Authors: Nick Alexander
Nick Alexander grew up in the seaside town of Margate. He has travelled widely and lived in the UK, the USA and France, where he resides today.
Nick’s first five novels – the
series – were self-published from 2004 onwards and went on to become some of the UK’s best-selling gay literature. His crossover titles,
The Case of the Missing Boyfriend
The French House
The Half-Life of Hannah
each reached #1 in Amazon’s UK chart, jointly selling over 850,000 copies to date. The Photographer’s Wife is Nick’s 11th novel also reaching #1 in Amazon’s UK Kindle chart in December 2014. For more information please visit the author’s website on
Thanks to Rosemary – without your constant encouragement nothing would ever get finished and without your friendship this planet would be a much darker place. Thanks to Sam Javanrouh Photography for the beautiful cover shot and to Allan for his eagle-eyed copy-editing skills. Thanks to all my readers for sticking with me and showing so much enthusiasm about every new project – you make it all worthwhile.
This book is dedicated to our parents who, for all their successes (and all their failures) have lived through more than we, their children, can ever imagine.
The Photographer’s Wife
a novel by Nick Alexander
“Don’t think you know what battles I had to fight to get where I am today. Don’t think you can even imagine what suffering we had to go through, what secrets we had to hide. You think you know everything but you know nothing. You don’t know me – you don’t know anyone. Because that’s what life is. It’s thinking you know everything, and thinking you know everyone, and finding out, the older you get, that you didn’t – that you had it all wrong.” - B. Marsden.
1940 - Shoreditch, London.
Barbara pushes up onto her toes and grasps the windowsill with her small, pale hands. A flake of green paint breaks away and falls to the floor and momentarily she is distracted by the fact that it is green on top, yet white underneath.
“Look!” her sister says again, squashing a finger against the window pane.
Barbara looks at the finger and notices the way the light shines through it from the other side, then looks at the dirty pane itself and then finally shifts her focal point to whatever is beyond the window – whatever has her sister so excited.
In the distance, high above the rooftops, she can see a group of dots floating in the clear September sky. They are still only dots but Barbara can hear a droning sound and already knows, even at six years old, that these dots are warplanes, that these dots are bombers.
The door behind them bursts open and she turns nervously to see her mother. She’s not sure if she has done anything wrong but it’s best to be prepared these days just in case – it seems to happen a lot.
“And what the hell are you two doing at the window?” Minnie asks crossly, as she pulls off her coat. “And don’t tell me you didn’t hear the warnin’.”
“But look!” Glenda says, still pointing.
“I’ll give you, ‘look’,” Minnie says, but intrigued by something in her eldest daughter’s voice, she crosses the kitchen to peer from the window all the same.
Troubled by Minnie’s momentary silence, Barbara turns back to the blue sky beyond the window and watches the dots again. They are bigger now; the droning is louder now. She tilts her head towards the ceiling and looks up at her mother, whose upside-down face is shifting from its usual, almost permanent expression of annoyance, to puzzlement, then concern.
“Bleedin’ Krauts,” Minnie whispers after a moment, then, with a deep, sad sigh, she drags her regard from the sky outside and, tapping Glenda gently on the side of the head, she says, “Kitchen table, Madam. Now!” She grabs Barbara’s left hand and drags her from the room.
Barbara sits with her back against the lathed leg of the table and runs her index finger along the grain of the wood above her. The droning noise from the planes is loud now and a little frightening, and is soon joined by the rattling crackle of the anti-aircraft guns.
“Definitely Germans then,” Glenda says, addressing her mother’s knees as she moves quickly around the table preparing sandwiches. Barbara can tell from the smells wafting down that these will contain fish paste, her least favourite filling.
“Who else are they gonna be?” Minnie replies, the table resonating strangely with her voice.
“I thought they might be
boys,” Glenda says. “They’re a bit early in the day to be Krauts, aren’t they?” The limited air-raids to date have been almost exclusively nocturnal.
A chipped, floral plate appears, floating beneath the edge of the table. It is piled with three doorstop sandwiches rather than the usual triangular bite-sized kind.
Barbara, who in these times of rationing has been told off repeatedly for helping herself, hesitates a moment before delicately taking one.
“Well, take the plate!” Minnie says. “D’you want me to stay out here till a bomb comes or somethin’?”
Glenda reaches past her sister and takes the plate, then snatches the sandwich back from Barbara and returns it with the others.
“And I’ll have none of that!” Minnie tells her, now crouching down and joining the two girls on the thin mattress beneath the table. She brings with her a pottery jug filled with water and a tin mug which they will share.
“Shouldn’t we go to the shelter?” Glenda asks. “Because Mary over the road said–”
“It ain’t finished,” Minnie tells her. “You know it ain’t.” The Andersen shelter in the garden needs another full day of spadework and considering it all a bit unnecessary, believing, along with most of the girls at the factory, that the threat to London has been exaggerated, Minnie, exhausted by the end of her working day, has been reluctant to put in the hours.
“Not ours. I mean the proper one. At the youth club,” Glenda says, “cos Mary over the road – you know, the one whose Granddad's an air warden – well
“We’ll be fine here,” Minnie says loudly, cutting her off. “Now be quiet and eat yer tea or I’ll eat it myself.”
In the distance, the deep boom of a five-hundred-pounder resonates and Barbara postpones the first bite of her sandwich to listen, leaving it hovering before her mouth.
“The docks again,” Minnie says. “It’s always the docks. Poor buggers. Wouldn’t get me working down there.”
Barbara bites into the sandwich and, as another round of popping anti-aircraft fire coincides with a second distant bang, thinks,
fish paste. Yuck
. But despite the fish paste, she quite enjoys these hours spent under the table snuggled between her mother and her sister. It’s as much fun as ever happens at home these days anyway.
Something whistles overhead and is followed by a new kind of explosion, and Barbara sees Minnie frown and look up at the underside of the table as if it has some secret to impart to her about this new sound. Minnie reaches for the three hated gas masks beside her and pulls them within the safety zone provided by the table. And then it happens – another explosion, only this is
closer and they not only hear it but feel the thud of it coming through the floor, through the mattress. Minnie inhales sharply and closes her eyes, Glenda’s actually widen, and Barbara’s sandwich slips from her grasp and falls into her lap.
“Woo!” says Glenda, grinning a little crazily once the moment has passed.
If her mother shared Glenda’s excitement, Barbara might have been able to follow her lead – she might have been able to think that this was fun as well. But as another bomb hits and then another, and then another, and as the blasts are ever closer, ever louder, Minnie is realising that this is very different to the old Zeppelin raids of her own childhood, where the Germans simply chucked bombs out of the windows of the airships, different even to the strikes that have hit London to date, and that, solidly built as it undoubtedly is, they may not be as safe as she assumed, here beneath the oak of the old kitchen table.
Barbara studies her mother’s face for clues and sees her swallow and lick her lips. She can’t know what her mother is thinking but she can sense her feelings almost as if they are her own, and in this case what she senses is fear. A new thought crosses her six-year old mind, one that she has never had before: that her mother may be fallible, that there may come a time when her decisions are not the right ones. Even sandwiched between her mother and her sister, she suddenly feels unsafe. She starts to cry.
“And you can stop that right away!” Minnie says, threatening a slap by half raising her free hand.
Barbara swallows with difficulty and feels as if her face is swelling, doubling in size as she struggles to contain the next batch of tears.
“Crying never solved nothing,” Minnie says, and Glenda shoots her sister a discreet wink and hands her the sandwich again.
“Eat up, Sis’,” she says softly. “You’ll be alright. We wouldn’t let anything happen to you, now would we?”
Barbara follows her mother out of the newly finished shelter and pauses in the grey, dawn light to take in the smog in the air and the sunset-red blaze lighting the horizon in every direction.
Other than the all pervading smell of smoke and the permanent, multi-directional sunset, everything in their immediate surroundings seems unchanged and this morning, as every morning, this is a surprise. The noise from the night raids is incessant and terrifying and it’s hard to imagine, lying there in the dark, that anything beyond the shelter remains.
“Come on,” Minnie says. “Let’s get you out of those damp clothes,” and Barbara touches the sleeve of her nightshirt and senses the all-pervading dampness of the shelter still with her, lingering in the material. She is pulled, with a jerk, forwards past the tiny vegetable patch. “What about Glenda?” she asks, straining to look back at the open door of the shelter.
“Let her sleep,” Minnie says. “You two have a big day ahead of you.”
Yes, a big day. For today is evacuation day. The “phoney war” is over; no one is any longer in doubt that the danger is real, and Minnie, under increasing pressure to evacuate the girls since the beginning of the war, has finally caved in. She is dreading letting them go. She’s terrified for them, has no idea where they’re going, no idea what awaits them in Wales… But she’s also scared for herself. The air raids are so frightening, they make her feel sick, and her life here now that Seamus has gone (and is he even still alive? There have been no letters…) is miserable. With the kids around, she at least has to pull herself together. But what happens once they’re gone?
As Barbara eats her bread and marge, Minnie watches her and wonders how this day will pass, wonders even if she herself is really capable of this – capable of separating herself so geographically from her flesh and blood.
“Glenda’s a sleepy girl,” Barbara says, speaking through a mouthful of bread.
“Let her sleep,” Minnie replies.
Yes, let her sleep,
Let her sleep till the last possible moment.
Barbara is too young to understand what evacuation really means but Glenda, Minnie knows, is going to scream blue bloody murder.
They are at the train station, and Barbara, who has been told a secret, is surprised that her sister is here at all.
There are children everywhere, groups, like cattle, forging their way through moving rivers of other children, being herded by the unlikely association of teachers and fat-people and old-people and pregnant-women that have been assembled to travel with them.
Glenda is sulking, gently kicking her small brown suitcase, but not, Minnie notes, making a fuss as yet.
Barbara, she can tell, is tense, hesitating between seeing this as an adventure or a trauma, watching her sister, her mother, everyone around her for clues as to how to react. Only Minnie herself comprehends just how enormous this rupture will be for them all. Only Minnie is bracing herself for the aftermath.
To the right, a little girl cries out, and is lifted, kicking, into a carriage. Barbara swivels her head and watches and hears the little girl’s vibrato voice: “I won’t go, I won’t go! I
Barbara clasps and unclasps her fingers around the rough weave of the shopping basket containing her clothes. The coarse fibres prickle her skin.
A man with a clipboard is heading towards them. “Mrs Doyle!” he says, theatrically.
“Mr Wallace,” Minnie replies, emulating his officious tone of voice.
“Glad to see we finally saw sense,” he says smugly.
“If you call ‘seeing sense’ sending your kids to god-knows-where to be brought up by god-knows-who, then yes, Mr Wallace, we’ve finally seen sense,” Minnie retorts, thinking only once she has said it about the fact that the girls have overheard. But Minnie just can’t help herself in these situations. She is not someone who likes to be told what to do and Grenville Wallace has been doing just that ever since he traded his grubby, overpriced little corner shop for this role as evacuation officer. His attitude alone is almost enough to make her turn around and head home.