“The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains, but I would just like to read it to you. “We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples, never to go to war with one another again.””
“You see? Didn't I tell you? There isn't going to be another war,” Jack Dawkins told his wife, Cissy. “Hitler wouldn't dare risk another war. Germany couldn't afford it for one. You also have to bear in mind that he doesn't have the military hardware. They have been restricted in what they can build since the last one. Now, let's finish dinner and not worry any more about it.”
They turned away from the Radio set, and Jack took a fork full of the delicious beef stew his wife had made.
Cissy Dawkins wasn't convinced.
“I'm not so sure,” she said, her own food as yet untouched. “Why would he threaten to annex the Sudetenland if he couldn't back it up?”
Jack laughed as he took another mouthful.
“You worry too much.”
She looked down at the steaming plate in front of her.
“It's all right for you,” she said. “My dad fought in the last war. I was five years old when my mum got the telegram. Killed in the last days of the war. Mum brought us kids up alone. I don't want that for us.”
Jack took her hand.
“I know. I'm sorry, but isn't that exactly why it won't happen again? Who in their right mind would risk such a thing? Chamberlain has done the right thing. He has shown Herr Hitler that Europe will not tolerate it.”
Cissy wasn't convinced, but she didn't show it. Instead, she took a mouthful of her food.
“I suppose so,” she conceded. “I wonder how the boys are getting on.”
Jack Dawkins, a twenty-eight-year-old engineer, was two years younger than his wife. His family had been fortunate to avoid the horrors of the first world war. His father, a policeman, had been exempt from conscription. Unlike his wife, Cicely, or Cissy for short, Jack had not known the grief that she had suffered. He worked for a transport company in East London, maintaining a fleet of lorries, whilst Cissy looked after the home and children.
“Do you think they'll be alright?” she asked later.
Jack turned slightly to better hear her, the wet dish held dripping above the hot soapy water in the sink.
“Who?” came the puzzled response.
“Little Albert and Georgie.”
“Oh, yes. I'm sure they will.” He turned back to the washing up. “They love messing about outside when they get the chance. Those Scout camps are a wonderful opportunity for them to learn as they play.”
Sissy brushed a handful of breadcrumbs into her hand from the starched, white tablecloth.
“I suppose so,” she replied thoughtfully.
Just then, they noticed that there was more news on the radio regarding the speech Neville Chamberlain had given earlier that evening. Then, he had spoken from the steps of the aeroplane that brought him back from a meeting with the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, in Munich. Now, he was speaking from Number Ten, Downing Street.
“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”
Jack smiled and placed his arm around his wife's waist.
“You see? It's like I said, there is nothing to worry about.”
Cissy did not respond but went over to the radio set and switched it off. She was still not convinced.
Wiping his hands on the tea towel, he crept up behind his wife as she swept up the few remaining crumbs that littered the dining table. He slid his hands around her waist and kissed her slender neck.
Cissy smiled inwardly.
“Oh yes? And what do you think you're up to then?” she asked with mock acerbity, knowing full well what he was thinking.
Without pulling back from her, Jack answered,
“Well, the kids are away for the weekend, and we haven't been alone for the past ten years...”
Cissy turned to face him and stared straight into his eyes.
“Jack, you're right! We could go to the pub without asking your Mum and Dad to babysit!”
Jack released his grip and stepped slowly back from her. His smile had vanished.
“Yes. Yes, I suppose that is true.”
Cissy laughed aloud.
“Oh, Jack! I was kidding! Look at your little face.” She smiled as she continued, “That'll only take ten minutes. We could go down the pub after!”
He frowned indignantly.
“I was hoping...” he began, but then, he too laughed. “Oh, you cheeky monkey!”
Cissy turned back to the table to finish wiping it down. As she reached over, her husband gave he a hard but playful slap on her bottom. The initial surprise soon gave way to a different feeling.
“Mmm, Jack!” she exclaimed.
A few weeks later, Jack and Cissy were sitting in the parlour of Jack's parents' house which was just a few doors down the road from their own. The children were in the kitchen, helping Grandma prepare dinner.
Albert Dawkins sat quietly in his armchair, puffing serenely on his briar pipe.
Slowly, with the practised movement of a lifelong pipe smoker, he tapped the bowl upside down into the glass ashtray at his side and then took out his small penknife. He scraped the remaining ash from inside the bowl and tapped that into the ashtray. Next, he took a generous pinch of tobacco from his leather pouch and pressed it firmly into his pipe. The penknife had a tiny, flat, hammer-like object on the end which Albert used to tamp the tobacco down more tightly. Cissy watched, fascinated as he flicked open his lighter and tipped it towards the freshly filled pipe bowl. He sucked noisily until soon, a dense cloud of smoke was exhaled. Neither she, nor her husband, were smokers, but strangely, she found watching Albert smoke his pipe oddly therapeutic. She also loved the sweet aroma from the smouldering ready-rubbed tobacco. Did it taste as nice as it smelled? Probably not, considering how much she disliked the stale aftermath on his clothes and in the house.
When the pipe was re-lit, and he was once more shrouded in a haze of smoke, Cissy asked of him a question that had been troubling her for quite some time.
“What do you think of Chamberlain, Gramps?” she asked, “Is he right about peace, do you think?”
Albert tapped the stem of his pipe on his chin, staring up at the ceiling, considering his answer.
“I keep telling her, Dad,” Jack chimed in. “Hitler got what he wanted. I mean, those people in the Sudetenland are predominantly German anyway. Why would Herr Hitler want more? No, I think he will be satisfied.”
Albert turned to his son, drew in a mouthful of smoke from his pipe and then pointed the stem at him.
“You can't trust a German, Son. You mark my words. Chamberlain is a fool if he thinks that a piece of paper will secure peace.”
He returned the stem to his mouth and drew in another breath.
“I think you are right, Gramps. Germany isn't exactly noted for its servility.”
Oh, come on!” Jack interjected. “After the Great War? Who in their right mind would want that again?”
Albert exhaled another cloud of blue smoke and pointed the pipe at Jack again.
“We don't know what those kinds of people think. Hitler thinks the German race is superior to all others. He won't see it as a World War. In his eyes, the rest of Europe is inferior.” He paused, took a breath, and continued, “Let me offer you some advice, Jack. Cissy knows how it is. If it does come to war, the Government will need to bring in conscription again. Just like before. The best thing you can do is not wait to be called up. Volunteer for the service which suits you. At least that way, you get to choose instead of becoming cannon fodder.”
Cissy turned to her husband who was sitting open-mouthed.
“He's right, Jack. My dad was called up and was sent to the trenches. He was killed within weeks, and I barely remember him. Don't let that happen to our kids.”
An uneasy silence fell on the room. Finally, Jack forced out a laugh.
“Yeah, well. It won't come to that, you'll see.”
Weeks passed. Christmas came and went, just like any other. There were various news reports about Germany, but none indicated anything had changed.
Cissy couldn't believe that man's inhumanity to man could be as intense as the stories suggested. The reports back in November about Crystal Night, as they called it, horrified her. Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed for no reason. Other than the fact that they were Jewish. Innocent people were killed, and others taken away to goodness knows where. She couldn't understand how so-called civilised people could behave in this way.
Throughout the winter months, Cissy found that she couldn't shake off the feeling of unease that pervaded her every waking moment. Even when winter gave way to spring, she listened to every news report that was broadcast. She even found herself having arguments with Jack who couldn't understand her obsession.
“Couldn't we please have some music for a change instead of these incessant news reports?”
“You still can't see what is happening, can you?” Cissy snapped at him. “Hitler is gradually moving across Europe. He has annexed Austria and now has taken Czechoslovakia. He is not going to stop until he rules the whole of Europe!”
Jack shook his head in dismay.
“Sweetheart, it's not like that. The borders of European countries have been fluid for centuries. It is just a part of the natural progression. Don't forget that Germany didn't technically exist before nineteen-eighteen. It was just a group of independent states like Bavaria, Prussia, Baden-Wurttemburg and so on, all working together. That is all that is happening now, you'll see.”
Cissy didn't want to argue with him. Instead, she pursed her lips and replied with a simple “Hmm.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her.
“Stop worrying,” he whispered.
When Summer and the warm weather came, Cissy began to put some of her doubts aside. Her daily chores started to become a pleasure. She moved the wash-tub into the small garden at the rear of their small terraced home and the wonderful smell of freshly laundered, air-dried washing, filled the entire house.
One evening, Jack walked through the door after finishing his shift for the day. He was smiling broadly.
Cissy, Albert, and little Georgie were already at the kitchen table.
“Hiya, Dad!” The boys shouted in unison. Both jumped up and ran to him.
He ruffled their hair.
“How would you like to go to the seaside?” he asked aloud.
Cissy frowned but remained quiet.
“What, on our own again? Like the scout camp?” Albert looked concerned.
Jack ruffled his hair again.
“Don't be daft. No, I mean all of us. Your mum too!”
“Jack...” Cissy began. “How are we supposed to afford that? We can't go on holiday, it's too expensive.”
Jack sat at the table opposite his wife, the two boys at either side.
“I know we can't afford a holiday. 'Course I do. I mean, just for the day.”
Cissy opened her mouth to protest that they didn't have a car, and the train fare for all the family was too expensive. Jack raised his hand to stop her before even the first word passed her lips.
“They're putting on a charabanc to Southend from work. The company is charging tuppence a seat, just to cover the cost.”
“Really, Jack? Oh, that would be lovely!” Cissy was so pleased that, just for now, she felt all her worries fade into obscurity. But Jack wasn't finished.
“You know what? Gramps and Grammie can come too!”
“Hooray!” The boys jumped up and down and clapped with glee.
“When is it?” Cissy asked.
“Bank holiday Monday,” he told her. End of August.”
Cissy was already thinking ahead.
“I'll get together with Grammie, we can make up a hamper,” she exclaimed. “A flask of tea, some sandwiches. A cake maybe, if I can talk her into making one.”
“A crate of beer too!” Jack chimed in. “I can't wait!”
Well, you will just have to. It's another four weeks away, yet.”
The next few weeks seemed to drag on and on but then, the great day came. Today, Albert and Georgie didn't have to be persuaded to get out of bed, or to wash themselves. No, they were too excited to argue.
The family arrived at the transport yard just before seven-thirty. The coach was already there. Big, bright and shiny, the early morning sun dazzled as it reflected from the bright chrome trims.
The steps up into the saloon were a bit steep for the boys, but they leapt up them with the agility of gazelles. In their haste, they didn't stop to consider helping Gramps and Grammie climb up. Without waiting even for Mum and Dad, they ran straight to the back so that they could all sit together. Nobody complained. Everyone was too excited to mind about who sat where. At the rear, the cavernous boot was loaded with crates of beer for the grown-ups, lemonade for the youngsters, and sandwiches and cakes galore. All the families had done their bit to make this a trip to remember!
By eight o'clock, everyone had arrived. With a jolt, the coach began to move. Everyone was in a jubilant mood, singing songs and chatting gaily. Even at this hour, the sun had warmed the air, and the driver had ensured that the canvas sunroof was fully open to allow the fresh warm air to circulate as they drove along.
For most, if not all of those on board, the annual summer outing was the only time they got to leave the city. The green fields and quiet roads were a world apart, for them. They nudged each other and pointed out all the horses, cows, and sheep as they drove through quaint villages. The crowded terraced houses in the smokey city. The hustle and bustle. The traffic noise, and the factories and dockyards. All were pushed to the back of their minds. The warm breeze carried the fresh, and sometimes not so pleasant, aromas wafting from the countryside.
Suddenly, as the coach passed a particularly pungent farm, Albert grabbed his nose.
“Phwoar, Dad! Was that you?”
Jack Dawkins gave his son a playful clip around the ear.
“Cheeky blighter!” he laughed.
The day seemed to pass so quickly. Jack and Cissy had laid out a blanket on the sand whilst Albert and Little Georgie built sandcastles or paddled in the sea. The sun rose high and shone down relentlessly through a cloudless sky. It was so hot that Albert senior had tied a knot in each of the four corners of his handkerchief and pulled it onto his bald head so as not to burn. He was not alone. There were many other men sitting in deckchairs, just as he was. Shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow and trousers up to the knee. He also, again like others, had placed an open newspaper over his face. After the pleasant picnic lunch that his wife, Vera, or Queenie as the family affectionately knew her, had put together with Cissy, he had fallen asleep. In the distance, the rumble of the electric train as it made its way along the pier could be heard quite clearly.
All too soon, it was time to pack up and leave. The sun had long passed its zenith and sank slowly towards the distant horizon.
The journey home was a much more subdued affair. Dim lighting from the art deco lamps, fitted beneath the overhead luggage racks, helped the children, and many of the older adults, sleep soundly. The fresh sea air and constant activity had worn them all out. Not to mention substantial quantities of beer!
Cissy laid her head on her husband's shoulder.
“It's been a lovely day, Jack,” she said quietly.
“Mmm, it has,” he replied. “Maybe we should buy an old car. We could do this more often. Just us, instead of a whole load of people.”
Cissy laughed gently.
“Yes, Jack, of course, we should. We can really afford a car.”
He looked at his wife, the sarcasm not lost on him.
“I mean it, Cissy. If we are careful, I'm sure we could save enough before next summer. It wouldn't have to be an expensive car, just an old banger. I could fix it up at work during my lunch breaks.”
“And if we did have a car, where would we keep it? We live in a terraced house. There is no room in the backyard.”
Jack lay his head back against the seat moquette.
“You are always so negative, Cissy,” he said, almost resignedly. “There is plenty of room at work. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I kept it there.”
Cissy smiled and snuggled her head against his shoulder.
“We'll see,” she responded. “We'll see.”
The following days were a bit of a let-down. Jack returned to work on Monday morning and Georgie and Little Albert returned to school. Cissy fell back into her daily routine of washing, cleaning, cooking and the other usual household chores.
She found that she had some difficulty in settling. Something was bothering her, but she couldn't pinpoint what exactly.
When Friday came, jack came home as usual. She had already laid the table for dinner.
“I'll get washed and be right with you, he said.
“Alright,” she replied. “Tell the boys that dinner is ready when you come down, please.”
Ten minutes later, they were all sitting at the table whilst Cissy dished out her delicious Shepherds Pie. They always enjoyed her home cooking.
“Gravy?” she asked, in no doubt that they would all say yes, please.
“Old Hitler is asking for trouble, isn't he?” Jack said as he lifted a fork-full of steaming hot mince and mashed potato to his lips.
Cissy didn't look up.
“Why, what's he done now?”
“Only gone and invaded Poland, hasn't he!”
Now she stared at him.
“And what has the government had to say about it?”
“Nothing, as yet.”
Two days later, Jack and Cissy were standing at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes. Sunday was always family time and the one day of the week that they had the time to cook and enjoy a good old fry-up. The radio was on but they were only half listening to it.
Suddenly, as she passed a wet plate to Jack for him to dry, Cissy froze!
The programme was interrupted for a special announcement from the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain;
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany...”
The plate fell to the floor and smashed as they stared, horrified, at the radio set.
The Prime Minister continued with his speech, and they listened, dumbfounded, as he ended,
“...The Government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead. But these plans need your help. You may be taking your part in the fighting services or as a volunteer in one of the branches of Civil Defence. If so you will report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received. You may be engaged in work essential to the prosecution of war for the maintenance of the life of the people - in factories, in transport, in public utility concerns, or in the supply of other necessaries of life. If so, it is of vital importance that you should carry on with your jobs. Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”