Evacuated to Surrey.
We ran through the street, into the back alley, into the back garden and into the Anderson shelter. Our parents were already inside. The shelter was cold and damp with lots of small cobwebs. Because we had not used it there was only the benches and nothing else. Mother had brought in an oil lamp and a pile of blankets though so we could at least try to keep warm, not knowing how long we would be in there.
“Thank, God, you’re safe, our mother said.”
“Not so bloody cocky now girl, are ya?” our father said. “I told you not to take your sister out. You could have got her blown to bits.”
I sat down, without saying a word. I hated it when he was proved right. That was not very often but it was this time and I felt like a naughty child. Alice dropped in to our mother’s arms and burst into tears obviously frightened by the ordeal. It was a long and terrifying night with explosions going on into the early hours. Sleep was almost impossible for us girls. I looked over at our father sleeping and snoring. How can he sleep through this? I knew he was in The Essex Regiment in the Great War and was in the trenches on the Western Front. Maybe that has acclimatised him to shut off from the sounds of battle. I looked about the shelter and thought that in any spare time that I had I would try to make the place a bit more clean and homely.
The bombing had stopped in the early daylight. I had managed to get a small amount of sleep and very little it was too. I made my way to the house to get ready for work. Sundays were not busy and was mainly cleaning and preparation. I was only needed to help when Mr Freeman was off which was most Sundays as it was his day to go to the bowling green. The sky was an eerie orange-red colour flickering from the fires and the air was contaminated with smoke. There were bells sounding all around. Fire service and ambulances as well as burglar alarms activated by the effect of the bombing. I left the house and set off for work at the baker’s shop. I was shocked by the scene that confronted me. Some people were crying, others wandering about in a kind of daze. Down a side road it looked as if a whole row of houses had been blown out in the street. I thought of Molly and hoped her house had not been bombed. There was further destruction as I made my way past destroyed buildings with gangs of workmen and volunteers clearing the roads. There was an ambulance parked but I dare not look. The air was smoky and made me cough a few times. I got to the shop and saw that it was partially destroyed. The owners were trying to retrieve what they could and I dashed over to help them.
“You might as well get back home, Elsie,” the owner said. “I’m afraid you don’t have a job anymore. Maybe we can get a temporary shop somewhere if we can salvage enough equipment. I don’t know how bad the ovens are, or if we can get them out.”
“No point in going home yet,” I said. “I’ll stay and help.” We managed to salvage quite a bit of stores and equipment. The ovens looked okay but it would take a few strong men to get them out.
It was early in the afternoon when I got home. "Look at the state of you," my mother said. "Have you been up a chimney?"
"Something like that," I replied. I noticed there were two suitcases in the passage. “Are you going somewhere, Mum?”
“Your Uncle Stan is coming over to pick you and Alice up.”
My father walked out from the living room. “You’re going to stop with them in Caterham for a while. It's safer up there.”
“I’m not going to Caterham, thank you very much.”
“It’s for the best,” my mother said.
“The best for who? I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’ll do as you are bloody well told, Girl,” Father said.
“I’m eighteen and you can’t make me.”
“Oh, yes I can, even if I have to drag you to the van by your hair.”
“Then I’ll make him stop down the road and I’ll get out again. I can’t go to Caterham, I’m meeting someone tonight.”
“Are you mad? Have you forgot what happened last night? People are dead and dying all over East London and all you care about is your own sordid little meeting. You need to look after your sister. She is traumatised and has been sobbing most of the day, but you don’t care do you?”
“Of course I care. I’ll get cleaned up and go up and see her,” I said.
The air-raid siren started just as Stan was pulling up outside in his van. I was bringing Alice down the stairs and when Alice heard the siren she began sobbing and shaking.
“Get your sister in the van and get out of here before the bombs start dropping again.”
This made my sister worse and I cast a hostile stare at my father before helping Alice into the motor and getting in beside her to try and calm her down.
“Don’t leave me, Elsie,” Alice pleaded. "You won't leave me will you?"
“Of course I won’t.” Alice was in a right state and I had become resigned to the fact that I would have to go with her and I would not see Sapper Tom again.
The bombs started before we got out of London. I thought it was worse than being in the Anderson shelter. If a bomb fell anywhere near the van then we would all surely be killed. But I kept the thoughts to myself.
As we were approaching Caterham, a group of RAF Spitfires flew past high above us. Alice began to have a slight panic attack. “It’s all right, Alice. They’re our boys,” Stan said and Alice seemed to calm down a little.
We got to Stan’s house and we looked up to the sky. It was still daylight and we watched the aerial combat as the RAF attacked the bombers. A large German bomber suddenly started billowing smoke and plummeted towards the ground. We cheered as we heard the distant explosion. But then I thought of the people in the plane who had perished. They would not be returning to their families and I began to feel for them, but my thoughts changed when I thought on how they were here to try and kill us.
Uncle Stan's house was so different to ours. A three bedroom semi with a bay window at the front looking out to a well-maintained front garden. There was a long garden to the rear with fruit bushes and growing vegetables. At the back some chicken coops and an apple tree. A different world indeed and we soon settled in. Alice was happy to help out in the well-stocked vegetable garden and chicken coops. I was not so happy. I was depressed because I had strong feelings for Tom and thought of him as a lost love. I was also missing my friends and bored because I no longer had a job. I was not sleeping well either. London was being bombed every night and the noise was horrendous even from so far away. The flickering glare from the fires filled the sky. And there were air-raids a lot nearer to us than our father had implied. Speaking to folk in the town centre I learnt that there was an Army Barracks and an Aerodrome nearby. I stood looking across the road to the Old Surrey Hounds public house. I would love to go inside for a drink but was reluctant to walk into a bar on my own.
I set off back to the house and when I got there Stan said he had some news for me.
“You worked at a baker’s, Elsie. Well, the local baker’s son has been called up into the army and it's left them short handed. They asked if you would like a temporary part-time job to help them out. I said you would. I hope I haven't done wrong.”
“Of course not. Thank you so much, Uncle Stan.” I said. “When can I start?”
“I’ll can take you down there tomorrow morning, if you like.”
The news cheered me up and I looked forward to going to work again. Having my own money again would be an added bonus.
I started work at the baker’s and loved the work. I got on very well with the elderly couple who owned the shop. My hours were six until midday. I was used to starting early. At the baker's shop in Mile End I often started work at five o’clock.
I left work at midday and looked over at the Old Surrey Hounds again. I was tempted, but what would people think of me walking into a bar. Despite fancying a cool gin and tonic, I shook my head and was about to set off for home when someone spoke behind me.
“Looking again. I saw you looking the other day.”
The voice startled me and I spun around to see a young RAF sergeant smiling at me. I liked the look of him and returned a smile. “I was just looking at the building. It looks so quaint.”
“It looks very nice inside as well. Why don’t you go and have a look? I’m sure you’ll like it.”
“I have not been brought up to go into public houses alone,” I said.
“This is your lucky day then. I would love to join you in there for a drink. If you would allow me?”
I didn't answer. I was looking at the badge on his uniform. “That’s pilot’s wings on your tunic, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but I’m not flying until later. So, do you fancy joining me for some refreshment?”
“Yes, I’d like that, very much.”
I looked around the bar as we walked in. It was better than I expected; more like a posh hotel lounge than the bars I had visited in East London.
“I’m Ronnie,” he said. “What’s your pleasure?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“What do you want to drink?”
“Oh, okay. I’ll have a gin and tonic if that’s all right.”
“Of course. I think I’ll have the same.” We sat at a small round table in a corner. “I still don’t know your name.”
“It’s Elsie. This is a lovely place. I must say that I don’t usually accept drinks off of strange men.”
Ronnie gave a laugh. “I’m not strange,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like it sounded. So, where are you based?”
“Just down the road at Kenley. But my parents live here and I’ve just been to see them.” He looked at his watch. “I have to meet my friend Chalky at The Kenley Arms soon. I’d love it if you could come with me and meet him.”
“You are a bit forward. You don’t hang about do you?”
“Sign of the times. To tell the truth, Elsie, I am quite attracted to you.”
I was not expecting things to be moving so fast. I liked Ronnie and would love to spend more time with him. Why not, I thought. “Is it a long walk? “
“It’s not far, but too far to walk. I have my car nearby, but you might have to catch the bus back because I will soon have to report in at the aerodrome.” We left the bar and walked up to his car. It was a black, two seater, sports car and I was eager to have a ride in it.
We were soon on the way. “I like this car,” I said. My Dad has three motors at his taxicab firm but they are nothing like this.”
“Oh, you drive do you?”
“No, my dad doesn't allow it but I would like to drive, very much.”
“I’ll teach you. Go to the council and get a licence. Tests have been suspended because of the war so you are all right to drive on a provisional and no one will bother you.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. He was going to show me how to drive. I was a bit concerned that he might want something in return which I would not want to give. But I soon dismissed the thoughts. He didn’t seem to be that sort of chap. When I could drive that would mean the end of my time as a baker’s assistant and I could get a job driving one of my father’s cabs. If I already had a licence he probably wouldn't say no.
As we drove along, I was surprised by the amount of bomb damaged property. “There seems to have been lots of targets for the bombers along here.”
“Not so much targets. They were probably trying for Caterham Barracks or the aerodrome but lost their way or got spooked and just dumped their load.”
“That’s scary. My employer at the bakers told me there have been a few bombs actually in the town before we got here. My Dad sent us out here because he said it is safer out here. But I’m not so sure.”
“We take our chances wherever we are. Where are you from then?”
“Mile End, East London.”
“Well, I can assure you that it is a lot safer here than in the East End. London is taking a terrible pounding at the moment.”
“I suppose so. The sights and sounds coming from that direction at night are terrifying.”
The car pulled up outside the Kenley Arms. “We have to live for today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.” Ronnie turned to look at me as if he were going to speak, but he hesitated.
“What?” I said.
“Elsie, may I give you a kiss?”
I grinned at him. “I thought you were never gonna ask.”