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.
‘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.’
‘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.
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.