Justine woke up tucked tightly into an unfamiliar bed with an awful noise whistling around inside her skull. Her right hand slowly climbed up soft hemmed cloth and over her tiny waist feeling along a line of three buttons and a breast pocket. Eventually the fingers spidered out and tugged at the edge of a dusty candlewick bedspread. This created a small divot where she could breath more deeply and her long lashes fluttered open revealing slightly bloodshot slate grey eyes, which ventured around the room and took in the surroundings.
Although the curtains were closed there was strong daylight beyond, which seeped in to vaguely illuminate a lightly furnished bedroom. Everything seemed plain, dull and painted in a magnolia monochrome. Eventually she gazed back down at her fingers to study the scraped varnish and a broken nail on her grazed hand.
‘Marvellous,’ she hissed, the “M” cracking her dry lips and the “arvelous” releasing the taste of rust and sour breath. Justine lifted her head off the pillow, but the sudden movement sent flashes of vivid colour to accompany the cacophony behind her eyes as she blacked out.
In what felt like just a moment, she was awoken again by the sounds of digging outside and the dulled tones of “God bless the child” coming from a gramophone somewhere beneath the room. Justine took a moment to breath deeply then paused and listened to the final words, “Here just don’t worry about nothing cause he’s got his own. Yes, he’s got his own”.
The song was something familiar and she clung to the fading words. Her lover Harry had sung it badly, over and over, ever since she’d given him the disk two weeks ago. Not wanting to waste another moment of what ever it was that was happening, Justine forcefully flung back the covers, swung both legs out of the bed, stood up and called out his name.
The popping in her nose and ears made her think of fizzy water pouring through the void as she swooned back down. It lasted for two sparkly seconds, during which, the only thing that actually passed through her head was this thought; ‘These aren’t my pyjamas.’
Ten minutes later the young girl became semi-conscious again and found herself tucked back into the bed. The digging was still there, but the music and her internal whistle had gone. Justine turned her head and opened just one eye this time, and slowly. The curtains had been drawn so that bright white light silhouetted three blurry figures burnt against a bulging oblong of sash window. On the left was a short, thin body slouched against a much taller rotund figure, which cradled the former in a long flabby arm. The third shape was wearing a hat, she was medium height, beautifully voluptuous and stood a foot or so apart from the other two. They all seemed to be facing away from the bed.
One of them spoke quietly, ‘I don’t think there’s any long-term worry. Nothing a good meal and a bit of quiet won’t cure.’ Justine vaguely recognised the voice of Nurse Heather Jones, the local Doctor’s younger wife. ‘How old is she?’ it continued.
‘Twenty,’ the other two shapes quickly agreed. Their voices were in perfect harmony, but with opposing pitch and tempo.
‘Well she’s young enough to cope with anything and old enough to know better,’ the nurse stated. ‘Get some sweet tea down her scrawny neck, then see if she’ll take something more filling.’
Justine opened her other eye and tried to get it to cooperate.
‘I got some soup on already and the tea’s in the pot.’ This, the sharper voice was definitely Harry’s mother Margaret Clark. ‘Have you heard owt from Doctor Jones yet?’
‘I spoke to an ambulance driver this morning and she swore she’d seen him treating the injured men coming in from Kings Hill.’ Nurse Jones was clearly trying to sound confident, but there was a wobble in her tone as she added, ‘I imagine he’s still doing his job, somewhere.’
‘And do you honestly think our Harry will be alright?’ Margaret asked urgently as her petite shape slowly peeled away from the larger one and leaned on the window frame to look outside. ‘I mean there are a few still missing and he was likely to be hanging around with most of them.’
‘Oh Marge,’ the unmistakeable deep voice of Fat Florence cut in. She was Margaret’s neighbour and a notorious gossip. ‘You know my old man said he’d seen your Harry before the raid. He told you they were all goin’ off in that scruffy old truck, away to the hills. They’ll be sat up at Croft farm right now, working out how to make a few bob in salvage from all this mayhem you mark my words.’ Florence quickly snapped from useful gossip mode into a more vinegar proclamation, ‘I mean let’s face it, he’s gonna need a few extra pennies if Nurse Jones is right about you know what,’ she turned away from the window and continued, ‘inside of you know who.’ Then she did a strange pointing motion, gesturing toward the bed by leaning her head and rubbing her pointed finger under her nose.
Heather followed the fingers line of fire, noticed that her patient was watching them and quickly interjected, ‘So they’re all fine then, just waiting for the roads to clear and the bridge to reopen.’ The nurse approached the bed and asked tenderly, ‘Now then little miss, can you tell me your full name?’
‘You know my name,’ Justine said with a sideways look of confusion, ‘It’s Justine Page.’
‘And what year is it?’
‘Nineteen forty bloody one,’ Justine croaked out. ‘Is there something wrong with your memory Nurse Jones?’
‘No, and hopefully yours is fine too,’ Heather smiled. ‘So, what were you doing out in an air raid with nowt more than a brolly and your strawberry blond Betty Grable curls to protect you?’
‘Raid?’ Justine attempted to concentrate; ‘I don’t really remember that much and it sort of hurts to think.’ As her brain laboured to process again she became deeply worried about the overheard conversation. She took a long slow breath of air then exhaled and asked impatiently, ‘what happened to all my friends, where’s my Harry?’
‘He’ll be fine.’ Florence stepped closer and folded her ample arms, sending blobs of doughy bicep and bosom in every direction. She spoke excitedly and smiled like a woman who knew her own business and everyone else’s too. ‘You had quite a knock. The policeman said your umbrella must’ve saved you, but he didn’t know what from. Quite the mystery you are.’ Florence winked theatrically at the pale girl.
As Justine tried to sit up again, the three onlookers dived in to help, but mostly ended up in each other’s way.
Heather was the voice of reason, trained to disperse unnecessary bodies in useful ways. ‘Go and get that tea Margaret and you can do what you do best Florence, find out what’s happening round the town.’ As Florence turned away with a broad grin, Heather cautioned her, ‘Florence Fairchild, don’t you go spreading any more rumours. I expect you to come back with real information for once and no tittle tattle.’
By the time Florence left the room her smile had melted into a sorrowful and jowly recognition of her own weaknesses.
Heather put a hand on Justine’s rosy cheek, soothing her while also covertly checking the skins temperature. ‘So Miss Page, how are you feeling today?’ she asked kindly.
‘Quite groggy and a bit sick if I’m honest.’ Justine fumbled around at the back of her head where the throbbing pains were regrouping. It felt as if someone had glued her hair up. ‘Where is Harry?’ she asked again.
‘It will get better, don’t worry.’ Heather moved her soft hand to poke an errant spiral of hair behind Justine’s ear then continued down to the girl’s slim neck and started silently counting off the beats of her pulse.
With a jingle of crockery Mrs Clark’s slippers shuffled back in. From what Harry had told her, Justine presumed Margaret was in her late fifties. Her body paused occasionally between rapid little jolts of motion, like a nervous sparrow in a housecoat. Short greying hair, wrinkles and chewed fingernails hovered around a tray, which contained a steaming cup of tea with two plain biscuits on the saucer. There was also a small brown teapot in a colourful knitted cosy and a glass milk jug next to a huge bowl of undistinguishable beige soup.
Margaret smiled, ‘Got no sugar, but there’s a big blob of honey in the pot, from the farm.’
Heather picked up the cup and saucer then ushered the rest away to a nearby nightstand.
‘Can I have a cigarette please, where’s my handbag?’ Justine looked around the room too quickly and little golden sparks shot across her view again, but the bubbles and ringing in her ears had almost gone now. ‘Is Harry alright?’ she persisted with more vigour this time.
Margaret tried to sidestep the question. ‘You didn’t have a bag dear. PC Grogan wanted to get you some things from your flat, but…’ Harry’s mother stopped talking and looked to the nurse for assistance before adding, ‘Your dress is washed now anyway and your, under garments.’ She blushed.
‘So what bits do you recall?’ Heather asked again after briefly dunking one of the biscuits and handing it over. ‘Tell you what,’ Heather waved a hand in front of Justine’s blank face. ‘If you can eat that and drink the tea, I might find a cigarette to go with the second cup.’
Justine ate the biscuit with determined chomps then washed it down with the tea.
In response, Heather stood up to fish out a packet of Woodbines and some matches from her uniform’s side pocket. ‘Fresh air to start with my girl,’ the nurse insisted as she placed the cigarettes on the tray then moved away.
In the strong light near the window the nurse looked fairly young, late twenties or early thirties with firm muscle tone on her smooth arms and legs. With a hefty tug she shuddered the glazed frame up a few inches, allowing the amplified outside noise to surge in. You could hear what the men in the street were shouting now. It was mainly deconstruction instructions, accompanied by a percussive gouging of shovels. Heather immediately decided it was probably a tad too vivid for the time being and slid the window back down with a clunk.
‘So is it coming back, what happened to you yesterday in the raid?’ Margaret asked before Justine could start to quiz them about Harry again.
The patient pondered the question and everything that she had seen and heard since waking up. There was a whooshing feeling as jelly memories flooded back and soaked into the sponges of her brain, but without the custard and cream there was still only half a trifle.
‘I sort of remember, a fuzzy version of what happened yesterday.’ Justine bit her lip then tried to sit up higher in the bed and look out beyond the nurse. ‘I had an awful day at work, that’s for sure. I was late to start with, I remember that and I was so tired. I must have fallen asleep at my desk in the afternoon. Then the sirens woke me up I think, or, or the storm. There was a big storm, right?’
Margaret and Heather nodded together.
Justine concentrated on that thought, ‘So I tried to leave, but everyone was crowding at the front of the town hall. It was raining hard and I wanted to grab my umbrella before someone else did, so I went out the back way.’
The other two women looked at each other, questioning why raindrops would be more worrying than bombs. Margaret shrugged and raised an eyebrow to Heather then tilted her head toward the bed, confirming that she didn’t understand young folks either.
‘Every time I put something down at work some sod swipes it, you see?’ Justine tried to explain. ‘Make-up, nail varnish, sunglasses, it’s terrible really because these things are so hard to come by and they,’ her voice trailed off as she struggled to keep on track and got distracted by the scratched paint on her nails. It was Harry who got her all these little luxuries, she thought.
‘Yes dear, but what happened next? You were getting the umbrella, remember?’ Mrs Clark had taken her turn sitting on the edge of the bed now. She passed over the second biscuit then topped up the tea.
‘I think Susan was there,’ Justine closed her eyes for a second. ‘Yes and I tried to tag along with her, down the back passage and out of council chambers. It was like a blackout, but it can’t have been night. I thought we were both heading for the staff shelter outside, it’s in the old records vault.’
‘Anyway,’ Nurse Jones urged.
‘Well I couldn’t see very well, just brief glimpses in the flickering lights and between the lightening flashes and it just made sense to follow in Susan’s footsteps, but she was moving so fast it was difficult to keep up.’
‘Hang about, who is this Susan?’ Margaret asked impatiently. ‘One of the other girls from your office right, another typist?’
Justine thought it through, trying to tidy the montage of information flopping back into her brain from the day before. After a few more seconds she replied, ‘My supervisor, Mrs Hill, I found out her name is Susan.’
‘Is it now? Well I never,’ Margaret moved closer and patted the covers for Heather to sit down behind her. ‘I knew it began with an “S”, but I thought it stood for sour, stuck-up or possibly, sadistic!’
Justine blinked then carried on, ‘When I got to the shelter, Susan had vanished. There were some girls from the typing pool and the canteen and a few clerks having a brew. All the councillors from planning were down there too, drinking brandy and playing cards. I know it was silly, but I wanted to make sure Susan was alright, so I went back up to look for her.’
‘Back up?’ Margaret asked, wide eyed.
‘Into an air raid?’ Heather added. ‘Didn’t anyone try and stop you?’
‘Yes, I think so, but not with any real effort.’
Margaret shook her head and sighed.
Justine passed back the cup and reached for the Woodbines. ‘So, I went back up and things had gotten really noisy. The sky was still so dark, thick with storm clouds, almost black.’
Justine managed to light a match and Margaret helped her hold it steady to the tip of the cigarette. The young girl took a long drag then blew a cloud of blue smoke above the bed. It obviously made her slightly dizzy, but she soon recovered and tried to recall some more of the previous day.
‘There were little orange pom-pom explosions inside the clouds, high up, but no sun, no stars or moon. When I looked back down, I thought I saw Susan ducking around the corner, towards the street. I was stood there getting soaked, so I popped my umbrella open and called after her to come back to the shelter.’
‘And did she stop?’ Heather asked.
Justine gingerly shook her head. ‘Maybe she couldn’t hear me? As I headed for the gate, there were people running and shouting in the distance, bigger explosions and bells, then…’
Something big crashed down noisily in the street outside. The reverberations rattled the window, juddered through the floorboards and thrummed across the bed frame.
‘Go on love,’ Heather insisted.
‘Well, then I woke up here, in someone else’s pyjamas.’ Justine pulled at the blue and white striped fabric distractedly. ‘These aren’t Harry’s are they?’
There was a long pause as if the others were hoping she would suddenly remember more.
Justine decided to fill the silence with a few more questions of her own. ‘So where’s Harry and all my stuff and why couldn’t PC Grogan get anything from my flat?’
Margaret didn’t have all the answers and the ones she had would surely earn her a far sterner look from Nurse Jones than the one she was currently caught up in. ‘Constable Grogan said they found you just after the raid, in a sandbagged archway near the town hall. Yer brolly was all busted up and you had no shoes on. There was a faint trail of blood in the puddles leading back to the street, but he couldn’t work out what’d hit you. He tied a soggy bandage from his pack around your noggin and bought you here in a car with WPC Birch. There were too many bodies up at the hospital and, well you should see the damage at Doctor Jones’s surgery, it’s shocking.’
Heather cut her off, ‘Oh Margaret it’s only broken glass and plaster, which can be swept up and replaced.’
Harry’s mother dodged Heather’s new glare by looking down to flatten out her pinafore.
‘Margaret washed you and I came over to patch you up properly with a stitch or two. The umbrella took the worst of it, probably saved your lives,’ Heather paused abruptly; worried that she’d let the cat out of the bag.
Justine looked confused for a moment as if she had misheard her, but blamed it on the foggy head and continued her questions regardless. ‘How long have I been asleep?’
Heather checked the watch hanging upside down on her uniform. ‘They got you here late last night. Margaret says you were semi-conscious and mumbling about all sorts of nonsense. You were spark out when I arrived, so you’ve been out for the count for nearly a day. It’s as much to do with exhaustion and lack of nourishment as anything else my girl, that’s why we let you sleep. You need some good food and rest, that’s all.’
Justine looked shocked. She had suddenly recalled something else from yesterday, a fuzzy half memory of a conversation with a town hall receptionist about meeting Harry in the bar at the Bull and Bladder tomorrow, which was now today. ‘So what time is it?’ she asked insistently.
Heather shrugged, ‘Just after five.’
‘I have to go and meet Harry at the Bull.’ Justine tried to get up and out of the bed, only managing to lift herself half way, before falling back and dropping the end of the cigarette into the sheets.
Mrs Clark dived in, grabbing the butt before it did any real damage. When she opened the window again to get rid of it, the sash jammed half way up.
‘What is all that noise?’ Justine croakily begged to know.
Heather held the girls hand. ‘Look sweetheart, you do fully understand there was a lot of bombs last night don’t you?’
‘Yes well, obviously. There were the sirens and the big booming bangs just before I got laid out. Was there a lot of damage, was someone hurt?’
‘Calm down sweetheart, there have been a few, hurt yes, but no one close to you,’ Heather stroked Justine’s arm.
‘Well there was old Mrs Adams, over the road,’ Margaret grumbled, turning to look out at the exploded street. She watched the workmen drop their shovels and dig with bare hands like rats in rubbish. When they pulled out a small lifeless body, she added, ‘and her dog.’
‘There are some very poorly folk up at the hospital, but I think we’ve all been lucky,’ Heather insisted reassuringly.
‘But is Harry alright, has he been hurt?’ Justine pleaded.
‘We don’t know luv,’ Margaret turned her head away from the window. ‘Everyone’s being very kind, telling me to soldier on and all that.’ She took a moment to reflect. ‘But I ain’t seen him since he dropped off the motorbike yesterday morning and if I’m honest, I am quite worried.’
‘Margaret you know they’re all going to be fine, they just haven’t got back here yet, that’s all.’ Heather was trying to keep calm and carry on, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked on paper.
‘I played a few of his records when I got sad earlier,’ Margaret croaked. ‘People keeps popping in to reassure me, but there’s no sign of Minnie or any of Harry’s pals.’ She walked back over to the bed and shivered, trying not to let it show. ‘So anyway, I am pretty sure they must ‘ave stayed out of town. Probably helping out some poor souls who’s worse off than us, don’t you think?’
‘Once the road blocks go we can all get back to normal, whatever that is?’ Heather looked at her watch again. ‘I must go and you should take it slow for at least another night love.’
‘What can I do?’ Margaret asked.
‘You make sure she stays in bed. Home is the first place Harry will come, soon as he can get back into town.’ Heather nodded Margaret towards the door.
When the women had left her alone, Justine sighed and lay back in the bed, trying to listen to the sounds of their voices as they trailed away.
‘See you later then,’ Margaret said when they got to the bottom of the stairs.
Nurse Jones opened the door and stepped over some bricks. ‘And don’t be telling her stuff she don’t need to know till she’s stronger,’ she waved a finger and was gone.
After showing Heather out, Margaret decided to go up and get the patient to at least consider eating some soup. However, when Justine spotted the congealed skin on top, she turned her head away and vomited tea and biscuits onto a rubber backed floor rug.
‘Well, I was warned that might happen,’ Margaret cooed softly as she crouched down and scooped up the rugs corners to form a makeshift bowl.
Justine apologised between breaths then managed a second discharge of bile. ‘Is it the concussion, only, well, I was feeling sick before?’ she asked then added, ‘Before yesterday I mean.’
‘Yes dear that’s what it’ll be, the concussion and because you never flipping eat enough.’ The old lady lied and tried to contain the mess, bundling it up as best she could. ‘Don’t you worry dear, I’ll get a cloth and probably a mop too, but you must eat something more.’ She looked at the floor again then added, ‘An maybe you should leave them cigarettes alone too, just for the time being, eh?’
When Margaret had cleaned up properly, she offered to cook Justine the two tiny rashes of bacon and an egg she’d kept back for Harry’s breakfast, as an alternative to the soup. She was surprised when the girl gingerly accepted. Worried that it might bring on more mayhem, Harry’s mother propped her mop in the hallway then went back down to make the sandwich and a fresh pot of tea.
The smell of disinfectant and cooking grew very strong, but Justine was hungrier than she’d ever been and determined not to miss out this time. Alone in the room she buttoned up the top of the nightclothes, heaved at the covers and very slowly slid herself out.
Using the bedside table she managed to wobble upright then leaned on the wall to shuffle over to the open window. As her angle and proximity changed she noticed that several of its taped panes were cracked. At least the air there was cooler, tainted with bonfire odours, damp plaster and brick dust, but less stuffy than the old bedspread. Each lung full made her feel surprisingly better, but still feeling a little unusual, she looked for a more comfortable position. There was a wooden chair next to her, which still had a pair of Harry’s oil stained work trousers folded over the back. Justine collapsed into it then leaned on the sill to take in the swaying scene outside. As her vision slurred back into a sharper reality, she was stunned.
It looked like a giant spade had dug up half the street then flipped over to let the bits fall back in roughly coordinated heaps. A mountain of bricks here, another made from broken furniture and windows there. Justine took a deeper breath and whispered bitterly, ‘So this is what organised chaos looks like.’
The corner shop which should have been to her right had gone. A whirlwind of brick and plaster had burst from inside it, folding the house next to it in half. Her own little bedsit had been in the old Post Office building next door to that. Most of it was still there, but the roof was holed in places and smoke was drifting up through the distorted walls, windows and relocated tiles. Beneath the rubble, curved ridges of displaced cobblestones fanned out from the missing corner shop like frozen ripples on a pond. It was early evening now, but there were still people scurrying around with wheelbarrows, trying to clear the carnage. Men in shirts and braces were making safe what was left of the structures while dumbstruck women and children picked through the bric-a-brac of broken belongings.
Opposite the Post Office, where there had been nothing to absorb the blast, it had crossed the road and hammered on the doors of several old terraced cottages. Justine hoped there had been few at home to answer, because the doors were now buried beneath the crumpled roofs and walls.
Justine felt sick with anger and loss, a cold finger ran down her spine as a hot flush flared in her cheeks. She slumped in the chair gripped hard on the rotting sill and mourned the defeat of this tiny corner of her little world. Times were hard and for her to start again with nothing would be near to impossible. And what of all the little treasured items she’d bought from her parent’s home, many miles away to the North? What was the fate of all her pictures, memories, postcards and family trinkets? Were they all gone?
Before there had been any particular man in Justine’s life, she’d started to save for what her mother had called “The bottom drawer”. In reality it had began as a couple of old lemon crates under the bed. Now that she did have a man, it seemed there would be nothing to share with him. She had no idea where he was anyway. ‘God forbid,’ she sobbed quietly, ‘if he’s even still alive?’
So this was what war felt like for all those people in the queues at the town hall. It had been going on for two years, yet this was the first time she had truly understood what it meant. Everything had been predictable and organised until now. The rationing, the rent and the working week, it had all felt as comfy to her as an old glove. Now that glove had come undone and hit her smack in the face. It felt awful.
Had she been half asleep, or half awake since war broke out? She felt like she had somehow missed the point until now. How could anyone do this to another person? How could they have permission to remove other peoples loved ones, destroy their homes and leave everyone living with nothing to live for?
A feeling of guilt suddenly spread through Justine for thinking about material possessions when there had been human losses too. Watching the mothers as they witnessed their ruptured homes being pulled further apart, Justine found clarity and she felt strangely more alive. The sheets, table covers, cutlery and knick-knacks she had put in that bottom drawer of lemon crates, they had really meant nothing. Only one thing mattered now and that was life. She would find Harry, she would tell him that she loved him and that would somehow make everything normal again. Wouldn’t it?
Turning away, Justine pushed out beyond the windowsill to get a better view of the other side of town. In the far distance were the hills and she hoped, somewhere amongst them were Harry and his best friend Edward up on Croft farm. She held on to the thought of Edward and his family and how happy she had been spending time with them and Harry. Between the hills and town there was a wide wooded area with two big empty clefts that lined up with the other devastation outside. She prayed that they merely marked the site of bombs dropping on trees instead of people.
The badly drooped roofline of the terraces opposite, allowed her a better view of the mid distance. On this side of the railway sidings there was an unusual pint sized, sandy coloured canvas backed army lorry. It was parked out by the gates of the allotments, on the nearside of the woodland. Justine could just make out a young soldier in a peaked cap standing at the truck’s rear, kicking dirt. She guessed he was in charge of the four regular soldiers wandering amongst the rows of cabbages and fruit bushes nearby. Three of them wore funny little helmets with no brims; the other one had a floppy hat like a cowboy. They were all in pale desert fatigues. The tiny men stopped occasionally to search sheds and structures, looking very serious as they pointed scrawny little black machine guns inside.
Justine started to feel feint again and let herself slide back inside, slumping onto the chair. When she felt better she was intrigued to study her new interior surroundings in more detail, having never been in Harry’s bedroom before.
He had very few possessions on show. Above the bed she saw a box brownie picture of herself, which was slotted into the side of a larger portrait of Harry as a boy with Mrs and the late Mr Clark. There was a stout wardrobe and matching tallboy cabinet on either side of the door. The top of the cabinet held a washbowl with some shaving kit laid out along side. A pocketknife and several books that were held upright by matching glass ornaments, sat on a simple shelf next to the window.
Justine got up slowly and discovered the books were a bible, a Bedford catalogue of vehicle parts and an oily manual for Harry’s Brough Superior motorcycle. Hanging on a nail above the shelf there was a damp, curled and innocuous buff coloured calendar from nineteen thirty seven.
‘That’s a curious thing to have kept this long,’ she said to herself while reaching out to take it down.
At that moment Margaret returned with a fresh cup of tea and a doorstep sandwich containing a well done egg stacked between Harry’s ration of rashes.
‘Did you say something luv?’ Margaret asked.
‘I was just thinking out loud that’s all. I found this out of date calendar.’ Justine put it back on the nail, sat down again and began consuming the food like a woman possessed.
Margaret looked at the mop and bucket through the open doorway, but it seemed it was not needed this time.
Between cheek swelling mouthfuls, Justine pointed outside with the remaining corner of sandwich and asked, ‘What are those soldiers doing? Did one of the bombs not go off?’
‘Well there’s been all sorts of rumours, even talk of a full on invasion by parachutists. The bells was a ringing for ages, bonging out across the whole blooming valley.’ Margaret moved closer and leaned out of the window. ‘Then them nice troops turned up in droves and calmed things down. They arrived last night as the storm departed an’ the sun came out again for a bit, that sort of helped,’ she shrugged. Then looking down at the men still working on the wrecked buildings across the street, Margaret added, ‘The bombs had done so much damage you see, people were trapped all over and it was a race to get ‘em out before the proper darkness came back. Those soldier boys were very helpful last night and well organised. Best of all, they’re all tanned and muscular with nice teeth.’ She grinned and showed her own yellowing dentures as if to make the point.
‘Have you been looking after them Mrs Clark?’ Justine asked sarcastically.
‘We had you to take our minds off of it all didn’t we?’ Margaret huffed.
Justine managed a tiny laugh at this. Mrs Clark giggled too.
‘Well I mean, not too many people were hurt round here, considering all the damage. It could have been a lot worse couldn’t it? An’ the hoards of parachutists turned out to be just a handful of German flyers, bailing out after the big guns shot ‘em down. Their bomber landed on St Mary’s Chapel and by all accounts there ain’t much left of that neither.’ She made the sign of the cross and looked skywards
Justine passed back the empty plate and leaned out to look over the treetops and beyond the two points of smashed woodland. In the low hills she could just make out a small plume of smoke still drifting near the chapel’s location amongst the distant forest canopy.
Margaret was the first to notice more soldiers heading back towards their vehicle near the allotments. At first it was just a movement near the tree line, then slowly they began to pop out into the clearing two and three at a time.
These soldiers had found something, or more precisely someone. As the last few figures cleared the trees you could see that one man was being held up between two squaddies. He was limping badly, dressed in black and with his hands behind his back. Several riflemen were covering him with their weapons as he struggled to keep upright.
‘Germans,’ Mrs Clark gasped, but her voice was hushed as if she thought she might provoke the brute, even from this great distance.
The two women looked at each other and leaned out a little further to get a better view of the action. The last two men to break tree cover were carrying what could have been the remains of parachutes.
The peak capped officer walked over to the injured man and spoke to him. The German looked like he was thinking of an answer then he spat in the officer’s face. The gesture of defiance was clear. A rifleman behind the prisoner struck out at a kidney with the butt of his gun, which chopped the dark figure down onto one knee. The man in charge was not happy about either event. While another soldier helped the German up, the officer wiped away the spittle then rebuked the rifleman who’d struck out.
‘Australians,’ Margaret confirmed with excitement. ‘Bloody loads of ‘em, an’ they’re everywhere now. They says we’re all gonna ‘ave to put a few of ‘em up if they hangs around. I saw one brute out front earlier that I fancy for a lodger and no mistake. Fat Florence says one of ‘em is a little black boy in shorts.’
Justine looked puzzled. She took a moment to put the last few thoughts in her head back together, then turned to Margaret and said, ‘I have to go, I need to find Harry.’ It was not a request; it was a statement of fact.
‘Yes, dear I know. I was thinking downstairs and I already considered trying to stop you, because,’ she shrugged smirking again. ‘You know I’ll catch hell off of Nurse Jones don’t you? But, well, what can I do to hold you back, I’m just a little old lady ain’t I?’ She passed over the cup, ‘I knew as you would help me find him, soon as you got some scram down your gob an’ had time to collect yourself.’
‘I do feel much better now.’ Justine slurped up the drink, passed the cup back and patted at her tummy. ‘The sleep and the sandwich really helped.’
Mrs Clark looked down at Justine’s hand with a massive grin across her face. ‘Listen, there’s summat I ‘ave to tell you before you go.’
‘What, what is it?’ Justine tilted her head and awaited an answer.
‘I wanted to tell you that,’ in that moment Margaret saw the old family portrait on the wall and decided to wait until Harry was home before spilling the beans. ‘I wanted to tell you that, that I’ve filled you a quick bath downstairs and you’re not going till you’ve been in it.’
Justine stretched and rummaged at her bloodied and tangled hair again. ‘Alright then and I need an alternative to pyjamas.’
‘Already run over your dress with the iron and bought it up, it’s on the cupboard in the hallway, them frilly undies too. My winter boots are the only ones that’ll fit you I’m afraid. There’s a small jacket what belonged to my old man or you can look through Harry’s stuff.’
Justine stood up, surprised and reassured that she did not feel quite so faint this time. She took Mrs Clark’s hand then decided to give her an enormous kiss and a hug instead.
‘Good luck sweetheart.’ Margaret said with a wobble in her voice and they both blushed
To escape quickly, Justine acted-out remembering the hot bath and went off to find her clothes. When she had bathed and washed her hair, the feel of the cool cotton dress sliding over her damp tummy and thighs bought back other memories. Memories of how happy she had been in Harry’s embrace, only one day ago.