Authors: Margaret Dickinson
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Historical, #Romance, #20th Century, #General
‘If a bomb’s got us name on it, Mr Bower,’ Doris Ackroyd called out, ‘then it’ll find us whether we’re on t’trams or at ’ome.’
There was a ripple of nervous laughter, but no one stepped forward to ask to be relieved of their duties and Laurence felt a glow of pride for their bravery. He nodded, torn by an inner conflict of emotions: relief that he would not have the nightmare of sorting out a new rota and training more recruits, but now with the added anxiety that some of the employees of the city’s Transport Department might be injured.
‘Did we ought to send Myrtle and my mother to the country?’ Mary confided her constant anxiety to Peggy the day after they’d heard about a bombing raid on Liverpool.
‘Gran won’t go and I doubt you’d be able to persuade Myrtle. I know she’s still at school, Mam, but in normal circumstances, she’d be a working girl now. She’s not a child any more.’
Mary frowned. ‘No, I suppose you’re right, but I do worry about them so. Can we be sure they’ll go down into the cellar and – and even if they do, what if the house should be damaged? They’d be trapped down there.’
Peggy sighed. ‘Mam, it’s the sort of thing we’ve all got to cope with.’
‘And what about you and Rose if a raid happens when you’re on duty?’ Her experience of being very near to a bomb exploding had unnerved Mary.
‘We all know the rules. Mr Bower has told us often enough.’ Peggy mimicked Laurence’s instructions. ‘“The safety of your passengers comes first and foremost.”’ Mary smiled weakly as her eldest daughter went on, trying to reassure her. ‘And both me and Rose have got a copy of the list we cut out of Gran’s newspaper of where the public shelters are on the tram routes. What about you?’
‘Yes, I carry it in my pocket and I’ve learned the location of the ones on the routes I usually work.’
‘Then there’s nothing more we can do.’
‘Except hope and pray,’ Mary murmured.
Later, when she reported for duty, Mary ran into Laurence and voiced her fears to him. ‘I don’t want to sound as if I’m making light of the raids we’ve already had because I’m not. Even the loss of one person’s life is a tragedy, but the feeling seems to be now that we’re in for a battering. What do you think?’
Laurence sighed. ‘Sadly, Mary, I think you’re right.’ They stared at each other, sadness in their eyes, pondering what the next few days and weeks held for them all.
They weren’t left wondering for very long. Early in December 1940 it was Sheffield’s turn. Just when everyone was trying hard to plan for Christmas, to make the most of a festive time and to put their worries aside, even if only for a few days, the enemy unleashed a vicious attack on their city.
The day had started out ordinarily enough.
‘By heck, it’s cold this morning,’ Bob had greeted Peggy as they arrived at the depot at the same time. ‘You’ll want yer winter drawers on this morning.’
Bob grinned and winked at her, but Peggy averted her eyes and busied herself with her tickets, making sure they were all in the right order.
‘Come on then, let’s get on our way. Folks won’t want us to be late this morning in this weather.’
‘Do they ever?’ Peggy countered, but she smiled and followed him to the tram that was to be theirs for the day.
It was a busy day. After the workers came the shoppers, women prepared to queue for hours to feed their families. Others were shopping for Christmas, trying to find bargains to avoid their children being too disappointed in Father Christmas, but the privations of war were biting hard. Peggy wished she had a few hours off to wander around the city centre. The shops had made every effort to brighten people’s spirits. Christmas decorations festooned the windows and, during the daytime, were brightly lit. But come nightfall all the lights would be put out, blinds and shutters drawn. The streets would be in relative darkness with only pinpoints of light for travellers to see their way.
By late afternoon Peggy was tired. She and Bob should have gone off duty, but the motorman, who should have taken over from Bob, had been taken to the local hospital on arriving at work. ‘He was doubled over with pain,’ Laurence told them. ‘It sounds like appendicitis to me. He looked bad, anyway. So could you two carry on a bit longer? Just give me time to call in a relief crew.’
‘’Course we will,’ Bob volunteered, without even consulting Peggy. She’d already been thinking longingly of sitting down in the chair beside the range to warm her cold hands, but she bit back a refusal and smiled thinly. She shrugged herself into her thick overcoat and climbed back onto the tramcar, blowing onto her hands to try to warm them.
‘Where d’you think you two are going?’
Peggy turned to see Rose standing with her hands on her hips, grinning as she added, ‘Taking a tram without the owner’s consent? Fancied a night in the countryside, did we?’
Peggy smiled back, but then grimaced. ‘Extra duty. Pete’s gone off with suspected ’pendicitis.’
‘Oh right. I’ll see you later then.’ Rose paused and then added, ‘Have you seen Alice? I fancied a night at the flicks and I’ve finally managed to persuade her to come with me. She needs taking out of herself a bit. We’re going to the Abbeydale.’
Rose pulled a comical face. ‘
Young Tom Edison.
Alice likes a bit of culture, so I thought it’d suit her. But Mickey Rooney’s in it, so it should be good. And there might be a comedy on with it.’
‘The Abbeydale’s quite a way to go for a night out. Mam’ll worry if there’s a raid.’ Peggy glanced up at the sky. ‘It’s a moonlit night. You know what they say?’
‘Bomber’s moon,’ Rose murmured. ‘I know, but if I have to sit in the house another night watching Gran read a pile of newspapers for the umpteenth time – ’
Normally Grace read just
, but since the start of the war she’d bought national newspapers too, a different one every day. ‘I want a balanced viewpoint,’ she’d told her family firmly before they could complain.
‘– Myrtle poring over her books and Mam clacking her knitting needles, I’ll go mad.’ And the image of you and Bob together, she added in her own mind, but those thoughts she kept to herself.
‘Just be careful, that’s all. Promise you’ll go to the nearest shelter if the sirens go. They’ll make an announcement.’
As Peggy rang the bell and the tram began to move, Rose waved and called, ‘I will.’
Mary was at home, having started work at five thirty that morning.
‘Tea’s almost ready,’ she called from the kitchen when she heard Rose come in. Myrtle didn’t look up from her homework and Grace was engrossed in the latest news from the war front. On the table beside her the wireless played softly.
‘Do you know,’ Grace murmured, ‘the British launched an offensive in the Western Desert against the Italians and took a lot of prisoners? Over a thousand, they say.’
Rose glanced at them both with an amused smile and then said loudly, ‘Good evening, Rose, and what sort of a day have you had? Fine, thank you, and now I’m off to the pictures with Alice.’
‘D’you think that’s a good idea, love?’ Mary said, coming in from the kitchen and catching Rose’s last sentence.
‘We’ll be fine, Mam,’ Rose said, as she sat down at the table to eat. ‘Don’t worry. Just you make sure the three of you go down into the cellar if there is any trouble.’
‘We will. As Tom next door says, “We’re goin’ to cop it afore long, there’s nowt so sure.”’
‘I’m very much afraid he’s right,’ Rose said, but as she went upstairs a little later to change out of her uniform, she pushed all thoughts of a possible air raid out of her mind. Instead, she found herself humming the song ‘Whispering Grass’, which had just been playing on the wireless. She was meeting Alice in the centre of town and then they would catch a tram out to Abbeydale Road. Rose smiled. That was one of the good things about being clippies: they’d have no tram fares to pay.
‘Wow, just look at this place,’ Rose said, as they stepped onto the mosaic floor of the foyer. ‘I’ve never been here before.’ When they took their places in the plush mahogany seats covered in green velvet, Rose stared around her, open-mouthed at the cream and gold decoration on the walls and ceiling. ‘No wonder they call it the Picture
‘It’s lovely, isn’t it?’ Alice said as the lights faded and they settled down to enjoy the film. They were soon engrossed in the story, thoughts of the war and all its sadness forgotten for a precious hour or two.
‘Myrtle, help your mam with the washing up, there’s a good girl,’ Grace said as she turned the wireless off after the news finished.
‘But, Gran, I’ve still got my biology homework to do.’
‘Biology, indeed! What on earth good is that going to be to you, I ask?’
‘It’s human biology,’ Myrtle retorted, not afraid to answer her grandmother back. ‘It could come in very handy – if you have a heart attack. Miss Adamson says that, with the war and everything, we should all know a bit of basic first aid. We’ve all been given a copy of the British Red Cross
First Aid Manual
. And I’ve asked if I can sit an examination in the subject. It’s fascinating.’
Grace glanced at her, an amused smile on her lips. She loved all her family, but this granddaughter was someone special to her. Myrtle was the only one who could answer Grace back and get away with it. Mostly, that is, because there were limits even for Myrtle. ‘And does it tell you in this famous manual how to do the washing up?’
Myrtle laughed. ‘Oh, Gran.’ But with good humour she got up and went into the kitchen. ‘Where’s the tea towel, Mam?’ Grace heard her say. ‘I’ll dry.’
But the pots didn’t get dried, nor even completely washed, for at that moment the sirens began to wail.
They were on High Street heading out of the city centre, when they heard the sirens. Bob stopped the tram.
‘Oi, you aren’t stopping here, are you? I’ve got to get home to my kids.’
‘Just a minute, madam,’ Peggy said, ‘while I have word with the motorman.’
Peggy hurried down the aisle to where Bob was standing, his left hand on the controller, his right still gripping the brake.
‘What ought we to do? Get ’em all to a shelter like Mr Bower ses?’
Peggy shook her head. ‘Keep going. I’ve got a car full and they’re all going to play merry hell if we just stop and dive for cover.’
‘All right,’ Bob agreed, ‘but let anyone off who wants to find the nearest shelter.’
Peggy nodded and hurried back to her post.
‘We’re carrying on, but if anyone wants to get off here and—’
‘Thank Gawd for that.’
‘Just get on with it. We’re a sitting duck here.’
No one alighted and Peggy rang the bell for Bob to move on.
They heard the bombs falling, whistling through the air and then an explosion.
‘By ’eck, that were a bit too close for comfort.’
‘Watch out for the next one. It might—’
Whatever the man had been going to say was lost in a blast of noise and the splintering of glass. Several passengers shrieked in fear as the tram rocked and came to a halt as the one travelling in front of them stopped too.
Peggy was thrown to the floor of the platform and everything went black.
‘Quick, Mother, get down the cellar,’ Mary cried. ‘Myrtle, make sure the doors are locked and turn all the lights off. I’ve got the box. Oh, do come
In the corner of the living room stood a box packed with last-minute items for a sojourn in the cellar. Mary picked it up and opened the door. She turned on the light to illuminate the steps leading downwards.
‘That you, Mary love?’ A voice drifted up from below, and behind Mary, Grace said, ‘Oh no. Don’t tell me Letty’s there already. I reckon I’d sooner face Hitler’s bombs.’
‘Shh, Mother, she’ll hear you.’
Grace sniffed. ‘Don’t care if she does. She might take the hint, though I doubt it.’
‘Want any help, love?’ Tom’s deep voice now called.
‘If you could just help Mother down, Tom . . . Myrtle, do hurry up.’
But Myrtle was peering out of the front window, fascinated by the unfolding drama. ‘They’re dropping flares, Mam. They’re lighting up the whole sky. Come and look.’
‘I’ll do no such thing,’ Mary said. ‘And neither will you. Get—’
And then they both heard the long-drawn-out ominous whistle of a falling bomb.
‘Oh, now what?’ Rose muttered as the screen went blank and the auditorium was plunged into darkness.
‘It’ll be a break in the film, I expect,’ Alice said. ‘It happens sometimes. They’ll have to repair it. Fancy an ice cream while we wait?’
Several of the picture-goers began to whistle and catcall, but then the manager was standing in front of the screen and everyone fell silent.
‘An air raid is in progress,’ he said without preamble. ‘Please make your way to the shelter below the cinema. We will serve soft drinks and ice cream free of charge as we will be unable to continue with the programme at the present time.’
They left their seats with the rest of the audience and filed in an orderly fashion towards the stairs leading down to the shelter – a spacious area beneath the cinema. There was plenty of room and the usherettes were already handing out refreshments. But Rose hesitated. ‘I ought to go home or find out where Peg is.’
Alice grabbed her arm. ‘You’ll do nothing of the sort. You’ll get yourself killed.’ At that moment there was a resounding crash and the whole building seemed to shake.
Peggy wasn’t knocked out for many seconds and instinctively she’d managed to cling to the rail to stop herself falling into the road. Coughing in the cloud of dust the explosion had caused, she hauled herself to her feet and staggered into the body of the tram. Not a window was left whole and one side of the vehicle had been badly damaged. She feared for the passengers who were sitting on that side. One or two were pulling themselves to their feet, others were sitting very still. Outside, flames were already engulfing the buildings that had received a direct hit.
‘Here, love, let me help you,’ Peggy heard a deep voice say and saw a dark-haired young man in army uniform helping a lady up from the floor, where she’d been thrown.