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Arlen / POPPY REDFERN AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDERS
Incoming air raid. Twenty to thirty bombers . . . could be more. You have fifteen . . .” The supervisor’s voice was drowned by the warbling howl of an air-raid siren. Our response was immediate: mugs of tea were abandoned and half-smoked cigarettes plunged into ashtrays as, tightening our helmet straps, we left the fug of our Air Raid Precautions post for the cool night air outside.
I looked up; it’s the first thing you do when the siren sounds. Searchlights crisscrossed the night sky. Half-ruined buildings, casualties of our last air raid four nights ago, cast skeleton shadows on streets made almost impassable with broken brick and rubble.
“If they’re Dorniers we have less than fifteen minutes.” Our ARP instructor looked us over and singled me out to tell me the words I had longed to hear for the two weeks of my training. “Redfern, you can take Clegg and Clave Streets solo. Humphries: Wapping High and Cinnamon, and Duckworth, you take Plumsom. Keep them calm, keep them moving, and check on as many houses as you can for the elderly and sick. Try to get them to safety in ten minutes and you might manage it in fifteen.” His instructions never varied as he rapidly allotted sections of Wapping’s neighborhoods to our care. Percy turned to include a group of new recruits. “The rest of you come with me.”
I started to sprint toward Clegg Street, but he pulled me back by my arm. “No heroics.” A frown underscored his command. “Your job is to get as many of them to safety as you can.”
I turned into Clegg and went down its center at a brisk trot. Doors opened to the left and the right of me. Families spilled out into the narrow street between face-to-face lines of meanly built East End terraced houses that were home to the families of London’s dockworkers. The gray-white glare of searchlights swung overhead, lighting up tired faces raised briefly heavenward, as we raced for the safety of Wapping’s Underground station.
A gaunt young woman, her raincoat flapping open over pajamas, shouted instructions to two children. “Daisy, take Jimmy’s hand, and don’t let go of it.” She was carrying a toddler and a couple of blankets. “Evening, Miss Redfern, you’d better check on number twenty-five, her mum-in-law took bad yesterday. She might need help.”
Two doors down an elderly woman was helping an even older one out of the house. “Course you’ve got to come, lovey,” I heard her say. “She must come, mustn’t she, Warden?”
“Yes, of course. Do you need help with her?”
“No, ’s’orright, I got her. Come on, lovey, you heard what the warden said.”
Ten minutes? I looked at my watch. It was more like eight and I had half the street to go. I picked up the pace.
“Bloomin’ racket.” An old man was shuffling along in his bedroom slippers. “Can’t hear a thing except that ruddy siren.” He stopped and shook his walking stick at the sky.
“No time for that, sir.” I took him by the arm and walked him forward to a young woman with curlers in her hair. “Take him with you, to the Underground, please.”
“ ’Ello there, Mr. Perkins, where’s your daughter?”
“Somewhere ahead with the kiddies.”
“Well, you come along with me, we’ll see you safely there.”
I dodged the corner into Clave Street to urge on the last of the stragglers. “Air raid in five minutes.” I crossed the road to two children: one sitting on the curb with his feet in the gutter, crying, and a little girl standing white-faced with panic on the pavement. “Where is your mum?”
“She went to the pub, with my aunty.” An older girl came out of the house, carrying a baby.
“I’ll carry him.” I picked up the little boy, he buried his face in the collar of my jacket, and I held out my hand to the girl. “Let’s go and find your mummy, shall we?” She put her hand in mine. “Come on,” I said to their sister, who was dithering with a key in her hand. “No time to lock up.”
At the bottom of the street a crowd of people were filing down the steps into Wapping Underground station. Babies cried, children wailed, and mothers shouted out to one another as if they were meeting in the queue at the grocer’s.
“Blimey, doll, you had time to get dressed?”
“Got to look nice for Jerry!”
“We only just got back from the pub!”
“Bloody Krauts, second time in four days.”
“At least it isn’t as bad as it was last year—felt as if I was living in the bloomin’ Underground.”
Now that we were near safety there was a determination among the families who inhabited the dock area of East London to pretend that our race for shelter had been a breeze. As if the danger we faced could be obliterated by their collective camaraderie: a determination not to be intimidated by a bunch of cowardly German pilots who rained down hell on us from the lordly safety of their aircraft.
The crowd had slowed to a shuffle as it made its descent to the shelter of the Underground. “You’re going to have to move more quickly!” I put the little boy down next to his sister on the pavement and pushed my way to the head of the queue, knowing exactly what I would find.
“You can’t make me.” An elderly woman who weighed all of two hundred and fifty pounds had stopped at the top of the steps. “You know I don’t go anywhere by Tube. I always catch the bus.”
“Hullo, Mrs. White. Would you do me a favor? These little ones are scared stiff of the bombs. Would you help this little girl down into the Underground?”
I reached out to a small, skinny little scrap of a thing, clutching a grubby doll in her arms, my eyebrows raised to ask her mother’s permission. She prodded her daughter forward. “Go on, Dottie, help the old lady down the steps.”
The line plodded forward down into the warm, stale air eddying up from the station below. I turned to go back up the steps. “Four minutes. Keep moving. Four minutes . . .”
Clave Street was empty. Running as fast as I could, I covered the distance to the back alley that ran behind the two rows of houses. People often hid in the back alley so they could go back to bed when the all clear sounded. There was no one in sight. The sirens had stopped, but the searchlights continued their dance against the sky.
I blew three sharp blasts on my whistle. “Air raid, two minutes.” My voice echoed across the broken intersection, and two figures emerged from the rubble of what had once been a corner shop and ran across the road toward the Underground.
As I followed them down, I heard the engines of the first squadron. Against everything I had learned in training, I couldn’t help myself. I stopped and looked up. Silhouetted against the lit sky I saw the first planes approaching from the south: heavy black silhouettes, their wingtips almost touching in formation. They were Luftwaffe Dorniers, all right. Twenty? It looked like there were hundreds.
Ack-ack-ack. The antiaircraft guns mounted in concrete down by the docks sent bright bolts of fire up into the sky, and I heard, and then felt, the percussion of the first bombs as they hit the homes of the people who cowered under the pavement below me.
But where were our boys? Poised to race down the steps to the Underground, I looked up again. As if on cue, the cluttered skies were filled with small, fast aircraft, dropping down from above the German Dornier bombers in a shattering hail of machine-gun fire.
I heard myself cheer. It ripped out of me in a full-throated shout of approval and admiration, loud even against the racket of an air battle. Spitfires and the men who fly them are our country’s heroes: their bravery and courage during London’s Blitz last year had earned our absolute gratitude and respect.
I ran down the steps into the fusty protection of the Underground. My heart was racing as I pulled up short at the bottom of the steps to walk with calm authority out onto Platform One. The dull lights overhead illuminated smooth, oily train tracks as they snaked into the dark ellipse of the tunnel. On the platform Wapping’s families were going about the business of bedding down for the night on gritty concrete.
I watched the garrulous efficiency of mothers, aunts, and grandmothers as they organized their children for sleep: their calm stoicism, born of months of practice, and their determined cheerfulness as they helped one another out and gave comfort to neighbors who had lost everything. “Here, Vi, I brought an extra blanket and a pillow just in case, but it’s a warm night. No, love, ’s’orright—don’t mention it.”
The earth above us shuddered and the pale lights flickered, plunging us into a dark so absolute that our silently held breath seemed to echo our fear. A heartbeat later and we were revealed to one another again. Vi moaned and ducked her head. “The West End has such nice deep Underground stations—miles below the bombs.”
“Come on, love, chin up. Nothing to be afraid of. Here, have a nip of this.” What was it, I wondered, that kept them so unfailingly stalwart night after night?
At the far end of the platform, a group of girls with Veronica Lake hairstyles, wearing their fashionable all-in-one siren suits, sang along to a street musician’s accordion, their eyes on a group of teenage boys whose only thought was to be a part of what was going on upstairs.
“There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see.” Their girlish voices were sweet, their faces perfectly made-up. A couple of boys darted a quick look before returning to swap cigarette trading cards featuring tanks, aircraft, and battleships. I sent the singers silent thanks for their innocent belief that the reality of night bombing could be washed away by the simple melody of a Vera Lynn song.
“Cuppa tea, ducky? Probably need one after all that galloping around.” The woman from number twenty-five held out an enamel mug of milky tea that she had poured from a large green tin thermos.
“Bloody Hitler,” she said without a trace of rancor. “He’ll be laughing on the other side of his face when the Americans get here. When are you going home, dear, back to your village, I mean?”
“Tonight’s the last night of training. I leave tomorrow morning.”
“Glad you made it through, then, ducky.” She pulled a blanket up over a sleeping child lying next to her on the platform. “Not everyone does.”
Below London’s battered streets we could feel the bombs shattering our city. I drank tea and waited for the all clear, when I would leave the sleeping families to go back up those steps to what was left of their neighborhood. Then the night would be full of different sounds: the shrill bells of ambulances and the deeper clang of fire engines. That would be when the digging would begin, and when the tally of who had really won and who had lost would be reckoned.
It was reassuring to walk down Little Buffenden’s quiet, empty High Street the following evening. The soft, country-summer air was exquisitely sweet after London’s thick clinker-dust atmosphere, but the simple stillness of an August evening was not mine to enjoy for long.
“You’re back from your London training, then, are you?” Enid Glossop’s voice, pitched to carry, reached me on the other side of the street. I didn’t quite flinch, but she certainly stopped me mid-stride. “I would have thought the least they could do was have your uniform ready in time for your first patrol.”
“Come on, Bess, let’s get it over with—and remember not to jump up,” I said to the little dog running at my side. We crossed the narrow street to stand before a tiny middle-aged woman wearing a Royal Mail–issue beret pulled down in the front, almost to her eyebrows.
“This is my uniform, Mrs. Glossop,” I said with what I hoped was a face composed to express polite nothingness.
“That’s it?” Disbelieving eyes swept up to my black pudding-basin helmet with W stenciled on it, and down again to heavy lace-up ankle boots. “What does the W stand for?”
“Warden. Air Raid Precautions warden.”
“I see.” She looked like someone who suspected she was being lied to. “I know you say it’s a uniform, but it looks like that outfit Mr. Churchill wears when he’s being photographed on bomb sites.” Her mouth performed a tight imitation of a smile. Mrs. Glossop has a way about her that always manages to convey dissatisfaction.
“Yes, he borrowed the idea from Air Raid Precautions—siren suits are all the rage in London these days!”
“I could have sworn you were on your way to stoke the church boiler.” Pursed lips and regretful eyebrows as she gave my uniform a second chance. “It’s a shame they couldn’t have come up with something really smart like the Auxiliary Territorial Service: the Bradley girls look smashing in theirs.”
The last thing I needed was comparisons to the wonderful Bradley sisters, who were having the time of their lives up in London with their permanent waves and Elizabeth Arden Victory Red lipstick. While they were driving high-ranking officers in and out of the Admiralty, I was clumping about the village in my size nines as Little Buffenden’s first ARP warden.
“Have you secured the blackout in your cottage, Mrs. Glossop? We must be even more careful now with our new American airfield—”
“I most certainly have, Miss Redfern—I do it before I leave the house in the morning.” She turned away to lock the door of her tobacconist and sweet shop, which doubles as Little Buffenden’s post office, and I mentally flipped to the third page of my ARP training manual: “Section 2A: On Dealing with Difficult Members of the Public: Remember an ARP Warden holds a legal position of authority. Speak in a firm tone and engage eye contact!”
I am not naturally assertive, but I had learned a thing or two in my weeks of training in London. I looked directly into Mrs. Glossop’s fierce little eyes and held her gaze.
“I am sure you don’t want me knocking on your door when you are enjoying your evening cocoa,” I said with as much severity as I am capable of, and, summoning a more convincing tone of command: “We can check your blackout right now . . .” I extended my left arm in the direction of her cottage at the bottom of the High Street as if I was directing traffic.
And, to my amazement, all she came up with was a retaliatory, “That dog should be on a lead,” as she put her shop keys into her handbag and snapped it shut before falling into step beside me. “Not one aircraft, ours or theirs, has flown over our village since the start of the war. But I’m sure I don’t want to be the cause of our being bombed.”
I remembered the smoking rubble of East End Clegg Street when I had last seen it in the early hours of this morning. “You wouldn’t believe what one five-hundred-pound German bomb could do to our little village, Mrs. Glossop,” I said as we walked down our High Street, renowned for its pretty Georgian shop fronts and bow windows.
Even with the neglect of wartime, it is the sort of village that looks perfect at Christmas, with a dusting of snow, and carol singers exhaling breathy clouds as they sing “Silent Night” on the church porch.
“All this”—I waved at an ancient stone horse trough and the white verandah of the Edwardian cricket pavilion on the edge of the village green—“would be gone in a flash, reduced to blackened timbers and broken brick, just because a Luftwaffe pilot saw a spark of light on his way home and ditched his last bomb.” I didn’t belabor the point by adding that the new American airfield would increase our chances of an air raid by eighty percent—my job is not to cause panic.
She gave me a quick sideways glance, her face disbelieving. Mrs. Glossop is the one who informs in our village, not girls with a mere two weeks of ARP training. “I am surprised that your grandmother agreed to your taking on this job: walking around the village on your own at night. That little dog will be no protection when the place is swarming with American airmen.” She opened the diminutive white gate into the postage stamp of her front garden.
“I am not sure there will be enough of them to ‘swarm,’ Mrs. Glossop, and my uncle Ambrose still talks about his years in New York as his happiest. I think a change might wake us up a bit!” My suggestion, designed to jolly her along, was instantly shot down by a pitying look.
“Bert Pritchard says he won’t serve them in the Rose and Crown. He says he had more than enough of them in the last war.” I bit the inside of my cheeks to stop myself from smiling. Bert Pritchard, with his ebullient welcome and his lavish mustache, was a particularly good businessman. He would remember the day the American Army Air Force arrived in Little Buffenden as heaven-sent when he balanced his account books a month from now. I followed Mrs. Glossop up the crazy paving path between the rigid lines of vegetables growing in her victory garden.
“I feel sorry for anyone who has a daughter in this village, because from what I hear, those Americans are girl-mad. That’s what Mrs. Wantage told me. Her sister’s daughter is seeing a Yank, and she has become a right handful: out all hours of the night and talks back something shocking if she’s asked to do the slightest thing around the house.”
Mrs. Glossop pushed open her front door and looked over her shoulder. “Stay,” she commanded, and Bess dropped to the ground and lay arrow straight, her long nose resting on the path well ahead of her front paws. She knew Mrs. Glossop didn’t appreciate dogs and her tabby was an old battle-scarred tom with a short fuse.
It was dark in the narrow hall and I could see, even from where I was standing, the last rays of a subdued sunset through the uncovered front parlor window. “Blackout before electric light,” I quoted from my ARP manual as she lifted her hand to the switch on the wall.
“I could have sworn I closed them before I left this morning.” Mrs. Glossop darted to the window and dragged a heavy curtain across it. “There now, that’s better—fits like a glove!” She gave it a final twitch to cover a chink in the corner.
I was careful not to catch her eye. “I hope you are coming to our talk in the village hall on air-raid preparedness. We are going to organize the best place for everyone to go to for shelter—”
“I was planning on an evening of bingo.”
“Oh good, come half an hour early. Six o’clock, then?” I was given a reluctant but acquiescing nod and heard her sigh as she followed me back to her front door.
“It’s a crying shame your grandfather had to give up his house and all his land for these Americans and their airfield—it’s not as if your family didn’t lose enough in the last one.” She meant of course the death of both my parents: Clive Redfern, in the Great War, and my mother at its end, just two days after my arrival. Mine was not an unusual fate for my generation: I was the only war orphan in our village, but one of many in England. I couldn’t remember my parents of course, but they were very much alive in my heart. My grandparents had made sure of that by sharing their memories of my parents as I was growing up: my father, Clive, was a quiet man with a wicked sense of humor that surprised those who did not know him, and my mother, Olivia, had been described by Granny as a warm, vibrant young woman whom she had loved as if she was her own.
“Grandad didn’t give up all of his land, Mrs. Glossop, just enough for the airfield. And Reaches is on loan for the duration. Please don’t forget the blackout in the rest of the house before you turn on any lights.” I lifted my hand to the front door latch.
“You heard about the Chamberses’ eldest, then, about Brian?” My hand dropped from the handle and Mrs. Glossop nodded—she had me at last. But there was no pleasure in her being the first to break bad news; her deep-set eyes were sorrowful.
“They sent a telegram after you left for London—a week last Tuesday it was.” She pressed her lips together for a moment before she continued. “That’s both their boys lost in this bloomin’ war. Mrs. Chambers went into shock when they told her. She still doesn’t seem right to me.”
I stood there like a stricken fool with a lump filling my throat. One summer when I was a gawky and self-conscious fourteen-year-old, at home for the holidays from school, I had a brief crush on Brian. But then everyone loved Brian Chambers; he was the kindest and brightest boy in our village, with a wholehearted zest for life. I swallowed hard, so I could ask, “Where?”
“North Africa—some terrible place with an unpronounceable name—Allymain, is it?”
“El Alamein—yes, I heard the casualties were pretty bad. Poor Doreen, she must be heartbroken; they only got engaged at Easter, didn’t they?”
“I am quite sure Doreen Newcombe will survive Brian’s passing. His parents are the ones we should pity. I doubt his mother will pull through.” The stuffy corridor felt oppressive. I lifted my hand to the door latch again. “And Mr. Edgar, as runs the Wheatsheaf, got his call-up papers a week ago—he must be all of forty. I dread to imagine . . .”
But what Mrs. Glossop dreaded to imagine would remain unheard, for all I could see of Bess as I stepped out onto the path was her round, feathery bottom. She was head-deep in Mrs. Glossop’s victory garden.
“Oh my goodness.” I turned to face a woman who believes a dog’s place is on a chain attached to its kennel and put my hands on my hips to block her view of flying earth. “Is that the time?” I prayed that the deepening dusk would prevent those sharp eyes from seeing the havoc created in neat rows of carrots and cabbages. “I must run.” But I didn’t move. I stayed there at the bottom of the path to prevent her from following me to the gate.
She gave me a look of disgusted pity and closed her door, leaving me to lift Bess out of a sizable hole. I tucked her under my arm and replanted parsnips as fast as I could with one hand, thumping the earth firm around their wilting tops. Then I made off down the High Street, dusting dirt from Bess’s muzzle as we went. She still had half a carrot clamped between her teeth. “How often do I have to tell you not to dig? No dig-ging!” I kissed her grubby nose. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, you might as well have the carrot.” I could feel her stump of a tail stirring in agreement.