As Time Goes By
As Time Goes By
As Time Goes By
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
This paperback edition 2007
First published in Great Britain by
Copyright © Annie Groves 2007
Annie Groves asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Ebook Edition © FEBRUARY 2009 ISBN: 9780007283682
For my sternest critic, my mother
– who ‘was there’
Samantha Grey, or Sam as those closest to her called her, put down her kitbag and wrinkled her nose. A school dormitory! Well, she had had worse billets, she admitted ruefully.
She had travelled to Liverpool by train, sharing a compartment with several other young women in uniform, all of whom had been going to different destinations. One of them knew Liverpool quite well, having once been posted there. She had told Sam that her new billet, in the Wavertree district of the city, had been a small private school occupying a large Victorian house, which the War Office had requisitioned because of its proximity to Liverpool’s famous Bluecoat School, which had also been requisitioned. Such requisitioning was a wartime necessity to provide accommodation for the country’s service personnel.
There was no sign of the girls Sam would be sharing her new quarters with, which meant that either they had not yet arrived, or they were already on duty.
Sam hadn’t been at all pleased when she had been told that she was being posted to Liverpool. She had hoped she might get a really exciting posting like some of the girls she had trained with – maybe even overseas – after all, she had won praise from her tutors on both the ATS courses she had completed, a standard one for typewriting and a second and far more enjoyable one for driving. The latter equipped her for one of the ATS’s more exciting jobs, such as being a staff driver to drive visiting ‘important’ personnel. She suspected that if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate set of circumstances that had led to her getting on the wrong side of a certain sense-of-humourless sergeant who hadn’t appreciated her pranks, she probably would have had such a posting. After all, she had passed the driving course with higher marks than anyone in her group.
But then she had had the wretched bad luck not just to injure her thumb, larking about demonstrating her skill at ‘wheel changing’ to the other girls, she had also been caught doing so by the car’s owner. Unfortunately she had not been authorised to do any such ‘wheel changing’, especially not on the duty sergeant’s chap’s precious MG sports car. It had been rotten bad luck that the duty sergeant and her chap had appeared just when Sam had the wheel completely off the car, and even worse bad luck that in the panic that had followed she had caught her thumb in the wheel spokes, and that the injury she had received had become infected. As a result, she had been hospitalised until the infection had cleared up and then sent to work as a clerk/stenographer in the quartermaster’s office at her Aldershot barracks, and denied the opportunity to drive anyone anywhere as punishment for her prank.
A clerk. How her elder brother, Russell, would have laughed at her for that, knowing how much the dullness of such duties would chafe against her exuberant adventure-loving nature. He would, though, have understood her disappointment.
Sam gave a small shake of her cropped golden-blonde hair, a new haircut that had caused her mother such distress.
‘Well, the sergeant said that our hair has to clear our collars,’ she had told her mother in answer to her bewildered, ‘What have you done to your lovely hair?’ ‘And besides, I like it,’ she had added truthfully, giving her mother a mischievous smile. ‘At least this way you won’t have to worry about men in uniform trying to take advantage of me. From the back now, if I’m wearing slacks I look more like a boy than a girl.’
‘Oh, Samantha,’ her mother had protested, but Sam had just laughed. It was true, after all. She had never yearned for soft rounded curves instead of her boyish slenderness. Even as a young girl she had preferred tagging along with Russell and scrambling up trees and damming streams rather than dressing up in frocks and playing with dolls.
Nothing could have appealed more to her tomboyish spirit than playing a really active role in defending her country. If there had to be a war, then she very definitely wanted to be a part of it. Having joined up at nineteen after badgering her parents to give their permission, she had hoped to be doing something exciting. But now here she was, being sent to work as a clerk. Some war she was going to have.
She could feel her eyes beginning to smart, so she blinked fiercely. There was no point in feeling sorry for herself, not even if only a month ago she had been here in Liverpool seeing off some of the girls who had joined up at the same time, on the troop ship that would ultimately take them to Cairo where they would have goodness knew what kind of exciting adventures.
Her orders had been to report first to her billet, for her new posting at Deysbrook Barracks, on Deysbrook Lane, which she had managed to find out, via the ATS grapevine, contained amongst other things a large Royal Engineers vehicle workshop and depot, an army stores depot, and some small regular army units of men posted to home duties.
Since officially she wouldn’t be on duty until the morning, and as there didn’t seem to be anyone around for her to report to, her irrepressible desire for action was rebelling against sitting in an empty dorm waiting for something to happen when she could be outside exploring her new surroundings.
She had no idea which bed was going to be hers, but she knew it must be one of the two that weren’t made up, their biscuit mattresses, as the three hard sections of the bed were called, exposed. That being the case, she might as well take the one closest to the door because it would give her the best chance of reaching the ablutions quickly if she overslept.
Having dropped her kitbag on the bed, she went back the way she had come.
Whilst the dorm might be on the bleak side, the house itself was very handsome, even if the pale green distemper on the walls was flaking and the air smelled of chalk, boiled cabbage and damp mackintoshes, which reminded her of her own schooldays. The stairs she was walking down were quite grand, the banister rail smooth, broad, well polished and intricately carved. Had the house belonged originally to some rich Victorian ship owner or merchant, Sam wondered absently whilst she crossed the empty panelled hall with its black and white tiled floor.
Several doors opened off the hallway, all of them closed. The hallway itself, containing a wooden desk with a chair behind it, plainly intended to be occupied by someone in authority, was empty. Sam wasn’t going to waste time waiting for one of those closed doors to open now that she had made up her mind to go out and explore. Without looking back, she pulled open the front door and stepped outside.
The front garden consisted of dank-looking evergreen trees that screened the house from the road beyond, and a lawn into which were set pieces of limestone to form a tired-looking rockery. Sam didn’t waste time studying the garden in detail though. Perfectly well aware that she ought to have remained by the unmanned desk in the hallway, dutifully waiting for someone to appear to whom she could report, Sam hurried towards the road.
She suspected that at one time the house would have possessed elegant wrought-iron gates, but these would have been sacrificed for the war effort, melted down to provide much-needed metal for the manufacture of guns and tanks. As she stepped out onto the pavement she could see a bus trundling towards her and she ran to meet it, halting in the middle of the road so that the driver had to stop.
‘It’s against the rules for us to stop, miss, you know that. And you shouldn’t have stood out in the road like that. Could have caused a nasty accident, you could.’
‘I’m really sorry, Driver,’ Sam said. ‘Only I’m new here, and I was hoping you might be able to tell me the best way to get into the city.’
‘The city, is it? Well, there’s not much of that left, thanks to Hitler and his ruddy Luftwaffe. Bombed the guts out of it, they have.’
‘Yes, I heard about the terrible pounding Liverpool took in May last year,’ Sam sympathised.
‘Seven full days of it, we had, but they couldn’t bomb the guts out of us, I can tell you that. Missed most of the docks, even if they have flattened whole streets of houses and left families homeless. A bad time for Liverpool, that was. They got the Corn Exchange, Lewis’s store in Great Charlotte Street, and Blackler’s, an’ all. Broke my daughter’s heart, that did. She worked in Blackler’s, you see, and they’d just taken in a consignment of fully fashioned silk stockings that week. Worth ten thousand pounds, they was, and she’d promised herself a pair. I can tell you, she cursed them bombs every time she had to paint gravy browning down the back of her legs instead of having them silk stockings. A five-hundred-pound bomb fell on the William Brown Library. Every ruddy book on the shelves of the Central Library were burned, along wi’ everything in the Music Library. Mind you, it weren’t all bad news. In one way old Hitler did some of us a bit of a favour, since India House got set on fire, and all the Inland Revenue records got burned,’ he added with a big grin, but then his grin disappeared. ‘Seventeen hundred dead, we had, and well over a thousand seriously injured.’
Everything he had told her made Sam more determined to see for herself something of this city that had withstood so much and at such a cost.
As though he read the resolution in her eyes, the driver said abruptly, ‘By rights we shouldn’t be picking anyone up, seeing as we’re on our way back to the depot, but go on then, you might as well hop on. Tell Betty, the conductress, to let you off two stops before the bombed-out church.’
The final notes of the song died away, leaving Sally free to step down from the stage of the Grafton Ballroom. She had been standing in at rehearsal for one of the Waltonettes, the four girls who sang with Charlie Walton and his band. For a good few months now, poor Eileen just couldn’t seem to get rid of the cough that was plaguing her, so Sally was singing more regularly than Eileen. But a stand-in was still all she actually was, as Patti enjoyed making clear to her.
Patti, the most senior of the Waltonettes, had been a bit off with her right from the start. Sally knew that Patti looked down on her because she had been working as a lowly cloakroom assistant when Charlie had overheard her singing to herself and had insisted that she was good enough to fill in for Eileen. Patti had tossed her head and told Sally that the only reason Charlie had taken her on was because he was desperate. So Sally was determined to prove herself and to show Patti that she could sing every bit as well as the rest of them.
She could see Patti pulling a face as she announced sharply, ‘You was out of tune again, Shirley, in “Dover”, and you know how much the lads go mad for it.’ Ere, where do you think you’re off to?’ she demanded as she caught sight of Sally getting ready to leave.
‘I’ve got to go,’ Sally told her, ‘otherwise I’m going to be late for picking up my two boys from me neighbour.’ When Patti went thin-lipped she reminded her firmly, ‘I did tell Charlie when he first asked me to do this that I’d got other obligations. And I’m not a permanent member of the band, after all; I’m only standing in for Eileen.’
‘Go on then. But mek sure you’re here on time tomorrow for the rehearsal for Saturday night,’ Patti warned her.
Nodding, Sally picked up her bag and hurried towards the exit.
Stan Culcheth, the ex-sergeant major who had been invalided out of the army after losing an eye in the action in the desert, and who the owner of the Grafton had taken on to deal with any unwanted rowdiness amongst the large number of service personnel who came to the dance hall every week, gave her a cheery smile as he opened the back door for her.
‘Heard from that husband of yours yet?’ he asked kindly.
Sally shook her head, pulling up the collar of her coat against the evening air. ‘He’s probably gone AWOL with some pretty girl he’s found,’ she joked. But she knew from the look he was giving her that Stan wasn’t deceived. The truth was that she was worried. How could she not be? There hadn’t been a single day not filled with anxiety in the long months since she had received that telegram with the news that Ronnie – her Ronnie, whom she had thought was serving in Africa, but who had in fact been in Singapore with the rest of his unit when the island fell – was now a Japanese prisoner of war.
Unlike the women whose men were German POWs, Sally had not had the comfort of letters from Ronnie, passed on by the Red Cross, who had taken on the task of monitoring the treatment of all POWs and ensuring that it complied with the terms of the Geneva Convention.
‘Aye, well, it’s early days yet,’ Stan offered her comfortingly. ‘It takes time for the Red Cross to sort out who’s who and where they are. Like as not you’ll be hearing from him any day now.’
His voice was too hearty and he couldn’t look her in the eye, and of course Sally knew why. Other women almost shrank from her when they knew that Ronnie was a Japanese POW, not knowing what to say, what kind of commiserations or sympathy to offer to her. There were some horrors that even the most stalwart heart could not reasonably contemplate, unthinkably sickening horrific things that had to be kept locked away and not spoken of. Sally tried not to think about them either; that was one of the reasons why she liked to sing. When she was singing, she could pretend that everything was all right, just like it was in the songs.
‘Oh, I know that. My Ronnie’s not some raw recruit, after all,’ Sally answered the doorman stoutly. ‘He’s seen plenty of action. With the BEF at Nantes, he was, at the time of Dunkirk, and he came through that. Then he got shipped off to Italy, and then the desert supposedly, although seemingly he wasn’t going there at all but to Singapore.’
‘He’d be proud of you if he could see the way you’re coping, lass. When a chap’s bin taken prisoner he needs to know that all’s well at home. Means the world to him, that does. It’s what keeps him going sometimes,’ Stan told her, so obviously wanting to sound optimistic that Sally felt obliged to respond in a similar cheery vein, as she said goodbye to him.
After all, she wasn’t on her own, she reminded herself, as she made her way home. There was hardly a household in the country in which the women were not worrying about their menfolk, and that included her neighbours on Chestnut Close, in Liverpool’s Edge Hill area, as well as the girls she worked with both here at the Grafton and at Littlewoods, where they were making parachutes and barrage balloons for the war effort. It was a matter of everyone at home pulling together to support one another and to give their fighting men the comfort of knowing that those they had left behind were being looked after by their community. A matter of getting on with things as best they could without making a song and dance about it.
But Sally was feeling far from as chirpy as she tried to pretend, and not just because word was creeping back that the Japanese treatment of POWs was so cruel. She also had problems at home. Trying to bring up two exuberant and sometimes mischievous boys wasn’t always easy without their father there. It was not even as though the boys had an uncle around who could have shown them a firm hand when things got a bit unruly. Like the other teatime, when three-year-old Tommy, born the day war was announced, had started a scrap with his younger brother, Harry, which had led to them both yelling blue murder.
And then there was that other matter that kept her awake at night, and that seemed to get worse, no matter how hard she tried to get on top of it. She did some anxious mental arithmetic. She knew there were those who disapproved of the fact that she was singing at the Grafton on her night off from her late shift at Littlewoods. After all, with her children under five, and rationing making sure that everyone in the country got their fair share even though it was barely enough to fill people’s stomachs, she could have stayed at home with her boys, never mind have taken on two jobs. But they didn’t know what she did, and they didn’t have to worry about it either. She needed every penny she could earn and somehow it still wasn’t enough.
Sally thought she was lucky to have her job at the Grafton, especially with Stan Culcheth there. Stan had a heart of gold, and all the girls who worked there knew that they could turn to him if they ever needed help dealing with the sometimes over-keen admiration of the men who flocked to the ballroom to enjoy themselves. Not that keeping the peace amongst these young men was an easy job at the moment, what with more and more American servicemen arriving at the huge Burtonwood American base near Warrington, all determined to enjoy themselves after their journey across the Atlantic and before they were sent off to join units in other parts of the country.
There had already been several scuffles, and on a handful of occasions more serious fights, between British and American servicemen, sparked off by what the Brits saw as the unfair advantages the Yanks had when it came to getting the prettiest girls.
The American Military Police were very quick to step in and restore order amongst their own men, though – Sally had to give them that.
Personally she did not feel any animosity towards the Yanks. After all, they were the allies and here to help win the war.
‘Oh, well, you would be in sympathy wi’ them Yanks, Sally,’ Shirley, one of the Waltonettes, had sniffed deprecatingly when Sally had said as much. ‘What with your Ronnie being a Jap POW and all them Yanks being took prisoner by the Japs as well, wi’ Pearl Harbor and all that.’
When Sally had related this conversation later to her best friend, Molly Brookes, Molly had immediately sympathised and tried to comfort her.
Yes, Molly was a good friend to her, and yet it had been June, her elder sister, whom Sally had palled up with first, when they had been young wives and then young mothers together. But then poor June had been killed during a bombing raid. Molly had gone through her own fair share of heartache, what with one engagement being broken off, and then losing her handsome young Merchant Navy fiancé when his ship had been torpedoed, before June was killed. June and Molly had been particularly close on account of them losing their mother very young, so perhaps it was no wonder that Molly had ended up marrying her sister’s husband, in January, and was now mothering June’s little girl, Lillibet, just as if she were she own, while waiting for the birth of her and Frank’s own baby.
They were already into September and the home front was destined to became harder. At the end of the October the double daylight saving time, introduced so that the country could make the most of the long summer daylight hours, would come to an end and they would be plunged back into the misery of the blackout. Then they would have the winter to live through with only a meagre amout of fuel allowed for fires, and the dreariness of thin soups made from whatever bones and scraps of meat could be had, thickened with whatever winter vegetables were available.
They were fortunate on Chestnut Close, Sally recognised, in that one side of the Close backed on to a row of allotments, maintained in the main by the Close’s residents.
Albert Dearden, Molly’s dad, had always been kind enough to help out Sally with veggies and the like from his own allotment, treating her almost as though she were another daughter, and her two boys his grandsons.
Yes, the residents of Chestnut Close had pulled together right from the start of the war, when they had set to to erect their communal air-raid shelter, Sally acknowledged half an hour after leaving the Grafton, as she got off the bus and crossed Edge Hill Road to turn into the Close. Not that it had always been plain sailing or happy families. There had been a fair few fall-outs since the war had begun in September 1939, none more spectacular perhaps than those between June Dearden, as she had been then, and her widowed future mother-in-law, Doris Brookes.
Poor June, she had never really taken to Doris, nor Doris to her, and yet really you couldn’t have wished to meet two more decent sorts.
It had been Doris, a retired midwife, who had delivered Sally’s own first baby, commandeering Molly to help her when Sally had gone into early labour. Doris had refused to seek shelter for herself, despite the warning wail of the air-raid alarm, which had everyone else rushing for the protection of the newly erected shelter. Instead she had bustled Sally upstairs to her spare room, where she had given birth. On that occasion the air-raid warning had simply been a practice drill, but they had all had plenty of opportunity to make use of the air-raid shelters in the second half of 1940, especially in December, and in the May of 1941, when Liverpool had been well and truly blitzed in a week of nonstop bombing, and poor June had been killed.
Sally was on her way to Doris’s now to pick up her sons. Littlewoods provided nursery facilities for its workers but the number of places was limited, and whilst Sally had been offered a place for Tommy she had not been able to get one for Harry as well. She wasn’t going to have her boys separated, so she had to rely on the kindness of Doris, who luckily worked a day shift at the hospital, and who had offered to have the boys sleeping in her spare room whilst Sally was at work.
What a long day it had been – the factory, the Grafton, now the boys to see to and, always at the back of her mind, worry about Ronnie.
Betty the conductress might have thought she was doing Sam a favour by warning her not to try to walk through the worst of the bombed-out heart of the city, but the truth was that all she had done was increase Sam’s desire to see it. Not that she could see very much now that it was growing dark. A thin drizzle had started to fall, mixing with the fret of mist coming in off the sea and the dusk, so that when she peered down streets flattened to the ground apart from the odd half-destroyed building, the uninhabited emptiness took on an almost ghostly otherworldliness that shifted shape around her. Her footsteps echoed in the mist as she walked down cobbled streets, mentally reckoning the direction she was taking so that she wouldn’t get lost. So long as she kept the sea on her left she knew she must turn right to get back to Lime Street Station, which was the only real reference point she had, but when she decided she had had enough and that she might as well go back, the first street on the right she came to was closed off with sandbags and a sign that read ‘Danger Unexploded Bomb’.
Well, if it was still unexploded then it wasn’t that dangerous, was it, Sam decided, and to judge from the faded paint on the sign, the bomb had been around for a while. The main reason the authorities put up such signs was to deter children from playing where it was dangerous – everyone knew that. Besides, this was the only right-turning street she had come across in ages, and she needed to get back.
Determinedly Sam hopped over the sandbags, ignoring the sign.
This street seemed to have suffered less bomb damage than the street she had just been in, with only one large gap where houses had once been. There was just enough light left for her to see the wallpaper hanging from what must have been the bedroom walls of the boarded-up houses either side of the empty space, rubble from the bombed houses spewing out on the pavement and into the street. She had seen newsreel images of streets like this, which, in the secure environment of Aldershot, were as close as she had got to the reality of bomb damage, and naturally she was curious to take a closer look. The street was deserted, and there was no one to see her wriggling past the second ‘Danger Unexploded Bomb’ warning, to clamber over the mound of broken bricks and wooden beams. She had with her the small torch such as everyone carried around with them because of the blackout, and as soon as she was close enough she felt in her pocket for it, removing it and switching it on.
There below her, and much deeper than she had expected, was the bomb crater, a hole in the ground easily wide enough for a person to fall into.
And be buried alive there? Immediately Sam recoiled, sending some loose pebbles and soil falling noisily into the hole. Thanks to her brother, Russell, and his friends she had an intense and secret dread of being trapped underground, and sometimes still had nightmares about the original cause of that dread. Russell and his friends hadn’t meant any harm, of course, when they had persuaded her to crawl into a tunnel they had been digging, which had then collapsed on top of her. Fortunately a neighbour had realised what had happened and quickly dug her out, but it had left her with a terror of being trapped underground and dying there that she knew she would never ever lose.
‘Hey, you! What the hell do you think you’re doing? Can’t you read?’
The sound of an angry male voice from inside the crater startled her so much that she lost her footing, dropping her torch as she did so, and then realising to her dismay that the debris on which she was standing had started to move, the bricks slipping from under her feet, carrying her down into the crater. Her fear was engulfing her now, a feeling of sickness filling her stomach and her heart thudding.
‘Don’t move. Keep still unless you want to blow us both to kingdom come.’
Did he really think she had any choice in the matter, Sam wondered frantically as she tried to remain calm and to find a secure foothold in the gathering force of the sliding bricks. She must not panic. She must not. But she couldn’t stop herself from sliding closer and closer to the crater’s edge. Then suddenly the breath was jolted out of her body and she was thrown forward and knocked to the ground onto the rubble by the weight of a man hurling himself on top of her, somehow miraculously stopping her slide.
Relief, dismay, shock and a guilty awareness that she had brought what had happened on herself – Sam was experiencing them all.
It was just as well she was wearing her greatcoat otherwise her skin would have been cut to ribbons on the rubble, she decided almost light-headedly, but as she struggled to voice this fact to the man who was now lying on top of her, he shook his head and placed his hand over her mouth.
There was just enough light for her to see how disreputable he looked, even if he was in uniform. He needed a shave, and his dark hair looked in need of a cut, his face was streaked with dirt and the hand he had placed over her mouth smelled of dirt and oil.
He was looking at his watch with a fierce concentration that made Sam wonder if he was some kind of madman. If so, he was soon going to learn that she could look after herself. All she was waiting for was the right opportunity to raise her knee and use it in the way her elder brother had taught her would deter any overeager male. He was leaning intimately into her now, his hand still covering her mouth.
She could feel his breath against her ear, as he mouthed quietly, ‘I hope you know how to run.’
What did that mean? She looked up at him, intending to tell him what she thought of him but the look in his eyes made it clear that his words were not intended as some kind of chat-up line. Army rules and regulations must have been instilled in her more than she had known, she recognised as she nodded obediently.
‘Good,’ said the man in a soft whisper. ‘So when I say move, you get to your feet and you run and you do not stop. There’s a two-thousand-pound unexploded bomb in that crater, and all it could take to set it off is being hit by one of these bricks. Savvy?’
Knowing now not only that he was completely serious, but also the danger they were in, all thoughts of kneeing him in the groin faded as Sam nodded a second time.
‘We’ve got ten more seconds. If we survive those without it going off, then we’ve got two minutes to get clear.’
At three and nearly two years old respectively, Sally’s sons weren’t old enough to be aware of the dark times they were living through, and as usual when Doris let her in and then led the way to her cosy parlour, both Tommy and Harry hurled themselves at her, wrapping their small arms around her knees.
‘Have you two been good boys for Auntie Doris then?’ Sally asked them lovingly as she kneeled down to hug and kiss them.
‘Yeth,’ Harry lisped adorably, whilst Tommy nodded firmly.
‘It really is good of you to have them for me, Doris,’ Sally thanked Molly’s mother-in-law gratefully.
‘I wouldn’t have it any other way. As fond of your pair of young scamps as if they were me own grandchildren, I am,’ Doris Brookes assured Sally affectionately. ‘I’ve given them their tea. Now don’t you go saying anything,’ she warned Sally firmly. ‘I had a bit extra on account of me being on duty at the hospital these last few nights and eating there. I’ve given our Lillibet her tea as well,’ she added, nodding in the direction of Molly’s stepdaughter and niece.
‘I’m sorry I’m a bit later than I said. I managed to call in at the chemist’s, though, and I’ve collected all the kiddies’ orange juice and cod liver oil allowances. Here’s Molly’s.’ Sally handed over the bottles, along with the necessary stamped ration books.
‘Lillibet will really thank you for that,’ Doris laughed. ‘She hates that cod liver oil.’
‘Tommy’s the same,’ Sally agreed. ‘But I tell him he won’t grow up big and strong like his dad if he doesn’t have it.’
‘Well, Dr Ross that’s to replace old Dr Jennings would certainly agree with you there. He was up at the hospital yesterday and I heard him saying how important it was for kiddies to have it.’
‘What’s he like?’ Sally asked. ‘Only he’s going to have his work cut out if he’s to be as well thought of as Dr Jennings.’
‘You’re right there, Sally. A good man, was Dr Jennings. Thought a lot of him, folks round here did. This new doctor’s a lot younger than I expected. A Scot he is, an’ all, and a bit what they call “dour”, you know: doesn’t say much and looks a bit down in the mouth. He’s moving into Dr Jennings’s old house, of course, since he’s taking over the practice, but I don’t know if we’re going to see him looking after us like Dr Jennings did. I remember Dr Jennings telling me once when my Frank was little, and I’d bin crying me eyes out on account of him being poorly and me not being able to afford to have a doctor round, that I wasn’t to worry because he always charged them patients wot were a bit better off a little bit more so that he could do right by them as didn’t have enough to pay him to come out. Ever so good like that, he was. That’s why everyone loved him so much. There’s many a mother round here has a lot to thank him for, and I can’t help wishing that the old doctor had stayed on until after Molly has had her baby.’
‘I remember when Harry was a few months old how he had that terrible chest and I was worried sick. Came out to him straight away, Dr Jennings did, and wouldn’t take a penny,’ Sally agreed, looking lovingly at her two sons.
Like many boys, they were inclined to be a bit too adventurous at times, but they were loving little lads as well as stout-hearted. They were her pride and joy, and woe betide anyone who ever said a word against them. There was nothing she would not do to keep them safe and give them the very best that she could.
‘Don’t you go tempting fate now saying that,’ Doris warned her, breaking off as the back door opened and her daughter-in-law, Molly, called out a cheerful greeting.
‘My, Sally, you look glam,’ she announced.
Sally pulled a small face. ‘I’ve just bin down the Grafton, practising with the Waltonettes.’
‘You’ve got a lovely voice, Sally,’ Doris joined in. ‘If you was to ask me I’d say there’s not many about that can sing as sweet as you can. I was listening to you in church the other Sunday. Fair lifted me heart, it did, to hear you.’
‘Frank’s mam’s right, Sally, you have got a lovely voice,’ Molly reiterated ten minutes later as they walked down the Close together at a pace slow enough to accommodate Molly’s advancing pregnancy. Sally was pushing Harry in the pushchair she had swapped her pram for, and Tommy walking sturdily alongside them, restrained by the reins Sally was keeping a firm hold of. ‘You could be one of them girl singers wi’ them bands that tour the munitions factories and go on the wireless, and no mistake.’
‘No, I couldn’t, Molly, because that’d mean travelling around a bit and I couldn’t leave my two little ’uns. It’s bad enough as it is, but I can’t afford not to work, and I’d have to anyway just as soon as Tommy reaches five, and he’s three now.’ Sally knew she sounded defensive, but she couldn’t even tell Molly, her closest friend, about the shameful secret that woke her up in the night and set her heart pounding with sick dread.
‘Five – that’s another two years away yet, Sally. I hope this war’s over before then.’
‘Don’t we all, but it doesn’t much look like being, does it?’ Sally was relieved the conversation had moved away from the subject of her work. ‘I reckon if it was about to be over then we wouldn’t be having all them Americans pouring into the country, would we?’
‘No, you’re right,’ Molly agreed. ‘My Frank was saying that there’s bin a fair bit of trouble in some of the pubs between the Americans and the British servicemen, fights and that.’
Sally bent her head ostensibly to check on Tommy’s reins but in reality to conceal her expression from her friend. However, as though she had guessed what she was feeling, Molly apologised immediately.
‘Oh, Sally, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Me and my big mouth, going on about my Frank when you still haven’t heard anything from your Ronnie.’
She’d always had a soft heart, had Molly, and always been ready to put others first, Sally knew. ‘It’s all right, Molly. After all, it’s not your Frank’s fault that he’s on home duties whilst my Ronnie got posted overseas.’ Sides, your Frank’s got that bad hand of his and there’s many that would have just sat back and let others get on wi’ doing their duty for them, not like your Frank, who practically begged the barracks to find him some work. Your Frank’s a good man – Ronnie always said so. Do you remember when Frank and Johnny Everton first joined up and they was asking my Ronnie what it was like to be in the army on account of him already being there?’
‘That reminds me,’ Sally went on. ‘I heard the other day that Johnny’s back in Liverpool. Seemingly he’s with the bomb disposal lot.’
When Molly didn’t say anything Sally didn’t pursue the subject. After all, Molly had been engaged to Johnny at one time, even if the engagement hadn’t lasted very long. Then after Dunkirk, when Johnny’s unit had been posted to home duties, Johnny had somehow or other ended up working with one of the army rescue teams at the same time as Molly was with the WVS.
They had reached the gate to the neat small house Sally had been renting since the beginning of the war, and which she now thought of, like the Close itself, as her home far more than she had ever done the noisy terrace in Manchester where she had grown up.
‘We’ll be back to dark evenings come the end of next month when we lose double summer time. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it,’ Molly commented.
‘Me neither,’ Sally agreed. She had more reason than most to dislike the dark nights. You always got some nosy ARP warden asking you who you were and where you were going, just when you didn’t want those kind of questions. ‘Harry will be two the first week in October, and the last time my Ronnie was home was just after Dunkirk. Tommy was only a baby then and Harry not even born.’
When Molly reached out and squeezed her arm sympathetically, Sally shook her head.
‘Don’t pay any attention to me, Molly. I’m just having a bit of a bad day, that’s all. It’s this war. It gets to us all at times, and don’t we know it? I reckon that having a bit of a party for Tommy and Harry, like I said the other week, will cheer us all up. What with Tommy being born the day war broke out I can’t bring meself to have a party for him, somehow, and that don’t seem fair, so I thought I’d mek it up to him by having one for both of them together. Besides, it meks sense to have one party for them both, especially with all this rationing. You could bring your two round and I’ll have the other kiddies from the Close in as well. I’ll ask Daisy Cartwright if she wants to come with her lads, and since Harry isn’t that keen on eating up all his egg allowance every week, I reckon he won’t mind me using a couple of them to make a bit of a cake. I’ve got some sugar put by, and I dare say Edith will let me have some of her homemade jam. Bless ’em, the little ’uns deserve all the fun we can give them.’
Molly agreed. With three years of war behind them, and increasingly stringent rationing giving her children a bit of fun was something that every mother wanted to do.
Despite it being only September, recent heavy rain meant that the house felt chilly and slightly damp, making Sally dread the coming winter, and think longingly of the days when coal had been plentiful and she would have been able to leave a decent fire banked down against their return home on a cold evening.
This winter, like last winter, she would no doubt have to leave both boys wrapped in their outdoor clothes whilst she got the fire lit, and she knew that she would be blessing Albert Dearden, Molly’s father, for his kindness in discreetly tipping into her cellar a good-sized bagful of the coal he would have painstakingly collected whilst he was at work up at the grid iron, as Edge Lane’s large goods yard was known locally. The heavily laden wagons passing through the sidings, taking coal to factories, often spilled a bit of coal and the men working the yard had an unofficial ‘right’ to pick it up for their own use.
When the winter cold really started to bite Molly and Sally took it in turns to have a fire, both families sharing its warmth.
Winter. Sally shivered. No, she didn’t want to start thinking about that yet.
She looked at her sons. Tommy was a real live wire and had been early both to walk and talk. Harry had been crawling until he was nearly eighteen months and then had stood up and walked like he had been doing it for months. He still wasn’t saying much, though, and when he tried Tommy butted in and spoke for him.
‘Come on, you two, let’s get you out of your coats.’
She took Harry’s off first, because she knew that once Tommy had his off he’d be racing around and then she’d have a job trying to keep Harry from wanting to join him.
The coats were good sturdy Harris tweed, real bargains that Doris Brookes had heard about from someone at the hospital, who had heard that when one of the posh Liverpool boys’ private schools had evacuated its pupils it had left behind three trunks filled with only slightly worn second-hand clothes, and they were going to be sold off.
Doris hadn’t wasted any time; she had gone straight down to the school and had come back with two bags bursting with good-quality clothes. That had been early on in the war, and Sally acknowledged that both she and Molly had good reason to be grateful to Frank’s mother for her foresight. Tommy might complain that his long woollen socks made him itch, but what mattered more to Sally was that they had kept his legs warm all through two winters, and that with two pairs of them she was able to dry one out without him having to go without or wear damp socks.
At least Harry was nearly out of nappies now, she thought thankfully as she removed her younger son’s coat, and checked his well-padded behind. It had been a real blessing for her that she had fallen pregnant before war had been declared and that she had had the sense to buy in a really good supply of terrys from that stall on the market that used to sell off factory seconds. That stall, like all the others selling essentials at bargain prices, had long since vanished. Terry nappies were a rationed luxury these days.
Having removed the boys’ outdoor clothes, Sally left her sons playing on the floor, Tommy with a set of tin soldiers Frank had given him, and Harry with the wooden train that Ronnie had bought just after Tommy had been born. Toys, like everything else, were hard to come by and cherished by those fortunate enough to have them. The once bright paintwork of the wooden train had faded and was missing completely in places, but that didn’t seem to interfere with Harry’s enjoyment of it, Sally reflected, listening to him making choo choo noises as she made them their supper. Since Doris had given them their tea, they wouldn’t need much tonight, nor a bath either. Doris was a true good Samaritan and the best neighbour a young mother could have, and Sally just wished there was something she could do to show her appreciation.
‘Seeing these young ’uns grow up is all the thanks I want or need,’ Doris told her whenever Sally tried to thank her. ‘Your two are like my own to me, Sally, especially since I delivered both of them.’
As she stirred the soup she was heating, Sally heard an outraged roar. Harry! She turned round just in time to see Tommy trying to prise out of his fat baby hand the soldier he was clutching determinedly.
‘Let him have it, Tommy. He’s not doing any harm,’ she told her elder son tiredly.
‘It’s mine,’ Tommy glowered, still trying to retrieve it, then releasing his brother when Harry threw the solder inexpertly across the room.
Boys! Molly was so lucky. Lillibet was such a little doll and so good, but then little girls were so much easier, so people said, although Doris said that little boys were more loving. Every time she worried about her own two not having their dad around, Sally reminded herself of what a good job Doris had done bringing up her Frank single-handedly as a young widow. Frank was a lovely man. A good son and an even better husband and father. If Molly wasn’t so nice it would have been easy to envy her, what with her husband at home, and her family around her.
Sally’s own family had urged her to return to Manchester but she had her own reasons for staying where she was, and they weren’t reasons she could explain to them. Or to anyone. Her Ronnie had it bad enough being a POW without having to carry the burden of her betraying him and letting everyone know what was going on.
She stiffened as she heard a determined knock on the door. She knew who that would be! She had told him not to come round here, and he had agreed that he wouldn’t. But it was him, she just knew it.
As a girl Sam had prided herself on being able to outrun her brother, but plainly that was not good enough for this man. Not content with issuing that command, he virtually yanked her to her feet, then grabbed hold of her hand, pulling her along with him as he ran down the street at breakneck speed.
‘Down… down…’ he yelled at her as soon as they rounded the corner into another street, pushing her down to the pavement and then following her, covering her body with his own.
Her heart was pounding – with exertion, not fear, she assured herself firmly. Her companion showed no awareness of the intimacy of his lying on top of her, and was instead studying his watch, whilst Sam held her breath, waiting for the bomb to explode.
‘Looks like the bugger isn’t going to blow after all.’
‘What?’ Sam stared up at him in disbelief. ‘You knew all along that nothing was going to happen, didn’t you?’ she accused him angrily. ‘I suppose you think it’s funny acting like that. Well, for your information I’ve got a good mind to report you,’ she told him wildly.
‘You report me? That’s a good one. You’re the one who ignored the warning signs and damn-near blew us and the whole street to bits. And if anyone is going to report anyone it will be me reporting you! That’s a two-thousand-pound bomb down there,’ he reminded her bluntly.
‘And you would know, of course,’ Sam snapped back smartly.
Instead of responding, he leaned slightly away from her and produced a torch from his pocket, which he shone up at his own shoulder. ‘See that?’
Something unpleasant and uncomfortable was gripping Sam’s stomach as she stared up at the unmistakable Bomb Disposal Unit insignia on his dust-streaked jacket. Numbly she nodded.
‘Know what it means?’
‘Bomb Disposal,’ Sam offered weakly.
‘That’s right, which by my reckoning makes it part of my job to be checking up on UXBs, and I’d just as soon be doing that without some bloody silly girl all but setting the ruddy thing off. Three days I’ve bin checking up on old Kurt there, waiting for the captain to give the order to move in and sort him out, and then you nearly go and blow us both to kingdom come when the ruddy street is closed off as plain as daylight.’
His torch was still on and whilst Sam listened to him with growing hostility she also registered that beneath the dirt he had the kind of raffish dark good looks that would send some members of her sex giddy with excitement. Some members of her sex, but not her. She was totally immune to dangerously handsome men with war-hardened bodies, who looked as though they knew far more about her sex than it was good for a girl to have them know. And besides, she could just bet that he was the kind who went for chocolate-box soft and pretty girls with curves and dimples.
‘So what are you going to do now that the bomb hasn’t gone off?’ she challenged him.
‘There’s only one thing I can do.’ His body moved on hers, and alarm shot through her. He wasn’t actually going to try to make an advance to her was he? Because if he was …
‘Bomb’s got to be defused, and that’s that.’
Sam felt a thrill of genuine horror ice through her. ‘You mean you’re going back to do that?’
When he started to laugh her horror turned to chagrined angry pride, her face burning hotly. She had never liked being made fun of.
‘It’s only commissioned officers that do that – you know, them as wear the posh hats and the egg yolk,’ he mocked her, using the current slang expression to describe the gold braiding on top-ranking officers’ uniforms. ‘Me and the lads only get to mess around in the muck, making sure they can get to the fuses. And that’s what we’ll be doing come daylight.’
He was moving off her now and getting to his feet. Quickly Sam followed suit, sucking in her breath when he suddenly turned his torch on her, exposing her face to his scrutiny. For some reason she felt self-conscious and uncomfortably aware of what to him would be her shortcomings, compared with the kind of girl he no doubt admired, and at the same time angry and resentful because something in the way he was studying her was forcing those thoughts on her. It was a relief when the beam of the torch moved downwards.
‘ATS. I thought you lot normally hunted in packs,’ he said derisively.
Sam was well aware of the low esteem in which some men held girls who had joined up. She had heard all the crude jokes about their supposed lack of morals and their man-chasing, and now her temper was well and truly up.
‘That’s only if we think there’s anything around worth pursuing,’ she returned smartly, ‘which there isn’t right now.’
A bus rumbling past further down the road broke the silence stretching between them. What was she doing standing here trading insults with this stranger? She had been out far longer than she had intended and she still had to find her way back to the billet. The bus was slowing to a stop. Making up her mind, Sam hurried towards it, refusing to give in to the temptation to turn round to see what he was doing and if he was watching her.
‘I’m afraid I’m rather lost and I need to get back to my billet,’ she told the conductress slightly breathlessly, giving her the address.
‘You’ll need the number sixty-seven. Nearest stop is three streets away.’
Sam’s face fell.
‘Look, we’re on our way back to the depot – if you want to stay on board you’ll be able to pick one up there,’ the conductress offered.
Thanking her, Sam subsided into a seat, allowing herself to look down the sandbagged street only once they were almost past it, but there was nothing to be seen, and no one to be seen either.
Sally opened the door just enough to allow her to peer out, her heart sinking as her worse fears were confirmed.
‘About time. I was just beginning to lose me patience.’
The man standing on her front step was small and squat, with powerful shoulders, the look in his eyes as hard as his voice, but Sally refused to let herself be intimidated.
‘You’ve got no business coming here. I made arrangements with Mr Wade—’
‘I don’t care what arrangements you made with the old man. Things have changed now, and in future I’ll be calling round every week on the dot to collect what’s due, and let me warn you, missus, there’s new management in charge now and they don’t intend to put up with any soft-soaping or sob stories, so if you’ll tek my advice you’ll have your money ready and waiting when I call round for it, otherwise it will be the worse for you.’
Sally felt sick with a mixture of anger, helplessness and dismay. ‘How do I know that you’re from Mr Wade?’ she challenged him. ‘We’ve all heard about bogus debt collectors setting themselves up and claiming to be working for moneylenders when they’re doing no such thing. Mr Wade never said anything to me about there being any changes.’
‘Aye, well, mebbe he didn’t know there was going to be any hisself.’
‘What do you mean?’ Sally asked sharply.
‘There’s some as thought the old man was losing his grip and that folk weren’t paying up when they should, so there’s bin some changes made. If you don’t believe me that’s up to you but I ain’t leaving here wi’out your payment.’
Sally hesitated. She had half been expecting something like this when she had called round at the anonymous terraced house the moneylender rented to pay her week’s money and had found it locked and empty. All manner of rumours abounded about the network of moneylenders, who traditionally had supplied small loans at extortionate rates to the city’s poor, being forced to hand over their businesses to those who ran the gangs of the black market spivs. One of the most notorious of all of these gangs was run by ‘the Boss’, Bertha Harris, and her five sons. It was said that the Harris family thought nothing of administering beatings and breaking limbs when debts went unpaid.
Whilst she worried about what to do, suddenly from upstairs her maternal ear caught the sound of baby Harry waking up.
‘Wait here,’ she told the man, flushing when he put his foot inside the door before she could close it, wrapping his huge meaty hand round the door edge.
By the time she reached the back parlour her hands were trembling so much she could hardly count out the money from her purse. Not that she needed to count it. After all, she knew to the penny just how many extra hours she had to work every week to pay for the pitifully small sum of money Ronnie had originally borrowed when they had first got married.
She had known nothing about this loan until before the end of Ronnie’s last leave. He had been on edge and distant with her, alternating between moody silences and outbursts of angry temper the whole time. Then when she had begged him to tell her what was wrong it had all come pouring out. Tears had filled his eyes as he had admitted how he had borrowed money from a moneylender just before their wedding, primarily to pay off some betting debts he had run up. He had, he said, got in with a crowd of other young soldiers who all wanted to have a good time. The moneylender had persuaded him to borrow a bit extra to help out with the wedding expenses, and to pay for the honeymoon. Everything had been all right at first, he had told her, until he had increased the loan when Tommy had been born, and now he had fallen behind with the payments and Mr Wade’s debt collectors were pressing him to make good the deficit.
It gave Sally a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach just thinking about that afternoon even now. At first she had been disbelieving. Ronnie was a serving soldier, earning as much as any other man, and she certainly wasn’t an extravagant housewife – far from it; she budgeted carefully and was proud of herself for doing so. Now Ronnie had revealed to her a side of his life she had never dreamed existed: betting, borrowing money and getting into debt. These weren’t things that belonged to the kind of life she had believed they had had; the decent respectable safe kind of life that had made her feel so secure and which had deepened her love for Ronnie for being the good provider she had believed he was. Then suddenly she had felt as though a trap door had opened beneath her feet, plunging her into a frightening place. As the reality of what Ronnie was saying to her had sunk in, her shock had given way to anger against him for being so irresponsible. That in turn had given way to compassionate pity when she had seen how sorry and ashamed he was. They were a married couple sharing the good and the bad times together, she had told him firmly as she held him as tightly and protectively as though he were their young son’s age. Somehow they would find a way to pay off the money that was owing.
That had been when she had first started working at the Grafton.
But somehow the loan just never seemed to get repaid, and then Ronnie had admitted to her that he had got involved with a betting syndicate during his leave and that he had had to increase their loan to cover his share of its losses. They had had a horrible verbal fight, which had ended up with Ronnie clinging to her and begging her to forgive him whilst promising that it wouldn’t happen again. What could she do? He was a soldier about to be sent on overseas duties – how could she let him go without giving him the comfort of her love and her trust, no matter what her inner fears? And so she had hugged him back and held him tightly and told him that he mustn’t worry. She had even managed to laugh and say lightly that what with the extra work the Government wanted women to take on for the war effort, she would have the debt repaid by the time he was next home on leave. He had been so grateful for her understanding and so lovingly tender and filled with regret that she had told herself that she had done the right thing. But then when he had gone she had discovered that the amount he had borrowed was far more than he had told her, and she had been filled with angry despair and even resentment.
She had never imagined when she had first met him that Ronnie would turn out to be a betting man. He had seemed far too respectable and decent. She had thought they were the kind of young couple who could keep their heads held up high, and she had even felt sorry for the poor of the city who lived down by the docks, living constantly with the shame of having to borrow against tomorrow to pay for today, opening her purse freely to slip a few pennies to the children she saw begging.
Now the pride she had originally felt in Ronnie and their marriage had given way to fear – and that fear had more than one face. Initially her fear had been because she had discovered that Ronnie wasn’t the sensible worldly-wise husband and provider she had believed him to be; the rock she and their children could depend on. But then later had come the fear of the shame she would suffer if their debt became public knowledge, and most of all, fear of how they were going to repay the money and what would happen if they fell behind with their repayments.
When Ronnie had broken down and admitted to her that not only had he foolishly borrowed from a moneylender once but that he had also gone back to him and borrowed again, Sally had struggled to understand how the strong capable Ronnie she loved and depended on so much could have turned into this man who was weak and vulnerable and afraid, and who was admitting to her that he didn’t know what to do.
One of the things Sally had loved so much about Ronnie was his dependability. As a child she had grown up in a chaotic family environment with her father often out of work, but well paid when he was in work, and so life had seemed filled with the giddy highs of her mother’s excitement when they had money and the frightening lows of her despair when they didn’t. Sally had yearned for a life in which those highs and lows were exchanged for the calm of a decent steady man with a nice steady job, and part of the reason she had fallen in love with Ronnie was because he had seemed to embody those virtues. To discover that he had done something that even her own parents had steadfastly refused to do, and gone to a moneylender, had left her feeling as though her whole world had been turned upside down. Only the very poorest of the poor, or the feckless and weak, went to moneylenders, and certainly not people who lived on Chestnut Close.
Sally had known real shame along with her shock and her fear. But she was a young woman with a lot of common sense and courage, and so she had gone to see the moneylender from whom Ronnie had borrowed the money, and they had come to an arrangement whereby she would call on him weekly with their payments instead of him sending round a ‘tallyman’ to collect it from the house. That way at least she had hoped to keep up a front of respectability.
It had made her feel physically sick to see written down the amount they now owed, so very much more than she had thought. She had told Mr Wade proudly that she wanted to increase their repayments so that they could reduce the money owing faster, swallowing back her longing to beg him not to lend Ronnie any more. She could not go behind her husband’s back in such a way, and humiliate him.
She admitted now, as she hurried back to the door and handed over the money to the waiting man, that maybe she should have gone back to see Mr Wade and asked him to let her reduce the payments once she realised what a struggle she was going to have meeting the increased amount she had volunteered to pay, but she was desperate to get the loan cleared as quickly as she could, and she had her pride just like everyone else.
It seemed to take for ever for the man to count slowly through the amount she had handed him before he finally gave a grunt of satisfaction and stashed it in his pocket.
He was about to turn away when Sally reminded him firmly, ‘Mr Wade always writes the amount down and signs it.’
‘Mebbe he did, but that’s not the way the new owners do business.’
He had gone before Sally could object, melting into the darkness, leaving her feeling relieved that none of her neighbours had seen him but at the same time highly anxious. This wasn’t like worrying about rationing or being bombed; it wasn’t an anxiety she could share with anyone else and find comfort in the fact that they were in things together.
It was far later than Sam had planned when the bus finally set her down at the stop closest to her billet. The earlier sea mist had now become a steady downpour, the rain trickling down inside the upturned collar of her greatcoat. Quickly she hurried towards the entrance to the school, dismayed to find that the door now seemed to be locked. Now what was she to do? To her relief, before she had to decide the door was suddenly opened from the inside, allowing her to step inside and quickly close the door behind her to observe the blackout rules about not allowing any light to escape into the night darkness and so potentially provide a target for German bombers.
In the dim light from the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling she could see that the chair behind the desk was now occupied by a very stern-looking warrant officer.
‘Private Grey reporting for duty, ma’am,’ Sam offered hurriedly, suddenly very conscious of the rubble and brick dust on her greatcoat.
‘Strange,’ the warrant office marvelled nastily. She was well into her thirties, Sam guessed, with an unusually broad, somehow flattened face and slightly bulbous protruding eyes, ‘only we seem to have someone of that name here already, at least according to her kitbag. Got a double, have we, Private?’
‘I … no … that is … There wasn’t anyone here to report to when I arrived, ma’am,’ Sam told her desperately, ‘and so I thought I’d just get some fresh air and familiarise myself with the city …’
One thin grey eyebrow rose as the warrant officer looked Sam up and down. ‘Acquainting yourself with the city, was it? It looks to me more like you’ve been acquainting yourself with something very different indeed, Private.’ She pushed back her chair and stood up. ‘Let me explain something to you, Private. Here in this billet and this unit we do not waltz in and dump our kitbags and then waltz out again like we was out of uniform.’
Sam had come across a wide variety of authority figures since she had joined the ATS but never one like this. Instinctively she knew that the woman confronting her now was someone who relished the power her authority gave her. She wouldn’t hesitate to bully and terrorise those under her, Sam guessed, and she also deduced that the warrant officer had already made up her mind that Sam was someone she didn’t very much like.
Well, that was fine, Sam decided, determinedly ignoring the sickly little feeling in her stomach that said she was upset by the hostility she could sense. She could feel herself starting to shake a bit inside and she was longing for the calming effect of a cigarette.
‘Sorry, ma’am,’ she apologised dutifully, fixing her gaze on a point to the left of the warrant officer’s shoulder rather than risk engaging in eye contact with her. ‘It won’t happen again.’
Sam could almost sense the warrant officer’s disappointment that she wasn’t going to give her the opportunity to tear another strip off her. Sam was surprised herself. It wasn’t like her to allow herself to be intimated, or to pass up an opportunity to have a bit of fun by coming up with some far-fetched explanation for what she had done.
‘No it won’t,’ the warrant officer agreed meaningfully, ‘because—’
The sudden opening of a door behind the desk and the appearance of a tall, slim, grey-haired woman wearing a captain’s uniform had the warrant officer along with Sam springing to attention and saluting.
Whatever the warrant officer had been about to say remained unsaid as the captain looked at Sam with surprisingly kind hazel eyes and said calmly, ‘Ah, our wanderer has returned has she, Warrant Officer?’ The hazel gaze skimmed Sam from head to foot and then paused thoughtfully on her face.
‘Took a wrong turning in the blackout, ma’am, and fell over some sandbags,’ Sam offered by way of explanation of her appearance.
The captain nodded, then told Sam calmly, ‘Warrant Officer Sands will no doubt have informed you of the routine here. First thing after breakfast, transport arrives to take you all to your designated areas of work. You have been assigned to Deysbrook Barracks.’
No supper! And she was very hungry, Sam realised, but of course she didn’t say anything.
She stood stiffly at attention until the captain said briskly, ‘Dismissed.’
At least she had escaped whatever punishment the warrant officer had no doubt been planning for her, Sam acknowledged, recovering some of her normal insouciance as she made her way to the dormitory where she had left her kitbag.
Not wanting to disturb the other girls, she tried to be as quiet as possible but the discovery that the shape she could feel on the bed closest to the door wasn’t her kitbag but the sleeping body of another girl caused both her and the girl in the bed to yelp in protest, and within seconds torches were being switched on all over the dormitory as the noise woke the other girls.
‘Sorry, sorry …’ Sam apologised ruefully, ‘only I left my kitbag here …’
‘The Toad moved it,’ a girl in a bed halfway down the room informed her sleepily.
‘She means Warrant Officer Sands,’ another girl explained unnecessarily, since Sam had quick-wittedly recognised how appropriate the warrant officer’s nickname was. ‘Lord,’ the girl continued, ‘when she found your kitbag there without any sign of you, she swelled up so much with fury we thought she was going to burst.’
‘Pity she didn’t,’ someone else announced fervently. ‘Gave me jankers for a whole week, she did, just because I hadn’t got me cap on straight. Me poor hands were red raw with all that scrubbing and potato peeling in freezing cold water. You want to watch out for her: if she takes a dislike to you you’ll know all about it and no mistake.’
‘Go on with you, May. Give her a chance to get herself settled in before you start scaring her half to death about old Toad face,’ the girl whose bed was next to Sam’s spoke up firmly, before warning Sam, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do, but if I was you I’d get myself into bed before Toadie comes up here checking up on you. She’s got a real mean streak to her and there’s nothing she likes better than an excuse to come down heavy on one of us. I’m Corporal Hazel Gibson, by the way.’
‘Sam Grey,’ Sam reciprocated. ‘And thanks for the warning, Hazel, I mean, Corp.’ She stifled a sudden yawn. It had been a long day, and she was more than ready for her bed.
‘Mind you, at least Toadie’s a real live human being, not like that ghost wot’s supposed to go walking all over the place at night,’ the girl the corporal had addressed as May announced with ghoulish relish.
‘A ghost?’ a nervously quavering little voice from the bed closest to the door protested shakily.
‘Yes. Comes looking for the girl wot got him killed on account of her taking up with someone else and her new lover murdering him,’ May told them. ‘At least that’s what I’ve bin told.’
‘Go on with you, May. You don’t half talk a load of rubbish,’ the corporal squashed the almost palpable air of nervous tension creeping through the room, leaving Sam free to follow the corporal’s advice and make haste to get herself into the only spare bed.
Her new dorm mates seemed a decent crowd, she reflected, especially Hazel Gibson, unlike the warrant officer, and that bossy Bomb Disposal chap. She certainly didn’t want to run into him again.
‘I’m sorry that the warrant officer gave me your bed.’
Sam smiled at the other new girl to join the group, as they emerged from the showers at the same time. She didn’t look old enough to have joined up, Sam thought, with her huge hazel eyes and her patent shyness. Sam hadn’t missed the nearly bald teddy bear hastily stuffed out of sight before she had got out of bed.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Sam assured her with a smile.
The other girl looked relieved. ‘I’m Mouse,’ she introduced herself. ‘At least that’s what everyone calls me although I was christened Marianne. I didn’t think that they’d be sending me to work in a barracks, I really didn’t. I mean, I only joined up because I had to. I didn’t want to at all really. It was my aunt’s idea … She said that with me being on my own … I thought I’d be staying close to home, and doing a bit of office work.’
Sam could see that she was close to tears. Mouse’s naïvety, combined with her air of helplessness made Sam wonder how on earth she had managed to survive the ATS long enough to get through the training weeks. The Government must indeed be desperate for young women to fill the mundane jobs left empty by the men who had been sent on active service.
‘Well, that’s where you went wrong,’ she told her wryly. ‘You should have told them you wanted to drive trucks and be posted as far away from home as possible and then you’d have probably ended up being a stenographer.’
‘Drive trucks?’ Mouse shuddered. ‘Oh, no … I couldn’t possibly do anything like that.’
She was as green as grass and apparently completely devoid of a sense of humour, Sam reflected pityingly. The kind of girl who should have been allowed to stay at home with her mother.
‘Come on, you two, buck up,’ Hazel, who Sam thought would be much more her cup of tea with her jolly no-nonsense manner, called out, warning, as she fastened her own uniform blouse and tucked it into her shirt, ‘You’re not dressed yet and if you don’t get a move on you’ll miss breakfast.’
Miss breakfast. Sam’s stomach gave a worried growl. She was just about to hurry over to her own bed, when she realised that somehow or other Mouse had already managed to get into the disgusting pink foundation garments that were part of their official uniform whilst in the shower and that she was now trying to keep the towel wrapped protectively around herself as she continued to get dressed.
Shaking her head over such time-consuming and unnecessary primness, Sam reached her bed and grabbed her own clothes.
‘You’ll never get away with wearing that,’ Hazel warned her when she saw the non-uniform white brassiere Sam was fastening. ‘Not if Toadie sees it. She likes the thought of us being trussed up in our passionkillers, doesn’t she, girls?’
The chorus of assents that greeted Hazel’s comment made Sam laugh. With her slim almost boyish figure, the last thing she needed was the one-size-fits-all proportions of the regulation underwear and corsetry supplied to the ATS. In addition to two uniforms, and four pairs of lisle stockings, everyone was also issued with three pairs of khaki lock-knit knickers, two pairs of blue and white striped pyjamas, eight starched collars and two studs, and the bane of Sam’s life, three pink brassieres and two pink boned corsets. The corsets Sam was determined never to wear, but the bras had to be worn for the sake of decency, if nothing else, and she had been very grateful when her mother had managed to find a local tailoress who had enough experience of the corset industry to be able to alter the firmly structured cone-shaped cups designed to control to military standard any potentially overexuberant female breasts, to something more appropriate for Sam’s much less voluptuous shape. She still felt trussed up and uncomfortable, though. They chafed her skin as well as her desire for freedom, and she would wear her own non-regulation underclothes as long as she could get away with it.
‘It was such a pity that my corsets got lost in the laundry at my last posting,’ she grinned, her eyes dancing with devilment as she told them mock innocently, ‘I was ever so upset about it, but what can you do? They’d just disappeared.’
‘Come on,’ the sturdily built girl keeping watch by the door hissed down the dorm. ‘Toadie’s on her way up.’
All around her Sam could see girls moving like lightning, fastening ties, doing up blouses, reaching for shoes and jackets, and at the same time straightening up their beds, the girls who were already dressed quickly leaving their own made-up beds to deal with those of the girls who weren’t, so that by the time the warrant officer had reached the doorway, every young woman in the room was fully dressed, and every bed was neatly made.
Sam could have sworn that her glance lingered longer on her than it did on anyone else as they filed past her and headed for the stairs, but she refused to give in to the temptation to look directly at her in order to check.
‘Thanks for making up my bed,’ she told the pretty fair-haired girl whose bed was next to her own, as she caught up with her on the stairs, five minutes later when they had been dismissed.
‘We all help one another out in this unit,’ came the smiling response. ‘I dare say you’ll be repaying the favour.’
‘Yeah, by keeping a window open so that you can get back in when you haven’t got a late-night pass, Lynsey,’ Hazel commented, overhearing their conversation. ‘Lynsey here has a raft of men queuing up to take her out and she believes in doing her bit for our boys, don’t you, Lynsey?’ she teased.
Sam held her breath, half expecting the blonde girl to take offence, but instead she laughed and winked at Sam. ‘I certainly do.’
‘You want to get her to show you her collection of engagement rings, Sam,’ Hazel grinned. ‘How many was it at the last count, Lynsey?’
‘Eight. It would have been nine, but Pat, that Canadian I was seeing, changed his mind and said that he thought we should just be unofficially engaged. Huh, as if I hadn’t worked out what his game was. You could see as plain as anything the white mark on his finger where he’d taken off his wedding ring. The cheek of it, thinking that I wouldn’t guess what he was up to.’ She gave a disapproving sniff. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a married man pretending that he isn’t. You’ll get a lot of that here in Liverpool, Sam,’ she warned. ‘There’s troop ships arriving every week filled with men who haven’t seen a girl in months. Have you got a steady?’
Sam gave a brief shake of her head. Her lack of a young man had recently become a bit of a sore subject, mainly because her elder brother had given her a bit of a lecture on his last leave, warning her that she should start behaving in a more feminine manner and that she frightened off his friends with her tomboy ways. She had shrugged off his criticism, affecting not to care when the following evening, at the dance he had taken her to, she had been left to sit on her own whilst other girls – girls with curls and soft curves and giggling voices – were surrounded by uniformed young men eager to dance with them. That night, lying in bed unable to sleep, she had been forced to recognise that her youthful daydreams in which she had outshot and outdared Robin Hood, outrode and outrobbed Dick Turpin, to win their admiration and the friendship – daydreams that as she had matured had grown into an unacknowledged belief that one day she would fall in love with a real-life hero whose heart she would win with her prowess and her ability to compete with him – were never going to be recognised and that heroes did not fall in love with girls who matched them skill for skill but instead preferred girls dressed in pretty clothes who stood on the sidelines, watching them admiringly.
Sam had told herself that she didn’t care, and she wasn’t going to change, not even though Rory Blake, the ringleader of her brother’s gang, whom she had secretly admired for years, hadn’t once asked her to dance, and had laughed at her short hair.
Why should she care? She had more important things to do and think about. There was a war to be fought and won, and that surely was far more exciting than having a steady, she assured herself as the welcome smells of breakfast filled the air of the large panelled room they were all filing into.
Sally sighed but gave in when she felt Tommy’s eager tug on her arm the minute they drew level with the large furniture van parked outside old Dr Jennings’s house. The back of the van was open and, as they watched, two men lifted out a heavy mahogany sideboard and started to carry it towards the house. If furniture was being moved in instead of out – and very good quality furniture too, by the look to it – then that surely meant that the new doctor was moving in as well.
Virtually anything with four wheels enthralled Sally’s sons, and Harry, restrained in his pushchair, yelled out excitedly, ‘Big car.’
‘No, it’s not a big car, it’s a van, Harry,’ Tommy corrected his brother sternly.
Sally hid a small smile.
‘Come on now,’ she urged her elder son, not wanting anyone who might be in the house to think she was being nosy.
The removal men were carrying a packing case out of the van, and as they crossed the pavement a photograph frame fell out of it, the glass shattering as it lay face up on the pavement.
‘No, Tommy, be careful.’ Sally hurried over to him with the pushchair, warning, ‘You’ll cut yourself.’ Beneath the shattered glass she could see the photograph quite clearly: a pretty fair-haired young woman smiled towards the camera, a chubby blond baby on her knee whilst her free arm drew an equally fair-haired little boy closer to her. Sally had a similarly posed photograph of herself with her own sons, although the young woman in the photograph was wearing far more expensive clothes than she could ever have afforded, she acknowledged ruefully.
She was so engrossed in the photograph that she didn’t see the grim-faced man watching her from the bay window of the house until his shadow darkened the photograph.
‘Daddy,’ Harry announced proudly with a beaming smile for the stranger, oblivious to his glower, as he showed off his newly learned words.
‘That’s not Daddy, it’s a man,’ Tommy corrected him scornfully.
In an attempt to hide her embarrassment, Sally shushed her sons, gasping in protest as Tommy ignored her earlier warning to bend down to pick up the photograph.
‘No. Leave it. Don’t touch it!’
If the Scots accent was unfamiliar, the harsh anger in the male voice was easily recognisable, causing Tommy to draw back his hand too quickly and then whimper as a piece of broken glass pierced his skin.
‘Can’t you control your children?’ he demanded tightly as he bent down to retrieve the broken photograph.
So this was the new doctor Molly’s mother-in-law had told her about. Sally eyed him warily. There was a white line of fury round his mouth; his whole body was rigid with it, Sally saw. He obviously had a nasty temper on him, she thought critically. After all it was only a photograph.
Gathering her now sobbing son into her arms, she retaliated protectively, ‘If you hadn’t scared him half to death by shouting at him like that he wouldn’t have touched it. He’s only a little boy. He didn’t mean any harm. You should know what they’re like. After all, it looks like you’ve got two of your own.’ She looked meaningfully at the photograph.
The expression of bitterness and loathing he gave both her and the boys shocked Sally as much as though he had physically struck her. He was a doctor, a father, and yet he was looking at her and her boys as though he hated them.
It took one of the removal men’s brisk, ‘Where do you want this, guv?’ to break the tension that that sprung up between them, allowing Sally to turn on her heel and hurry away.
What a dreadful man he was, not fit to step into the old doctor’s shoes at all, and the way he had looked at the two poor innocent boys … like he hated them, Sally thought indignantly, relieved to see that Tommy’s cut had stopped bleeding. And just because little Tommy had touched his precious photograph. She knew his sort, the sort who looked down on her sort. Well, he could look down on her all he liked but she was not having him frighten her little boy like that, she decided, her maternal ire aroused.
She had almost reached the end of the street and some compulsion she couldn’t resist made her turn to look back the way she had come, her heart jolting against her ribs when she saw that he was still standing there motionless, watching them.
‘S’pose he thinks we aren’t good enough to touch his precious kids, not even in a ruddy photograph,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Stuck up, that’s what he is, and no mistake. All that posh furniture, and them kids dressed up like little Lord Fauntleroys!’ She had been able to tell just from that one brief glimpse at the photograph and the contents of the van that that been on view that Dr Jennings’s replacement could provide his wife and children with a far better standard of living than that that his patients were able to enjoy.
‘Sorry, Patti,’ Sally apologised breathlessly as she hurried onto the stage. ‘My Tommy cut his finger, and then …’ She stopped when Patti raised her eyebrows and tutted sharply, ‘Yes, we can all see that, there’s blood all over your sleeve.’
Sally sighed. None of the other Waltonettes had children so how could she expect them to understand? She sensed that Charlie was beginning to think that he would have preferred to take on a stand-in singer without children had he had the choice. She was lucky to have this well-paid source of extra income, she reminded herself, even if the money wasn’t regular, and she certainly couldn’t afford to lose it by offending Patti, no matter how much she resented the other girl’s high-handed and unsympathetic attitude.
‘Come on, let’s get on with it,’ Sybil demanded impatiently. ‘My new chap’s taking me out later.’
‘If by your new chap you mean that fella wot was buying you drinks the other night, Syl, I’ve got news for you,’ Shirley chipped in. ‘He lives two streets away from me and he’s got a wife who’ll be down here telling you wot’s wot if you don’t watch out.’
‘He never said owt to me about any wife,’ Sybil bridled.
‘No, well, they never do, do they?’ Shirley countered drily, ‘but you’ve bin told now. Three kiddies, he’s got, and another on the way.’
‘His wife’s welcome to him,’ Sybil announced after she had digested this news. ‘I didn’t think much to him anyway, so he’s no loss to me.’ Sides, I’ve heard that there’s some more of them Yanks due to arrive soon. Handsome lads, they are, and free spending too.’
‘Come on, you two, stop wasting time and let’s get practising.’
Patti might be the lead singer but she was older and not as pretty as either Shirley or Sybil, and Sybil had told Sally when Patti’s back had been turned that she reckoned that Patti was jealous of them.
‘It’s me and Shirl that the chaps come to see, not ’er, and she knows it. Past it, she is, but she won’t admit it, allus banging on about how she could have been singing with the BBC lot but for her feeling she owed it to Charlie to stick with him.’
‘She’s got a good voice.’ Sally had felt bound to defend the older girl.
‘Not as good as yours, it isn’t,’ Sybil had surprised her by saying. ‘Not that that will do you any favours in her eyes. You want to watch out, Sally, otherwise, she’ll be getting jealous of you and then she’ll be tricking you to make it look like you’re out of key. Done that a few times to Eileen, she did, until Eileen got wise to her.’
‘Ready, girls? We’ll start off with “Sunshine” and then go into “Apple Tree”, OK?’
‘I don’t know why we’re singing about ruddy sunshine when all we’ve had for days is rain,’ Shirley grumbled under her breath, but Sally could already feel the weight of her problems slipping from her shoulders for a few precious minutes in the joy of singing, her spirits lifted by the music. Singing was her special precious something that enriched her senses, although she would have died of embarrassment if she had ever had to explain to anyone just how she felt about it.
‘Thank heavens that’s over with,’ Sybil grimaced. ‘Patti was in that sour a mood she could have curdled milk. Where you off now then, Sally? Back to them kids of yours?’
Sally shook her head. ‘I’m doing a night shift at the factory. I had to swap a shift with someone else to get time off to rehearse.’
Sybil wrinkled her nose. ‘I dunno know why you do that factory work. I mean, it’s not as though you have to, wi’ you having them kiddies.’
Sally didn’t say anything. What could she say, after all?
‘And you, Grey, you’re to report to the quartermaster’s office. They’re short of a couple of clerk stenographers down there.’
Sam’s heart sank. Of all the bad luck. Working in the quartermaster’s office had to be the most boring job in the barracks. The last thing she’d joined up for was to spend the war typing out lists of supplies; typing of any kind was bad enough, but this …
Miserably Sam fell into line with the other girls, her attention momentarily distracted by the roar of a motorcycle as a dispatch rider swept past them, the wheels of his motorcycle sending up a spray of water from the puddles. A dispatch rider – now there was a job that would have appealed to her, Sam thought enviously. She could ride a motorbike, after all, having ‘borrowed’ Russell’s – without his knowledge. She wouldn’t even have minded being sent to work with one of the ack-ack gun teams, not that girls were actually allowed to fire the guns. Anything would have been better than Supplies, and the typing of tedious lists. Sam longed for the excitement of tracking enemy targets, breaking enemy codes, doing something that made her feel that she had a real part to play in winning the war.
‘I’m glad that we’re going to be working together, aren’t you?’
Mouse’s timid comment made Sam’s heart sink even further. She had nothing against the other girl, it was just that she simply wasn’t her sort.
Deysbrook Barracks had originally been a Territorial Army hall and store, which, like so many others, had been extended to cope with the extra demands of the war. The quartermaster’s office was housed in a new concrete building, beyond which lay a vast area of what looked like Nissen huts, stores and storage bays serviced by its own delivery yard. The arrangement of the buildings had created a wind tunnel effect that filled the yard with cold salt sea air, accompanied by a droning buffeting noise from the wind itself, and Sam was not surprised to see Mouse shiver miserably and huddle deeper into her greatcoat.
‘This can’t be the right place,’ she protested, when Sam pushed open the door labelled ‘Quartermaster’s Office’. The rough concrete floor was so cold that Sam could feel its chill right through the soles of her shoes. The air smelled slightly damp and rank, and the single bulb dangling from a cable and swinging in the draught from the door did nothing to enhance the surroundings.
On a notice board were pinned a raft of MOD leaflets and warnings, but no one was sitting behind the battered desk, and Sam, peering into the dimly lit hinterland of shelving behind the desk, was unable to see anyone.
She was just wondering what they should do when a tall fair-haired man, wearing the insignia of the Royal Engineers, and his sergeant’s stripes, appeared out of the murky shadows behind the desk.
‘Privates Grey and Hatton reporting for stenographer duties for the quartermaster’s office, Sarge,’ Sam told him smartly. ‘But we can’t seem to find anyone to report to.’
‘The quartermaster’s been called away. He should be back soon.’ The sergeant had an unexpectedly kind face, and an injured hand, Sam noticed, which probably explained why he wasn’t on active service.
The outer door to the office opened and the young Royal Engineer who came in announced anxiously, ‘Sarge, them sleepers you wanted have arrived and they’re unloading them in the yard, but Corp Watson says you’d better get over there fast, before some other ruddy unit nicks them.’
It was a good five minutes after the sergeant had gone before the door opened again, this time to admit a short red-faced captain with greying ginger hair. He gave both girls hostile glares before stamping over to the desk.
‘Privates Grey and Hatton reporting for duty to Captain Elland—’ Sam began.
‘I know what you are. What I don’t know is why the ruddy hell I’ve been lumbered with you. ATS, women in uniform and taking on men’s jobs. No good will come of it.’
Sam longed to defend her sex and her uniform, but for once caution won out over pride and she managed to swallow back the hot words she itched to speak. There were some men – older men in the main, like this one, but not always – who refused to accept that women had a vitally important role to play in the war. No one could be in the ATS for very long without hearing at least one of the crude insults that were bandied about as to the purpose of the women’s uniformed service.
‘Done any stores work before, have you?’ The captain shot the question out at them.
‘We were told we’d be working as stenographers, sir,’ Sam informed him.
‘Stenographers! What in the name of God is the War Office doing sending me stenographers? This is a barracks, not ruddy Whitehall. I’ve got two battalions to keep equipped, never mind the rest of them the War Office has seen fit to land us with. A stenographer is as much use to me as a pea shooter is to a Spitfire pilot.’
Sam could hear Mouse’s audible indrawn sob, but she was made of sterner stuff and automatically she stiffened her spine and straightened her back.
‘Come with me.’ Captain Elland threw the order at them, turned on his heel without waiting to see if they were following him and marched into the sour-aired gloom behind the desk at such a pace that they were almost in danger of losing sight of him.
Down between rows of rough shelving stacked with clothing and equipment he led them, finally coming to a halt outside an open doorway behind which lay a space more the size of a cupboard than an actual room. In it was a single desk with a chair either side, a typewriting machine and a telephone. The desk itself was stacked high with piles of paper. One single bulb illuminated the windowless and almost airless room On the wall opposite the door Sam could see what looked like a plan of the stores, individual buildings listed by number and the separate rows of shelving within those buildings listed by letter.
‘Right,’ said the captain, indicating one of the thick piles of pieces of paper. ‘These here are the sheets that come in whenever we get a delivery. No driver leaves my yard until his delivery has been checked off, and if I find you letting them go before you’ve done that you’ll be on a report so fast your feet won’t touch the ground. Once it’s checked off, the stuff has to be taken to its appropriate storage area, and then once it’s there, it gets checked again, and only then do you put the list in this pile here,’ he indicated another pile of papers, ‘so that one of my lads can check you’ve got it right. Then you make a copy of it and you put one copy at the end of the shelving the goods are on, you put another copy in the file marked Shelving Number whatever, and you give my sergeant a copy so that he can give it to me, and heaven help you if I find out that all these lists don’t tally up when I do my checks. Anyone coming into the stores for anything, no matter what it is, has to sign for what gets taken and you have to put a mark on the lists to show what’s gone. Savvy?’
Savvy? Of course she did! Sam gave him a seething look of indignation as he turned away from them, her face burning a dark angry red when she heard him mutter insultingly, as he walked away, ‘ATS. Bloody officers’ groundsheets, that’s what they are!’
Sally knew that a lot of the girls didn’t like working the night shift, but she didn’t mind. For one thing it meant that she could have time during the day to be with her boys, and for another it meant that she could bargain for extra nights off when she needed them to sing with the Waltonettes, by offering to do other girls’ night shifts.
The changeover of shifts meant that there was the usual hectic busyness outside the factory, with those women arriving for work pouring off buses that were then filled up by those waiting to leave.
‘War work, I’m sick of it,’ one of the women on Sally’s shift grumbled as they changed into their overalls and got ready. Sally, like most of the women with longer hair, covered hers with a turban to keep it safely out of the way of the machinery.
‘It could be worse,’ Sally to her cheerfully. ‘We could be working on munitions.’
‘Aye, and if we was we’d be earning a fair bit more, an’ all.’
‘Oh, give over moaning, our Janet, will yer? You was saying only the other day as how you felt sorry for them as worked on munitions and that you’d never do it no matter what you was paid on account of the danger and ending up with yellow skin.’
‘Oh, that’s typical of you, Zena Harrison,’ Janet sniffed. ‘If you wasn’t me cousin I’d have a few sharp words for you, that I would, allus picking a person up on everything they say.’
‘’Ere, you lot, you’ll never guess what I just heard when I was coming past the medical room.’
‘Well, I’m telling you, Wanda, if it was some gossip about some daft lass going crying to the nurse of account of her having been doing what she shouldn’t with some chap …’ Zena started to warn, but the other woman shook her head and laughed.
‘No, it’s nowt like that. They had some new girls in there waiting to have their medicals and I heard this one saying as how she was scared she wouldn’t be able to give a urine sample like you have to, and blow me if the woman next to her in the queue doesn’t pipe up loud and clear, “Don’t worry about that, lass. You can have some of mine, ’cos I can piss for England.”’
Sally could just imagine the reaction of that stuck-up new doctor to their conversation. His wife wouldn’t have to work in anything so common as munitions; if she did war work it would be something refined and ladylike like being in charge of a group of WVS women. Just thinking about the way he had looked at her and the boys was like peeling a scab off an unhealed wound, her emotional reaction immediate and sharply painful.
The others were still laughing. The girl who had told them the story shook her head and asked them all, ‘Anyone going down the Grafton tomorrow night, only I fancy a bit of a night out?’
The other two girls shook their heads whilst Sally didn’t say anything about the fact that she would be singing. She didn’t want them to think she was trying to show off or that she was getting above herself. Not that she kept her singing a secret, she just didn’t want to be accused of boasting about it. But the thought banished her anger about the ill-tempered doctor. An evening spent singing with the Waltonettes was something to look forward to.
Their work over for the day, the ATS girls crowded onto the bus that would take them back to the school.
‘So how did it go then?’ Hazel turned round in her seat to ask Sam and Mouse.
Immediately Mouse’s eyes filled with tears and she shook her head, unable to speak, leaving Sam to explain tiredly, ‘We thought we were going to be doing office work, Corp, but this Captain Elland who we’ve got to report to had us walking miles up and down the shelves, checking off what was on them against a list he gave us. He wouldn’t even let Mouse go to the lavatory until her break-time. Then this afternoon he had us unpacking boxes of Durex to make sure that none were missing.’ Sam’s expression betrayed her feelings.
‘Oh, one of those, is he?’ Hazel commented knowingly. ‘You do get them – the type that doesn’t approve of women in uniform, so they have to try to show us up. That kind, is he?’
‘That’s him to a T,’ Sam confirmed. ‘Luckily there was this decent sort there as well, a sergeant with the Royal Engineers.’
‘A decent sort, was he? I see, and good-looking as well, I’ll bet,’ Lynsey teased her archly.
But as their transport stopped outside their billet for the girls to get off, Sam wasn’t in the mood for banter. The captain had infuriated her and bullied poor Mouse all day, sharpening Sam’s temper to a fine edge because army rules meant that it was impossible for a mere private to ignore the commands of a captain, no matter how badly that captain was behaving.
‘He was just a decent sort, that’s all,’ she repeated tiredly as they walked towards the billet. ‘He told us that the captain was almost as bad with the men and that they all took bets on how difficult he’d make it for them to get stuff out of the stores. He said that the captain couldn’t stand women in uniform, and that he’d been brought out of retirement to fill in, on account of the chap that was there before being knocked down by a delivery lorry and ending up with a broken leg and arm. Pity they didn’t leave him retired, if you ask me, what with him getting Mouse here so worked up that she was in tears all day, and him keeping on about the ATS being only good for one thing. I don’t know how I kept myself from telling him what I thought of him.’
‘Yes,’ Mouse sniffed as they crossed the hallway and made their way to their dormitory, prior to having their supper. ‘And he told Sam that she’d better watch her step otherwise he’d put her on a charge. I never thought it was going to be like this in the ATS.’ Fresh tears filled her eyes, causing Sam to stifle a small sigh, and battle with her reluctant sense of responsibility towards the other girl.
‘Well, I know what will cheer you up,’ Lynsey announced robustly, as soon as they were all in the dormitory with the door closed. ‘We’re all off duty tomorrow night, I’ve checked, so why don’t we go down to the Grafton and have a bit of fun, seeing as it’s a Saturday? It will do us all good, especially you two, and you as well, Corp, what with that chap of yours being down in Dartmouth on that course.’
‘What’s the Grafton?’ Sam asked.
‘It’s only Liverpool’s best dance hall, that’s what,’ Lynsey informed her enthusiastically. ‘We’ll have to go early, mind, otherwise we won’t get in. All the services boys go there, don’t they, Corp?’ she appealed to Hazel.
A dance hall! Sam’s heart sank. As skilled as she was at sports, and as fleet of foot as she had been at racing her brother, somehow she had never managed to get to grips properly with dancing.
‘It’s because you want to lead like a man,’ Russell had laughed at her. ‘Girls don’t do that, Sam.’
She would have preferred it if Lynsey had suggested going to the pictures rather than going out dancing, and she was just about to say as much when Mouse burst out, horrified, ‘A dance hall! Oh, I couldn’t possibly go to one of those. The minister of our church warned me about them when I joined up.’
Behind Mouse’s stiffly outraged back Hazel pulled a rueful face at Sam and muttered under her breath, ‘Poor bloody kid, she’s so scared of living she might as well be dead. It’s a crying shame, and we’ll have to do something about it.’
‘There’s no harm in having a bit of fun,’ Lynsey was telling Mouse determinedly. ‘Not if you ask me, and not when you remember that there’s a war on and wot that Hitler is going to do to us if he has his way.’
Her comment caught Sam like a blow. No matter how much they tried to put it out of their minds, or hide it behind a cheerful mask of banter and determination, for the whole country the fear they shared was never really very far away.
‘Lynsey’s right, there’s nothing wrong in going to a dance, Mouse,’ Hazel smiled.
‘In fact,’ Lynsey added, ‘I reckon that it’s our duty to think about those poor boys of ours, fighting to save this country and risking their lives for us. It wouldn’t be right to deny them the opportunity to have a bit of fun in their off-duty time, and it certainly wouldn’t be Christian,’ she told Mouse mock piously, adding, ‘Anyway, me and others are going, and Sam’s coming along too, aren’t you, Sam?’
Sam was now caught out fair and square. And there was certainly no way she wanted to be lumped with Mouse and the pair of them turned into a couple of killjoy miseries, avoided by the other girls.
‘Yes, of course I am,’ she agreed, forcing a hearty enthusiasm she couldn’t feel. ‘And you’re coming as well, Mouse. You don’t have to dance,’ she told her, shrewdly devising a way out of her own fear of making a complete fool of herself on the dance floor. ‘Not if you don’t want to, but you can’t stay here on your own.’
‘No … I wouldn’t want to do that,’ Mouse agreed ‘Do you think there really is a ghost here, like May said last night?’
Sam laughed. ‘Of course there isn’t.’
‘Well, that’s not what I’ve heard,’ May defended her story stoutly. ‘Like I said, I’ve bin told they was thinking of closing it down as a school on account of the number of girls wot had been taken bad after seeing it and having to be sent home.’
‘And the moon’s made of green cheese. I’ll bet they were making it up just so they could get out of lessons,’ Hazel scoffed, adding, ‘I’m going down for my supper. Fair starved, I am. I heard one of the other girls saying that it was toad-in-the-hole tonight, and that’s one of the few things that Cook serves up that’s halfway decent.’
‘So come on, Sam, and tell us all about this sergeant you’ve taken a shine to then,’ Lynsey demanded.
They were sitting together at the supper table, and Sam’s could feel her face burning with self-consciousness.
‘Don’t talk such rot. Sergeant Brookes is—’
‘Oh ho, so it’s Sergeant Brookes, is it? Bet that’s not what you call him when you’re on your own with him, is it, girls?’ Lynsey teased Sam, winking across the table at the other girls.
Sam knew that it was silly to feel so self-conscious and defensive about her good-natured teasing but she couldn’t help it. Whilst there had been kindness in the tall fair-haired Royal Engineer’s eyes and voice, there had been none of the male appreciation she had seen men exhibiting towards girls they found attractive – nothing improper in any way, in fact. The truth was that she just wasn’t the sort that got those kinds of looks from men, and she was sensitively aware of that fact even if the girls ribbing her weren’t.
‘You’ll have to drop a hint to him that you’ll be at the Grafton on Saturday,’ Lynsey told her knowledgeably. ‘If he’s got anything about him he’ll be there looking out for you. Nothing like a slow smoochy dance to help you to get to know someone.’
‘Not eating that, are you, Mouse?’ May asked cheerfully, eyeing Mouse’s barely touched food. ‘’Cos if you aren’t you can pass your plate over here.’
Sam frowned as she saw the relief in Mouse’s expression as she handed over her supper. She had noticed that Mouse had only had a few bites out of the sandwiches they’d been given for their midday meal, and now she wasn’t eating her supper.
‘You’ve got to eat something,’ she told her, ‘especially if Captain Elland is going to keep us working the way he did today.’
Just the mention of the captain’s name was enough to have Mouse trembling and blinking back tears, and Sam cursed herself inwardly. She had never come across anyone like Mouse before and her pity for her warred with her own far more robust temperament.
Later in the evening, when the girls were enjoying an hour’s relaxation in their shared common room, Hazel confirmed Sam’s own opinion of Mouse by commenting to her quietly, ‘That poor kid, she should never have been allowed to join up. Pity that no one’s seen that and sent her home. She’s far too nervy to be in uniform. We’ll need to keep an eye on her.’
‘I thought she was going to break down in tears and run off when Captain Elland refused to let her go to the lavatory,’ Sam confided. ‘Mind you, it was a rotten thing to do to the poor kid.’
‘It sounds to me as though you’re going to have to watch out with him, Sam,’ Hazel warned her, looking serious. ‘You do get that sort sometimes, worse luck, and sadistic bastards they are too. Toadie’s another of the same breed. Wants bringing down a peg or two, she does. Pity we can’t give her a dose of her own medicine, not that I should be saying so. I think we’d better talk about something else.’ She looked pointedly at her corporal’s stripes and then took a deep breath and told Sam lightly, ‘I hope you’ve brought a decent dance frock with you. I dare say I should warn you that there’s a strong bit of competition between the services here in Liverpool to see whose girls can look the best. All the more so because we’ve got a fair contingent of Wrens based here, working at Derby House.’ A small shadow sobered her expression. ‘They are the Senior Service, of course, and don’t they know it. Their uniforms make ours look very poor, especially their stockings.’ She gave Sam a rueful smile. ‘Of course, we should be thinking about far higher-minded things than stockings. There is a war on, after all, but sometimes … If you are keen on this sergeant I’d advise you to keep him away from them.’
‘I’m not keen on him, not at all,’ Sam denied quickly, ‘and as for the dance,’ she gave a small shrug and tried not to look as uncomfortable as she felt, ‘to be honest I’m not really one for frocks.’
‘So what are you going to wear?’ Hazel asked her bluntly. ‘A siren suit?’
Sam forced herself to laugh, knowing that was the response Hazel was expecting, but the truth was that she would have felt far more comfortable in a siren suit, as people had nicknamed the all-in-one padded suits people wore at night to keep them warm in the air-raid shelters, than she ever could in a pretty dance frock.
She could remember the disappointment creasing her mother’s face when she had refused to wear the pretty dresses she had made for her, especially when she was older and of an age to go to dances. She hadn’t been able to explain to her how awkward and ugly they made her feel, like a fish out of water, as she struggled with the restrictions they forced on her.
‘I’ll probably wear my uniform,’ she told Hazel carelessly.
‘You can’t do that. Not with the Wrens there showing off theirs,’ Hazel told her firmly. ‘Look, if you haven’t brought a frock with you then I’ve got a spare and we’re much the same size. I don’t mind lending it to you.’
‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly …’ Sam protested.
‘Don’t be silly, of course you can,’ Hazel contradicted her. ‘And that’s an order, Private,’ she added with a grin.
Sam tried to look enthusiastic and grateful, knowing there was nothing else she could do, but knowing too that a pretty dress was all too likely to do more to underline her lack of femininity rather than enhance it.
It had been a long day, and after a cheerful game of cards she was more than ready for her bed. Mouse, who had been sitting in a corner knitting, had already gone up to the dormitory and when Sam got there she found her lying on her bed fully dressed, sobbing her heart out, surrounded by some of the other girls.
‘It’s her teddy,’ Hazel whispered to Sam, with a small grimace, pulling her away from the bed whilst one of the other girls comforted Mouse. ‘Toadie, the beast, came in and saw it and took it off her. The poor kid’s beside herself.’
Whilst Sam might feel that Mouse was too old to need a teddy bear, she was still outraged by the warrant officer’s behaviour.
‘She had no right to do that. It’s Mouse’s private property.’
Hazel gave a tired shrug, ‘You’ll soon learn that when it comes to what’s right, Toadie makes up her own rules. She really is a beast. Fancy picking on poor little Mouse.’
‘What will she have done with the teddy?’ Sam asked her, thinking quickly. If the warrant officer was not officially entitled to remove it then she was certainly prepared to mount a daring raid to get it back! It was just the kind of challenge she most enjoyed.
‘She’ll probably have taken it down to that office of hers she likes to lurk in, by the front door, waiting to catch one of us out like she did you last night,’ Hazel informed her.
Sam mentally pictured the spot. So far she had seen only the door to the broom cupboard-like space, standing open.
‘Does she lock it when she isn’t there, do you know?’ she asked.
Hazel gave her a searching look. ‘You’re not really planning to do what I think you’re planning to do, are you, because if you are …?’
Sam tried to look innocent but she couldn’t keep the mischief from sparkling in her eyes. ‘I’ve no idea what you could possibly mean, Corp,’ she stated unconvincingly.
‘Sam, I know you mean well, but Toadie isn’t someone you’d want to get on the wrong side of,’ Hazel warned her. ‘There was a girl here before you she had a real down on, and she really broke her.’
‘Well, she won’t break me,’ Sam assured her.
What Hazel had just said had strengthened her determination to get Mouse’s teddy back rather than weakened it.
‘She guards that cubbyhole of hers like it was the War Office itself,’ Hazel said, ‘and I have heard that she’s got a couple of girls from another group so much under her thumb that they keep her informed of everything that goes on. Probably bullied them into it, of course, and I’m thankful that they aren’t here in my dorm.’
‘Well, they won’t be able to inform her about anything I’m doing because I don’t plan to do anything,’ Sam told her.
Hazel sighed. ‘I wish I could believe that. You do know, don’t you, that it’s my duty as your corporal to warn you not to go getting yourself into trouble?’
‘I won’t do that,’ Sam assured her, but she was already making her plans. It shouldn’t be so very difficult to sneak into the warrant officer’s cubbyhole and retrieve the bear. After all, it was no more than a grown-up version of the games she had played with Russell, when they would take it in turns to outdo one another by surreptitiously ‘removing’ items from each other’s bedroom. She had ended up with a much larger collection of his Dinky toys than he had of her precious treasure-trove of interesting stones and fossils. All she needed to do was to find out when the warrant officer was most likely to be away from her cubbyhole for long enough for her to get Mouse’s teddy back.
A thoughtful look darkened her eyes. The warrant officer was heavily built and Sam had seen for herself how much she enjoyed her food. If she could somehow manage to slip away during breakfast … She ran a few options quickly through her head, discarding most of them and then happily settling on the one she thought would work best. It would mean her sacrificing her own breakfast, but it would be worth it to put one over on the warrant officer, and of course to get poor Mouse’s bear back for her.
It had been a long night, and in twelve hours’ time she would be singing at the Grafton, Sally reminded herself tiredly, as she let herself into the house, bustling her two sons, just up from their beds at Doris Brookes’s, inside in front of her whilst she yawned into the early morning air. There was a small folded slightly grubby piece of paper on the hall floor. She stared at it tiredly for several seconds before finally bending to pick it up. It would probably just be a note from one of her neighbours about the birthday party she was planning, but her hands trembled as she opened it. After all, no neighbour was going to waste precious paper writing a note when they could just as easily call in, or leave a message with Doris.
The note was brief, the writing an untidy scrawl: ‘Got a message for yer from the Boss. Be in tomorrow dinner.’
Sally could feel the clammy sickness gripping her insides. She felt icy cold with fear and yet at the same time her face was burning with heat.
‘Cor, Mum, our Harry needs his nappy changing,’ Tommy protested, wrinkling up his nose, forcing her to try to conquer the fear that reading the note had brought her so that she could concentrate on her sons. They must never ever know this fear that terrified her. They must not grow up in the shadow of their father’s debts. She had to be strong for them, she had to protect them from that. She pushed the note into her pocket and forced her lips into a painful smile.
Her boys, her sons – she loved them so much. And their father – did she still love him too? Sally buried her face in the warmth of her baby son’s neck as she tried to bury she guilt she was feeling. What sort of daft question was that? How could she not love him? Ronnie was her husband, they were married, and he was a POW held captive by the Japs.
Sam exhaled slowly, pausing to check behind her before straightening up from the agonised position she had assumed in the dining room, gripping her stomach and doubling over as though in pain whilst complaining that her stomach felt too bad for her to eat any breakfast.
‘Got yer monthlies, have yer, love?’ one of the women serving up the food had asked her sympathetically, unwittingly aiding her deceit. ‘A nice cup of tea and a lie-down with a hot-water bottle is what you want.’
When Sam had made her exit from the room under the grim unblinking stare of the warrant officer, she had told herself that her lack of sympathy would make her own victory in retrieving Mouse’s bear all the sweeter. Poor Mouse. She looked so miserable, her face all blotchy from her tears. The other recruits had all seen the way she had visibly flinched when they had walked in past the warrant officer.
Toadie had a good appetite, and since she wouldn’t sit down to eat until she had made sure all the girls were up and in the dining room, Sam reckoned she had plenty of time to achieve her mission and get back to the dorm without being found out – providing there was no one around by the front door to see her.
That was the part of her plan that had kept her awake last night. With no chance of doing a recce beforehand, she would have to trust to her own memory and the breakfast routine of the billet.
Toadie was bound to want to be downstairs ready to pounce on them as they left on the buses for work, which meant that she probably had a maximum of twenty minutes in which to get the bear – providing the cubbyhole wasn’t locked.
As she had hoped, the hallway was deserted, the front doors closed. Sam found that she was holding her breath. The cubbyhole door was closed. And locked? There was only one way she was going to find out.
Quickly looking over her shoulder to check that there was no one around, Sam slipped behind the reception desk and headed for the door. If the captain was in her office and heard or saw her, she would have to come up with a pretty good excuse for being here. Her mouth had gone dry. Her heart was pounding with the kind of reckless excitement she could remember from her childhood forays into Russell’s often booby-trapped room. Hopefully Toadie would not have rigged up a bag of flour to empty itself on her head if she tried to open the door, as Russell might have done. A small bubble of laughter formed in her throat. The warrant officer waste precious flour – of course she wouldn’t. But she could inflict far more serious reprisals on her than Russell, Sam reminded herself, if she should be caught.
But she wasn’t going to be caught. She reached for the door handle, turning it carefully and exhaling in relief when the door opened.
At least once she was inside she could close the door so that she couldn’t be seen. And be caught red-handed if she had got her estimates wrong and Toadie appeared.
The small room smelled of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. Sam wrinkled her nose in distaste. The shelves lining the walls were unexpectedly untidy, jammed with papers and books as well as various items that looked as though, like Mouse’s bear, they had been confiscated. The bear! Where was it? It should be easy enough to find. Sam scanned the shelves intently, frowning when she couldn’t see it. It must be here. It had to be. She looked at her watch. Fifteen minute since she had left the dining room – which meant she had only five minutes left at most.
She looked down at the small desk pushed back against the shelves and then stiffened as she saw the telltale pieces of golden fur on the floor besides a wastepaper bin. Sam picked up the bin. Pieces of fur fabric and kapok filled the bottom of it. She could see one beady brown eye staring up at her. To her own astonishment she could feel her own eyes starting to sting with tears. She reached down into the bin, her hand shaking slightly as she gently turned the eye into the fabric. Poor, poor bear and poor, poor Mouse. She must never know about this. Hazel had been right to say that the warrant officer was sadistic. She must have known what destroying her bear would do to Mouse.
Shakily she put down the bin and opened the door. The hallway was still empty. She stepped out of the room, closing the door.
She was halfway across the hall when a girl she didn’t know appeared at the top of the stairs.
As she headed for them herself Sam said as nonchalantly as she could, ‘I thought I’d try and get some fresh air but the front door doesn’t seem to be open.’
‘No, it won’t be yet,’ the other girl replied ‘The warrant officer should be on her way down to open it, though, if you want to wait …’
Waiting for the warrant officer was the last thing Sam wanted to do but the other girl seemed to be standing in her way. Deliberately?
Sam raised her hand to her mouth and made a small choking sound, keeping her head down as she whispered, ‘I’m sorry … please excuse me. I need the bathroom,’ and dived past her. Her nausea wasn’t faked either. She was still in shock from seeing that poor bear.
‘Toadie’s bin looking for you,’ May warned her, coming out of the dorm as Sam headed in. ‘Corp told her that you was in the lavvy throwing up.’ Sam opened the dormitory door. Hazel’s crisply businesslike, ‘Feeling any better, Grey?’ warned Sam of the warrant officer’s presence before she saw her standing in the shadows.
‘Sorry about that, Corp,’ she apologised. ‘It must have been something I ate. I’ll feel better once I’ve had a bit of fresh air,’ she added, remembering the girl on the stairs.
‘Private Hatton isn’t very well either. In fact she’s seeing the MO now,’ Hazel informed her in a neutral voice. ‘I dare say it must have been something you ate when you were working together yesterday.’
‘Yes,’ Sam agreed quickly. ‘I did think that sandwich we bought in the Naafi smelled a bit off.’
‘Has anyone seen the warrant officer, only the captain’s asking for her?’ a breathless voice called out urgently from outside the dormitory, causing Sam and Hazel to exchange looks of relief.
‘What is wrong with Mouse?’ Sam asked Hazel as soon as she was sure the warrant officer was out of earshot.
‘I don’t know. Toadie tried to force her to eat her breakfast. She was goading her, asking her if she didn’t want to eat because Teddy wasn’t there. Mouse was white as a sheet. She tried to force down a couple of mouthfuls, but then she passed out in a dead faint. If you ask me the MO is going to send her home, and to be honest it would probably be for the best.’
‘If he does, she’ll have to go without her bear,’ Sam told her, colouring up when she saw the look Hazel was giving her.
‘I’m your corporal, don’t forget,’ she warned Sam firmly. ‘And—’
‘Toadie’s cut it up – the bear.’ Sam was unable to hold back the words. They rushed out, filled with her own disbelief and disgust. Fresh tears burned the backs of her eyes. ‘How could she do something so rotten? She must know …’
She could feel Hazel’s fingers fastening round her arm as she gave her a small firm shake, and told her quietly, ‘I know you’re upset but it doesn’t do to show it. Better to get a grip.’ She waited a few seconds whilst Sam struggled to bring her emotions under control and then said approvingly, ‘Good show. Now come on, we’d better get on that bus before Toadie comes back up.’
‘What about Mouse?’ Sam protested. ‘Shouldn’t we wait in case—’
‘We can’t do anything for her right now. Let’s hope that the MO has pronounced her unfit to serve, because if he hasn’t, Toadie is going to make her life hell. It was the captain who called the MO when she saw Mouse faint. Toadie won’t like that and she’ll make Mouse pay for it.’
‘Where’s your mate today?’
Sam had been so busy checking off the items on the shelves that she hadn’t seen the nice fair-haired sergeant, and the sound of his voice made her colour up self-consciously. Not that she was imagining anything silly, like hoping he might have deliberately sought her out. She wasn’t that daft, was she? No, of course she wasn’t, she reassured herself. He was just being pleasant, that was all, and she had better not go making a fool of herself thinking any different, nor let on to anyone else that she was actually thinking of how she wouldn’t have minded one little bit if he had been.
‘She isn’t very well,’ she told him. ‘She isn’t really cut out for war work, at least not in the services. There was a bit of an upset last night.’
He looked and sounded so sympathetic that she was tempted to confide in him, but just in time she reminded herself of their respective professional roles. ‘I’m sorry. You don’t want to hear about any of this,’ she apologised. He probably thought she was as soppy as Mouse.
‘It isn’t easy settling down into service life,’ he told her with a kind smile that made her think all over again how really nice he was. ‘And it’s easy for those of us who have already done it to forget how grateful we ought to be to you girls for what you’re doing.’
His praise made Sam glow with pride and pleasure.
‘I’d like to do more,’ she told him enthusiastically. ‘The girls I trained with are on their way to Egypt now. When I joined up I expected to be doing something exciting and worthwhile, and instead I’m stuck here doing a dull boring job with dull boring people.’ She gave a small sigh and then flushed as she realised what she had said. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean you, it’s just that …’
To her relief he was laughing. ‘I know what you meant and it must seem hard to have missed out on going with your pals, but the work we’re doing here is every bit as important as all the exciting stuff.’
‘It’s true,’ he insisted. ‘The chap who flies the plane that bombs the enemy is a hero but he couldn’t do it if someone somewhere hadn’t made sure that he had everything he needed for his mission, could he?’
‘I suppose not,’ Sam agreed grudgingly.
‘You see, the way I see it is that we’re all part of a team, working together to beat Hitler, and a good team is only as strong as its weakest link.’
What he was saying made sense and it also lifted her spirits – or was he the reason they had lifted rather than what he had said, Sam wondered a bit giddily, as somehow without intending to she took a couple of steps towards him.
‘Sorry to butt in but if one of you …’
Sam had been so totally wrapped up in their conversation that she hadn’t realised that they weren’t on their own any more. She started to turn away and then froze as the other man stepped into the light and she was able to see him properly.
Even without the uniform she would have recognised him. Those dangerously handsome features of his were printed on her memory for all time.
‘Johnny!’ she could hear the sergeant exclaiming in a pleased voice. ‘Private Grey, let me introduce you to Sergeant Everton, and I warn you, you’re going to need to keep your guard up against him,’ giving her an almost paternally protective look, which caused her face to burn.
Sam could well imagine the derision there would be in those dark eyes at the thought of her being in any danger from him. Sergeant Brookes, of course, was far too kind and nice to think that a girl like her was simply not the sort to attract a man like Sergeant Everton – ‘Johnny’, as he had called the other man.
‘If you don’t,’ Sergeant Brookes was continuing with a grin, ‘he’ll have these shelves stripped of whatever he and his team need without leaving you any paperwork to show for it. Johnny, let me introduce you to our new recruit—’
‘Private Grey and I have already met,’ he informed the sergeant in a coldly hostile voice.
Sergeant Brookes looked at Sam and then back at his friend, one eyebrow arching in mute enquiry.
‘I lost my way and accidentally walked up a street with a UXB in it,’ Sam told him unsteadily.
Was Sergeant Everton going to give her away and say that it had not been an accident? Before she could find out, a transport truck, pulled into the yard. Sergeant Brookes apologised to them both. ‘I’ve got to go, but remember, Sam, don’t let this chap sweet-talk you.’
Silently Sam watched Sergeant Brookes stride away, wishing that the other man had gone with him.
‘You know that he’s a married man, and that his wife’s having a baby, don’t you, Sam?’
The sharp words made her face sting. ‘No, I didn’t,’ she answered without turning round. How dreadful she felt now about thinking earlier that she wouldn’t have minded if Sergeant Brookes had shown an interest in her. She stood up straight and announced firmly, ‘Because there’s no reason why I should know.’
‘Oh, yeah? That wasn’t the impression I got when I walked in here.’
‘We were just talking, that’s all,’ Sam defended herself.
‘Frank may have been just talking, but you were looking at him like a moonstruck kid.’
For a few seconds she was too shocked to respond. Was that really how she had been behaving, like a silly girl on the verge of starting a crush? That wasn’t how she wanted to think of herself at all and it certainly wasn’t how she wanted others to think of her. She felt mortified. But she was determined to defend herself, despite her humiliation.
‘That’s not true,’ she denied ‘And you have no right—’
‘Mind you, Molly won’t need to worry about any competition,’ he cut her off forthrightly. ‘Frank’d be a fool to risk losing her. Sam. Huh! What kind of a name is that for a girl, anyway?’
‘The kind I happen to like,’ Sam told him fiercely. She could see Captain Elland marching towards the hangar, in that stiff-kneed way he had, bristling with the irritation and impatience poor Mouse dreaded so much. If anyone had told her yesterday that she’d ever feel glad to see him she would have called them a liar, but then yesterday she hadn’t realised that she was going to be brought slap-bang up against this man again.
‘What’s going on in here?’ the captain demanded sharply. ‘You’re supposed to be checking off goods, not lolling around talking to the men. Bloody women in uniform … waste of time …’
To be accused of flirtatious behaviour with two different men in the space of ten minutes would be enough to make any girl feel like defending herself, Sam thought as she struggled to suppress the hot words burning her tongue.
Sam looked unenthusiastically at her lunchtime sandwiches. Tomato with a thin scraping of something that was supposed to be butter.
So Sergeant Brookes was married. Well, that was nothing to her, was it? Of course it wasn’t. But suddenly she had lost her appetite – because of the way Sergeant Everton had spoken to her and the way he had made her feel, not because she was disappointed that Sergeant Brookes was married. What rotten bad luck it had been that she had had to bump into him again. Johnny … Sergeant Everton, she corrected herself quickly. She would take a bet that he wasn’t married. No sane woman would be foolish enough to want to marry a man like that. It would be far too much of a risk – and not just because of his work.
Even though she had been waiting for it ever since she had read the note, when the knock on the door finally came, Sally felt a shock as powerfully as if it had been an air-raid warning.
Thankfully Molly had called round and offered to take the boys down to the allotments with her, so at least she didn’t have to worry about them being here.
When she opened the door, she was aware that her neighbour across the road was peering out from behind her curtains.
‘I’ve told you before, I don’t want you coming round here,’ she said to the burly man who followed her into the hallway, as she closed the door.
‘And I’ve told you, missus, it isn’t what you want that matters. The Boss has heard that you do a bit of singing down at the Grafton.’
Sally stared at him. ‘What if I do?’ she challenged him.
‘She said to tell you that she wants you round at her local a week Saturday night, so that you can do a bit of singing for a few friends she’s going to be entertaining, seeing as it’s her birthday.’
‘I can’t do that. I work Saturday nights.’
‘Listen, you, when the Boss says she wants something she gets it, understand? You’d better, otherwise it will be the worse for you.’
‘I can’t,’ Sally protested. ‘I’ve just told you, I work Saturday nights.’
‘Got two kiddies, haven’t you?’ the man commented, ignoring her.
Sally felt as though the blood in her veins had turned to ice.
‘Seven o’clock, Saturday. Corner of Mitchell Street. Oh, and the Boss said to tell you that her favourite song is “Danny Boy”. I’ll let meself out …’
Five minutes, that’s all the time it had taken to fill her life with despair. Five minutes …
She leaned against the door she had just closed, her whole body shaking and her heart pounding with fear.
‘Sam, I feel sorry for little Mouse as well, but being glum isn’t going to do anyone any good,’ Hazel told Sam firmly as they walked back from the showers together. ‘At least she’s bucked up enough to say she wants to come to the Grafton with the rest of us this evening.’
‘That’s only because she’s afraid of being left here on her own,’ Sam felt bound to point out, guiltily aware that her lack of good spirits had as much if not more to do with what had happened earlier in the day when Sergeant Johnny Everton had seen fit to haul her over the coals for talking quite innocently to another woman’s husband. She might not be one of the pretty feminine girls who attracted men like bees to honey but that did not mean that she was the desperate, pathetic type who mistook a man’s pleasant good manners for something far more meaningful.
‘Well, she’s not the only one who needs a bit of fun to cheer her up,’ Hazel said so pointedly that Sam looked uncertainly at her. ‘I don’t normally believe in talking too much about one’s personal affairs, but since you’re bound to hear about it sooner or later, I may as well come clean and tell you straight out.’ She paused and sighed. ‘Lynsey told me earlier that it’s all off with her current beau so no doubt she’ll be on the lookout for someone to take his place tonight.’ A small shadow crossed her face, and Sam saw her look down at her bare left hand. ‘I wish I had her knack of getting proposals, or at least getting one. The thing is that I’ve been dating my chap for over six months now – he’s Senior Service, and down in Dartmouth at the moment on a course – and I’m getting a bit tired of waiting for him to tell me if we’re going to have a future together. After all, a girl can’t ask a chap outright what his intentions are, can she? He’s expecting to get a new sea posting soon; they’ve made up him to lieutenant,’ she told Sam proudly before sighing again faintly. ‘That’s going to mean I’ll see even less of him. And you know what they say about sailors, especially the handsome ones, which he is. Sometimes I think I’d be better off calling it a day and being fancy free.’
She looked so despondent that all Sam could do was shake her head and say stoutly, ‘I’m sure things will work out, Hazel.’
‘Well, yes, I’m sure they will, but I’d still like a hint of which way. Come on,’ she rallied briskly. ‘We’d better go and make sure that dress of mine will fit you.’
‘I don’t mind wearing my uniform, honestly,’ Sam tried to assure her, but she could tell that Hazel wasn’t listening. Perhaps busying herself with organising her for their night out might in part help Hazel to put her worries about her relationship to one side for a little while, Sam acknowledged. And that being the case, didn’t she owe it to the other girl to ignore her own self-consciousness about wearing a dress?
‘Oh, Sally love, you look a real treat,’ Doris commented approvingly when she arrived to baby- sit. ‘Mind you,’ she pursed her lips and put her head to one side, studying Sally’s slender silhouette in the dark blue satin frock that Molly had virtually remade for Sally from an old dress bought from the Red Cross, ‘you could do with a bit more weight on your bones. You don’t want to start looking haggard. Not that you’re likely to, a bonny young girl like you,’ she added fondly.
Sharp tears stung Sally’s eyes. She didn’t know what was the matter with her these days. Just the slightest thing seemed to set her off feeling all emotional, be it kind words or cruel ones. It was plain daft acting all soppy and silly at her age, especially when she was the mother of two boys. How were they going to grow up confident like boys should be with a mother who was spouting tears all the time? And how were they going to grow up with a father who gambled and got into debt? She mustn’t think like that, Sally told herself as she hugged Doris.
‘You’re all sorted out for your kiddies’ party now, are you?’ Doris asked.
‘Yes, thanks to you and Molly,’ Sally smiled. ‘Daisy came over earlier and said that she’d make up a couple of plates of sandwiches for the kids. She said she’d let me have a tin of fruit as well. I thought I’d put it in a jelly – I can make it go a bit further that way. Molly’s dad said he’d paint up them toy soldiers your Frank gave me – I’ve told Molly I’ll make sure she gets them back if this new baby is a boy.’
‘It’s hard on the kiddies having to grow up in this war, bless ’em,’ Doris said quietly.
‘I’ve got to go,’ Sally told her, calling over her shoulder as she hurried down the hallway, ‘I’ll be back around half twelve as usual.’
No, she shouldn’t think badly of Ronnie, not with him being where he was, she told herself fiercely as she stepped out into the street, her heart thumping. Sometimes she missed him so much she could hardly bear her longing to see him, whilst at other times she felt so angry with him that she couldn’t bear the thought of ever seeing him again. One thing she did know was that he wouldn’t have meant to leave her with all this mess, but he could be such a softie, for all that he was a soldier.
The continual dull ache of her anxiety for him since she had been told he had been taken prisoner when Singapore had surrendered, which she had banked down as best she could, unexpectedly burst into a surge of panic and fear. No one wanted to talk about it openly but everyone had heard the horribly graphic reports coming out of the Far East of the way the Japanese treated their prisoners. She had read about it herself in Picture Post, and only the other day another woman had broken down on her shift and said that she almost wished her son had been killed outright rather than her having to think about what might be happening to him.
Sally broke into a faster walk. Sometimes there were things it just didn’t do to think about.
Hazel’s rueful, ‘Oh dear’ as she finished fastening the last of the white buttons, which ran from the square neckline of the cornflower-blue and white floral frock she was loaning Sam to just short of the hem of its flared skirt, confirmed all of Sam’s own worst fears. She obviously looked every bit as dreadful in the dress as she had feared, despite the fact that it was very pretty, and should have suited her fair colouring.
‘Lynsey, May, come and look at this,’ she called without taking her gaze off Sam. Obediently the other girls came over and, like Hazel, stood in front of Sam and frowned.
‘It’s me,’ Sam told them desperately. Her face was so hot she felt sure it must be the colour of a tomato. ‘I’m just not frock person. They don’t suit me.’
‘It’s the waist, that’s what it is,’ Lynsey announced, totally ignoring Sam. ‘She’s a lot smaller than you, Hazel. Put a belt round her waist to pull it in a bit and it will be fine, won’t it, May?’
‘Have you got a belt, Sam?’ Hazel asked. ‘A white one would be best.’
Sam shook her head.
‘I’ve got one,’ Mouse suddenly piped up, surprising them all. ‘I’ve got a cousin who used to work in a dress shop before the war and she gave it to me.’
‘Let’s have a look at it then, Mouse,’ May encouraged.
When Mouse handed over a wide white patent leather belt she had all the girls oohing with envy.
‘I can’t wear that,’ Sam protested. Somehow the belt epitomised everything she knew she could never be. It was made to encircle the waist of someone dainty and pretty, with curls and dimples, not a girl like her, but it was no use her protesting. Hazel was already cinching the belt around her waist.
‘My heavens, will you just look at that,’ May breathed.
‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ Sam demanded tensely.
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ Lynsey told her, ‘excepting that nearly every other girl at the Grafton tonight will be wanting to kill you for having such a tiny waist, you lucky thing.’
‘Lynsey’s right, Sam,’ Hazel agreed. ‘That belt sets the frock off perfectly and it pulls in the loose fabric on the waist.’
‘But maybe Mouse wanted to wear her belt herself,’ Sam pointed out, struggling to get used to the odd sensation of both the belt and the skirt.
‘Not with that skirt and blouse she won’t,’ Lynsey pronounced firmly. ‘It won’t go with them.’
‘Sam, stop arguing, you look terrific, and put these shoes on,’ Hazel ordered. ‘If we don’t get a move on we’re going to be late. All you need now is a bit of lipstick. You’ve even got a lovely tan on your legs.’
It was no use protesting, Sam could see that, and besides, she didn’t want to spoil the evening for the other girls, who were all obviously very eager to go dancing. Even Mouse seemed to have forgotten that she had originally flatly refused to go, but then poor Mouse would probably rather have done anything than be left here at their billet on her own with the warrant officer.
‘Here’s our stop. Lord, will you look at the queue,’ May said as the bus pulled into the kerb.
A long wide queue of various groups of girls, young men in uniform, and couples had formed untidily in the street outside the dance hall. The most famous and the best in Liverpool, so Sam was informed by Lynsey, who, as Hazel remarked drily, was something of an expert on such matters.
‘Well, and why not? That’s what I say,’ Lynsey replied unabashed. ‘Work hard and play hard, that’s my motto. And thanks to the blinking ATS we certainly have to do plenty of hard work.’
‘Oh, yes? Then how come I saw you painting your nails this afternoon when you were supposed to be typing all them memos for the War Office?’ May asked her.
‘What memos? I never saw no memos,’ Lynsey gave the others a wink.
The ATS had been formed to train young women to take over the more mundane military support ‘chores’, such as cooking and general kitchen and domestic duties, typing, general paperwork, and sometimes driving military personnel or acting as messengers, in order to free up enlisted men for active duty.
‘Lynsey, you really are the limit,’ Hazel protested. ‘There is a war on, you know.’
‘Of course I know it!’ Lynsey replied, digging her elbow into May’s ribs. ‘Get a look of them lads over there, May. Canadian fly boys, they are, all on their own, a long way from home. Need a bit of female company to cheer them up, they will, what with there being a war on and all.’
‘Lynsey, really, you can do what you like but the rest of us don’t want tarring with the same brush,’ Hazel warned her, ignoring May’s giggles.
‘Oh, come on, Corp, we aren’t in uniform now,’ Lynsey grinned. ‘Where’s the harm in relaxing a bit and letting our hair down? I reckon that chap of yours won’t be staying in, crying into his cocoa down in Dartmouth because you aren’t around. What the eye doesn’t see, remember, and if I was you—’
‘Well, you aren’t me, are you?’ Hazel rounded on her.
‘Oh, touched a sore spot, have I?’ Lynsey asked. ‘If I have you want to ask yourself why it is sore. If I were in your shoes—’
‘But you aren’t. Besides, he’s only there on a course, and I’ll be going down to see him soon.’
‘Queue’s moving – the doors must have opened at last,’ May announced, determinedly moving forward.
‘Lynsey really is the limit at times,’ Hazel told Sam, falling into step alongside her and Mouse.
‘She’s fun, though, isn’t she?’ Mouse said unexpectedly, sighing as she added, ‘I’d love to be fun, wouldn’t you, Sam?’
Would she? It depended on what your idea of fun was, Sam decided. Certainly she liked a good lark and some jolly laughter, but fun for her did not include getting fresh with young men. The very thought made her shrink a little and withdraw into herself. But there was no denying that Lynsey’s comments had brought Mouse out of herself and cheered her up a bit.
The interior of the Grafton wasn’t at all what Sam had been expecting. For some reason she had thought it would look a bit like a church hall but it was unexpectedly elegant, even if a bit war shabby, with red walls and dim lighting.
‘A proper dance hall, this is, with a really good sprung floor,’ Lynsey informed her, seeing her amazement. ‘Copied it from some Russian ballet theatre, the owner did, so I’ve bin told.’
‘They get some really good bands playing here as well. The lot that are playing tonight have these girl singers. Ever so good, they are; good enough to be on the wireless,’ May chipped in.
‘Huh, I dare say I could sound just as good if I were dressed up in one of them frocks they wear,’ Lynsey informed them sharply.
‘You? Don’t forget I’ve heard you singing in the shower,’ May laughed.
They had reached the top of the stairs, and were having to raise their voices above the noise generated by the people filling the dance hall.
Somehow they managed to find a vacant table not too far from the band or the dance floor.
‘Right, what’s everyone having to drink?’ May demanded as soon as they were seated.
‘Mine’s a port and lemon, May,’ Lynsey answered. ‘What are you going to have?’ she asked Sam and Mouse.
‘Oh, I … just lemonade for me,’ Mouse told her timidly.
‘Have a port and lemon, Sam. I’m going to, and if we all have the same it will make it easier to share the bill,’ Hazel suggested sensibly.
‘I’ll go to the bar to give May a hand with the drinks,’ Lynsey offered, standing up.
‘Give May a hand – that’s rich. The only reason she’s going to the bar is so that she can eye up the men,’ Hazel told Sam wryly, waving to a group of girls from one of the other dormitories, who had just come in.
‘Heavens, virtually the whole of the billet must be here,’ Sam commented in the general chaos and bustle of exchanging names, and the newcomers getting seats and then drinks,
‘Almost,’ a lively-looking brunette agreed as she sat down. ‘Apart from Toadie and her favourites.’
Sam saw the way Mouse shivered and wished the other girl hadn’t mentioned the warrant officer. ‘Don’t worry about her, Mouse,’ Sam whispered.
‘I can’t help it,’ Mouse responded. ‘I know it must be hard for someone like you to understand, Sam, but she scares me so much, she and Captain Elland.’ She gave a small shiver. ‘They’re just like my aunt, both of them. I thought it was going to be different in the ATS, that things would be better for me once I’d got away from her, but instead …’ Her eyes filled with tears. ‘I feel so afraid sometimes, Sam, that I’ll never be able to escape from her; no matter what I do and that wherever I go, she’ll make sure that there’s someone there just like her to—’
‘What tommyrot,’ Sam stopped her firmly, sensing that she was on the point of hysteria. ‘Toadie’s a bully, I know, but if you ignore her she’ll soon start leaving you alone, don’t you worry.’
She could see that Mouse wasn’t convinced, but before she could say any more, May leaned over and said, ‘Put a sock in it, you two. They’ve just announced that the singers are coming on and I want to listen to them.’
It was always like this for her in those last few minutes before they went on to sing, Sally acknowledged as she felt the familiar mixture of exhilaration and apprehension gripping her insides, and yet she knew that once she was out there and actually singing the singing itself would be all that would matter. Even as a little girl she had loved to sing. When she felt unhappy all she had to do to make herself feel better was to sing. Somehow when she was singing there was no room in her heart for misery or worry, or at least there hadn’t been. When she sang she could become another person, a person who had the confidence that her normal self did not. But tonight she was finding it hard to think about anything other than her anxiety over the debt collector’s visit and the message he had given her.
She knew her neighbours on Chestnut Close, even those as kind as Molly and her mother-in-law, would be horrified at the thought of being in debt. She was afraid that they might be so horrified that they wouldn’t want anything more to do with her. Being in debt was so very shameful, not the kind of thing that happened to decent respectable people. Her neighbours would, she knew, feel she was bringing disgrace on the Close and lowering its tone, and the inhabitants of Chestnut Close were very proud of their status, situated as they were right at the top end of Edge Hill, and so close to Wavertree that they could almost claim to be living there. She couldn’t bear the thought of anyone accusing her of lowering the tone of the neighbourhood.
A sharp dig in her ribs from Shirley brought her back to her surroundings, as she hissed, ‘Come on … we’re on!’
An enthusiastic burst of clapping welcomed them as the band leader introduced them. ‘And here they are, ladies and gentlemen, the Waltonettes, Liverpool’s own trilling larks.’ One by one he introduced the girls by name and they each gave their audience a small teasing curtsy. Although in her normal life this kind of behaviour was something Sally would have shunned, here on the stage it was different. She was one of the Waltonettes, and it was all part of what the audience expected. The men wanted to feel that the girls were singing especially for them and the girls wanted to imagine themselves up on the stage, sparkling with confidence and singing that special song for their special man.
Sporting wide professional smiles, the girls clustered round the microphone ready for their first number, a slightly provocative breathy version of ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, which always went down well with the audience, especially the men. Later on in the evening they would sing some lively upbeat numbers and then later still, everyone’s favourite sentimental songs.
‘See, I told you they were good, didn’t I?’ May demanded triumphantly, above the enthusiastic clapping of the audience at the end of the singers’ first number.
Sam could only agree. How wonderful it must be to have such a beautiful voice, and to be so pretty as well, she thought as she watched the slender brunette singer the band leader had introduced as Sally. As she looked across at her, the brunette singer turned her head and smiled. What a nice genuine person she seemed, Sam decided, returning her smile.
‘Huh, just look at them Canadian lads,’ Lynsey hissed in a cross whisper. ‘Can’t take their eyes off the singers, they can’t.’
‘No wonder, the saucy way they were singing,’ another girl sighed. ‘My chap wouldn’t half give me what for if he caught me carrying on like that.’
‘They’ve got every chap in the place making sheep’s eyes at them.’ Lynsey was obviously aggrieved.
‘I’m sure it isn’t meant to be taken seriously and that it’s just part of their job.’ Sam surprised herself by sticking up for the singers.
Lynsey gave her an irritated look but before she could say anything Hazel pointed out, ‘There’s a chap over there who doesn’t look like he’s very impressed by them.’
‘Where?’ Lynsey demanded.
‘On that table in front of the stage. The good- looking dark-haired chap,’ Hazel answered. ‘He’s been watching that pretty brunette singer like he doesn’t approve of what she’s doing one little bit. Don’t go staring at him, he’ll see you,’ Hazel warned her, but it was too late.
Lynsey was craning her neck and half getting up out of her chair to look across at the table Hazel had mentioned. Sam could see the man Hazel was referring to quite easily, and realised what Hazel meant. He was handsome but he was also looking at the singer with a very grim expression indeed. Was he the brunette singer’s husband, perhaps, Sam wondered, angry about the fact that other men were admiring his wife? If so, Sam felt very sorry for her.
Normally once she had started to sing Sally was oblivious to everything but the music, including the audience, but tonight the music wasn’t having its normal magical effect on her. She could see a girl on one of the tables, where the tall blonde girl who had given her such a nice smile earlier was seated, half stand up and look at another table and automatically her own gaze focused on that table as well. The people seated at it were smartly dressed, the women in silk frocks and those men who weren’t in uniform wearing well-cut suits. One of the men was staring at her very grimly. Suddenly Sally stiffened in shock and almost missed a note, as she realised it was the new doctor.
It was no use asking herself what he was doing here. Sooner or later everyone who came to Liverpool visited the Grafton. It was famous as the city’s best dance hall. Somehow, though, she hadn’t had the doctor down as a dancing man. He had struck her as far too grim and cold. She was obviously wrong, though, because the woman seated next to him was placing her hand on his arm, obviously suggesting that they should get up and dance.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Patti hissed in Sally’s ear, as the audience clapped their song. ‘You missed your cue twice.’
‘I … I’m sorry,’ was all Sally could mouth back, as the band leader turned to announce their second song.
‘You bloody well will be if it happens again,’ Patti warned her sourly.
‘I’m beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea after all,’ Hazel said to Sam ruefully. ‘I thought coming here would help take my mind off my chap, but all it’s done is make me wonder what he’s getting up to down in Dartmouth.’
‘He’s probably missing you as much as you’re missing him,’ Sam tried to comfort her, as she watched Lynsey jitterbugging energetically and expertly with her partner, envying her both her skill and her self-confidence. She could still remember the excruciating misery she had experienced as a little girl, attending the dance classes her mother had sent her to. She had always seemed to be out of step, much to the teacher’s despair, and had never mastered the routines. Since then she had avoided dancing as much as she could. It didn’t help that every time there was a family event of any kind with dancing, Russell would always make jokes about her two left feet and tease her that he had to bribe his friends to dance with her. Sam knew that he didn’t mean to be unkind – after all it was the truth: she couldn’t dance. She was relieved that Mouse’s refusal to dance, on the grounds that her aunt would not approve, had given her a good excuse to stay where she was.
‘You’re a good kid, Sam,’ Hazel told her, ‘but something tells me that you don’t know very much about men. Being in the ATS will change all that. It’s been a real eye-opener for me, I can tell you. I’ve lost count of the number of men I’ve heard of who have sworn undying love to a girl one night and then been seen flirting with someone else the next. If you ask me, it’s out of sight out of mind with most of them, especially the navy lot.’
‘What you want to do is give him a taste of his own medicine,’ Lynsey advised her, coming back to the table just in time to catch the tail end of their conversation. She sank into her chair and fanned herself, exclaiming that she was ‘puffed’, before continuing, ‘You know what I mean, Hazel; what you want to do is make up to some other chap and flirt with him a bit. Do you no end of good, it would, and you never know, you might find out that your sailor isn’t the bee’s knees you think he is. You’ll never know what else is on offer unless you try a few out. Take that table over there, for instance—’ She suddenly stopping talking and sat bolt upright, her eyes narrowing ‘like a dog seeing a rabbit,’ as May said later. ‘Oh boy, just take a look at him,’ she breathed.
‘Who exactly are we supposed to be looking at?’ May demanded. ‘There’s hundreds of men here.’
‘Maybe, but this is one of a kind. Over there … that chap with the dark hair, all six foot of him, and will you take a look at those shoulders. Now there’s a man who’s got the goods and knows exactly how to use them, or my name’s not Lynsey Wilkins.’
All the girls turned to look at the man she was pointing out, including Sam, who nearly betrayed herself by protesting out loud when she recognised that the man Lynsey was drooling over was none other that her own bête noire, Sergeant Johnny Everton. And what was more, he had seen her too, Sam realised as she tried to flatten herself into her chair.
‘Gawd, Lynsey, stop showing us all up, will you? Any chap seeing you look at him like that is more likely to make a run for it than make a grab for you,’ Hazel warned irritably, as Lynsey continued to look pointedly and invitingly in the direction of the uniformed Bomb Disposal sergeant.
‘That’s all you know. Look, he’s coming over,’ Lynsey crowed triumphantly.
If her chair hadn’t been hemmed in so tightly between those on either side of her she would have been on her feet and bolting for the sanctuary of the powder room, Sam admitted, and yet there was no reason for her to feel like that. She wasn’t on duty and answerable to him, and he certainly wasn’t coming over here because he wanted to socialise with her, so why was she in such a silly panic?
‘Oh boy …’ Lynsey murmured ecstatically. ‘Now that is what I call a man. I bet he dances divinely. Hands off, the rest of you, he’s mine.’
‘As if any of us had a chance anyway, with you making big eyes at him the way you are doing, Lynsey,’ May whispered.
‘I’m not at all happy with this,’ Hazel muttered to Sam. ‘Lynsey thinks she can get away with anything, but it’s the rest of us that will end up getting a bad name along with her, if we don’t watch out.’
‘Would you like to dance?’
Sam could see the shock on the girls’ faces, especially Lynsey’s, as the sergeant stood in front of her and asked her to dance. She could feel that same shock zigzagging through her body like a hail of tracer bullets, illuminating the sharp rawness of her most private feelings. What was he doing this for? Was he deliberately trying to make fun of her, to humiliate her? A mixture of anger and misery gripped her.
‘No, I wouldn’t,’ she told him shortly.
She could see the way his chest compressed as he breathed in sharply.
‘Why don’t you ask me instead?’ Lynsey offered flirtatiously. ‘I’d love to dance with you …’ She was already on her feet, and reaching out to put her hand on his arm whilst she looked up at him, batting her eyelashes.
As though his appearance had opened the floodgates, within seconds the other girls, apart from Sam, Hazel and Mouse, had taken to the floor, dancing with one another, laughing and giggling as they watched Lynsey act the vamp with her partner.
‘You were fearfully rude, turning that sergeant down like that, you know,’ Hazel told Sam quietly.
‘He didn’t really want to dance with me,’ Sam answered her. ‘I could tell that from the way he was looking at me. He’s already told me—’
‘You know him?’ Hazel stopped her, if anything looking even more disapproving.
‘Not really … that is, I have met him before … he was introduced to me … by … by someone …’
‘Oh, Sam, that makes turning him down like that so much worse.’
Sam could feel her face starting to burn. ‘I didn’t want to leave Mouse on her own,’ she tried to defend herself.
‘Mouse isn’t on her own; I’m here,’ Hazel pointed out, adding sternly, ‘I really think you owe him an apology, you know.’
‘Yes,’ Hazel insisted. ‘It’s awfully bad form to turn down a chap in uniform when he asks you to dance, don’t you know? Not the done thing at all. Not …’
‘… when there’s a war on,’ Sam chanted, causing Hazel to give her another stern look.
Outwardly she might be stubbornly defending her actions but inwardly she felt horribly guilty. She knew that had she been asked to dance by anyone other than Johnny Everton she would have accepted, and somehow or other forced herself to overcome her own self-consciousness at her lack of dancing skill. If it had been Frank who had asked her, for instance … Don’t think about that, she warned herself. Sergeant Frank Brookes was married, and besides, all he had ever shown her was just a bit of good-mannered kindness, nothing else, and even if he hadn’t been married she would have been a fool to have gone making something out of that that just didn’t exist.
Sally could feel her hands trembling slightly as she folded them together behind her back and joined the other girls in their set line-up for ‘You Are my Sunshine’, the number that was proving to be one of the year’s most popular songs. She wasn’t going to look over to the doctor’s table and risk getting caught in the glower of disapproval he had given her during their earlier number. Patti had given her a real old telling-off backstage, justifiably perhaps, Sally admitted. She hated being anything less than professional but what she hated and feared even more was that for the first time ever, something and someone had broken through the protective screen that singing had always previously allowed her to hide behind, away from whatever was troubling her. It was true that the ‘something’ and the ‘someone’ weren’t related. After all, the summons to appear at ‘the Boss’s’ party had nothing whatsoever to do with Dr Alexander Ross. Heavens, Sally could just imagine how a man like him would react to someone being in debt! He would treat them like they were a bad smell under his nose, she decided. And yet despite the resentment she felt towards him for showing her his obvious contempt, underneath Sally acknowledged there was pain. She had longed so much for her and Ronnie and their children to be a family who could hold up their heads; a decent respectable well-thought-of family who kept themselves to themselves and whom others admired, not like the families she had grown up amongst in Manchester. Good-hearted people she knew, but living on the breadline, never knowing if they would have enough money to pay the rent and often seeming not to care, taking their best clothes down to the pawn shop when they were short of cash, and then having to borrow from whoever they could to get them back again when they needed to wear them. Sally had spent her childhood anxiously aware that the very fine line that divided her mother’s smiles from her tears and anger was because of her struggle to manage the family budget. Her parents may not have got themselves into debt but the threat that they might be had hung over her childhood like a dark cloud. Now that fear was hers, and she could feel the shame of having succumbed burning deep into her soul. Somehow the doctor, with his smart clothes, his posh furniture, his well-dressed wife and children, underlined for her all that hurt the most in her own marriage and life.
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