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Authors: Carol Rivers

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BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
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‘No doubt about that.’ Vi nodded vigorously. ‘And this has got to be a business arrangement. I’ll pay you a fair rent. I’ve got me savings in me bag and if I
can’t use ’em now, then I don’t know when I will.’

Kay smiled as she folded a spare nightgown into the chest drawer along with a few other items of clothing that might come in useful. She didn’t want to take any rent from Vi. But she knew
how independent her friend was and decided not to argue the point. ‘It was you and Babs who welcomed us when we first moved here,’ Kay reminded Vi. ‘You brought us mugs of tea and
some of your bread pudding, remember? Little did I know then that I’d be working with Babs up at Hailing House to earn a few much-needed pennies in the months before I had Alfie.’

‘Course,’ nodded Vi reflectively. ‘Babs got you that cleaning job, didn’t she? And a nice little earner it was for you too. The pair of you had a right old time swanning
around with yer dusters.’

Kay laughed at the memory. She had enjoyed working with Babs at the island’s charitable institution in the months before Alfie was born. The housework had been light and very enjoyable.
Hailing House was one of Kay’s favourite old buildings; maintained by the aristocratic Hailing family, it still had a faded elegance about it. But the many rooms, all in use for the benefit
of the island’s residents, needed quite a lot of attention. In fact, Kay had loved to clean the needlework rooms and kitchens. Here the women were encouraged to learn how to make their own
garments and provide their families with economical but healthy diets. There were always scraps of material left over and Kay had been given permission to take them home and make use of them. And
being pregnant, she’d quickly developed a liking for the cook’s homemade scones.

‘We felt sorry for you struggling with all yer stuff the day you moved in,’ Vi was saying, returning Kay to the moment. ‘I can never understand why your mum and dad gave you
the cold shoulder for marrying Alan. You was dead upset about that.’

‘Yes, I was and still am,’ Kay admitted. ‘Mum and Dad and Len never really took to Alan.’ She sighed. ‘Alan’s different, I know that. He’s got his
opinions, which can sound a bit, well, arrogant. Sometimes he even puts the wind up me with some of the things he comes out with.’ Kay hesitated. ‘It’s like . . . well, as though
it’s another Alan talking.’

Vi scowled at this. ‘What do you mean, love?’

Kay raised her shoulders in a half-hearted shrug. ‘I don’t know how to explain, Vi. Most of the time I can read him like a book. But then, well, just occasionally, it’s as if
he’s got something buried – yes, that’s it. Something pushed right down inside him that he won’t let out.’

‘In that case, whatever it is, is better left buried, Kay. Like us all, there’s things we don’t want aired and sores that don’t need scratching, as my old mum used to
say.’

Kay grinned. ‘Your old mum certainly had a way with words. But yes, it’s true. Alan thinks things out real deeply. He won’t go along with the crowd. Did you know before he met
me, Alan fought in the civil war in Spain?’

‘Yes, now you mention it, I think Alan did say once.’

‘British people frowned on all that. The freedom fighters, as they were called, were often labelled as radicals or idealists or even worse, as cranks. That’s what Mum and Dad
didn’t like. Alan just don’t conform to what they think is normal.’

Vi lifted her shoulder with a puzzled shrug. ‘Well, I can’t speak for the rest of the nation and I certainly don’t know nothing about politics. But I do know Alan. He’s
salt of the earth, a real genuine bloke who’s stuck up for his country and works hard to keep the East End safe.’ She took in an indignant breath. ‘Now, far be it from me to say,
but your mum and dad upped sticks and left Poplar as soon as war was announced in 1939. Even though they was East Enders born and bred and brought you and your brother up here, neither of ’em
considered staying put when the chips were down. No matter that the East Enders that was left had nothing but brooms and rakes to stick up Jerry’s arse if he landed. But we didn’t
budge. And it’s blokes like Alan we’ve got to thank for getting us through.’

‘To be fair, Mum was terrified at even of the mention of bombs,’ Kay recalled, reluctant to add to Vi’s outrage by saying that she too had been shocked when Lil and Bob had
boarded one of the first evacuation buses out of Poplar to the safety of the countryside. ‘And with Mum’s widowed sister, Aunty Pops, living in Berkshire, it seemed the sensible thing
to go and live with her.’

‘If you say so, gel.’ Vi’s small eyes glittered mischievously. ‘But as far as being out in the wilds goes, with all them lonely fields and mooing cows – well,
it’d drive me bonkers.’

Kay was inclined to agree. ‘Fancy not having a market on your doorstep,’ she pondered. ‘Or the river and the boats. Or the cinemas and cafes and—’ Kay paused as a
siren began to wail.

Vi looked out of the window and up at the sky. ‘I reckon we’ll back in the bunks tonight.’

Kay nodded resignedly for she too guessed it was to be another long haul in the Anderson.

Much to her surprise, the following morning Kay woke up in her own bed. The daylight crept in through a chink in the blackout curtains and spilled over her clothes which had
been thrown haphazardly over the chair.

Pulling on her jumper and trousers, the events of last night began to return. The warnings and all-clears had been going on and off to no pattern. The noise of aircraft had been distant and it
had been impossible to tell if it was the enemy or the British fighters above. She and Vi, unable to sleep and more than curious, had left the shelter in the early hours.

Kay hurried to the landing where she found Vi already dressed. ‘Vi, what’s going on?’ Kay said.

‘The Luftwaffe must’ve overlooked us,’ Vi replied, rubbing her eyes with her knuckles. ‘Either that or I slept so heavy I never heard a thing.’

Just then the front door opened and they both leaned over the banister as Alan called out and rushed up the stairs. Before either of them could speak, a big grin spread over Alan’s dirty
face. ‘They reckon there’s going to be a lull on London,’ he told them. ‘And not before time too.’

‘Are you sure?’ said Kay.

‘The radio and newspapers say it’s a possibility that as a result of German military strategy, Hitler’s now going for his grand plan. That is, to invade and defeat the Soviet
Union.’

‘Do you think it’s true?’ asked Kay. ‘Or is it a trick?’

‘Could be,’ said Alan with a shrug. ‘On the other hand, the Luftwaffe met their match on Saturday night. The figures are coming in that despite the bright moonlight giving
their bombers the advantage, it acted for our boys as well. We heard this morning that the RAF shot down at least thirty of their planes, not counting the ack-ack’s totals. I reckon Hitler
has given up on London for the time being.’

‘Yes, and some other poor sods will be targeted,’ said Vi bitterly.

‘A man’s still got to eat,’ said Alan, patting his stomach and grinning. ‘Any offers?’

Soon the smell of cooking was in the air as Vi bustled around the kitchen making breakfast. ‘In all honesty, the city couldn’t have taken much more,’ Alan confided as he sat
with Kay at the kitchen table. ‘Half of our squad were sent up as reinforcements to St Paul’s. The district around it looks like a wasteland. The rest of us went to Stepney where there
are still people trapped under the rubble since Saturday. All the hospitals are under pressure. Some of them, like St Thomas’s, have been damaged but are still taking casualties.
There’s warehouses, blocks of flats and factories all burning.’ He scratched the dark stubble on his jaws and blinked hard. ‘Piccadilly, Soho, Holborn, Paddington and over the
water to the Elephant, Bermondsey and Greenwich, you name it.’ He held his hands out. ‘Them blasted Junkers and Heinkels didn’t leave much untouched. There’s tangled pieces
of metal, lumps of masonry and rubble scattered as far as the eye can see . . .’

As Vi served up slightly burned squares of fried bread and hefty helpings of porridge, Kay felt heart-sick for the Londoners who had lost their homes and their loved ones. And perhaps even hope
for a future. But most of all – and selfishly – she hoped she would never have to see her own home under piles of rubble. They had escaped so far, but with the way things had been
going, she had to accept their lives were balanced on a knife’s edge.

Chapter Four

Kay and Vi were listening to the wireless early one evening towards the end of May. ‘The British nation has taken its revenge,’ the commentator announced proudly.
‘When Britain’s most distinguished battle cruiser HMS Hood was sunk in the Denmark Strait with the loss of all but three of her crew, the Royal Navy set out to hunt down the aggressor,
Germany’s newest and fastest battleship, Bismarck. Their mission was a success. A few hours ago the Bismarck was despatched to the bottom of the Atlantic, with the recovery of over one
hundred survivors, by British warships.’

‘My Pete might have been one of those sailors if he’d lived,’ Vi said as they waited for Alan to come home. ‘Or even your Alan. Just think how we would feel now, if
they’d served on the Hood. The pride of Britain’s naval fleet an’ all.’

‘Like the Bismarck,’ agreed Kay. ‘Now all of those lives have been lost. You can only feel for the wives, mothers and sisters of those men too.’

‘Makes you wonder what war is about,’ Vi said with a nod as she took a dish of corned beef and mash from the oven. ‘One life for another. It don’t make sense.’

Alan walked in, kissing them on their cheeks before sticking his dusty head under the cold-water tap. When he’d washed his hands and dried his face, he took his place at the table.

‘You look all in, love,’ Vi said softly.

‘Yes, I’ve had better days.’ Alan sighed as he waited for Kay to pour their drinks.

‘Did you hear about the Bismarck?’ Kay asked.

‘It was all over the wireless,’ Vi added, watching Alan stare at his dinner.

‘The German navy had their card marked when they sunk the Hood.’ Alan poked at his potatoes without much enthusiasm. ‘It was inevitable our fleet would take their
revenge.’

‘What’s the matter?’ Vi asked. ‘Ain’t you hungry?’

‘Don’t think we should talk about it before dinner.’

‘Do you mean the sinkings?’ asked Kay.

‘No.’ Alan looked up at them.

Kay put down the spoon she held in her hand. ‘You’d better tell us, Alan, whatever it is.’

He twisted uncomfortably on the chair. ‘I’ve just spoken to the undertakers and arrangements have been made for the Suttons’ funeral. They were considering, well . . .’
He raised his dark eyes to each of them. ‘. . . having only two or three caskets.’

‘What!’ exclaimed Kay. ‘They can’t do that.’

‘You mean the tight swines won’t spend their readies on five coffins?’ Vi demanded, slapping the dish on the draining board.

‘It’s not that, Vi. The undertakers ain’t responsible for paying out for the dead. If they was, they’d be out of business by now.’

‘But how are they proposing to fit five—’ Kay stopped as the words lodged in her throat. She looked into Alan’s eyes as he answered quietly.

‘Space isn’t the problem, Kay.’

Kay took a breath.

‘The bomb was a high explosive,’ Alan said simply. ‘Not much survives from that kind of impact.’

It took some time before Kay composed herself and by the time she had, Vi had turned her back and was attending to the pudding. Kay knew that Vi was also hiding the sorrow she felt.

‘Anyway,’ said Alan, ‘I took it upon meself to say that if they could muster up five boxes – and we agreed they couldn’t be of the best material and no metal on
either, just plain and simple – I’d have a whip round at work and in the street, come up with enough to cover costs.’

‘I’m sure everyone would want to contribute,’ said Kay.

‘What about the Suttons’ family?’ asked Vi, turning round and clearing her throat. ‘Anyone shown up?’

‘One relative has been traced. A distant cousin who lives up north and doesn’t think he can attend.’

‘Who’s gonna pay for the funeral, son?’

‘The funeral directors have arranged for the service to take place in a chapel of rest just off the Commercial Road. There’s no charge as it’s run by volunteers. But it’s
in doubt as to whether they’ll have their own graves.’

‘You mean they won’t go in East London Cemetery but in a common grave somewhere?’ Kay asked in dismay.

‘Might be the case.’

The thought of not having a place to be buried made Kay’s appetite vanish completely. She knew what it was like to lose someone you loved and to be able to go to a special place to
remember them. Each year she still visited her late first husband’s grave at the East London Cemetery. Alan sometimes came with her. They left a small bunch of flowers in front of the
headstone. Norman Williams, her childhood sweetheart, had died in a road accident just before Christmas in 1933. They had shared barely two years of marriage before his death. At twenty years of
age she had found herself a widow. It had been a long time before she’d recovered from the shock and it was important to her to have somewhere to go to remember him. Even though the Suttons
appeared not to have any close relatives, she was sure their friends and neighbours would want a place to visit.

‘The undertakers have asked me to be a pall-bearer,’ continued Alan. ‘Jenny Edwards’ husband Tom, Bert Tyler and Paul Butt, all from Slater Street, have volunteered to
help out. But I’m afraid it’ll all be done on the cheap.’

‘You did yer best, lad,’ said Vi, shaking her head.

‘Yes,’ agreed Kay, ‘the other alternative would have been too hard to bear.’

Vi served up the rice pudding though no one was swift to eat it. Kay knew they were all trying to deal with yet another unpleasant shock. After the dishes were cleared away, Kay decided to try
to lighten the atmosphere.

‘I wonder if Stan and Elsie will ever come back to Slater Street,’ she said, referring to their immediate neighbours. ‘Perhaps, like Mum and Dad, they like living where they
are. Wales is supposed to be beautiful. And they are with their son.’

BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
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