Thanks more widely to the Royal Navy, particularly Lt. Commander Ian McQueen, Lt. Andrew G. Linsley, and all those on board HMS Invincible for allowing me to spend time on board.
I’m very grateful to Neil McCart of Fan Publications for allowing me to reproduce extracts from his excellent and informative book HMS Victorious. And to Liam Halligan of Channel 4 News, for alerting me to Lindsay Taylor’s magnificent piece of film: Death at Gadani: The Wrecking of Canberra.
Access to unpublished journals kept during this time has been fascinating and helped add color to a period I was born too late to experience. Thanks in this case to Margaret Stamper, for allowing me to read her husband’s wonderful journal of life at sea, and reproduce a little of it, and to Peter R. Lowery for allowing me to do the same with that of his father, naval architect Richard Lowery. Thanks also to Christopher Hunt and the other staff of the Reading Room at the Imperial War Museum, and those at the British Newspaper Library in Colindale.
Miscellaneous thanks, in no particular order, to Mum and Dad, to Sandy (Brian Sanders) for his marine knowledge and huge library of naval warfare books, Ann Miller at Arts Decoratifs, Cathy Runciman, Ruth Runciman, Julia Carmichael and the staff at Harts in Saffron Walden. Thanks to Carolyn Mays, Alex Bonham, Emma Longhurst, Hazel Orme and everyone else at Hodder and Stoughton for their continuing hard work and support. Thanks also to Sheila Crowley and Linda Shaughnessy at AP Watt.
And thanks to Charles, as ever, for love, editorial guidance, technical support, babysitting and for managing to look interested every time I told him some fascinating new fact about aircraft carriers.
But greatest love and thanks to my grandmother, Betty McKee, who, nearly sixty years ago, made this very journey with unimaginable faith and courage, and still remembered enough about it to give me the basis of this story. I hope Grandpa would have been proud.
In 1946 the Royal Navy entered the last stage of its post-war transport of war brides, those women and girls who had married British servicemen serving abroad. Most were transported on troopships, or specially commissioned liners. But on 2 July 1946 some 655 Australian war brides embarked on a unique voyage: they were sailing to meet their British husbands on HMS Victorious—an aircraft carrier.
More than 1100 men—and nineteen aircraft—accompanied them, on a trip that lasted almost six weeks. The youngest bride was fifteen. At least one was widowed before she reached her destination. My grandmother, Betty McKee, was one of those lucky enough to have her faith rewarded.
This fictional account, inspired by that journey, is dedicated to her, and to all those brides brave enough to trust in an unknown future on the other side of the world.
NB All extracts are non-fictional and refer to the experiences of war brides, or those who served on the Victorious.
The first time I saw her again, I felt as if I’d been hit.
I have heard that said a thousand times, but I had never until then understood its true meaning: there was a delay, in which my memory took time to connect with what my eyes were seeing, and then a physical shock that went straight through me, as if I had taken some great blow. I am not a fanciful person. I don’t dress up my words. But I can say truthfully that it left me winded.
I hadn’t expected ever to see her again. Not in a place like that. I had long since buried her in some mental bottom drawer. Not just her physically, but everything she had meant to me. Everything she had forced me to go through. Because I hadn’t understood what she had done until time—eons—had passed. That, in myriad ways, she had been both the best and the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
But it wasn’t just the shock of her physical presence. There was grief too. I suppose in my memory she existed only as she had then, all those years ago. Seeing her as she was now, surrounded by all those people, looking somehow so aged, so diminished . . . all I could think was that it was the wrong place for her. I grieved for what had once been so beautiful, magnificent, even, reduced to . . .
I don’t know. Perhaps that’s not quite fair. None of us lasts forever, do we? If I’m honest, seeing her like that was an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality. Of what I had been. Of what we all must become.
Whatever it was, there, in a place I had never been before, in a place I had no reason to be, I had found her again. Or perhaps she had found me.
I suppose I hadn’t believed in Fate until that point. But it’s hard not to, when you think how far we had both come.
Hard not to when you think that there was no way, across miles, continents, vast oceans, we were meant to see each other again.
She had woken to the sound of bickering. Yapping, irregular, explosive, like the sound a small dog makes when it is yet to discover where the trouble is. The old woman lifted her head away from the window, rubbing the back of her neck where the air-conditioning had cast the chill deep into her bones, and tried to straighten up. In those first few blurred moments of wakefulness she was not sure where, or even who, she was. She made out a lilting harmony of voices, then gradually the words became distinct, hauling her in stages from dreamless sleep to the present.
“I’m not saying I didn’t like the palaces. Or the temples. I’m just saying I’ve spent two weeks here and I don’t feel I got close to the real India.”
“What do you think I am? Virtual Sanjay?” From the front seat, his voice was gently mocking.
“You know what I mean.”
“I am Indian. Ram here is Indian. Just because I spend half my life in England does not make me less Indian.”
“Oh, come on, Jay, you’re hardly typical.”
“Typical of what?”
“I don’t know. Of most of the people who live here.”
The young man shook his head dismissively. “You want to be a poverty tourist.”
“That’s not it.”
“You want to be able to go home and tell your friends about the terrible things you’ve seen. How they have no idea of the suffering. And all we have given you is Coca-Cola and air-conditioning.”
There was laughter. The old woman squinted at her watch. It was almost half past eleven: she had been asleep almost an hour.
Her granddaughter, beside her, was leaning forward between the two front seats. “Look, I just want to see something that tells me how people really live. I mean, all the tour guides want to show you are princely abodes or shopping malls.”
“So you want slums.”
From the driver’s seat Mr. Vaghela’s voice: “I can take you to my home, Miss Jennifer. Now this is slum conditions.”
When the two young people ignored him, he raised his voice: “Look closely at Mr. Ram B. Vaghela here and you will also find the poor, the downtrodden and the dispossessed.” He shrugged. “You know, it is a wonder to me how I have survived this many years.”
“We, too, wonder almost daily,” Sanjay said.
The old woman pushed herself fully upright, catching sight of herself in the rear-view mirror. Her hair had flattened on one side of her head, and her collar had left a deep red indent in her pale skin.
Jennifer glanced behind her. “You all right, Gran?” Her jeans had ridden a little down her hip, revealing a small tattoo.
“Fine, dear.” Had Jennifer told her she’d got a tattoo? She smoothed her hair, unable to remember. “I’m terribly sorry. I must have nodded off.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” said Mr. Vaghela. “We mature citizens should be allowed to rest when we need to.”
“Are you saying you want me to drive, Ram?” Sanjay asked.
“No, no, Mr. Sanjay, sir. I would be reluctant to interrupt your scintillating discourse.”
The old man’s eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror. Still fogged and vulnerable from sleep, the old woman forced herself to smile in response to what she assumed was a deliberate wink.
They had, she calculated, been on the road for nearly three hours. Their trip to Gujarat, her and Jennifer’s last-minute incursion into the otherwise hermetically scheduled touring holiday, had started as an adventure (“My friend from college—Sanjay—his parents have offered to put us up for a couple of nights, Gran! They’ve got the most amazing place, like a palace. It’s only a few hours away”) and ended in near disaster when the failure of their plane to meet its scheduled slot left them only a day in which to return to Bombay to catch their connecting flight home.
Already exhausted by the trip, she had despaired privately. She had found India a trial, an overwhelming bombardment of her senses even with the filters of air-conditioned buses and four-star hotels, and the thought of being stranded in Gujarat, even in the palatial confines of the Singhs’ home, filled her with horror. But then Mrs. Singh had volunteered the use of their car and driver to ensure “the ladies” made their flight home. Even though it was due to take off from an airport some four hundred miles away. “You don’t want to be hanging around at railway stations,” she said, with a delicate gesture toward Jennifer’s bright blonde hair. “Not unaccompanied.”
“I can drive them,” Sanjay had protested. But his mother had murmured something about an insurance claim and a driving ban, and her son had agreed instead to accompany Mr. Vaghela, to make sure they were not bothered when they stopped. That kind of thing. Once it had irritated her, the assumption that women traveling together could not be trusted to take care of themselves. Now she was grateful for such old-fashioned courtesy. She did not feel capable of negotiating her way alone through these alien landscapes, found herself anxious with her risk-taking granddaughter, for whom nothing seemed to hold any fear. She had wanted to caution her several times, but stopped herself, conscious that she sounded feeble and tremulous. The young are right to be fearless, she reminded herself. Remember yourself at that age.
“Are you okay back there, madam?”
“I’m fine thank you, Sanjay.”
“Still a fair way to go, I’m afraid. It’s not an easy trip.”
“It must be very arduous for those just sitting,” muttered Mr. Vaghela.
“It’s very kind of you to take us.”
“Jay! Look at that!”
She saw they had come off the fast road now and were traveling through a shanty town, studded with warehouses full of steel girders and timber. The road, flanked by a long wall created from sheets of metal haphazardly patchworked together, had become increasingly pockmarked and rutted so that scooters traced Sanskrit trails in the dust and even a vehicle built for breakneck speed could travel at no more than fifteen miles an hour. The black Lexus now crept onward, its engine emitting a faint growl of impatience as it swerved periodically to avoid the potholes or the odd cow, ambling with apparent direction, as if answering some siren call.
The prompt for Jennifer’s exclamation had not been the cow (they had seen plenty of those) but a mountain of white ceramic sinks, their wastepipes emerging from them like severed umbilical cords. A short distance away sat a pile of mattresses and another of what looked like surgical tables.
“From the ships,” said Mr. Vaghela, apropos apparently nothing.
“Do you think we could stop soon?” she asked. “Where are we?”
The driver placed a gnarled finger on the map beside him. “Alang.”
“Not here.” Sanjay frowned. “I don’t think this is a good place to stop.”
“Let me see the map.” Jennifer thrust herself forward between the two men. “There might be somewhere off the beaten track. Somewhere a bit more . . . exciting.”
“Surely we are off the beaten track,” said her grandmother, viewing the dusty street, the men squatting by the roadside. But no one seemed to hear her.
“No . . .” Sanjay was gazing around him. “I don’t think this is the kind of place . . .”
The old woman shifted in her seat. She was now desperate for a drink, and the chance to stretch her legs. She would also have appreciated a visit to the lavatory, but the short time they had spent in India had taught her that outside the bigger hotels this was often as much of an ordeal as a relief.
“I tell you what,” said Sanjay, “we’ll get a couple of bottles of cola and stop out of town somewhere to stretch our legs.”
“Is this, like, a junkyard town?” Jennifer squinted at a heap of refrigerators.
Sanjay waved at the driver to stop. “Stop there, Ram, at that shop. The one next to the temple. I’ll get some cold drinks.”
“We’ll get some cold drinks,” said Jennifer. The car pulled up. “You all right in the car, Gran?” She didn’t wait for an answer. The two of them sprang out of the doors, a blast of hot air invading the artificial chill of the car, and went, laughing, into the sunbaked shop.
A short way along the road another group of men squatted on their haunches, drinking from tin mugs, occasionally clearing their throats with nonchalant relish. They eyed the car incuriously. She sat in the car, feeling suddenly conspicuous, listening to the tick of the engine as it idled. Outside, the heat shimmered off the earth.
Mr. Vaghela turned in his seat. “Madam, may I inquire—what do you pay your driver?” It was the third such question he’d asked her, every time Sanjay was absent from the car.
“I don’t have one.”
“What? No help?”
“Well, I have a girl who does,” she faltered. “Annette.”
“Does she have her own quarters?”
She thought of Annette’s neat railwayman’s cottage, the geraniums on the windowsill. “Yes, in a manner of speaking.”
“I’m afraid I’m not sure.” She was about to attempt to elaborate on her and Annette’s working relationship, but Mr. Vaghela interrupted.
“Forty years I work for this family and only one week’s paid holiday a year. I am thinking of starting a trade union, yaar. My cousin has the Internet at his house. We have been looking at how it works. Denmark. Now, there’s a good country for workers’ rights.” He turned back to the front and nodded. “Pensions, hospitals . . . education . . . we should all be working in Denmark.”
She was silent for a few moments. “I’ve never been,” she said eventually.
She watched the two young people, the blonde head and the black, as they moved within the roadside store. Jennifer had said they were just friends, yet two nights previously she had heard her granddaughter sneak along the tiled corridor into what she assumed was Sanjay’s room. The following day they had been as easy with each other as children. “In love with him?” Jennifer had looked appalled at her tentative question. “God, no, Gran. Me and Jay . . . oh, no . . . I don’t want a relationship. He knows that.”
Again, she remembered herself at that age, ...Présentation de l'éditeur :
From the New York Times bestselling author of Me Before You, After You, and One Plus One, in an earlier work available in the U.S. for the first time, a post-WWII story of the war brides who crossed the seas by the thousands to face their unknown futures.
1946. World War II has ended and all over the world, young women are beginning to fulfill the promises made to the men they wed in wartime.
In Sydney, Australia, four women join 650 other war brides on an extraordinary voyage to England—aboard HMS Victoria, which still carries not just arms and aircraft but a thousand naval officers. Rules are strictly enforced, from the aircraft carrier’s captain down to the lowliest young deckhand. But the men and the brides will find their lives intertwined despite the Navy’s ironclad sanctions. And for Frances Mackenzie, the complicated young woman whose past comes back to haunt her far from home, the journey will change her life in ways she never could have predicted—forever.
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