The Steel Girls by Michelle Rawlins is out in just three weeks! Can’t wait that long? Start reading this heartwarming wartime saga novel now!
Saturday, 26 August 1939
‘Would you like one?’ Betty asked, opening her bag of chocolatecaramels and offering one to her handsome sweetheart,William.
‘I bought them for you,’ he said, smiling, ‘but if you insist.’He winked, dipping his hand to the brown paper bag. ‘They are rather good.’
The young couple had called at Harrison’s sweetshop onGreen Street on their way to the Empire for a quarter of the gooey soft-centred chocolates; they had been a favourite of Betty’s ever since her parents had taken her to the very same theatre house as a little girl. Tonight, of all nights, it was just what she needed. After a busier than normal week at the prestigious legal firm, Dawson & Sons, where she worked hard as a secretary, writing letters to clients and answering questions about their wills, Betty was ready to let her mind wander to a faraway place. Amiable and willing as ever, William hadn’t objected when she’d suggested an evening at the Empire, where she could get lost watching James Stewart in It’s A Wonderful World.
As she relaxed into the soft familiar seat, Betty edged as close to William as she possibly could. Just having him by her side was a sure-fire way of ensuring all her worries faded away. She had been looking forward to their date all day, knowing she could relax for a few hours with the one person who made her smile more than anyone else in the world. As the main theatre lights began to fade and the heavy deep-red screen curtains slowly opened, Betty finally started to relax, happy in the knowledge she was about to escape to a fantasy world of romance and comedy.
But, just as it had for months now, the harsh introductory crackling of the Pathé newsreels interrupted the precious moment of tranquillity, terrifying black-and-white images invading the big screen. Stern-faced, menacing-looking soldiers stared straight ahead as they were addressed by Adolf Hitler, who had Poland in his sights. Hoping to deter an attack on Eastern Europe, Great Britain and France had formed a pledge to defend Poland if it was attacked. Instead of indulging in another chocolate caramel, Betty reached for William’s hand, subconsciously squeezing his fingers a little tighter than normal as she stared at the incomprehensible scenes flashing before her eyes.
She understood why the public announcements had to be shown; the essential need to let the country know what was going on in the world and for people to understand once again the nation was facing the biggest risk they’d come up against since the First World War. Normally calm and methodical, Betty took a deep breath and let out an audible sigh as she looked up towards the intermittent flashing scenes. Hitler, with his pencil-thin moustache and dark, deep unreadable eyes, had signed a treaty of alliance with Italy and he was now in talks with Russia. Betty tried to placate the growing fear she felt deep in the pit of her stomach. Every time she saw that godforsaken man march his troops through another city, her heart raced a little faster. She didn’t want to be the voice of doom, but she was convinced Britain was next on the evil Nazi leader’s list. He seemed hell-bent on taking over the world and it seemed obvious to her he wasn’t listening to anyone who tried to reason with his plans.
‘He’s building his empire. Are we next on his hit list?’ Betty whispered to William, her voice ever so slightly faltering as she leant in even closer to the one person who always made her feel safe. Tightly clenching her free fist, Betty’s neatly manicured nails dug sharply into her soft skin, leaving deep U-shaped indents in the palms of her hands. But she didn’t feel a thing, her mind too overtaken by worry. It didn’t take a genius to work out the months ahead could see Britain facing its worst battle since the Great War. As she sat, glued perfectly still to her chair, an icy-cold shiver ran down her spine, overwhelming anxiety soaring through her. Intuitively, sensing Betty’s concerns, William turned to face her. ‘Try not to worry, my love.’ He smiled. ‘Everything will be okay – I promise.’ But, for the first time, William’s kind eyes and well-meaning reassurances couldn’t disperse Betty’s fears. Despite only being twenty-three, in many ways she was older than her tender years might suggest. In her mind, England didn’t seem ready to fight a war, despite the fact that they seemed to be perilously close to being on the edge of one.
William had already hinted at the idea of joining the RAF if war did break out, leaving his job as a trainee manager for an electrical company, and inevitably being separated from Betty. ‘I’ve always wanted to fly,’ he’d told her the last time she’d brought up the subject. ‘Imagine how amazing it would be to see everything from above, speeding through the clouds.’ She’d immediately regretted bringing it up as William was a dreamer who saw everything through rose-tinted glasses. To Betty, though, it sounded like a pipe dream; a naive schoolboy adventure, which hadn’t been thought through at all, and the dire consequences didn’t bear thinking about.
As the newsreel came to a welcome end, Betty was brought back to the present, snapped out of her daydream. ‘Are you okay?’ William whispered, genuine concern still etched across his kind face. Betty forced a smile and nodded weakly, but the reality was she simply couldn’t face the thought of losing someone else she loved. She and William had been going steady for two years now. He’d been the knight in shining armour she hadn’t even realized she’d needed, so hell-bent on being completely independent and determined never to become reliant on anyone – especially after what she’d been through. After losing her mum, Elsie, at the tender age of ten, she had been left with no choice but to grow up fast. She’d helped her sister, Margaret, two years her senior, take care of their little brother, Edward – who, at eight, had been equally bewildered as to why their mother had been so cruelly taken away from them.
At nineteen, two years after securing her job as a secretary at Dawson & Sons Solicitors, Betty Clark had moved out of the neat three-bedroom terraced family home where she had grown up, and taken a small but perfectly adequate room in a smart boarding house in Walkley, the posh end of town, determined to be independent. Of course, she still went home as often as she could on a Sunday and helped her dad and Edward, now a handsome young man, prepare a traditional roast, always willing to get stuck in peeling a bag of tatties and top and tailing a saucepan of carrots.
Every few months, Betty’s elder sister, Margaret, arrived from Nottingham with her husband, Derek, and their two-year-old dream of a little girl, June. The couple had moved seventy miles to the Midlands city after Derek was offered a lucrative job working on the railways. It meant the family only got together three or four times a year but, if nothing else, it made the afternoon even more special. After a modest feast of roast chicken and vegetables, followed by a jam sponge pudding with lashings of home-made custard, bought from the nearby bakery, the family usually marvelled at June as she toddled around the front room, showing off her much-loved dolly she’d received for her birthday. Betty missed Margaret; they had been so close growing up and Margaret had taken on the mother role she and Edward had desperately needed.
She recalled how, on one of her sister’s visits to the family home, Margaret had looked over at Betty as she played dollies with June. ‘I hope that one day you will meet a lovely man like Derek and have a little family of your own,’ she’d mused, hopeful her younger sister would find someone special to share her life with.
It seemed fate had played a helping hand when Betty met William at a local church hall dance. Betty’s best friend, Florence, had persuaded her she needed a night out to let her hair down after spending evening after evening with her head deep in law textbooks, secretly hoping one day to train as a solicitor. So, after Florence had somehow convinced Betty to don her best pink and cream floral knee-length dress and set her brown hair with sugar and water, they’d headed to St Michael’s church hall to enjoy a night of dancing along to Fred Astaire’s ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, washed down with a couple of glasses of sweet cloudy lemonade. It was while the girls were taking a break from the dance floor that Florence had spotted a keen and fresh-faced William glancing over at Betty. ‘I think that lad has taken a bit of a shine to you,’ she’d said with a wink, teasing her naturally shy and far more reserved best friend.
‘Oh, give over,’ Betty had sighed, shaking her head. It was just like Florence to read more into a situation and try to play cupid. ‘I’m serious,’ Florence had protested. ‘If you don’t believe me, look for yourself.’ Against her better judgement, more to prove Florence wrong, Betty had glanced across the dance floor to where her friend had indicated. To her surprise, a handsome young man with slicked-back brown hair, dressed in a crisp white polo shirt and a pair of light-grey flannels, had caught her eye. As quick as she’d looked up, Betty had turned on her heels, colour rushing to her already flushing cheeks. ‘He’s probably eyeing up all the single-looking girls,’ Betty had said, feeling unnaturally flustered. There was something about the young man’s dashing appearance that had made her come over all of a flutter.
‘Aha, so the attraction is obviously mutual,’ Florence had grinned, amused by her friend’s unexpected reaction. Before she had chance to tease Betty any further, a quiet, half-hearted, cough, coming from just behind them, had broken the moment.
As Betty had turned around, she’d come face to face with the handsome stranger.
‘Would you like to dance?’ he’d asked, his voice shaking with nerves.
‘Erm, okay. Yes, I suppose one dance would be fine,’ Betty had replied, and it wasn’t just out of sympathy – there was something about this lad which had caught her off guard, causing her usual prim façade to ever so slightly falter.
As William had led Betty to the wooden dance floor, she’d barely heard the lyrics of ‘September in the Rain’ echo through the hall. Instead, she’d allowed this dish of a young man to gently take her by the arm as they’d swayed to the music.
And there began a romance that had not only taken Betty completely by surprise but also left her a little shocked to say the least – it really was the last thing she had been expecting. After their first date, William had taken the liberty of asking Betty if he could call on her. ‘I think I would like that very much.’ She’d smiled, once again taken aback by her own willingness to let her guard down for the first time in years.
What followed were months of romantic rendezvous. Twice a week, William would appear at the boarding house, where Betty would be waiting, any creases pressed out of her skirts and a smudge of light pink rouge rubbed into her porcelain white cheeks. For so long, Betty had been fiercely independent, looking after others and politely refusing help in return, but even she couldn’t resist being shown some longawaited attention.
The lovesick pair spent Saturday afternoons strolling around the local park, and every couple of weeks they would join dozens of other cinema-goers at the Empire to catch the latest black-and- white movie. William never objected when the film showing was a romance, nor did he take any offence when he saw her eyes light up when James Stewart appeared on the screen.
As the overhead lights once again filled the theatre, William naturally turned to Betty. ‘Did James Stewart live up to your expectations?’ He grinned his boyish smile, hoping the film had lifted her spirits a little.
Giggling, Betty gently nudged William in the ribs, but the truth was she was still feeling rather unnerved. As William escorted her home to her room at 74 Collinson Street, Betty linked her arm with his tighter than normal.
‘What is it?’ he asked, concerned.
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ she said, sighing, yet again forcing her lips to create a forced smile.
William might have been naive but he wasn’t daft; his sensitive side was one of the qualities Betty had fallen head over heels for.
‘I know you better than that,’ he said. ‘Come on, a problem shared and all that.’
Betty knew there was no point in pretending, and the truth was she needed to vent her feelings and worries, which were overtaking her every thought. ‘I know they have to show the newsreels; I just wish they wouldn’t. I can’t bear to see what’s happening. I’m frightened of what might come next.’
Spinning Betty round to face him, he took both of her hands in his. ‘Now listen up,’ he said, ‘everything is going to be all right. Our government won’t let a war happen and, even if they did, Hitler doesn’t stand a chance against the likes of me.’
Betty knew William was only trying to cheer her up – his way of dealing with any upset was to find a way of lightening the mood – but it was his endearing innocence which frightened her the most. Young men like her William saw the idea of war as one big adrenalin-fuelled adventure, a chance to take to the skies and see the world.
‘Oh, my love,’ Betty sighed, looking into William’s kind eyes, ‘I just don’t want to lose you too. I know joining the RAF feels like the right thing to do, and your bravery is one of the many reasons I love you so much.’ Deep down, Betty knew she would struggle to change William’s mind, but she couldn’t just let him go without a fight. ‘Couldn’t you just take a job down the pit?’ she asked, in a last-ditch attempt to convince William it was a much safer option than fighting the Luftwaffe. She knew William adored his job at Coopers, but she’d rather him take his chances six feet underground than flying across Germany’s vast, perilous skies.
‘You have so little faith in me.’ William teased, waggling his finger from side to side. ‘I will be the fastest fighter pilot the world has seen.’ She’d known William long enough to give up her argument, reluctantly accepting he wasn’t going to take the risk seriously. Why would he? His dad hadn’t fought in the war, nor had his uncles – they had all been coal miners. The only problem was that their tales of being stuck in dark and damp mineshafts for hours at a time, nasty black itchy dust collecting in the corner of their eyes, ears and mouths –which, despite a weekly Friday night scrub in a tin bath, never completely disappeared – had put William off a career down the pit for life.
All Betty could do now was hope beyond hope that Neville Chamberlain had what it took to stop Hitler in his tracks and to avoid Britain going to war.
‘Please don’t worry, my lovely, sweet Bet,’ William said, before he gently kissed her goodnight on the doorstep of her boarding house. For once she didn’t bring their lingering embrace to a premature end, as she usually would, even if Mrs Wallis – the rather Victorian in nature and incredibly proper and strict landlady – could see them.
Mrs Wallis kept a tight ship, refused her lodgers to enjoy any visitors, except the odd cup of tea in the communal and very formal front room, ensuring propriety was always the priority. It wouldn’t surprise Betty if her landlady was hovering just a few paces behind the bright-red front door, ensuring her wards – as she liked to view those who took rooms in her rather grand townhouse – were home and safely tucked under their floral patchwork eiderdowns.
Knowing her rather stern landlady was now likely to be only seconds away from coughing or, even worse, opening the front door and catching her and William in a loving embrace, Betty finally, and reluctantly, released herself from William’s warm and naturally protective hold.
‘I’ll call on you tomorrow,’ he said, clinging to Betty’s fingers, desperate to freeze time so they would never have to be parted.
But right on cue, heavy footsteps behind the door broke the tender moment as quick as a bolt of thunder. ‘Goodnight, my love,’ Betty sighed dreamily, giving William one final peck on the cheek.
For a few precious seconds, Betty had temporarily forgotten the foreboding thoughts that had dominated her mind all evening. But as she walked past Mrs Wallis in the corridor, bidding her goodnight and throwing her one of her most innocent smiles, the sense of uncertainty suddenly returned. After washing her face clean with lukewarm water and lavender-scented soap in the porcelain sink in the corner of her room, Betty changed her pale-blue skirt and cream blouse, on which she could still smell William’s musky aftershave, and slipped into her long, white, crisp cotton nightdress.
Climbing into her cold but familiar bed, she tried to close her eyes as she rested her head upon the fluffy pillow – something Mrs Wallis prided herself on. But as soon as she tried to doze off, worry overcame her once more. To Betty, war seemed an obvious outcome to this whole messy situation, but where would that leave her and William? Would she have to kiss him goodbye if he did follow his heart and join the RAF, telling him she would see him soon, knowing the reality could paint a very different picture?
And what would she do? One thing was for sure: if war was announced, she couldn’t do nothing. She couldn’t just rest on her laurels and hope it would pass; she would have to do her bit.
Perhaps she’d have to do as the women of Sheffield did in the First World War and rise to the challenge, stepping into the steel toe-capped boots the city men would leave behind. The steel factories had relied on women to keep the foundry fires burning for four long years and Betty was determined she would be one of the first in line to ensure those sent to war, like her William, had the munitions they needed to fight the battle they faced.