She was running as fast as her legs could carry her, rocks constantly tripping her up, and a blanket of trees towering around so that she could barely see where she was going. The sound of heavy feet pounded behind, filling her with panic. Was he chasing her again? Would she be captured? Breathless with fear she ran all the faster, knowing what would happen if she did not escape. She could feel her heart hammering, tension freezing every limb. Then pain rattled through her back with merciless precision. She felt utterly powerless and vulnerable, petrified of what might happen.
A hand tapped her cheek and she jerked awake in panic.
‘Wake up, Martha, it’s time for breakfast.’
Staring into her mother’s eyes, the young girl gave a small sigh of relief. So this had been yet another nightmare, a trauma she suffered from constantly. The emotion attached to it always cloaked her in absolute terror. At least she had managed to sleep a little last night, which was never easy. Tension would mount within her whenever she went to bed, no longer a relaxing time. Now pain and fear escalated through her once more and she cried out in agony.
It seemed that having spent nearly five months virtually locked away in her room, she was now about to give birth, although she had only just turned seventeen.
A part of her longed to vanish into oblivion, to disappear back into the world she’d once enjoyed, not least her happy and privileged childhood. Why had that all gone wrong after her beloved father died? Would she now die? Many women did when suffering this traumatic event. Would the good Lord take her to heaven? Her soul having no real attachment to Him, it was doubtful He would trust in her innocence and accept her. Nor did her mother, who’d made it clear she didn’t believe a word her daughter said. She no longer viewed her as respectable and had offered no sympathy or support, declaring that no one must ever learn of her condition.
Martha gazed up at the window, her blue eyes glittering with desolation. How she ached to catch a glimpse of the sun, the cliffs and the sea. Oh, and how she missed her life. Her mind flicked back to the young man she’d once grown fond of. He was most handsome, dressed in baggy trousers, and lived in one of the fisherman’s huts. Whenever he wasn’t away at sea working in smacks and yawls to catch fish, he’d be in a local pub eating, drinking or gambling. He also spent much of his time sitting by the harbour mending nets. They’d sometimes listen to the band down on the bay along with crowds of spectators, or watch a concert and dancing. Claiming he adored her, he’d give her sweet kisses and had her name tattooed on to his arm. Then one day, when she’d excitedly hurried to meet him, as usual, he’d told her he was off to America in search of a new life, having become bored with fishing. She’d felt utterly devastated. He was so charming and helpful over her family problems that she was almost falling in love with him. How she missed him, but if he were still around why would he ever agree to marry her?
Now water suddenly flushed out of her and the sound of her screaming echoed around the room, bouncing against the shutters that blocked the window. Over the next several hours she sank into more agony with no doctor or midwife around to help, only Enid her maid and of course Mama. Whenever another bolt of merciless pain struck, she struggled to sit up in a bid to resist it, only to be pushed back down by her scolding mother.
Finally, something solid slid out of her, leaving her breathless and exhausted. She felt hands pressing upon her belly and more stuff flopped out, including blood that soaked the bed sheets. Then she found herself being briskly washed, wiped, stripped and dressed by the maid, making her feel like a piece of dirt. Not a single word had been spoken to her, save for orders to push hard and stop screaming. And no comfort offered.
Whatever child had been delivered was now swept up into her mother’s arms and she marched away, slamming the door behind her. Martha gave a small sob of distress aware she’d been informed the baby would instantly be given away for adoption. She certainly would not be allowed to keep it. If only her life could return to normal but the harsh, uncaring attitude of her mother proved that would never happen.
It came to her then that with the agony of her imprisonment and this birth finally over, she had no desire to stay here any longer. In order to maintain her safety, she needed to go as far away from here as possible, and change her name. The time had come for her to leave home and build a new life for herself. Then she’d find herself a husband and become respectable again.
A section of Chapter OneChristmas 1916
Lights dimmed as a man dressed as Pierrot in a bright blue costume and pantaloons, peaked hat and a huge yellow bow beneath his chin, skipped merrily on to the stage singing ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’. He was quickly joined by a troop of dancing girls. They too were dressed like Pierrots, all of them looking ravishing in a pink costume with a wide frilled collar, long swirling skirt decorated with fluffy bobbles, and a tight-fitting black hat. They were complete visions of beauty who brought forth roars of excited approval from the audience. Pierrot waved his gloved hands at them, the theatre being packed with British and Belgian soldiers who responded with cheers and whistles.
Cecily smilingly watched from the wings as she loved to do most evenings. A part of her ached to join the singers, something her mother would never agree to. Viewing herself as the star performer she expected her daughters to wait upon her hand, foot and fingers. Not that Cecily believed herself to be a good assistant, being too involved with working as a conductor on the electric trams now that most men were caught up in the war. Her mother disapproved of that. Cecily, however, firmly believed in making her own choices in life.
Feeling a gentle tap on her shoulder, she found her sister at her side. ‘Her royal highness Queenie requires your assistance,’ Merryn whispered, her pretty freckled face wrapped in a jokey grin. ‘I’ve been dismissed, as she’s engaged in her usual bossy mood.’
‘Oh, not again!’ Stifling a sigh, Cecily accompanied Merryn back to the dressing room. Gazing in the mirror she recognised the familiar lack of focus in her mother’s blue eyes, proving she’d again been drinking. Despite seeing herself as a star, Queenie too often felt the need to overcome a sense of stage fright before she performed.
‘Merryn has made a total mess of my hair,’ she stuttered in a slurry voice.
‘I’m sure she didn’t mean to, Mama,’ Cecily calmly remarked, and reaching for a brush began to divide her mother’s curly blonde hair across the back of her head.
‘Never call me by that name. You know how I hate it.’
She’d chosen to name herself Queenie years ago as she considered it more appropriate for her career than Martha, the name she was born with. And that was what she required her daughters to call her, having no wish to be reminded of her age. Merryn seemed to accept this. Cecily always felt the need to remind her of their true relationship, which irritatingly was not an easy one. She carefully twisted up a small strand of her mother’s hair and clipped it, then tucked the other portions neatly around before pinning them together with a glittering silver hair slide on the top of her head.
Grabbing a curl, Queenie pulled it down to loop it over her left ear. ‘I’ve no wish for my hair to be all pinned up. Flick some over my ears.’
‘I thought you liked to look as neat and tidy as possible, Mama,’ Cecily said.
‘No, fluff it out, silly girl. How useless you are.’
Cecily felt quite inadequate at this job and checked her success or lack of it by viewing her mother in the mirror. She was a slender, attractive woman with a pale complexion, pointed chin and ruby lips frequently curled into a pout, as they were doing now. But she was also vain, conceited, overly dramatic, emotionally unstable, selfish, overbearing and utterly neglectful. Queenie was never an easy woman to please, even when she was stone-cold sober. She was an exhibitionist and a star who demanded a great deal of nurturing and support, a task Merryn was extremely skilled and happy to do, save for when Queenie was completely blotto, as she was now. And having been scolded and dismissed countless times when her mother was drunk, her sister would sit in the corner reading Woman’s Weekly, taking not the slightest interest. Once Queenie sobered up she would happily treat her younger daughter as her favourite child in order to make Cecily feel unwanted, even though she’d done her best to help. Not that she ever felt jealous about this, always eager to act as a surrogate mother towards her beloved sister as Queenie could be equally neglectful of them both, wrapped up in herself and her tours.
There came a rap on the door. ‘Three minutes on stage please,’ called a voice.
‘You should have a drink of water,’ Cecily quietly suggested. ‘It might help to mobilise your voice and cool you down.’
‘How dare you say such a thing! My voice is fine,’ Queenie snapped.
Reaching for a jug, Cecily poured a glass and placed it on the table. ‘Do take a sip to improve it, Mama.’
Filled with her usual tantrum she snatched the jug and tossed the water over her daughter’s head. Then she swept the glass of water, a box of make-up, brushes, jars of cream and all other items off the dressing table onto the floor, swirled around and marched away.
Grabbing a towel, Merryn rushed over to pat Cecily’s damp hair and face.
‘Don’t worry, it’ll soon dry off,’ Cecily said, rolling her eyes in droll humour. ‘Come on, we need to make sure Mama calms down and performs well.’
Giving a wry smile, Merryn nodded, and they both scurried after her.
Cecily Hanson longs to live life on her own terms—to leave the shadow of her overbearing mother and marry her childhood sweetheart once he returns from the Great War. But when her fiancé is lost at sea, this future is shattered. Looking for meaning again, she decides to perform for the troops in France.
Life on the front line is both rewarding and terrifying, and Cecily soon finds herself more involved—and more in danger—than she ever thought possible. And her family has followed her to France. Her sister, Merryn, has fallen for a young drummer whose charm hides a dark side, while their mother, Queenie—a faded star of the stage tormented by her own secret heartache—seems set on a path of self-destruction.
As the war draws to a close and their hopes turn once again to the future, Cecily and Merryn are more determined than ever to unravel the truth about their mother’s past: what has she been hiding from them—and why?
Published 22 May 2018