‘Tennyson Street – number 45. Young lass came to the door, said they wasn’t leaving.’
Joe suppressed a sigh. There was always one. Sometimes it was sheer bloody obstinacy, sometimes a fear of leaving their house empty for looters. And sometimes it was the daft idea that they were cocking a snook at old Hitler. Not that that Kraut bugger knew or cared.
The volunteer Warden looked uncomfortable. ‘Want me to go back and try again?’ he offered tentatively.
‘No.’ Joe shook his head. ‘No, it’s OK – I’ll go.’ It was a job he had to do himself – it went with the white helmet. The others were all grandfathers or young lads, even a couple of women, and volunteers all. He was the only one who drew pay for the job. ‘Dick, you finish the list.’ He handed over the clip-board, and reached for his overcoat.
Outside the Evacuation Centre the bomb squad were unloading their truck. The young lieutenant glanced round as he passed. ‘I can’t wait for you,’ he warned.
Joe acknowledged the warning with a brief nod. ‘I know. You do what you need to do.’
The night was quiet now after the noise of the raid – the only sound was the echo of his footsteps, crunching occasionally over broken glass. A distant glow of orange low in the sky showed where Silvertown and the docks had got it again.
As he turned into Tennyson Street the moonlight was bright enough to show him the white silk parachute draped over the half-demolished roof of number forty-eight. Across the road, the young lieutenant was walking parallel with him – for a brief moment, Joe wondered what the other man was thinking. Of his parents, maybe a wife or sweetheart – or was he just focussed on what was waiting for him a few more yards down the street?
Joe drew in a deep breath, steeling himself to keep walking, not to let himself visualise the great grey hulk of the landmine behind those broken windows… Ticking…
Number forty-five was a neat little house. The front door might need a coat of paint, but the brass was polished and the step was spotlessly clean. Someone was house-proud. He grasped the knocker, and rapped loudly.
It was a moment before the door opened. In the dark, he could see only a pale, rather care-worn face – but then aren’t we all care-worn, after four years of war? he reflected wryly. ‘Good evening, Mrs…?’
‘It’s Miss. Miss Cooper.’ She smiled apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, I did explain to the other man – the one who called earlier - that we can’t leave.’
‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to, Miss.’ Joe regretted that he was going to have to be blunt – she already looked scared. But he didn’t have time to spend persuading her. ‘There’s a landmine over in number forty-eight, and it could go up at any moment.’
‘I know.’ Her eyes flickered apprehensively towards the house across the street. ‘But it’s my Dad, see. He’s not well - he can’t be moved.’
‘Can I…?’ He placed a hand on the door, gently easing it open.
Reluctantly she stepped back, allowing him into the narrow hall. ‘This way.’
He followed her into a neat little sitting room. A low fire burned in the fire-place, and the dim light of a reading lamp showed him a couple of worn arm-chairs, a colourful rag-rug, and a well-polished radiogram in the corner. At the back of the room was a bed. An elderly man was propped up on pillows – once he would have been big, muscular, but now his body was distended by congestion, every breath a wheezy rattle.
It didn’t take a second glance for Joe to see that it would be almost impossible to get him out of house. It would take at least six of his men to lift him, and it would more than likely finish him off anyway. He could just be putting good men at risk for nothing.
The woman moved over to the bed, gently touching the old man’s shoulder and speaking softly. ‘Dad, you’ve got a visitor.’
The old man’s rheumy eyes flickered open, and glanced briefly at Joe. ‘Hello, son.’ His voice was a hoarse grunt, and even that small effort seemed to exhaust him. He closed his eyes again.
The woman smiled apologetically. ‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured. ‘He can’t talk much.’
‘You’d better go,’ Joe warned. ‘I’ll stay with him.’
She shook her head, and moved over to sit in one of the high-backed armchairs beside the fire. ‘He doesn’t like strangers.’ There was something in the firm set of her chin that told him clearly she wasn’t going to move.
In the dim light, he could see that she was younger than he had first thought – he wouldn’t put her much above twenty. Dark brown hair was rolled in curls around her face, and she had a neat little figure in a plain skirt and blouse.
‘What do you do in a raid?’ he asked.
She shrugged her slim shoulders. ‘Stay here.’ Her tone was quite matter-of-fact. ‘There’s no way Dad could get down to the shelter, and I have to be close by in case he needs anything.’
Joe regarded her in quiet admiration. It must take real guts to sit here, night after night, listening to the planes overhead and the bombs dropping, and choose not to run for cover.
He sat down in the other chair. ‘I’ll stay with you.’
She shook her head, surprised. ‘Oh – no, it’s OK,’ she insisted. ‘You… said it was a landmine.’
And if it went off, so close, before that young lieutenant was able to defuse it, the bricks of this neat little house would be blasted to dust, the shards of the furniture blown into gardens three streets away, and three fragile human bodies would be stripped flesh from bone without even knowing what had hit them.
He didn’t move, and she smiled at him - a small smile, a grateful acknowledgment of his company. It made her look quite pretty.
‘You’re Joe Watson, aren’t you?’ she asked shyly. ‘I know you from Thomas Street School. I’m Nellie Cooper. You won’t remember me, of course. You were couple of years ahead of me. You used to walk out with my friend’s sister – Daphne Roberts.’
He laughed dryly. ‘Yes, I did. Until I got back from Dunkirk with this.’ He touched the puckered scar where his right eye had been. ‘I can’t blame her, I suppose – who’d want to walk out with a man with a face like a lump of raw steak?’
‘Oh no.’ She reached out her hand as if to touch it, but drew it back – even in the dim glow of the reading light he could see the blush of pink in her cheeks. ‘I mean… It really doesn’t look that bad.’
She really was a pretty little thing. Especially her eyes – he couldn’t be quite sure, but he thought they might be blue.
In the bed the old man had started to snore loudly.
‘Well, if you’re staying, you might as well take your coat off,’ she suggested, briskly practical.
‘Oh… yes, of course.’
‘Here – give it to me. I’ll hang it up in the hall. Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Maybe you could put a bit of coal on the fire?’
He did as she asked, poking the ashes with the brass-handled poker. Through the kitchen door he could see her bustling about, her movements neat and graceful, setting cups and saucers on a tray, spooning tea-leaves into the pot. The kettle whistled cheerfully.
‘Here, let me carry that,’ he offered as she popped a knitted tea-cosy over the pot.
‘No, it’s OK, I can manage, thank you,’ she responded with that shy little smile, dimpling two small shadows into her cheeks. ‘Just move that little table a bit nearer.’
He moved the table closer to the fire, and she put the tray down on it – she’d brought a plate of plain biscuits, too. ‘There’s a bit of sugar, if you’d like some?’ she offered.
‘No, I’m fine without.’ He wouldn’t dig into their meagre rations.
He watched as she poured the tea, She handed him a cup, then sat down again, settling a cushion comfortably behind her back and reaching for the basket of knitting at her feet.
‘What are you making?’ Joe asked.
‘Gloves for Russian soldiers.’ Another shy little smile. ‘It’s the only thing I can do really. I’d like to be able to go out to work, do my bit, but… Well, there’s no-one else to take care of Dad. The war will just have to get along without me.’ She laughed softly, her eyes dancing – yes, they were definitely blue.
Joe laughed with her. ‘It seems to be doing that all right,’ he remarked.
He leaned back in his armchair, sipping his tea and stretching out his legs in front of the hearth. The warmth eased the ache in his thigh where they had taken out a jagged lump of shrapnel.
It was peaceful sitting here in the soft cocoon of the firelight, the old man snoring, Nellie’s knitting needles clicking rapidly as the glove began to take shape. The cold street outside, the rubble of bombed out houses, could be thousands of miles away. This was the only thing that was real.
This, and the landmine across the street - ticking, ticking…