Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

BRIDGE TO TOMORROW: COLD PEACE -- Meet Kit Moran

 Kit is a veteran somewhat "at sea" in the post-war world. After being "de-mobbed" from the RAF, he went to university to obtain qualifications as an aeronautical engineer. This only deferred -- rather than eliminated -- the crisis of finding a new identity in peacetime. Kit's situation is aggravated by the fact that he is a man with disabilities, a wife and an infant daughter. These factors limit his options -- and things are starting to look bleak.


Excerpt 1:

“Mr Wallis, I’m calling because I’ve almost completed my degree. I have only one more semester and should be sitting for my final exams in June. I’ll be ready to start work in July.”

“Oh, well done! Time certainly does fly.” There was an awkward pause and then Wallis said, “You wanted to remind me of my promise to help you get started in engineering.”

It wasn’t a question. Wallis clearly remembered his promise, but something in his voice warned Kit that he was unhappy with the situation. Kit tried to stay positive. “Yes, that’s right. I thought maybe we could meet to discuss possible openings at Vickers or other options you might recommend?”

“I’d like to meet up with you, Moran, and hear how you are doing, but — this is very embarrassing — it’s just that I wouldn’t want you to come all the way down here with false expectations. You see,” he sighed audibly, “the government contracts have all dried up. Civil aviation is expanding, of course, but orders for new aircraft are not coming at a rate to make up for the lost military contracts. There are too many serviceable old aircraft still about. Here at Vickers we may well be forced to lay off some of our staff, including engineering staff. As far as I know, the situation is the same at all British aviation companies.”

A cold shiver ran down Kit’s spine. He hadn’t expected that. He had not dreamed that Vickers might be laying off workers. But he had a child to consider now and couldn’t just take no for an answer. “But what about the new research facility, sir, the one in Weymouth that you’re working at now?”

“Oh, you heard about my experiments with supersonic flight and variable-sweep aircraft?” Wallis sounded pleased. “It is very promising work. I’d like to get you involved with it at some point. I’m sure there will be a future in it. It’s just — you see, it’s still very much in the experimental stage. Which means, unfortunately, that at the moment we’re looking more for mathematicians than engineers.”

The chill was spreading from Kit’s core to his extremities. His fingers and toes were going cold as Wallis continued in a distressed voice. “Of course, we will need engineers later — assuming all goes well, but for the foreseeable future, I don’t know how I could justify hiring a recent engineering graduate. I’m hoping to win over Group Captain Cheshire to help with some of the theoretical aspects of command and control of pilotless aircraft,” Wallis added this information as if Kit would find it good news in some way.

He didn’t. It was bad enough that Wallis knew of no appropriate positions he might apply for. The mention of someone like Cheshire only added insult to injury. No, he didn’t have a VC and three DSOs. No, he hadn’t flown 100 operations. No, he hadn’t commanded 617 Squadron or observed the drop of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. He was just a disabled, veteran pilot with what was likely to be a Third-Class engineering degree.

On the other end of the line, Wallis was saying, “I’m very sorry about this, Moran. I wish I had better news. I wish I could help in some way. If you want, I can give you some names and addresses in America. You might also want to consider a master’s degree. In another year, the situation may have changed again. In the meantime, learn as much as you can about rocket engineering. There are rumours that the Russians are recruiting all the German scientists that worked on the V-weapons and have plans to build more powerful rockets than ever before.”

Kit stiffened as his resentment waxed. “As far as I know, sir, rockets have only one purpose: to deliver a cargo of high explosives. I’ve done more than enough of that already. It’s not the future I envisaged for myself. I’m interested in civil, not military, aviation, and certainly not rockets.”

As soon as Kit starts looking for work, he discovers it isn't going to be as easy as he had hoped. Britain is in a recession. The economy is stagnating and unemployment on the rise. Yet Kit is not willing or ready to take just any job. He still wants to find something with better prospects than what he'd had before the war. He also wants something that will make a positive contribution to creating a better world. He is not always diplomatic about seeking his goals and sometimes he's too proud to compromise, which closes some doors. 

As his options become increasingly limited, however, he starts to lose hope and comes close to abandoning his dreams.  He is stopped from losing hope by his wife, Georgina, and someone he had never expected to meet or like -- who will remain nameless here!

Excerpt 2:

Kit felt the same nervousness as before oral exams. True, he was only facing one man sitting behind a solid oak desk rather than several on a platform, but the sense of his fate being decided from “on high” remained. He’d sent out dozens of job inquiry letters but so far he’d received only one invitation to an interview. It was for a position with the air crash investigation department of the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The work hardly sounded like what he’d dreamed about for the last three years, but it appeared to be the only kind he had a chance of getting.

"So, Mr Moran,” the civil servant opened the interview. “I see you have a commendable war record, but then so do all the candidates we see for jobs here.” Really? Kit asked himself. They all had DFMs and DFCs? Most of his fellow students didn’t. 

The civil servant continued, “And I see you will obtain your BSc in Aeronautical Engineering this summer. Where was that from?” Although voiced nominally as a question, the civil servant did not look to Kit for an answer. Instead, he scanned the documents in front of him, confident that the information was already there. “Ah, yes, Leeds.” He made it sound as if Leeds was an inferior institution. Kit supposed the man behind the desk had attended Oxford or Cambridge, or maybe he just wanted people to think he had.

The interviewer looked intently at Kit. “Do you have other qualifications that make you suitable for this job?”

No, Kit thought to himself, but he gamely answered, “I’ve survived three crashes.”

“Oh? Interesting, but I’m not sure that is particularly relevant. Our work does not entail trying to replicate crashes, you understand, but rather explaining them. It is very meticulous, very tedious work in many ways. After a crash, we sift through the debrisliterally thousands of pieces of shattered aircraft — trying to find the one piece that was defective or broke before the machine went down. One needs to discount all the damage done by impact or fire. It requires the utmost precision and attention to the tiniest details.”

Why, Kit asked himself, did this man assume he was not capable of either? Out loud he remarked only, “I understand, sir.”

“And you believe you can do that kind of work?”

“Of course. I was a flight engineer before I was a pilot and a fitter before that. I know engines very well.” 

“I see,” the man did not sound convinced. … “Mr Moran, what are you reading at the moment?”

“I’m reading for my exams, sir.”

“Yes, of course. What I mean is what do you read for pleasure?” 

Was this some sort of trick question? What answer did they want? Kit couldn’t imagine. He liked reading novels when he had time to submerge in a book, but he feared that didn’t sound sophisticated enough. He considered saying something like biographies or economics but feared he’d be asked for an example. He opted for “literature.”

“Literature? That’s a bit vague, wouldn’t you say? What sort of literature?”

“Classical literature. Joseph Conrad. Rudyard Kipling. G.B. Shaw. Remarque.” Kit threw out the names of the first authors who came to mind, but he sensed he was digging himself into a hole.

“Not mysteries? Crime novels?”

“No, not particularly.”

“A pity. We’ve found that many of our best employees have a police background or at least a keen interest in solving a mystery. They are the kind of people who like reading crime and mystery novels for fun.”

Kit was beginning to think they had already identified the candidate they intended to hire. They were probably just going through the motions of an interview to fulfil some bureaucratic requirement. Doggedly, he pointed out. “There was no mention of wanting candidates who read crime novels in the advertisement. It said you were looking for an aeronautical engineer.” He couldn’t quite keep the tinge of resentment out of his voice; Georgina would have cringed had she heard him.

 “We need an aeronautical engineer with an interest in investigations," thecivil servant answered firmly. His smile was almost condescending.

“Yes, that’s why I’m here,” Kit lied. He was here because he didn’t have any other alternatives at the moment.

“Mr Moran, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. You have all the official qualifications for the job — assuming, of course, you get your degree — but my colleagues and I have the impression that you aren’t quite the right fit for it. You know, 617 Squadron and all that. Rather a bunch of cowboys, weren’t you?”

“Cowboys? No, sir. We were a Royal Air Force squadron specialized in precision bombing.” Kit’s temper was starting to simmer. 

“Yes, but don’t pretend you weren’t very full of yourselves, taking unnecessary risks and doing all that low-level flying as much to impress your girlfriends as to defeat Germany.” The man’s smile was unquestionably condescending now.

“No, I didn’t fly into flak at 600 feet to impress my girlfriend,” Kit told him, his anger nearing the boiling point.

“Don’t get me wrong, we here at the Ministry greatly admire what you Bomber Boys did, which is why I have been authorised to make you an alternative offer.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t think I take your meaning.” Kit tried to keep himself from exploding.

“We don’t think you’re the right man for the job you applied for, but we are prepared to offer you a more junior position as assistant to the aeronautical engineer investigator. It would require disassembling engines and labelling the pieces of the wreck under investigation. It comes with a salary of five pounds a week.”

That was half the compensation of the advertised position. It would barely replace the money his father had been sending them and certainly would not make up for the loss of Georgina’s earnings. Furthermore, the cost of housing was much higher in London than in Leeds. They would never be able to make ends meet on five pounds a week plus his disability. Kit felt as if after six years of war and three years in university, he was right back where he started: earning apprentice wages. 

But it would be a foot in the door at the Ministry, a rational voice in the back of his head reasoned with him. It would pay the bills while he looked for something better, and London had lots of schools. Georgina would have a better chance of finding work here than anywhere else — provided they could find someone to look after Donna. But how could they afford a nanny on slave wages? 

Kit silenced the voice of reason in his brain, got to his feet and took his hat. “No, thank you!” he snapped at the astonished civil servant.


 

 

 


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

CHARACTERS OF "COLD PEACE" -- MEET "KIWI" MURPHY

 No character in "Cold Peace" captures the situation of many veterans in the post-war era better than Kiwi. After six years in the RAF and a credible war record, he finds himself floundering. Demobilized into an economy that is struggling, the only job Kiwi can find is as a salesman. He isn't good at it and soon he's not only struggling to make ends meet, his wife has left him as well and he increasingly turns to drink.

Excerpt 1:

Kiwi was discouraged but knew that much of his glum mood stemmed from the disastrous weekend he’d just put behind him. The weekends tended to leave him feeling lonely and full of regrets about losing Betty, but this past one had been particularly rocky. He’d asked Betty to meet with him for lunch, hoping he could show her he was on a new path. When she refused, he’d pleaded with her, and she’d become angry and insulting. He’d answered in kind, and it turned into a shouting match until she hung up on him. How had it come to this? They had been so in love in 1944…

 

The engine started coughing, and having crested the hill, Kiwi disengaged the gears and coasted. It was like gliding a Spit in after the engine stalled, he told himself. Luckily, he could see the petrol station at the foot of the hill. Unluckily, it was on the other side of the road, and there was oncoming traffic. If he had to put on the brakes, he’d never be able to roll into the station.  

 

Concentrating and talking to the car at the same time, he judged the distance, his speed, and the speed of the approaching lorry. Just when he thought he was going to be able to turn in after it had passed, it slowed down. Kiwi had to slam on his brakes, and he came to a halt in the middle of the road, while the lorry continued obliviously on its way. 

 

Traffic converged on Kiwi from both directions. Cursing colourfully, Kiwi tried to restart the engine, causing a bang followed by ominous hissing. The cars on either side of him started hooting their horns. Idiots! Surely, they could see he was dead in the water? One of the drivers started inching cautiously past his stern, but the other stuck his head out of the window to shout rude things at him. 

 

Kiwi climbed out of his car and started pushing it off the road. He was relieved when a young man from the petrol station darted out to help him. The station attendant pointed to a garage behind the filling station, and they pushed the car in there. After putting on the brake, they looked under the hood together and Kiwi explained what he’d done and heard. As the young mechanic tinkered with this, that and the other, they chatted. The rapport between them was instantaneous, and in no time, Kiwi had his hands dirty as he helped. 

 

They were so absorbed in their task, that neither of them took any notice of a car hooting behind them until a fat man came storming over shouting. “WOODWARD! What do you think I’m paying you for? Get out there and pump petrol!”

 

Too late, the helpful young man realised three cars were in line for petrol. Apologizing profusely to his boss, he rushed out to do his job, while Kiwi waited, feeling guilty for distracting him. After the customers had driven away, the young employee returned and remarked in a low voice, “If you give me another half hour, I think I can get her fixed up enough for you to get to Petersfield on your own power. The problem is the cylinder head gasket, and you’ll need to get it taken off and reskinned at a proper garage.”

 

“Thanks, mate, but I’d hate to get you in more trouble.” 

 

The attendant shrugged. “If it hadn’t been you, it would have been something else. Mr Babbit doesn’t think I’m worth the time of day let alone a shilling an hour! As he never tires of telling me, he only hired me as a favour to his sister, who happens to be my sister’s mother-in-law.” He shook his head in a gesture of apparent helplessness. “Problem is,” he explained, “I’ve got no formal training on automobiles, and Babbit thinks a ‘Merlin’ is a mythical wizard rather than a wizard machine.” He cast a disgusted look in the direction of the station office. 

 

Kiwi laughed. “Fitter?”

 

“That’s right. You with the mob, too?” Chips asked hopefully.

Kiwi nodded. “Best years of my life, but time goes on."

Kiwi is a New Zealander who fell in love with flying as a boy, scraped his pennies together to learn how to fly and then made a living (of sorts) flying any job he could find -- in flying circuses, barn-storming, crop-dusting, fire-fighting, instructing, and offering joy-rides to paying customers. He didn't earn much, lived rough but was happy. Then the war came and a sense of patriotism combined with the desire to fly modern aircraft induced him to pay his own way to England and volunteer for the RAF. 

Given a short service commission, trained on Spitfires and sent to Fighter Command, Kiwi gets his baptism of fire in the Battle of Britain. He is once shot down over France but evades capture and returns to fly and fight again. By the end of the war he is a Squadron Leader and a decorated hero. But his service commission expires with the end of the emergency and he finds himself looking for work in "civvy street" just like tens of thousands of others. The only work he can find is as a salesman, and fails miserably. Misery leads to excessive drinking which adds to friction with his wife, and by late 1947 she has left him. That's when he encounters David Goldman, a friend since 1940, and David gives him the chance to join his fledgling air ambulance company. 

Kiwi isn't a freeloader. He brings important skills in the cockpit and on the ground. David really couldn't succeed without him, but that doesn't mean they don't have their differences -- and Kiwi's demons haven't entirely released him....

Excerpt 2:

Sunlight penetrated the room and Kiwi groaned. His head was throbbing, his mouth dry, and he needed to pee. But when he rolled over to get out of bed, he bumped into something. There was someone else in his bed. Oh, God! Where did she come from? The pub, of course; drinking with Chips and Ron. They’d chatted up those girls — well, not really girls anymore, Kiwi reflected as he eased out from under the covers without waking up his bedmate.

By the cold light of dawn with most of her make-up on the pillowcase, she looked older than he was. Her heavy breasts sagged shapelessly to either side, but her belly swelled up in two thick rolls. She lay on her back, her mouth hanging open, and she snored softly. She looked forty if she was a day, but who knew? Too many late nights, too many cigarettes, too much alcohol, too many lost friends and too many disappointments had left them all looking older than their age. Did anyone look “their” age anymore?

Kiwi stumbled over the cold floor to the bathroom, embarrassed to realise he was as naked as the woman in his bed. Their clothing was littered on the floor in a messy heap all mixed up together. He vaguely remembered the excitement of it, but the call of nature allowed no lingering.

He slipped into the bathroom and his reflection in the mirror made him groan. He looked an absolute wreck. God, he had to stop drinking like that. He couldn’t handle it anymore — or the consequences. How the hell was he going to get rid of her? And what on earth was her name? Not to mention that his head was killing him!

After relieving himself, he turned on the tap and filled the basin with cold water. He leaned over, dipped his hands in the water and threw it at his face. He had the feeling he’d forgotten something — besides the name of the woman in his bed. What day of the week was it? What was he supposed to be doing?

Jesus Christ! He stood up so abruptly that he almost blacked out and had to clutch the washbasin to stop himself from losing his balance altogether. It was Friday! He was scheduled for his flight test today! At 9:30 am. What time was it?

Jesus! Jesus! He ran out of the bathroom and started frantically searching for his watch. Where had he put it? His hasty search made the stranger in his bed turn over with a little moan, but Kiwi didn’t care. He had to find out what time it was. Finally, he spotted his watch lying atop the chest of drawers. 8:35!

No, no! He couldn’t be late! His future depended on passing the qualifying exam on twin-engine aircraft. If he couldn’t get his certificate for twins, he couldn’t fly the Wellington, and he was no use to Banks, and he’d be tossed out of the company on his ear. Jesus! Jesus! The first objects he could put his hands on were his socks and he pulled one on after the other, then his undershorts and finally a pair of trousers.

The woman on the bed made a sound like she was awake.