Authors: Rosie Goodwin
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas
Other titles by Rosie Goodwin
The Bad Apple
No One’s Girl
Dancing Till Midnight
Moonlight and Ashes
Our Little Secret
The Boy from Nowhere
A Rose Among Thorns
The Lost Soul
The Ribbon Weaver
A Band of Steel
The Empty Cradle
Home Front Girls
A Mother’s Shame
Catherine Cookson titles
Tilly Trotter’s Legacy
The Mallen Secret
The Sand Dancer
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55–56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in the UK by Canvas,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2014
Copyright © Rosie Goodwin 2014
The right of Rosie Goodwin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication
Data is available from the British Library
ISBN 978-1-47210-171-6 (hardback)
ISBN 978-1-47210-172-3 (B-format paperback)
ISBN 978-1-47211-349-8 (ebook)
Printed and bound in the UK
13 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Cover design by Debbie Clement
This book is for Christine Jarvis and Doreen Brownson, a much loved sister-in-law and auntie, with love and thanks for all your unfailing support. xx
Nuneaton, Warwickshire, November 1939
‘Come on now, Sarah, if you keep crying like this you’ll wake Alfie up and then none of us will get any sleep tonight.’ As they lay curled up close together in their double bed, Briony Valentine hugged her young sister’s slight body to her.
‘B-but I don’t want Daddy to go away,’ Sarah sobbed as tears streamed down her thin cheeks. She had always been a frail child and her sixteen-year-old sister was very protective of her.
‘You know that he has to go,’ Briony told her gently but firmly. ‘Lots of men are leaving home to fight the war. Mr Brindley from next door joined up months ago, didn’t he? Try to look on the bright side, pet – it can’t last forever, can it? Daddy will be home in the blink of an eye, you just wait and see.’
Yet despite her brave words, Briony’s own heart was aching too, and from along the landing she could hear the sound of her mother, Lois, crying and her father’s voice as he tried to comfort her in their bedroom. Alfie was the only one who seemed unaffected by his father’s imminent departure, but then at five years old he wasn’t mature enough to understand the implications of their dad enlisting. As long as he was allowed out into the street to play football with his friends and his meals were on time, nothing much fazed her little brother, and Briony would not have had it any other way; she spoiled him shamelessly.
Many of Alfie’s friends had already been evacuated, much to his disgust. Up to now, their mother had refused to allow them to go, making the excuse that they were unwell, but Briony wondered what would happen once their father was gone. James Valentine had always been the strong one, and the girl was more than a little concerned about how her mother would cope without him. Just thinking about her mother made the corners of Briony’s mouth twitch into a smile. Lois was truly beautiful, and although her husband sometimes despaired of her, Briony loved her just the way she was and knew that deep down, he did too. Only the week before, he had scolded his wife because she had spent the money he had given her for new shoes for Alfie on a dress for herself.
‘But darling,’ Lois had said, batting her big blue eyes at him. ‘You
I always like to look nice for you, and it was such a bargain I simply couldn’t resist it. You wouldn’t want to come home to find me in a wrap-around pinny with curlers in my hair, now would you?’
Briony had held her breath as she waited for her father’s reply; eventually he had grinned and hugged her mother.
‘No, I don’t suppose I would,’ he’d admitted. He could never stay mad at her for long, even when he came home to find the house a mess and no meal on the table, whilst she sat and painted her nails. Lois Valentine was a striking-looking woman and she knew it; fortunately, her naturally kindly nature made up for her sometimes selfish ways. She was a loving wife and mother, her only fault being that she liked to make the most of herself at all times, which had caused the neighbours to christen her ‘Lady Muck’. Briony had heard them on occasion but it didn’t trouble her. She was proud of her mother and felt sure that the other women in the street were just jealous of her, envious of the way their husbands’ eyes would follow her each time she ventured out of the house – and it was no surprise really when she looked at them with their work-worn faces and their shabby pinnies.
Sarah had jammed her thumb in her mouth now and Briony knew that the worst of her weeping was over, for the moment at least. Hopefully the little girl would be asleep soon so she continued to stroke her hair soothingly as they lay in the darkened room. The blackout curtains effectively blocked out any light and normally she would have found the darkness comforting, but tonight her thoughts were too full of her father’s departure to allow her to think of anything else. Once he was gone she was painfully aware that life as they had known it would change drastically. It was James who cooked for them the majority of the time when he came home from his shift at the local pit, although he had been teaching Briony to cook lately and now she prided herself on being able to make a simple but filling meal. She had also taken over the washing and ironing, which was just as well, because when it had been left to their mother, the children had often found themselves with no clean clothes to wear.
In the summer, Briony had left school and started work at the local Woolworths store in town, in the accounts department. She loved her job, even if Lois did take most of her wages off her – ‘for bits and pieces’, as she had put it. Of course, their father didn’t know about it and Briony didn’t want him to. She understood that Lois took a pride in her appearance, and as long as she herself had enough coppers for her bus fares and for a few treats for Sarah and Alfie, she was quite happy with the way things were, nor did she mind all the chores she often found herself having to do.
Once she was sure that the little girl was asleep, Briony eased her arm from around Sarah and swung her legs out of the bed, shivering as her feet made contact with the icy lino. Pulling her mother’s old dressing gown about her, she set off downstairs for the kitchen. She could still hear her mother and father talking in hushed voices and thought they might be glad of a cup of tea. They obviously were not ready to sleep yet and she certainly wasn’t.
Down in the kitchen she checked that the curtains were fully drawn to meet the blackout regulations before clicking on the light and gazing about the familiar room. She tried to envisage what it would be like without her father and blinked back tears – but then, squaring her shoulders, she filled the kettle and began to set cups and saucers out on a wooden tray. There would be plenty of time for tears once he was gone. After carefully spooning the right amount of tea leaves into the sturdy brown teapot, she placed the pressed-glass sugar bowl and the milk jug on the tray too. Then she glanced around again as she waited for the kettle to boil. There was nothing of any great value in the room, nor in the whole of the house for that matter; most of the furniture was second-hand and mismatched, but it was the only home Briony had ever known so she loved it just the same. Admittedly, her mother would never have won a Housewife of the Year competition, but the place was homely and cosy for all that, and it had been a happy home that regularly rang with laughter. She wondered if it still would be, once her dad had gone away, but thankfully the kettle began to sing at that moment so she had no time to brood.
A few moments later, she tapped on her parents’ bedroom door and when her mother invited her in she carried the tray inside to them. They were sitting propped up against the headboard and Briony thought how pretty Lois looked in her pink silk nightgown, despite the fact that her eyes were reddened from crying.
‘Come away in, pet.’ Her father patted the side of the bed, and once she had put the tray down, Briony scrambled onto the eiderdown to join them. Her mother often teased her by saying that she and her father were like two peas in a pod, and it was true. She had inherited his coal-black hair and blue-grey eyes, whereas Sarah and Alfie were fair and blue-eyed like their mother.
James Valentine had met Lois Frasier after leaving the orphanage in Coventry where he had been brought up and was working his way around the country doing whatever jobs he could find. He had become quite a Jack-of-all-trades during that time, trying his hand at potato-harvesting or fruit-picking, fencing, building or any work that was available. He was a clever and personable young man. But then he had landed in the little Cornish village of Poldak where Lois had been raised, and he often jokingly told Briony that he had fallen in love with her at first sight.
‘That were the end of my travelling days. There were no other lass for me once I’d clapped eyes on your mam,’ he would reminisce and Briony’s young heart would flutter at the romance of it all. Her dad could do no wrong in her eyes and she would listen entranced to the tales he told of his childhood. His early years had been happy ones, thanks to the Welsh housemother in the orphanage, after whom Briony had been named. Briony’s eyes filled. Soon now, their jovial, kind father would be gone – and it was hard to imagine their life without him.
‘Here you are, Mum.’ Briony wriggled out of her father’s arms, poured out the tea and passed a cup to her mother, who sniffed loudly as she dabbed at her eyes with a little lace handkerchief.
‘There you are, Lois, our lass is looking after you before I’ve even left. Didn’t I tell you she would?’
Lois nodded resignedly and James stroked her pale blonde hair. He was putting on a brave face, but Briony knew that he was hurting as much as they were at the thought of being parted.
He took a long swig of his tea, keeping the smile plastered to his face as he asked, ‘When is it you’re starting work, pet?’
Lois had taken a part-time job in a local corner shop not far from where they lived in Stockingford. It would be the first time she had ever done a paid day’s work in her life and she wasn’t looking forward to it at all. But she supposed she ought to show willing. Most of the other women thereabouts were already working and she knew that once James was gone, money would be tight even with Briony’s wages coming in.
‘Next Monday,’ she answered, frowning.
‘Well, there you are then,’ James said cheerfully. ‘You’ll enjoy hearing all the gossip from the customers and it will keep your mind occupied till I come home.’
Briony wished wholeheartedly that she could be as optimistic as him; a knot of fear was wedged in her stomach and it refused to budge. Nuneaton had been more or less unaffected by the war up to now, but rumour had it that Hitler was just biding his time before the bombing of the Midlands started in earnest – and what would it be like then? Anderson shelters were being erected in people’s back gardens, their own included, and blackout curtains were already in force. It didn’t bear thinking about, especially as her mother was useless in a crisis. But now, not wishing to intrude any further on her parents’ last night together, she kissed them both goodnight and made her way back to the room she shared with her little sister, where she tossed and turned until the first light of dawn streaked the sky.