When the guns stopped on the Western Front, for some the silence was unbearable.
Best Beloved is a story about seizing the opportunities of war, and living with secrets and shattered dreams. “Best Beloved” is how Rudyard Kipling addresses the young reader of his Just So stories, in memory of his dead daughter, Josephine. In my story, the endearment is applied to Arthur Harrington-Sykes, the childhood sweetheart of Hope Hathaway through whose eyes events unfolds. Arthur has been dead for three years when the story opens but his gentle presence haunts the narrative.
Hope, a tomboyish only child, and Arthur grew up in a small village in the Shropshire Hills. Now a gauche and rather naïve 21-year-old, she is serving as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in a base hospital on the French coast*. She tries to be loyal to Arthur’s memory but, exhausted and lonely, is aching to break free and run and laugh and find happiness again.
A chance meeting in the dunes leads to a tragic indiscretion and Hope is faced with disgrace and dismissal. She is rescued by sophisticated, charming Army surgeon Captain Ashley Howard, who leaves the hospital shortly afterwards as the war moves east in the final 100 days of conflict. When the Armistice is declared in November, it makes little difference to Hope and her friends. They just carry on, desperately trying to relieve the suffering of victims of 1918’s flu pandemic, their wards full of men drowning in their own lung secretions, extremities turning navy blue as death approaches.
Eventually, in April 1919, Hope returns home – as does Arthur’s older half-brother, Colonel Gerard Harrington-Sykes. Gerard, abrasive and arrogant and wishing he was anywhere else but Shropshire, is a man who loved war, who thrived on the excitement and camaraderie of conflict, and fears peace – because now he has to face the terrible consequence of Arthur’s death. As the heather purples on the hills and the village prepares for Peace Day, Hope is also struggling; with boredom, grief and guilt, and the complacency of the women who stayed at home – and then Ashley Howard reappears, sympathetic and kind and ready to sweep her off to London, where the night clubs are thronged with young men and women making up for lost time. Very soon, quite naturally, Hope fancies herself in love.
The story I’m working on now is called The White Lady. The White Lady was the code name for the one of the resistance networks in occupied France in the Great War. The title also references the recurring motif of owls, since barn owls are known as les dames blanches in French. This novel explores themes of courage and belonging, and tells the story of Charlotte, an Anglo-Indian suffragette; angry, brittle and adrift in a strange land.
Early in the narrative, recovering from the horrific consequences of forcible feeding in Holloway, Charlotte has a profound encounter with a mysterious man – only for him to walk away the next morning. Charlotte finds contentment elsewhere but her world is shattered by the outbreak of war when she is recruited against her will for espionage work in the German-occupied zone (an aspect of the Great War I do not think has been explored before in fiction). Amongst the slag heaps and ruins of Northern France, Charlotte’s resilience and courage are tested to their limits, until fate once more intervenes and she embarks on a desperate race against time.
I think that readers who enjoyed Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, The Lie by Helen Dunmore, The Redeemed by Tim Pears, and Alan Furst’s tales of inter-war espionage would also enjoy my stories.
*VAD nurses did not, at any stage of the war, serve in casualty clearing stations behind the front line, however convenient that would be dramatically – and, yes, Hope lied about her age to get to France.