Alice January 1939
At nine-thirty on New Year’s Eve, nineteen-thirty-eight, Amy and I went up to the Old Bull to see in nineteen-thirty-nine. The place was packed to the gunnels. Even the snug was so rammed that had either one of us turned around, everyone in the bar would have turned around with us. We didn’t stay long. The people standing next to the bar wouldn’t move away to allow those behind be served, so it would have been well past midnight before we got our first gin and tonic. A couple of lads from the local mill tried to chat us up, but even they couldn’t get close enough to buy us a drink, so we went back to Amy’s and played a few records until just before midnight, when Amy’s dad knocked on her bedroom door to invite us to share the big moment with him and Amy’s mum.
He just had time to pour us a glass of port before Big Ben bonged out it’s barrage of bells. Amy’s parents linked arms with us and we all sang Auld Lang Syne, with me, singing the wrong words. I have been taught the New Year’s anthem three or four times but still sing, for the sake of… Amy’s dad, who was one sixteenth Scottish, knew all of Burn’s lyrics and made sure our arms stayed linked until he had belted out the last line of the song. When he reached, and we’ll tak a right gude-willie-waught, Amy looked at me, I looked at her, and no amount of lip biting or cheek sucking, was ever going to stop the hysterical fit of laughter that followed.
Amy’s dad kept going until the bitter end, then he let go of our hands, called us ‘childish’ and retired to his armchair to finish the malt whisky that a real Scotsman had sold him on their family holiday the previous Easter.
Around twelve-thirty, Amy showed me to the door.
I asked why her dad hadn’t done the first foot thing, seeing as he was so keen on the New Year rituals. My own father, who wasn’t even a hundredth part Scottish, had done it every year without fail. I never understood what was behind the custom. Mum told me it was something to do with bringing in a gift to the household, but as all he ever brought in was a lump of coal and a stale mince pie left over from Christmas, things we already owned, I was left as confused as ever. Perhaps they did it differently in Scotland.
Amy looked around to make sure no one could overhear and whispered. ‘He tripped over the step wearing his kilt a few years ago and showed his Willie Waught to the world, so Mum has banned him from doing it since then. He was off work for a month with a cracked ankle. Old Mrs Bowen, who lived next door at the time, got a right eyeful. She was going to call the police until Mum brought her inside and plied her with gin.’
‘I remember him being off work, but you never said why,’ I said, through my giggles.
Any looked at me wide-eyed. ‘Would you tell that story to anyone? It’s one of those tales you want to hear about someone else’s dad.’
‘I was still sniggering to myself when I got home. I stood in the yard for a few moments to look at the new foundations that had been backfilled and waiting for the concrete to be poured for over a week. Mr Hart, our builder, refused to tip the concrete until the weather was above freezing, as the finished slab wouldn’t be as strong. The forecaster on the radio had said the weather was going to be dry for the next few days with temperatures forecast to be around forty degrees Fahrenheit, so, Michael promised to begin mixing the stuff on the morning of the second.
I was really keen to get that process started because once the new milking parlour/winter cow-shed was ready, we could pretty much quadruple the size of our Friesian herd. I turned towards the kitchen wondering if the coming year would bring us better fortune than the previous one. It had been a year littered with secrets and lies, revelations and revenge. As I turned to close the kitchen door, I took one last look at the newly dug foundations and told myself to look for the positives. A new year always came with the promise of a new start after all. Last years’ secrets should remain buried.
At eleven o’clock on Sunday September 3rd 1939, I opened up the kitchen for the farmworkers to enable them to hear an historic speech from our Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, or the undertaker, as Amy had renamed him. Not all the lads worked on Sundays, some were rostered to tend the animals, milk the cows etc and I called them in when I heard the BBC inform us that there was going to be a speech of national importance.
We had been edging towards war for the entire year and Germany’s invasion of Poland a couple of days before had made the prospect an inevitability. As we waited for the broadcast, my thoughts went back to the autumn of the previous year when the same man, joyfully waved a piece of paper at the cameras whilst declaring, ‘Peace for our time.’ I wondered if he had brought a scrap of worthless paper with him this time around and what was written on it. Bugger! must have been a distinct possibility.
Amy’s nickname was perfectly suited. The scrawny man with the scrawny neck and the old fashioned, turned-over collar, wouldn’t have looked out of place marching solemnly in front of a hearse.
The few whispered conversations ceased as we heard his voice over the airwaves.
I am speaking to you from the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
There was a bit more, mainly relating to Hitler’s warlike mentality, but we didn’t really take that in, the first part of his statement said everything we needed to hear. We were at war with Germany again, even though we were promised that the 14-18 conflict had been the war to end all wars.
Amy pushed her empty tea cup across the table.
‘Well, the undertaker has just assigned another few million people to an early grave. There has to be better ways to advertise your business.’
No one laughed.
Barney, our foreman, gave his thoughts.
‘Levity aside, Amy, this has been coming. Hitler is a nasty piece of work, and it’s high time someone stood up to him. We could have done it last year, but I understand that we weren’t ready to take him on back then. I’m not sure we are now; I think we might have to try to persuade the Americans to come in again or we could be in trouble.’
‘Thank goodness for the channel,’ said Benny Tomkiss, one of the younger workers. He pointed vaguely towards the Kent coast from which any attack would surely come.
Miriam, a non-practicing Jew, whose father had spent the majority of his life working on our farm, waited for a few seconds of silence before adding her own tearful thoughts.
‘I’m so pleased we’re finally telling him he can’t just do what he wants. Last year, cousins of mine were thrown out of their businesses, their homes and their jobs, just for being Jewish. Do you all remember what they did on that bloody Kristallnacht? I’m so worried about them, I haven’t had a letter since February. The Nazis are sending Jews to work camps where they are used as slave labour. How any so-called civilized society can allow this to happen is beyond me. He has to be stopped before millions of people are slaughtered, just for belonging to the wrong religion.’
No one seemed to be able to look at Miriam as she delivered her tear-filled statement. We had all heard the rumours of Jewish people being hounded out of their homes and exiled to concentration camps throughout Germany. The newsreels at the cinema had shown graphic images of Kristallnacht. The vast majority of the British population were horrified by the news reports, but there were some, even in our small town, who seemed to blame all that was wrong with the world on the Jewish race.
I turned off the radio thinking that, as head of the farm, I ought to say something. My father would no doubt have delivered a rousing speech, saying we were all in this together and it was up to each and every one of us to do our bit to ensure that Hitler was defeated. Sadly, as a nineteen-year-old mother, I wasn’t up to delivering rousing speeches.
‘Firstly, I have to say that we all knew this was coming, sad and shocking as the actual announcement was. Secondly, I’m sure the government will announce soon that farming industry workers are in a reserved occupation. The country will still need to be fed and our troops will need their ration packs so none of you will be forced to join up if you don’t want to. I will however, understand completely if any of you feel you have to do your bit for King and country and you can go with my blessing but, please, if you can, wait until the recruiting offices are set up. We’ve still got the corn harvest to bring in before you go.’
I let out a deep sigh.
‘Damn Hitler, damn Mussolini, damn Stalin, and damn Neville bloody Chamberlain.’
As the lads drifted out into the yard, I sat down at the kitchen table thinking about the past year.
The farm had done well. The wheat crop had been as good as it ever had been and we’d had a bumper crop of piglets and lambs too. The new milking parlour/barn had enabled us to house thirty cows through the bad weather and the extra animals meant that our milk production had quadrupled. The electric pumps meant that milking was now a one-man job and Miriam’s little butter and cheese enterprise had expanded. There had been a wedding in March when young Benny married his childhood sweetheart, Emily.
Martha was now a toddler with a mission to explore every inch of the farm. Her inquisitive nature was only matched by her temper, if she was stopped going into places she wasn’t allowed to go.
Our relationship still bordered on indifference. She put up with me if she was in the mood, but no amount of encouragement or proffered bribes, could get her to spend time with me if didn’t feel like it. Her vocabulary wasn’t great yet but ‘Mama’ one of the easiest words to say, was the word she used least.
Since March, I had been accompanying my best friend Amy to the local picture palace to watch the latest Hollywood exports. To my delight and embarrassment, my movie star lookalike, Rita Hayworth, appeared in more and more of the movies on offer. I looked like Rita; my rolling shoulder length curls made the similarities almost photographic. We were so much alike that the owner of the picture house, a Mr Wallington, even offered to pay me to stand outside the cinema greeting prospective movie goers whenever one of her films was on show.
Future wise, financially at least, the farm would be better off. The government tended to look after us during times of conflict. They would almost certainly subsidise the crops and give us more money per ton for producing it. That wouldn’t necessarily transmit to farm workers’ wages and if we lost any of our men to the fighting, we might have to recruit from the elderly residents of the town, then again, the local factories would almost certainly switch to war production and that would mean the skills of the town’s women and elderly men, would be much sought after.
I could never understand the government’s attitude to farm workers. On the one hand they wanted them working at home producing for the country, but on the other hand, they were reluctant to pay them a little extra in order to keep them in our fields instead of fighting in foreign ones.
Amy, as a mill worker, wouldn’t be allowed to leave to do any other work. Her skills would be needed in the manufacture of uniforms, parachutes or anything else the forces might require.
‘I do hope this thing doesn’t go on as long as the last one,’ she said, sipping at a fresh mug of tea. ‘I promised myself I’d be married before I was twenty-five and there will be a severe shortage of eligible bachelors once this bloody war gets going.’ Amy was just coming up to twenty-one.
‘You’ll be all right if the Americans do come in,’ I replied. ‘Imagine Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart turning up at an army camp nearby?’
Amy rested her chin in her upturned hands and sighed.
‘Imagine,’ she said.