Written with great affection for an endearing character, the novel traces ‘Lillian’s Story’ as national and international events intersect with her personal milestones. By the end of this compelling story, Lillian is living a more affluent lifestyle. At the heart of it, though, she has been shaped by the eventful century into which she was born, and to which she undeniably belongs.
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Lillian’s life spans the 20th Century. Born in Suffolk in 1900, in service at the age of twelve, her life is greatly changed by the First World War, and subsequently even more by World War Two. These experiences colour the rest of her long life. The Great Depression, the post war austerity years, the assassination of Kennedy, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, the miners’ strike and the death of Princess Diana are amongst the cultural and political events of this turbulent century which are recorded through their effect on the lives of Lillian and her beloved family.
The young clergyman climbs down from the pulpit to stand between the two coffins. Looking down, he places a hand on each. A silence envelops the packed church, but there is no shuffling of feet, no sense of unease.
“Dearly beloved brethren,” he begins. Then he throws back his head and treats his congregation to a wide smile. “How unusually apt that phrase is today. Surrounded as I am by family, theirs and mine. I have such a strong feeling that Lillian is going to be very cross with me if I get this wrong.”
He pauses as a ripple of laughter runs round the church.
“So I shall try very hard to get it right. Not only for her, but for all of us here who loved them both. We have shed our tears already. We know how much we shall miss them. But these are lives to be celebrated, and I intend to try.
“Where to start? Was Lillian an extraordinary woman born into ordinary times, or an ordinary woman born in extraordinary times? Both, I suspect. The very first time I met her she tore me off a strip for daring to suggest that working wives were a new phenomenon. I was suitably chastised, but also aware that she had enlarged my understanding of the world she grew up in.
“No, that’s wrong. Not the world she grew up in. That was even further back. Lillian was a Victorian. That’s a difficult concept for those of us who knew and loved her. Born at the turn of the century. Almost literally. In January, 1900.
“Born into a very different world…”
January (Header 1942)
At least the raids are not quite as non-stop as they were last year. With my birthday being on a Sunday we are having a little party this afternoon. It’s Jack’s idea – Christmas was a bit flat this year with William going off just before, and the Evertons asked us to spend it with them on account of us going to be related soon. It was quite pleasant but a bit strange. Everyone being on their best behaviour.
We are planning to have my party in the canteen, and praying that we won’t have to end it in the station, with the noise drowning out the music. Jimmy’s got the whole day off. Most of the park is given over to allotments now and I think he spends most of the time advising everyone on what to grow where and with what. Nice that all his gardening know-how is coming in so useful.
We’ve got our own plot down there and Jack spends almost all his spare time doing things to it under his dad’s instruction. He’s digging it over ready for the spring at the moment. Keeps him out of mischief - these lads are too keen on hunting for bits of shrapnel and such on the bombsites. Ghoulish, I call it. But Jimmy says we should be grateful that they are too young to dwell on the deaths and the injuries. Mr Smith is in hospital at the moment and they think he may have lost the sight of an eye. He was coming home from work and got caught in that big raid near St Paul’s. Funny the way that goes on standing there in the middle of all the rubble. The papers call it a beacon of hope. The trouble with that is that if it does get hit everyone will get even more depressed.
All my regulars in the canteen have turned up and everyone has brought something, even Mrs Smith has come straight from the hospital. Bless her – she’s brought me a beetroot and none of the chaps understand why we are laughing. We are all so pale and washed out and you can’t even get a Tangee lipstick, so we use beetroot to give us a bit of colour. Eileen whisks it into a jar and says firmly, “That’s Lil’s – anyone chopping that up is for the chop themselves!”
Eileen is looking pretty tired herself. Her youngest is in the nursery now and her eldest, who is working in the munitions factory up near Shooter’s Hill, has developed a cough that is almost as bad as Jimmy’s. All those girls seem to get coughs; I reckon it must be something to do with the atmosphere there. I know that Eileen is ever so worried about her.
I’ve managed to get a cake together. No fruit, of course, and dried egg, but at least it’s risen. We haven’t sugar for icing so I’ve made a cardboard cover for it and put my own name on it and Jack has found some little candles for the top. We light the candles and everyone sings “Happy Birthday”, and I tell Jack to blow the candles out for me. I’m very touched at the way everyone has brought something along and between us all we have got together quite a feast.
We’ve got a gramophone in the canteen and I put Jack and his friends in charge of keeping it wound up and tell all the kids they can have a turn at choosing a record. Then we sink into the chairs for a quiet smoke and a chat. Mr Everton is putting out the pencils and papers for a beetle drive a bit later.
It’s been a nice birthday. Jack and I even won the beetle drive, which pleased him no end. No raid, thank heavens. We walk back home, later than we expected, just listening to the silence. It feels like the best present of all.