Novel – Chapter Six

Warning – This story includes some sensitive issues that might upset some readers.


Bill could hear the hum of machines as he sauntered up the street towards the black, iron gates. Men dressed in flat caps and heavy boots traipsed into the shipyard. It was raining and the water seemed to clean up the place. The yard was big – cranes lined along the edge like trees in winter.

‘Dawkins!’ Bill looked over to see Barrett, the yard manager, waving him over. ‘I need a word,’ he said and walked away from the gates towards a row of two storey buildings that held the shipyard’s offices. Bill walked toward the offices and followed Barrett up a steep flight of stairs, along a landing, and through a door so low that he had to stoop to get through. Barrett’s office was lined with wood, and a desk stood in front of a window that looked over the yard. Bill closed the door and stood looking at Barrett.

‘I’ve been told to get rid of you,’ Barrett said.


‘Hold yer horses,’ Barrett replied, ‘let me finish. I’m not going to do that. When you’re here, you’re a good worker. The problem is when you’re not here – you know?’ Barrett looked over at him.

Bill nodded.

‘I can’t make any more excuses for you, Bill. I know you have difficulties from the war – many of my workers do. But I can’t have you not turning up for work for days on end. I’m going to have to dock your wages. And if you have more than one day off a week in future, don’t bother coming back.’


‘That’s the end of it.’ Barrett walked to the door, opened it and left the room. Bill heard his footsteps on the stairs, as he stood looking after him. He knew this day would come. He knew he could not keep wandering off. But he also knew that the General Strike had made employers nervous and they would be careful not to sack him without good reason. He ran down the steps and out into the yard.

Scaffolding dwarfed the ship he was working on. He threw himself up the ladder and walked along the planks until he reached the deck. Opening his toolbox, he started to work.

Shipyards in London were few and far between. Many jobs had been sent up North to larger shipyards in Newcastle. When he had come back to London after the war, he could not get work. He had queued at yards and sought employment as a carpenter at various companies. Eventually, he got a job as a maintenance man in the Rotherhithe Infirmary where Grace worked as a domestic.

He loved his sweet girl. Her warmth and love had got him through the war. Dreams of holding her tight had been constant and he had felt lonely without her. He longed every day for her letters. One night, after two days of heavy warfare and little sleep, he woke to find one on his pillow and he delved into her words for the comfort they gave him. He felt so selfish that he wanted to be with her all the time and hated to leave her to travel thousands of miles away because of the Hun. Having dreamt of the day he would be able to stay, he now felt selfish when his dreams returned to the sea.

The shipyard stood by the Thames. The water lapped up to the dry dock and the fog blew in and out of the yard. Smells of oil and sawdust melded together. Bill drew the aroma into his nostrils as he worked. It was as familiar to him as breathing. He came from a family of shipwrights – his father and grandfather both held memberships to the trade union. He had apprenticed early in life. It had been expected of him.

The thud of machinery and men hollering fell into the background while he focused on finishing the cabinets. It was nearly lunchtime when he felt a hard prod in his back.

“Oi! Dawkins! Oi! You ignoring me?”

He looked up. The sunlight hit his eyes and he squinted.

“You got that money? Smiffy’s asking for it.” A tall, bald-headed man looked down on him. It was Jack – the local loan shark.

Bill shook his head. “I ain’t got it, mate.”

“You ain’t no mate of mine,” Jack replied.

Bill stood up and looked square into Jack’s eyes. “I ain’t got it! If I ain’t got it, I can’t give it to you!”

“Smiffy’ll go see your missus next week. You better get it to me before then or she’ll hear about it.” Jack pushed his unshaven face close to Bill and then marched away.

Bill started to chase after him and then thought better of it. No need to start fighting at work. Anxiety rose up his chest. How was he going to pay Smiffy off? He’d only borrowed the money because he’d spent days roaming and needed to pay the rent.

“Look out below!” The shout brought him out of his angst.

Bill turned and saw the hook on the boom slice straight into Jack’s head. He looked away. He grew faint. The sounds of the yard dimmed and he felt himself fall. The edge of the scaffold caught him as he went down.

He lifted his head and dropped it back down. Shouts boomed out across the yard. Everyone was focused on Jack, and Bill hovered on the edge of consciousness.

“Bill!” Someone slapped his face. “Bill, you all right?” They shook him.

As he opened his eyes his vision swam and curved. He closed them shut and shook his head.

“Bill. Bill.”

As he opened his eyes again, his vision was steadier.

“I’m all right,” he mumbled and sat there for a moment. When he tried to get up, he felt sick. Men were running in the yard and Jack’s body had been covered. The day was over. It would take hours for officials to take stock of the situation and Bill needed to move. Shaking as he stood up, he held onto the railings.

Wasn’t he harder than this? He’d seen worse in the war. Trying to pull himself together, he held the railings and trudged to the end of the plank. Grabbing the ladder in his hands, he climbed down. Men were standing around the yard waiting for orders. They talked quietly among themselves and smoked. Accidents in the yard happened. They just did. You got used to it. But for now, they smoked and talked.

“Yard’s closing. Go to lunch. Come back later.” The announcement was made as Bill wandered out of the yard towards the bus stop. He hopped onto the first bus that came along.

Jumping off in Bermondsey, he strode down a backstreet. Warehouses lined the cobble-stoned alley that ended by the river and The Angel public house. It had started to rain as he marched through filth and when he entered the pub, he removed his coat and shook it. He looked briefly around the room and spotted Albert at the bar. The tables between him and the bar were crammed with customers.

Albert could always be found in the Angel at lunchtime. He told Bill that even though the place was falling apart he found comfort in its creaky wooden floor and tatty red curtains. Bill knew people were surprised that they were brothers because they did not look alike. While Bill’s frame was strong and muscular, Albert’s was short and fat. Bill knew it was wrong to say, but likening Albert to a pug would be kind.


Bill slapped Albert on the back and gave his order. “Pint please, George,” he said pulling himself up on the shabby barstool. George grabbed a glass from the shelf behind the bar.

“You look rough,” Albert said, “You all right?”

“Accident at the yard.” Bill said, as he watched George. Because of a knife attack the previous year, George’s face was heavily scarred and his eye twitched constantly as if he was winking.

He placed Bill’s pint on the bar.

“Thanks,” Bill said. He took some coins from his pocket and passed them over the counter. Gulping at his bitter, he was aware his hand was still shaking.

 “What happened?” Albert asked.

“Crane hook.” Bill pulled out his tobacco and offered it to Albert.

Albert winced as he took the package. “Was it bad?”

“It was.”

“You don’t look right. Probably best you go home. They might close the yard.”

Rolling a cigarette, Bill bent to lick the paper and smelt the sweet tobacco.

“Jack got hurt. He’d been on to me about that money. Smiffy’ll tell Grace.”

“Grace will not be happy. Here, I can help.” Albert went to pull his wallet from his pocket and Bill reached over.

“No. No. Albert.” He held Albert’s arm down and shook his head.

“What’s a brother for if he can’t help? I ain’t got much but I can give you a few nicker.”

“I’m a selfish brute,” Bill said. “You’re a good man, Albert, and I’m a selfish brute.”

“Now, let’s not have any of that. We have to help each other out. I keep an eye out for you and you do the same. Always been like that.”

Albert was right. The two of them had been inseparable when they were little. Bill had taught Albert how to ride a bike. They had rode to Smiths for a penny mix on a Saturday morning and sat on the steps together munching sweets and chatting. Even when Bill moved to Portsmouth before the war, they wrote to each other every week. Bill wasn’t much of a letter writer but would struggle to put something down for his brother. They were best mates. Bill didn’t have any close friends. He knew blokes he would drink with and there had been girls before Grace, but nothing serious. He told Albert more about himself than anyone.

Bill shook his head and looked into his beer.

“So, what else is going on?” Albert said. “Grace all right? She must be nearing her time. How’s Arthur? You have to bring him round to our house soon. Mum would like to see him.”

 “We’ll all come round this Sunday.” Bill said. “Got this letter.” He dug around in his pockets and handed the letter to Albert. “Francis wrote to me about America. Says I should take Grace and Arthur there.”

Albert read the letter and set it down on the bar. “It’s a long way away,” he said, “What does Grace think? She’s near her time. Won’t she be upset? I don’t know if she would move so far. But now her mum and dad have gone, she might.”

“I haven’t told her,” Bill said.

“How would you get there? How would you find work?” Albert’s brow furrowed and he played with his cigarette.

“I might have to go first. Then send money to Grace. You could come too,” Bill said. He avoided Albert’s eyes and picked at his sleeve.

“I don’t know about that. I like it here. I’ve got my job and I’m happy with it. I don’t think you should go. If it doesn’t work out, you can’t just come back. You’d be stuck there in a distant country with a bunch of bloody foreigners.”

“Americans aren’t foreigners. They’re like us.”

“No one’s like us, Bill. I’m English and I like living in England. You won’t get me to travel to far-flung places. I’d miss this town and my pub. It’s a long way.” Albert shook his head, “It’s a very long way.”

Bill smiled at Albert. “You old stick-in-the-mud.”

“I know what I like,” Albert replied and punched Bill in the arm.


The flat was dark and quiet when Bill got home that night. He knew instinctively that Grace was at the hospital. She was near her time and that morning had looked fit to burst she was so big. He had teased her and laughed at her roundness and then placed kisses on her dimpled cheeks.

“Oh Bill, you do go on so,” she had said, delighted with his affection.

He lit the gaslight near the door and saw the letter on the table.


Grace is in labour. We have gone to the hospital. It is 2 o’clock. Arthur is with us.


Joy and trepidation filled him as he raced down the stairs and up the road.

Novel – Chapter Five

Warning – This story includes some sensitive issues that might upset some readers.


Bill wandered down Southwark Street and under the railway bridge; its huge metal beams a square cathedral above his head and trains ca-plank, ca-plank caplanking over the rails. The wind lashed around the corner and he leaned into it as he turned onto Blackfriars Road. Picking up grime from the street, the squall whipped it around Bill’s head. The railway arches’ sooty bricks ran by his side and standing to attention behind the arches the power station’s stack spouted foul smog.

Up ahead, Blackfriars Bridge crossed the river. Bill walked onto the bridge and stopped to collect his thoughts. He looked down into the murky waters of the Thames. The waves swirled around the piers causing white, cresting foam.

Carriages carrying diners to dinner and hansom cabs plying their trade passed by on the broad boulevard – the cabbies hunched up against the cold under their capes and bowler hats. Horse-drawn carts covered with black tarpaulin vied with open-topped buses. Bill considered jumping onto a bus, but continued on foot across the bridge. The old railway bridge accompanied his journey and he stopped to watch steam billowing from a passing train heading off to the coast.

With a day’s wages lost for the funeral, he needed to get back to work. Finances were tight and funeral costs high. He would go home soon. Maybe Grace would be asleep by the time he got there. When she got distressed, he felt responsible and inadequate – he had to be strong or he would lose her.

At Aldwych, Bill walked into the dim, smoky interior of The George and ordered a pint of ale. Pushing past groups of people he spied a pew in the corner by a small fireplace. He sat down and drank the beer. It was cold and bitter, just as it liked it. As he felt around in his pocket for his cigarettes, a letter brushed up against his hand. Taking out the thin, cream paper, he read it again. It had arrived a few days ago in an envelope adorned with a stamp declaring ‘United States Postage.’ Grace had told him she’d left it on the table.

His friend Francis had moved to New York three years ago. Settling in a new country had been tough. He had recently moved from a flat to a house in Brooklyn – not upmarket, but Francis was excited. There are plenty of prospects, he wrote. Bill thought back to when he’d lived with the Neehans in Southampton. The life he had lived there had been a happy, simple one. It was before the War, before the nightmares, before the world turned upside down.

It was twilight by the time he left the pub. Across the road, a lamplighter pushed his flat cap up his forehead and set his rickety ladder against an ornate lamppost. The same lighter had ignited the lamps that lit the lane leading Bill towards the Market and St. Paul’s church. Bill found peace in the hectic thoroughfares of Covent Garden. The dirty cobblestones and stench of decaying cabbages were oddly comforting. Lorries came and went slushing muddy water, while barrow boys with cigarettes hanging from their lips pushed bulky carts full of sacks through the congested streets.

Bill came to Covent Garden often and knew it was a bustling market all day. Apart from Christmas Day, it never stopped. Costermongers rushed passed him carrying baskets on their heads – whistling, and calling out to their mates as they went. Alongside the market was the theatre trade – carriages and cabs transported people to and from the theatres. 

Bill knew that if he was hungry, he could find refreshment at any hour in the many coffee houses, taverns and stalls. In these establishments that bulged with people, stories and grease, he would mingle with residents, theatregoers and market workers.

On the edge of the market was St Paul’s Church. Bill approached the church and put his hand up to the gate. It groaned as he pushed it open. He entered the garden and walked over the flagstones. An old man was lying asleep on one of the wooden benches. There but for the Grace of God go I, Bill thought as he made his way into the church.

Sitting on a pew near the back, he held his head in his hands and prayed. God bless dear Lenny on his travels back to you. God bless Grace and help her to find peace. God bless Arthur and help him to behave himself. Bill smiled at his last request. He finished with the Lord’s Prayer and lifted his head. The vicar was busying himself up at the altar, smoothing the cloth and moving the brass crucifix to a more central space. It must be time for evensong, Bill thought. He closed his eyes and rested for a while and, as the service began, he listened to the sacrament and hymns. Leaving the church after the service, he walked around to its portico.

Held high on stone columns, the portico was protection from the elements for workers and worshippers alike. Flower girls, with dirty aprons and decorative hatpins in their bonnets, sat on upturned baskets around a blazing brazier. Their cheeks were red as the fire burned strong. Bill stood behind the women and enjoyed the warmth of the flames. The tramps that called the portico home had not yet arrived. Either they were still begging for food, or had found other accommodation for the night. Bill sensed a kinship with the homeless – in his heart he felt like a nomad.

‘Evening…’ A man leaned up against the column of the portico. His flat cap bulged over hair so lank that it appeared blue in the evening light.

‘Evening,’ Bill replied.

‘Not too cold is it?’ The man said as he chewed on the cigarette between his lips.

‘No…’ Bill sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

‘You got money for a cuppa?’

Without question, Bill strolled over to the coffee stall and bought two cups of tea. As he handed the tea to the man, he noticed his sea green eyes. They both sat on the column base near the fire and sipped the milky warmth in a cup. A few more people edged themselves into the portico as if they were wary of being asked to leave – as if they were asking permission to exist.

‘Lost this in the war,’ the man said as he pointed to the stump that was his arm.

Bill nodded.

‘Don’t talk much about it, but it’s bothering me tonight. When it gets cold it bothers me.’ The man held his hand and stump out towards the fire.

Bill nodded again.

‘You in the war?’ The man’s eyes seemed to water.

Bill looked over and hesitated.

‘Course you were. We all were. Trudging through the mud. Waiting in the trenches for weeks. Waiting was the worst – waiting for the next round of bullets and the next guy to be picked off. Watching for the bomb to scatter mud and bones.’ The man rubbed his bristled chin. His coat was tatty and worn and the evening mist sat around his shoulders.

‘I was in the navy,’ Bill said.

‘I’ve talked with sailors. They tell me waiting for torpedoes to hit was the hardest.’

Bill nodded.

‘The day I lost me arm, I was in the trenches. I was amazed I was still alive. Everyone I knew was dead. We got the line by the skin of our teeth. That morning we moved forward. We was in no man’s land in front of our trenches. Shrapnel was flying everywhere. We found a muddy hole to hide in. Our guns started firing all around us. The Huns was firing back. We were buried in the mud with shells landing near us. It was amazing none of them hit us.

‘Later, we looked over the edge of the hole. Tanks were coming. We hauled out of the hole and ran towards a crater. I gets hit with shrapnel, bandaged up and abandoned in the hole. The others headed towards the Germans – killing all they could see. I was left for so long that when the medics found me, they couldn’t save my arm.’

The man played with the tip of his cigarette, rammed it back into his mouth and chewed.

‘My ship was torpedoed,’ Bill started. ‘It went down quickly.’

He paused and looked into the fire.

‘There was shouts ‘submarine; submarine’ and then the ship shuddered and I was thrown about.’

Bill shook his head as he remembered. He could still see it clearly, like a film in his mind.

‘I never talk about this. It’s too much.’

‘We all went through it,’ the man said. ‘No one likes to talk about it. Me arm is the only reason I mentioned it. It aches so and there is nothing there to ache. I sometimes think I’m losing my mind.’

‘If I talk about it,’ Bill replied, ‘my wife tells me to go see the doctor. I’m not going to the nuthouse.’

‘Me neither, mate. Me neither. So what happened after you was hit?’

‘It went down quick. I never thought it would go down that quick. There was an explosion. The magazine was hit or a fire or something. Anyway, we were hit and then there was a huge noise and the whole ship shook. I was thrown out into the passageway and made my way to the deck. The sights I saw that day, I’ve never seen anything like that. Those things don’t go away. They stay up here.’ Bill poked his head, ‘They stay and haunt me.’

The man held out his hand.

‘I’m Jim.’


They shared a moment silence – remembering the horrors.

‘I feel so guilty…’ Jim said, ‘I should have died… I think I should have died anyway. It bothers me that I live on while my friends are dead.’

‘I killed my friend,’ Bill said.

Jim looked at him but said nothing.

‘He called out to me… he was trapped.’

A tear fell down Bill’s cheek and he wiped his face with his cuff.

‘He wanted help, but I didn’t have time. I left him to drown… I’m a coward…’

‘You are not alone. The war made cowards of us all.’

Bill felt trapped by his chat with Jim. He stood and stumbled out of the portico. Tears were falling fast down his cheeks. He wiped his face with force and felt stupid for telling a stranger so much. As he ran, he wasn’t sure, but was Jim laughing at him?

Eventually, he found his way back to the river and, leaning up against the wall, he looked out at the vessels dotting its murky waters. He breathed in the salty air. This was as close as he could get to the sea. The sea calmed his soul. Sitting on the steps leading down to the water’s edge he took his shoes off and dug his toes into the sand. The water splashed gently onto the beach underneath the railway bridge.

Rolling up his trousers he waded out through debris and seaweed into the water. Would it help to die?He’d asked himself that before. I should’ve died when the ship went down. Self-preservation was a very strong feeling but would it help to end it all? Self-preservation?Bill asked himself. Or cowardice? Cowards can’t kill themselves.


Grace looked up at him as he slipped into the front room. She frowned, and reached out to him. ‘Where have you been this time, Bill? You look worn out,’ she whispered. ‘You need a bath and a good night’s sleep.’ He nodded and stared at the floorboards. ‘The boilers are stoked. Here’s tuppence – go get in the tub.’ Bill grabbed his towel and the coins.

In a yellow brick building at the centre of the estate, the baths were divided into three cubicles containing an iron tub in each. A porter ran the water and steam filled the room. Bill sank into the tub and soaked for a while – his body relaxed into the warmth and his mind stopped as he floated in the hot water.

‘More water in number three,’ he shouted out to the porter.

‘Mind your feet,’ the porter called back as more water tumbled into the bath.

The delicious smell of stew with dumplings hit his nostrils as he walked back into the flat. ‘I saved you some food,’ Grace said as she placed a plate in front of him. Grace was a decent cook and the stew warmed him.

‘Dad,’ Arthur wobbled out from the bedroom as Bill finished his supper. Bill pulled his sleepy son onto his lap.

‘How are you, son?’ He looked into Arthur’s eyes.

‘I’m all right. You just had a bath? You smell clean.’

‘Yep, I had a bath. Back off to bed, lad.’

Grace guided Arthur back to bed and Bill took his dish out to the sink. Eventually, Grace followed him to the kitchen and looked at him as she slowly wiped a plate dry.

‘I’m pregnant, Bill.’

He turned to look at her. Her cheeks were scarlet.

‘Can you believe it after all we have been through?’

Bill held her face in his hands and kissed her lips deeply. Putting his hands on her belly, he looked into her eyes. Then he laughed and put his arms around her waist picking her up off the floor.

‘Put me down, Bill!’ she squealed, ‘Put me down.’ She feigned upset and frowned down at him, but he knew she was delighted. He placed her gently back down on the kitchen rug as if she was china and kissed her again.

They walked back into the living room and made plans. Bill sat on the old sofa and Grace climbed on his lap. He wrapped his arms around her waist.

‘It is like Lenny is coming back to us,’ Grace said. ‘We still have all his clothes and crib and pram. I did not want to tell you before the funeral. You understand don’t you?’

He nodded and listened to her talk, glad that she was happy. She’d been so miserable since her mum had died and then Lenny.

‘I’m happy for you, Grace.’

‘Happy for me?’ Grace replied with a wry smile. ‘Only happy for me? Are you not happy for you, Bill Dawkins?’

‘Course, course I am, Gracie. Course,’ he stammered and grew red. ‘I know you love kids. Just trying to say that. You knows I get tongue tied.’ Bill rubbed his brow and smiled. ‘I love you. I do.’

‘I know you do,’ Grace answered and put her arms around his neck. After a moment she pulled back and looked into his eyes. ‘I know you love me you big, silly softy.’ She kissed him on his warm lips and he returned her kiss passionately. 

Novel – Chapter Four

Warning – This story includes some sensitive issues that might upset some readers.



They were dressed in their Sunday best – Bill’s black suit hung loosely off his frame and a black hat sat straight upon Grace’s head. A hearse was waiting downstairs in the street to take them to the church and then on to Nunhead Cemetery.

The family was crammed into the front room. Bill’s parents William and Emma Dawkins sat on the under-stuffed sofa – its blue cover slouched at the edges while the arms sloped sadly towards the floor with a sigh. Looking smart in his dark suit and tie, William gripped Emma’s hand – she seemed uncomfortable and stiff in her formal mourning dress and held a black, lacy handkerchief in her hand.

Bill stood behind the sofa with his brother Albert. Bill stared out of the window draped in faded curtains. The windowpanes misted up with condensation. He gazed at the oak boughs as they waved at him. A magpie flew onto a branch, spread its black tipped wings, and dived off towards the ground.

Fred and Issy sat in wooden chairs by the fire. A black ribbon held Fred’s jacket up at the elbow of his missing arm. He bent his head close to Issy as she whispered to him. The rim of her new hat, adorned with black silk, was big enough to cover the both of them as they chatted.

Ray and Arthur sat in the corner of the room by the door to the bedroom. Arthur’s knee-high socks were already round his ankles but Ray looked the perfect child with his white collar and both socks rigid. Bill noticed them eyeing the wooden box holding Arthur’s toys that was wedged in the corner of the room underneath the window. A tin plane poked its blue nose out from a mound of square bricks. Each brick sang out a letter from the alphabet. Two red racing cars sat on top of the bricks.

Bill had spoken to them earlier and both boys were sensitive to the fact that this was not the time to get the tin cars out of the box and drive them round the room. It was with pride that he saw them follow their elders’ example as they spoke to each other in hushed tones.

On the bookcase next to the bedroom door, was a detailed replica of a barge. William had built it during his apprenticeship. Bill had learned his carpentry skills alongside his father growing up and always admired the model. A few years back, having seen his son finally settle down, William had given it to him as a birthday present.

Beige tiles covered the fireplace from the mantel to the hearth, curving around the grate where a fire burned to keep the winter chill from the room. Upon the mantelpiece, were photos of the family and, in the middle, was a picture of Grace and Bill. In the picture, Grace stood behind him with her hand on his shoulder. Bill still remembered the day it was taken. It had been cold and he was going back to his ship the next day. He had wanted to get as much time with her as possible and late that night she had sat on his lap while he told her stories of the sea.

Between the fire and the sofa was the family dining table. Bill and Grace had spent many hours at that table attending to chores and eating meals. Now, Lenny’s tiny casket sat on its wooden frame – a prime spot where all could view him.

Grace leaned over the coffin and cut a small lock of Lenny’s hair. She kissed Lenny’s forehead. Blinking, she brought her handkerchief up to her nose. Bill placed the lid on the coffin and began to hammer the nails into place. Arthur joined Bill at the table, picked up another hammer from his dad’s toolbox and pretended to help by knocking on the wood. Grace turned to Daisy and her shoulders started to shake. Daisy held her as she sobbed.

‘First mum – now Lenny,’ she choked. ‘Please no more. I cannot take any more.’

Bill could not stand hearing her talk like that. Death was a constant. Was there any point in having babies and building families? Death would take them and sooner than anyone wanted. He continued hammering – it felt like he was sealing his own coffin, and he wished he was.

A breeze picked up and cold air chilled their ears as the family walked slowly out of the estate and towards the hearse. Bill and his brother Albert carried Lenny’s coffin over to the back of the vehicle. The coffin was light enough for one of them, but Bill liked the support of his brother. The plane trees in the road swayed with the wind and covered the crowd standing by to watch Lenny’s departure. The men held their flat caps respectfully in their folded hands while some women held handkerchiefs ready to catch their tears as if they knew that one day this could be their child.

The journey to the church was in the opposite direction to the one that Bill had dashed down the night he tried to save his son’s life. Bill held Grace’s hand during the drive and watched as they passed slowly by the railway arches, shop fronts, and office buildings.

At the church, Bill placed Lenny’s coffin in front of the altar, then sat down in the front pew. Staring at the church rafters, high above his head, Bill tried to concentrate on the vicar’s words.

‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

He looked around at the congregation and tried not to fidget in his seat. The church smelt of damp and wood polish. The pews were full of family, friends, and neighbours. The morning sun shone through the stained glass windows, making patterns on the stone-flagged floor.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’

He didn’t feel very blessed – rather aggravated and lonely. Even in the midst of Grace’s large family, he felt alone and vulnerable. There were times when Bill enjoyed them all, but there were times, like today, when he felt crowded out by them.

‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

The words felt empty – falling to the ground as broken hearts. As Bill sighed, his mother patted his hand gently. Grace sat beside him – her head bowed low and silent tears tumbling onto her coat. Arthur sat next to Grace – even at his young age he seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion. Bill could tell that Arthur had recently begun to realize that Lenny was not coming back.

‘When is Lenny going to wake up?’ he would ask and then appeared sad at Bill’s answer.

‘Lenny’s in heaven, Arthur, he’s not going to wake up.’

As the service ended, Bill and Albert carried Lenny’s coffin down the aisle and out to the car.

It was a short drive to the graveyard. They travelled through the cemetery gates and Bill held Grace closer to him. As they drove the long avenue towards the gothic chapel, the winter landscape mimicked his heart. The tall trees were black against the white sky. Gravestones sat in rows designating the final resting places of human existence. Shrubs and monuments marked the countdown to the end. Along with his grief for Lenny, Bill felt sorrow for all losses. There had been many. Years had passed since the Great War ended, but it felt like yesterday. He could feel the losses in his body. The screams of dying men whirled in his mind. He’d been on high alert and without sleep for days. That continual vigil had been his state for many years and still lived within him.

Suddenly, his vision became bizarre and he felt breathless. As he groped at his neck, he felt like he could not breathe. He needed air. He was drowning and needed air fast. His heart raced.

‘Bill?’ He heard Grace cry as his shaking hand reached for the door. ‘Bill – stop!’

He looked blindly around and pulled down on the car handle.

‘Stop the car!’ Grace shouted. Bill opened the car door and stumbled as he hit the ground. Rolling over, he bounced back up and ran like a haunted man.

He heard Grace call his name but ran on.

He could not breathe. He felt strong thin hands around his throat. Men cried out for their mothers. It was dark. He felt water around his ankles. Through the cemetery he fled. The sound of explosions rang in his head. He ducked and kept running. The ship was going down. He had to find his way to the top. The ladder was on fire. The galley was blazing too. ‘Help me, Bill,’ shouted his friend. He kept running. The passageway went on forever. He was going down with the ship. He was dying. He jumped into a boat as it went down the side of the ship and sat there breathing hard.

His breath slowed as he found himself sitting on a wooden bench under a large oak tree. Sharp pine scents mixed with wet grass. Ahead, gravestones marched in straight lines like soldiers. Picking out the odd name here and there, Bill shuddered – Thomas Gaines died 20 August 1915 – John Morris died 15 July 1916. The Great War had taken them all.

A woman ambled by and looked at him. He was sweating, confused and lost. What’s wrong with me? Maybe Grace is right. I should see the doctor. But they will put me in the nuthouse.Thoughts merged with feelings. He heard Albert calling his name, but he didn’t want to go back. He pulled his coat round his front and jerked at his scarf. He breathed in the cold air and started to hike.

High railings reached up to spikes on top of the red brick wall of the cemetery. Bill passed through iron gates and crossed the road. Opposite the cemetery wall were two-storey, terraced houses leading the way down to the end of the road. A woman in hobnail boots and apron scrubbed her stone steps. She shouted to her children playing hopscotch in the street. One child stood with her tongue between her lips contemplating the grid on the road before leaping off into space and crashing down on the next square.

At the end of the road, Bill passed under a railway bridge. Smoke came at him from the train that trundled noisily above – green moss sat where water rivulets trickled down the brickwork. A chimney sweep was walking towards him carrying her brushes over her shoulder. Her thin features were covered in soot and pulled forward over her forehead was a brown, cotton cap. She averted her eyes as she passed him by.

Wandering was good. He could get his head together when he wandered. He felt berated by Grace and didn’t want to rush home. She didn’t mean it. She was only thinking of him – wasn’t she? She wanted him to go to the doctor. She wanted him to hold down a good job. She wanted him to be an example to their children… child… She wanted him to tell her where he was going. She wanted him to stay at home. She didn’t want him to sleep rough.

Panic grew within him and he felt like he was facing an abyss. He stopped in the road, put his hands on his knees, and bent over. He breathed heavily and felt like his lungs were closing off. Wanting to break free from this feeling, he turned one way and then back, and then chased off down the road – running fleeing, escaping.

Stopping at a church, he dropped down onto a wooden bench and let out a huge sigh. The church steeple scraped the clouds that sat thunderous above his head. Throwing down rays through the gaps in the clouds, the sun was not warming his soul. Bill stood. He climbed the worn stone steps, opened the ornate wooden door and entered the church.

An organ boomed through the empty nave. The tall ceilings disappeared above dark, wooden beams, and light reflected the hues from the stained-glass windows onto the pews.

Bill bowed his head for a while in prayer. He prayed but his mind continued to scold. I do not deserve her. Her Bill has been a bad boy. How can she ever forgive and trust me? I try to be everything she wants me to be, but I’ve been awful. I’ve been selfish. Everything just makes me want to give up. I want to be happy. I want my girlie to be happy. She tells me about my flaws and how I need to change again and again. And now Lenny is dead. If I had been around more, he might still be alive. I’m just so scared. This isn’t how I pictured my life. This isn’t fair. I’m so scared. I’m losing my mind and going insane.

Bill jumped up from the pew and ran out into the rain. The water felt good against his hot skin and burning mind. He ran through the neighbourhood towards the main road ahead.

As he turned onto the Old Kent Road, the quiet residential streets suddenly changed to honking automobiles, the clopping of hooves, and people spewing forth from the gasworks as the whistle blew for lunchtime. The smell of horse manure and straw hit his nostrils.

‘You getting on, luv?’ A young lady called out to him. Bill realized he was standing in front of a bus stop and the conductress was calling to him from the wooden platform of a double-decker bus. Her hat tipped at an angle and her hands rested on her ticket holder.

‘Cheer up, dearie,’ she said as she smiled at him.

It was a number 36 bus and would take him close to home. He climbed onto the platform and up the stairs. Sitting down on the red and gold cushioned seat, he traced the grid pattern with his large fingers.

Bill noticed the landscape was changing as the bus continued towards the city. It passed a piebald horse attached to a cartload of timber with his driver standing patiently in the rain waiting to offload his cargo. It passed awnings reaching down to the pavement – advertising their proprietor and his wares. It passed the World Turned Upside Down – a pub Bill had frequented a few times – its tear-drop lamp, taking up a third of its façade, hanging amid ornate swirls and twists of iron work.

As he got closer to home, he realized he wasn’t ready to face Grace, so he sloped off the bus at Elephant and Castle’s busy intersection where horse carts fought for space with motorcars, buses, and pedestrians, and crept with hunched shoulders and heavy heart into a pub.


Grace’s family had left by the time he arrived home. Bill could tell she’d been cooking by the lingering smell of cabbage. She looked up from sewing as he drifted into the flat.

‘Where have you been, Bill? I have been worried,’ she said as she smoothed down the front of her faded, floral pinafore.

‘I walked,’ he said looking at his feet.

‘Walked where? You missed the burial. You weren’t there. My mum was not there. I needed you to be strong.’ She didn’t raise her voice. ‘You need to go see the doctor, Bill. This is not right. This is not right at all.’

Bill walked around the table and sat down. He looked out of the window at the darkening skies and pulled out his folded hankie. Slowly blowing his nose, he told her, ‘I’m not seeing no doctor.’

Grace pulled a chair up next to him. ‘You have to, Bill.’ She said. ‘You cannot keep doing this. It is getting worse and I can’t take it anymore. I need to know you are going to stay. I need to know where you are. Me and Arthur need to know where you are.’

‘They’ll send me to the nuthouse.’ Bill’s voice broke and he pushed the chair back from the table. He walked over to the window and stared out while slowly kicking at the skirting board.

Grace sighed. ‘You don’t know that, Bill. You do not know that at all. Fred went and they did not send him to the nuthouse. He went to see the doctor about his dreams and he says they are getting better. He went. Why can’t you go?’

‘Fred lost his arm.’ Bill rubbed his forehead as he tried to explain.

‘So? What has that got to do with anything? He had bad dreams and he says they are not so bad now. You have got to go to the doctor, Bill, you just do.’

‘I didn’t lose an arm.’ Bill tried again as his head started to pound.

‘I know you did not lose your arm. I know that. Don’t you know that I know that?’ Grace’s voice was rising. ‘I am not talking about you losing your arm. Go to the doctor, Bill. Go to the doctor.’

‘My head hurts. I don’t like it when you get upset.’

‘My heart hurts, Bill. I am only human. I am going to get upset. You don’t like it when I get upset. I didn’t like it that you ran away from your child’s funeral… our child’s funeral.’

‘I’m sorry, Grace, I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.’ Bill knew it was time to leave. He turned and marched out of the flat, ran down the stairs, and walked off into the night.

Novel – Chapter Three

Warning – This story includes some sensitive issues that might upset some readers.


It was getting late. Arthur had finished playing a couple of hours ago and they’d eaten supper. Bill was sitting at the table and staring at the bookcase by the bedroom door.

He looked through its glass doors and scanned Grace’s books – Dicken’s Christmas Carol, Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles– and stopped at one of his – the Norse folk tale Fiskeren og The DraugThe Fisherman and the Draug. He went over, opened the glass door and pulled the book out from the shelf. Its red cover was worn at the corners. As he opened the book, its smell – damp and musty – reminded him of Norway. He thought back to Anna and her father who had rescued him from the sea the night the ship went down. They brought him to Norway, where he’d been interned, because Norway had been neutral during the war. Anna had visited him and the other sailors in the camp, and had taught them how to speak Norwegian by reading folk stories. She’d given the book to Bill before he left.

It was one of Arthur’s favourite stories. Sitting down on the sofa, Bill placed the book on his lap. He turned the flimsy flysheet and looked at the picture on the first page. He wasn’t sure what that type of drawing was called, but remembered someone once saying woodcut or woodblock. But whatever it was called, it fascinated him. Most of the sketch was a wave – its foam reaching the clouds. Rain poured from the clouds and lightening zigzagged across them. A fisherman in sou’wester and oilskins, with his eyes wide and arms outstretched, fell back from the wreck of his boat into the sea. Folklore says the draug is a bad omen – a warning of death. The myth says that a sailor who sees one must outrun the beast to stay alive. Further sketches showed the draug as a towering monster, with uneven teeth, dripping in seaweed.

As Bill looked at the pictures, Arthur plonked beside him on the sofa.

‘Can you read to me?’ Arthur said.

‘I’ll tell you the story and you look at the pictures,’ Bill replied.

‘Okay,’ said Arthur and Bill began.

Once Bill had finished reading, he put the book back on the shelf and sat down at the table. He looked over at Lenny in his crib.

‘Where’s mum?’ Arthur asked.

Bill turned to look at him and said, ‘She’ll be home soon. Off to bed with you.’ Arthur sauntered towards the bedroom with a backward look at Bill.

‘Go on,’ said Bill and watched Arthur close the bedroom door to a crack.

Bill looked back down at the table and drew his fingers across its scars and scrapes.

He pulled Lenny’s crib closer to him and studied his baby’s features. Lenny was stiff, but still looked like himself. He was wrapped in a blanket. Even though his face had sunken, he retained some of the childish roundness in his cheeks. Bill stroked Lenny’s hair – it was soft. Then he picked Lenny up and cradled him in his arms. He could almost smell his baby’s warm skin – the smell Lenny had after Grace had bathed him. Bill stood and walked around the room, rocking Lenny in his arms. Tears filled his eyes as he remembered the child’s cry when he wanted feeding. It had sounded sad and anxious. He had just wanted to survive. After a while, Bill placed Lenny back into his crib.

Where was she? It was getting dark. He pulled his ear and heaved his shoulders with a sigh. Would she do something stupid? You heard about all kinds of things that happened to mothers when their babes died. Some just put their heads down and kept on going, but there were those other ones… well, it turned their heads. Little Maddie Smith had gone crazy when her baby had died. Went out one day and they found her in the Thames.

Now he was beginning to scare himself.

Wandering out to the balcony, he lit a cigarette and sat down on the top step. He shot up from the stair at the sound of footsteps and looked over the banister. It wasn’t Grace. He sat down again and nodded in recognition as his neighbour passed.

Stubbing his fag out, he went back into the flat. In the kitchen, he covered Grace’s plate and put it by the stove. Gathering up the dirty dishes, he placed them in the sink and slowly washed them. Again, he thought he heard footsteps on the stairs. He stood still and listened, and then went to the front door.

Looking over the balcony, he said, ‘Grace? That you?’

‘It is me, Bill. Sorry I am late.’ He breathed a sigh. She turned the corner of the stairs and looked up at him.

‘Where’ve you been?’ Bill tried to keep his tone even. Grace climbed slowly up towards him and kept her face to the ground. Bill stood at the top of the stairs and did not move.

Grace stopped and looked up. ‘Let me by, Bill, I am tired,’ she said.

‘Where were you?’ Bill’s voice was stern.

‘I had to get out of the flat and needed some fresh air. I walked to Victoria and had tea with Issy.’

‘Don’t do that again. I was worried. I thought you were…’ Bill let her by and she walked into the flat. He followed her as she entered the front room and watched as she looked down at Lenny. She took off her hat and ran her fingers through her bobbed hair.

Grace turned to Bill. ‘That is rich coming from you,’ she murmured.

‘What’s that mean?’ Bill said.

‘Never mind – I am tired.’

‘You’ve said it now.’

‘Oh, Bill; I needed to go out. I was going crazy here. My heart is hurting so much and I needed to be out in the fresh air. And then I come home and you start ordering me around like you do not understand. You of all people should understand.

‘I stay here with you, Bill, even though you come and go as you please. I stay here because I know you can’t help it. I know that you’re hurting. I hear your screams at night. I hold you when you wake from your nightmares. Well, I’m in my own nightmare now, Bill Dawkins, and I need you to hold me, not tell me what I can and cannot do.’ Grace’s voice broke.

Bill gripped the back of the chair.

‘If you leave now, I don’t know what I will do. I cannot live alone with this pain,’ Grace said.

‘Just need a fag,’ he said as he walked towards the door.

‘I don’t know what I will do,’ Grace whispered. He heard her slump down onto the sofa.

Bill hesitated at the door. Putting his hands on either side of the frame, he hung his head. Tears started to fall down his cheeks. He pulled himself up and wiped his face. He started off down the corridor and stopped at the front door. Hearing Grace sob in the front room, he turned and went back. He sat down next to her on the sofa and opened his arms. Grace pushed her wet face into his warm chest.

‘Oh,Bill, what are we going to do?’

Bill shook his head. ‘Don’t know. Don’t know, sweet girl.’

‘Why did Lenny die? I cannot take this pain, Bill. I just can’t take it. It hurts so much.’ She pulled back from his chest and looked up at him. ‘I do not understand. I don’t understand what the doctor was saying. What was he telling us? Did I cause this? Is it my fault?’

‘He said it’s blue blood…’

‘What is blue blood? I thought that meant royalty. Lenny was not royalty. And how would that kill him? I am so confused.’

‘Something to do with his heart, sweetie. He died from a sick heart. His heart gave up on him.’

Bill pulled Grace close again and kissed the top of her head while his tears dropped on her shoulders.