Southern England Summer 1940
‘Nice of your mother to lend us the blanket,’ said Tom, lying back and pulling Nancy down into his arms.
She giggled, relaxing into his embrace and then squirmed upright to light a cigarette.
‘Come back here,’ Tom coaxed, stroking her back. The thin cotton dress was warm from her skin. He could trace her backbone and the softness below her ribs. He ran his fingers up the edge of her brassiere and wondered if he could undo it without sitting up.
Nancy twisted and looked down on him.
‘Stop it,’ she said.
She put her head on one side, blew a kiss and offered him the cigarette. With a sigh, Tom sat up and lit his own.
‘What’s the harm, Nancy? You know I love you. I’d be careful, I promise.’
‘Things go wrong, Tom.’
‘Well if they did, I’d marry you. I’d do that tomorrow, anyway. Come on Nancy, it’s not as if you don’t want to.’
‘I don’t want a baby.’
‘One day, but not now. I’m only eighteen, you’re only twenty. We hardly know each other.’
It seemed like five minutes since he’d joined up.
‘But you were in a reserved occupation,’ Mother had sobbed, ‘you’d have been safe.’
Dad had said nothing. His face had been hidden behind the paper, his eyes turned inward as they had been since war was declared, revisiting memories never shared.
How could Tom have explained? He had looked down at those ledgers, the heavy downstrokes, the light upstrokes, the o’s like chains, the a’s shackled to an invisible line, the g’s anchored, the p’s spiked down. Office work wasn’t for him, war or no war. Handing in his notice, he’d walked out and down to the recruiting office.
His brisk stride had slowed to a pause. Which of the forces? Mud, boredom, blood, that’s how Uncle Sid had described his army experiences with Dad twenty-three years ago. Tom associated the sea with day trips and sand between the toes and pushing girls off hired dinghies. He couldn’t imagine being stuck in a ship for months. He lit a cigarette and stared up into the sky. Above the roofs and chimneys, it was endless. Birds swooped and soared. They weren’t pinned down to desks or pages or inside walls.
And then there was the girl. She’d burst out of the recruitment office and flung her arms about him, dancing him round on the pavement.
‘They’ve let me into the Air Transport Auxiliary! I’ll get to fly planes!’
‘Can girls fly planes?’
‘Girls transport training planes to airfields! Didn’t you know?’
‘Will you transport one to me?’ he asked.
‘Maybe!’ She blew him a kiss and danced off.
Now, she lay back down and looked up at the sky. It was deep blue, cloudless. Around them the countryside rolled and dipped. Above them, skylarks soared and sung.
Tom lay down next to her and she cuddled into his arms.
‘When the sky is always like this, we’ll get married and have a baby.’ she said.
‘When the sky is always blue? This is England!’
‘You know what I mean. When it’s always empty of everything but birds and clouds and when planes are just for fun. I’d like to fly just for fun. Wouldn’t you?’
Tom took a drag of the cigarette. His training was complete; he’d had ten hours of skirmishes. Other lads had flown with him and never come back. Every time he felt as if he was about to step out onto a high wire, his stomach churning. Perhaps making love might give him some peace. He didn’t know, but he’d like to know. Below them on the slopes, little boys ran and swooped with model planes, their voices screeching like engines and crashing like explosions. The children fell down dead, laughing, got up and started again. If only it was so simple.
‘Come on Nancy,’ he coaxed, stroking her hair, ‘maybe today’s all I’ve got.’
‘Don’t talk like that, Tom,’ she sat up again, ‘you’ll be fine.’
‘What if I’m unlucky?’
‘Why don’t you talk to Bernard? He knows the ropes.’
‘I sometimes wonder if Bernard’s quite human. It’s like he’s doing aerobatics for fun. He goes up with a whole squadron, comes back with half a squadron, then makes tea and cracks jokes as if nothing has happened. He’s got to be the luckiest person alive. Do you reckon it could rub off on me?’
‘Bernard’s all right. Maybe he just doesn’t have any imagination.’
‘Do you reckon he’s lucky in love too?’
Nancy giggled and stood up. ‘The answer’s still no. Besides, those kids are heading this way and Mum’ll kill me if I get this blanket grubby. Come on, there’s a dance on tonight. Let’s enjoy today and forget about tomorrow.’
‘I would,’ groaned Tom, ‘only you won’t let me.’
Bernard came up from the tube and lit his pipe. Before the war he’d loved this walk, watching the street open up in the morning and close down in the evening as he travelled to work and back.
The road ran north to south. On nice days, the sun had sparkled from windows, glinted off gloss paintwork and brightened the stripes in the awnings. In peacetime, the shop-keepers had sometimes stood outside and turned their faces into the warmth; the housewives sang to their children; the delivery boys whistled as they swerved their bicycles around vans and pedestrians, earning curses. Half a mile along and he would turn into his street and see his house, number twelve. Sometimes Ginny would be waiting, sitting on the garden wall swinging her feet like a little girl, scandalising the neighbours by smoking in the street and not wearing a hat.
But it was no longer like that. Now, some of the shops were gone or closed up, the rest had reinforced windows. Even on sunny days, no-one wasted time soaking up the sun. Housewives with baskets and bored children fidgeted in queues along the pavements. In the evening, the shops shut early. People eyed up the distance to the tube, their ears alert for the siren. Today, Bernard paused at the entrance to his street and looked down it. He walked past the houses with their taped up windows. He raised his hat to Mrs Hodgson in number two and said hello to Old Mr Bailey standing on the step of number four. Old Mr Bailey grinned at the uniform, stood to attention and saluted. Old Mrs Bailey came out and dragged her husband inside, ‘sorry love,’ she said to Bernard.
Number six was abandoned. Now there was nothing but rubble from there until number twenty. Somehow, the low garden wall of number twelve remained to taunt him. It stood at a slight angle, the mortar cracked, making the bricks unstable, and Ginny would never sit on it again.
At least they’d found her body. She hadn’t been left to moulder under dust and debris.
Bernard didn’t know why he had come back again. He stood for a while on the bits of blackened masonry. Picking up a brick here and there he found an old clock, its face smashed, half a china dog, a saucepan. He rummaged where the hall had once been. Doubtless others had been here under cover of the blackout, sifting through for any valuables. He didn’t care. The one thing of real value had been crushed, dirt smearing the gold of her hair, alabaster lids closed forever on the sapphire eyes. Moving the rubble, he realised part of a hall cupboard was intact and opened it. Inside was a soft beret and a blue silk scarf. He tucked the scarf in his pocket and held the beret, letting the evening light catch the gold hairs caught in the wool.
‘’ere, what you doing?’
‘Oh, sorry,’ said the warden, lowering his whistle, ‘didn’t realise it was you. Thought it was a looter. Don’t even wait till it’s dark, some of them. You wouldn’t think they’d be so brazen, but they are. Got no respect.’
Bernard clambered back to the pavement.
‘Can’t think they’ll have much luck looting our house.’
‘Ought to be fighting for King and country not thieving. That’s what I say.’
‘Not sure I’d want a thief in my squadron. I’d prefer people I can trust.’
‘Least you’re getting your own back,’ said the warden, nodding towards the rubble.
Bernard looked up into the sky. ‘Maybe.’
He turned to go, unsure what to do with the beret. The scent of Ginny was gone, replaced by dust.
‘Do you know anyone who needs a hat?’ he asked.
‘I’ll give it to the WVS, they’re always after things for people who’ve been bombed out. Sure you don’t want to keep it?’
‘Not my style,’ said Bernard, handing it over with a smile which didn’t reach his eyes.
The warden opened his mouth to say something, but Bernard turned away and walked back to the tube. Tonight he’d be back with the squadron, careful to arrive too late for the dance. He didn’t want to hold a woman in his arms when she wasn’t Ginny. Not today. Not tomorrow. Maybe never. Tomorrow he could put on his smile again, cheer up the new lads. Make them think everything would be fine.
He hoped it would work for Tom, but Bernard worried about him. Tom was only a kid and jumpy as a cat for all the bravado. The sooner he admitted being scared and threw up, the better for everyone.
Bernard headed down into the underground. It was rank with the smell of the humanity which sheltered here during the raids. He drew on his pipe to obliterate the stink. He thought about Tom, always showing off for that ATA girl, Nancy. Truth was, Nancy was the better pilot than most of the lads. She kept her nerve, had guts of steel. If women were allowed in combat he’d pick her any day. Still, Tom was what he’d got and Tom needed something to give him confidence.
Half the time, a pilot just needed to convince himself it wasn’t his turn to die. It just came down to feeling lucky.
Reaching in his pocket for his tobacco, Bernard felt the dusty softness of Ginny’s silk scarf and pulled it out.
‘I’ve got a job for your scarf, Ginny,’ he said in his mind. ‘It survived that bomb. I’ll give it to Tom, tell him it’s lucky. Maybe it’ll do the trick. Something has to. We need all the help we can get.’
Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission