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Authors: Mary Nichols

The Farmer's Daughter

BOOK: The Farmer's Daughter
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The Farmer's Daughter

M
ARY
N
ICHOLS

Chapter One

6th June, 1944

‘This is the BBC Home Service and here is a special bulletin read by John Snagge.'
The familiar voice of the newsreader filled the farmhouse kitchen.
‘D-Day has come. The first official news came just after half past nine when Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force issued Communiqué Number One. This said: “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces began landing on the coast of France …”'

‘It's happened at last,' Jean said. It was something the whole country had been speculating on for months. The war had been going in the Allies' favour ever since Rommel had been ousted from Africa at the end of 1942. At that time, Prime Minister Churchill told the nation:
‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'
Was this, then, the beginning of the end? The signs had all been there: you couldn't hide thousands of troops on the move by rail and lorry, holding up the trains and clogging the roads, and the huge increase of bombers flying overhead; the British at night and the Americans during the day. And no one was allowed to go within
ten miles of the coast, all the way round from The Wash to Land's End.

Her mother stopped fussing round her father's wheelchair and sat down to listen while the newsreader went on to give more details: the huge numbers of ships, aircraft and troops and how the attack started at midnight with airborne troops landing behind the lines. There had been some tough fighting, but losses were lighter than expected and everything was going to plan. The king would make a broadcast at nine o'clock.

‘Do you think that means the war's nearly over?' Doris queried. ‘Will our boys be coming home soon?' Her first thought, as always, was for her son. Gordon had been captured when his Spitfire had been shot down over northern France, while trying to defend the troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, and he had been a prisoner of war ever since.

‘Let's hope so.' Jean said, as the newsreader continued with other items: the American Fifth Army had entered Rome unopposed to find the German army gone. Daylight brought thousands of Romans out onto the streets, to greet their liberators with flowers, hugs and kisses. The Russians were advancing in the east, while at sea, the Allied shipping losses were down to 27,000 tonnes, the lowest figure of the war. All seemed set for victory. ‘I'll catch it later,' she said, leaving her parents to go back to work.

She had been up since dawn, milking and looking after the livestock, a task which had devolved on her shoulders since her father's stroke. Their farm was a mixed one of pasture for a small dairy herd and a few sheep, with some acres of arable land on the slightly higher ground. Higher ground in the fens meant a bump of land that might, in pre-drainage days when the area was under water much of the time, have been a small island. Pa
and Gordon had managed very well with casual labour at busy times, but the war had changed everything. Gordon had not waited to be called up and joined the Royal Air Force as soon as war was declared, much to their father's annoyance. ‘How am I to run the farm without you?' he had demanded on being told the news.

‘You can get help.'

This had proved impossible; most of the village men had either followed Gordon's example and joined up or they had their own farms or employment on other farms. Jean had given up her job in Wisbech to help out and they had managed with casual labour, but she was nothing like as skilled or as strong as her brother, a lack which her father was not slow to point out. One evening three months before, after a particularly stressful day, Pa had fallen down in a heap, his face distorted and his left arm useless. He had been taken to hospital where they did the best they could for him, but his left arm was useless, he could no longer walk and his speech was slurred. He was only fifty-two – no age at all. It had been left to Jean to take over the running of the farm and dealing with the mounting paperwork, although her father still thought of himself as the boss and he would make the decisions about what needed doing and when. Usually Jean obeyed, but on occasion made up her own mind what to do.

Leaving her mother to the housework, she went out to see to Dobbin and Robin, the two cart horses. Some of the farms had the new tractors imported from America, but on Briar Rose Farm they were still using horses. A tractor was on order, but they had to wait their turn to have one and Pa was in no hurry; he had heard they were nothing but trouble, were devils to start and were always breaking down. Horses were more reliable, even if they were slower.

She let them out to the pasture to graze, then went up the lane to the potato field to hoe between the rows. It was hot, dusty, back-breaking work and she stopped only for a sandwich and a flask of tea in the middle of the day. At five o'clock she left off to fetch the cows into the cowshed to milk them. It was seven when she went back to the house.

Her mother was laying the table for supper in the large flagstoned kitchen. There was a big table in its centre, a coal-fired kitchen range and a dresser along one wall displaying crockery. A rocking chair stood in a corner and a cat snoozed on the hearthrug. ‘Give the boys a shout, will you, Jean?' she said.

Jean went to the back door to call her fifteen-year-old brother, Donald, and Terry Jackson, their evacuee, who was a couple of years younger. She had to shout twice before they appeared from the direction of the barn.

‘We caught more rats,' Don said. ‘Six yesterday and four more today. We put the tails in a bucket.' The tails were docked so that children could not claim their penny-a-tail more than once.

‘All right, that's ten pence we owe you,' Doris said. ‘Don't you dare sit down, either of you, until you've scrubbed your hands.'

They went to the sink to obey, while Doris wheeled Arthur's chair up to the table and they sat down to eat. There were plenty of vegetables with water or home-made cider to drink and for a while there was silence.

‘How was school today?' Doris asked Donald. He attended Wisbech Grammar School, while Terry went to the village school which took pupils from five until they left at fourteen.

‘OK, I suppose. We had special prayers in assembly on account of D-Day. They changed our lessons so they could tell us about it. But I knew something was up before that. I heard the bombers going over last night. They woke me up. I tried to count them, but
there were too many. Thousands and thousands. They blotted out the sky.'

‘We've got Jerry on the run now,' Terry added, with the grin that almost always resulted in him being forgiven for any misdemeanour he had been engaged in. He had arrived in the household in September 1939, a bedraggled, bewildered eight-year-old, who had taken weeks to settle. His behaviour had been erratic and unpredictable and for a time they wondered what they had let themselves in for, but Jean, who had a great capacity for love, had gradually won him over. He had shown his mettle when Arthur had his stroke. Somehow the incapacitated man struck a chord with him and they had become great pals.

‘Have you done your homework?'

‘I'll do it later.'

‘You will go and do it as soon as we've finished dinner. What about you, Don?'

‘It's history. I hate history.'

‘Nevertheless, you will do it.'

Once the meal was finished, the boys went reluctantly to their homework and Jean helped her mother clear away and wash up. ‘We need more help,' she said, voicing what had been in her mind for some time. ‘I can't cope on my own. There's hay to cut and the wheat will be ready for harvesting soon. The ditch on the bottom field needs clearing and the hedges are getting untidy. And I've only managed to hoe half the potatoes today.'

‘Not in front of Pa,' Doris murmured, nodding towards her husband dozing in his wheelchair. ‘You'll only agitate him.'

Jean subsided, but the problem was still on her mind as she left the kitchen to go into the sitting room to deal with the farm accounts and fill in yet more forms. The trouble was
that it was almost impossible to get help. All the farms in the neighbourhood were short-staffed. With the men away in the forces, their numbers had been made up with Italian prisoners of war and girls from the Land Army, many of whom were town girls and had no idea about farming. They were learning, it was true, and their help was better than none, but they had to be shown what to do and how to do it and it all took time. ‘Fat lot o' good they are,' her father had said when she had first mooted the subject. ‘We'll manage without 'em.' But he could not have known he would be incapacitated by a stroke, and even now expected to recover fully and go back to work. She did not think that was likely in the immediate future and something had to be done.

For the next few days everyone was glued to their wireless sets, listening to bulletins as more and more details of the invasion emerged. There was fierce fighting and the first day objectives had not all been taken. The American advance was slower than had been predicted; the terrain was swampy and there were more German troops facing them than had been expected. Caen, an important town for communication and supplies, was still holding out in July. It soon became clear that Hitler was not going to give up and so the slaughter and the taking of prisoners went on.

 

Going to church was a Sunday ritual for the Coleman family, as it was for most of the older villagers. Here they met to worship, but also to gossip and grumble and share experiences. At the beginning of the war when everyone expected an invasion, the bells had been silenced, only to be rung as a warning that the Germans had landed. The ban had been lifted now and the bells could clearly be heard ringing out over the village.

Terry pushed Arthur in his wheelchair, while the others walked beside them. As they approached the church, the eight bells stopped their carillon and were followed by a single toll which told everyone to hurry. The wheelchair was hoisted over the church step; Don and Terry, who were in the choir, went to the vestry to put on their cassocks, while Jean wheeled her father up to the pew at the front where there was room to park it. Sir Edward and Lady Masterson always occupied the front pew on the other side of the aisle but they had not yet arrived and the service would not begin until they did. Sir Edward owned most of the land in the village including Briar Rose Farm, but he was a benign landlord and, so long as they paid their rent on time, rarely made his presence felt. Their son, Rupert, a captain in the Cambridgeshire Regiment, had been captured when Singapore fell and they did not know if he were alive or dead and, in that respect, he shared the troubles of some of his tenants.

Miss Dawson, the elderly schoolteacher, played the organ while the congregation trooped in and took their places. Besides the villagers, there were some Americans from the nearby base and one or two British airmen who were convalescing at Bushey Hall after being wounded. When the squire and Lady Masterson arrived, the Reverend Archibald Brotherton, with the choir behind him, followed them up the aisle. He conducted the service in the traditional way and everyone could follow it automatically, leaving time to let their thoughts wander. Jean prayed along with everyone else, that the war would soon end, that prisoners would come home, the missing turn up safe and well, and those who had suffered tragic loss would learn to live again. ‘And let Pa get better,' she added.

She turned to look at him. He was staring up at the pulpit, where the rector had gone to deliver his sermon. Sometimes he
answered back if the parson said something he disagreed with, which embarrassed his wife and drew a smile from the reverend. Today the sermon was about patience and tolerance and loving one's enemies, which didn't go down too well with those who had suffered. She watched her father carefully, ready to lay a restraining hand on his arm.

‘The Boy Scouts will bring their collection of paper and metal to the village hall on Saturday afternoon, where a lorry will be waiting to take it away,' the reverend added, after ending the sermon. ‘The Women's Institute has arranged a talk about preserving fruit and vegetables which will be held in the church hall on Friday beginning at 7.30 p.m. All are welcome.' He paused to look round as if assessing who was present and who was absent. ‘We will conclude with hymn number 217:
“Thy Kingdom Come, O God, Thy rule, O Christ, begin; Break with Thine iron rod, the tyrannies of sin.”'

With the ending of the hymn, he blessed the congregation, crossed himself and left the pulpit, to be followed down the aisle by the choir, Sir Edward and Lady Masterson and the rest of the congregation. Everyone gathered in the churchyard to comment on the latest news. It was not just the battles abroad, overhead and at sea that filled their minds, but the effects of war at home.

Everyone had been forced to tighten their belts. Everything was either rationed or in short supply. Things like cigarettes, razor blades, safety pins, hair clips and lipstick disappeared under the counter. The ‘utility' label was on almost everything manufactured: clothing, furniture, bedding, pots and pans and carpets, which meant they had to be made to strict guidelines. Even those were hard to come by. To save paper, newspapers were confined to four pages and very few books were being published, although there were leaflets in abundance with notice of new regulations, endless
recipes for using the bounty of the countryside, and instructions for remaking old clothes into new.

‘Have you seen what they've done up at the camp?' Mrs Harris asked Doris.

‘No,' Doris said. ‘I haven't been that way for some time.'

‘Well, I don't usually, but Ted Gould has been working up there and he told me that they have extended it to take thousands more prisoners. We'll be inundated. I don't like it.'

Most German prisoners taken earlier in the conflict had been sent on to Canada and America where it was thought they couldn't cause trouble, but a few, mostly submariners and Luftwaffe, had remained on British soil. Bushey camp housed a few hundred of them but they were confined behind a high wire fence and had caused no trouble.

BOOK: The Farmer's Daughter
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