Her Finest Hour

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In the kitchen, standing uneasily with his back to the outside door, cloth cap in hand, she found her father, and rushed to him. The cook at the table continued smoking her cigarette and reading the newspaper, seeing no evident reason to leave them undisturbed together.

“Ullo, moi precious. If on’y y’r mother c’d see yew naow,” he said in admiration after they embraced. He spoke in broad Suffolk dialect, and was wearing stout, hob-nailed boots, with his wiry legs in workmen’s trousers tied with straps below the knees and attached to workmanlike bicycle clips. He had cycled twenty miles in the dark to bring his daughter a gift in a heavy burlap sack.

“Oi brought yew some taters an’ vegibles an’ whatnot from moi own ‘lotment. P’r’aps your cook c’n use ‘em? “ The cook nodded, and went back to her paper.

“Yew’re arl roight  ‘s long as yew’ve got y’r health an’ stren’th. Yew look arter yerself, gal.”

“I will, Dad.”

“Are yew happy, gal?”

“Yes, Dad, I am.”

“Then Oi c’n doy happy.”

“Don’t talk like that” she said, brushing away a tear. “You have years to go yet. “

“Oi’m gettin’ on, but if’n the good Lord wills it, it’ll be toime to go. Trust in Him, gal.”

“I will, Dad. Promise.”  Soon thereafter, he was homeward bound on his beloved old Alldays tradesman’s bicycle, bought second-hand from a tobacconist decades before, carefully maintained and still resplendent in its shiny black enamel. He left reassured by his daughter’s appearance and impressed by her new status in the world as an employee of a store that catered to the ‘best’ people, to ‘gentlefolk’.

That status of Gracie’s was the subject of a conversation between Arthur Blake and his mother, with whom he shared a small terraced home on the outskirts of Lowestoft. Arthur had by now met Gracie several times at Anstruther’s, not enough to excite more than a mild curiosity, but their walks together across the common and along the beach, had their workmates known of these, would have been worthy of idle gossip. On the first of these walks, on a day that promised an early spring, she had told him at the beach that she had “a young man” she was very fond of, whom she had known since their schooldays. He was working in London, and wanted to ‘join up’ in order to become a pilot in the Royal Air Force, now that what the American press had derisively referred to as the “phony war” threatened to come to an end, and Hitler was poised to strike further into western Europe. The free peoples of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France were in his way. The disclosure of the existence of a sweetheart, and his own growing realization that Lowestoft, a Navy port, was vulnerable to Nazi aggression, appeared not to deter Arthur in his quest for Gracie at all. He had in his character what Gracie had come to recognize as a naive parochialism that he shared with so many of his fellow-citizens, a complacent satisfaction with himself and his place in the world, despite the louring storm-clouds of war. This deficiency, Gracie saw intuitively, was due to a dispiriting lack of imagination. To be fair to Arthur, he was probably aware of Gracie’s own shortcomings, too. She was young, pretty, moody, and impressionable, and the sight of her ‘young man’ in uniform had turned the head of many a young girl before her. She might grow out of her adolescent fantasizing, he reasoned. The boy might even—but he quickly dismissed the idea as unworthy—be killed in a flying accident. He thought of his own attractiveness to her: a young man barely ten years older than she was, a house he would inherit, a good job and a pension, and every expectation of further promotion. Yet his mother did not approve of her.

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author
Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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    Harold Corrin2 months ago

    Thanks for “Her Finest Hour.” Well done, Peter Scotchmer! A fine wartime story, with an articulate and well-read young heroine. You capture the era and the characters perfectly. — Harry Corrin

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