Read The Clippie Girls Online

Authors: Margaret Dickinson

Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Historical, #Romance, #20th Century, #General

The Clippie Girls (9 page)

BOOK: The Clippie Girls
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‘Alice won’t be in today – probably not for several days. She’s had news that her husband was killed on the beaches. Evidently, he was up to his waist in the sea, waiting for one of the little ships to pick him up, when an enemy plane strafed them.’

‘Oh, poor Alice – I’ll go and see her,’ Rose said at once.

Laurence shook his head. ‘No point. She’s gone down south to stay with her brother and his wife for a week or two.’

It was a month before Alice returned to Sheffield and came back to work. After offering her condolences, Rose said, ‘We all thought you might stay down there.’

Alice’s face was pinched with grief and she looked thinner than ever, but she smiled bravely. ‘I did think about it – all my family is there – but Derek’s parents live in Rotherham. I thought he’d’ve liked me to stay near to them – at least for a while.’ She paused and then burst out, ‘The worst is knowing I’ll never be able to have any children. It was all me an’ Derek ever wanted. But now . . .’

There was nothing Rose could say. Words of comfort like, ‘Oh, you’ll meet someone else’ would sound hollow and somehow insulting to her beloved husband’s memory. All Rose could do was to keep an eye on her friend and be a sympathetic ear if ever Alice needed one.

Through the summer of 1940 Peggy and Bob continued to see each other outside their working hours, but the romance did not seem to progress. They went out most weekends, held hands in the back row of the pictures and kissed goodnight outside the front door when Bob delivered her home at the time demanded by Grace. He was the first young man Peggy had gone out with for any length of time. She’d been out once or twice with Walter Bradshaw when she was seventeen, but he’d met a girl from Rotherham and soon became engaged to her. Peggy had never felt as if she’d been jilted; their friendship had been just that and no more. She didn’t weep into her pillow over Walter. But now she wasn’t sure what it meant to be ‘in love’. She read romantic novels but felt nothing of the passion for Bob which the heroines obviously felt for their heroes. She liked him very much, was fond of him even. She was comfortable with him. He was kind and courteous, considerate and undemanding, but her heart didn’t beat faster at the sight of him or her pulses race when he kissed her gently. Being reserved herself, maybe Peggy needed someone more exciting, whilst Rose would have been ecstatic if Bob had even looked at her.

Myrtle, however, had no problem defining her sister’s so-called romance.

‘He’s slow,’ she voiced her opinion to Rose as they undressed for bed one warm August night. ‘Everyone’s blaming Peggy, but he’s not exactly sweeping her off her feet, is he? If you ask me, he’s as dull as ditch water and as slow as a tram on strike.’

‘How dare you talk about Bob like that?’ Rose flared in an unguarded moment.

‘Ooo-er, touchy, aren’t we? Fancy him yourself, do you?’

‘Don’t be daft,’ Rose snapped, angry for having left herself open to Myrtle’s shrewd remark. ‘I just think he’s a nice bloke who Peggy’s not being fair to.’

‘Whom.’

‘What?’

‘It’s “to whom” she’s not being fair, not “who”.’

‘Oh, go to sleep,’ Rose muttered, jumping into her single bed and pulling the covers up and then immediately throwing them off again. ‘It’s so hot up here.’

‘Well, at least it’ll be nice and cool on your tram platform tomorrow.’

‘D’you know what?’ Rose said, changing the subject. ‘Mam’s volunteered for war work and there’s a fair chance she might be sent as a clippie. She told ’em she’d got two daughters who were clippies. Or is it “whom”, Miss Clever Clogs?’

‘No, no, “who” is correct in that context.’

As Myrtle blew out the candle and climbed into bed, Rose smiled in the half darkness of the summer night. ‘We only want you and Gran to sign up and we’d have a full house.’

But there was no sound from the next bed. Myrtle was one of those fortunate people who, the moment their head touched the pillow, fell fast asleep.

Rose was left staring into the darkness and praying that by morning Myrtle would have forgotten all about her hasty retort regarding Bob.

Towards the end of the school summer term, Myrtle had taken her School Certificate and had passed with the highest grades possible in all her subjects. Her family was justifiably proud of her. During the holidays she took over more of the household chores when Mary became a fully fledged clippie too, but Myrtle’s studies were not laid aside completely. Before the end of term she had ascertained the literature books she would need for the sixth form and, through the long, hot summer days, read all of them – and more.

The sound of the air-raid sirens was becoming part of the city’s everyday life. There had been numerous false alarms and, even though there had been one or two minor raids, the public became blasé about the warnings and just carried on with whatever they were doing until they heard the sound of planes overhead.

‘You must not ignore the sirens,’ Laurence instructed his staff. ‘You should get all your passengers to the nearest public shelter on your route whenever you hear the warning.’ The motormen and the clippies did their best, but so many of their passengers refused to go into the shelters and grumbled if the tram stopped.

‘It’s nowt but a false alarm, love,’ many a traveller would say. ‘Just get us home.’

But one Thursday evening towards the end of August, Peggy and Rose returned home looking worried and agitated.

‘Is Mam home?’

‘Not yet. Why?’

The sisters glanced at each other and began to speak at once.

‘She—’

‘We—’

Catching their anxiety, Grace crumpled the newspaper she was reading onto her knee. ‘What? Is there something you’re not telling me?’

‘No, no,’ Peggy said at once. ‘We just wanted to know she was all right, that’s all.’

‘Why shouldn’t she be?’ Grace’s eyes narrowed. ‘There
is
something, isn’t there? Come on, out with it.’

‘It’s just that we thought she might have been on the route today near where the bombs fell.’

Grace’s wrinkled face turned pale. ‘What bombs?’

‘Didn’t you hear the sirens? Didn’t you go down into the cellar?’

Grace looked sheepish. ‘We thought it was another false alarm.’

‘Well, it wasn’t. Not this time,’ Peggy said shortly. ‘You should really be more careful, Gran.’

‘And did you get all your passengers into a shelter?’ Grace retorted defensively.

‘They refused to go. Like you, they thought it wasn’t serious. But when we heard the bombs dropping, they shot out of the car and down the nearest shelter like rats down a drainpipe.’

‘I’m going back to the depot,’ Rose said, ‘to find out what’s happened and where Mam is.’

‘I’ll come with you—’

‘No,’ Grace said. ‘You stay here – with me, Peggy.’

The sisters glanced at each other and then looked back at their grandmother. Though she would never have admitted it in a million years, they could both see that Grace was frightened and fearful of news that might be brought to her door. She didn’t want to be alone to hear it.

‘Myrtle’s here, isn’t she?’

Grace ran her tongue round her dry lips and nodded. ‘But she’s only a kid. Besides, she’s upstairs in her bedroom reading. She says she can’t concentrate down here.’ Grace smiled wryly. ‘Says I keep talking to her. She’s right. I do.’

‘She’ll be sat on her bed reading.’ Rose knew Myrtle’s habits.

There was a tense silence in the room until Grace said, ‘Off you go, Rose. Go and find your mam.’ Beneath her breath, she muttered, ‘If you can.’

As Rose hurried out, Peggy said, ‘I’ll make a cuppa. Have you had anything to eat yet?’

Grace shook her head. ‘We were waiting for you all to come home.’

‘Then I’ll get started on the tea.’

‘Myrtle’s got it all ready.’ Grace looked up, reluctant to let her go, but when Peggy said gently, ‘I’ll just be in the kitchen,’ the older woman nodded and picked up her newspaper again.

The waiting was terrible. Grace did her best to sit quietly. At her age, she told herself, she ought to be used to dealing with the tragedies that life brought. She’d lived through the last lot, hadn’t she? She’d witnessed her neighbours and friends losing loved ones and had been there to comfort them as best she could when they’d received the dreaded telegram. She’d thought old age would bring tranquillity and the capacity to endure whatever life threw at her. But it hadn’t. She could no more accept that she might see one or more of her family killed or injured in this new kind of conflict, which wrought terror amongst the civilian population, than she’d been able to come to terms with the carnage of the trenches. It was all a needless waste of lives, this time brought on by a megalomaniac.

Grace heard Peggy moving about in the kitchen, clattering pots and pans whilst she sat fidgeting in her chair by the fire, glancing up at the clock on the mantelpiece every few minutes. Myrtle, still blithely unaware of the anxiety of her family, read on in peace.

Downstairs, the waiting went on.

Ten

It was over an hour later that they heard the front door open and Rose’s voice calling, ‘Here we are, all safe and sound.’

Grace muttered a prayer of thankfulness and sniffed back her tears. It wouldn’t do to let them see how worried she’d been. In this house of women, she was supposed to be the strong one, head of the house and all that. And then Rose and Mary were in the room and Peggy was hurrying from the kitchen to hug them both, not even attempting to hide her anxiety. ‘Are you all right, Mam? What happened? Why are you so late home?’

Mary reassured her quickly, ‘I’m fine. We got delayed, that’s all, because of the line being blocked. That route will be out of action for a few days until they get the debris moved away and the track repaired.’

‘Was it bad?’

Mary nodded, her eyes still wide with exhaustion and shock. ‘As far as we know, no one was injured.’ But she could not wipe the images from her mind. The sight of homes reduced to a smouldering pile of rubble; of a woman standing before a bombed house weeping openly; of a man tearing at a heap of bricks with his bare hands, desperation on his face. She’d still been shaking when she’d got back to the depot, but Laurence had taken her to the mess room at once and given her a tot of brandy. ‘Medicinal purposes only,’ he’d said gently. How kind he’d been, she thought.

‘Sit down, Mam,’ Peggy said now. ‘Tea’s nearly ready.’

‘I don’t think I could eat anything. And I must wash. I feel so grubby.’

As Mary left the room and went upstairs to the bathroom, the other three glanced at one another.

‘She’s had a nasty shock,’ Grace said. ‘You can see it in her eyes.’

‘She shouldn’t be working on the trams,’ Rose burst out. ‘It isn’t right at her age. Why couldn’t they find her some more suitable war work?’

‘What?’ Grace smiled. ‘Sitting by the fire knitting socks like me. That’s all I’m good for, but not your mam. She’s only young. Oh yes—’ Grace flapped her hand as Rose opened her mouth to protest. ‘I know she maybe seems old to you. At your age, young Rose, anyone past thirty is over the hill, but believe you me, your mother doesn’t see herself as old and she wouldn’t thank you for insinuating as much.’

Rose grinned. ‘Sorry, Gran. It didn’t come out the way I meant it.’

Grace gave a snort of laughter. ‘It often doesn’t with you. Now, help your sister finish getting the tea, call Myrtle down and we’ll sit down together to eat as soon as your mam’s ready. And don’t leave your jacket slung over the back of that chair. Hang it up in the hall where it belongs.’

A change of clothes, a wash and sitting down with her family had done Mary a power of good and she was soon laughing with the rest of them. But deep in her eyes was a haunted look of the tragedy she’d seen and the unspoken anxiety of what still might happen to her or her girls.

At the end of August 1940 Grace’s
Daily Sketch
reported that after German bombers had failed to break the RAF’s defences in south-east England, they were now turning their attention to London and other British industrial towns, cities, and ports. Attacks on the capital continued and soon came to be called the London Blitz. The whole country realized that it could be their turn next when Hitler threatened to raze British cities to the ground. Only the RAF stood between the British people and a ruthless enemy.

‘Our Bertie’s got what he wanted. He’s a fighter pilot now,’ Letty told Grace. ‘God only knows where he is. Oh, Mrs Booth, I’m out of me mind wi’ worry. Three of my boys in danger. It’s more than a body can stand.’

There was nothing Grace could say to comfort her neighbour. The older woman was not one to gush with promises that couldn’t be kept. It was no use telling poor Letty that her boys would be safe because in these dreadful days no one knew what was going to happen next. Grace did the only thing she could think of; she pushed a hot cup of sweet tea in front of Letty and handed her one of the family’s precious ginger biscuits.

All the family were concerned about the Bradshaw boys. Peggy and Rose had grown up with them, had gone to school with them, had been chased by them, had had their pigtails pulled and their faces rubbed in the snow by them. Rose had played football and cricket in the street with them and Peggy had blushed when Walter had been the first boy to try to snatch a kiss. But now the whole country depended on these young men and many more like them. Life was strange, Grace would muse in her quieter moments when she had the house to herself. Who’d ever have thought that those young rascals would one day turn into heroes?

Birmingham and Liverpool had been bombed repeatedly since August and, on the last day of November, one of the worst air raids of the war so far hit Coventry. Over one thousand civilians were killed and their beautiful cathedral was destroyed.

‘We carry on as usual,’ Laurence Bower told all his staff when the news reached them. ‘It’s likely that we will be the Luftwaffe’s target eventually. My own belief – though I have nothing to substantiate it – is that those early minor raids were reconnaissance with a few bombs dropped for good measure. We are an industrial city and the enemy knows that. He’ll have detailed plans, I’m sure. So, with that in mind, if anyone feels they really can’t cope with the imminent danger—’ His glance flickered briefly around his little band of women workers. He felt a fatherly protectiveness towards them and, if he could have had his way, he’d lay them all off whilst there was a definite threat of serious bombing hanging over them. But he couldn’t. They couldn’t run the city’s tram system without women – not now. In fact, the situation was getting worse. Almost every day another of his male conductors or drivers felt it their patriotic duty to enlist and sought to be released from their reserved occupation. Consequently even more women were being taken on to fill their places. This war was a headache for Laurence in many ways. ‘We will think no worse of you, particularly those of you who have children to think of,’ he continued. Here his glance went to one or two of the married women whose children were still at school but were old enough to fend for themselves out of school hours. There were times now when Laurence felt very guilty that he’d been the one to suggest training women to work on the trams. But, he’d consoled himself, they’d have been employed in such roles by now anyway. All over the city – indeed the country – women were filling the jobs left by the men going off to war.

BOOK: The Clippie Girls
12.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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