Read Ruby's War Online

Authors: Johanna Winard

Ruby's War

 

Ruby's War

J
OHANNA
W
INARD

In memory of Private William Crossland who was killed during the real Battle of Bamber Bridge on the 24th June 1943

Ruby left the guest house and turned down the familiar street of cramped boarding houses. As she neared the school, the squeals and yells of the children in the playground replaced the sound of bickering gulls. She hurried across the main road and waited at the edge of the girls' yard, until Mavis left the skipping game and came over to speak to her.

‘Are you coming to help with the infants?' she asked, taking in Ruby's gymslip and turquoise jumper.

Ruby shook her head. ‘I'm going to the cobbler's to collect some shoes for one of the guests. I could come back this way. When you come out, we could walk home together.'

‘I can't,' Mavis said, rubbing her turned-up nose with the back of her hand. ‘I'm going for my lesson. My mum's paying for me to go to Miss Sumner for shorthand and typing. When I leave, I'm going to work in the newspaper offices with my Auntie Barbara.'

A decaying, Victorian glass-topped canopy sheltered the row of shops opposite the school. The cobbler's little shop was squeezed in at the end next to the barber. She opened the door, the brass bell tinkled and Mr Bentham looked up at her over his glasses. The shop smelt of leather, glue and pipe tobacco. When Ruby handed him the ticket, he put down his pipe and went along the rough wooden racks at the back of the counter, mumbling to himself and inspecting the numbers chalked on the soles of the shoes.

‘Crawford, Crawford. Here we are, a resole. Hand-stitched,' Mr Bentham said, lowering his voice, as if telling her a secret. ‘Very nice.'

Ruby walked back home up another street of identical boarding houses to Everdeane, her uncle's guest house. Halfway along, as the smell of the salty air grew stronger and the clamour of the gulls rippled down the narrow street, she slowed her pace. In a shady alleyway between the blocks of houses, someone had chalked a hopscotch on the ground. Ruby tucked the shoes under her arm and hopped from square to square. The game wasn't much fun to play alone, and after a couple of tries, she wandered back up the prom towards the guest house.

Ruby stood at the bottom of the stairs, unsure if she should take the shoes up to Mr Crawford's room or leave them on the hall table, as if they were a telegram or a letter. The house was quiet, except for the sound of muffled voices – one high and two much deeper ones – coming from the kitchen. The sound made her tingle. Abandoning the shoes by the elephant's foot umbrella stand, she edged towards the kitchen door. She recognised Auntie Ethel's voice and Uncle Walt's. The third, a softer voice, she was
sure could only belong to her dad. In the dark corridor Ruby pulled up her ankle socks, tugged down the hem of her gymslip and with a trembling hand opened the door.

When she saw who was sitting at the table with Uncle Walt and Auntie Ethel, she was afraid. The three adults were leaning forwards, as if waiting for someone to take a turn in a game of cards, but there were no cards on the worn oilcloth. The air was heavy, thickened with secrets. As she waited by the door for them to notice her, Ruby's stomach did the kind of tickle and flop it did on fairground rides. Then her Auntie Ethel looked up.

‘Your granddad's going to take you for a stroll along the prom, Ruby,' she said.

Granddad got up slowly and began buttoning his long brown mac. ‘Train back is at half past four,' he said.

‘Then you'd best hurry,' Auntie replied, getting up from the table and straightening her overall with her bony fingers.

No one smiled, and as Ruby followed her granddad down the dimly lit hall, her knees began to wobble. He waited for her at the foot of the worn stone steps, leaning on the white balustrade near the gate. The sign hanging above his head read: ‘Everdeane Select Guest House. Proprietor Mr W. A. O'Kane.' Granddad's wiry, pepper-coloured hair was lifting in the salt breeze. He tugged his cap out of his pocket and put it on. When she reached the bottom step, he strode ahead of her across the road to the promenade, where Tommy Wright and two other boys from her school were playing football. The tide was in. The sea was gentle. Its soft, silky grey ripples calmed her.

‘I thought it was Dad. When I heard you, I thought he'd
come. Do you think he knows about Mum?' she asked, nibbling the end of one dark-red pigtail.

‘No, Ruby, love. He'd have come, or written, at least. Thinks the world of you.'

It wasn't bad news; she'd been afraid he was going to say he wasn't coming back. But instead, he'd said, ‘He thinks the world of you.' He was alive. He'd be coming for her. She grinned at Granddad, and when Tommy Wright's mucky ball caught her in the middle of the back, she laughed and kicked it back to him.

‘Thanks, Ruby,' he shouted.

‘That's not a bad shot,' Granddad said approvingly. ‘Are the lads from your school?'

‘All three of them. Two are evacuees. It's their turn to go in the mornings this week. The one that kicked the ball is Tommy Wright. He was in my class. He tells everybody he's fifteen, but he's not. He's fourteen and a half. He was always getting the cane. When we had gas mask practice, he pretended to choke and he made his mask do this rude noise. Last time, the teacher caught him.'

‘Sounds like your dad. I remember his teacher collaring me one day and saying he'd upset old Miss Garvey. Every time she'd bent down, him or his mate made this farting sound with their hands, and she got that upset.'

They giggled, and for a moment, Ruby felt that it was going to be all right. Auntie Ethel always said neither her dad nor her granddad had ever grown up. That's why he could see the joke and why he would have arrived at Everdeane on a whim. Other grown-ups wouldn't have turned up unannounced, unless they'd come with bad
news. But Granddad might have come just because he'd fancied a ride out on the train and wanted to buy some cockles for his tea.

‘This is where I last saw Dad,' she said. ‘He was standing right here. He'd had a late night and he was watching us on the beach. We were digging sand, filling sandbags. It was too hard for most of us. There were lots of people helping, not just kids from our school; a lot of men were helping as well.'

‘Bet he didn't.'

She laughed and waved her hands. ‘You know what he's like. “My hands, Ruby, love. I've got to look after my hands.” He just stood there watching the rest of us.'

‘Always the same excuse,' Granddad said, taking a packet of five Woodbines from his pocket. ‘Can't do any real work, it would spoil his piano hands.'

For a few minutes, they watched the gulls bobbing on the quiet water. Then he took out a cigarette.

‘Ruby, love,' he said, turning away to light it. ‘Now your mum's gone, I think it's best you come and live with me.'

‘I can't,' she said squinting up at him. ‘Auntie needs me here. We're full all the time now. It's not like before. It doesn't go quiet in winter any more. Not now all the government people have been moved up here to work. We're full all the time.'

‘Auntie Ethel thinks it's a good idea. I'm … well … I'm your closest relative.'

‘Well, tell her you don't mind.'

‘It's the room … I think they want the room. It's like you said, all these government departments are sending all
their pen-pushers up here, so there's money to be made, even out of that little box room of yours.'

Ruby felt her cheeks begin to burn. She turned away and looked down at the waves. She tasted salt in her mouth and swallowed. Then a coldness – as familiar as the chill wind from the sea – curled around her.

‘I'm sure you've been a good lass … but … anyway. That's why she sent for me. There's a train back in half an hour,' he said, leaving the sea wall and heading back over to Everdeane. ‘We've got to pick your case up.'

‘Dad thinks I'm here,' she whispered to the silky waves. ‘He'll come here looking for me.'

Her small case was in the porch. Through the leaded light in the front door, she could see the wavy shapes of her aunt and uncle moving towards them. Auntie Ethel opened the door and pushed another battered suitcase out on to the step. She was wearing her apron and Pearl's fox-fur stole around her neck.

‘Your mother's things are in here. I've taken nothing for myself, except this,' she said, stroking the fox's paw. ‘It's no use to you, and she was my sister and well … Most of it's evening wear, but I know you're handy with a needle, so perhaps they'll come in. Here's her ration book,' she said, handing the small blue book to Granddad. ‘Now, you be a good girl, Ruby.'

The fur stole had been a present from her father. He'd arrived on Christmas morning with presents for them both, a pretty dress for her and the fox fur for her mother. On the same visit, he'd taken them out for tea. There'd been a band playing, and when he'd got up to dance with her mother, everyone in the room had watched them.
She'd felt proud because they'd looked so glamorous.

Auntie Ethel went back down the hall, the grinning fox over her narrow shoulder. Uncle Walt watched her go, and when the kitchen door closed, he handed Ruby her mother's music case.

‘This is yours,' he said, stroking the soft chestnut leather. ‘It belonged to Pearl. Her musical arrangements. Some your dad did for her.'

‘Best get going,' Granddad said. ‘We'll have to take our time with these cases.'

He picked up her mother's case. As he began to carry it down the steps, Uncle Walt pressed a ten-shilling note into her hand, before slipping back inside the house.

The train was quite full. She waited on the platform with the cases until Granddad found a carriage with two empty seats. Ruby sat by the window with her back to the engine. In the west, the sky was silver-grey tinged with a delicate flush of orange, as though the colour of the gentle, silky water had been caught up by the dying sun. The idea comforted her and the dark chill began to lift. As the train began to move she fixed her gaze on the sunset, until the sky darkened and the guard called for all the blinds to be pulled down.

The compartment was crowded and dimly lit. Ruby hugged the music case to her chest, sniffing its familiar leather smell. The rough moquette seats made her legs feel itchy, and she tried to pull her school mac down to protect her bare legs. She gazed at the sepia photographs of Loch Katrine above the seats opposite, forced her tears back into her aching throat and tried to ignore her prickly legs.

The blue light made the other passengers appear
indistinct. Her grandfather's head seemed pale and insubstantial, as though at any moment it might float free from his body. In the semi-darkness an American soldier hugged a pretty blonde, whose left hand lay like a starfish on the chest of his uniform, displaying a glittering new wedding ring. Snuggling close to the young man, the girl explained to the other passengers, a middle-aged couple and a lady in a brown suit and polished brogues, that they had been on honeymoon and her new husband was due back at his base the next day.

‘What a coincidence,' the older woman said. ‘We've been to a wedding ourselves. My cousin's daughter. Her young man is in the navy. We were hoping our sons could get leave. They're both in the RAF. Dick, my eldest, has been in since 1940. He's a radio operator. My younger boy, Christopher, was called up at the beginning of the year.'

‘You must be very proud of your boys,' the lady in the brown suit said. ‘I don't know what we should have done without the RAF. My family is from London. They were bombed out in 1940. This will be the first time I've visited them in their new place. My job was moved up here away from the conflict. I was told I needed to get the London train from Preston.'

‘The next train should leave in about twenty minutes,' Granddad said, consulting his fob watch. ‘You've plenty of time.'

‘Have you been on holiday?' the lady asked.

‘No,' Granddad said, shifting uneasily in his seat. ‘I've been to collect my granddaughter. She's been helping out at her aunt's guest house.'

The train rolled to a halt and the engine hissed.

‘I hope they tell us when we arrive at the stations,' the middle-aged woman said. ‘You can't tell if we are waiting for a signal, or if we're at a station. They said when they moved the signs from the platforms that there would be someone to call out the name of the stations, but there isn't.'

‘We travelled up from Preston during the day,' her husband added. ‘They didn't do it then. This lady wanted to get off at Kirkham and she missed her stop. We can't even see out now, so how are we to know?'

‘Well, we'll not miss Preston,' Granddad said. ‘It's a big station. I know it well. I worked there for years.'

When they arrived at Preston station, the American soldier helped them out of the train with their luggage. The platform was full of British soldiers who were boarding a waiting train. Ruby struggled through the crowd, dodging kitbags and trying to keep Granddad's tall figure in view.

‘Excuse me, love,' one of the soldiers said as Ruby struggled by with her case. ‘Can you post this?' he asked, handing her a crumpled envelope. The soldier wore a greatcoat and his eyes were red and bleary. He put down his kitbag and handed her two pennies. ‘I haven't been able to get a stamp,' he said.

‘What's the matter, son?' Granddad asked.

‘I was asking this young lass if she could post this for me. It's to let my girl know where I am.'

The train began to make steam and the weight of men on the platform forced the young soldier forwards. He hitched his bag on his shoulder, and as he was carried away, he looked back through the crowd towards Ruby and her granddad.

‘Don't worry, son. We'll see it gets sent,' Granddad called, but his voice was lost amongst the sound of slamming doors and the hiss of escaping steam.

Their second train was much smaller and the carriage was empty. After barely ten minutes, they arrived at a deserted station. It was a clear night, and she could make out a steep, shrub-covered spoil bank behind the opposite platform. The air smelt of coal smoke, and Ruby could hear traffic crossing the railway bridge above her. She shivered and put down her suitcase next to the empty ticket office.

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