27 JULY 1942
The killing was far away now. Left behind in a different world. Rosemary Ellis stood on the cliff-top and stared at the ocean, mesmerised by its fury, the chilling beauty of the wild Cornish seascape. The waves pounded the shoreline, and in their retreat left behind small flecks of pure white foam. They were at the top of East Cliff and her eyes shifted to the collection of clapboard bungalows huddled below, tiny from right up there, clinging to the cliff edge with a determination that seemed to defy gravity. One day they might disappear, taken greedily by the ocean and the winds that battered the rock face.
Over on the other side of the bay was West Cliff, thrusting its way into the sky like a jagged monolith. That’s where their boarding house was. Halfway up, along a narrow path. A bit of a climb, but then they were young and fit. Nothing to it. Two rooms, not one. She’d insisted on that. Anything else would have been improper. And down there in the valley, nestling between both cliffs, was their special place. A restaurant with tables outside. Rosemary had never been to a restaurant with tables outside before, somewhere you could sit and watch the evening sun slide into the ocean, and eat crab. It seemed exotic, with all the allure of foreign places that she’d only read about and dreamed of seeing one day. A world apart from the drabness of wartime London and the Blitz.
Rosemary was an attractive, uncomplicated girl, whose charm lay in her honesty and sincerity. It was those qualities that gave her a quiet dignity and had first drawn her companion Danny Welland to her. He’d told her she was ‘wholesome’. Was that a compliment? It sounded more like an advertisement for some sort of food. But no, he’d assured her that to be wholesome was good. It meant she was straightforward, and natural, didn’t put on airs like some of those sophisticated and cynical society women his mother threw at him.
Two people from different backgrounds, both Londoners: Rosemary was an East End girl, proud of her Cockney roots, and Danny came from the rarefied air of Dulwich. But love ignores borders, vaults over class barriers in a single bound.
They’d met on his last leave. She’d rescued him, he said, from the greatest disaster in history. Some woman called Marjory with a face like a horse and a voice to go with it. His mother had been ready with the confetti. He’d fled to the Lyons Corner House on Coventry Street. Rosemary recalled his face when he’d spotted the spare seat at her table — it had crinkled up and she’d thought he was in pain or having some kind of seizure, but apparently it was ecstasy at the sight of her. Men, eh! They could lay it on thick when they wanted to.
But she’d let him sit at her table anyway. Had moved her gas mask off the seat to make room for him. He’d looked harmless enough, and handsome in his RAF uniform, and Rosemary was having one of her let’s-be-adventurous days.
She had guessed he was only there to look at the charming ‘Nippy’ waitresses in their new uniforms. Joseph Lyons had smartened up all the waitresses in his Corner Houses and teashops with attractive and modern black and white outfits. Figure-hugging with two rows of tiny pearl buttons down the front. She reckoned that most of the blokes eating their lunch were only there for the added attraction of the Nippies.
And now? Well, now he called her his Rosie and her ‘deep green eyes had found their way to his soul’. A poet as well as a pilot.
She tried to picture his mother and the women he’d rejected. Their hair — was it coiffured in the latest short style, or did they sport the ‘peekaboo’ long locks of Veronica Lake: a cascade of blonde hair falling over their shoulders, coyly covering one eye with a soft wave? They were bound to look like film stars, weren’t they?
Her own hair fell in long glossy tresses — not easy to keep shiny now, what with the shortage of good shampoo — but she tried. The shade of Rosemary’s hair changed when the light of the sun shone through it. Sometimes it was red with traces of copper, and then when she turned in her quick, impatient way, it could be a shimmering brown.
She imagined again the society women his mother had flung at him. Their fancy floral evening dresses. It was wartime but some women, those with wealth, still managed to deck them¬selves out in lavish finery. Rosemary’s dresses weren’t exactly elegant, but she did her best with ‘make do and mend’, like the pamphlet said. Coaxing new life out of old clothes, doing her bit for the war effort. Not like some people.
There were some who acted as if the world was the same as before. It wasn’t. Everything had changed. How people lived. How they loved, like tomorrow might never come. How they worked. Now women were allowed to work, and in men’s jobs too. But Rosemary wasn’t naive, she knew that might change. Change back when women weren’t needed anymore. When the men came home from war. Not that she didn’t want them home. It’s what she prayed for every night: that it would all be over soon and laughter could return and mothers, sisters, wives could grieve properly for their men. Men like her dad.
Harry Ellis had been one of the poor sods left behind at Dunkirk, doing his bit as part of the rear-guard, so that other blokes could escape back home across the Channel. He was a prisoner of war now, they’d heard. Somewhere in Poland. Well, he’d always wanted to travel — that had been her mother’s reaction when she’d heard the bad news from the War Office. Gallows humour. There was a lot of that going around.
She squeezed Danny’s hand and his eyes sought hers in reply, a question in them.
‘Remember how you teased me when we met?’ she said. ‘Me? No!’
‘You were a monster,’ she said, and poked him in the ribs with a finger. ‘Called me Rosie the Riveter.’
‘It was a joke. You told me your name was Rosie and you worked in a factory, helped with the war effort. I was impressed.’
‘But I was nervous. What was I supposed to say?’
Him, nervous? She couldn’t imagine it. He always seemed so confident, so self-assured. A fighter pilot.
‘Yes, but Rosie the Riveter. Really?’ The cartoon poster of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ came from America. Rosie, with her red and white polka-dot turban, navy blue overalls with the sleeves rolled up, her hand clenched in a fist pump, flexing serious arm muscles. Challenging the world with her ‘We can do it!’ attitude. But Rosemary didn’t need any old poster to tell her she was capable of doing anything, including a man’s job. She knew she could. And she didn’t need to turn into a man to do it. She was beautiful — Danny had told her so.
‘Tell me again,’ she said now. ‘You know’ — she smiled shyly — ‘that you think I’m pretty.’ She didn’t need to hear it, but even so, it gave her a thrill and tiny goose bumps when it came from his lips.
‘What? That your eyes are deep liquid pools of green, just like the ocean?’
‘Well, not exactly like the ocean, obviously. A close second, though.’ He grinned.
‘Fool! On a scale of one to ten, then.’
‘An eight. Definitely an eight.’
‘Swine.’ She poked him in the ribs again. He was getting thin and bony, his uniform loose in places. Not eating enough, smoking too much and too much stress. He worried her. Rosemary’s forehead creased into a frown.
‘What’s wrong?’ he said.
‘Nothing.’ A lie.
‘An eight’s not bad, you know,’ he said, and took a strand of her hair, curled it around his finger.
It was a game they played, pretending that they weren’t perfect for each other. It was wartime. It didn’t do to build your hopes too high. One day his kite might go down, he might not come back. She might not survive. It was 1942 after all: bombs were still decimating London; one of them could easily have her name on it.
Cornwall had been a great idea, as they both loved it there. They stared out at the ocean and fell into a comfortable silence, broken only by the sound of their breathing. Together. Even our breathing is together, thought Rosemary. They were like one body.
One body with two minds, though, for Rose Ellis would never let anyone tell her what to think. She had strong opinions, was not afraid to voice them. And ideas about how women should be equal with men. Ideas that weren’t always welcome, even in her own family, for her dad had called it idiotic — the notion that a woman could ever do the job of a man. But Danny understood, encouraged her to be herself and never give up on her dreams.
She heard a sigh and Rosemary shifted her gaze back to the man beside her. He was tall. Much taller than she was, for people described her as slight. Her mother said she was ‘dainty’, which always struck Rosemary as another word for ‘weak’. She wasn’t weak, the opposite. Danny called her ‘petite’, and that sounded much better — colourful and glamorous. French.
Maybe she’d visit France one day. Maybe he’d take her there, this man who had an old-fashioned elegance. It came from his bearing rather than his wardrobe, and that breezy confidence of his; some might think it had something to do with his upbringing, but Rosemary believed it came from deep within him. A core of self-belief. Danny had a strength that made her feel secure.
Yet, oddly, there was also vulnerability in his eyes, like a puppy that had given his trust and been hurt in the process.
She wanted to protect him from any more pain.
His face was strangely at odds with the RAF uniform he wore. So young, she thought, for the weighty responsibility of a squadron leader. But then they were all young, just boys, flying out day after day to face the terror that hid in the skies. In that summer of 1942 they had no other choice. The blokes in the squadron called him the ‘old man’, and compared to some of the other fliers, twenty-two was old. And sometimes, when he let his guard down, she could see it in the mirrors of his eyes. The things he’d seen. Been forced to do for his country, for the uniform.
She shivered slightly, her mood broken, as knowledge of the future impinged on the happiness of the present. Soon Danny would leave, and these three precious days would retreat farther back into his mind, to be locked away in the drawer where he kept his memories.
‘Did I tell you the squadron has been passed as qualified for night ops?’ He said it with quiet pride.
Rosemary tensed, as the spectre of horrific mid-air collisions punctuating an inky-blackness scraped agonisingly across the fertile bed of her imagination. She swallowed her fear and smiled. ‘That’s good. You must be pleased. I’m sure it takes a lot of skill to fly at night.’
Danny Welland nodded eagerly, pleased with her understanding, her interest. ‘Well, I think we’ve stared at this bit of coastline long enough,’ he said. ‘We’ll be wearing it out. Shall we walk back along the cliff path?’
He took her hand and once again she felt the happiness tingling through her finger-tips.
And so they spent their last day together before they had to go their separate ways: he to Hampshire and his Hurricanes, she back to London. To sew her parachutes and hope that one of hers would someday save a life like Danny’s.
She hated the thought of going home to London, with its daily fight for survival and almost hysterical spirit of cheerfulness that pervaded the place. It was so different here. Their own magical Brigadoon — the village of Havenporth, where they had spent so much of their time together, also seemed timeless, mystical; untouched by the grating, raw reality of war.
‘Let’s make this our own special place, shall we? Promise we’ll always return here — every summer.’
She studied him, unsure of what he was trying to say.
‘We should! That’d be great,’ he continued, excited as a kid at Christmas. ‘What’s the date?’ he asked.
‘The twenty-seventh of July. But I don’t understand.’
‘We’ll make it an anniversary. Visit here every year on the same date. A sort of pilgrimage. Don’t you think that’s romantic?’
‘You mean meet here every year?’
He laughed. ‘No, you silly goose. I don’t mean meet here. I mean come back here together.’
Rosemary’s face flushed. She felt awkward, embarrassed. Surely he knew by now she wasn’t that kind of girl.
‘In my clumsy, cloddish way, Rosie Ellis — I’m asking you to marry me. Should I get down on one knee? I suppose I could run to something athletic like that, if you think it’s necessary.’ Danny Welland beamed.
Rosemary’s joy knew no bounds. It was an infinite emotion, not constricted by time or space. This was what she’d been created for. Put on this earth for. She was sure of that. She’d found her soul mate. It was so simple, yet profound.
They decided to get married during Danny’s next leave, on her twentieth birthday, in October. A double celebration.
Rosemary returned to London breathlessly, ecstatically happy. The war seemed a remote thing now, one that only involved other people. She closed her mind to the dangers he faced, for they were young, alive, vital, and most importantly — in love. They were indestructible.
Danny Welland was part of a fighter escort on a huge bombing raid when it happened.
In one cruel, bone-jarring instant, the vibrant life force was tugged from Rosemary’s body, and the colours around her turned to grey.
Officially he was listed as missing, thought to have been shot down somewhere over the Dutch coast. At first, she clung to the word missing, like it was a magic talisman that would keep him safe. Missing was better than dead. Rosemary refused to believe that life could be so cruel to them both; that fate could pull them apart, before they’d even had a chance to marry. To consummate their love.
But weeks turned agonisingly slowly into months, and nothing was heard of him.
Gradually it dawned on her that he must be gone. If he were a POW, the Red Cross would have turned up something by now, to say nothing of the Air Ministry, whom she pestered daily for any scrap of news.
Eventually, Rosemary let go of the slender thread of hope and retreated into a world of silence and shadows. The glossy chestnut hair that had once been her pride became lacklustre; her full, oval face was haggard; her mouth pinched with the pain of loss. She rarely spoke, and only then, when forced by her mother or sister Gracie, in short, brittle monosyllables. They hovered over her, tried to get her to eat the meagre rations that her mother miraculously turned into food. She got thinner. But then nobody got fatter: there was a war on.
It was a freezing-cold start to 1943. Rosemary didn’t care — it matched her feelings, her body, her mind.
‘I’m off to work,’ she said, one frosty evening.
‘But you just did a long shift!’ complained her mother. Lil Ellis had the knack of turning her mouth into a thin, mean line when she was angry. She hated being left alone in the house at night, especially if there was a raid and she’d have to find her way to the underground shelter in the blackout.
‘There’s a war on,’ said Rosemary, wearily.
‘Hold the front page. Roll the presses!’ Her sister Oracle could be a right tit at times.
‘And my job’s important,’ Rosemary shot back.
But she didn’t really believe that anymore. She didn’t have the energy or the faith to believe anything now. But at least going to the parachute factory was an escape of a kind. She threw herself manically into the work, a mind-numbing exercise. The factory was a bolt hole far from the stifling confines of the house and their nagging. And whining. Her sister and Ma fought all the time now, rubbing each other’s nerves to shreds. Her mother called Grace ‘a good-time girl’ and ‘flighty’, flinging herself at any bloke who winked at her. ‘A disgrace — that’s our Gracie,’ she’d say.
Good for her! Take joy where you find it, for it soon gets ripped from your grasp. Bitter? Well, yes. But then she had reason to be.
Rosemary closed the door of the small terraced house behind her. Their home in Royston Street, Bethnal Green, was tiny, but it had been a miracle to find it after being bombed out of their last house a few months before. Lucky to have a roof over your head at all in these dangerous and troubled times. They’d been stuck in a temporary church shelter until Rosemary had found this place.
She stepped carefully over her mother’s spotless front step. Lil Ellis was proud of her clean doorstep, scoured to within an inch of its life. It sent the world a message — a proud, hard-working housewife lived here, understood her responsibilities. War or no war, standards had to be kept up, the house neat and tidy, rugs beaten, copper on and weekly wash done on Monday. And every morning — rain, sleet, or lightning bolt — that front step had to be stained white with the donkey-stone.
Rosemary made her way along Royston Street, heading for the factory. A twenty-minute walk through narrow streets with terraced houses crammed together on either side. Acres of wet washing in backyards, flailing like flags in the wind. Once, this strange herding together of people had felt comforting, the sense of community a gift to be cherished. But not now. Now everything had changed in her life, and the closeness felt claustrophobic, as if it might smother her.
Her body was stiff and rigid as Rosemary moved through the East End streets pockmarked with bomb craters. Constant reminders of the new normality. Nothing was normal, would ever be normal again.
She pulled her head farther down into the collar of her coat. The wind seemed more bitter than usual, but then it was January so you’d hardly expect anything different. A new year already. And what would 1943 have in store for them all? More of the same probably. She used to be such an optimist, but it was hard to get in touch with the light when all around was darkness.
Head down, eyes fixed on the road, always looking down. Safer that way, especially with the blackout. No eye contact with other people, for they’d only see the pain in her and she’d recognise the weariness in them. That good old East End spirit that Bethnal Green was famous for had taken a battering. Some of them had been bombed out of their houses two or three times since the beginning of the Blitz. The East End had been pounded when Hitler sent his Luftwaffe over day and night, its closeness to the docks making it one of the hardest hit in the relentless German bombing. Bethnal Green alone had taken 80 tons of bombs.
That was over now, the Blitz proper. But they all still needed the shelters, for there were lots of tit-for-tat raids that demolished houses, killed civilians. When Berlin was bombed you couldn’t expect to get off scot-free. One for you, one for us. Like kids playing a game.
Except it wasn’t a game of course. Loads of good men had been killed — on all sides. And women and men on the home front, and kids. Innocent kids who’d never done anything to deserve it.
A month after Danny had gone missing, fate had played another of its ugly tricks and Rosemary and her family had been bombed out of their old house in Wilmot Street.
She still remembered her mother and her coming out of the shelter at Bethnal Green tube, heading to their house and finding the kitchen sink blown out into the middle of the street. Sitting there, it was — large as life and twice as daft. Her ma had sunk to her knees in the rubble, had laughed hysterically and then she’d cried.
Why us? her ma had asked her.
Rosemary had no answer. Besides, they weren’t alone, for many others had lost their homes that night, their belongings, their lives. The whole street had been taken out, leaving just the school standing by itself, its roof shattered but the rest of the old building clinging on tenaciously.
And the smell. Who could ever forget the smell? The acrid, choking smell of burned-out buildings, the nausea of a broken gas main, and the strange musty odour of damp plasterboard hanging from the remains of houses. Places that used to be homes.
Their old house may not have been a mansion, but it was the place where she’d been born. Somewhere she’d built memories.
Rosemary tried to recall the family times they’d had in that house; the things they’d all done; the Christmases they’d enjoyed before the war when her father had been there with them. And Danny! The last time she’d seen him had been in the front parlour there. They’d made plans for the future and drunk tea and her ma had produced some strange oatmeal cake that she’d been proud of. Then they’d taken a walk up to the school- house and Danny had told her about getting the marriage licence, about the car he’d borrowed to take them on a two-day honeymoon. He hadn’t told her where they were going. But he had winked. So, she’d guessed it was Cornwall, their favourite place.
But there had been no wedding. No honeymoon.
She shuddered, thinking about the pain. There’d been so much of it. Her da, missing. Their old home, missing. But the worst pain of all? That had been an agony of pain that wouldn’t go away. The loss of her precious Danny. No pain could ever surpass the suffering that came from that.
She tried to shrug off the blackness that had enveloped her and quickened her pace, for the light was already being sucked from the late afternoon sky. Dangerous out walking in the dark of the blackout. You could easily turn an ankle in the rubble.
‘That you, Rosie Ellis?’
She didn’t reply. The man knew who she was, and now he’d be using her appearance as an excuse to get chatty. He’d tried to get chummy with her before, at the factory, in the canteen. They came from the same area, so maybe he figured that gave him some sort of property rights over her. Some men were like that. Still didn’t see women as their equals.
She’d had several offers — blokes willing to take her on, they’d said. Take her on? Bloody insulting. Why would she need a bloke to look after her when she could look after herself? A skivvy, that’s all most of them wanted. Somebody to cook their dinners, keep their house clean, take their orders.
‘Walk you to work?’ he said. ‘Dangerous place with the dark coming in.’
She said nothing. What did it take to discourage the man? Did he not get the hint that she wasn’t interested in him?
In him or any bloke.
‘Not much of a talker, are you, Rosie?’ He slipped his arm through hers.
‘Don’t you dare call me that!’ She ripped her arm away. The violence took him by surprise. But she wouldn’t let any man call her Rosie now. That’s what he’d called her. Danny. His memory had to be held intact, a memorial, nothing about their history to be lessened, especially by somebody like Albert Green. A man who hadn’t even served his country, was in a reserved occupa¬tion, but then that was just an excuse with some of them. Blokes who knew somebody special who could pull a few strings to get them off the fighting. Cowards! Not like her Dan.
‘Touchy little thing, ain’t you?’ said Albert. ‘I was only going to see you safe to work. Not offering to marry you. Not that you’d be much of a catch. Stuck-up, skinny little bitch like you. We’re not good enough for you, eh? Now that you’ve got this bloke of yours with his pilot’s wings and his fancy house in the suburbs.’
Her breath stung her throat. The hurt dug into her again, reminding her of the loss. Not that this idiot knew anything about Danny, or what had happened to him. It wasn’t like she’d broadcast the news of his death all over Bethnal Green. Some things were private.
She ran the rest of the way to work. Tears threatened to overtake her, but she battled them ruthlessly, couldn’t let them all see how weak she was. She waited in line with the others to clock in, get her overall and hairnet. Just being part of the swirling mass of bodies made her feel better. A random mix of people, they all had things in common but were also very differ¬ent. In a weird way she felt more at home there than she did with her family in their tiny house in Royston Street. Here, she could be one of the many. Invisible. And that’s what Rosemary liked.
‘Alright, love? You bring your bed here?’ The enquiry came from Maisy Turner, the woman next to Rosemary in the queue. ‘Might as well sleep here. You spend more time here, Rose, than in that house of yours.’
Rosemary nodded. Didn’t speak. Still had a picture of Albert in her head and how he’d insulted her. ‘Skinny’ she didn’t mind. But ‘stuck-up’? Is that what they thought of her? Sad. Pessimistic. Weary. She would own up to all of those. But stuck-up — never. She was an East Ender same as the rest of them in there, didn’t take on airs and graces, never needed to. All she wanted was to be left alone to get on with her job, no jokes, no banter and definitely no war-talk. She could bury herself in the work, and stifle painful thoughts, murder them fiercely at birth. To be left alone — it wasn’t much to ask, was it? ‘Well?’
Maisy was persistent. You had to give her that. And she was also the closest to a friend Rosemary had in the place — anywhere really, when you thought about it. Since Danny had died, she didn’t encourage friendship, had built a prickly shell around herself that took care of that.
‘Wow! Words,’ said Maisy.
If she ever smiled now — and it was rare — it was Maisy who managed to drag one from her. This one arrived on her face before she even knew it was there.
‘Okay, I deserved that,’ she said. ‘But I’m really trying, you know. To be normal.’
‘Normal? Who wants to be normal?’ said Maisy. ‘Where’s the fun in that? Anyway, you hear the latest?’
‘We’re having a visitor. Somebody special. Coming to give us the old morale boost.’
‘Who?’ she asked. Not that it mattered. It was always the same. They came for an hour and left. Foreman rushed them through on a whistle-stop tour, and then when the excitement died down, it was back to the normal slog again.
‘Reckon it’s one of them really special people this time. Seems like they’re going to town, smartening everything up — even the canteen’s got bunting up. Could be one of the royals... what d’you reckon?’
Rosemary stepped up and took her card from its slot, put it in the machine, clocked in. She wasn’t fussed who was coming, if anybody was. Rumours were always rife in a place like this. Five hundred people working there, you got five hundred rumours. Didn’t pay to listen, and Rosemary didn’t usually, but then her friend Maisy was getting really worked up about it. Like Christmas had come early.
‘We’ll find out when they’re ready to tell us.’ She looked up at the supervisor’s cabin high above their heads. He lived in the glass bubble up there where he could see them all, and only scuttled down to the shop floor when something piqued his interest. And it was usually something bad. She’d never heard of Mr Hardcastle coming down to offer praise. You did a good job, that was normal, something he took for granted. An everyday expectation. And Mr Hardcastle was a man with high expectations. You were doing it for the war effort: it was a mantra so often on his thin, bloodless lips that it had become a kind of shorthand for the man, and something said behind his back by mimics fed up with the continual slog, looking for some comic relief.
A strangled voice came over the tannoy. It was Mr Hardcastle doing his impression of somebody posh. He was still getting to grips with the new speaker system and seemed to think that his own working-class voice wasn’t good enough.
Rosemary didn’t get it. You were what you were, and she saw no earthly reason to apologise for it. She was a Bethnal Green girl and proud of it.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention, please?’
Maisy laughed. ‘Ladies? That’s nice.’ She gave Rosemary’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. ‘Chin up, girl. See you later?’
Rosemary watched her friend head towards the canteen. Maisy was off to work her cook’s magic with the paltry lot of rations she had to juggle. Abra-ca-bleedin-dabra! Making meat pies with no meat in them. They should call them carrot pies. But what the heck, it was better than nothing. Was that optimism? Rosemary smiled to herself. Her second smile that evening.
She wound her way to her machine station, past massive tables with girls on either side packing up the finished parachutes. There were others stacking the rolled-up chutes onto row upon row of shelves that stretched the whole length of the ground floor. In her own job, on her industrial sewing machine,
Rosemary was always surrounded by great swathes of white parachute silk. Make lovely knickers, the girls used to say, and laugh. But nobody took any. That would be unpatriotic.
The tannoy made some more strange noises as Mr Hard- castle hit it with something, to check it was working. The grating sound made all heads on the factory floor turn up to his glass tower. Anything to break the boredom, the repetition of their work.
‘Ladies and gentlemen...’
‘Didn’t he say that already?’ moaned Norman. Norman was a grizzled old man on the sewing machine next to Rosemary’s, and she’d never seen him smile. Not once. He usually had a puzzled frown on his face, as if life confused him. Norman would take first prize in any grumpy-old-geezers competition.
‘Can I have your attention, please?’
‘Get on with it,’ shouted some wit at the back of the room. ‘War’ll be over before he gets round to it.’
Easy to be a critic when you don’t have to do it, thought Rosemary.
‘Can I please see Rosemary Ellis up here at her earliest convenience?’ said the voice.
‘Ah ha! What you been up to then, Rosie?’ Norman waggled an accusing finger at her.
She was so flustered she didn’t even remind the man her name was Rosemary. What had she done? She could think of nothing. Dear God, that awful man Albert Green hadn’t made a complaint about her, had he? But she hadn’t done anything. It wasn’t fair. He was the one should be getting an earful, not her. He’d tried to get familiar when she hadn’t asked him to.
But then life wasn’t always fair, was it?
She straightened her overall and slowly made her way up to the glass tower. There were catcalls and whistles as she passed and it felt like every eye in the place was on her. She held her body stiff, like a piece of steel. She could be brave. She could do this. Whatever it was, it could hardly be worse than what she’d already experienced.
‘Where you off to dressed like that? Thought you’d work today,’ said Lil.
Though she didn’t make a whole song and dance about it, Lil Ellis was proud of her daughter Gracie. Of both her daughters and what they were doing for the war effort. But it didn’t always do to say stuff like that. Didn’t want them getting no ideas above their station. Gracie was already headstrong enough for a girl of seventeen, and she could be flighty around the blokes.
Even so, Lil’s chest swelled with pride when she thought of her Gracie standing up there on the draughty platform of a big old London bus in her uniform, a clippie in charge of all them passengers and her just a slip of a thing. Ferrying people back and forth to their work.
And once, during a raid, Gracie had kept them all calm. Ordered the passengers to lie on the floor, arms over their heads, protecting themselves from flying debris. They were safe enough from glass shards for Gracie’s bus had the usual blast-proof mesh over its windows; still, you didn’t want a chunk of bus landing on your head.
The driver had run, abandoned them all at the first sound of the siren, but Gracie had stayed at her post, a sheepdog guarding her charges. No one got hurt, but they might have done. And Gracie had been famous for five minutes, with a line in the local paper for her cool head and bravery, and a pat on the back from her boss.
‘You hear me, missy?’
‘Why you dressed all fancy? Where’s your uniform?’
‘Day off,’ said Gracie. ‘Me and Nora’s going up west. Lunch in Piccadilly.’
‘Ma, it’s only a corner house. Not the bloomin’ Ritz.’
‘You be careful. I hear there’s lots of GIs go up west.’
‘Yeah, sure.’ Gracie shrugged her shoulders. ‘A million and a half Yanks over here and I ain’t managed to meet one of them yet.’ She didn’t look her ma in the eye. Instead, Gracie dropped her gaze to the floor. To an interesting stain on the linoleum. She hoped her ma would buy the lie.
‘Just you keep it like that,’ said Lil. ‘It ain’t all what it’s cracked up to be.’
‘How d’you mean, Ma?’ asked Gracie, an innocent look on her face.
‘Those Yankee fellas. They ain’t all rich, like movie stars.’
‘I ain’t given it much thought,’ said Gracie. ‘Don’t mean nothin’ to me.’
But Gracie’s secret ambition had been to find a gorgeous American serviceman who would whisk her off her feet, and take her to a new life in his magical country where there was no rationing, no bombs, everybody chewed gum, and you fell over movie stars on every street corner.
‘And Nora’s going with you?’
‘Sure, Ma. And it’s not like I could get up to anything exciting with her in tow, is it?’
But she’d lied about Nora. Nora wouldn’t be going. She was a friend, sure — but she’d only slow her down. Nora — with her church-going ways, and strange ideas about saving yourself for sex till you were married. Just like her sister, Rosie.
‘Okay. But you’ll be careful, right? Don’t want no GI Joe leaving you with a little war brat, do we? And don’t think they wouldn’t. They’d be off back home to their fancy New York before you could knit your first baby bonnet.’
‘Nothing’s going to happen, Ma.’ Gracie tried to think of the word that meant saying one thing and meaning the opposite. ‘And where’s our Rosie?’ Always good to pull the conversation round to Rosie. Took the heat off her for a bit. Gracie grinned. Her ma was so easy to handle, not like their Rosie. Seemed like Rose could read your thoughts.
‘Still in work. I’ll swear the girl loves that place. Unless...’ ‘What?’
‘Well, maybe she’s got herself a fancy-man in there. She say anything like that to you, Gracie?’
‘How could she have a fancy-man and still be as bleedin’ miserable as she is? Not a smile for months,’ said Grace. ‘Not a civil word. No, I reckon our Rose only cared for one bloke and I can’t see nobody filling his shoes.’
‘Two weeks before their wedding, too.’
‘Him,’ said Lil. ‘Shot down before his wedding like that.’ ‘What — you think making Rose a widow would’ve been better?’
‘Better a widow than a sour old maid,’ said Lil.
‘She’s only twenty, Ma. She’ll find somebody.’
She better make it quick, before what’s left gets took. And you’re right, though I hate to say it, what shouldn’t. That girl’s been a proper misery. Grieving’s one thing,’ said Lil. ‘But taking it out on your family? It ain’t right.’
Rosemary was smiling. Right then she had a proper grin on her face. That can happen when you think you’ve been called in for a bawling out, maybe even an official reprimand, and instead the supervisor offers you butterscotch. (Sweeties! How on earth did he get those?)
‘So — should I wear a special dress or something, Mr Hardcastle?’
‘It’s a great honour, Rosemary, certainly. To be picked to do the presentation. But I think that when you hand over the bouquet to Her Majesty she’d expect you to be in your working clothes. Hairnet and all.’ He smiled, and it wasn’t often Mr Hardcastle smiled. ‘After all, she’s a very down-to-earth lady. And I’m sure she’s interested in seeing our normal working conditions.’
Queen Elizabeth coming here. Rosemary liked the woman. Although she was the wife of King George, she wasn’t stuck up or arrogant, like some of them other royals had been for years. And she was brave, faced the same dangers as everybody else in this war; hadn’t rushed off to hide in the countryside. And her and her hubby didn’t stay safely tucked away in some old palace, neither. They were right there in the thick of it, visiting people in the East End who’d been bombed out, and they knew all about the Blitz — had their own place at Buck House bombed as well.
‘Right you are, Mr Hardcastle. Working clothes it is.’
But such a special occasion called for a bit more, as well. She’d give her hair a proper do, a holiday — even though it would all be trapped under a hairnet. She still had a bit of that good Amami shampoo left. There’d been no reason to use it lately and she couldn’t bring herself to think about how she looked, not when there were men out there fighting for their lives. Men like her wonderful Danny.
This time when she thought about him, she didn’t cry. A moment of panic made her head swirl and there was a weird buzzing sound in her ears. Did that mean she was forgetting him? She mustn’t forget. C’mon, breathe. Think! She concentrated hard, closed her eyes, conjured up his face in her mind, and started breathing normally again. Panic over. His face was right there in front of her, with his shock of unruly black hair and that mischievous grin. Of course she hadn’t forgotten him, and she made herself a promise — she never would.
End of sample