Authors: Beryl Matthews
London, Ealing 1940
There was silence in the packed cinema as the newsreel reported on the disaster of Dunkirk. They were making it seem like a victory, as it was for the smiling faces of the rescued men. The fact that so many men had been snatched from the beaches was something to be relieved about, Grace knew that, but her Brian hadn’t been one of those men. Her kind, loving husband of only a year wouldn’t be coming home. He’d had such enthusiasm for life, and it tore her apart to know she would never see his ready smile again, or hear his laughter. He hadn’t deserved to die like that.
Clasping her hands tightly together she looked down, unable to watch the screen any longer. It hurt too much. She shouldn’t have come, but her friend had said that the distraction of watching a film would do her good. Well, Helen had forgotten about the newsreel.
Someone touched her arm and she lifted her head, relieved to see the lights were on for the interval.
‘Sorry about that, Grace. I didn’t think they would show that in such detail. Are you all right?’
Grace grimaced. ‘Not really. Thank heavens that’s finished!’
‘It’s a bloody mess, isn’t it? What do you think will happen now?’ Helen asked. ‘Hitler’s taken France, so are we next?’
‘I don’t believe there is any doubt about that. We’re vulnerable and will need breathing space to recover, but whether we get it is anyone’s guess.’
‘There’s one thing in our favour, though. We are an island, so he won’t be able to march across our border.’
‘That’s true, but he can fly over the Channel.’
Helen muttered something rude as the lights dimmed, and the main film began to run.
With her emotions and thoughts still in turmoil with shock, what was showing on the screen did not register with Grace. It was a relief when the film ended and they were able to walk in the fresh air.
‘I’m thinking of joining the forces,’ Helen said, looking at Grace.
‘What branch of the services?’
‘I don’t mind which one. I feel I’ve got to do something useful. What about you?’
Grace took a deep breath. ‘I don’t know. My mind is all a jumble, at the moment. I can’t think straight.’
‘That’s understandable.’ Helen slipped her hand through her friend’s arm. ‘I expect you want to stay in your job. My work at the library isn’t important, so I could be called upon to do some kind of war work. If I act now, I might be able to choose what I will do.’
‘I know you’re right.’ Grace’s voice trembled, and she paused to gain control of her emotions. ‘Brian had such
plans for when the war was over. We would save hard, buy a small house somewhere away from London, so our children could have open fields to run in. The war wouldn’t last more than a year, he’d said confidently. Well, it didn’t for him. Now those dreams are shattered, and I’m left to face whatever is to come without him.’
‘It’s a terrible disaster, and there are thousands of families suffering the same grief.’ Helen gripped her friend’s arm, and shook it gently. ‘But you are strong, Grace. You’ll get through this. We all will. We have to! There is a different kind of life facing us, and come what may, we have to deal with it.’
‘As long as it isn’t speaking German,’ Grace remarked, dryly. ‘I never could get on with that language.’
Helen stopped and faced her friend, a smile of relief on her face. ‘That sounds more like you. That’s not going to happen. We will all fight to our last breath to keep Hitler from adding this country to his conquests.’
‘Of course we will,’ Grace agreed. Helen’s mouth was set in a stubborn line. Many had already given their lives, including her Brian, so they couldn’t sit back and do nothing. ‘So, let’s assume I do leave my job, what can I do?’
They started walking again and Helen said, ‘That’s something we are both going to have to decide – and quickly. I want to do something where I can make a difference. Women can’t join a fighting unit, and I’m not cut out to be a nurse, or something like that.’
‘Neither am I. So, let’s think what we are good at.’
‘Well, you’re a good secretary and could look after a colonel.’
Grace laughed for the first time in days. ‘I doubt that
would happen. If I joined any of the forces I would probably end up in a typing pool. You might be able to work as an interpreter. Your grandmother is French, and you speak the language fluently.’
‘That’s a possibility, I suppose. I’ll look into that. Gran is devastated by the fall of France, as you can imagine.’
They fell silent, lost in their own troubled thoughts. At twenty-three, Grace was a year older than Helen, and living next door to each other they had been friends from toddlers. In temperament and looks, they were opposites: Grace was fair with blue eyes, calm and unflappable by nature; Helen was dark, with brown eyes, and prone to rapid swings in emotions. Somehow, their differences had helped to forge a strong friendship. When Grace was being too cautious, Helen would urge her on, and Grace would calm her friend down when she was being too impulsive. It worked for them and they respected each other’s qualities and opinions.
‘Let’s talk about this tomorrow after work,’ Grace said when they reached their homes.
‘Good idea. See you at seven.’
Grace’s parents were still up and they smiled anxiously as she walked in.
‘Did you enjoy the pictures?’ her father asked.
‘It was good,’ she lied, hoping they wouldn’t ask her what it was about. ‘Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?’
‘No, thanks, dear. We’ve just had one,’ her mother replied. ‘We’ve been waiting up for you.’
‘Oh, you needn’t have done that.’
‘We want to talk to you.’ Her father’s expression was serious. ‘Sit down for a moment.’
She knew they were upset by Brian’s death, and worried about her, so she sat down and waited.
Her father began hesitantly. ‘We know it’s too soon to ask you this, but we are living in dangerous times, and … well … what are you going to do now, Grace? Will you stay in your job with the lawyers?’
‘I would like to, of course. I have always been so happy there. Helen and I have been talking about that, and with the way things are, we feel we really should do something worthwhile – something that will make a difference.’ Her eyes brimmed with tears and she blinked to clear them away. ‘Brian and all those other men must not have died for nothing.’
‘Such a terrible waste of young lives and it is only just beginning.’ Her mother wiped her eyes. ‘We are so sorry about Brian, my dear, he was a fine boy.’
‘Yes, he was. We were very fond of him. Grace is right, though; their sacrifice mustn’t be in vain. Hitler is just across the Channel and we could be next on his list to conquer. It’s going to be up to each one of us to pull together if we are to survive.’
Grace gave her mother an anxious look. ‘Why don’t you go and stay with Aunt Sybil in Wales, Mum? It might be safer than London.’
Her mother looked horrified. ‘I’m not going to run away and leave you two here! Whatever is to come, we will face it together.’
‘It could get rough, Jean.’
‘I know that, Ted. You are doing vital work at the
engineering firm, and you won’t leave that. If I went away I would be worrying all the time about you and Grace. I’m not leaving!’
Ted knew his wife well enough not to keep arguing with her. Once she made her mind up, then nothing would shift her. Not even a regiment of German soldiers marching up the street.
‘I’m going to make enquiries about the Women’s Voluntary Service in the morning. I might be able to make myself useful with them.’ Jean turned to her daughter and asked, ‘What about you, dear? Lawyers are still going to be needed, so will you stay in your job?’
‘I want to, of course. The problem is, I’ve been there since I left college, so what else could I do?’
‘Your skill and experience as a personal secretary won’t be ignored. Also, you do speak French, and that could be useful.’
‘I don’t know that my French is good enough, Dad.’
‘I’ve heard you chatting with Helen and it sounds pretty good to me,’ he remarked, smiling with affection at his beloved daughter. ‘Why don’t you go and have a talk with a recruitment officer. He might be able to suggest something that will suit you.’
‘I just don’t know what to do,’ she told her father. ‘Losing Brian in this terrible way has turned my world upside down. All our plans for the future have vanished. I’m angry! I’m not sure I could stay in a comfortable job and not do something to help. Helen feels the same, and we are meeting tomorrow evening to discuss our options.’
‘Don’t make any hasty decisions,’ her mother told her. ‘Don’t forget that Mr Meredith will be lost without you,
and it might not be easy for him to find another secretary. I expect a lot of girls will be joining the forces now.’
‘I know. He’s been good to me and I wouldn’t want to let him down.’ She yawned and stood up. ‘That’s another problem for tomorrow.’
There was an atmosphere at the office when Grace arrived. They all knew that her husband had been killed in France, and had given her their support and understanding. The concern on her colleagues’ faces showed that something else was happening.
There wasn’t time to ask because her boss, James Meredith, called for her the moment she arrived. She collected her notebook, went to his office, and sat down, pencil poised ready to take dictation.
He didn’t say anything while he studied papers on his desk, and she waited, quite used to this. James Meredith was a bright, up-and-coming lawyer, who was gaining an excellent reputation. She didn’t know his age, but guessed him to be no more than thirty. When Grace had joined the firm of lawyers at the age of sixteen, she had started in the typing pool. Her efficiency with typing, shorthand, organisation skills and French had soon been noticed. James had promoted her to be his personal secretary. She loved working with him.
He pushed the papers away and sat back, a gentle smile on his face. ‘Good morning, Grace. How are you feeling today?’
‘I’m fine, thank you, sir,’ she replied, returning his smile.
He nodded. ‘You would make a good lawyer. You hide your feelings well.’
‘I’ve had a good teacher.’
Laughter shone in his grey eyes. ‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’
‘It was meant as one.’ She watched him carefully. He usually set to work immediately, but that wasn’t happening today. Something other than work was on his mind, which wasn’t surprising with the country facing disaster and invasion. In the time she had worked for him, she had come to know his every mood, and she had the uncomfortable feeling that she was about to get some news. News she wasn’t going to like.
‘You have shown courage since the loss of your husband.’ He took a deep breath before continuing. ‘I regret that I am about to add to your burden. As you know, I have a private pilot’s licence. The air force want pilots urgently, so I have enlisted.’
Grace wasn’t surprised, but it still came as a blow. A man with his abilities would be greatly needed. Being careful not to show how upset she was, she asked calmly, ‘When do you leave?’
‘As soon as I’ve handed over my cases to Mr Palmer. I will need your help to clear my desk by lunchtime.’
‘We will manage that, sir.’ She pinned a smile on her face, knowing how difficult this must be for him. Everything was changing so quickly, but that was something they all had to face. The man sitting opposite her was about to turn his back on a career he had worked and studied hard for. She had always liked and respected him – now her heart went out to him – and the many others who were facing similar decisions. All plans for the future were being put aside. What the future held now was the cause of much
speculation. ‘What do you think will happen now?’ she asked.
‘Well, the Germans won’t find it easy to come across the Channel, so the feeling is they will come by air first. I expect that after Dunkirk they think we are already beaten, and it won’t take much to finish us off.’
‘Then they are wrong!’ Grace’s eyes glittered with defiance. ‘Many thought the war wouldn’t last long, but it’s going to be a long, hard struggle, isn’t it?’
‘I’m afraid so.’ James gazed into space for a moment, and then turned his attention back to Grace. ‘Peter and Fredrick are also leaving at the end of the week. The two senior partners will be the only lawyers here.’
Grace knew what this meant, without her boss putting it in to words. The senior partners both had mature, faithful secretaries. No wonder there had been an air of gloom in the main office. Many of them were not going to be needed – including her. ‘Do I leave at the end of the day as well, sir?’
‘Yes. I’m sorry, Grace. This has come about suddenly, and you haven’t had time to give it much thought, but do you have any idea what you are going to do?’
‘I would like to do something worthwhile, but if I join any of the forces I could end up in an office doing routine jobs.’
‘I agree.’ He handed her a sealed envelope. ‘Colonel Askew is a friend of mine. I told him about you, and he’ll see you tomorrow at ten o’clock at the War Office. Go and see him, Grace, and give him that envelope. You are not obliged to take any job he might offer, of course, but it would be worth your while to talk to him.’
‘I will, sir. Thank you very much.’ Grace stared at the envelope in her hands with the colonel’s name written in James Meredith’s bold hand. This was so hard. She was quite overcome by his thoughtfulness in arranging this for her.
‘It was the least I could do. We’ve worked together for about five years now, and you’ve been an excellent secretary.’
‘Yes, we have, and I’ve enjoyed every day. I’ll miss you, and everyone here. This war is forcing change on all of us. It’s inevitable.’
‘Sadly, that’s true.’ James pulled the pile of paperwork towards him. ‘Let’s deal with this lot. I need to be out of here as soon as possible.’