The Stoker Trilogy, Book III: Acceptance

2024 Young Or Golden Writer
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Logline or Premise
A portrait of the progress of World War II as experienced by a commando officer, a tank driver and a naval gunner; by their loved ones at home, fighting to survive the blackout, ration books, the blitz and the doodlebugs; and how their intertwined lives are dramatically affected by the war.
First 10 Pages

The declaration of war with Germany was made in London on 3rd September 1939. Petrol became rationed immediately, civil defence workers were put on alert, air raid wardens recruited to ensure everyone put up blackout curtains, and gas masks and identity cards were issued for all to carry. A large number of children were evacuated from the city. A number of London’s Underground stations and other safe buildings were designated as large public shelters, and family air raid shelters were supplied free of charge for those earning less than seven pounds a week, installed in rear gardens, half-buried into the soil.

However, no immediate sign of enemy attack followed and many of the children returned home after three or four months. Petrol would remain rationed for ten years, but this had little direct effect on the daily lives of most working people.

By the beginning of 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed, and soon afterwards, meat was added to the list. These cautionary measures created an awareness of the war, but there was no visible sign of the havoc that was to follow.

Nothing really jolted the man in the street until May 1940. Then, the German Panzer divisions that had already swallowed up Denmark led a blitzkrieg attack that overran Holland, Belgium and France in six weeks. Suddenly, the war was at our doorstep.

The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, now a sick man, resigned on the 10th May. He was replaced by Winston Churchill, appointed to head a coalition government until the war should end.

For Sally Spence, however, there was a far more urgent matter in hand. On Wednesday, 15th May, attended by her mother and her mother-in-law, two capable and sensible women, Sally gave birth to her second child, a beautiful little girl. It was Lottie Cutter’s fourth grandchild, and while all the children were treasured, this birth, for both mother and daughter, was extra special.

Percy Spence, Sally’s husband, had taken the day off from his job at the clothing factory to be near his wife as her time drew close. The poor man spent the whole day running around in circles trying to control his nervousness, regardless of the fact that the women had been telling him for weeks that there was nothing to worry about. Sally, like her sister Cissie and her mother before them, had no problems with childbirth, and this was, after all, Sally’s second child. She had given birth easily to Harry, her first, four years earlier.

When it was all over, Percy took the child from his mother-in-law, tentatively, his pale features glowing with pride. He held the baby as if she were the most fragile china doll. Tears fell from his eyes as he studied the miracle in his arms, overcome by the realisation that this was the moment of the ultimate triumph of his life. This was his daughter, this gorgeous tiny creature, brought to life by his remarkable, wonderful Sally. Nothing again could ever possibly match the wonder of this moment and the pride he felt in his heavenly Sally and their beautiful daughter.

* * *

Twenty miles to the east, at Warley camp, headquarters of the Essex Regiment, the atmosphere was a different sort of feverish. The ‘phoney’ war was over. The British Expeditionary Force, which included a battalion from the regiment, was being forced into rapid retreat across France to the English Channel by the rampaging German Panzer divisions. At the same time, a second detachment from the regiment was involved in the Norwegian Campaign, an attempt to cut off the supply of oil to Germany through the Baltic ports.

It was in Warley’s febrile atmosphere, on the 17th May, that Charlie Stoker completed the pre-OCTU course that had followed his basic training. He was granted a seventy-two-hour-pass before being transferred to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst for the eighteen week officer training course.

Charlie had enjoyed army life from the first day at Warley Barracks. Everything about it was different from the life he had always known. He had been thrown a uniform that barely fitted, a pair of boots that would have caused cobbler Billy Walters to scoff in disgust, a knife, a fork, a spoon and a tin mug.

Sleeping in a barrack room with twenty oddly assorted characters had been strange in itself. Apart from a weekend’s camping as a boy scout, he had always slept alone in his own room. Nevertheless, he found the experience thoroughly enjoyable.

Almost every day of his initial ten weeks had involved a series of drills, lectures, or route marches. Basic training had entailed six weeks of polishing kit, physical training, marching drills, and handling and caring for a rifle. It also meant six weeks of being belittled and insulted all day by immaculately dressed and utterly foul-mouthed NCOs[1].

While Charlie himself was rarely chosen as a direct target for the abuse, he understood its purpose. It instilled into raw recruits the importance of obeying orders, of fitting into the army system; it instilled a sense of loyalty to this proud Essex Regiment with all its history. Above all, it was to prepare men for survival on a real-life battlefield.

Pre-OCTU had really been much of the same but to a more precise standard. It lasted four weeks and included a series of IQ tests. Throughout the whole ten weeks, Charlie’s six feet four frame, his unflappability and his inscrutable blue eyes earned him a respect from his fellow recruits that was only increased by his competence at every training discipline.

Eight years as a tally man at Collick’s had taught the big blond man a great deal about dealing with people. He enjoyed the atmosphere of the billet, and, as throughout his life, he soon became popular. He chuckled at much of the banter that went on, although rarely contributing more than a grin or a nod.

Odd moments of confrontation or aggression, the sort of thing that naturally occurred among groups of men forced to live together, were invariably doused by the Stoker shrug or the hint of a smile that played about his eyes. Only once did he find it necessary to take action against a barrack room bully. Charlie lifted the troublemaker off his feet and, his right hand bunched into a fist, held him against the wall with his outstretched left arm.

“There’s no room in here for cowards or bullies,” he said calmly. “Now, you knock it off and keep it knocked off, or you’ll answer to me for it.”

The petrified bully, white-faced and shaking, was shamed and tamed for the duration.

When first reporting to Warley, Charlie had made an arrangement with the proprietor of Harris’s Garage, just a short walk from the main gate, to leave his motor car in their care while he was in camp. Now that he was at last being let out, he collected his trusty Model Y Ford. His pass was from 17.00 hrs, but he had been released early and left the garage at just after two o’clock to drive home to Chigwell.

He had not warned Margret that he was coming home this weekend. He knew she would not be at the house, which was unlived in most of the time. Margret was a maths lecturer at the South-West Essex Technical College at Walthamstow. Most nights she slept at the Bounds Green flat of her lover, Jennifer Lacey.

On Saturday mornings, while Jennifer, a pharmacist, was busy in the pharmacy below the flat, Margret would come to Chigwell to look over the house. She would collect the mail and check the well-being of her beloved black, twenty-five-year-old mare, Tempest. Although they had their own paddock next to the house, the horse was cared for at Chigwell Stables, half a mile down the lane next to the property.

Guessing there would be no fresh food in the larder, Charlie stopped in the village to buy a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, two eggs and two rashers of bacon, all furtively supplied by Mr Grierson, the grocer—with a wink and a reminder that he had not brought his ration book.

At the house, he found a scattering of unopened mail on the doormat and a neat pile of letters addressed to him on the telephone table. He gathered both and took them into the kitchen. A quick glance at the pile showed nothing requiring urgent action from him, but among the newly delivered stuff was a handwritten envelope addressed to Mr C. Stoker and postmarked Bow E3. The letter was from Lottie Cutter. It was quite brief. He read it quickly.

Dear Charlie,

I hope you are well and not having any problems in the army. We all miss you, my dear.

I am really writing this note at Sally’s request. She has given me this address to send it to and she hopes your wife will forward it to you wherever you are so that it reaches you soon. The exciting news is that Sally had a little girl yesterday, Wednesday 15th May. All is well and the baby is beautiful. She is blonde like Sally and really, Charlie, she looks exactly like Sally looked as a baby! They are naming her Shirley. Sally told me months ago that if it was a girl she would call her Shirley. Percy wasn’t consulted about the name, but he is quite thrilled with the baby and very proud.

Sally said to tell you she hopes you can get home for the christening, she wants you to be Godfather for Shirley.

Meantime, God bless you Charlie, take care of yourself.

With all our love,

(Mrs) Lottie Cutter

Charlie read the letter, smiled to himself then read it again. He remained still for some time, standing by the kitchen table. Then he took a deep breath and went across to the bottle cupboard. Inside were a number of bottles of ale. He opened one and poured some into a glass. He raised the glass and said: “God bless you, Sal. I love you.”

He drained the glass, refilled it and raised it again to whisper a second toast: “And you, Shirley.”

Carrying the glass, he went up the stairs to his bedroom. His neatly made bed was as he had left it ten weeks earlier. He drank the remaining ale and changed out of uniform into comfortable clothes: a pair of grey trousers, a tweed sports jacket and a white shirt with matching tie. It felt good. Charlie left the house and drove to Hackney.

* * *

Millie Stoker was tidying in her bedroom when she heard the loud knock on the front door. Not expecting any callers at five o’clock on a Friday, she opened the door warily. Then, her mouth dropped open and her eyes lit up.

“Oh! Charlie! You devil, you gave me no warning. She threw the door wide open. Charlie gave her a big hug.

“I didn’t expect to get away so early. I thought I’d be late and I was going to call you from home tonight. When they let me out early I decided to surprise you.”

“It’s so lovely to see you. And you’re in civvies! I expected to see you in your uniform. I see you’ve had a haircut, but you do look very well. The army routine obviously suits you.”

“Yeah, it’s okay.” He nodded and followed her downstairs into the dining room.

“Cup of tea? Or are you hungry? I can quickly make a meal.”

Charlie grinned and shrugged.

“I’m okay for now, Mum. We can eat something when you’re ready. How are you? I must say you’re looking good. Is everything alright?”

“Yes, dear. Everything is fine, except Billy received his call-up papers last week and Sally was a bit upset. He goes the week after next. We had a good chat about it yesterday and I said we don’t have to close the shop. Sally and I can keep it going until he gets back. Sally can do everything now and her dad is going to help out with any extra work. He retired from the council before Christmas and is keen to do something useful. I’ll look after the books and help Sally with little Sarah Mildred.”

Charlie’s grin widened. “That’s my mother! Always got everything under control.”

Millie appeared momentarily abashed, but Charlie continued blandly: “How’s Father Peter? Is he any better?”

“Yes, he’s up and about again, but he is not in good health, Charlie. I fear for him.”

Charlie nodded. He was very fond of Fr. Peter but he did not fear for the old priest. He had been a good priest and a wise man, but Charlie saw him now as an old man who was perhaps a little too fond of whisky. If his time was near, so be it, he would die in peace. Thoughts best not expressed, Charlie decided.

They enjoyed a supper of home-made soup with cold cuts of lamb, potato salad, tomatoes and fresh bread and butter. They did not discuss the German advances through France, the plight of The British Expeditionary Force trapped in north-west France, or the likelihood of an attack upon England. Millie did not even pursue the subject of Charlie’s army training. They played a little cribbage and chatted. She was happy just to have him there, just the two of them playing cards and chatting, exactly as she had thirty years earlier with his father.

During the evening, while his mother made a cup of tea, Charlie made a telephone call to his friend Bobby Bruce at his home in Crouch End. Pressed to go to dinner on Saturday, he happily accepted.

“W-Will Margret be w-with you?” Bobby asked gingerly.

“Not sure, Bob. I shan’t see her ’til morning. I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”

A little after nine-thirty he left Amhurst Road to return to Chigwell, having confessed to his mother he had not advised Margret he was coming home this weekend. He had not mentioned that Margret would not be there when he reached home.

“Yes, I see. Will you and Margret come here for lunch on Sunday, Charlie? I’ll see if Stephen can join us.”

Charlie shrugged and grinned. “I should think so. I can’t say for sure about Margret, she may have plans, but I’ll come. I’ll let you know if I’m coming alone.”

Back home at Woodside Way, Charlie poured himself a whisky and took a closer look at the mail. As his earlier glance had indicated, there was nothing that needed his attention. Margret would always ensure their affairs were in order. She was nothing if not capable. He smiled to himself. He had been in the army for two and a half months, yet, sitting in his chair in the quiet house with a whisky in his hand on a Friday night, it felt as if he had not been away.

Chapter Two

Lottie Cutter

Charlie awoke to a clear May morning. He gazed with satisfaction at the leafy trees in the unspoiled countryside beyond his neatly laid out garden. In the garden, the new vegetable patch displayed a collection of leaves and green shoots. He had laid out the garden with the able assistance of Bobby Bruce ten years earlier, and it was kept neat and tidy by the weekly visits of Alf Binney, his father-in-law’s gardener.

At the end of February, just before he reported to Warley, Charlie had asked Binney to clear an area around the garden shed to create a vegetable garden. With rationing, they should try to produce as much food as they could at home.

He washed, dressed and went down to the kitchen to prepare his breakfast. He thought Margret would arrive before long and sure enough, half an hour later, he heard the familiar sound of the MG pulling up in the drive.

Margret came through the door, saw Charlie at the kitchen table and at once barked at him: “You bastard! You could at least have called to tell me you were coming home!” She glared angrily at her husband, sitting at the kitchen table with what was left of his egg and bacon.

Charlie shrugged. “There’s fresh coffee in the pot. Grab a cup.”

Margret continued to glare at him for a moment, then tossed her head in irritation. She took a cup and saucer from the cupboard and sat down.

“You might have made some effort to keep in touch!”

Charlie grinned and nodded, then took a bite of his toast. He poured coffee into Margret’s cup. Margret, tall and more thin than slim, was wearing a light brown day dress that reminded Charlie of the dress she had worn all those years ago at Kenwood. It particularly suited her long body and pale, angular features. Now, her deep-set eyes held a hint of a smile.

“How have you been, Big Boy? What’s a soldier’s life like?”

“All I’ve seen so far is a drill square and a rifle. It’s okay. I quite enjoy the disciplined way of life, but there’s no privacy in a barrack room.”

Margret sipped at her coffee, pensive.

“What happens to you next, Charlie? Have you been told?”

“Yes. I’m to spend the next few months learning to be an officer. I transfer to Sandhurst next week. It’s all a bit boring, really. I joined the army to fight for my country.”

“I expect you’ll get the opportunity soon enough. The Germans are getting nearer and it seems that Mr Churchill is not interested in talking peace.”

Charlie raised an eyebrow. “You think he should?”

“I don’t think Hitler wants war against us. He would like to co-exist with Britain.”

“That’s the academic view, is it? Ignore what he is doing to the rest of Europe and make peace? Ignore our responsibilities and be Hitler’s patsy! I don’t think so, Margret.”

[1] Non-commissioned officers