PART ONE in a FOUR-PART ebook serial from the creator of ITV's smash hit series, Home Fires. Perfect for fans of Call the Midwife, Granchester and Foyles War. If you adore the novels of Nadine Dorries, Diney Costello and Daisy Styles then this is an unmissable series for you. 1940, Great Paxford, Cheshire. In Britain's darkest hour, an extraordinary community of women strive to protect the Home Front. When a spitfire crashes in their village, every one of their lives will change forever . . . Frances Barden thought the day her husband died would be her darkest day, but as her factory is shut down and her husband's secret child arrives at her door, she learns her greatest challenge is only just beginning. Pat Simms received a respite when her abusive husband went to war, but now he's home Pat doesn't know who to turn to . . . Newlyweds Teresa and Nick should be happy, but the plane crash on their wedding day may just be the start of their troubles. Meanwhile, the life of the Campbell family will never be the same following a terrible tragedy. Through it all the Women's Institute provides support and camaraderie. But is their combined strength enough to get them through the war? Enjoy one ebook episode a month starting in July or own the complete novel in ebook in October or paperback in January. Don't miss the next instalment in this compelling series. Keep the Home Fires Burning - Part 2: A Woman's Work . . . is out now! Search 978178576357
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Two weeks earlier
Overlooked by its fourteenth-century church at one end, and by Cholmondeley Castle at the other, attached to the outside world by a single thin road and the slender ribbon of the Shropshire Union canal, Great Paxford had quietly minded its own business at the intersection of three Cheshire hills for over six hundred years.
Nothing came into the village that wasn't seen by most of its inhabitants. Nothing of note took place that wasn't heard by most as it happened, or told to the rest within the hour. Privacy within such a small, rural community was almost impossible. Gossip and secrets were commodities, exchanged and bartered day and night, the transactions part of the tight social fabric.
Though the Great War had left deep scars on individual minds and families of Great Paxford, in subsequent years its citizens had fallen into the understandable habit of taking one another for granted. Prior to the declaration of a second world war just twenty one years after the first, there would always be tomorrow to drop round for a chinwag, resolve a dispute, or do a good turn. But from 11.15 a.m. on 3 September 1939, anyone owed an apology for something, or who might benefit from a favour or a rebuke, could be killed by a bomb in the night. Every book read, every meal enjoyed, every cup of tea either drank in haste or lingered over with a friend, every walk in the countryside, every moment of lovemaking, every breath and heartbeat might be your last. Every German bomb and bullet had someone's name on it. War made life more fragile, and each lived moment more intense.
Before war's outbreak, the regulars at the Black Horse barely registered the voices of their wives, sisters and daughters singing 'Jerusalem' at the start of yet another monthly meeting of the village's Women's Institute. At 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month, their voices rose as one from Great Paxford's small village hall, to the general indifference of the men a hundred yards up the road in the pub. But since the onset of war, on those Thursday evenings, the men had started to wander out onto the road with their pints, and stand in the soft moonlight to listen to their women sing with a distinct edge of defiance about their newly endangered green and pleasant land.
The meeting on this Thursday evening in October 1940 was particularly important. Outside the village hall, crows in the trees that surrounded Great Paxford were settling for the night under a cloudless sky. Inside the hall, members of the WI sat back into their seats after the last notes of 'Jerusalem' signalled the start of the evening proper. The women sat shoulder to shoulder in silence, facing the executive committee on the raised platform before them. The hall was charged with nervous excitement, for tonight was to see the return of their elected Chair, Frances Barden, to lead the branch for the first time since her husband had been killed in a rather horrific car accident just five months earlier. Joyce Cameron, the previous Chair, had been asked to helm the branch while Frances had stepped down to grieve, and sort out her husband's considerable and complicated affairs.
Joyce was a small, well-dressed, intelligent woman with a natty taste in expensive hats that invariably sported a pheasant's feather. Her face was soft and round, her skin smooth and pale, untroubled by the elements. Her expression could switch from benign to venomous in an instant. After moving to Great Paxford from Oxford with her solicitor husband some years earlier, Joyce had led a comfortable life of relative leisure, busying herself on local committees and organisations. While her husband became a local magistrate, and joined the local Rotary and golf clubs, Joyce had immersed herself in the WI, had become a governor of the local school, and involved herself in several small local charitable organisations that gave assistance to the rural poor. In each organisation, Joyce earned a reputation as an effective scourge, frequently asking questions no one else dared ask, often bullying others to get her way.
'Thank you, ladies. Settle down, please.' Joyce's voice was clipped and authoritative. When she asked for quiet she got it.
Joyce's beady eyes looked over the members, gauging the mood in the hall. She wondered if it hadn't been a mistake to have held back from trying to take over as Chair on a permanent basis, while Frances had been mourning for her husband. Joyce's younger self wouldn't have hesitated. Joyce had always been one tenth demagogue – probably two-tenths, perhaps three. She instinctively knew which levers to pull to get her way on most issues. Where others may have hesitated, Joyce never lacked the steel to drive home an advantageous hand. She not only had the stomach for Machiavellian wrangling, she possessed the liver and kidneys too. Her younger self would have seized back control within a month, 'in the best interests of the branch'.
But Joyce was no longer that woman. Having left the village with husband Douglas ten months earlier for a safer environment along the north-west coast at Heysham near Morecambe, 'beyond the interest of the Luftwaffe', as Douglas had put it, Joyce had reappeared in the village just a month and a half later. It hadn't taken Great Paxfordians long to notice the change in her. It was as if the time away had been an ordeal that had knocked her sideways. Indeed, the month away had been the most difficult of Joyce's life. During that period, she'd finally admitted that her marriage had been sterile for many years. Moving to Heysham had been Douglas's decision, and Joyce's loathing of life on the coast came upon her almost immediately. If it wasn't the wind it was the rain. If it wasn't the rain it was the salt on the air, or the lack of people like her, or the smell of fish everywhere, or the impenetrable grey sea stretching beyond the horizon, intensifying Joyce's sense that her life had become becalmed, and deepening her conviction that she no longer wanted to be Douglas's consort, wheeled out at social events to help him drum up business for his legal practice. If she didn't act decisively she felt this existence would claim her sanity. So she'd packed her suitcase and returned to Great Paxford, alone.
'Douglas,' she told those who asked, with a tone of fatigue in her voice, 'has long-standing ambitions to become a Conservative member of parliament, and is remaining in the north-west to pursue that. I wish him every success, but for myself ... I want to see out the war among my friends, at home, in Great Paxford.'
Joyce concluded her potted explanation with a tired smile that said: That is all I shall say on the matter.
Alison Scotlock considered Joyce's explanation characteristically grandiose. Sarah Collingbourne, the vicar's wife, was more charitable, believing the swiftly returned Joyce did appear to be less self-confident, less spiky, more subdued, even a little vulnerable.
'If the separation from Douglas has knocked some of the stuffing out of Joyce, it appears to have also blown off some of her stuffiness and snobbery,' Sarah had said.
Frances, Sarah's sister, believed Erica Campbell had the balance right when she had come to her house with others on the committee to persuade Frances to return to chair the WI. Erica feared the longer Joyce was left in post as the locum Chair, the more difficult it would become to replace her.
'Joyce needs to stop using the WI as a crutch and make friends in the village. I only hope she hasn't forgotten how.'
Joyce looked down at the rows of women seated in front of her. Great Paxford's village hall wasn't large, but it always looked bigger than it was on WI nights, when it was full of local women. On those evenings, the old, whitewashed wooden walls and cobwebbed, gabled ceiling could barely contain their energy. Joyce could see the excitement in the women's eyes, and knew it wasn't for her. With a smile of resignation, she swallowed her inclination to speak, and turned to Frances. With a subtle nod of concession, Joyce ceded the chair of the branch committee back to the elected Chair and sat down behind the trestle table.
Frances was a dignified, educated, elegantly dressed woman in her early fifties, known to the women of Great Paxford as a woman of integrity and passion, given to acts of extreme kindness, but also extremely short on patience – a quality her sister described as 'my sister's Achilles heel'. Frances tried to hide her uncharacteristic nerves with a broad, confident smile as she stood to address the women in front of her.
'Before anything else, I should like to thank Mrs Cameron for helming the branch so competently in my absence.'
Frances turned to Joyce and began to applaud her. Immediately, the membership followed suit. Given that she had been a competent but never an exciting branch Chair, the applause for Joyce was appreciative but not what anyone might call enthusiastic – managing to express a level of gratitude one might offer someone who turned down the heat on a pan before its contents boiled over. Joyce nevertheless accepted the expression of thanks with a graceful nod of the head. She was about to take advantage of the moment to say a few words, but as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, the applause abruptly stopped, and the moment immediately passed. Joyce closed her mouth and turned, with the others, to Frances.
Frances cleared her throat and took a deep breath. Every face beamed at her, bathing her in goodwill. It was entirely in character that Frances had prepared for this moment by drafting many possible speeches in recent days. She had abandoned them all on Sarah's advice to 'just speak from the heart'. Frances looked along the ranks of friendly faces, eager to hear from her after months away. She felt pleased to be back, yet carried an anxiety that with everything she had gone through in the aftermath of Peter's death she might have lost her capacity to lead. I'm not the woman I was. Do I remain the woman the branch needs me to be?
'It is so wonderful to be back. To see you all. To hear that hymn sung from the bottom of your hearts once again. With each day of war that passes, it grows in poignancy.'
She saw the women nod in solemn agreement. Frances clasped her hands in front of her, pressing the palms into one another, urging herself on.
'So much has changed since I last looked at you from this platform. I've lost my husband ...'
She stopped for a moment. Every heart in the hall skipped a beat as the women wondered if Frances was yet ready to come back to them. Frances took a deep breath.
'I have taken in a child evacuee. While you ... you are all so different too, in so many ways ...'
Pat Simms, the WI's efficient, watchful and diligent Branch Secretary, sat on the platform behind Frances and reflected on what was different about herself since Frances last addressed them. Nearly everything, she concluded. Because of Marek. Pat smiled to herself as she recalled making love with the Czech soldier in her bed at home, while her husband lay recovering in the cottage hospital from injuries sustained at Dunkirk. She remembered the calm, reassuring look in Marek's eyes as they made love, the feel of his soft hands electrifying her skin. Though they were last together over two weeks ago, the intensity of the memory left Pat feeling it could have been that afternoon. She felt not one drop of remorse.
Where Bob had used Pat for his own satisfaction over the course of their thirteen-year marriage, Marek had been a tender and generous lover.
Where Bob existed in a state of perpetual anger and discontentment, Marek had always been calm and effortlessly at ease with himself.
Where Bob's words towards Pat were patronising, dismissive, and stripped of affection, Marek's were always warm and elevating.
Where Bob was occasionally brutal towards Pat, Marek – well, when she had looked at his face in the concealing long grass outside the village, Pat had never felt more protected or more valued.
'I love you,' she had said tentatively for the first time, not knowing how he might respond. He looked at her directly, his gaze only intensifying. Early in their relationship Pat had realised Marek never wasted words, or said anything he didn't mean.
'And I you,' Marek had replied, his English beautifully correct. It sent a pulse of relief and reassurance and love coursing through her. Before she could speak again Marek kissed her.
From then on, whenever Marek told Pat he loved her, she'd smile and reply, 'And I you' in his accent. Until Marek had come into her life Pat had long forgotten what it was to properly kiss and be kissed, to hold and be properly held. Marek told Pat that he and his men would soon be mobilised, though they had no fixed date. For security reasons, it would come at short notice.
Though they knew Marek's time in the region was going to be limited, his imminent departure had crept up on them. Pat couldn't bear to think of life without Marek.
Life without him means life only with Bob. I can't bear the thought of it. How can I go back to that now?
The prospect left Pat feeling sick, even at the WI, among friends.
'The war has bitten into each of us,' Frances continued. 'Whether we win or lose, the changes we will experience individually, as families, as a community, are likely to be irreversible.'
The women looked at Frances intently. For this moment in this hall in this village, she was their leader every bit as much as Churchill was the country's, and her words tonight struck a chord every bit as much as his when he addressed the nation.
Frances's mind went suddenly blank. Her mouth became dry as her confidence drained away.
What am I doing? What nonsense am I talking? Who am I to lecture these women? My loss was an accident. It could have happened at any time. It had nothing to do with the war. I sound like a fraud, I'm sure of it. They can sense I'm making this up as I go along. How could they not?
Frances looked at the front two rows of friendly faces looking expectantly at her, and tried to draw strength from them to continue.
Sarah looked at Frances and nodded encouragingly. Frances could almost hear Sarah's voice saying: You can do this. Keep going. Joyce isn't what the branch needs now. The branch needs you, Frances, and you need the branch ...
Steph Farrow had come straight from her farm, and had offered so much no-nonsense fortitude to the Institute since her hesitant first meeting nearly a year ago. She now looked up at Frances, willing her to continue.
You're why I joined. Joyce has been ... all right. But if you hadn't come back I'd probably've left. You made the WI somewhere I feel I belong. And not just me ...
Teresa Fenchurch, soon to marry the wing commander from the RAF station at Tabley Wood, hadn't thought about her impending wedding from the moment Frances began to speak. A strikingly handsome woman in her late twenties, with brown hair and brown eyes that were constantly alive to everything around her, she smiled encouragingly at Frances, as she might to a child in her classroom who had been doing very well giving a presentation to the class, but who had suddenly lost their nerve.
As she continued to address the members, Frances found herself glancing at Alison Scotlock, hidden away towards the rear of the hall. Alison was the village bookkeeper, who had lived alone since the end of the Great War, until she was persuaded to take Teresa Fenchurch as a lodger when she came to work at the village school. Alison almost hadn't come to the meeting. Her friendship with Frances had recently ruptured over the dramatic and ignoble closure of the Barden factory, in the aftermath of Peter's death. An intensely private individual with fair hair and startlingly blue eyes, in conversation or dispute Alison was a match for anyone behind closed doors. But she always avoided confrontation where possible. It made her intensely self-conscious and tongue-tied. She knew she would be no match for a resurgent Frances in a public clash about what had taken place at the factory.
Discussing the matter over supper at Sarah's house, Frances had voiced her hope that Alison might decide to stay away from the meeting.
'If Alison chooses to leave the WI for good, it would undoubtedly be for the best, as far as I'm concerned,' said Frances.
'She's our friend, Frances,' said Sarah. 'One of our oldest.'
Excerpted from "Keep the Home Fires Burning"
Copyright © 2017 Simon Block.
Excerpted by permission of Bonnier Zaffre Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you're a fan of the PBS series, Home Fires, this is the book for you. The series abruptly ended with a cliff hanger episode leaving viewers wondering what would have happened next. This book picks up where the series ended and continues the story. The first 7 chapters take place 2 weeks before the plane crashes into the house. So it's a recap of what we've seen but there is a lot of additional detail added so it's not a waste of time to read. The books is definitely a continuation of the series. If you haven't watched it you will have little understanding of what is going on. This is the first in a series of short books being published. They will publish one a month and then, in October, publish them in one volume. I can't wait that long. I enjoyed the series very much. I find the book not quite as well done as the series (usually it's the other way around) but it's worth reading if you're a Home Fires fan.