The Second World War. It’s not all fighting and glory; there are battles on the Home Front, too, and some are not exactly heroic. That’s what injured naval officer Harry discovers when he befriends conscientious objector Jim – a friendship frowned upon in their small Welsh valley even before they begin to fall in love. But they both have secrets to conceal, and it takes a bizarre sequence of events before the full truth can be uncovered.
A novel about healing, compromise, making the best of it and just plain managing to survive.
108,000 words/416 pages
Publication 1 November 2012
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” … Harry and Jim [...] become our friends at the same time that their personal friendship grows and you cannot help but love them both.”
Review by Black Tulip at Confessions from Romaholics 23 February 2013
Beyond the last houses of the village the road was steeper still. The bike’s engine began to labour, especially on the sharper corners, and progress slowed to a cautious crawl along the centre of the road. Harry had been obliged to detour a long way south in order to pick up this road, the only one which led into the Culhwch Valley, and it was aggravating to have been so close to his destination for so long but with so far still to travel. It had been an exhausting day already and fraught with hazards, not least of which had been the need for constant vigilance; any stop he made had to be considered carefully, in view of the jerry-cans strapped to the carrier on the back of the bike. A lone traveller with more petrol than he needed was always in danger of being robbed in the present straitened circumstances – even if, like Harry, he was strongly-built and obviously in uniform; there were plenty of people who would cheerfully have supplemented their ration at his expense and thought little of it afterwards. Thus he had kept going wherever he could, and the green hills and valleys, the market towns and small stone villages, had unrolled in sequence before him and closed behind him again just as swiftly as he passed. Now it was night and cold, he was in the Black Mountains, and the air had begun to smell like the air of home.
At the crossroads beneath the shoulder of Coalpit Hill something light waving backwards and forwards attracted his attention, quickly resolving itself into the bars on a police constable’s sleeve in the beam of an old-fashioned bullseye lantern. Obediently Harry slowed the bike and drew to a halt in front of him.
“Switch it off, sir, if you would.”
Harry complied, despite reservations about being able to start the thing again if he had to leave it for any length of time.
“Now, sir – let’s have your papers, if you please.” Harry reached into his greatcoat and drew out his documents and his ration book; the officer raised his lantern, perusing them expectantly. “Lyon, is it?” he asked. “Commander Lyon? You’ll be the oldest son, I take it, will you?”
“The black sheep of the family? Yes, I’m afraid I am.” Harry struggled to suppress a cough. Since first plunging into the damp banks of fog he had felt his lungs – or what was left of them, anyway – tightening steadily, and could almost imagine he felt scar tissue pulling at his ribs. Breathing was becoming difficult again, but he had learned techniques for dealing with that; it was important to relax his chest and inhale slowly. “You’re acquainted with my brothers, then, Constable … ?”
“PC 434 Williams, sir, from Maen-y-Groes. Indeed I am; I’ve had dealings with Mr Griffith-Lyon in the course of business, as it were, and I’ve met both of the others a time or two. Not staying the night at The Gables, then, I take it?”
“No. As a matter of fact, Thomas probably doesn’t know I’m coming home yet; I’d prefer to press on as far as Hendra if I can – assuming you have no objection?”
“Hmmm.” Slowly, Williams walked around the motorbike, his eyes running thoughtfully over the jerry-cans and the suitcase strapped on top of them. “Where is it you’re coming from, sir, at this time in the morning?”
“Liverpool,” supplied Harry. “I’ve been in hospital there until – well, yesterday, I suppose – Tuesday – and I came more or less straight here as soon as I was discharged. I’m on convalescent leave,” he added, although his papers had made that clear enough.
“More or less, you say?”
“I had to pack and pick up the bike. I didn’t manage to get away from the city until after four o’clock.”
“Ah. Bad in Liverpool, is it, after all the bombing? We heard about that here.”
“Very bad.” It had hampered his departure considerably, in fact, although there was little point mentioning it; these days everybody was doing their best to carry on under increasingly appalling conditions and a shortage of clerks to complete his paperwork, blocked roads impeding his progress, and trams and buses conspicuous by their absence were minor annoyances set against the real tragedies being played out elsewhere. He’d walked what had felt like miles with his suitcase before collecting the bike and everything that went with it. On the way he’d seen bodies being dug out of collapsed houses and he’d been obliged to continue without stopping to help, because the fact was that there wasn’t much he had to offer anybody any more; he couldn’t even donate blood, considering the drugs he had in his system at the moment. In short, he was of no practical use whatsoever and doubted whether he ever would be again; that was the unpalatable truth.
Harry pulled out his cigarette case, silently offering one and lighting it for the policeman with his silver lighter.
“Duw.” The little expletive escaped almost unnoticed, accompanied by a puff of smoke. The burning tip of the cigarette was quickly concealed in the officer’s palm. “It has to be said, we’ve had it easy here – compared to those poor buggers in the cities, I mean to say.”
Harry didn’t take a cigarette for himself, but folded the case away again before it had a chance to remind him of anything he might prefer to forget.
“It hasn’t been easy on anyone, has it? We’ve all had to do our bit, one way or another. Like yourself, Constable. Would it be indiscreet to ask why you find yourself out here stopping traffic at such an ungodly hour?”
Williams drew a breath. “No, sir, it would not. We’ve had a lot of trouble with gangs coming out from Cardiff and Bristol in motor lorries, helping themselves to sheep right off the hillside. Do very well out of the meat on the black market, of course. Becoming a real pest, they are.”
“Oh, I see.” It had been years since Harry had even tried to think like a farmer, to understand the concerns of rural life. He supposed it would come back to him eventually – assuming he was planning to stay in the area, at least. Just at the moment, though, with his reception at Hendra uncertain and his future a blank, he had not ruled any course of action either in or out. “Well, am I free to continue on my way?”
“You are, Commander. Next time I’m up to Ysguborwen I’ll take the liberty of calling to see you, if I may.”
“You may indeed,” grinned Harry. He had folded his papers back into his pocket, and now fastened his coat again and kicked the starter. The engine spluttered at first but then stabilised, reluctantly reconciling itself to the remainder of its task. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“Not far now,” said Williams cheerfully, standing back and shielding his lantern. “Soon be tucked up in a nice warm bed, I’m sure.”
“I hope so! Well – I’ll wish you good night, Williams.”
However, as he rolled away, Harry was obliged to consider the nature of the welcome that would be awaiting him when he reached what was now, incredibly, his own front door. From the little he had learned, Hendra had suffered over the years; he half-expected to find it a scarcely habitable ruin, and whether there would be anybody to greet him remained open to question. He’d received no reply to his telegram; he wasn’t even certain whether it had been delivered. Perhaps nobody lived at Hendra any more. Perhaps his brother Jack had taken himself off to live in one or other of the farmhouses or cottages on the estate which, Heaven knew, were probably warmer and drier and easier for a single man to deal with. That being the case, Harry could imagine having to break in and make himself a bed among the tapestries in the Great Hall – or indeed, in any part of the manor that still possessed a roof, whether it was carriage house or coal cellar.