Jane was weary as she made her way home from work. Her back was aching, low down and constant, her legs were heavy and felt oddly detached from her throbbing feet. She had spent the best part of the day climbing the stairs between the first and second floor of the women’s voluntary service, a mish mash of offices constantly streaming with the desperate and the desolate. As the bombings intensified so too had the numbers of widows and orphans streaming through the doors. Unfortunately with the increased numbers also came the growing mountain of paperwork and department checks that had to be religiously signed, then stamped, then countersigned and stamped again, and never in the same office let alone on the same floor.
She had volunteered twelve months before, initially to keep her sister Ivy company but within a month of starting felt she fitted in, no longer a round peg in a square hole and for the first time in her life Jane felt useful. Her sister had long since left and taken a job in the munitions factory on the other side of the docks. It was dirty and dangerous but Ivy felt she was helping the war effort much more than she ever could at the WVS, although Jane was sure her sister was drawn far more by the better pay and the racy banter. Jane had always been the deeper, more serious of the two and the ability to help or at least give a little comfort when all was lost suited her well. She never left before five and tonight was no different in fact it was gone six thirty before she found her coat and headed for the number 45 bus that took her out of the city and home.
Once off the bus she took the usual short cut home. The only sound in the air as she hurried across the park was the thin glassy whisper of the dusk time fog. She could barely make out her own hand in front of her let alone the path ahead, or the makeshift opening that led onto Princess Street; the gates to Montpellier Gardens had long since gone, the ornamental ironwork had fallen victim to the war effort early on. Jane’s father once told her that dawdling too long on the corner of Princess Street was an invitation to tea with the devil and although curious as to which of the red bricked cottages the devil lived in, Jane always quickened her step when she passed. Certain places, like certain people, can manage to instantly announce their character. In the case of the living, breathing, 2 legged variety, no particular feature need betray them; on the surface an open expression or an innocent smile; and yet an immediate conviction that there is something fundamentally amiss, that they are evil. And perhaps the same could be said of houses, an aroma of evil that flows through the mortar. A fear so intense that it devours the innocent watcher, tingling the nerves and chilling the blood. Jane felt her breathe tighten as she quickened her step, long strides that were neither a walk nor a run, her father’s warning never fully forgotten.
Glad of the head scarf she found in her pocket, she tightened it around her hair. The damp evening mist had loosened the pins and she fought with a persistent lock of blonde that continually escaped. Pulling the collar of her overcoat closer, she was comforted by the protection it gave from the bitter chill. She quickened her pace and made her way out. She reached the high street as the tall dimly lit street lamps flickered in the early evening chill, closing embers of daylight swiftly fading. The two parallel rows, made up of numerous outfitters, Haberdasheries, Butchers and Bakers that ran the length of Carmichael Street were eerily quiet. The Palace theatre was just opening and a couple of girls, arms entwined, giggling against the Audy Murphy back drop were nervously waiting; their hair and make- up immaculate, with a near perfect seam of eyebrow pencil drawn down the back of each leg. Jane smiled to herself as she remembered the number of times she had to re do the line on her own legs, manys the evening she had ended up with a road map of the Peak District indented on the back of her calf.
As she reached the Tea Shop at the end of the High Street, Jane suddenly stopped. Her two hands clutching at her collar she could hear the rumble growing overhead. She could sense the impending drone before the siren had even started. The wail of the alarm, although a nightly occurrence these last few months, still summoned a rancid taste of fear that burned heavily into her throat. As the bile rose, Jane felt her legs weaken; it felt like the fear wasn’t coming from the pit of her stomach as you’d imagine, but was actual rising from the balls of her feet. She put a hand out to steady herself, grasped the heavy air into her lungs and ran. She knew she was too far from home to get back so followed the steady stream of people heading towards the basement of the recently commissioned Equitable Buildings.
Jane had used the shelter before, and actually preferred it to the homemade Anderson her father had built. She was still 400yrds from the stairwell when she heard the first explosion, in the distance she could see the flames leaping skywards, a row of houses on the far side of town erupted as the bombs fell, slapped from the lashes of a whip, lives disappearing in a fan of orange flames. It was like guy Fawkes but the smell was different, instead of gunpowder and torchwood it was burning masonry and rubber. Each bomb dropped lighting the silhouettes of the grey tinned death carriers purring overhead. Fire engines clanged, fires crackled, glass shattered, people screamed, the earth shuddered.
The second bomb was closer. Jane had just reached the shelter, taking the steps down to the basement two at a time, when the explosion hit. The blast threw her forward; it felt like a fist punching her cheek, as falling masonry hit her legs and molten air layered with what felt like slithers of glass ripped at her lungs. Then there was silence. Adjusting her eyes to the darkness Jane’s arm went instinctively to her stomach, a large piece of plaster was suspended precariously a few inches from her torso, mercifully caught by some other debris. She tried to move, a little at a time, first straightening one leg, then the other. She heard steps and saw someone coming towards her, one of the wardens, a huge man in rubber boots and a coat with a type of cowl; it was good to be with another human being for a moment.
She managed to stand, unsteadily at first, placing her arm against the metal hand rail that was still partially attached to the stairwell on the right. Her mouth was salty with blood and yet her head was remarkable clear, puzzled by her lack of anxiety she quickly forced herself forward and was soon mobile. The stairs were blocked in places and she could hear the crackle of fire under the debris. The all cleared sounded as she stumbled heavy footed over what was left of the entrance. Once out, she looked up, the sky immediately above the fires was burning red and angry. Elsewhere there was a shroud of what looked like pink smoke, and now and again through a hole in the pink veil there twinkled an absurdly, reassuringly familiar, evening star.
Jane felt her chest tighten again, but yet not sure if it was the air or the fact she was home. Home was on the east side of town and thankfully tonight it had escaped the Luftwaffe’s flight plan. Ever since she had broken the news of her ‘condition’ Jane had worried that somehow she would end up losing what little independence her recent marriage had brought her. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her family, they got on very well most of the time, but when Clive had made suggestions about her moving back, at least while he was away, Jane had been utterly determined that would never happen. Yet here she was back at her childhood home.
She hesitated slightly at the front gate, the fog was still heavy and gave an eerie glow from the burning buildings across the river. She’d been relieved to see this side of town unscathed and thankful to see the familiar tree lined street as she turned the corner. The eerie glow from was now replaced with a different more subtle type of glow, that of warm light streaming through the frosted door pane of the heavy set front door. She studied the silhouette stood by the window, discreetly waiting, watching for her coming. The large set figure of her mother, just 5ft in her stocking feet, although quite how this was known was still unsure as her mother was never stocking footed, in fact Jane always imagined her mother was born with a pair of black boots instead of feet, was motionless and poised for the key in the lock. Jane was sorely tempted to turn and run, but didn’t.
She was instantly hit by the warmth in the hall as she closed the door behind her. The hall way was dimly lit, just the light from the scullery spanning the stairwell. The colours from the glass pane glistened over the balustrade as prisms of light skipped across the mahogany. She hung her coat on the hook as she caught her reflection in the large bronzed mirror to her right. Her hair had fallen and loosely framed her face. Even in the dimmed light Jane could still see the heaviness in her eyes, just make out the lines etched at the edges. The blue dazzle that once sparkled with life, now seemed buried under a mist of grey. Her lips looked thinner and even a quick touch up of liner didn’t seem to bring back the fullness. The smile her father had once said lit up a thousand rooms seemed small and lost in her hollowed features. She feverously wiped the white dust and blood that had congealed at the corner of her mouth and put her hand to her bruise tinged cheek.
Glad of the lack of welcome from her mother, Jane climbed the stairs two at a time. The four rooms upstairs all came off a central space. Her parent’s room was at the front and was by far the biggest room, dominated by a huge bay widow swayed with heavily lined curtains from floor to ceiling, with a green tiled wash stand and matching triple doored robe that had travelled through the generations not to mention the many house moves. Next door was her grandmother’s room, a once fiery red head, hardened by life and mellowed by age. Her room was smaller than her parents but was basked in the eastern sun most of the afternoon so had a warmth and comfort to it. The room smelt of beeswax, her bright patchwork quilt was clean and crisp and on the washstand was a china jug and bowl with the pattern of pink roses. Gran was widowed nearly 4 yrs now and rarely left her bed but was content to hold office on a daily basis surrounded by her memories. Facing the back was the toilet, when they first moved in the novelty of not having to run to the back yard had been so intense that Jane was sure the neighbours thought the whole family had bladder problems, judging by the amount of time spent running up and down the stairs. The last room was now shared by Jane and her younger sister Ivy. It faced the row behind but had a view of the back garden, Jane used to love sitting on the window seat looking out, especially in winter when the frost glistened over the tree tops, ghost breath she called it.
It was the window seat she walked towards, once she had shut out the world and started to relax. She took a small wooden box from under the bed, it wasn’t ornate but beautiful all the same. It had an inlay of rose wood that had faded and chipped in places and when you opened the lid there was a deep red satin inner that seemed to envelope its contents. Jane tentively took out the letter and sat down against the window. Her long slim fingers stroked the post mark. She instantly thought of Clive, his soft brown hair flopped across his forehead, toffee brown eyes and his funny little mouth that constantly twitched into a cheeky smile. He was only an inch or two taller than Jane but twice as wide. She could feel his arms wrapped around her now, felt his breathe on her neck as he gentle kissed the back of her ear. She could hear his breathing change; feel the tenderness of his kisses change, stronger, rougher, sharper. She could feel his hand move round to her breast, stroking, teasing making her gasp as she tilted backwards, straightening her back.
Jane knew he would come back for her. She had known it from the beginning, from the day the letter arrived back in spring. Yes there had been tears. So many tears. Her parents and Ivy had been waiting for her when the letter arrived. Seeing the tear stained eyes of her father, her mother’s ashen features and the shear desolation etched on her sister’s face had told Jane everything before the letter had even been read. Clive’s ship, ‘The Mighty Hood’ had been sunk, gone down so fast that only three people survived, three people that weren’t her precious Clive. Now from the back bedroom, Jane heard a knock at the front door. The first was light and hesitant but the second a more urgent, sinister type of knock that brought her mother’s footsteps across the linoleum. Jane playfully pushed Clive back onto the bed, re adjusted her blouse and went to the stairs. All she could see was a pair of large rubber boots stood on the front step, sensing it was a man she could see the bottom half of a coat with a type of cowl, he looked familiar. She could hear voices, voices she didn’t recognise as she watched her mother fall and her father stumble back against the wall. Clive swiftly arrived at her side, gently stroked the side of her face and reaching for her hand, led her out of this life into the next.