Chapter One London, August 1939 Abby Stapleton slumped back in her seat, any glimmer of hope she’d harbored would soon be extinguished. The crystal chandelier jingled in the draft of the open window. She loved this room with its embossed wallpaper and rich tapestries, vibrant with memories of family. How could she leave all this? Her father folded the newspaper with its glaring headlines, plopped it on the table and parted his lips to speak. Abby forestalled him. “I’m nineteen,” she said, her nerves rubbed raw by the squabbles with her parents. “I don’t w-w- want to go.” Her voice, thin and strained, echoed back from the high frescoed ceiling. “A father can't ignore his responsibilities,” he said, clasping her hand. “You know Hitler’s taken Austria and Czechoslovakia. Probably he’ll take Poland next.” He furrowed his brow. “And when that happens war with Germany will be unavoidable.” His hand shook and he sounded as though he’d aged ten years in the space of a few minutes. Sunlight dispersed through the copper latticework of the bay window, washing the brocaded settee on which she and her mother sat with patches of red and gold. Her mother sidled closer and stroked Abby’s arm, her face taunt and pale. “Do as your father says, dear. There are sandbags and barrage balloons everywhere, and gas masks are being handed out.” Still determined to speak her mind before it was too late, Abby shut her eyes in a silent prayer. Lord, help me to keep my temper. She released her hand from his. “I should be able to decide for myself w-w-whether to go.” Now, of all times, when she needed eloquence, this accursed stammer bound her up tight. Speak low and slow, Abby, and don’t argue. Her father leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and ran his fingers through his hair, as though engaged in a last- minute tussle with this dilemma. As a senior diplomat in the British Foreign Office, he was privy to the realities behind the rumors of war. If anyone foresaw the hazards facing England, he did. With a pang of regret, Abby noted how weary he looked. He sat up. Then with a quick nod of finality — “All right, it’s settled,” he said, tapping his finger on the side table. “It will be safer for you in the States.” Abby felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her cold. She silently acknowledged the signs of impending war surrounded them. That’s why her brother Peter had joined the Royal Air Force. And that’s why she wanted to stay — to be useful here, with her family, not marooned thousands of miles away across the sea. “I’ll make arrangements for you to travel to Southampton Dock at month’s end. You’ll go to New York on the Queen Mary. Uncle Will and Auntie Val will collect you at the pier and take you to Jolie Fontaine.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. “Your mother and I have talked this out and think this is the best solution.” His anxiety was palpable. “And when you’re settled, perhaps you can resume your voice lessons.” Singing . . . that’s what set her free. No stutter then. It touched Abby that he remembered this. At tomorrow’s recital at the Royal Academy, Simon would accompany her on the piano. He alone understood her. When she struggled with her sentences, he never tried to finish them for her, but listened, patient and attentive. She’d be there with Simon, even if her heart wasn’t in it. Her father crouched before her, casting a sidelong glance at his wife, before addressing Abby. “And perhaps you’d like to enroll at university, too.”   She studied his intent expression. He knew she wanted to be a teacher. But how could she fulfill her dream with this stammer that made conversation unpredictable? She’d stick on a word and then be obliged, in an instant, to pluck out another, which would then send her narrative in an unwanted direction. Through determination and a few simple tricks, she’d made some progress, but she still lacked confidence when trying to express herself. As for education, her mother held a contrary opinion. She once told Abby the only aspiration she entertained for her was marriage to the “right sort,” and expected her to continue the trend, as had Abby’s older sister, Amelia. She even hinted that Simon was not “the right sort,” whatever that meant. But, as much as she loved her, Abby didn’t covet her mother’s life. She wanted her own. Besides, she hadn’t seen her mother’s sister for many years. Whether Aunt Val held the same opinions as her mother was an open question. Abby sensed that despite her mother’s aristocratic demeanor, deep down her roots still clung to American soil. Perhaps she felt homesick. Abby turned to her, brightening. “Then why don’t you come back with me, Mother?” “Your father needs me here.” Her voice shook. “I shan’t leave him. But you must go. Make new friends.” Abby noted the emphasis on “new.” She was being compelled to live with Auntie Val and Uncle Will. Where’s home for me? It had been difficult moving here four years ago, but she’d made other friends, especially Simon. She must try one more time to convince her father to let her stay. Abby exchanged a pleading look with her father in a last minute supplication. Won't this all blow over?” He shook his head. “Surely you know there are plans to evacuate all the children, and — ”  “But I am n-n-not a child.” If only she could make them see that. ### After their morning recital at the Academy, Abby strolled with Simon to Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. She wore a favorite short-sleeved green dress flecked with tiny white flowers, a cardigan draped across her shoulders. She leaned against the gnarled trunk of an ancient willow, arms folded, and studied the slow-moving clouds. “Looks like rain. They’re nimbus . . . or something like that.” Simon squatted at the edge of the pond, flicking crumbs across the water to the swans. She swallowed hard. This might be their last time together. She’d hoped to prepare him for the shock. “I can’t imagine not being able to come here with you.” She bit her lip in an attempt to hold back tears. Simon looked over his shoulder at her and smiled. “Nor I with you.” He sauntered over to her. “Whoa, what’s this? You’re crying?” “Mother and Father are sending me off.” Abby dabbed at her eyes. “To America. For the duration. Just in case.” She fired out the words in machine-gun fashion, afraid to get stuck halfway through the miserable news. Simon heaved a ragged sigh. “Oh, I see. So that’s why you were so quiet, then. I thought something must be up.” He took Abby’s hand and pointed to an empty bench.  He moved closer to her on the seat. “War’s coming and London is bound to be bombed. Your folks are right. We have to face facts,” he said, gesturing toward a field where a steam excavator rocked to and fro, scooping up dirt and depositing it onto a mound. “Bomb shelters. It’s all so unreal. My dad shut his shop for a few days to build an Anderson Shelter in the back garden. And I’m worried for my bubbe and zadie in Berlin,” he said, not missing a beat. “They’re already assaulting people like my grandparents — and me.” Abby touched his arm. She understood his predicament, but couldn’t bring herself to discuss it. Bad enough that Jews in Germany were being rounded up and banished, but to know that her own mother — no, Abby couldn’t tell him that her mother didn’t trust Jews. “When . . . if you go to America . . . I’ll miss you.” He stared at his shoes and knocked the tips together. “You realize I’ll have to join up when the shooting starts?” She shook her head, loosening her long, red hair. “And your intention to be a concert pianist?” Abby pointed to the music book poking from his satchel. “P-p-playing the piano and fighting don’t seem to go together.” He stared into the distance, shoulders slumped. “I’ll need to put my plans aside. Same as you — can’t be helped. Duty first.” To Abby the dead weight of this last goodbye and knowing that Simon might be called up to fight seemed unbearable. Lord, help me to see this is all working to our good. “I'll write as soon and as often as I can,” she said, her voice shaking. He smiled and took her hand. “Same here.” “I almost forgot.” Simon rummaged inside his satchel. “I wrote this for you a week ago.” He pulled out a sheet of music and handed it to her. “Think of me when you’re over there.” She looked into his warm brown eyes, then clutched the page to her breast, aware of the amount of effort it took for him to compose this for her. Before she could thank him, he reached for his umbrella and popped it open. “Rain’s coming on. I’d best get you home before your mother begins to worry.” Worry? She’ll be glad I won’t see you anymore. Arms linked, they walked to the gate. Simon stopped, handed her the brolly, and pecked her on the cheek. “On second thoughts, I should leave you here,” he said, the sadness in his eyes didn't match his words. Turning up his collar against the downpour, he spun around and headed along the route they had come. He did not look back. Abby stood motionless until his form vanished in the mist. Had things been different, their beautiful friendship might have grown into something more serious. Now she’d never know. A wave of regret crashed over her as she stumbled toward the exit, her stomach roiled. Alongside the spiked gold- topped railings an anti-aircraft gun hunched on its concrete plinth, hemmed in by a low wall of sandbags. Two uniformed soldiers crawled over the weapon, making adjustments. The one at the controls swung the long blue-steel barrel around on its axis, bringing it to rest where Abby stood. She stared into the muzzle, a few feet from her head, and gasped. Heart pounding, she darted for home, as though fleeing a demon. Pushing through the oncoming tide of black umbrellas, she hopped on and off the sidewalk, plashing in the rainwater that bubbled in white torrents along the gutters and gurgled through the cast-iron grids into the abyss below. Double-decker buses and taxis lumbered past — the acrid diesel fumes stinging her eyes and nose, while men in flat caps on bicycles flashed by in an endless stream. Breathless, she reached her front door and leaned against the wet iron railing to steady herself. There was no way out. However hard she ran, Abby couldn’t escape the grim prospect that in a few days she would be on a ship to America. She’d submit to her parents’ wishes, but resolved then and there to come back to the home she loved. ### Southampton Dock, August 30 Abby craned her neck and stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the colossal liner. It stretched full length in its berth, like a tall building lying on its side. Hundreds of portholes ranged along the black-painted hull. From the prow hung the mammoth anchor, frightening in its bulk. She tried to stifle the rising panic in her chest. High above her sat the tidy rows of lifeboats in their goose-necked davits, a mute reminder of the ever-present danger of the sea. Her mother offered a clumsy embrace and skimmed Abby’s cheek with a kiss. “I’m sorry Peter couldn’t be here to see you off, dear. The RAF won’t give your brother leave, what with the situation the way — ” Her mother’s lips quivered, and she squeezed Abby’s hand tight. “Anyway, let us know when you want your party dresses sent.” She stepped back a couple of paces, as though releasing her daughter into the wider world. Her father held her close. “I might be able to telephone you once in a while through diplomatic privilege, but I’m afraid there’s no guarantee on that front.” “But you’ll write?” she pleaded, as the last of the passengers boarded the vessel. “At least once a week.” He released her and lifted three fingers to his right temple in a boy scout’s salute. “I promise,” he said, planting a kiss on her forehead. Clutching her passport, Abby proceeded through the customs barrier, and plodded up the gangplank, one ear alert for her parents to call her back and tell her they’d made a terrible mistake. When she reached the deck railing, she gripped it till her knuckles bleached white. She peered down on the minuscule twosome still waving to her and raised an arm in desultory response. On the pier, stevedores and harbor officials swarmed about, barking commands, eyeing the ship, waiting for a signal to loose the beast. Abby clutched the skirt pocket containing the white leather Bible her father pressed into her hand on parting, with a whispered reminder that God promised to make all things work together for good. A horn blasted and a chasm of greasy brown water opened between vessel and dock as a flotilla of tugboats nudged the liner, banging and creaking, from its moorings. As her family blended into an anonymous background, Abby’s stomach cramped into an icy knot. No reprieve now. She was really leaving. In a final, gut-wrenching hallowed farewell she riveted her eyes on the retreating scene, scorching it deep into her memory. Lord, keep them safe. A gust whipped off the water as the ship nosed into the wind. With a muffled bump, the massive engines sprang into life, straining to unleash the ship onto the broad, beckoning ocean. Grimy gray gulls squawked and wheeled overhead, echoing Abby’s innermost cry against this cruel and imposed exile. Would the birds, like herself, be carried out to sea, reluctant refugees, unable to find the way back home?  2017
From unpublished historical novel set in WW2.
when valleys bloom again
Chapter One London, August 1939 Abby Stapleton slumped back in her seat, any glimmer of hope she’d harbored would soon be extinguished. The crystal chandelier jingled in the draft of the open window. She loved this room with its embossed wallpaper and rich tapestries, vibrant with memories of family. How could she leave all this? Her father folded the newspaper with its glaring headlines, plopped it on the table and parted his lips to speak. Abby forestalled him. “I’m nineteen,” she said, her nerves rubbed raw by the squabbles with her parents. “I don’t w-w-want to go.” Her voice, thin and strained, echoed back from the high frescoed ceiling. “A father can't ignore his responsibilities,” he said, clasping her hand. “You know Hitler’s taken Austria and Czechoslovakia. Probably he’ll take Poland next.” He furrowed his brow. “And when that happens war with Germany will be unavoidable.” His hand shook and he sounded as though he’d aged ten years in the space of a few minutes. Sunlight dispersed through the copper latticework of the bay window, washing the brocaded settee on which she and her mother sat with patches of red and gold. Her mother sidled closer and stroked Abby’s arm, her face taunt and pale. “Do as your father says, dear. There are sandbags and barrage balloons everywhere, and gas masks are being handed out.” Still determined to speak her mind before it was too late, Abby shut her eyes in a silent prayer. Lord, help me to keep my temper. She released her hand from his. “I should be able to decide for myself w-w-whether to go.” Now, of all times, when she needed eloquence, this accursed stammer bound her up tight. Speak low and slow, Abby, and don’t argue. Her father leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and ran his fingers through his hair, as though engaged in a last-minute tussle with this dilemma. As a senior diplomat in the British Foreign Office, he was privy to the realities behind the rumors of war. If anyone foresaw the hazards facing England, he did. With a pang of regret, Abby noted how weary he looked. He sat up. Then with a quick nod of finality — “All right, it’s settled,” he said, tapping his finger on the side table. “It will be safer for you in the States.” Abby felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her cold. She silently acknowledged the signs of impending war surrounded them. That’s why her brother Peter had joined the Royal Air Force. And that’s why she wanted to stay — to be useful here, with her family, not marooned thousands of miles away across the sea. “I’ll make arrangements for you to travel to Southampton Dock at month’s end. You’ll go to New York on the Queen Mary. Uncle Will and Auntie Val will collect you at the pier and take you to Jolie Fontaine.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frowning. “Your mother and I have talked this out and think this is the best solution.” His anxiety was palpable. “And when you’re settled, perhaps you can resume your voice lessons.” Singing . . . that’s what set her free. No stutter then. It touched Abby that he remembered this. At tomorrow’s recital at the Royal Academy, Simon would accompany her on the piano. He alone understood her. When she struggled with her sentences, he never tried to finish them for her, but listened, patient and attentive. She’d be there with Simon, even if her heart wasn’t in it. Her father crouched before her, casting a sidelong glance at his wife, before addressing Abby. “And perhaps you’d like to enroll at university, too.”   She studied his intent expression. He knew she wanted to be a teacher. But how could she fulfill her dream with this stammer that made conversation unpredictable? She’d stick on a word and then be obliged, in an instant, to pluck out another, which would then send her narrative in an unwanted direction. Through determination and a few simple tricks, she’d made some progress, but she still lacked confidence when trying to express herself. As for education, her mother held a contrary opinion. She once told Abby the only aspiration she entertained for her was marriage to the “right sort,” and expected her to continue the trend, as had Abby’s older sister, Amelia. She even hinted that Simon was not “the right sort,” whatever that meant. But, as much as she loved her, Abby didn’t covet her mother’s life. She wanted her own. Besides, she hadn’t seen her mother’s sister for many years. Whether Aunt Val held the same opinions as her mother was an open question. Abby sensed that despite her mother’s aristocratic demeanor, deep down her roots still clung to American soil. Perhaps she felt homesick. Abby turned to her, brightening. “Then why don’t you come back with me, Mother?” “Your father needs me here.” Her voice shook. “I shan’t leave him. But you must go. Make new friends.” Abby noted the emphasis on “new.” She was being compelled to live with Auntie Val and Uncle Will. Where’s home for me? It had been difficult moving here four years ago, but she’d made other friends, especially Simon. She must try one more time to convince her father to let her stay. Abby exchanged a pleading look with her father in a last minute supplication. Won't this all blow over?” He shook his head. “Surely you know there are plans to evacuate all the children, and — ”  “But I am n-n-not a child.” If only she could make them see that. ### After their morning recital at the Academy, Abby strolled with Simon to Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. She wore a favorite short-sleeved green dress flecked with tiny white flowers, a cardigan draped across her shoulders. She leaned against the gnarled trunk of an ancient willow, arms folded, and studied the slow-moving clouds. “Looks like rain. They’re nimbus . . . or something like that.” Simon squatted at the edge of the pond, flicking crumbs across the water to the swans. She swallowed hard. This might be their last time together. She’d hoped to prepare him for the shock. “I can’t imagine not being able to come here with you.” She bit her lip in an attempt to hold back tears. Simon looked over his shoulder at her and smiled. “Nor I with you.” He sauntered over to her. “Whoa, what’s this? You’re crying?” “Mother and Father are sending me off.” Abby dabbed at her eyes. “To America. For the duration. Just in case.” She fired out the words in machine-gun fashion, afraid to get stuck halfway through the miserable news. Simon heaved a ragged sigh. “Oh, I see. So that’s why you were so quiet, then. I thought something must be up.” He took Abby’s hand and pointed to an empty bench.  He moved closer to her on the seat. “War’s coming and London is bound to be bombed. Your folks are right. We have to face facts,” he said, gesturing toward a field where a steam excavator rocked to and fro, scooping up dirt and depositing it onto a mound. “Bomb shelters. It’s all so unreal. My dad shut his shop for a few days to build an Anderson Shelter in the back garden. And I’m worried for my bubbe and zadie in Berlin,” he said, not missing a beat. “They’re already assaulting people like my grandparents — and me.” Abby touched his arm. She understood his predicament, but couldn’t bring herself to discuss it. Bad enough that Jews in Germany were being rounded up and banished, but to know that her own mother — no, Abby couldn’t tell him that her mother didn’t trust Jews. “When . . . if you go to America . . . I’ll miss you.” He stared at his shoes and knocked the tips together. “You realize I’ll have to join up when the shooting starts?” She shook her head, loosening her long, red hair. “And your intention to be a concert pianist?” Abby pointed to the music book poking from his satchel. “P-p-playing the piano and fighting don’t seem to go together.” He stared into the distance, shoulders slumped. “I’ll need to put my plans aside. Same as you — can’t be helped. Duty first.” To Abby the dead weight of this last goodbye and knowing that Simon might be called up to fight seemed unbearable. Lord, help me to see this is all working to our good. “I'll write as soon and as often as I can,” she said, her voice shaking. He smiled and took her hand. “Same here.” “I almost forgot.” Simon rummaged inside his satchel. “I wrote this for you a week ago.” He pulled out a sheet of music and handed it to her. “Think of me when you’re over there.” She looked into his warm brown eyes, then clutched the page to her breast, aware of the amount of effort it took for him to compose this for her. Before she could thank him, he reached for his umbrella and popped it open. “Rain’s coming on. I’d best get you home before your mother begins to worry.” Worry? She’ll be glad I won’t see you anymore. Arms linked, they walked to the gate. Simon stopped, handed her the brolly, and pecked her on the cheek. “On second thoughts, I should leave you here,” he said, the sadness in his eyes didn't match his words. Turning up his collar against the downpour, he spun around and headed along the route they had come. He did not look back. Abby stood motionless until his form vanished in the mist. Had things been different, their beautiful friendship might have grown into something more serious. Now she’d never know. A wave of regret crashed over her as she stumbled toward the exit, her stomach roiled. Alongside the spiked gold-topped railings an anti-aircraft gun hunched on its concrete plinth, hemmed in by a low wall of sandbags. Two uniformed soldiers crawled over the weapon, making adjustments. The one at the controls swung the long blue- steel barrel around on its axis, bringing it to rest where Abby stood. She stared into the muzzle, a few feet from her head, and gasped. Heart pounding, she darted for home, as though fleeing a demon. Pushing through the oncoming tide of black umbrellas, she hopped on and off the sidewalk, plashing in the rainwater that bubbled in white torrents along the gutters and gurgled through the cast-iron grids into the abyss below. Double-decker buses and taxis lumbered past — the acrid diesel fumes stinging her eyes and nose, while men in flat caps on bicycles flashed by in an endless stream. Breathless, she reached her front door and leaned against the wet iron railing to steady herself. There was no way out. However hard she ran, Abby couldn’t escape the grim prospect that in a few days she would be on a ship to America. She’d submit to her parents’ wishes, but resolved then and there to come back to the home she loved. ### Southampton Dock, August 30 Abby craned her neck and stared wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the colossal liner. It stretched full length in its berth, like a tall building lying on its side. Hundreds of portholes ranged along the black-painted hull. From the prow hung the mammoth anchor, frightening in its bulk. She tried to stifle the rising panic in her chest. High above her sat the tidy rows of lifeboats in their goose-necked davits, a mute reminder of the ever-present danger of the sea. Her mother offered a clumsy embrace and skimmed Abby’s cheek with a kiss. “I’m sorry Peter couldn’t be here to see you off, dear. The RAF won’t give your brother leave, what with the situation the way — ” Her mother’s lips quivered, and she squeezed Abby’s hand tight. “Anyway, let us know when you want your party dresses sent.” She stepped back a couple of paces, as though releasing her daughter into the wider world. Her father held her close. “I might be able to telephone you once in a while through diplomatic privilege, but I’m afraid there’s no guarantee on that front.” “But you’ll write?” she pleaded, as the last of the passengers boarded the vessel. “At least once a week.” He released her and lifted three fingers to his right temple in a boy scout’s salute. “I promise,” he said, planting a kiss on her forehead. Clutching her passport, Abby proceeded through the customs barrier, and plodded up the gangplank, one ear alert for her parents to call her back and tell her they’d made a terrible mistake. When she reached the deck railing, she gripped it till her knuckles bleached white. She peered down on the minuscule twosome still waving to her and raised an arm in desultory response. On the pier, stevedores and harbor officials swarmed about, barking commands, eyeing the ship, waiting for a signal to loose the beast. Abby clutched the skirt pocket containing the white leather Bible her father pressed into her hand on parting, with a whispered reminder that God promised to make all things work together for good. A horn blasted and a chasm of greasy brown water opened between vessel and dock as a flotilla of tugboats nudged the liner, banging and creaking, from its moorings. As her family blended into an anonymous background, Abby’s stomach cramped into an icy knot. No reprieve now. She was really leaving. In a final, gut-wrenching hallowed farewell she riveted her eyes on the retreating scene, scorching it deep into her memory. Lord, keep them safe. A gust whipped off the water as the ship nosed into the wind. With a muffled bump, the massive engines sprang into life, straining to unleash the ship onto the broad, beckoning ocean. Grimy gray gulls squawked and wheeled overhead, echoing Abby’s innermost cry against this cruel and imposed exile. Would the birds, like herself, be carried out to sea, reluctant refugees, unable to find the way back home?  2017
when valleys bloom again
From unpublished historical novel set in WW2.