Authors: James Herbert
Her fingers curled around the sides of the newspaper and lifted it from the small table’s surface where it had been lying flat. One top corner flopped over with the
tightness of her grip. Her meatless buttocks stopped their jiggling on the hard wooden chair, the gentle rhythm of Billy Ternent’s orchestra failing to stir them now.
One-and-tuppence! One-and-bloody-tuppence for a tin of sardines! And the silly buggers were going to do away with the price control on other fish next week! That was it then: Eugene would just
have to enjoy his white beans a bit more. It should have made things easier with food rationing being phased out, but lack of money in the pocket did a better job than any ration book. You’d
think they’d do more to help war-widows. Soddin Attlee and his Welfare State. What about her bleedin welfare? And Eugene’s?
She sighed heavily and let the creased newspaper flop back onto the table.
Vera Braid was a tiny woman and she needed to be to fit into the cupboard that was her office. For some reason the door, which should have provided a barrier between herself and the smells of
the ladies’ lavatory she was attendant to, had been removed long ago. No one knew why it had been taken nor who had taken it. Misfortunes of war.
It wasn’t the piss and shit that smelled so much, but the gallons of disinfectant she used to disperse the stink. Many a visitor might have preferred the more offensive but less
overpowering natural smells; the disinfectant had a way of tearing through the nasal passages and singeing the brain. Those who knew Vera and took time to have a quick brew with her down there
claimed even her tea had an antiseptic tang.
Vera tucked a wayward strand of hair back into her green turban and glanced through the net curtain she had fixed across the doorframe; the flimsy material gave her a token privacy but hardly
kept unwanted aromas away.
Was the lady still in there? Seemed a long time. She could have slipped out unnoticed. Vera had only been conscious of a black shape flitting past the net curtain several minutes before; she had
been too engrossed in reading about Danny Kaye’s new film to take much notice. Eugene loved Danny Kaye. Still, he’d have to wait until it came round local; she couldn’t afford to
take him up West. She’d have loved to have gone up there – some lovely shows on.
Annie Get Your Gun, Castles in the Air
– she thought Jack Buchanan was smashing –
She didn’t fancy that one with Vivien Leigh in it, the one she’d heard about. What was it? Oh yes –
A Motorcar Named Desire.
Sounded like a load of
rubbish. The last time she’d been up West – and the
time – was when Harry had taken her to see the Crazy Gang. Just before they’d shipped him off that was, just
before they killed him. Baskits. How was Eugene going to turn out without his dad?
She signed heavily, then groaned when Billy Ternent went off the air and the Holy Week talk was announced. A church service was to follow, making matters worse! Easter bleedin Saturday and she
was stuck down here. Poor Eugene had wanted to see Brumas the bear, but she couldn’t take time off for the zoo. She needed the job and people needed to piss, even on Easter Saturday.
She’d get him some ice cream tonight to make up for it. At least the Ministry of Food was now going to let them have as much milk as they wanted to make the stuff. It tasted like bloody
cardboard, some of it.
Vera flicked over the pages to find the wireless programmes, refusing to become involved in the stories of the tuberculosis scare and the smallpox outbreak in Scotland; she had her own problems.
She found the appropriate section and squinted her eyes to read the small print. Not much on until
Variety Bandbox. Have a Go!
after the one o’clock news.
She switched it off and frowned at the trailing words. What material possessions were they, you silly old sod? A roof over your head? Food for your belly? An evening sitting indoors listening to
In Town Tonight
and Semprini? Vera might not forget God, but He had forgotten her and thousands like her. That sound again . . .
A funny . . . little . . . sound.
Footsteps descending the stone steps made her look up, the sound becoming sharper as high heels clattered along the tiled floor. A young girl passed by the net curtain and Vera heard the sound
of a penny dropping into its slot. A cubicle door opened and closed, an
sign clicked on. Vera went back to her newspaper.
Nothing but trouble. Strikes, threats of strikes. Now the clerical workers wanted six-pounds-ten-shillings a week. The Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions wanted an extra pound a week. The
doctors were out. Even the bleedin taxi-drivers were out. They’ve all gone potty! Iodine in the salt had something to do with it. Affecting their bleedin brains no matter what Bevan said.
A door banged shut and high heels clattered back along the shiny floor. Didn’t take her long, Vera thought. What about the other one though, the first one? Where’d she got to? Vera
pushed her small frame erect, using the table top for support. One hand tucked itself into the pocket of the green, short-sleeved overalls she wore, while the other pulled the net curtain aside.
She poked her head around the doorframe and looked along the twin rows of closed cubicles. A uniform pattern of light bounced off the shiny floor as sunlight shone through small glass squares
embedded in the ceiling. Even so, the white, brick-tiled wall at the far end, spotlessly clean though it was, appeared to be a gloomy dark grey. She thought she heard a sound, but couldn’t be
sure because of the droning voice coming from the wireless behind her. The voice was reminding anyone bothering to listen that the BOAC Constellation Airliner that had just journeyed from Australia
to London in the record time of three days, four hours and fifteen minutes was a sign of mankind’s escalation into a new era of world peace, but one in which God’s word could soon be
forgotten in the demanding search for material possessions, possessions that . . .
Vera’s slippered feet shuffled along the damp flooring and she peered at each door as she passed, her head turning from left to right, eyes narrowing to read the
signs. Last one, left. Last one, right. Both
. She stopped and listened.
No sound now.
Then there was.
It was difficult to locate the source, and difficult to tell what the noise was.
Somehow familiar, though.
A tiny choke.
She banged on the door to her left, calling out, asking who was there. There was no reply so she banged on the door to her right. No answer from there, either.
Vera reached into her overalls pocket and pulled out the master key to all the doors. She inserted it into the coin-lock of the door to her right and pushed it open. The cubicle was empty. She
turned to the door behind her and went through the same procedure. There was something on the floor inside.
The small sound again, and this time the realization began to sink in. Vera stared for a few moments at the loose bundle of rags on the wet floor, then slowly moved forward, a hand extended
before her. She stopped when the bundle moved.
The snuffling, choking sound made her reach towards the rough material again and she drew back the folds, taking care with the movement, half-afraid, mostly dismayed.
Grief filled her eyes when she uncovered the baby. Its tiny head was damp with blood-flecked slime, and fluid dribbled from its nose and mouth. The eyes were closed tight against the harsh
surroundings as though not wanting to see the basement cell in which it had been abandoned. The baby was no more than a few hours old and already its skin was turning deathly blue.
It tried weakly to push away the rags that smothered its frail body. And the thing that lay next to it.
Kelso’s eyes narrowed as he peered through the windscreen. He made a conscious effort to contain the anxiety he felt well beneath his belt-line but, as always, the leaden
weight rose steadily and began pushing against his chest. He swallowed and tried to keep the movement as silent as possible.
‘Relax,’ a voice said from the back seat of the Granada. ‘Dave won’t lose it.’
Kelso turned his head to look at the detective inspector. If anything, Cook looked depressed.
‘There’s so much traffic,’ Kelso said pointlessly.
‘Always is, this time of morning.’ Cook looked through the rain-spattered side window. ‘Used to be my beat, this,’ he remarked, nodding towards the damp pavements as
though remembering them specifically. ‘Great training ground for a raw copper.’
‘Up ahead, guv. At the lights,’ the driver said, gently easing his foot down on the brake pedal.
Kelso swung round and spotted the dark blue van. ‘You think they’ve picked it up yet?’
Cook shrugged. ‘They’ve got plenty of time before it gets to Woolwich. Anyway, I thought your info was that they’d be waiting on the other side of the river.’
‘That’s what I was told. It doesn’t feel right, though.’
DC Dave Riley glanced at Kelso. ‘It makes sense for them to pull it on the other side. It’s a bit quieter there. I don’t think they’d like getting stuck in a traffic
jam.’ He released the handbrake as the lights ahead turned to green.
Cook leaned forward and rested an arm on the back of the passenger seat. ‘It doesn’t really matter where they try it. We’ve got cars all along the route. Give the other units a
call, tell them our position.’
Kelso reached for the car radio, then scanned the road on either side.
‘Just going into East India Dock Road from Commercial Road,’ Cook told him. ‘Heading for the Tunnel.’