Authors: Margaret Dickinson
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Historical, #Romance, #20th Century, #General
For my loving husband, Dennis
Sheffield, 3 September 1939
Mary Sylvester switched off the wireless, the smell of warm Bakelite still lingering in the room as she glanced round the table at the worried faces of her three daughters.
Peggy, the eldest, was the first to speak. ‘Oh, Mam – whatever are we going to do?’
Hastily Mary dashed away her tears, hoping the girls hadn’t noticed. She smiled bravely. ‘We’ll cope, just like we always have done.’ But the smile, which she was striving so hard to keep, faded as she murmured softly, ‘Though what your poor dad would have thought, I don’t know. He fought in the last war and now it’s going to start all over again. All those brave young men slaughtered in the trenches and now we’re going to lose another generation of wonderful boys.’ She met Peggy’s steady gaze.
Mary’s eldest daughter was the one who was most like her: curly brown hair, soft brown eyes and dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. And, more often than not, Peggy was smiling. But not at this moment. Not when they’d just listened to Mr Chamberlain telling the nation that Britain was now at war.
The girls, of course, had no memories of the Great War – the war that had been supposed to end all wars. Peggy had been born in February 1918, when Mary and Ted had been married for nine months.
‘A honeymoon baby,’ the neighbours had cooed, but Peggy’s mother had muttered sourly, ‘Thank goodness it wasn’t early. I couldn’t have borne the gossip.’
Ted Sylvester had arrived home severely injured early in 1917 and Mary, despite her mother’s foreboding, had insisted on keeping her promise to her fiancé and marrying him at once.
‘You’ll be nursing him for the rest of your life,’ Grace Booth had warned.
‘I love him, Mother,’ Mary had insisted. ‘And he says that my letters and the thought that I was here waiting for him were what kept him going through all the horror. I can’t let him down now, even if I wanted to. And,’ she’d added firmly, with more conviction in her tone than she was feeling inside, ‘I don’t.’
Ted – fair-haired and blue-eyed – had been an outgoing, jolly chap before he’d marched to the Town Hall to enlist in the Sheffield City Battalion with the rest of his mates soon after war had been declared in 1914. He’d marched off with a jaunty step and a merry smile and Mary had been so proud of him – so proud of them all. But he’d come back a changed man; he was no longer cheerful, but sat for hours sunk in gloom, hardly speaking, scarcely seeming to notice anyone around him. But at least he had come back, Mary comforted herself. So many of his pals had not returned from the carnage on the Somme in 1916. So many Sheffield mothers, wives and sweethearts – even children – had been left mourning the loss of the men in their lives. Ted had survived all that, only to be wounded as soldiers on both sides faced another bleak Christmas, with no sign of an end to the war.
‘He’ll be better when you’re married,’ Ted’s mother had said when he was safely back in England. ‘When you’re in your own little house, he’ll be better.’
‘I – I don’t know whether we’ll be able to afford to rent a place of our own, Mrs Sylvester. I mean – Ted won’t be able to work for a while yet, will he?’
‘If I know my Ted, he’ll be back on his feet in no time.’
Mary had stared at her future mother-in-law in amazement. Didn’t she realize the extent of the damage to Ted’s left leg? The surgeon had even warned that he might never walk again, but Ted’s mother resolutely refused to believe it.
Mary bit her lip. ‘We might have to live with my mother and father for a while—’
‘Oh no. Not that. I don’t hold with youngsters living with in-laws. No, you need your own home. You’ll manage. You’re a sensible girl, I know that.’
Mary was indeed ‘a sensible girl’ and frugal with her money. After their marriage, she kept her job in a city centre store, even though it hurt Ted deeply. ‘I should be able to look after my wife,’ he’d grumbled.
‘It’s – it’s only for a while, darling. Just – just until you’re well enough to work again. When you joined up they promised they’d hold your job for you at the bank, didn’t they?’
‘Pigs might fly,’ Ted had muttered morosely.
‘But you’re a wounded soldier, surely . . .’
‘And have you seen just how many wounded soldiers are wandering the streets, begging on street corners? A land fit for heroes! Don’t make me laugh.’
Mary had bitten her lip, afraid to tell him that she already suspected she was pregnant. But soon she’d been unable to hide it any longer and the ‘few weeks’ living with her parents had turned into months and then into years.
And they were still living in her mother’s house when another war began.
‘Does Gran know?’ Rose asked, bringing Mary’s wandering thoughts back to the present. ‘Where is she, anyway?’
‘Up in her room,’ Myrtle, the youngest and the quiet one of the three sisters, murmured. ‘She said she didn’t want to hear it. I’m surprised, though, because she’s a glutton for reading the newspapers or listening to the news.’ Despite the gravity of the situation, the family exchanged amused glances. Every evening there was a lot of ‘shushing’ from Grace when the news came on the wireless.
‘Don’t worry, love,’ Mary said. ‘Your gran will soon be out buying every newspaper that’s going. She’ll not miss a thing. She’s just shocked at the moment, I think.’ Mary could remember how her mother had followed the news avidly during the last war. She couldn’t believe that Grace would be any different this time around. Mary smiled at her youngest daughter. Myrtle, with ash-blond hair and hazel eyes, was, at fifteen, studious and conscientious. She was regarded as the clever one in the family. At least, that’s what her two older sisters told her constantly. ‘Thick as two short planks nailed together, me,’ Peggy would say cheerfully. ‘But you stay on at school and try for college or university, Myrtle. Just think how proud we’d all be.’
And Rose would butt in too. ‘Then you can get a marvellous job and keep us all in our decrepit old age.’
Myrtle would smile quietly and say nothing, but deep inside she hoped her sisters’ teasing would one day come true. She loved learning and next year she would sit her School Certificate. After that, she wanted to stay on into the sixth form and go on to further education. But now it looked as if her hopes and dreams might be shattered. The future would be very uncertain for all of them. She glanced around her family and was surprised to see Rose’s eyes gleaming. ‘Do you think they’ll be looking for women conductors to work on the trams?’
Where Peggy was calm, level-headed and responsible, Rose, with unruly curly fair hair and bright blue eyes like her father, was outgoing and impetuous. When she set her heart on something she could be very stubborn, but her family loved her for her undying cheerfulness and her bouncy personality, even though her untidiness drove them all to despair. But she was the one who could always be relied upon to find a silver lining to every cloud. Even now, when they were frightened by the news and fearful of what was to come, it was Rose who could find a spark of hope in the darkness. Her one ambition had always been to become a conductress on the city’s trams, and now she might just get her chance.
When rumours of an impending war spread, Laurence Bower, an inspector at the Crookes tram depot, had approached his superior, Mr Holmes. ‘I think we ought to start thinking about recruiting women to be conductresses. We had them in the last war. I reckon we’re going to need them again.’
His manager had frowned. ‘Tram motormen and, I presume, conductors too will be reserved occupations. Do you really think there’s any need?’
Laurence had shrugged. ‘You know how it was last time. There’ll be a lot of the younger men wanting to volunteer. Are you going to stop ’em?’
Mr Holmes had looked thoughtful. Then he’d sighed. ‘I suppose not. If they want to go, then I suppose we’ll have to respect their wishes. But I’m not sure the Transport Committee will agree to us taking on women before we really need to.’
Laurence, who was on good terms with Mr Holmes, smiled. ‘If I was you, I’d think about getting a few girls trained up ready and worry about “permission” afterwards. The bosses’ll be panicking the minute war’s declared and only too happy to find you’ve jumped the gun. Women will be drafted into all sorts of occupations that the men leave behind when they either volunteer or are called up. You mark my words.’
‘Have you anyone in mind?’
‘Oh yes,’ Laurence had said airily. ‘There are one or two in the canteen who’d make excellent clippies.’
Now Peggy smiled at Rose as she told her, ‘Mr Bower’s already asked me if I’d like to train to be a clippie if war was declared.’
Rose’s eyes widened. ‘And?’
‘I said I would.’
‘Oh! How wonderful!’ Rose clapped her hands. ‘I’ll ask him tomorrow if he’ll take me on.’
‘I think he’s got enough recruits at the moment. They’re training fifteen to start with, he said.’
Rose’s face fell, but only for a second. ‘But when all the fellers start leaving, he’ll want more then, won’t he?’
‘I – suppose so.’
, he won’t be able to refuse me, will he?’
To this, no one answered. Only Grace was heard to mutter sagely, ‘It’s an ill wind . . .’
Grace Booth’s house was on a street leading downhill from Northfield Road. The front door led into a small hall, with the best front room to the right. Straight ahead, beyond the foot of the staircase, a door opened into the living room, where the family spent most of their time. It was the warmest room in the house with a fire that burned constantly in the range. And, although there was a modern gas cooker in the back kitchen, Grace still liked to use the range oven for baking. In one corner of the living room beneath the space left by the stairs on the other side of the wall, a door led down into the cellar, where coal and coke were kept, delivered through a chute from the street. Beyond the living room was the kitchen with a deep white sink and draining board with a blue-and-white check gingham curtain covering the shelves beneath it. Beside that was the gas cooker. The family still used an outside lavatory – known to all as the ‘nessy’ – in the small back yard, which led to a communal yard backed onto by several houses. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor. Grace had the best bedroom at the front of the house. This room was distempered in blue and the wooden bedstead was covered with a blue satin eiderdown to match the walls. Mary and Peggy occupied the two single beds in the back bedroom and up another flight of narrow stairs was the attic bedroom decorated in pink, which Rose and Myrtle shared. In comparison with many of the houses in the city, it was a spacious, well-kept home, but with five grown-ups it could still feel crowded at times. The favourite room for each member of the family was, perhaps, the bathroom, where they could wallow in the deep white bath and lock the door against the commotion of the house for a while.
Grace had moved into the house as a young married woman and had lived there ever since. Her husband, Daniel, had been employed at various banks in the city after leaving school and had worked his way up to be chief cashier at the Yorkshire Penny Bank Ltd by the time he retired at the age of sixty. While he was there he had nurtured several young men and set them on a promising career. One of them had been Edward Sylvester, known to all his family and friends as Ted. Ted had been a diligent pupil under Mr Booth’s tutelage and Daniel, having taken a real liking to the young man, had no qualms in inviting him to his home. There, of course, Ted had met Mary and, if such a meeting and what followed had been what Daniel had hoped for, then his aspirations were realized when Ted and Mary began courting.