An enthralling story of one woman’s determined grab for freedom after WW2 from a talented new Australian voice.
With one chance to redefine her future, will she risk it all to be free?
1952: Saint-Malo, France
The sky was awash with pinprick stars. The boat’s motion made them dip and sway in an erratic waltz. Evie wrapped her arm tighter around the mast. Her elevated position meant she felt every exaggerated pull of the current downward, every rising wave tipping them first to starboard, then port side. She gave a silent thank you her days of seasickness were behind her.
A breeze caressed the nape of her neck, ran across her face and waved the ends of the scarf tied around her curled hair. She hoped they would start soon. The stronger the wind got, the more difficult the job became for the performers. Not to mention the audience, currently silent in anticipation in their own boats, who might turn tail and head for shore and the multitude of sheltered enjoyments to be found there.
The gentle shush shush of the waves was the only sound that reached Evie’s ears; then came the single note of a clarinet. The boat burst into life, a hurry of light, sound and movement.
Evie directed the baby mirror spotlight, her eyes running up and down the boat to take stock of the cast and crew in their positions, waiting for their cues. Everything seemed as always. Yet there was something … a shift in the air perhaps, or a change in her senses.
A crease formed between Evie’s brows. Shifting her position on the riveted bar that served as a perch, she craned her neck to see past the mast. There it was again. A faint impression, a hint of a familiar smell that caused the slightest ripple of fear to curl through her chest.
She told herself it was nothing, she was imagining things. But her eyes were drawn to the edge of the boat, where the railing met the deck, and suddenly she understood.
A sharp hiss of air through her teeth, a brief shout that no one heard, then she was moving. Mast abandoned, feet in the rope webbing, hands moving so fast they barely had time to grip as she scaled down towards the deck. One or two people turned to look at her, but the wind picked up her words and flung them into the sea. She willed her limbs to move faster. Below, someone finally caught her shouts; there was a scramble of motion and noise. Evie was a full body length above the deck still, but pushed outward, releasing her feet. Her toes, knees and palms hit the wooden planks all at once. The impact caused her to catch her breath for a second; then she released it with a single word.
Pushing herself up, she ran for the stairs that led below deck.
1941: London, England
‘Welcome to the Auxiliary Territorial Service,’ the recruiting officer said.
Evelyn released the breath she’d been holding. ‘I passed?’
At the officer’s nod, her shoulders relaxed a fraction. Her upper arm was aching from the series of inoculations she’d received that morning, yet the pain dulled a little with this welcome news. Evelyn had already been doing what she could to contribute to the war effort: digging holes for her neighbours’ Anderson shelters, pinning blackout curtains over windows, knitting fingerless mittens to send to local men in the bomb disposal units. But all those jobs still left her feeling like a sitting duck, just waiting for one of the Luftwaffe’s bombs to drop on her. Wanting to do something more, she’d gone to the nearest ATS recruitment centre—against the wishes of her older sister—and filled out a volunteer form. Acceptance had been swift and was followed by six weeks of learning to march and drill, with thorough health and fitness checks. At the end of all this came the inoculations and an intelligence check that had made her so nervous she was sure she’d come over dull-witted. But appar-ently she’d done enough to pass. Evelyn could hardly believe it. She wanted to reach across the desk and hug the recruiting officer, but settled for a wide smile instead.
She knew Cynthia wasn’t going to be pleased. It wasn’t just that she would have preferred Evelyn to get involved with the Women’s Volunteer Services instead, where she herself carried out such useful yet comparatively danger-free tasks as unpicking damaged Merchant Navy stockings and reknitting them into jerseys. Their younger sister, Maureen, still only a child, had been evacuated to the Chiltern Hills, and seeing her set off in the donkey cart with a small case of belongings and the tiny gasmask box around her neck had upset Cynthia’s nerves. Still, the guilt Evelyn felt was minimal. The work of the ATS was so essential it seemed worth invoking her sister’s disappointment.
Turning her thoughts to more inspiring matters, Evelyn wondered what she might say when the recruiting officer asked what job she would like to have. The question was a formality, but if a girl’s preference and her strengths happened to align, she often got her wish. Driver was the most popular job talked about during training. It was practical yet daring, and as a driver Evelyn would get to learn the mechanics of the vehicle. She had to admit it held appeal.
But instead of the expected question, the recruiting officer was saying, ‘Your test results show an aptitude in certain areas that lead us to believe you’d be a good fit for a new project.’
Evelyn frowned. Was this their way of sidelining her to some menial task where she wouldn’t be in the way of the people doing the important work? She took a second to think, then asked, ‘What kind of new project?’
‘A trial. One that has come under a great deal of scrutiny before it’s even begun. One that is also to remain completely confidential.’ He paused, raising his eyebrows.
‘Is it dangerous?’
The second she said it, Evelyn wanted to hide behind her curls. Asking about danger in the midst of a war was foolish. They were all in danger these days, every minute of their lives. And it was nothing compared to what their boys were facing.
The officer gave her a measured look and she wondered if he was rethinking the results of the intelligence test.
‘No more than the training you’ve already done,’ he said. ‘But as for what may or may not come afterward …’ He shrugged. ‘You’ll be dispatched to Rhyl on the twenty-third of April, along with fifty-three other women. There you’ll be assessed for fitness, hearing, eyesight and nerves. You’ll then commence twelve-hour days consisting of PT, drill and route marches, plus training in Morse code, the phonetic alphabet, radio circuitry and intercoms, radar, plotting, mechanics, and how to recognise both enemy and friendly aircraft. All this is to test if women might be capable of coping with the diffi-culties of manning a searchlight regiment.’
‘Oh.’ The sound stuttered out of Evelyn. Whatever she had been expecting, it wasn’t this. She could barely get her mind around most of the words he’d said. Mechanics. Radio circuitry. Radar. She didn’t even know what that last one meant. Excitement made her skin tingle.
The recruiting officer was still talking, and she forced herself to focus, not wanting to miss anything and risk being dismissed as inattentive.
‘The searchlight regiments assist in anti-aircraft activities. Their role is vital, but with so many men being deployed overseas there simply aren’t enough left to work the lights. We have our doubts as to whether women are suited to the role, but General Sir Frederick Pile has convinced those in charge that this—the “Newark Experiment”—is worthy of trial.’
‘You don’t sound as though you agree,’ Evelyn said.
The officer’s eyes twitched narrower. He wasn’t used to someone questioning him so boldly, Evelyn realised. Civilians questioned; those in the army listened and obeyed.
‘Operating and maintaining the searchlights isn’t easy work. I don’t believe women have the physical strength necessary to turn over the generator, nor the mental fortitude to cope with the isolation of the searchlight regiment locations.’
From his tone Evelyn understood that he—and probably many others like him—expected the trial to fail.
But what if he was wrong?
Evelyn thought of the freezing nights she’d spent huddled in the Anderson shelter with Cynthia, waiting for a blast that might bury them. She thought of the friends who were living in Red Cross accommodation because their houses were no longer standing. She remembered the devastation of incendiary bombs, and the children and elderly or infirm who had died in the resulting fires.
If searchlights could help to stop the German aircraft, that was the area she needed to work in.
‘I’ll be ready for training on the twenty-third,’ she said.
1941: Honolulu, Hawaii
Flynn grinned as he ran his rag over the spills on the counter before him. Smith’s Union Bar was alive with noise. Men in white naval uniforms and rounded caps threw back a couple of cold Primos before shouldering their way onto North Hotel Street and the more exciting temptations of Honolulu’s red-light district. There was no room for gambling set-ups, live bands or opium smoking in Smith’s Union Bar. The long timber counter ran the entire length of the narrow room, with tables pushed against the latticed-straw wall coverings on the other side. Stools became occupied early in the evening, and men used whatever standing space was left to down shots while making plans for where to go next. The crew of the USS Nevada were loyal to Shanghai Bill’s, and the USS Maryland to Four Aces, but Smith’s Union Bar was the favourite haunt of the USS Arizona men. Flynn counted himself lucky; it meant work—and the decent tips that came with it—would never dry up.
‘Throw me another one, would ya?’ said a man who couldn’t have been more than twenty, sliding his empty beer glass over. ‘That’s exactly what a fella needs on his night off.’
‘Glad you enjoyed it,’ Flynn said, holding the glass beneath a silver tap and letting the beer flow. He waited until a thin head of white foam just peeked over the lip, then slid it back.
The man threw some money on the bar, then tipped his head and drained the beer in one. When he came up for breath he closed his eyes and let out an ecstatic moan.
Flynn couldn’t help laughing. ‘Good as that, is it?’
‘Nothing better. If the navy weren’t so good to me I’d up and work with you here, just for the beer. Say, what brought you to Honolulu? You don’t sound like a local.’
Flynn shrugged. ‘I’ve got no family to speak of on the mainland, so no point sticking around there. I was lured to the island by the opportunity to earn good coin off the anchored fleet and meet pretty girls. You lot take all the girls’ attention, but you do keep a man in laulau and Aloha shirts.’
‘If you swapped your bright patterns for some whites, the girls might notice you too,’ the sailor said with a wink, before heading for the door.
Flynn threw him a wave. He knew he’d see him again soon. They all came back in between beach visits and dances with nurses or local girls. He was glad of it. Sure, some got up to mischief in the surrounding streets, but that was part of the fun of this area. It gave people like Flynn the oppor-tunity to live a life relatively free of responsibility. All he had to do was serve drinks, count the change correctly, keep the place clean and send the fights outside. A good job, and a good life. They hadn’t lied when they said Hawaii was paradise.
After finishing his shift in the early hours of the morning, Flynn locked the doors then treated himself to a couple of shots of okolehao using the tips he’d just earned. He switched on the wireless behind the bar and turned the dials, but it was too late for any programming. Still, he liked the way the static filled the sudden quiet of the bar which had bustled with noise all night long. Leaving it on, he poured himself another shot and dragged a stool to the corner where he could lean back against the wall and prop his feet on the bar. If the owner came in and saw him like that he’d be in trouble, but the chances were slim. The guy rarely checked on the place outside of his own shift. Flynn still had to take care of the cleaning, but he’d do that in a bit, when he didn’t feel so hot, so fuzzy-headed.
He must have drifted to sleep, because the next thing he knew his feet had slid off the bar and he almost toppled from the stool. He caught himself, straining to listen. Was it a sound that had woken him? Or something else?
He stood and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. That brought the world into sharper focus. His mouth was dry and tasted sour. As he headed for something to swill it out with, he realised the ground felt … what was it exactly? Unstable? As though some kind of tremor was running through it.
The wireless was still crackling, and with an irritated flick of the wrist Flynn turned it off. Was there an earthquake somewhere distant perhaps?
Forgetting his drink, he made his way to the front door and unlocked it. He stuck his head out and glanced up and down the street. North Hotel Street was usually a night-time place, only coming to life well after the bright blues of the Hawaiian sky darkened into near-navy, but this morning sleep-lined faces peered out from many of the buildings, and one or two locals had already stepped outside. Flynn joined them. They weren’t looking towards the Iolani Palace, which would have been his first instinct, but in the opposite direction.
Beyond the treetops and roofs a great plume of black smoke was staining the sky. Small shapes whizzed through the air around and above it, looking like birds from this distance. The shapes swooped, rose up, and this time Flynn heard it—a faint boom. The hairs on his arms rose. The navy carried out manoeuvres every now and then, and he tried to tell himself that’s what this was. But something was different. Something was off.
The others must have felt it too, for their mouths were drawn in tight lines, brows furrowed in concern. Another column of smoke, likely resulting from the boom they’d heard, joined the first.
The wireless. Flynn raced back inside, skidded to a stop and twisted the wireless knob so hard it almost came off in his hand. He made himself slow down and inch the dial a bit at a time, desperate to catch a voice that would tell him what was going on.
Finally, a man’s tinny voice reached out to him, caught mid-sentence: ‘… by enemy planes. The mark of the rising sun has been seen on the wings of these planes and they are attacking Pearl Harbor at this moment.’
Attacking? Flynn’s stomach turned over. How was that possible? America wasn’t part of the war.
‘Keep off the streets and highways unless you have a duty to perform,’ the radio announcer’s voice continued. ‘Please don’t use your telephone unless you absolutely have to do so. All of these phone facilities are needed for emergency calls.’
The presenter ended with the call for all military personnel and police to report for duty at once, and urged listeners to keep their radios on for further instructions.
Flynn’s back hit the wall. He hadn’t even realised he’d been moving. The room seemed to be shrinking in on him, trapping him like a frog in a shoebox. He was desperate for more news, desperate to try and understand what was going on.
The radio crackled again, and the voice came back; a second wave of aircraft was attacking the same area, and locals were warned to remain indoors. Flynn thought of all the men who came into Smith’s Union Bar, gleaming and proud in their dress whites, generous with their tips and their jokes. Most of them would have still been in bed, their sleep deepened by the drink he’d served them and the fun they’d found. Would they have had enough time to react?
He ran his hands through his sweat-dampened hair, then buried his face in his palms and let out a long, low moan.
The wait for more information was interminable. Every second seemed to last an hour; every breath a reminder to Flynn that he was safe and in one piece, and absolutely no help to anyone at all. Finally, the words he was waiting for came. The bombing had stopped. Rescue operations and firefighting were underway.
Flynn grabbed the keys to the bar and ran to the door, ready to help, but the urgent voice of the radio presenter pulled him up. He was instructing all citizens to stay inside unless they had medical expertise. His stomach sank. As much as he wanted to do something, Flynn would only get in the way of those equipped to handle such a situation.
He returned to his seat at the bar, hating himself for being useless, for only knowing how to pour a beer and lindy hop with the ladies. Why hadn’t he learned any practical skills?
He kept seeing the faces of the navy men from last night. Would the bombing mean fatalities? It seemed impossible in this place of palm trees and beaches. Yet if medical assistance was needed … Perhaps it was only for injuries. Yet even as he thought this, Flynn knew it was a naive hope.
He was silently calling himself a fool when the radio announcer spoke again, his static-filled voice making Flynn jump.
‘Eyewitness accounts have told us of catastrophic hits to numerous battleships and destroyers. Many are still ablaze, although the USS Arizona has been completely lost.’
A rough sound escaped Flynn’s lips. His knuckles were white around the edge of the bar, and he pressed his face hard against the wood, inhaling the scent of stale beer. The Arizona. His men, his customers. The kid from last night.
Tears stung his eyes. How could this have happened? America would have to retaliate. Flynn knew it as clearly as if the voice on the radio had already confirmed it. There was no way their nation could ignore the insult of this sneak attack, the cowardice of an enemy bombing them without a decla-ration of war. This was the end of counting themselves lucky to not be a part of the war. The end of complacency.
America was going to fight back. And when she did, Flynn was not going to sit around like a useless lump, allowing better men to take on all the risk. He was going to be a part of it.
An enthralling story of one woman’s determined grab for freedom after WW2 from a talented new Australian voice.
‘PART CABARET, PART BURLESQUE, AND LIKE NOTHING YOU’VE EVER SEEN BEFORE! GENTLEMEN, AND LADIES IF YOU’VE DARED TO COME, WELCOME TO …
1945: After the thrill and danger of volunteering in an all-female searchlight regiment protecting Londoners from German bombers overhead, Evelyn Bell is secretly dismayed to be sent back to her rigid domestic life when the war is over. But then she comes across a secret night-time show, hidden from the law on a boat in the middle of the Thames. Entranced by the risqué and lively performance, she grabs the opportunity to join the misfit crew and escape her dreary future.
At first the Victory travels from port to port to raucous applause, but as the shows get bigger and bigger, so too do the risks the performers are driven to take, as well as the growing emotional complications among the crew. Until one desperate night …
1963: Lucy, an unloved and unwanted little girl, is rescued by a mysterious stranger who says he knows her mother. On the Isle of Wight, Lucy is welcomed into an eclectic family of ex-performers. She is showered with kindness and love, but gradually it becomes clear that there are secrets they refuse to share. Who is Evelyn Bell?
PRAISE FOR KERRI TURNER
‘Beautiful, daring, deceptive and surprising.’ The Australian Women’s Weekly
‘An impressive debut … one of the strengths of the novel is the tapestry it creates of everyday life in an era of great turbulence.’ Queensland Times
Posted on December 4, 2019 by harlequinaustralia