Read Tuppence to Tooley Street Online

Authors: Harry Bowling

Tags: #Post-War London, #Historical Saga

Tuppence to Tooley Street (2 page)

BOOK: Tuppence to Tooley Street
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The loosely hanging shutters rattled in the wind and gunfire sounded in the distance. After a while the soldiers began to fall asleep. Albert was snoring again, his head tilted forward onto his chest. Danny tried to think about home but tiredness prevented him from focusing clearly. His head drooped and he fell into a fitful sleep.
Danny was awakened by the noise of the Middlesex troops mustering outside the shop. Albert was in a dead sleep and he jerked violently as the young cockney shook him by the shoulder. ‘C’mon, Albert. It’s time ter go,’ he said, yawning widely.
In the grim light the two trudged slowly down towards the harbour. The scene that met them caused the two comrades to look at each other in disbelief. Thousands of troops were milling around, and long ragged lines of exhausted soldiers were wading out into the water in an attempt to board the small craft that were coming inshore. One large transport ship was moored at the jetty, and the long line of troops was four deep as the loading went on. The queue stretched back to the sea road and military police struggled to keep order.
‘It looks ’opeless,’ Danny said, puffing hard. ‘We’ll never get aboard that ship.’
Albert pointed to the beach. ‘Let’s catch a rest in them dunes. The tide’s coming in. There’ll be more boats soon.’
The two had only just made the dunes when the air attack started. Planes dived out of the sky and bombs fell, exploding in the water around the transport ship. The long line of waiting troops dived for cover as more planes swooped low and machine-gunned the defenceless men. Screams of the wounded and dying rose above the roar of the aircraft and the noise of the gunfire from the ship. Bullets whipped up the sand and soldiers were caught as they tried to clamber aboard the overturning craft. The bodies of the dead floated back to shore.
Danny lay beside Albert in the dunes as the aircraft made repeated runs over the churning water; they pressed their faces into the sand and waited, hardly daring to move a muscle. As the carnage went on, thick, black smoke filled the sky and the lifting sun became red. When at last the planes roared off out to sea, the two young soldiers picked themselves up and dusted the sand from their uniforms. They could see the transport still intact by the jetty. Already the lines were forming up once again and more men began to wade out towards the few boats that were still afloat. Stretcher bearers moved along the beach and soaked, grey-faced men moved into the shelter of the dunes. A small group of bedraggled troops came by and one called out to Danny and Albert. ‘We’re trying La Panne. It’s hopeless here.’
Danny looked at his pal. ‘Where’s that, Alb?’
Albert pointed along the sea road. ‘It’s a couple o’ miles on. What d’yer reckon?’ he asked, looking at Danny.
The young cockney slumped down into the sand. The thought of another two miles walking on his raw and blistered feet made him feel sick. He looked around. At that moment he felt ready to give up. ‘Let’s wait till the tide comes right in, Alb. There’ll be more boats then,’ he said unconvincingly.
Albert was feeling too exhausted to argue and he slumped down beside Danny.
The sun rose overhead and the planes came back. The intermittent strafing went on until the sun began to fall towards the west, and then there was a lull. Danny mustered his last reserves of energy and stood up. ‘C’mon then, Albert,’ he groaned. ‘Let’s try that uvver place while it’s quiet.’
They left the dunes and walked wearily along towards La Panne. The road was busy, and they reached their destination only to see the dunes crowded with exhausted soldiers. As they walked along the sands a voice called out to them, ‘No luck at the jetty then?’
The two looked over and saw Oggy’s men sheltering in a hollow. They went and sat down beside the shivering hollow. They went and sat down beside the shivering Middlesex lads. One of the soldiers nodded towards the sea. ‘We all got dumped in the drink, jus’ when we reckoned we’d made it. We ’ad ter tow Oggy back. ’E can’t swim.’
Oggy looked embarrassed. ‘All right, all right. Don’t tell everybody. Yer won’t get a medal fer it,’ he growled.
The soldier grinned and turned to Danny. ‘The boat we got on was a small fishin’ boat. The feller told us they’re sendin’ a lot more soon. That’s what we’re waitin’ for.’
‘What ’appened ter the bloke?’ Danny asked.
The soldier’s face suddenly became sad. ‘Poor sod didn’t make it. ’E got a bullet in ’is back. ’E only come ter ’elp us,’ he said, looking down into the sand.
A breeze began to blow, chilling the soldiers as they waited on the sands. The strafing had ceased completely and an eerie quietness settled over the dunes. Danny suddenly turned to Albert. ‘What did yer do in civvy street, Alb?’ he asked.
‘I was a clerk in a firm that sold farm machinery. What about you?’
Danny eased his position in the sand. ‘I was a bookie’s runner. Me ole man wanted me ter go in the docks wiv ’im, but I wasn’t ’avin’ none o’ that. ’E’s bin in the docks all ’is life. All’e’s got ter show fer it is ’ands like dinner plates an’ bronchitis frew workin’ out in all weavvers.’
‘You going back to being a bookie’s runner?’ Albert asked.
Danny grinned. ‘When I get out o’ this mess I’m gonna get rich. Don’t ask me ’ow, but I’m gonna make a pile. I might even do a bit o’ buyin’ an’ sellin’ like those Yiddisher boys over the Mile End Road.’
It was late afternoon when a flotilla of small craft appeared on the horizon. As the boats drew near to the shore the aircraft returned without warning and strafed their attack. Men were stranded in the water and those waiting on the sands ran back into the scant shelter of the dunes. One young soldier from the Middlesex saw an upturned boat floating near the water’s edge and he ran towards it. Machine-gun fire cut him down and his body floated face up in the water. Oggy’s men jumped up and raced down towards the shore. Danny and Albert were following behind when the country lad fell face down in the sand. Danny could see the growing red patch on the back of his uniform blouse.
‘C’mon, Alb! Get up!’ he screamed, bending down and dragging his pal into a sitting position.
Albert groaned as Danny tried to lift him.
‘Can yer stand, Albert?’
Albert coughed and flecks of blood appeared on his lips. The young cockney looked at the white face of his comrade. ‘They’ve got the boat upright, me ole son,’ he said. ‘C’mon, you can make it.’
Albert coughed again. ‘It’s no good. Help me to the dunes. I’ll be okay,’ he gasped.
Oggy was in the boat and pulling his pals in with him. He shouted for the two to get a move on, but Danny realised that Albert was not going to make it and he waved the boat away.
Planes were still strafing the beach as Danny half carried and half dragged Albert back to the meagre shelter of the dunes. When he had propped his pal up against a sand mound he searched through Albert’s discarded pack and found a field dressing which he pushed beneath the country lad’s battledress to stem the bleeding. Albert opened his eyes and groaned. Danny gave him a sip of water from his field bottle and Albert leaned his head against the sand.
‘You go on. I’ll be okay,’ he mumbled.
‘Shut up, yer silly bleeder,’ Danny said gently. ‘They ain’t takin’ stretcher cases on the boats. Soon as one comes in I’ll carry yer out. Leave it ter me.’
As he looked along the sands Danny could see stretcher bearers running along to pick up the wounded. He could see Oggy’s boat riding out a few yards offshore. The men had oars in the water and the big soldier was standing up in the prow waving frantically. ‘C’mon! We’re waiting fer yer!’ he bellowed out.
The young cockney stood up and tore off his battledress. ‘All right, Albert,’ he said. ‘We’re gonna make that boat. Did yer ’ear me?’
Albert’s face was grey and he tried to speak. Danny bent over him and held his face in his hands. ‘Listen, Alb. Yer’ll ’ave ter grit yer teef, me ole mate.’
Albert screamed with pain as Danny hoisted him to his feet and dropped him onto his shoulder. Danny’s feet sank in the soft sand as he moved slowly down towards the water’s edge. His breath came in short gasps and sweat was running into his eyes. His legs buckled under him and he fell. ‘Okay, Albert. One more try. We can do it!’ he said panting.
Albert was past caring. His eyes had glazed and his mouth hung open.
‘Get up, yer stupid bastard, can’t yer?’ Danny screamed at him. ‘I’m not leavin’ yer ter die on a Froggy beach! Wake up! Wake up!’ he shouted, shaking the lifeless body roughly.
A firm hand gripped his shoulder. Danny looked up through clouded eyes and saw a medic standing over him. ‘Go for the boat, son. We’ll take care of your pal.’
Tracer cut across the sky as Danny stumbled into the cold water and swam for the boat. Oggy reached out a huge hand and hoisted the breathless cockney aboard. Danny dropped onto the planking shaking and Oggy patted the young man’s back.
‘Yer did yer best, son. Yer couldn’t ’ave done more,’ he said quietly.
Danny pulled himself up and looked back to the shore, to Albert’s lifeless body. Oggy’s men were pulling on their oars and the boat began to move slowly away, fighting against the tide. The big ships were getting larger against the evening sky and the overcrowded lifeboat was headed for the nearest of them. Low-flying planes were roaring over the shallow waters, raking the helpless boats with machine-gun fire; men screamed as they were hit and went over the side. Danny saw the plane coming towards the boat.
He felt no pain as he fell into the cold sea. He could not move his limbs and he waited for the sea to swallow him. The last thing he remembered was the ugly face of Oggy Murphy beside him in the water.
Chapter Two
On the night of the 30th of May 1940 a military vehicle emblazoned with a large red cross left the quayside at Dover and drove the few miles inland to the red-brick Cavendish Home for the Elderly. The hospital stood in spacious grounds where flower beds were set amid chestnuts and willows. The walls of the buildings were covered with vines and a wide gravel drive led up to the entrance from the gates. Until the German army had swept across Europe, the place had been a serene refuge for the elderly and convalescent. Now it had been converted into a military hospital, filled with feverish activity as the casualties from France were brought in from the boats.
The vehicle pulled up at the entrance and medical orderlies quickly took off the stretchered wounded. A pretty dark-haired nurse helped wheel one of the casualties into the operating theatre, and two hours later she was on hand to take the unconscious soldier into a high-ceilinged ward. Throughout the night the young man lay comatose. Sounds of the night outside and sounds in the ward could not invade his sleep, but as the early morning rays of sunlight stole across the high white ceiling and lit up the white walls, the young soldier opened his eyes.
Danny Sutton’s drugged mind stirred and he saw a whiteness everywhere. He began to wonder whether he was dead. His pain-wracked body sent signals to his befuddled brain and he knew he was still alive. There was no pain in heaven, and he knew he was not in the other place, for it was too white and bright. A wave of sickness overcame him and a soft body pressed against his head as he was attended to. He could smell soap and he felt soft, cool hands on his forehead. Danny breathed out deeply and sank back into a heavy sleep.
For two days and nights the young soldier drifted between sleep and consciousness. He was transported far away in his fitful dreams. He was back on the beach at Dunkirk and his screams were ignored. He was back home, and he searched for his family. He heard iron-rimmed wheels on cobblestones and he saw Kathy, but she walked past him. He could see his family gathered around the kitchen table. His father wiped his large hand across his straggly moustache as he read the letter. His glasses were set on the end of his nose and the sleeves of his collarless shirt were rolled up high. His grey-haired mother dabbed at her eyes with a tiny handkerchief and tears rolled down her thin, lined face. Danny could see his three sisters: Maggie, the eldest, sat beside her husband Joe; Lucy held the hand of Ben, her fiancé; and Connie, the youngest, who was a year older than Danny, sat beside her mother and sobbed loudly. Maggie’s two young children were playing in a corner. In his dream Danny was sitting at the table but his family ignored him. He felt himself being drawn away from the room and he struggled, trying to bang on the table. He opened his eyes with a start and the pretty nurse patted his forehead.
‘You’ve been dreaming,’ she said in a soft, lilting voice.
As the days passed slowly Danny grew stronger. He began to wait impatiently for the pretty dark-haired nurse to come on duty, and when she changed the soiled dressings around his chest he could smell the fragrance of her hair. He had been told that a shell splinter had pierced his lung and another fragment had been removed from his thigh. The wounds were healing slowly, but after one week he was able to be wheeled into the sweet-smelling gardens of the hospital.
One afternoon Danny was sitting in the warm sunshine. The fresh smell of new-mown grass hung in the air, and early butterflies fluttered amid the spring flowers. The retreat seemed far away from this peaceful scene. Danny saw the nurse walking towards him and noticed how her hips swayed slightly. She wore a cape around her shoulders which flapped as she walked, and when she reached him she stood with her arms folded. Danny saw the pretty flush of her cheeks and noticed how her dark hair was swept up around her tiny ears. He had heard about patients falling for their nurses and he could quite understand it, if all nurses looked like her. She reminded him somehow of the girl back home–the one he had lost–and his eyes fixed on hers.
She smiled at him. ‘I’m going back on duty soon, soldier boy. I’m supposed to take you back, or you’ll miss your tea,’ she said in her sing-song voice.
‘Danny’s the name,’ he grinned. ‘What’s yours?’
BOOK: Tuppence to Tooley Street
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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