The ground shook with each bomb that fell on London. The night sky lit up, and the sounds of gunfire overwhelmed the city as our brave men fought back. It took so many bombs to fall on this great city to make the Germans realize that England could not be defeated. It took just one bomb to make one woman realize her true destiny.
Sarah Ashdown’s insurmountable guilt and remorse over the death of a young girl sets in motion one of the most unbelievable stories of World War II. An ordinary housewife who defied the odds to become one of the most wanted women in occupied Europe, her story of determination and courage will shock and inspire those who read it.
7 September 2009
An elderly and fragile lady is helped by a young gentleman into the boardroom of the local TV station. She puts a large bag on the floor and sits down and is left alone, waiting for a journalist. After extensive research, the station has discovered her story. Today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Blitz, and Sarah’s story is so fascinating that the network is considering airing it on their current affairs program. She is growing a little impatient as she waits to be interviewed.
Finally, after a fifteen-minute delay, a young and somewhat disorganised journalist wearing an expensive grey suit opens the door and sits down next to her. He seems nervous, as if it’s his first interview. ‘I am terribly sorry, Ms Ashdown; it’s been one of those mornings.
I am Daniel Warwick,’ he said as he ruffled through his papers.
‘I’d like to say I have all the time in the world, Mr Warwick,’ she says in a sarcastic tone.
‘Please, call me Daniel, and can I get you a tea or coffee?’ he asked politely.
‘Tea would be wonderful,’ she replied.
Daniel presses the button on the intercom and asks for two teas to be brought to the boardroom. Sarah stares at him; she seems amused at his nervousness.
‘I want to thank you for taking the time and giving us the opportunity to hear your fascinating story.’
‘I want to make it clear that any payment you provide for this interview you give directly to the children’s hospital. They need it more than I do,’ Sarah replies.
‘It has already been done, along with a small donation from the staff themselves,’ he replies, smiling.
Daniel takes out some papers from a red folder, and he spends a few moments glancing over them. He takes out his recorder and places it on the table; he is finally ready to conduct the interview. The tea is brought in and Daniel turns on the recorder.
‘First, can you start by telling me a little about your family?’ Sarah sips her tea and puts the cup down.
‘I had a very good upbringing as a child; during my childhood, my parents would ensure they never missed any special event in my life. Birthdays, school plays, and presentations, et cetera. Then, in late 1939, my mother died from breast cancer. It was as if my whole life was taken away from me. A piece of me died that day and I never felt the same again. The war changed my father; he had gone from a man who was always there for me to one I hardly saw. We lived in the same house for a long time, but we might as well have lived a thousand miles apart. He worked for MI5—he was a very intelligent and well-respected man. He had risen through the ranks, becoming so important that he often advised and met with key figures, including the prime minister himself. I guess the pressures of his job changed him. All I had to do to make myself feel better was to remember the past—the time when this man would have given up anything to be with me.’
‘Your father being who he was, did you receive news before anyone else? Maybe advanced news about how the war was going?’
‘No, he never discussed his work with me.’
‘How did you spend a typical day during the war?’
‘That is a very general question, Mr Warwick—how I spent my days varied greatly. If it were a peaceful day with no air raids, I would sometimes visit friends or go for walks and things of that nature. During air raids, I did as most did; I went into the air raid shelter. We had our own below our house.’
‘Were you scared?’
‘No, certainly not, I refused to be so. Being scared means the enemy gets what they want. If I was to be killed by a bomb, then it was just my time.’
There is a pause while they both sipped their teas. Daniel skips a few pages of his notes. He has a confused look on his face.
‘Do you need some more time, Mr Warwick?’ Sarah asks.
‘Once again, I am sorry. I have written too many notes and questions. I am sure now you wish you had a more experienced journalist?’ Daniel says in an apologetic tone.
‘Certainly not. Maybe you need some whiskey in that tea,’ Sarah replied, smiling.
Daniel becomes a little more at ease. He puts down all of the notes and questions he has, and continues on.
‘What is the worst experience you saw during the Blitz, something that, during your entire life, has stayed with you?’
‘I think anyone who experienced the Blitz had many bad experiences—I certainly had my share, as you will soon find out.’
Sarah holds tightly onto her cup, staring at it. She seems to be deep in thought; Daniel, pausing himself, gives her a moment. She raises her head and stares at Daniel.
‘My experiences have stayed with me every day,’ she says, becoming slightly teary-eyed.
Sarah finishes her tea and puts the cup and saucer on the table. It’s obvious he has many questions to ask her, but thinks asking only one question that will answer all of them will be best.
‘Can you tell me everything, your entire story from the beginning?’
‘You have nothing to do this week, Mr Warwick?’
‘Hearing this puts anything I have to do aside for the time being.’
‘As you wish,’ Sarah replies.
9 September 1940, it was a cold yet beautiful day and I was inside sitting at the kitchen table, going stir-crazy from boredom. In front of me I had my photo album, and I flicked through the pages of memories that seemed to have been so long ago. Most of them were of my husband, Bill, and I enjoying our first few months of marriage. He was what I thought initially a courageous man. He wasted no time at all joining the army to fight, but the night before he was due to leave, I realised there were many reasons why he left.
We went into the Golden Lion pub for his farewell party. He was treated like a hero and he loved the attention he was given. I sat in the corner by myself, watching his friends buy him drinks and trying to get one final chance to talk to him. I thought to myself, did he want to serve his king and country, or was it more important to him to be a hero? His regular job was not so glamorous; he worked as a welder and a metal worker. He saw the war as a chance to change his life for the better and show people he was more than just a labourer.
I loved him regardless of his reasons; he understood me and was always there to comfort me, especially after my mother died. Prior to the war, he was a caring and considerate man and my father adored him. During the lead-up to the war, he spent more time with my father than he did with me. My father never said so, but I think he was partly responsible for encouraging him to join the army. Bill was the son he had always wanted. I never understood why my parents never had any more children. I wish I would have asked my mother, but would never have dared ask my father.
I considered myself an intelligent person, you see, because I spoke French and German fluently and wanted to one day teach languages in school. I had a small but loyal group of friends, most of whom were not married. Some had lovers, some had boyfriends, and some had both. They could not handle their men being away so long and abstaining from any sexual activity. I bit my tongue and said nothing to any of them; however, the way I looked at it, what they were doing went against everything I believed in. People said I was a very pretty girl. I guess I was, but I never flirted with any man after my husband left.
On that day my father was home, working from his study, banging away at the typewriter. I never went in and disturbed him, not that he would notice, of course. I could stand two feet away from him and yell at the top of my voice and he still wouldn’t pay any attention. So I sat at the table, lighting one cigarette after another, staring at thephotos until I was sick and tired of them. You know, it’s funny; back then most wives knew their place. Be a good housewife, look after your husband, tidy the house, and prepare the meals. Like many, I had become so used to that routine—that I thought was degrading to all women—that when my husband left, I was so bored and lonely that I began to miss it.
My father came out of the study to make some tea. He seemed tired and stressed and couldn’t find the tea. His hair was a mess and his clothes looked untidy. He picked up the teaspoon and accidentally dropped it on the floor.
‘Father, I’ll make it, go rest and I’ll bring it to you,’ I said as I got up quickly.
He kept looking for it, ignoring my offer to help him. He kept opening up cupboards, looking for the tea.
‘Why is nothing ever where it is supposed to be?!’ he shouted. ‘Father, please, I’ll do it. Just rest now.’
‘Strong, no sugar,’ he said in a frustrated voice.
‘I know, Father, I’ll bring it to you soon.’
I should have hugged him at that moment, but that sort of affection had long since gone away between us. I hadn’t told my father that I was so bored the other day that I had rearranged the entire kitchen; it would have just infuriated him more. I should have been more grateful that he was working from home; at least I was able to see him and talk to him no matter how few words were spoken.
After the war, I found out that he came up with many military plans that had been put into action. Planning at work was something he was good at, but he lacked that ability in this family life. He did something that at that time was so unforgivable; he missed my mother’s funeral. He was away on one of his secret jobs. I went with him to the cemetery a week later, but even then he looked very distracted. I didn’t care where he was or what effect it would have on the war; he should have been at the funeral. I cared for my mother the last week of her life. The last day she held my hand and told me she loved me and would always look over me. As I watched her breathe her final breath, I kept hold of her hand and put it on my cheek, then kissed it.
A few tears fall from Sarah’s eyes. Daniel passes her a tissue, he himself feels a little emotional, but he tries not to show it.
I wasn’t angry at my father, but I was disappointed in him. As smart as he was, he could not find a way to be with her at the end. I wanted the king to express his condolences to my family—after all, my father was serving him and this was the reason he could not be by her side. This did not take away from any loyalty to my country; I wanted victory more than anyone else, but I would never have done what he did. I had the comfort of my husband, who did as much as he could, but nothing took the pain away and it stays with me today.
I made the tea for my father and brought it to him. His desk was covered in papers. I put the tray down and began to walk out of the room.
‘Father, why don’t you rest a little? You look exhausted,’ I said.
He didn’t respond to me. I would normally just walk out, but for the past four weeks I had not received any letters from Bill. That was not like him. He would always send them when he got the chance.
‘Father!’ I said with a slightly raised voice.
‘Yes, my darling, what is it?’
‘Father, I really wish you would get some rest, please,’ I said in a very caring tone.
‘I’ll rest when I can; this is too important,’ he replied.
‘I haven’t heard From Bill in a month, should I be worried?’ I asked.
‘Mail can sometimes be difficult to send out from where he is. It sometimes takes a while. Be patient,’ he replied, disinterested.
‘If you say so, Father. I am going out to see Mary. I won’t be long.’
‘Fine, fine,’ he replied as he went through his papers.
I couldn’t stay in that house another minute longer. I didn’t care if a million bombs were dropping outside, I just needed to get out. Mary was my best friend and one of those girls who, while her fiancé was away, had many indiscreet encounters with other men. Oh, she loved him dearly, she always told me, but like most she had certain needs too. We had been through a lot in all the time I’d known her, which had been since primary school. She was there for me during my mother’s death and leant an ear when I needed someone to listen. She was gorgeous and often walked past the firefighters, flirting with them and winking. Her way of boosting morale, she said.
Her fiancé Martin followed my husband into enlisting in the army, but his send-off was not as big as Bill’s. I could tell he was scared to death of going to fight, but like most, he felt it his duty. My husband said he would look out for him. He was a shy man who worked at the funeral home. At first I had no idea what she saw in him, but he was a very sweet man who provided for her every need. He was Bill’s best friend. So I never told him in any letters what Mary got up to here.
As I took my coat and walked out of the house, I saw Beau, a 9-year-old girl who lived down the road, standing at the front. I thought at first it sounded strange her mother named her Beau, normally a boy’s name. I was to find out that it was really Beaux, a popular French girl’s name. Apparently everyone around her spelt it as it sounded. She was inquisitive, constantly asking questions, and often waiting outside my home for me to walk out. She always reacted in an excited manner when she did see me, and every time I spoke with her mother, she seemed sick of her daughter constantly talking about me. She was a very pretty young girl—long brown hair, big blue eyes, and she had a smile that could have lit up the entirety of London.
There’s another pause as Sarah tries to compose herself. At that moment, she notices several staff listening outside the room. She asks them to come in if they want and several do. Some leave briefly to grab chairs to bring in.
‘Beautiful, beautiful girl,’ she says, staring down at her cup.
I walked towards her, smiling; I put my arm around her and told her to go home and that her mother must be missing her.
‘Oh no, I’d much rather walk with you, Sarah,’ she replied as she held my hand.
‘As you wish,’ I said in an annoyed tone.
I never understood why her mother let her out by herself, but I guess she could only tolerate so much and needed a break. She, like me, had no siblings, so I guess she considered me her sister. Now I think about it, seeing her so cheerful during that time did make me feel a little better. It was chilly outside and Beau was only wearing her summer dress.
‘Where’s your coat?’ I asked her.
‘Oh, I don’t need it. I am not cold,’ she said as she held my hand.
Her hand was freezing; I knew she could not be bothered to go home and get her coat just in case I left. She held my hand much tighter and she smiled at me as we walked. It gives me goose pimples when I remember how she used to smile at me. Then I considered her an annoyance and irritating and I often wondered why she didn’t have many friends of her own.
‘Sarah, do you smell that?’ she said excitedly.
The smell of fresh bread was enough to drive anyone crazy during that time. Mrs Walcott, who lived across from me, was baking; she sold bread and cakes on the street. I disliked her because she sold it at well above the normal price. She knew people needed bread and she took advantage of that. I also hated the fact that she opened every window in her house so everyone could smell it. That was torture for most who could not afford much. I think if anyone was writing a book about a witch and needed a model to draw from, Mrs Walcott would have been a very good choice.
‘Come on, Sarah. Perhaps we can get something sweet from her to eat,’ Beau said as she pulled my arm.
I really didn’t want to, but if I bought her something to eat, it would mean she spoke less. I make myself sick now when I say that; I was so cruel to her sometimes. Mrs Walcott had a ‘keep out’ sign at her front gate, which I never paid any attention to. She hated people being in her home. Beau was very excited as I knocked on Mrs Walcott’s door, clapping her hands and looking forward to receiving something.
‘What do you want?’ Mrs Walcott said, answering the door in a frustrated tone.
‘I am terribly sorry for bothering you. Is it possible to buy a small cake from you now?’ I asked.
‘No, you can buy one later,’ she replied closing the door.
I put my hand on the door and stopped her from closing it; she could slam the door on a child or anyone else, for that matter, but not me.
‘Mrs Walcott, it is Beau’s birthday and I would like to buy a cake for her. I don’t mind paying a little more.’
‘One moment,’ she replied, walking to her kitchen.
‘It’s not my birthday,’ Beau replied.
‘Shhh, you want your cake, don’t you?’ I replied.
I had no intention of paying for the cake; I was very good at manipulating others—another talent of mine. This was something I possibly inherited from my father. As she bought the cake to us and was about to say how much it was, I interrupted her.
‘Mrs Walcott, I might be getting some fresh fruit this week. I would love to drop some off for you. I know how much you love fruit and how hard it can be to get it.’
She paused for a moment. ‘Here, take it and go, but I expect to be given some of your fruit when you get some.’
‘You shall,’ I replied as she abruptly closed the door on us.
I handed the cake to Beau; she stared at it for a few seconds as if deciding whether to eat it or not.
‘What’s wrong? Why don’t you eat it?’ I asked.
‘Should I give Mother some?’ she asked.
‘No, you eat it. It’s yours, and don’t tell your mother I got it for you.’
She managed to eat the small cupcake in the time it took us to walk from the door to the outside gate.
‘Beau, when was the last time you ate?’ I asked.
‘I knew children loved sweets, but her eating that so quickly did have me a little concerned.’
‘Ms Ashdown, I am sorry to interrupt. You said this little girl annoyed you, but from what you have told us so far, you seemed to care for her a lot,’ Daniel says.
‘Big sisters always, at one time or another, consider their younger siblings annoying. Deep down I did care for her. It is why, even today, I can remember every detail about her.’
‘Please continue,’ Daniel replies.
‘I am famished. I would love another tea with some biscuits,’ Sarah replies.
One of the staff leaves the room to make the tea and there’s an awkward silence in the room until Daniel breaks the ice.
‘Do you have a photo of you during this time?’ Daniel asks.
Sarah opens her handbag and takes out an old black-and-white photo of her. Daniel looks at it and grins.
‘Ms Ashdown, you were beautiful,’ he says as he hands it to the next person.
‘Were?’ Sarah replies in a sarcastic tone.
‘Of course you still are,’ he replies, slightly embarrassed.
Sarah is amazed at the staff; they’re quiet and all are fixated on her. She’s the centre of attention. It makes her feel awkward having everyone stare at her, but at the same time it makes her feel respected. As the tea and biscuits are brought in, Daniel politely asks Sarah to continue with her story.
I walked to the street with Beau, and she let go of my hand and began to walk faster in front of me. She leant over and picked up a leaf and hurriedly ran back to me.
‘For you, Sarah,’ she said, handing me the leaf.
‘Thank you, Beau,’ I replied, confused as to what to do with it. ‘I’ll let the leaf go, and when it blows away, I want you to make a wish,’ I told her.
I let the leaf go and Beau closed her eyes. She opened them again, smiling.
‘Did you make a wish?’ I asked.
‘Yes, and it came true. You are here with me, Sarah.’
I couldn’t help but give her a big hug. I had no idea why she worshipped me so much. I didn’t see anything special about myself. I only assumed she wasn’t given the love and attention from her mother that she needed, so she looked to me.
‘Lalalalala,’ she said as she started to sing.
‘Sarah! Pick up another leaf! I want to make another wish!’ she shouted.
I did as she asked and this time she closed her eyes for a lot longer. When she opened them, she smiled and gave me a hug.
‘What did you wish for?’ I asked.
‘It’s a secret,’ she replied with a cheeky smile on her face.
I didn’t want her following me all the way to Mary’s, so I told her if she went home now I would get her more sweets tomorrow, to which she agreed. It was a clear day and the footpaths were busy with kids playing and people trying to make money by selling their clothes in crudely made carts. On those days when the streets were busy, it was as if everyone had forgotten about the war. This is why we were victorious—with each bomb dropped the Germans thought they were closer to victory, but in fact it made us stronger and more determined to win.
As I continued to walk, a chill breeze came and I started to shiver. I had forgotten my gloves and blew into my hands to try to warm them. I saw a lady alone; some of her clothes were spread out on the floor. She looked so sad, and as I walked past, she asked me if I wanted to buy something. The clothes she wore were old and ripped. She was dirty and smelt badly and covered herself in an old blanket; I stopped and glanced at the clothes she was trying to sell. I took out my purse and gave her some money—about a quid, which as you know was a lot back then.
‘What did you want to buy?’ she asked in a quiet voice.
‘Nothing, please just take the money and try to go somewhere warmer, get some food, and have a wash,’ I replied.
‘God bless you,’ she said as she put the money in her pocket.
As I turned around and looked at her, she continued to look at me smiling. I went back to her and gave her a half crown and she began crying. I told her about a shelter that was run by the local church and said if she didn’t go there now, I would drag her there. She packed her things and then put both her very cold hands on my face, she said that God would always smile upon me.
‘God sent you to help me,’ she shouted as she walked away.
When I reached Mary’s apartment, she was already outside talking to a young man; they seemed happy and were smiling. When they saw me, he left abruptly.
‘I take it you have been entertaining people as usual,’ I said sarcastically.
‘No, I have not. He is just doing some odd jobs around here,’ she replied.
‘I don’t want to know.’
I gave her a big hug and kiss on the cheek. As promiscuous as she was, I still loved her dearly. She was a beautiful girl, simply stunning with her long light brown hair and slim figure. Oh, I have seen some of the so-called supermodels today. They would look ugly standing next to Mary back then.
‘Come on, I need a drink,’ I said to her.
‘I have some whiskey in my apartment and I need to talk to you urgently,’ she said.
Her smile had gone and she seemed very serious when she said that. Her apartment, luckily, was on the first floor. The stairs made a very loud creaking sound and I was always afraid they would collapse. Mary did not waste any time in walking straight to the liquor cabinet and pouring us each a very large drink.
‘So what is it?’ I asked as we both sat down on her sofa.
She lit a cigarette and handed me one. She took a large sip of her scotch, and as I lit my cigarette, she took a deep breath. There was a pause for a moment; she looked me directly in the eye.
‘I’m pregnant,’ she said.
‘You’re what?’ I asked in a shocked tone, taking a large sip of my scotch.
‘Yes, about two months now,’ she replied.
Her fiancé had been away for much longer. Her lifestyle had finally caught up with her. I guess I wasn’t surprised.
‘Who is the father?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know, but Martin will be,’ she replied.
‘How on earth will you explain that to him? He worships the ground you walk on. This will kill him and your engagement,’ I regrettably said.
Mary got up to pour herself another drink; she picked up a framed photo of Martin and her. She took another deep breath and began to cry. I got up and put my arm around her, comforting her. I was angry with her, but now was not the time to show it.
‘It will be hard, but you will have to spend every waking moment making it up to him,’ I said as I let her go and kissed her on the forehead.
‘I was thinking of telling him I was raped. That way he won’t know that I was unfaithful.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ I said.
Mary put her cigarette in the ashtray and opened a drawer in her cupboard; she took a letter out of an envelope. She held it in her hand for a moment before starting to read it.
‘My darling Mary, still another week passes and I have not held you in my arms. Those memories we have are forged in my mind and they are keeping me going every day in this hellhole. I had been ill the past few days and was bed-ridden, but now I am much better. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and my heart skips a beat every time your name is mentioned. We here are fighting for King and country, as am I, but I am fighting also so we can live in a country where our children live not in fear but in happiness.’
Mary stopped then reading the letter; she sat back down, sipping her scotch. I had no idea what words I could say then to make her feel any better. I was angry at her, I was disappointed, and I wanted to tell her how stupid she was. If women here were struggling with abstaining from anything sexual, I had wondered if the men were having the same problems. Perhaps Mary’s fiancé had some type of romantic encounter; the stress of fighting and all could take its toll.
‘You all might be wondering why I was different, how I controlled myself. Simply put, I found some men here, who took advantage of vulnerable women, despicable. I was not weak and I was not gullible as some women were. I had self-respect and, more importantly then, I had a conscience and that was enough to prevent me from doing anything like Mary.
‘Do you have a partner, Mr Warwick?’ Sarah asks.
‘Yes, I do,’ he replies.
‘Look at all the beautiful women here; can you honestly say since the time you have been employed here you have never once thought about them in a way you regret?’
Daniel doesn’t answer. The look on his face and the fact that he’s blushing tell Sarah all she needs to know.
‘It doesn’t make you a bad person, Mr Warwick. It makes you human. Not much different from my time. The Blitz brought out the best in people, but it also brought out the worst. One cannot imagine what our men on the front lines saw. But back home those men may have preferred to witness the horrors of war than to know what their loved ones back home were doing. You love your partner, Mr Warwick, but it takes separation and the fear of death to realise how much.’
‘Are you trying to justify what your friend did?’ Daniel asks.
‘There is no justification for adultery. The war destroyed more than just buildings, Mr Warwick.’
Simon Gandossi is a historical fiction author who was born and raised in Western Australia. From an early age, Simon discovered a passion for history and writing. It is that passion combined with his desire to bring to light the different aspects of the past that makes him a unique writer. There are a lot of people who give up so much to follow their dreams, and Simon is no different. To become a professional writer is difficult, but his hard work and determination has seen him develop from an amateur to a full-time writer in just a few years. To learn more about Simon, please visit www.simongandossi.com.
“I want everyone to take a step back in time when they read my books. Every book should take the reader on a journey. With my dedication to preserving history, I know that each and every person will begin that journey from the very first word” – Simon Gandossi