It was the rarest of things to have a second radio. She had been lucky. When Michael had knocked it from the sideboard Father had lost his temper and had shouted. But the radio was salvageable, though it had a big crack along its front. Father had bought a second one anyway. It was only in recent times she had considered their affluence. Their family was richer than most around her. They had a maid. No one else she knew shared that blessing. As a child Rose had not considered the issue but now she detected the undercurrents of jealousy and manipulations.
Downstairs the radio was always tuned in to the BBC. The dial stayed there permanently and there was surely trouble in wait for anyone who dared to change it. Up here though she had a little more freedom. Rose had experimented, cranking the dial as far as it would go in either direction. Once she had caught the sound of French voices and more importantly French music. She had sat mesmerised by sweet youthful voices. But she had never been able to find them again. She had settled on a radio station called ‘Radio Luxembourg’. They were few and far between. The station was crackly, but most of its output was music. Miller, Connolly, Armstrong. Above all she loved music. It was sad that she was so shy because otherwise she would have danced her youth away. She was held back by formality and her own shyness.
Tapping her toes to the jazzy beat she walked over to the dresser. Her image stared back at her and she considered it for some time. Her hair was kept long, mainly at her mother’s insistence. She would like to have it cut shorter, to appear more fashionable but her parent’s raged against such ideas. It was dark hair and it rested on her shoulders. She peered closer, frowning at the split ends. She needed some of that new shampoo she had heard advertised. It would have to be smuggled in though. No approval would be given but perhaps her mother might turn a blind eye.
Her eyebrows were well shaped. They were thin and dark. It was not surprising considering the amount of time she had spent on them, plucking them like she would a chicken, persevering despite self inflicted pain. Her eyes were the deepest brown and she considered them one of her best attributes. A boy had once told her he could have lost himself in them. He hadn’t told her anything else she liked but she remembered that. Her nose was quite sharp. It wasn’t big but small and petite. It still was noticeable though. She wrinkled it, causing deep dimples to appear at the sides of her smile. She smiled a lot, though it was becoming more difficult these days. She knew nothing of politics or national affairs but she shared her father’s concern that ‘war it will be.’
The music droned on and she looked out of the window. Two days ago Germany had invaded Poland. Chamberlain gave an ultimatum and everyone, absolutely everyone, was on tenterhooks. The preparations for war had been immense and it was that, that alone, which had convinced her of the seriousness of it all. Woman and children had been moved about all over the place. She had watched from her window as London women, dressed in the latest fashions, had passed below on their way from train station to new homes. Initially they were due to house evacuees themselves but Daddy had manipulated and manoeuvred in typical fashion and their house was left alone. Rose wasn’t sure why he had done that. If the news was bad she wouldn’t have minded sharing her bathroom or food. Needs must.
The streets below were fairly quiet. Normally there would be local children playing with a football, entertaining themselves and everyone else. Although it was September autumnal chill had not arrived. It was not the weather that was keeping them away from the streets. Rose wondered what it might be.
It was a little difficult to see but some way over the road a man was pasting up a poster on an impromptu bill board. She wondered why he was there at all. It was a Sunday. Perhaps he was being paid well for extra hours he was working. There had been talk of doing the same at the factory. Work seemed to be speeding up. He whistled as he worked. She could vaguely hear him but he was drowned out by the noise from the radio. Without preamble the song, a jazz classic by Armstrong, was cut short. An excited French voice spoke rapidly. Too fast for Rose to catch or understand any of it. Then just as suddenly as it arrived the French voice stopped and was replaced by a deep, confident but wirery voice. It was Chamberlain. She already knew before he said the words that it was bad news. Somehow she could tell. Her parents were no doubt listening to the BBC downstairs. She was not quite sure what it would mean for her. Across the road the poster man finished up. He climbed down his ladder, looked up to appreciate his handiwork, then walked away. Rose looked at it as well. The preparations for the worst had been underway for some time but Chamberlain’s words had provoked a change. She had seen the poster before but now its words seemed threatening. There was a picture of a black cat with bright shining eyes. She could make out the large red letters: look out in the blackout.
There was no immediate change, just a general mood of dismay and disappointment. Although things had seemed inevitable there had been a small pool of hope that war would somehow be avoided. Her father had fought in the last year of the Great War. When he spoke of it he did so with great sadness and he always swore that it would never happen again. It was with genuine angst that he had watched the machinations in Europe. He was too old to join up and his son was too young. Rose sensed that he was disappointed. If her senses were more attuned she would have caught not disappointment but relief.
Day to day life carried on in its usual pace. For months now preparations had been taking place. There had been the evacuees from the big southern cities. Most families had been instructed to take on board a stray. Norfolk, she supposed, would not be a primary target. Then there was the blackout. They had to make large frames, filled with dense black cloth, to put up to the windows. The intention was to block out any light so there would be nothing for enemy aircraft to focus on. An inspector came from the local council to make sure they had done the job properly. They had already failed once but now with an official declaration of war both she and her mother seemed to take the task more seriously. They really did want to make sure they got it right. Some black material was available from the grocers, which seemed to have become a focal point. They had endured a queue for almost two hours. By the time she had reached the counter only a little of the quality blackout material, made especially for the job, was available. The alternative was traditional cotton sheeting treated with a mix of wax and black boot polish, which they would have to apply themselves. Her mother complained endlessly but it was the only alternative available so in the end she had given in, accepting a personal defeat for the bigger cause. Her mother was not as open minded as her father. He was a big man, who rarely lost his temper. When he did it was a quick moment, that passed in seconds. Then by some rare will it seemed as if he controlled himself, curtailing his thoughts: becoming calmer. Although she had been young and had not listened much she knew his business had been badly affected by the Depression. Then other activities had driven his attention away from the subject. He grew concerned at Germany’s apparent innocent return to strength. When Mosley and his supporters appeared in this country he grew outraged and in very rare moments he even cursed them. For years now he had been predicting war, but everyone took his warnings with a pinch of salt. In recent months the tide had been turning and the government seemed to agree with his dark and ominous warnings.
At work nothing changed, not at first. She was a seamstress and had fallen into the job because she was at a loss as to what else to do. When she had left school she had been able to do nothing for about five months before she faced the ‘conversation’. That’s how she termed it. She remembered its innocent beginnings which quickly grew from inconsequential comments to invasive and driven questions. Her seventeen years were merely the beginning her father had said. The job, operating sewing machines, mainly on dresses, was supposed to teach her what she did not want to do with her life. But she enjoyed the hustle and bustle and the chatter. The money was useful as well. She had no other outgoings save herself and she saved for the latest fashions and accessories. Her normal sources though did dry up. Otherwise the war seemed to have no direct effect on her. Not at first.
In the first week of September they were given identity cards at work. There seemed to be a real fear that people might not be who they appeared to be. There were advertising campaigns that insisted on this point. One could not tell who another person was. There didn’t need to be a war to realise that. She had worked it out herself. One noticeable thing that did begin to develop was an indistinct and vague comradeship, amongst everyone she met. Even as the days passed this feeling became stronger, though no-one made reference to it.
The nights began to draw in and the air became chilly, dominated by a cruel and insistent breeze, which blew from the east. As well as seasonal changes it seemed to bring other changes. With the darkness an undefined light left with summer warmth. Any sign that the war might end quickly seemed to evaporate. At first people had been quietly confident that Hitler would be stopped in his tracks and somehow might go marching back to Berlin, with his head bowed in shame. It didn’t happen and the public confidence soon dried up. She read the newspaper most days, scanning the headlines, not really comprehending the politics of it all. Her father had replied to the call for ex-army men to back up the Suffolk Battalion. But they had returned his letter with thanks, rejecting his offer of aid. He was in his fiftieth year and was adamant that he wasn’t too old. There had been talk of setting up a ‘home’ army, in preparation for invasion. He investigated the option but could find no information on it.
A town curfew was enforced. It happened in the early days. There had been mention of it in vague whispers and local gossip. Then the Parish council passed some sort of local resolution. Rose broke it on its second night of enforcement. Mathew Jenkins had asked her to the cinema and she didn’t want to turn him down. They saw Shelia Hancock in ‘Heidi’. It was an enjoyable film. That in itself finished at half past seven, quarter of an hour before curfew, half an hour before darkness and danger descended. But she went with Mathew to the playground in the local school. There in twi light haze they fumbled with each other. He kissed her and she did not like it. His mouth tasted of cabbage. They were interrupted by a burly P.C wielding a heavy torch, making proclamations about foolish children. They managed to run off without identification. The next night Father made his declaration and the war came home.
It was a Tuesday. After work she had come home and had snuck into the bathroom, filling the bath shallowly–enough to soak her worn out feet. It wasn’t something she did often, but that day had been a busy one. Parachute silk had replaced dresses. She locked the door. She peeled of the long warm socks and dipped her feet into the warming water. They felt instantly refreshed. A furious banging at the door interrupted her brief period of relaxation: Michael. He shouted her name. ‘Rose, are you in there?’
She sighed deeply, already withdrawing her feet in anticipation. ‘Yes, I’m here. What do you want?’
‘Father wants us down stairs.’
She sighed a second time. ‘Coming,’ she said.
As she had guessed they were in the dining room, normally reserved for special occasions, or family discussions. They were sat around the dark, teak dining table. She joined them, pulling the seat opposite Michael. Her mother, a small, well-proportioned woman, spoke first. She always looked her best, almost perfect. ‘Your father has been asked to make a decision, one that has consequences for us all.’ At that Rose’s ears pricked up. In general any decisions made here did not have direct consequences. Her father coughed, clearing his throat. He was about fifty years old and gentle streaks of silver had begun to dominate his jet black hair. He had the normal lines for a man of his age but just lately he did not wear them as well as usual. His voice was unusually high but not feminine. It spoke with authority, even when he was speaking with his family or friends.
‘As you know I am friends with Lord Longstone, Anthony. Well he works in the foreign office and for some weeks I have been offering my help in any way I can.’
‘Help Father?’ said Michael, making the words into a question.
‘I’m too old for the army, for the fighting, as you are too young. But there are other things to be done. I don’t know how much attention you two pay to the radio and the news but there has been intense fighting in Poland for the last two days.’ A silence descended and it was not filled for some time. Rose wondered where this was all going.
‘The Germans are pushing forward quickly. Some think it is only a matter of time before the Poles fall….’ The words trailed away: unsaid conclusions like those of a well known tale. ‘Longstone has asked for my help. We live in a large property with plenty of grounds. There’s no way off putting this but simply: some families escaped from Poland before the war was lost there. They need homes. One family is to come and stay with us.’
Rose was immediately confused. Her parents had gone out of their way to avoid housing evacuees. Why this sudden change of heart? She looked towards her mother and saw that she was as surprised with the news as any of them.
It was a dilemma for Mrs. Chapman. It was clear that she did not share her husband’s generosity and was angry that she had not been consulted. Yet she didn’t want to argue in front of the children. ‘We are already donating a large amount of money. Isn’t that enough?’ she said.
Rose’s father, who never seemed to lose his temper or raise his voice, now spoke in a brittle, fractious tone which she had not heard before. ‘No, that is not enough.’
Her mother looked surprised. She made as if to reply but thought better of it.
‘It’s the least we can do and it is in response to a personal request. Of course we are going to do it.’
The matter was closed.
The house was the largest in the town and one of the oldest. At one time it had been the home of local dignitaries, people who were seen to be the life-force of the village. Other buildings had spread out from it haphazardly: turning village into town, but it still maintained a spiritual centre. Now it was the abode of those who could afford it. That in itself seemed to generate comment. There were fifteen rooms in all, but only seven were kept heated and ready for use. That changed. The fires in the other rooms were cleared out, the beds were made up ready for use and the maid was even instructed to find some paintings for the walls.
At the end of a long day at work Rose found herself exploring the rooms, something she had not done since childhood. When she had begun working it was expected to be for no more than a year. Her father may have fancied himself as a self made man, bowing to the idea of hard work, but Rose, and certainly her mother, did not see such physical obstructions in her future. It was expected by some that she would marry a likeable and loving gentleman and that would be that. No such desire had yet raised its head in her mind. These thoughts occupied her as she walked around the bedrooms, trying to recognise the newly walled paintings and failing in all attempts at identification. Rose knew what snobbery was and believed it did not afflict her. It was true that her family had money but it was money that was worked for and gained only in an ethic that was positive in its outlook and shied away from selfishness and arrogance.
The rooms, eight in total, including two bathrooms, were spotlessly clean. The Polish family, of which they had little information about, were to arrive the following morning. Rose wondered what they would make of Norfolk and its agricultural heritage. Would this family be cosmopolitan in outlook or would they have humble and ingrown attributes? Rose was not sure. They had been told nothing about them. She walked over to the large bedroom window and peered out. There was a main road around which the town undertook its business. From here she could spy the grocers, butchers and bakers. There were long queues outside all of them. Rose wondered why. There had been no obvious diminishment in the standard of the food they ate. All was still possible to obtain. She asked herself if it would remain that way but could not answer the question.
She spent the evening in her room. Dinner had been the usual affair, though perhaps a little quieter than normal. Her mother and father were distant with each other. They had been since his announcement. Withdrawing her words was the only weapon her mother had in the many sporadic battles her parent fought. She considered why they had become married at all. Perhaps thirty years ago things had been very different. Rose’s mother came from a family with money. Her father didn’t but had made his own. Rose wasn’t sure if either of them had ever accepted that reality in the other. She did not side with either one but adopted the opinion that best suited her at the time. Her father thought the world of her and sometimes she used that to her advantage.
She grabbed a book from her ill populated book shelf and settled in a rocking chair to read it. Her room, despite mother’s disapproval, was decorated in the latest art nouvau styles. She had based it all on an article she had seen in Vogue and hoped she had replicated a Parisian’s sophisticated tastes. They were dark colours that had served to reduce the impression of light. Not that it mattered: the window was permanently blacked out now. It had proved too much trouble to be constantly removing the frames. In the bedrooms at least they stayed there at all times. Rose knew she shouldn’t be in her room using the newly fitted electrical lights. Her father would have reminded her that it all cost money. His money. But as long as she could get away with it she would.
She read four chapters before making her way to the en suite bathroom where she brushed her teeth with mint flavoured toothpaste. She went outside to see to her other matters then quickly visited the dining room to give her goodnights to her parents.
Her father sat in his usual chair in the pretence of reading his newspaper but in reality snatching moments of rest, breathing deeply with his eyes closed. He always claimed he was not asleep but it was difficult to tell. When she entered the dining room he shuffled gently in his chair then opened his eyes. Her mother was sat across from him with her cross stitch on her lap. ‘Hello dear,’ she said quietly, as if afraid to wake her spouse. ‘It is getting late I suppose,’ she said when Rose had given her goodnights.
‘When will the Poles be getting here?’ asked Rose.
Her father answered. ‘In the afternoon. They’ll be here when you get back from work.’
It was uncanny but she woke at the same time each morning. The maid would always knock on her door at seven o’clock. Rose would already be awake, staring at the chandelier, considering what the day held in store for her. The factory contrasted sharply with her life. The other girls came from a different world, defined by the absence of money. At first she had difficulty accepting the situation but as time passed she realised what her father’s motives had been in sending her here. The other girls had initially treated her politely but distantly, sensing the differences in her accent and the way she held herself. Rose had been confused by their rejections but time had encouraged her to get to know them. She was fairly adept at social manners and introductory conversations. Slowly she became accepted.
The factory, a small but adequate building, was on the east side of the town. It was a fairly new building and there had been a flutter of excitement when it had been suggested. It was a source of employment for a lot of the local girls. Rose had not been educated locally but had been to private school. Whilst all the other girls seemed to know each other she had been alone and isolated. But know she felt part of a larger group and she looked forward to her work, repetitive and tiresome though it was. She walked along the pavement of the main road, enjoying the crisp morning. Although it seemed destined to be cold the sun was out, intent on shining brightly. The factory was a quarter of an hour’s walk. She listened to the silence of the morning but was not intimidated by it, instead feeling some of her upset emotions being soothed. There was not much time for conversation in the locker rooms and during working hours it was difficult to manage a proper conversation. Instead jokes, topical comments and general banter were exchanged. The first opportunity for serious conversation was at the morning break.
There was a work café in one of the larger rooms at the back of the factory. In here hot cups of tea were available, as well as a hot meal at lunchtime. They were lucky. Not all places had such facilities. In total forty-three women, of varying ages, worked at the factory. Each one had a sewing machine and a desk to work from. Mainly they worked on sewing dresses which were then sent out to shops in the UK. Lately they had been working on parachute silk which had called for different talents, but ones they had all found easy to master. They took their breaks in shifts and seven of them broke at a time. It was always the same groups and Rose had come to know the other six girls fairly well. Her favourite was Edith, a loudly spoken girl who constantly made her laugh. She was quite ‘canny’ as well and often made comments that Rose had never even considered before. Edith looked at things in a different innovative light. She was a small, well rounded girl. The porters at the factory had taken a shine to her, both to her humorous outlook on things and her physical attractiveness. They showed no such favouritism to Rose and hardly ever addressed her. She wondered what unapproachable signals she must be giving out. It was to Edith she spoke. They were sat at a table in the café, accompanied by two other girls, Ada and Bee. ‘That Polish family will be at home this afternoon.’ She spoke quietly, not revealing the true extent of her nervousness.
‘Do you know much about them?’ Edith asked.
‘Not a thing.’
‘What nothing?’ interjected Bee in a high nightingale’s pitch.
Rose shook her head and feigned puzzlement on her face, pouting her lower lip and widening her eyes.
‘Are you nervous?’ asked Edith getting straight to the point. ‘Thing is you’ve a big house. They might get lost in it.’ The other girls laughed but Rose did not. ‘What I mean’, said Edith in more serious tones, ‘is that they might not be as bad as all that.’
It did not alleviate Rose’s fears. She knew her house was big enough to accommodate another family. She was just not sure that her life was.