London gets blitzed. Jane is born out of wedlock at a psychiatric hospital.
Book 1. Chapter 4
London was indeed taking another hammering from the German Air Force, but there was no bullet-shaped craft this night and no aliens to save any of the unfortunate people who were about to perish.
Eleanor Prudesworthy, a married woman in her early thirties, was sitting on a hard wooden bench in a public air-raid shelter. She hoped to make it to the Anderson shelter in her garden before the raid started or at least to the Underground station at Bethnal Green. But no, she thought, I had to be stuck in here again, in this grimy hole. She thought of her two children. They were as safe as could be expected. Her sister lived in a large detached house just outside Northampton and she was happy to look after the children. Her sister married into a well-off family and even had people coming in to help with the housework.
Eleanor put her hand to her stomach as she felt the baby move. You're not so safe my little one, but it won't be long till I can get you up to Northampton with the others.
It was so different before, before the bombs. There were the sirens of course and the panic, but it was just like a big party. There was the old man with the mouth organ, the sing-along, the bottles of stout, the woman from the Eel and Pie shop with a huge bowl of jellied eels, and her young helper tripping in behind her with the bread and the greased paper cups. Just one big party, but it didn't last.
She looked at the four women in the corner on their knees. "Holy Mary Mother of Jesus..." Praying, mumbling, all of them at different speeds and not even attempting to pray together.
There was a young boy crying in his mother's arms. "I don't want to die, Mummy, I don't want to be dead," he sobbed.
No, none of us do lad, she thought, not in a stinking hole like this. Even a rat wouldn't be seen dead in here. She could almost smell the fear in the place, mixed with the smell of vomit, stale urine, and the burning paraffin from the lamps. She hated the street shelters and heard some terrible stories about the concrete roofs collapsing on the people inside. She looked back at the woman. What's he doing here anyway, she thought, why isn't he in the countryside like the other children? Think you're clever I suppose.
Everyone heard the sound at the same time. It suddenly became quiet inside the shelter. All of the people looking at each other in silence as the terrifying whistling sound came closer. It sounded different to the others, like it was directly above them, as if this was the one with their numbers on. Eleanor held her breath, closed her eyes, and crossed her fingers as some of the people began screaming.
There was a huge explosion nearby causing the shelter to rumble as if it were in an earthquake. Dust shot out from some of the brick joints, the floor juddered and there was a whooshing sound as if all the air were sucked out of the shelter and then forced in again. Eleanor banged her palms against her ears, trying to ease the ringing sound. A woman was running about screaming, "Save me," she cried. "Oh God please save me." She was pulling at her hair like some kind of crazy woman trying to scalp herself. The four women were praying again, but their prayers speeded up into an indecipherable babble.
Eleanor had enough. The warden in charge of the shelter rushed outside and Eleanor followed him out to the main road. Half a dozen shop fronts had blown out and the street was filled with smoke and fine black dust. She could hear people screaming and thought they had been trapped under the rubble from one of the collapsed shops, but as she moved forward into the foggy dust she saw the shape of a bus lying on its side. The ARP warden, a policeman, and a few soldiers were doing what they could to help the injured passengers. She threw her gas mask bag to the ground and cursed as she heard her two Mackeson bottles shatter. The brown frothy liquid seeped out onto the road as she hurried across to see if she could be of some help.
Although she could hear cries of distress from the bus, the loudest screams were from a young lad sitting on a twisted girder lying amongst the timber and rubble. A soldier sat with him trying to calm him down and trying to stop the flow of blood running from a wound that had almost severed his arm. She realised his screams were not just from the pain of his own injuries. She saw his wide-eyed stare as he looked over to a girl lying almost naked in the road; a few bits of shredded rag were all that remained of her clothing and there was a horrendous gash in her head. Eleanor looked at the huge patch of blood that had soaked into the debris and she took off her coat and carefully laid it over the girl's body, ensuring her head was covered and out of the young man's sight before continuing towards the bus.
The ARP warden saw her swollen stomach and told her they could cope and she should return to the shelter. Eleanor gave a brief smile to the man before she turned to walk away, but she looked back at the shape of the girl beneath her coat. She could do without losing the coat, but she would feel bad retrieving it. It wasn't one of her best coats, and it was sure to be soiled anyway. She looked at the young man, he was sobbing, and although in obvious pain, he was no longer screaming. She felt as if she had done some good and wondered if the girl was his sister or girlfriend, or perhaps she was just a girl he had been chatting with.
She retrieved her gas mask bag and emptied the broken bottles into the gutter before setting off along The Bethnal Green Road carefully avoiding the chunks of debris and glass splattered along the street. There was a flickering red glare in the sky from a multitude of fires and she was hoping her house had been spared. There was a ching on the slates of a roof above her. All she could do was cover her head with her arms as a piece of shrapnel the size of a fist struck the kerb and bounced across the road. She gave a deep sigh of relief before continuing on her way.
As she walked towards her home the dawn was breaking and the bombs had stopped falling, but the popping and banging from the fires would continue throughout the morning. The bells seemed to come from all around her. Fire engines, police, ambulances, bomb disposal and a host of alarms triggered from buildings, so many bells.
Her husband was a sailor on a destroyer somewhere in the Atlantic. They had been together since their school days. Eleanor loved no other man and she missed him dearly but blamed him for her loneliness because he joined the Royal Navy back in 1938, before there was any need for him to do so.
She began thinking about him. A nice present he gave me for my thirty-first birthday. What right had he to do this to us, as if two children were not enough to bring up in this terrible world? Here love, here's another one before I go off to sea again. He'd better survive; he'd better come back the selfish bastard. How am I going to cope with three of the little sods?
When the time came, Eleanor went into Mile End Hospital. She was pleased her husband was home on leave for the birth of their son, but he was not home for long and, after he visited the two children in Northampton, it was not long before he was going back to sea.
Eleanor stepped out of The Hospital Tavern after sharing a drink with a friend who worked behind the bar. She was feeling jolly, having just returned from a few days at Northampton and eager to get back to her work at the propeller factory. Her children had been home for a while, but she had taken them back to her sister's and was under no pressure to bring them home again. There was a cloudless sky and the spring sunshine felt warm on her bare arms. She thought what a lovely day it was and how it was hard to believe there was a war on. She saw her bus approaching and turned quickly to make her way to the bus stop, but in her haste, she walked into a man who was passing.
"Hey, slow down, honey."
"Oh, I'm so sorry." It surprised her as she looked at him, a smart American soldier. His uniform looked as if it were specially tailored for him. He was well built, slim, and she thought him extremely good-looking. She dropped her bag in the collision and was about to pick it up, but the soldier got to it first.
"I'd better get it, if you bend down you might fall over."
"Bloody cheek, I've only had a glass of stout."
"Stout, what the hell is that?"
"Never mind, can I have my bag back?"
"If you give me a kiss, then I'll give you your bag."
"You saucy young sod."
The soldier gave a laugh at her remark before continuing. "Well thank you ma'am for the compliment. Just how old do you think I am?"
She glanced down at his hands holding her handbag before answering. "About twenty-five."
"I'm nearly twenty-eight. And how about you, twenty-five, twenty-six, younger than me I'll bet?"
"You must be having a joke with me. I've got three children you know."
"Oh come on, honey, who are you trying to kid?"
"Honestly, I'm thirty-five. My eldest daughter is nearly eleven."
He passed her the bag but grabbed her hand as she took it. "Can you meet me tonight?"
She pulled her hand away. "Bloody hell, you're a cheeky bugger, ain't ya? Anyway like I said, I've got three kids."
"So are you out with your husband tonight then?"
"No! My ole man's in the navy. He's away at sea, but that doesn't mean I'm looking for any kind of hanky panky, you know."
"Gee, I wouldn't dream of anything like that. I'm not that kind of a guy. I'm just looking for a bit of company and friendship before I go off to war."
"Are you serious?"
"You meet me here at seven tonight and you'll have the time of your life. Your guy has nothing to fear from me, it'll only be social. You English girls are really cute and I'd be honoured to spend a little time with someone as damn pretty as you are."
She was surprised that at her age she could feel so embarrassed by his words. Like a young girl, she could feel the flush filling her face. She was looking at him partly in disbelief.
"Seven o'clock," he said. "Don't forget now." Without another word, he turned and walked off.
Eleanor was full of excitement as she watched him amble away. She had seen many Americans since they arrived and had been called to and whistled at, but she never actually spoke to any of them. She was thrilled he wanted to take her out and she smiled to herself as she walked to the bus stop, thinking she must still have her old charm. She couldn't get him out of her mind and she sat on the bus thinking his accent sounded just like some of the film stars she saw at the picture house. She noticed an elderly couple looking at her, somehow disapproving of the huge grin on her face. "What's up, have I got two heads or something?" The woman tutted and they looked away as the grin reappeared on Eleanor's face.
She stood outside the tavern at five to seven feeling a bit guilty but convinced herself they were only going to have a drink. She would never allow anything serious to develop.
He tapped her on the shoulder; it startled her and she quickly turned around. "Bloody hell, you frightened the life out of me. You shouldn't go creeping up on people like that."
He laughed. "I'm sorry, but that's how we're trained. Say, I didn't get your name. I'm Marvin, and you are?"
"Ellie, that's my sister's name. Ellie Jane."
"Are we going in the tavern?"
"Hell no, I don't drink. We'll get the bus. I've got to meet a crowd at The Palais."
"That's miles away. I haven't been there in years."
"I told you earlier, you're going to have the time of your life."
Eleanor was impressed by the sound of the big band in the ballroom. The place was filled with sailors, soldiers, and airmen from many nationalities, but Marvin soon located his friends. His group of friends grew to a large number as the night went on and a lot of them had local girls with them. She noticed how young the other girls were and realised she was the oldest woman there, but she didn't feel out of place. In fact, she felt a little proud to be with Marvin, noticing how the stripes on his arm seemed to command a lot of respect from the other soldiers.
Although Eleanor had been good at ballroom dancing when she was younger, she hadn't been out dancing for many years and the new style of dancing was strange to her. Marvin was an expert though and she thought he moved in an almost effortless way as if dancing were as natural to him as walking.
With his help, Eleanor managed to adapt to some of the easier dances, but later in the evening, Marvin got up to dance with a young Navy girl and they danced the Jitterbug as if they invented it. Although Eleanor only met him that day, she felt jealous and was relieved when he returned to put his arm around her.
Marvin hadn't had a drink, but she lost count of the drinks bought for her by him and his friends. It seemed as if they had no idea of the value of money to the English girls and they were spending as if they had an endless supply. The pace of the dancing slowed down and Eleanor felt as if she were becoming drunk. "I'll have to get off home soon. I'm feeling a bit woozy."
"Okay," he said. "I could use some fresh air anyway. It's mighty smoky in here."
She glanced at the cigarette between the fingers on her right hand. Her hand was resting on the shoulder of his jacket and the smoke was drifting up the side of his face. She moved her hand and let the cigarette drop to the floor before squashing it with her foot.
They caught a taxi to Eleanor's house, but she asked the taxi driver to stop when they reached the end of her street, not wanting to draw attention. Although it was late, she knew her neighbours would leave their beds to look from the windows if they heard a taxi pull up. She knew because she often did it herself.
She gave a grin as the taxi driver pulled away. "You've let the taxi go, that was a bit silly. It's a long walk back to your unit from here."
"That's okay, it's a swell evening and I'm not tired. I don't mind the walk. The important thing is to see you safely to your door."
She gave a laugh. "The perfect bloody gent, aren't you?" she said. "Come on, I'll make you a cuppa before you go and you can tell me all about where you live in Ivanhoe."
"Idaho," he said, and then gave a laugh as they started to walk towards her house. "It's Idaho."
"Shhh. You'll have to keep it down till we get home. They're a nosy lot round here." When they were in the privacy of her home, passion took over from any thoughts Eleanor had of faithfulness. The drink had been a key to release the frustration of being without her man for so long and they kissed passionately in the passage as soon as she closed the street door. She dearly loved her husband and missed him terribly, but living alone was depressing for her and there was always the thought in her mind that she could be killed at any time by enemy action. She must enjoy herself, and enjoy life because there was no telling when it could be taken from her. She thought of Marvin. She never had a desire to be with another man, but she was attracted to him. Though the guilt was there, she couldn't help thinking either or both of them could soon be killed. What a waste it would be and what a shame to make him walk all the way back to his unit when there was plenty of room in her bed.
It was early the next morning when Eleanor prompted Marvin to leave the house, hoping to get him away from her door early enough to avoid being seen by her neighbours. However, she arranged to meet him again and as the weeks passed, she became very much in love with him and they spent a lot of time together before he was moved away in preparation for the D-Day landings. He promised to keep in touch, but she never heard from him again.
She knew he genuinely cared for her and when she heard the rumours of the high casualties on the beaches, she feared the worst. However, it was not her only problem. It was a few weeks after Marvin moved on that Eleanor discovered to her horror that she was pregnant again and it had been over seven months since she last saw her husband. The double blow was starting to worry and depress her, so she decided to spend a few days at her sister's in Northampton. She previously agreed to take her children home for a while, but she didn't want that now she was pregnant. She knew her sister wouldn't offer much resistance to the children staying a while longer, now that the V1 flying bombs had begun falling on London. This solved one of her problems and she set off back home on her own.
She was almost home and was struggling along the pavement with her suitcase and a carrier bag of provisions her sister had given her. Not far to go now, she thought, just around the corner. She looked over at a woman on the opposite side of the road. What's she staring at? "Is my slip hanging or something you nosy bosom?" The woman looked away without making any kind of gesture. Eleanor felt good about her quick verbal victory but turned to look back at the woman. It had been too easy. There was no love between the two of them and they were often engaged in rows in the street, almost coming to blows at times. Why did she give in so easily? Eleanor felt remorse about her outburst thinking perhaps the woman had received some bad news. It was not uncommon at the time. She turned the corner and then stopped suddenly, letting her bags drop to the floor. She continued walking, slowly at first, but then began running along the street to a pile of rubble where her home used to be. She stood in the road; the rubble still covered the pavement where it had been shovelled in to clear the street. The smell of the damp charred wood filled her nostrils as she looked over to the twisted steel that used to be her Anderson shelter. One of her neighbours walked across to her. Eleanor looked at him. "Gone, it's all gone," she said. "Everything, all gone."
"Doodlebug," he said. "Friday night. The Morgans next door to you. They made it to their shelter, but they were blown to pieces."
"Oh Jesus no, not the baby, not little Masie." Tears formed in her eyes, as she stood shaking her head. "Bastards," she muttered. "Wicked bloody bastards."
He put his arm around her. "Come on luvvy, come over the road. Emily's got the kettle on. You have a nice hot cuppa while I fetch your bags."
Eleanor looked over at the man's house. Most of the tiles had gone from the roof and the windows were blown. As she crossed the road her thoughts were for her own children, feeling thankful they hadn't been at home for the weekend.
She moved into a temporary refuge in the local church hall. She didn't want to go back to her sister's, feeling ashamed by her condition. She could not settle at the refuge and had trouble sleeping. The loss of the young child who lived next door played on her mind and she was also worried about facing her husband.
She was sitting on a bench in the churchyard looking down at the ground and wondering what to do, what to say to her husband. She knew he would be devastated, and it troubled her greatly that she would cause him such heartache.
"Lost it all?"
Eleanor looked up, startled almost by the sudden company. "Lost what?" she said to the woman.
"Stuff, all the stuff: furniture, clothes, family treasures what's been handed down through the generations. Lost it all have ya? I know I have."
"Yeah." Eleanor gave a sigh. "Lost it all for sure."
"Thank God. No one at home."
"Same with me. Twice we got bombed out. They bombed the flats in Carr Street, then we moved to Mile End and we got bombed out again by that bloody doodlebug that done the railway bridge. I was out, but a few of me neighbours were not so lucky. Bloody good bunch an' all."
"Bombs, they're not my biggest problem at the moment."
The woman sat on the bench, excited at the thought of some gossip. "Oh, what's up then?"
Eleanor looked at the woman, wondering why she should tell her any of her business. Nevertheless, she needed to talk to someone and a friendly stranger was perhaps the best option. "My ole man's at sea. I've been a right idiot. I'm pregnant."
"Don't tell me, a Yank right?"
Eleanor laughed the first laugh for a long while. "Yeah, a Yank," she said.
"Happened to me as well and my ole man's in the blinking desert somewhere."
"We're both in trouble then."
"Not me, I got rid. There's a doctor I know over in Dalston done it for me."
"Blimey, there's a thing. Do you think he'd help me?"
The woman laughed. "Sure he would, as long as you can get the cash."
"I've a bit put by." She thought of the Victorian china she had stored at her sister's, along with her mother's gold rings. She could sell them and would be sure to have enough.
"I'm going to Hackney on Thursday. Come with me and we'll call over and have a jaw with him."
"Do you really think he'll do it for me?"
"Yeah, said so didn't I? Don't tell him how much money you got though. Try to bait him down a bit or he'll charge a mint." The woman laughed again. "Yanks, he loves 'em. He's earning a blooming fortune."
Eleanor slept no easier over the next few nights. Thinking it was not the right thing to do, but aware her other option was no better. It was a terrible dilemma and she was not sure what she should do. Before she got the chance to make up her mind, she received the news that her husband's ship had been reported lost in the Atlantic. The termination of her pregnancy now seemed trivial and unimportant to her. The loss of her husband and the guilt that she cheated on him overwhelmed her.
Eleanor was sitting in the church hall deep in depressive thought when the woman walked up to her. "All set for tomorrow then?" the woman said.
Eleanor flew at her in an unprovoked attack, striking at her with both hands. The woman tried to protect herself, but the blows kept raining down on her and she began screaming. People soon came running and restrained Eleanor who began shouting abuse at everyone. It was clear she was having some kind of breakdown and an ambulance was called to take her away. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Kent, where she remained until the end of the war.
While she was at the hospital, she gave birth to a fine baby girl. It was a difficult birth unlike the straightforward births of her other children. She suffered intense and continuous pain, blaming it on herself as if she were being punished for her adultery. She named the girl Jane, after Marvin's sister. Because of the remarkable resemblance between the baby and Marvin, Eleanor knew every time she looked at her daughter she would be reminded who her father was. She wondered what was to become of this wretched child, born out of wedlock, a product of adultery, an insult to her husband, and a source of shame to the family.