BY: VIVIENNE BARKER
Four women, journey through life between 1905 and 1945—a mentally, physically, and financially draining period, leaving behind the Boer and Crimean wars of the late 1800s, thrust too soon into WW1, the Crash of 1929, and then just ten years later, WW2. Women had to be strong, raising their voices to be heard, coping with loss, deprivation, and fear. Follow Colette, railing against the constrictions of an Edwardian lady’s life; Mary, facing the future as a single mother; Emily, a wheeler-dealer gambler used to getting her own way; and Joannie, an innocent denied her biological family. Will she ever know the truth?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Train Now Leaving by Vivienne Barker, we follow the lives of four extraordinary women from 1905 to 1945, through the trials and tribulations of war, economic disasters, and family problems. Colette, in 1905, is struggling with the constraints put upon women by the strict Edwardian society in which she lives, after immigrating with her husband and two young boys to London from Belgium. From Colette’s high society, we move to Mary’s East End poverty-stricken life, facing the future as a single mother after the First World War. Then we follow Emily and Joannie through the tragic consequences of World War Two, culminating in a surprising tie in of all the plots together.
Even though the story moves from one plot to another and through a fairly long period of time, it’s quite easy to follow, and the various subplots and characters are fascinating. It almost seems to be a first-hand account of what it was like to live in that time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Train Now Leaving by Vivienne Barker is the story of how two families’ lives intertwine over the course of several years from 1905 to 1945, through wars, financial and emotional disasters, and the ends and outs of daily living, along with all the problems associated with your station in life. Whether rich or poor, Barker’s characters all faced a myriad of problems—many tragic and/or poignant—that real people face.
Barker writes with a unique voice that makes the reader feel as if they are right there with characters going through the harsh realities of a country at war. From petty discriminations to dishonest spouses, from suffering with PTSD to having your home and all your possessions blown to smithereens by an enemy bomb, these people were a much sturdier lot than most of today’s generation—no matter what life threw at them, they just kept muddling through. A very thought-provoking and entertaining read.
Finally, it had stopped raining. After three days, the torrents had ceased, and a watery sun was half-heartedly trying to dry the glistening cobbles. As the hansom cab pulled up to their new home, two boys whooped with joy and tumbled out onto the pavement. Their parents descended somewhat more sedately, but both were relieved to have finally arrived. Bags were unloaded in front of a flight of stone steps leading up to the imposing black front door—the boys already at the top, were eager to enter. Their mother, still standing on the pavement, turned around to take in her new surroundings.
Colette was reluctant to live in London. It was always exciting for a visit and shopping, but was gray, damp, and seemed shrouded in fog most of the time. This was somewhere very different from her small home town of Spa and the lush forests of the Ardennes.
Franz had insisted on leaving. He assured her that life was only going to get worse for the Jews in Europe, and, even though he was non-orthodox, his business was suffering as customers began to shun them, if only to preserve their own skins. It was time to move for the boys’ sakes.
Franz took a large key from his coat pocket and, opening the double doors wide, beckoned his wife up the steps. She climbed slowly, taking in the elegant row of Georgian houses, wrought iron railings, steps leading down from the pavement to the servants’ domain, and the unexpected quiet in the middle of the biggest city in Europe.
“The furniture will arrive momentarily, my dear, but I have to go to a meeting, and I’m already running late. I hate to leave you, but I’ll return as soon as I can. I’m sure the boys will help, and the moving men will just need direction. It will be fine,” he reassured her.
Colette was too stunned to speak. This was just too much. She had no idea of the layout of the house, but Franz was already dashing out of the door to his meeting. As he was about to step into the still waiting hansom cab, a large covered wagon, drawn by two magnificent shire horses stopped behind him.
“Mr. Leyh?” inquired the driver, stumbling over the pronunciation of the name.
“Yes, yes, that is I, but I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you. My wife is inside, ready to direct where the furniture is to go. Please speak to her.” And, with that, he jumped into the cab and was off down the street.
The burly wagon driver lumbered up the steps, and, seeing a woman he presumed to be Mrs. Leyh, doffed his cap and enquired if he was at the right house.
“Yes of course, but would you give me a few minutes. I’ve only just arrived myself, and have no idea which rooms are which,” replied Colette in her heavily accented English.
“No problem ma’am, take yer time, Arnold and me’ll just start bringing things in and set them in this hall until yer ready. Right, Arnie?”
Arnie nodded mutely and went back to the horses.
Turning around in the hall, Colette saw elegant double doors to the left. This must be the parlor she thought, pushing the doors open. The ceiling was high, at least nine feet, and light flooded the room through the floor to ceiling window, even on this dull day. On the other side of the hall, she discovered a smaller room, darkly panelled, and to the rear was a large dining room. Following the noise coming from upstairs, Colette found the boys arguing, but turning away from their ongoing disagreement, she discovered a light filled master bedroom located directly over the parlor below. Through an adjoining door were dressing rooms and a green tiled bathroom with a massive tub. That, she thought, would be where she would shut herself in later and soak the cares of the day away; but for now it was back to the moving men. At least she now had some idea of where the furniture should go.
While she was upstairs, Arnie and his “guvner” had brought in most of the furniture and packing crates. Colette was not quite sure where to begin. How could Franz leave her like this, however urgent it was to secure the purchase of a factory in the East End of London? It was important for him to continue the corsetry business he’d owned in Belgium, but surely it could have waited a few hours. Left alone, she had to deal with the moving men, who were standing around waiting; the subsequent chaos; not to mention their boys Ernest and Robert, who were racing up and down the three floors of the house. In addition, the argument she’d heard earlier, about who was to have which bedroom, was starting to escalate.
“Will you boys stop running up and down the stairs? You are giving me a headache. Please just do something useful.”
“What do you want us to do, Mama?”
Colette was losing patience. “Do you think your bags will get upstairs by themselves? I have to stay here to direct the moving men. Help out by taking them at least and, for pity’s sake, do it quietly. My head is pounding.”
Grabbing their bags, the boys hurtled upstairs, the metal heels of their boots scraping over the marble, putting Colette’s teeth on edge, and making her despair of any quiet in this house.
Flopping down on the nearest armchair sitting in the hall, Colette directed the moving men as best she could until there was a crash from outside. She jumped up as one of the men came through the door.
“Don’t you worry ma’am, everything’s fine, just a minor bump,” he shouted.
Colette sank back into the chair, too tired to care. It had been an exhausting week. The journey from Spa across France to Le Havre, the rough Channel crossing, then a train ride to London, interspersed by nights in hotels, had all taken their toll, but only she seemed to find it intolerable. The boys were overly excited, Franz had gone off somewhere, and she just wanted to curl up and weep.
Just in time, someone came upstairs from the kitchen, introducing herself as Mrs. Scott, the cook. She was carrying a small tray with tea and buttered scones on it.
“I was thinking you might be in need of this, ma’am.”
“Oh, you are so right, thank you. I think we will have to put it on the floor, though,” replied Colette, looking around for a table.
“Hmmm, well, I think this packing case will serve as a table, if that’s all right with you.”
“I could drink that tea straight from the pot.” Colette laughed. “Perhaps you could bring another cup and join me?” she asked.
The cook was somewhat taken aback at the invitation. It was unthinkable for the help to take tea with the mistress, whatever the circumstances. Obviously, these were not the upper-crust employers she was used to working for.
“Thank you, ma’am, but I have duties in the kitchen to take care of. I took it upon myself to make a cold supper for you all, as I wasn’t sure when you would be arriving, and I have something for the boys in the kitchen, if they are hungry now.”
“Those boys are always hungry, and thank you so much for your thoughtfulness. I’ll send them down right away.”
Mrs. Scott left Colette to her tea, wondering what kind of household this would turn out to be. Hard to judge with foreigners with their funny ways.
Franz had bought the house on an earlier trip to London. It hadn’t occurred to him that Colette should be consulted, but he had chosen well. Colette had only his description to go on, and a sheet of paper containing the room sizes, which wasn’t terribly helpful when she was in Spa trying to decide which pieces of furniture to transport. Franz had bought her a map of London, and she had pored over it before they moved. Many of the historical sites she had only seen or read about in books were nearby and she was happy that Regent’s Park was within walking distance. Now that she was actually here, she could see that opposite the house was a well-kept walled garden for the residents of Hanover Terrace to use. Sitting in the hallway looking at the imposing staircase to the upper floors, the house was much bigger and far grander than Colette would have chosen, but Franz was eager to take his place in both the English business and social scene. She just hoped they would fit in as he kept assuring her.
Colette had grown up in Spa, protected and pampered. She had lived in a private apartment at her parent’s hotel in Spa, attending a good finishing school, with aspirations of going to an art college, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it. She asked if she could learn the hotel trade, but her parents vetoed that as being both unladylike and beneath her. They were old fashioned and expected her to marry well, and as soon as possible. Colette had other ideas and rejected all the young men her parents introduced to her.
In a fit of pique and rebellion, she struck up a friendship with a short, older man called Franz Leyh. Her parents were not amused that she was involved with the swarthy, little man with few interests other than his factory. That it was a women’s underwear factory was even worse. They were furious when, a few months later she announced she was marrying him and nothing, short of disowning her, would stop their determined daughter. Even that threat, which Colette knew to be an idle one, would not change her mind. If Colette thought that marriage was her passport to freedom from her parents’ rigid control, she was sadly wrong.
Franz was as old fashioned as her parents, but two babies born just a year apart kept Colette busy, and she put thoughts of working anywhere but in the home out of her mind. Her parents came around, relieved that their only daughter had settled down and they adored their grandchildren. Franz was proving to be a good provider and their daughter seemed content to live in Franz’s small house not far from the hotel.
Even though Colette had railed against her parents in the past, she was devastated when, just a few short years later, they died within weeks of each other in one of the influenza epidemics that scourged Europe nearly every winter. With their death, Colette lost all interest in the hotel and she agreed with Franz that they should sell it. As the only child and heir, she had a significant inheritance, but as was expected, she passed the money from the sale to Franz to invest. With Colette’s agreement, he used the funds to expand his foundation garment business, Solei-Soie, making it into the great success it was. With the help of his chief designer, the elderly Mme. Mireille, orders came from Paris, London, even New York. The future had looked so rosy. Now they were strangers in England, having to make a new life for themselves.
Franz returned home late, eager to tell Colette about the property he had negotiated for in the East End of London. “It will do just fine. It’s easily converted once the machines arrive, and there’s a lot of girls and women wanting work,” he told her excitedly. “I saw an underground railway station nearby. Did you ever hear of such a thing? That will get me there and back home quickly, so I think it will be ideal,” he rattled off.
“Isn’t the East End a very rough part of the city?” Colette asked. “What about that Jack the Ripper? They never caught him you know. Will you be safe coming and going there?
The East End was indeed a tough neighborhood, full of alleys and narrow streets leading from the St. Katharine’s Dock with it’s dark, brooding warehouses blocking out the sunlight. Thick fog often shrouded the streets making anyone unlucky enough to be out easy prey for pickpockets and thugs. The long, straight streets with two up, two down terraced houses were over-crowded, as refugees from the Irish potato famine had poured in looking for work on the docks. Russians, Poles and Jews soon joined them, escaping from Europe, just as the Leyh’s had, all looking for safety from the pogroms. Unlike the Leyh’s, the immigrants settling in the East End were poverty stricken, taking whatever accommodation they could find. Many of the Europeans were skilled workers and, with what little funds they had, set up small workshops where their own could find employment. Many of the unskilled, found work on market stalls, or if they were lucky, as porters at Billingsgate, where the anglers sold the night’s fish catch at first light. With the influx of immigrants, came more public houses and brothels. The East End became synonymous with drunkenness, fights, and immoral behavior. Franz, ever the optimist, tried to reassure his wife.
“Yes it’s a rough neighborhood, but there’s good and bad in all places, my dear, but mostly the East Enders are an honest lot, I’m told. Besides where would I find my work force? I don’t think the ladies of Mayfair would be keen to become seamstresses.” He laughed. “Don’t worry so much my dear, I’m sure Jack the Ripper must be long dead by now.”
Anxious to get the factory running as soon as possible, Franz needed to advertise the opportunity for the area’s much-needed employment. Taking a hansom cab to Fleet Street, knowing this being the hub of the newspaper world, he felt sure someone in the business would know where he could have flyers printed.
He needed to advertise for staff, and a poster protected by glass and hung on the factory gates should work, as it was a busy street.
A few flyers posted in small shop windows nearby should also find him the help he wanted. Directed to a print shop not far from Fleet Street, he had the flyers and a large poster made up, showing the need for seamstresses, cleaners, and maintenance personnel—anyone and everyone that would get his factory ready for operation.
Back at the factory, he wired the poster to the gate and waited inside the building. It wasn’t long before the curious were knocking on the door.
Over the next few weeks, the old, dingy building transformed. On opening day, a line of shabbily dressed women stood waiting for the gates to open.
Franz had hand-picked them himself, taking those with experience, but also young women looking to start work and learn the trade from the older women.
As they filed in, they stood awkwardly looking around.
Franz, smiling broadly with his son Ernest at his side, asked them to stand for a moment as he explained what their duties would be. A few of the older women mumbled the likes of “Going to teach his mother how to suck eggs then,” thinking they had all the experience they needed.
“Ladies, welcome to Soleil Soie. You have before you the latest in sewing equipment, and I think you will agree, the best of working conditions. However, before you start, I must explain that the fabrics you will handle need a most delicate touch, and absolute cleanliness is essential. In that regard, you will find in the…er…toilette the gentlest of soaps and lotions. Please use the lotions after work, not before—we can’t have any oil transferring to the fabric.”
“Fancy that—lotions, what next?” was heard from several women, as they glanced down at their work-worn hands.
“Lotions will soften your hands, so they do not snag the fabrics,” Franz answered somewhat curtly. “You will not have worked on such fine fabrics before, I’m sure. We use French silk, and Brussels lace. Does anyone have a problem with that?”
Not a whisper was heard, but several pairs of eyebrows were raised, as the women looked at one another.
“In addition, we will supply a white apron, to be washed every week. Anyone appearing with a soiled apron will not be allowed to work until you arrive with a clean one.”
A lot of muttering was heard then. For some, laundry facilities were meager and drying, even worse. The long wash lines hanging across the streets often took days to dry, and ended up smutty from the coal fire smoke blowing from the chimneys.
One woman, bolder than the rest took this up with Franz. “Mr. Leyh, how will we get the aprons clean? You’ve seen the wash lines.”
Franz had to think. Washing had not been a problem in the clean air of Spa. “Very well, you will leave the aprons here each night, and, at the end of the week, I will get them laundered.” The muttering rose to a cheer. “Now, ladies, to work!”
Franz happily went off to his factory each morning, taking the underground train. The lift taking him down to the platform, ground its way agonizingly slowly, sinking deeper and deeper on its creaking chains. As many times as he took the lift, he was always relieved once he felt the bump at the platform level. Advertisements papered onto the walls gave some relief to the gloomy tunnel that disappeared into darkness. The train arrived by an electric rail, and warning signs were posted to stay away from the edge and not to cross the tracks or risk electrocution. The air was hot and thick but Franz persisted. It was a most convenient means of transport.
As the weeks passed Franz, Frank as his English colleagues called him, was rarely home. The grim exterior of the factory now boasted an elegant sign Soleil Soie, generally mispronounced by the workers as Solly Soy. Once the sewing machines had arrived, he had been busy overseeing their installation, training staff, even hiring a tea lady, a job he’d not come across in Spa. It seemed the women could not work without liberal cups of tea. Still, that was a small price to pay if the factory functioned efficiently.
He had been appalled at working conditions in the area and even more so by the living conditions. His factory was clean, and light filled the workroom from the new electric lights strung across the ceiling. Conditions here were good, the hours and wages fair, and soon the factory was a model of modern efficiency. Franz, determined to lead by example, hoped other employers would follow suit, but his standards seemed to cause resentment, even open hostility from other factory owners when they lost staff to him. Women were eager to work for Franz, especially as he spoke several of the immigrant languages when he stopped to speak with them on the factory floor.
© 2017 by Vivienne Barker