As Glasgow waits for enemy bombers to reach Clydeside and the German invasion to begin, Lizzie Conway's daughters throw themselves wholeheartedly into the war effort and eagerly accept their roles as working wives in Jessica Stirling's enthralling new novel set in the darkest days of the Second World War.
With her husband in the army, mother-of-four Babs sends three of her darlings to the country and goes back to work long hours in an office. Her comfortable routine is disrupted, however, when a charming American news photographer insinuates himself into her life, an American who may not be all that he seems.
Rosie's job as a skilled factory worker is marred by the taunts of her cruel and snobbish coworkers. Eager to start a family but fearful that she might pass her deafness to her children, she blames her ambitious policeman husband for her desperate unhappiness and risks not only her marriage but her future because of it.
Wealthy and self assured, Polly continues to manage her husband's shady empire, trying to forget that her children have been stolen from her and now live with their father in New York. But Dominic explodes back into her life with a plot that involves the Italian resistance, the OSS, and spiriting a fortune out of Scotland. When the bombs begin to fall, Polly is forced to choose between loyalty and betrayal, and to face up to what truly matters.
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About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Jessica Stirling is the author of twenty-five novels, many with Scottish backgrounds. She has enjoyed a highly successful career as a writer, beginning with the bestselling Stalker trilogy. Her most recent novel is Shamrock Green, which is set during the First World War in Dublin and France; other recent books include The Wind from the Hills---shortlisted for the 1999 Romantic Novelists Association award---Sisters Three, and Prized Possessions, in which the Conway sisters first appeared.
Born in Glasgow, Jessica Stirling is the author of more than two dozen novels, many with Scottish backgrounds. She has enjoyed a highly successful career as a writer, beginning with the bestselling Stalker trilogy. Her novel Shamrock Green is set during the First World War in Dublin and France; other books include The Wind from the Hills--shortlisted for the 1999 Romantic Novelists Association award--Sisters Three, and Prized Possessions, in which the Conway sisters first appeared.
Read an Excerpt
Wives at War
By Jessica Stirling
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Jessica Stirling
All rights reserved.
Babs had always suspected that industry and commerce were built around a wide margin of inefficiency but it wasn't until she went to work for the Ministry of Labour in the early autumn of 1940 that she learned just how wide that margin could be and how damaging to a nation at war.
'War,' Mr Harding informed her on her first day at the office, 'war is, by its very nature, the quintessence of insecurity. Our problem is how to strike a balance between security, which can easily bracket off into apathy or all-consuming self-interest, and insecurity, which leads to irritation, disunity and stress. Are you with me on that, Mrs Hallop?'
'Yes, sir, I do believe I am.'
He gave her the eye, not the sort of eye Babs was used to receiving from men but a deep, dour sort of scrutiny so magnified by his inch-thick lenses that she felt as if he were peering right through her. Without his glasses, she thought, his eyes would probably vanish altogether, like those of a hedgehog or a vole. He was, at a guess, not a day over twenty-five.
'Twenty-six per cent labour wastage in the third quarter of last year, according to government figures,' Archie Harding went on. 'My God, how the Germans must be laughing up their sleeves. My job, my role in this mighty conflict is to ensure that production quotients are increased by the simple expedient of redistributing the work force into areas where it will do most good. Only by winning the production war can we hope to stop Adolf in his tracks. And we're just the lads to do it, are we not, Mrs Hallop?'
'Absolutely,' Babs, laddishly, agreed.
'You're a qualified typist, I take it?'
'Where were you previously employed?'
She couldn't tell if he was dismayed or impressed by mention of the name. If he'd known even half of what had gone on in her brother-in-law's warehouse before the war, however, the patriotic Mr Harding would surely have run her out of the office there and then. Dominic Manone was gone, of course. In the autumn of '39 he had gathered up his ill-gotten gains, and his children, and escaped to America before the forces of law and order could muster a case against him for his part in a counterfeiting operation.
The fact that Dominic had left Polly, her sister, high and dry in Glasgow did not endear him to Babs. As far as she was concerned every Johnny Foreigner should be locked up. She kept the opinion to herself, though, for her sisters were outraged by the Government's cavalier treatment of foreign nationals.
'Yes,' said Babs, exaggerating somewhat, 'I was Mr Manone's personal assistant before I got married.'
'Ah, of course, you're one of the marrieds, aren't you?'
Babs held up her hand and displayed a tarnished wedding ring.
'Sure am,' she said.
'Do you have children?'
Mr Harding's brows rose. 'Four!'
'Three girls,' said Babs, 'and a boy.'
'Who's looking after them?'
'The wee one,' Babs answered, 'lives at home with me. The others are boarded out.'
'Evacuated, you mean?'
'Yes,' said Babs. 'Went off, came back, went off again.'
'Are they far away?'
'Not really. They're on a farm at Blackstone.'
'Across the river, near Breslin.'
'Very posh,' said Mr Harding. 'Staying with relatives, are they?'
'With friends of my sister, actually,' said Babs.
'Well, they're better out of the way, I suppose.'
Babs missed her children more than she cared to admit. She gave a haughty little toss of the head. 'I take it you don't have children, Mr Harding?'
'Well then ...'
'I do not wish to imply that there's no emotional distress involved in being parted from one's offspring,' said Archie Harding, hastily. 'It's simply that women can adjust better and put their shoulders to the wheel with more – erm – enthusiasm if they know their little ones are being well cared for.'
'Of course,' said Babs.
In fact May, June and Angus were thriving at Blackstone Farm, where they were cared for by Douglas Giffard and Miss Dawlish, Polly's housekeeper; an odd arrangement that seemed to be working well.
'Husband on active service?' Mr Harding enquired.
'He's in the army, somewhere in Devon.'
'You won't see much of him then?'
'Don't see him at all,' said Babs.
'He's safe, though,' said Mr Harding, 'in Devon.'
'As safe as any of us these days,' Babs said.
Jackie was a corporal in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and repaired tanks and armoured cars on the manoeuvring grounds near Yelverton where he'd been stationed for the last ten months. Babs had a strong suspicion that he was having the time of his life but she couldn't be sure, for his letters were few and far between. She fretted more about her brother-in-law Dennis, who had transferred into the air branch of the Royal Navy and was presently pitching about on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the North Atlantic.
Back in 1939, when the older children had first been evacuated, Babs had experienced a sense of freedom the like of which she hadn't known since she'd been a girl growing up in the Gorbals.
Along with millions of others, she'd been lulled into a false sense of security by what they were now calling 'the phoney war', those weeks and months when nothing much seemed to be happening and air raids and gas attacks had failed to materialise. Then things had turned nasty, very nasty; British ships were being sunk ten-a-penny by German U-boats, the army had only just escaped from Dunkirk, London had been bombed, Italy had entered the fray, France had fallen and the war had spread into parts of the world that Babs had barely heard of.
'Know what worries me?' Archie Harding said.
'The probability that when this war is over women will imagine they're entitled to all these perks and benefits.'
'What perks and benefits?' Babs said.
'Big pay envelopes, responsible posts, pensions. Parity, in a word,' said Mr Harding. 'Equality.'
'I wouldn't worry about it,' Babs said.
'The trade union machine will grind us up and spit us out again just as soon as peace is declared.'
'Ah, but will women stand for it?'
'Women always do,' said Babs.
Archie Harding sniffed and gave her another dour, deep stare. He came round from behind the desk and perched on it, facing her. His office was hardly bigger than a closet and much smaller than the reception area at the front of the building where she, Babs, would work.
Cyprus Street Recruitment and Welfare Centre, a sub-branch of a branch of the Ministry of Labour, was situated in the middle of nowhere. Only one bus served the area and trams turned at the little depot behind St Jerome's church at the head of the disused ferry ramp that sloped steeply into the river. Bleak wasn't the word for Cyprus Street. All around were shipyards and graving docks; across the river, more of the same. A row of steel fencing, four long sandbagged warehouses and a brick wall separated the street from the oily brown waters of the Clyde along which ships of war and trade, identically daubed in Admiralty grey, slid past like the scenery in a puppet play.
The shops that hugged the corners at St Jerome's Cross had boarded windows and were already selling unrationed goods only to regular customers. Babs was registered with her local Co-op miles away on the Holloway Road, near where she lived. Shopping, she realised, would be a major problem, not one that the loquacious Mr Harding would be likely to take into account when he required her to work late into the evening.
'What,' Babs said, 'will I be expected to do here, Mr Harding?'
'Bit of this, bit of that. Adaptability will be your watchword, as it is mine.'
'Could you maybe be a wee tad more specific?' Babs suggested.
'Our job, boiled down, is to fit square pegs into round holes,' Archie Harding told her. 'Too many tool setters in one factory, not enough in another – we fix it. Twenty skilled artisans conscripted en bloc from a single plant – we replace them. You'll soon become proficient in the ignoble art of filling in forms, and will, I don't doubt, groan at the weight of paperwork required to satisfy government regulations. You'll encounter tinpot tyrants from the Department of National Service and squander vital man-hours in pointless arguments with middle managers and personnel officers. But under my tutelage you'll learn to weed out the slackers and shirkers who slouch through that door with the sole intention of sponging off the state.'
Babs hadn't taken off her hat or overcoat, hadn't yet revealed her figure in a tight black skirt and one of Jackie's white shirts that she'd modified, on the make-do-and-mend principle, with several extra buttons. Even so, Mr Archie Harding was already breathing hard, his eyes reduced and multiplied in the curve of the lenses. It wasn't the proximity of a buxom young woman that excited him, though, so much as the volume of his own rhetoric.
'I tell you this, Mrs Hallop,' he went on, 'I can spot a slacker at a thousand paces and smell a shirker as soon as he steps off the tram. They are our enemies, our foes in the production war. Together we must stamp them out.'
'We will, Mr Harding,' said Babs staunchly. 'I'm sure we will.'
'Well, Mrs Hallop – Barbara – I reckon we're going to get along famously and I'm sure you'll find your work here rewarding.' He placed a hand lightly near her shoulder. 'Now, tell me, do you know how to make tea?'
'Tea,' said Mr Harding. 'Can you brew up a nice strong cuppa?'
'Of course I can.'
'Make me a fresh pot then, dear,' Mr Harding said. 'There's a good girl.'
Then he slid behind his desk and flopped down in his chair while Babs, sighing, removed her hat and coat and went in search of the kettle upon which, she would soon learn, the efficiency of the department depended.
* * *
Babs was obliged to rise so early that it still seemed like the middle of the night on cold November mornings. Before the war a network of lights had illuminated the valley of the Clyde but now the city and its suburbs were submerged in darkness. She did her best to cheer the dawn patrol by focusing her attention on her three-year-old daughter, April, who was her dear, her darling and the light of her life.
The morning ritual of rising, washing, shivering, dressing, was followed by a hasty retreat into the kitchen with April in her arms. The kitchen door was shut tight, all four gas rings lit and purring away. April would sit quietly while Mum finished dressing, then she would perch on Mum's knee and they would eat thin milky porridge sweetened with golden syrup while Babs wove a little story about the lion – 'Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness' – that was depicted on the syrup tin; no mean feat for an unimaginative young woman whose teachers had marked her down as a flighty wee trollop who would probably come to a bad end.
When the porridge and story were finished Babs would pour a spoonful of Scott's Emulsion from the bottle with the fisherman on the label. April would make a face and swallow the nasty stuff and Babs would give her a fruit pastille to take away the taste, then, downing a last mouthful of tea, would open the kitchen door and admit chill air from the hallway.
Slippers, stockings, knickers – little accidents do happen – handkerchiefs, a clean facecloth and towel were stuffed into a small canvas satchel, the gas-mask container secured on its green cord and April, equipped like a soldier of the line, was ready for the road at last. Hat, overcoat, scarf, gloves. Fags and matches popped into the floppy shoulder bag that had replaced Babs's neat little pre-war purse. Straighten stockings, cram on flat-heeled shoes. Switch off the fire. Turn off the gas and unlock the front door. Then, hand in hand, mother and daughter went down the steps to the pavement.
When the cold knuckled her nose and lips, April uttered her only words of complaint. 'Dark, Mummy,' she said dolefully, glancing up at the sky. 'Cold.'
'Yes, dear,' Babs told her, 'but it won't be for long now.'
Babs knew it was selfish of her to keep April here, that the little girl would be safer and more comfortable boarded out at Blackstone with her sisters and brother. In September, soon after she'd started work, guilt had prompted her to leave the baby at the farm for a long weekend, but fond imaginings of wild nights on the town, of drinking cocktails and dancing until dawn had swiftly evaporated and she'd been back at Blackstone by Sunday lunch time and home again before sundown with April safe in her arms.
She loved all her children, of course, but not equally. There was something rather sinister about May and June, who had a feline habit of not being around when chores were being allotted or mischief uncovered. Dougie Giffard had their measure, however, and his subtle tactics had added a degree of uncertainty to the girls' self-assurance, which, Babs thought, was no bad thing. She missed Angus more than she missed the girls, but her pining, such as it was, was tempered by the fact that being around Angus for any length of time exhausted both her patience and her energy.
She had to admit, though, that Blackstone and Angus were made for each other. The farm offered space, freedom and plenty of interesting things to do. Her son could still be as noisy as a cage full of monkeys, could trumpet like an elephant, or roar like a lion when something displeased him but he had also learned how to be quiet, like an Indian scout or a jungle explorer, and let the wonders of wood, moor and hillside soak into him, along with all the wonders of fringe warfare that buzzed about the country roads and the streets of Breslin, the posh little community where he and his sisters schooled.
Babs groped her way along Raines Drive into Holloway Road. She had tried using a shielded pocket torch but had found it so ineffectual that carrying the thing was more trouble than it was worth. Fortunately April was capable of navigating the route without bumping into hedges or lampposts and it was she, not Babs, who led them to the door of the Millses' house.
The Hallops were usually last to arrive. Five or six children would already be ensconced in Mrs Mills' front room, drinking piping hot cocoa and looking, rather sleepily, at the tinted photographs of Mount Fuji and Mount Etna that decorated the walls. On the piano top were a stuffed blowfish and a big conch shell. On the mantel above the gas fire were a row of Chinese figurines carved out of soapstone and a strange, spindly clock with a painted face that played waltz tunes when Mr Mills remembered to wind it.
Mr Mills was a retired ship's engineer. He was bald now and his legs were so bowed that he needed two sticks to walk with. Mrs Mills, on the other hand, was a tall upright woman with a mane of silvery hair and a vigorous manner. The war had roused the couple from retirement and six days each week they looked after seven very young children whose mothers were on early shift.
Rain, hale or shine at eight bells precisely the little band would be herded out into Holloway Road, old Mr Mills chugging in front and stately Mrs Mills sailing behind, and off they would go to the nursery school in the church hall in Bonniewell Street. In the evening, light or dark, Mrs M. would collect those who needed collecting and keep them snug in her parlour, listening to the wireless or playing games, until their mums came to pick them up.
It was all very organised, all very civilised, but when a child fell ill – 'Scarlet fever? Don't tell me it's scarlet fever?' – or when, as happened, Mrs M. had one of her turns and was carted off to hospital, the pattern broke down. If there was one thing Babs feared more than bombs or gas attacks or, God help us, Jackie being run over by a tank, it was a breakdown in routine.
The double-decker tram that carried her on the first leg of her journey to the office was packed with shipwrights and factory hands. Strap hanging, she fumbled in her bag, fished out fags and matches, lit a cigarette and hung there, smoking, while the men listlessly ignored her.
She wondered if they ever wondered what she did, what she was. She hoped that the black skirt and swagger overcoat gave the impression that she was a woman of authority but if any of the men were taken in they gave no sign of it and huddled disconsolately in their boiler suits and greasy overcoats, smoking and scanning the early editions of the Daily Record for the latest football scores and news about the war.
Excerpted from Wives at War by Jessica Stirling. Copyright © 2003 Jessica Stirling. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Old enough to remember those times and lots of memories
In 1940, the German bombers seem everywhere, softening England and Scotland for what looks like the next Blitzkrieg invasion. Still in spite of the fears and the anticipation of the worst, most citizens remain loyal to the crown and try to whatever they can to support the war effort. --- The Conway sisters are typical Scotswomen trying to help their country battle Hitler. While her spouse fights as a soldier, Babs evacuates her three oldest from Glasgow keeping only the youngest with her as she works as an office assistant in the Ministry of Labor. She detests ¿Johnny Foreigners¿ ever since her former employer Dominick deserted her sister Polly to flee for America with their children in tow. Polly manages her estranged husband¿s business while he stays safe in New York. The third sister Rosie, though deaf, works at a factory where she is verbally abused due to her handicap. The trio¿s loyalty to country and husbands is tested when Dominic returns with an American and a plot that forces each sister to choose. --- Few writers bring out the fear and courage of those who stayed behind on the home front doing what they could to support England the way Jessica Stirling does. Her latest war tale (see SISTERS THREE) is a strong character driven tale starring three siblings who though fearing for loved ones feel they must help Scotland in the Battle of Britain. As usual, the key players, particularly the three sisters, contain different personalities as they react in varying ways to the situations they confront. Dominick¿s plot adds tension and suspense, but WIVES AT WAR pays homage to women who stayed home to work in support of the war.--- Harriet Klausner