Vera's Valour, page 1
VERA was almost in tears by the time she parked the car outside her mother’s house in the Norfolk town of Lynn. She wiped the wetness from under her eyes with her fingertips, and took several deep breaths before she got out of the car.
“Come on, out you get,” she instructed the two dogs in the back of the car to jump down onto the pavement. After grabbing her suitcase, as well as the dog leads, she walked towards the house.
“Hello, dear!” her mother called from the back garden where she was unpegging dry clothes from the washing line.
When the dogs barked and began to tug on their leads, Vera pulled them back sharply, saying, “Hey, you two must behave, or Mum will have to put you both into kennels - and you won’t like that.”
Mrs Carter was in her apron as waddled towards the gate saying, “My goodness. Two dogs, and a suitcase – are you moving back home?”
“Mum I’ve come to ask you . . . ”
At that point Vera couldn’t prevent the tears from streaming down her cheeks.
“Goodness me! Whatever’s happened?” Frowning as she clicked open the gate, Mrs Carter rushed to comfort her daughter, aware that wartime brought disasters. “Come into the house and tell me all about it. We’ll take the leads off the dogs and let them run in the garden - they’ll be quite safe there.”
Having released the dogs, Vera was ushered into the kitchen by her mother who asked her, “Now what’s upset you?”
Vera sat down heavily on a wooden kitchen chair and putting her arms on the scrubbed kitchen table did just what she had been struggling not to do – she had a good cry.
Mum put the kettle on and a little later a cup of tea was placed before Vera, and as she sipped the hot tea it revived her.
“Now start at the beginning,” her mother said eyeing her suitcase. “Have you had a row, and left Geoff?”
“He’s the one who’s gone,” said Vera, fingering her teacup.
“Dear me. Why?”
Vera gave a shuddering sigh. “His war work. He left a message. I saw it when I came home from work this evening.”
“So, what’s new? He’s often had to go away with his engineering work. He’s been helping to construct those artificial harbours for D-Day hasn’t he? ”
Vera clattered her cup down into the saucer as she hissed, “Shush! It’s top secret.”
“I know it is. But I don’t pretend to know anything about it – only what I’ve heard you and Geoff mention on occasions.”
Vera stretched over to pat her mother’s hand. “I know you don’t gossip, Mum. But Geoff has said time and time again that it is an enormous engineering project. He has to oversee hundreds of dock-workers, and factory workers, who’ve been making it – and they must all keep it a secret. The enemy must not get wind of it – or it could mean the invasion will not succeed. It is a serious as that.”
Mum nodded. “I know Geoff has been very worried about it.”
“Worried? He’s been a pain in the neck, bad tempered, and inconsiderate. His papers are strewn all over the house. He forgets I have an exacting job of work to do too. It’s horrible coming home tired out after work and finding the house in a mess day after day.”
“Some men are very untidy.”
“Untidy? It’s not just that he’s been untidy – he’s been unbearable to live with! I wouldn’t have married him if I’d known he was going to be like that.”
Mum was silent as she looked at Vera sympathetically. “I don’t suppose he means to be difficult, Vera. He’s a high-ranking officer with an enormous amount of vital war work occupying his mind. That’s what’s made him anxious and short-tempered. And if he gets orders to move to another place he has to go. It must be just as hard on him as it is on you.”
“I know, “ she said miserably, remembering how her husband had told her that as a young officer he’d made a mistake with constructing a temporary bridge, and a soldier had been killed. “He’s terrified of making another mistake – although he’s a skilled and inventive engineer, and valued by the army. And I know they’ve given him a tremendous responsibility assisting with the construction of Mulberry – that’s the codename of the huge floating docks needed to give the army supplies after they’ve landed in France.”
Vera stopped talking and sighed. Although she was only twenty-two years old, she’d been given a huge responsibility too, as organizer of several British Restaurants in the area. Feeding hundreds of hungry people in wartime with very little food available took all her ingenuity. And, although she was trained as a Condon Blue Chef, some of the cooks and assistants didn’t even know how to boil a potato correctly before she trained them. But it was no good complaining – in wartime you just had to make the best of things.
Having a sense of humour helped, and Vera bucked up after talking to her mother about their worries. “Yes, Mum,” she nodded, “we’ve both been working hard and are feeling exhausted. This war has made everyone feel tired. Still, sometimes feel I can’t go on living with a man who is married to a floating dock!”
Mum smiled a little as she poured them a second cup of tea. “If I didn’t know you were a sensible girl, and have been working so hard yourself, I would say you were over-reacting – but I believe that there’s more reason than him ignoring you, and his bad temper, that’s made you come here this evening.”
There was, of course, but Vera didn’t quite know how best to explain it.
Not hearing a reply to her question, Mum stirred some sugar into her cup of tea.
Vera was thinking how she’d had to say goodbye to her first boyfriend, and he’d been killed in Malta. She shuddered to think of what might happen to Geoff. Would she ever see him again?
At last she explained, “Geoff’s had to go, as you said. But as I was at work all day, I wasn’t able to see him off . . . it’s terrible not to have been able to say goodbye . . .
and wish him well. And not know what might happen to him . . . ”
It hurt Vera because, despite her grumbles about Geoff, she loved him deeply. But she wondered why he hadn’t left a parting message for her – had his engineering work engulfed him so much he no longer loved her?
She sniffed and tried not to break down again.
“Lots of lovers have to part in wartime,” her mother reminded her.
Vera felt a flash of anger. As if that helped to know that other people suffered from being parted too!
Mother and daughter looked at each other and Vera’s moment of crossness evaporated. She knew she was lucky to have an understanding mother – especially as she had to ask her a favour.
“It is true I didn’t come here just to tell you my woes. I know you have your worries too, Mum. The truth is I’ve come to ask you to look after our dogs for awhile.”
“Can’t you manage them?”
“Yes, normally I can. But I have to go away too.”
Mum stiffened. “Oh? How long for?”
“Hopefully, only for a few days.”
Mum shifted herself to sit more comfortably on her chair. “Now tell me the truth. I want to know what all this is about Vera.”
Vera explained in a rush, “Geoff left before a messenger came on a motorbike with some top secret papers for him. Now I must track him down to give them to him.”
“Why couldn’t the messenger find him?”
“He didn’t know where he was.”
“Do you know where he’s gone?”
“Not exactly, Mum.”
“So how will you get the papers to him?”
“I’ll have go to the local army camp and ask for him.” She didn’t add that she feared he wouldn’t be there – but they m
“Can’t you telephone the camp?”
Vera shook her head. “Even it he’s there, he’ll need the papers.”
“Perhaps he won’t.”
Vera put her fingers through her hair. “But say he does? And people’s lives depended on it?”
Mrs Carter gave a little shiver. “Aren’t the army planning to attack the Germans in France very soon?”
“That’s the point, Mum. They are. I’ve heard it may begin any day now. And it’s such vital work Geoff has to do. I can’t presume that what’s been sent to him is unimportant – and he can do without it, can I? I just don’t know. All I know is that parts of Mulberry are going to be assembled somewhere on the South Coast very soon. And then the huge docks are going to be towed across the Channel to France.
Taking a deep, shuddering breath Vera continued, “Geoff is involved with some aspect of that job. He’s like an overseer to make sure the operation works. He has the expertise, but he too depends on the co-operation and skill of others. And I know he must be worried sick about casualties after the previous attempt was a disaster . . . and the weather forecast is awful . . . ”
“Now calm yourself, Vera. You didn’t give him the job - the army did. You couldn’t have stopped him from going to do his job – even if you’d wanted to. Geoff has a dangerous job to do like every soldier in this coming conflict. Just go back home and wait for him to return.”
Vera gave a loud wail, “I’d like to Mum. But I can’t when I believe the information in this military pouch he may need to do his part of the job. Why do you think they sent a messenger and didn’t just ring him?”
Mrs Carter put her to head to one side, saying, “I expect he’s working with other men who know what has to be done.”
“I don’t think they know as much as Geoff does about his part of the work. He designed and had made essential parts of the harbour. It’s like doing a huge jigsaw. If he can’t do his part properly, because he’s left some important instructions behind – ”
“Oh dear!” Mum’s eyes widened as she looked at Vera.
“So you see, I must go after Geoff with this pouch. That’s why I’m here, to ask you to look after the dogs. I’ve got their beds and dog dishes and some food for them in the back of the car.”
Her mother could see it would be no use arguing with Vera. Once her daughter
dug her heels in, Vera could be the most stubborn creature on earth, so Mum said, “Well, if you feel you must. You’d better go. It’s no great problem for me to look after the dogs. John Baxter always takes his dog for a walk everyday, so I’ll ask him if I can join him. My worry will be you chasing about looking for Geoff. Are you sure it is necessary?”
“I believe it is, Mum. Only he will know, when I find him, if my journey was really necessary.”
Mum smiled at Vera quoting the well-know wartime government slogan: Is your journey really necessary? Giving a sigh, she stood up scraping the wooden chair legs on the kitchen floor, “Well if you are set on it I suppose you must go. But what about your job?”
“I rang Margaret. She knows enough to take over while I’m away.”
Mrs Carter hid a tear as she walked over to the kitchen sink with the empty cups, saying, “Very well get in the car and beetle off to the army camp. I’ll have an evening meal ready for you when you get back.”
Vera replied, “Mum, I may not be back this evening. And I’m not taking the car. I’m going to take my bike from the shed and put some of my clothes in a rucksack so I can take them with me.”
AS the evening sky became dark with clouds Vera cycled along the straight flat road towards the camp. The gusty wind blew up across the Fenlands with a viciousness that made her bicycle wobble, making her think she was going to be swept off the road into the black earth fields either side of it at any moment.
Occasionally droning aircraft came far too low for comfort over her head. She began to think she was foolish not to have taken the car, but petrol was very scarce in wartime, and rationed, and she was only allowed a certain amount to do her job.
Anyway, the other reason she chose to ride her bike was because she wanted to be able to get from one area of the camp to another - and she knew, because she had to sometime visit them, how the vast military camps were.
But her old bike had been stuck in Mum’s garden shed during the year she’d been married because she didn’t need it at the farm cottage where she and Geoff lived. And the way the pedals were cranking reminded her that she should have oiled it.
She heard a car coming behind her and was furious when a jeep raced by almost knocking her off her bike. Wobbling to become straight on the road again, Vera felt annoyed to realise the pedal shaft had scratched her leg, resulting in a ladder up her stocking.
She spoke angrily to the jeep racing off ahead of her.
The invasion might be taking place soon, but there’s no point in killing people before you have to - or laddering their stockings!
Then she realized that in the fading light the jeep may not have seen her and she should have put on her bicycle lights. But she couldn’t because they weren’t working - she needed new batteries.
By the time she’d arrived at the camp’s sentry box Vera felt like turning around and going back to Mum’s for the evening meal she’d been told was being cooked for her.
“I’d like to speak to Colonel Parkington. Urgently,” she told the hard faced military policeman standing with a rifle at the gate.
“The camp ain’t entertaining ladies tonight, miss. There’s no weekly camp dance, only a big, hush hush army exercise that’s had everyone dancing about all day.”
“Ha, ha, very funny! Now listen. I’m Colonel Parkington’s wife - and I must see him.” Vera produced her identity card and the official looking pouch from her bicycle basket and held it up for the soldier to see.
“Sarge!” bellowed the sentry over his shoulder, “Come ’ere will yer?”
The sergeant came out of the guardhouse and blinked at her. “Blimey! It’s Mrs Parkington isn’t it?”
“It is. I need to speak to my husband. It’s important.”
“Well, ma’am, I don’t know where you’ll find him. The camp’s been like a busy ant hill all day with soldiers and vehicles coming and going - ”
“Just ring the camp commander’s office and say I’m here if you please, sergeant.”
She heard the sergeant’s boots as he crunched away into an inner room, then she overheard him give the order, “Jock, ring the commander’s office and say Parkie’s missus is here with an important message for him.”
After a few minutes the sergeant came back to her. “Sorry, ma’am. Colonel Parkington left the camp a few hours ago.”
Vera frowned. “Where did he go?”
“Not allowed to say, ma’am - even if I knew.”
“Well, let me talk to someone who will be able to tell me.”
“There’s been a lot going on all day.” He tapped his nose. “Everyone’s preparing for the invasion.”
Vera almost stamped her foot as she raised her voice. “That’s exactly why my husband may want this pouch, sergeant. I must get it to him.”
“If you give it to me, I’ll do my best to see it gets it.”
Vera huffed. “I must give it to him myself. That way I’ll know he’ll get it as soon as possible.”
The sergeant could see she meant business, and said. “Okay. Ride up the road ahead, turn right and you’ll see the sign to the commander’s office. And may I suggest you put your bicycle lamps on, Mrs Parkington?”
Vera thanked him, but ignored his warning about her bicycle lights because what could she do to put them on until she could buy some batteries?
* * *
The whole camp seemed strangely deserted.
Soon she was explaining why she’d come to an army secretary. He was a courteous older soldier, no doubt a volunteer, who tol
“And where is he now?”
“On the way to the south coast, I should imagine.”
Vera scowled at him. “Forget your imagination. I want to know the facts. You can see this pouch has, Top Secret, clearly printed on it. Colonel Parkington needs to have it as soon as possible.”
“Leave it with me. I’ll see he gets it.”
“If I leave it with your imagination – he may get it by Christmas. He needs it now. Please get on the phone and find out where he is.”
The bespectacled secretary looked offended as he said, “Sit down, ma’am. I’ll see what I can find out.”
Vera was about to say, don’t take all day about it, when she realised the lights were on in the Nissen hut, and the windows looked black. Outside the daylight was going. The day was over.
But her search for Geoff wasn’t. That, she realised, had only just begun.
He rang several numbers asking for Geoff’s whereabouts and it was after awhile he said to Vera, “I’ve been told Colonel Parkington on his way to Selsey.”
“Selsey? Where’s that? I suppose I’ll have to get there.”
“Come and look at this map. Selsey’s near Chichester, in Sussex. It’ll be a long way for you to ride your bike!”
Somehow this flippant remark made Vera’s blood boil, “Oh, I’ll get there. And I’ll find him,” she retorted.
Surprised by her vehemence, the secretary said, as if anxious to get rid of her, “Try the transport station. They may have a truck going there.”
But, a little later, when Vera approached the huge hanger, usually crammed full of vehicles, it was empty. No sign of anyone.
“Hello, are you lost?”
Hearing a woman’s voice, Vera swung around to see a couple of young uniformed girls approaching her.
“Yes,” Vera admitted, “I need transport to Selsey, and there doesn’t seem to be a car or truck anywhere on the camp.”
The girls looked at each other. One said, “Everyone left today – except us.”
“You mean - there’s no way I can get to there?”