London was on fire. Blazing refineries and storehouses near the Thames billowed columns of thick black smoke high into the dawn sky. Far below, three RAF Albion trucks ground slowly through Greenwich, snaking between piles of rubble and along roads strewn with debris. The lead driver craned his neck through the cab window as he navigated the obstacles. Inside the vehicles, exhausted aircraftsmen jolted against each other as they tried to sleep. Eventually, a policeman waved at them and pointed to where a few figures clambered over the wreckage of demolished buildings.
Parking well away from the rescue work so that their engines would not mask sounds from inside the debris, Sergeant Mackenzie swung to the road and walked along the line of vehicles, banging his fist on their sides. 'Out, out, out,' he yelled hoarsely. They had been on duty for days, snatching only minutes of sleep while being shunted from one bomb-damaged building to the next. Disembarking clumsily the aircraftsmen blinked at the now bright sunlight, battling against numbing weariness. Quick glances showed them an avenue of neat houses, but now four were rubble and the windows and roofs of the others were either missing or damaged. Curtains fluttered like distress signals through broken glass, while a few dazed householders piled rubble beside their homes as though imposing order on the destruction somehow reduced its potency.
George Watford stumbled as he dropped to the road, almost falling to his knees. His last solid night's sleep had been so long ago that he could barely remember it. Just nineteen, years of farm work before the war had made him strong, but over the past few weeks the Luftwaffe's air raids had been relentless and he had been in the thick of it. Like the others, he was exhausted. An ARP warden broke away from the rescue effort and hurried across and Sergeant Mackenzie gathered them to listen.
'An unexploded bomb went off just over an hour ago, demolishing four houses,' the warden spoke quickly, eager to get back. 'A neighbour reckons those two have basements and so we're digging there first.' He pointed at the closest pair of wrecked buildings. 'She also thinks there were people in most houses at the time, but doesn't know how many.'
'Right,' Mackenzie replied, glancing up the road. 'Any leaking gas or other UXB's?'
The warden shook his head. His dark blue uniform was tinged grey with dust and sweat ran down from under his tin hat leaving vertical lines in the grime on his face. 'The gas main's turned off. There's nothing else dangerous that we know of.'
Mackenzie nodded thankfully. 'Any sounds from inside?'
The warden shrugged. 'Thought we heard something from the second house about fifteen minutes ago, but nothing since.'
Mackenzie decided quickly. 'First and second squads to the two houses with basements. Third squad, half each to the other two,' he ordered. By now, they knew their jobs without detailed instructions and moved off carrying a selection of picks, wrecking bars and shovels.
George's half-squad walked to the furthest bomb-damaged house and he eyed it warily. He hated finding bodies, but even when they found survivors there was little joy in it. Many of the youngsters evacuated at the start of the war had returned to London and in every raid, children lost mothers and mothers lost children. Last night they recovered the body of a young woman, her face purple and bloated. Nearby small children wailed pitifully as neighbours clung to them. He found the grief of the living hardest of all to bear.
Arriving first, he quickly tied a broken lace and examined the ruins. The interior partition wall dividing the houses was still standing, but the exterior walls had collapsed. What remained of the roof following the explosion had simply broken and dropped either side of the partition.
'If there's a bed in there, I'm crawling into it,' Roy Clark said behind him. George glanced at Clark and saw him stagger slightly.
'There might be someone in it already,' George said clambering up the rubble.
'Well if this lot landed on them then I don't think they'll be too bothered by me.'
'Even a dead woman wouldn't stay in bed with you, Knobby,' George told him.
'I wouldn't care if it was Gracie Fields herself. She'd have nothing to worry about but my snoring.'
Debris slipped treacherously as George climbed higher and dislodged slates sped down the rubble like toboggans on a snow slope. He could see that the wooden floor joists had snapped, but most still leaned against the partition wall forming a right-angled triangle and giving the possibility of a void underneath. Behind him, Clark and the others formed a line, ready to pass back rubble as he freed it. Dulled by lack of sleep he worked mechanically, pulling away tiles, bricks and pieces of wood, pausing every so often to call into the wreckage below. Suddenly the air raid sirens started again, their familiar sound winding into a howl.
'Jesus,' Clark cursed. 'Don't the flaming Luftwaffe ever take a day off?'
George smiled grimly and tugged at the last few bricks covering two of the joists. 'I heard that Hitler pays overtime,' he replied and went back to work. Minutes later, he removed a brick and saw a space below, a good-sized space. The trouble was that the more rubble they removed the weaker the structure grew. If they took away too much it might collapse altogether. He lay on his stomach and slithered over the hole, manoeuvring a flashlight to the side of his ear. Through the dust, he examined what was left of the room, a fireplace, a rug, a settee and a woman's body partly buried under rubble.
'I can see someone down there,' he called over his shoulder.
'Don't think so. She's not moving anyway.' The beam cut through the murky air, lighting up her face and he saw her eyes flick open.
'Hang on, she is alive. I just saw her stir. Can you hear me down there?' he called through the hole. Her right arm lifted slightly in acknowledgement, but she said nothing.
'Can she get out?'
'No chance, she's trapped from the waist down under piles of the stuff. I'll have to go in,' he added and pulled away more wreckage. The gap was narrow and he doubted that the joists would hold if he swung from them. He grimaced at the thought of dropping into the wreckage with so much rubble above his head. His grandfather had died working in the coal mines near his Somerset village, trapped deep underground in a pitfall that killed ten men. Crushed or suffocated no one knew because the bodies were abandoned, impossible to recover. He hated enclosed spaces.
'Send back for the medic and pass me a bar once I'm down.' George called urgently. There was no reply so he turned and saw the others transfixed, staring at the sky. He followed their gaze and caught his breath. In the far distance, a silver cloud was coming towards them, a huge silver cloud that glinted in the sunlight. The Luftwaffe was back and more than ever.
Puffs of white flak peppered the sky around the horde while a few tiny dots of RAF planes darted at them. Higher still, twisting white con-trails showed where RAF and German fighters battled. However, the Luftwaffe swarm slogged on, far too many for the defenders to stop. The usual anger at the bombers coursed through him and deep frustration because he could do nothing to stop them. Every day hundreds of rescue workers sifted through the destruction like ants scurrying over a split anthill, only for the maniac with the spade to return the next day.
'Bloody hell,' Clark said quietly, watching the approaching maelstrom. 'The buggers are coming right at us.'
George gave a final glance and turned away, determined to carry on. Slipping between the joists, he dropped onto the settee with a jarring thud that rolled him onto the floor. For a second he tensed, winded, half expecting the ruins to collapse. Then pulling out his flashlight he clambered across to the woman. The air was thick with dust and he shivered. It was too much like being in a pit shaft, dark and claustrophobic. A part of him wanted to scramble back out, but instead he knelt by her side.
'Are you hurt?' he asked, prizing masonry from her legs. At first, the covering of grime on her face and hair made her look grey and elderly, but as he wiped away dust and rubble from her eyes and mouth, he could see that she was young.
She closed her eyes and seemed half-asleep. Eventually, she said weakly, 'Ich glaube, mein Bein ist gebrochen.'
'What?' he asked taken aback. 'I don't understand. Can you speak English?'
'Was?' she looked at him strangely, her pupils unfocused. Then she recovered. '...I think my leg is broken.' Her accent was now English but with a hint of somewhere foreign.
'Is there anyone else in here?'
'No, just me.'
'George!' Clark shouted down the hole. 'The sergeant says we're to take cover under the railway arches, can you get out?'
A rolling crump of explosions sounded in the distance and he felt a shiver of fear, but glancing at the girl he saw her watching him and he knew he could not leave.
'No, I'll chance it in here. Pass me a couple of bars and a canteen too if you've got one. Then go. I'll be fine.'
Through the hole came two wrecking bars and a canteen of water, and he set to work in the void, his actions quick and urgent. Balancing the flashlight on the floor, he smashed two small holes high in the chimney breast with the bars. Next, he rammed a bar into each hole as far as it would go, wedging them in place. Finally, he placed a few lengths of wood across the bars to block the wooden beams if they slid down the wall. There was a chance anyway; it was all he could think of doing.
'I'm going to have to move you to the fireplace,' he said and without waiting for a reply, lifted her as gently as he could. She was lighter than he expected but tiredness made him stumble and she screamed as he knocked her leg against one of the broken beams.
'Gott, es tut weh!'
'...That hurt. My leg hurts,' she said. He saw there was a bulge in her shin and it bent at a slight angle.
'Sorry, but it has to be done, you'll be safe by the chimney,' George tried to sound confident, stifling his anxiety, but feeling certain they would die if the rubble collapsed. He kicked cushions from the broken settee to the fireplace and laid her on them as gently as he could. She grimaced as he set her down. 'Sorry. It must be painful.'
The spasm passed and she looked up. Her pupils were wider and she seemed more alert. 'Please... stay with me,' she whispered through gritted teeth. 'I don't want to be alone again.'
'As long as nothing lands too close we'll be fine.'
'You're a poor liar,' she said with a pained expression.
'I'd almost convinced myself.'
'That just means you're a fool, a double fool for not going with the others.'
He settled on the floor next to her and with both their backs to the fireplace, it felt oddly companionable. Closer now, sharp explosions rumbled like thunder.
'Is it just your leg that hurts?' he asked shakily, wondering if he really had been foolish to stay.
'Yes. My shin feels like it's on fire... It must be broken,' she winced and touched it gently.
'Can I do anything?'
'Just stay with me.'
George glanced up at the hole he had made in the rubble, wondering if he should have tried to get her out, but he knew it was too small. 'Where are you from? You're not from here are you?'
'No, I'm not English,' she answered and said no more.
'You sound Scandinavian.'
'Scandinavian?' she repeated, confused. 'No, I'm not Scandinavian.'
'So where do you come from?' he pressed her, wanting to think of anything but the approaching bombs.
'Is it important?' she snapped and her evasiveness made him even more curious.
'It sounds like you don't want to tell me.'
She thought for a moment before replying. 'I... I don't want you to leave.'
Now he was really curious. 'Why would I leave because of where you're from?'
Again, she hesitated and he thought she was ignoring him. Eventually, she answered. 'Because I'm German. Those are my countrymen dropping bombs.'
'German!' George exclaimed, so surprised that he almost stood up. 'How can you be German?'
'Because I was born there. How else?' Her tone was weary, defeated.
'But... but why are you here?' He did not know what else to say. 'We're at war.'
She turned her head away as if she was tired of explaining her nationality. 'I'm here because I'm Jewish. We aren't liked by the Nazis so my parents sent me here to be safe.'
The bombs were getting nearer. Tremors bounced through the floorboards and brought down a haze of dust from the rubble, stinging his throat and making breathing difficult. He unscrewed the canteen and offered it to her. She drank deeply and then splashed water onto her face. With much of the dust washed away, she looked to be about the same age as him. The beams groaned ominously and he stared at them fearfully. Cheap wood, he said to himself. Unseasoned. They'll snap rather than bend.
'And what about you?' she asked. 'You're in the RAF, why aren't you flying?'
George shook his head. 'I'm what's called an 'Erk', an aircraftsman. I don't fly.'
'That's like a sailor never going to sea. Why be in the RAF if you don't fly?'
He managed a wry grin; it was something he had asked himself many times. 'I've always loved aircraft, so it seemed the service to join.' He took the canteen and swirled some water in his mouth before spitting it out. 'I've applied to become aircrew, so you never know.' However, he doubted that would happen now and that thought bothered him almost as much as the approaching bombers. Flying had fascinated him since childhood and at times, he wanted it so badly he ached.
Suddenly the ground shuddered, followed immediately by a loud explosion and she shrieked. 'My God, they're getting very close!' She reached for his arm and pressed her face into his dusty uniform. George curled into her, feeling her body shake with fear. Oh you bastards, he said to himself. You bloody bastards!
More jagged explosions followed and the rubble jumped sharply. Bits of plaster and stone dropped onto them and the wooden joists slid down the wall until stopped by his makeshift barrier. He looked up at it silently, praying it would be strong enough.
'I think your support has worked,' she said at last, shaking plaster from her hair.
'For now,' he replied quietly. The squad had shifted a lot of the rubble so perhaps they might survive if it collapsed. It just depended on which way it fell. The flashlight toppled over so he grabbed it and sat back down, the urge to scramble up through the hole and run for shelter was almost overpowering. 'Where will you go now?' he asked, feeling the need to talk, to say something above the creaking rubble and approaching bombs, like whistling against the darkness.
'This place is rented. I can get lodging with my job.' The next blast was much closer and the ground shook sharply, dropping and bouncing back up. A shower of soot fell down the chimney and swirled around them like mist. She coughed and grabbed at his jacket again, clinging to it like a lifeline. 'I'm scared, bloody terrified. Please keep talking, say something, anything. What's your name?'
He pulled her into his chest, trying to hide her from another shower of debris, but his arms shook so badly he could hardly hold her. 'I'm... George,' he told her, forcing out the words. 'George Watford.'
'I'm Millie,' she almost screamed. 'Millie Horowitz.' For an instant, the void lit brighter than daylight and he could see every detail within the space. Then the explosion struck, the beams collapsed and there was only darkness.
His first thought was that he was waking from a deep sleep; it was the same soft, warm mugginess. Then his back began to throb and he rolled over but that was a mistake. Pain lanced through his shoulder so sharply that he cried out. Still half-asleep, he struggled to sit up, but his back was tearing itself apart. He tried to open his eyes but could see nothing. Firm hands grabbed him and pushed him back down.
'Lay still, damn you,' a man's voice said harshly. 'You'll break the bloody stitches.'
'What's happening?' George mumbled. 'Where am I?' No one answered.
'Get the bandage out of his eyes,' the man snapped. 'He must have pulled it down. And fetch the morphine, he needs another half grain.'
Gentle hands touched his face and something slid over his nose and onto his brow. The light was sudden and dazzling and he clamped his eyes closed. When he opened them again, stark bare walls and metal framed beds surrounded him, and standing beside him was a white-coated doctor and a nurse.
'Where am I?' he repeated in confusion. Then the memory of the bomb blast flicked into his muddled mind. Snapshot images of an explosion, brilliant light and falling rubble. 'Am I hurt?'
'Hush,' the nurse said gently. 'Just be still.'
'Where's the bloody morphine?' the doctor called and pushed George onto his side and held him firmly. 'He's bleeding, the wound has opened. Get a needle and thread and some fresh dressings while I hold him.'
The throbbing was intense, sharp and searing. He remembered an enclosed space, an injured girl and approaching bombers. Flickering images like a worn Pathé Newsreel in the cinema. He clamped his teeth together and tried not to cry out.
'Is it serious, doctor? What's happened to me?' Pain swept away the last vestiges of sleep. He was now alert and fighting the discomfort.
'Nothing serious,' the doctor answered at last. 'You've got a deep laceration on the right shoulder, the trapezius muscle and a smaller one on the back of the head. Something sharp and heavy fell on you but you're young and strong so you'll be as good as new in a few weeks, as long as it doesn't become infected.'
'What about the girl?' George asked, remembering. 'There was a girl with me, she had a broken leg. I was trying to get her out.'
'I don't keep track of everyone admitted to the hospital,' the doctor said briskly. However, after some seconds he added, 'Is she young with black hair?'
'Sounds like her.'
'I was on duty when a girl came in with a fractured tibia. A broken shin bone,' he explained. 'I can see she was lucky.'
'Lucky?' George repeated through gritted teeth. 'How was she lucky?'
'Because the building collapsed on an ox like you rather than her. Now don't move or I'll have to redo all of the stitches.' George chuckled and immediately regretted it as the pain returned. 'At last,' the doctor said at the sound of approaching footsteps. 'Hold him while I thread the needle. Stay absolutely still, I can't wait for the morphine and this is going to hurt.'
Sergeant Mackenzie visited the next day, just after they returned from the basement following another air raid. The familiar face looked tired and bits of dust showed in the joints of his uniform. He carried a kit bag on his shoulder that George recognised as his own.
'You're an idiot, Watford,' Mackenzie said in a gentle Scottish burr. 'You should have sheltered with the rest of us.'
George looked up and smiled. Mackenzie's voice was loud and harsh when he was truly angry. 'Sorry sergeant, I couldn't just leave her there.'
Mackenzie dumped the kit bag on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. 'Aye an' I'm sure you'd have done the same if she'd been some old granny,' he said sarcastically.
George shrugged. 'I think I would,' he replied, suddenly wondering.
Mackenzie laughed. 'Yes, I dare say you would have.' He pulled some papers from inside his jacket and handed them to George. 'Anyway, you're a lucky idiot. The flight lieutenant asked me to bring you these. They've accepted your application for aircrew. You're off on education courses from December and then you report to an Initial Training Unit at Torquay in March. In the meantime you're no use to man nor beast with that injury, so you're on convalescence leave until you start.'
'A month?' George said incredulously. Up to now, a forty-eight-hour pass was generous.
'Six weeks to be exact.' Mackenzie shook his head at the craziness of his superiors. 'Apparently, they're keen to get their hands on anyone daft enough to volunteer for aircrew and they don't want your chances spoilt by injury.'
George was speechless, selected for aircrew training and two months convalescence seemed too good to be true. He needed time to absorb the news and all it meant. 'How are the lads?' he asked, changing the subject.
'Pleased you're going,' Mackenzie replied. 'You make them look bad with all these heroics.' He laughed and went to slap George on the shoulder, but then appeared horrified as George recoiled. 'Och, sorry lad, I completely forgot.'
He forced a quick grin for Mackenzie's benefit. 'I bet the flight lieutenant put you up to that, just to make sure I really needed the leave.'
Mackenzie smiled sheepishly. 'I've got to be off, George. You take care of yourself and good luck with ITU.' They shook hands and Mackenzie was about to go when he turned back and stared hard for a moment. 'You're a good man and I was glad to have you in my squad. Just remember that most heroes get their medals posthumously.'
George watched Mackenzie walk away down the ward with a tinge of sadness. He would miss him. The Scot possessed the rare ability to combine humanity with discipline. Sergeant Mackenzie cared about his men and they would never dare take advantage of that fact. As the doors swung shut on one part of his RAF career, he closed his eyes and relaxed into thoughts of the future. Education courses and two months at an Initial Training Unit followed by ten weeks of Elementary Flying Training to see if he had what it took to become a pilot. Success there would mean a further year at an Advanced Flying Training School abroad. Finally, there would be more courses to learn the skills needed for combat. In all, he would have almost two years dedicated to a thing he had dreamt of since childhood. That was if he was good enough. So many things could go wrong, so many tests to untried aspects of his character. He sighed and forced the thoughts away, he was determined to succeed. After rereading the orders for the third time and savouring each line, he decided he needed to share his news with someone. So clad in hospital pyjamas and a robe he went in search of Millie.
The woman's wards were on the floor below and he walked quickly past rows of beds, trying hard not to stare. At the end of one ward, he saw a girl lying in bed. Her plaster cast leg hoisted by a metal gantry.
'Hello Millie,' he said. With the dirt washed from her face and her hair brushed, she looked so different. She had collar length black hair, high cheekbones and a thin face. However, the most striking feature was her eyes. Brown and penetratingly bright, they gave the impression that she was both amused and critical at the same time. She was, George decided, beautiful and for a moment, he found it hard to breathe.
For a second she stared back before recognising him. 'Hello George Watford,' she said, smiling. 'How strange, I was just thinking about you. I wondered what had happened to you.' Her pronunciation was now precise, almost accent-less.
'Just a few cuts,' he said. 'It's nothing serious. The doctor told me your shin bone is broken.'
'It itches so much,' she replied and frowned, rubbing the skin above the plaster cast. 'I thought it would only do that when it was healing, but it's already driving me insane.' She looked at him quizzically. 'You look very happy, considering what happened to you.' She followed his eyes down the bed and ruffled the nightdress further over her legs.
Flushing with embarrassment he looked up. He had been wondering whether he should offer to sign the plaster cast. 'I've just found out I'm going to flying assessment. I'll become a pilot if I pass.'
'Congratulations,' she said. 'Come and sit by me. Is this something you want?'
'For as long as I can remember,' he said and slowly relaxed into the bedside chair. As they talked, her brown eyes watched him keenly, encouragingly, as if his news was as important to her as it was to him. He felt lightheaded with pleasure and secretly examined every curve of her face and curl of her hair, drinking it into his memory.
'Where will you go now?' he asked, suddenly conscious that he was talking about himself too much. He wanted to ask about her and her family, but other patients were close and he guessed that she might not want it known that she was German.
She paused briefly as if considering an answer. 'As I said yesterday, my employers have lodgings I can use.'
'That's lucky,' he replied, feeling disappointed. 'Still, if it doesn't work out, you could always come home with me,' her expression hardened and he instantly regretted making such a clumsy offer.
'Go home with you?' she repeated, looking worried.
'To my parents,' he scrambled. 'But only if you can't manage by yourself. Mum always wanted a daughter; she'd love to look after you.'
She stared for a second before breathing a small sigh of relief. 'Oh, I see. Thank you, I'll think about it.' She looked away as if deciding something. 'And you, George, will you look after me too?' she asked quickly turning back.
'Of course. Well, I've tried to so far anyway.' He smiled in what he hoped was a guileless way.
She nodded. 'Yes, you have. You could have left me.'
Then he suddenly realised she was concerned about more than her injury, something else worried her. 'You sound bothered by something?'
She bit her lip. 'I... I think there will be... difficulties for me soon,' she said slowly. 'I may need a friend to turn to.' She tensed and her expression became apprehensive as if picturing some future event.
'I'll always help you, Millie,' he assured her, puzzled by the change. Seconds before she had seemed bright and happy, now a cloud had formed and her eyes looked afraid.
'Do you promise to help?' she asked suddenly and took his hand, staring directly at him. 'Will you promise me, George.' She squeezed tightly in emphasis.
'I promise. But what sort of problem is it?'
'You shouldn't be in here, young man,' a harsh voice said. 'Visiting hours are over.'
George turned quickly, the movement tugging painfully at his stitches. Matron was a large woman who filled her voluminous uniform so tightly that it seemed inflated. Her hard, clever eyes had seen every trickster and malingerer and found them all wanting.
'Sorry matron,' he began. 'We were injured together. I just wanted to see how she is.'
The eyes flicked from George to Millie and back again. 'So you're the one who stayed with Miss Horowitz through the bombing?'
'We kept each other company,' George replied, pleased that Millie must have spoken about him.
'Well, that was brave of you,' the matron said and for a moment he wondered if she might let him stay. 'I'm sure Miss Horowitz will look forward to seeing you tomorrow, during visiting hours. Come along now, it's almost time for ward rounds.'
'I'd better go,' George said, wondering what she had been about to say. 'We'll talk tomorrow.' Millie shrugged sympathetically and nodded, holding eye contact until he turned away.
Walking back up the stairs, he felt a surge of happiness, almost euphoria. The fact she was worried about something bothered him but tomorrow he would go back early and make sure they had plenty of time together, certain that he could help with whatever it was. For now, all he could think of was those eyes, her face, her voice and the cleverness in the way she said things. Millie had affected him in a way that he did not fully understand and at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to be with her. He would write to his parents and tell them of his injury, that he would be home in a few days. Although he would not say so in the letter, maybe, just maybe, he would bring Millie with him. Give her a place to recover and escape any worries. She could see the farm and the countryside and perhaps love it the way he did. Although how his parents would react to a German girl would be interesting. Less of a mystery would be their attitude when he told them he had volunteered for flight training. That would be a conversation needing perfect timing.
Early the next day he went back to the women's ward. Curtains surrounded Millie's bed and he approached warily in case she was changing. There was no sound or movement so he edged to the curtain and called her name. When there was no reply, he peaked through a gap and was startled to see an empty bed. At the end of the ward, the matron was in animated conversation with a nurse. She looked irritated as he approached.
'Excuse me, Matron,' George asked warily. 'Has Miss Horowitz been moved?'
'Moved.' she replied impatiently. 'No, of course she hasn't been moved.'
'She's not there,' George said simply.
'Don't be ridiculous,' she snapped. 'Where else would she be?' The matron stormed along the ward and threw back the curtain. 'Nurse!' she yelled when she saw inside.