The Other Side of War
Molly stiffened. Beery breath, soured by a recently smoked cigarette, wafted over her shoulder. The weight of her dad’s body crushed her against the pot sink. His hand, taking a forbidden trail, slithered around her waist and travelled upwards.
With all the strength she could muster, Molly hunched her body and pushed backwards. The sound of a chair crashing to the ground caused her to draw in a deep breath. Angry and yet fearful, she turned to see her dad tottering on unsteady legs, the chair he’d bumped into now sprawled on the floor behind him. Unable to steady himself, he lost his balance and landed with a thud on his backside. Molly winced. The cracked lino that covered the concrete floor of the kitchen wouldn’t have cushioned his fall. His cry spoke of his pain, but Molly felt no sympathy for him, nor did she attempt to help him.
From a slackened mouth that leaked spittle, his slurred words held no apology. ‘You little bastard – push your old man over, would you?’
‘You should leave me alone, Dad. It ain’t right, touching me like that!’
‘Like what? I thought for a minute you were your mum, that’s all. I meant no harm, girl.’
‘Mum’s been dead eleven years, so you can leave out that excuse. You should stop drinking. You don’t know what you’re doing when you’re drunk.’
‘Yer old dad gets lonely, Molly. It wouldn’t hurt you to give him a bit of comfort.’
‘Comfort! You’re disgusting. What man would want that kind of comfort from his own daughter, eh?’
Fighting back the tears, Molly felt desperate to escape his presence. The back door stood open, but she turned from it and stormed out of the kitchen and into the hall instead. She hesitated at the parlour door, and again at the bottom of the stairs, but her need to get out of the house made her reject these sanctuaries and make for the front door. She didn’t relish the thought that she might encounter passers-by on the street, but she preferred that to going into the yard at the back.
The yard connected with the rear of her father’s butcher’s shop and held the fear, for Molly, of bumping into Foggy Fieldman, so-called because he constantly had a cigarette hanging from his lips and smoke curling up his face.
Foggy worked for her dad in the preparation shed that ran from the end of the shop along the full length of the yard, forming an enclosure with the buildings that housed the coal shed, the outhouse and the outside lavatory. With the shortages that war had forced upon them all, Foggy had little to occupy him now. The huge carcases he used to cut into roasting joints, chops and steaks were a rarity, and he spent his time bagging up the offal that her dad had managed to get hold of, and making sausages out of the poorer cuts of meat that were more readily available.
‘Idle hands find trouble,’ her old granny used to say, and this was certainly true of Foggy. Having witnessed her dad’s lack of respect for her, Foggy seemed to have the idea that he could behave in the same way. He’d changed from the person she’d trusted into a leering predator who lusted after her.
She lived in fear of going to the lav in the back yard, and even of being in her own home at times. Not that her fear was all down to her dad’s and Foggy’s antics, because now there was the threat of air raids to contend with – and they had her scared out of her wits.
The soft, warm breeze caught her skirt as she stepped outside. Paying no heed to the chaffing of the bricks through her white cotton blouse, Molly leaned heavily against the wall and lifted her face. The late-August sun blistered down, giving off an intense heat, though it failed to reach the cold place where her heart sat.
The scene before her compounded her misery, as she gazed at the ruins of a house across the road. Her ears still zinged with the high-pitched noise caused by the explosion, and her body trembled with the shock of the reality of the first air raid experienced by London.
Almost a week had passed since that day – 24th August 1940 – when one of the many sirens that Londoners had become used to throughout the year had actually meant something. A week during which everyone’s nerves had become frayed. Yes, it was thought the bomb that had destroyed the house and other buildings nearby had landed in the wrong place, but now the news was full of more to come, after Churchill’s reprisal in bombing Berlin. But no one knew when it might happen.
Mr and Mrs Hopkins, the tenants of the bombed-out house, had ignored the warning siren. Though badly injured, they had escaped with their lives. Only one wall of the house remained standing and, as if in defiance, the collapsed bedroom floor clung to it. Wedged at an angle against the ground, a double bed spewed from the gap. A wardrobe lay beside it, smashed into shards of wood – its hanging rail, still attached, revealing clothes doing a haunting dance in the breeze, as smoke from the smouldering embers curled around them.
Molly swallowed the urge to cry as she watched the workers clear the rubble. One of them stood near the corrugated-iron air-raid shelter that would have saved the couple from injury. He smiled as she looked across at him. Then he heightened her sense of humiliation as he let out a low wolf-whistle.
The gesture nearly undid her, but she fought the tears that prickled her eyes. Londoners didn’t show such emotion on a whim. Never mind being frightened – or being treated as an object, and not a person – you had to carry on, and you had to keep others going, too. If you gave in, you would be lost, and Hitler would have won.
With this thought, a new determination came over Molly. She had a job to go to and, at this rate, she’d be late back after her lunch break. Returning into the house to collect her purse, she became worried by the sound of her dad snoring. He should have his butcher’s shop open by now. As it was, she knew they were losing business and things didn’t look good.
Not wanting to chance going to wake him, as she feared facing her dad’s wrath again, Molly slammed the door hard as she left. The action gave her some satisfaction. The noise it made would have scared him out of his slumber.
They had always been the affluent family in Sebastopol Road in Edmonton. She remembered that her mum had wanted them to move to a better area, but her dad wouldn’t have it. He’d said he needed to be amongst his own, as half of his business came to them because their neighbours all knew him as one of them.
Cancer had taken her mum. At ten years old, Molly had watched the ugly, slow deterioration of a beautiful, buxom woman into a skeletal, unrecognizable one. She could still feel the agony of her loss.
Everyone said she looked like her mum did at her age. She could see this herself, when she dusted the lovely brass-framed wedding photo of her mum and dad, which stood on the piano in the parlour. Her mum had been beautiful, and Molly had inherited many of her qualities: the same sleek black hair and dark, flashing eyes. It wasn’t these features that attracted men to her, though. It was her shape – something else she could attribute to her mum. With a small frame and over-large breasts, she’d always been teased that she’d been in the front of the queue, when they were dished out. How often she’d wished she hadn’t been. Her breasts were a curse, as far as she was concerned. Most men leered at her, in one way or another. If not openly, then they did so with a sideways glance, giving her a wink if she caught them looking, as if they thought she wanted what they offered.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Losing her mum at such a young age had taken away her confidence, and though she’d done well at school, being naturally clever, on leaving school, she hadn’t wanted to do anything that might entail going away from home. Not that there were many opportunities for girls to do so, although her brains would have got her into college to become a secretary or something. Instead, she chose to work in a shoe shop in the town centre because, like her dad, she felt safe amongst her own people. How often she’d regretted that decision.
As she was about to turn into Osmond Road, Molly looked back. She wasn’t surprised to see her Aunt Bet, her mum’s sister, lifting the latch to their home. Widowed in the last war, Aunt Bet adored Molly’s dad. The thought of them together repulsed her. But it also left her with no one to turn to who might be able to help her, as Aunt Bet was her only relative and wouldn’t hear a word against her dad. A deep loneliness and a yearning for her mum seared through her at this thought, and Molly thanked God for her friend Hettie.
Hettie lived on the same street, just a few doors down from the corner where Molly’s house and the butcher’s shop stood. They’d grown up together and had a special bond. She could talk to Hettie, though shame prevented her revealing everything.
The sound of a vehicle slowing behind Molly stopped the morose thoughts that had threatened to overwhelm her and replaced them with a feeling of trepidation, as the kind of car not usually seen in Edmonton pulled up beside her. Black and sleek with white-rimmed wheels, it reminded Molly of those cars she’d seen in American films. A woman leaned out of the window. Molly looked up and down the street – no one was about. Her trepidation deepened as the woman called out to her, ‘Here, lav, you know of an Alf Winters? He has a butcher’s shop around here somewhere.’
The surprise of being asked for directions to her dad’s shop, by this heavily made-up woman with a shock of bright-red hair, rendered Molly speechless.
‘Cat got you’re your tongue, eh? I asked you a bleedin’ question.’ Stark blue eyes stared into Molly’s, before travelling the length of her body. Sniggers came from the fat male driver and from a man sitting in the back seat, but they stopped when the woman bawled at them, ‘Here, you two, pack it in. Can’t you see she’s like a bleeding rabbit in the headlights?’
The back window opened slowly. A blond-haired man, whom Molly thought to be in his forties, put his head through and grinned at her. The evil that emanated from him stopped Molly thinking of him as handsome, even though he had chiselled good looks that gave him a certain magnetism. His eyes travelled from her face and lingered on her breasts. She watched his gaze turn from curiosity to lust. Repulsion shuddered through her.
With a smirk, he lifted a half-smoked cigarette to his mouth, took a deep drag and then threw the butt-end at her feet. Molly jumped, but couldn’t take her eyes off him. He kept his gaze on her, squinting as the smoke slowly escaped from his mouth, before blowing a cloud towards her, in a deliberate action. The menace of this made her gasp.
‘You’re a good-looker, girl. You could turn that figure of yours into a fortune.’ His voice didn’t match his looks. The tone was high, effeminate even.
Molly froze, then turned red at the woman’s words: ‘Leave it out, Gus. Can’t you see she’s a virgin? Ain’t that right, lav – you’ve never had a man up yer, have you?’
Loud guffaws mixed with the high-pitched cackle of the woman’s laugh. Hot colour flooded Molly’s cheeks; sweat-beads formed on her forehead. She wanted to run for all she was worth, but fear kept her rooted to the spot.
‘I’d like to be the one to change that. What’s your name, girl?’ The fat driver bobbed his head to look at her as he said this. The woman slapped his thick thigh in anger. ‘Keep your mouth shut, Lofty. It’ll get yer inter trouble, one of these days. You’re the bleeding driver, not the mouthpiece.’
Everything about the redhead, whose fleshy breasts oozed from a figure-hugging black-and-white-spotted frock, intimidated Molly. She twitched her nose against the overpowering smell of cheap perfume that wafted up her nostrils. The woman’s lips curled, showing even teeth smudged with her thickly applied red lipstick. ‘What yer looking at, eh?’
Molly looked down at the pavement. She had an idea who the two men were, and this compounded her fear, making her voice shake. ‘I – I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I have to go, me bus will be in at any minute. I’m on me way back to work.’
‘You ain’t going nowhere, Missie, and we ain’t got all bleeding day. If you’re catching a bus from here, that means you live round here and probably know of the butcher we’re looking for. So start talking, or else.’
The back door swung open. Jumping back, Molly lost her balance. Groping for something to save her from falling, she cried out as a hand grasped her, digging painfully into her arm. ‘No . . . No, let me go!’ Her scream died as, in one movement, the blond man twisted her arm up her back and propelled her towards the open car door. His knee shoved her forward. Her head jerked on her neck, and her face was squashed onto the leather seat. His body thrust at her from behind. ‘Stop – don’t. Please, don’t.’ Tears choked her as she felt his hand lift her skirt, but thankfully the woman stopped him.
‘Not in broad daylight, you thick-headed geezer! Get her in the car, and let’s get going.’
Pain shot through Molly as Gus yanked her head back by her hair and landed a stinging slap on the cheeks of her bottom. Terror gripped her as she realized they were kidnapping her and she could do nothing to save herself. Frantically she looked out of the window, this way and that, but the street was deserted.
‘Now, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, if yer know what’s good for you, you’ll talk to us. Like Gus here says, you could earn us some money, and that’s what you’ll be bleeding doing. But first, answer me bleeding questions. Do yer know this bloke I’m looking for or not?’
‘The b-butcher is me dad.’ As she said this, defiance came over Molly. ‘You only had to drive a bit further and you’d have seen our shop. It’s on the corner of the next street, Sebastopol Road. It’s not hard for even you to find.’
For a moment Molly thought she’d gone too far, as the woman’s eyes narrowed, but then she was surprised, for instead of receiving a further threat, the woman ordered her release.
But Gus wasn’t giving in that easily. ‘What’re yer thinking of? Christ, Eva, she’s prime meat.’
Molly held her breath, but Eva didn’t waver. ‘There’s time enough for that. She says she’s Alf Winters’s daughter. In which case, we don’t want to upset him by abducting her. We can cash in later, when we have him in the palm of our ’ands.’
Not daring to look back, in case they changed their mind about letting her go, Molly stumbled away from the car, desperate to put some distance between them and her. As she rounded the corner, the bus she thought she’d missed pulled up. She hesitated for a moment, torn between going back to make sure her dad was all right and carrying on to work. Still angry at her father, she climbed onto the bus. Whatever those people wanted, she’d leave it to him to deal with and would hope he got rid of them.
Her mind didn’t register anything that the bus passed on the way to her workplace, or the usual discomfort of the wooden seats, as she mulled over what had happened. The whole episode had frightened her more than anything else in her life, but hearing the first names of the two men had intensified that fear. Molly felt certain they were Gus Williams and Lofty Tyler – two gangsters who had once been notorious around the East End, which lay within spitting distance of where she lived. A long term in jail had seen younger men take over, and Gus and Lofty losing their territory. She’d heard they were reclaiming it, as the war had forced conscription on the younger thugs.
Phyllis, a loud sort of girl who worked with Molly and seemed to know everything, had gossiped about Gus and Lofty, saying they dealt on the black market and headed a gang that stole from the ships docked at Wapping and at other docks along the Thames, as well as from the warehouses that lined the docks.
As the bus swung into Church Street, the conductor rang the bell to announce Molly’s stop. The sight of the shoe shop gave her other things to think about. Something had changed since she’d left an hour earlier. Sandbags that hadn’t been there previously, but were long awaited, were now piled high on the edge of the pavement. War was becoming a reality. It had brutally visited her street, and now people everywhere were ready to believe Hitler’s threat to set London ablaze. The row of shops presented a hive of activity, as shop owners dragged the bags and stacked them against their windows under the direction of the Air Raid Precautions wardens. Her own boss wasn’t one of them. He’ll more than likely get me and the girls to do that.
This thought was confirmed as Phyllis came into view. Her wave was followed by holding her head to one side and nodding, in a knowing way, at the sandbags. The movement catapulted Molly’s thoughts back to her fears caused by the encounter with the gang, as Phyllis had looked just like that when she’d told them about Gus and Lofty’s other activities.
‘They’re pimps as well, you know,’ she’d said. ‘They work for a madam called Eva.’ Phyllis had gone further and had told Molly of the plight of one of the street girls. ‘They dragged me mate in, making her believe she would have a good life with them. She hadn’t had much going for her up to then, as her dad and her uncle took what they wanted from her, when it suited them. Now she works the streets. She’s in a bad state, but won’t hear of me giving her any help, as she says I’ll be putting meself in danger.’
The words trembled through Molly as she recalled them. Her stomach churned. Her fear of Hitler’s wrath descending on London paled into insignificance, as the implications of what had been said about her earning money for the gang suddenly took on a terrifying meaning.
Not one for putting much faith in prayers, as Molly crossed the road she begged God fervently to help her, as the sensation of Gus thrusting himself at her revisited her. Please, God, don’t let what happened to Phyllis’s mate happen to me . . . Please!