Authors: Annie Groves
For my readers who have so kindly and generously
supported me. I hope you are all enjoying reading
about the Campion family as much as I am
enjoying telling their story
Wednesday 7 May 1941
It had just gone midnight. Conversation between the occupants of Jean Campion’s comfortable and homely kitchen slowed and stuttered, then died.
Jean’s twin daughters, Sasha and Lou, Katie, her billetee and her son, Luke’s, girlfriend, looked at one another.
Jean’s husband, Sam, who had been out working since eight o’clock that morning helping to remove what could be cleared of the devastation left by Hitler’s six nights of ferocious bombing, slumped in his chair, looking defeated. All of them were waiting for the dreaded and now familiar sound of the air-raid siren, warning them that Luftwaffe bombers were approaching the city, bringing yet another night’s destruction and death.
The tension caused by the heavy bombing of Liverpool had taken hold of them just as it had all those who were now virtually trapped in a city cut off from the rest of the country, its buildings destroyed, its people killed and maimed, a helpless victim now waiting for the deathblow.
Jean looked at the twins. They had been very subdued since Sasha had been rescued on Saturday night after becoming trapped in a bomb site. The young UXB soldier who had taken Sasha’s place beneath the bomb so that she could be rescued without the device being disturbed had become a hero to the whole family.
Without his bravery Jean was convinced that there would have been only one of the twins here now. Her heart missed a beat. She mustn’t think of what could have been. She must concentrate instead on praying that they would all survive what was happening now. The twins were growing up. Soon they would be sixteen – young women and not merely girls any more. Sixteen and on the brink of womanhood with their adult lives stretching ahead of them, if they survived Hitler’s onslaught on Liverpool.
Just gone midnight. If the bombers were coming then they would know soon. The siren had sounded around midnight for the last three nights.
Jean thought of her two eldest children – Luke in the army and stationed at nearby Seacombe barracks; her daughter Grace in her final year as a trainee nurse and on duty tonight in one of the city’s busiest and most vulnerable hospitals – and she prayed as she had done every night since the war had started that those she loved would all be safe.
Surreptitiously Katie looked at her watch. Nearly half-past midnight. Would tonight be yet another spent in the air-raid shelter, trying not to be afraid for Luke, whom she loved so much and whom she knew, as a serving soldier whose unit was on home defence duties, would be in far more danger than they were?
Jean couldn’t bear the tension any more. ‘I’ll put the kettle on—’ she started to say, and then stopped as it began: the shrill urgent call to protect themselves, the sound of which gripped a person by the throat and around the heart, a shuddering shocking exhalation of noise that warned of the terrible unbelievable horror that brought death raining down from the night sky.
They exchanged helpless, anguished looks.
‘Here we go again,’ Sam announced unnecessarily. ‘I’ll walk you down to the shelter and then I’d better go and report for fire-watching duty.’
‘But, Sam, you’ve worked from morning to night for the last six nights,’ Jean protested, as they all picked up the bundles containing the sleeping bags and everything else they would need for yet another night in the air-raid shelter.
‘Aye, well, at least I
still work, not like some,’ Sam replied grimly.
Jean felt her heart bump shakily. On Sunday morning, in the aftermath of Saturday night’s heavy bombing, two of his colleagues had been badly injured when a building had collapsed on top of them.
Fortunately, the shelter was only at the end of the road. Ash Grove nestled comfortably between the top end of Edge Hill, with its aspirational working-class inhabitants, and the bottom end of middle-class Wavertree, lying further inland to the east, and was far enough away from the docks and the city centre not to attract the main attention of the Luftwaffe. But not so far that the Campion family couldn’t in happier times walk down to the ferry in under half an hour when they wanted to visit Jean’s sister, Vi, and her family who lived across the water in Wallasey. And certainly close enough for Luke to take that
same ferry home from the Seacombe barracks, which also lay on the other side of the river from the city.
Once they were outside in the street they were able to see what the blacked-out windows had protected them from.
Below the gentle rise that lifted Edge Hill and Wavertree above the city proper, the probing beams of the anti-aircraft batteries revealed ghoulish images of gutted buildings, still smoking from the fires of earlier bombing raids.
They had reached the shelter now. Sam gave Jean a swift hug and, unusually for such an undemonstrative man, turned to hug both the twins, then placed his hand on Katie’s arm and gave it a small squeeze before standing to one side to watch as they all filed into the shelter.
Jean prayed, as she always did, that her husband would return from his work safe and unharmed.
Grace heard the note of suppressed panic in the voice of the probationer who was new on the ward, and told her calmly, as though she hadn’t spoken, ‘I think Mr Williams has finished with his bottle now. Go and collect it from him and take it to the sluice room, will you? When you’ve done that come back and help me get the patients ready to take down to the shelter.’
After pausing to check that her calming words had had the right effect, Grace moved swiftly towards the end of the ward to start securing those patients who had to stay put. Straps hung down at the sides of the beds, ready to fasten over the patients
when the siren went off, and the recent spate of attacks now ensured that everyone moved automatically to do what had to be done – even the new probationer, once Grace had calmed her fear.
Grace loved working on men’s surgical. The patients were for the most part absolute darlings – although of course there was always the exception, like her own cousin Charlie, who had been brought in on Saturday night suffering from concussion. Charlie was well on the way to recovery now, but not quite well enough to go home, and he was making a thorough nuisance of himself, expecting special treatment because his father was a member of Wallasey’s town council, and flirting with the other nurses, despite the fact that he was engaged and due to get married in June.
Now, as she paired up with the probationer so that they could secure the patients, Grace reflected that routine and having a job to do, as she had quickly learned, had a way of calming the nerves and making a person focus on necessities instead of worrying about what might happen – or thinking about the terrible raid three days ago when the hospital had been bombed, and staff and patients killed and injured.
Another bloody air raid. Determinedly Charlie avoided the look he knew his cousin Grace would be sending him. After all, why should he risk his own life pushing ruddy beds around, like those patients who were daft enough to get out of their beds to help the nursing staff? In this world a chap had to put himself first if he wanted to survive.
Whilst he might have been too badly concussed to
be able to remember much of what had happened to him when he had originally been brought into the hospital, once he had started to recover, the memory of what had happened that night had come back to him. Naturally, Charlie had then been quick to edit the truth to show himself in the best possible light. In his version of events, the beating inflicted on him by the ex-soldier-turned-petty criminal who had been blackmailing him had become a tale of him being set upon by some unknown men, no doubt intent on robbing him when he had been on an errand of mercy to see an old comrade.
His mother had been too relieved that he was safe to ask too many questions, and Dougie Richards, the blackmailer, certainly wasn’t going to call his bluff, since he had been killed by the bomb that that been dropped on the pub he had made his headquarters.
As for the girl with whom he had spent the night, as an engaged-to-be-married man Charlie wasn’t going to tell his mother or anyone else about her, was he? As he joined the exodus of people hurrying down the stairs to the safety of the air-raid shelters, Charlie shrugged dismissively. What a chap did with that kind of girl had nothing to do with the respectable things in life, like getting engaged and married. The girl he’d bedded lived in a different world from the one inhabited by women like his mother and his fiancée, and those two worlds never could and never would meet. That was understood.
Pity he’d left his battledress jacket behind, though. If the discharge he was angling for, so that he could leave the army and return home to Wallasey to work for his father, didn’t come soon, he could end up having to fork out for a replacement. He’d got far
better things to spend his money on than a piece of army kit he wasn’t going to wear.
Everyone who’d heard what had happened to him said how lucky he’d been to have left the pub where he’d gone to meet his ex-comrade, before it had been flattened by a bomb, killing everyone inside, but only he knew just how lucky he was, Charlie acknowledged. With Dougie Richards and his fellow thugs dead, Charlie was now free from the threat of blackmail.
Having assured his mother that his bruises looked worse than they were, Charlie had then told Vi that he didn’t want Daphne, so carefully protected from the realities of life by her doting parents, to be unnecessarily upset by the sight of them when she already had the wedding to worry about. The last thing he felt like doing right now was having to comfort Daphne whilst she wept all over him. That reluctance had nothing whatsoever to do with his memories of the passionate warmth in his arms of a girl who was not his fiancée. Of course it didn’t. Good Lord, the last thing Charlie wanted in a wife was passion. Daphne was the perfect wife for him.
Yes, he had a lot to congratulate himself about, Charlie decided, with a grin. Poor old Bella, his sister, had had her nose well and truly put out of joint by his sudden ascent to the throne of parental favouritism, and her own removal from it, on account of his upcoming marriage to Daphne.
Daphne’s parents not only possessed a double-barrelled surname and titled connections, Daphne’s father was a Name at Lloyd’s and, in Charlie’s father’s own words, ‘bound to be rolling in money, war or no war’.
Edwin was the kind of man who judged other men by one simple criterion – their financial status. Those like his wife’s twin sister’s husband, who didn’t have a hope of ever earning what Edwin did, he despised; those who threatened his supremacy in his own field, he made sure he kept where they belonged – several rungs below him on the ladder, by whatever means, dirty tricks included, if they were called for; those a few steps above him on that ladder he detested and consequently accused in public of using sharp practices, of a type abhorrent to him, of course, otherwise he would have been their equal. But those like Daphne’s father, who were members of the ‘professional class’, and who had family money, were so far above him in his estimation that he could only treat them with reverential awe. To have his son marry the daughter of such a man swelled Edwin’s chest with a pride that had had Edwin dismissing Bella’s claims on his paternal affections in place of Charlie’s. Edwin had decided that Bella was to hand over the keys to the smart house Edwin had bought for her on her own marriage so that they could be given to Charlie and his bride-to-be. What need, after all, did Bella, a widow with no children, have of a detached house, Edwin had asked pointedly. All she had done was fill it with refugees, he had reminded his daughter during the argument that had followed the announcement of his decision.
Remembering that row now, Charlie grinned. Poor old Bella indeed. His sister might be a stunning-looking girl, with her blonde curls and her large blue eyes, and the waist she swore measured only twenty-two inches, but her looks had no effect on their father and nor had her angry reminder that the refugees
had been forced on her by the Government, and the council of which he was a member.
In fact, Charlie acknowledged, his future was looking pretty good. Or it would have been if it weren’t for this ruddy bombing. He pushed past a group of nurses who had had to adjust their walking pace to the slowness of the patients they were assisting, without stopping to offer to help, his thoughts fixed on his own bright future and securing a decent place in the air-raid shelter.
The night air was thick with the smell of burned wood, the smoke from the fires that had been put out hanging over the city like a November smog. His mother had had forty fits when she had come to visit him, complaining about the fact that it had taken her three hours to get to the hospital because of all the blocked roads.
‘They’ve bombed Lewis’s,’ she had told Charlie angrily, ‘and there were soldiers lolling around in the street, sitting on brand-new furniture that had been removed from some of the shops, and drinking bottles of beer. Disgraceful. I mean who would want that furniture now?’
Charlie could think of any number of people who’d no doubt be only too happy to acquire it, if only to sell it on through the black market, but of course he had known better than to say so to his mother, who wasn’t renowned for the acuteness of her sense of humour.
Without anything having to be said, the more senior of the trainee nurses such as Grace had taken it upon themselves to go in turn with those patients who, because of the severity of their wounds, were not
only bed bound but also could only be moved very slowly.