Her Finest Hour

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Lowestoft, East Anglia, February 4, 1940

A young man on a deserted windswept beach walked briskly on the hard sand under an ominously sullen Suffolk sky, anxious not to wet his brogues in the wavelets lapping the shore. Once again, he saw the same young girl, a pretty teenager in a long grey skirt and pink cardigan, sitting in the same place, surveying the scene as before, from a grass-covered sand dune, thick brown hair restless to escape from the bright headscarf that held it in place. He gave her a friendly wave of recognition. She smiled shyly and half-raised her hand in return. This time he decided to stop.

“I’m sure I know you from somewhere,” he began.

“Yes, sir. You do. We both work at Anstruther’s. You are Mr. Blake, a buyer.”

“I am, indeed. That must be where I’ve seen you. Do you work in the typing pool?”

“No, sir. In the drapery and ladies’ department. I’m an apprentice .”

“Fancy that. I never have occasion to go there.” He laughed a mite self-consciously.

“That’s because you’re not married.” No ‘sir’ this time, he noticed.

The girl seemed unusually forward, even familiar, and well-informed. He found her frankness refreshing. A mere apprentice would not normally converse with a senior buyer, not even this far from their workplace. Most of the girls left before completing their apprenticeships. She looked at him impassively from deep brown eyes. Emboldened by this, he decided to risk a closer intimacy.

“If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re an awfully pretty girl.”

“My mother always said beauty is a ‘snare and a delusion.’”

“And do you agree with her?”

She grimaced. “She died ten years ago. I’m an orphan.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Are you alone then?”

“Yes, alone.  ‘Alone, alone, all all alone, alone on a wide, wide sea.’ “ She stared out, abstracted, at a sea grey and flat to the horizon.

“That’s Coleridge, isn’t it? The Ancient Mariner. Do you like poetry?”

“Yes. And Chopin, Dvorak, and Beethoven. And ballet, and history, and Jane Eyre.”

She sighed heavily. “I loved school, too. But so what? It doesn’t matter here.”

“Doesn’t it? That sounds a bit defeatist to me. I don’t even know your name. I’m Arthur.” He extended his hand, and she took it a mite reluctantly.

“I’m Grace. Named after Grace Darling, but everyone calls me Gracie. Pleased to meet you.” There was a little warmth in the introduction, but her expression remained severe. He got up. “Who was Grace Darling?”

“A lighthouse keeper’s daughter. She single-handedly saved some survivors of a shipwreck in 1838. My father used to be a fisherman. He admired her. I do, too.”

Arthur, impressed by her composure, found her both intimidating and intriguing.

“I must be off. Duty calls. Perhaps we’ll meet at work?”

He was rewarded with a nod and a dazzling smile that lit up her clouded face.  He made a stiff bow and continued on his walk.

The day dragged interminably on. Rain poured relentlessly down outside. At least, reflected Gracie, her elbows resting on the vast counter before her, and propping up her head in her hands, a position she knew the management of Anstruther’s  frowned on;  at least , she thought, the downpour will keep customers away, and I have time to ruminate. Or cogitate. Or even meditate. Or just brood. Her employers prided themselves on being “a mecca for the discriminating shopper.” By this, they justified their high prices and limited selection. The “individual attention” to shoppers’ needs they promised was only made possible by a number of ill-paid female apprentices that the store hired as shop assistants. These paid for their ‘training’ out of their meagre wages, and the girls were required to ‘live in’ in an attic dormitory, four wearisome staircases above street level, and accept the uninspired meals provided for them in the apprentices’ basement refectory unaccountably sited a floor below the staff kitchen. Only customers could use the single elevator.

MORE pages to follow: click the page numbers below!
WWII fighter plane flying over North Sea at Suffolk beach

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 Corrin3 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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