Rose spent the night in a restless fashion. She dreamt of all sorts of things, few of which she could remember. Abram had been in her dreams, saving her from evil opponents: a knight in white armour. She felt guilty dreaming of him. It was objectionable and she did not want to understand why she had done so. She felt herself beginning to enjoy his company more and more. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious, to Abram or anyone, and that if forced, innocent explanations would be accepted.
The day was a Saturday. She was thankful for that. She wouldn’t have to go to work and face Richard, certain embarrassment and awkward questions. She had never been good at offering explanations and the truth would out eventually. Then there would be inevitable discomfort and upset. Ultimately she wondered if it would be worth it. It would be Richard’s word against hers. It would not be right to involve Abram.
At supper that night Abram rose and made an announcement. It was one she was not prepared for.
‘Soon,I wil be,’ he paused then seeking out the right words, ‘returning to Poland.’ Rose had never considered this. What could make the man return? She did not understand but could not vocalise her concerns. She looked at her father, who did not seem surprised. He merely nodded his head, as if in agreement or in support.
She tried her best. ‘Why?….your family.’
Abram looked at his wife and child. Then directly at Rose. ‘I go alone,’ he said. It was not concern for his wife that had encouraged her to speak up and the answer didn’t satisfy. Abram saw this. He tried to explain further and for a second time his accent seemed to drop. ‘My country needs this…it is in peril. Grave peril.’ Rose simply turned and left the room.
Abram walked over to her father. ‘She is upset. I need to explain.’ On this occasion there was no need to mask his true accent so he did not. The words fell from his mouth in a long drawn out way. Rose’s father nodded imperceptibly, as if offering tacit approval. Abram followed Rose from the room.
What followed seemed unbelievable in a Hollywood film fashion. Rose was confused by Abram’s arrival in her room. She did not want to speak to him, or anyone else, but was intrigued by the sudden change in his voice.
‘I did not lie about my reasons.’ Rose did not comprehend the statement immediately. She was entranced by the drawling words.
She looked at him and said nothing. He tried again, adding further words to explain his statement. ‘I am going to do this for my country. The States.’
Rose looked him directly in the eyes, still not comprehending his intent. ‘We need to be reintroduced. My real name is Abram: Abram Lombarde. My ancestors were Polish. I speak the language well but I am not Polish. I work for a branch of the American government. I had a task. To infiltrate Polish society and try and uncover as much as I could about German intent.’
‘A spy,’ replied Rose contemptuously, almost spitting the words out.
‘I suppose so.’ He spoke the words defiantly, proudly.
‘And the woman?’ asked Rose, her interest lying with things she could understand. ‘She is not your wife.’
It was a statement that needed confirmation or denial.
‘No, she is not,’ said Abram Lombarde. ‘She is an immensely brave woman who helped me escape from Poland. Without her help you would not be speaking to me.’
‘Is that supposed to make me feel better?’
‘I don’t know how you are feeling. It is something I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t you?’ She walked over to him and stood closely. He could feel the breath from her lips. ‘You must know.’ Up until that moment she had not been sure herself so how could she possibly expect him to know.
He moved away. ‘I said that the woman was not my wife. But I do have a wife.’
The house seemed strangely empty when they had gone. Her father had explained it all in a little more detail. Abram Lombarde was born and raised in a southern state in America called Texas. He was not in the army but did work for a governmental agency. When it became clear he was fluent in the language of his ancestors he had been enrolled by a second US agency, at first reluctantly. When it had been explained to him what was required of him he was still, understandably, reluctant. He did not want to leave his life behind. Money, and promises of financial reward, changed his mind. He went to another state to learn methods he would need to employ. Three weeks later he
lived in a flat in Crakow, Warsaw in a pre-invaded Poland. It was not a surprise when the tanks rolled in. What did surprise him was the speed with which the German army took Poland, as if there were no resistance at all. Days of hunting and chasing had followed. His story was a long one but with luck he had escaped Poland and fled eventually to England, where he sought help. It was given to him. He came to stay at Roses’ house with strict instructions from his government not to drop his cover. Rear admiral Lord Longstone, a friend of Roses’ father, had explained all to him personally. Rose was angered by the extreme secrecy. She was not likely to report events to the German army but then it occurred to her that all the while it had been someone’s intention to send Abram back. Her father had remained atypically silent about this point. ‘There are things of which you are not aware,’ he said. It was all he would say.
Rose could have dismissed her internal feelings as those of a teenager with a crush. But she had endured crushes before. These were not the same feelings. For one they had not been instant and she had not been aware of them at first. Now Abram had gone he was all she could think about. Everything, even things she had not associated with him, seemed to conspire to remind her of his absence. The intensity of her feelings scared her, making her physically sick. She grew sullen and with that an atmosphere of illness descended upon her. Her appetite seemed to disappear and she always felt tired. At work she had curdled Richard’s blood with one long hard and cruel stare. He no longer even recognised her presence, which suited her fine.
At first the declaration of War had made people nervous. Gas masks had been handed out, evacuations made and plans proposed. Then nothing really occurred for the next three or four months. People began calling it the phoney war. When Poland capitulated to the Germans, towards the end of September it was not so much Germany’s role but Russia’s that caused comment. Rose’s father was particularly sombre in his mood. ‘Once they invade we won’t stand a chance,’ he said. Life in the Chambers’ household remained much the same as it had at the beginning of the war, although food became hard to get hold off. Rose noticed they were being bombarded by propaganda to contribute towards the country’s ‘war effort.’ She did not see this as a bad thing but felt that working at the factory was a contribution. When France was invaded and conquered in June 1940 Rose rethought her place in the war.
It was during this period that for the second time she came across the Woman’s Land Army and for the first time her curiosity and interest were stimulated.
It was Edith who had mentioned them, during a mid-morning break. She promised to reveal more at lunch hour.
Rose did not have any expectations of the meeting. Her thoughts were devoured by monotony and repetitiveness. When the whistle for lunch hour finally came her mind was numbed by the work she had been doing. She did not ask about the Land Army but Edith told her anyway. ‘This Wednesday,’ she garbled with her mouth full of tea, ‘there’s all sorts going on in the Parish hall. There’s the WLA, the WVS and loads of others visiting to try and recruit us girls, you know for the war effort. You know work at home and all that.’ She spoke with a big grin.
Rose was puzzled. ‘Isn’t this important war work?’ she asked Edith, wanting confirmation.
‘It might well be,’ said Edith, ‘but I’m for an afternoon off on Wednesday.’ It was decided then.
The following Wednesday afternoon, like those that surrounded it, was full of humidity, warm rain and dark skies. Even when it wasn’t actually raining the air was clammy and somehow strived to cling to people, as if they belonged to the weather. The morning at work had been the same as usual. A few words of banter flew around as sewing machines rattled. All the girls had been given the afternoon off to attend the recruitment drive at the Parish hall. The request had come from the Parish council and Mr. Williams, fairly reluctantly, had sanctioned the time away from work. It was a request he needed to be seen upholding, whatever his personal feelings. At first Rose had thought little off it but as time had passed she began to realise possible outcomes and consequences. One of those would be to move away from home, where reminders and the ghosts of the possible, would leave her.
It was not particularly professional. There were a few large desks, borrowed from the primary school, behind which sat the local co-ordinators of various different groups. There were an array of organisations present and it would have been difficult for someone to choose among them because they all strove to illustrate their invaluable and worthwhile roles. Nurses had the best presentation. Their representatives were dressed in nurse’s uniforms and posters illustrated their essential work and contribution. Just looking at them made one want to be part of their group.
Rose approached their desk. She enquired about nursing. ‘We’d train you up,’ said the officious looking and slightly rotund woman, ‘enrol you on the nurses course. It’d mean leaving your home and if you are under eighteen a parent will need to sign this.’ The woman shoved a piece of paper at her. Rose thought about lying. There were another six months before she was eighteen and she wasn’t sure anyone would give her a signature. She decided against lying not because of any moral fortitude but because she was not sure if she would be convincing.
She continued strolling around the room to see if anything else took her interest. She did not want to join the army or the navy and walked quickly past their desks. One of the desks, located under the largest window in the room, had two people behind it: a man and a woman. He was called Andrews and was a retired Army officer. He sat on a board that organised the logistics, need and deployment of part of the Woman’s Land Army. It was not an all-female concern. His companion was Mrs. Poultry, a brusque, straight-forward speaking woman who dressed in an impression of grey and drabness. Rose asked about the WLA and was given a rundown of its attractions and value. ‘It’s bloody hard work though,’ added Mrs. Poultry, somewhat unprofessionally. Andrews gave her a brief stare, which seemed characterised by temporary contempt, then turned to Rose with a second expression on his face. Kindness. ‘It’s important work, young lady. No-one will argue it isn’t hard but it is definitely worth it in the long run.’
Rose was convinced, not least because the training would be away from home as well as her eventual posting. Additionally it did sound exciting. She signed up.
She thought that the difficult part would be telling her father but she was wrong. He took the news in his normal gruff manner but he did not dispute her choice: he left that to her mother.
Her mother’s name was Katherine and Rose had always thought it a pretty name. They were not that close. Ever since she had left to go to boarding school she had been a little concerned about her parent’s motives. As she grew older she thought that perhaps she understood why they had made that choice but at the tender age of five no such logic had manifested itself and she resented her mother in particular. They spoke politely about things but had not had a real conversation, about anything important, ever. But now it was her mother, not her father, who pleaded with her to stay. ‘Can’t you see, you’ll be breaking up this family? There simply is no need.’
From her father’s silence Rose took courage. ‘There’s a war. I’m just contributing what I can. It’s something both of you have said I should do.’ At that her mother had no option but to admit defeat. Rose’s desire to join the Woman’s Land Army was given parental blessing.
The process was confused by a degree of bureaucracy. There were forms to fill in. For a week Rose heard nothing back and she began to worry that her application would be rejected, for whatever reason. It became important to her that this would not be the case and, perhaps because it might be denied her, it became vitally significant to her that she would be successful in her application. That was why she waited for the mail to come every day before she went to work. The war had not yet affected the delivery of mail and the postman turned up promptly at half past eight. Rose had usurped the maid’s role of collecting the mail and now did it herself. On a Wednesday morning, which she remembered clearly, she watched him walk his bike up the drive. In his hand he held a few letters. She was used to the sight, her father received quite a lot of mail. The postman could not fit one of the envelopes through their fairly small letterbox. He rang on their doorbell. The maid appeared to answer it but Rose got there first. ‘Thank you,’ she muttered in dismissive, dislikeable tones. She could be forgiven for she was intent on the content off the letters she now held in her hand. It was the larger brown envelope that held her interest for it bore an ink stamp proclaiming the legend ‘Women’s Land Army.’ It also bore a small crest.
Now that the answer was a physical reality Rose was not so sure she wanted to know it. She heard her mother come up behind her. She could tell by the footfalls who it was. They echoed, like a tiny bell, on the tiled hallway floor. Rose wondered if she could guess correctly the shoes her mother wore. She did so and when she turned to greet her mother she was pleased to be right. They were high heeled shoes so it had not been difficult: they made an insistent tap on the floor. Rose turned around to see her mother peering intently at the envelope she had in her hand.
‘Well, is there something there?’ asked Katherine with an impatient tone. Her arced smile never left her face. It did not seem to share in the impatience of her voice.
‘This,’ said Rose, holding the large brown envelope, an expression of temporary awe etched into her face.
‘Well, do something with it?’ Again the impatient tone.
Rose tore its edge gingerly, as if she was in no hurry to see what was inside. Her mother obviously was and took it from her daughter.
‘That’s mine, you can’t open it,’ objected Rose.
‘I suppose you are right.’ The answer was reluctant but Rose was handed the envelope back. She had already torn a strip from the top and it dangled from the envelope as she claimed it back. In no hurried fashion she opened it completely and pulled out the paperwork.
At tea that night Rose made her proclamation. She spoke quite loudly and curtly, in sharp contrast to her traditional dinnertime silence. There were only three others in the room but one could still detect the immediate effect of her words in the hush that followed. ‘I’m leaving next weekend. We meet at Victoria station in London and then we are deployed to different areas.’ She liked that word. She had heard her father say it many times recently. It was a military word and by applying it to her own future she felt both responsible and adult.
There was a quiet hush. It seemed no-one knew what to say, although her mother had already known and had clearly spoken to her father, who expressed nothing. She looked to her brother, Mathew, some seven years her junior. He was looking up at her with mouth agape, genuinely shocked. He hadn’t even known the suggestion had been a viable one and for the first time outside events had direct consequences in his life. He simply didn’t know what to say. Then it occurred to him. ‘Will you get to milk cows?’ he asked.
The journey to firstly Liverpool Street Station and the underground to Victoria might have been uneventful but it was the first time she had been away from Norfolk and her home. Edith, as well as her family, had come to see her off at the train station. The train itself was a beautifully coloured green steam train. Her ticket was for the second class section. Her father had offered to buy her a first class ticket but Rose did not want to be labelled as a ‘rich girl.’ She had endured enough of that in her life. The journey was not that long, a little over an hour and a half. During it Rose thought about quite a lot, not least her reasons for leaving. She wondered if the other girls she was likely to meet would detect that her motives for joining the land army were not completely altruistic and whether it mattered.
The train juddered along in irregular rhythm and from the window she spied the flat lands of the East Anglian countryside. There was not a hill in sight. They made one stop at a place called Peterborough, which Rose vaguely recognised, and the train continued its journey southward. Few people got on the train at Peterborough but an elderly lady did and joined Rose in her compartment. The lady was quite thin and hawkish looking. Her nose was shaped like a beak and on top of these sat a pair of silver looking spectacles. Rose was given a withering look that at one time may have concerned her quite a lot but now, on the edge of unknown adventures and travel, didn’t cause her any anxiety. Rose stared straight back at the uninvited stranger, who soon looked away.
The first part of the journey had been spent in enforced silence, the second part in uncomfortable silence. Gradually the view from the window changed. Instead of vacant plains signs of an industrialised city appeared, dominated by towering chimneys. Rose wondered if she would encounter the infamous London smog but could see no sign of it. Still the train juddered onwards. There seemed no end to the outskirts of this city. Finally they entered a station. It was ‘Liverpool Street’. All trains from East Anglia and the surrounding area ended up here. Rose’s next task was to find her luggage, which was easy enough with a helpful young Scottish guard man, who was undoubtedly trying to impress her. When Rose stepped out onto the platform she did feel different and thought she understood why that was so. Now she had purpose in her life. Before it had wandering on its own, now she was enforcing a degree of control. With that came a sense of freedom which she had not encountered before, as if imaginary shackles had been broken.
To cross the underground, with a trunk for luggage, was not an easy thing. Rose could have taken a taxi, but had decided not to, instead savouring the challenge of travelling this huge city unaided. It was a romantic and impractical idea. The first thing she had to do was consult a map so she could identify which underground lines she would have to travel on. There were many pasted onto the walls. With an idea of her route firmly etched in her mind she bought a ticket and set off on the journey. The London underground was a feat of Victorian engineering and Rose was awed by it. She felt a little provincial but when she saw the calmness and acceptance with which others treated it she tried to do the same. With help she managed to drag her luggage onto the right tube trains. She wished she had been more ordered about her packing but she had no idea how long she would be away for or what kind of clothing was required. At one point she made it onto moving stairwells that were called escalators. At the top she was scolded by a guard for having the audacity to drag her luggage with her. When she protested he ignored her clearly stating, without addressing her directly, what a fire risk was. Oddly it upset Rose that day more than any other single thing. She began to feel the tears swell up in her eyes but forced them down again.
The journey ended in a similar place to where it had begun: a London train station. This time it was Victoria, named after the greatest of queens. Rose was surprised by how busy but well ordered it seemed. There was a clock under which the WLA party was supposed to meet and she had little problem in finding it. Surprisingly she was half an hour early. No-one else was there yet. Rose had never prided herself on timekeeping but had felt this important enough to make a committed effort.
Rose approached one of the tea shops that were littered in the station. The woman behind the counter seemed very stressed. When Rose ordered a cup of tea and a slice of cake she thought she may have said something inappropriate because of the look she was given. When the woman, who spoke with a broad cockney accent, gave Rose her tea she actually smiled, which may have been classed as a major breakthrough. Rose ate up her cake quite quickly. Although her mother had packed her sandwiches for the journey she was still fairly hungry. If she had been aware it was the last slice of cake she would have for eight years she may have enjoyed it a little more.