums words echoed round and round my head, like they were on replay. I looked from dad to mum, to Betty, and Jimmy, and Will, with his dark blonde hair in disarray, falling across his face, his blue eyes still full of hope for us. He didn’t see the end, but I did. Granny Elliot had shown me. I could see the excitement in his eyes at the thought of going to war, to fight for his country, for the injustice that Hitler was inflicting upon innocent people. I saw it all in the depth of his blue eyes. Pain stabbed at my heart.
I couldn’t take it any longer. I pushed past Will, Jimmy’s hand falling from my shoulder, and I ran from the room and into the street. The sun laughed down at me. Birds still sang a happy tune, while my heart broke, piece by tiny piece.