Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Love and Happiness When an Ill Wind Blows by Jenean McBrearty

A young American woman travels to England to be married, but her dreams are scuppered by the growing inevitability of war; by Jenean McBrearty.

Helena's first trip to England didn't go as planned. David met her at the pier, gave her a wondrous kiss, but instead of taking her to the Manning Hotel where she would wait for her parents to arrive for the wedding, he drove to Woodbury.

"There won't be a honeymoon, Darling," he said as they motored past fresh-cut green fields.

"But why, David? We've planned for months."

"Father's insisted we all stay at the country house till this crisis is resolved." He rolled to a stop beneath an apple tree that was already shedding its August blossoms. "It'll be fine. You'll love my Aunt Patience. She and mother will stuff you full of biscuits and have you playing mahjong long into the night. You won't miss me too much."

"You're not staying? But you have leave..."

"Two days. And I'll be back by Friday next."

"This is terrible. Unfair. Un-American."

"Father will fetch your parents and drive down next weekend."

"I'm not going to pout, but I should know why I'm being so ignored by my fiancé." She saw David clench his finger around the steering wheel.

"It's my job, Helena. I'm part of the crew that's flying Chamberlain to Munich. There's a meeting scheduled - Dadalier, Mussolini, and Hitler - about Czechoslovakia. Hitler wants part of it."

"Why would anyone want any part of a place with name so few people can spell? He's already got Austria." Helena wiped a tear from her cheek. The German-American Bund had already intruded on her life. A street parade held up her taxi for twenty minutes and she almost missed her boat. "How much living space does Hitler need?"

"Apparently more than he has."

"Can't someone else fly Sir Neville to Munich?"

"I suppose so, but I've been given orders so it's not my call, is it?" He patted her hand. "It's the last gasp for peace, Darling. Father lunched with the Churchills last week and Winston told him what he's been telling everyone for years. Hitler will have his war." He kissed her again, this time slowly, sadly. "I don't want you to think I don't love you. Or that I'm not ready, but..."

Helena had taken a pale rose colored handkerchief from her purse and was catching the tears that had overstepped their bounds. "Don't you dare tell me you're putting off our happiness so Hitler can have his."

"It's for the best, Helena. The RAF is going to have a hell of a time."

Helena caressed the crocheted border of her handkerchief. "Do you recognize this? Your mother gave it to me last year. She called it a growing-up gift for all the tears that come with commitment. It's coming in handy."

"She's very fond of you. The daughter she never had and all that," David said.

"I'm not leaving, you know, even if you don't marry me. If there's a war, your mother will have a husband and a son in harm's way. She'll need me to give her information you won't."

"You're making it impossible for me to do the right thing," David said. He revved the engine and pulled off the shoulder. They drove on in silence until Helena couldn't stand it any longer.

"Did Sir Arthur tell your mother that before he left for the front?"

"Of course not. But this war isn't going to be like the last one."

"How so?"

"It's going to be stupider, that's how. Leaving the Russians out of the negotiations, for one thing. They're the wild card in all of this jockeying. Father says it's downright ignorant."

"I don't know anything about the Russians and I don't care."

"You haven't read the papers? Honestly, Helena, sometimes I think you Americans have no sense. Roosevelt knows neutrality is impossible. Why he won't be truthful with the American people is beyond me. The Germans know you'll be fighting on our side eventually."

"Could we please not talk politics? This is supposed to be the happiest time of my life and you're making a wake of it."

The Fulton's Tudor-style country house, with its magnificent rose garden front and center, brought Helena back to her dream, letting her pretend that her life would be as wonderful as she believed when the SS Athenia got underway. David's mother, and a thin woman in a flower-print dress that Helena knew was his Aunt Patience, came down the steps to meet them, followed by two friendly looking beagles. "It's Roy and Joy - we've had them forever," David said. "If you feed them, they'll never leave you in peace."

"Oh, David, your Helena's simply precious. Look at that complexion. A limey in the bones," Patience said. She took Helena's hand, put an arm around her waist, and led her inside leaving David and his mother alone. "You must be hungry. All that ocean liner food. There's plenty of it, but none of it tastes any good."

But at dinner, there was talk of nothing but politics. Helena listened politely to a David she didn't know. He was nothing like the engineering graduate student she'd met at her father's office two years earlier, the one who brought her carnations and loved Coney Island hot dogs. "Give him a job, Daddy" she'd pleaded.

"Why would I do that?" Michael O'Donnell said, as if he couldn't see the adoring looks she gave David.

Mom Marie didn't drop a stitch as she sat knitting bring-baby-home afghans for Mercy Hospital. "So he can marry Helena, of course," she said. "She's been plotting it since the day they met."

It was true, but she believed David wanted to marry her too. Now, it seemed, he'd been stricken with war fever. When Sir Arthur did bring her parents down to Woodbury the following weekend, it seemed to her the whole family suffered from the same ailment.

"Did you get a chance to see Herr Hitler?" her father wanted to know.

David obliged. "Only a glance at the airport, and that from far away. He doesn't look like a man who's power hungry."

They hung on every word. David's descriptions of Munich, how kind and optimistic Chamberlain seemed when the agreement had been signed although, when the House of Commons had approved the Munich Agreement, Churchill announced it was a "disaster of the first magnitude".

David and his father agreed and had brought their uniforms with them. "A strange groom's wardrobe," Chloe had said when she opened David's suitcase, and went pale when she lifted the lid on Sir Arthur's and saw his blue naval tunic. "I was hoping Daddy would be too old this time around." She drifted to the bed while Patience picked up the tunic by its shoulders and found a hanger.

"You don't think Sir Arthur will actually post to a battleship, do you?" Helena said to Patience when they walked the hall to the staircase.

"More than likely he'll be locked away in an intelligence unit somewhere. We won't see much of him for the duration. David either, I expect."

"He wants me to return to America."

"What do you want?"

They came to Helena's room and she motioned Patience inside. "He's not spoken a word about the wedding," she told Patience. "No one has. It's as if everybody assumes the wedding's not going to happen and we're all being very polite about the fact that I've been dumped. I don't know how long I can keep on being polite. What's wrong with David? Doesn't he love me anymore?"

Patience sat in the rocking chair by the window and Helena saw that, though her hands rested calmly in her lap, her fingers were tense and white. "Edward's abdication notwithstanding, we're not a demonstrative bunch of people. Blame it on Victoria, if you like. But David's becoming a man right before our eyes. It's young men like him that will be doing the killing and the dying. Love's a luxury he can't afford right now - if you marry him, you'll be the one who's doing most of the giving."

Helena sat before her on the round braided rug. "You're being kind. What you want to say is, no one thinks I'm up to the job."

"I'm speaking from my own experience. My Alister didn't come back. I married someone else - you probably saw Norbert's photo on the piano along with the rest of the family. I'm glad he didn't leave a widow behind."

"He might have left a child behind, Patience. You never know."

"Marriage isn't just a promise, it's an expectation. Of permanence. Of future companionship. David may not want to make a promise he may not be able to keep."

"It's more like a gamble," Chloe said. She'd recovered her courage and joined the two women in the guest bedroom. "Two people consider their odds, and publically roll the dice, betting the world they'll be happy - or prosperous. Hopefully both. But in war, they're betting they'll both come through it alive."

"Oh, Chloe, I didn't mean for you to hear me complain... I sound like such a awful child," Helena said. "You think we should postpone the wedding, don't you?"

"Honestly, yes." Chloe said. "For David's sake. If he feels marriage will be an added burden, then it will interfere with his performance and that could cost lives. Maybe his."

Helena was beaten. Whether David knew his mother and aunt would do his dirty work, she didn't ponder. She and David announced the official postponement at dinner to people who already knew about it and pretended she'd arrived at the decision herself.

"Whatever you think best, Dear," Marie told her daughter, and quickly as good manners allowed, made reservations at the Manning Hotel in London.

"No sense wasting a trip," Michael told her. "We'll stay at the O'Donnell homestead in Ireland for a few weeks. I can get in some fishing and you and your mother can buy things. Nobody spins better yarns than the Irish."

The O'Donnells left in November, sending Marie's fifteen skeins of pastel lamb's wool ahead by parcel post. Helena refused to go, telling her parents: "I'm staying, married or not."

Tenacious or resigned, she had to show David's family she was made of sturdy stuff. She found a flat in Liverpool where David was billeted, and worked for a shipbuilding labor registry. They shared weekends, when David got a pass, but Christmas was painful. Though David reassured her that "Postponement doesn't mean never," and "Other fliers are doing the same, Helena," she began to feel more foolish than stoic. By April, it was clear that appeasement wasn't working.



"You're not pregnant, or anything?' David asked her after church on Easter of '39. They'd driven to Fulton House when he got a full-fledged leave - two weeks in the country that preceded his change of billet.

"Of course not. I'm just dreading relocating."

"Then don't. Stay with Mother and Patience. Hitler's making noises about the 'Polish Situation'. It's rumored he and Stalin are negotiating a treaty to carve up Poland."

"Well, if they are, then for Christ's sake let them have it." The rumor was all people talked about at the docks. Ship building had gone into high gear; Helena dealt with the ever-increasing demands of the Admiralty for tonnage inflating the demand for welders, pipe-fitters, and merchant marine crews every day.

"I can't go on this way indefinitely," Helena explained as she waited in the Athenia lounge with Aunt Patience, sipping a sloe gin Ricky and waiting for the call 'all ashore who's going ashore' to come over the loudspeaker. "Call it disappointment fatigue."

Patience patted her hand. "Everyone understands. Even David, although he won't admit it. I don't know which is worse, an uneasy half-peace or an all-out war." Patience had grown more worry lines in the last year. Helena saw them through the hat netting she wore lowered to her stiff upper lip. She saw her just-been-crying eyes too. Hitler had invaded Poland. Ten bomber squadrons were on their way to France.

"All ashore..."

Helena walked with Patience, arm in arm, to the gangplank. Unexpectedly, she put her arms around Patience's shoulder and held her tight. "Tell David, I'll wait. My parents..."

"Want you home and I don't blame them a bit," Patience whispered. She kissed Helena's cold, pale cheek and only let go of her when the steward strode down the passageway bidding well-wishers to leave. "Goodbye, love," Patience said.



The SS Athenia pulled out of Liverpool at 1:00pm on September 2nd, on the way to Montreal. Lord Chamberlain had issued an ultimatum: if there was no word from Berlin by eleven o'clock on September 3rd, Britain and Germany would be at war. There was, Chamberlain said through a radio microphone, no such communication, and as a result, Britain was at war. That same evening, on September 3rd, at 7:40pm, a German submarine, U-30, fired on the Athenia, and though HMS Electra, HMS Escort, a Swedish yacht, and a Norwegian tanker raced to her aid, 98 passengers and 19 crewmen were lost. Helena O'Donnell was among the unrecovered dead.

8 comments:

  1. This is a fine story, well written with a sad ironic twist at its end.

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  2. An engaging story - well told. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

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  3. A well crafted piece that resonates with the impact of current worries and conflicts and the ending of lives. Thank you, Ceinwen

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  4. Thanks for comments. Although fictional characters, the torpedoing of the SS Athenia, and the attempted rescue is a factual event.

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  5. The ending was very sad...but perfect. Very good story.
    A little spooky considering current events.

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  6. this was so invitingly written, and the character of Helena perfectly drawn. i almost felt a bit guilty when she died!
    Well done

    Mike McC

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  7. I liked how the author examined Helen's reactions to the war buildup and her fiance.

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  8. I was so sad that David wasn't one of the "let's get married right away because war might be coming" types - felt so bad for Helena - but it was interesting to see this "take" on it. Made me wonder if he really did love her...And what a twist at the end!

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