Elsie decides to return to Mile End.
Ronnie turned up at my door just after nine thirty. It was such a relief to see him.
“Get your coat,” he said. “The bars are still open and we can get a last call at The Wattenden Arms.”
I grabbed my coat and we set off after a very brief kiss from Ronnie.
“George told me that you made it to Chalky’s funeral. Thank you for that. George would have told Chalky’s folks who you were so it was as if you represented me.”
“I did represent you.” I thought about telling Ronnie what George had said to me but I decided not to. Had I overreacted to George's comments? I don't think I did, he is not a nice man but I don't want to cause any trouble.
“How was your sweep thing then?”
“It was all right. Nothing special.”
We walked into the bar room and a cheer went up. One of the airmen went to the bar. “The drinks are on me, Ronnie,” he said. “What are you having?”
“A pint of bitter for me and a gin and tonic for Elsie.”
The men made some room and we sat with them. “Right this is Tommy, Smudge, Les, Ginger and Mitch is at the bar.”
“So, this is, Elsie,” Ginger said. “You have never told us how absolutely gorgeous she is.”
I felt a flush in my face and my grin was so wide. I looked at these men who were no doubt older than me but still looked so young. I looked at Ginger’s intense ginger hair and moustache. “Why do they call you Ginger?” I said, which brought howls of laughter from the men.
Mitch brought the drinks over. “Has he told you of his bloody great success today?”
“He told me it was nothing special,” I said.
“Nothing special! He was the ace of the pack today,” Mitch said. “The anti-aircraft fire was intense but we all got through unharmed. Then as we were turning for home a group of German fighters attacked. We got away pretty quick but not before Ronnie sent one of them hurtling into the Channel. We got back to Kenley, re-armed and went up to meet the German Bombers approaching the coast.”
“Ronnie shot down two Heinkels,” Ginger said. “I saw the first one fall into the sea just before Dover. Weeeeee, plop. And he sent the second one crashing into a Kent field. Me and Tommy also got one but we couldn’t beat Ronnie’s tally.”
Ronnie looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “All in a day’s work,” he said.
“Did the enemy crew’s get out?” I said.
“Who cares,” Ginger said. “That’s four bomb loads that were not going to kill our women and children.”
“So you all got back safe?” I asked.
“No, Arthur got hit and had to bail near Folkestone. He’s probably laid up in a Kent hospital now.”
The evening went well with every one of the men treating me as if I were royalty. As we left, they all gave me a kiss and a hug which gave me such a warm and wonderful feeling.
We set off back to Caterham. “Nothing special you said, Mr Ace. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You don’t need to know.”
“Does that sort of thing happen a lot?”
“Every evening at the moment.”
“Please, Ronnie. Will you try for a ground job?”
“Not again, Elsie. Like I said before, that’s out of the question.”
“But I get so worried.”
“Yes, well so does all the other girls and wives, but we have a job to do, and a very important job. So you will have to get used to it, like they all do.”
He is right. I know he is but it does not make the pill any easier to swallow.
“Anyway, I am getting stood down at the weekend for a rest period.” He pulled over to the side of the road. “Would you consider marrying me?”
That came as a complete surprise to me. An unexpected shock. I felt flustered and tried to speak but I was stunned.
“You don’t want to.”
“Of course I want to. Oh Ronnie I love you so much and I, I,” The emotion was too much for me and I started to cry tears of joy. “When, Ronnie, when?”
“After the war. We will have to wait until after the war. Like I said I am stood down for the weekend so I thought we could book a hotel and celebrate our engagement.”
I threw myself at him showering him with kisses. Emotion and excitement was rising in the both of us. He put a hand on one of my breasts. I didn’t try to stop him. In fact it felt good, intimate. But he then ran a hand up under my skirt and I pushed him away. “Just because you asked me to marry you doesn’t mean that you can have your way with me. Not until we are in the hotel and engaged anyway.” I started to laugh and Ronnie just returned a huge grin.
"First though, I think it's time I took you to meet my parents."
I am happy to meet Ronnie's parents, but I have mixed thoughts about the weekend. I look forward to the intimacy with Ronnie but feel a little concerned. This will surely be the time when I lose my virginity. It is obvious to me that is what Ronnie wants. Will he think less of me and if he leaves me I would be a spoilt woman? How can I be so eager and yet reluctant at the same time? I know this will be a big step in my life. I really didn’t want to tell anyone about the engagement just yet but I couldn’t help myself and I had to tell Alice. Alice told Aunt Maud who told Uncle Stan who then telephoned my Father at his taxi office.
It was midday and I put on my coat to leave work at the baker’s shop. Across the road stood an airman. I thought it looked like George. What the hell does he want? I thought. If he tries to chat me up again I will have to tell Ronnie this time. I looked again. No, it was not George, it was Mitch. I became concerned and rushed over. “What is it, Mitch? What’s wrong?”
“Let’s go and have a sit down outside the cafe.”
“No, no, no, Mitch. Has something happened? Tell me, tell me now?”
“Bad news I’m afraid. Ronnie was shot down over the channel yesterday afternoon.”
“Did he bail? Is he all right?”
“A motor boat crew pulled his body out of the sea this morning near Hastings.”
Tears welled in my eyes but stayed there. I couldn’t breathe. I seemed to be inhaling but nothing was coming out and I felt faint and started to sway. Mitch grabbed me, put his arms around me and started to slap my back. It did the trick and I started to cough but carried on breathing deep as a few tears trickled down.
“Do you want to sit down?”
“No, I’m going home.” My breathing had returned to normal and I wiped my eyes. “You get back to base. I’ll be all right.”
“If you need anything, anything at all just let us know. You’ll always find us in the Wattenden.”
“Thanks’, Mitch and thanks for coming to let me know. I will call in to see you all some time.”
“You will be made most welcome.”
Can you let me know the details of the funeral?"
We said our goodbyes and I walked off. I was walking in a kind of daze and then for some reason I just started to run and I ran all the way home. When I got home Alice was in the garden with Uncle Stan, and Aunt Maud was at the shops. I was glad that no one was in the house and went up to my room. I was in no mood to speak to anyone. I wanted to be alone in my grief.
Aunt Maud called up the stairs later. “Dinner’s ready, Elsie.”
I tidied myself up and went down and sat at the table.
Aunt Maud must have noticed that I seemed troubled as she looked at me. “Are you all right, Elsie? Has something happened?” It was her that had implied that this might happen and it has, so she was right.
“I’m all right.”
Alice looked at me. “Elsie, what’s wrong?”
“I said I’m all right,” I said it rather more loudly than I should have.
Uncle Stan looked over. “I phoned your Father and told him that you were thinking of getting married. He was not at all pleased I can tell you.”
“Well, then you can phone him again and tell him that my fiancée was killed yesterday. I’m sure that will please him.”
Both Aunt Maud and Alice rushed over to me. This seemed to be the release I needed and I began sobbing my little heart out.
Later that evening the air raid siren went off. “Right, let’s all get to the shelter,” Stan said.
“You three go. I don’t care what happens to me anymore.”
“Now don’t be silly, Elsie.” Aunt Maud said.
Alice walked over to me and took hold of my hand. “We need each other, Sis’,” she said. She is so right, we do need each other. I got up and kept hold of her hand as we walked out to the shelter together.
A week later, Mitch called at the shop again. "Ronnie's funeral will be going ahead in the cemetery up the top of Caterham hill a week tomorrow."
"Will you be able to go with me, Mitch?"
"I'm afraid not. His parents have requested that only close family attend the service."
"Why? Why would they say that?"
"Who knows? But they must have their reasons and we should respect them."
Depression haunted me for weeks and I could not shake the dark cloud hovering above me. Christmas Eve our parents turned up. I was not particularly pleased to see them and I don’t suppose they were to see me. They did make a fuss over Alice though which pleased me. No one mentioned Ronnie and that pleased me as well.
“The cinema was bombed,” Mother said.
“The whole cantilevered type roof collapsed onto the people inside,” Dad said. “Quite a few people were killed.”
“No one we know?” I said.
“No,” Mother said. “Not at the cinema. But you know the Morgans from Bellhaven Street. You went to school with one of the daughters. They were in their Anderson shelter and it got a direct hit during the raid. The whole family were killed.”
I gave a deep sigh. “Not another one. Martha was a good friend. I was with her in the dance hall the day before we came out here.”
“You said you were at the Pictures,” Father said.
“I lied.” I looked at my father waiting for a response, but I didn’t get one, he just shook his head so I carried on. “I’ve got a driver’s licence and have had some lessons. I thought that when we get home I can drive one of your taxis.”
“Well, you can think again. I’m not having women driving my taxis.”
“I don’t see why not,” I said. “There are girls driving some taxis here in Caterham and I’m sure that there are some in London now as well.”
“Well, good luck to them, but driving for me, no, not on your nelly. I don’t know why you want a licence anyway. It’s not right.”
“No, it’s not is it? In your eyes I can’t do anything right, can I?”
“You said it, girl.”
“Okay,” Uncle Stan said. “I’ll open the sherry bottle and we can all get in the spirit of Christmas.” That seemed to do the trick and lightened the atmosphere a little.
Boxing Day and they set off back because of my father’s work. Alice was sorry to see them go, but I was not bothered either way.
The months passed and I wondered if I would ever get over the loss of Ronnie. I just went to work came home and read books. I thought of going to see the boys at The Wattenden Arms, but never did. Alice did not have much to do in the garden over the winter but she still tended to the chickens and gathered the eggs.
The year dragged on until August when I decided that it was time to return home. There were hardly any raids now in London. I packed a suitcase and went downstairs. “What’s going on?” Aunt Maud said.
“I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m going home.”
“Have we upset you, has Stan upset you?”
“No, of course not. I just want to go back home.”
Aunt Maud hurried to the back door. “Stan, come here, quick.”`
Stan came in and looked at the suitcase. “What’s going on?” he said, repeating the words of Aunt Maud.
“I’m going back home. Can you drop me at the station?”
“Elsie, it’s still not safe in London,” Maud said. “You should wait a little while longer.”
“The news on the wireless seems to say that things are not so bad now because the Germans have got their sights on somewhere else.”
“But that could change and the bombing could start again at any time.”
“I’m going anyway. If you won’t take me to the train station then I’ll just walk there.”
“Wait until I pack, Elsie?” Alice said. “If you’re going, I’m going with you.”
“See what you’ve done?” Aunt Maud said.
“You’ll have to stay here, Alice.”
“Oh, no I won’t. You can’t leave me. You promised you would never leave me.”
“Well, I suppose it’s up to you.”
“Sleep on it, Elsie.” Uncle Stan said. “If you still want to go in the morning then I’ll drop you at the station.”
The next day, despite the continuing advice and protests from Uncle Stan and Aunt Maud, we set off back to East London.