Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Tornerai - Part One

This is based on a story told by my mother of her recollections of World War II. By her own admission, she loved the war, liberating as it did a whole generation of young women from the strait-laced restrictions of a society that had moved on very little from Victorian values.

She loved music and dancing, and one song had a secret meaning for her; one that she shared many years later.  It was called J'Attendrai.

The inside of Gray’s, the posh draper’s shop just up from the funeral directors, smelt of dark cloth and shiny buttons.  Two women at the counter looked up at the sound of the bell and Josie fought the impulse to reach up, tip-toed, to still its jangling.  She approached a rack of dresses, trying to keep her heels from clacking on the shiny parquet.  The women resumed their low-toned conversation with the regal dowager who reigned from behind the counter.

Josie took down a dress from the rack, pretending to admire it and replacing it when she realised she was examining a lurid crimson tartan that, combined with her rolls of red hair, would almost certainly break black-out regulations.

The bell tinkled again as the women left the shop.  The tartan outrage had somehow locked hangers with the next dress on the rack and Josie struggled to restore the regimental line that existed before she broke up the ranks.

“Good morning, Madam.  May I help you?”

The traitorous dress slid to the floor with a clack of metal buttons as Josie turned.

“Oh, I’m sorry,”  she gasped, stooping to recover the bright tangle.

“Not at all Madam.  Would Madam care to try it on?”

“Um… No, thank you.  Er, actually there’s a dress in the window I’d like to buy.  The one for 31/6d.”

The shop mistress took the tartan creation from Josie’s hands, frowning at it through half-spectacles with a gaze to strike fear into any speck of dust that might entertain clinging to it.

“Of course.  And no doubt Madam will wish to try the fit of that one?”

“Oh.”  The possibility that the dress might not fit had somehow escaped Josie’s planning and determined saving.  “Yes, please.”

She stood, feeling alone and adrift in the centre of the shop as the woman threaded through the mannequins to retrieve the dress from the window.  She’d saved everything for weeks, sure every day that it would disappear before she’d amassed the great wealth of its purchase price.  Last night, Dad had returned from work in good spirits and presented her with a ten shilling note, bringing her within reach of her dream.

Now, without doubt, she would discover that it was the wrong size.

The woman returned with the dress and held it up in front of Josie, maintaining a respectful 18-inch gap that made judging its suitability impossible.  “It’s rather lovely, isn’t it?  Quite striking with Madam’s hair.”

Josie detected the slight taint of Birmingham behind the shop woman’s clipped accents and relaxed just a little.  She put down her shopping bag and followed the woman to the fitting rooms, pulling the dark blue velvet curtain across behind her.

It fitted perfectly.  She admired her reflection; the skirt was the dark green of a mallard’s head, flaring in an immaculate “A” from the tiny pinched waist.  The bodice, cut high and with puffed shoulders, was buff, with a floral pattern that matched the skirt.  Perfect. She surreptitiously inspected her ration book; just sixteen coupons left.  This would leave five; enough to last the rest of the year, given plenty of sewing and mending.

Walking back along the High Street she slid a hand under the flap of her shopping basket, feeling the tissue crackle expensively.  Then a sudden rain made her bolt for the Milk Bar, tumbling through the door, almost colliding with a small man leading an even smaller dog that yapped at her disapprovingly.  She bought tea and a slice of yellow cake, seating herself on a brown leatherette stool at the window bar.  The wireless twittered from a loudspeaker above her head.  Outside, people hurried along the streaming street, huddled under umbrellas and newspapers.

The rain showed no sign of abating and, the tea drunk and the cake consumed, Josie began to contemplate a saturated dash to the tram stop.  She checked her purse: just enough for the ride home.

“Excuse me.”

She turned.  A young man in RAF uniform was standing behind her, holding two steaming cups.  He smiled nervously. 

“Hello.  I’m terribly sorry, but would you mind if I bought you a cup of tea?”

He looked impossibly young, his uniform stiff and new.  He was of medium height, slightly built and dark, almost swarthy.  His features were pleasant enough despite a prominent nose that, while not actually excessive in size, commanded attention in the way that it shadowed the unfortunate moustache he’d tried to cultivate.

“It looks as if you already have.”

He blinked at the two cups.  “Oh.  Well, yes, I suppose I have.  Look, I’m really very sorry, I’m not trying to… you know, give you the chat or anything, but could I just talk to you for a few minutes?”

She looked outside.  The rain poured steadily; her cup and purse were empty…  “OK, just a chat, then.”

He sat on the next stool.  “My name’s Tony.  Thanks ever so much.  Do you want sugar?”

“Two, please.”

He spooned sugar into her cup, sifting the white from the brownish clumps in the pale-green bowl on the counter.  “You didn’t say your name.”

“I know.”  She smiled and stirred her tea.  “Oh alright then, it’s Josie.  You’re a pilot, then?”

“Nothing that grand.  Flight engineer.”

“What?  Like a mechanic?”

“No.  I sit behind the pilot and work the engines.  I’m on Lancasters.”  He hesitated.  “Well, I will be after tonight.  I’ve just finished the maker’s course at Castle Brom.”

...To be continued in Next Post >>

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