Bea Smith had once been a confident and often outspoken young woman. The youngest of three children. Her father was a highly respected civil servant who had fought in the First World War. Growing up she'd had an idyllic life her time being split between living in the family home in Putney and spending the school holidays, and sometimes weekends, in their country residence in Sussex. Her mother was a fantastic gardener who loved nothing more than to grow her own fruits and vegetables. Their home in London had a huge garden surrounded by high hedges with large metal gates that opened onto a long driveway with perfectly manicured lawns on either side. An artistic child she'd loved nothing more than lounging around in the garden with a book or sketching the wild roses and heather that grew there while her mother spent hour upon hour tending her raised fruit and vegetable beds. Carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, rhubarb, strawberries and gooseberries all grew in her garden. Bea was never the greatest fan of getting her hands dirty and complained profusely whenever her mother asked her for help. Years later she would be grateful that she had paid attention. She was a naughty child, although her father had always argued that it was because her brothers egged her on, without their influence she was never going to be a wild child he always said. Together with her brothers she climbed trees, nicked the apples out of the orchard that was close to their home in Sussex and ran through the fields. If they were there when it came time to pick the apples she'd hang around with the gang of boys her brothers were friends with and go to the orchard, aluminium bucket in hand. Getting tuppence a bucket was the best part, her father matching whatever she got had been an added bonus, every penny was put in her post office account. She'd never quite been able to decide what she was saving for but she saved it all the same, unlike her brothers who spent every penny of their hard earned money at the local shop on sweets.
Once she dreamed of becoming a teacher but that was before she met her husband to be, Harry. Just as Bea had, he'd been raised in a hardworking family, unlike her though he didn't appreciate what he had, nothing was ever enough for him. He'd seemed a charismatic and chivalrous young man when they first met encouraging Bea to follow her dreams. After Harry's parents both passed away, as their only child, he inherited everything. Descending into a downward spiral of alcohol abuse and gambling. He was very adept at hiding his addictions from everyone especially Bea and her parents. Harry had already convinced her to forget about her dream job, as he said it would be pointless when they got married she would have to leave. Bea hadn't taken kindly to his presumption that she would eventually marry him, she wanted nothing more than to continue her education. If anything she had no intention of ever getting married, she voiced her intention to remain a spinster if it meant doing a job she would love. She never understood what all the fuss was about when she heard her friends gushing over a certain young man they'd met. She'd never once looked at Harry that way, she doubted she would ever look at anyone that way. Her love and only two passions in life were literature and art, both those things let her live, even if only for a short time, in another world where she could be free. Her parents had disagreed with her naturally, seeing Harry as a fine upstanding young man most suitable for their daughter. All of her protests had fallen upon deaf ears and her hopes and aspirations crumbled into nothing.
After leaving school she took a job at the ministry of labour, all be it not her ideal place of employment, she made friends and did enjoy the independence earning her own money afforded her. The whole time though she knew too well that even this small piece of freedom would be over soon enough. When the day eventually arrived and she was due to marry she would have no choice but to resign and be, as she had always seen the role of a wife, an unpaid and unappreciated slave. She'd never voice that out loud, she could never fault her own father who gave her mother the freedom to do almost anything she pleased. Neither did she walk around with her eyes closed, she saw how a lot of women were treated and that was something she had always wanted to avoid. Harry she knew was the complete opposite of her father. After meeting his parents only once she knew exactly what Harry Smith was and she didn't like it. Her parents were never going to see what she saw, after all what everyone else saw was an exceptional young man who came from a good home. He was well educated and at least in her own fathers eyes could speak so eloquently he could charm the birds from the trees. He'd certainly charmed him, Bea was more cautious but would never willingly defy her parents wishes even if it did mean going against everything she herself believed.
Harry kept up the front he so carefully crafted until he could no longer pull it off. The home that he had shared with his parents was going to have to be sold to cover his mounting debts. He was on the verge of losing his job and it had been at that time he had officially proposed to Bea. Everything had turned from bad to extremely worse from the day they were married. The house was sold a month later and Harry had no employment, he purchased a smaller house than Bea had expected to live in, than she'd ever been used to living in. With virtually nothing left to his name apart from the house he changed jobs every few months and constantly told Bea that she would have to manage the home on less and less money every week. Arguing that it wasn't enough she quickly learned was hopeless, a slap across the face quickly escalated into a punch in the stomach and every harsh word he could think of left his mouth directed at her. Even with the little money Bea had to spend on the necessities Harry still expected the best of everything. He never stopped telling her that she didn't pull her weight enough, didn't contribute a single penny. Even after Debbie was born, nothing she ever did was good enough, after long nights awake with Debbie he never gave an inch. He never noticed that the house was always spotlessly clean, all he'd see as Debbie got older was that Bea had left one of her toys laying around, toys he said she didn't even need. He didn't care that there was always food on the table waiting for him when he returned home. As Debbie got older she noted the number of times Bea sat at the table at meal times without a morsel of food in front of her while Harry complained loudly before going to his favourite public house. Bea had lost count of the number of times she'd had to tell Debbie that she hadn't eaten because she wasn't hungry when she asked. Even a four year old Debbie had never really believed that for a second, she'd worked out for herself just by watching her cook that there wasn't enough to go around.
One day while Debbie had chosen to stay behind with their neighbour Liz and her two children Bea was out doing her daily shop and passed a small cafe that had a sign in the window. ‘Help Wanted.’ It was a million miles away from anything Bea had ever envisioned doing but so was her home life, besides how hard could it be? Liz loved having Debbie over and the extra money would help out, especially when Harry was fired from another job or resigned because he'd just had enough of being told what to do.
“Are you sure you want the job?” Franky asked as she looked at Bea in disbelief, she was certainly not the usual kind of person she had working for her. “We get some pretty rough types in here you know, this is a greasy spoon not some posh tearoom.”
Bea had smiled back at Franky, she'd expected the response, she doubted that any of the customers could be as hard to deal with as Harry though. “That doesn't bother me.” She answered happily, if she could take everything Harry dished out the customers would be a piece of cake.
“Well if you're sure.” Franky grinned. “Can you start straight away?”
That day had been not only the start of Bea feeling like she had just a little control of her life but also the start of a friendship that both her and Franky quickly realised they had both needed.
Almost now completely isolated from her family and friends, with the exception of Liz and Franky, and feeling alone now eight years later with a daughter of her own and a violent, more often than not drunken husband Bea dreamed of running away. It would never be possible, she didn't earn enough at the cafe and what she did have saved wouldn't keep them going for very long. Harry had found employment more than once, each time he would be let go after turning up intoxicated or just resign. Now though he was quite happily working in the role of a nightwatchman down at the docks. It suited him, no one in authority was around at night and he pretty much did as he pleased.
With Debbie quietly sitting in the kitchen Bea was busy tackling her daily domestic responsibilities. No matter how exhausted she was Harry demanded that the home be kept pristine. Something she was inclined to think was due to the fact that he still thought he was above everyone else they lived surrounded by. This morning he was extremely late arriving home and she allowed a thought to linger in her mind that was somewhat pleasing to her. One of her most pleasant thoughts, that he would be laying dead in a gutter somewhere. Until of course she heard him walk in, heard his demands for food before he retreated to the front parlour. Turning on the wireless, he made himself comfortable in his usual arm chair while shouting abuse because Bea was keeping him waiting.
The date and time would forever be etched into Beas mind she was sure of that as she brought Harry his food. Sunday the 3rd of September at exactly 11:15am the prime minister of the day, Neville Chamberlin, addressed the nation and Harry suddenly fell into a deathly silence.
“This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Bea instantly saw the panic in Harry's eyes as her thoughts turned to how quickly she could be rid of him. She remembered the stories her father had told her about the Great War, about how men had volunteered and joined pals battalions. Harry was a coward, she knew that, unless of course he was beating her. He ran away from confrontation with other men but she was his wife, a woman and his property in his eyes. She watched as he held his head in his hands, the realisation of how serious the situation could soon become hit him like a lead balloon in the guts. He was was still only 38 years old, young enough to go to war and for Bea to be rid of him. With any luck, she let the thought linger, he may well be gone for good. Killed in action, taken prisoner never to be heard from again. She shook the oh so pleasant thoughts from her head, she could never fall so lucky could she? She turned her attention back to what was being said while she kept her eyes on Harry.
“We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part with calmness and courage.”
Bea eyed Harry, ‘calmness and courage?’ She wanted to laugh when those words drifted into her ears. Harry was most certainly not the picture of calmness or courage as he ran his shaky hands through his hair. She continued to listen, waiting for what she knew would be another of Harry's outbursts as soon as the broadcast was over. And of course she was well aware that no matter who was at fault, Hitler, Chamberlin, the man in the moon, it wouldn't be in his eyes it would be her fault. In Harrys warped sense of reality Bea would be the instigator of everything. She wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if Harry would find in completely plausible to accuse her of telling Hitler to start a war. Harry sat forward in his chair a little more as he continued to listen, except to Bea it looked more like he was getting ready to pounce; throw a few more kicks and punches and more insults at her.
“The government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead. But these plans need your help. You may be taking your part in the fighting services or as a volunteer in one of the branches of civil defence. If so you will report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received. You may be engaged in work essential to the prosecution of war for the maintenance of the life of the people. In factories, in transport, in public utility concerns, or the supply of other necessaries of life. If so, it is of vital importance that you should carry on with your jobs.”
Bea had no intention of hovering around any longer and quickly retreated back to the kitchen where Debbie was. If there was one thing she was sure of Harry never wanted her to witness the violence that he rained down on her mother. She was his little girl, he may not have any love for Bea, but Debbie was the apple of his eye; or at least that was the impression he like to give. As she lovingly watched Debbie sitting quietly reading she remembered her father telling her how he spent much of the first war watching his fellow soldiers being gassed and slaughtered in front of his eyes. How he witnessed his captain and best friend shot in the head right before his eyes as he peered over the top of the trench they were occupying. Running her fingers lightly through Debbie's curls she smiled again before retreating to the back door. Liz was sitting quietly on her back steps when she heard Bea sigh loudly.
“Everything alright there love?” Liz smiled, she'd heard the speech and knew exactly how Harry would have reacted to that.
“Do you think the Germans will invade us?” Bea asked quietly as she walked towards the low wooden fence that separated their gardens. A small smile played on her lips when she thought about how Harry could soon be out of their lives, if not forever at least until the war was over.
Liz looked at her as she got to her feet and headed towards their usual spot at the fence where they would chat for hours when Harry wasn't at home and Bea wasn't working. “I wouldn't worry about that so much love.” She glanced over Beas shoulder seeing only an empty doorway. “The Germans are no match for our lads.” She lowered her voice a little. “But let's hope some of em don't make it back aye."
“Why don't you mind your own damned business.” Harry boomed at Liz as he appeared at the door before retreating back to where he came from, although not before taking pleasure in muttering a few obscenities at Bea as he turned his back.
“I don't think he likes me very much.” Liz said completely unfazed by yet another of Harry's outbursts. She heard much worse come out of his mouth, some of it directed at her when he'd found her talking to Bea.
“No.” Bea sighed sadly knowing how being caught talking to Liz would eventually end for her by the end of the day. “Although I suspect the only person he does like is Debbie, and then I think it's all an act sometimes.” She added as she was returning to the kitchen and Liz back to the step she had previously been sitting on.
Returning to the kitchen she busied herself cleaning the already spotlessly clean room as a multitude of thoughts entered her head. There was so much she could never work out, she could never understand why Harry was how he was. His father like her own after the war had thrown himself into his work, like her own in the civil service, but he was an extremely quiet man who hardly ever spoke. His mother, who she only ever remembered meeting twice before her untimely passing, was the opposite. She was short, quite pretty and extremely well spoken. That demure exterior hid a sharp temper and Harry had always known, even from a young age, that it was better not to displease her in any way. She wondered if it had been his mothers mistreatment of him that had made him who he was, maybe even the reason for both his parents premature deaths. She always wondered if Harry himself had had a hand in it, she wouldn't have been surprised if he had murdered them himself. Poison may have been said to be a woman's preferred method of murder but Harry would have done just about anything to get his hands on his inheritance.
That same day war had been declared parliament had immediately passed ‘The National Service (Armed Forces) Act.’ A wide reaching measure that imposed conscription on all males aged between 18 and 41. Harry was furious when he realised that he had to register for service. Pacing the kitchen he tried to work out how he could get out of it, maybe he would manage to make the authorities believe he was medically unfit. He didn't work in any of the key industries that were exempt, banking, farming, medicine and engineering. He considered the idea of being a conscientious objector but that would mean having to appear before a tribunal to argue his case for not joining up. What would be the reason for his argument? The only grounds available to argue were freedom of thought, conscience or religion. He couldn't rely on any of those, he could be unlucky and not be granted the exemption which would give him a non combat job.
Now Bea finally found herself free of him. Thankfully he'd done what was required, probably for the first time in his life, and registered for service. Receiving his conscription papers had angered him. He, like most of the other drunks, had been convinced that the war would be over before they could get to him. “Hitler will give in, the mans a fool?” He had screamed at her in a drunken stupor that ended in a severe beating for Bea before he passed out. Being forced into the army wasn't something Harry had wanted. After being told by an old timer in his favourite public house that he could be shot for desertion if he failed to report his ideas began to change. And he hadn't relished the idea of being dragged from his home by the bobbies if he failed to show up, embarrassing himself in full view of his neighbours wasn't the image he wanted to create. Bea was an embarrassment enough for him, something he took great pleasure in reminding her of in his last few days at home. He knew he had a fifty fifty chance of being wounded or killed, wounded was his preference, especially if it would result in his discharge. Attending his medical examination he was classed A1 and received a train warrant sending him on his way to camp and basic training. Naturally he wasn't happy about anything, being informed that his basic pay from then on was only 14 shillings a week had angered him beyond words. To add insult to injury, at least that was how Harry had seen it, he was asked if he would contribute half his pay to his family. Not wanting to seem mean spirited in front of the rest of his unit he had of course signed away half his weekly pay to Bea and Debbie.
Bea hadn't been overly concerned about financial matters for the first month, unlike Harry she hadn't missed what was going on in the world at large. Harry's only need for the newspaper it seemed was to keep an eye onto the racing results. Every morning Bea would read about the ever looming prospect of war and had done everything she possibly could to set aside a little money every week adding it to the same post office account she'd had since her childhood, to her relief Harry never seemed to notice.
With the joyful prospect that Harry might not be home for a few months Bea hadn't paid much mind to what they would do when the money ran out for bigger expenses she knew they'd have, until she ran into an old friend. Maxine had been her closest friend and confidant while they both worked at the ministry of labour, until she had to leave.
Debbie loved their Saturday morning adventures over to Spitalfields, more importantly their visit to the Petticoat Lane market. As they made their way slowly down Wentworth Street among the crowds of other people Bea heard her name being called. As she looked around trying to find the owner of the familiar voice she had heard, she squeezed Debbie's hand a little as Maxine finally came into view.
“I just knew that was you.” Maxine smiled happily as she pulled Bea into a tight embrace.
“It's been so long.” Bea beamed back at her old friend.
Maxine looked down at Debbie and smiled. “And who do we have here?” She asked as Debbie looked back at her shyly.
An hour later the three of them had found themselves sitting in a small tearoom. Debbie grumbled into her glass of milk when Bea had refused to let her have cake.
“Harry's away?” Maxine enquired as she reappeared at their table after excusing herself a few moments before.
Bea nodded as she glanced at Debbie. “With any luck he won't come back.” She whispered back.
Maxine shot her a sympathetic smile as a waitress appeared, placing a huge slice of chocolate cake down in front of Debbie.
“Maxi!” Bea shot her a disapproving glare.
“It's a treat, my treat.” Maxine emphasised. She'd been a little surprised to see Bea anywhere near the east end. She'd always tried to convince herself that she would be living in a big house surrounded by her family and living a good life. Seeing Bea now was like seeing a whole different person. Her smile was the same, her laughter sounded the same but the sadness visible in her eyes was something she never expected to see. Her smile no longer reached her eyes, in its place were sorrow and regret, her eyes told Maxine everything she needed to know just as if Bea had chosen to speak her thoughts aloud.
“I guess this is where I leave you.” Maxine said quietly as they walked along reaching the corner near her tram stop.
“You still use the tram?” Bea asked a little amused.
“Of course, it stops closer to home than the bus.” Maxine reached out and placed her hand on Beas shoulder. “Don't take offence, you're one of my oldest and dearest friends…this won't be over by Christmas.” Maxine looked at Bea seriously. “I know it might not be the right time, it being just the two of you, but if you need a job they'd take you back.”
Bea looked at Maxine a little confused at first. “At the ministry?”
Maxine nodded. “Think about it, things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better. Might be a good idea to keep all your options open.” Bea just nodded before they said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.