Myanmar Love Story Meets Post-War Britain Family Saga
If you are a fan of historical romance novels and war fiction, then this new British novel is for you. Eugene is a love story which spans decades and thousands of miles, separating star-crossed lovers at a tumultuous time in world history.
Can You Really Be Sure You Truly Know Someone?
The Far East was a forbidden, unsavoury place to be, if local opinion was to be believed. Eugene discovered it to be quite the opposite, and found himself falling deeply in love for the first time with the beautiful Chit. In this Myanmar love story, set thousands of miles apart, will Eugene ever come to terms with losing his lost love?
Eugene is a poignant look into the life of a man haunted by a lost love. Taking place shortly after the second world war, young Eugene, a deeply traumatised RAF conscript, returns to his childhood home. Eugene moves through post-war British life enjoying great success, but is still haunted by his lost love, a Burmese nurse called Chit.
A Standout Historical Fiction Novel
One of the best historical fiction novels of recent times, this Burmese love story will have readers hooked from the first page right through to the last. Black market trading, business coercion and corruption are rife – with murderous consequences. Love is gained and lost. There is happiness and heartache, but above all: regret.
This is more than a Myanmar love story – it’s a first-hand account of the seismic change in society in post-war Britain.
The author deals with themes everyone is familiar within a family saga: redemption, suicide, greed and wealth, taking the reader on a journey of self-discovery and reflection with Eugene.
For a Fen Tiger to be pounced upon in a land stalked by a Chinese dragon would require a leap of 9,000 miles and an even greater leap of the imagination. Yet it has happened.
It was January 1942 and George Whitby was reading the long letter from a lost sister four years his junior. It was written in an affectionate tone as if he was the sweetheart rather than his namesake George, whom she had married three years before, at the tender and virginal age of twenty-one. They always started with “My dearest brother over the seas” and ended with “xxx”. She already had a daughter and was seven months pregnant with her next child. There might be no electricity on that farm in the valley but sparks had come from somewhere, he was thinking, and he was thinking about his young wife whom he had left behind and he was thinking about the baby she was holding on that railway station in Lincolnshire, as through watery eyes he watched the platform disappear in ever-darkening steam and smoke.
The Territorial Army was fair enough: thousands of others would be first. They would take the front lines. Yet as the Cambridgeshires (or the Fen Tigers) boarded ship, the secondary role was obscure, at least to him it was. It was not obscure now. This sweat bath called Adam Park, with its taut tough grass, encircling Banyan trees and four-square colonial houses standing universally proud, white and forbidding, was where the 1st Battalion was going to hold its position, stand this foreign ground against the Japanese 41st regiment. The bush telegraph seeped into the tents telling of 25,000 Japanese men swarming over the Strait of Johore, surprising 80,000 of our boys, all facing south – the wrong way. But Fen Tigers never retreat and George’s head shattered like a coconut hit by a wooden mallet as the single Japanese bullet hit the centre of his temple. The order to surrender this Singapore post came just ten minutes later. Ten minutes in wartime can be an eternity.
Eugene knew enough of this game by now to recognise a large and he supposed old and milked-out British Friesian. The black and white rump was all he needed to identity her. He walked round the side, through the open doorway and squeezed into the narrow alleyway so as to be next to Mr Bell. His hands trembled and he sensed his pulse racing. This was his first trip: he knew what was about to happen. Mr Bell signalled to him to stand beside Willy. He then put his fingers to his lips and motioned him to remain perfectly still.
The cow would be accustomed to Mr Bell, and probably others, coming into the passageway. She would be fed twice a day by forking hay over the three-foot or so wall into her standing area so she was accepting the handful from Willy with the resigned solemnity common to all milk beast. James had the cattle killer pointed with its bell end on the upper forehead and Eugene could see clearly the word “Top” pointing upwards between the cow’s horns. The Friesian chewed nonchalantly. Jolted by the cold tingling of his toes Eugene was thinking about what brother James had told him as they worked together in the making-up room yesterday. How in the old days his granddad had to use his strongest man to wield the huge poll-hammer to hit the head of the 1,000 lb bull in just the right spot. ‘If tha misses the spot, tha’s left with a raging bull seeing thee as its target.’
The world is full of coincidences, of random chances; or are they? Whilst waiting for his interview that morning, Frank had read in the erudite Economist magazine that had sat, somewhat majestically, on the coffee table outside the committee room, an article about the rise and rise of the potato crisp market. The rise from the fryer. London born Frank Smith who was (and could this be believed?) the seventh son of a seventh son, took over from his greengrocer boss a side-line of frying up potatoes as a novelty. Soon he was selling to other shops and then to pubs. Within seven years and from a disused Cricklewood garage he was turning out half a million bags a week.
Adopting his now well-polished air of nonchalance, Frank was asking the pub landlord why he had run out of crisps only to be told, “I only gets three tins full a week and they’ve gone in no time. It is a shame lad ‘cos between me and thee, when kids have had a bag, salt in that little blue packet makes um so thirsty, they pester their parents for a second bottle of pop. And I tell you this, there’s as much profit in pop as in that pint tha’s just ordered. Summut else, mam and dad want’s a bag these days and then they want another drink as well. I know it, brewery knows it. Shortage seems to have come once Cardiff FC won the cup in May, rumour spread that their footballers has been fed a daily diet of Smiths Crisps – the finest food on earth.”
Dorothy expected him to swing left to Chatsworth Park as before but Eugene had planned a surprise. He intended to take another right-hander at Curbar to point out Froggatt Edge, the gritstone escarpment of the Dark Peak that his Dot would not have seen the likes of before and which would, he hoped, release her mind from the business and set a marker for their future together. A future, as much of leisure and adventure, as of customers and schemes to make money. Taking a sharp left in Grindleford, they took the steep uphill to arrive at his surprise destination, the ancient and beautiful stone village of Hathersage and, crossing the road, came to rest in the car park of the George Hotel. It was here that they would spend their honeymoon; all that remained was for Dot to approve, to fix a date in the summer and choose the love nest room.
To mark the six-month anniversary of the store opening, Eugene had taken the decision to buy it, the dream motorcycle every young man wants to own. As with every purchase they made, Frank was consulted and once again, out of seeming impossibility, he found a way. Because it had been in successful production for three years and was aimed at the American market, the Triumph 6T iron-head 650 twin Thunderbird was not cheap but as Frank said, with a bit of “inside track knowledge” it was possible to cut out the dealer profit by collecting direct from the Meriden factory. He would go 50/50 on the price and Eugene could pay him back on a private basis by monthly instalments over a couple of years with the normal 5% added on for Frank’s trouble (the two brothers laughed out loud – Eugene was learning). As regards Eugene’s half, take some profit out of the business – check with Dorothy how much – but for the rest he could draw down the last of the bank loan and enter it in the books as Plant & Machinery for tax purposes. Anyway, what was stopping him buying a side-car later and doing some deliveries? It was this dark green beauty that attracted a small audience in the George Hotel car park and as he recalled his own similar admiration for Frank’s new car, Eugene felt very happy. He had his girl, his business and a brother who knew a thing or two. He was on the way up.
After the film’s credits had stopped rolling, Eugene slowly and hesitantly reached for Dorothy’s hand and found it waiting. She squeezed his hand gently and looked straight at him and even the darkness of this fleapit could not hide that gaze. Eugene remembered nothing of the film; nothing at all.
After the Tivoli had turned out, one young couple along with a few others, walked into The Lawn either on their way home or merely to be together in the darkness. Arm-in-arm this young couple came to a gentle standstill. He leant against the smooth trunk of a huge beech tree and she moved closer to him so that they almost melted into one. Eugene kissed Dorothy gently at first and then fiercely and hungrily. Driven by raging desire, his hand moved inside her coat, searching, searching, but then stopped. Why had he stopped? Because this beautiful girl who had sought him out after so long and whom he had ignored with blinding stupidity, was sobbing softly. She hadn’t tried to stop him, she couldn’t. It was more than Eugene could bear to hear her sobs. Beneath that tree and on that cold bleak winter night he removed his hand and instead enveloped her in his arms. It was the right thing to do: it was enough. As he walked her home she gradually calmed down and started to talk.
‘Darling Eugene, I do so want to be your girl. I know you had a girlfriend overseas so you are experienced but I am not. Believe me, I am not. I have had two boyfriends but in each case it finished because I would not give them what they wanted. Eugene, I am still a virgin. I want you so badly, I want to be with you for ever but I want to save myself formy wedding night. I am so afraid of losing you but please try to understand. Do not rush me.’
After Pearl had left, the old man went into his bedroom to put his tin box of treasures away and there it was, the cutting from the Free Press. The report on the enquiry into the Credwell mining disaster of 1951. In his mind’s eye, he could see Stan’s face as clearly as when they all met up at Alice and Albert’s house down Sherwood Street. Jack would walk up from the little thatched cottage he and Molly had bought in Hall Lane and the four of them (Eugene, Stan, Jack and Albert) would play small-table billiards in the parlour. Stan always acted the cheeky chappie with his, “have you heard this one?” latest joke from his miner mates and he could down more bottles of IPA than the rest of them combined. He was the best looker too and with his neatly parted red hair and smart suits, a young man that Eve said she “had to keep an eye on – keep him out of the clutches of his admirers”.
The enquiry described a number of factors involved in the high death rate. These included telephones being sited too far from the pit face, repair work being undertaken at the time on the paddy (the underground train used to convey the men to and from the lift shaft), inadequate air shafts and low water pressure in the fire hoses.
An already damaged conveyor belt had got caught in a machine causing the motor to overheat and catch fire. The fire trapped 80 men. As a direct result of the flames and smoke, they all perished. It was the serious errors uncovered by the enquiry that led to the fire not being extinguished quickly. In order to do so, the entire colliery had to be sealed to starve it of oxygen. It took the rescuers over two weeks to find the bodies of 57 men and the remaining 23 remained underground for the best part of a year.
At the end of the bland account of the causes of the disaster, and having noted the death statistics, there was one human story. A miner, who had broken his back several months before, went down the stricken pit still wearing a back brace in a vain attempt to rescue his mates. One such mate was Stan Curtis, the dashing young man who, in his brief 27 years and much like those poor sods who found themselves at the mercy of the Japs on the death railway, had done everything his country could ask during a time not of his calling. The early hours of September 26th 1951 might just as well have killed Eve too. A double wedding, a paradise honeymoon at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay and five months with her beloved Stan, was Eve’s entire life. She never recovered.
With shaking hands and peering through watery eyes, the old man placed the press cutting back in his tin box of treasures. Bringing back this horror and sadness, and all because a complete stranger was curious about his family. Was it really worth it?
Molly’s proposal was that the men should tackle the two brothers and Frank had suggested that the confrontation ought to take place on mutual ground. He could reserve the committee room at the Con Club and trick Rob and Harold into coming to “a bit of a do” where there would be plenty of food and free booze.
Albert, Farmer George and Jack, the husbands of Alice, Mary and Molly respectively, were already seated in the room when Frank arrived with Rob and Harold. Immediately he saw his three brothers-in-law, Harold turned to leave but Frank was too quick for him and blocked the door. Standing firm, Frank said, ‘Right. Sorry to have deceived you both but we four are representing the whole family and need some questions answered. Neither of you is leaving this room until we get them. George, if you have to use force then bloody well do because if I personally touch either of them there will be a right kerfuffle, like all hell breaking loose. Rob, you are the eldest and as far as I am concerned the one with the most talking to do. Jack is in this room on behalf of Molly and she has written to us all on behalf of the girls. Over to you Jack.’
Jack Brown might have been quietly spoken and studious by nature but he had been so shaken by the death of Stan that he was determined to do everything possible to get help for Eve and if that meant breaking up this family, so be it. He was used to making presentations to the directors of Whiteleys and as far as he was concerned he was, once more, pitching for finance. He stood up and stepped back a pace from the table. Holding a single sheet of paper, he faced Rob.
‘We know that you and Harold are working a fiddle. You must think that we are utterly stupid or else too lil’y- liv’ered to do anything about it. Well we are neither and now, especially after poor Stan was burnt to a cinder, comes the day of reckoning. But, you two buggers, we don’t just reckon that the old man is being ripped off, we know: if it continues much longer there will be nothing left for the rest of the family when the time comes. For some of the lads, it doesn’t much matter. They have branched out on their own or else are not concerned but for the girls it matters a lot. In their way, each one helped build the butchery business and Eve is damn near destitute. Right, you two – what have you got to say?’
With a wave of his hand, Rob signalled to his younger brother to stay out of it. Having gone ghostly pale, he turned his chair to face Frank.
The main theme of the article was the evolution of the snack market. It was informing its readers that in 1925, just three years ago, two things had happened that were now turning what had been a localised cottage industry into a mass production one. The result was that potato chips (Frank was thinking to himself they mean crisps) were being advertised as a healthy everyday snack that anyone could afford. The first development was the invention of an automatic potato- peeling machine and the second had come about when several employees at Laura Scudder’s Potato Chip Company ironed sheets of waxed paper to form bags. The chips were then hand packed into these bags which were ironed again at the top as a closure. The writer went on to explain how the seasonal disruption of farm-fresh potatoes had been solved. The answer lay in the application of science to the need to hold stocks during the non-growing parts of the year, principally autumn and winter. Stored potatoes were kept at a constant temperatureof between 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit. Several weeks before they entered the factory, they were moved to a reconditioning room heated to 70–75 degrees Fahrenheit. After reheating, the stored potato is equivalent to a freshly supplied one.
What surprised Frank was how this article was publishing what he would have thought were trade secrets and he was further taken aback by an itemised account of the actual manufacturing process. On first arrival at the processing plant, the potatoes are examined and tasted for quality and some are punched with holes in their cores for tracking. Green edges (which are apparently poisonous) and blemishes are discarded as defective product and if the whole batch of such unacceptable ones exceeds a given allowance, then all the current supply is rejected. First-stage quality control is vital for successful batch production. A gently vibrating conveyor belt takes the potatoes to a vertical helical screw conveyor which allows stones to fall to the bottom while the good product is conveyed upwards to the automatic peeling machine. Washing with cold water then follows. Next comes a revolving impaler/press that cuts the potatoes into thin slices. These slices fall into a second cold water washer that removes the starch released by the cutting process. All the finishing processes were then described in detail including the actual frying, flavouring and packaging. Frank was thinking about the knitwear warehouse down the Common Road, vacated by the Co-operative Wholesale Society and was wondering if any automatic potato peelers had found their way over from America.
‘Death: what a terrible, terrible thing it is.
‘In your young life Pearl, you probably haven’t known its icy grip; its numbing, deafening, blinding, all conquering effect of taking you over, of rendering all else meaningless. Casting you down into the deepest, darkest pit from which there is no available escape route.
And Pearl, even today in this world where everything is available to everybody instantly, there is nothing known about death. It comes as a complete and utter shock. It smacks you in the face and says, “right Mr Clever Dick, didn’t see that one coming did you? Thought you were worldly didn’t you? Thought you were on top of everything didn’t you? YOU WERE WRONG. Now try getting out of this one. Try jabbering nonsense to your friends, try making sense out of anything, and I mean anything. Can’t, can you? Why weren’t you prepared? Where was your armour?” The death effect has no words: it is silent. On a wildlife programme you will have seen how a herd of elephants encircle the dead one. They mourn and stare in silence and stay that way for days. Immobile. Lost in grief. Unable to understand? Who knows? All I know Pearl is that’s what death is. Whether Elephant or man is of no consequence. A life has gone and it will not return. And that means for eternity.
Her first trishaw ride would be a death-defying, lane- switching, bell-ringing sally to Yadanabon University, in the Amarapura District on the outskirts of the city (in partial defiance of daddy’s rule of business first) to hear more of the city’s heartbeat than would be possible from the shorter journey to Mandalay University and she was also hoping to couple her business with a trip on Taungthaman Lake.
Kyaw was a second-year student reading English and French and her tutor was delighted to release her for five full days to translate and assist with all the English lady’s enquiries, except those of a political nature. To help search for descendants of a citizen who healed an English airman during the war would be an honour. There would be no fee for Kyaw’s assistance but she would need her expenses paid. There was much smiling and a slight bowing of the head; the deal was done. Pearl mentally ticked off her education box.
The sun was setting at the end of her first day. Orange and white lights strung discreetly in the overhead branches were starting to appear above the bamboo seat where Pearl had sat that morning. The tropical fruit had been replaced by a bowl of mixed nuts, and a gin and tonic was being sipped thoughtfully as she turned the pages of notes.
By LM, Sept 2016
Insightful read about the interplay within a large family in wartime Britain and how deceit, ambition and personal choice affect each generation. Love, murder, suicide, blackmail in the settings of rural Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and the jungles of Burma. Historical fiction at it’s finest.
Eugene – John G Smith
Fiction: Paperback / Digital Download
Publisher: Troubador (28 Sep. 2016)