By Liz Parkes
THE wind blew off the North Sea in squally blasts. Pulling their coats tightly round them the young couple hurried along. Theirs was one of the many marriages precipitated by the war; the excitement of new love intensified by the threat that thundered through the throbbing air towards them.
The Eastern ports of Britain had prospered by trading with their European neighbours, now these same neighbours visited death and destruction in nightly raids.
The young couple passed pubs, hugging the dock area. Warm, fuggy air breathed out of the doorways carrying the scent of smoke, beer and sawdust. There were sounds of laughter, raised voices and the scrape of a chair pushed aside by a figure befuddled by ale. The girl’s pulse raced, she was just 18, newly married, away from home for the first time and life had so many experiences to offer her. A party of sailors stood aside as they passed. They were young men talking in a foreign language, respectfully escorting girls as bright as robins, whose quick acquisitive eyes took in everything. Their neat coils of hair and sharp lipstick lines showed a cost and care unusual in these times.
The wail of the siren cut through the night. The sailors broke into a run dragging the girls behind them. Heels caught and tripped their flight as they hurried.
The shelter below the pub was brightly lit. Bare bulbs swayed disorientating those already well oiled. Along the sides were two bare trestle tables, the pub had thought of everything to make their customers comfortable if it should become a long stay and food were required. In the far corner were two flimsy partitions concealing the Elsan Toilets.
The babble of foreign voices, the broad local accents of the girls teasing and encouraging each other, filled the enclosed space. The smell of ale, sweat and over liberal use of perfume was oppressive.
The young couple sat in a corner from which they could view their companions for the night. He was tired after days of preparation for the invasion that was bound to come but, older than his wife, he was wary of the enforced company and could not relax. He tried to push his way back to the door to find a more suitable shelter. The door was firmly closed in his face and the air raid warden set to guard it. Exhausted he slept on the shoulder of his young bride. For her there was no sleep. Around her the carousing continued.
The trestle tables were adorned by bodies in various states of undress, the stone stairway back into the pub heaved and groaned with coupling and couples groped their way to oblivion on the benches around the wall. The young girl had found herself in the middle of a bordello, determined that Hitler would be a good thing for trade.
The night wore on. Above the moonlight struggled against the red glow of fires, dulled by clouds of dust and smoke. The heavy crump of bombs could be heard below and the sharp barking of a demented dog nearby.
Below men who had dropped asleep woke, rolled over, cried, spoke to their dreams, argued, called the name of the girl whose breast sleepy fingers fondled, unfamiliar names. The young girl watched silently, warily. These were ladies of fashion. They wore clothes out of her income bracket. Their make-up concealed much.
One well dressed woman, whose night’s activity had left her dishevelled, was buttoning her blouse, but not before the girl had noted the turkey lines of ageing. She was agitated. The girl next to her was attracting particular attention from a small group of men that had come in later and were not so inebriated. She still had a fresh bloom to her which was highlighted by the surroundings. A thick set youth had his arm around her shoulders and was snuffling her neck. The girl was softened by drink and sensuous. She slid into his contours and the excitement in the youth brought beads of sweat out along his lip and the flush rose from his chest into his cheeks. He picked up the girl with ease and carried her to the Elsan cubicle, her soft arms around his neck, her lips parted, like a child carried to her bedroom by her father.
The older woman flew at the door of the cubicle trying to get there before the bolt slid. The girl’s cries unsettled the room.
“She’s only 14. Let her go. Her da doesn’t know she’s here. Let her go”
Eventually the bolt slid back. Mother and daughter comforted each other.
Then a voice stilled the room. A voice resonant with feeling sang ‘Ave Maria’.
The waiting over, the sailors emerged to streets full of rubble. They found their ships moored up, their Dutch names incongruous here. There was no way to contact the families left behind as the parachutes opened thick as thistle down over their homes.
Each thought of sweethearts, sisters, daughters.
The women hurried home to sort out families, scrub off the smudged make up in the kitchen sink and clean the thick layers of dust that would be settling onto well scrubbed floors.
The young couple walked the short distance past his barracks to her lodgings, one room at the back of a terrace. He left her there wishing that he had been able to offer a better shelter.
© Liz Parkes 2016