About the Author

Jenny Holmes has been writing fiction for children and adults since her early twenties, having had series of children’s books adapted for both the BBC and ITV.

Jenny was born and brought up in Yorkshire. After living in the Midlands and travelling widely in America, she returned to Yorkshire and brought up her two daughters with a spectacular view of the moors and a sense of belonging to the special, still undiscovered corners of the Yorkshire Dales.

One of three children brought up in Harrogate, Jenny’s links with Yorkshire stretch back through many generations via a mother who served in the Land Army during the Second World War and pharmacist and shop-worker aunts, back to a maternal grandfather who worked as a village blacksmith and pub landlord. Her great-aunts worked in Edwardian times as seamstresses, milliners and upholsterers. All told stories of life lived with little material wealth but with great spirit and independence, where a sense of community and family loyalty were fierce – sometimes uncomfortable but never to be ignored. Theirs are the voices that echo down the years, and the author’s hope is that their strength is brought back to life in many of the characters represented in these pages.

Also by Jenny Holmes

The Mill Girls of Albion Lane

The Shop Girls of Chapel Street

The Midwives of Raglan Road

The Telephone Girls

and published by Corgi Books

THE LAND GIRLS AT CHRISTMAS

Jenny Holmes

TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS

61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA

www.penguin.co.uk

Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

Penguin logo

First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Corgi Books

an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © Jenny Holmes 2017
Cover photograph: women © Jonathan Ring;
background © Tatjana Kaufmann/Getty;
all other images © Shutterstock. Cover design by Becky Glibbery / TW

Jenny Holmes has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473542334

ISBN 9780552173667

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

In memory of my mother,
Barbara Holmes, 1923–2008;
a proud Yorkshire Land Girl

CAST OF CHARACTERS

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LAND GIRLS

Brenda Appleby – worked at Maynard’s butchers before she became a Land Girl

Dorothy Cook

Hilda Craven – warden at Fieldhead House hostel

Joyce Cutler – farmer’s daughter from Warwickshire

Jean Fox – worked as a bank clerk before she joined the Land Girls

Kathleen Hirst – former hairdresser from Millwood

Grace Kershaw – daughter of Burnside’s pub landlord and blacksmith

Ivy McNamara – former shorthand typist

Una Sharpe – former worker at Kingsley’s Mill in Millwood

Elsie Walker – former groom from the Wolds

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BURNSIDE VILLAGERS

Maurice Baxendale – owner of a car repair garage

Bob Baxendale – Maurice’s brother and caretaker at the Institute

Lionel Foster – the local landed gentry, owner of Hawkshead Manor

Alice Foster – his wife

Shirley Foster – their daughter, in the WAF

Jack Hudson – Bill Mostyn’s footballing pal

Cliff Kershaw – landlord of the Blacksmith’s Arms and blacksmith

Edgar Kershaw – his son, an RAF gunner recently shot down over Germany

Thomas Lund – Bill Mostyn’s footballing pal

Edith Mostyn – Land Girls representative

Vince Mostyn – her husband, owns a tractor repair company

Bill Mostyn – their son, works for his father and is thus exempt from call-up

Geoffrey Somers – Master of the Burnside hunt

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BURNSIDE FARMERS

Joe Kellett – farmer at Home Farm

Emily Kellett – his wife

Frank Kellett – their son, village misfit

Henry Rowson – shepherd

Peggy Russell – widowed three years before, her farm is growing run down

Roland Thomson – farmer at Brigg Farm

Neville Thomson – his son

Horace Turnbull – farmer at Winsill Edge

Arnold White

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ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR

Angelo Bachetti

Lorenzo

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TOMMIES

Albert

Jack

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CANADIAN AIR FORCE

Squadron Leader Jim Aldridge

Flight Lieutenant John Mackenzie

CHAPTER ONE

‘Can you believe it? You need eighteen coupons for a decent winter coat.’

‘And seven for a pair of shoes.’

‘It’ll get worse before it gets better. I hear they’re thinking of cutting us back to forty-eight coupons for the whole year.’

‘Blimey – we’ll all be in rags by this time next year.’

The bus from Millwood rattled along country lanes, up hill and down dale, while Una Sharpe listened to the humdrum complaints of other passengers. She swayed in her seat and looked steadfastly out of the window at the dull brown moors rolling away into the distance, trying in vain to put to the back of her mind memories of busy, bustling streets lined with cinemas and shops, of smoking mill chimneys overlooking snaking canals. It was wartime and it was goodbye to all that. Countryside, here we come.

‘Bye-bye, Una,’ her brother Tom had called as he saw her off from the bus station. ‘Be good!’

Dressed in her new uniform of brown corduroy breeches and green jumper under her short khaki overcoat, she’d waved and tried her best to look cheerful for his sake. Inwardly, she quaked in her stout lace-up shoes. What have I done? she’d wondered.

What had she done? The question still nagged at her as the bus trundled on. It gave way on a narrow, winding road to a lumbering tractor, paused to drop off passengers at the end of a farm lane and waited in a lay-by for a horse-drawn cart piled high with mud-encrusted turnips to pass. I’ve answered the call – that’s what I’ve done.

‘Calling all women!’ On a stifling hot day in the August of 1941, words on a poster outside the Millwood town library had drawn Una in off the dusty street. It had been the middle of a heatwave. Headlines in the Daily Mail crowed over HMS Severn’s sinking an Italian submarine in the Med. In smaller print, people were urged to dig for victory and not to mind about the shortage of razor blades, babies’ feeding bottles and frying pans – not to mention clothes to keep you warm once winter came.

Why should it only be the Millwood men who join the war effort? she’d wondered. Why couldn’t it be the women, too? Why not her – Una Sharpe, twenty years old and the youngest of five? Three of her brothers had already enlisted – two into the Merchant Navy and one into the army – with only Tom at home because of a bad accident at work in Kingsley’s Mill that had left him with one arm paralysed. Apart from him, there was no one to object to her leaving home; no mother or father – they were both a long time dead – and no sweetheart either. In other words, she was fancy free …

In a spirit of derring-do she’d marched into the library and asked to see the latest copy of The Land Girl magazine.

‘Here you are, love.’ The librarian had slid a copy of the magazine across the counter. ‘Calling All Women!’ shouted the front page. Inside there were photos of Land Girls in action – smiling girls picking apples and others atop hay wagons. The weather was sunny and everyone was smiling. ‘Give me a job where you can see results!’ was the clarion call. There were knitting patterns, too, a cake recipe using powdered egg, a short story and a crossword competition. It showed the enamelled Land Army badge with a wheat sheaf at its centre, inside a gold circle topped by a red and gold crown. Una remembered now that she’d been particularly smitten by that badge.

‘Don’t get too excited,’ the middle-aged librarian had counselled, having taken a good look at the small, slight girl with dark-auburn hair and lively hazel eyes standing across the counter from her. ‘It’ll be a while before you’re old enough to join up and do your bit.’

Una had taken offence. ‘What do you mean? I was twenty in April just gone.’

‘You don’t look it,’ had been the dubious response. ‘More like fifteen, if you ask me.’

‘Twenty,’ Una had insisted before flouncing off. That’s it – I’ll show them I can do any of the work the Land Army throws at me, she’d decided then and there. I can climb up haystacks and pick apples along with the best.

It was hard now for her to recall that summertime spirit. The good weather had broken and the air had turned crisp before Una had filled in her recruitment form and sent it off to Land Army HQ in West Sussex. Red tape delayed her acceptance until late October when she’d picked up the letter from the mat with trembling hands. She’d torn open the envelope and read its contents.

‘Tom – I’m in!’ she’d called up the stairs of the tiny terraced house that she’d shared with her brothers since the deaths of their parents from scarlet fever when Una had been just eight years old.

Tom came down and took the letter from her. He read it slowly then returned it without saying a word.

‘See – the Land Army wants me.’

‘Good for you,’ he said with downcast eyes. ‘That only leaves me not doing my bit.’

‘Tom, no one expects …’ She tailed off into an awkward silence. How could she explain without hurting his feelings that it felt like the right time for her to fly the nest? She took a deep breath then hurried on. ‘I’m to be paid a weekly wage of thirty-two shillings, minus fourteen for board and lodgings …’

A week later, it was goodbye to 15 Wellington Street, goodbye to Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Bette Davis on the silver screen, goodbye to stone-flagged pavements and narrow alleyways. Hello, green grass and stunted hawthorn trees, black-and-white cows, grey sheep and dreary, rain-filled skies.

‘A penny for them,’ her neighbour commented as the bus plunged down a steep dip in the road. The woman who perched on the seat next to Una was not much bigger than her but her white hair was scraped back into a plaited bun and her thin face was lined. A wicker basket was balanced precariously on her knees, filled with a week’s meagre rations of butter, sugar, meat, tea and jam.

Una pushed sad thoughts of home to the back of her mind. ‘They’re not worth it,’ she said with a smile.

‘Get along with you,’ the woman persisted. ‘I can tell by your uniform that you’re doing your bit for King and country. That has to be worth crowing about.’

‘I’ve just joined up, so there’s not much to say yet,’ Una explained.

‘It’ll get you out of munitions work, at least.’ Her neighbour gave a knowing nod. ‘Give me work on the land above standing in a freezing-cold factory making bombs to drop on Jerry any day. That’s your only other option, unless you join the Wrens or the WAAF and that’s not my idea of fun either. I’m Emily Kellett, by the way.’

‘Una Sharpe.’

‘Well now, Una Sharpe, who’s meeting you off the bus when we get to Burnside?’

‘I’m expecting a Mrs Mostyn to meet me outside the Blacksmith’s Arms at four o’clock.’ She trotted out the details that she’d rehearsed in her mind during the long journey.

‘Ah yes, Lady Muck.’ Emily leaned across the aisle to poke a fellow passenger in the arm. ‘You hear that, Polly? Una Sharpe here has joined the Land Army and she’s been thrown in at the deep end, make no mistake. She’s being met off the bus by Edith Mostyn, no less.’

‘Good luck to her.’ The stout woman named Polly stood up from her seat and rang the bell. ‘This is where I get off,’ she announced as they came to some crossroads. She delivered a parting shot as the bus juddered to a halt: ‘Take it from me, lass – there will be far worse things than Edith Mostyn for you to worry about. Just ask Emily here – she knows what I’m talking about.’

‘What do you mean?’ Una felt a dart of apprehension that she quashed with a strong dose of common sense. It was obvious that these two old women were enjoying putting the wind up a raw recruit.

‘Take no notice,’ Emily said stiffly as she cast a daggers-drawn look at Polly’s broad back view.

Two boys in school uniform ran, satchels flapping against their thighs, from the back seat of the bus down the central aisle. They hopped off behind Polly and landed with a triumphant splash in a muddy puddle. The bus pulled away again, turning left at the junction, following a sign that read: ‘Burnside – 1 mile’.

One mile to go. Una took a deep breath and stared ahead to discourage Emily Kellett from pestering her. They sat in silence until they came to the first houses in the village where three more passengers alighted. As the bus eased forward again, Emily gathered her belongings and started to make her way to the front, stopping to talk to a young man in RAF uniform.

‘Hello, Edgar, I wasn’t expecting to see you back home this side of Christmas,’ she said, loud enough for everyone to hear.

‘Hello, Emily.’ The two-word reply was delivered in a monotone – a clear message for the old woman to mind her own business. He kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead, fingers tapping the back of the empty seat in front.

Thick-skinned Emily ploughed on. ‘I take it you’re home on compassionate leave? Isn’t that what they call it?’

He scowled then looked away without answering and by now the bus had pulled up under an inn sign saying: ‘Blacksmith’s Arms’. All the remaining passengers, including Una, stood up and filed towards the front, leaving Emily no option but to alight into the pub yard. The RAF man sat in surly silence until the bus was empty. Then he got off and lost no time in making his way towards the pub entrance. He walked with a limp and paid no attention to the goings-on around him.

A pale young woman appeared in the doorway to greet him. She was tall and her fair hair was swept clear of her face, kept in place by a green scarf tied turban-wise around her head. ‘Edgar,’ she said with a brief smile before taking his hand and ushering him inside.

Intrigued by the subdued greeting and wondering who they were, Una turned her attention to the other people in the yard. She watched Emily hook her shopping basket over the handlebars of an old bike before stepping up spryly into the saddle and pedalling off down the main street. A broad-shouldered, balding man wearing a leather apron came round from the back of the low stone building to speak with the bus driver who gestured towards the pub entrance. The man in the apron then disappeared inside. So far as Una could see, there was no sign of Mrs Mostyn, the Land Army representative she was due to meet.

She waited for five minutes, watching more comings and goings. A lad with a mop of floppy ginger hair led a shire horse up the street, the clip-clop of its hooves warning of their approach. Una had to step to one side as they crossed the yard and the boy tethered the grey horse to a post outside a wide entrance into what she guessed was the blacksmith’s forge, which formed an L-shape with the main building. He glanced at Una in her too-large, brand-new uniform and gave a smirk. Then he turned his attention to the rider of a motor bike who had screeched to a halt outside the pub.

‘Watch out, Malcolm Campbell!’ the boy yelled, as the horse tried to shy away from the engine’s throaty roar. ‘You’ll have Major yanking this post clean out of the ground if you’re not careful.’

Una was surprised to see that the rider of the motor bike was a woman in faded overalls, mud-caked wellington boots and a black leather pilot’s jacket. Catching sight of Una, she ignored the farm lad, set her bike on its stand, then made a beeline towards her.

‘Una Sharpe?’ she asked.

‘That’s me.’

‘I’m Brenda Appleby. Mrs Mostyn says to tell you she’s running late. You’re to hang on here until she arrives.’

She rolled her eyes as she delivered her message, as if to say sorry for the delay. ‘I told Her Ladyship I could give you a ride out to Fieldhead on the back of the bike to save her the trouble, but she was having none of it.’

‘Are you a Land Girl?’ Una couldn’t be sure, since Brenda wasn’t in uniform. She looked a real tomboy, with the fleece collar of her jacket turned up. Her dark hair was cropped short and her face still tanned from the long, hot days of summer.

‘I am,’ Brenda confirmed. ‘No need to look down your nose at me. I’ve been digging ditches out at Joe Kellett’s place since six o’clock this morning – that’s why I look such a sight.’

‘I never said a word,’ Una protested.

‘You didn’t have to – I saw your face. The Kelletts have never heard of the fifty-hour week and such like. They’ll work your fingers to the bone doing mucky jobs they’re too idle to do themselves.’

Una decided on the spot that she liked Brenda, who was as fresh and keen as the air out here, with a cheeky expression and a cheerful disrespect for her employers. ‘I think I sat next to Mrs Kellett on the bus.’

‘Talked the hind leg off a donkey, did she?’

Una nodded.

‘That’ll be Joe Kellett’s wife, then.’ At the sound of a car engine, Brenda glanced towards the crossroads. ‘Here comes Mrs Mostyn now, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t know why she bothered sending me on ahead, except she likes to dish out orders every chance she gets.’

The gleaming black car purred to a halt outside the pub and Edith Mostyn stepped out from behind the steering wheel – a trim, slim woman in a tweed jacket and matching skirt, well shod in soft leather shoes with small heels that clicked across the cobbles towards Una and Brenda. ‘Thank you, Brenda, that will be all,’ she said dismissively.

Brenda shrugged and sloped off to kick-start her bike before riding off in a cloud of petrol fumes and blue smoke.

‘You must be Una.’ Edith’s tone was self-assured. Her arched eyebrows and high forehead gave her an aristocratic air. ‘I was expecting someone a little more robust. And you’re not very tall, are you?’

Una frowned. ‘I passed my medical with flying colours – eyes, ears, heart – the lot.’

‘Very well – beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose.’

If this was meant to throw Una, it had the opposite effect. Her dander was up and she drew herself up to her full five feet one inch. ‘I’ve worked on the looms for six years in Kingsley’s Mill without any complaints. I’ve never had to take a single day off work except for the week four years ago this December when I stayed at home to nurse my brother after he came out of hospital.’

A frown creased Edith’s powdered brow. ‘As I say, I wish the recruitment criteria for the Land Army were a little more rigorous when it comes to physical aptitude, but sorry to say, these things are out of my hands.’

Recruitment criteria? Physical aptitude? What was the daft bat going on about? And what kind of welcome was this? Una’s hands gripped her small brown suitcase more tightly and she clamped her lips firmly shut to stop a strongly worded retort from springing out.

‘Anyway, ours is not to reason why. My job is to take you out to your billet, which as you know is to be the hostel at Fieldhead House. There are twenty girls there at present, including Brenda, whom you just met. You will be allocated a single bed with two blankets and a change of sheets every Monday morning. One bath per week is permitted, according to a strict rota. Meals will be served promptly at seven o’clock in the morning and six in the evening, unless you make prior arrangements with the warden. You will take sandwiches with you to eat in the middle of the day. Is that clear?’

As day, Una thought sulkily. ‘Yes, Mrs Mostyn,’ she replied.

‘Very well. Get into the car.’ Edith took Una’s case and placed it in the boot while Una slid onto the brown leather passenger seat. ‘You will be provided with a bicycle on which to ride out to the various farms in the locality. You do ride a bike, I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ Una fibbed. In fact, she’d never been on one in her life.

‘The work will be varied.’ Edith turned the car around in the yard, ignoring the red-haired lad’s protests as she drove too close to jittery Major. ‘It will include milking cows and cleaning out cowsheds, hen houses and stables. You will be expected to feed chickens, cows and sheep, dig ditches, thin turnips, bag potatoes, and so on. There will be no official training – you will have to learn on the job. Do you have any questions?’

Feeding, digging, thinning, bagging – the words didn’t connect with any activity Una was familiar with so she quickly changed tack. ‘Yes. How much time off do we get?’ There must be some relief from farm work, surely.

By now they were on their way, past a row of stone cottages and a chapel, out into open countryside before Edith replied. ‘Saturday afternoons and Sundays are free for girls to do laundry and catch up on letter writing, and so on.’ Behind the wheel, she cut a slight but stylish figure, tilting her carefully coiffed head backwards to peer out through the windscreen and tooting her horn loudly at stray pheasants and cats. ‘You will be homesick at first – that goes without saying. But bear in mind that this is your contribution to the war effort. We must all do our bit without complaining.’

Una couldn’t argue with this so she let another silence develop, following the progress of a cloud of starlings as they rose from the ground and gusted overhead. She would be glad when they reached the hostel and she could meet the other girls. If they were all like Brenda, she felt sure she would like them and she would soon settle in. Meanwhile, she took in her surroundings.

The single-lane road beyond Burnside grew narrower and steeper and the signs of habitation more scattered. Drystone walls criss-crossed the hillsides, sometimes rising almost vertically to craggy ridges – dogged feats of back-breaking building work that beggared belief. Every now and then they came to a roadside barn and more rarely still to a ruggedly built farmhouse whose roofs were covered in moss and whose small windows let in little light. Their front gardens were black and bare. At one farm, a dog heard the approach of the car and ran out into the road, straining at his chain. The farmer’s wife came to the door and called the dog’s name, turning her back on the car as she sent him back into his kennel.

‘That’s Mrs Peggy Russell,’ Edith informed Una. ‘Her husband died of pneumonia three years ago so the farm is run-down. We’ll help her with lambing when the time comes.’

How was it possible for an elderly woman to live so far out here by herself? Una wondered. Wasn’t she frightened of having an accident, of falling down the stairs, say, and not being found for days afterwards? She was about to voice this thought when Edith slowed the car and turned in between tall stone gateposts then carried on along a straight, tree-lined drive towards an imposing house in the distance.

Una glimpsed the name, Fieldhead House, carved into each gatepost. The grandness of the house surprised her – it was three storeys high with tall pillars supporting a porticoed entrance and long windows down to the ground – the kind of dwelling where she could imagine ladies in crinolines and lace sweeping down long corridors and gentlemen in white breeches calling for their carriages to take them into town. As they drew closer, however, she saw that the stonework around the doorway was crumbling and the window frames starting to rot. Weeds grew out of the high gutters, downpipes leaked and chimney stacks leaned.

‘So this is the Land Army hostel?’ Una turned to Edith with a questioning look. ‘Or are there more modern buildings round the back?’

‘This is it,’ came the short answer. Edith stopped the car by the main door and got out to open the boot.

Una looked up at what she took to be the bedroom windows and spotted several faces staring down at her. The owners of the faces made no attempt to hide their curiosity or to step back out of sight. Here goes! Una thought as she took her suitcase and followed Edith up a set of wide stone steps and through the open door. In for a penny, in for a pound.

‘There you are!’ a voice cried and a figure flew down the stairs at the far side of the black-and-white tiled hallway. It was Brenda, still in overalls but minus her wellingtons and her airman’s jacket. ‘Girls, Una has arrived,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Come and say hello.’

Several figures appeared on the landing that overlooked the hallway. They studied the newcomer but didn’t hurry to follow Brenda’s lead. They were a mixed bunch, Una thought – some tall, some small, some pretty, some not. Take the round-faced, dark-haired one who leaned her elbows on the banister and assessed Una from head to toe. She looked sturdy, with strength equal to any man’s. By way of contrast, there was a tall, limp-looking girl whose breeches seemed to swamp her skinny thighs and who hung back in the shadows while the others slowly descended the stairs.

‘Which room will she sleep in?’ Brenda asked Edith.

‘I’m afraid I’m not privy to that information. My job is simply to deliver new recruits safely to the door and make sure that they understand what’s expected of them now that they’ve signed up.’

‘Let me go and ask Mrs Craven.’ A curly-haired girl jumped down the last three stairs and shot off through a side door.

‘Thank you, Elsie.’ Edith looked at her watch then decided to follow her. ‘It’s time for me to leave Una in your capable hands,’ she told Brenda, who gave a mock curtsey behind her back.

‘There’s a spare bed in the room I share with Kathleen. You could have that,’ Brenda suggested to Una. ‘Ma C’s a decent sort. I’m sure she won’t mind us taking matters into our own hands. Kathleen, come and say hello.’

A strikingly pretty girl stepped forward. Her fair, wavy hair hung loose around her shoulders and she was already changed out of her uniform into a blue blouse with zig-zag patterns and a white collar, teamed with wide navy-blue slacks and white canvas shoes.

‘Kathleen Hirst, meet Una … Oh dear, I’ve forgotten.’

‘Sharpe with an “e”,’ Una said. Silly of me to bother about the ‘e’ at a time like this. She blushed bright red.

‘Una Sharpe with an “e” – that’s the ticket. Kathleen, how do you feel about Una sharing our room? I think we’ll get on like a house on fire, don’t you?’

‘I’m sure we will.’ Despite her answer, a wary Kathleen looked as though she would reserve judgement. ‘Where are you from, Una?’

‘From Millwood,’ she replied with as much confidence as she could muster. The cool stares of her fellow Land Army girls were playing havoc with her nerves.

‘Me too. I was a hairdresser on Union Street. Do you know it?’

Una shook her head. ‘I was in the weaving shed at Kingsley’s. They didn’t want to let me go, what with the orders for cloth for army uniforms rolling in. My answer was that there were plenty of older, married women queuing up to fill my shoes, given half a chance. We young ones should put on uniform and do our bit.’ No need to go on about it, she scolded herself. Nerves again – sometimes they turned her into a blabbermouth.

‘Let me show you our room.’ Brenda seized Una by the arm and led her up the curving staircase. ‘It’s number eight at the end of the corridor, overlooking the elm trees at the back of the house so it’s nice and private. The bathroom is just here on our left – handy if you need to spend a penny in the middle of the night.’

Una hung back. ‘Shouldn’t we wait until we get the go-ahead?’ There didn’t seem to be any sense in jumping the gun, but Brenda was having none of it.

‘Here – what do you think?’ She flung open the door.

The bedroom was large and chilly. It contained a small fireplace, a large mahogany chest of drawers, a washstand and three single beds – one with a bare mattress and two neatly folded grey blankets. The bed nearest the window was badly made, with sheets and blankets askew and hair curlers scattered across the pillow.

‘I know.’ Brenda sighed when she saw Una’s gaze fall on the untidy bed. ‘Kathleen’s the limit as far as tidiness goes. And would you believe it – she faints at the sight of blood and is scared of the dark.’

‘La-la-la!’ Kathleen had followed Una and Brenda into the room. ‘Not true! You can’t believe a word Brenda Appleby says.’

‘All right then – she did pass out at her first sight of Emily Kellett wringing a chicken’s neck but she hasn’t done it since,’ Brenda conceded. ‘But I swear, hand on heart, that I found her in the yard of the Blacksmith’s Arms one night last week, quivering like a jelly when she had to walk back home all on her ownio.’

‘I can’t say I blame her.’ Una didn’t fancy the long walk along unlit lanes either. She laid her case on the unmade bed, awash with anxiety as she thought of the days ahead. ‘They won’t make me wring chickens’ necks, will they?’

‘No, that’s usually left to the farmer’s wife.’ Brenda winked at two girls who had drifted into the room after Kathleen. ‘Anyway, it’s nothing to fret about. Once the chicken’s head is clean off, wifey puts it back down on the ground and watches it run around in circles for a minute or two until eventually it runs out of steam. That’s it – one more poor chicken is bound for the pot.’

‘No!’ Una stared wide-eyed.

‘Without a word of a lie,’ Brenda said solemnly then burst out laughing. ‘Now, pigs – they’re a different matter. Nobody likes to hear a nice fat porker squealing while its throat is being cut, not even me. The sound carries from here to Timbuktu.’

Una put her hands over her ears. Volunteering for the Land Army had just become the worst mistake she’d ever made. Not only could she not ride a bike, but she’d never walked down an unlit road or been anywhere near a headless chicken, let alone a pig in its death throes.

Kathleen took pity on her. ‘I told you – don’t listen to Brenda,’ she said as a matronly figure in a white apron came into the room. Kathleen turned to the newcomer with a winning smile. ‘Mrs Craven, it’s all right if Una takes Eunice’s old bed, isn’t it?’

‘I don’t see why not,’ the warden readily agreed, taking in Una’s small stature and pale face and judging how many bowls of porridge and fish-paste sandwiches it would take to build her up. The new girl’s coat hung off her like a scarecrow’s jacket and was six inches too long if it was an inch. Still, she seemed to have a bit of backbone about her and might do well enough in the end. ‘Unpack your things and put them in the bottom drawer. You can hand over your coat to me, if you like – I’ll see if I can unpick the shoulder seams and take them in for you. I might as well alter the hem while I’m at it.’

Una responded with a wan smile. ‘Ta very much. This was the smallest size they had.’

Relieved of her coat, the other girls could see just how slight Una was.

‘Goodness gracious, there’s not an ounce of flesh on her,’ the round-faced, sensible-looking one commented, sturdy arms folded across her chest as she leaned against the doorpost.

‘That’s Joyce Cutler giving you the once-over,’ Brenda commented. ‘Otherwise known as the Warwickshire Amazon.’

‘Pleased to meet you,’ Joyce said. ‘I grew up on a farm outside Stratford-upon-Avon. We farmers’ daughters can’t afford to be weaklings.’

‘They must put something in the water down there,’ Brenda said with her customary wink as she dragged the lanky girl with straight, dark hair into the room. ‘And this is Jean Fox. She’s a town girl, like you and Kathleen. She worked in a bank, no less.’

Not like me, then. Una knew there was a world of difference between a mill girl and a bank clerk, and she immediately felt she had little in common with the sour-looking Jean. She watched the stocky, homely-looking warden leave the room carrying her coat over one arm then forced herself to engage in conversation. ‘How long have you been a Land Girl, Jean?’

‘Over a year.’ The answer came slowly, unaccompanied by a smile.

‘And how do you like it?’

‘Not at all.’ This reply was quick and emphatic. ‘It’s slave labour, if you ask me – scratting around in a turnip field on our hands and knees, tying sacks around our heads and shoulders to keep off the rain.’

Una’s stomach tied itself into a knot but she did her best to sound upbeat. ‘You know what they say – we all have to do our bit.’

Jean and Kathleen seemed unconvinced but Joyce and Brenda chorused their agreement.

‘Come on, girls – let’s leave Una to her unpacking.’ Brenda took the lead as usual. ‘It’ll be supper time before we know it. Boiled beef and cabbage – six o’clock on the dot.’

To Una’s surprise, Jean was the last to depart.

‘It beats me why they gave you Eunice’s bed,’ she said with a grim shake of her head. ‘Especially when she’s not even cold in her grave.’

This was another shock to Una’s system and she let it show. ‘What do you mean?’

‘She died, didn’t she?’

Various images flashed into Una’s mind of poor Eunice being caught up in the spikes of a giant threshing machine or else treading on an unexploded landmine in a farmer’s field. ‘Where did it happen?’ she asked.

‘Here in the hostel kitchen,’ Jean explained in a voice that conveyed no emotion, though there was a dark glint in her eye that made Una dread what was to come. ‘It was me who first smelled the gas.’

‘Gas?’ Una echoed.

‘Yes, Eunice stuck her head in the oven while Mrs Craven was in town collecting the week’s rations and we were all out at work. She’d timed it just right and given up the ghost long before we found her. Dead as a door nail.’

Una grimaced then shuddered.

‘It turns out she was expecting,’ Jean explained with unconcealed glee as she sauntered out of the room. ‘Three months’ gone and no one knows who the father was. Eunice made sure she took that little secret with her to her grave.’

CHAPTER TWO

Lying in a dead girl’s bed, Una lay awake listening to the slow, regular breathing of Brenda and Kathleen and to the wind whistling through the trees in the copse of elms behind the house. The window frame rattled and the floorboards creaked whenever any of the girls in the rooms along the landing needed to use the toilet. She had kept her socks on in an attempt to keep warm and was glad she had brought her thick winter nightdress with her.

If it was as cold as this in early November, she dreaded to think what it would be like when the frost really took hold.

At four o’clock, just when Una was at last drifting off to sleep, Brenda sat up in bed with a start.

Una opened her eyes to see her throw back her blankets and creep over to the window. ‘Blooming thing,’ she muttered as she drew back the curtain and tried to wedge a rolled-up sock into the frame to stop the rattle. On her way back to bed, she noticed that Una was also awake. ‘How are we meant to get any shut-eye with that racket going on?’

‘I can’t sleep either,’ Una confessed.

‘That’s common when you first get here,’ Brenda sympathized, reacting to the disgruntled moan from Kathleen’s bed by beckoning to Una to get up and follow her out of the room. ‘Your head’s in a whirl, thinking about home and wondering why on earth you let yourself in for this in the first place.’

They were out in the dark corridor and creeping towards the stairs. ‘Where are we going?’ Una wanted to know.

‘To the kitchen, for a cup of cocoa. Might as well, since neither of us is likely to get another wink of sleep before daybreak.’

Una followed obediently, down the stairs and into the hall where they went through the side door into a shabby corridor, dimly lit by a paraffin lamp at the far end. Yellow paint was flaking from the damp walls and there was a musty smell that made Una wrinkle her nose. But when Brenda opened the door onto a large kitchen lit by electric light bulbs and warmed by a wood stove set into an old inglenook fireplace, the smell disappeared.

‘Hello, Elsie,’ Brenda said to the girl who sat with her back turned, warming her hands at the stove. ‘You must be on the early shift.’

Una noticed that the girl was already fully dressed and recognized her as the helpful one who had run off to find the warden soon after her arrival. She was small and wiry, with a healthy head of curly, light-brown hair and a face that seemed to be permanently smiling.

‘Yes, worse luck,’ Elsie said without letting the smile fade. ‘Joyce and I are on milking duty at Home Farm.’

‘Ugh. What did you two do to deserve that?’ Brenda took a drum of cocoa from a shelf then poured milk from a jug into a small pan which she set on top of the stove.

‘Don’t ask me. All I know is we’re due to be washing udders and putting on clamps half an hour from now. Oh, and by the way, take a look at today’s rota – you and Una are listed to take over from us at one o’clock.’ Elsie stood up and reached for her coat and hat, which she set on her head at a jaunty angle. She pulled knitted mittens out of her pocket and put them on. ‘Don’t be late,’ she warned on her way out.

‘Just our luck,’ Brenda groaned. ‘Still – at least we don’t have to cycle out there in the dark.’

At the sound of the word ‘cycle’, Una frowned.

‘What’s the matter? Oh, don’t tell me – you don’t have a clue how to ride a bike?’ Quick on the uptake, Brenda grinned broadly.

‘I told a fib,’ Una admitted. ‘Anyway, what’s to stop us from going to work on your motor bike?’

‘Against the blessed rules, I’m afraid. It’s either push bike or Shanks’s pony. But don’t worry, I can teach you the basics once it gets light.’

It would be the first of many lessons that Brenda had to teach her, Una was sure. ‘Ta, you’re a pal. How long have you been here, anyway?’

‘This is the end of my third week. Before that, I was working behind the counter in Maynard’s butchers in Commercial Street, Northgate.’

‘Well, blow me down.’ Una had assumed that Brenda was an old hand at the Land Army game. ‘Were you here when Eunice … did what she did?’

‘It happened the day after I arrived – here, in this very kitchen. It was a big shock, I can tell you.’

Una took in the orderly rows of green and cream canisters on the shelves and the spoons, knives and ladles hanging from hooks above the up-to-date gas stove. ‘And no one knew she was expecting?’

‘Not even the baby’s father, if you ask me. Kathleen says Eunice Mason was a shy type who didn’t join in much – she knew her a lot better than I did. Personally, I don’t understand how anyone keeps a thing like that quiet – I’d explode if it was me and I had to keep it under my hat.’

The mystery and its tragic end kept Una guessing as Brenda served up the cocoa. ‘How did her family take the news?’

‘I’ve no idea. As I say, I didn’t have a chance to find out much about her. Why are you so keen to know?’

‘I’m sleeping in her bed for a start.’

‘You’re not expecting, though?’ Bluntness was evidently Brenda’s trademark.

Una gave an embarrassed laugh. ‘Definitely not.’ In fact, she’d never gone anywhere near that far with a man – not that she would admit this to the worldly-wise Brenda.

‘Good. Because I like you, Una Sharpe with an “e”, and I’d be sorry if you had to leave on account of being with child.’

‘I like you too.’ Una smiled back then changed the subject. ‘Tell me about Mrs Mostyn. Is she as nasty as that with everyone?’

Brenda cocked her head to one side. ‘Now that you mention it – yes, she is. They say it’s because she married beneath her and she’s regretted it ever since.’

‘Married beneath her?’ There’d been nothing to suggest this. In fact, the Land Army representative had been exceptionally well dressed and spoke as if she’d been born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

‘She grew up here at Fieldhead House, don’t you know?’ Brenda tipped the end of her nose with her forefinger. ‘It was a private boys’ school before the government requisitioned it as a hostel – no hoi-polloi allowed through the hallowed gates. Edith Mostyn’s father was headmaster here.’

‘And now?’

‘Edith has been married to Vince Mostyn for thirty years. They have a grown-up son, Bill. Bill isn’t half bad, actually.’

Una noted the twinkle in Brenda’s eyes. ‘A bit of a catch?’ she guessed.

‘Yes, and not likely to be called up in the near future because he helps his father to mend Ferguson tractors belonging to farmers all over Yorkshire, according to Grace. Mr Churchill needs men like Bill Mostyn to keep things running smoothly on the Home Front.’ Brenda took her empty cup to the tap and rinsed it.

‘Grace?’ Una prompted.

‘Grace Kershaw. She lives at the Blacksmith’s Arms with her father, but she’s one of us.’

‘A Land Girl?’

Brenda nodded. ‘She’s on the rota to cycle out to Home Farm with us later today. We’ll stop by to pick her up on our way there. Grace is a decent sort. You’ll like her.’

‘If I learn to ride a bike before then, I’m sure I will.’ Una wondered if Grace Kershaw was the tall, fair-haired woman she’d seen at the pub door, greeting the RAF man. There was so much to learn in such a short time and she felt briefly overwhelmed.

‘You will,’ Brenda assured her brightly. ‘And it’s true what they say – once you learn you never forget.’

It was all to do with balance. Una looked straight ahead at a row of semi-derelict stables in the yard behind Fieldhead House while Brenda stood astride the back wheel holding onto her saddle.

‘Ready?’ Brenda asked as she shoved hard and set Una in motion. ‘Pedal!’ she instructed.

Una wobbled slowly across the cobbled, leaf-strewn yard. Concentrate. Don’t look down. Press forward and down onto the pedals. ‘Whoa!’ she cried as she leaned like the Tower of Pisa, first this way and then that. She put her foot down just in time to stop herself from toppling to the ground.

‘Try again,’ Brenda insisted.

Una glanced back at the house to see Jean and Kathleen at an upstairs window. The wind whipped her hair from her face and tore straight through her woollen jumper, but as soon as she realized she had an audience she grew determined to get the hang of it. ‘It’s all right, I can manage,’ she told Brenda, who was standing by. She set off by herself, her hands gripping the handlebars, her feet pedalling slowly. So far, so good. She was halfway across the yard, ignoring the raucous call of the rooks circling overhead, eyes fixed firmly on the stable at the far end of the row.

‘Use your brakes!’ Brenda yelled as a dog burst out of one of the stables in hot pursuit of a squawking red hen.

Too late. Una swerved to avoid the dog and sailed straight into the stable. Luckily a heap of old straw provided her with a soft landing. She got up and brushed herself down.

‘Try again?’ Brenda enquired from the doorway, the corners of her mouth twitching.

‘Yes, stand back – let the dog see the rabbit.’ Una picked up the bike and wheeled it back out. She had straw in her hair and the dust had brought on a fit of sneezing, but she would not give in.

‘You stick at a job once you’ve started – I’ll say that for you.’ Brenda cycled behind Una along the road leading to Burnside.

It had taken most of the morning for Una to master the art of riding a bike but by dinner time she could balance, pedal, change gear and apply the brakes with aplomb. She’d been able to look Jean in the eye as she’d sat opposite her at a long trestle table in what had once been a grand dining room, now pared back to barracks-like efficiency.

‘You’ve got straw in your hair,’ Jean had taken pains to point out, her spoon poised over a bowl of beef and vegetable broth.

‘Ta for letting me know,’ Una had replied, running a hand through her hair and taking quiet satisfaction in watching bits of straw drift across the table and into Jean’s bowl.

Now, with her hastily altered coat buttoned tightly across her chest and her hat pulled well down, she braved the wind ahead of Brenda, wobbling every now and then but mostly keeping a steady course until they reached the village.

‘Hold on here for a tick,’ Brenda shouted outside the Blacksmith’s Arms. She asked Una to hold her bike while she went to fetch Grace, who came around the side of the forge wheeling her own bike.

‘Tally ho!’ Brenda’s cry got them moving three abreast, past the terraced cottages and taking the left fork in the road when they came to the chapel. ‘Not far now. Home Farm is over the brow of the next hill,’ she told Una.

‘I wouldn’t be in any big hurry to get there if I were you,’ Grace warned.

She was dressed today in worn dungarees and wellingtons, with the same green scarf tied around her head. In spite of this, she somehow managed to look graceful, Una thought. She was nothing like Brenda – in fact, the exact opposite, with her fair colouring and serious face, high cheekbones and clear grey eyes.

‘Why’s that?’ Una asked.

‘Old Joe Kellett is a hard taskmaster, that’s why. He’ll throw you in at the deep end, you’ll see.’

‘He’s one of the worst for taking advantage,’ Brenda agreed. ‘But don’t worry, Grace and I will look after you.’

Una’s legs ached as they changed into a low gear and pedalled more slowly. The road was bordered by bare hawthorn hedges beyond which lay freshly ploughed, late-autumn fields that had attracted a whirling flock of white gulls.

‘Nearly there,’ Grace promised as they crested the brow of the hill and Una took in the new vista. ‘The farm is nestled in that dip to our left.’

On they rode, buffeted by the wind, until they came to the rough lane leading to Home Farm where they got off and walked, crossing paths with Elsie and Joyce who wheeled their bikes towards them.

‘He’s in the kitchen with Frank and Mrs K,’ Joyce reported without bothering to mention the old farmer by name, her cheeks flushed with the effort of the morning’s work.

‘What sort of mood is he in?’ Brenda asked.

‘The usual,’ Elsie reported. Her breeches and boots were caked in mud, her curls plastered flat to her forehead.

‘He’ll have you digging ditches all afternoon, if I know him.’

‘Oh no, not again.’ Brenda sighed.

So Una was prepared as they arrived in the farmyard and leaned their bikes against a cowshed wall. She heard the muffled sound of cows mooing and shuffling through their beds of straw and she got a strong, sweet whiff of them as she, Grace and Brenda headed for the porch at the front of the house.

‘About time too,’ was Joe Kellett’s churlish greeting when he opened the door to Grace’s knock.

Una had a glimpse of a dark kitchen with low beams from which hung two sides of bacon and some large cast-iron cooking pots. A small fire struggled to keep going inside a large fireplace, fed only with a heap of coal slacking that sent blue smoke billowing into the room.

‘Shut that door after you.’ Emily’s irritable voice cut through an awkward silence as the old man stuffed his feet into a pair of hobnailed boots. She came forward to make sure he did as he was told, recognized Una and tutted.

Her husband – a thin, stooping man with a shock of white hair – tutted back at her. Over his blue overalls he wore a threadbare overcoat tied at the waist with string. ‘What’s up with you?’

‘They’ve only gone and sent us their newest recruit,’ Emily muttered. ‘A fat lot of good she’ll be.’

Joe grunted then shuffled off out of sight.

‘Muddy boots!’ Emily croaked after him. ‘I’ve just got Joyce to scrub that floor.’

Joe came back with a younger version of himself – a skinny man of around thirty whose thick hair was almost black, and whose features were long and pinched, with eyes that were close together and a chin that hadn’t seen a razor since the start of the week.

‘Frank here will lend a hand with the digging,’ Joe told his small team of Land Girls. ‘Don’t bother talking to him, though – he’s deaf as a post. That’s right, isn’t it, Grace?’

Grace nodded while Brenda raised her eyebrows at Una then each of the girls took a spade from Joe and followed him across the yard. Frank stayed behind to put on his boots and took his time to join them at the edge of the ploughed field behind the cowshed.