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.’
It was a sad end to the day for Grace. Saying goodbye to James Meredith had been awful, and there had been tears from others, who, like Grace, were no longer needed. Her life had become one heartbreak after another. Somehow she had to get through this time and move on with her life, but it was going to be so hard.
Her mother always had a cup of tea waiting for her, but the welcoming smile on her face faded when she saw her daughter. ‘Oh, my dear, you don’t look well.’
Grace didn’t move. She had held on to her emotions all day – now the dam burst. Silent tears streamed down her face.
Without a word, her mother gathered Grace in her arms, and waited. When her daughter was more composed, she made her sit down.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ she said, wiping the tears away. ‘But it is one blow after another at the moment.’
‘You don’t have to apologise. Now, tell me what has happened.’
Jean’s eyes clouded with sorrow as she listened to the account of Grace’s day.
‘I know we’ve all been talking about doing something to help the war effort, but after Brian’s death I was really hoping I could stay in my job. I needed the stability of familiar surroundings and people, but even that has been taken from me. That might sound selfish when so many people are suffering, but I’m lost, Mum. The foundations of the life I’ve built up have crumbled.’
‘It’s upsetting to lose your job so suddenly, but it has settled one dilemma for you.’
‘Yes. Last night you and Helen had been talking about what you should both do. Now you are free to make that decision.’
Grace had forgotten about the letter James Meredith had given her. She took the envelope out of her bag and stared at it, and then handed it to her mother. ‘James has made an appointment for me to see Colonel Askew tomorrow and give him this letter.’
‘That was kind of him and shows how much he thought of you. You are going, aren’t you? It might lead to something interesting.’
‘I wouldn’t let James down by not keeping the appointment.’ Grace gave a wan smile. ‘It’s time to start repairing the foundations, don’t you think?’
‘No. It’s time to make new ones, darling,’ her mother said gently.
She had been waiting for two hours. Grace glanced at the clock on the wall and stifled a sigh. The colonel must have forgotten about the appointment. This was probably a waste of time, and she was tempted to leave, but that
would be rude after all the trouble James Meredith had gone to. She owed it to him to stay.
Resisting the temptation to keep looking at the clock, she studied her surroundings. There were men of various ranks and services walking through the entrance with worried expressions on their faces. This wasn’t surprising considering the perilous situation the country was now in. She saw only a few women; some in uniform and some in civilian clothes. She occupied herself by studying each person as they hurried past. What were they thinking? Did the safety of Britain rest on their shoulders? If it did, then they were carrying a heavy burden.
‘Mrs Lincoln, thank you for waiting. I am sorry, but I was in a meeting and couldn’t get away.’
Grace, lost in her thoughts, started, and leapt to her feet. The tall man standing in front of her had dark shadows of strain under his eyes, and looked as if he hadn’t slept for days. She knew he was a colonel because she had made sure she had studied the various ranks before coming for the appointment. But was this the man she had come to see?
He nodded. ‘Please come with me.’
He turned and marched away so quickly that Grace had to almost run a couple of steps to catch up with him. The room he took her to was littered with papers, and maps were pinned to almost every surface of the walls. Her orderly mind longed to get her hands on this mess.
‘Please sit down,’ he ordered, as he settled behind a large oak desk. ‘I’ve ordered refreshments. You must be hungry after that long wait.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ She took the letter out of her handbag
and handed it across the desk. ‘James Meredith asked me to give you this.’
He slit open the envelope and began reading. She could see immediately that it was not the short introduction she had expected it to be. There were three pages in James’s distinctive handwriting.
The colonel read it through twice before looking up. ‘James thinks highly of you, Mrs Lincoln. He stresses that you are discreet and do not gossip. Is that so?’
‘I have never talked to anyone about the cases Mr Meredith has been working on.’
He nodded. ‘Was your husband killed on the beaches at Dunkirk?’
Grace was taken aback by this question. What on earth had that to do with an interview for a job? As much as she objected to being asked this, she had to answer him. ‘No, sir. I understand he was killed near Dunkirk. He never made it to the beaches.’
He nodded. ‘I was there. It wasn’t pleasant.’
Ah, so that was why he wanted to know. She clenched her hands together, wishing he would change the subject. It tore her apart to talk about it, but she wasn’t going to let him see that. ‘I don’t suppose it was, sir.’
He was watching her intently, and when she held his gaze without wavering, he gave that nod again. She was wishing she hadn’t come.
‘We won’t need to test your typing and shorthand skills. I can take James’s word that they are excellent. Everything that goes on in this building is highly confidential. If you worked here you would have to sign the Official Secrets Act. Would you be prepared to do that?’
‘Yes, sir, but I would have to know what the job is before signing anything.’
He picked up the telephone, dialled a number, and waited. ‘Dan, come to my office at once. Leave what you’re doing. I could have the answer to your problem.’
The door opened as he put the phone down, and a young soldier wheeled in a trolley. ‘Refreshments for three – as ordered, sir.’
‘Thank you, Corporal.’
The soldier spun smartly round and left, leaving the door open for someone to enter.
‘Ah, Dan, good. This is Mrs Grace Lincoln. She comes highly recommended. Mrs Lincoln, this is Major Daniel Chester.’
Grace had risen to her feet the moment he had walked into the room and, while studying him, shook hands. He appeared to be even more exhausted than the colonel.
‘Sit down, Dan, before you fall down!’ the colonel ordered sharply. ‘You should have taken a couple more days’ leave.’
Major Chester pulled up a chair and eased himself into it, giving the colonel a disbelieving look.
‘I know, I know. There isn’t time for such luxuries.’
While the officers were talking, Grace poured the tea and handed round the sandwiches; then she sat down again, taking a cheese sandwich for herself.
‘Thank you, Grace.’ The colonel smiled for the first time. ‘We may call you by your Christian name?’
‘Yes, sir.’ This was turning out to be a strange interview, but she was now feeling a glimmer of interest in what they might be about to offer. These men were exhausted, and
obviously loaded with cares and responsibilities. If she could help them, then it could be a worthwhile job.
‘We will take a short break for lunch,’ Colonel Askew told them.
Major Chester eased his long legs out, grimacing slightly.
‘That leg still giving you trouble, Dan?’
‘It’s nothing. I’ve been sitting too long.’
Grace refilled their cups and handed round more sandwiches.
The major smiled his thanks, and she was struck by the transformation. He was a handsome man, and younger than she had first thought. He had the bluest eyes she had ever seen, and strands of his black hair had a tendency to fall over his forehead, even though it was cut short.
‘Read this.’ The colonel handed him the letter, and then turned his attention back to Grace. ‘Did you enjoy working for James?’
‘Very much, sir,’ she replied. ‘I was sad to have to leave.’
‘No doubt. I tried to talk him out of becoming a pilot, but was unable to do so. His mind was made up, and is well aware what he’s letting himself in for. Good pilot, though, and men like him are badly needed.’
‘I’m sure they are,’ Grace agreed. ‘He was also an exceptional lawyer, and it couldn’t have been an easy decision to turn his back on a career he has studied and worked so hard for.’
Major Chester folded the letter and placed it on the desk. He looked at the colonel and nodded.
‘Good,’ the colonel said in reply to the silent agreement. ‘Now, all we have to do is persuade Grace that you need her help.’
A wry smile crossed Daniel Chester’s face when he turned to Grace. ‘Would the word “desperate” do the trick?’
She couldn’t help returning his smile. ‘What would the desperate help entail?’
‘Look after me. Organise the office, protect me from unnecessary interruptions and stay by my side. Where I go, you go. In fact, be my right-hand man. The hours will be long and unpredictable. You will get little time off, and could be away from home for long periods at a time.’
There was silence when he stopped speaking, and Grace had to resist the temptation to burst out laughing. As a job description, that was enough to put anyone off. She managed to keep a serious expression, before she said, ‘When would you like me to start?’
‘Right now.’ Daniel was on his feet. ‘Can you do that?’
‘There isn’t anything else I need to do today.’
The smile was back, and Grace decided it suited him. If she could help him get rid of that haunted look in his eyes, then it would be an achievement. In fact, if she could help any of these men, then that would give her a lot of satisfaction.
Dan turned to the colonel. ‘Thank you, George.’
‘How the hell did you do that?’ he asked, amusement written all over his face. ‘After that run-down of the job, I expected Grace to refuse.’
‘The letter James sent you convinced me she wouldn’t, and it was no good glossing over her duties. I wouldn’t have been able to keep her once she found out what a tough job it was.’
The colonel nodded, serious now. ‘Don’t let her near anything confidential today. You know there is a procedure
to go through first. You are breaking all the rules.’
‘I know, and I’ll see to it straight away.’
‘And don’t stay here all night. For heaven’s sake get some rest!’
Colonel Askew sighed wearily. ‘I’ve heard that before. I’m handing him over to you now, Grace. After what he’s been through he needs time to recover completely. Make him stop driving himself. I don’t care how you do it!’
‘You’re a fine one to talk, George. And stop telling my secretary what to do. Don’t take any notice of him, Grace. He worries too much. Come on. I’ll show you the office. That’s if I can find it under all the paperwork.’
‘I am your uncle, Dan. I’m entitled to worry.’ The colonel smiled and held out his hand to Grace. ‘Thank you for coming, and being so patient with us.’
‘It has been – interesting – sir.’
‘Hah! That’s a polite way of putting it. I’ll tell James you are going to risk working for us. Good luck.’
Dan ushered her out of the room, and as they walked along, he said, ‘You haven’t asked what the salary is.’
‘I don’t care,’ she admitted honestly. ‘As long as I have enough to live on, then that’s all I need.’
‘Oh, I’ll see you have more than that. The work you will be doing will be highly confidential, and your background will be examined very carefully. I don’t see any problem with that, though, because the letter James supplied was very detailed. I’ll see everything is rushed through.’ He glanced down at her as he opened a door for her. ‘Here we are. See what you can do with this lot. There’s a private washroom through that other door.’
Grace stood just inside the room and gazed around. There were files and rolled up maps everywhere – on chairs, window sills, the floor and even some papers balanced precariously on a three-dimensional globe. She had never seen such a mess!
‘How do you find anything?’ she asked.
‘I don’t. I only arrived yesterday and was given this room. This is how the previous occupant left it.’
‘Why don’t they make him sort it out?’
‘Not possible, I’m afraid.’
She knew at once what that meant by the tone of his voice, and didn’t pursue the subject. ‘Then I had better make a start.’
‘Thanks. I’ll leave you to it while I go and get you established as a member of staff, or they won’t let you in tomorrow.’
‘Before you go, do you need to keep anything here? Can I bundle it up and have it moved to a basement, or wherever they keep paperwork they no longer need?’
‘I’d better have a look at it first. It would be helpful if you could get it in some kind of order, so I can look through it quickly. I’ve never had a desk job before, and I’m going to need you to steer me through the next few weeks.’
‘I’ll do that, sir. You’ll soon settle in.’
He grimaced. ‘This isn’t what I joined the army for, but it seems I have certain knowledge and skills they need at the moment. You’ll be all right for a while?’
With a nod of satisfaction, he left.
Grace removed her jacket, rolled up her sleeves, and made straight for the two large filing cabinets right by the
door. They would have to be moved further along as they were causing an obstruction. They were empty, except for an old whisky bottle and two glasses. At least she didn’t have to clear them out. She opened the door and looked into the corridor. A sergeant, who appeared to be strong enough to move heavy objects, was walking by.
She called to him, smiling brightly. ‘I’m sorry to bother you, Sergeant, but could you move two cabinets for me?’
‘Certainly – where would you like them?’
The job was done in no time at all, and she set to work.
It was nearly three hours before the major returned, and by that time everything was neat and in date order. The bottle was in the wastepaper basket, and the glasses washed until they gleamed.
When Dan walked in, he just stood there in astonishment. ‘What a transformation. You’ve worked wonders in such a short time!’
‘Everything is sorted and in the filing cabinets. Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve managed to scrounge a kettle and china.’
He grinned when he saw the tray containing a tea pot, fine china, and even a plate of biscuits. ‘Where did you get all that?’
‘I explained what I needed to a nice female officer, and she arranged it for me.’
‘Who was she?’
‘I don’t know, sir. She happened to be walking by.’
‘I have a feeling we are going to get along quite well,’ he said as he sat behind the desk, now cleared of clutter. ‘I’d love a cup of tea. I’ve spent the last couple of hours throwing orders around, and even had to get the colonel’s help. But,
between us, we’ve managed to get you a temporary pass. The permanent one will take a few days.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Grace handed him the tea, and then picked up the pass. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you today?’
‘No, thank you.’ He sipped his tea and laid his head against the high-backed chair. In an instant he was asleep.
Grace tiptoed to the door and locked it to stop anyone disturbing him. She removed her shoes and moved around quietly to finish some more jobs. She would stay until he woke up.
‘I’m wasting my breath telling you to take it easy, aren’t I?’ The colonel marched in, and then stopped in astonishment. ‘My word, what a difference! Did that young girl do all this today?’
Dan nodded. ‘And without any help from me. I’m impressed.’
George sat down. ‘I only saw her because James pleaded with me to find her a job here. I had only intended to tell her I would see what I could do, and leave it at that. There was something about her, though, and after reading James’s letter, I thought of you. You need help, and it looks as if she might be as efficient as James said.’
‘Quite possible, but only time will tell.’ Dan stood up and gazed out of the window, and then turned sharply. ‘What the blazes am I doing here, Uncle? Was this also your doing?’
‘As a matter of fact, it wasn’t. You were called on for your knowledge of France and Germany, and for your experience of being in the front line. Don’t fight against it. You are not fit for active duty.’
‘As soon as I am, I’m out of here! I’m not spending this war sitting on my backside listening to a load of bureaucrats
who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.’
‘That’s harsh, and not true about everyone.’
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. What I’m trying to say is that we’ve got to learn from the past, and do things differently. The old ways and battle strategies won’t work now.’
‘I agree, and that’s why you’re here. We’ve got to change our ideas – and fast. We’ve both got battle experience and can, hopefully, be of some help.’ George stood up. ‘Come on. I’ll buy you a pint.’
The pub was crowded, but they managed to find a quiet corner in the saloon bar.
‘Are you still having nightmares?’ George asked, once settled with pints in front of them.
‘Not as bad, or so often. They will eventually go, I suppose. Time heals everything, they say.’
‘I’ve read the report of your experiences, of course, but you’ve never talked about it. It might help if you did.’
Dan drank half of the pint in one go, put the glass down, and then said, ‘Our orders were to secure a certain village, and the intelligence we received was way off. We walked into an ambush. There were a dozen of us – five of us were captured. They were a nasty lot. They didn’t want to stop their advance and be bothered with prisoners. They lined us up, and I knew what they were going to do. There was a forest area nearby, but an open field to cross before reaching it. I figured there was nothing to lose, so I sent a message along the line to make a run for it, and we took off. We heard machine-gun fire, then rifles, as a couple of Germans chased after us. I took a bullet in the leg, but it wasn’t enough to stop me. Fortunately, they didn’t continue the pursuit.
Too eager to push on, I expect. We hid in the forest for a couple of hours, and one of the men bound my leg to stop the bleeding. We made our way to the coast, and ended up at Dunkirk. You know what that was like; you were there.’
George nodded. ‘And you don’t know what happened to the other prisoners?’
‘We didn’t stop to look. The corporal who came with us was upset, and convinced his comrades had been shot. I don’t know for sure, though.’
‘You saved your men by your quick thinking. It was up to the others to follow you, or stay. Only one did. It was their choice, Dan. You couldn’t have done more.’
‘Maybe, but it still haunts me. There should have been something I could have done.’
‘At least you all got back safely.’
‘I made damned sure they did! We had spent days together, walking when it was safe, and hiding when necessary.’
‘A journey like that didn’t do your leg any good.’
Dan drained his glass. ‘They could have travelled faster by themselves. I tried – no, ordered them to leave me – but they refused.’
‘Yes. I was relieved to get them on one of those boats.’
‘When I arrived back I stayed dockside, praying you were on one of them. I didn’t recognise you at first. You looked in bad shape. I didn’t know how you were still standing.’
‘You didn’t look too good yourself.’
‘True, but we both made it, which is more than many other poor devils.’
‘Like Grace Lincoln’s husband. That girl is wise beyond her years. Do you know what she did today?’
The colonel shook his head, relieved he had been able to get his nephew talking about his experiences.
‘When I finally got back to the office, she made me a cup of tea – and I fell asleep. It was about seven when I woke up, and she was still there. I had been having a bad dream again and the sweat was pouring off me. Without commenting, she poured me a small brandy, and waited while I drank it. Then she calmly washed up the glass and asked if there was anything else she could do for me before she left. I said that would be all for today. I asked her where on earth she had got the small bottle of brandy from. She smiled and said a sergeant had got it for her.’ Dan laughed. ‘She’s very enterprising.’
‘We must thank James for sending her to us when we see him.’
‘He loves flying, but I wish he hadn’t enlisted as a pilot. I hope he’s going to be all right.’
‘I hope we are all going to survive this war,’ the colonel added.
‘Amen, to that!’ Dan stood up. ‘Want another pint?’
‘Might as well.’
By the time Grace and Helen got together that evening, it was too late to go anywhere. It was a pleasant evening, though, so they decided to head for a nearby park. There were quite a few people around, but they managed to find a seat to themselves.
‘You were late arriving home, Grace. I’m itching to know what you’ve been doing.’
‘I’ve had a very odd day,’ she said, shaking her head.
Helen laughed. ‘So have I. Tell me about yours first.’
‘Well, I kept the appointment James Meredith made for me with a Colonel Askew. It turned out that James is his godson, and the major I met is the colonel’s nephew. I can tell you that at one point I was wishing I hadn’t gone to the meeting.’
‘You obviously changed your mind. Go on. I’m intrigued.’
Grace then gave her friend a detailed account of her day.
‘My word!’ Helen exclaimed. ‘What have you let yourself in for?’
‘I haven’t the faintest idea, but I couldn’t turn Major Chester down. The man is not fit and needs help.’
‘And they were both at Dunkirk.’
‘That too.’ Grace sighed sadly. ‘Anyway, I’m committed now. I just hope I’ve done the right thing. Now, how did you get on?’
‘I went to a recruitment place in the morning to see what my options were if I joined one of the services. The officer I saw seemed to want my life history, and I couldn’t see what most of the things he asked me had to do with joining the forces. Then, he suddenly switched to French. I was surprised, but it didn’t faze me. You know I’m used to speaking both languages.’
‘I thought they’d pick up on that,’ Grace said. ‘What happened then?’
‘We chatted for a while, and then he stood up and marched out of the room. I was perplexed, and was wondering if I should leave when he returned with a corporal. He said this was his driver, and he would take me to see someone else. When I asked where we were going, he merely said it was only a short distance.’
‘It certainly was. And it got even more peculiar. The driver never said a word to me, and when we stopped he held open the car door, and told me to follow him. We went inside and he said something to the receptionist, who told me to take a seat, and someone would come for me in a moment.’
‘Where were you?’
‘Same as you. The War Office. Anyway, a soldier soon came for me, and I was taken to a room and left there.’ Helen laughed. ‘I was beginning to feel like a criminal under arrest. I was considering making a run for it, when a major came in. The questions started again, but in French all the time. We had tea and biscuits, and it was all very friendly. He asked me if I spoke any other languages, and when I said no, he smiled and told me I would soon learn, if necessary. I was there for about two hours, and he finally told me not to join any of the services or take on any other kind of work. I would hear from them soon with instructions of where to go. When I asked what the job would be, he just smiled again and said it would all be explained later. My fluency with French was greatly needed.’
‘What are you going to do?’
Helen shrugged. ‘Wait and see what happens. I had the feeling I was being given orders which had to be obeyed.’
‘Well!’ Grace said, shaking her head. ‘We have both taken on jobs without knowing what on earth they entail.’
‘Looks that way.’
Sleep was illusive, and after tossing and turning for ages, Grace got up, walked over to the window and gazed out. How strange it was without street lighting. The blackout was strictly enforced with wardens checking constantly. The
events of the day were churning through her mind, making rest impossible. She had agreed to work for Major Chester without knowing what her duties would be. That had been silly and impulsive, going completely against her normal character. She never made hasty decisions! Brian had had to wait some time before she finally agreed to marry him.
Her sigh was ragged as the pain of loss lanced through her again. Everyone told her it would get easier with time. At the moment, that was hard to believe. She constantly told herself there were so many feeling like this, but that only made the sadness more intense. One of those suffering was clearly Daniel Chester. He had been injured in France, but something else had happened, and it was tormenting him. She had watched him sleeping, peacefully at first, and then the dreams came. It had appeared to be a mixture of anger, regret and deep sorrow but, she suspected, mostly anger. That was probably why he resented being taken off active duty. If her instincts were correct, he wanted revenge.
What a mess everything was. He’d said he needed looking after, and seeing his troubles, she knew that was true. Well, that was what she had been trained for.
Grace got back into bed. Her day had been peculiar enough, but what about Helen? After two long interviews, they had told her to wait, saying only that they would be in touch. There hadn’t been the slightest indication what they wanted her for. It was all very worrying.
she told herself sternly. The only thing either of them could do was take each day as it came, and see what happened. Sleep was needed if she was going to cope with tomorrow.
‘Can I help you, sir?’
Dan tore his gaze away from the assault course, and turned his head. ‘You’re about early, Sergeant …?’
‘Dickins. I saw you arrive and head this way, sir. I hadn’t seen you before, so I followed to see if you needed any help. I’m the drill sergeant.’
‘I was stationed here and did my training on this course.’
‘I see, sir.’ The sergeant studied the tall man beside him. ‘I see you’re wearing fatigues. Were you thinking of having a go at it again?’
‘That was my idea. It’s changed since I was last here. Can you take me over it?’
‘How bad is the injury to your leg, sir? You were limping as you walked here.’
‘Very observant of you. It isn’t much, and is healed now.’
‘I’m sure it is, but this is a tough course now, sir, and I wouldn’t advise you dashing over it before you have the medical officer take a look at you.’
Dan turned back to the course and swore fluently under his breath. The man was talking sense, of course,
but he wanted to return to active duty so bad it hurt.
‘Can I have your name, sir?’
Sergeant Dickins came to attention and saluted smartly. ‘I’ve heard of you, Major. A corporal, Bob Higgins, came through here and said your quick thinking had saved his life in France.’
‘Is he still here?’
‘He was moved to another regiment last week. How can I help you, sir?’
‘I need to get fit for active duty again.’
‘Understood. You are going to do more harm than good if you don’t go about it in the right way. Come with me and see the MO. If your leg is strong enough, I will personally see you get fit again. I’ll arrange your training sessions to suit you.’
‘It will have to be about this time in the mornings.’
‘I’m an early riser. I can take you to the MO immediately, sir.’
‘I appreciate your help, sergeant.’
Dan smiled when he saw the medical officer. ‘Hello, Steve, you still here?’
The officer spun round. ‘Dan! It’s good to see you. Are you stationed here again?’
‘I’m afraid not. Sergeant Dickins caught me about to have a go at the assault course, and insisted I come and see you first.’
The MO raised his hands in exasperation. ‘I heard about your exploits in France. You were badly injured, Dan. Good Lord, you haven’t changed, have you?’ He turned to the sergeant, who was watching with interest. ‘He would never expect his men to do anything he couldn’t do himself.’
‘So I’ve heard, sir. I’ve promised to help the major get fit again, but I need you to have a look at him. Once I have your assessment of his condition, I will be able to work out a programme of exercises.’
‘You’ve taken on quite a task, sergeant. I know Major Chester, and he’s as stubborn as a mule.’
‘Don’t exaggerate, Steve. Are you going to examine me, or shall I just take my chance and have a go at the course?’
‘You do that and you’ll put yourself back in the hospital.’
Dan began to unbutton his shirt. ‘Get on with it, Doc. They’ve given me a bloody desk job, and I’m not going to put up with that!’
behind a desk?’ Steve burst out laughing. ‘Good grief, man, don’t they know your reputation? Where is this desk?’
‘The War Office.’
‘Oh, my!’ Steve was doubled over with laughter. ‘That’s priceless! Have you been to any meetings yet?’
Dan smirked. ‘I’ve got my first one today. They are under the impression that I will be useful.’
‘Well, I’m sure you will be … after you’ve banged a few heads together.’ Steve managed to control his amusement. ‘Get stripped off. Let’s hope you’re strong enough for Sergeant Dickins to work you to exhaustion. The people at the War Office don’t know what’s about to hit them.’
‘The colonel will be there as well.’
Both men looked at each and burst out laughing.
‘Oh, oh! I would love to be a fly on the wall.’ The MO shook his head, instantly serious as he began his examination.
It was nearly ten o’clock when Dan walked into the office. ‘Good morning, Grace.’
‘Good morning, sir.’ He looked different today, more relaxed, and almost buoyant, she thought as soon as she saw him. The irritation of the day before had disappeared. Perhaps he had slept well for a change.
She handed him the morning post. ‘I didn’t open anything in case it was something I shouldn’t see.’
He nodded and eased himself into the chair. Ignoring the letters, he picked up a folder from his desk, read the contents, and then passed them over to her. ‘Sign those.’
Grace controlled a smile. That was an order, not a request, but she would have to get used to that. She was working for an army officer now, not James Meredith. Sadness for all she had lost over the last few weeks tried to engulf her, but she pushed it away ruthlessly. This was no time for self-pity.
She sat down and began to read through the forms.
‘Sign them. You don’t have to read every word.’
The irritation was back. ‘Yes, I do, sir. Mr Meredith taught me not to sign anything without reading every word – including the small print.’
‘James was always meticulous. That’s what made him a good lawyer, and a safe pilot.’
‘I pray he stays safe.’ She looked down so he couldn’t see the distress in her eyes, but he was very observant.
‘You don’t want to be here, do you?’ he said gently.
She looked up then. ‘Do any of us, sir?’
Without answering, he stood up and flexed his leg, before walking over to the window. ‘I haven’t any choice.
Orders have to be obeyed, but you were under no such constraints. Why did you take this job? I want an honest reply, Grace.’
‘I came only because James had arranged the interview for me – and I stayed because you needed help.’
Dan studied her intently. ‘As simple as that?’
She nodded. ‘I made my decision, and it might not have been the right one, but I’ll work hard and faithfully for you.’
‘I don’t doubt that, and just so we understand each other, I’ll be straight with you. The job might not last long because I intend to return to my regiment at the earliest opportunity.’
‘I am aware of that, but all any of us can do is to take each day as it comes. We don’t know what is going to happen. Hitler is only the other side of the Channel, so that is all we can do. My mother always tells us not to try and cross our bridges before we get to them.’ Grace smiled. ‘She has a saying for everything.’
‘Sound advice, and something I should try to keep in mind.’ He smiled wryly. ‘All right, Grace. Let’s deal with this day, and let tomorrow take care of itself, shall we?’
‘An excellent idea, sir.’ She handed him the signed documents.
He checked they were correct, and then said, ‘Put the kettle on while I take these to the appropriate department. I won’t be long.’
It only took him five minutes. ‘Do you have any biscuits?’ he asked, the moment he walked back in the room. ‘I’m ravenous.’
‘Yes, I got some from the catering manager this morning.’
She poured the tea and piled a plate with biscuits. ‘Didn’t you have any breakfast?’
He nodded, munching away. ‘That was a long time ago.’
The door opened and the colonel swept in. ‘Ah, good. I’m just in time.’
Grace poured another cup of tea for the officer.
He smiled at her, sat down and took a biscuit from the plate. ‘Thanks. Dan, I popped in to see if you’re ready for that meeting this afternoon? We’d better decide on our strategy.’
‘I know mine already. I’m going to speak my mind.’
‘So am I. But let’s try not to lose our tempers, eh?’
‘Don’t worry, Uncle. I won’t say a word out of place.’
The colonel studied his nephew with suspicion. ‘What have you been up to?’
Dan laughed softly, winked at Grace, and held out his cup for a refill.
She refilled all their cups, and put the kettle on to make a fresh pot. This job had been taken in haste, without proper thought, and she had been very doubtful about it, but she was beginning to like these two men. They were both strong, determined and fighters. Just the kind this country would need in the months or years to come.
‘Grace has signed all the necessary papers now, so I’m bringing her to the meeting.’
‘They’ll have their own recorder and might not allow her to stay,’ the colonel pointed out.
Dan raised his eyebrows. ‘Then I don’t stay.’
‘I thought you weren’t going to make trouble.’
‘George, I didn’t ask to come here. If I’m to be of any help—’
‘I know.’ George held up his hand to stop Dan. ‘They’ll take you as you are – a man who knows what he’s talking about, and a bloody fine soldier. But you’re a maverick. How on earth did you manage to get a promotion?’
Dan shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me. I didn’t ask for that either.’
‘No, you didn’t have to. You’re a natural leader of men, and I expect that’s what they recognised.’
‘Well, I haven’t got any bloody men to lead now, have I?’
‘You will have again before this damned war is over.’ The colonel turned to Grace. ‘Excuse the language. Will you be embarrassed if there is an argument about you being at the meeting?’
‘Not at all, sir. I am Major Chester’s personal secretary. If he wants me to take notes at this meeting, then that is what I will do.’
‘Right. I’ll want a copy as well, Dan. They’ll probably want an account of what happened in France, and how a disaster like that can be avoided in the future.’
Grace listened to the two officers, making a mental note of what they were saying. Her Brian had been out there and, in a way, it was comforting to know what he’d had to go through. She had no doubt that he had been as courageous as the two men with her. One thing was certain, though, this job wasn’t going to be dull.
Time for the meeting arrived, and Grace walked into the conference room. It was dominated by a huge table, and seated around it were some twenty men, she quickly assessed. Some were in civilian suits, but the majority were high-ranking officers, representing all the services.
The colonel and the major appeared to know quite a
few of them, and Grace stood slightly behind them while they were introduced to everyone else.
‘Please take your seats, gentlemen,’ the man at the head of the table said. ‘We are pleased you have been able to join us. Your experiences in the field will be a great help.’
The colonel sat down while Dan found Grace a chair in the corner of the room.
‘Major Chester, the young lady will not be allowed to stay.’
‘Mrs Lincoln is my personal aide who has full clearance to handle secret information. She will be making notes for my future reference.’ He then walked calmly to his place at the table.
Grace stayed where she was, aware that every eye in the room was focused on her. She flipped open her notebook, and waited, pen poised. No more was said and, as the meeting began, she was impressed. He had won that round without even raising his voice.
From then on the meeting took her whole concentration. Her instructions were to make a note of only the relevant points, and to cut out all the unnecessary chatter and arguments. Some of the things she heard shocked her, as the full import of the perilous situation the country was in became clear. Not only had precious men been lost at Dunkirk, but a huge amount of military equipment had been left behind. There was now a desperate need to rebuild and re-equip the army, as well as building up defences against anticipated attack.
After two hours, the chairman said, ‘That will be all for this meeting. Thank you all for your contributions. There is no doubt that we need time, but will we be given
the necessary breathing space? That is something we don’t know, so we must act quickly.’
Grace remained where she was while the men began to file out of the room.
‘Major Chester.’ The chairman stopped him. ‘You were an asset today. Your suggestions were sound, based on first-hand experience. I would like to have a copy of the notes when your … aide, has them ready.’
‘You shall have them, sir.’
The chairman nodded, and then smiled. ‘By the way, it would be more appropriate if your secretary was in uniform.’
Grace followed the major out, wondering what he would say about that last remark. But he said nothing, and the subject wasn’t mentioned for the rest of the day.