The old dockland is still clear in the minds of Londoners. Generations of children grew up in streets where the houses were dwarfed by ships, whose sides rose like cliffs over their back gardens.
George Nicholson, from Dockland: An illustrated historical survey of life and work in East London
He saw each note as it fell from his clarinet. Smooth, stretched, with a smokey luster that made him think of black pearls against a woman's translucent white skin. "If I Had You," it was called, an old tune with a slow, sweet melodic line. Had he ever played this one for her?
In the beginning she'd stood in the street as he played, watching him, swaying a little with the music. He'd distrusted her power clothes and her Pre-Raphaelite face. But she'd intrigued him as well. As the months went by, he never knew when she would appear. There seemed no pattern to it, yet whenever he moved, she found him.
It had been a day like this, the first time he'd seen her, a hot summer day with the smell of rain on the threshold of perception. As evening fell, the shadows cooled the hot, still air and the crowds poured out onto the pavements like prisoners released. Restless, jostling, they were flushed with drink and summer's licence, and he'd played a jazzy little riff on "Summertime" to suit their mood.
She stood apart, at the back of the crowd, watching him, and at last she turned away without tossing him even a cursory coin. She never paid him, in all the times after that; and she never spoke. It had been he, one night when she had come alone, who'd called her back as she turned away.
Later she sat naked in his rumpled bed,watching him play, and he had seen the notes disappear into the shimmering web of her hair. When he'd accused her of slumming, she'd laughed, a long glorious peal, and told him not to be absurd.
He had believed her, then. He hadn't known that the truth of it was beyond his imagining.
"I won't go." Lewis Finch leaned back in his chair and obstinately planted his booted feet on the worn rail beneath the kitchen table.
His mother stood at the cooker with her back to him, putting cabbage and potatoes on to boil for his dad's dinner.
"You'll need someone to look after you, if Da's called up," he ventured. "And if Tommy and Edward join--" He realized his mistake even as she whirled round to face him, spoon still in her hand.
"Shame on you, Lewis Finch, for trying me so. Do you not think I have grief enough with your brothers' silly talk of uniforms and fighting? You'll do as you're told--" She broke off, her thin face creased with concern. "Oh, Lewis. I don't want you to go to the country, but the government says you must--"
"Cath is fifteen next month, and has a job in the factory. You're still a child, Lewis, and I won't rest unless you're safe." She came to him and pushed his thick fair hair from his forehead as she looked into his eyes. "Besides, it's all just talk now, and I don't for one minute believe we're really going to have a war. Now, go on with you, or you'll be late for school. And get your dirty boots off my table," she added with a telling glance at his feet.
"I am not a child," Lewis grumbled aloud when he'd banged his way out the front door, and for a moment he was tempted to give school a miss altogether. It didn't seem right to sit in a stuffy classroom on the first day of September.
He looked up Stebondale Street, thinking longingly of the newts and tadpoles waiting in the clay ditch behind the fence, but he hadn't anything to collect them in. And besides, if he was late Miss Jenkins would smack his hands with her ruler in front of the class, and his mum had threatened to send him to St. Edmund's if he got into trouble again. With a sigh, he stuck his hands in his pockets and trudged off to school.
The morning wore away, and through the open window of his class in Cubitt Town School Lewis could see the dark bulk of the warehouses lining the riverfront. Beyond the warehouses lay the great ships with their exotic cargoes--sugar from the West Indies, bananas from Cuba, Australian wool, tea from Ceylon. . . . Miss Jenkins's geography lecture faded. What did she know about the world? Lewis thought as she droned on about taxes and levies and acts. Now, the Penang, she could tell you about far-off places, she could tell you about things that really mattered. One of the few masted ships that still came up the Thames, she lay in Britannia Dry Dock for refitting, and just the smell of her made Lewis shiver. After school he'd--
The creak of the classroom door brought Lewis back with a blink. Mr. Bales, the headmaster, stood just inside the door, and the expression on his long, narrow face was so odd that Lewis felt his heart jerk. From the corridor rose a dull roar of sound, the chattering of children in other rooms.
"Miss Jenkins. Children." Mr. Bales cleared his throat. "You must all be very brave. We've just had an announcement on the wireless. War is imminent. The government has given orders to evacuate. You are all to go home and report back here with your bundles in one hour." He turned away, but with his hand on the door turned back to them and shook his finger. "You must have your name tags and gas masks, don't forget. And no more than an hour."
The door closed after him. For a moment the room held its breath, then a shout came from Ned Norris in the back row. "A holiday! We've got a holiday!"
The class took up the chanting as they surged out to meet the other children in the hall. Lewis joined in, pushing through the front doors and leaping from the steps with a Red Indian whoop, but his heart wasn't in it.
The children scattered, but as Lewis turned up Seyssel Street his feet slowed. He was suddenly aware of the sounds of the Island--the constant clangs, creaks, and whistles from the docks, and from the river the hoots of the tugs and the low thrumming of the ships' engines. How could there be a war, when nothing had changed?
He thought of the Penang again, being fitted out for her return journey to Australia. He'd stow away, start a new life in the Outback, not be parceled off to some strange family in the country like a piece of stray baggage. Almost eleven was old enough for a job, he was big for his age, and strong--surely someone would have him.
Turning into the top of Stebondale Street, he saw his father's old bicycle propped neatly against the front door of their house. His mother's lace curtains, fragile from so many washings, fluttered in the open front window.
He knew then that he couldn't run away, because he couldn't bear the thought of his mother's tears or his dad's gentle disappointment.
Lewis kicked hard at the bike and it toppled with a satisfying crash. He left it lying in a heap as he went through to the kitchen, and when he saw his parents' faces he knew that the news had come before him.
George Brent swung his arms as much as the dog's lead allowed and picked up his pace a bit. He needed the exercise as much as Sheba these days, for even in this heat he ached when he got out of bed most mornings. He pushed away the fleeting thought of coping with the cold and damp of winter. No point whinging about something that couldn't be helped, and in the meantime it was a gloriously hot, summer day. Winter was months away, and his worst worry was the possibility of sunburn on his bald head.
Sheba trotted ahead of him, muzzle low in search of scent, her small black body quivering with energy. As they passed the Indian restaurant on Manchester Road, she raised her nose in a long sniff. The spicy smells emanating from its kitchen were as familiar to George now as the odor of cabbage and sausage had been in his childhood, but he'd never quite made up his mind to try the stuff--though he conceded that the urgings of Mrs. Singh might one day tip the scale.
He lifted his hand to Mrs. Jenkins in the dry cleaner next door to the restaurant, then quickened his pace yet again. He was late this morning, on account of helping Mrs. Singh with her telly, and most likely he'd missed his mates who gathered for coffee at the ASDA supermarket. But it was only fair, wasn't it, doing a good turn for a neighbor? Especially as good a neighbor as Mrs. Singh.
Smiling at the thought of what his daughters would say if they knew what he got up to with the widow next door, he turned the corner into Glenarnock. They thought he was past it, but he still had a bit of lead in his pencil. And it was hard to expect a man to go without after so many years of having it regular. He meant no disrespect to their mum's memory, after all.
As they came into Stebondale Street, Sheba tugged against the lead, sensing the nearness of the park, but George slowed as they reached the terraced houses across from the entrance to the Rope Walk. They made him think of the program on the Blitz he'd heard on the radio the evening before. As he'd sat snug in his kitchen with his evening cup of tea, it had brought the memories flooding unexpectedly back--the sound the planes made as they came in for a bombing run, the sirens, the devastation afterwards.
Coming to a halt, he told Sheba to sit. He took the houses for granted now, passed them every day without a thought, but this one short block of half a dozen homes was all that had survived of Stebondale as he'd known it before the war. The rest had been destroyed, like so much of the Island, like the house he had grown up in.
He'd been too old to be sent to the country, so he'd seen the worst of the bombing in the autumn and winter of 1940. The corners of his mouth turned up as he remembered the relief he'd felt when he'd presented himself at the recruiting office on his seventeenth birthday. The real war, he'd been certain, would be better than just waiting for the bombs to fall.
A few months later those nights in the Anderson's back garden shelter had seemed an impossibly safe haven. But he had come back, that was the important thing, and his time in Italy had taught him to let the future fend for itself.
Sheba's yip of impatience ended his reverie. He moved on obligingly and soon she had her anticipated freedom, running full tilt off the lead. George followed after her at his own pace, along the Rope Walk between the Mudchute and Millwall Park, then huffed a bit as they climbed to the Mudchute plateau. There Sheba disappeared from view as she followed the rabbit trails though the thick grass, but he stayed to the narrow path that followed the boundaries of the park. The dog always seemed to know where he was even when she couldn't see him, and she wouldn't stray far.
When he reached the gate that led down to the ASDA supermarket, he glanced at his watch. Half past nine--his mates would most likely be gone. The sun had moved higher in the sky and he was sweating freely--the thought of a cuppa, even on his own, was tempting. But the longer he tarried, the hotter it would be going home.
Mopping his head with his handkerchief, he walked on. Here the brambles encroached on the path, catching at his trouser legs, and he stopped for a moment to unhook a particularly tenacious thorn from his trainer laces. As he knelt he heard Sheba whimper.
He frowned as he finished retying his shoelace. It seemed an odd sound for Sheba to make here, where her normal repertoire consisted of excited barks and yips--could she be hurt? Unease gripped him as he stood quickly and looked ahead. The sound had come from further down the path, he was sure of that.
"Sheba!" he called, and he heard the quaver of alarm in his voice.
This time the whimper was more clear, ahead and to the right. George hurried on, his heart pounding, and rounded a gentle curve.
The woman lay on her back in the tall grass to the right of the path. Her eyes were closed, and the spread of her long red-gold hair mingled with the white-flowering bindweed. Sheba, crouching beside her, looked up at George expectantly.
She was beautiful. For an instant he thought she was sleeping, even hesitantly said, "Miss . . ."
Then a fly lit on the still white hand resting on the breast of her jacket, and he knew.