When Skies Have Fallen - a novel by Debbie McGowan

For many in war-torn 1944, love blossoms in the dance hall, and airman Arty Clarke is no exception. He's a thinker and a dreamer; however, it's not the beautiful, talented dancer in his arms - his best friend Jean - who inspires his dreams. For when his gaze meets that of Technical Sergeant Jim Johnson, Arty dares to imagine a different dance.

Their love is forbidden, by both the armed forces and the law, but with Jean's cunning and support, Arty and Jim try to bridge the distance between them and find true love despite the danger and a life-threatening disaster that could destroy Arty's dreams for good.

Can the pair stand strong together, no matter how many skies have fallen?

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When Skies Have Fallen is a novel, written as part of the Love is an Open Road Anthology (Don't Read in the Closet, 2015).

In This Blog Post:
  • About Love is an Open Road
  • Research and Video Clips
  • Excerpt from When Skies Have Fallen

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About Love is an Open Road
This free event consists of around 200 authors writing stories based on the requests of around 200 readers. Everyone involved in the event gives their time and their talent FOR FREE.

  • Readers each submit a prompt, consisting of a photo and a letter;
  • Authors claim the prompts, and in so doing agree to write a story based on the prompt stimulus;
  • Stories are edited, proofread, formatted, and checked for quality by the DRitC team (all volunteers and incredibly professional);
  • Stories are then published, for free, via Goodreads and MMRomanceGroup.com;
  • The anthology is later compiled into several volumes.

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Dear Author,

Life isn’t a fairy tale. These two know that better than most. These men are survivors. Against all odds, they made it through hardships, separation, and war. They clung to hope where little existed and, as the skies fell around them and the world was torn apart, found strength in loving each other.

Suddenly, the war was over. Battlefields lay silent and troops prepared for the journey home. These two were more than ready. They had experienced enough loss, grief, and pain to last ten lifetimes. The country they left behind may not have been ready to accept them, but they were prepared to live no matter how many skies had fallen.

You can tell me the story of how these men met, but what I really want to know is what happened to these men after this photo was taken. Did their love endure the trials of a return to civilian life? Were they able to overcome the trauma of war and find peace together?

Sincerely, Tiffany

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Research and Video Clips
Even with my social science background, and the fact that my academic specialism of gender and sexual politics gave me a good grounding in the social and political context of this story, a great deal more research was needed before I felt ready to write it.

The post-WWII period in Britain was a time of tremendous social upheaval: the introduction of the NHS, free education, national insurance, new houses and towns, welfare benefits, government pensions, legislation against sex discrimination and unequal pay, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and so on. I knew all of that, thanks to Tony Fagan, retired lecturer in social policy, and Paul Reynolds, senior lecturer in sociology.

However, knowing all of that wasn't enough.

In my head were the stories told by my grandparents, who were in the RAF and WAAF, and I also spent many years caring for older people, who shared their incredible stories of life during the war; what a privilege it is to have known these people.

I supplemented the anecdotal evidence by reading the BBC Archives of people's wartime experiences - British soldiers recounting what it was like when the 'Yanks' arrived, the boy who hid in his larder when a V-1 hit three miles away and didn't know if it had killed his dad, how hard it was to return to civilian life, how little financial support injured soldiers received - so many amazing tiny pieces of history, all offering a distant and safe insight into what it was like to live through the war.

And STILL it was not enough!

Because in all of that, there was still one story I wasn't hearing: the story of men who love men.

On May 8th, 2015 - the day after the General Election and the seventieth anniversary of Victory over Europe Day, I was hit by a devastating realisation - for a pacifist socialist like me. Six years of fighting, millions of lives lost, the promise that there would be bread for everyone, and here we are, in this time of austerity, where the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, right-wing politicians are once again having their day...we have learned so much and yet we know nothing at all.

But anyway, I'm getting off my soap box for the time being, or, in fact, swapping it for another one.

In the video playlist below, there are 5 segments of a documentary titled "A Very British Sex Scandal". It is about the prosecution of journalist Peter Wildeblood, who spent 18 months in prison for his love of another man. Wildeblood went on to give evidence to the Wolfenden Committee, who put together the 1957 report which eventually (ten years later) resulted in the decriminalisation of homosexuality (between over 21s, in private).

I don't do crying, but I sobbed watching this documentary. A week has passed and I still hurt.

I'd already made the decision to make this story a historical document, based on factual information. The characters are fictional; the RAF bases are not real. But everything else is based on historical evidence and mirrors real-world events. I owe it to the people who fought for us, in wartime and in what most will consider peacetime. For there is an invisible war still going on. We have taken great strides forward, but the war is not yet won. Equality, absolutely.

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They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

—‘Ode of Remembrance’, Lawrence Binyon

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Excerpt from When Skies Have Fallen
Copyright Debbie McGowan, 2015

Chapter One: January, 1944

Although the winter had been milder than usual, for a couple of weeks now the temperature had rarely exceeded ten degrees, and several inches of compact snow made for treacherous excursions. Yet the good people of Buckinghamshire refused to be beaten by the cold spell, and the Palais Dance Hall was as crowded as ever, with not one man in civvies. Many of the women were also in uniform, creating the illusion of a dull sea of blue, green and tan upon which floated the vibrant lemon, rose and turquoise hues of the few girls old enough to go dancing, yet too young for service.

From the standing area at one end of the hall, Corporal Robert Thomas Clarke - Arty to those who knew him - and his fellow RAF servicemen watched the swirling couples ebb and flow in their gentle waltz to the air of the three-piece band on-stage. A brazen young woman in flimsy crimson, lips painted to match, spun close, granting the men a flash of stocking-top; some whistled their appreciation, but Arty's attention was elsewhere.

"The WO looks like he's got sticks up his trouser legs," Leading Aircraftman Charlie Tomkins remarked to the group at large and they all laughed in agreement. Arty shook himself out of his daze and turned to see their warrant officer and his dance partner pass by, both of them so stiff it was a wonder they were able to move at all. Most of the couples danced without sophistication, although perhaps with a greater sense of rhythm and more freedom to their movement.

The WO and his girl waltzed out of sight and the men returned to their conversations - except Arty, who scanned the dance floor, looking for the American airman he had been watching for most of the evening. The American was broad-shouldered and handsome, with his well-fitting brown serge tunic and thick blonde hair, his angular features softened by the relaxed, crooked smile he had offered to the young woman he'd been leading in the waltz. He had moved with such elegance that Arty could have watched him dance forever. Alas now he was nowhere in sight, so Arty settled for watching everyone else. He found it a truly moving experience, almost as wonderful as when he was dancing himself.

"Are you getting out there this evening, Art?" Charlie asked.

"Maybe." Arty kept his focus on the dancers. "If I had someone to dance with."

Charlie acknowledged Arty's words with a nod. He scanned the settees, where those women who were not dancing were seated with their friends, waiting for someone to make the offer. Some didn't bother to wait and instead danced with each other, taking turns to lead, but how it usually worked was the man would politely approach the woman - may I have this dance? —and with outstretched arm she would politely accept and allow him to lead her in the next dance.

"Shan't be long," Charlie said. Before Arty had a chance to respond, Charlie was edging his way around the dance floor towards a slender woman in WAAF uniform: a sergeant. Arty watched the two interact, with Charlie wearing his winning smile, which rarely failed to woo the women he dazzled with it. He pointed Arty's way; the WAAF sergeant glanced over and Arty's cheeks warmed. He loved dancing, and he was very accomplished, but when it came to asking he was terribly shy. His friends - Charlie in particular - always insisted on finding a graceful young woman to be the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. Once he was on the dance floor he'd forget about all those eyes on him, and that they were at war, and how unmoved he was by the closeness of the woman in his arms.

After a couple of minutes spent chatting with the WAAF sergeant, Charlie beckoned for Arty to go over; he quickly smoothed his uniform and set off, attempting a confident stride.

"This is Sergeant Jean McDowell," Charlie introduced. Arty offered her a smile and she blinked up at him with big brown eyes, her tiny pink mouth forming a tiny smile. Charlie raised his hands in a flourish to signal that he was handing over, and departed, leaving the two of them to become acquainted.

"I'm Arty. Would you care for this dance?"

Jean nodded swiftly and with a confidence matching the three stripes on her arm, but at odds with her seemingly meek demeanour, she took Arty's hand and led him onto the dance floor. They found a space in the middle of the room and the music did the rest. In an instant all of Arty's fears diminished, his right arm confidently found Jean's waist and, with her right hand in his left, they stepped off together, joining the throng in their swaying, flowing waltz.

At first, they took small, tentative steps, waiting for openings so they could move around, but then other people started to pay attention and moved out of their way. Arty became bolder and spun Jean, whose skirt should have restricted such graceful kicks yet did not. They danced as if they had been dancing together for many years, matching each other's stride, anticipating next steps and never losing time. By then, the floor had cleared, leaving Arty and Jean to do just as they pleased. They pivoted and spun, hesitated and reversed - they had extraordinary grace. Jean was as natural as Arty, her feminine curves complementing his strong, lithe physique.

The waltz came to an end and many of those around them applauded. Arty grinned, glancing down at Jean to find that she was grinning too. After a count of four a quickstep began, and Arty saw, over Jean's shoulder, the American airman, standing with two others, his head cocked to one side to better hear his associate. Arty and Jean danced on, with others now joining them. On each spin where Arty found he was facing that direction, he'd glimpse the American, uncertain if he was imagining the fleeting seconds when their eyes met before other dancers blocked his view.

Following the quickstep, the band leader gave an even quicker count of four, and the three Americans were immediately surrounded by girls, clamouring to be their partners for the jitterbug. Arty and Jean stayed where they were, soon picking up their pace. Arty swung around and pushed Jean away from him, keeping a tight grip on her hand as she spun and sprung back. They slipped and they slid into chassis and spins, for the most part unaware of the rest of the dancers. Aside from a certain American airman, no one else stood a chance of keeping up with them, although by the end of their jive they, like most, were in need of a breather. The music stopped and Jean looked up to Arty, her lips spread in a wide smile, her breaths puffing against his chin and neck.

"I need fresh air," she told him. He tilted his head towards the balcony and Jean nodded in agreement. Some of the other dancers voiced disappointment at their departing stars, who paused to bashfully bow and curtsey before dashing hand-in-hand, up the stairs, along the balcony and out onto the dark terrace, to the far end where there were fewer people. They stopped and leaned on the iron railing, exhilarated and breathless, and for the moment appreciating the cold air on their clammy skin.

"You're quite a dancer," Arty complimented Jean sincerely.

"Thank you for saying so. As are you." It was the first time Arty had properly heard Jean talk and she was very well-spoken, almost aristocratic. "Who taught you, Arty?" she asked.

"To dance? My aunt - my mother's sister, that is."

"You attended a dance school, surely?"

"No. Did you?"

"Yes." Jean traced her fingers along the railing. "Dancing, deportment and elocution. I hated it when I was a gal, though I'm glad now. When the war is over, I'm going to open a dance school. I'm on the lookout for a dance partner so I can enter competitions and make a name for myself." She laughed as she pondered a thought before adding, "I don't think that's quite what my mother has in mind. She wants her only daughter to marry into high society, but I have no interest in finding a husband." She turned to face Arty, although it was too dark for each to make out the other's features. "Have you ever considered dancing in competitions?"

It would have been far less of a surprise had she asked Arty if he were hoping to find a wife, because it seemed a more pertinent consideration. How could one afford the frivolity of dance in wartime?

"I've never given it any thought," he answered, and it was the truth, though he'd considered the other at length, and realised with some misgivings that he too would be expected to marry at some point in time.

"Would you consider it?" Jean asked. "Dancing with me, I mean?"

Arty scratched his ear, delaying his response. "After the war?"

"No. I've just transferred from Gaskell to Minton. I'm taking over the wages office for both bases."

Jean paused meaningfully, but Arty wasn't sure why. He could see her in profile now, against the clear night sky, her breath creating a transient cloud. She shivered, and in his mind he formed the suggestion that they return inside, but that was not what left his mouth. "If you were to find a husband, I imagine he would not take too kindly to you dancing with another man."

"You're right, of course," Jean agreed, "and if you're trying to let me down gently…"

"Well, you are very beautiful, Jean. I just don't think war is a good reason for rushing into marriage, that's all."

Jean laughed, but not to mock. "Arty, this is not a flirtation. You are absolutely right. One should wait for the right person, and if that person never appears, then what of it? I am content the way I am. I'm not looking for a husband, just a man who can dance. So what do you say?"

Arty delayed a few seconds longer and then nodded. "Yes. I would very much like that."

Coming Summer/Autumn, 2015...

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Love is an Open Road
An extension of the Don’t Read in the Closet event from the M/M Romance Group at Goodreads.com – a collection of free M/M short stories, novellas and novels.These stories were written by authors/members of the GoodReads M/M Romance group, for the 2015 Love is an Open Road event. They are based on photographs and prompts provided by members of the same group.


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  1. I'm reading this one right now--and praying it doesn't end me!

    1. I hope it doesn't! It has a very happy ending. :)


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