(Which still remains nameless, but is nearly half completed)

Letter from Vennie to Peg, dated 15 December 1942, Postmarked APO NY, headed Arzew, Algiers

Dear Cuz:

Well, here I am, at last with time enough to write you a very long letter! The French in North Africa surrendered a month ago, and the fighting front is over, more or less, having moved on from here to Tunisia. We continue here at Arzew, caring for our patients, but at not such a frantic rate as at first! Matters have calmed down, now that we are supplied and supported, and the hospital here has been fitted out with all that is proper and needful for care of our patients. We nurses are billeted half a mile away in old French barracks, which were so filthy and flea-ridden that they put up tents for us, on the former parade ground. We are conveyed “home” at the end of every shift, and back again by an escort of Rangers from the First Battalion, and then by soldiers from the engineers, whose unit is repairing the harbor facilities. My friend Ruth, who is tall and sturdy of build – has been courted by a Ranger who calls her ‘his little girl!’ He is as tall as Paul Bunyan, without his ax and ox! A head taller than Ruth, who is amused no end. It is the first time in her life that she has been called ‘a little girl!’ At least, since got her full growth at fourteen or so. Me – I’ve always been ‘a little girl.’ I’m done with the charm of that. Why can’t I be as tall as a Becker? Anyway, enough of my lamentations regarding my personal shortcomings.Several of us had the opportunity to visit Oran late in November – sightseeing! Can you imagine? It was so very nice, to be driven in the back of a truck, rather than in a jeep in the dark, with my legs hanging over the back.

Oran is one of the leading cities in Algiers, and I have to say that it looks very neat, beautiful and clean from a distance – all whitewashed walls and red tile roofs, in terraces climbing up and down the hills from the harbor, punctuated by tall steeples, minarets, and stands of palm trees. The outskirts of the city were adorned with groves of orange and olive trees, and there were so many native Algerians in colorful robes and turbans – all so very exotic and romantic … but that was at a distance. Up close, the walls are seen to be dingy and peeling, and the robes are faded, ragged … and the people wearing them have not washed themselves or their clothing for years, to judge by the smell. We visited the old headquarters of the French Foreign Legion in Sidi-bes-Abbes, where three of the French officers showed us around. There was a little museum in the Legion HQ, with examples of all the uniforms the Legion has worn, back to the days of one of their moldy old princes who established the Legion. They showed us through town as well but explained the reason for so many dark looks cast in our direction, as many of the locals were very pro-Nazi and not at all happy to have the Allies in occupation now. We did not linger there for long. When we came back that evening to Arzew, we had a delivery of mail from home, and I had your latest letter.

What happy news for you, that Tommy is alive and a prisoner of war! Are you able to write to him, and send him comforts, and to tell him that he is the father of a daughter as well as a son? I do hope so. I have had no word from my friend Helen, who was reported to be interned among civilian women in Santo Tomas. It is hard to believe that just a year has passed since the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Manila and Singapore. How so many things have changed for us both in just a single year! If you can write to him, send him my love and best wishes. I was also very happy to hear that the books and the coral bead necklace that I posted to you in England for Olivia and Little Tommy’s Christmas presents have arrived in good time.

They should have a lovely Christmas in Australia – we at the hospital in Arzew are planning to have the same here in Africa! Lt. Worth, our senior nurse, has said that we should make it a most memorable Christmas for our patients here. Among things found by the Rangers in a warehouse near the harbor – and which hadn’t been looted and burned by the locals – were several bolts of red serge fabric. And it is Lt. Worth’s idea that we should sew Christmas stockings of red serge, trimmed with white from hospital sheets, for every patient in this place. We are sewing like mad elves, every moment that we can get – for we will need almost seven hundred. That is – when we are not working in a candy factory! Our supply officer and his sergeant assistants came by quantities of peanuts, milk, sugar and chocolate! (We call him Ali Baba and his 40 Thieves, for no one closely inquires by what miracle they were able to come up with all this because it probably wasn’t strictly regulation!) We turn too, when off-duty and not otherwise occupied with sewing stockings – and make candy! Peanut brittle, fudge, and taffy – a lot of work, but such fun! It almost feels like normal, getting ready for Christmas. Not like last year, when everyone was so worked up over Japan attacking, and everyone looking over their shoulder and wondering what awful defeat would happen next. Now we have the Nazis on the run, and soon the Japs as well.

Got to go do candy duty in the kitchen – I’ll write again when I can.

Your fond Cuz and auntie to your babies,

Vennie

(The writing on this is going very fast – I might yet be able to bring it out in time for Christmas. What with the Commie Crud responsible for cancelling market events and fairs right and left, I’ve got nothing much else to concentrate on.)

Letter, dated 20 May 1942, postmarked Fort Slocum, New Rochelle, NY

Dear Peg:

So happy to hear your wonderful news! Does the Baby Bungle Olivia look like a Becker or a Morehouse! Is Little Tommy pleased with his new little sister? I can hardly wait to see pictures of her, and I suppose that her grandmother and step-grandfather are spoiling her every much as she (and you deserve!) Their house sounds so pleasant, in the word-picture that you draw for me. It is all for the very best that you have such a lovely home for now with Stanley and Edith. It is so very reassuring in these times to have normal things like babies to take pleasure in, even at a distance of a wide ocean and most of a continent. As for myself, we are engaged in the pleasant occupation of sewing. The powers-that-be have finally conceded that we military nurses simply cannot be expected to wear our traditional white outfits when we are operating in a field hospital. Are you pleasantly surprised at their grasp of the painfully obvious? Alas, they have not been able to agree on anything the least bit official and practical in this regard, and in the meantime, the interim solution is to issue us all several sets of Army overalls, which would be practical, except that … these garments are sized for men. Very large, very tall men! I tried on one of mine at first, to general hilarity. My friend and roommate, Ruth N. said, “Vennie, don’t you dare sneeze, or you’ll lose everything!” Honestly, one might have put two of me in these overalls or made them to serve as a shelter with the addition of a couple of tent-poles! We are busily employed in tailoring them to fit, or at the very least, to present a not so ridiculous appearance. We have also been issued helmets for use in the field. In overalls and helmet, I look like nothing so much as a large mushroom. I cannot even begin to find a pair of boots small enough to fit my feet, not without wearing several layers of heavy woolen socks. I am a martyr to blisters.

You asked in one of your letters, if I had heard anything more from my friend Helen Drinkwater, who trained with me at Sealy. She is a prisoner of war, I am afraid, as were all the Army and Navy nurses remaining on Corregidor. I had a brief note from her last month, carried by one of those who were sent out from there at the last minute before the Japs overwhelmed the fortress and tunnel complex. She said that she was well and hoped to continue being able to care for her patients, and that she would not have done anything the least bit different.

Has there been any word of Tommy? You would think, had the Japs any decency, that they would make a list of prisoners available to the Red Cross.

Love,

Vennie

Letter, dated 15 August 1942, postmarked APO, New York

Dear Peg:

Well, are you surprised at receiving this letter? I am in England now at regular garrison camp in a location which the censor likely will not allow me to name, with (redacted unit). There is a certain large prehistorical stone monument usually attributed to the Druids some miles distant from where I am now, which might give you a clue to the general area. I think this is not far from where your grandmother was born.

We could not say anything to anyone – loose lips sink ships, as it says on all the posters – nor can I say anything about the trip ‘across the pond’ except that it was refreshingly dull, against all of our worst fears. It was still a relief to be lightered off the ship, to look back and see how big it was, at anchor, and then to set foot on solid ground again. We came by train from the port of arrival – and I cannot say exactly how long the journey was – again, loose lips, et cetera.

What did I think of England, though? Oh, dear Peg – everything is small, terribly quaint – and I must confess, comparatively made sad, grey, and dreary by three years of war and rationing of every blessed thing you can imagine, even though it is late summer. There are boarded-up windows everywhere, and even those which still have glass in them are covered with ‘X’ of tape in every pane. There are sandbag barriers in front of important buildings, and not a road-sign to be seen, anywhere out in the country. At night, the blackout is almost complete. You could see the stars … that is, if it weren’t for rain. Rain in late summer – what a bizarre thing! We were at leisure for a number of days, and Ruth N., Muriel P. and I took the train to London to see the sights, such as they are. We got to look at the Tower of London from a distance, and admire Parliament, the tower of Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey – but oh, you cannot imagine the hopelessness of seeing row after row of bombed-out buildings, and not a sign of rebuilding. Those streets of houses on the outskirts of London and other towns seemed inexpressibly dreary, for the sameness of dark red brick all grimed over with black coal soot. But the people we met all along the way were most splendid to us, and the conductor on the train took the time to explain the money to us; a dear little man with an artificial leg and a country accent that we could hardly make sense of sometimes. (Neither could we make sense of the money, either – and not for lack of him trying!) He was a soldier on the Somme in the last war, you see, and couldn’t do enough for us when he found out that we were Army nurses. Most people that we met were thrilled to bits, and treated us almost as if we were Hollywood stars, although there was that one gentleman in the café  who grumbled, “Well, it was about time that Americans got into it!” but the waitress apologized for him, and upon finding out that I was raised on a ranch and knew all about roundups and cattle drives and all that – she asked bashfully if I knew Mr. Gary Cooper personally.

Well, such was our brief holiday. I have bought some English picture-books at Foyle’s the bookshop for little Tommy as a Christmas present from your devoted Cuz. I will try to mail them to you when I can – and hope that they arrive in time. I like to think that they will have a shorter journey, going from England to Australia now!

Love,

Vennie          

25. August 2020 · Comments Off on Another Snippet from The W-I-P · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Which I am considering titling it “My Dear Cuz”)

(Peg, Little Tommy and their friend Ada Dawlish are about to leave Singapore)

At the appointed hour Ada and Peg waited impatiently in Arthur’s sitting room. Their suitcases were already outside under the port cochère. It was just before twilight, a twilight darkened by a pall of black oil smoke spewing from the refinery at Pulau Bukom. Rumor in the Dalvey Road had it that the Shell tanks and refinery had been deliberately set ablaze, Little Tommy sat on the steps to the house, engaged in a lively but imaginary talk with Teddy-Pooh, while Ang and Miss Hui lingered there, keeping watch and speaking quietly to each other. Ada didn’t understand a word of Chinese, but they sounded worried. Arthur, already clad in his ARP overall, was reading the Straits Times, by the light of a single light in the room.

There was little to say that hadn’t already been said, and the two women waited in silence. It was fairly quiet at the moment, only the distant grumble of airplane engines from the direction of the docks. Almost certainly Japanese – they had not seen an RAF aircraft in weeks. There was an amusing and slightly incredible story on the front page, concerning an Australian sniper who had ‘counted coup’ against the Japs by having a fellow soldier ventriloquist distract attention by throwing his voice. Peg was not sure if she believed it or not – it had the ring of a ‘tall tale’ such as the old ranch hands at the Becker place had often told.

Finally, Arthur set aside the Times, remarking, “I hear a car coming up the road – I suppose it’s young Gregory. Are you ready, my dears?”

“We are,” Ada replied, settling her hat on her head, and pulling on her light coat. “Thank you for everything, Art … I don’t know…” her voice caught, and then she recovered. “If Reg or Tommy comes here, looking for us. Well, you know … you really ought to think about getting away, yourself, you know.”

“Why should I?” Arthur replied, calmly. “Not the done thing to turn coward and run away, Ada my dear. Besides, women and children first.”

“Birkenhead drill,” Ada sounded as if she were caught between laughing and crying. “Silly old Art. Well, take care of yourself, old thing. I’ll try and send a wire when we get to Australia.”

“You do that,” Arthur replied comfortably, although Peg was thinking that such a message would be unlikely to be sent, if and when the Japs took Singapore. Arthur kissed his younger sister casually, as if she were departing for an afternoon at the Club. Silently, Peg donned her own hat and followed after.

The auto engine sounded louder, as it crept hesitantly along the road. To Peg and Ada’s mutual relief, the vehicle turned in, driving between the gateposts before Arthur’s bungalow; a small and battered Ford van with the Royal Dutch Shell company logo emblazoned on the doors.

Peter Gregory emerged from behind the driver’s side door.

“Your carriage awaits, milady, and milady and young lord,” he said, a reckless grin illuminating his face. He was lanky and angular, like Tommy, which was why Peg had noticed him among Arthur’s friends at the Tanglin, and unmistakably a Texan, which made in them kindred spirits in a relatively alien world.

“We were getting worried,” Ada confessed with a laugh. “But you are the hero of the hour, you know.”

“Always happy to come to the aid of ladies in distress, ma’am,” Peter Gregory drawled, so thick and country-Texan that one could slice it with a knife. “I’ll throw your traps in the back … hey, young fella, you an’ that ferocious critter of yours want to come for a ride?”

“We’re going to visit Granny in Brisbane,” Little Tommy announced. He came and stood between Ada and Peg, Teddy-Pooh clutched firmly in one hand. “Are you the syce, then?”

Peg dissolved in an agony of embarrassment. “No, he isn’t,” she reproved her son. “He’s a friend who is going to take is to the dock, to the ship we have to go on, to see Granny Morehouse. Now, come along – we’ll all have to sit on the one seat together, since there isn’t any room in the back, you see.”

“I’ll take him on my lap, then.” Ada said, as Peter Gregory opened the passenger door; and that was how they piled into the van; Peg in the middle, next to Peter Gregory, and Ada next to the door with Little Tommy in her lap, and Teddy-Pooh clutched firmly to him, all of them elbow to elbow.

“I had to avoid traffic on the Alexandra Road,” Peter Gregory announced, as he put the van in gear, and they set off, wedged thigh to thigh on the van’s narrow front seat. Overhead, the black cloud of smoke was edged with blood-red and fiery gold. “But I think I shall have to take side streets. To be safe, you see. Slower – but you should be in time for the Empire Star. They’re waiting on other parties, who must come from farther away.”

“Are you making plans for your own escape, then?” That was Ada, blunt as ever. “I don’t think that Singapore will last very much longer.”

“I sure am, ma’am,” Peter Gregory smiled, as cheery as if he were on a peacetime drive in the country. “Me and some other fellows have our eyes on a fine little thirty-footer, moored at an out-of-the-way anchorage. Another day or so, we’ll wrap up our business here, and be on our way. Don’t worry none about us, ma’am. We’ll be fine.”

“If you have a chance to convince my brother to leave,” Ada said, “Can you take him with you?”

“I’ll see what I can do, ma’am,” Peter Gregory replied, his eyes on the road ahead, as the little van bumped along. “But I can’t make any promises – we might have to leave in a hurry.”

“I understand,” Ada replied, and then she was silent, looking out of the van’s windows at the darkening streets. There were few people about, and even fewer lights, because of the air raids. The smoke-dark skies were almost entirely black, by the time they reached the harbor area, and there were many more vehicles of all sorts, as well as pedestrians along the sidewalks, many of them carrying suitcases, rucksacks and unwieldy bundles, moving along like silent and aimless automatons, returning to their houses at night, after taking shelter in fields and gardens from the constant Japanese air raids on the inhabited parts of the city. Eventually they were crowding into the road – many of them soldiers from their packs and flat helmets, straggling along. The little van slowed to a bare crawl.

“I’ll take you as far as I can,” Peter Gregory finally said. “They’re setting up sentry posts and road-blocks close in. You might have to walk after that.”

“We’ll be all right,” Ada assured him.

Peter, with one hand on the steering wheel, put his head out the window, shouting irritably, “Make a space, then – all right? Two women and a kid here for the Empire Star tonight, do you mind?”

Out of the darkness several irritated male voices – Australian by their accents – replied with unprintably obscene suggestions and Peter laid on the horn and continued shouting impatiently from the window. That at least got space in the road for the little van to move ahead, closer and closer to the docks.

Against the dark, shielded lamps shed a little light. Out to the west, sunset left a malign red glow against the horizon. Peter Gregory’s little van finally came to a halt at a barricade, where an armed sentry waved him to a halt, and an officer, the muted light reflecting on his gold pips,  shone a shielded battery torch into the van from the passenger side.

“Sorry, sir – further access in’t allowed,” the soldier said apologetically. “Passengers for the evacuation ships have to walk from here.”

“How far, then?” Peg was exhausted, at least as much from tension from the short drive from the Tanglin neighborhood as from the burden of being heavily pregnant.

“Not far,” the officer replied, as he helped Ada and Little Tommy down from their seat. Peg slid out, feeling awkward and clumsy. “Sorry, ma’am – I can’t let your driver go any farther. Do you have your exit papers and passport ready? Oh, jolly good. You’ll need them ready … will you need help with the baggage, ma’am? I’m certain that I can…”

“I would hate to put you to any further trouble,” Ada retorted grandly. “As you have already been so much help!” She had their pair of suitcases, which Peter Gregory handed to her from the back of the van,  one in either hand. It didn’t escape Peg that Peter grinned broadly at that sally, even as Ada thanked him for his care for them on the tension-ridden journey from Arthur’s house.

“I’ll see you soon, then!” He ruffled Little Tommy’s hair, nodded to Ada and shook Peg’s hand. “Safe journey, OK! See you in Australia, then.”

“I’m sure we will,” Peg replied, although she was altogether positive that she would never see Peter Gregory or Arthur Nicholl again, not this side of the grave. “Take care, Peter.”

He waved jauntily and got into the van – turning it with much care, among the fresh crowd, pressing against the guarded barrier. In a moment the van was out of sight. Peg took Little Tommy’s hand, and she and Ada walked along the crowded docks, following a crowd of other women, most of them trailing children and lugging suitcases as they were, although there was a bevy of Australian nurses ahead of them in the straggling column

There was an air raid alarm wailing near at hand. Hardly anyone paid attention, so hardened and accustomed had everyone came to these eventualities, and so urgent was everyone’s need to board that ship – the Empire Star, whose black hull now blocked the view of the harbor. She was a well-traveled and well-known steamship at Singapore and KL, mostly in the business of transporting cold-storage beef from Australia, in which enterprise she made frequent stops at ports all the length of the South China seas. An array of derricks and hoists sprouted from her top deck, all the better to shift cargo with. Not a particularly luxurious transport, but an accommodating one, which offered two-score of private cabins on the first deck for the convenience of travelers in no hurry or need of luxurious accommodation.

Exhausted beyond all but the most basic feelings, Peg took in their cabin, which they were told, they would share with several other woman evacuees and their children.

“I don’t care,” Peg said, crawling into the lowest of the four bunks. She was fully-clothed, sweating from the humid heat in the confines of the tiny cabin. “I just need to lie down. I’m spent, Ada. I need to sleep.” Without a word, Little Tommy joined her.

“There, there, Mummy,” her son said, with all seriousness. “Teddy-Pooh is here, now. Will you sleep well with Teddy-Pooh? I always do. Amah said that I am big and brave now, and Oldest Son. Do you need Teddy-Pooh, Mummy?”

“Not so much,” Peg answered. She hugged Little Tommy and his precious bear to her, lying comfortably at her side on the narrow bunk. “I have you now, sweetheart.”      

30. July 2020 · Comments Off on From the New WIP · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(This is the WWII novel, the concept of which came to me in a dream, and I woke up in time to recall the concept and characters.)

Half a world away, Venetia Stoneman, third-year student nurse sat, kicking her heels on the Galveston seawall, with her bicycle propped against the inland angle of the wall, looking out on the shifting gray-blue waves in the Gulf of Mexico and considering things. Things like – what she would do with herself after graduating from the Sealy Nursing College as a qualified nurse.

Not go home to Deming, New Mexico – of that, she was certain. Not to hang around the home ranch, putting antiseptic dressings on her older brother’s hired hands when they had done themselves a physical damage, and riding with them in the bumpy back of a farm truck to the hospital in Deming, or more settled points. It went without saying that at some point in all the work that ranch hands were heir to simply spectacular medical emergencies. Bloody and near-fatal injuries. That was a given – and a situation with which Vinnie did not want to deal. Family obligations has limits, Vinnie told herself. Besides, Fred can deal with it all. I want to live my own life, a life on my terms. I love my brothers and sisters – but I’m almost twenty-two years of age. Free and white, twenty-one and all that. Spread my wings

Out over the blue-gray Gulf, the white gulls spread their almost-motionless wings, rising and falling on the thermal updrafts.

“I want …” Vennie said aloud and left the sentence unfinished. For truly – she did not know what she wanted, aside from a mildly envious wish left over from childhood to be tall and blond and pretty. Like Peg – but she was not at all structured physically in the same glamorous mode as Cousin Peg. Vennie had long ago come to terms with this. Vennie was slight and small, with tightly curly light-blond hair, grey eyes, and fine features. Also of an intellectual inclination, which had made the decision to attend nursing college a fairly easy one.

“What do you want, then,” a familiar feminine voice spoke from the sidewalk at her back. Vennie turned and smiled at the interloper to her private thoughts; Helen Drinkwater – her roommate at the Sealy nursing college. “I’m not interrupting, am I, Vennie? Privacy is so rare a thing for us …”

“Not at all,” Vennie smiled – no, Helen was a welcome interlocutor. Now the other girl climbed onto the seawall, her trouser-clad legs hanging over the edge. Helen was – as someone with a modicum of easy wit had remarked – a long tall drink of water: lanky and dark-haired, and of a cynical turn of mind. Helen fished in her handbag for a crumpled packet of cigarettes and her lighter. “Smoke?”

“Sure,” Vennie replied. “I was just looking at the sea, and wondering what I would do with myself, when we graduate the program.”

“Get a job,” Helen replied. She blew out a puff of cigarette smoke from her new-lit cigarette. “Things are picking up again. Jobs in plenty. Besides,” she applied the lighter to the end of Vennie’s cigarette. “You can always go back to your brother’s ranch, if everything falls through. Or work at the Sealy.”

“Ugh,” Vennie replied. “Three years is enough. I like the Island well enough, but not well enough to stay here. I want to go somewhere else. Anywhere else.”

They kicked their heels against the sea wall, regarding the ceaseless churn of blue-grey Gulf water, dashing against the sandy strand below their feet. Vennie privately relished being in the open air, alone but for a quiet friend, after a full week of confinement within walls, obedient and required to be silent. Nursing school, she realized early on, had a certain element of hazing to it, of the kind which she had observed on the ranch, with new hands. An aspect of being tried and tested by the older hands and with luck, eventually found worthy. She had shared this insight early on with Helen; Helen, who was inclined to stand on dignity, and demand why … why were the student nurses being required to do this and that humiliating task? Helen had nodded in acquiescence, upon seeing the sense of it all, and been accommodating, once Vennie had pointed out the real reason.

“I’m going to apply for a job with the Red Cross,” Helen said, abruptly. “Because there’ll be a war on, in a couple of years. The Red Cross is a reserve for military nurses. Have you considered that option, Vennie?”

“I have not,” Vennie replied, rather startled. “What reason do you think that there will be a war?”

“My brother is in the Army,” Helen replied. “Eugene. He works in … well, his specialty is in planning and strategy. He thinks that that this awful Hitler man in Germany is planning for a war in Europe. Eugene says that since Germany lost the last war, they are building up their military and spoiling for another round; one they think they have a fair chance of winning. He is quite serious about it. Haven’t you seen the newsreels?”

“I don’t see that it has anything to do with us in America,” Vennie replied, stoutly. “Why should we care? We got pulled into the last War over a lot of hooey over atrocities, atrocities which got played up in the newspapers! Why should we want a lot of our boys killed in a new one … all for nothing and in a fight that really wasn’t any of our business anyway?”

“A lot of people feel that way,” Helen acknowledged, frankly. “I can’t blame them in the least. Some bloody war in Europe ought not to be any of our affair, at all. Our uncle was a soldier in the AEF and died in a skirmish on the Western Front. Didn’t your people come from Germany, back in the day?”

“They sure did,” Vennie replied with heat. “A hundred years ago, and just to get away from being conscripted to fight in some stupid nobleman’s stupid bloodthirsty war with his equally stupid and bloodthirsty neighbor. We’re Americans now – and I’m an American, too. I don’t want to see us in America get caught up in another fight between who gets to be the big man in Europe.”

“Noted,” Helen sighed, and tossed the butt of her finished cigarette into the churning waves below. “Of course, no one really does. But Eugene says that there’s kind of a toss-up between those who really want to try out their new martial toys and theories and those who thing that we might be pushed to it, reluctantly. Do you even pay attention to the news, Vennie?”

“No – I’m too tired from cleaning bathrooms and patient rooms and staying up late, trying to catch up reviewing my lecture notes. That brother of yours seems like he has war on the brain, since he is a soldier, after all.”

“You ought to make a bit of an effort to keep up with current events,” Helen chided her. She took out another cigarette from the battered packet in her handbag and lit it. “Another? No … Well, I’ve never known Eugene to be wrong about this kind of thing. He has such a big brain; I’m surprised that bits of them aren’t oozing out of his ears. There are patterns to things, he says. Look at events, and how they fit all together, and follow the breadcrumb clues with an open mind. Herr Hitler is a nasty piece of work – you did see how his hooligans went out and began beating up and arresting Jews and smashing their shop windows, while the police stood by and did nothing at all? It was in all the newspapers, a couple of weeks ago,” Helen added with a touch of mild sarcasm. “Well, Eugene says that was just for practice. A warm-up exercise; preparatory to taking over the Sudetenland and annexing Austria. Who knows what the little maniac with the Charley Chaplain mustache will want next? Poland, Eugene says – on the excuse of claiming that the German elements there along the borders are being harassed and persecuted, or that those nasty Slavs are planning brutal war on the poor persecuted German minority, and that his noble master race must come riding to the rescue … and then Britain and France will have to do something, after having said ‘this much and no more’ so many times.”

“I don’t much care,” Vennie replied. “Let Europe go hang – we have enough troubles of our own. My folks left Europe a hundred years ago, and why should we feel any obligation to Europeans, if they didn’t have the nerve to get shed of a stupidly blinded ruling class and emigrate to America?”

“Your point is accepted,” Helen dragged deeply on her new cigarette. They watched the seagulls, wheeling over the grey-blue waves, rattling the shingle and sand at their feet, relishing the long ocean vista and the relative silence. “The thing is,” Helen observed after that long silence. “We might not be interested in war. But Eugene says – war might eventually be interested in us.”  

26. July 2020 · Comments Off on The Next New Book… · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

After That Fateful Lightning, of course. The book with the WWII setting, which picks up with a pair of cousins, granddaughters of characters in The Quivera Trail and Sunset and Steel Rails.

Chapter 1 – To The Far Exotic East

At mid-morning, in a tropical lagoon, Peggy Becker – no, she was now Mrs. Thomas Morehouse – stepped carefully off the ramp from the magnificent flying boat which had brought her and her new husband a thousand miles and more across the Pacific Ocean and onto the floating dock, which rocked gently in a vivid blue ocean bay, only slightly less blue than the sky above, framed by the distant eminence of Diamond Head, slashing up into that horizon like a vast sleeping stone lion. A brilliant sea bird, the Pan-Am four-engine Clipper had settled into the crystal-blue waters, as if no more than slightly wearied after a day and a nighttime flight from San Francisco. The dock abutted a lush green lawn shaded by graceful coconut palm trees – a vision of tropical beauty only slightly marred by the view in the other direction; a grim and functional view of docks and mooring places for a crowding of grey-painted naval vessels, whose masts and gun muzzles gave to lie to a vision of a peaceful Pacific island paradise.  

“Tommy,” she exclaimed to her new husband, as he took her arm. “It’s absolutely beautiful here – I love it already.”

“Wait until you see Ipoh Perak,” he replied. “It’s a garden of Eden in comparison.”

Peggy was tall and model-slender, an athletic girl with stick-straight hair the color of ripe wheat-straw, hair which defied every attempt to curl it in accordance with the current fashion. Her countenance was oval, pleasingly featured, accented with sky-colored blue eyes and shapely lips which owed little to brilliant red lipstick in accentuating their kissable attraction. Attraction to Tommy Morehouse most of all; Tommy was wiry and charming, as tall as his wife, but possessed of a personal magnetism which drew the attention of everyone in any room where he appeared.

Peggy had not quite figured it out – that attraction. Any room where Tommy appeared – he was instantly the star, for all that he wasn’t tall for a man and didn’t look anything like a movie star. Tommy was … Tommy was Tommy; grey eyes and undistinguished brown hair – dunduckety, was how one of the Vining cousins had described him; lanky and angular, rather like an English version of a young Abraham Lincoln. Her cousin Vinnie Stoneman had attempted an explanation. ‘Tommy looks at you and talks to you as if you are the most singular and fascinating person in the room. He does this with everyone, and the thing is – he is completely sincere. Tommy loves people, he is interested in every single person he meets. And that is why most everyone loves him in response.”

Peggy had fallen for him almost from the moment of meeting, an encounter at a family dinner with her grandparents, in their big old house in the oldest part of Alamo Heights. A distant cousin of the family, her father had said vaguely, English and kin to Great-Aunt Lottie’s husband in some degree, by way of explaining the presence of a stranger among the scattering of cousins, uncles and aunts in Granny Jane’s parlor on a rainy January Sunday.

“He’s returning from home leave in England, the long way around,” Daddy explained. “Quite pleasant when I spoke to him on the telephone; he had all kinds of questions. He works in Malaya, overseeing a rubber plantation.”

“Boring! And yet another cousin,” seventeen-year-old Ivy grumbled. “Don’t we ever meet anyone who isn’t a cousin?”

“He’s not bad looking at all,” Peggy murmured, and her heart had skipped a beat as hers and Tommy’s eyes met. He had been leaning up against the upright parlor piano, talking to Grandpa Sam – something to do with the property up north in the Palo Duro country.

It was an instant connection, as if they had known each other always – or as Vinnie observed humorously – as if they had known and loved each other in a previous life. Surely one couldn’t in this modern day, fall in love at first glance? But Peg and Tommy had. The talks between them – about the family ranch in the Hill Country where Peggy had spent most of the years growing up, the property that he managed in the Malayan foothills – were as meaningful and momentous as the companionable silences. Barely a week later he proposed; a month and a half later, married and boarding Pan American’s luxurious China Clipper, resting now like a motorized water-lily leaf in San Francisco Bay.

“How long are we going to stay here, then,” Peggy asked, as Tommy took her elbow. The morning breeze smelt a little of aviation fuel, with an overlay of salt water – but teased a little now and again with the scent of flowers; ginger, plumeria, jasmine and gardenia. She inhaled, relishing the fresh air and the flowers, palm leaves rustling in an endless dance overhead.

“A week here, and a week or two again in Manila,” Tommy replied, as half a dozen young women rushed forward, their arms filled with flower garlands, dark hair flowing unbound around their shoulders. They wore colorful bandeaus around their breasts, shell necklaces and more garlands of live flowers woven into their hair and around their necks, and shin-length skirts composed of some long fiber that looked like green raffia.

“Aloha!” the women chorused, flinging a garland around the neck of every departing passenger. “Aloha! Welcome to Hawai’i! Aloha!”

“I love this place, already!” Peg exclaimed again; the garland brought a richer scent of flowers to her than the erratic breeze. “I cannot imagine a place more different than Texas.”

“Indeed,” Tommy grinned. “Certainly, more different than Oxfordshire. A bit more like Malaya, though. Come on, Peggy – the hotel where we are staying is right on the beach. I believe, though,” he confessed as he and the other passengers took their places in a handful of taxis and a small bus tricked out in the colors and emblem of PAA – Pacific Air Ways. “That this is a welcome laid on by the airline … certainly very considerate of them to do so.”

“I don’t care – I love Hawaii anyway,” Peg replied. “And I’m certain that I’ll love Longcot Plantation even more. Tell me about the house again. I love to hear you talk about it.”

“It’s in the foothills above Ipoh,” Tommy began with a wry smile, for this was a story told many times, like a fairy story to a child at bedtime. “Over seventy hectares of mature rubber trees – my father and my grandfather began planting them when the coffee crop failed, back before the War. The house is not a large one – two stories tall, and on tall pilings to catch the breezes. It has deep porches all around. Every room of it opens onto a porch, through tall French doors. The afternoon heat, y’know…”

“I know about heat,” Peg replied, knowingly. “Summer in Texas means living in an oven … although it always seemed to be cooler in the Hills. I’m used to heat, Tommy.”

“Mumma – my mother started a garden when she married Father,” Tommy continued. “She has always said that the soil was so rich, it was a matter of planting a seed or a sprig, and then having to leap backwards as it grew so fast that it might hit you in the eye!”

“She lives in … Australia now?” Peg wanted to refresh her memory of Tommy’s family – none of whom were able to attend the ceremony, due to Tommy’s impulsive haste and the long distance from Texas between his remaining family and friends; his side of the church had been practically deserted on their wedding day. His parents and half-sister were stiff figures in black and white photos, formal or caught on casual snaps on a small simple Brownie camera, pictures which he just happened to have carried with him on his ‘home leave’. Neither of his parents really looked like Tommy. It was if he were a changeling child, deposited by the fae in the Morehouse family cradle, in faraway Malaya.

The taxi in which they were riding was skirting the harbor – a shining stretch of water on one side, and a precipitously-rising range of mountains on the other, mountains clad in lush greenery, attended by blue skies in which a range of clouds floated, like something arranged by a scenic painter. Peg spared a look outside the windows; now they were passing by the fringes of the naval base; nothing there but grim concrete and industrial metal, broken now and again by exuberant outcrops of palm trees and banks of lush plants. Yes, things grew in the tropics, as Tommy’s mother said of her garden. Stand back, or it will hit you in the eye.

But always beyond that vista of cranes, docks and steel was the ocean, dark and brooding, even in the morning sunshine now slanting over those mountains, a deep blue ocean trimmed with the white of cresting waves.

“Yes,” Tommy replied, and even though he spoke with typical English stoicism, Peg sensed the grief and loss which her husband must have felt. “Father was gassed in the War. Never entirely fit and well again afterwards. He died in 1921. I was at school then, of course. I was twelve – being sent Home even before the War. It wasn’t thought healthy for us English children to be kept in the East after about five or so. And Mumma married Stanley a few years later. Stanley’s a good sort of chap. He was an agent for some enterprise which had an office in Kuala Lumpor. They met at one of the Club do’s – can’t recall the occasion, since I wasn’t there. Of course. Social life in Malaya revolves around the local club.”

“He’s not a wicked stepfather?” Peg smiled sideways at her husband, and he covered her hand with his and smiled in return. “No, he’s not. Stanley’s a jolly decent sort. He makes Mumma happy, and now he and Mumma and Mavis all live in Brisbane. They all write to me without fail, every week. Now, your turn. Tell me about your home.”

“You never got to see it, in all the rush of the wedding,” Peg replied, with regret. “I’m sorry for that – because I loved the place so. Daddy managed it for Great-Uncle Dolph, and Ivy and I lived there on weekends and holidays. We boarded at St. Mary’s Hall, during the week.”

“Boarding school,” Tommy had a particular wry grin on his face. “How very English of you all.”

The taxi had now passed the outlaying establishments of the naval base, and now traveling along a good road; houses and small enterprises set in lush green plots and among thickets of tropical trees and vines. The green mountains rose up precipitously on the horizon to their left, and out to the right, between buildings, houses and stands of trees, the deep blue Pacific beckoned. Tommy had arranged for a week-long stay at the splendid pink hotel on the very beach, before continuing their journey.

“It was school – and we had to be there,” Peg was indignant. “A very good school, I will have you know! Anyway – the Becker ranch was established by my … I think, great-grandfather. Maybe another grand on top of that. I can’t be certain, as it was simply ages ago. Anyway, he built a stone house for his wife, or the woman that he hoped would be his wife, and it was the first and oldest stone house anywhere in the neighborhood. That’s the family story, anyway. There’s a carving over the front door, of a bird in the nest of an apple tree and the date 1847…”

“Practically modern, then,” Tommy commented.

Peg was indignant all over again. “No, you beast! For Texas that is old, as old as the hills! The great-great-grand had land for his service as a soldier, and later Great-Uncle Dolph and his kin went into trailing cattle, all up the long trail to Kansas. Daddy says that this was how they made the original fortune after opening a general store after the War Between the States, and lucky we were to hold on to it, too.” Peg settled against Tommy’s shoulder with a sigh. “I loved the place. I wish I could have shown it to you. A lovely old house with gardens all around, and a walled apple-orchard supposed to have been planted by Great Uncle Dolphs’ father. And Great Uncle Dolph planted an avenue of red-bud trees, all along the drive from the gate to the Home Ranch. His wife designed and set out the gardens. She was English, you know. It’s a lovely place … when we have home leave once again, I can show it to you. We learned to ride there, Ivy and I, but she is better in the saddle than I am, and Cousin Vinnie is better than either of us.”

“Your cousin who was your chief bridesmaid,” Tommy replied with a nod and a brief look of satisfaction at having recalled the names and the web of relations. “And quite an excellent dancer, too – I did several turns around the floor with her, at the reception dance. Did she also grow up on the family ranch with you?”

“Oh, no,” Peg replied. “The Stonemans own a big place in New Mexico – they visited now and again, for family things. I can’t recall the exact connection, it’s terribly complicated, I think she is a second cousin, but I love her like a sister. Now, the funny thing, and the new thing that I have just remembered is that Stoneman isn’t their real name – they changed it from Steinmetz about twenty years ago.”

“To sound less Jewish?” Tommy ventured, and Peg giggled.

“No, silly – to sound less German. Because of the War! All the Beckers and the Stonemans came from Germany, about a hundred years ago! Vinnie’s father decided around 1915 or so that he didn’t really want the grief of being considered foreigners and hostile foreigners at that. They were American, and that was an end to it, and if it took changing the name to something less tiresomely Germanic, then he could go to the courthouse and change it and solve all their problems.”

“I understand that our very own dear royals had the same problem,” Tommy chuckled – a rather cynical sound, and at Peg’s baffled expression, he enlarged. “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was formerly the family name, since Prince Albert the blessed, espoused of our own good Queen Victoria was of the old German nobility. They changed it to Windsor and vacated all their German titles after Kaiser Wilhelm and his filthy Huns dropped bombs on England during the War.”

“You see? Problem solved,” Peg replied, thinking privately that she had been so blessed in her impulsive choice of husband. She nestled into his shoulder and watched the passing landscape in blissful silence for the remainder of the journey into town from the Pacific Airways landing dock. The taxi was descending into the city now, a space of wide avenues, which now and again crossed over watery canals and ocean inlets. “Are we going to dance at the Royal Hawaiian? I expect they have a band…”

“For a certainty, they do,” Tommy kissed her hand. “Every dance with me, Mrs. Morehouse?”

“Of course!” Peg promised. That was one of the silly things that she loved about her husband – that he was a good dancer. They fitted together, on the floor, the music binding them, every move, turn and gesture a magic thing, as if they sensed it without words. Now the taxi approached the grand hotel, a sprawling and eccentric edifice the color of pink cotton candy, set in groves of palm trees and gardens, with the dark blue pacific rolling in upon a sugar-white strand beyond. It was a palatial hotel, even the name reflected it. “What a lovely place for our honeymoon trip!” Peg sighed in absolute bliss. Everything was perfect. Her wedding, her husband, and now their lives together could not fail to fall short of such a perfect beginning.