Kath Ellis licked the envelope flap, slipped the letter into its appointed place, then quietly closed the door and turned the key.
‘Why do you bother?’ her friend, Bella, asked. ‘Either send the dratted thing or stop wasting time writing them.’
Hardly a week went by without her writing to someone back home. Her father, mother, Meg, even Jack, for all she had no wish to ever see him again. The letters were all there, neatly tied into bundles in her locker, stampless envelopes stuck down as if they’d already been seen by the censor. Except that she’d no intention of posting any of them.
Kath smiled. ‘They’re like a diary. Who knows? One day somebody may be glad to know what I got up to during these years of war. Were I to be no longer around.’ Her daughter perhaps?
Bella took the pen from her fingers. ‘Stop that this minute. I won’t have you tempt fate with such wild notions. My father thinks women in uniform are the lowest of the low, so let’s brave the local hostelry and prove it, shall we? We have two whole hours before the ten-
Kath laughed. ‘Like good girls at school.’
Bella tucked Kath’s arm into hers as they clattered past the row of beds and left the Nissen hut. ‘You’re lucky if you went to that sort of school. No one gave out cocoa at mine, only verses of Old Testament to be endlessly learned, and the cane every Friday.’
Katherine Ellis only laughed. Not quite the glossy beauty she’d once been, her sleek blonde bob was cut short, although starting to grow again, the once perfectly manicured nails bitten to the quick. But there was still that elusive quality about her that spoke of a sheltered background, of a girl who had taken her natural attraction to men rather for granted, although the price she’d paid for that foolishness had been high.
‘I can just see you as a schoolgirl, all pigtails and short socks.’ Bella grinned. ‘I was a terror. Bigger than most of the teachers. Come on, old sport, tonight we celebrate the end of the dreaded training, for tomorrow we face the horrors of carrying our kitbags half across country to the outer wilds of East Anglia.’
Kath had met Bella on Euston Station. Surrounded by more girls than she had ever seen in her life, all chattering twenty to the dozen, the noise had been deafening. Then one black-
It had set in alarmingly early. The moment they saw the train backing into Platform One it came home to them that this was the moment of no return. When they boarded, they’d be on their way to becoming a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. They’d be a WAAF.
To Kath it had seemed the only answer after Meg rescued her from Greenlawns, the Home for Wayward Girls where she’d given birth to Jack’s baby and feared she might be incarcerated forever. When the pair of them had reached Liverpool’s Lime Street Station, Kath had pushed Meg on to the train and thrust Melissa into her arms, not even noticing the irony of relinquishing her daughter to the woman she’d betrayed, her one-
She’d boarded the next train and come straight to London on the money the home had given her, not knowing what she intended, nor caring very much. On reaching the Capital she’d tried a series of temporary jobs -
But then she’d seen the poster and the answer seemed suddenly obvious. In the WAAF she would be provided with food, clothing, a bed to sleep in, work with pay at the end of it, and no questions asked. One of hundreds of girls her indiscretions could be safely buried, if not forgotten. Worn out and feeling far from clean, she’d gladly signed up.
She hadn’t minded the weeks of hard training that followed. Nor had it troubled her in the least to stand for hours in the freezing cold, run up and down on the spot or do a half-
Kath hadn’t objected to the school-
‘So long as they don’t give us any more of those damned inoculations,’ said Bella. ‘I can take anything they throw at me, but those.’
Bella had been ill with fever and the shakes after the typhoid, tetanus and smallpox injections. Kath was thankful to be able to prove she’d already had them.
‘And no more of those unspeakably awful FFI examinations,’ Kath laughed. ‘Cavorting about knickerless is not my idea of fun.’
Hadn’t it been proved already, at the home, that she was free from infection? And no WAAF Officer could make a worse job of it than Miss Blake. Not that she admitted to anyone that she’d suffered the dreaded test once already.
Bella looked at her in open admiration. ‘Bloomin’ hell, I’ll never forget the way you walked in to that room. Cool as a cucumber you were. Everyone else was white-
Kath giggled. ‘No, but maybe I should have tried it. It might have paid better than a waitress job at the UCP.’ The best of it was that Bella would have accepted her just the same if she had been.
‘Undoubtedly, and with better tips. Only snag would be all those men gawping at you. Give me the shivers, that would. I’m off them myself.’
Kath grinned. ‘Right now I’m inclined to agree with you.’
Bella cast her new friend a sideways glance as she handed over a half pint glass of cider. ‘Got your fingers burned, did you?’
‘You might say so.’
‘Well, that’s another thing we have in common. No romantic story of partings and promises to wait for me either. My old man put five bob on the table, told me he was off to join the Army and ta ta. That was the last I heard of him. No letters, no pay cheque every month, not even a telegram. I can only assume that he’s alive and well and keeping out of my way, which is fine by me. Not a marriage made in heaven, I can tell you, more like in Epping Forest.’
‘Nope. Nor do I ever intend having any, smelly, demanding creatures that they are. My mother had one a year for fourteen years then dropped dead. That ain’t for me.’ A vision of a small crumpled face came into Kath’s mind and she took a quick draught of her cider.
‘Steady on, it’s stronger than it looks.’
‘When do you think we’ll get our uniform?’ Kath asked. ‘When we get to our new posting?’
‘Let’s hope so. You look like you might be off to Ascot in that posh suit. Not to mention that fancy tan hat. Have you nothing else to wear?’
‘I lost all my luggage,’ Kath lied.
‘Poor sod. Well, at least take off the hat in here or they’ll double the price of the drinks.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t think.’ Kath realised the outfit spoke of money and class but Aunt Ruby never had sent on her other clothes and this was all she possessed in the world.
Even if she’d been dressed in rags, her background would still have shown. It was all there in the way she held her head, the swing of her walk. If she was unaware how her instinctive style, her air of self-
But it would be a misinterpretation, a travesty of the truth to assume she was that same socialising, careless Katherine of long ago. Were anyone to take the trouble to look closer they might find some surprising contradictions. A few calluses and blisters in unexpected places for one thing, as well as the hard-
Let them look and see me as I really am, she thought. A woman who has been to the bottom and is clawing her way back out of the pit. Let them see courage, guts, and a warning to stand clear and not dare to bully me or I’ll blast their socks off! Greenlawns had introduced her to physical pain but had failed to destroy the intrinsic strength she held inside. Not so reckless as she once was, nor so restless, but a whole lot tougher.
So let the WAAF do its worst.