Freedom tastes like sponge cake: light, rare, and oh so delicious. The evening air kisses my cheeks as I stroll down the street, safe with the knowledge that tonight, finally, will be different; a break in the routine that threatens its relentless onwards march to drain an entire generation of life before their time has even truly begun.
As the bulky outline of the tram stop comes into focus ahead, it strikes me just how peculiar an event war really is. To turn the ordinary into the extraordinary is quite a feat, yet overnight war does exactly that: food shopping requires meticulous planning thanks to rationing; extra space must be found in the schoolbag for the in-case-of-emergencies gas mask; much to the frustration of myself and my cooped-up friends, leaving the house on an evening for anything other than an air-raid becomes unthinkable. But tonight is different; tonight I am free; tonight I plan to dance dance dance until my feet beg for relief.
“Hello,” Mollie smiles, “are you ready?”
I nod, returning her grin but not the question: the excitement shining through her clear blue eyes is indicator enough that she has been waiting for this night just as eagerly as I have. Her enthusiasm is infectious, though, as we soon begin gossiping like giggling schoolgirls.
“Do you think the dance hall will have changed much? It’s been ages since I was last there…a month, perhaps.”
“I’m not sure…I think Lydia said that Elizabeth Mitchell and James Stone were going to be there tonight, wouldn’t that be fantastic!”
“Oh, I wish I could dance half as beautifully as Elizabeth…she’s just so graceful…”
The tram rattles to a grim and clanking halt before us, drowning out any further conversation. We pay the conductor before filing past rows of sparsely occupied seats towards the back. A shiver creeps down my spine as I register the furrowed brows and preoccupied expressions of the few people seated, whose thoughts clearly mirror those of my mother: only the mad and downright foolish venture from their homes in what have become known as the ‘air raid hours’.
Just for a moment, I consider turning back, demanding to be excused from the tram and racing back down the street to the relative safety of home: my parents, my siblings and our haphazard yet thus far reliable Anderson shelter – just in case. But then that dull sense of the familiar sets in – safety, yes, but also a suffocating monotony that so often these days threatens to envelop and swallow me whole. No. I have yearned for this one night of release, finally wrangled the permission of my reluctant yet conceding parents…I refuse to allow a moment of hesitation to ruin this.
The tram pulls off as we settle ourselves, trundling past a host of familiar landmarks: to the left, the red-brick primary school where Mollie and I spent our early years; on the outskirts of town, the spitfire and tank factories now heaving with the constant effort of wartime production; on the usually bustling Main Street, the small but precious library where I work as a receptionist. Balsall Heath Library, a haven amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I must confess that, unlike Mollie, who has grown to detest working as a domestic cleaner, I adore my job. Sorting books, breathing life into their often tired and dusty pages…one year of employment there has passed faster than I could have predicted.
The gentle squeeze of Mollie’s hand pulls me from my reverie: as we descend from the tram, my eager ears detect the spangled song of the foxtrot, a saxophone playing out its sweet melody. We rush across the street and into the welcoming arms of the YWCA, the whitewashed walls of which comfortingly show no signs of change in the weeks since our last visit. In the dressing room, a hasty change of shoes into dance slippers and we are ready, anticipation fluttering in our stomachs like the wings of a startled butterfly.
“Come on!” Mollie urges as the music dapples out into a softer, smoother rhythm, “the waltz is my favourite!”
We file out into the spacious dance hall, the clacking of our shoes against the polished wooden floorboards drowning in the sea of a hundred other footsteps. Two lines have formed at opposite sides of the room: boys on the left, girls to the right. Recognising several old school friends, Mollie and I squeeze into the girls’ group, glancing around as the music picks up its pace to see who will be the first to break ranks and begin the pairing up process.
“It’s Elizabeth Mitchell!” hisses a voice by my side.
“And look, there’s James Stone!”
Sure enough, my gaze flickers upwards and locks onto the swishing yellow skirts and flying flame-red ringlets of Elizabeth Mitchell, whose electric energy and superb skill easily earn her the reputation of Balsall Heath’s greatest dancer. Not for the first time, a whoosh of envy fills my chest as I watch her meet her partner before the two melt off into a perfect waltz, seemingly oblivious to the many pairs of eyes following their graceful swirls across the dance floor. As always, they begin a domino effect: up and down the dance hall, brave boys sidle up to coquettish girls, until the floor is soon a myriad of coloured dresses interspersed with block black suits, united in the identical movements of a wonderful waltz. Until I see her rising and falling beside me, rotating in the arms of a boy, I had not registered Mollie’s absence; a smile plays at my lips as I recognise her clear elation.
Just as I turn away, rouged cheeks glowing with the embarrassment of being without a partner, a soft hand closes around my wrist.
“Excuse me, Miss, but may I have this dance?”
I gasp as I take in the dark eyes, the shock of sandy brown hair and lightly freckled face of the boy standing before me.
“Joseph Browning! Why, I haven’t seen you since…”
“Mrs Hemmel’s English class, two years ago,” he interrupts, a playful grin igniting his soft features. “Lily Heslop…how have you been?”
“I thought they’d called you up?”
A slight shadow passes across his face.
“I’m not yet old enough – 18 in three months time. I’ve been working though, everyday down at the docks. It’s quite a hike to get there, but anything I can do to help the war effort…” he trails off, embarrassment much stronger than my own clear in his downcast gaze. I smile, laying an encouraging hand on his arm.
“I think working on the docks is extremely important, especially at times like these. Come on – let’s dance.”
We twirl into the tornado of spinning couples; a wink from Mollie as we pass her and a boy I now recognise as George Norburry, a young railway worker whose fascination with the steam engines often sees him frequent the library, scouring the shelves for information on the latest models. With his tall, wiry frame placing him a good head above Mollie’s petite figure, the two make a perfect pair, him guiding her seamlessly through the whispered webs of the waltz and then, as the music becomes swiftly more upbeat, through the fast-paced jumps of the jive.
Hearts pounding and breathless, Joseph and I choose to sit out the quickstep as its dizzying beat floods the dance hall. As he joins the drinks queue, I take a seat, allowing my thoughts to wander back to my moment of hesitation on the tram: how glad I am that I did not allow a second’s weakness to ruin what has turned into a fantastic night! Glancing around, I see that this feeling of escapist happiness is mutual: not a single frown lines the faces of any of the hundred or so dancers present. It is almost as if, for but a few hours, we can fool ourselves into believing that outside in the blackened streets and star-scattered skies, war is not raging: here in this dance hall, we are living purely for the moment.
The rest of the night passes in a heady blur of ecstasy: we waltz, jive and jitterbug until our aching feet can take no more. As the final strains of Glen Miller fade out, and couples begin to peel away from the hall and out into the still spring night, Mollie and I make for the dressing room, chattering and giggling in reflection of a fabulous evening.
It is not until we are exchanging our shoes that it becomes clear that something is wrong, very wrong. Exchanges of laughter and leisurely exits from the dance hall have morphed into urgent shouts and hurried footsteps; a booming blast shakes the ground; a relentless scream shatters the night. All illusions of a peaceful normality forgotten, Mollie and I clasp hands and join the crowd jostling out onto the stone steps; Joseph grasps my arm just as we reach the door.
“It’s the tank factory on Grainger Street – went up in flames about five minutes ago.”
Sure enough, beyond the concrete pillars framing the doorway, thick billows of acrid smoke are visible from five miles away, its black arms coiling into terrible turrets that slash at the burning night sky. Eyes transfixed by this terrible sight and ears pounding from the ongoing shriek of the air raid siren, it takes seconds before I notice that Mollie’s hand has slipped from my grip. I turn, panicked, to find her curled on the floor, George’s pale face inches from hers as he attempts to help her to her feet. I grab her free arm and together we pull: she hobbles upwards, pain clear in her expression as she bites down on her lip.
“Are you okay?” I call, straining to be heard over the siren’s screeching blare and flustered stampede that surrounds us. Somewhere in the commotion, I register that Joseph’s hand is still gripped around my wrist. She nods bravely.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here – if we’re lucky the last tram may still be running.”
As fast as Mollie’s injured ankle permits, we dash across the road to the tram stop.
“Sorry, folks, trams are suspended due to the raid,” says a controller in a black uniform as we approach, “I’d suggest you get to the nearest shelter and wait out the night. It’s not safe to be walking the streets.”
He marches off to address the next dishevelled and clearly desperate group emerging from the throng that surrounds the dance hall, leaving us stranded with a silent panic that screams even louder than the sirens hollering all around us. Wordlessly, with the understanding that there is little other option, the four of us join hands and begin navigating the blackened streets in the general direction of home.
After four streets, the cries and chaos of the YWCA melt away under the still shrieking drone of the sirens. Glancing around, I see we are now the only people not ensconced in the warm, relative safety of an Anderson shelter. If anyone left in the surrounding houses should choose to peek through a crack in the bolted shut curtains, what a sorry sight we should appear: two terrified girls, fingers hooked round tired dance shoes; locked hands with two boys, whose pale faces and uneasy expressions betray the sense of calm they attempt to portray.
A further two avenues later and it becomes clear that we can no longer continue. What began as a slow walk faded into a determined shuffle, but has now become a clearly crippling limp. I can just make out the pinprick tears sparkling in her eyes as I squeeze her hand for encouragement, at which point she stops, lowering her hand to clutch her battered and swelling ankle. I guide her to the nearest wall, where she sits gratefully, apologies tumbling from her lips like raindrops.
“Don’t be sorry,” I respond, laying what I hope is a soothing hand on her ash-blonde ringlets, “It’s not your fault…”
I gaze desperately around the darkened street, eyes straining to detect something – anything – that might be of help. We cannot stay here; that much is obvious. Yet neither can we continue the journey home without risking further injury to Mollie. I turn to Joseph, on the verge of advising that perhaps he and George should seek safety at the nearest possible shelter, when the click of a lock sounds from the house whose wall Mollie has perched upon.
“Are you folks okay?” The shadowed figure of a woman blocks the stray beam of light spilling from the doorway. Throwing all formalities and sensibilities to the wind, I lean in her direction to be heard over the still warbling sirens.
“It’s my friend – she’s hurt. We’ve been to the dance, we’re a few miles from home, the trams are no longer running…”
“You can’t stay out here.” Her sharp tone cuts off my rambled explanation. “We’ve got an Anderson in the garden…you’re welcome to use it, but I’m afraid there’s only room for another two.”
I lock eyes with Joseph, who nods in silent acknowledgement: this is our only option.
“They’ll take it.”
I thank the woman as, with Mollie’s feeble objections trickling into their ears, Joseph and George help my friend up the stony garden path and across the threshold. With a knowing look and handshake, the two boys part ways at the door: within seconds, Joseph is back by my side and we are running, hands clasped and hearts pounding, down the myriad of streets in the direction of home. A backward glance shows that the house has again disappeared into the darkness: as we pound the pavements, knowledge that at least Mollie and George are safe provides some comfort.
As we round the next corner and fly down yet another street of blacked-out houses, we see them. Their cockroach bodies crawl across the sky, wings spread wide in a valiant mission to block out the stars; their spotlights swirl around us, so mercilessly bright in the surrounding darkness that I feel sure we shall wither under their glare. The air raid sirens are nothing compared to this: the noise of their overhead drone is deafening.
Communication impossible, Joseph grabs my arm and drags me in the opposite direction – somewhere, anywhere, away from here – as the unmistakable sound of dropping bombs penetrates all other onslaughts of noise. I freeze, heart hammering in my throat; Joseph tugs me onwards, to a destination I no longer know of or care for. In the glare of the spotlight that seems to track us, I catch the petrified expression as his lips frame my name – “Lily! Come on!” – but can hear nothing. I simply run. Run, run, run, until the trace of the spotlight disappears and the silent houses begin to look familiar: somehow, I am here, I am home. As Joseph hovers at my gate, I take control: I pull him down the path, around the house and into the back garden. I pound on the door to the Anderson shelter with a strength I scarcely knew I possessed until, moments later, the door opens and Joseph and I tumble into the grabbing, shaking, welcoming arms of my hysterical parents.
“Where have you been?!”
“…you didn’t make it back…”
“…the dance hall…”
Ears ringing and pulses still racing, Joseph and I patchily recount the story of our journey from the YWCA: Mollie’s fall, the cancelled tram, the kind stranger, and the stalking bomber planes. Wholly exhausted, we flop down on the wooden bench, sat like bookends either side of my sleeping siblings. As my mother suggests that we do the same and hands us a blanket each, I fix her with a wide-eyed stare: between tonight’s events and continued worry concerning the safety of Mollie and George, I wonder if I will ever sleep again. However, feet throbbing and entire body shaking, I can only assume that the still shrieking sirens act as a sinister lullaby: a restless sleep eventually overcomes me.
* * *
Perhaps I have gone deaf. This is my first thought as I wake the next morning to a world where the sun shines cold and bright and the air is not alive with the warbling wails of sirens. A quiet voice to my left penetrates the stillness.
I rise, dropping the thin blanket and smoothing my sleep-tousled curls. Joseph and my father are the only two awake: everyone else – my mother, sister and two younger brothers – are still shrouded in sleep.
“I wanted to see you before I left.”
“Yes, of course – I’m glad you waited. You’re headed home now? I will walk part of the way with you – I want to see for myself the damage the night caused.”
After battling the objections of my father, I lead the way from the shelter, out through the mercifully untouched garden and into the silent street. Joseph walks by my side: neither of us speaks, each expecting, after the proximity of the bombers last night, that the next corner will bring marks of tragedy. Before either of us realises it, it becomes apparent that we are heading in the opposite direction to Joseph’s house: we are re-tracing our route from the early hours.
Slowly, uneasily, front doors begin to open in a haphazard domino effect: the anxious faces that emerge melt into relief as it becomes clear that, this time, they have escaped unscathed.
We are around four streets away from the dance hall when sirens of a different nature reach our ears: ambulances hurtle down the otherwise deserted roads, rounding the corner onto a familiar street. Too familiar. The street where, last night, we left Mollie and George. My stomach takes a sickening plunge as the realisation hits home: no words necessary, Joseph and I break into a run.
Wreckage. That is the only word I can use to describe it. In a row of seven houses, not one of them is still standing; all are reduced to burning piles of ashes and rubble, trails of grey smoke rising from the debris like the tail ends of broken promises. In this state, it is impossible to distinguish the exact house at which we left our friends last night. It doesn’t matter: one look is sufficient enough to confirm that there can be no survivors.
Mollie. George. Here one minute, gone the next. Life extinguished like a flame, gone all too soon; another victim in the thousands of bullets, hundreds of bombers, and one man’s ruthless quest for power. That’s when I realised that, although last night’s battle was over, the war was only just beginning.