Tuppence to Tooley Street
Copyright © 1989 Harry Bowling
The right of Harry Bowling to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2010
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
eISBN : 978 0 7553 8155 5
This Ebook produced by Jouve Digitalisation des Informations
HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
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Table of Contents
Harry Bowling was born in Bermondsey, London, and left school at fourteen to supplement the family income as an office boy in a riverside provisions’ merchant. He was called up for National Service in the 1950s. Before becoming a writer, he was variously employed as a lorry driver, milkman, meat cutter, carpenter and decorator, and community worker. He lived with his wife and family, dividing his time between Lancashire and Deptford. We at Headline are sorry to say that THE WHISPERING YEARS was Harry Bowling’s last novel, as he very sadly died in February 1999. We worked with him for over ten years, ever since the publication of his first novel, CONNER STREET’S WAR, and we miss him enormously, as do his many, many fans around the world.
The Harry Bowling Prize was set up in memory of Harry to encourage new, unpublished fiction and is sponsored by Headline. Click onwww.harrybowlingprize.net
for more information.
To the memory of my parents, Annie and Henry Bowling.
With special thanks to Edie Burgess for her help,
advice and her special knowledge–what a gal!
A blood red sun was dipping down behind a clump of trees and evening shadows lengthened across the flat French countryside as the two soldiers journeyed towards the coast. Private Danny Sutton felt deathly tired under the weight of his pack. He glanced at Albert Sweetland, the young soldier from the Royal Norfolks, as he trudged along with a cold determination, his thumbs hooked through his pack-straps. Danny gritted his teeth and cursed to himself as he tried to keep up.
The road the two soldiers travelled was busy. Laden trucks drove past carrying battle-weary troops. Civilians rode past on bicycles with large bundles slung across the handlebars, and occasionally a horse-cart went by carrying French women and their young children perched on top of their salvaged belongings. Up ahead, the tar-black pall of smoke from the burning oil installations at Dunkirk was rising high in the already darkening sky. The guns had ceased and it was strangely quiet. A faint bird-song sounded from a hedgerow and Albert held up his head.
‘That’s a jay. First I’ve heard this year,’ he said.
‘Is it? I wouldn’t know a jay from a cock robin,’ Danny replied irritably. ‘I can reco’nise a sparrer though,’ he said as an afterthought. ‘Plenty o’ sparrers in London. Quite a few chickens as well. They keep ’em in their backyards where I come from.’
Albert grunted and hoisted his pack higher onto his sore shoulders.
The two soldiers lapsed into silence. The mention of chickens had conjured up visions of food which niggled at their empty bellies. Danny tried to forget that he hadn’t eaten all day. Christ! What a mess, he thought. Two starving infantrymen without a rifle and a round of ammunition between us. He puffed and hoisted his backpack higher onto his shoulders. They had to reach the coast as quickly as possible. The bloody remnants of the British Expeditionary Force were being squeezed into a pocket around the port of Dunkirk. Danny and Albert had seen their units decimated, and now the German Panzers were closing in behind them.
A breeze had sprung up and Danny shivered. The stocky figure of Albert plodding on steadfastly in front made the young cockney feel a grudging admiration. The country boy was not the most talkative soldier he had met but he seemed able to go on marching for ever. They could smell the stench from rotting carcasses of farm animals and it mingled with the acrid smell of the burning oil dumps as darkness settled over the French fields. It was May 29th, and only a few days away from Danny’s twenty-first birthday. He was feeling pessimistic about his chances of being around to celebrate the occasion. If he didn’t find a place to rest pretty soon he felt sure he would fall asleep on the march and sink beneath the muddy ditch-water. He tried to focus his mind on home. He attempted to picture his family in Dawson Street, and Kathy from the next turning, but all he saw were the faces of his comrades as they faced the onslaught of the German troops.
An old woman shuffled slowly along the road, her frail body bent forward in the shafts of the creaking cart which rattled and jumped over the uneven surface, the contents swaying and bobbing around; a shrouded figure sat slumped in the back. When the woman reached the two soldiers she stopped and put down the shafts. She looked at them with baleful, sunken eyes and her lips moved silently. They could see she was very old: her face was skeletal and her hollow cheeks puffed out with her exertions; her dark clothes hung in tatters and her skirt touched the cobbles. Slowly she turned her head as they passed, her eyes narrowed, and she mumbled something, then her body bent as she picked up the shafts and set the cart into motion once more. The shrouded figure on the bundles rocked back and forth and Danny caught sight of the face. His flesh crawled and he gripped Albert’s arm. ‘Gawd Almighty! Look at it!’
Albert stared at the grey, bloated face of death and he turned his head away. ‘It’s been dead for at least a week,’ he muttered, unable to decide whether the corpse was male or female.
‘It’s tied on,’ Danny whispered.
They could now smell the stench and Danny retched into the hedgerow. He felt Albert’s hand on his shoulder and he straightened up. He had looked upon death before, but this was different. ‘Let’s go,’ he said, shuddering.
They trudged on for a few paces then both reluctantly looked back down the lane. The stretch was deserted. There was no sign of the cart.
The light had faded and Albert quickened his pace. Danny tried to keep up with him, and after what seemed an eternity the two young soldiers reached the edge of Dunkirk. For a while they trudged wearily along the bomb-damaged streets, then Danny leaned against a wall. ‘It’s no good, Albert. I’m done in,’ he said breathlessly. ‘We gotta find a place ter kip fer the night.’
Albert pointed to a row of shattered shops further along the road. ‘What about there? The roof looks solid at least.’
They walked over and entered a small shop. Inside a group of soldiers from the Middlesex Regiment sat propped against the walls. One of the soldiers nodded at them and then pointed to the back of the shop. ‘There’s a tap out back,’ he said.
The two went outside into a small courtyard and washed the dust from their dry throats before filling their water bottles. Danny raised his pale blue eyes to the dark sky. A few tiny stars twinkled through the smoky clouds, and he thought of his home in Bermondsey. His folk might be looking at those same stars right that minute. He thought of Kathy and vowed to put things right with her if he ever got out alive . . .
He knew he had done wrong by taking her for granted. She had always been there when he needed her. It had always been him and Kathy ever since they were youngsters. She had been content just to be with him and he had to mess everything up. The other girls never meant anything to him; he could hardly picture their faces now. But there was the image of Kathy, strong and clear in his mind, as it had been throughout the long months away, filling him with a sense of calm. Only now it was too late. His sister had told him in her last letter that Kathy was seeing someone else.
Albert had gone back inside and now Danny bathed his feet and used the last of the boracic powder on his raw heels. He rummaged through his pack and found another pair of socks and a field dressing. Once he had bound up his feet and put on the clean socks he felt a little better. The desire for food was giving way to tiredness and he went back into the dusty interior and slumped down beside Albert. The young soldier who had first spoken to them leaned over and nudged Danny. ‘Ain’t yer’ad any food terday?’ he asked.
Danny shook his head. ‘Me stomach finks me froat’s bin cut, mate.’
The soldier grinned. ‘Don’t worry. Oggy Murphy’s out on the scrounge. ’E’ll find somefink.’
Time passed and Danny felt his head drooping. Albert was already snoring, his head resting against the crumbling plaster. Suddenly there was a commotion. Danny looked up and saw a huge soldier standing in the shop doorway. He walked in to ragged cheers from his comrades. He was bareheaded and his shaven skull shone in the light of the candle. His features were large and his fleshy lips were parted in a wide grin. ‘Oggy’s got the goods,’ he said in a bellowing voice.
He placed a sack down on the floor and immediately one of the soldiers grabbed at it. Oggy cuffed the young man smartly around the head. ‘Wait, me beauty. There’s bottles in there!’ he growled.
Everyone was now wide awake. Oggy laid down a bundle beside the sack and grinned at the group. ‘Wait fer it,’ he said as he reached into the sack.
Soon Oggy had spread out the contraband on the dusty floor. There were six bottles of red wine and two sticks of bread. Oggy then opened the bundle and produced three tins of corned beef and a chunk of mouldy-looking cheese. Last of all he felt into his uniform pocket and took out a packet of Craven A cigarettes.
‘Cor! Where d’yer get that lot, Oggy?’ the young soldier said admiringly, rubbing his head.
The ugly giant of a man touched the side of his nose with the tip of his finger. ‘Never you mind, sonny. Oggy could get court-martialled fer nickin’ officers’ grub an’ comforts.’
The food was shared out as fairly as possible and everyone in the room ate in silence. The wine tasted like vinegar but it helped the food down their dry throats. When the meal was finished some of the troops lit cigarettes, and Oggy pulled out a wooden pipe and packed it to the brim with tobacco which he took from a greasy pouch.
The loosely hanging shutters rattled in the wind and gunfire sounded in the distance. After a while the soldiers began to fall asleep. Albert was snoring again, his head tilted forward onto his chest. Danny tried to think about home but tiredness prevented him from focusing clearly. His head drooped and he fell into a fitful sleep.
Danny was awakened by the noise of the Middlesex troops mustering outside the shop. Albert was in a dead sleep and he jerked violently as the young cockney shook him by the shoulder. ‘C’mon, Albert. It’s time ter go,’ he said, yawning widely.
In the grim light the two trudged slowly down towards the harbour. The scene that met them caused the two comrades to look at each other in disbelief. Thousands of troops were milling around, and long ragged lines of exhausted soldiers were wading out into the water in an attempt to board the small craft that were coming inshore. One large transport ship was moored at the jetty, and the long line of troops was four deep as the loading went on. The queue stretched back to the sea road and military police struggled to keep order.