Authors: Helen Forrester
The author would like to thank very much the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, Bidston Observatory, Birkenhead, the Liverpool Record Office of the Brown, Picton and Hornby Libraries, her brothers and sister, and many friends and acquaintances for supplying her with much useful information on the subject of the great May blitz on Liverpool.
It should be pointed out that this is a novel, and the sailors' canteen, the situations and the characters are imaginary. Whatever similarity there may be of name, no reference is made or intended to any person living or dead.
In the spring of 1941, Admiral Erich Raeder wrote a memo to the FÃ¼hrer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler. It said:
“An early concentrated attack on Britain is necessary, on Liverpool, for example, so that the whole nation will feel the effect.”
He felt better, more sure of himself, now he was back in Liverpool and had a ship again. He had a new identity card safely tucked into the old wallet his father had found for him; it was surprising how naked you felt without a piece of paper to say who you were. Robert Owen, deckhand and fiancé of Emma Thomas, once more officially existed.
The clothing the Red Cross lady had found for him, to replace his lost kit, fitted well; the brown leather jacket would keep the wind out like nothing else would. He had had his faded blond hair cut in honour of his date with Emmie and he had a present for her in the brown paper carrier he was holding. His legs had stopped shaking.
Panic had, once more, struck him when, earlier that morning, he had entered the crowded Mercantile Marine office in search of a new set of papers and a new ship. At the thought of going to sea again, he had for a moment turned to jelly. He had not really walked to the huge mahogany counter; he had been nearly lifted off his damaged feet and edged towards it by the heaving, shouting mass of drunken seamen, all trying to get attention.
The clerk on the other side of the wide counter, a pimpled
youth young enough to be his son, had been unexpectedly understanding of the tall, drained-looking deckhand in front of him.
“Two days on a raft, floating around in the Channel?” he had queried incredulously. “I’d have thought there was enough shipping down there that they would have spotted you in a few minutes.”
“It’s a lot o’ water.” Robert had tried to sound nonchalant. “Corvette out of Southampton picked me up.” Again, he felt the ghastly fear that his hands would lose their grip on the raft and he would slide off and drown. “I were the only survivor.” Try as he would, his voice still held a quiver.
“You were lucky.”
“Aye, I suppose. Anyway, t’ doctor says me feet’ll be all right now. He signed me off yesterday. It were the cold water that effected ’em.”
“Cold can do some rotten things to you,” agreed the clerk. He chewed the end of his stub of pencil and ran his finger down a list. “There’s the
loading in No. 2 Huskisson. They’re short a deckhand. How about it?”
To a fisherman who, until his last disastrous voyage, had always worked in his father’s smack, one ship was as good as another, so he took the clerk’s proffered fountain pen and shakily applied his signature where the boy pointed with his finger. A ship was a ship, and if he were going to marry Emmie he needed the money. If he did not go to sea, he would be called up for the army – at fourteen shillings a week. Better the devil you knew than the one that you did not.
Afterwards, until he got a better grip on himself, he stood on the handsome steps of the old Customs House, his hands in his pockets, the brown carrier bag swinging from his wrist. Beside him, legs astride, hands behind his back, stood the huge policeman who kept order amongst the tough clientele of the Mercantile Marine office. The sun lit up the long row of medal ribbons on his chest, but failed to soften a face with an
expression that could have quelled an angry regimental sergeant-major. However, he said very cordially to Robert, “Nice mornin’. Ready for off agen?”
As Robert nodded affirmatively, the nervous twitch of his right eye was not lost on the constable and his expression returned to its usual grimness. Poor devil. Sent to sea again before he’s fit, I’ll bet me life. Just like the last war. He turned again to Robert and added, as if to offer some comfort, “You know, you’re sometimes safer at sea than you are in Liverpool, these days, what with the air raids and all.”
“Could be,” Robert agreed, and then plunged down the steps, head bent to the wind, to make his way towards the gangway of the floating dock from which the ferry boats sailed across the river Mersey. There, he would meet Emmie.
With subs as numerous as cockroaches waiting for you once you’d crossed the bar, any minute could be your last. But this was also true of the hapless civilian. Air raids had been uncomfortably frequent all winter, and it worried him deeply that Emmie lived in Toxteth, within a half a mile of the much pounded dock area.
This was no way of thinking, he told himself crossly. He began to whistle firmly and winked at a very pregnant girl with a small child wrapped in her shawl. She sniffed and turned her face away from him. He grinned. Nothing like a Merseyside woman. As pretty as they come, like his Emmie with her soft voice with its Welsh inflections – and her warm body, surprisingly flexible for a middle-aged woman.
She was waiting, her face turned towards the multitude of shipping on the glittering river. A plain navy skirt flapped against thin legs and she hugged a heavy blue cardigan against her chest, while the breeze whipped at her brown curls.
“It’ll ruin me set before he ever comes,” she muttered despondently and tried to smooth her ruffled locks. With her long, thin face and straight, determined-looking nose made pink by the fresh air, she appeared to the casual observer to be
a nondescript woman approaching middle age. But Robert Owen was certain that she was the best thing that had happened to him in his entire life.
His mother, who wholly approved of her, said that the best thing that had ever happened to Emmie was that both her parents had finally died and had thus set her free.
“Like livin’ in a box all her life, poor lass,” she had told her son. “Now mind you give her some freedom, share with her, like. Too many women are nought but slaveys.”
He had grinned and kissed her plump rosy cheek and had promised.
While Emmie waited, she thought again of the spate of wrath which she had, that morning, suffered from her sister-in-law, Gwen Thomas; and she wondered how much longer she could endure living with her. The moment she was married she would move out and find a room on the other side of the river, a room which she could make into a little home for Robert between voyages, until the war was over and they could hope for a better place.
Gwen had been furious that Patrick, the eldest of the family which lived next door, had shot an arrow through the glass of the Thomases’ back bedroom window. Then, instead of being suitably apologetic, he had calmly asked for his arrow back. Emmie had burst into laughter at the sheer nerve of the lad, and this had set Gwen off on one of her lectures about responsibility and morality, which Emmie had endured with gritted teeth. What on earth had her brother, David, ever seen in the woman? A skinny, nagging ferret, she was.
She suddenly caught sight of Robert. Gwen was immediately forgotten and she ran towards him along the gently heaving dock, her whole body aching to hold him and be held by him.
Later, when he broke it to her that he would be sailing again in a day or two, she stroked the side of his face, as if to imprint on her memory every line of it. She touched the heavy blond brows and the tobacco-stained moustache. “Dearest Robbie,”
she whispered, “come back safe. I can’t live without you.” She snuggled closer. “You know, I never had a proper sweetheart before – I never had the time or the chance.”
His lips curved mischievously under his moustache. “I know,” he replied. “It were the biggest shock of me life when I realised it. Did I hurt you?”
Her thin white face was suddenly scarlet. “No – well, not much.” She bit her lips, and then asked shyly, “Did you mind? Me not being at all experienced, like?”
“Nay, luv.” He stood up suddenly from their seat on the top deck of the ferry and pulled her to her feet. “It were the nicest thing that ever happened to me – as if you’d been waiting for me.” He held her closer. “But I can tell you, my girl, you were a real fast learner, you were.”
“Well, at least I’m clean – no disease, I mean.” She laughed self-consciously, her lower lip between her teeth. Then she looked at him wickedly out of the corner of her eyes, a plain woman suddenly made pretty.
Emmie mechanically handed twopence to the plump, untidy clippie and received her tram ticket. Now Robert was about to sail, she felt deserted, unbelievably alone. At 39, she had never expected to marry; at that age one was on the shelf. She had many times told herself that such things were not for everyone; and she had done her best to ignore her inward longings, which could make nights a sleepless misery. She had had to try to be happy that she had nursed both her parents until they died. Then, when suddenly she was free of them, she had believed that she was too old for anything but more work. Domestic work, at that.
As she sat down on the slatted wooden seat of the tram, she asked herself bewilderedly whether it was really only four months since her father had died of heart failure. He had been
a regular soldier, injured in the First World War, during army manoeuvres in 1915, and subsequently confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. And then, within a week, her mother who had been bedridden with arthritis for twenty-three years, had followed him, as if her reason for living had gone.
With both of them to nurse, no wonder I hadn’t even time to wink at the milkman or gossip with the neighbours, thought Emmie. No time – and no money, to make myself look nice enough to find a husband. She closed her eyes, as she remembered all the lifting of them, the washing for them, the repulsive tasks of caring for people well-nigh helpless. And her father forever filthy-tempered and her mother so fretful and in such dire pain.
Being Mrs Forster-Harrington’s daily cleaning lady and cook had been rough, too, though her grand Victorian house had been very conveniently close to Emmie’s tiny row house. Every morning, since the age of thirteen, she had run backwards and forwards from it and thus earned a little to augment her father’s army pension, worried all the time that while she was away her father might fall out of his chair by the window or her mother might need her chamber pot. For twenty-six years she had stoically polished and scrubbed the house, through wars and Depression, until she knew every niche in the carved newel posts, every crack between the slate kitchen tiles. She did it while kind old Mrs Forster-Harrington, dressed in black silk, sat in her drawing room like Queen Victoria and mourned the death in 1918 of General Sir Alfred Forster-Harrington.
“Gone a bit soft in the head, she had, but proper kind for all that,” Emmie had confided to Robert. “When I think on it, I were real lucky to have a job – so many didn’t have one. But it were all work, Robbie. I never had a minute for meself. I never been to the pictures till you took me.”
“Didn’t they have any friends?” asked Robert incredulously. “To visit them, while you went out?”
“Not they. Me mam always said as soldiers often don’t make
many friends ’cos they move so much. Years ago, one or two serving men come to see me dad for a little while – but, you know, they went away – and some of them was killed in the war.” She paused, and then added, “And they was both so short-tempered, they put people off, like.”
After her mother’s funeral, her brother, David, his wife, Gwen, and their sly, gangling 13-year-old daughter, Mari, all decorously clothed in black, had come back to Emmie’s house. They had sat drinking tea in the living room, while Emmie wept out to David her fears for herself. She was panic-stricken that she did not earn enough to pay the rent and keep herself.
Gwen had sat silently sizing up the furniture in the tiny room. It’s good, she had reflected. Can’t buy that kind of stuff nowadays, particularly since the war began. Me best dishes would look great on the Welsh dresser. Young Mari, who had occasionally visited her grandparents in the front bedroom, had told her that there, also, the furniture was big and shiny and, therefore, probably good; David had said that the dead couple had inherited practically all of it from their parents. Now, David should inherit it, since he was the eldest; but if Emmie continued to live in her father’s house, Gwen knew that David would never take the furniture from her.
While he listened to his sister’s woes. David Thomas had stirred his tea with slow turns of the tin spoon. He felt tense and tired in his black Sunday suit and stiff white collar, and curiously breathless. He felt little sense of loss at his parents’ death. His father had bullied him and his mother had been a nagger, though he felt sorry that she had had so much pain. Their death had, however, reawakened a strong sense of guilt regarding Emmie. He had berated himself that she had carried the whole load of his parents’ invalidism, and Gwen, here, had done nothing whatever for them. He ought to have pushed Gwen harder, to take an occasional turn, so that Emmie could have gone out a bit. Emmie wasn’t a bad looking woman and she had a real sweet manner with her – maybe got it from that
Forster-Harrington woman. Given a chance, she might have married, and then he would not have had her on his hands now – though how any husband of hers would have put up with his parents, he could not imagine. Anyway, on his hands she was, and he knew he had to do something to get her started again.
With a slow ponderous movement, he put his spoon down in the saucer and rubbed the dark jowls of his face, while he looked out of the corner of his eye at his virago of a wife.
“Maybe I could go into service – Mrs Forster-Harrington might be glad to have me live in, now she’s so old,” Emmie sobbed, her pointed nose red from weeping.
“Nay. You’re free now. You can do better’n that,” her brother replied heavily. He was not going to see her thrown into the kind of jail that living-in domestic service could be. She’d had enough. She deserved better. “With the war on, there’s a lot more work around for women now.” He took a large breath and steeled himself, as he turned to Gwen. “She could have our middle bedroom for a while – till she got settled, like,” he suggested.
Gwen sucked her teeth and turned a scornful glance at the dishevelled Emmie. Who wanted a plaster saint in the house? Another person to cook for?
But her husband’s face reflected a stubbornness which had defeated her many a time in their married life, a woodenness which sometimes reminded her of his father. She stared back at him uneasily.