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Authors: Carol Rivers

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BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
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‘Snap out of it, Kay,’ she told herself firmly, sliding the palms of her hands over her damp cheeks. ‘Find yourself something to do.’

Rolling up her sleeves, she set to work washing every surface in the kitchen with cold water and Lifebuoy soap, leaving the air smelling pleasantly of disinfectant. She threw the pails of dirty
water over the yard and swept the path clear of punctured sandbags. There were roof tiles and bricks scattered everywhere. Alan would be able to replace a few, but most were broken. At least the
toilet in the yard was working. She could hear the clang of fire-engine bells in the distance. That meant the demolition and rescue squads were on their way to clear the roads and check the gas
mains. She thought the noise would wake Vi and fully expected her to come bursting out of the front room, but she didn’t. Kay guessed that Vi was exhausted both from the shock she’d
received and their nights of broken sleep.

By the time Kay had restored order to the kitchen and upstairs landing, it was the afternoon. The last time she and Vi had eaten was in the shelter and too many hours ago to admit. She was
tempted to take Vi a snack, but instead she let her sleep. Going to the larder, Kay did as Vi had suggested and wiped the Spam clean with a cloth. As much as she hated Spam, she carved two thin
slices and lay them on a small wedge of bread taken from the safety of the bread bin. She found she was ravenous and didn’t care about the taste. With the sandwich devoured, her spirits
revived.

Feeling more like her old self, Kay took out a small, rust-pitted mirror from the kitchen drawer. All the other mirrors had been taken down. No one wanted seven years’ back luck if they
were cracked in a raid. To her horror, the woman who returned her stare was a complete stranger. The dust and ceiling plaster had formed her coppery-coloured waves into stiff, ugly spikes. Her skin
looked like a mask. It was only the soft, light grey of her eyes that showed any sign of life. ‘Kay, what’s happened to you?’ she gasped. ‘You look a hundred and seven, not
twenty-seven!’

She considered dragging in the tin bath and braving a scrub in cold water. But one of the civil defence workers or Harry might knock to tell them about the gas supply. No, she would have to make
do. And since she didn’t have to go to work at the armaments factory on Sunday, there was time to stand at the sink and wash.

When she felt clean again, she brushed as much dirt from her hair as she could then leaned over the sink and put her head under the cold-water tap. The remains of the Lifebuoy was not the best
shampoo in the world but was better than nothing. When she looked in the mirror again, her skin was back to its normal healthy colour. Her high cheekbones had regained their prominence in her
oval-shaped face. Shaking out her damp hair, its glossy thickness started to dry. Kay even considered changing her clothes but what would be the point? In a few hours’ time she and Vi would
return to the shelter for another cold and sleepless night.

Just then, Kay heard the front door open. She ran into the passage and very soon was buried in the arms of a tall, lean man with unruly black hair. As usual her husband was clad in his dirty
overalls and his beautiful brown eyes looked tired under their heavy lids.

Alan Lewis lifted his wife’s small chin with his dirty hands and kissed her hungrily.

Chapter Three

‘Thank God you’re safe,’ Alan whispered, his lips pressed against her hair. ‘I was worried about you.’

‘It was a terrible night, Alan.’

‘The worst,’ he agreed. ‘The city took a real pasting, with very few sectors left untouched.’

‘Yes, Harry Sway told us.’

‘Are you and Vi all right?’

‘Vi’s asleep in the front room whilst I’ve been cleaning round. The back door blew open and the dust got everywhere.’ Kay pressed her face against his chest, inhaling the
smells of the city. The London as it was now, in the raids and under pressure and in some parts razed to the ground. The fumes and dust and polluted gassy air, the mustiness of ancient buildings,
the dampness of the slums and the river with its wet, mossy wharfs and timbers reeking of tar. There was oil too, and grease and the faint whiff of some ingredient that Alan had told her was
contained in the dangerous explosives they dealt with. But most reassuringly of all, she could smell Alan himself. His sweat and his energy. His essence.

They walked slowly into the kitchen, arms linked. ‘There’s tiles off the roof,’ he noted, ‘and bricks dislodged from under the eaves. But they were loose already and will
have to be mortared when I get the chance. We seem to have no broken windows at the front or back. I hope Vi’s house has fared the same.’

Kay looked up at him. ‘You didn’t pass her place?’

‘No. I came home through the Cut.’

‘The waste ground was bombed and Vi’s house took the impact.’

Alan closed his eyes for a second then opened them. ‘But Vi was safe with you in the shelter, right?’

Kay nodded. ‘But she’s lost everything, Alan. Everything except her overnight bag and the few personal things she keeps in the Anderson.’

‘Can’t anything be done for the house?’

‘Very little, I’d say.’ Kay tried to keep her voice steady as she continued. ‘And there’s more. Babs and Eddie’s house was destroyed, although they’re
both safe. Thank God Tim and Gill are in Essex. But the Suttons . . .’ Kay’s voice trembled. ‘The family was at home when the bomb fell.’

‘My God, not the boys too?’ Alan gasped.

‘The whole family.’ She swallowed. ‘I . . . I was only talking to Madge in the butcher’s on Friday. She had enough coupons to buy sausages. They were Kevin’s
favourite and she hadn’t been able to get them for ages so we queued for over an hour because there were still some left on the butcher’s shelf. Madge wanted them for Saturday’s
dinner. Oh, Alan, that would have been the last meal she cooked!’

‘Come on, love.’ Alan hugged her. ‘Don’t torture yourself.’

‘I can’t help it.’

‘Close the door on your imagination,’ Alan said sternly. ‘It’s the only way. You can’t let your feelings get the better of you. This is a hard and sometimes
unforgiving world we live in.’

Kay knew that Alan spoke from experience. He had seen terrible things during the Blitz and had to steel himself against the sight of death, maiming and gruesome injuries. He always kept the
worst to himself. She knew he didn’t want to frighten her. But all the same she didn’t like to hear him speak so bitterly. In fact, it frightened her when he showed this side of his
character – which wasn’t often – and yet the closed look in his eyes and strained expression caused her to think that something in his past, the past that they rarely if ever
discussed, still haunted him.

‘I’d better go down the road and see if there’s anything that needs to be done for the Suttons,’ he said, shaking his head slightly as if to return himself to the
present.

‘But you’ve only just finished your shift,’ Kay protested before she could consider her words. Then, realizing his meaning, she put her hands to her mouth. ‘Oh, of
course, you might have to help with the identification.’ Kay knew that sometimes there was no family or even neighbours who could perform this awful procedure. Alan had to give what help he
could to the teams who dealt with the remains.

‘You won’t be too long, will you?’

He drew his hand gently down her cheek. ‘When I come back we’ll discuss what’s to be done for Vi.’

After he’d gone, Kay sat on a kitchen chair and looked around her. She had washed the dresser shelves and stood odd bits of china on them to replace the tea service. The puddle on the
floor was gone and she had satisfied herself that there was no blast dust left to contaminate the food. But she couldn’t help thinking that Slater Street had had more than its fair share of
bad luck in recent times.

Just after Christmas, Amy Greenaway, a teacher who lived on her own at the top of the road close to the Butts and whose house had backed on to Crane Street, had died in a raid. She usually went
to her church where the vicar had opened the cellars to provide shelter. But on this occasion she had been ill and in bed when the fatal bomb dropped. Then there was Florence and Herbert Shorter of
number eighty-four. The elderly couple had survived damage to their house from a heavy explosive but both had perished from their injuries later. Now Vi’s house and the Chapmans’ were
more notches on the Luftwaffe’s belt. But no loss in the street compared to the tragedy of the Suttons.

Just then there was movement behind her. She glanced round to see Vi who had a look of complete confusion on her face. ‘I can’t take it all in,’ Vi murmured hoarsely. ‘Is
it true my house was bombed?’

‘I’m afraid so, Vi.’

‘Did Harry say the Suttons were dead?’

‘Yes.’

‘I thought it was an ’orrible dream.’

‘I wish it was,’ whispered Kay sadly, ‘and we could wake up to how it was before this rotten war started.’

‘Anyone ’ome?’ A loud voice came from the passage. Kay went to see who it was. The gas man stood there, his face black and greasy and, like Alan, his overalls were covered in
grime.

‘All safe to turn on now, missis,’ he called. ‘You can make that cuppa you’ve been gasping for.’

Kay thanked him for the welcome news. A cup of tea would go down very well at this moment. But when Kay turned back to Vi, she saw that the gas being restored was the very least of their
problems. Vi looked utterly dejected. Her downcast face and blank, lifeless eyes told Kay just how much she was suffering.

That evening Vi helped Kay to peel the vegetables and cube the last of the carrots, potatoes and onions, and rolled out a pastry top to hide the unappetizing sight. A Woolton
Pie was the government’s own speciality recipe of carrots and leftovers hidden under pastry. The pie took its place in the oven and even more potatoes were crushed to death to mash with the
last scrapings of marg.

When Alan came in, he held out his arms to Vi. ‘Dunno what to say about your place, Vi. I just had a look. Don’t think there’s much I can do for you.’

‘After all the time you spent on me windows an’ all,’ she whimpered as he hugged her.

‘Any news on the Suttons?’ Kay asked, knowing before Alan shook his head silently that there was none. Kay bit her lip and turned back to the sink. For a moment she couldn’t
see through the blur of tears. Then, trying to do as Alan had told her and turn off her imagination, she managed to compose herself. ‘What about Babs and Eddie?’

‘They’ve been taken to a hostel in Aldgate,’ Alan told them. ‘Till they get a billet.’

‘Oh, poor Babs! She’ll hate being away from her home.’ Kay felt very sad for her friend. Babs loved her little house and kept it spick and span. But now, with it all gone, and
gone in one day, Babs must feel desperate.

Vi sank down on a chair, wiping her hands on Kay’s apron which was tied around her middle. ‘Looks like it’ll be me next, going on what Harry said. But who’s gonna want a
knackered old ’orse like me?’

‘The Vi I know is a long way from being knackered,’ Alan assured her.

‘All my adult life has been spent in that house,’ Vi murmured. ‘Me and my Pete was happy there till he popped his clogs ten years ago. We raised our boy Pete Junior, Gawd rest
his soul, in Slater Street. And all me lodgers have been decent sorts, providing me with an income that I wouldn’t have got elsewhere.’ Tears filled her eyes again. ‘I
s’pose I should feel grateful the bomb didn’t take me with it. But to tell you the truth I’d rather it had been me than the Suttons. In fact, I’d have volunteered meself if
I’d have known what was going to happen.’

‘I don’t want to hear talk like that,’ Alan said firmly as he took a seat beside her. ‘Don’t know what you think, love,’ he continued as Kay placed the hot
pie in the middle of the table, ‘but I reckon we could put Vi up in the spare room till something is worked out.’

‘I was going to suggest the same,’ Kay answered immediately. ‘What do you say, Vi? Will you give it a go?’

‘What!’ Vi gave a snort of disgust as she sniffed back her tears. ‘You and me might have kipped in your Anderson for eight months, Kay, but that’s a long chalk from
having an old duffer round yer feet all day.’

‘I’d be glad of the help as I’m at work all day,’ Kay replied, then grinned. ‘After helping to churn out thousands of the army’s ball-bearings, it’s not
top of me list to come home and get out the duster.’

‘You know you don’t have to stay at the factory, love,’ Alan put in quietly. ‘There’s other sorts of war work you can do.’

‘I know,’ agreed Kay, ‘but I don’t want to start changing jobs when I’ve got a son to look after – least, when he comes home I will. And please God, that will
be soon.’

Vi smiled sympathetically. ‘I understand how you feel, love.’

‘So,’ continued Kay, eager not to have any opposition from Alan about bringing their boy back from the country, ‘there’s a put-u-up bed and a chest of drawers in the
small bedroom under all the junk. It’s about time we had a good clear-out. You won’t be uncomfortable, I’m sure.’

But Vi shook her head firmly. ‘You are such good kids and I love you to bits. But I can’t impose.’

Kay raised her eyebrows and glanced swiftly at Alan. ‘Well, if our home isn’t good enough for you, Vi, so be it.’

‘So it looks like evacuation,’ Alan continued in the same regretful tone while keeping a straight face. ‘Matter of fact I’ll walk you down the Sally Army right after
we’ve eaten.’

For a moment there was complete silence. But then Kay and Alan began to laugh and Vi pulled out her hanky to blow her nose loudly. ‘I dunno what to say. I’m speechless.’

‘That’s a first, then,’ said Alan, which brought another burst of laughter all round.

After their meal, Alan helped them to clear the small room, then grabbed a few hours of sleep.

‘Are you sure about this, flower?’ Vi asked as she sat down on the put-u-up that Kay had furnished with two thin pillows, a sheet and an eiderdown that was faded but still had good
wear in it. ‘I don’t know how to thank you.’

‘You’d do the same for me and Alan, I know, if the position was reversed.’

BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
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