This is all forty parts of my most recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 31,350 words.
Vera Elspeth Dodds arrived in this world on a cold Friday evening in January, 1924. Her mum Elsie had left it late after the labour pains started, and had to shout for old Mrs Simmons downstairs to go and get Mrs Strickland from number eight. Before they got back, baby Vera had already arrived, on the chipped linoleum floor of the first landing. Mrs Strickland told Clara Simmons to boil some hot water to wash the baby in, and make some tea while she was at it. Then she used two small hairclips to clamp the cord before cutting it with her small fish-cleaning knife and handing the baby to Elsie.
“Get her on the breast, Elsie love. Get her suckling and that will get the placenta out”. Elsie Dodds did as she was told, trusting the unofficial midwife who had delivered all of her other chldren. She watched as the older woman ran a match under a darning needle before threading it with strong cord. “She’s torn you a bit, Elsie. Just a few stitches once the placenta’s out, then we can get you to bed with some hot sweet tea”. Vera’s dad Albert was at the pub, playing darts for The Coach and Horses’ team. Clara wasn’t keen to go out again on that cold night to fetch him, so Elsie said to leave it. “He will see her soon enough, when he gets home. Let him have his night out”.
Little Vera was the fourth child born in that house. Though her oldest sister, Rosie, had not seen her second birthday, taken by scarlet fever. Her other sister, Vivian, was at the pictures with a friend. At the age of fifteen, she was already at work of course, a decent job in the vinegar factory. She liked to go to the pictures with her friends every Friday after work, and would get some fish and chips on the way there. It would be some years before baby Vera would notice the smell of vinegar that no amount of washing could ever quite disguise. Her older brother Teddy was nearly eighteen, and already at sea in the Merchant Navy. If he heard about the new baby sister before he returned from the voyage, he might bring her back a small gift.
Albert Dodds got home just after eleven, hoping a sandwich might have been left on a plate for him. Despite enjoying a few pints with the team, he wasn’t drunk, as he had to go to work in the morning. Shame they had lost, but The Cross Keys was top of the league, so it would have been a wonder if they had beat them. Viv was sitting at the top of the stairs, smiling. “The baby’s come, Dad. Mum’s called her Vera”. He smiled at the news that she had been named after his sister, who had died of disease while nursing the troops in the Dardanelles in 1915. When he got into the bedroom, Elsie and the baby were both sleeping soundly. He got undressed and slipped in beside them, glad of the warmth under the covers.
Baby Vera hadn’t been intended, and when Elsie found out she was expecting, they were none too pleased. Another mouth to feed when times were not so good. She had no option but to leave the jam factory once she was six month’s gone, as the work was too heavy. At least Albert still had his job at the Iron Foundry in Deptford Creek, and could work extra hours on Saturdays when they had a big job on. That had saved him from the Great War too, as it had been a reserved occupation. But they were geting on a bit to have a new baby in the house. Albert was forty-two next birthday, and Elsie would be thirty-seven in four day’s time.
When the crying of his new daughter woke him up just before four in the morning, Albert yawned and stretched. He had to be up by five anyway, to walk to work that morning. As Elsie put the baby to her breast, he leaned over and kissed his wife on the head. “Well done, old heart”. When he was lacing his boots, she spoke quietly. “Bertie love, there’s a sandwich made in the cold larder, you can have it for breakfast, or take it to work. It’s the last of that boiled ham, with a nice thick spread of mustard. If you are having tea before you go, can you make me one?”
When he came back with the tea, he smiled at the happily feeding baby, and kissed Vera very gently on her cheek.
“Welcome to the family, little Vera”.
For a long time, baby Vera slept in an old drawer in the bedroom. Mrs Simmons had given it to Elsie, as she didn’t have enough clothes to fill her tallboy any longer. Once she was big enough to need her own bed, Albert bought one from a friend at work, and they carried it all the way from Deptford between them. Viv wasn’t happy though, as it meant she now had to share her small room with her little sister. But she knew better than to make too much fuss.
That was about the time of Vera’s first memories. The smell of her sister’s cheap perfume, used sparingly of course. Her stockings discarded on the floor after a night out with her friends, and the smell of tobacco smoke and vinegar that seemed to cling to all of her clothes. Happy memories too, of wearing Viv’s shoes when they were far too big, and rushing into the living room covered in the lipstick that she had found on the window ledge, everyone laughing at the sight of her.
She had only been one year old when Teddy came home on leave, so didn’t remember him. But she hadn’t let go of the toy camel he had brought for her for weeks. The next time he was back, she vaguely remembered the settee being pulled out for him to sleep on, and the smell of his socks when he took his shoes off.
One thing she never forgot was the Christmas when she was old enough to realise what was going on. Mrs Simmons let Albert put up the trestle table in her parlour, and everyone was there to eat a big capon, followed by a pudding that Clara had tended carefully for months. Vera had woken up to some presents at the end of her bed, including some new mittens, and a hand-made knitted dolly. There was even a small red wool stocking that had some Brazil nuts and a tangerine inside. Although there was no tree, paper decorations lined the walls, and little Vera thought it must be the best day of her life.
Vivian had a steady boyfriend by then, someone she had met in the queue outside the cinema. His name was Roy, and he had a habit of running a hand through his hair constantly. He came for Christmas dinner too. There were no grandparents though. Albert’s parents had died when he was a teenager, soon after each other. Elsie’s mum had been deserted by her husband long before the war, and had died the year before Vera was born. But what she didn’t know, she didn’t miss, and she had great fun watching them all trying to keep the paper hats on their heads as they laughed and joked. Auntie May was coming to visit on Boxing Day. Elsie’s older sister May had married well, and Vera had been told to expect something nice from her as a present.
As the rest of them enjoyed their beer or gin, and sung songs at the table, Vera was taken up to bed, soon asleep clutching her new doll.
Auntie May arrived the next afternoon. Her husband was called Derek, and he had a car. The older kids ran along the street behind it, keen to see where it was going to stop. As Derek and May got their things from inside, the kids stood on the running board and peered through the windows at the luxurious interior. Vera looked up at the aunt she hardly remembered, fascinated by the fox fur stole she was wearing around her shoulders. The dead animal’s head lolled to one side, and Vera was convinced it might suddenly come to life and bite her.
It was an awkward hour or two, and even little Vera could sense the strained atmosphere. She wasn’t to know that May considered herself above all this now, and was rather ashamed of her background. Derek talked to her dad about roses and fertilizer, then pretended to be interested in how the darts team was doing. When it was time for them to leave, no present had appeared. Then almost as an afterthought, May produced a large box, wrapped in bright paper. Elsie nodded at her daughter. “Open it, love. It’s for you”. Inside was a large doll in a cardboard box. It was a black doll, with curly black hair, and wearing a red and white check dress. Vera had to give her aunt a kiss to thank her, and wrinkled her nose at the strong perfume, and the taste of heavy face-powder.
She didn’t say anything of course, but she preferred the wool dolly her mum and dad had given her.
Once she was old enough to have to go to the lavatory by herself, Vera used to try to hold it as long as possible. Walking downstairs and through the side door to the garden, she approached the black painted wooden door of the outside convenience with her lip trembling. She knew there would be spiders inside, sometimes big fat ones squatting in the corners.
As she sat high up on the seat, she would stare at her shoes, hoping to stop herself looking up. If that failed, she would flick through the squares of newspaper hanging on the nail, the paper they used to wipe themselves. There might be some with photos, or interesting pictures on advertisements. They would help divert her attention from the spiders until she had finished. Her dad had tied a long piece of cord to the chain so she could flush it without having to reach up high, and she would pull that without looking back as she did so.
It was worse at night, or in the winter, because she needed to have the light on, the bare electric bulb that cast a harsh glare inside. Then she couldn’t help but see the spiders, and sometimes there were moths or other flying things fluttering around the bulb. One night, the money ran out in the meter while she was sitting there. Before her mum could get the sixpence in, Vera ran outside, terrified. She stood sobbing in the garden until mum came to find out where she had gone.
It wasn’t really a garden, although Elsie and Albert liked to call it that. In theory, they shared the space with Clara who lived downstairs, but she only used it for her mangle and the washing line, and had litle interest in it. Albert had built two low brick walls creating containers, one on each side of the small yard. Filled with earth, he grew his treasured roses in them, then started to call it the garden. When the milkman or coalman came down the street in their horse and cart, Elsie would try to be first out with a shovel, to scoop the horse manure off the road before anyone else. Albert prized it for use as fertilizer on his roses, and would always have a big smile when his wife told him she had got some that day.
The same year that Vera had to start school in September, Vivian and Roy got married the week before. Viv told her sister that she would have the room to herself now, except when Teddy came home from sea. Her and Roy were going to live with Roy’s mum, all the way over in Kennington. His dad had been killed at the end of the big war, and they would share her two-bedroom flat. Vera wasn’t sad to see her sister go, as she was sure they would see a lot of her. And she would have a lot more room, as Teddy was hardly ever home. He couldn’t even get back for the wedding, so was going to miss Vera being a bridesmaid.
In her little world, her sister’s wedding was a marvellous, almost magical day. Mum had a special dress made for her, and she was to carry confetti, and a wooden horsehoe covered in silver paper, to wish them luck. Vivian was up early, with her friend Madge curling her hair at the kitchen table. The only person in their street who owned a car was Mr Fleming, who was a taxicab driver. He had been paid to take Viv and dad to the church, even though it was less than a mile away. He had put some long white ribbons from the front bumper to the top of the windscreen, and polished up the taxi until it was shining. Mum had been up since it was still dark, making sandwiches that were put into tins, to go with the cakes she had been making all week.
Dad wore his best suit, which was also his only suit. Mum pinned a white carnation onto his lapel, and gave him a packet of cigarettes she had bought, as she didn’t like him rolling his own in company. Aunt May and Uncle Derek turned up in their fancy car, but she looked a bit miffed when Elsie started to load her tins of cakes and sandwiches inside it. They had come early, to be able to give Elsie and Vera a lift to the church, along with Clara Simmons, who of course had been invited.
Trying hard to keep her white silk shoes clean, Vera was almost overwhelmed with excitement.
Elsie walked Vera to school for her first day. On the way she explained that Clara would be picking her up after, and looking after her until she got home. “I’m going back to my job at the jam factory, Vera love. Now Viv has moved out, we need to make up her housekeeping money. So Mrs Simmons will look after you until me or dad get home, okay?” Vera was not exactly in a position to debate that, so she just nodded.
One good thing about school was that it was full of other children she either knew, or had seen around. Less than a ten-minute walk from home, the building was a familiar local landmark. There was a ‘Girls’ entrance, and another marked ‘Boys’, though once they got across the playground and inside, the classes were mixed. Elsie was told that Vera would be in Mrs Chiltern’s class, and she turned to her daughter. “Now be a good girl, do as you’re told, and whatever the teachers say is the same as if it’s come from me and dad”. Some of the other children were crying, and hanging on to their mums. Not Vera though, as she was keen to get into the class and see what school was going to be like.
Nodding at Lizzie, one of her best friends from the street, Vera grabbed her and made for the two seats at the front left, by the window. The Fuller twins, Jean and Joan, got the places behind them, and the class filled up quickly, except for one seat. Little Georgie Baker came in last, almost late but not quite. When everyone had answered their names as they were read out, Mrs Chiltern took them all to the assembly hall. All the children who had just started that day were there, and Vera was one of the oldest, as her birthday had been nine months earlier. Mr Lloyd, the headmaster, made a long speech about behaviour, being on time, and not talking in class. Then they all had to stand up when he left. Vera thought he must be very old, as he was walking with a bad limp, and his face looked sad.
The rest of the morning, they learned their numbers up to fifty, and the ABC. As Vivian had bought a book about the ABC and kept going over it with her, Vera had a head start. By playtime, it was starting to feel familiar, and the four friends rushed over to the girls’ toilet block at the far end of the playground. Vera loved the school toilets. They had real toilet paper, which was a bit like the greaseproof paper mum used when she was baking. And the toilet bowls were low to the ground, so her legs weren’t swinging. Best of all, they were not draughty, and there were no spiders inside.
In the afternoon, they learned how to do papier mache, using flour and water to make glue, then sticking strips of paper onto wire frames bent in the shape of animals. It was messy, but they all enjoyed it. They had been given brown aprons to wear to save their clothes, but Vera was worried that her mum would tell her off for the spots of glue on her shoes. Mrs Chiltern told her not to be concerned, as it would wash off. At home time, Clara Simmons was waiting at the gate, and held Vera’s hand as they walked home. Clara gave her a drink of orange squash when they got back, and two home-made shortbread biscuits. Vera would have loved to have been given another one, but Clara told her “No more, or you will spoil your dinner”.
When Elsie got home, she thanked her neighbour, and took Vera upstairs. She got busy peeling some potatoes for the evening meal, and Vera sat at the table looking at an old encyclopedia that dad had got from someone at work. She couldn’t read that many of the words, but enjoyed looking at the drawings and maps inside. At the back, it had coloured drawings of the flags of all nations, and Vera loved to look at the different designs, trying to remember what country they stood for.
Dinner was almost ready when Albert got home. As he had a wash at the kitchen sink, he winked at his daughter. “First day at school then, Vera love. What did you like best?” Without turning away from the pictures of the flags, she answered without hesitation.
“The toilets, dad”.
One of the things that Vera soon discovered about school was that the friends you start out with are not always the ones you end up with. After a couple of years, she had bonded with Kathy Frazer, a girl she hadn’t known very well before. As the twins and Lizzie began to fade away, Vera spent a lot of her free time with Kathy, often in each other’s houses. Kathy’s dad was from Belfast. He had stayed in England after fighting in France during the war. Kathy said it was because he hated Catholics, and didn’t want to go back to Belfast. He got a job on the docks as a Dock Policeman, which made him pretty unpopular in the area, as so many men worked as dockers and stevedores.
Vera couldn’t understand much of what he said, due to his heavy accent. He called her ‘Virrah’, and his wife Lilian had to translate anything else he said. But he was a kind dad, and friendly too, even though Vera’s dad Albert had told her to “watch him”. Any police were always avoided by the people she knew, especially the Dock Police. Kathy was good at sums, and Vera best in English. So they helped each other whenever they could. Neither of the girls was too bothered about academic prowess though. By the age of nine, Vera was already expected to go and work with her mum Elsie at the jam factory when she finished school. Elsie had told her that she would get her a good job there when she was fourteen. Kathy had an idea to become a nurse, and used to practice looking after her dolls, pretending they were ill.
The best thing about Vera’s day was when her dad got home from work. Sometimes, he might have made her something from scrap iron. Perhaps a small animal in relief, or a simple bracelet that was special to her. She would sit on his lap as he rolled his cigarette, and turn her face away from the cloud of bitter smoke that he exhaled as he lit it. He rarely had a beer with his dinner, but if he did, Vera would rush to bring the bottle opener and glass, asking if she could be given the job of opening it, and pouring it. Her dad always forgave her when the foam was too high in the glass. He would wink at her and say, “It tastes better when you pour it, Vera love.”
She loved both her parents, but mum as always the one who moaned about having a tidy room, washing properly all over, and keeping her clothes clean at school. Dad never bothered with that stuff, and was just pleased to see her, hugging her tight once she had climbed up on his lap. He would tell her, “You’re my girl, Vera love”.
Not long after her ninth birthday, she learned that her sister Vivian was pregnant. Dad made her laugh when he said, “That Roy took his time, probably too busy running his hands through his hair”. Viv came and sat in the bedroom, explaining that she was going to have a baby in the summer, propbably in August. She told Vera that she would become an aunt, which seemed very strange to a girl who was only nine. Viv told her not to worry. “By the time she is your age, you will be nearly twenty, and she will think of you as Auntie Vera.” Young Vera wasn’t so sure that was a good thing, but she hugged and kissed her sister anyway.
Teddy came home on leave that summer. Vera blushed a bit when she saw him, as he was sun-tanned, so good-looking, and grown up. When he hugged and kissed her, she flushed with embarrassment, realising that she hardly knew her big brother. He brought her a porcelain-faced doll with a Chinese face, and a blue dress. Albert hung a curtain between the beds in her room, and Teddy slept on the smaller bed. Vera felt strangely grown up when mum told her she shouldn’t get dressed or undressed in front of him. “You’re a young lady now, Vera love. Teddy doesn’t need to see you in your underwear”.
He was only home for eight days that time, and Vera felt really sad when he went back to sea.
The following year, something exciting happened. One of Albert’s foremen bought a new radio, and offered to sell him the old one. It was discussed with Elsie, as it meant using their meagre savings. Things were not going that well in the world, with mass unemployment in America and Europe. Fortunately for the Dodds family, Elsie’s job was secure, and though there were no extra Saturdays being worked, Albert was fully employed too. It seemed that England still had need of cheap jam, and things made of iron.
Albert borrowed a sack barrow from work to wheel home the heavy radio, and Elsie helped him carry it upstairs. Clara Simmons came up, and she sat next to Vera and Elsie as they watched Albert waiting for it to warm up. The huge dial on the front listed lots of numbers and the names of faraway places, and the big cabinet it was fitted into took up a lot of space next to the fireplace. After some high-pitched whining sounds, and a lot of crackling noises, they finally heard the sound of orchestra music coming from the front. Elsie smiled. “Turn it up louder, Bert, don’t forget Clara is a bit deaf”.
Vera had heard radios before of course, as Vivian and Roy had one at his mum’s place. Roy was paying it off on hire purchase, so much a week. But to have their own one in the front room was something so exciting. Albert fiddled with the dials, trying to find a news broadcast, but Elsie yelled at him. “Leave it, Bert. Let’s just enjoy the music for now. Read the evening paper if you want to know what’s in the news!”. Reluctantly, he twisted the dial back to the music, then sat down and rolled a cigarette. Vera sat back and closed her eyes, trying to identify each instrument as they played their solos. Violins, piano, cellos, it was just wonderful.
That Sunday, Viv and Roy came round with baby George. Vivian had been sure all along she was having a girl, but there were problems at the end, and she had to have an operation at the hospital to get the baby out. He had been named George, after the King, and Albert, after dad. Roy was a mechanic by trade, although he aways kept his hands so clean, you would never know that he worked on cars for a living. He had bought a motor bike and covered sidecar after little George was born, and when they turned up, Viv was sitting in the sidecar holding the baby. It made so much noise that Vera put her fingers in her ears until the engine stopped. Her dad said Roy would never have any money, as he spent everything he earned.
When George was seven months old, Viv had gone back to work at the vinegar factory, and Roy’s mum looked after the baby. But it was two buses to get to work now, so as they ate the meat paste sandwiches and fruit cake, she was telling them that she was looking for a job closer to home. She had heard that there were jobs going at Kennedy’s sausage factory, and she could walk there. So she was going in to ask them about a job the following week. Vera held the chubby baby on her lap, constantly whispering into his ear. “Auntie Vera. I’m your Auntie Vera”. She was hoping it might be the first words he said.
Just as Elsie was making the third pot of tea, and Roy was droning on about how he would ideally love to buy a car, there were two knocks on the door. One knock would have been for Clara downstairs, but two knocks was for them. Albert went down, and came back up with Uncle Derek. His overcoat smelt so strongly of mothballs, it made Vera’s eyes water. His face was grim. “It’s May. She’s in a bad way. They have taken her to St George’s Hospital. Get your things, and I’ll take you in the car”. Aunt May lived in Pimlico, in a nice house that Derek had inherited. After collapsing at home, her doctor had not wasted any time, and had sent her to the hospital at Hyde Park Corner in an ambulance. It was so serious, the doctor had suggested Derek inform the family.
Vera had to stay home with Viv and Roy, and as the car left with her parents and uncle inside, she could see her mum was crying.
May didn’t last the night, and not long after, Vera got to go to her first funeral. Because Derek’s family had money, at least more than the Dodds, it was a fancy affair. As it was her older sister’s funeral, Elsie insisted that they all wear black, though Albert had to make do with a black tie worn with the blue suit. A new suit was a step too far, financially. Vera was given a black wool dress that was someone else’s and was altered to fit her for the day. Her mum told her not to get it messy, as it was going back in the morning. It was far too long, but it wouldn’t matter on such a young girl. Elsie also bought her some black wool stockings from the market, with white elastic loops to hold them up, and a black beret. Vivian left little George with her mother-in-law, and turned up looking very glamorous, with a black veil hanging from the brim of her hat.
Elsie wasn’t amused. “You’re not going on a date, Vivian. Black silk stockings indeed! And take some of that make-up off before we leave the house, you look like a showgirl.” They got two buses to the Pimlico house, and joined the other mourners inside. Most of them were serious looking people from Derek’s side, and Vera didn’t know any of them. But Uncle Ernie had turned up, much to everyone’s surprise. Derek had sent him a telegram, and had deliberately not told Elsie.
Ernest Baker was the oldest on Elsie’s side. The brother who was ten years older, and never spoken about. He had once sent Vera a five shilling postal order for Christmas, and she had asked about the uncle she had never met. Mum and dad told her to mind her business, but Vivian told her the story when they were in the bedroom later that night. Uncle Ernie was a theatrical, Viv said. He had never married, and moved around the country in touring shows, pantomimes, and revues. When he couldn’t get a steady role with a company, he used to sing in pubs in East London, dressed as a woman. According to Viv, he had a dingy flat off East India Dock Road, and lived with a much younger Chinese man.
When Vera could see nothing wrong with that and shrugged, Viv dropped to a barely audible whisper. “Don’t you get it? He’s queer, bent. You know, a fairy”.
Vera had absolutely no idea what her older sister was talking about, so just nodded.
The fancy hearse turned up not long after they arrived, pulled by four black horses. May’s coffin was carried out of the parlour and slowly loaded inside, visible through the glass. Elsie had brought some white flowers, and a man in a black top hat took them from her and placed them inside. Black funeral cars had been hired to take everyone, and they had their own one for the four of them. They followed the hearse at the same pace as the horses, all the way to the church, and then on to The Brompton Cemetery in Chelsea.
In the car, Vera watched as her mum got increasingly upset, and although she didn’t feel that sad about Aunt May, she was worried for her mum.
When the coffin was lowered into the grave, some of those who had been listening to the vicar went forward and threw dirt on top of it. Vera stayed at the back with Viv, trying to keep her dress clean. There was a bit of a do after, at a hotel in Kensington. It was the fanciest place Vera had ever seen in her life, with carpets so thick they made her feel like she was bouncing as she walked on them. The food was good too, and Vera smiled as she watched Vivian stuffing some sausage rolls and vol-au-vents into her handbag to take home for Roy. She could tell her dad had probably had one too many beers, as his voice was getting louder, but her mum made one glass of sherry last for the two hours they were there.
The sweet stuff was some of the best Vera had ever eaten, with tiny cakes covered in fondant icing, and small pastries full of sultanas and crunchy sugar on top. She had to stop herself eating any more of them, as she had started to feel a bit sick. The best thing to come out of the funeral was that Uncle Ernie seemed to have made up with her mum, and they had a cuddle before everyone left. Then he came and found Vera, and gave her half a crown as he patted her face. Viv had been right though. He smelled of perfume, and had powder on his face. But Vera really liked him anyway.
In the bus on the way home, Elsie stopped crying, and Albert sobered up. He turned to his wife, and smiled. “Reckon that’s the last time we’ll ever see Derek, anyway”.
He was right of course. They never saw him again.
The same week that Vera celebrated her twelfth birthday, the King died. Everyone was very sad about that, but Vera had other things on her mind.
She had started her monthlies, and had an accident at school. Mortified with embarrassment, she had walked home and gone to see Clara, letting it all out in floods of tears. She knew about such things of course, having shared a bedroom with her older sister for long enough, and also having sat through a talk from her mum all about it.
When Elsie got home and heard what had happened, she made the necessary arrangements, and cuddled her daughter. “You’re a woman now, love. You have to get used to this for the rest of your life. Well, until they stop when you’re older”. Something suddenly occurred to Vera, and she looked up at her mum. “Please don’t tell dad, I couldn’t bear it”.
On the radio, there was a lot of talk about the new King, who was going to be called Edward the Eighth. He had an American girlfriend, and Albert said she could never be our Queen. Still, everyone forgot about that for a while, when Vivian came round all excited, to tell her family that she was expecting another baby in the summer. She had been enjoying her job at the sausage factory and always managed to get cheap sausages for everyone, as employees got a big discount. The sausages were loose in big bags, and at least half the price of the ones sold in the butcher’s, or the small shops. Vera was hoping Viv hadn’t brought any with her.
She was geting a bit fed up of eating sausages by now.
Before the Easter holidays, Vera won an essay prize at school. She had written a long story about the British Empire, and even drawn the flags of the countries that were part of it. Albert had bought her some coloured pencils to do them, and a ruler to get the edges straight. The prize was a book, and she got to choose from a selection laid out in the school library.
Without hesitation, she picked an Atlas of The World. It had all the empire countries shown in red on the big double-page map, and then all the maps in alphabetical order, with each country’s capital city, population, currency, and main industry detailed underneath. She turned straight to the back, where there was a lot of text giving the highest mountains and longest rivers of each country too. The librarian Miss Clarkson pasted her prize certificate in the front, and wrote Vera’s name in beautiful italics.
It was always going to be her favourite book, even better than the old encyclopedia. She was sure of that.
Vivian had another boy, and they called him Edward, after the King, and Roy, after his dad. Vera now had two nephews, and had started to feel very grown up. A few days later, Albert got a telegram. They never got telegrams, so it was definitely going to be bad news. Elsie was already tearful before he had opened it. It was from Teddy. He had broken his leg in an accident on board ship, and was in hospital in Hong Kong. It was his thigh that was broken, so it would be a long recovery. He wouldn’t be home for Christmas, he was sure. Elsie was relieved, and made a pot of strong tea. “Oh my gawd, I was sure he was dead, Bert.”
There was more bad news on the radio. There was a war in Spain. A man called General Franco had invaded the country and was fighting the government with his army. Albert shook his head, his face glum. “That Franco’s no better than those Nazis in Germany. Mark my words, this is going to mean trouble”. Vera already knew about a war in Abyssinia, caused by Mussolini and his Italians. Dad had told her that the Emperor of Abyssinia had no chance, as his soldiers only had spears, and very old guns. Now there was a war much closer to England, in Spain. Vera had already looked up Abyssinia in her Atlas, and now she refreshed her memory about Spain. It was so much bigger than England, so it would probably be a really big war.
Kath was having a birthday tea party that Sunday, and Vera was invited of course.
Thinking about what she was going to wear soon took her mind off Spanish men fighting each other.
Vera only had two dresses suitable for Kath’s birthday tea. Both were rather small now she was getting older. Elsie told her to wear tha pale blue one, but it came up very short, well over her knees. So Elsie went to East Street Market and bought some fake white lace which she sewed onto the bottom, and around the edges of the sleeves. She also picked up a blue ribbon that matched the dress for Vera to wear in her hair, and a tortioseshell Alice Band to give Kath as a present.
When she got to Kath’s house, it was all a bit formal. Some of her relatives were there, with some cousins who were very young. Everyone was sitting around sipping orange squash and eating cakes and biscuits, but there were no party games or songs. Mr Frazer was talking to some men in the kitchen, and Mrs Frazer was looking flushed and busy. When Vera handed her friend the present, Kathy gave her a funny look, and didn’t even open it. When she had sat around like that for over an hour, Vera got fed up, and went and stood behind Kathy. She cupped her hand and whispered into the girl’s ear. “What’s wrong, Kath?”
Her friend’s reaction startled her. “You, that’s what’s wrong. You come to my party in your fancy dress, ribbon in your hair, and sit there like lady muck. It’s my party, not yours, and you’re not supposed to show off wearing your fancy clothes and make me look bad”. Kathy hadn’t recognised the old dress, as Elsie had done such a good job of making it look rather grand. But before Vera could tell her, Kathy turned on her again. “And you might as well go home, ’cause you’re not my friend anymore. And you can take this with you.” She held out the brown paper parcel containing the Alice Band.
Grabbing the parcel, Vera ran out without even stopping to thank Mrs Frazer, and cried all the way home. Her mum told her it was just a silly argument, and it would all be forgotten at school the next day. But she was wrong, and Kathy never spoke to her again.
A week after the summer holidays ended, Vera came home from school as usual. She was old enough to take care of herself now, but still liked to pop in to see Mrs Simmons before going upstairs to her place. She was sitting in the old wooden armchair in the scullery, and at first Vera thought she must be asleep. But one of her shoes had slipped off, and her left arm was hanging down the side, the fingers of her hand almost touching the floor. Vera went over to shake her, to see it she was alright, but her body was hard and stiff.
Running straight back out of the house, she went to the tobacconist and newsagent shop on the corner, owned by Mr Lewis. She told him Clara Simmons wasn’t moving and felt stiff, and he used the phone in his shop to call the doctor. Then he got his son Colin to watch the shop and went back with Vera. Leaving her in the hallway, he went into the back room to look at Clara. He came back shaking his head. “She’s gone, Vera love. You had better go back and wait in my shop. I’ll stay here to see the doctor”. Vera walked back to the shop in a daze. It was the first time she had seen a dead person, and she had even touched her.
Colin Lewis raised his eyebrows when Vera told him what had happened. He was twenty-two years old, and worked in the print trade, doing night shifts at one of the newspapers. Vera thought he was very good looking, but her dad had teased her about him. “Don’t set your cap at Colin, Vera love. He’s a political, that one. Goes marching against the Blackshirts and everything. Trade union man too, bit of an agitator if you ask me. Don’t reckon he has time for romance, especially with some girl as young as you”. She had blushed so hard, her face felt warm all evening.
By the time Elsie got home from work, the undertaker’s big van was there to take Clara away. Elsie gave Mr Lewis the phone number of Clara’s brother in Kent. He was in his nineties, and agreed to pay for the funeral but said he was too ill to travel up for it. That night as they ate dinner, Albert seemed deep in thought. Suddenly putting his knife and fork down, he leaned across the table, speaking quietly to his wife. “I think we should go and see the landlord, Elsie love. Offer to take over the whole place. Otherwise, you never know who might move in downstairs. We can just afford the extra rent, if we’re careful.” Elsie smiled at the thought of it, and nodded.
When Vera went to bed that night, she was thinking about Clara, but smiling about maybe having the whole house just for them.
The last Christmas before she left school, Vera’s family celebrated together in the whole house. Albert had made the best of his days off by painting all the rooms, and trying to make the two separate homes into one. Clara’s old scullery and kichen was now converted so they could all eat around the table, and that left a proper parlour at the front which was only used on highdays and holidays. Upstairs, Vera now had a nice big bedroom, and Albert and Elsie had what used to be the living room, across the front. Vera’s old room was spare, for when Teddy came home from sea on leave.
Vivian and Roy came round with the boys, and Elsie even invited Uncle Ernie for dinner. Though she conveniently forgot to extend the invitation to his Chinese friend. Vera thought it was the best day she could remember. Nobody argued, there was plenty to eat, and Ernie made everyone fall about laughing with his saucy jokes and cheeky songs. He even brought Vera some stockings as a present, telling her she was a young lady now, and would soon be out in the world of work. Albert had gone to Mr Lewis’s shop the day before, and asked him round for drinks. Colin had gone to Spain to fight with the International Brigade, and nothing had been heard of him since. With his wife long dead, they felt sorry for Mr Lewis, but he declined the invitation anyway.
Later on, Roy said he would give Uncle Ernie a lift home in his sidecar, and there was more hilarity as he tried to squeeze into the thing. He ended up on the small pillion seat instead, with his arms wrapped around Roy as they waved him goodbye.
On her fourteenth birthday the next January, Vera sat and thought about how she would be leaving school at Easter, missing out on the holidays, and starting her job. She still felt like a little girl sometimes, even though it was a long time since she had played with any toys or dolls. As it was now 1938, she realised it wouldn’t be too long before the start of a new decade, and she hoped it was going to be the best one the family had ever known. And she couldn’t help thinking about Colin, as that war in Spain was still going on. Colin’s side was losing too, according to the reports they heard on the radio.
Then before Easter, Germany took over Austria. It was on the BBC radio, and Vera watched as her dad sat shaking his head. “I don’t like the sound of this one bit, Elsie love. I reckon that Hitler bloke won’t be happy until he starts another war”. Elsie cleared away the tea cups, muttering. “You’re always on about something, Bert Dodds. Just leave all that stuff to Mr Chamberlain and the politicians. They will sort it out”. Not really wanting to think about any wars, Vera went up to her room to read. But she soon took down her atlas, and looked up Austria again. Then she looked at Czechoslovakia, as they had been talking about that country too. Her feet felt chilly, so she flipped the candlewick bedspread over them, wondering if Colin would only get back in time to have to go and fight another war in Austria.
Leaving school was something of an anti-climax. She just went home on the last day before the holidays, and never went back. There were no real goodbyes, or fond farewells. Another girl from her class was starting at the jam factory the next Monday. Her name was Janet Reid, and although Vera didn’t know her that well, she came up to her as they were walking home. “See you on Monday, Vera. Your mum works there, don’t she? She gonna look out for us then?”. Vera told her that her mum would be at work, but too busy to worry about new girls. Janet smiled. “We’ll just have to look out for each other then”.
Elsie got her daughter up early, and walked with her into work. She found her time card, and showed her how to clock on and off. “You have to do that at lunchtime too, don’t forget. And you’ve got your money for the canteen, haven’t you?” She then took her to meet Mrs Oliver, who was going to show her what to do. Janet was already with her, and winked at Vera when she saw her. As they walked into the main factory, Vera could hardly believe the noise in there.
She was sure it would drive her crazy.
After just two weeks in the factory, Vera no longer noticed the noise. The radio played over loudspeakers jangled with the constant clinking of glass jars and tins, and the women shouted over it all, their hair wrapped up in headscarves, and large aprons tied over their clothes. Very few men worked there, except those doing the heaviest work in the warehouse and the ones who drove the delivery vans. Mrs Oliver swapped the women around a lot, so they didn’t lapse into gossiping instead of working. That meant Vera met others of all ages, and from different boroughs too. She always went for lunch with Janet, who had turned out to be very grown up, even having a boyfriend called Frank. She would make Vera blush, talking about kissing and cuddling, smooching in the cinema, and finding places to hide in the park.
When Janet found out that Vera had never kissed a boy, she was determined to fix her up wth one of Frank’s mates. Frank was seventeen, and worked with his dad and brother as a plasterer. Janet said he knew a boy at the plastering firm who would like Vera, and she should fix up a date as a foursome. Feeling nervous, and hoping to get out of it, Vera invented an ‘understanding’ with Colin Lewis. She said that when he got back from Spain they would be seeing each other regularly, so she had better wait. Janet was suitably impressed, because Colin was so much older and his dad had a shop, so she let it go.
Not long after that conversation, the newspaper shop was closed when they walked past it on the way home from work. People were standing outside, peering through the glass panel in the door, and nobody knew why it wasn’t open. Elsie thought Mr Lewis might have been taken ill, and went around the side to knock on the door to the flat above where he lived. But there was no answer. When Vera’s dad got home, he was carrying an evening paper. Elsie mentioned that the shop had been closed not that long before, and Albert sighed. “He had some bad news earlier. Got a letter saying Colin was killed in February, at a place called Jarama. He had to open up again for the evening papers trade though, what else is he supposed to do?”
Vera felt the tears roll down her cheeks at the news. It was made worse by her lie to Janet earlier, which made her feel incredibly guilty. Albert spared his daughter’s feelings by not teasing her about Colin ever again.
Payday at the factory was on Friday afternoons. Vera got a brown pay-packet with the amount of her wages written on it in ink. On the way home, she would give it to her mum, and when they got in, Elsie would open it, take some money for Vera’s share of the housekeeping, and give her back the rest. Vera had opened a savings account at the Post Office, and used to pay in so much a week. Then there was the small payment to the Christmas Club at the factory, which paid out the week before Christmas day. What little was left was hers to spend, mostly on clothes and make-up.
Because Janet’s Frank went to the pub with his mates on Fridays, her and Janet started going to the cinema after work, always getting pie and mash in Tower Bridge Road before the programme started. Sometimes on the way home, Vera would share one of Janet’s cigarettes, but she didn’t let on to her mum that she was smoking.
That summer, there was more talk about trouble with Germany. Czechoslovakia was mentioned again, and Vera looked up a place called the Sudetenland in her atlas. Everyone was worried about the possibility of a war, and then in the first week of July, it got very real. Albert came home and said he had registered for the Civil Defence, and they were going to issue gas masks to everyone in the country in case Germany attacked. The masks were horrible; smelly rubber things kept in a cardboard box with a string to wear it on your shoulder. Vera’s dad told her that Londoners had to be careful to carry them at all times, because London was sure to be attacked with gas bombs.
That night she went to bed in such a state, she couldn’t sleep.
That August, Vera and Elsie were surprised to find her brother Teddy outside the house when they got home from work. He wasn’t in his uniform, and had two kitbags full of his stuff. After the excitement of seeing him had died down, and they had stopped telling each other how well they looked, he told them the news that he had resigned from the Merchant Navy. His intention was to join the Royal Navy, and he had already spoken to the recruiting office. He was convinced there would be a war, and wanted to do his bit in the navy once it started. He had a couple of days before he had to get the train to Portsmouth, and had come to say his farewells.
“And to get your washing and ironing done, I expect”, joked Elsie.
Albert was delighted to see his son at home, though more than a little worried about his transfer to the Royal Navy. Teddy had a very slight limp after breaking his leg, but he was so experienced as an engineer, they had told him he would be a Chief Petty Officer after training. He was almost thirty-two now, and said he didn’t want to be thought of as being too old once the inevitable war started. Albert was less convinced there would be a war. “Mr Chamberlain will sort it out son, you mark my words”. Her brother was only staying one night, leaving the next day to spend time with Vivian and the boys before getting his train. Vera had to say an unusually tearful goodbye before she went to bed. She agreed with him, though she wouldn’t argue with her dad. That Herr Hitler was going to have his war, whatever the Prime Minister did.
For the August Bank Holiday Monday, Vera went on the factory outing to Margate. She had never seen the seaside, and was quite excited about going to a place designed for visitors to just enjoy themselves. There was one worry, and that was the long journey by coach. Vera hadn’t been that far on the road before, and was glad to have Janet next to her. But despite the singing, it wasn’t long before the heat and cigarette smoke inside started to make her feel sick, and she was very relieved when they stopped at a roadside cafe, and they could get out and walk around a bit. Once they could see the coast, and knew they had almost arrived, that stopped her feeling ill soon enough.
It was better than she had ever expected. Despite the crowds, there was so much to do. Janet had been before, and knew all the best places. They had cockles to eat, and fish and chips later too. Janet even had candy floss and an ice cream, but Vera thought she had best avoid those. They had a ride on a donkey, and went on a big swing that looked like a boat. Before it was time to go back and meet the coach, Janet decided they had to paddle in the sea, and they took their stockings off and stuffed them in their shoes before running into the cold water. The hem of Vera’s dress got wet, but she didn’t care.
It was such a fabulous day.
On the way home, there was more singing, and some of the men at the front were drinking beer. The coach had to stop in a lay-by, so the men could get out and have a wee, and Vera laughed hysterically at the sight of them all lined up, piddling onto the grass. For the last part of the journey, Vera went to sleep, her head on Janet’s shoulder. She woke up when they pulled up outside the factory gates, and Janet laughed as they got out. “I hope you haven’t ruined your sleep. We’ve got work in the morning”.
At the end of September, Mr Chamberlain was on the radio, and his photo was on the front page of the newspaper, holding up a piece of paper. Vera’s dad told her there would not be a war. “See, what did I tell you? He has met that Hitler fellow in Germany, and they have made an agreement. No war. Look, here he is with the King and Queen. See, they’re smiling”.
Two weeks before Christmas, a letter arrived from Teddy. He wouldn’t be home, as he was going to be serving on a wonderful new ship. It was an aircraft carrier, one of those enormous ships with planes inside. He sent a photo of him standing next to it. It was taken just before it was launched, in Liverpool.
They had named it HMS Ark Royal.
Janet was determined to celebrate Vera’s fifteenth birthday, despite the weather being awful. She invited Vera to her house after work, and they sat in her bedroom as Janet tried to convince her to go on a double-date with one of Frank’s friends. “We can go to the pub with them. It’s up near the Elephant and Castle, nobody knows us up there”. Vera was thinking it over when there was some commotion downstairs. Janet’s brother had arrived home on leave from the army, and it was a surprise visit.
Vera had never met Leslie before, though Janet would talk about him a lot. He was twenty-one, and had been in the regular army for almost five years. They went down from Janet’s room so she could greet him. Vera took one look at Leslie Reid, and wondered if her legs would stop trembling. Tall, fair-haired, and blue-eyed, he looked nothing at all like his parents or sister. Vera thought her mum would have joked that he had to be the milkman’s son. He had two stripes on the sleeve of his uniform, which Vera knew meant he was a corporal. He was in the Grenadier Guards, and sometimes guarded the palaces wearing a red jacket and bearskin hat. He stopped cuddling his sister and turned to Vera.
“Where have you been hiding this little beauty, sis? She’s a cracker”. Vera blushed so hard she could feel the heat coming from her face and neck. She reverted to formality to cover up her embarrassment. “I’m Vera Dodds, I work with Janet. Nice to meet you Leslie”. He took her extended hand. “Call me Les, darlin’. You’re gorgeous”. She blushed again, and suddenly realised she understood the meaning of love at first sight.
All thoughts of double-dating with Frank’s mate disappeared as soon as she looked at Leslie. Janet could see it too. “Its her birthday next week, Les. You should ask her out, take her dancing or something”. Vera could have punched her, but was secretly glad she had said that. “Why not? What do you say, lovely Vera, is it a date?” She nodded, trying not too appear overly enthusiastic. “I would like that, Les”. He grinned. “Okay, I will pick you up at six, and we can go for some nosh before dancing. Will it be alright with your dad though?” Vera had no idea what her dad would say, but she was a working woman who paid her own way, and fifteen or not, she was going on that date. “Course it will”.
Albert and Elsie just had to smile as they listened for the third time to Vera’s story of meeting Leslie. They had never seen their daughter so excited, even when she told them all about her trip to Margate. Albert thought about it. “Grenadier Guards you say?. I think he’s a bit old for you though, love. Elsie stepped in. “The Reids are a good family, Bert. I’m sure no harm would come to our girl. You can always have a word with Les before they leave”. Albert knew he was outvoted. “Well, alright, but you have to be home by eleven at the latest, and no smooching on the doorstep mind”. Vera hugged him, and kissed him on the cheek. As she went up to her room, she turned and winked at her mum.
On the night, Albert decided not to say anything. The young man was very respectful. He had brought Vera a nice present, all wrapped up with ribbon and everything. It was a pair of quality stockings, the sort wrapped in tissue paper in a smart box. And he was serious with Albert too. “I know Vera is young, Mr Dodds, and you have my word she will be safe with me”. He had even brought a quart of sweet stout for Elsie, who gave him the same doe-eyes as Vera.
The next day, Vera was wishing she could have remembered more of the night before. It had all seemed like a dream. Leslie knew his way around the west end, and they had dinner in a chop house before dancing in a smart place she had never heard of. Nobody questioned her age, even when Leslie ordered her a port and lemon from the waitress. Vera had learned to dance by practicing with Vivian years before, and Les whirled her around like someone who really knew what he was doing. At twenty past ten, he said it was time to go, and he hailed a taxi from the street outside. In the cab on the way back, he gave her one soft kiss on the lips, and held her hand.
She thought her heart would burst.
After paying off the taxi, he stood outside as she opened the door. “I have to go back to the regiment soon, Vera. Would you write to me? Janet will give you the address. Maybe you could send me a photo too? I would love to have a photo of my sweetheart to keep in my wallet”. Vera ran the few steps from the door, and kissed him. Just a quick kiss, but one hadn’t been enough for her.
“Course I’ll write to you Les. Course I will”.
The following Saturday afternoon, Vera and Janet went to the photography studio in Rotherhithe. She paid for two copies of each photo, one full length in her best dress, and the other one a full-face portrait. Janet had helped with her hair and make up before they left home, and even though the photo wouldn’t be in colour, Vera used some bright red lipstick. The man in the studio said she could pick them up on Monday after work, and he would fit a nice cardboard frame around them, included in the price. “That will stop the corners turning, young lady”.
That night in her room, Vera wrote Les a letter to include with the photos. She kept it quite formal, asking after his health, and hoping he was enjoying his extra training. At the end, she signed it ‘Fond regards, Vera Dodds’. She was happy with the photos when she collected them, and slid two of them into the envelope with the letter. She had only asked for small prints, otherwise they wouldn’t fit in Les’s wallet. She showed her mum the spares, and Elsie turned and showed them to her husband. “Look, Bert. Our Vera is quite the smart young lady now”. Albert smiled, continuing to read a pile of papers he had collected from the Civil Defence. Elsie walked over to the mantlepiece, then changed her mind. “I am going to put them over the nice fireplace, the one in the parlour”.
At the end of March, Albert came home from his Civil Defence meeting pushing a big cart with the help of two friends. It was full of curved sheets of corrugated iron, something his company were flat out making thousands of. He unloaded it, carrying the sheets through into the garden with great difficulty. When Elsie and Vera came to see what he was doing, he turned and smiled. “It’s a bomb shelter. They call it The Anderson Shelter. Better to be safe than sorry, I reckon. Sad thing is, I will have to dig up me rose bushes on that side”.
On Sunday, Albert was up early, taking his spade to the ground on the right hand side of the garden. Very soon, his rose bushes were dumped, and he was up to his knees in a deep trench of dirt. He stopped long enough to enjoy a Sunday roast, downed a glass of light ale, then went back to work. By the time it was getting dark, he had excavated a huge pile of earth, and was banging the floor flat with the back of the spade. Then he covered the ground with the big sheets of iron, in case it rained. As Elsie handed him an enamel mug full of tea, he brushed the dirt from his hands. “I will have to get back to this after work tomorrow, dark or not”.
By the end of the week, Albert had constructed his shelter. It had two benches inside, and some old wood placed around to make a sort of floor. He had used all the excavated earth to cover the top, and showed his family the result of his labours. Vera and Elsie had to stoop down low to get into it, and it smelt something awful inside. Elsie, shook her head. “Albert Dodds, you are not geting me inside this thing, I’m sure”. Albert grinned. “Better than being blown to bits, old girl. Get a few blankets in here, and my old hurricane lamp, and we will be nice and cosy”. Vera held her nose, and her mum giggled.
At the end of the month, Mr Chamberlain was on the radio. He said that if Herr Hitler and his Germans invaded Poland, England would help Poland. Albert smiled. “See, what did I tell you? Those Nazis will think twice now”.
The letter from Les arrived in April, and Vera rushed up to her room to read it in private. He was very happy with the photos, and had sent her one of him, holding a rifle with a bayonet fixed on it, and a serious look on his face. It had been cut around the edge with pinking shears, and Vera immediately placed it in her keepsake box. His words were full of romance, enough to make her blush. He was easy with his compliments about her ‘sweet lips’, ‘attractive face’, and how much he liked her legs in the bigger photo. At the end, he signed it very romantically. ‘To my sweetheart, Vera. With all my love, your Les’.
Later that night, she couldn’t sleep for excitement.
That summer, letters continued to be exchanged between Vera and Les. She allowed herself to become increasingly romantic in her replies, and started to sign them ‘With love, your little Vera’. Albert had to attend more and more meetings at the Civil Defence, and even got allowed time off from the Iron Works to go to them. Then one Saturday afternoon, Vera got back from an overtime shift at the jam factory to find her sister Vivian at the house in floods of tears. “It’s Roy. he reckons they are gonna bring in the call-up, so he’s only gone and joined the Army. Says he will be a driver and mechanic, bound to be, ’cause of him being a car mechanic. He’s sold the motorbike and waiting for his orders. He says I’ve got to stay at home and look after his mum”.
Vera told her that Janet’s Frank had been saying the same thing only last week. Better to join up than to wait and be called up. Viv snapped back at her. “S’alright for him, he ain’t got two kids and a wife to worry about, has he?” Deciding not to get involved in an argument, Vera went up to her room and wrote a letter to Les.
Near the end of August, the reserves got notified of the call-up for them, and Albert had to go to a meeting where the Civil Defence was placed on full alert. He came home looking glum, no longer able to keep insisting a war wasn’t going to happen. That night, he spoke to Elsie and Vera about preparing the Anderson Shelter properly, and how they would have to glue strips of brown paper to the windows to stop being injured by glass when the bombing started. He also told her they would need thick black curtains for the windows, so as not to show a light at night.
Elsie was made of strong stuff, and just nodded. “I can get some nice material down the market next weekend, and ask Mrs Ryan to run up the curtains for me on her sewing machine”. Albert shook his head. “You have to do it sooner than that, love. The orders will be broadcast soon”. Vera didn’t want to let them see she was worried. “I can cut the paper strips up, dad. And there’s glue at work, for the labels. I’m sure they will let us have some”.
Three days later, a letter arrived from Teddy. They had received war orders, and he didn’t know how often he would be able to write, or where he would be. He said not to worry if they didn’t hear anything for a while. So of course they immediately worried. The same day, Roy came round to say his goodbyes. He had received orders to report to the Royal Artillery barracks in Woolwich, and looked pretty fed up about that. “Typical, ain’t it? Here I am, a car mechanic, and the Army sends me to learn how to fire cannons”.
On the radio, and in all the newspapers, there was nothing but war. Vera got fed up listening to all the war talk, knowing full well that Les would be involved, whether she liked it or not. She hadn’t had a reply to her last letter, so was sure that Les would have already had orders and probably couldn’t tell her where he was being sent.
On the first day of September, the Germans invaded Poland. Elsie and Vera were hanging the blackout curtains as best they could after work, as Mrs Ryan hadn’t had time to use her sewing machine on them. They were using tacks, and nailing them to the window frames. Albert came home from work, holding a newspaper. “It will be war this weekend, Elsie love. Mark my words. That Hitler’s gone and done it, so he has”. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany, and they listened to Mr Chamberlain on the radio, remarking on how serious and upset he sounded.
Elsie was crying quietly as she peeled the potatoes in the scullery, and Vera went in and cuddled her. “It will be alright, Mum. We have each other. We’ll get through this”. Then she went upstairs and thought about Les.
Moments later, she was crying too.
By the end of September, the British Army Expeditionary Force had been sent over to France, and Poland had surrendered to Germany. There was a meeting at the jam factory, and the manager told the staff that they would now be making big tins of jam under contract for the army, navy, and air force. Full-day Saturday working was being introduced, and anyone who worked six days would of course be paid more. Vera didn’t know for sure that Les was in France with the army, but she put her hand up to work on Saturdays, as she liked to think of him eating the jam she made. Elsie declined to work the extra day, telling the manager that she had a house to run.
When a letter arived from Les, she was glad she had made that decision, as he was in France. He couldn’t write about where he was, but told her everything was fine, and there was no war there yet. He mentioned some of his mates, including another Londoner called Lucky, because he always won at cards. Les said he was going to stick close to him when there was trouble, so his luck would rub off. The following week, the call-up was announced, and it seemed Roy had been right all along.
Janet came into work in tears, because Frank had joined up. He had already been sent off to basic training, and wouldn’t get leave until that finished. Vera told her she was better off than her, as her Les was already in France. They agreed to go to the cinema as usual on Friday, hoping to get more information from the newsreels. They had also had to register for the new National Identity Cards, which were supposed to stop German spies from operating in the country.
Everyone knew there was going to have to be food rationing, so Elsie and Vera started to buy up as much jam as they could carry home. Vivian was still able to get cheap sausages, and sausage meat, but they wouldn’t keep so well until the winter. At the Iron Works, Albert was now on a full six-day week, and had also signed up to work on the Civil Defence Heavy Rescue, in case any bombing started. It felt strange to Vera that there was all this war going on, but nothing much seemed to be happening. Her dad told her that the government were keeping a lot of it secret, because of spies and foreign agents. But life still felt normal, in so many ways.
Not long before Christmas, the papers and radio news were full of the story of the sinking of the German battleship Graf Spee, after a battle called The River Plate, near Argentina. It was a big victory for the Royal Navy, but they had no idea whether or nor Teddy’s ship was involved. The celebrations were very subdued that year, and they had a quiet lunch at home. Viv and the boys stayed with Roy’s mum so she wouldn’t be on her own. Elsie had invited her, but she had said no. Viv said she was too upset from worrying about Roy.
Up in her room later, Vera thought about the fact that she would soon be sixteen years old, and there was a war on.
To get those ideas out of her head, she wrote a letter to Les, not caring whether he would ever get it.
On new year’s day 1940, the call-up was extended to men up to twenty-seven years of age. Vera noticed how many young men were no longer around the familiar streets, and missing from the factory too. One of the shop-floor girls, Madge Waring, even got to go and train as a delivery driver because they were so short of men. At home, Albert used to listen to the famous traitor, Lord Haw-Haw, on the radio. He was broadcasting from Germany, and spreading lies about how well the Germans were doing, and how they were sinking dozens of ships. Elsie thought it was disloyal to listen to him. “You should turn that off, Bert. That man’s a traitor, nothing less”.
One day, Janet brought some letters into work to show Vera. One was from Les, sent to their parents. It said much the same as he had written to her, and even mentioned Lucky. The other was from Frank, saying he was doing pretty well in the army. He had enclosed a photo of himself in uniform, and they both agreed he looked a lot older.
That reminded Vera that everyone now looked a lot older. Even her.
By March that year, meat rationing was in. Although they had the extra jam, and Viv’s sausages, they certainly had to tighten their belts where food was concerned. Albert reluctantly dug up the rose bushes on the other side of the garden. Elsie thought he was going to plant some vegetables, but instead he used some scrap wood and wire from work to build ten rabbit hutches in the space. One Saturday, he brought home four rabbits in an old cardboard suitcase with holes punched in the top. He had bought them from a colleague at the iron works, and the man had assured him that two bucks and two does would produce a lot of baby rabbits.
Vera stroked the bunnies, but couldn’t imagine eating the rabbit stew when the time came.
Not long after, Mr Chamberlain resigned, and Winston Churchill became the Prime Minister. Albert was overjoyed. “He’s a fighter, that man. Saw action in the Boer War, and again in France in fourteen-eighteen. We can count on him to liven things up”. Elsie wasn’t so sure. “But he’s rich, Bert. One of those aristocrats, ain’t he? How can we rely on him to sort things out?”
There was a letter from Les, and it worried Vera. The Germans had moved into France and Belgium, and there would be fighting soon, he was sure of that. He couldn’t say where he was, but concluded by writing, “There will be some trouble soon, Vera love. Think of your Les, and I will write to you when I can”. Vera could not stop the tears when she read that.
As the summer started to warm up, the newsreels began to talk about a place called Dunkirk. It seemed all the British and French soldiers were heading to that town, to make a determined stand against the Germans.
Albert came home from work and told them he was going to get time off to train for Heavy Rescue. They expected the bombing to start soon, and they would need trained crews to dig out the survivors, along with the bodies. Everyone had seen what the bombing had done in Spain, and then Poland. In a crowded and populous city like London, or even Bristol and Birmingham, they could only imagine the devastataion.
Janet kept crying about what was going to happen to Frank, and Vera had to remind her that her own brother was already in the shooting war, and likely going to Dunkirk with the others. “So what if Frank has to peel spuds and clean up the camp, Janet? At least he isn’t facing German stormtroopers”.
When they went to the cinema on Fridays, everything looked pretty bad. Barrage ballons and searchlights were being set up all around London, and although the newsreader tried to make it all sound funny, they both knew better. They had seen the workmen digging out public bomb shelters, and putting signs up in the railway and underground stations. Those big signs with an ‘S’ were everywhere, and all the important buildings had their fronts covered in sand bags.
Elsie was already getting frustrated with the meat rationing, and showed them the small amount they were allowed for the week. “You can forget your Sunday roast, Bert love. The rabbits aren’t big enough yet, and if we use all our ration, there will be nothing to get through the week with”. Bert and Vera put on brave faces. She turned to her troubled mum. “We can have jam sandwiches a couple of nights, mum. There’s still plenty of jam”.
Vera couldn’t really think about eating, with Les in such danger. But she ate what her mum served up, as she knew how hard it was going to be to manage.
That Sunday, Vivian brought the boys round to see them. She was annoyed with Roy. “I’ve had a letter that tells me nothing”, she sniffed. Seems my Roy has volunteered for something special, and he can’t tell me what it is. Sure I don’t know what he’s thinking of, with a wife and two kids left behind here. I reckon he must have lost his head, Mum. How can he do such a stupid thing?”
Nobody knew what to say to Viv. Roy was a man, and had to do what he thought best. But that was all soon forgotten, when Albert switched on the radio.
It was about Dunkirk, and the news was terrible.
As well as the radio, the newspapers were full of photos and articles about Dunkirk. They had no idea if Teddy’s ship was involved, but if it wasn’t, it must have been the only ship in Great Britain that wasn’t heading out to France to collect the soldiers from the beaches. Even seaside pleasure cruisers from Margate and Southend were being used, and her dad told Vera that hundreds of boats were passing along the Thames on their way to the sea. “Just little ones, love. You know, cabin cruisers like those rich people have tied up behind their houses”.
Janet was relieved that Frank was still in training camp. waiting for a posting to a regiment. Viv had heard that Roy was in Scotland of all places, happy to have escaped the Artillery for whatever special job he had volunteered for. She read out part of his letter, then stopped when she started to blush. “The rest is personal stuff, you know the sort of thing. Well, he misses me, don’t he?”
Almost every port or harbour of any size was starting to receive weary-looking soldiers who had been brought off the beaches. Some of the ships had been sunk, and it made Elsie upset to think of those boys believing they were safe, and then those awful dive bombers sinking them at sea. “Why can’t our RAF do more to help the boys, Bert? I mean to say, we have a lot of planes, don’t we?” Bert stopped rolling his cigarette, and looked solemn. So do the Germans, Elsie love. And they have had a lot of practice”.
For nearly two weeks, it seemed Dunkirk was the only thing anyone talked about. They got so many off those beaches, including a lot of Frenchies too, Vera read. Albert had something to say about that. “Well, I hope those Frenchies don’t expect to sit out the war in Dover or wherever. They can bloody well fight, and help defend us when the invasion comes”. Elsie said nothing, but she thought her husband could sound very silly sometimes. That week at the cinema, Vera watched the newsreels holding Janet’s hand tight. For some reason, she was convinced she was going to spot Les, climbing on a ship to safety, or returning to Dover with a big smile on his face as he disembarked. But they talked about the rearguard, and how so many had been killed, wounded, or captured. Now convinced Les was in the rearguard, Vera cried all the way home from the cinema.
Frank came home on leave, with the news that he was being posted to Dorset, to join the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. Janet spotted him standing outisde the factory gates as they finished work, looking older and more serious in his uniform. He seemed excited about being in the tanks. “They might even let me drive one, and it’s better than footslogging. Besides, those new tanks stop bullets, so my chances are better”. Vera didn’t want to mention the shattered tanks in France they had seen on the newsreels, and kissed Frank on the cheek before leaving them to go off to spend time together.
That Sunday, Vivian came round with the boys. She brought some sausages with her that she had smuggled out of the factory, and they had them for tea with mashed potatoes. “I will have to stop pinching the sausages soon, Mum. They are getting very careful about stocktaking since the rationing”. Albert wasn’t amused. “I thought you got them cheap. You stop that right now, young lady. No Dodds has ever been a thief, and I won’t have it”.
Another letter had arrived from Roy, and his big secret was now public knowledge. He was in a new unit called The Commandos. They were to be used for special raids, and had lots of extra training. Viv sounded impressed. “He’s got a special knife, and he gets to carry a tommy gun instead of a rifle. He says they are a really tough bunch, and those Jerries had better watch out once they get started. Lots of them didn’t get through the course, but my Roy came out in the top ten of his class”. Albert nodded his approval, wondering how such a wet-looking article as Roy had managed to become part of an elite unit.
There was still no news about Les, and Vera was increasingly worried when she heard that The Grenadier Guards had been part of the rearguard.
That night in bed, she prayed to God for the first time since she was a little girl.
It was a long time before Vera found out anything about Les, and then it was from Janet, not by letter. “You had better know that my dad was informed our Les is a prisoner, Vera. Seems he was wounded in the hand during the rearguard action, and got captured. Dad says they will treat them fair, put them in a camp or something and feed them. Dad reckons they will get a doctor to look at his hand too, but God knows how long he will be held over there”. The news made Vera’s legs weak wih relief. At least Les hadn’t been killed, as she had been dreading. Janet put her arm around her friend. “I’ll let you know once we can write to him”.
Later that summer, the Germans took over the Channel Islands, and the city of Birmingham was badly bombed. Vera had never been to Birmingham, but she knew it was a big city, and a long way from London. It felt funny to think that those German planes were now in France, and they could probably see across to Dover, on a clear day. The air-raid warning sirens were tested again, and the sound of those made Vera feel physically sick. The way they started low, then reached a terrible wail. It made it all feel real. Down in Southwark Park, and along the river in Greenwich, they practiced with searchlights, illuminating the night sky like giant torch-beams. Albert and Elsie started to get the Anderson Shelter prepared, stacking old blankets in there, with flasks full of fresh water, and a big metal bucket to use for a toilet. Vera looked at her mum, and shook her head. ” I could never use a bucket in front of my dad, never. I will have to chance using the lavatory. I will, I tell you”.
Near the end of August, German bombers reached London, and bombed some unexpected places, like Harrow, and Croydon. Then one plane bombed the City, and they heard the explosions across the river. Vera thought it sounded a bit like really loud thunder, and wanted to walk down to the river to see the smoke. But her mum made her sit in the shelter with her until it stopped. Albert had gone in to his Civil Defence job that day, but they didn’t get called out.
Then on the second Saturday in September, Vera heard the sirens while she was at work in the jam factory. All the workers had to stop, and the machines were turned off. Old Mr Prentice came in and blew a whistle, and everyone had to go in single file down to the huge basement. It was very hot down there, as all the pipe-work ran over the ceiling, and once everyone was packed in and sitting down, it got even hotter. Vera was scared about being there, imagining what would happen if the factory was bombed, and collapsed on top of them. Hattie O’Connor, one of the older ladies, saw her shaking and came and sat in front of her, grasping both her hands. “Talk to me, Vera. Just talk to me, and it’ll be alright”. But Vera couldn’t think of anything to say.
When the sirens stopped, the bombs started to fall. But this time they didn’t sound like distant thunder, more like you were sitting under a speeding steam train that was rolling over you. One, two, three, four, five. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! The last bang was closer, and she sensed a trembling in the ground like you get when a big lorry drives past on the street. The explosions were so close together, they seemed to roll into one. Vera was aware of someone screaming, but until Hattie wrapped her arms around her, she hadn’t realised it was her. Despite the heat, she was shivering, and felt embarrassed when she knew she was dribbling too.
Hattie raised her voice above the din. “They are going for the docks, Vera love. You know, the ships and the wood stored there. They don’t want to bomb a silly old jam factory, do they?” The Surrey Docks were not far from where Vera lived, just the other side of the main road. Hattie’s attempt at reassurance didn’t make her feel better when she realised that. Even when it seemed the bombing had finished, she could hear the sound of the big anti-aircraft guns from the park, as they tried to shoot down the bombers as they turned round.
The sirens sounded again, meaning the all-clear, and they started to stand up and get ready to go back to work. Vera leaned over to Hattie, whispering in her ear.
“I have to go to the lav, Hattie. I’ve wet me knickers”.
For almost two months, Vera had to live through what would later be known as The Blitz. But Vera never used that term then. For her, it was Hell on Earth, pure and simple. From that first day when she got home from work with her knickers folded in her handbag, the bombing didn’t stop. As soon as it was dark, the Germans returned, and as the sirens started up, Elsie almost had to drag her daughter into the shelter in the garden. Albert hadn’t even been home yet, as his Heavy Rescue crew was busy all day, with no let up.
Through the small cracks and nail holes inside the shelter, Vera could see the constant flashes of the bombs falling onto the docks, and the nearby streets. What with that, and the searchlights sweeping right and left, it was as bright as daytime, except between the waves of the enemy planes arriving. The noise was bad enough, but there was also the concussion. When the biggest bombs exploded, there was something like a wave of pressure that went through you, making your ears hurt, and your chest feel compressed so you couldn’t get your breath. She thought it was a miracle that the flimsy-looking shelter wasn’t blown away over their heads, like an umbrella on a windy day.
When her teeth began to chatter uncontrollably, Elsie moved across to sit next to her. She stroked her hair and nodded, no point trying to speak above the din. Elsie had her own worries. Bert was out somewhere in amongst all that horror, and she couldn’t believe he would live through that night. Despite being exhausted, sleep was out of the question. Glass was shattering everywhere around them, and roof tiles were clattering onto the street further down as the houses literally shook from the blasts. Scared of wetting her underwear again, Vera used the lidded bucket to relieve herself, hardly able to see what she was doing in the gloom. Her mum had thought it best not to light the old hurricane lamp, although worrying about showing a light when the sky itself was on fire seemed just plain silly to Vera.
It was getting light when the all clear sounded, and as they emerged from the shelter they immediately felt the heat in the air. The docks across the other side of the main road were still burning. You could hear the wood cracking in the timber wharves, and smell the resin on the breeze. The bells of the fire engines had stopped sounding, as they had run out of fire crews to tackle the numerous blazes.
They went into the scullery, and Elsie put a kettle on the cooker to boil water for tea. But there was no gas coming out of the burner to light. Dropping the match before it burned her fingers, she went over to the sink to run some cold water to drink. Nothing came out of the tap. She turned to her daughter. “Looks like they’ve hit the gas mains and the water mains, Vera love. Doubt there will be any electric either”.
Vera flicked the light switch, and the bulb didn’t come on.
By the time Albert got home that afternoon, the gas and water were back on, but there was still no electric. Elsie managed to start making something for them all to eat, and watched as her husband stood at the sink in his vest, scrubbing at his face with soapy palms. He hadn’t said much, so she knew it must have been bad. As he dried off, he tried to manage a smile. “I’ll eat as soon as it’s ready, Elsie. Got to be back out again soon”.
No sooner had he spoken those words, the sirens sounded again. Vera burst into tears, and Elsie shouted at her. “No use crying. Pick your dinner up, and take it into the shelter. I’ll bring some tea in a flask when I come”. Albert was already putting on a clean shirt as Elsie stuffed some sausages between two slices of bread and wrapped the sandwich up in some paper. “At least take this, Bert. You’ve got to have something love”.
He pushed the packet into the pocket of his uniform overalls, and kissed his wife on the forehead before turning to leave.
Elsie didn’t like the look on his face. It made her feel sad.
Walking into work on Monday morning, Vera felt as if she had been transported into another city. She was exhausted from having had little sleep, but the familiar streets were no longer so familiar. Evie Tyler’s house at the end of the street was gone. It was just a pile of bricks where a house had once stood. In the rubble was a half of a large doll, the clothes blown off, and it sent a chill through Vera to think that little Jessie had been under all that.
Mr Lewis’s shop had wood nailed all over the main window, which had obviously shattered. He had written on the wood with chalk. ‘Open As Usual’.
The docks were still burning, and the smoke rose up so high into the sky, Vera couldn’t see the top of it. As they reached the main road, she heard her mum gasp. The butcher’s shop on the corner was gone, along with most of the houses that had been in the same row. Men were throwing debris into carts next to the damage, and one house at the end remained, like a single tooth in someone’s mouth. Other men were jamming huge wooden beams against the side of it, and hammering supports against them with sledgehammers.
The jam factory came into sight, and appeared to have been spared the worst. From the gate, Vera could see Mr Prentice nailing boards across some windows that had been blown out, but the building looked sound.
And everywhere was dust and ash. It was floating down constantly on the hot morning air, covering their clothes as they walked like light snow. Vera shook her head constantly, hoping to get the worst off her hair. The other people walking into work were not even trying to smile. Everyone looked drawn and tired out, their faces turning in the direction of the docks as they heard more cracking and crashing sounds.
Inside the factory, work started up as normal. The radio played through the speakers, and the women got on with their jobs. Nobody talked about the weekend, or mentioned the devastation that had occurred. There was no point, as they all knew it was going to get worse.
They had to go into the basement during a daytime raid, but it wasn’t too bad. Nothing like it had been over the weekend anyway. Mr Prentice had stayed on the roof in case of incendiaries, and after the all-clear he told them the Jerries had dropped a few bombs on the East End across the river, but been chased off by RAF planes appearing. At lunchtime, Janet told Vera that there was no more news about Les, and that her house had not been hit. Her and her parents had gone down to the arches near London Bridge Station, and sat out the night raids there. Vera said she could stay with them, but Janet didn’t want to leave her mum.
When they got home from work, Albert was sitting at the table. He looked so old, Elsie thought. He told them that Evie Tyler and little Jessie were dead, and their bodies had been dug out of the ruins and brought to the church hall. Evie’s husband Ron was a fireman, and had been on duty all weekend. “I can’t imagine what Ron will do, when he finds out. He’s been out fighting fires all night and day with his crew, and has to come home to no house, and his wife and daughter dead, poor man”. Elsie had tears in her eyes. “I expect he will go to his mum’s in Camberwell, Bert. That will be best for him”.
As Vera was chopping up some carrots, she heard her dad carry on talking. “Did you see the butcher’s? Norman and his missus were in bed when it got hit. What we found of them was barely recognisable, caught up in the springs and bedrail. Their daughter is in training with the Wrens. Someone’s going to have to tell her”.
Vera thought of June Walters in her Wrens uniform, being called in to be told her mum and dad had been killed, and her family home and business destroyed. Then she thought about how her dad had suddenly started talking about what he had been doing all night, and how he spoke as if it was somehow normal.
Some of her tears splashed onto the pile of carrots.
Vera settled into the same routine every day. It even occurred to her that she was actually getting used to the constant bombing, but then a particularly bad night shook her back into a feeling of gloom. It seemed the whole of the eastern side of London was on fire, on both sides of the Thames. The sky glowed red as more incendiaries cascaded down from German bombers, and the hundreds of firemen were unable to cope. Tower Bridge was illuminated by the fires in the surrounding docks, and the droning of the enemy aircraft engines got inside her head until it felt like she had a wasp’s nest in her skull.
When the noise of the explosions just combined into one huge roar, louder than the loudest thunder imaginable, she pushed open the door of the shelter, and ran to the back wall, screaming at the sky. Elsie tried to pull her back inside, but couldn’t manage her. Then she stood next to her daughter, and stared at the sky as if she had seen a vision of Hell. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could survive under that, and her heart sank as she feared for Albert. The next moment, a German bomber was caught in the cross-beams of two searchlights, and they saw one of their tormentors for the first time, as it seemed to be trying to twist its way out of the sight of the guns firing up at it. Vera tried to imagine the men inside it, what they were thinking, and why they were doing such a terrible thing.
The next evening, Albert looked awful. He appeared to be trembling, and despite constant washing, the soot and muck was ingrained into his face and hands. Elsie could only imagine how tired he must be. Working at the Iron Works as normal, then out most of the night and all weekend with his Civil Defence duties. He looked old enough to be her dad, rather than her husband.
As they sat around the table, none of them wanting to break the silence, Vivian walked in. She had braved the chance of getting caught in a raid, and taken the bus from Kennington. “I’ve decided to send the boys away after all, mum. I went to the evacuation people, and agreed they can go to Wales. There were bombs near The Oval last night, and I’m not chancing it any longer. Got to get them away. There’s a train on Saturday morning at ten, if you want to come with me to see them off”.
Elsie was pleased to hear that. So many children had already been evacuated from the areas likely to be bombed. Many had even been sent on ships as far away as Canada. But Viv had been stubborn, saying she wanted the boys near her, and Roy’s mum could look after them when she was at work. The last few days had changed her mind, as she had never expected it to be as bad as this. Albert nodded. “Best thing, Viv. Get them safe in the countryside. Fresh air, decent food”. Elsie knew the sort of things he had been seeing, and it would give him some peace to know his grandsons were out of London. “Alright, Viv, I will meet you at the station on Saturday. Now have a quick cup of tea, then you had better get home before they come over again”.
Vera worked that Saturday, tired out after another sleepless night. When she got home, her mum looked sad. “Oh you should have seen the tears, Vera love. Viv was in a terrible state seeing the boys off. They were alright at first, excited by seeing the trains, and all the other kids, but when she started howling they got so upset. I almost had to drag them off her, to put them on board. Then as they waved out of the window I started bawling too. At least they’ll be safe in Wales, though I wonder how Viv will get on, stuck there with Roy’s mum. She can be a miserable cow at the best of times”.
It was Janet’s birthday at the end of the month, and Vera showed her mum the compact she had bought her friend as a sixteenth birthday gift. “Ooh, that’s lovely. Looks like real gold, love. The mirror is just big enough too, and that’ll fit nicely in her handbag. I’ve got some nice lavender paper in a drawer upstairs you can wrap that in”.
But before Elsie got to the stairs, the sirens sounded again.
As the year dragged on, it started to get dark earlier, which meant the bombers came more often. It was now more dangerous for Elsie and Vera to walk home from work in the dark, and a few times when the sirens sounded, they went to London Bridge Station instead, and took shelter in the underground station. Vera started to feel hungry too. They still ate in the canteen for lunch, but the food was less satisfying, and the portions smaller. Elsie did her best at home, trying to make a lot of vegetables tastier by adding gravy or some herbs from pots in the garden. They ate more bread too, when they could get it, and used up a lot of their stockpile of jam.
Janet was feeling stressed. Her dad had received a card from the Red Cross telling them that Les was in a camp in Germany, near the border with Czechoslovakia. That meant there was no point trying to escape, as it was too far to travel to any coast to try to get home. At least they could now send him letters and parcels through the Red Cross, so Vera wrote him three letters with all the news, and included two pairs of socks and a knitted scarf in her small parcel. She knew it would get very cold in Germany that coming winter. As well as the worrying news about her brother, Janet got some better news. Frank had finished his training, and had some leave.
Vera didn’t accept an invitation to meet up with them both, as she thought it best to let them have the short time together. At work the next Monday, Janet told her that Frank was being sent abroad. There was nothing official, but they had been issued with shorts, and the tanks had all been painted in light colours. Frank told her it didn’t take a genius to work out that they were probably going to Egypt. He had also been issued with sleeve patches for the 7th Armoured Division, which meant he would probably be fighting Italians. That seemed to calm Janet down. “Frank says the Italians aren’t up to much, so it might not take long to beat them”. When Vera asked if she had enjoyed seeing him, Janet blushed. “What do you think? Course I did”.
The next time Viv came round, she had news of her boys. There had a been a letter from a a nice lady called Mrs Davies. The boys were living with her and her husband in a place called Llangurig. He was a sheep farmer, and the boys loved their two dogs, and going out on the tractor. She said they were good boys, and slept together in her son’s bed in the attic. He was away serving with the Fusiliers, and was nearly thirty. The three women sat around trying to imagine George and Eddie running around some hills in Wales with two sheepdogs, and what they would make of big herds of sheep. Viv started to get tearful, so Elsie grabbed her hand. “Think of all that roast lamb and mutton they get to eat, love. With mint sauce too, I bet!” Viv told them she had sent the lady a nice letter thanking her, and a parcel with a toy plane and some picture books for the boys.
There was also news about Roy. he was not getting leave, as the Commandos had something on, and he couldn’t say what it was. When Albert came home and they told him, he thought for a moment. “Bet it will be Norway. The boys will be up to something in Norway, I’m sure”.
In November there were reports of a terrible bombing raid on Coventry. The radio said the city had been almost totally destroyed, and nine hundred people had been killed. Albert showed them the photos in the newspaper, and Elsie looked pale. He was furious. “No need for that. Those Jerries are going to get it now, mark my words. They have started something, and we will bloody well finish it. Bastards!” Vera had never heard her dad swear like that, or seen him so angry. This war was changing everything, she thought to herself.
After Coventry, things calmed down a bit in London, as the Germans started on Bristol, Birmingham, and other cities around the country. Vera actually got to sleep in her own bed once again, and wasn’t woken up by the sirens. Despite the cold in her bedroom, she stretched out and wiggled her toes under the sheets and blankets.
It felt like luxury indeed.
It seemed that Albert had guessed right. Before Christmas, the Commandos made a raid on Norway. Viv went to watch the newsreels, trying to see her Roy, but after watching it through at least three times, she couldn’t be sure she had spotted him. Vera didn’t really feel the season that year, but she sent Les a small parcel containing some cigarettes, knitted gloves, and three letters. She hadn’t heard back from him since the last one, but Mr Reid said that the prisoners had to wait for Red Cross visits to get mail out.
Christmas was quiet, with the raids still on and off, and nobody feeling in the mood to celebrate. And with her birthday coming up, 1941 on the horizon, and no end to the war in sight, Vera was struggling to keep cheerful, if only for her mum’s sake. The day before New Year’s Eve, she found Janet crying in the toilets at work. “Is it Frank? Is everything okay, Jan?” Janet pulled her into a cubicle, and showed her a photo of Frank sitting on a camel. “S’alright for him, Vera, sunning hmself in the desert. But I’ve missed two monthlies, and had to tell my mum. Oh, she did carry on so”. Vera was shocked. “How’s that then, Jan?”
Janet raised her eyebrows. “Well how d’you think? I let Frank go all the way, when he was home on leave. His mum and dad were out, and it just went too far on the living room floor. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t force me. I wanted it too. You don’t think about babies at times like that, I can tell you. Besides, I know he loves me, and wants to marry me, but now he’s fighting in the desert, and might get killed in his tank and never come home”. Vera put her arm around her friend. “You gonna have it? Maybe get it adopted or something?” Janet shook her head. “No, me dad would go mad, don’t know what he would say. He might even throw me out. Mum’s taking me to some woman in Peckham next Friday night. She says it won’t hurt much, and I will have the weekend to rest. Can’t do nothing else, Vera. If me dad finds out, I will be for it, and so will Frank. I can’t even write and tell Frank, ’cause he’s sure to tell me to have the baby”.
Vera was left wondering how Janet’s mum knew about a back-street abortionist in Peckham. But better not to think about that, and worry about her friend instead.
There was a letter fom Teddy, when she got home. It was full of the usual stuff. He couldn’t say where he was, but he was doing well, and enjoying life on the huge aircraft carrier. Leave was out of the question, as the navy had so much to do. But he wished them well, and asked about life at home. Elsie decided to send him a parcel, even though she had no idea when or if he would receive it.
Vera’s birthday went almost unnoticed, with so much going on. Her parents bought her some lipstick and a hair-comb. But Janet forgot, as she was still getting over her trip to the woman in Peckham.
Not long after, there was a big battle at a place called Tobruk, in the desert. Janet was sure that Frank must be there, and was beside herself with worry when she read the news.
Then in April, the Germans came back to London, with the biggest raid for months. The street behind the Dodds’s house was hit bad, and one of the back windows cracked in both panes. Albert just put some putty in the crack, saying there was no point paying for new glass, as they would surely be cracked again before it was all over. When Vera and Elsie got home from work, they heard that Tony Wright’s house had been hit. His garden was only four doors away from theirs, and Albert said both his parents had been badly injured. Mrs Wright was not expected to survive, and Mr Wright might well lose his legs. Tony was in the Royal Engineers, and nobody knew how to contact him.
Vera and Elsie sat in the shelter that night, just in case. Vera was worrying about Les, and wondering when it might ever be over.
That summer, things started to get serious all around the world. At home, clothes rationing came in, so Elsie told Vera to be careful of her clothes, and perhaps wear an overall to work instead of an apron. She was going to do that, and so were other women at the factory. “We can get two each while they’re still easy to get hold of, then we have a spare for when one’s in the wash”. Then there was the unexpected news that Hitler had invaded Russia. All of a sudden, the Russians were our friends. Albert liked reading about that. “Ha! You can tell that Hitler’s no student of history. He should have read about Napoleon. Nobody beats the Russkies”. But Vera read the paper when he put it down, and it looked like the Germans were already doing just that.
Janet wasn’t the same after the visit to Peckham to get rid of the baby. She looked older and tired, with dark circles around her eyes. She had heard from Frank, and he was in action in the desert, but couldn’t say where. He mainly wrote about the flies, and the boring food. Frank was never to know about her being pregnant, she made Vera swear an oath to never let on about that. Vera was a bit annoyed with her, because she would never have told. There was nothing from Les, which worried the Reid family, and Vera too. Mr Reid said the same old thing, every time. “No news is good news, Vera love”.
The bombing continued, but they no longer just concentrated on the docks. Places in the suburbs were being hit too, and incendiary raids and delayed action bombs caused havoc at times, with fires and road closures. The worst day yet had been in May. They hadn’t been able to do any work, and sat all night in the shelter. Albert was out most of the night, and came back looking ashen. “They say this is the worst it’s ever been, Elsie”. Vera thought she must be getting used to it, as when she saw the newspapers a few days later, she could hardly believe it had been all around where they lived.
One day, Vera and Elsie had to walk a very long way round to work, as the bomb disposal were trying to defuse a timer-bomb hanging from a parachute against the side of the church next to the Coach and Horses. Elsie tried to lighten the mood. “Hope those boys get that bomb safe, or your dad’s gonna be looking for somwehere else to have a pint”.
Then when it hardly seemed things could get any worse, Albert came home from work with his face set, and he looked like he had been crying. It took him some time to compose himself, not helped by Elsie constantly repeating “What is it Bert? Tell me what’s wrong”. Vera had never seen such a look on his face. “It’s the Ark Royal, Teddy’s ship. They’ve only gone and sunk it”. Elsie let out a piercing scream, and Vera felt the tears suddenly run down her face. She tried to imagine that huge ship under the sea, but didn’t want to think about her brother being inside the wreck. Albert tried to calm them down. “Don’t take on so, they say everyone is safe, but reports are unconfirmed so far”.
Elsie made some dinner, but couldn’t face eating anything herself. Albert gave her a big glass of port from the bottle in the parlour, and she sat for a long time holding it against her mouth without drinking any. For the rest of the evening, they sat glued to the radio, hoping for more news. When nothing came, Albert said what Mr Reid always said, and Vera felt like telling him to shut up. Then he tried to change the subject. “At least they defused the bomb that was near the pub”. Nobody smiled.
The following day, there was news on the radio that only one sailor had been killed. They didn’t give his name, but Vera was certain it was going to be Teddy. She couldn’t think straight for days after that, but her dad was equally convinced Teddy would be alright. Elsie said nothing.
All they could do was wait for news.
At the end of the first week in December, they finally heard that Teddy was safe. He wasn’t saying much, just that he was alright, and would soon be posted to another ship. When her dad read the letter, they all danced around in a circle like little children, and her mum cried tears of happiness.
Then the next morning they woke up to hear some big news on the radio. Japan had attacked America, at some place called Pearl Harbour. The Japs had also attacked British troops in the Far East, so the government declared war on Japan too. Vera’s head was spinning. Now they had to fight the Japanese, as well as the Germans, Italians, and other countries on their side. How could they possibly survive? She felt her lip quivering at the thought of German and Japanese soldiers marching down Tower Bridge Road, and her mum was looking glum.
By contrast, Albert was delighted. “Cheer up, you two. This is the best news ever. Now the Yanks are going to have to fight the Germans too, I bet. Wait until all them millions of Yanks get over here and get stuck in. Bloody hell, what a day!” But Vera saw her dad wasn’t looking so chirpy after listening to the radio on Christmas Day. Hong Kong had been captured, and lots of prisoners had been taken. He didn’t even finish his dinner, and Viv got up and put her arm around him. “It’ll be alright, dad. The Americans will be there soon”.
However, the Yanks had other problems, and Hong Kong wasn’t on their list of priorities.
The week before her eighteenth birthday, Vera got the best news of the war so far, and it came in the post. There was a packet forwarded by the Red Cross, containing four letters from Les, and a small gift wrapped up in a piece of a German newspaper. It was a carved piece of wood, and had the initials V and L either side of a heart. Just a scrap of wood, probably taken from a pile of firewood, but it was the best thing she had ever received in her life. She showed her mum the carving, then ran upstairs to read the letters in her bedroom.
Les couldn’t say where he was, but he did talk about how cold it was, and that there was a lot of snow. He thanked her for the socks and scarf, but didn’t mention the other parcel. She presumed he hadn’t got it yet, or it had been stolen by the guards. He said there was enough food, mostly cabbage soup or potato soup. Sometimes they had black bread, but it was so hard they had to soak it in the soup for ages before they could bite into it. The second letter wasn’t so cheerful, as he told her that his pal Lucky had died of pneumonia. He hadn’t been right since Dunkirk, and when the weather turned bitterly cold, it had finished him off. But he did mention that they had played football and cricket when they could, and some of the blokes put on plays and shows when the Germans allowed it.
In the third letter, he asked if she could please ask his parents to send him some cigarettes. They were what everyone missed the most, and there were never enough to go round in the camp. He said the guards left them alone much of the time, and although they had to parade morning and evening to be counted, the rest of the time they could play cards, chess or draughts, or read books. The fourth letter hurt her feelings a bit. He said that he loved her a lot, and always imagined them getting married, but he wasn’t about to ask her to wait for him. He reckoned a girl like her ought to make a life for herself, and that if she found another bloke, he would understand.
Vera was going to tell him all right. She would write and let him know that she was his girl, and would wait for him until Hell froze over, if need be. Then she walked over to Janet’s house, to show Les’s family the letters. Well the first three, anyway. Not the romantic one.
Mr and Mrs Reid seemed upset that Les had written to Vera, and not them. Still, they were glad to know he was doing well, and listened attentively as she read out his letters in order. They told her they would get a tin of fifty cigarettes from someone they knew on the black market, and send them as soon as possible. Mrs Reid still had half of a small fruit cake she had made for Christmas, and said she would wrap it in waxy paper and send him that too. Janet laughed. “Mum, by the time Les gets that, it’ll be rotten”.
They decided to send him some shaving soap and a new brush instead.
Within a few months of her birthday, so much was happening that the family sat listening to the radio every evening. Teddy had written to say he was now on one of the big battleships, and doing well. But of course he couldn’t say which one, or where he was. The RAF were hitting back at Germany, much to the delight of Albert. “Give them some of their own medicine, see how they like that!” There was no more from Les, but Vera felt calmer now she knew he was safe in the POW camp.
At least the Russians were counter-attacking, and it looked like the Germans had indeed made a big mistake invading that country. Albert had something to say about that too. “Told yer so, didn’t I? Old Joe Stalin will give those Jerries what for. They didn’t think it through, don’t you see? The Russkies just retreated to regroup, now they will show those bloody Krauts!” Vera and Elsie sat quietly, letting him go on about it. He seemed to revel in the ups and downs of the war. For their part, they just wanted it all to go away, and life to get back to how it had been before.
Almost everything was being affected by the rationing. There was less coal, and even the gas and electric was erratic. When soap went on the ration list Vera felt like crying, as her hair was so dirty and greasy. Without telling her husband, Elsie got involved with some local black market characters, so she could get some decent soap for their hair-washing, and weekly bath. She traded jam that she stole from the factory, knowing full well Albert would go mad if he knew. Sharing the hot water for three baths made Vera upset. She felt dirty after using the same water as her mum and dad, and sometimes cried because she never felt really clean. Even though she was now a young woman, in every respect, she had real problems understanding what the war was about, and why they had to suffer so.
It developed a real hatred of the Germans in her. She could never work out why they had done all this, and she thought that if she ever met a German, she would bash them hard, or worse. The thought that they might invade and be walking along the main road, drove her crazy for revenge.
The worst thing that happened was that the Japanese captured Singapore. Albert went into a slump after that, as it was the biggest surrender of British troops in history, so he said. Vera saw about it on the newsreels, and knew it was getting her dad down. But all those prisoners, and without much of a fight too! He was very quiet for a long time after that, and he seemed to have lost all faith in the army, and the empire.
Then there was all the news about the German submarines sinking ships in the Atlantic, and in the Arctic convoys too. Some nights, Albert would throw the paper onto the table and slap it, as if he could slap some sense into life. Vera read it after he had finished, and was surprised to see that all the Nazi subs were called ‘Wolf Packs’. Considering the damage they were doing at sea, she thought Shark Packs would be a better name for them.
Janet was still obsessed with the newsreels, hoping to see Frank in the desert. But they never did.
Then in the summer, there was big news in the papers, and on the radio. There had been a raid on Dieppe, on the French coast. The Commandos were involved, and it had supposedly been a great success. Albert finally cheered up. “Well look at that. We can do as we please on the French beaches, give those Jerries a good hiding, and then come home again”.
It wasn’t that long before the family found out the real truth.
Vivian turned up one Friday evening, and Roy was with her. Vera hardly recognised him. He looked so tough in his uniform, and so much older. And he had a large bandage covering most of the left side of his face, which he told them was because of more than thirty stitches, from his mouth almost up to his ear.
He told them that the raid was a complete mess. Half the force had been captured by the Germans, including many Canadian soldiers who had been used without enough training. He had been lucky to get away, according to him. He had been hurt by a German soldier who had hit his face with an entrenching tool. But Roy lit a cigarette and smiled. “Got the better of him though. Stabbed him in the neck with my knife, then shot the bastard with my Thompson”.
Vera had never imagined battle being so personal. It made her shiver.
Using his extended leave, Roy had arranged for him and Viv to go to Wales and visit the boys. They couldn’t stay at the Davies’ farm, but she had booked accomodation for them in the local pub. It as a long way to go for just two nights, but Viv was beside herself with excitement at seeing Georgie and Eddie.
The newspapers and radio talked about the extending of conscription to all men and women up to the age of forty-five. Albert was too old for that of course, but he reckoned that some of the blokes from his Iron Works might have to go, as not all the jobs there were essential. Elsie and Vera already knew that they would be exempt, as they worked in the food industry, and the same applied to Viv too. But even Princess Elizabeth had joined up, and the newsreels showed her learning how to drive a lorry, and fix the mechanicals on it as well. Some of the office girls in the factory would have to go, and Sylvia Pinn had already left and joined the WAAFS. She might have expected to be doing something glamorous like helping the boys flying spitfires and such, but the last Vera had heard from Mrs Pinn, Sylvie was learning how to do morse code for sending messages, and was stuck in some shed in Scotland somewhere.
Viv got back the next week full of tales of the boys and their life in Wales. Eddie had a sort of Welsh accent that sounded funny, and George was playing rugby at school. She said it rained all the time they were there, and the boys were scared of the bandage on Roy’s face. The Davies family seemed very kind, and the boys were not only well fed, they were well behaved too. Eddie had asked if Viv could move to Wales, so they could live there all the time. In the train on the way home, Roy told her that once the bombing stopped, she should bring them home to his mum’s. He was worried that they would be like strangers once the war ended, whichever side won.
The Americans and the Japs were fighting some big battles in the Far East, and the war was going bad in Burma too. But later that year, there was some very good news, and this time it was a big victory for the Briish. It was so big, it not only made the papers and the radio, but Vera and Janet saw it on the newsreels when they went to the cinema on that Friday. There was film of all the guns firing to start the battle, and it was unbelievable. Vera didn’t even realise the army had so many big guns, and felt sure it must have been the biggest battle in any war, ever. They said the place was called El Alamein, and it was in the desert. The soldiers who beat the Germans were the Eighth Army
There was a squeal, which was Janet getting excited, She almost jumped out of her seat, yelling. “The Eighth Army! That’s my Frank. His division is in that army”. The man in the seat behind tapped her shoulder and shushed her. There was news of a terrible battle in Russia too, in a big city called Stalingrad. The announcer said the Russians were winning. On the way home, Janet asked if Vera knew where El Alamein was. She told her it was in Egypt, which was in North Africa. Her old world atlas had served her well. Janet was about to light a cigarette, and stopped. “Africa? I thought Frank was in the desert, not the jungle”. Vera laughed, and told her there was more to Africa than jungle. Janet asked to pop in and see it on the map, so she could imagine where Frank was.
The weather turned much colder the following week, and Vera started to think about Les in the POW camp with the winter coming. She would be nineteen next birthday, and some days she could hardly remember being at school.
Not long after that, Janet didn’t come into work one day. Vera asked Mr Prentice if she had gone sick, and he shook his head. “It’s her Frank, Vera love. His folks got a telegram. Missing, believed killed”. That night Vera decided not to go round to the Reid’s and left Janet alone. She wouldn’t have known what to say to her anyway. When she came back into work she didn’t seem too bothered, which surprised Vera. But she thought it was just her way of dealing with it.
The letter came addressed to Janet, not Frank’s family. The captain had found her letters in Frank’s pocket, and wrote to her at the Reid’s house. He said that Frank’s tank had been found after the battle, and him and two others were dead inside it. He wrote that he had been very popular, and a good comrade to the men in his troop. He reckoned she should have been proud of him, and he expressed his condolences, and all that stuff. Frank was buried with his mates, in the desert.
So they had won the big battle, but lost Frank doing it.
Janet didn’t even cry.
The milk rationing was beginning to get everybody down. There was no rice pudding anymore, and no desserts of any kind that required milk. But what they hated most was not having enough milk to put in their tea. Vera just couldn’t stomach drinking it black, and the tinned and condensed milk soon became hard to obtain too. Even Albert was beginning to abandon his once-lofty principles, and accept that Elsie could try her best to get extras of everything on the Black Market. He had something to trade at least, as the rabbits didn’t seem to be affected by the bombing, so were producing a lot of offspring.
Her dad had killed the old buck first. Vera had named him ‘Snowy’ as he was pure white. But once the young males could do the business, Snowy’s days were numbered. Albert grabbed him and lifted him out of his hutch. As if he knew his fate, the rabbit squealed like an opera singer, and Vera had to put her fingers in her ears as her dad struck him across the neck with an iron bar. When her mum took him into the scullery to clean and skin him, Vera had to go up to her room. She was sure she could never eat him, but the rabbit pie tasted so good when you were hungry, and so did the casserole two days later.
Snowy was a big rabbit.
Vera still couldn’t really understand why Janet had been so calm when Frank had been killed. There were days at the factory when she actually seemed happy, which felt strange. Then Vera heard that she was spending her Saturday nights with Pauline Collins. Pauline was older, and her husband had been killed quite early in the war, before Dunkirk. One of the other ladies at the factory gossipped about Pauline being ‘easy’, and getting younger girls to go to pubs and dance-halls with her. It didn’t take long for Vera to find out that Janet had been hanging around with her for some time, so one day she confronted her about it.
“Yeah, so what? I go out with Pauline. She’s fun, and she knows some great blokes. Lots of them are in the Black Market, and they give you stuff. And they’ve got gin, cigarettes, perfume, all sorts. They appreciate a girl, they do”. Vera had a bad feeling, and she spoke about it to her friend. “So was one of those blokes the father of the baby you got rid of? Did you just pretend it was Frank, and make up that story about letting him go all the way?” Janet was defiant. “What if I did? What’s it to you?” Best that he didn’t come back. Someone would have told him that I got rid of a baby eventually, and he would have known full well it wasn’t his, ‘cos we never did it”.
Although she was fuming, Vera remembered that Janet was Les’s sister, and if things worked out would be her family. She shook her head in disgust, but at least she now knew why there had been no tears. She learned a valuable lesson that day. The people you think you can trust the most can still let you down. She never forgot that.
There were a lot of Americans in England by now, and many made their way to London as soon as they got leave. They were good-looking, confident, and had smart unifroms. They also had cigarettes, lipstick, chewing gum, and the new nylon stockings. Vera got used to avoiding those who ventured south of the Thames, but it wasn’t long before Janet had gone up west to meet some of them, accompanied by the awful Pauline. Very soon, she was missing shifts at work, boasting about having ten pairs of nylon stockings, and flashing around American cigarettes called Lucky Strike.
It made Vera shudder to imagine how many men she had been with up dark alleys, or in hotel rooms. And her brother a POW too. But she didn’t confront her about it. They hardly talked about anything anymore, as Janet spent her free time with Pauline, who was almost old enough to be her mum.
As the end of that year got closer, all Vera could think about was being hungry, and feeling dirty.
By the end of the summer, Albert was finding life difficult on the Heavy Rescue unit. Although the bombing was no longer as bad as it had been, there were still enough raids to deal with, and he wasn’t getting any younger. Vivian was almost thirty-four, and starting to look it. Vera thought her parents had never looked so old and tired, but never mentioned it of course. After a chat with his wife, Albert changed his role in the Civil Defence to become an air-raid warden. No more digging in the rubble, now he would just be just checking that people were not showing lights in the blackout, and directing them to the nearest shelters if there was an attack. Because the raids were so far and few between by then, Albert was lokking better in no time, and obviously a lot less stressed.
A letter from Teddy told them he was doing well on his new battleship, but he still couldn’t say which one it was, and where he was in the world. Vera hoped he wasn’t in the Far East, as there had been some reports of ships being sunk by the japanese out there. The family were getting used to the rationing, using vegetables to make pie fillings, as well as adjusting to the substitues for sugar. At least half of the meat from the rabbits had to be used for trading. Albert got his tobacco, and Vera and Elsie were able to get some second-hand clothes that were quite high class. Nobody cared much aboout the Black Market any longer. If you didn’t take advantage of it, you went without.
However, Albert drew the line when he was offered tins of corned beef marked for use by the army. He didn’t want any part of taking food that was intended for the fighting men.
Then came the big news of a huge invasion of Sicily. Albert nodded as he heard the announcer on the radio. “If we can get into Italy, that’s them out the war. That Mussolini will soon be packing up and leaving, mark my words”. His pronouncements always made Vera smile. He had never been in the army, but talked like he knew exactly what the generals were planning.
Two letters came from Les. One was written in the early summer, and the other a month later. He was a lot better off now the weather had warmed up, he told her. Some of the prisoners had been moved, and been replaced by some blokes captured in North Africa the previous year. There were rumours that the camp might close, though that could mean them being moved deeper into Germany. In the second letter, Les got all romantic, talking about how much he missed her, and how he couldn’t wait to see her again one day. Vera loved to read those parts, and they made her feel all warm inside. She went round to the Reid’s house to tell them his news. Mrs Reid welcomed her warmly, but Janet was out, and Mr Reid was at the pub. Janet’s mum wanted to ask her what she knew about Janet and Pauline, but she just said her and Janet didn’t go around together so much now.
On Sunday, Viv came to tell them that she had asked for the boys to come back from Wales. If necessary, she would travel there by train and fetch them. She had written a thank you letter to Mrs Davies, explaining that she needed them at home now, and that Roy had insisted on them being back in London now the bombing wasn’t so bad. Elsie wasn’t so sure it was a good idea, but didn’t interfere. Her daughter was a married woman, and what she did was up to her. Albert gave her half of a rabbit to take back for Roy’s mum to cook for them, and Elsie gave her one of the tins of jam they had stored.
That evening, Elsie and Vera started to take in some of their clothes. They had both lost a fair bit of weight in the past year, and a lot of their stuff was loose on them. Vera sat carefully unpicking the seams, and Elsie folded them in and sewed them. Albert had gone to the pub to meet up with some of his mates on the darts team. As they chatted and worked on the clothes, Vera was thinking how nice it was.
Almost like before the war.
Christmas that year was more cheerful. Viv had the boys home, and brought them round for dinner on the day. Roy’s mum had been invited too, but as usual she had wanted to stay at home. They seemed so big now, and everyone laughed at the words Eddie said that sounded Welsh. Elsie had managed to find a big chicken from somewhere, and Albert didn’t ask her where she got it. They called Vera ‘auntie Vera’ now, which made her feel quite old, but she secretly liked it.
They stopped the night, and when the boys were asleep, Viv told them that Eddie had cried when he had to leave Mrs Davies. “I think Roy was right, you know. If we had left them there any longer, it would have caused a lot of problems”. There was no news about Roy at all, and Albert speculated that meant he was in training for something special. Elsie gave him one of her looks, not wanting him to say anything to worry Viv.
Before the new year, there was news that the big German battleship Scharnhorst had been sunk by the Royal Navy. It was seen as a real victory, as those big battleships had sunk a lot of merchant ships over the years. A few days later they got a telegram, which made Albert’s hands shake as he opened it. But it was good news from Teddy. He just said he was alright, in case they were worried. Albert smiled, and said he had worked out why Teddy had sent it. The Scharnhorst had been sunk by the navy battleship Duke of York. That must have been Teddy’s way of telling them what ship he was on.
Vera’s twentieth birthday was mostly spent in the Anderson shelter, after the sirens warned of more air-raids. Albert put on his uniform and steel helmet, and walked up to the main road to show people into shelters there. But there was no bombing nearby, and it seemed most of the German planes hadn’t managed to get through. The next time she was at work, a girl called Shirley Thomson came up and spoke to her in the canteen. She asked if she would go on a double date. Seemed she had a Canadian soldier as a boyfriend, and he was getting leave. He wanted to bring a friend up to London, and asked her to find a date for him. Vera shook her head. “Sorry, I have a boyfriend, he’s a prisoner in Germany, so I just couldn’t. Actually, I should call him my fiance, as he wants to marry me when he gets home”.
Shirley kept on though. “It’s only a date, Vera. You don’t have to kiss him or anything. Just dancing, maybe a bite to eat first. Oh come on, otherwise I have to hang around with both of them, and it’ll be really awkward. My Jaques is very nice, respectful like. He’s a French Canadian, and his accent is so dreamy. Come on, Vera, please. I don’t know anyone else to ask as my sister is off in the Land Army”. Vera thought about it. It would be nice to get out. Now she didn’t see much of Janet, she didn’t even get to the cinema that often, though sometimes her mum went with her. “Alright then, but just a date. No funny business though, you tell them that from me. And he’s not to come to my house, I’ll meet you somewhere”.
His name was Pierre, and he was very good-looking, Vera had to admit that. But he seemed so much older. Vera thought it was too rude to ask his age, but she guessed he might be as old as thirty-five, even more. Shirley and Jaques were all over each other in the dance hall, so Vera made sure to just keep dancing, and not let Pierre get any ideas. When it was time to go, Shirley whispered that she was going back with Jaques to his hotel, and that Pierre would look after her, and make sure she got home alright. They went out onto the dark street, and Pierre tried to find a taxi. But they all seemed to have fares on board already, and by the time he got one to stop, they had walked as far as Westminster Bridge.
Pierre asked if he could see her home, but she said no, and extended her hand for him to shake. “Thanks for a lovely evening, Pierre, but I am spoken for”. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, looking disappointed. As she closed the door of the taxi and waved him goodbye, he said one word. “Dommage”.
She was going to have to look that up when she got home.
The next month, some big raids started again. The Germans got through this time, and the sausage factory where Viv worked was hit. Luckily, it was during the night, so she wasn’t at work. But some of the workers on night shift were hurt when they didn’t get into the shelter in time. The bombing was all over the place again, not just in the centre, or the docks. Some areas in the suburbs got bombed for the first time ever, and nobody felt safe. Albert got a cut on the face from a falling roof tile, but he wouldn’t go anywhere to get it looked at, as he said so many were worse off than him. Elsie cleaned it up for him, and tore up an old pillowcase to make a bandage. Vera hated being back in the Anderson shelter, but by then she knew it had been a good idea when her dad built it.
After that, there were no raids. By early summer, Vera was happily sleeping in her own bed again, though she was increasingly concerned about the fact that she hadn’t heard anything from Les in reply to her letters. Albert knew she was worried, and tried to explain things to her. “Listen love, he’s in Germany, ain’t he? Well the Russians are getting close, and the Germans are losing all over. On top of that, the Yanks and the RAF are bombing the hell out of Germany every single day and night. So you can’t expect those Red Cross people to manage to get through to collect or deliver letters now, can you?” She knew her dad was right. News of the bombing of Germany was always in the papers and on the newsreels. They had certainly had a pasting.
But that only made her worry in case the POW camp got bombed by our own side.
There was news of something very big. After keeping it secret for a very long time, the army and the Americans had landed in France. According to the radio, it was a big surprise for the Germans, as they didn’t land near Calais, and had gone to Normandy instead. Vera was shocked at the news, but it lifted her spirits to imagine that Les might be free before the end of the year. Albert was having his say as usual, not even waiting for the announcer to finish. “That showed ’em. And those collaborating Frenchies too. Went in through the back door, down near Caen. Those bloomin’ Jerries weren’t expecting that, were they?”
Elsie was less impressed. “Well there’s still a lot of Germans in France, Bert, and in Germany too. Then there’s the Japs to deal with. Don’t you go counting your chickens too soon, Albert Dodds”. As more news was released, the scale of the invasion was hard for Vera to comprehend. So many soldiers, so many ships, and paratroops too. It seemed to her that the army might be in Paris by the end of the month. It was very hard not to get her hopes up about Les, but that was tinged with concern for Teddy, in case his ship was involved. Then her mum was all doom and gloom. “What about Viv’s Roy? You can bet yer life his Commandos would have been in on that landing. Probably in the first couple of boats. Oh gawd, I do hope nothing happens to him. Poor Viv and the boys”.
The next day, there was the sound of an air raid siren, followed not long after by one almighty explosion on the other side of the Thames. Everyone in the jam factory was heading down to the shelters when they heard it. But before they got there, the all-clear sounded, and they went back up to the machines. Ten minutes later, another warning had them back in the shelter, where they heard half a dozen more big bangs, and the sound of low-flying aircraft firing machine guns. It was a tiring day, back and forth, and nobody understood why they couldn’t hear the bombers.
When Albert got home, he had the answer, as he had left work to help out as a Warden. “It’s a new thing those Jerries have got. Like a small plane, but with no pilot. It’s like a big rocket, and just drops out of the sky anywhere. More or less a flying bomb, as it isn’t designed to go back to where it came from. They reckon a few people got killed in Canning Town earlier, and some of our boys were out in fighters tryng to shoot the things down over the river”. Elsie was getting dinner ready, and turned from the sink.
“Flying bombs indeed. Whatever will they think of next?”
After those first encounters with the new flying bombs, they became a daily terror. Almost one hundred a day fell on London, mostly in the southern suburbs. The random nature of their arrival caused a lot of casualties too, and the dock areas were not spared. One afternoon, Vera was out in the garden feeding the rabbits, and heard the noise of one overhead. It spluttered and popped, as if the engine was going to stop. That was the dangerous time, according to her dad. Once the engine ran out of fuel, the bomb would just fall out of the sky. Turning around, Vera saw the thing, like a small black aircraft, heading south of where she was. At that distance, it looked almost like a toy. It made some spluttering noises again, and then there was silence.
Moments later she heard the explosion, and saw the smoke rising a couple of miles away. Her dad ran out of the house when he heard the bang, and she pointed over the back wall. “Look, dad. It hit in Peckham, I reckon”. People started to call them ‘Doodlebugs’, though Vera never found out why. For many Londoners, it was worse than the relentless bombing years earlier, as at least you knew when the bombers were coming, and when they had left. The new doodlebugs were unnerving, and there was something about that sound they made that gave you a chill up your spine. Evacuation started up again, and so many people were geting out of the city, they had to do overtime at the jam factory to make up for the absences. Viv was not about to send her boys away again though, even though one of the flying bombs had landed less than a mile away from Roy’s mums.
Vera’s hope for a quick end to the war after Normandy came to nothing. Heavy fighting continued, Cherbourg was not captured until the end of the month, and progress was slow. The radio had better news of the fighting in the Far East, with success in Burma, and the Russians were moving ever closer to Germany too. She had still heard nothing from Les, but continued to send letters anyway, on the offchance he might get them.
Rumours started up about Janet, when she stopped turning up for work. Despite the cooling down of their friendship, Vera decided to go round to the Reid’s, to see if she was alright. One day she would be her sister-in-law, all being well, and there was no point in having any bad feeling between them. Mrs Reid was acting funny, and talked about not hearing from Les. She said Janet was in her room, and Mr Reid was on shift. But she offered a cup of tea, and as Vera waited for that, Janet appeared, needing to go out to use the lavatory.
Anyone could see she was having a baby. Her belly was sticking out, and there was no chance it was because she was eating too much. When she came back inside, she smiled at Vera. “Bring your tea up to my room, and we’ll have a talk”. She seemed keen to talk to her former close friend, and was brutally honest. “Tell you the truth, Vera, I don’t know who the father is. But I was also seeing a Yank called Louis, and managed to convince him it was his. He wanted me to have it, and says he will marry me and take me to live in Oklahoma after the war. But then he went and got dragged into that D-Day thing, and now I don’t know where he is”. Vera had lots of questions, like what did her dad think, and how had her mum reacted. But she decided to ask her something else. “What will you do if he gets killed?”
Janet shrugged. “Have it adopted, I ‘spose, I haven’t thought that far ahead. But if he comes back from France okay, he reckons we can have a good life on his family farm out there. He says it is so big that it takes all day to drive from one end to the other”. Vera couldn’t help but laugh. “What will you do on a bloody farm, Jan?” Janet shrugged her shoulders. “Have lots more kids probably”.
Three weeks later, Paris was liberated, and Vera hoped it would really end now.
The following month brought some good and bad news about the war. France was back under allied control, and the fighting was moving into Belgium and Holland. However, the British lost a big battle at a place called Arnhem, where the paratroops were heavily defeated. Albert was on his soap box about that, as soon as the news came. “They should never have sent those lads in without proper support. How were they expected to fight tanks and SS with no artillery or air cover? I don’t know what they were thinking of, I really don’t”. Vera looked up the town in her world atlas. It was in Holland. All she knew about Holland was tulips, wooden clogs, and windmills. It seemed strange to think of men fighting and dying for those.
Then something terrible happened.
There was a new German rocket, much worse than the doodlebug. Albert told them it was called a V-2, and it went up into space before coming down with no warning. Vera presumed he had heard about that from being an air raid warden, as there had been nothing in the newspapers about it. “Well they don’t want to scare people, do they? So you keep this between us for now, alright?” The impact of those things was terrible, much bigger than the smaller rockets. The sudden explosion with no warning at all made people on edge, and Vera saw many locals walking around staring up at the sky. She wanted to tell them there was no point, but kept quiet.
Janet was getting bigger, and there was no chance of her returning to work, as her parents would never tolerate the gossip. She had received a letter from Louis, and it said he had an easy job as the general’s driver, so was almost always behind the lines. He had repeated that he would marry her, and told her more about Oklahoma. Janet smiled. “He says the nearest town with a shop is almost forty miles away. Imagine that, Vera”. Vera couldn’t imagine Janet living in Oklahoma at all, but didn’t tell her that.
In October, there was news on the radio that the Russians had got into Czechoslovakia. Vera was so excited, as Les was in a camp not far from there. She now had to hope that the prisoners would not be moved deeper into Germany. For a change, Albert was positive. “They will be too busy fighting those Russkies to bother about a POW camp, Vera love. I reckon that when they get close, the Jerries will just run away and leave the gates open. ” Vera knew he was just being comforting, but really hoped he was right. Later that month, she got excited when there was news that the war was now in Germany itself, and a town called Aachen had been captured by the Americans. She imagined Louis might be there, driving his general around in a jeep.
On their way to the market in East Street one Sunday morning, Elsie and Vera saw the huge crater left by one of those new rockets that had landed. Elsie pulled her old coat closer around her neck, and shuddered. “Oh, those poor people. Imagine being under that, Vera love.”
Vera didn’t want to imagine that at all. Not one bit.
Albert had a lot less to do now there was no regular bombing. He still went out most evenings after work to check on the blackout in the streets he had been assigned to, but was otherwise able to resume something like a normal life. He managed to get back into his routine at the pub, playing darts with his friends. The matches with the other pubs were put on hold though. At least three of them had been so badly damaged by the bombing, they were no longer open. On Sundays, he built more hutches, as there was unlimited wood available, easily picked up in the street from the sites where bombs had hit houses nearby. Though their street had been spared, the whole row of houses just two streets away had been completely flattened by a stick of bombs during the Blitz.
There were now so many rabbits, Elsie was doing the rounds of friends and neighbours to get peelings and scraps to feed them. Albert brought home sawdust from work for them to sit on, and Vera was actually getting fed up with eating rabbit in all its forms. She would never complain though.
Food was food.
By the end of October, there was still no news from Les. But Teddy had written his usual short note to say he was well, and still enjoying his new ship. Viv came round with the boys, and showed them a letter from Roy. He couldn’t say where he was, but described his situation as being ‘right at the front, and in the thick of things’. He also mentioned that they had been heavily involved for the D-Day invasion, by writing, ‘we had a high old time of it in June, I can tell you. It’s been very lively since then too’. Viv turned over the next page, and blushed. “Then just the usual stuff”.
Albert took the boys outside to see the rabbits, and Viv was able to confide in them that she was heartily sick and tired of living with Roy’s mum. “I would do anything to get out of there, but I know Roy will be annoyed, as he expects me to help her out. Besides, she minds the boys when I’m at work. Then when I get home, she treats me like I’m her bloody housekeeper. I tell you, I won’t be carrying on living there when Roy gets home from the war”.
An unexpected knock at the door saw Elsie return with Uncle Ernie. He was looking well, smiling and happy. He said he was getting ready to appear in a pantomime that Christmas, and doing some shows at weekends in the meantime. Elsie made him a sandwich and poured him some tea as he was saying he wanted them to come and see him at the theatre in Greenwich. “It’s just a variety show, but I have a decent part, and get to sing two songs. It should be good”. He produced four tickets, complimentaries. Viv said she would ask Roy’s mum to watch the boys, but couldn’t see any reason why she couldn’t come. When the boys came back in with Albert, Ernie started to sing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, and he had them marching around the room behind him, like soldiers on parade.
Ernie’s show was on the next Saturday, and they got the bus down to the theatre, meeting Viv outside. Vera hadn’t been to a live show since she was little, and loved the atmosphere inside, so different to the cinema. Ernie had got them great seats too, the last four on one end of the front row of the stalls. It was completely full, and some people were standing at the back too. As the orchestra were tuning up, Ernie appeared next to Albert at the end. he was dressed up like a fat old lady, with a huge wig, and lots of make-up. “Just checking you made it my loves, it will be starting soon”.
They all agreed it was a great night. There was a magician, some tumblers in striped costumes, and a violinist who played classical music. Then Uncle Ernie came on, and told a couple of quite racy jokes. That got the crowd going, and then he sung ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Balcony’. They put a spotlight on a man who was at the front upstairs, and he looked most uncomfortable as Ernie pretended to sing only to him, and blew him kisses. His second song was a stirring rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’, and as he started to sing it, a lady in tights came out and draped a big Union Jack round him. The audience joined in of course, and Vera spotted her mum beaming with pride at her brother. The top of the bill was a man who had a radio show, but to her surprise, Vera had never heard of him. He sung some show songs in a shaky voice, and it quite affected her. She especially liked him singing, ‘You’re The Top’, as that was one of her favourites.
After the curtain call, Ernie came and said his goodbyes. He was going into rehearsals soon, and would try to get them some pantomime tickets if he could. Viv left to get a bus home, but Vera and her parents walked the couple of miles back to the house in the dark. It was a cold night, but nice and dry.
Three weeks later, a V2 rocket hit Woolworth’s at New Cross Gate. it was packed with staff and shoppers that Saturday, and over two hundred people were killed or badly injured. The newspapers reported the utter carnage at the site, and said one hundred and seventy were dead, including children. Elsie looked as white as a sheet. “Oh gawd, a lot of the women from work go shopping there, and Mrs Fielding’s daughter Rose works there. I reckon she will have had it”.
Her gloomy prediction was proved correct.
Four of the jam factory women were killed that day, along with Rose Fielding.
As Vera prepared to mark her twenty-first birthday, she wasn’t feeling very happy. There had still been no news about Les, and Christmas had been cold and dull. The pantomime tickets mentioned by Uncle Ernie hadn’t appeared, and she felt as if the war had lasted her whole life. On the worst days, she tried to remember good things that had happened before 1939.
It did seem that it actually might end though. The RAF and American bombers were flattening Germany on a daily basis, and the Russians were well into the east of Germany. Albert perused the newspapers, then made his usual declaration. “The Jerries have had it, I tell you. They can’t possibly win, and it beats me why they are bothering to keep fighting. I ‘spose it’s because they’re fanatics. Must be”. But Japan was still fighting in the Far East, so nobody knew how long it might drag on.
The V-2 rockets still came down now and again, but not as many as before, once most of the launch sites had been captured. And there was no longer any fear of bombers, as it looked as if the Germans had run out of planes to use. Vera loved being back in her bed every night again, as there were no more sirens. No point, as nobody knew when the rockets were coming until they exploded. The blackout was still in force though, so Albert had to carry on doing his rounds every evening. Vera listened to the radio most nights, hoping to hear news that Czechoslovakia had been liberated. But the Germans were still there, so she presumed Les was still a prisoner in the camp near the border.
Everyone was feeling unsettled. So close to the end, and soldiers and sailors and fliers were still dying. Mr Prentice had the bad news that his nephew had been shot down over Germany. He was a rear gunner in a bomber, and listed as missing presumed killed. That was because one of the other planes in the squadron reported the plane exploded in the air, and they saw no parachutes. He told them that his younger sister was inconsolable, as her husband had died of a heart attack in 1940.
Vera had almost forgotten that people still died of natural causes. She had become used to people being killed in the bombing, or killed on military service, but she hadn’t really heard of anyone dying from anything else for so long now.
Janet was really showing big now, even though she had a while to go. When Vera popped round to see her, she was very cheerful. Louis was still driving the general, and having a great time in Paris. He had written to his parents telling them about her, and had also applied to his commanding officer for permission to marry. He was sure it would be granted as soon as the fighting was over. Her parents still didn’t let her out the house though, even though everyone had caught on that she was in the family way by now. Janet told her that her mum had arranged for a woman to come to the house when it was her time. “She’s a retired nurse, and I will be in good hands”. Vera could only think of the last time Mrs Reid had arranged a woman for Janet.
The were still working flat out at the jam factory, sending the big tins of jam out for the army. Elsie used to imagine they must have so much jam by now, each soldier could sit and eat a whole tin to himself. With all the young women who had left to join up, and some who had been killed in the bombing, they had had to recruit some very elderly women to fill the gaps. One of them walked into work using two sticks, then sat down packing boxes with jars filled with jam all day. Elsie was sure she must be in her late seventies, by the look of her.
One night when they got home from work, Viv was already there. She looked very anxious, and wasn’t wearing any make-up. Her hair was still tied in a scarf from where she had been at work. As Vera put the kettle on for tea, Viv wrapped her arms around her mum. “Oh mum, it’s Roy. He’s in hospital over there. He got the officer to write to me to say I shouldn’t worry but he has lost a part of his foot. Oh mum, poor Roy”. Elsie pushed her daughter back, and looked her in the eye. “Don’t take on so now, Viv. He’s alive, that’s the main thing. And with a wound like that, it means the war will be finished for him now, won’t it?”
Albert walked in from work as all the crying was going on, and Vera quickly told him the news. He sat rolling a cigarette, with the newspaper still tucked under his arm. When Viv had calmed down, he lit the cigarette, and slowly turned to speak to to his older daughter.
On the first of March, Janet had the baby in her bedroom at home. It was a big bouncing girl, and other than some bleeding that was difficult to stop, Janet did well. Vera went round to see her and the baby, which had blonde hair that was almost white. Janet smiled. “What a relief. Louis has blonde hair, so maybe it is his after all. I was hoping and praying it wasn’t one of those black soldiers. Don’t know what the hell I would have done then. Reckon my dad would have thrown me out”. Vera raised her eyebrows at that, and Janet grinned, seeing her friend was uncomfortable. “They’re such good dancers, Vera, you should try one”. Deciding not to reply, Vera had a vision of what her dad would think about her being seen out with one of them.
The baby was called Mildred. Janet didn’t like that name at all, but she had promised Louis she would name the baby after his mum or dad, and she could put his name down as the father on the birth certificate too.
By the end of the month, the rockets and bombing had stopped completely. There would be no more attacks at all after that. Albert was still acting like some authority on the war, even after all this time. “THose Jerries must have run out of petrol by now. That, and the launch sites have all been captured”. Elsie was not so quick to stop worrying. “What about in Germany, Bert? They must still have places where they can fire them from”. Albert shook his head. “Mark my words, the Russkies will have sorted them out. You can forget about any bloomin’ rockets from now on”. When he was proved right, Elsie didn’t mention what he had said.
Most news from the war was positive now. It was heartening to read about successes in Burma, and the Yanks were doing well, getting ever closer to Japan by capturing islands. Her dad read the paper out over dinner most evenings, then they listened to the radio news when they had finished eating. The Russians were deep into Germany, heading for Berlin, but they said the fighting was terrible, some of the worst of the entire war. American soldiers were doing well in the south of Germany too, with that General Patton advancing really fast.
Then Roy came home. They got the bus to his mum’s place, to save him struggling with his crutches. He looked tanned and fit, and other than a big bandage covering his left foot, he seemed to be his old self. He tapped his foot with the tip of one crutch. “Lost the three smallest toes, and a bit of the side of me foot. Still got the big toe, and the one next to it. Hurt like a bugger, I can tell you”.
Albert wanted to know more about how he got the wound.
“Well, we was under fire, and went to ground. Big mortars they had, regimental ones, them sort. I rolled down a verge and laid on me back, didn’t I?” Viv nodded a yes in reply, as if she had been there. “Well it carried on with a heavy machine gun firing from somewhere, so we can’t get up. Then there’s this whoosh noise, and I feel like someone’s stamped on me foot, but really hard like. I turned around and saw the staff sergeant, and he looked bad, blood all over. So I goes to get up to help him, and fall over. The boot and sock has gone off me foot , and it was covered in blood. When the second platoon finally took the position, they came back and took me to the dressing station on a stretcher”.
Albert was more impressed by the two stripes on Roy’s uniform. “You made corporal then. Well done”.
When they got back home after the visit, Janet was standing outside the house, holding baby Mildred. Elsie shook her head. “You should have let yourself in love, you know the key is on a string inside the letterbox”. Janet was beaming. “It’s okay, Mrs Dodds, I haven’t been here long”. She turned to Vera. “It’s Les. The Americans found him in a POW camp in Germany. The Red Cross contacted the army, and they sent a telegram to dad!”
Vera felt her knees buckle, and tears of joy run down her face.
Nobody knew how long it would be before Les got home, or whether or not he was ill. Vera refused to think about anything bad, and started to make preparations for his return. She got her dad to drill two tiny holes in the small piece of wood Les had sent, the one carved with their initials around a heart. Using an old thin silver chain, she managed to make it into a necklace. Then she bought a green velvet dress, and her mum altered it to fit her. It wasn’t new of course, but it was such a quality garment, a good clean would get it up as good as. Through one of the black market contacts, she exchanged some jam for a pair of the new nylon stockings, and the same man managed to find her a pair of green suede shoes that were a good enough match. She had to fork out cash for those though. She was determined to look her best once she had some idea when he would be arriving.
Roy was still limping around, but managing on one crutch. He had contacted his former boss, and it looked like he could have his job back as soon as his foot had healed. Albert had got some rubber from work, and made a wedge that Roy could put inside any shoe, to make up for the missing toes. He had already tried it out, but it had made his foot hurt too much. He said he would have another go when the wound had hardened up. Then the civil defence said that Albert could hand in his air-raid warden stuff. The blackout was likely to be ending soon, and there were no more raids anyway.
As more news started to filter through, Albert was sad to hear about one of his mates from the dart team. Stan was younger than Albert, and had joined up early in 1940. He had gone off into the army, and nobody really knew what had happened to him since. One afternoon, Albert made the long walk to the other side of the borough, where Stan’s wife was living with her mum. She was now working in the same sausage factory as Viv, and had told her that Stan had been badly injured. Albert took some jam for them, and some rabbit meat too.
When he got back, he was upset. Stan had been in a Sherman tank that had been hit in Holland. It had caught fire, and he had suffered terrible burns. They had got him back to England barely alive, and he was in a special hospital in Birmingham. His wife Agnes hadn’t been up there to see him, as they had said she should wait until he had more operations. Albert could only imagine how bad it must be, when they said that.
Then in the first week of May, there was some staggering news. Hitler had killed himself in Berlin, and the war was over. Vera could hardly believe it, it just didn’t seem real. Elsie was more concerned about the Far East. They suspected that Teddy’s ship was out there, although they hadn’t heard anything from him for a while. “What about those Japanese though? They’re not giving up, are they? You know what them Japs are like, they are going to carry on”.
There was going to be a big celebration. Mr Churchill had called it VE Day, which stood for victory in Europe day. Viv wanted to take the boys to Buckingham Palace to see the King and Queen, and asked her mum and sister to go too. Elsie agreed, but Vera flatly refused, determined not to celebrate anything until Les was home. When Elsie got back, she looked exhausted. “Oh, what a palaver! We didn’t get even halfway down The Mall. I have never seen so many people in one place, never. The boys couldn’t see anything, and the noise of the cheering has left me with a shocking headache. Put the kettle on, Vera love. I’m parched”.
By the end of the month, lots of the soldiers were starting to come home. Some had to stay behind, as an army of occupation. Albert said they would mostly use the regulars for that, as they were staying in anyway. “Like your Les. I mean, he was in the army before this all started, so I s’pose he’s staying in after”. Vera hadn’t really thought about that. If Les stayed in the Guards, she would have to move to married quarters outside London. She sat quietly, wondering why that had never entered her head in all that time. Elsie had her say too. “And our Teddy. I wonder if he will stay in the Royal Navy now, or go back to merchant ships? After all, it’s all he has known. I can’t imagine him doing anything else”.
Two nights later, Janet came around. She was in floods of tears. Louis was being sent home by boat direct from France, and had been refused leave to come and marry her in London.
“That means I have to wait until he gets out the army and can sail back to fetch me”.
The first week in July saw election day. For the first time in ten years, the country was going to vote. Vera and Elsie both said they couldn’t be bothered, but Albert was keen. “I’m voting for that Mr Attlee, he’s got a lot of good ideas to help working people like us. And after all this time, I reckon a change will do the country good”. Elsie looked up from her sewing, eyebrows raised. “And what about Mr Churchill then? He’s done a very good job, kept us going he did”. Albert wasn’t interested. “At the end of the day, he’s a rich toff. I’ve had enough of him and his cigars, and all his blood, sweat, and tears. Time for a change, Elsie love”.
Vera was even less interested in politics when she got a letter from Les, the first one in such a long time. She took it straight to her room, and read it a dozen times. He was in a British army field hospital in Germany, due to being very weak and thin, and having an infected ulcer on his leg. He said that he hoped to be fit to travel in few weeks, and would get transport to France, then a ship to Dover or Portsmouth. He he had managed to hang on to her photo, though his wallet had been taken. But he wasn’t very romantic, and even said he would understand if she had moved on with her life after all that time.
The letter had taken ages to arrive, which made Vera excited. It meant he might already be on his way, perhaps even back in England by now.
There was no election result the next day. It was being delayed until the end of the month, to allow returning soldiers to cast their votes. Albert was bullish though. “He’s done it, I tell you. Mr Attlee will be in charge, and we will soon see how much better things will be”.
It was easy to forget that Japan was still fighting. The newsreels showed the bombing raids on big cities there, and everyone wondered how much longer the Japs would carry on. Albert had his say about that too. “I reckon we will have to invade Japan. Fight every inch of the way across those islands, and wipe out every last soldier. Those buggers don’t know they’re beaten, and will fight to the last man. It’s going to go on for years out there, you mark my words”.
The next morning, there was a letter from Les in the first post. He was in England, at Windsor barracks. Still not fit enough for full duties, he would be given leave soon, and allowed to come to London to see his family. This time he seemed more positive, and mentioned how he had never stopped loving her, and wanted to know if she still felt the same. That made her cry with happiness. She replied immediately, and posted the letter on her way to work. She told him that nothing had changed, she still wanted to marry him, and couldn’t wait to see him.
A few days later, Albert was proved right for once, when Labour won the election with a landslide victory, and Mr Attlee became the prime minister. Albert did a funny little dance around the room, and told them he was going to the pub to celebrate with his friends.
Viv came round with the boys, and said how she had voted labour too. “Things are gonna be better, mum. I’m hopeful for the boys to do well later, and if Attlee does all he claims, I reckon the future is definitely something to look forward to”. Elsie was surprised by her eldest daughter, as she had never once spoken about politics before. Janet turned up just before Viv left. She was carrying baby Mildred, and looking happy. “Louis has been discharged. He wrote and said it shouldn’t be long before he can get here now, once all the ships get back to normal on the Atlantic crossings”. Elsie made some more tea, and wiped away a tear as the kettle boiled. So much good news in one week was almost overwhelming.
The following week, Japan surrendered. Albert said the Yanks had dropped two super-bombs on the country, and they couldn’t go on after that.
That same evening, there was a knock on the door.
Vera answered it, to find Les standing there.
Vera almost couldn’t believe her eyes. It was Les, though he was half the size he had been the last time she saw him. She had forgotten how tall he was, and as he swept her into his arms, her face pressed against his chest. Her first reaction was to scold him. “Leslie Reid, fancy you turning up when I look such a state. I had a new outfit ready and everything, and now I’m standing here with a scarf around my hair, and an old cotton dress on”.
Les kissed her, to shut her up.
At least the army had given him a new uniform, so he still looked smart. He had three stripes too, and as he had a cup of tea with Albert and Elsie he explained that he had been offered the job of Armoury Sergeant at Chelsea Barracks. “There’s married quarters too, a flat near Victoria Station”. Vera had been tidying herself up, and came back downstairs. She pulled a chair over next to Les, and sat holding his hand. He straightened up, and spoke seriously to Albert. “Mr Dodds, you know me and your Vera have talked about getting married before, but I would like to do the right thing, and ask if that’s okay with you”. Albert stood up, and offered his hand. “Welcome to the family, Les”.
Reaching into his trouser pocket, Les produced a small fold of tissue paper. He opened it, and showed Vera the gold band inside. “I can’t get an engagement ring just now, Vera. But this was my granny’s wedding ring, and if that’s alright with you, we can get it sized for you to wear on the day”. Vera was too happy to speak, and just nodded. Les had been busy, it turned out. He had been to St James’s church, and the vicar said he would marry them, even though they hardly ever went inside a church. He had booked the wedding for three weeks on Saturday, as the married quarters would be available the week before. He was getting help from his army mate Jimmy to sort out the flat once he had the keys, and Jimmy was also going to stand up as best man.
The next couple of weeks seemed to pass by in a blur for Vera. She handed in her notice at the jam factory, as she didn’t fancy the two-bus journey to and from work from Victoria. Besides, Les had said she wouldn’t need to work unless she wanted to, and he had even talked about them having a baby as soon as possible. Viv came round with her wedding dress, and between her and Elsie they managed to alter it to look nice on Vera. Roy had started back as a car mechanic, and there was a lot of work now people had started to get their cars back on the road. Despite all the rationing still being in force, including petrol, lots of people were eager to start trying to live as they had before the war. Les turned up with Jimmy one night to introduce him. He was from Newcastle, and nobody could understand his accent. They kept laughing at him, but he took it in good part.
Vera went with them to see the Victoria flat, and was most impressed. It had a small kitchen, an indoor bathroom, a decent-sized living room, and a big double bedroom. Les was getting it furnished by mostly buying second hand stuff from around the housing estate, but Vera didn’t care. It would be their place. Les still had to see the army doctor about his leg. There was a big bandage around where they had removed the ulcer, and it needed changing regularly. He was also booked in to see the dentist, as the poor diet had played havoc with his teeth. The German medics in the camp had pulled two of them out, after he complained of toothache. “No gas or anything, just one bloke holding me down while the other one yanked them out with what looked like electrical pliers”.
The wedding day weather was dull, but it didn’t rain. Vera walked to the church with her mum and dad, as they could see it from their front door. Viv met them there, with Roy and the boys, who were both looking smart with little bow ties on. Janet and baby Mildred were there with Les’s parents, and Uncle Ernie too. Teddy hadn’t been able to make it, as his ship was still in the far east. But he sent a telegram that arrived the day before. Les and Jimmy looked so smart in their number one uniforms, with peaked caps. But Elsie was upset to see they were not wearing the redcoats and bearskin hats like you saw outside the palace.
After the ceremony, they had sandwiches and drinks in The Coach and Horses. Uncle Ernie played the piano, and sung a lot of old favourite songs. Les had booked a taxi for six that evening. He had arranged an overnight hotel room and dinner at the Strand Palace Hotel. Said it was the least he could do, as there would be no honeymoon. Vera walked back home with her mum to change into her going away outfit of the green velvet dress and suede shoes. Elsie started to have a talk with her about men and sex, but Vera stopped her, touching her arm. “It’s alright mum, Les will be kind to me, I just know he will”.
As the taxi drove away that evening, Vera looked out of the window at the familiar streets where she would no longer be living.
Her life was finally beginning.