Thursday 20 August 2015

Guest blog: Mary Nichols - 'We'll Meet Again'

In the first big raid of the London Blitz in 1940, Sheila Phipps loses father, mother and five siblings. The only other possible survivor is her brother, Charlie, but he has disappeared. With no family and no home she has no choice but to live with her snobbish and unsympathetic aunt Constance in Bletchley. Also billeted with her aunt, is Lady Prudence Strange who works at Bletchley Park where German messages are decoded. Sheila is given a job there and the two girls form an unlikely friendship, united in the need to keep what they are doing a secret, even from family and boy friends. They are not the only ones with a secret. As the war progresses, more shocking secrets come to light, which have nothing to do with the war and everything to do with the past.


Sheila thought she knew every inch of every road in the district. It was her home, had been her playground, was where she worked, but it had been a nightmare trying to find her way round blocked off roads, rubble spilling into streets, and a cityscape changed almost beyond recognition. The nearer she came to home, the worse it was. And then she had stopped transfixed.
This street of rubble had once been a row of terrace houses. Now you couldn't tell one from the other. Stones, bricks, bits of wood, broken roof tiles, twisted water pipes, smashed furniture, scraps of cloth and shattered glass were piled up like some giant bonfire. 'Mum,' she murmured.

Bletchley Park: the main house
'Sheila. Sheila Phipps.' The voice was almost against her ear, but it hardly penetrated her confused
brain. 'Sheila.'
She turned at last to face Bob Bennett. He was in his thirties, wearing an armband that told everyone he was ARP and a tin hat on which was stencilled 'Air Raid Warden.'
'Mr Bennett. Where's Mum? And the kids? And Pa? Where are they?'
He put his hand on her shoulder. 'Your mum and the children were at home when it happened.'
'Under that?' She nodded towards the rubble that had once been their house.
'I'm afraid so. It got a direct hit. They wouldn't have known anything about it.  The rescue squad got them out. They were taken to the school to be made ready for identification and burial.'
'All of them? Every single one?'
He nodded. 'Annie was still alive when we dug them out, but she died on the way to hospital.'
'Oh.' She was too numb to shed tears. She felt as dry as the dust that lay thick over everything.  It was still very warm but she felt cold as ice and could not stop shivering.  She found her voice with a monumental effort. 'And Pa? And Charlie?'
'We haven't seen either of them. They'd be at work, wouldn't they?' Since the beginning of the war, they had been working longer shifts and free Saturday afternoons had become a thing of the past. Bob, who worked in a munitions factory when he wasn't being an Air Raid Warden, was working every other Sunday.
'Yes. They'd be due home at half past six, except Pa is in the AFS.'
'He'd be putting out fires then?'
'I suppose so. P'raps Charlie stayed with him.'
'Very likely. You can't stand here, you know. You need to report to the Rest Centre to register as homeless. The WVS will give you a cup of tea and a bite to eat and find you some clothes and a bed for the night.'
'I don't want to rest. I want to see Mum and my brothers and sisters.'
'Are you sure?'
'Very well. I'll take you.'
He took her to a school where the bodies were laid on the hall floor in rows, covered with sheets. If the rescuers knew who they were, they were carefully labelled, though in some cases, they could not be identified. Sheila, following Mr Bennett up and down the rows, thought she must be in the middle of a terrible nightmare. He stopped and bent to read a label. Then slowly drew the sheet back from the face.

Bletchley Park: Back view of the bombe

Mum looked so peaceful, serene almost. Usually she was dashing about cooking, washing, sweeping up and shouting at one or the other of them for not tidying away their things or getting under her feet, flapping at them with a damp tea towel while wisps of auburn hair escaped its pins. Now she slept a final sleep and the lines of worry had gone for her face and she looked like the beautiful woman she had been on her wedding photograph. No wonder Pa had fallen in love with her.
'That is your Mum, isn't it?' Mr Bennett queried.
She nodded without speaking. He covered the face again and went on to the next and the next.  They were all there, except Charlie: Dickie, Dorrie, Maggie, Bobby and little Annie who had only this term joined her brothers and sisters at school. This night the school was a morgue.
'We found them all huddled together,' he said. 'Your mother was lying on top of them, trying to shield them. Of course she couldn't but it was brave of her to try.'
'I should have been there,' she said dully.  'I should have been with them.  Ma said we'd all die together.'
'She couldn't have known that, could she? What with your father and Charlie and you all at work.'
'I expect she thought if there were raids, they'd be at night when we were all at home. I don't know what Pa is going to say when he sees this.  He doesn't know does he?'
'We've sent someone to find him. Now, are you ready for the rest centre?'
'I ought to go and look for Pa.'
'Leave it to us, my dear. You can't go into that inferno and he wouldn't want to lose you too, would he?'
'No, I s'pose not.'
He took her to the South Hallsville school which had been utilised for bombed out families. They were lying on mattresses all over the floor. Some were asleep, some crying, some staring in bewilderment unable to take in what had happened to them. Some women were breast feeding babies, others nursing minor wounds; those with more severe injuries had been taken to hospital. The children's reactions were as divers as the adults about them. The cried, they laughed, they dashed about shouting and pretending to be aeroplanes with arms outstretched. Some, who had lost parents sat huddled in corners looking petrified or weeping heartbrokenly. At the end of the assembly hall a couple of tables had been set up and here Civil Defence and the Women's Voluntary Service worked side by side, taking names, suggesting places to go for the night, handing out tea and sandwiches.
Mr Bennett took her to one of the tables and introduced her, then left. He looked exhausted but she knew he wasn't going home, not yet, not until he had accounted for everyone on his patch.  He had a list of the occupants of every house and business for which he and his men were responsible and he was duty bound to match bodies and survivors against his list.

We’ll Meet Again is out in paperback now, available from bookshop and online. ISBN: 9780 7490 17040.

Mary Nichols is author of The Kirilov Star (saga), Promises and Pie Crusts (e-book), historical romance (Mills & Boon) The Mother of Necton (biography)

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