The Lilac Cadillac

The Lilac Cadillac, an epic love story at a time of war by Jane Harvey-Berrick

“Amazingly beautiful and powerful”
“Heart-wrenching and poignant”
“I have no words to tell you how beautifully this is written. You give the whole war new meaning for those who didn’t live through it. This story is epic.”
“Better tell readers to get that box of tissues out ready”



Two women, two lives, divided by an ocean – and a secret hidden for 75 years.
London, 1939, Sylvia marries her sweetheart, Harry, in the days before he’s sent to war. It will be four, long years before she sees him again.

In 2019, Fiona McCloud is struggling to make ends meet in her small Iowa town but has big dreams of a more glamorous life. In private, the plus-size woman fantasizes about being Marilyn Monroe. In reality, she’s a part-time hairdresser and beautician at the Cedars Retirement Village.

Fiona’s favorite resident is 97 year-old Dolly. The world thinks Dolly is disgraceful, with her octogenarian lover and addiction to fast cars.

And then there’s Joe Fox, the sulky and sensual gardener, a Native American with flowing black hair and wary eyes.

When Dolly decides to take a road trip to Las Vegas, she persuades Fiona and Joe to come with her. They don’t know that Dolly has an ulterior motive, or that this journey will change their lives forever.



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© 2021 Jane Harvey-Berrick
All rights reserved.

PROLOGUE

Life is a journey. That’s what they say, isn’t it? We’re all traveling toward some unknown destination, not knowing when or where we’ll stop, when we’ll pick up passengers or wave goodbye to others.

We grow up, we grow older, and the direction of the journey changes. Sometimes we choose our path and sometimes our path chooses us. But sometimes, just occasionally, someone else picks a different path for us, and we’re traveling down it before we even realize.

What happened to me is a combination of all these things: two very special people who changed the course of my life. And a large, ugly and uncomfortable car, a lilac-colored Cadillac.

It really was ugly. But I ended up loving it, because … well, it’s a long story.


Extract 1

I was seventeen years old when the war started. So much a child, but believing myself an adult. I was Sylvia Edwards then, of course. I remember sitting in our drawing room as Father twiddled the dial on the wireless set, trying to find a clear signal. Usually, he huffed and puffed and made quite a meal of it, but that day the silence was profound.
When he found a signal, he glanced at Mother, an unspoken message passing between them, then he lowered himself heavily into his worn leather armchair, clamping his pipe between his teeth. He carried that pipe everywhere but never lit it—Mother hated the odour of pipe tobacco, but when I think of Father, he always has that pipe.
The wall clock in its rosewood cabinet ticked quietly, the sound of my childhood, the hands creeping forward, unaware, as I was unaware.
Tick Tock. Tick tock.
11.05am.
Tick Tock. Tick tock.
11.10am.
Tick Tock. Tick tock.
11.15am.
Nobody moved and I hardly dared to breathe.
My hands were knotted together, the knuckles white and strained when the radio crackled to life and a man’s voice rang out from the Bakelite box.
“This is London. You will now hear a statement by the Prime Minister.”
Although I could hear perfectly well, I leaned forward and imagined Neville Chamberlain sitting at his desk in front of the contraption that would broadcast his words to a waiting nation. A thin, austere man, I pictured his neatly combed salt and pepper hair; the thick, bristling moustache that hid a narrow upper lip; the formal wing-tip collar and black morning tie that reminded me of an undertaker.
Then Britain’s Prime Minister uttered the words that were to change our lives forever.
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Stunned and silent, we listened to the rest of the Mr. Chamberlain’s speech. But the waiting was over and certainty smothered us: we were at war with Germany.

 


Extract 2

“Hello, I’m Fiona, your cosmetologist. It’s nice to meet you, Dolly.”
Her hand felt cool and frail in mine, and I could see the blue flush of veins beneath the fragile skin.
“Hmm, and who are your people?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Your family, your parents. From whence did you originate? Or did you spring fully formed from the waves like Venus?”
Was she teasing me? Commenting on my too-generous curves? My cheeks flushed and I felt as if I was standing in front of the bullies at high school again.
I stared back, determined to keep smiling if it killed me.
“Well, I completed my cosmetology certification in Cedar Rapids, but I was born right here in Strawberry Point…”
“You poor girl.”
“I’m very happy here,” I said stiffly.
“Are you? You don’t look happy. You have an appearance of suppressed disappointment; an air of sadness, one might say.”
My jaw shut with a click. Her summary was uncanny and I didn’t like it.
“I’m very content, thank you, ma’am,” I lied. “Now, how may I help you today?”
“Polite,” she muttered, as if I wasn’t standing in front of her. “Do you have aquamarine nail varnish? Someone told me once that it matched my eyes. They reminded him of the sea in summertime, you know.”
“I believe I do have that color,” I said, reaching for two pots of nail polish. “Would you like metallic or just gloss?”
“Marvelous!” she smiled, her watery eyes lighting up. Then she glanced at Tracy. “You may go, my dear,” she said regally. “But perhaps a spot of tea for my guest.”
“Actually, just water would be fine, thank you.”
“Nonsense! Hot tea is far more refreshing—it sweats the heat out. Evaporation—basic physics.”
“Oh!” I said, somewhat taken aback and wondering whether I should remind her it was February. “Okay, I’ll have black tea with a slice of lemon, if you have it, please.”
Dolly smiled approvingly. “Good girl.”
Tracy grinned. “Same for you, Dolly?”
“Yes, thank you, dear.”
Tracy left the door open as she went to make tea, and I wondered if that was for Dolly’s benefit or mine.
I prepared everything I needed for a manicure, starting by soaking her hands to soften the cuticles, but as I turned to fill a small basin from her attached bathroom, she ordered me back.
“Turn my chair to the window! Hurry!”
“I’m just getting some water and…”
“Be quick, girl!” she snapped, sounding more agitated now. “Open the window!”
“But Dolly, it’s freezing out there—you’ll let out all the warm air.”
“Open the window, I tell you!”
I hurried towards her, opening the window and feeling the fridge-like shiver of winter as I tugged at her heavy chair, angling it so she had a view of the backyard. Her whole body seemed to quiver with anticipation. Surprised and a little breathless, I followed her gaze.
“That’s better,” she said, her body relaxed but alert. “We’ll be able to see now.”
I peered out of the window, wondering what we were supposed to be looking at. All I could see were wide, snowy lawns and empty paths, abandoned by residents for now.
Her bony hands knotted together and she strained forward.
“We’re just in time!” she said, her voice hushed with excitement.
All I could hear was the wind whistling through the bushes outside and the distant sound of the groundskeeper’s tractor-mower.
“What’s going on?”
“Patience, child. You’ll see.”
I sat on the footstool opposite her, growing impatient and glancing at my watch as I shivered. I didn’t want to fall behind on my first day. If I didn’t start on Dolly soon, I was going to end up rushing my other appointments or risk being late for my shift at the diner.
I slipped my coat back on and wrapped a blanket around Dolly, although she didn’t seem to notice, so rapt was her attention.
Then I heard the throaty roar of the tractor-mower coming closer until it stopped thirty yards from the window. When the engine was turned off, the sudden silence seemed amplified.
“Why are we watching the groundskeeper?”
“That’s Joe Fox. He’s an Indian.”
“I think you mean Native American,” I corrected gently.
Dolly gave me a fierce, amused look.
“When Tom Mix was a movie star and Wyatt Earp was writing his dreadful little books, I was a child, and we called Joe’s type ‘Indian’,” she said. “And no one was offended.”
I bristled in silence, knowing it wasn’t worth the effort to give a lecture on political correctness. Besides, Dolly scared me a little, with her sharp, beady eyes and sharper tongue.
Her gaze had already returned to the window, so I did the same.
The man named Joe Fox jumped from the mower and pulled off the bandana that held his hair from his eyes. Then he whipped off his coat and sweatshirt, tossing them onto the seat of the mower. He was naked from the waist up, and even from this distance, I could see goose bumps. In one final, graceful movement, he shook his hair loose, until it cascaded down his back, shining like a crow’s wing, a waterfall of gleaming black.
He turned in our direction and Dolly sighed. “That is a very fine sight indeed.”
I had to agree. He had the high cheekbones of his race, his amber eyes slanting slightly, and his skin was a flawless, burnished bronze across his muscled chest, the ridges of his stomach perfectly defined. He wore a leather bracelet on his left wrist, faded jeans, and heavy work boots.
Joe Fox was beautiful—no other word would do.
He closed his eyes and raised his hands above his head, tilting his face toward the watery sun. Then he began chanting, the words unfamiliar in a language I didn’t recognize.
Hairs rose on the back of my neck.
He couldn’t possibly hear me, but it seemed wrong to speak loudly.
“What’s he doing?” I whispered.
“Praying,” Dolly answered simply.
I turned to watch, enthralled as his chest rose and fell with each sound, the cold air turning his breath into clouds, the rush of unknown syllables pouring from him. I felt as if I should look away from this private moment, but I couldn’t. There was something so primitive, so ancient, something that connected Joe Fox to a people who had once ruled this vast land.
And then the moment was over. For a second, his shoulders slumped. But then he pulled on his clothes, pulled back his long hair with the bandana across his forehead. He climbed onto the mower, and disappeared in a roar of diesel and slush.
Dolly and I followed him with our eyes until he was out of sight.
“Now, wasn’t that worth being a little late for?” she asked, her voice wistful.
Still speechless, I nodded.



Extract 3

Harry proposed over rock buns and a pot of tea at the Lyons’ Corner House.
“Look, Sylvia, I know you’re terribly young and we talked about waiting…”
He’d taken me by surprise, and I gripped the rock bun so hard, it disintegrated between my fingers and I had to sweep the crumbs onto my plate.
Harry smiled. He was used to me being clumsy and he loved me anyway. He reached out across the table and took my hand, holding it gently.
“Dear old thing,” he said, his warm brown eyes shining with affection. “You are my sunshine, you know that, don’t you? And you’d make me a very happy man if you married me right away. Would you, darling? Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife and making me the happiest man on earth?”
I was shocked and happy and joyful and worried, so many emotions blossoming inside me. My hand flew to my chest as a wave of colour rose in my cheeks. It was happening. It was really happening. I’d thought about it, of course. What young girl doesn’t daydream about her beau? Imagining a beautiful white dress, a veil, rose petals scattered in her path, and the man of her dreams standing tall and handsome, his heart an open book as his eyes proclaim his love. And yet I’d thought this day was years away, but the horrid war changed everything. It was all anyone talked about now.
But none of that mattered when the man I loved was declaring himself on the opposite side of a red-and-white tablecloth laid for afternoon tea.
“Oh, Harry! Of course I will!”
He squeezed my fingers once more. “Thank you, darling. You’ve made me so happy, and I promise I’ll do everything I can to make you happy, too.” Then he released my hand. “And I’m awfully glad you said yes because I popped into an old Jewish chappie’s shop in Hatton Garden and bought you this.”
His fingers fumbled as he produced a small velvet box, and inside rested a gold ring with a single diamond, glittering in the electric lighting.
I held my breath as he slipped it over the fourth finger of my left hand. It was the loveliest thing I’d ever seen in all of my 17 years. I watched with fascination as it threw sparkling rainbows across the whitewashed walls.
“Do you think you can arrange a wedding in a week?” Harry asked, his expression earnest. “Mater will help. She adores you almost as much as I do,” and he gave me a boyish smile that turned my insides to jelly.
“Oh, gosh! I don’t know. I suppose I can.”
“Lots of chaps are in the same position so I expect the Registrar might be a bit busy,” and he gave me a reassuring grin.
My smile wobbled. It wasn’t what I’d imagined. A Registrar wedding seemed a shameful, hole-in-the-wall affair, suitable only for divorcees and unfortunate women who were P.W.P.—pregnant without permission.
“Oh, darling,” he sighed, “I know you have your heart set on a church wedding and all the lovely nonsense, but there’s simply no way we’d be able to do all of that in a week.”
Perhaps he saw the tremble of my lips for it seemed as if his own heart cracked with love and pity and guilt.
“I tell you what, when I get back from giving the Hun a jolly good thrashing, we’ll have that big bash you’re after. We’ll … we’ll have a super do at the Lythe Hill Hotel, and invite all our friends and all the family we can stand. Oh, Sylvie, darling, I’d give you the moon and stars if I could!”
I brushed away my tears and blew my nose with a handkerchief. It wasn’t the wedding that was important but the marriage.
“Of course, Harry. I’m just being silly. I’ll talk to Mother and…” I gasped suddenly. “What about Father?”
Harry gave a smug smile. “I asked his permission last night after I took you home from the picture house. He even opened a bottle of sherry for me. I think he likes me a bit more now I’m about to go and do my duty for King and Country.”
“You’re terribly brave,” I said, thinking he looked awfully dashing in his brand new RAF uniform. “But I wish you hadn’t volunteered. I’m going to miss you dreadfully.”
“I’ll probably be a terrible pilot and end up in Bognor instead of Berlin,” he chuckled, but I didn’t smile.
It was all too horribly real. And he was leaving so soon.
“Oh, Harry!”
“You’ll write, won’t you?” he asked, looking suddenly serious. “I’ll count on letters from home.”
“Of course I will. I’ll write every day.”
He touched the ring on my finger, his eyes filled with awe and wonder. I wanted him to always look at me that way.
“Mrs. Harry Woods,” he breathed, testing my future name and smiling longingly.
“I can’t wait to be your wife,” I said.
I meant every word.
“Shall I book a room at Lythe Hill for the wedding night? I know that’s not much of a honeymoon, but I promise I’ll take you somewhere the first leave I get. What do you say to Devon? I know you like sea-bathing.”
Heat bloomed in my cheeks and tears pricked my eyes. To spend the whole night together as husband and wife. He really was the most wonderful, thoughtful man … fiancé. He’d be a marvellous husband, I was sure of it.
I felt so lucky, so terribly thrilled and grown up. I wondered if I should take up smoking to make me look older. But then I was cross with myself for being so silly and superficial. Harry was going away to fight. Not all soldiers came home whole, even though they were all heroes. That’s what Mother said.
“You will be alright, won’t you, Harry? Everyone says that Hitler is a frightful bully and spoiling for a fight.”
“Silly old thing,” he said, smiling at me fondly. “I’ll be home by Christmas.”


Extract 4

At 10.55am, I wheeled Dolly to the entrance of Cedar Court where Kelly, Tracy and several more of the care-givers waited to say goodbye. When they saw her, they started to clap.
“You look lovely, Dolly,” said Tracy. “We’re going to miss you. Norman is heartbroken.”
“Ah, men,” said Dolly with a smile. “A woman should always leave them wanting more. Besides, why would I want a wrinkly old man when the road ahead could offer a veritable youth of 80?”
Tracy bent down to give Dolly a hug, and then the other care-givers crowded around her. In a few short months, Dolly had become everyone’s favorite. Despite the joyful moment, I felt a twinge of sorrow—Dolly was so full of life and yet it was inevitable that her light would soon be dimmed forever. I pushed the thought away: I needed to be more like Dolly and live in the moment.
“Where’s your ride, Dolly?” Tracy asked, glancing at me.
At that moment, the throaty growl of the Cadillac’s engine could be heard coming down the long driveway. As it drew closer, I saw that the top was down. It looked as full of glamor and excitement as Dolly could have possibly wanted.
Whatever else I might think of Joe Fox, he was a great mechanic. I still couldn’t stand him but I’d admit that much. I thought wistfully of the rust-bucket that was my car.
“Oh my goodness, is that…?” Kelly began, then started to laugh and clap as Dolly beamed at her care-givers.
I stood by proudly as Joe Fox pulled up next to the entrance and jumped out of the Cadillac.
“Holy cow, Dolly!” he grinned. “You look like a … hell, I don’t know. What color do you call that?”
“Lilac, young man,” she said regally, but smiling widely. “Fiona colored my grays to match my car.”
I had, I really had, and it was one of my proudest moments as a cosmetologist, dying Dolly’s wispy white hair a fetching pale lilac. Her nail polish coordinated, too, of course.
“It’s freakin’ awesome,” he laughed.
“Fiona’s finest hour,” Dolly smiled in a pleased, cat-like way, patting her lilac locks.
Joe Fox glanced at me and I thought I saw the smallest glint of something like approval. But I couldn’t be sure.
Kelly and Tracy were watching open-mouthed as he helped Dolly into the passenger seat. I went to buckle her seatbelt, but there wasn’t one; and I realized with a sinking sensation that the Cadillac had been built before seatbelts were thought necessary. I hoped Joe Fox was a good driver.
He brushed me out of the way as I went to help him load Dolly’s heavy suitcases into the trunk. I watched without comment, but it was going to be a long two weeks if he continued to treat me like I wasn’t worth talking to, and my pleasure in his approval of Dolly’s colorful hair vanished.
You’re doing this for Dolly, I reminded myself.
When I hopped into the back seat, I did enjoy the surprised faces of the Cedars’ staff. I wondered if I should pretend I was just getting a ride into town, but in the end I decided that the less I said, the less I’d have to lie about later.
In that moment, with the sun glinting off the Cadillac’s polished paintwork, those iconic shark fin tail details in sharp profile, we started our journey to Las Vegas, the City of Second Chances: 1603 miles, 28 hours of driving, and the open road ahead of us.


Why I wrote this story

In part, this book was inspired by the incredible stories my late mother told me about her time working for Britain’s Air Ministry during the Second World War, and my late father’s experiences in the Fleet Air Arm. Not only that, but when my mother went to live in a nursing home, I met many other nonagenarians who had done amazing things in their youth. And it made me sad to think how often those stories disappear when they’re gone. I heard heartbreaking and inspiring stories about lives lived during terrible times.

But I also wanted to show how incredible these lives were, and yet how my mother was happy to live in the moment and enjoy every day. As the character Dolly says to Fiona,

“You can’t be careful all your life – what would be the point of living?”