Barbara's War - The Middle Years is the second in a three book series about Barbara Sinclair. The first is Barbara's War. The third and final part should be published in September.
Mountnessing, Essex, December 1939
It seemed odd to be sitting in the glow of the little electric lights on a Christmas tree with no presents. Barbara had suggested they take it down now Boxing Day was over, but her grandparents wouldn't hear of it. The tradition was to have the tree up until twelfth night, so until then it would remain, taking up a third of the space in the study.
The study door opened and Barbara turned to greet her grandfather. "Are the boys still outside? It's knee deep in snow out there, I don't want them to get cold."
His grey hair was liberally sprinkled with snow, but his faded blue eyes were bright and his cheeks glowed. "Remember, Babs, I'm a medical man, your brothers are safe with me."
'Is John with them, Edward?' Grandma smiled at him. He nodded and poured himself a mug of tea. "I must say I've really taken to your young man, Barbara. It's a great shame we can't have a small celebration to mark your engagement."
John had persuaded her to make their engagement official last week. Her mouth curved. He was a lovely man; and she was finding she quite enjoyed being kissed by him. He had hinted he would like to take things further, come to her bedroom, but so far she'd managed to put him off.
"Why don't we have that bottle of champagne we've been saving, Elspeth? John will be leaving first thing tomorrow morning, God knows when Barbara will see him again."
"What a good idea, Edward. I'll go along and speak to Mrs Brown, I'm sure she can make us a special meal to go with it. Perhaps fricassee with the remainder of the capon?" She hurried off to speak to the cook.
Grandpa groaned and buried his face in his hands. "I am heartily sick of leftover chicken, I'd be happy with boiled eggs, if we had any."
"I promise you it won't taste anything like chicken. By the time everything else is added it will be delicious and it's usually served with rice. That will make a pleasant change, won't it?"
"'If you say so, my dear. It's strange, but I could eat leftover Christmas pudding, mince pies and cake until the cows come home – it's just the wretched chicken that seems to go on and on."
Laughing at his curmudgeonly attitude, she collected the empty mugs and headed for the door. "We should be counting our blessings, Grandpa. Next year we will probably be having spam fritters for
John burst into the kitchen chivying her two small brothers in front of him. "It's arctic out there, sweetheart. I think we're all going to need a hot water bottle up our jumpers in order to thaw out."
David, his fair hair plastered to his head by melting snow, grinned happily. "Your mare's had her supper and is being shut up for the night. The chickens didn't get up at all today, they stayed in the barn."
Tom shoved his younger brother. "Don't blame them. It's my turn to feed the puppies and yours to empty the dirt tray." Amiably squabbling they ran to the large wicker basket at the far end of the kitchen. They were greeted by Lavender, the large cat who was the puppies' surrogate mother, who purred like a sewing machine.
Leaving them happily playing she wandered through to the breakfast room, which doubled as the dining room at night. John followed her. "I hear we're having champagne tonight. What's that in aid of?" He slid his arms around her waist and pulled her gently until she was resting against his chest. The buttons and buckle of his RAF jacket pressed uncomfortably into her back.
"Grandma and Grandpa want to have a special meal to celebrate our engagement and to wish you good luck for your trip to Canada."
"You don't sound too keen on the idea, Babs. Not having second thoughts are you?"
She was glad he couldn't see her face. "Of course not. It's just Canada is so far away, crossing the Atlantic with all the U-boats about, in this horrible weather, is going to be dangerous."
He turned her until she was facing him. With his thumbs he brushed away her tears. "I'll be alright, darling. It's a damned nuisance having to train on the other side of the world. I don't want you to be sad; remember what I told you? Go out and enjoy yourself whilst I'm away. Good God, you're not even nineteen yet, I don't expect you to stay in with the old folk just because I'm not here."
"I don't suppose I'll get asked out anywhere, but if you're sure you don't mind, I won't say no if it's somewhere I want to go." She stretched out and pulled his head down so she could press her lips against his. They were cold, in fact his face was icy, the bristles standing to attention on his upper lip. She flinched as they rasped across her cheeks. Immediately he raised his head, his eyes dark.
"Sorry, I haven't shaved today. I'll go and do it now; Mrs Brown said the boiler's just been stoked and the water's hot."
"Don't use it all, the boys will need a bath shortly. If we're going to have a small celebration they'll need to change first; in fact I think we should all dress up tonight." She smiled, her initial reservations about a party gone. "I’ll make the breakfast room look pretty, use the candles and things we had on Christmas Day."
Tom appeared, a wriggling puppy in his arms. "We having a party? Good show – can we have balloons and crackers too?'
"What's this about a party? Is it someone's birthday?" David peered round the kitchen door with the second puppy perched precariously on his chest, its little pink tongue busy cleaning strawberry jam from his chin.
"Grandma and Grandpa think it would be a good idea to have a little family do to celebrate our engagement. I'm going to sort out the table, why don't you two finish playing with the puppies and then come in and help me?"
"Righty ho – as long as we don't have chicken again," David said as he elbowed his brother out of the way in order to be first there.
By the time the breakfast room was prepared, and the boys' bath had been supervised, there was barely enough time for her to have a quick wash and change. She flicked through the long row of frocks hanging in her enormous closet. Should she select one of the smart dresses her grandma had chosen, or wear something she was more comfortable in? Perhaps the russet velvet with the cream lace collar and elbow length sleeves would be dressy, but not over the top.
She snatched the frock from the hanger and dropped it over her petticoat. As this was a special occasion she'd worn her new silk stockings, her Christmas present from John. The others were going down already and she still had to find her shoes, check her lipstick wasn't smudged and her hair tidy. At least now they were using the rear of the house they no longer had to creep about with torches. The blackout made it impossible to have any lights on in the main hall because of the central glass rotunda.
"You look splendid, my dear, that colour suits your complexion."
"Thank you, Grandpa, this is one I've not worn before. Is John down?"
Her grandmother answered. "He has gone with the boys to fill up the litter tray, Barbara, I don't suppose he'll be very long."
"I'm not comfortable having any sort of celebration at the moment; John's leaving tomorrow and I don't know when I'll see him again." She swallowed a lump in her throat. "Grandpa, do you think we should be drinking champagne?"
"This is going to be a brute of a war. We've got to enjoy ourselves whilst we can." He squeezed her shoulder. "Remember, Barbara, celebrating your engagement tonight is a way of sending your young man away happy. It doesn't mean you'll actually marry him – a lot can happen before that day comes."
He was right, both her grandparents understood why she'd accepted John’s proposal when she wasn't in love with him. This didn't make it any easier; she loved John, but not in an exciting way – more as a brother. She was being selfish and immature; his parents wouldn't be seeing their only child before he set sail for Canada and here she was moping about drinking a glass of champagne in his honour.
"I'm sorry to be a wet blanket, Grandpa, I'm being silly. From now on I'll take every day as it comes and thank God we're warm and safe here and not freezing in France like our brave soldiers."
John arrived with her half-brothers, his face pink from the cold; he really was an attractive young man. She was a lucky girl to have him as her fiancé. "I hope you all washed your hands—"
All three waved them in the air and John put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. His hip was hard against hers, his arm firm and protective. She relaxed into his embrace and smiled at him. Her heart almost jumped out of her chest at the scorching look he gave her.
David pushed past making rude noises. "Yuck! They've gone all soppy, Grandma, it's putting me off my supper."
Grandma directed the boys to the far side of the table. "Over there, young men, and be careful not to tip over the candles. Edward, we shall sit opposite them and, Barbara and John, you sit at either end as you are the guests of honour tonight."
A large tureen of leek and potato soup steamed appetisingly in the centre of the table next to the freshly baked rolls. John grinned and held out his bowl. "This is my favourite food. I wonder if Canadians eat soup."
"From what I hear, dear boy, they serve steaks the size of dinner plates. No danger of you doing without – with rationing starting soon we'll be the ones on short commons."
The champagne was drunk, the meal consumed and by the end of the evening Barbara was beginning to enjoy herself. She was unused to alcohol and normally avoided it, but tonight was a special occasion and she hadn't the heart to refuse.
"Shall we go into the study?" Grandma suggested. "I believe there are some chocolates left; I'm sure the boys wouldn't say no to them."
"And a small glass of brandy to go with the last of the coffee, my dear, will make a perfect ending to a delightful evening." Grandpa pulled out her chair and she smiled lovingly at him. It hardly seemed possible her grandparents were now happy together, the misery of the past eighteen years finally put behind them. Losing their only son so tragically in a motorbike accident, and not knowing about her existence, had caused a rift which her arrival a few months ago had remedied.
The abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her deranged mother was going to take a little longer to forget, but tonight, surrounded by the people she loved best, she truly believed it might be possible to put the past behind her.
At ten o'clock she decided her brothers should go to bed. "Come along, boys, it’s past your bedtime. Say good night to everyone."
Their storm of protest was ignored and John grabbed David and tossed him over his shoulder squealing and laughing. "Right, I've got this one, can you manage Tom?"
"Babs, I would like you to read a bit more of Treasure Island tonight – it's so much better listening to it than reading it myself."
By the time she'd read the chapter the children were asleep. Quietly she put the book on the bedside table and stood up, surprised to find John had remained in the room. "I'm not going down again, I'm really tired, can you say good night to Grandpa and Grandma for me please?"
"Of course, I shan't be long myself. Don't forget I have to catch the eleven o'clock train tomorrow. I want to spend every last moment with you – we don't know when we'll meet again."
He moved closer and she tilted her head expectantly. For some reason the thought of kissing him was sending the blood fizzing around her body. Her hands encircled his neck and she pressed herself against him, loving the feel of his body against her soft curves.
His lips were hard on hers, they tasted of brandy and champagne. "Would you like me to bring you a brandy and cup of cocoa when I come up?"
"That would be lovely, but put the brandy in the cocoa as I don't really like it on its own. I can't promise I'll still be awake. I'm really tired, so you'd better not be too long."
"You go ahead, I'll join you soon."
How kind he was, he was the most loving man and she wished she loved him as much as he loved her. She pushed these thoughts to the back of her mind and began to get ready for bed. She hung up her dress and carefully folded her underwear onto a chair. She had only been wearing her camiknickers and petticoat for a few hours so there was no need to put them in the laundry.
She had two new novels to read, a Christmas present from Grandpa, both by Georgette Heyer, The Devil’s Cub and Regency Buck. This was an author unknown to her, but a good romance was exactly what she needed right now. She would curl up in bed and start reading one of them and hope she hadn't fallen asleep before John returned with her drink. She was glad she'd bought some flannelette nighties, the ones grandma had bought were pretty, but not warm enough in this freezing weather.
Her grandparents walked past twenty minutes later and she wondered why John hadn't arrived with her cocoa. She was about to call out and ask Grandma, but they sounded so engrossed in their conversation she didn't want to interrupt them. Maybe John had forgotten and gone straight to his bedroom – he was sleeping at the far end of the corridor so she should have heard him go past.
She yawned, her jaw cracking, and put the book down on the side table. Reaching behind her she switched off the bedside light and wriggled under the blankets. The remains of the fire flickered with a comforting red glow softening the edges of the furniture, making the room look different somehow.
She was on the verge of sleep when the door opened softly and John slipped in. "Sorry, darling, I thought it better to wait until the old folk had gone to bed before I came in here. I know we're engaged but I don't think they would approve." She pushed herself up the bed and waited for him to make his way across the shadowy room.
"I was just going to sleep, I thought you'd forgotten all about me." He dropped down beside her on the bed, the rich aroma of brandy and chocolate wafted towards her. "Golly, that smells a bit strong."
He chuckled and his warm breath tickled her cheek. "Doctor Sinclair put it in, I just made the cocoa and grabbed the last few chocolates from the box. Here you are – which do you want first?"
"Both – can you drop the chocolates on my lap and hand me the mug, please?"
"Budge up, sweetheart, there's plenty of room for both of us on here."
Her drink was sweet and heady, the sweets rich and velvety in her mouth. "These will probably be the last ones we get until the end of the war. How am I going to live without chocolate?"
"I promise I'll bring you back as much as I can carry when I return from Canada. It's hard to believe there's a war on when we're snuggled up in here with so many luxuries." He slurped his drink and she nudged him sharply with her elbow.
"I don't want any of your bad habits here, thank you. You sound like one of the boys." She relaxed against his shoulder and he put his arm around her. "Do you think you'll pass all the exams on navigation and things? I'd no idea learning to be a pilot was harder than being at school."
"That's why so many bods didn't get through the preliminary training. As I'm going into Bomber Command, I'll have a navigator, I won't have to plot my own route. Fighter pilots have to learn it all though."
At his mention of fighter pilots an image of Alex Everton flashed through her head. She wondered what he was doing tonight; he hadn't come home for Christmas as he'd volunteered to remain on duty so the married chaps could spend time with their families. She drained her mug and choked, spraying him with a mouthful of liquid.
"Bloody hell! What a waste – are you okay? What happened, did it go down the wrong way?" He wiped his face on the corner of a sheet and his teeth gleamed white in the semi-darkness.
"No, there was neat brandy at the bottom of the mug." She giggled and bit into the last chocolate. "Are you going to finish yours?"
"Not half! You've had more than enough for one night, I think you're a bit tiddly."
He was probably right, she did feel rather lightheaded and silly. "It's a good thing you took off your jacket. If you take off your shirt I can rinse the cocoa out and it should be dry by tomorrow morning." She expected him to argue but he pulled off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt immediately.
"Right you are. Dammit! It's gone right through so I'd better take my vest off as well."
Before she could protest he was stripped to the waist. She scrambled out of bed and was about to pick up his shirt from the floor when she froze. She'd never seen a man half-naked – she couldn't take her eyes away. Something compelled her to move closer and the shirt fell unnoticed to the floor. The firelight silhouetted his broad shoulders in a golden glow making him look like something from a Greek myth.
Her breath caught in her throat and she swayed towards him. "Are you sure, darling, because once we start to make love I won't be able to stop."
She should say no, this was all wrong, but he was so beautiful, so handsome, so desirable that she wanted him to show her what physical love was like.
Fenella J Miller