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Authors: Carol Rivers

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BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
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‘Leaving yer gaff seems criminal to me,’ said Vi, her tone still gloomy. ‘Their place has got three bedrooms an’ all. If I was them, I’d be back like a shot and get
a nice lodger.’ Her narrow shoulders drooped. ‘That is, if I had me house back.’

Kay glanced at Alan, who seemed to have run out of steam and left the table to go out to the yard. Kay felt sorry for Vi; her friend had taken a chance by staying in London during the Blitz,
whereas the Tripps next door, like Kay’s parents, had left immediately the prime minister had announced Britain was at war. It seemed unfair that Vi’s bravery had ended in loss, while
the Tripps’ house stood undamaged and unwanted.

‘Never mind,’ said Kay resolutely. ‘We’ve got each other, Vi. And that counts for a lot.’

Vi’s doleful expression suddenly faded. In its place a gummy smile appeared. ‘And don’t think I’ll ever forget that, ducks,’ she said. ‘And I give you full
permission to clout me round the head if ever I sound as if I do!’

Later, Kay joined Alan in the yard. They sat on the Cut wall in the warm evening sunshine, listening to the sounds of the gulls as they swooped over the rooftops, hoping for a
last meal either from the dirty water that lapped against the dock walls or from some dustbin that had lost its lid.

Kay knew it had been a very rough day for her husband. Their group of friends and neighbours was dwindling and their closest friends Babs and Eddie no longer had a home. The Blitz had seen to
that. Though Alan smiled, she saw the lines of worry growing deeper around his eyes and his dark features were shadowed.

‘I feel so powerless, Kay,’ Alan confided to her. ‘We’ve had to stand by and watch people suffering. Good people, like Vi who loves this island and would never want to
leave it. Now, God help them, the Suttons are gone. Babs and Eddie have lost all they’ve worked for. People we knew when we moved here in thirty-eight have been scattered far and wide. Even
worse, some have gone for ever.’

‘Alan, you’ve done all you can,’ she told him. ‘You can’t fight the enemy single-handed.’

‘That’s just it,’ he muttered. ‘It’s the invisible powers who think they know best in this war. Just like they did twenty years ago. What kind of world is this, to
repeat the same mistakes and take millions more lives? Our blokes are fighting out there, making the supreme sacrifice sometimes and leaving their wives and kids at the mercy of fate. And all in
the name of democracy!’

‘Alan, please don’t speak so bitterly.’ Kay shuddered as his face shadowed and his eyes deadened in the way that made her feel she didn’t know her husband at all.

He squeezed her hand, suddenly blinking and relaxing the muscles around his jaw. ‘I don’t mean to upset you, love.’

‘You’ve not had a good night’s sleep for a long while now,’ Kay said, trying to ignore the fear that filled her when Alan seemed to slip away from her into this other
world. Each time he withdrew from her, and it was becoming more regular now, she felt it had something to do with his past. A past she knew very little about. Alan was a south Londoner who had lost
his mother in the ’flu epidemic at the age of thirteen. He’d told her his father had been a drunkard and waster and had spent more time in the care of His Majesty’s Service than
at home with his three young sons. In Kay’s eyes it was to Alan’s credit that he had run away to sea and made a life for himself. If only he would open up to her more. But Alan was a
proud man and rarely allowed his emotions to show.

‘Our shifts might change soon,’ he told her with another rather forced smile. ‘Word is that with the ease in the bombing, the squad might not be needed at nights.’

‘Oh Alan, that means we can actually sleep together at the same time!’

He drew her into his arms and kissed her. ‘Well, starting from tonight, we’d better do something about that.’

‘You’re not going out again?’ she whispered delightedly.

‘No.’ He gazed into her eyes. ‘So what have you got to say for yourself now, Mrs Lewis?’

‘Only that I love you. Oh yes – and I ain’t made the bed yet.’

They both laughed. ‘No need now,’ Alan told her with a wink. ‘Let’s say goodnight to Vi and grab an early one.’

Kay giggled. She knew Vi would see the funny side of this, no matter how tired they pretended to be!

Making love with Alan had always made Kay feel she was the luckiest woman in the world. He was a tender and generous lover, yet when passion overwhelmed him, he took her to the
height of her own intense desire. He fulfilled every part of her. It never mattered what had happened during the day, whether the hours had been filled with fear or joy or frustration or
exhaustion, he breathed new life into her. With Alan, she felt uninhibited, a far cry from her stifled self that had never been freed in her first marriage to Norman. Sadly their marriage
hadn’t been perfect; she had very quickly realized her mistake, yet hadn’t been able to acknowledge it even to herself until she had met Alan four years later.

Kay sighed in contentment. Every time she and Alan made love, she felt something new and rich came from their coupling. And it was no different tonight as she lay in Alan’s arms. They had
reached that moment together, but with a trembling intensity that had shaken them both. Alan lay beside her, their bodies damp with sweat and their hearts not yet slowed to a regular beat.

‘My God, Kay,’ he whispered against her ear, ‘do you feel the same? I can barely catch my breath.’

She nodded at their unspoken joy, the knowledge between two people that almost couldn’t be put into words. ‘I can feel your heart racing,’ she murmured.

‘No wonder. You’re a beautiful woman, Kay.’

She placed his hand to her own bare breast and he cupped it lovingly as his kisses travelled over her neck and lightly traced a path to where his hand paused.

Kay closed her eyes, her body arching in response. ‘You’d better stop there for a minute,’ she breathed, pushing her fingers through the thickness of his hair, ‘or else
me heart’s likely to explode.’

She felt his chuckle of delight as he lifted her against him, content to hold her to the shape of his lean, strong body. ‘We wouldn’t want that now, would we?’

She snuggled against him, staring into his darkened face as they lay side by side on the pillows. ‘Do you reckon Vi heard us?’

‘Didn’t think I made that much noise.’

‘No, but I did.’ Kay laughed softly as she traced a finger over his cheek. ‘You know, I could get used to lazy evenings like this. I’ve missed our trips to the pictures
and a quick drink at the pub.’

His breath came against her face. ‘And that’s not all,’ he muttered huskily. ‘If we go on like this we might give our Alfie some company.’

Kay gave a soft sigh. ‘Oh, Alan, don’t joke about babies.’

‘I’m not. It’s got to happen one day, love.’

‘But why hasn’t it happened already?’

He brushed the damp hair from her face and kissed her mouth. ‘It’s no wonder it’s not happened, what with everything that’s gone on. Me being on nights, you and Vi having
to kip in the dug-out, the continual bombings and being dog-tired when we do get together.’ He held her closer. ‘I’m aiming for a football team, you know that.’

‘You’re a bit hopeful,’ Kay couldn’t help but complain, ‘when we’ve not even got Alfie with us. Nor likely to have if the bombing starts again.’

Alan gave a soft sigh. ‘I know. I know. But a man can dream.’ He paused. ‘Not heard from Len and Doris lately, have you?’

‘No, not since that last letter saying Alfie was all right. You know Doris. She don’t bother with any chat, just gives the plain facts.’

They lay for a few moments in silence, the peace and tranquillity of the moment disturbed. But it wasn’t long before Alan heaved himself up and, stroking her thigh, he rested above her,
muttering words of love in her ear. As his fingers teased her trembling skin, their problems once again vanished as if into thin air. Kay let herself be renewed in their lovemaking and for a short,
wonderful while, the only thing that mattered was each other.

Kay had the day off from work to attend the funeral. She didn’t have a black coat, but neither did Vi who hadn’t been able to find anything suitable in the
Salvation Army hand-out or at the market. So they both wore dark colours with armbands made from blackout material.

Kay and Vi caught the bus to the chapel, but Alan was already there at the door greeting the mourners as they arrived. The chapel was tiny and bare, no more than a large room with chairs lined
up in rows. Alan had told Kay the building was often used for victims of the bombings who had no living relatives or funds to meet the funeral expenses.

‘Jenny and Tom Edwards are here,’ whispered Vi as they walked towards the five cheap-looking caskets lined to one side. ‘And Alice and Bert Tyler from number fifty-four. Next
to them is Paul Butt and his dad, Neville. It seems like years since we’ve seen ’em all.’

Kay nodded at the familiar faces that all turned their way and smiled. Their friends and neighbours from Slater Street suddenly looked older, greyer, as though the dust that had fallen on them
during the Blitz was now indelible. Hazel and Thelma Press, two spinster sisters who lived at the top of the street, were folding a Union Jack flag across the first of the cheap wooden caskets.

‘As the coffins looked a bit bare, we thought Howard would like the tribute,’ whispered Thelma, pushing her spectacles up her thin nose as Kay drew close. ‘He fought in the
first conflict, you know.’

‘Yes, Madge was very proud of her husband.’ Kay thought again of the conversations she used to have with Madge Sutton. Rarely did Madge ever complain, even though Howard’s job
in the docks didn’t provide much of a wage. She had worked in the ironmongers, preparing the bundles of firewood soaked in paraffin. Kay had seen Madge’s fingers red raw in winter from
the cold and the chaffing of the wood. Kay thought of this as she placed a small bunch of violets from the market on top of the boys’ caskets next to the other tributes.

After they had taken their places, there were loud whispers at the back of the chapel. Everyone turned to see who it was. Kay recognized the two latecomers as Babs and Eddie Chapman. Eddie,
usually a robust-looking man with light brown hair in his late thirties, looked thinner and somehow smaller. Babs was well turned-out with her fair hair cut short under a small black hat. But she
looked tired as she took the seat next to Kay. ‘Oh Babs, I can’t say how sorry we are about your house,’ Kay murmured as she hugged her friend and saw Eddie give a brief nod.

‘It was everything we had in the world, Kay.’

‘I know. I can’t imagine what losing your home must feel like.’

‘But we’re alive,’ said Babs with a shaky resilience. ‘The Suttons weren’t so lucky.’

‘None of us can believe it still. It’s like we’re waiting for them to walk in here and tell us they’re all right.’

Babs nodded slowly. ‘We both had young families and were always in each other’s places . . .’ She stopped, unable to say more, sitting back to slide her hand in her pocket in
search of a handkerchief. ‘You think – well, you think to yourself, why was it them and not us?’

Kay gently touched her friend’s arm. ‘No one knows the answer to that, Babs. Fate, destiny, a higher power – who can say? But I’m just thankful I still have you all in
one piece.’

Babs nodded, trying to smile with her eyes. Kay knew that whatever she said couldn’t dismiss the horror that had brought them here today. Both Eddie and Babs had been spared, and their
children Tim and Gill had been safely evacuated to Essex at the time the bomb had fallen on their house. Kay knew it was a blessing they would be fully grateful for as time passed.

Just then a man in a grey suit hurriedly walked in through a side door and stood in front of them. He gave the Suttons’ names and ages, then said they would be sadly missed by their
friends and neighbours. After handing them each a hymn book, they all sang ‘Abide With Me’.

Then Alan, Tom Edwards, Bert Tyler, Paul Butt and Eddie Chapman, together with the undertaker, lifted the wooden boxes one by one and carried them outside to a waiting van. Kay had to stop her
mind from thinking of what was in them. But at least each had their own small space to rest in.

Everyone remained seated in the chapel, as if hoping for something to happen which would restore everything to normal again.

Babs blew her nose. ‘We just have to get on with it and do our best,’ she sniffed. ‘We’re all lucky to be sitting here after that terrible night.’

A sentiment with which Kay knew everyone agreed.

Kay hadn’t intended to host a wake, but as they stood outside the chapel she looked around at the small group of mourners and knew that she couldn’t let the day end
like this. She asked the assembled back to the house for tea and Alan told her he would join them after he’d reported back to his unit’s headquarters in Poplar. Paul Butt and his dad
had come in Paul’s car and they offered Hazel and Thelma Press a ride in the back seat. The others joined Kay at the bus stop.

‘Me and Eddie can’t stay long as we have to get back to the hostel at Aldgate,’ Babs said.

‘How are the kids?’ Kay asked as the bus came along and they climbed aboard.

‘I miss them, but I was glad they were away when me and Eddie saw our house. Honest, Kay, it was the biggest shock of my life. And of course our cat, Fluffy, was killed. The kids will be
really upset over that.’

‘What are you going to do now?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Do you think you’ll evacuate?’

‘We’ll have to,’ replied Babs, glancing across at her husband who had taken a seat next to Bert Tyler. ‘Though even after what happened to our house and the Suttons, I
can’t imagine living anywhere else.’ She gave a shudder, hunching her shoulders. ‘Me and Eddie have always lived in or around the East End. We moved to Slater Street just after
Gill was born. Eddie’s job in the docks’ offices has been a godsend, what with so many blokes being unemployed. But most of all, I don’t want to leave my best friend.’ She
smiled tearfully at Kay.

‘But you might get a nice place somewhere else. Eddie could even find a better job,’ interrupted Jenny Edwards, who leaned forward from the seat behind. Kay smiled at Jenny who, in
her mid-forties, had a permanently worried expression on her pale face.

BOOK: A Wartime Christmas
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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