“I don’t know why the church is making a fuss, Evelyn.” Dennis reached into his trouser pocket for cigarettes. “Nobody wants to be reminded of the last war when we’re back in the same place again so soon.”
She put her knitting down to watch him take out a cigarette and tap it on the box. His expressive fingers drew her attention. She loved his hands. They were strong and lean, like the rest of him. “I know what you’re saying, my love.” Evelyn reached into the scuttle and threw a few more lumps of coal on the fire. “But we can’t ignore Remembrance Day, now can we? The special service in the church is usually well attended.” She went to the pot sink to wash her hands.
“All I’m saying is people don’t have the same enthusiasm for fund-raising for the old soldiers when the young ones are fighting the same old enemy.” He patted his cardigan pocket in the familiar gesture that told Evelyn he was checking for his matches. “Selling paper poppies to remember the fallen soldiers doesn’t seem appropriate somehow, with what’s happening in the world.”
She went to retrieve the box of matches from the mantelpiece. “Here they are, love.”
Her husband took the matches and kissed her cheek. “Thanks.” He lit his cigarette and continued the sermon. “Our fighting soldiers need support. Your time would be better spent raising funds for the present war effort instead of selling poppies to keep the veterans in beer money.”
“That’s not what the money is spent on, and you know it.” She chuckled, knowing his taunt was not maliciously meant. “We sell the poppies and give the funds to the British Legion. Last year’s appeal raised a record amount for the veterans. Lots of people still see the relevance of poppy day, love. Even if you don’t.”
The sound of the air-raid siren interrupted their banter.
“Not again!” Dennis raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Bloody Jerries! Don’t they know I have a darts match at the Black Swan later tonight?”
“Well, you can’t play now.” She sighed. This would be the third night in a row they’d had to disturb the children. “Let’s get the little ones.”
Evelyn followed her husband, up the stairs to wake three-year-old Ronald and baby Flora. She hated lifting them from their warm beds but knew it wasn’t safe to stay in the house. The German bombers would be overhead soon, and after the damage caused in many areas around Wakefield by the raid in September, she didn’t want to take any chances.
Dennis went to get Ronald from his bed, and she went to get Flora from the cot. She gazed down at her daughter’s face, seeing the same features in miniature that she saw when she looked in the mirror. The high forehead, the dark-brown hair with darker lashes were painted by the same brush. Everyone commented on the resemblance. Ronald favoured his father. His rosy cheeks and curly brown hair made him the image of Dennis. Her son’s eyes were green, though, like hers.
She picked the baby up, cradling Flora against her shoulder and soothing her as she carried her downstairs. “There, there, my sweet. Soon have you tucked up again.”
Dennis had installed the Anderson shelter in the back yard soon after war was declared, last year. They had already spent more nights in the cold, damp space than in the warmth of their bed in recent weeks. It seemed the Germans had discovered the important rail networks and factories in the North of England and were determined to cause as much disruption to their lives as possible.
Dennis led their little boy into the kitchen and helped him into his coat. “Bring the kettle; we might as well get settled in for the night.”
“Yes, Den, I’ve got it.” Evelyn grabbed the large bag she kept by the door. It held a few essentials to make the night more comfortable. Alongside the old kettle was a paper bag of tea, a can of condensed milk, matches for the Tilley lamp and stove, a pack of playing cards and her knitting. She quickly threw in the remains of a loaf of bread, a pat of butter and some beef paste. Supper would be a meagre affair tonight.
Baby Flora was tucked safely against her shoulder. The six-month-old wasn’t happy to be disturbed but didn’t complain too loudly. Ronald was rubbing his eyes as he followed his father outside. His unruly curls were damp, and his face was flushed. “Hurry up, son.” She gave him a gentle nudge with the large bag. She could hear the distant drone of the bomber engines, and her heart rate increased. Evelyn didn’t want to panic her son, but she wished he’d move faster.
“In you go, Ronnie.” Dennis held the door open until they were all safely inside and then reached for the flashlight before he closed it.
“I don’t know why we don’t put them to bed in here to start with.” Evelyn settled her two youngsters at either end of one of the bed pallets and covered them with some blankets. “Hush, Ronald. Go back to sleep.” She stroked her sleepy son’s head.
She went to help her husband who was trying to light the Tilley lamp with one hand while shining the beam of the torch to see what he was doing. She took the flashlight and held it steady until the lamp was shining brightly. “Want some tea?”
“May as well.” Dennis lit the stove and filled the kettle with water from a lidded bucket they kept in the shelter. “What did you bring for supper?”
“Beef paste.” She tried not to wince when the noise of the bombers grew louder.
“That’ll do.” Dennis flicked his eyes upward. “They’re passing over. No need to worry tonight.”
“They’ll take their load to some other poor folks, though, won’t they?” She couldn’t help thinking of the bombs the planes carried. There was so much death and destruction. It hurt to think of it.
Dennis made the tea while she prepared the beef paste sandwiches. She kept some old crockery and cutlery in the shelter now, along with blankets, spare clothes, soap and a towel. Most mornings, Dennis left from there to go to work. After a night of no sleep, he still had to show up for his shift at the factory. He worked for Sykes in Horbury and until recently had made sporting goods, but now he was adept at making rifle parts, or at least, he knew enough to supervise his workforce to make them.
“I think it’s time we had a talk, love.” Dennis’s face looked chiselled and angular in the light from the paraffin lamp. His frown told Evelyn that this talk would not be a pleasant one.
“Oh?” She sat on the pallet bed opposite him, in the space between her children’s feet.
“I’ve been thinking, Evie.” Dennis handed her a tin mug of tea and looked at his shoes. “I know you won’t like it, but I’ve been toying with this for months, and I have to get it off my chest.” He sat facing her across the small space.
She set the tin mug on the floor by her feet. “I’m listening.” She knew what was coming. She’d seen his face when he listened to the news on the wireless. She could see inside his heart and knew he was torn in two. He wanted to join the army but felt guilty about leaving her and the children. She could have saved him the turmoil of confronting her with his thoughts. She didn’t want him to go, but she realised it was inevitable. All the men were volunteering. Married or not.
“I want to fight, Evie.” His eyes met hers and she could see the pain in them, but she could also see the fire. “I have to. I need to do my bit. I can’t sit back and let others shoulder the responsibility.”
Evelyn nodded. She didn’t trust her voice. She wanted to speak words to discourage him, to point out how much she needed him at her side, but the words wouldn’t come, and she knew he wouldn’t listen, anyway.
He reached for her hand and clasped it tightly. “I love you and the children more than life. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded and held her tears inside. She sensed he’d already gone from her. In his head, he had left and was already journeying to the battlefields. All the arguments she had thought of, to persuade him to stay, seemed pointless and futile now he’d given voice to what had been playing on his mind. The excuses she had rehearsed, the reasons to make him stay, were stuck in her throat. She couldn’t say them. His work was important, but others would quickly fill his shoes, and they would make the essential rifle parts. His husbandly and fatherly duties were secondary to the needs of his country, as had been proved by countless other fathers and husbands who were already fighting on foreign soil.
“I’ll miss you so much.” She squeezed his hand.
“But you do understand, don’t you?”
“I do, Den.”
“That’s why I love you, Evelyn Harper. You know me so well.” He leant to kiss her forehead.
“Just as you know me, my love.” She tried a tremulous smile. “We fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, don’t we? Always have and always will.” She tried to lighten the mood but realised that no amount of silly or sentimental chat would make his decision easier to bear. “I know you’ve been struggling with this for months, but I didn’t think it was my place to encourage or discourage you.” She stared into his dark eyes, recognising the love and the passion in them. “How could I talk to you of things I know nothing about? I only know how much I love you and how much I hate to think of you in danger. If you should fall in battle…” She swallowed to stifle the sob in her throat.
“Don’t torture yourself, Evie. I won’t fall, and I won’t die. I’ll come back to you. I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you have no control over to keep.” Evelyn kept her hand in his. She wanted to jump up, pace the floor and throw her fists in the air but there was no room for such theatrics in the confines of the shelter. She struggled to keep her tone soft and even. “You know as well as I do that there is every chance you won’t come home. We saw the newsreels from Dunkirk in the springtime. The German soldiers are vicious. They won’t care if you are a father with children and a wife waiting at home. They’ll shoot you just the same.” Tears were rolling down her cheeks and she did nothing to stop them.
“Not if I shoot them first, they won’t!”
“Listen to yourself, Dennis.” She felt anger growing in her belly. She couldn’t stay quiet about her feelings any longer. She had to make him understand how she felt. She knew this would be her last chance to make him listen. “You are talking about killing another human being as if it were nothing more serious than winning a game. This is war! You will be expected to kill or be killed. Do you really understand what you’ll be signing up for?”
“I do.” His Adam’s apple bobbed and his eyes looked glassy as he stared into hers. “I know this isn’t a game, my love. I know I’ll have to do some horrible things that will go against all the teachings of the church you love so well, but this war is bigger than the church. Hitler needs to be stopped or your church will amount to nothing. Freedom will be a thing of the past and our whole way of life will be changed forever. Do you want that for our children?”
Evelyn shook her head and stared at their tightly clasped hands.
“I’ve not taken this decision lightly, my love. I don’t want to leave you.”
“I know.” She lifted her eyes to his. “I know you have to go, but I had to try to keep you here.” She glanced at the sleeping children beside her. “I had to try, for their sakes as well as for mine.”
“And I have to go for their sakes. Can’t you see that? I have to fight for their future. I feel compelled to help to make the world a safer place for them to grow up in.”
“That’s what makes this so much harder to bear. You’re right. I know you are, but I don’t want you to be right. I don’t want you to go.”
“I know, sweetheart. Come here.”
Dennis pulled her onto his lap, took her into his arms and began to caress her back. The small pallet opposite the one the children shared was no hindrance to intimacy. His hands and mouth began to work magic on her body. She felt his warm breath on her throat and surrendered to his lovemaking. The children were fast asleep and the night was going to be a long one. She knew that long after their passion had faded, she would be awake into the small hours worrying and fretting about a future without her husband beside her. For now, she would forget the scary future and think only of this moment. Dennis’s lovemaking was lifting her from the doldrums and he was transporting her to paradise in his arms.