Read Alice's Girls Online

Authors: Julia Stoneham

Alice's Girls

BOOK: Alice's Girls
8.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?


That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.


A.E. Housman,
A Shropshire Lad

The weather, that Christmas, had seemed to be apologising for its earlier unpleasantness. After a bitterly cold start, when a cutting east wind, grey skies and persistent frosts had made life wretched for the workers on the Post Stone farms, December had grown milder and since the
solstice had felt almost spring-like. The trickling of moisture draining from sodden earth, the musical drippings from the eaves of the farmhouse, its barns and outbuildings, and from the twigs in the hedgerows, was soothing after the crackle of frost and the cruel silence of icicles. But although everyone enjoyed it, no one was fooled. They knew that January and February lay ahead and there would be sleet, cold winds, frosts and probably snowstorms before the days slowly lengthened and what 
sun there was would feel stronger and warmer.

Although there was certainty now, that the end of the war was in sight, the fighting in Europe and the Pacific continued and British civilians were still dying as a result of German rocket attacks on London.

Alice Todd, warden of a small Land Army hostel in rural Devonshire, was aware, on Boxing Day morning, that one of the pleasures of Christmas was the disruption it caused to the monotony of life at the two farms known as Higher and Lower Post Stone. She crossed the yard and returned to her kitchen with two newly laid eggs in her hand. She and Edward John, her eleven-year-old son, would, this morning, have breakfast alone. She would watch him decapitate his egg, slide in his spoon and then dip fingers of toast into the rich, orange yolk. This small ceremony would confirm that the two of them were, despite everything, a family.

They were in the kitchen of the lower farmhouse in which the land girls were billeted. Today only three, who had volunteered to help with the milking, remained, while the others were enjoying a few days of leave in which to visit their families. By late morning on Christmas Eve they had clambered into the smoky compartments of crowded trains which would eventually deliver them to Leeds, London or Liverpool, while the warden did her best to prepare a traditional Christmas dinner for those few who were left in her charge.

On Boxing Day the remaining girls, having completed the morning’s dairy duties, had been returned to the hostel
where the day was to be theirs until the lorry arrived to fetch them back to the higher farm for the afternoon milking session. One of them, a forlorn figure, her muddy boots left in the porch, stood shivering in her socks on the slate floor of the farmhouse kitchen, filling a hot-water bottle from the kettle that had been simmering on the range.

‘Are you unwell, Evie?’ the warden asked her.

‘It’s just me monthlies, Mrs Todd,’ Evie told her, adding, smiling, ‘Thought I’d get back to me bed for a couple of hours’ kip. Luxury!’ Evie was a relative newcomer to the hostel, whose appearance the other girls considered mousey. Her unremarkable personality had made little impact on the small, isolated community.

As Alice and her son finished their eggs they were joined at the kitchen table by Gwennan Pringle who had taken advantage of the empty bathroom and now, in her dressing gown and with a towel round her wet hair, filled a teacup, and with a quick glance at the warden, plunged a spoon into the sugar bowl.

‘Easy on the sugar,’ Alice warned her, familiar with the girl’s tendency to take more than her share of the meagre ration.

Alice had completed almost two years in the role of warden and during that time had learnt a lot about the girls in her care, the majority of whom had arrived at the farmhouse when she had.

Gwennan Pringle, the oldest of the group, was, it had to be admitted, the least likeable. Her tongue was as
sharp as her close-set, dark eyes, and her staccato Welsh accent added to the impact of venomous comments and self-righteous outbursts, rendering them more irritating – and even hurtful – than they would have been if delivered gently or humorously. Several factors, apart from her age, set Gwennan apart from the other girls, and as a result, for almost two years, she had lived and worked alongside rather than with them, and was well aware of their poor opinion of her. Alice had done her best to encourage Gwennan to be less intolerant of her fellows and she had been genuinely sympathetic when, six months previously, the girl’s older sister had died. What she did not know was that Gwennan, by concealing symptoms of the disease that had killed her sister, and although terrified of the ordeal she was about to face, was keeping her fears to herself and depriving herself of the support and sympathy from the warden and her fellow land girls, which she could so easily have enjoyed.

The topic round the kitchen table, earlier that morning, had been further discussion of the astonishing events that had taken place on Christmas Eve. The land girls, their suitcases standing ready in the cross-passage at Lower Post Stone, had been hurrying through their morning tasks at the higher farm, when two of them, Annie Sorokova and Mabel Hodges, who had been sent up to the lambing shed with a cartload of fresh straw, arrived at a dangerous speed, back at the higher farm.

‘Help!’ Annie had yelled as she dragged on the reins of
the heavy shire horse and brought the cart to an abrupt stand on the noisy cobbles of the yard. ‘It’s Mabel! Two babies ’as come!’

This, to everyone’s amazement, was true.

Mabel Hodges, odorous and overweight, whose history of abuse had, before she became a land girl, already resulted in the birth of one child (a little boy, who was being reared by her grandmother), had formed a relationship with Ferdie Vallance, a labourer exempted from conscription because of a farming injury that had left him lame. One thing had led to another, but Mabel’s rotund appearance, shrouded by the layers of clothes and waterproofs that had protected it from the wild weather of the autumn and early winter, was hardly changed by her condition and, not for the first time, she had succeeded in concealing a pregnancy from those around her.

As month followed month, she and Ferdie had remained incapable of facing their situation. The facts, as far as they understood them, were starkly simple. If a land girl had a child she would be forced to leave the service, and Ferdie’s wage was barely enough to support him, let alone a family. The two of them had fretted about this, hopelessly and helplessly, having neither the wit nor the experience to address it, while the months of the concealed pregnancy had passed.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve, when Mabel’s waters broke and flowed across the mud floor of the lambing pen, and when Annie, inexperienced and horrified,
had acted as midwife to the first and the second of the twins and then, with the mother and babies in the cart, driven at breakneck speed downhill to the farm, the shock to everyone concerned had been huge.

Roger Bayliss, the owner of the farm, had emerged from his office, taken in the implications of the scene, called his doctor and then dialled the number of the telephone, whose bell echoed across the yard of the lower farm and was eventually answered by Alice Todd.

‘Roger!’ she said, and he knew at once, from the tone of her voice, that she was smiling. ‘How nice to hear you!’

‘Brace yourself, my dear,’ he warned her, ‘I have astonishing news!’

The relationship between Alice and her employer had, like Alice herself, undergone a slow change since the cold February morning, almost two years ago, when she had arrived at the lower farm, her marriage over, her home in London bomb-damaged.

Alice, in the opinion of the local Land Army representative, had been unsuitable for the role of hostel warden and had been hired simply because she was the only available candidate. At first almost overwhelmed by the difficulties facing her, Alice had endured the damp cold of the near derelict farmhouse, the hostility of Rose, the cowman’s widow, who was to assist her, the lack of confidence of her boss and the daunting arrival of the ten girls she was to care for. Girls who, she was warned, would be demanding, rowdy, disrespectful and even defiant,
and whose backgrounds were so different from her own middle-class upbringing, education and standards that she would feel isolated and even intimidated by them. But she needed this employment. She needed to earn her keep in a place, far away from the dangers of the war, where her nine-year-old son would be safe. Her only skills were domestic ones, so she had no choice but to fight her way through her difficult early days, weeks and even months at Lower Post Stone farm.

Slowly she won the respect of Rose, and in response to the warmth of her character and her natural engagement with the girls’ problems, they at first tolerated and then became fond of her. Yes, she was bossy at times and she ‘talked posh’. There were occasions when her disapproval of their behaviour embarrassed them, but she was, it was soon agreed, a good egg, worthy of their approval and their loyalty.

Roger Bayliss, too, initially doubting Alice’s suitability for the work she had undertaken, soon began to respect her. As she gained confidence she occasionally defended the girls against his decisions, standing her ground and arguing her case with skill and diplomacy. A widower, whose wife had deferred to him and whose relationship with most of the women he encountered was one of master and servant, he was at first intrigued, then fascinated, and finally drawn to Alice. Long before she suspected it, he was more than half in love with her. When she did suspect it she avoided the issue. Not because she disliked Roger or found him
unattractive, but because of a side to his character which confused her.

Shortly after Alice had arrived at the farms, Roger’s son, a pilot in RAF Fighter Command, suffered a breakdown which spectacularly ended his flying career. Alice had been, and remained, bewildered by Roger’s reaction to this. He had refused to visit Christopher during the weeks he had spent in a military psychiatric ward and had even admitted, at a much later date, that he found the boy’s behaviour embarrassing, even shameful. Alice felt, on an unexplored, instinctive level, that there had to be some deep-seated reason for this. Some trait in Roger’s character or some experience that had scarred him. However, her heavy workload prevented her from spending much time or energy on pondering Roger’s reasons for his attitude to his son. There was, for one thing, her own situation to occupy her mind, and almost always, one or another of her girls would come to her for help or advice on some complication or difficulty, and she would find herself providing a comforting shoulder or persuading someone to do, or not to do, something which would resolve the problem.

Mabel’s pregnancy and the arrival of the twins took everyone, except their parents, completely by surprise. Alice had known that the good-natured, if strangely odorous and lumpen girl, was in the habit of spending her Saturday evenings in the labourer’s cottage that came with Ferdie Vallance’s wage, where she would cook a meal
for him, consisting sometimes of the rabbits he trapped or, quite often, of the pheasants or salmon that he had poached during the course of the preceding week. She also knew of the existence of the three-year-old boy that Mabel had reluctantly admitted was hers, the identity of whose father she would never disclose. But the unexpected arrival of the twins was received by the small, close community with dropped jaws and rounded eyes.

The land girls, before setting off for their Christmas break, had insisted on climbing the narrow stairs of Ferdie’s cottage to stand smiling at the babies and their proud parents of whose scandalous behaviour they were, despite themselves, slightly in awe. Of course, the erring couple would have to be married and as soon and as quietly as possible – Mr Bayliss would, for propriety’s sake, insist on it. But Mabel! Funny, greedy, smelly little Mabel! A married lady now, with a home of her own, two babies and a husband – even if he was peculiar-looking and lame as a duck!


Gwennan was sitting, on that Boxing Day morning, gloomily stirring as much sugar as Alice had allowed her into her tea, when Rose arrived in the kitchen.

Rose, who when Alice had first encountered her had been stiff with disapproval at the appointment of a warden whom she regarded as unsuitable, had subsequently grown fond of Alice, and the two women, working alongside one another, had each, despite their very different backgrounds
and possibly only subconsciously, been influenced by the other, their enforced association widening the experience of both of them.

Prim and middle-aged, Rose wore her widowhood like a badge of courage, her strong sense of duty focused firmly on her only child, her Dave, who was a soldier and who, although assumed to be safely in the catering corps had, in fact, been wounded in northern France shortly after D-Day.

‘What about this wedding, then?’ she asked Alice, challengingly, as she stooped to tie the laces of the plimsolls she always wore when doing her chores in the hostel. ‘Whatever we think of our Mabel she deserves a proper wedding, don’t she? Even if she should of known better!’

‘Mr Bayliss got ’is shotgun out, ’as he?’ Gwennan smirked, sipping lukewarm tea.

‘Bain’t nothin’ shotgun about it, Gwennan!’ Rose snapped, dismissively. ‘They’m both keen to wed! I’ll say that for Ferdie Vallance, ’e wants to do the right thing by ’er. Reckon vicar should marry ’em in church and we could have a cake after! Goodness knows who’ll give her away, though!’

By the time the other land girls returned from their Christmas break the wedding plans, though modest, were well advanced.

‘They have to be!’ Alice explained to Margery Brewster, a competent and well-meaning woman who, as local Land Army registrar, was responsible for overseeing the hostels
in the Ledburton area, of which Lower Post Stone was one. ‘Mr Bayliss wants everything settled as soon as possible. He wasn’t in favour of anything more than a private ceremony, but I told him the girls are fond of Mabel and want her to have an occasion to remember.’ The registrar rolled her eyes as Alice continued, ‘It’ll only be the girls, Margery – and Rose and you and me …’

‘And Ferdie Vallance’s sister and Mr and Mrs Jack and Mr and Mrs Fred … not to mention Roger himself and possibly Christopher too!’ Margery was on first-name terms with the Bayliss family, whom she had known socially for as long as she could remember. ‘These things always escalate, Alice!’ But then her flushed face had softened and she added that there was a white satin frock in what had been her daughters’ dressing-up box which, shortened by about ten inches, would, with any luck, fit Mabel.

BOOK: Alice's Girls
8.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Zane’s Redemption by Folsom, Tina
To Conquer Chaos by John Brunner
Burden of Proof by John G. Hemry
Mending Him by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon
Dear Impostor by Nicole Byrd
The Gladiator’s Master by Fae Sutherland and Marguerite Labbe
Wordsworth by William Wordsworth