Chapter 1





July, 1939


Anna’s mother was dead. Her father might as well have been. He was a cold, unapproachable man – at least with her. She had heard him laugh with others, but he had never given his daughter a smile, let alone any affection. Ten years ago, when Anna was only eight years old, he had handed her over to the sole charge of his sister, Beatrice, a grim-faced woman who wore long, stiff black dresses with tight collars that looked as if they might choke her.

Her father, a wealthy businessman, had moved to Ireland, leaving Anna behind. He had sold the family home. The place where she was born. An impressive Manor house in Reigate with its retinue of servants. Then Anna had been callously thrust into the puritanical and church-going arms of Aunt Beatrice in Watford.

Her father’s total indifference towards her had hurt and puzzled Anna as a child, until Aunt Beatrice had heartlessly explained exactly why her father could never love her.

Her mother had died in childbirth, giving birth to her. She had killed her mother.

The cruel thought that she was to blame made Anna wretched and a fog of sadness had followed her for weeks. It was her fault that her mother had died, although she didn’t understand how.

Aunt Beatrice may have taken over Anna’s care but any care that Beatrice had given had been applied with a heavy hand and a smack that left a mark for days. It seemed to Anna that her aunt was an unhappy woman, a tyrant who made it her business to make those around her unhappy too.

Anna always wished she had known her mother. She remembered her photograph, in pride of place on the grand piano in her father’s drawing room. Elizabeth Golding, her mother. She had looked like a gentle woman; the kind of woman not afraid to smile, when most people looked so stiff and posed in photographs. The black, lustrous hair that framed her face in Marcel waves had the sheen of silk, unlike Anna’s, which was like her father’s: tough and wiry. But Anna’s hazel eyes came from her mother, and she was glad of that, for her father’s piercing blue eyes were ice-cold when they had trapped her in their unfriendly glare.

As she grew older, Anna became certain of one thing. That her father and Aunt Beatrice were wrong, and that a child, a baby in her mother’s womb, was an innocent. Blameless. Now, in her late teens, Anna Golding was convinced that her strange upbringing had strengthened her, made her mentally tough. Self-reliant and resourceful. She had learned a valuable lesson from an early age: that love was not always freely given, or an automatic right. Her aunt had grudgingly provided food, clothing, and an education. Everything that a body needed to survive. But never love.

Not that she had been totally starved of affection. Ruby, the housekeeper in her aunt’s large Watford townhouse, had taken pity on her and throughout the years had shown her small acts of kindness. And Ruby’s daughter, Edna, had become a friend over the past three years since she’d been a housemaid there. Sunny and cheerful and funny, Edna could always pull a smile from Anna’s lips.

Aunt Beatrice, who was hale and hearty, could easily have fended for herself. Yet she had four people looking after her, washing her clothes, cooking her food, and dusting the hideous vases in the drawing room. That was Edna’s job – dusting, beating the rugs – but she never complained about her lot. Even managed to laugh about it.

Come the revolution. It was a secret joke between them.

And one day, things would change. Anna was sure of that. Maybe soon. A war was coming. Everybody said so. And wars always changed things. Disrupted the old order. People might find other jobs, might not want to work as domestic servants any more.

‘Can you imagine Beatrice doing her own laundry?’ she’d asked Edna when they’d talked about it.

‘Her Highness? She wouldn’t have a clue,’ said Edna.

‘And cooking her own food? Maybe she’s got skills we never knew,’ Anna said.

‘Na, shouldn’t think so. The old bat would starve.’

‘Edna! That’s disrespectful.’ All the same, Anna smiled. ‘She pays your wages,’ she said.

‘Yeah, but not very much. Think she could make her own bed? All those hospital corners she fusses me about? Like to see her try ’em.’ Edna winked.

‘Then there’s the dusting, cleaning the house,’ said Anna, ‘and those horrible rugs.’

‘She can ’aveem, I wouldn’t be sorry never to beat them damn things again.’

‘I imagine she’d struggle with those,’ said Anna. The image made her smile. Not that she intended to stay around and watch.

Anna Golding would be eighteen next month and she was ready to set out on her own.

She could do it.

Her core was strong. Maybe she had inherited that from her mother as well. Anna smiled as she conjured her mother’s face in her mind. A woman in a photograph. A woman who had missed her chance at life. But now Anna would live her life for them both.

Soon, she would step out into the world, to face the challenges it would bring. Somewhere to live. A job. She didn’t welcome the war waiting in the wings, but maybe she would find her freedom in it, a chance to throw off the shackles of a loveless childhood.

Her heart fluttered in anticipation as if a thousand butterflies had beat their fragile wings. Fear and excitement, in equal parts, fought each other for control as she thought about the future. A step into uncharted waters. What would her future hold? But she made herself a promise. Anna Golding, you will try to be courageous and honest and fair to others who cross your path.

How hard could it be?


Chapter 2



28 September 1939

Air Ministry Headquarters, Kingsway, London


There were thirty of them in the room. Anna had counted them. Large women. Small women. Young women, most of them. All with their suitcases. All of them waiting. None of them seemed to know what for. What the next step in the recruitment process would be. She imagined, like her, they’d been told to report here, after their initial interview. Many of the women looked anxious, but some were smiling, as if this was the most exciting thing that had happened in their lives so far. That was how Anna felt: as if this was what her life had been leading up to.

Everyone had filled in a complicated enlistment form. Anna had helped one young woman with hers. Dorothy (call me Dot, she’d told Anna) had been effusive in her thanks. The girl had been in ‘service’, just like Anna’s friend Edna, and had been ashamed and embarrassed that her reading was a ‘little slow’. She had learned to sign her name, but it seemed that her parents had pushed her into the life of a domestic servant before she could finish her schooling. One more kid off their hands, Dorothy had admitted sheepishly.

A middle-aged man wearing a Royal Air Force uniform marched smartly into the room. He came to rest in front of them, a picture of precision in air force blue. In a bellow that shook the window frames, he called out six names. Said they should follow him. Anna left her seat. Her name was on his list.

She ended up in an office, facing a small, fussy-looking man in a pinstripe suit who pointed to the chair opposite without looking up or taking his eyes off the form he was reading. Any other time, Anna might have told him he was being rude but she wanted to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force – to be a WAAF – and wouldn’t give him a reason to reject her.

‘Sit. Sit!’ he said impatiently, and finally looked up.

‘Sir,’ said Anna, and took a seat.

‘You don’t need to Sir me, Miss… ah…’ He looked back at her form. ‘Golding.’


‘I’m neither an officer, nor in the air force.’

‘I see.’

‘I doubt you do.’

A sigh popped out of Anna. He didn’t know her. She wasn’t stupid. Maybe she really did see.

The man coughed and raised an eyebrow. ‘Right, let’s get on,’ he said. ‘Much to do. And there’s a war out there waiting.’

‘I understand,’ she said – and she did. That dreadful bully, Hitler, had invaded Poland at the start of September and, two days later, Britain had declared war on Germany, doing the decent thing and coming to the aid of the underdog. It was why she was proud of her country. Why she had wanted to sign up for the WAAFs. To contribute, no matter how small. Everyone would be needed now.

She heard the man clear his throat again.

‘The first thing I should like to point out,’ he said, his voice clipped and haughty, ‘is that you have not filled out your registration form correctly.’

‘I haven’t?’ she said, surprised.

‘No. Next of kin, you’ve left it blank. I take it you have someone, somewhere. Some family?’

‘Oh. I see. Well, I’m sorry, Mr…’

‘Morrison.’ The man pompously straightened his tie. Sat a little higher in his chair.

‘Yes,’ said Anna. ‘I have family.’

‘I’m glad to hear it. Now if you could just fill out the appropriate section on your WAAF651/20, we’ll be able to move on and get you processed.’ He handed her the paperwork. ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ he said, and left the room.

She gazed at the form for inspiration. Who was she to pick? She didn’t want to put her father’s name on there. He had never shown the slightest interest in her. And Aunt Beatrice had practically disowned her when Anna said she was leaving to join the WAAF.

But there was no more family, or so she’d been told. She’d quizzed her aunt about it once. Were there no grandparents? No! All dead. Her aunt had been adamant and seemed a little angry that Anna should ask. But what about her mother? Did she have no brothers or sisters? Being an only child was rare, she knew. Her aunt had looked away, become evasive. Spanish flu, she’d finally said. There was a sister once, but she had died from the Spanish flu. It had killed off more people than the war.

That’s when Anna had gone looking for proof. She had felt adventurous going through the bureau drawers when her aunt had left the drawing room. And she’d found something hidden in her aunt’s Edwardian china cabinet. Secreted beneath a lining of embossed wallpaper, grey, with blood-red roses and green leaves and wicked-looking prickles. Not the lining paper Anna would have chosen, but somehow it symbolised her aunt perfectly. Anna had carefully peeled back a corner of the paper and there it was. Another photograph of her mother. A younger version. One she had never seen before. It had taken Anna’s breath away, the shock of it. Her mother, a beautiful young girl, standing tall, smiling. And the girl beside her. The same height. The same hair. This face was serious, a little haughty, trying to look regal, not smiling like her mother. But it was the same face. Her mother was – had been – a twin.

The doorknob rattled and Mr Morrison returned. ‘All done then?’

Anna dragged herself back to the present and quickly filled in the name and address of her next of kin. Edna Evans – her special friend to whom she’d once sworn a solemn oath to be friends for life.

After that, everything seemed to happen at breakneck speed. The waiting women were hustled towards two canvas-covered lorries by the man in the RAF uniform. He seemed to be in charge of them, for he was harrying them all like a sheepdog. Anna had no idea of his rank, but his voice was loud and meant to be frightening, she supposed. But she wasn’t frightened. She had been forged in the furnace of her aunt’s rebukes, had survived reprimands and criticism from the woman for ten long, wearisome years. There was nothing he could do that hadn’t already been done to her.

She learned a new skill – jumping onto the tailboard of a truck. She didn’t look that elegant but managed it without making a fool of herself. And the journey – that was far from luxurious. Four and a half hours of being thrown around in the back of the truck, the wind howling through the canvas, and sixteen women trying to keep warm, battling to stay perched on the hard, wooden benches. But Anna didn’t mind. One wit complained she’d got a splinter in her backside and most of them laughed. Immediately, Anna felt a comradeship. It was strange, and didn’t make sense, because she knew none of these women, but already she had a feeling of being settled. Of finally finding her place. Of coming home. Maybe even having a family of sorts. To make up for the one she’d never had.

‘You seem happy.’

It was Dorothy, the girl she’d met before. They’d ended up sitting next to each other in the lorry.

‘Do I?’ said Anna. ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’ She smiled to confirm it.

‘Not homesick then, like Mary?’ Dorothy nodded at a young woman sitting opposite. ‘She’s been crying.’

‘That’s a shame. Maybe we can help her settle in,’ said Anna.

Mary raised her head. Her eyes were bloodshot and the skin beneath them was swollen and blotchy. Her nose was a matching rosy colour, as if she had a cold. ‘I’m sitting right here,’ she said. ‘I can hear you, I’m not an idiot. And you needn’t sound so superior.’

‘What? No. I didn’t mean to offend you, Mary. I know what it’s like to be talked down to,’ said Anna. ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ It was true. She could never treat anyone the way her aunt had treated her.

‘Okay, just so’s you know. I may not have a fancy accent like yours, but I’ve been to school. I’m not thick. And I’m sure I don’t need anybody’s help.’

‘Of course you’re not stupid. Nobody said you were. But we all need somebody’s help sometimes,’ said Anna. She stretched her arm across the aisle. ‘Pals?’

‘I suppose so.’ Mary shook hands. Then the miserable girl sniffed and wrestled in her pocket for a handkerchief. When she couldn’t find one, Dorothy handed hers across. It was a small linen square with rosebuds embroidered in the corners.

‘Can’t take that,’ said Mary. ‘Looks like a fancy one.’

‘Birthday present. Ma made it for me,’ Dorothy told her. ‘She embroidered the roses special, took her ages. But I want you to have it.’

Anna watched the interaction and the smile that replaced the wretched look on young Mary’s face. And although it was something positive, Anna felt a little sadness touch her. She had never had anyone take ages to embroider something for her.




The three of them stuck together through the next few bewildering days at RAF Wilmslow in Cheshire. It was a huge place, a training camp south of Manchester, chock-full of new recruits, both men and women. It boasted several parade grounds and mess halls, a shooting range and, best of all, a cinema. Strangely, at least to Anna, there was no airfield, although a proud Spitfire stood at its gate, a reminder that the RAF was all about flying.

And now Anna Golding had a new title. She was no longer Miss, but ACW 2nd Class. An aircraftwoman like the others beside her. Newly enlisted and the lowest of the ranks. And, like all good ACW2s, Anna went where she was sent and did what she was told – mostly. She picked up her eating irons: knife, fork, spoon, and tin mug. Picked up her kit: regulation underwear – two roll-on girdles with suspenders, and two bras (described on her kit list as ‘brassieres, white, serviceable’). No fancy lingerie here. The bras were hard, stiff cotton, but she figured they could be beaten into shape. A few washes would soften them up. Then there were six pairs of white knickers and six pairs of navy-blue passion-killers that came down to the knee, with tight elastic that bit in and left red marks. She decided to ditch the navy-blue ones. It was as close as she came to defiance. The lisle stockings were scratchy but once you’d immersed them in boiling water, they became softer and more humane. Anna was pleased, for that was her idea, and lots of the others had copied her.

Kitting her out in uniform had been a challenge for the quartermaster stores. She was much taller and thinner than the other WAAFs in the intake. The ACW behind the counter had handed over the blue barathea service dress tunic and skirt without even checking Anna’s size. But she hadn’t moved to pick it up, had waited patiently, bravely holding up the line behind her. A WAAF sergeant had finally arrived, looked her over from head to foot, tutted and sighed. And finally picked up a uniform from a rack out back. The shoes were an impossibility. Her feet were large, far from regulation size. So, they’d sent her over to the men’s section and Anna was the only new WAAF recruit wearing men’s shoes. She took a lot of ribbing, but it was only friendly banter, stuff that made her laugh.

They laughed a lot in the barracks – draughty Nissen huts, made of corrugated steel. Anna’s hut had the same sixteen girls from her long truck journey, all packed in like sardines in a tin. At night, before lights out, they would all squash up in one end of the hut around the coke-fired stove, tell stories and jokes, and eat Marmite sandwiches. The WAAFs from hut 27 bonded into a distinct group. They ate together, sat together in their hut polishing their brass cap badges, and listened to each other’s grumbles when things got tough. There was a feeling of camaraderie, and friendships began to form as they came together in a sisterhood, helping each other out through the first confusing days of their new life. Nicknames were given to some of them. She wasn’t surprised at hers since she was the tallest in her barracks. ‘Lofty’ seemed a natural fit and she wasn’t upset by it, for it was said with gruff affection. The other two women in Anna’s trio of pals got nicknames too. Dorothy became ‘Dotty’ and Mary had to get used to being called ‘Mo’. But nobody complained.

They learned how to sort their living space. How to clean underneath the beds. And how to neatly ‘stack’ their bedding in a very particular way. That had to be done before going to breakfast. Anna was fine with all that. She found she liked the regimented order of the whole thing. It gave a certainty to her day, in a time when other things were uncertain. But there were some who struggled with it. That and the rules about hair, which wasn’t allowed to touch your collar. But Anna had smiled at that. Finally, her black, short, wiry hair – that Aunt Beatrice had called unfeminine and ugly – was a plus, and not something to be defended.

And she felt relieved to be wearing the uniform. Not only because she was proud to do so, but it meant an end to the continual struggle of finding clothes that would fit her tall, gangling frame. Clothes that her aunt had considered ladylike enough and appropriate for their ‘social standing’. Anna didn’t care a hoot about social standing. And she had no interest in clothes or fashion or women’s magazines, and if that made her unfeminine, then that was fine by her. There were far more important things out there for women to spend their time on. Equal rights with men would be a start. Even here, in the training camp, a few of the airmen resented the WAAFs being there, didn’t want their jobs taken by women. A chap had fired an insult at her when she first arrived. Skirts in the RAF? he’d said. Should never be allowed.

As it was, Anna and the WAAFs around her were only being paid two-thirds of the wages the airmen were. Even those women on dangerous jobs like guiding barrage balloons. She wouldn’t mind if men didn’t tip their hats to her. Or open doors. Or give up their seats on the bus. It would be worth it for what you would get in exchange. Some kind of equality.

She wasn’t sure how many of her friends there at RAF Wilmslow felt the same, though. Not many, she suspected. And certainly not her best friend, Edna Evans. Edna was always able to make her laugh, taking life head-on, fearless, finding fun in the smallest thing. She remembered the time they’d gone to Watford fair together and watched a man weave pink, sticky candyfloss.

‘It’s a miracle,’ said Anna as he’d spun the sugar in his machine, into sweet, fluffy, gossamer clouds. ‘I’ll get us some.’

‘Your face!’ shrieked Edna.

‘What’s wrong with my face?’ Anna asked, wrestling with the sticky candyfloss.

‘You got red dye all round your mouth.’ Edna giggled.

‘You have too.’ said Anna, ‘it’s not easy to eat.’

‘But worth it. It melts when it hits your tongue. My ma says it’s bad for you, for your teeth. You believe that?’ asked Edna.

‘Maybe, but sometimes it’s fun to do things that aren’t good for you.’ Not that Anna was often a rebel, but at times Edna brought that out in her, made her more adventurous.

They’d used Anna’s handkerchief to clean up their messy faces.

Then they’d bobbed for apples in a water barrel and got soaked and laughed until Anna had thought she might burst. Edna, who had no head for heights, had courageously soared skywards in a frightening contraption called the Octopus and, afterwards, had to be helped to the edge of the field, where she threw up her candyfloss.


Anna missed her, missed Edna’s optimism and her sense of joy. She hoped to be able to meet up with her friend again soon, maybe when they were both given leave. Edna had joined the army, and was in the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the ATS – with their scratchy khaki uniforms. Anna had heard that even the underwear was khaki, not something her friend would be thrilled about, for Edna was fussy about her clothes and especially her underwear. She had saved up for months to buy a silk chemise. Anna smiled, remembering. Her friend’s philosophy was ‘always be prepared’, especially in the underwear department, for you never knew who might be looking at it. Some chap, perhaps. She knew that Edna longed for that perfect chap. Had she finally found him? Anna suspected that such a man didn’t exist; at least, not outside her friend’s mind.

She herself was cynical about love. Especially ‘romantic’ love. It had its place in fiction and women’s magazines, but Anna doubted it existed in the real world. She blamed her father for this tainted view. But then she blamed him for many things after the way he’d abandoned her when she was only eight years old and cut her from his life.

He deserved it.                  


Chapter 3


Hut 27 became Anna’s new home. Their Nissen hut was one of many in the WAAF section of the camp, not far from the guard gate and backing onto the perimeter fence. She was proud of her billet, of the way the floor shone, and they’d all tried to keep it that way together, taking their shoes off outside, sliding around it on dusters – it gleamed, and for their efforts they’d been judged best hut in inspections. Basic training had been hectic and at times both physically and mentally tiring, lots of PE and parade-ground-drilling and the lectures on RAF rules. Not to mention all those aptitude tests to discover which branch of WAAF training you would move onto next. But all the same, she’d enjoyed it, and the focus it gave her. And she thrived on the comradeship of the women in the barracks. 

It wasn’t all roses, of course: there were some thorns as well. Route marches in the pouring rain meant having to wash out grubby uniforms and shine shoes that were caked in mud. And cleaning out the ablutions in the freezing cold wasn’t much fun, or measuring the grass with a ruler and cutting it with a pair of scissors.

Some of the airmen laughingly christened the WAAF quarters ‘the henhouse’, and she’d also heard them called ‘the nunnery’. But the chaps had to laugh at something, and Anna didn’t get upset by it; not like some of the other WAAFs, who found it disrespectful. Overall, she found that most of the airmen treated them with an old-fashioned chivalry. Only a few of the men resented them.

Anna learned another new skill, her, and the other recruits. They spent hours on one of the parade grounds ‘square-bashing’. Marching together, tallest on the right, shortest on the left, trying to get it right without piling into each other. Some couldn’t get the hang of it. Dotty was one of those, and Anna had tried to help her, but the poor girl seemed to end up on the wrong foot most of the time. She was gone now, Dotty – had dramatically disappeared. Mustered out of the WAAF. Family trouble. That’s all they were told at the time. But Anna had made it her business to find out from one of the corporals, because Dotty had been a friend, one of a trio of pals who had helped each other out. Tragedy had taken Dotty back home as her mother had died and she’d had to look after her two young brothers. To be a ‘mother’ for them, to comfort them and see them through their grief. It was something she would do well, Anna thought.

They would miss her, especially Mary, who still had the handkerchief with the rosebuds. But now she didn’t need it, as she didn’t cry. For Mary Armstrong had changed since their arrival in camp. Anna had watched her transform from a nervous, homesick girl into a confident woman, and gradually the two of them had become closer; drawn together by the many interests they shared, not least their love of books and crossword puzzles.

Anna and her new friend couldn’t have looked any more different if they’d tried: Anna, tall and slim with her dark features and hazel eyes, and Mary, a whole lot shorter and rounder, with sandy hair that fell into tight corkscrew curls all over her head, and deep blue eyes, the colour of sapphires. They may have gone to different schools and come from contrasting backgrounds but when both women took their intelligence and aptitude tests, they got identical scores; and had each been given a further interview. And soon, there would be a mathematical exam to sit. Anna looked forward to it because if she passed, she would have the title ‘Clerk, Special Duties’ and be selected for specialised training as a plotter in an operations room somewhere. She imagined herself in front of a giant map-table, her plotting rod in hand, sliding counters across the table showing positions of planes, their height, and their numbers in her sector.

The job, to track the route of enemy planes on the large ops room map, was a responsible one and could be stressful. It also meant that those WAAFs selected would be sworn to secrecy. Could she be cool under fire? one of her examiners had asked. She had no idea. She had never been ‘under fire’. But she would try her best.




Four weeks into her induction and training, Anna was looking forward to her first day of leave. She considered they’d all earned it.

Her excitement mounted the closer she got to Market Street. Today was a day of firsts. It was the first time she had been out of camp since they’d all been driven there in the back of that freezing truck. And she’d never been to Manchester before. It would be her first time at a real coffee shop, too. The Kardomah Café sounded like an exotic place. Probably why Edna had picked it. And, although Anna Golding had been on earth for over eighteen years, she had never been to anywhere you might call exotic. That, and the fact that Edna had managed to get a twenty-four-hour pass, made this visit to the Kardomah a special treat. It would be grand to see her friend again, to talk about old times and catch up on Edna’s romantic pursuits. There were sure to be some. It should prove to be a pleasant afternoon.

The outside of the café was a disappointment. Not anything like she’d been expecting. The hessian over the windows meant you couldn’t even see inside, and she tripped over the sandbags by the entrance. But the war couldn’t be ignored, and most shops already had their windows smothered in blast tape or wire mesh. The threat of bombing was real, although it hadn’t happened yet. People were building Anderson shelters in their gardens and there were rumours that underground stations in London were to be used as massive public shelters.

Once inside, the disappointment gave way to awe. The interior of the Kardomah might have been transported from a Hollywood movie set. Lush, colourful Art Deco furnishings and huge central pillars reaching up to swirling rooftop lights. A magnificent staircase that flowed up to the next floor instead of simply arriving there. It struck Anna that someone in a ballgown would not look out of place gliding down it, though the small woman in drab wartime clothes who’d just descended certainly did.

A loud, familiar voice shrieked behind her, and Anna turned around to see her friend.

‘Lord almighty, you came!’ said Edna, and ran at Anna in an enthusiastic tackle.

‘You’d make a decent rugby player,’ said Anna, smiling at her friend’s boisterous welcome and hugging her right back. ‘And of course I came. Did you think I wouldn’t?’

‘Thought maybe you’d got too fancy for your old pals,’ Edna joked. ‘Look at you in your posh blue uniform. Bet the blokes are impressed with that. I’m jealous.’


‘You! You look stunning,’ said Edna.

‘Nonsense.’ But she was pleased, all the same. Her service dress fitted well and emphasised her slim figure and long legs, and she’d shined up her cap badge until its brass crown gleamed. On the way there, she hadn’t failed to notice the admiring glances that came her way. She wasn’t used to it. Had always thought of herself as an ugly duckling. Maybe she’d turned into a swan.

Edna bustled them to a table. The only change that Anna could see in her friend was the short hair and the khaki uniform.

‘You cut your hair,’ she said.

‘Gave in,’ said Edna. ‘Easier than taking grief from a sadistic bleedin’ sergeant.’

‘You like the army? I mean, even with the scratchy khaki and the orders?’ asked Anna.

‘Been taking orders all me bleedin’ life. Don’t give it no mind. Then there’s the lads. Fallin’ over theirselves they are, some of ’em.’

‘Careful, Edna.’ Anna frowned. ‘If you get in trouble, it’ll be you who pays the price. Not some chap who takes off once he’s had his fun.’

Edna tapped the side of her nose. ‘Careful’s me middle name. Saving meself for the right one. An’ I ain’t no bloke’s comfort blanket, ta very much!’

‘Comfort blanket?’ said Anna. ‘Oh… I see. Well, I’m glad. Put a high price on yourself. If you don’t think well of yourself, nobody else will. And you deserve somebody decent.’

‘What about you?’ Edna asked. ‘Find yerself some fancy flyboy yet?’

‘Not in the market for one,’ said Anna. ‘Someday, maybe. Depends on the chap.’

‘Hand on your heart and tell me there ain’t some gorgeous bloke in blue you’ve taken a shine to. Must be loads of them in that camp of yours,’ said Edna.

‘You know me,’ said Anna. ‘Never been drawn to a handsome face. There’d need to be more to him than that.’

Ain’t that just what I’m saying?’ said her friend. ‘The fun’s in tracking down the rest of it!’

Anna laughed and wondered if the massive beam spreading across Edna’s face and the lively sparkle in her eyes meant something special. ‘You getting ready to hook some new chap, then?’ she asked.

‘Might be,’ said Edna. ‘Something to be said for getting wed, having your own lovely bloke look after you. Treating you right.’

‘Married? You’re getting married?’ asked Anna, astonished.

‘Not yet, but I wouldn’t mind settling down – one day. All nice and cosy and secure.’

‘Not me,’ said Anna.


‘What – have some man tell me what to do and where to go and what to think? Keep house for him? And look after his kids while he goes on the town? No, thanks!’

‘But what will you do?’ asked Edna, shocked. ‘How will you live if you don’t marry?’

‘It’s the twentieth century. An exciting world, full of possibilities,’ said Anna and, reaching across, squeezed her friend’s hand affectionately. ‘I’ll be an independent woman. A modern, independent woman. I’ll work.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Who knows?’ Anna said. ‘I’ve done well in the aptitude tests they gave us. I always liked mathematics. Maybe I’ll get a job as a bookkeeper, or a secretary, or work in a shop or drive a car when the war’s over. It doesn’t matter, don’t you see? We can be anything we like.’


‘Sure. You. Me. Women!’

The two of them chatted and gossiped about old times while drinking coffee that was strong and covered in froth. Edna became sad when she spoke about her mother, Ruby. Anna was fond of the woman, but it seemed she wasn’t well, but still kept on working as housekeeper for Aunt Beatrice in Watford just the same.

‘What with me leaving,’ said Edna, ‘and now Cook’s gone, there’s only me ma to do all the work. It’s too much for her. I’ve told her to finish with all that and I’ll look out for her. Send her some of me wages. But she won’t have it. You know Ma, she’s right independent, don’t like bothering folks. Which reminds me…’ Edna reached into her kitbag, rummaged around inside, and came out with an envelope. ‘Ma gave me this for you. Came a week ago. She didn’t hand it over to her highness, didn’t want it to disappear. Ma’s on your side. Always has been.’

‘I know,’ said Anna. ‘And she’s always been kind to me. She’s worth ten of Aunt Beatrice.’

Come the revolution!’ said Edna.

They both giggled.

Anna took the letter. Her name was written on the front, along with her old address in Watford.

‘Very fancy,’ said Edna.

‘What?’ asked Anna.

‘The writing. Proper copperplate. Looks like it’s from somebody posh.’

‘Really? But my writing looks like that,’ said Anna, amused. ‘And I’m not posh.’

‘You certainly are,’ said Edna.

‘Never!’ said Anna.

‘Not stuck-up like some of them upper-crust idiots used to come to your aunt’s house, but you talk posh,’ said Edna. ‘I ain’t saying that’s bad!’

‘Hope not.’

‘We still pals?’ asked Edna. ‘You ain’t upset?’

‘Of course we’re pals,’ said Anna. ‘Friends for life, remember? Give your ma my love and tell her thanks for this.’ Anna pointed to the letter. She took her canvas gas mask haversack from the back of her chair and put the envelope inside. The gas mask holdall was a sort of unofficial handbag. Although it was frowned on by some of the more officious NCOs, even WAAF officers had been known to keep their make-up and personal items in there.

‘Not going to read it then?’ asked Edna.

‘Later,’ she said. ‘Don’t want to waste our time together. I’m enjoying it.’

‘Me, too,’ said Edna. ‘I have to go, though.’

‘But you only just got here,’ complained Anna.

Edna pointed at the clock. ‘We been gassing for over an hour. An’ I only had a twenty-four-hour pass. Bleedin’ trains took up most of that. Don’t want to be AWOL. Already spent enough time peeling spuds on jankers, ta very much.’

‘Punishment detail? You’ve been up on a charge, already?’ asked Anna.

‘Twice!’ Her friend laughed. ‘Sloppy drilling – and forgetting me cap. Got two days of me pay docked.’

‘Still, worse things out there,’ said Anna. ‘Just you take care.’

‘Will do. And don’t you go being no hero, neither,’ said Edna, as the two of them stood and hugged.

It was a tearful goodbye, for who knew when the two pals would see each other again. It was wartime. Nothing was sure. Not even where you might get posted from one minute to the next. It all seemed a bit random when you thought about it. But Anna assumed that the people in charge were all doing their best. They’d hardly do less, would they? All the same, they must be learning as they went along. Just like her.

She picked up her cap, slung the holdall over her shoulder and made her way out to Market Street. She was lucky, and picked up one of the RAF transport trucks heading back to camp.

It dropped her at the gate; and just in front of the barrier she spotted her friend and hut-mate, Mary, sitting on the grass. Anna noted the young airman beside her pal and the pushbike lying on the embankment next to them. They were lounging on a blanket from the billet. Mary’s, most likely. She’d get in trouble for that, but maybe she didn’t care. She looked as if she didn’t mind, Anna decided, for she was smiling and holding the chap’s hand. They were both eating sandwiches. A sort of picnic. And both looked happy and comfortable in each other’s company.

Mary spotted her and waved her over. Anna shook her head. Two was company, especially where a chap was involved. There was an etiquette to such things, and she didn’t fancy playing gooseberry.

‘Join us,’ shouted Mary, and waved again. ‘We’re having a party.’

Anna reluctantly walked over, not wanting to seem rude.

‘Not much of a party,’ said the man when she arrived. ‘Only sardine sandwiches, I’m afraid, but you’re very welcome to one.’ He handed one to her as he greeted her with a large, friendly smile. 

Anna beamed back automatically. Which wasn’t like her. She was usually quite reserved meeting strangers. But her face just fell into a silly grin as if it was operating by itself, separate from her brain. 

Absentmindedly, Anna took a huge bite from the thick, chunky sandwich. Tasted the oily sardine on the back of her tongue. She raised the remainder of the sandwich in the air, as if she were making a toast. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘It’s good,’ she told him, as her eyes took in his face: the liberal sprinkling of freckles across it; the small, neatly trimmed ginger moustache above his upper lip. His eyes were green with flecks of light in them, and he had a ginger head of hair; thick and unruly, like hers.

Not a particularly handsome face, Anna supposed some would say. But then, she’d never been impressed by good-looking men. Her father had been called a handsome devil. Maybe that was why.

She looked away from him. Dropped her head in embarrassment. Felt a pulse of heat work its way up her neck and into her cheeks. Not a good idea, staring at your pal’s boyfriend like that.

‘You like the sandwich?’ asked Mary.

‘I do,’ she said. And, of their own volition, her eyes sought the man’s face again.

‘But you hate sardines,’ said Mary. ‘Oh… I see.’

‘What?’ said Anna.

‘Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Plain as the nose on your face, though,’ said Mary.

‘What is?’ asked Anna.

‘Nothing for you to worry about. But I suppose if you’re eating his sandwiches, you’d better be introduced,’ said Mary. ‘This great lanky drink of dishwater here is James Armstrong. Sometimes known as Ginger. My brother. My older brother,’ she added as an afterthought, and laughed.

‘Thanks for the big build-up, sis.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘Jimmy,’ he said. ‘You can call me Jimmy.’ He wiped his hand on the grass and reached over to shake Anna’s. ‘And I’m not that old.’

And that was that. The start of something new and totally alien to Anna Golding. Something unexpected. Something wonderful. And, yes – finally exotic. The tilting of the world on its axis and something Anna had never come face to face with before.

The overwhelming feeling of attraction for a man.

Powerful enough to make her overcome her loathing of sardines.


End of sample