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‘The main problem is, Barbie, it looks as if we’re not goin’ to get our usual customers. The commercial travellers is all going into the Army, and, if this summer’s any example, the older couples what used to spend their holidays with us don’t seem to be taking holidays any more. So what to do?’
‘I don’t know, Mam, but if we don’t fill up this house quickly, it’ll be requisitioned again for something.’
They sat in silence, staring at their kitchen, once more restored to order.
Then Barbara said, ‘You’re right, Mam, about the elderly couples not coming. But I wonder if they’d come if we pointed out that if France falls – and it looks as if it might – the South’ll be in range for bombing. We could offer them permanent accommodation well away from it.’
Her mother slapped her knee. ‘I think you’re right, luv. There’s one or two people as has come up from London, staying in the village already.’
They had sat down and written to some twenty elderly couples from the South-East of England, who had in times past spent holidays with them. They made Barbara’s point about likely bombing, and the comparative safety of the North.
The nervous anticipation in the South of being bombed was sufficient. Within two weeks, they had all their eight bedrooms filled, housing a total of seventeen people. Their biggest bedroom held three quarrelsome, complaining old sisters, who proved to be the most trying of their hastily acquired visitors.
The overwhelmed local housing authority, themselves disorganised by the sudden weight of responsibility thrust upon them by the immediacies of war, decided that they could not very well dislodge such elderly refugees from the South without causing a scandal. They accepted the situation.
As grossly overworked Phyllis remarked, with resignation, ‘At least this lot knows what being clean means, thanks be to Mary.’
Phyllis and Barbara agreed that it was advisable to keep the house more crowded than it had ever been, lest the authorities suddenly change their collective mind and try to thrust additional, unwanted guests upon them. And there was always the overriding fear that the Army or the Air Force might requisition the entire property, though this did not happen.
So, for nearly seven years, as a constant background to their personal grief at the loss of their menfolk, the harassed hostesses faced continuous complaints about the difficulty of climbing stairs; and, though each bedroom had a sink, that there was only one bathroom and three lavatories in the place.
Regardless of the fact that almost every home in Britain was cold from lack of fuel, running wars were fought between old gentlemen trying to hog the chairs nearest the meagre gas fire in the lounge. Ladies complained of lack of hot water for washing clothes and having baths – even of getting into the bathroom in the first place.
Accusations regarding the unfair distribution of rationed food, particularly the tiny amounts of sugar, butter, cheese, jam and marmalade, flew back and forth between the little round tables in the dining room. Sometimes, perfectly respectable couples would accuse each other of theft of jam from their private pots, which had been specially provided by Phyllis to ensure fairness.
Frequently, Phyllis had to intervene in the altercations and point out the minuscule amount of individual rations. It all seemed so stupid to her. There were men like her husband Hugh, victim of a U-boat attack, and George, who would give their lives for them – and they screamed with rage over marmalade!
Anybody would imagine that they had no one in their families serving in the Forces; yet Phyllis knew that they did.
When, in 1944, George was killed, Barbara thought the refugees would drive her insane. She was sorely tempted to scream, ‘Shut up! Get out!’ at them, and she wondered how her mother could endure them so patiently.
When the war ended, most of them lingered for a while. A number had wrecked or damaged homes, which had to be restored before they could move down south again. A few, perhaps because they had been protected for so long from the reality of existence in a drained country, seemed unable to make up their minds what to do, and, meanwhile, had stayed on.
Particularly in 1947, the worried hostesses had had a real problem finding enough food, rationed or unrationed, to provide three meagre meals a day for the old curmudgeons. They had thankfully said farewell to the last of them at Christmas.
That same year Barbara and her mother had been very relieved to see the return of some of their usual clientele, commercial travellers. The gentlemen had little to sell. Wholesalers were anxious, however, to keep their company name in front of their old clients, so that, as soon as adequate goods were available, their pre-war share of the market would not be lost.
Once or twice, thought Barbara, the old folk had been very nice to her. Back in June 1942, when she had married George, they had insisted that Phyllis use some of their points rations, which meant very limited amounts of tinned food, like Spam or golden syrup, to make a wedding breakfast for the young couple.
In addition, all the ladies had set to work to embroider or knit or crochet little wedding gifts. Even the gentlemen, whom Barbara swore were the laziest bunch of old so-and-sos she had ever met, bestirred themselves. The result was a number of beautifully hand-carved gifts. Though she could no longer bear to look at them because it made her want to cry, she still treasured in her dressing-table drawer three neatly carved wooden spoons made from driftwood found on the shore.
She went round the lot of them to kiss them in gratitude.
They had been equally kind when they heard about George’s death; they had all expressed their sorrow at her loss, as those who knew about it had done earlier, when her father was killed. There had not been a single quarrel for at least two weeks.
During the weeks following the loss of George, two of the residents lost grandsons and at last, it seemed to Barbara, the reality of the war truly came home to them; not even a string of bombs dropped across the Wirral peninsula, nor the news some had received of their homes being damaged or requisitioned had been able to achieve that.
When the war began, Barbara herself had wanted to volunteer for military service and join the ATS, the Auxiliary Territorial Service. It sounded exciting.
Her mother would not hear of it. ‘With your dad at sea, I need you. Who else can I turn to?’
So Barbara, who loved her mam, stayed home.
When France fell to the Germans, Barbara broached the subject again. But Phyllis still would not hear of it either. Nice girls stayed at home with their mams. ‘And, anyway, wot am I going to do without you, and a house full of old folks to run?’ When her father was torpedoed, her mother was certainly glad to have her there.
A domestic crisis had occurred when, in December 1942, all married women under the age of forty were called up for war work. Barbara was directed to a contractor who was busy repairing damaged docks in Birkenhead. She worked on shift as a labourer together with one other girl. Her hours were long and the work, with all its lifting and carrying, was very heavy.
‘At least it’s better than the ATS,’ Phyllis said, as she rubbed Barbara’s back with surgical spirit. ‘You can sleep in your own bed.’ She imagined that she was being comforting.
Barbara’s bed was exceedingly cold, especially without George. She shrugged and looked down at her hands, which were rapidly being ruined by hard labour, and felt that the Army would probably have been easier. She had not, however, wanted to quarrel about it. She admitted to herself that, in comparison with pre-war earnings for women, her wages were very good. Since there was nothing much in the shops to buy, she saved as much as she could by opening a bank account and also purchasing war bonds. Between her work shifts she helped her mother, so her social life was negligible. They all prayed for a rapid end to the war.
George’s fourteen-year-old sister had left school the previous summer. She had since been working as a shop assistant for a greengrocer. When Barbara was called up, she volunteered, for a slightly better wage, to come to work for Mrs Williams, to make beds and clean floors. In addition, two elderly women from the village came in as part-time help.
As a result of these changes, the elderly residents found plenty more to complain about. None of them, however, moved out; the bombing of London was by then unremitting, and the heavy bombing of Liverpool earlier in the year was sufficient to keep them in the comparative safety of the village by the sea. Though, occasionally, their provoked hostesses wished them dead, not a single one of them died during the many years that they boarded with Phyllis.
‘We looked after them too well – or it was the good sea air,’ Phyllis replied acidly when Ada once pointed this out to her.
When travelling to France, Barbara had passed through Birkenhead and Liverpool on her way to catch a train to London. She had been forcibly reminded of the toll of war in Britain by the destruction she could still see there, and she remembered, with a pang, the long civilian casualty lists pinned up in the city, the pitiful treks each night that the inhabitants had made to the outer suburbs such as Huyton, in the hope of survival. How had George’s few surviving comrades felt when they returned home to this?
She was shocked at the miles of ruins she had observed in London. How many homeless people must there be in London? How many dead? She realised, with genuine distress, that there must be returning ex-service men who had lost their entire families in the broken, once close-packed streets of the capital. They must wonder what they had fought for.
Wrapped in her own sorrow while she grappled with the day-to-day problems of existence, she had not thought of such a situation before.
Seated in the train as it rumbled slowly into Euston, Barbara had queried mentally how careful, phlegmatic George might have faced coming home to a ruin – there had been bombs dropped close enough to the bed-and-breakfast for this to have been a possibility. And, in her self-searching, it dawned on her that she did not know; she really had not known him well enough to understand how his mind might have worked. And worst of all, now she would never know him any better – because he was gone.
As she walked towards George’s grave, she thought her heart would break. Because she did not want to cry in front of Jules, she held back the heaving sobs that rose within her. Instead, she clenched her teeth and walked blindly beside him.
Chapter Three (#)
Michel Benion, temporary taxi driver, ex-poultry farmer, slowly rolled up the front of his old black jersey and took his precious packet of cigarettes from inside his undershirt. Abstractedly he watched the little widow as she went with Jules to find the grave.
As he lit a cigarette and then sat down to wait on the step of the antiquated taxi, he felt again the well of pain and humiliation under which he himself still laboured.
It was ridiculous, he fretted in complete frustration, that nearly three years after the end of the war, because the Government had not yet cleared it of land mines, his chicken farm was still unworkable. In fact, the authorities, those mighty gods in Paris, were talking of buying the land from his family and making it into a park. Nearly three years – and they had still not made up their collective minds about it.
Just now, American money is being poured into Rouen and Le Havre where there are lots of voters, he fumed for the hundredth time. Simply because we are only small farmers with no clout, we can wait for ever, exactly like the farmers on the Western Front after the First World War.
And even if we got the farm back, would they lend us money to start again, build barns, buy breeding stock, sustain us financially until our flocks were rebuilt? What about our draught horse? Our cow, our pigs and vegetable garden that fed us?
Save as he and his mother did, in a desperate effort to collect a modicum of capital – living on little more than vegetable soup, bread and cheese, and occasional cigarettes when they could get them – he was beginning to realise that, alone, the family themselves could never acquire enough money to start again.
Of course, like most land in Normandy, their farm was owned jointly by all the members of the family: Michel’s sick brother, Anatole, their mother and their two married sisters in Rouen. It had been hard enough, even before the war, to scratch a living from two and a half hectares, when so many people held rights to it. It had meant intensive use of every inch of land.
Michel’s father had succeeded in buying out his own sea-going brother’s share, which feat had taken him most of his life to achieve; Michel doubted, however, that he would ever manage to buy out his own siblings’ shares, even under the best of circumstances.
And he had begun to ask himself whether he truly wanted to recommit his life to boundless hard work, just to stay alive and pay the rest of the family their share of what he managed to make. Would Anatole, perhaps, recover and be able to help him?
When their father had been alive, Anatole and his two sisters had, in addition to helping on the farm, all worked at other outside jobs and, with the extra money earned, the family had collectively managed quite well.
The girls were gone now, Anatole was very ill, and their mother had aged immeasurably during the ruthless occupation by the German Army. Michel knew he could not carry the burden of work alone; he would have to employ at least one labourer, a great expense when first starting up again, while for a time no money would be coming in.
Even if the Government bought the land to make a park, the resultant money would, after paying their debts, have to be divided between all the family members. Michel himself would still not have capital enough from his share to start a little business of any kind.
For the moment, his mother received an old age pension, and Anatole received a regular allowance and medical care because he was a very sick returned deportee who was being nursed at home. Without these, they would undoubtedly have starved, thought Michel gloomily.
But the value of the franc fell daily, and the cost of everything on the black market was, in consequence, rising formidably – and without the black market, which dealt in everything from bread to boots, they would be in desperate straits.
His mother and Anatole had refused to move further away from their land than Bayeux until a decision was made by the Government. Madame Benion had a fixed belief that if they did not remain close, someone would say the Benions were all dead and would try to claim it. ‘And what is a peasant without land?’ she had asked. ‘Just a body without a soul,’ Michel had fretted. Land was supposed to be the foundation of life.
In the meantime, he had worked for his Uncle Léon as a deckhand on his little coaster, and then had applied for all kinds of jobs in Bayeux in order to keep a roof over the family’s heads. But the only special skill he had was in raising hens – and cooking.
In refugee-filled, but undamaged Bayeux, there were very few jobs for the unskilled, so competition was keen for any work available.
If he could have persuaded his mother to move to the wreckage of Rouen, he could have easily found construction work. He would, he told himself, have cheerfully endured the pain in his shoulder, damaged since childhood, that heavy labour would have given him. But she woodenly refused. So, here he was, a taxi driver for old Duval, who owned the vehicle.
Duval had rented both driver and vehicle to three huge American Army officers for four months. The Americans were really civilian undertakers and were happily engaged in enjoying France, while they arranged for the bodies of their dead compatriots to be dug up and shipped home to the United States. The American Army had not seen fit to provide these civilian employees, even if they wore uniform, with transport; hence their use of the taxi.
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