CHAPTER 1 JEAN CURRIE
His bantering tone changed. "The Old Lass said he was in hospital. You'll let me know how he is?" And then as if he couldn't stay serious for long, he grinned. "Of all the girls I've chatted up in all the countries I've marched through, that's the first time I've had that brush off. I'm going to see Dad!" She laughed, suddenly realising she felt comfortable with him. This was Bill, the boy next door who'd been in the Services, as she had, who was in limbo as she was, who had to find his way in this strange civilian world, as she had. They spoke the same language, understood each other's jokes, and had suffered conditions no civilian could begin to understand.
"Tell you what," he said, "I'll settle for a mug of tea - for now."
"I'm not sure if I've got a mug. Will a cup do?"
"Story of my life. Always have to make do with second best."
Indoors, she took off her jacket. There must be something else she could wear. Her school uniform wouldn't fit that was certain. She'd filled out with all the drilling and keep fit. Somewhere there should be the dirndl skirt she'd made out of coupon free blackout sateen. She'd searched the market for oddments of different coloured bias binding to sew round it at four-inch intervals to brighten it. She'd made a blouse out of butter muslin to go with it too, threading tape through the sleeves and round the neck because she couldn't get any elastic. Down the front she'd embroidered bold red flowers in lazy daisy stitch. She'd been really proud of the outfit that had cost next to nothing and no coupons - until Mother said she had no taste.
She found them in the drawer under her wardrobe1 not as fresh as she'd like, but she3d feel less awkward in them when Bill was sitting opposite her in his patched trousers. She bmshed her hair and let it fall unrestrained to curl onto her shoulders.
Back downstairs, she was taking the sugar out of the cupboard when there was a wolf whistle behind her. She swung round.
"I'd have put on a tie if I'd known you were dressing up." He had slipped on his shirt and he made a pretence of pulling it across his hairy chest. "Do you read teacups, Gypsy Rose?"
"If you cross my palm with silver, sir."
He pulled out his trousers' pockets and revealed nothing but holes.
She laughed. "OK. No charge for the destitute. You're going on a long journey, far across the sea -"
"The Old Lass told you?" He sat down at the table. "Australia here I come. I lie in bed reading all the bumf and then I dream of long-legged beauties on golden beaches and nobody snapping; "Don't yer know there's a war on? It's in short supply"".
She passed him his cup of tea. "Reality's never like dreams."
"So young to be a cynic."
"Just facing facts."
"Facts? I'll give you some facts. Do you know how many of us there were fighting this bloody war in one way or another? More than five million." He glared at her, his light manner gone. "Some will have jobs to go back to. An awful lot won't."
He stirred a spoonful of sugar into his cup, took a long drink and pulled a face, when he realised he had done it before.
She smiled and added more tea. "Have you no job to go back to?"
"No. I don't suppose you remember. You were too busy at school. I worked at the farm up the road. Haymarking, harvesting. It was great. More like fun than work, but when I wanted to drive the tractor, he said I was too young, so I left. After that I was an errand boy, tram conductor, did odd jobs down at the garage on the main road. The Old Lass was mad when I left school, but I was no good at book learning, exams and all that."
He took another gulp of tea. "You know I went to territorial camp with your Dad? That was like a holiday. I was only six when Dad died and the old Lass couldn't afford holidays."
Mother used to say Bill was a disgrace, not a decent suit to his name, and Mrs Simpson's clothes looked as if they'd come from a jumble sale.
He pushed aside his empty cup and leaned his elbows on the table. "In the real army they told us we'd been playing at soldiers."
"You went in at the beginning, didn't you? Like Dad."
"Yeah. We weren't together though. Just kept coming across each other." He fell silent for a moment. "Like at Dunkirk."
She was still at school then, but she'd wanted to talk to Bill, ask him why Dad hadn't got back, if he'd seen him... She'd watched him from an upstairs window, wandering aimlessly round the next garden or sitting with his head in his hands or just standing, staring up at the sky. She was desperately shy and hadn't been able to bring herself to go next door and knock. Mr Churchill had spoken stirring words on the wireless and the newspapers were full of accounts of bravery but the sight of Bill, so unlike the brass-necked lad who had gone away, made her wonder.
Mother, as usual, had something to say. That No~ood next door could get back, but not her husband. Too old to run.
Peggy stood up, put the cups on the draining board and didn't look round when she asked: "You saw him? At Dunkirk."
"You don't know?"
The sharp change in his tone startled her and she turned to face him. "No."
"She didn't tell you I came round as soon as I got back?"
She shook her head and sat down.
He pushed back his chair, strode over to the sink and stood gripping the edge, his head bent. Suddenly he banged the draining board with his fist.
Without turning, he said quietly: "I told him he couldn't rescue the whole bloody British Expeditionary Force single-handed. He was so bloody stubborn."
He began to stride up and down but the kitchen was too small. He came to a halt, and gripping the back of his chair, he brought his face close to hers. His cheeks were red, the blond hairs on his upper lip were moist, but he spoke quietly and deliberately as if talking to a child.
"I've been in some tight spots since, but there was always a chance we could fight our way out. Not there. We'd lost everything. One or two had a rifle but that's all. We were trapped. No escape. Nowhere to go but the sea."
He sat down, his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands. "I shall never forget it. Never. As long as I live."
She waited, not knowing what to say, unUl he went on in a quiet monotone.
"We were sitting ducks on that beach. And the din. You couldn't begin to imagine it. Shells from our Navy. Their coastal defence. Ammunition dumps going up. Roar of a diving plane. Machine gunfire as he sprayed us. He didn't have to aim. Every once in a while he got lucky and hit a petrol tank or oil drums and at one go he wiped out a hundred men. We could almost see his grinning face as he looped the %~and went into a victory roll."
She opened her mouth and closed it again. Of the few men she'd met who'd been at Dunkirk, none would talk.
"And the stench. I can smell it now. Burning flesh, burning houses, burning oil. The stink of men who'd scarcely moved for hours, hadn't washed for days. Undressed wounds, the dying, rotting flesh of the untended dead. And blood. Gallons and gallons of blood. I still see it all in my dreams, smell the smells and hear the screams."
Now that he had started, his story poured out of him, she guessed for the first time.
"Some of them were no more than kids. They yelled for their mothers, laughing, sobbing, going berserk."
Bill had been no more than a kid himself. Nineteen, maybe. Three years older than herself at most.
"One lad crawled out from under a pile of comses and raced along the beach, his uniform soaked in blood, firing his rifle in all directions as he went. Another ran into the sea, ducking under the waves to pull up one body after another, throwing it back when it wasn't the one he was looking for."
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "We were all crazed."
She wanted him to stop. She didn't want to hear any more. She wanted to be sick.
"Most stood in line, silent, numb, waiting for orders, waiting to be rescued from hell, waiting to be killed. Most couldn't think for themselves. They had to be kicked into motion when a boat came. The dead leaned on the living and only fell when they were prodded."
His eyes were glazed now, as if he was there, seeing it all, enduring it again.
"Some boats took no more than a dozen. We just stood and waited, like waiting for the next tram. What choice had 'we? We stood, up to our necks in water. A plane dived, it's gun rat-tatting and half the line went under. The rest just moved up."
His voice droned on, telling a story, an account of something that had happened a long Ume ago.
"It was all so hopeless."
But Dad? She couldn't imagine her quiet, book-reading solicitor Dad in that hell.
He answered her question without it being spoken out loud.
"The town was burning, flames and smoke spewing out of every building, craters in every street. Your Dad kept going back to search for stragglers. He was so exhausted he could hardly stand. I reckon that's why he got caught."
He looked up at her with a haunted expression. tAnd then the last time -~ He could hardly speak for emotion. "I was going with him but he said no. One could nip in and out. Two might get caught. Just one more trip He promised."
His head fell onto his arms on the table and she only just heard:
"I tried to find him."
She reached over to touch him, but couldn't.
He raised his head. "He was the father I never had," he said quietly. "When I was a kid forever in trouble, he was there. When he needed help, where was I?"
He got up and walked towards the open door. On the step, he paused. "I don't know how many men owe him their lives. He should've got the VC."
She sat on after he had gone, spooning sugar from the basin and letting it dribble back. It was too much to take in. Her war hadn't been like that. She had watched things happening on a radar screen, planes going off to drop bombs, fighters shooting the enemy down, shipping sunk. All remote. Hers had been a clean war.
Listening to Bill, she had shaken with cold and nausea. It was all so real, such a clear picture. But Dad? The Dad she knew was a quiet man, who sat in his chair by the fire with a pipe and a book, who kept the garden tidy and who suffered his wife's never-ending grumbles without a word. He was no hero.