Authors: Ellie Dean
Keep Smiling Through
is Ellie Dean’s third novel. She lives in Eastbourne, which has been her home for many years and where she raised her three children.
There’ll be Blue Skies
Far From Home
RITA HELD BACK
the tears as she sank into her father’s tight embrace, her cheek pressed against the rough khaki of his uniform jacket. Jack Smith had completed his enlistment training and was leaving for a Royal Engineers’ army camp in the Midlands. It could be months, maybe even years, before she saw him again, and she needed this intimate moment between them to convey how deeply she loved him.
She was only vaguely aware of the rumbling engines of the waiting army trucks that stood in line along the heavily barricaded seafront. The shouts of the Sergeant Major, the cry of fretful babies and sobbing women, and the tramp of heavy boots were barely audible as she pressed her cheek to his chest and concentrated on the steady drum of his heart. She had to be brave, had to keep her smile in place and her tone cheerful, for it was vital she dispelled his misgivings about leaving her.
Jack Smith gently withdrew from the embrace and cupped her head with large, callused hands. His nut-brown eyes were suspiciously bright as he looked down at her. ‘This is as hard for me as it is for you,’ he said, his voice catching with emotion. ‘My brave little girl. There’s no need to hide your tears from me. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I promise.’
Rita blinked rapidly, determined not to cry. ‘I know,’ she said, her voice unsteady. ‘And you’re not to worry about me, Dad. Auntie Peg has promised to look in every week, and of course Papa Tino and Louise will always be next door.’
His smile was shaky as he patted her cheek. ‘Thank God for Peggy Reilly and the Minellis,’ he sighed. ‘I don’t know what either of us would have done without them after your mum died. But at least I can leave with an easier heart knowing they’ll watch over you.’
‘I’m seventeen,’ she protested softly. ‘I don’t need babying.’
‘I realise that,’ he sighed, as he ruffled her short dark curls. ‘But you’re all I’ve got, and I need to know you won’t take any unnecessary risks.’
She looked up at him through unshed tears. ‘Don’t be daft,’ she murmured.
‘Fall in!’ The barked order from a nearby officer made them stiffen. It was time for him to leave.
Rita threw herself back into his embrace, gripping tightly to his jacket. ‘Be careful, Dad,’ she said urgently. ‘And don’t play the hero. I want you back in one piece.’
He kissed the top of her head and then firmly but gently broke the embrace. ‘Not much chance of heroics where I’m going,’ he said with determined cheerfulness as he rammed the beret over his light brown hair and hoisted his kitbag onto his shoulder. ‘I’ll be spending most of my time repairing machines in some draughty army garage – not dodging bullets.’
Rita’s emotions were running too high for words, so she stood on tiptoe and kissed the smooth cheek he’d so carefully shaved before leaving the house.
He gave her a swift hug. ‘Watch yourself on that motorbike,’ he murmured, glancing at the Norton ES2 which they had rebuilt together. ‘Just because I’m not around, doesn’t mean you can tear about on it like a hooligan.’
Her smile was tremulous. They both knew she would continue to ride the motorbike with ferocious skill and speed – after all, it had been Jack who’d taught her how, and Jack who’d encouraged her, and her best friend May, to enter the fiercely competitive races that had been held on dirt tracks all over the county before the declaration of war.
‘The trucks are leaving,’ bellowed the red-faced sergeant major. ‘Last man on board will be on jankers for a week. Move it, you ’orrible lot, or you’ll feel me boot up yer backsides.’
‘Bye, love.’ Jack winked, turned swiftly away and ran for the nearest truck.
Rita watched as the flow of scurrying men ebbed. She kept her gaze fixed on her father as he leaned out from beneath the tarpaulin roof and waved, and then the trucks were moving away in a roar of engines and clouds of exhaust fumes. She raised her hand to him, the tears finally rolling hotly down her face. ‘Goodbye, Dad,’ she whispered. ‘Please come home safe.’
She waited until the last truck was out of sight before she turned away and donned the leather motorcycle helmet and goggles. There were other women among the crowd that she knew well, and Peggy Reilly would have been one of them if Rita had not insisted upon coming alone. This was a time for contemplation, not talk – or even offers of comfort – that would have been too hard to bear, and she acknowledged the others’ sad, brave smiles with a nod as they slowly and silently left the seafront and headed for homes that would feel so very empty now their menfolk had left.
As she buckled the helmet under her chin and adjusted the goggles, Rita watched the well-wishers disperse, and was suddenly overwhelmed by loss. Her father was gone, and until this war was won, she would have to carry on without his love, guidance and companionship.
The seafront barricades and gun emplacements blurred as the tears fell, and she had to resist the powerful urge to go straight to Beach View Boarding House, fling herself into Peggy Reilly’s motherly arms and cry until there were no tears left. She sniffed the tears away. It was time to be brave, to prove she was perfectly capable of standing on her own two feet and getting on with things. She couldn’t falter at the first hurdle.
Determined to prove her father’s faith in her ability to cope, she swung her leg over the seat, started the engine and headed away from the seafront, the bike’s throaty roar drowning out her sobs and the accompanying mournful cries of the gulls.
Barrow Lane was one of a series of narrow cobbled streets that radiated from the high brick wall of the goods yard at the back of the station. A vast gasometer towered over everything, stealing the sunlight for most of the year, and casting its deep shadow across the streets. Life was conducted against the background sounds of steam engines and iron wheels clattering over the rails – noises few of them even heard any more.
Unlike the posh area of Havelock Gardens, there were no trees or pretty flowerbeds and lawns in Barrow Lane, just front doors that opened onto the street, and grim backyards housing the outside lavs. There had been talk of demolishing the whole area, for the terraces were run-down, the red brick darkened by years of soot and smoke from the trains, the paintwork flaking and ingrained with grime. But with the onset of war any plans the council might have had were set aside, and there was a sense of relief within the tight-knit community, for, like Rita, most of them had been born here, and couldn’t contemplate living anywhere else.
After leaving the seafront, she had driven the bike hard, taking a roundabout route home in an attempt to recover some semblance of calm before she had to face Papa Tino and Louise. But the pain of parting was still too raw, and it was unsettling to return to an empty house and find none of the familiar bustle surrounding the family garage which was now closed for the duration.
Her slender figure and elfin face belied her strength, and she ably negotiated the cumbersome Norton across the weed-strewn cobbles of the narrow lane and brought it to a halt outside the large wooden doors her father had padlocked that morning. Their terraced house was at the end of the row, with a piece of scrubland beside it that was always overshadowed by the high brick wall of the station shunting yards. The ground floor had been converted into a garage many years ago by her grandfather, the scrubland roughly paved to accommodate a petrol pump and extra service area. She let the engine idle as she eyed the locked and empty pump and deserted side-court, and experienced the new and unusual ache of loneliness which threatened to bring tears again.
Determined not to give in to self-pity, she booted the kickstand down and switched off the engine. She took off the goggles and forced her thoughts elsewhere as she listened to the twilight sounds of Barrow Lane and its surrounds. She’d played on these streets, gone to the local school and become an intrinsic part of the community where life, although hard at times, had provided many happy moments.
But it was all very different now that her father and the other men had enlisted, and the women had gone to work in the factories. Most of the younger children had been evacuated and the cobbles no longer rang with the sounds of laughter and gossiping from doorsteps, or games of football and hopscotch – or the ring of heavy boots at the end of another shift on the railway or at the nearby tool factory.
Rita hitched the gas mask box over her shoulder and tried hard to control her emotions. June was already promising to be fair despite the darkening clouds of war which had overshadowed everything these past nine months. She could hear soft music from a distant wireless, the cry of a baby and the persistent yapping of a dog. From her next-door neighbours’ rooms above their café drifted the delicious aroma of garlic and herbs and fresh bread, and the sound of rapid-fire Italian as Antonino Minelli and his English wife, Louise, discussed what sauce to cook with tonight’s home-made pasta.
She felt the warmth of deep affection as she listened, and it brought her some comfort to know they would always be near her. She gave a wry smile. To those not familiar with Italians and their passionate discourses, it must seem Antonino and Louise were always arguing – but Rita, who’d become as fluent as Louise over the years, knew it was just their way. Papa Tino adored his quiet little Louise, and there was rarely a cross word between them.
Their two daughters had already left Cliffehaven for a new life in America when Rita’s mother had died of consumption twelve years ago – and although their young son, Roberto, still lived at home, Louise had joyfully taken on the role of mothering five-year-old Rita, who had come to adore her. The Minelli home was as poor as everyone else’s in the street, and they’d had to work hard to make their little café a success, but those three upstairs rooms were always warm and welcoming – another home for her and her father.
Rita clambered off the bike and shook out her short dark hair, willing herself to be as adult and independent as she’d pretended to be for her father. She and her best friend May Lynch had been working for two weeks as welders at one of the new factories that had sprung up on the outskirts of town, and were earning a fairly good wage. There was plenty of opportunity for overtime, and the work was demanding, so she would have little time to mope.
But as she turned the key in the padlock and pulled the heavy chain out of the sturdy door handles, she realised it wouldn’t be easy to live on her own, even though Louise was only next door. The little things would be the hardest to bear – the evenings would seem longer without him there to talk to over their supper. She would miss the close friendship they’d built over the years as they worked together in the garage – and the smell of his pipe tobacco as he sat by the fire reading the evening paper. It would feel most odd not to be clattering downstairs each morning to find him already at work in the garage, his ready smile greeting her as she handed him his cup of tea.
The garage doors screeched in complaint as she dragged them open, and she made a mental note to oil the metal runners that were set firmly into the cobbles. She hauled the motorbike into the welcoming atmosphere of the dark space, threw the tarpaulin over it, and breathed in the familiar scents of greasy rags, engine oil, metal and petrol. They were reminders of her childhood when she’d sat on a stool and watched her father take engines apart, eager to learn, longing for the moment when she was deemed old enough to help.
She’d learned the trade at weekends and during school holidays, preferring to be here with him instead of out playing with the other children, and after she’d left school, he’d encouraged her to go to technical college and take the exams that would give her proper qualifications as a mechanic. Through their shared fascination for engines and motorcycles they’d forged a deep and abiding closeness which had helped them both to overcome the painful void left by her mother’s death.
Rita looked around the dim space, at the tyres stacked in a corner, the tools neatly lined up on the wall, the pulleys and chains hanging from the ceiling rafters, and the deep pit where she’d spent many hours craning her neck to inspect and repair the customers’ cars. They had been good times, happy times, but until the war was won there would be no classes at the college, and no cars to repair. She had to accept that it could be some while before she was fully qualified and life could return to normal.