The Blitz – 1940, London
“Miss! A gracious lady like you shouldn’t be walking on these hell-coated streets!” shouted a man carrying a mildly torn portmanteau, busily hurrying to the direction of the train station. Allison Bradshawe smirked to herself. She wasn’t planning on leaving the city to the safety she knew her family would secure for her, without getting hold of that beautiful, crystal embellished gown she saw through the boutique window last week. She was hoping that the owner hadn’t yet evacuated. Such a strange thing to crave during a war…
Did Allison really step into the ashen streets of Soho for a pretty dress? Or, if she was being honest with herself, was it perhaps for a chance to see the Home Guard volunteer Tom? But of course, only so she could haughtily tell him how she was evacuating the city and would never have to see his obnoxious face again.
Tom was the most annoying, immature and irrelevant 16-year-old Allison had ever met. He used to work at a vegetable stall at the market near her home. The market wasn’t really up to her standards – a few rats here and there and the pushing and shoving of desperate mothers trying to get their hands on the freshest fruits and vegetables (though those delectable Pink Ladies were certainly something! And the other markets were too far from home anyway).
A few months ago, Allison had purchased a kilo of those pure, plump and pinkish apples from Tom’s stall. Whilst she did, she had to endure his slurred Cockney and juvenile utterances that one day Allison was going to be his and that he was going to join the army to impress her prestigious and bourgeoise family. Well, now that the German air raids had begun, Tom had almost got his wish. Or at least part of it. As soon as he could, he had rushed to volunteer for the Home Guard to protect bombed buildings from looters. Allison imagined his foolish pride and scoffed: Home Guard! Far cry from an Officer.
She began to look left and right at torn buildings, scanning the earnest faces of the young Home Guards to find that imbecile. The sheer pleasure it was going to give 17-year-old Allison to tell him she was leaving and wouldn’t in a million years marry a market seller like him, reminded her of her worth. Allison flicked her chestnut brown hair back with her slender, lady-like fingers – dotted with glistening jewellery her mother had given her – and squinted her azure blue eyes to focus on the distant buildings ahead of her. Her gingham dress swayed behind her snow-white legs. She felt all eyes on her by the Home Guards – as if they were wondering why on earth a young lady like her would be loitering on the war-ridden streets plagued by the German militants’ barbarity. Just as she had lost hope of catching Tom along the way to the boutique, she saw his long torso and spindly legs blanketed by a dark green uniform standing in front of an egg yellow building. The building he ‘protected’ was crumbled against the floor behind him like the remnants of a tragic earthquake. His chest was puffed and he kept his head up. His queer posture caused her to giggle. He honestly looks so funny, Allison thought. She began walking towards him with a huge grin on her face.
“Look who it is, the market boy,” smirked Allison.
“As you can see, luv I’m on duty. Now if you’ll let me, I’d like to carry on with me appoin’ed task,” Tom replied back dutifully.
Sudden anger boiled within Allison, and she exclaimed at the top of her voice, “How dare you call me ‘luv’ you ill-mannered, filthy, Cockney! You can’t dismiss me! I’ll dismiss myself an-”
Just then, before Allison could even finish her snobbish shouts, a bone white stately building a few metres away knocked down like a house of playing cards, viciously burning like a church filled with hundreds of flickering candles. The sky looked like a devil’s painting of torture all blended in with swift, grey brushes of intoxicating smoke. The Luftwaffe aeroplanes whizzed in the sky like angry wasps. There were low screams in the distance and the cacophonous noise of the air raid sirens blaring through ears – like trumpets blaring for Judgement Day – hammering down in minds to proceed to underground shelters.
Allison, frozen with shock, was suddenly dragged by the arm into an abandoned shop. Her hope for her status and wealth to blanket her from the war was shot down, as she remembered the white stately building crashing down despite its worth and power. As she came back to her senses, she cried out, “Why have you dragged me here?! I have to go to a shelter! In fact, I’m going to a shelter!” Allison stepped forward to head out of the shop just to be abruptly pulled back in by the fabric of her expensive gingham dress into Tom’s arms. She hastily pushed herself back out of.
“Allison, what in your right mind makes you wan’a walk out into a street that’s flamin’ up in every corner of it?!” Tom pleaded with soft anger despite the terror and worry in his enlarged eyes.
“Well it does seem quite rational to me to run to an underground shelter rather than linger in a stupid shop which can be bombed any second!” Allison screamed.
“Look, I’m not steppin’ out into the mayhem that’s going on out there. If you value your ‘luxurious’ life one bit I’d suggest you keep quiet an’ wait ‘ere until the sirens stop. Does that seem ‘quite rational’ enough?” Tom probed.
Allison didn’t reply. She sat down on a rusty black stool that had once sat the owner of this shop: a sweet shop, Allison realised, as she took in the smell of long consumed humbugs, wine gums and liquorices that still lingered on the walls.
The shelves and jars sat empty and isolated.
“Pity this. We could’ve at least eaten some sweets whilst wai’ing for the sirens to be over. What a joy that would’ve been,” Tom dreamed as he too took in the surroundings.
“Yeah, more like how to get toothaches in the course of a few minutes,” Allison snorted.
“Guessing you ain’t a big fan of sweets, huh?” he asked proceeding to sit on the floor with his legs crossed. The stool was so high that Allison had to look down towards the floor to see him. She felt a pang of sorrow for Tom as she watched him on the floor and a longing feeling began to grow inside her. She wanted to be back home with her family. The drone of the planes still hovered above them. For the first time since the air raid happened that day, Allison began to feel another emotion other than shock. It was fear.
“It’s strange, ain’t it?” Tom asked.
“What exactly?” Allison’s voice broke as she questioned back.
“How your dad owns these big businesses, you ‘ave fine dinners every day, live in this grand museum of a house you call ‘ome, whereas me father don’t even own the ‘ouse we live in. Social gave it to us. But the point is we are two different people living in the same story. We only ‘ave a thin cement wall separating us from death. It may seem like nonsense to you, but think about it, Allison. Does money really ma’er when your life’s on edge? Tell me Allison. You look down on me but we are sailing on the same ship.”
Allison stared straight across at the wall behind him. He is only trying to make me feel guilty, she thought.
“I don’t get why you’re bringing this up,” she snapped.
“I wasn’t expecting you to understand anyway.” Tom lifted his shoulders and dropped them back down as if he were a doctor dealing with a hopeless patient refusing her medication. Oh stupid, stupid boy. How can I even admit the fact that a lady like me is stuck in this boring shop when I should be at home packing my precious things for the evacuation? All because of that stupid dress. And that stupid face. A face I can’t seem to stop looking at. What is happening to me? These thoughts raced in Allison’s head without her even realising that Tom wasn’t sitting on the floor anymore. She looked around and couldn’t see him. Sudden panic rose in her. He didn’t just leave me here, did he? And I didn’t even hear the door open…
“Tom…?” Allison called out. She got up from her stool and cried, “TOM IF YOU’RE IN HERE THIS IS NOT FUNNY!” No response. He had left. Of course he’d leave you, silly girl.
Outside, the street looked absolutely destroyed, hell coated like the man carrying the portmanteau had said. The building in front of them was also on fire. Their shop could be next.
“TOMMMM!” Allison’s lips began to quiver.
“There, there. No cryin’,” a sudden voice sprung up. A skinny figure appeared from behind one of the beige brown counters. Allison was taken aback by his childishness in such a situation. Tom went back to his seat on the floor.
“Why’d you do that?” Allison was angry at him.
“Well, for the first time in me life, I wan’ed to feel like someone actually needs me. That I’m wan’ed. Something me own father fails to do every day. Ever since my mother died, he acts like I’m a ghost, non existent, you know?”
Allison shook her head. She didn’t know. Suddenly, hot tears rolled down her cheeks. She remembered how Tom had dragged her into safety, despite how cruelly she treated him.
“In fact, this was the biggest reason I wan’ed to join as a Home Guard. I wan’ed to ‘elp, feel du’iful towards me country an’ actually do somthin’ useful other than sell fruits everyday. You know, your future is already set out for ya. A bright, bright future I can imagine that would be. For me, not the same. But, I like me job. It makes me feel proud.”
Allison suddenly stood up from her high stool with a new kind of purpose. Not the haughty kind. But the kind that changes your life. Before she could act on her decision, the hem of her valuable gingham dress got stuck on the jutting metal piece on the side of the stool, slightly ripping it at its expensive seam.
“Ah no. Please don’t start WW3 in ‘ere naw that your dress is ripped – as a country we’ve ‘ad enough of wars,” he said jokingly.
Allison laughed and ignored her dress. She walked towards him and sat down. Next to him. On the floor. Put her head on his shoulder. And as they sat there, quietly together, neither realised that the sirens had stopped…