Keep the Home Fires Burning

BOOK: Keep the Home Fires Burning
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Keep the Home Fires Burning
Anne Bennett
HarperCollins Publishers (2010)

Synopsis

A moving and gripping drama as one family struggles to survive through the strains of the Second World War.

 The year is 1940 and Bill and Marion Whittaker live happily with their three children in a terraced house on Albert Road, in Birmingham. But when Bill enlists to fight in the Second World War, the family are plunged into poverty. Marion is forced to pawn all her worldly possessions and decides to take on two lodgers, Peggy Wagstaffe and Violet Clooney. These two lively girls bring some light relief to the family and bring with them Peggy's handsome brother Sam  who catches the eye of Marion's 16-year-old daughter, Sarah. 1944 and the war grinds on. Disaster strikes with an explosion at the local munitions factory, leaving Sarah badly disfigured. Then news comes that Sam has been blinded in action. Can these two injured souls help each other to repair not only their physical but emotional scars? And will Bill return to the safety of family and home?

ANNE BENNETT

Keep the Home
Fires Burning

This book is dedicated to my youngest and
second granddaughter, Catrin Louise, who was
born on 28th July 2010 and who has already
given us all great joy.

Contents

Cover

Title Page

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

AUTHOR’S NOTE

By the same author

Copyright

About the Publisher

ONE

‘I was speaking to Fred Shipley after Mass this morning, Bill Whittaker said as the family sat around the table that early April morning, eating their large breakfast. ‘You know, from a few doors up?’

His wife, Marion, nodded. ‘I know him. Ada’s husband. They have a son in the navy.’

‘So he was saying. He claims they’re getting all the ships into tiptop condition and more are being commissioned. Not that they tell the men much, but apparently they’re recruiting nineteen to the dozen, only it’s all hush-hush at the moment.’

‘Why?’

‘At a guess I’d say that they don’t want to start a national panic. Now, you’re not to fret about this, though maybe it is better to be semi-prepared, but I am beginning to wonder if Chamberlain was wilier than we gave him credit for when he came back from Munich waving that piece of paper last September, declaring that there’d be “Peace for our time”.’

‘In what way?’

‘Well, I’m wondering if all that talk of appeasement was just a ploy so that we could get ourselves on a war footing should the need arise. I mean, can you see a man like Hitler being satisfied with just Austria and Czechoslovakia? And just at the moment he has plenty on his side, with the Fascist Franco winning the war in Spain, and Mussolini in charge in Italy. And Stalin seems to be another brutal dictator.’

Marion let her eyes settle on her family grouped around the table listening to her husband. Her elder three children looked very like her, with their hazel eyes and light brown hair, her handsome elder son, Richard, tall for fifteen. He had been apprenticed in the brass foundry, where his father worked, for almost a year now, Sarah, her beautiful eldest daughter, would be fifteen in October, and her mischievous second son, Tony, was just turned nine and sometimes one body’s work to watch. The identical twins, Miriam, who was known as Missie, and Magda, looked the spit of their father with their dark eyes and dark hair, and would be seven in June.

Suddenly Bill’s words seemed to threaten all Marion held dear, and she shuddered as she said, ‘Europe doesn’t seem to be a very safe place at the moment.’

‘It isn’t,’ Bill answered grimly.

‘But, Bill,’ Marion’s eyes looked large in her pale face, ‘surely no one wants war, certainly not after the last lot.’

‘No sane person wants war at any time,’ Bill said. ‘But Hitler isn’t sane, is he? You remember that rampage against the Jews that we heard about on the wireless last November? Would any sane man authorise that?’

‘Oh, I remember it well.’ And without thinking of the children listening, Marion went on, ‘The night we heard about it was a filthy one too, cold and windy with rain lashing down, and I thought, what if it had been us thrown out on a night like that, like those poor Jews were?’

Magda’s eyes were like saucers. ‘So why was Jews thrown out then?’ she asked.

Tony suppressed a sigh, but he could cheerfully have murdered Magda. She never would learn that once adults realised you were taking an interest in what they are saying, they either shut up or send you away.

Marion bit her lip and looked straight across at Bill. He mopped the last of the egg yolk up with his bread before he shrugged and said, ‘These are strange times. Maybe it is better that they know what happened.’

Marion really thought Tony and the twins too young to know the full horrors of that night, yet they looked the most interested, but it was Sarah who said, ‘Please tell us the rest? You can’t leave it there.’

‘All right,’ Marion said. ‘The people attacked and thrown out of their homes that night were Jews in cities and towns all over Germany. Even
the broadcaster on the BBC was shocked at the level and scale of violence. Storm troopers, members of the SS, and Hitler Youth beat and murdered even women and children.’

‘Yes,’ said Bill, accepting another cup of tea from Marion. ‘It went on for three days in some places. One observer claimed the sky had turned red with the number of synagogues that were alight, in case the persecuted Jews tried to take refuge there, and the Germans called it “The Night of Broken Glass”.’

‘But why?’ Richard asked.

Bill sighed. ‘Many German Jews had been rounded up and dumped on the Polish border, each with all they could carry in one suitcase. One young Jewish boy living in Paris heard that his own family had been evicted in that way and he bought a gun and killed a German Embassy official. This was the German response.’

‘Gosh,’ Richard said. ‘I don’t suppose he ever thought the Germans would react like they did.’

‘No,’ Bill agreed, ‘I don’t suppose he did.’

‘What happened to the Jewish people when it was all over?’ Sarah asked.

Bill shrugged. ‘Many died, some were arrested, others just disappeared, and it was said that a lot committed suicide ? in despair, I would imagine ? and who in God’s name could blame them?’

‘Did anything happen to Germany for doing such awful things?’

‘Most of the other countries said it was dreadful
and barbaric, and America did recall their ambassador, but that was all.’

‘It was a terrible thing to do,’ Sarah said.

‘Yes,’ Marion said heavily. Then: ‘And we could talk about it till the cows come home and it won’t change a thing. Meanwhile, if you’ve finished, Bill, I could do with clearing away because I need to get the dinner on. Sarah, will you give me a hand?’

Sarah smiled to herself as she collected plates, for it wasn’t a question. She was the eldest girl and so it was her lot to help her mother. She didn’t really mind because her mother was a very good cook and she learned a lot by watching her.

As they rose from the table Bill saw Richard’s eyes on him and knew he would have liked to talk some more. However, he knew when Clara Murray, Marion’s mother, came to tea, as she and Eddie, Marion’s father, did every Sunday. She would likely have an opinion on the world’s unrest. She did most weeks ? and her views, on any subject, were delivered in tones that would brook no argument.

Bill disliked her intensely and, he knew, so did the children, so every Sunday afternoon, just after one of Marion’s succulent dinners, unless it was teeming from the heavens, he tried to keep Tony and the twins away from their grandmother for as long as possible.

A light breeze scudded the clouds across the blue sky where a pale yellow sun was trying to shine as Bill, Tony and the twins stepped out into Albert Road that afternoon.

‘Well, where do you want to go?’ Bill asked.

The children looked at one another. They knew if they turned right and went to the bottom of the street then they would be at Aston Park, which they liked well enough, but if they turned down Sutton Street and into Rocky Lane they would come to the Cut, which was what Brummies called the canal. Their father had told them once that Birmingham had more canals that Venice, and whether it had or not, the children loved to see the brightly painted barges decorated with elephants and castles, and so they said as one, ‘The Cut.’

‘Right you are then.’ Bill strode down the road holding a twin by each hand, while Tony ran ahead like a young colt. The sun peeping out from beneath the clouds made even the water in the mud-slicked canal sparkle and the paintwork on the boats and barges gleamed. The Whittakers wandered along the towpath towards Salford Bridge. These days the barges had small motors to drive them, but Bill said when he was a boy they had been horse drawn: ‘Big solid horses with shaggy feet.’

‘Like the one the coalman has?’ Magda asked.

‘The very same. They’re called shire horses and are built for strength and stamina, not speed. Now, when they would come to a tunnel, the men and
big boys would have to unshackle the horse and walk the barge through with their feet. It was called “legging it”.’

‘And I suppose the horses had to go over the top?’ said Tony.

‘That’s right. A younger boy or a woman or girl would lead it over to meet up with the barge on the other side. It was a grand sight to see, but motorised barges make life much easier for them.’

‘Faster too.’

‘I don’t know if it would be that much faster, Tony. A barge isn’t allowed to go at any great speed anyway. They’re not built for it.’

‘No,’ Tony said, ‘they’re not, but I wish I’d seen the horses pulling them, anyway.’

‘And me,’ said Missie, as she gave a sudden shiver.

‘Are you cold?’ Bill asked.

‘She can’t be cold,’ Tony declared. ‘It ain’t the slightest bit nippy and them kids don’t seem to think so either.’

He was referring to the bargee boys. They were brown-skinned, often scantily dressed and barefoot, and they didn’t seem to feel the slightest chill as they leaped with agility from boat to boat or out onto the towpath to operate the locks.

Tony watched them with envy. ‘Wouldn’t that be a grand life, Dad?’ he said. ‘Just to do that all day long. I’d never get fed up of it.’

Bill smiled as he turned back along the towpath. ‘I think you would, son,’ he said. ‘It’s not that
fine a life; I think a fairly hard one, for the children at least. Many of them never have the benefit of a proper education, with them moving up and down the canal the way they do.’

Tony looked at his father in amazement. ‘I wouldn’t care a whit about that,’ he maintained. ‘A life like that would suit me down to the ground.’

Bill let out a bellow of laughter. ‘I think, Tony, that you and school are not the best of friends.’

‘No,’ Tony said. ‘I hate school, if you want to know. Everyone does, don’t they?’

‘No, they don’t,’ Magda contradicted. ‘I don’t. I like school. Don’t you, Missie?’

Missie nodded as Tony said disparagingly, ‘That’s because you’re still in the infants. You wait till you’re in the juniors in September. You do summat wrong, or don’t do your work right or quick enough, and they hit you with a big cane, or bring the ruler down on your knuckles.’

BOOK: Keep the Home Fires Burning
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