W. D. Spiller
Copyright © 2016 W D Spiller
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Chapter 1 – Reputation
Chapter 2 – Staying Late
Chapter 3 – All Our Lives
Chapter 4 – Uno Momento
Chapter 5 – Rain
Chapter 6 – A Ride Home
Chapter 7 – Adventure!
Chapter 8 – Appropriate Connections
Chapter 9 – Laid Up
Chapter 10 – The Room
Chapter 11 – Remiss
Chapter 12 – Late Arrival
Chapter 13 – Principle
Chapter 14 – Change
Chapter 15 – The Promenade
Chapter 16 – Caught
Chapter 17 – Doing Well
Chapter 18 – Chatter
Chapter 19 – Out of Reach
Chapter 20 – Market Day
Chapter 21 – Miles Away
Chapter 22 – Walking
Chapter 23 – Recognition
Chapter 24 – Interrupted
Chapter 25 – Lifeless
Chapter 26 – A Growing Light
Chapter 27 – 27th April 1937
An apple hits the ground
Silent in the bustle
Before leaping aboard the Omnibus, Robert ‘Bob’ Bailey had, unusually, bought a copy of the morning Times. He rarely bought a paper, he could barely spare the coppers, but today the lead story was of particular interest. The Spanish republican militia, it read, was preparing to take the southern town of Malaga. This news and the freezing January damp reminded Bob of his brief fantasy, before Christmas, of going out with the International Brigade volunteers to help the republican cause. The idea of glorious adventure in the Spanish sunshine, in contrast to his current lot, added to a weary winter gloom.
In the prior summer of 1936 Bob began work as a payments clerk for the Special Aviation Company. It was his first paid position after completing his studies, but the excitement of earning his first wage was beginning to fade with the tiresome routine. The bus negotiated the Cheltenham morning bustle, other buses, hand carts, horse carts and motor cars. Bob’s thoughts drifted, swaying where he clung by the rear step. What a difference to his new life, he thought, to face battle, to be truly alive, maybe even face death. This morning particularly, between his freezing lodgings and the dull office was to Bob’s romantic mind, hardly living at all. But, of course, on the other hand, there was, and always had been, Ada.
Bob and Ada were promised to one another – that was understood by everyone they knew, but the very idea was unspoken by either of them and opposed wholeheartedly by Ada’s widowed mother. “Move in now lad!” the conductor called as the bus avoided an unloading drayman. Bob touched the brim of his workman-like flat cap in reply, shifted from the rear step and lifted the folded paper to read the headlines. In the swirling wind following the bus, a stray sheet of the previous day’s news lifted and twisted into the air. Bob turned his paper and read the first few lines of the next story. An unsettled feeling crept in, that he was missing something of the world.
The crowded bus provided a welcome haven from the swirling cold. Through the misted windows Bob could make out shop boys moving-on the waking tramps. The homeless gathering their ragged bedding fragments to begin their day moving on. One must, of course, respect one’s elders, unless they are homeless – of course; another fleeting thought prompted by the sight of an elderly man being shooed from a well-to-do outfitter’s frontage by an aproned youth. Soon the bus had moved from the High Street, past the tall town houses, the low terraces and out on the road towards the company site.
Bob recognised many of the passengers on the bus. He saw them each day, at the same time, often occupying the same seats. He exchanged a ‘good day’ with them when he caught their eye at the bus stop, more often he hid below his cap. Usually, his hunched stance and unmet gaze offered a closed demeanor.
He had been standing at the rear of the bus next to another regular passenger. A man he recognised as working at Special Aviation also. Not an office clerk or manager, Bob supposed, maybe from his outfit a factory steward. The passenger met his eye and said, “them Germans’ll be having a hand in Spain before long, they says”. Bob was surprised and embarrassed. It felt as if the all the passengers were awaiting his response. The man’s expectant gaze invited a response and had in it a shade of encouragement for the plainly shy young man.
“Ye…yes. Using their air force perhaps?” Bob returned, thinking an aviation related answer might be expected.
“P’raps so, pr’aps so,” the man nodded, “and pity them republican Spanish if it’s so”.
There followed an embarrassing halt to the conversation where Bob couldn’t think how to take up the baton. The man simply nodded gently and looked away toward the front of the bus again. Bob returned to his paper, if only to avoid further contact. The bus was now reaching the edge of the town. At each stop, further commuting workers joined those crowding in the aisle. “Move inside the bus please,” the conductor called before the next stop. There were several more stops before they would come to the Special Aviation Company’s stop.
Cheltenham in 1937 was a clean, prosperous and spreading town. Long, broad avenues of new, comfortable semi-detached houses had emerged in recent years. With them had come more people, more shops, and more motor vehicles in its wide clean streets. Many of the houses in the residential areas on the east side were host to a motor car. Much fewer so on the west side. Many of Bob’s colleagues lived in the small, terraced houses near the railway station in the west. Bob lived in the ‘posh’ east in a small garret room on the top floor of a large Regency terrace building. The buildings to either side were grand town houses with wealthy families that still had paid help. Amongst all this clean prosperity were the office workers, like Bob, living each in single bedded rooms, with single gas ring cookers, sharing bathrooms. Clean, but not prosperous.
The bus ride was the most uncomfortable part of Bob’s daily routine. He awoke, normally, at the sound of the man in the neighbouring room’s alarm. He had not met the man, although they had been neighbours these several months. Bob knew him to be male from the heaviness of his tread and deepness of his cough – he worked early hours even on Sundays, and Bob wasn’t one to knock and make acquaintance. Other alarms went off, in more distant rooms in the time before Bob needed to rise, by which time he would be fully awake, in good time to make sure his own alarm did not ring. He hated the sound and the idea that others could hear it.
To be out of bed, into the bathroom, washed, shaved, back to his room, a slice of bread, toasted over the gas ring and a mug of tea, was a matter of twenty five minutes. Five more to descend the stairs and walk, at some pace, the quarter mile to the bus stop on the High Street. The bus would be jammed full as it left Cheltenham toward the aviation factory. The government’s re-armament plan meant there were jobs going in Cheltenham, people travelled from towns and cities at some distance to fill the posts.
The Special Aviation Company occupied a vast site at the foot of the hills to the south of Cheltenham. When Bob began his post he was one of nearly ten thousand workers and each day new faces appeared in the Payments department.
After several miles following a mostly straight road, passing a few cottages and farm entrances, the bus reached the Special Aviation stop across the road from the main entrance. Other employees were arriving by every type of transport – bicycles, motorcycles, sidecars, motor cars of various ages, and by foot. Bob crossed the road from the bus stop, slipping carefully between the crawling vehicles, to queue for the pedestrian turnstile next to the main gate, showing his staff identity card to the guard who was nodding automatically to each entrant. The guard eased his stern expression as Bob approached. Bob’s appearance often inspired sympathy in others. “Morning young man,” the guard said with a blend of familiarity and duty that instilled in Bob a feeling of belonging in his place of work. His desk was in a single story block several minutes’ walk from the main gate.
The wind came in chilled gusts as he headed, head down, to block HA23, the number painted in white block capitals on the brickwork. The low office blocks were in rows either side of a central roadway. Beyond these were the larger factory and storage buildings, constructed variously of brick, corrugated iron and wood cladding.
As Bob reached HA23 a small, low motor car pulled up. A young man of Bob’s age stepped out and flung the door shut behind him. Staff were not supposed to park on the central road. Bob was intent on getting out of the cold. He entered HA23 through two sets of heavy wooden doors half glazed with wired safety glass and turned right off the central corridor into the Payments department. He looked up to the large the clock at the end of the room. Total time from bed to desk sixty seven minutes.
Gerald Painter, the young man with the motor, had followed Bob in. Painter was not staff, and should not have been on site, but his father occupied an obscure position related to the company finances, and was sometimes seen about the Payments office. Why Gerald Painter should be here Bob could not think.
“Good morning Bailey,” Gerald said with barely perceptible patronisation.
“Good morning Painter,” Bob returned reservedly.
“How’s Ada?” Gerald asked.
Bob had seen Gerald Painter’s sneering smile before and had always felt he was being looked down upon.
“You know Ada, how?” Bob was surprised by his own territorial feelings.
“Oh, we were introduced by a mutual friend.” Gerald answered obscurely. Bob wondered ‘mutual’ between whom? He was not aware there was any mutual connection between Ada and Painter, except himself. He certainly had no friend in common with Painter.
“I imagine she’s fine. I don’t monitor her health,” Bob said, perturbed.
“Oh, not an item, you two?”
“We are not two, or an item. Ada’s a family friend.” Bob had allowed his usually quiet voice to raise involuntarily.
“Understood, understood,” Gerald nodded, “Okay Bailey.”
Gerald left as if he had got what he wanted. His sneering smile, like he had enjoyed getting Bob ruffled, and that he had confirmed there was no promise between him and Ada, left Bob unaccountably infuriated. Gerald Painter had this effect on him although they had rarely spoken before.
Bob already had a full day’s work piled in a wooden tray. And so he settled to work. For the first time in their lives he was jealous of someone showing an interest in Ada.
The staff of the Special Aviation Company’s Payments department were arranged into several sub-departments, and each department into Desks, and each Desk allotted a specific task. Each Desk was staffed by two or three staff, usually one Senior and a Junior or two. Bob was a Junior. The purpose of the Payments department was to pay not a penny more or less than the agreed price for goods and services supplied by a host of smaller companies, from the latest high specification electrical components to window cleaners’ chamois.
Bob’s Desk was to check if invoices were received from legitimate suppliers – it had been known for cheques to be paid for invoices from fake suppliers unchecked. With the growth in the company from the re-armament plan had come fraudsters trying to make easy money. Bob spent his working hours checking contracts, price lists, old invoices and catalogues. The job was tedious, but he did it well, and was trusted by the Desk Senior. But there was no prospect of adventure on the Supplier Checking Desk of the Payments Department.
The talk around the Desk this morning was about the role Germany might play in the Spanish civil war. Even the Senior joined in the chat when the department heads were not around. Today there was even some far-fetched talk about war between Great Britain and Germany.
“Where do you stand on the German situation, Bailey?” asked the Senior.
The current Senior was a short round man with a happy face. It was a job people didn’t stay in for long. They re-appeared in other Desks in Payments. Bob was almost considered an old hand in Supplier Checking now. Bob thought often, given the trust shown in him, he could easily falsify invoices and be paid large sums before anyone noticed. He, meanwhile, he could be en-route to Catalonia to help the Spanish republicans. He thought of it as helping rather than fighting, it was easier to imagine. The Senior’s question about Germany interrupted this day dream. A subtle way of bringing him out of it.
“I don’t like the way they treat people. The Jews, I mean. Or anyone.” Bob was vague. His mind was on people like Painter and more particularly, Painter’s father, Daniel Painter. Privileged types, Bob’s father called them. In Bob’s view, the way he had seen Daniel Painter speak to other managers and staff was in the same class of treatment as the way the Jews were being treated in Germany, and the way the Spanish nationalists treated the Communists. A distorted view perhaps, but Bob made no distinction. He found it difficult to express his views clearly and so let the conversation move on. He had seen people physically shaking when dressed down by Mr. Painter senior including the department head, Richard Ogley.
“That’s because you’re what is called a ‘good man’ Bailey. It’s a fine thing to be a good man, but it’ll be tough on you to be an easy touch,” said the Senior. He didn’t know Bob well, but quickly had the measure of him.
“Reputation is everything,” the Senior continued. Apparently the conversation had moved on.
“The impression you make in a job like this is the start.”
The Senior’s broad beaming face was cryptic to Bob. Did he mean something more?
“You’ve made a good start Bailey, you both have,” with a gesture he took in the other Junior also.
“Remember, its about more than your wages. Your reputation is what carries you through life, or stops you in your tracks. If it’s damaged, there’s no recovery. Or at best a slow one.” He finished with a slow meaningful nod, which Bob could not interpret. Bob found the Senior a bit odd, but friendly and well meaning, although where all that stuff about reputation came from he could not say.
Later that afternoon an odd thing occurred. Bob was leaning back in his chair to relieve the strain from prolonged hunching over his work. His desk was near the rear of a large office in which desks were arranged like a school examination hall. Across the opposing wall, were management offices behind frosted glass doors. Just then, Daniel Painter, a short, proud, well-dressed man, strode out of the department head’s office and marched, angry faced, out through the exit door. Plainly there had been words, for Ogley could be seen through the open office door red faced and more than usually fidgety. Staff near the office were keeping their heads down. As Ogley turned to slam the door, Bob put his head down too. A few minutes later, Richard Ogley exited his office. Bob watched Ogley walk past each row of desks to Bob’s row, turn abruptly and walked briskly along the row stopping in front of Bob’s desk. It was nearly six months since Richard Ogley had spoken a word to Bob on his first day, a nervous and terse welcome to the department.
“Come with me please, Bailey.” Ogley’s shoulders and hands twitched as he spoke. Bob followed him to the office.
“Close the door.”
Bob complied. He couldn’t think why he’d been called in. Usually after a visit to the office people were marched off site.
“Is there something the matter, sir?” Bob was concerned by Mr. Ogley’s deep red colouring and jittery manner.
“Bailey, I’m informed that you are reliable and conscientious. Particularly so.” Ogley glared as if expecting a reply.
“Yes, sir. I think I am. I couldn’t say particularly so,” Bob replied.
“You’d better be, for your sake Bailey,” Ogley added, with a shoulder twitch, and under his breath, “for all our sakes.”
“See this invoice?”
“Yes sir,” Bob replied, but didn’t recognise the supplier. It must be new. He had to think. Had he made a mistake? Had someone else spotted it and gone to Ogley?
His mind quickly pieced together events that morning.
Gerald Painter’s visit, followed by his father, who had an angry meeting with Ogley. And the Senior’s curious warning about reputation. Bob was on the brink of a profuse apology. How would he explain this failure to Ada?
“After they have been registered, you will stamp these invoices as approved, whenever you receive them. You will not discuss them, at all, with your colleagues or your Senior. You will simply stamp them and bring them directly to me. Do you understand?” Bob nodded, but did not understand. The department head was telling him to do precisely what he was being employed to stop. Invoices bypassing the controls. It’s a test, he thought.
“Sir, I really think it inappropriate for invoices to pass through unchecked.” Well done Bob, he thought.
Ogley was clearly not impressed. He coughed nervously, twitched and said in an angry undertone, “Bailey, your position here depends on doing precisely as I have requested. Now, you will tell no one. You will just do it. Understood? Yes? Good day to you, Bailey.”
The day after receiving Ogley’s instructions, on the bus to work, Bob exchanged a nod of recognition with the passenger that commented on the Spanish war. The man was standing near the front, Bob in his normal spot at the back. Thankfully, several other morning regulars were stood in the aisle between them. Bob looked down to avoid meeting the eye of nearby passengers. Making small talk in others’ hearing was torture. He liked to think about things during the morning bus ride; things people had said to him, things he had read. A chance to get things straight. He had had a troubled night, turning over Ogley’s forceful words amongst other thoughts.
Bob’s evenings had been empty since moving to his new digs. He had grown up in a village west of Cheltenham, several miles beyond the city of Gloucester. A two-bus journey to his new job would have taken too long, and moving out had excited him, but a few months later the evenings had become as much a drag as his work days. He had thought of knocking on his neighbour’s door to spark a conversation, but couldn’t force himself to it. Making new friends did not come naturally to him. With Ada he could be himself he thought that morning on the bus. She was simply Ada. And he was himself. The two of them had grown up together, but in later years attended different schools. Ada travelled to Gloucester, Bob went to the local village school. He’d had a few school friends back then, but at all other times he was with Ada. People in the village didn’t know what to make of them together, but they’d only been children then. Things were different now. He had much on his mind on the bus that morning.
Last summer Ada received her exam results and gained a place at Birmingham university, which meant she’d be living in halls of residence. She promised she would be home at least once each month. In reality there had been only one occasion when Bob and Ada were able to meet. That was last Christmas when Ada had persuaded Bob not to fight in Spain. Something his mother and father had failed get through to him.
Already, it was time to get off the bus.
“Hello there lad. Another fine day then?”
Bob was on the brink of pretending he hadn’t heard, but the man from the bus was keeping pace next to him.
“Hullo,” Bob replied, feeling ashamed at his attempted avoidance.
“‘Name’s Tom,” the man said trying to look Bob in the eye.
Bob slowed. “Robert Bailey.” His face screwed up against the drizzle, and then, “actually, most people call me Bob.”
“Good to know you Bob.” said the man. “So, you think the Germans will bomb Spanish towns? Doesn’t seem likely to me, but who knows?” said the man. An attempt to get Bob into conversation.
They were walking briskly up the site road. In the drizzle the aircraft hangars of the Special Aviation Company were faintly visible on the far side of the airfield. A little closer by was the white control tower looking like a modern seaside villa.
“You’re in HA23 then?” the man asked, not giving up.
“Not been ‘ere long?”
“About six months.”
Bob felt he should ask something in reply. “How about you?” Bob asked, genuinely intrigued as to what this man did. There seemed more to him than his worker’s dress and local accent.
“I’m foreman of Equipment Preparation in HA8,” said Tom the foreman. “It’s my job to make sure the sensitive instruments are tested, packed and shipped so they arrive safe and working,” said Tom. Bob didn’t know what all the departments did. He could get an idea occasionally from some invoice descriptions, but they were often cryptic.
“When you get a spare minute, you should come over and I’ll take you to some of the hangars. You might see the new aircraft,” Tom said as he cut away towards his building.
“When?” Bob called surprising himself at his eagerness.
“Try and get over this afternoon. I won’t be busy. We’re a bit quiet just now. Ta-ta!”
All day Bob wondered when he could get away from his desk. Staff were constantly warned against walking near buildings where they had no business being. There were bold posters with statements making it clear staff should ‘mind your own business’. He didn’t know where HA8 was and to ask might raise questions. He’d have to head in the right direction and hope the number was painted on the building. If he couldn’t get permission from the Senior he would have to pretend he had to take some paperwork to another department. He could be found out, but needed some excitement. He could pretend he’d been given a task by Ogley, which at least had some partial truth to the lie.
It was a grey, dark afternoon as Bob headed out of the office doors and walked in the direction Tom had taken that morning. The morning drizzle had passed, but darkening clouds were emerging over the steep hills to the east. It felt like a little adventure to sneak off and wander about the site. There were permanent security guards at some buildings and suspicious receptionists inside the entrances of most. The company’s reaction to the threat of German spies was clear to see.
A small plane hummed low over the hills just beneath cloud level. Bob often heard them but rarely saw them during working hours. He was daydreaming of spotting a German spy skulking about a quiet corner trying to obtain details of what Tom had called sensitive instruments. A female spy, he imagined as his thoughts drifted. She would call him over and persuade him with her charms to assist at great risk to himself. He was walking past a long line of parked motorcycles, his mind alighted on the dream of riding a motorcycle along a country lane with the German spy riding pillion, her arms around his waist. The secret police in pursuit.
The snoring plane was now loud overhead and brought him to. He was next to a building signed HA9. Tom’s building could be any one of four others next in each direction.
“Looking for something young sir?”
Bob leapt in surprise. A tall security officer in hat and epauleted shoulders was eyeing him from beneath a peaked cap.
“I’m to go to HA8,” Bob stuttered out. Bob was of average height, but this guard loomed over him, his eyes shadowed by the peak. He was all square jaw and pressed trousers.
“Alright laddo, don’t be lingering anywhere now.”
Bob didn’t know which way to turn, he had to risk asking.
“Which way is HA8? I am due see Tom, the foreman there.”
The guard paused and eyed him further, “next on the right,” he said, eventually.
HA8 was a large white painted brick building with a saw-tooth roof. At intervals along its length were sliding doors through which a lorry could pass. The third door along was open and nearby was parked a canvas canopied lorry with wooden crates being unloaded. Just beyond the unloading lorry was a spectacular automobile. It was cream with white walled tyres and a polished chrome grille. Most of the motor cars Bob had seen were dark coloured and not as impressive as this.
Two men were unloading crates. The crates looked heavy. Bob stepped through the open door.
“And where do you think you’re going?” a loud voice said behind him.
Bob turned. It was Tom the foreman with a wry smile at having made the timid young man jump.
“Hello, Tom? I was hoping it would be a good time to have a look around.”
As he said this Bob was starting to feel guilty about leaving his duties at the Payments desk. Tom nodded that Bob had his name right.
“It’s a bit tricky as it turns out. See that car outside? That’s the Chairman of the board of the Special Aviation Company. He’s been here a while. I’ve no idea what he’s doing here, but him and Daniel Painter, you’ll know him I expect, they’ve been looking around very closely at everything.”
“Should I go?”
“Hang on here for a while. I expect they’ll be leaving soon, they’ve been ‘ere long enough,” said Tom.
Tom directed the careful placement of the final crates while Bob looked about. There were stacked wooden crates of various sizes with stencilled warnings. Others were metal boxes with detailed notices pasted on the outside. This was ‘Goods Out’ a sign said. Through a series of windows Bob could see an area singed ‘Final Inspection’ with work benches arranged in rows. White coated engineers were looking closely at pieces of electrical equipment.
The unloaded lorry started up and drove away noisily. Shortly after, the big cream motor car pulled away without a noise. In the rear was a middle-aged, plump cheeked, gentleman smoking a pipe. Next to him Bob saw Gerald Painter’s father. Mr. Painter leaned forward to look out as he passed. Bob felt sure Mr. Painter was looking at him. I’m going to be in trouble now, he thought. But, why should Daniel Painter be interested in me?
“Right then, Bob Bailey follow me, and please, don’t be touching anything,” he said, smiling over his shoulder. This Tom is always smiling, Bob thought. Tom the foreman seemed comfortable in his surroundings. Unhurried and relaxed. He was a short, round fellow. Dressed like a well-to-do gardener with a loose fitting red cardigan and an ill matching tie. As they passed the work benches Tom showed him various items consisting of wires and glass valves. It was interesting, but confusing. What did it all do? The engineers appeared efficient and competent.
After the brief tour, Bob and Tom borrowed some green painted bicycles that were leaning by the Goods Out door and cycled towards the hangars.
“I’m going to be in big trouble,” Bob said.
“Oh, so you didn’t tell them where you were going?” Tom shook his head, still smiling. They continued along a path that skirted the airfield.
As they cycled, Tom asked Bob more about himself. Bob grew up near Gloucester, his father worked in the docks for a shipping company, but had not worked for three years since being injured at work. The company had pensioned him off, but it was little to live on. Bob had moved out when he started this job. Yes, his father was pleased about Bob’s new job. He was not pleased about him wasting money in rent that could have helped at home. Bob’s father was often critical of him. His mother kept house for some people in their village, but didn’t earn much from that. No, he didn’t have a girlfriend. He blushed.
“Mrs. Partridge and me have been together since we were kids. Never been anyone else for me,” said Tom with a satisfied sigh. Bob had to think who Mrs. Partridge was. Tom said, “Partridge is my name,” on seeing Bob’s expression. Bob felt a vague apprehension. Would I be saying the same of Ada and I in years to come?
There was a sleek new fighter plane sitting on the hangar apron. As Bob and Tom drew close it surprised Bob how much larger it appeared than he had expected. It had a sleek shape and painted silver it looked fast even when stationary. They laid the bikes against the hangar wall and walked around the fighter. The wings shone in a break in the cloud. It crossed Bob’s mind that this wonderful machine was designed to kill. Great skill and ingenuity had been employed to that purpose. The result was beautiful.
“I’d better get back,” Bob said after they had been lingering for several minutes.
As they made their way back, Tom revealed an ulterior motive for making acquaintance with Bob.
“We could do with a conscientious young mind in our department, would you be interested? It’d be more interesting than Payments.”
Bob thanked Tom and said he would certainly consider it.
Bob had been away for over an hour when he returned to his desk. The other Junior shook his head, the Senior was wrathful.
“Bailey, you will stay until these are completed,” he said, shoving a pile of papers in Bob’s direction, “we can’t have this, Bailey. Wandering off! No explanation!”
“I’ll make up time. It won’t happen again. I apologise,” said Bob, simply. The kind of ineffectual apology that infuriated Bob’s father.
“Why do you make these wild decisions?” Mr. Bailey had said when Bob announced his plan to go to Spain at the Sunday dinner table one weekend. “A bunch of pretend Communists getting themselves shot,” he went on, “I’m a Labour man, but I wouldn’t go getting myself shot for a bunch of Spaniards.” Bob thought better than to explain his need for adventure. His father wouldn’t understand. Mr. Bailey had become more difficult to reason with in recent years. Bob’s mother simply clicked her tongue. When Bob went to help in the kitchen she tried to persuade him of the good position he now had at the Special Aviation Company. His reputation was important at his age, she explained, he should not jeopardise it. He must stick at something. She asked if he had discussed his plan with Ada. “Why should I discuss it with Ada?” had been his reply. That was what he said, not what he was thinking. He had every intention of getting Ada’s opinion and would probably act in accordance with it.
The subsequent interview with Ada had irritated and confused Bob. He wanted her viewpoint, but was irritated by his need to ask for it. The fact that she agreed with his parents was simply the limit. It was okay for Ada, she had escaped to university. All the same, he gave up on the International Brigade idea.
Bob stayed an extra hour at the office that day. He caught up on his invoices quickly, but was left marking time before he could clock out to show he’d made up the lost time. He was doodling aimlessly when Daniel Painter entered the office. Mr. Painter stopped dead, said “Oh,” nodded curtly, and proceeded to Mr. Ogley’s office. Entering without knocking.
For the second time that day Mr. Painter had reacted on seeing Bob where he hadn’t expected to see him. Bob couldn’t think why he should provoke any reaction at all. In the quiet office Bob could hear that strong words were being given by Painter and Ogley offering hushed excuses in return. Again, Mr. Painter left stern faced, but didn’t look at Bob as he did so. A similar sequence of events as the previous day. Ogley came out of the office.
“You haven’t forgotten our discussion have you Bailey?”
“No, Mr. Ogley, sir.”
“It might be as well for you to stay late at times. What we discussed is not something that need involve anyone else. Your signature will be needed to prove these invoices as having been checked in the normal way.” Ogley handed a paper file to Bob containing a few sheets of paper, and he finished with a twitch of his right shoulder.
Bob’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t form a response.
“Your position here, and hence, elsewhere, in your personal affairs may depend on it.”
Bob nodded. His mouth was dry. He clocked out and left the office in an anxious daze.
Ada Saint and Robert Bailey first met in 1918 shortly before Armistice Day. Neither of them remember that meeting, Bob was then just a few weeks old, but they were often told about it by their mothers.
A few days before Ada was born, her father, Captain Mark Saint, all set to be an authoritarian parent, was killed in France. A German machine gun swept a line of fire through two of his forward observation party and cut through him as it swept back again. He died with his eyes open, without seeing his daughter. His absence from his daughter’s life helped form her personality. Ada was self-reliant early on.
Ada and Bob grew up in the same village near Gloucester. Ada was the elder by three months. Since Ada could walk she had been like a big sister although the age difference ought to have been of little consequence. On Bob’s first day at the village’s infant school it was Mrs. Saint, along with Ada, that had collected Bob on the way. That first day Bob got into a heated argument with a little girl, debating which of them had broken the wheel on a box of toys. Ada intervened on Bob’s side and explained to the teacher that Bob was a good boy so it couldn’t have been him. It had been him. Even at that age Ada could present a persuasive, if not always a truthful argument. She was too sensible to be telling fibs.
Bob’s father worked as a cargo supervisor at the Gloucester docks. With money tight, Bob’s mother was introduced to Mrs. Saint as a well-to-do family in need of help with a new child. Eileen Bailey was herself still nursing Bob, her second son, when she started keeping house for the recently widowed Mrs. Saint. Robert was shortened to Bob by his elder brother Christopher, who was four years his senior. Christopher had been a ‘war baby’. Mr. Bailey had been expecting to be called up at the start of the war and didn’t want to leave Eileen without a child to look after her in her old age if the worst happened. Mr. Bailey was not a man to volunteer for military service. He was a union man and railed against authority, albeit in his quiet, stubborn way. He took steps to ensure his duties were designated as war work.
Christopher Bailey was at loggerheads with his father from when he reached his teenage years. Bob and Ada were eleven years old when Christopher left home for life as a merchant seaman. A teenage Christopher had no place in Mr. Bailey’s house. Least not one who stayed out late and liked a beer too many. Consequently, Mr. Bailey put his hope in Bob, and Bob felt his expectation with some of the quiet stubbornness inherited from his father.
Christopher had been a merchant seaman several years when Bob began his first job at Special Aviation. It was after one of his brother’s rare visits home that Bob’s urge to escape to Spain took root. Time at sea, out in the world, had changed his brother’s appearance. He had taken the colour and texture of polished wood, his ruffled hair now close cropped, his smile more ready and his gaze more penetrating. Christopher was full of stories. Foreign countries, foreign people, scrapes, scraps, and some tales Bob thought too tall. But Christopher was indifferent to Bob’s disbelief. It was his brother’s self-assurance that convinced Bob that he needed an adventure of his own.
“So, what’ve you been up to lately? Working with aeroplanes I hear,” Christopher asked. The question expected more than it received in reply.
“I’m in Payments. I check invoices. To stop fraudulent submissions,” Bob said, tailing off with the inadequacy of his situation.
“You should join the ships Bob. See a bit of the world. Lot of girls out there.” Christopher grinned broadly. Their mother, listening, gave a chiding, pursed lip smile and gentle shake of the head. Mr. Bailey lowered his paper a little and frowned intently at his youngest son.
Thinking of girls, and lots of them in particular, gave Bob an uneasy, unresolved and trapped feeling.
“Yeah,” Bob said with a hesitant, noncommittal smile.
Ada was the only daughter of Mark and Valerie Saint. The Saints occupied a respected position in the village. Unlike Bob’s parents they were regular church goers. Mark Saint was a well-regarded civil architect. His plans for his daughter, even before her birth, were that she should follow an academic career. Science perhaps. Mrs. Saint cherished this hope after his death. One day Ada’s mother said, “your inheritance will come to you soon. Your father was a well-to-do man, respected here, he gave us a comfortable life – to a point.”
“Mother, if you’re implying I should follow some dull career in a fusty university staff room by return payment, then you can keep the money. Stupid old men smoking their pipes!” Ada replied.
“You are not a foolish girl, Ada. You will soon see the importance of money. And other people’s respect. You can already see it in this house, and your school. Your education,” Mrs. Bailey said.
She knew Ada would see sense. Ada was prone to occasional romantic notions, but in the end, her good sense would keep her in line, on course for the career and life her parents had intended from the moment she was born. Captain Saint, serving in France, was informed of his daughter’s arrival in a letter from Mrs. Saint. In Mr. Saint’s mind, remote from his daughter’s birth, Ada was not born a small helpless child, but full grown and ready to embark on the career he had already pictured for the adult Ada. His intentions had been impressed on Ada ever since. Ada agreed she might need money to sustain the life she was used to. But, she thought, look at Bob’s family. They live happily with little money. She doubted whether Bob was the sort of man to follow any career or go after money aggressively. Bob didn’t do anything boldly.
Ada had the look of a Salvation Army volunteer. She was of average height with a slight figure. Mousy hair cut close in a wavy bob that was fashionable in her mother’s day. Men needed to look twice, but when they did they noticed a pretty curve to her upper lip and a slightly up-tilted nose. A plain beauty, but only careful observers and other women noticed. Ada wore the dullest clothes. In winter a woolly hat was pulled over her bobbed hair. This suited Mrs. Bailey, it would ward off distractions. Ada’s persistent childhood connection with Robert Bailey, however, remained a concern.
In recent years Bob and Ada had begun to exchange thoughts about their respective futures. Ada had stayed on at school to gain her place at university. Bob had attended the new technical college, but lacked enthusiasm for its boring obsession with precision. After a year he changed course and completed a lower level diploma in finance. Still boring, still requiring precision, but he had ground it out and it had pleased his parents. Ada had kissed him on the cheek the day he received his results. That was the second kiss. The first had been a few years earlier and Bob had not forgotten it. Bob had met Ada from the bus on their way home from school. Ada was then attending a school for girls in the city. As they walked, they had been talking quite normally, taking the alley to where they would then each go in opposite directions. Then Ada stopped, turned Bob gently by the arm to face her squarely. She leaned in and kissed him lightly on the lips. Ada smiled back over her shoulder as she hurried off home. Bob, motionless, simply watched her go. There were no other kisses and they had not talked about it since.
Ada’s good opinion of him mattered to Bob. It had been a factor in the effort to complete his diploma. To stay friends they needed some academic achievement in common. After a few months at the Special Aviation Company with news of the civil war in Spain, Bob shared his plan to leave his job to help the Communists. Ada was both disappointed and impressed. Never before had Bob demonstrated support for a cause or much interest in politics. Bob and Ada met up in Cheltenham one weekend when Ada was home from Birmingham. They occupied a table for two at a cheap tea room off the high street.
“What will be gained by getting yourself killed?” Ada questioned.
“I need to get away from this place. I’m doing the dullest job that serves only to ensure the high up people can drive their big cars and live in fancy houses. The Communists in Barcelona need all the help they can get. I don’t want to fight, I want to help.”
“I can understand that. But all sorts of people get killed in wars. Not just soldiers.”
They sat in silence for a short while. Both leaning forward at the table. Ada looked down at her tea. Bob looking out of the window in case she looked up.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said, quietly.
Bob met her eye and sat back in his chair, but didn’t reply.
“We should always be friends, Bobby. All our lives.”
Bob smiled. They smiled together. He had missed her since she’d been away. To Bob, Ada was the same girl he had known when they were children. He thought how things were back then.
Not far from their village a group of barns were positioned next to a narrow tarmac lane that ran through the middle of a barley field. They were built, to Bob’s mind, in the manner of a military barracks. Three buildings set around a central courtyard – or as he thought it, a parade ground. One section, probably the oldest, had walls of brick and the only remains of a roof being the A-frame beams, now grey, warped and riven with deep splits. The middle section was of corrugated iron that had once been painted black, but now, speckled grey, brown and topped with a rusty brown roof. Two large doors led into an open, dark interior with a small loft at one end. The third section was the best with the most places to climb and was where he and the other children played the most.
To Bob now, things seemed to be so simple when he was younger. In the long summer holidays he and Ada had visited those barns every day. He remembered a sunny day like this, sitting atop the central barn roof with Ada, the roof’s apex worn smooth where they had sat many times, the sky a perfect blue, stretching over the ploughed field. Far across the field a dark green hedge formed a straight line between earth and sky and the hot late summer air was dry with straw and dust. The scorching, rusty iron roof burned the soles of his feet, stained his fingers brown and made them taste like blood.
Climbing up the sloping corrugated iron to the roof top was a hazardous task, attempted by only the bravest children. On one side he could look down to the courtyard where robust weeds had crawled up through the seams in the concrete and now stood like sentries in formation. To his left he could see the gate to the field and all around any intruders could be spotted at a distance. Nobody ever visited the barns except them and their friends, but that day two boys from another village had joined them. After a few minutes, the heat made them retreat down the slope of the roof, his toes pushing hard against the inside of his plimsolls.
Through a missing roof section they jumped down into the loft of the middle barn then clambered down into the dark interior. Bright pin prick holes cast dusty shafts onto the straw floor. Bob swung his arms to stir the suspended particles and held out his hand to catch the light. Then a shadow swept out the lights and the rattle of an engine made him bristle with fear.
“Farmer!” he shouted, turned, grabbed Ada’s hand and ran into the courtyard.
“Farmer!” he shrieked, sprinting, barging the huge weeds, not waiting for the others. Over his shoulder children appeared from all corners, some jumping from heights with courage that would normally take entire afternoons to muster. His plimsolls filled with dirt as he lurched, tugging Ada across the ploughed field towards the gate – the furrows twisting their ankles, the crumbly ridges taking the steam out of their pumping legs. Looking back once more the farmer had driven the long way round so they had a good lead. Reaching the tarmac lane he picked up speed pummelling the dirt inside his shoes and laughing as they approached the gate. The two new boys had been caught, not knowing the best way to escape. He, Ada and the others shrieking with excitement and elation as they ran for home.
He gazed out onto the street down a short perspective of years. Years which are duly proportionate to the age of the viewer. Just eight years ago, to Bob it was way back then.
“When I finish at Birmingham I might complete my post graduate studies at a London university,” Ada announced. “I’d really love to get to know London. Since I’ve been at Birmingham I’ve come to love the city. All the people, the bustle. Cheltenham’s fine, but it’s a bit of a backwater.”
Ada was talking quickly, her face animated with her plans. He altered the distance of his gaze to read her face.
“And after London, what then?” Bob asked. He had to raise his voice over the loud conversations around them.
“Abroad. Europe, America!” Ada was practically bouncing off her seat at the idea. He beamed at her excitement. They both had their fantastic plans, Ada’s were more realistic, more practical. Despite what she had said about always remaining friends, she was, he thought to himself, getting further away from him.
Years of tedium at the Special Aviation Company were now his lot. Years at the beck and call of people like Richard Ogley. Nothing exciting would ever happen. The boredom would seep into his personality. This was why he needed his own adventure.
February brought sleet and bitter winds. Bob had only his thin coat and flat cap for warmth. His new suit wasn’t much use either. Silver grey, in the latest style with a subtle iron stripe, but not best for winter. The cloth looked expensive and on another man could have been considered swish. On Bob’s skinny frame it hung in rumpled folds, the trousers gathered in creases around his ankles and the jacket hung loosely over his shoulders. He loved the feel of it, but as he passed shop windows he didn’t look to himself as other men did in their suits, like they were meant for it. For those men it was who they were. The visit to the gentleman’s outfitters had been one of hot embarrassment. He had not bought any clothing unaccompanied before. The more helpful the assistant became, the more deferential upon realisation that Bob had the money, the redder and hotter Bob became. It was all his Spain money, gone. Now he was not going for sure. Now he had a position in the world, he wanted to look like he was fit for it. The suit with which he left the store, despite the cost, only served to illustrate quite how well he fitted it. His father had been livid. Such a waste of money when he needed a proper winter coat.
The rent on his Cheltenham town centre room was taking a large portion of his wages. His father had suggested a boarding house in Gloucester, reminiscent of his own bachelor days, but Bob preferred uncluttered Regency Cheltenham to the, heavy, overbearing Victorian Gloucester. He managed to buy some cheap woollen gloves and scarf from the market to wear even when indoors, but the knit was of an open stitch and they weren’t warm at all. The single ring gas stove barely registered an effect on the temperature. Some evenings he would go straight to bed after his evening meal to escape the cold. Except for work days he was in hibernation, with only public library books and his precious radio for company. The radio bought by his father in honour of his new position. It was a large, fine object, a beautiful curved shape of inlaid wood and large, tactile dials. Father and son couldn’t look at one another as Bob accepted the overwhelming gift with choked gratitude. It was given a proud position in his room and saw him through many dark evenings.
In the last week of February the freezing wind intensified. The walks from the bus were taken with clenched teeth and swearing under the breath at the searing gusts. Bob hadn’t visited Tom’s department recently. Sudden sleet showers meant visits to other buildings were kept to a minimum. He’d had some brief chats with Tom on the bus, but they hurried from the bus to their buildings, which cut short their exchanges. But, as the end of February approached the evenings began to lighten. There was a promise of spring and Ada home for Easter. Crocuses appeared in the verges at the aerodrome.
The weather and recent dark days had the effect of focussing Bob’s mind on his work. In recent weeks he had started to accept his job in Payments. The Senior noticed Bob’s diligence.
“What’s the name of your young lady?” asked the Senior. This was a question out of the blue. For a moment Bob was perplexed. Bob hadn’t seen Ada for two months.
“I saw you with a young lady in Cheltenham around Christmas time,” the Senior said, “you haven’t told us who she is, I assumed she was your sweetheart. You looked rather…close.” The Senior paused and the Junior grinned eagerly.
“Oh. That was just Ada. A family friend. We’ve known each other since we were kids,” said Bob to diffuse their interest.
“I thought you might be thinking of marriage. You seem to be applying yourself more to the job lately.”
“No, no. Definitely not. Marriage, I mean.” Bob, was still a little confused, not having expected this from the Senior.
“Just ignore me,” the Senior said, “I just wanted to let you know I’ve noticed your improved work.”
Bob was encouraged by this. He had put his adventurous thoughts behind him for the time being. He began to think that there could be a career for him at the Special Aviation Company. Maybe Tom could find him a more interesting job. The Senior had touched on something that Bob wouldn’t admit to himself. He wasn’t thinking about marriage, there was plenty of time for that, but, be needed to prepare for his future, whatever that may be. He needed to build his reputation, starting here in Payments if need be.
It was now a month since Richard Ogley had warned Bob about some special invoices for him to deal with. Nothing out of the usual had appeared. He had almost forgotten about it, but Ogley’s warning about reputation had stuck. It seemed odd that such an apparently important attribute had not been mentioned by anyone until this point in his life. He had put it to the back of his mind.
At the end of each month he checked the ledgers against the invoice files. It was that time again. Bob liked the straightforward ease of the task. He was allowed a full day to complete the checks. He started at supplier names beginning with ‘A’ and worked steadily through the alphabet. After an hour he reached ‘K’. Part way through a file of K’s he turned a yellow foolscap leaf and his heart stopped. The page in from of him was a white heavy weighted sheet. The title read T. J. Krugle & Co. The form was simple, plain text explaining services rendered, a total and sales tax values. He stared at the value. An unusually large sum, more than Bob could earn in ten years. Well beyond the value Bob could pass for payment at his level. At the bottom was Bob’s personal stamp, no.23 in green ink inside an octagon, and, unmistakably, his signature in his preferred indigo ink.
In an instant he knew what it meant. He was being used as cover to pay money from the company. He knew T. J. Krugle & Co. was not on any list of approved suppliers. He knew the supplier list well enough. He needed to speak to Mr. Ogley, urgently.
His heart beat hard. Stomach tight. He stared at the sheet of paper as if it might change before his eyes. His signature. His stamp. A checker’s stamp was never to be lost. Loss of a stamp was a written warning and docked pay. He kept his own on a chain around his neck. Someone had a duplicate stamp and had forged his signature. He had to think how this could have happened. If he reported it he could be implicated. If he didn’t he was party to the fraud. It made no sense, if he was going to commit such a large fraud, he would hide the evidence, not put it in a file that would be checked. He had to think.
Don’t overreact Robert, he told himself. He completed the remaining checks in the file. Tied up the ribbon that kept the papers together and placed the file back in the cabinet. He opened files that contained previous months for K. In each there was a similar invoice with Bob’s authentication marked clearly. He closed the files and went to Mr. Ogley’s door and knocked three rapid taps. No answer. The door was locked. Other staff sat nearby looked up, he had caught their attention, they exchanged raised eyebrows with one another. He walked quickly from the Payments office out into the cold.
The walk to Tom’s area in HA8 was filled with whirling thoughts. He wasn’t sure whether to tell Tom what he had found. He remembered Ogley’s warning words, and thought better of it.
“Hello lad, what brings you here?” asked Tom as Bob walked through the sliding door at HA8. Bob was unsure how to reply.
“Just needed a breather. If you’re busy I can go.”
“No, no,” said Tom uncertainly. He could see Bob was preoccupied. Tom continued,
“it’s all been going on since your last visit. We’ve had a whole area walled off for a new hush-hush production area. Even I don’t know what it is. Something involving special glass and lenses, but we’re not allowed in there. And the packing cases have some foreign labelling.” Tom shrugged as he pointed out the locked doors to the new area. Unauthorised staff were warned in big, red lettering to KEEP OUT.
“There’s people coming and going I’ve never seen before,” Tom said, and looked to Bob for a reaction. Bob was elsewhere, but came round in response to Tom’s gaze.
“There’s definitely something up with you, lad,” Tom said.
“Just some work I was dealing with,” Bob said.
“Oh, that’s what you needed a breather from,” said Tom, with a measure of doubt.
The sky had darkened considerably as heavy clouds blocked the late winter sun. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up. Bob returned to the office mid-afternoon. The other staff in the Payments office were working with what Bob misconstrued as ill-informed knowledge of his problem with the invoices. The rest of the afternoon passed slowly, Bob misinterpreting knowing glances. He had decided to wait for the office to clear before confronting Ogley.
The last person to leave smiled and wished Bob a good evening. Immediately, Bob was out of his chair and approached Mr. Ogley’s frosted office door. As he approached he heard Mr. Ogley talking loudly. Apparently Ogley was on the telephone as he heard no responses. Bob hesitated as he reached the door, his hand raised to knock. He made out the words ‘minimum civilian casualties’ and froze, then quietly “uno momento”, then loudly, “who’s there?” Bob was about to back away but noticed his own shadow on the frosted glass door. He knew Ogley could see someone was there. After another moment he knocked.
“Yes!” Ogley shouted.
Ogley was hunched over his desk. His hand covering the receiver.
“Bailey, what is it? I’m on the telephone.”
The degree of Ogley’s hostility took Bob aback. Ogley must know about how he had been dragged into a fraud that stemmed from Ogley himself. The older man’s arrogance angered Bob. Ogley read Bob’s face and responded.
“I’ll call again shortly,” he said into the receiver. The voice at the other end cut off short as he ended the call.
“What do you want, Bailey?” he asked with fractionally less impatience.
Bob said, strangled with anger, “I checked the invoices today. There are large payments being checked off with my stamp and I have never seen them. Someone is forging my signature.” He drew breath to continue when Ogley stopped him.
“If you know what’s good for you, you will close that door and go home. And what’s more you will say and do nothing about what you have seen. Or about what you may have heard as you were eavesdropping just now. I have warned you Bailey, do not meddle.” Ogley stared Bob in the eye. Ogley’s normally jittery demeanour now cold and hard as iron.
On the bus home Bob met Tom again. The young lad was quiet, Tom sensed Bob’s need to think. Tom did mention one thing on the bus though, that intrigued Bob later that evening while sitting on the bed looking at the blue flame from the single ring burner. The labels on the new packing cases were in Spanish.
February cold became March rain. The weeks since uncovering the fake signatures had been a strain. His mind numbed, drained from thought, but with his remaining mental strength he decided he must stand up for himself. He would report the invoice problem to Ogley’s superiors. The forger had done their job well. Ogley would simply say Bob had made a mistake, and was potentially a fraud himself. But honesty must see him right.
On the second Tuesday of March the rain splashed down, heavy and cold. Bob went straight to the Gentlemen’s w.c. on arriving at HA23 to dry and comb his hair. His squelching socks would take all day to dry. Good thing that the office heating was so stifling. As he emerged from the w.c. into the echoing corridor, he heard Ogley’s voice. Peeking around the door, he saw Ogley and Daniel Painter were a few feet away.
“Just you see that he does,” Mr. Painter was saying in a stern, exasperated voice. “You know full well the consequences,” Mr. Painter hissed and stopped short, cocking his head, wary of being overheard.
Bob ducked back into the doorway then exited noisily, feigning innocence. He passed the two senior men with a deferential “good morning, sirs.” Painter glared, first at Bob, then at Ogley. There were no further exchanges between the two men while Bob walked to the Payments office door. He felt their scrutiny at his back until he was through the door. As Bob said his morning greetings to his fellow workers, in his gut rose a sense of defiance towards those who had dragged him into their scheme. He watched with a thin smile as Ogley entered the room and strode around the rows of desks to his office.
Richard Ogley had been employed by the Special Aviation Company for nearly ten years. He had been head of Payments for two years by the time Bob joined the department. Mr. Ogley was not a natural department head. He had a red jowly face with shapeless grey hair and a paunch resulting from regular pints of beer following Sunday cricket matches. For a team sportsman, he was oddly nervous around the staff and tended to over-compensate with aggressive instructions. His staff knew he was not popular with his superiors, as was particularly the case with Daniel Painter. Loud exchanges within Ogley’s office were a regular occurrence. Of late, Ogley’s abrupt words to Seniors and Juniors alike had become more sharp and sarcastic. A few weeks ago he had described Bob’s Senior, considered generally an efficient and reliable man, for all to hear as ‘just a journeyman’. He followed it with a fishhook-sharp barb referring to useless baggage.
“Mr. Painter’s been around here a lot lately,” the Senior said to Bob. Bob was bending under his desk to remove his soaked shoes. He murmured a null response. “I wonder what’s going on there,” the Senior continued, “something to do with the new production line in HA8? All hush-hush that. Any idea what it’s about?” he asked Bob.
“How would I know?”
“I’ve seen you talking to one of the supervisors that works over there. My wife knows his wife. He’s not said anything then? Mind you, I should hope he hasn’t. It would be more than his job’s worth.”
“He hasn’t said anything to me, naturally,” Bob said as he emerged from under the desk.
The Senior resumed his work, disappointed with Bob’s lack of information. Bob spread his toes in his damp socks, the better for having removed his sodden shoes.
Daniel Painter opened Ogley’s office door. Instead of heading directly to the exit door, he walked down the row of desks right up to where Bob was sitting. Mr. Painter leaned over Bob’s desk and whispered, “follow me, please.” Bob quickly tried to squeeze his shoes back on and followed Daniel Painter out into the corridor, his mouth drying. The Senior watched aghast.
Daniel Painter was a short, well heeled, well-polished man. He fitted his clothes perfectly with a full frame. He had the air of a man completely in control of all the people and all the events around him. He walked out into the corridor away from the door, not looking round at Bob. Bob was a several feet behind him having struggled with his reluctant, wet shoes. It was as if Mr. Painter was simply going to carry on and walk off. The short superior stopped suddenly and expertly herded Bob against the wall. He leaned against it with one hand and spoke to Bob in a serious whisper with one finger held up before him like a hypnotist.
“Now, listen,” he whispered, looking Bob in the eye. He had to look upwards due to Bob’s height. He held Bob’s gaze for several seconds. Bob looked away first to avoid Mr. Painter’s discomfiting stare. Mr. Painter had a curious manner of speech, elongating the final syllable of each sentence, adding a bayonet twist to his torture.
“Bailey. Mr. Ogley has involved you in something that is far beyond your sphere.”
He stopped, still looking Bob in the eye. He was silent for several seconds. Then continued, “I believe you to be an intelligent young man, therefore…,” he twisted an agonising pause, “I expect you to act accordingly.” Bob was sweating.
“To be clear…,” pause, “the intelligent course for you to take is to follow exactly, without question, or delay, the instructions given to you by Mr. Ogley.”
The other junior emerged into the corridor, met Mr. Painter’s glare then immediately retreated. To end the interview Mr. Painter sharply nodded his head sideways to indicate Bob should return to his duties. Back at his desk the Senior was waiting for an explanation, his face expectant.
“What was that about? Mr. Painter has never spoken to me in all the years I’ve worked here.” He awaited Bob’s response, open mouthed.
“It was really nothing,” said Bob.
“A lot more than nothing, it looked to me,” the Junior chipped in.
Bob sighed. He could think of no sensible explanation why Daniel Painter should want to speak to a junior payments clerk under normal circumstances. These circumstances were beyond any reasonable explanation.
“If it involves this desk, it involves me Mr. Bailey,” said the Senior. The usually affable Senior was serious and expectant of an answer, but lacked the personal impact to force it out of his Junior.
In his room that evening Bob laid on his bed pre-occupied, thinking through the events of the day. The early spring evening was losing light, but he wanted to read the letter he had collected from his pigeon hole. It was in a neat hand with sharp dagger shaped crosses on the t’s. A letter from Ada. Her handwriting had changed over the years from a naive, rounded hand to a confident, flow with each letter barely distinguishable from the next, except the sharp t’s and pronounced h’s. He heard her voice as he read. She was having a great time in the second term of her first year at university. It didn’t surprise Bob at all that she should relish studying hard for her first year examinations. It drew a sharp contrast upon his situation at the Special Aviation Company, much as the bright, low sun setting over the chimneys opposite Bob’s window lit the early tree buds a phosphourescent green.
He returned and thought of his day at work. He had shrugged off questions from the Senior, and afterwards, the whispered, nudged queries from the Junior over lunch in the staff canteen. Lately he had met Tom at lunchtime and, more recently, had taken to sitting at the table used by the HA8 staff. The canteen tables were arranged in four regimented rows, occupied by groups of regulars formed by a curious array of associations – by building, by job skill, by preferred sport and, for those not fitting any of the former, by temperament. By so doing he was forming an understanding of how the company worked, and where the company’s payments were going. On his way to the canteen earlier that day the Junior caught up with him and danced alongside Bob pressing for answers. Why was Mr. Painter so interested in a Junior like you, Bailey? As Bob returned from lunch having shaken off the Junior, he had seen Daniel Painter. With him were Mr. Ogley and the company Chairman, he recognised him as the man he had seen when he first visited Tom in HA8.
His mind had drifted from Ada’s letter as it drifted from most subjects in recent days. Her stories of lectures, studies and dull sounding young ladies couldn’t sustain his interest. He turned to leaf through the local paper. On the inside page was a picture of local dignitaries. The pages of the Echo were often populated with similar such pictures. Store openings and memorial plaques. The buildings of Cheltenham must be covered with similar such plaques, like fly posters. This picture showed a group of middle-aged men in dress clothes. Two faces seemed familiar to him, but he couldn’t place them immediately. He read the caption; a group from the Cheltenham & Nation Society attending their annual gala event. The Society included a group of local politicians, businessmen and right wing thinkers. The men were all smiling. Some appeared to be eyeing the central figure from the corners of their eye as if he had made a remark just as the picture was taken. The figure in the middle was the Chairman of the Special Aviation Company. Three figures to his right stood Daniel Painter, he was one of those looking towards the Chairman.
The description described a speech made by the Chairman warning of the dangers of communism of the type being imposed in Catalonia, firmly against the position of those loyal to the Spanish monarchy. It also welcomed the banning of the International Brigade. The waste of young lives on an ill judged and unworthy cause. Bob looked at the fuzzy picture of the Chairman’s face. The picture showed the Chairman smiling a toothy, double chinned grin. Self-satisfied, Bob thought. The eyes in the picture were black, no features or gaze could be distinguished from the picture, but Bob could discern a dark intensity within the print.
He had seen that darkness in a look from the Chairman on his return from lunch earlier that day. The three men, Ogley, Painter and the Chairman, were standing together. Painter short, upright, almost leaning backwards, the Chairman over fed, the grin and darkness mixed in his face, and Ogley, shifting about, face downwards, right shoulder twitching. Bob was some distance from the group, but detected disparagement of Ogley shared by the other two. As Bob passed, the shared smiles left the two more senior men. Ogley met Bob’s eye blankly. The Chairman turned as Bob passed. He nodded to Bob in what first appeared a friendly manner, but with an expression that while smiling was devoid any warmth. In that instant Bob knew he was marked out, trapped, subject to the whim of people accustomed all their lives to controlling people and imposing their will on others. From that, Bob could see the dark intent from the black staring image in the evening paper. He was expected to comply. No dissent tolerated.
Sat on the bed he looked disconsolately at his meagre food provisions. A tin of cold processed meat, some butter and the stale remnant of a loaf. He had no impetus to eat, no motivation to open the tin. The trapped feeling restricted his physical actions. He couldn’t move from his single bunk. Two thoughts occupied him as the evening darkened into a sleepless night. He could comply and be complicit in something he was unsure of, but that obviously had to be kept secret. He could resist. If he resisted, refused to participate, they might sack him, but he would be in the clear. They did, however, have documents showing he was involved. They could pin the fraud on him, if fraud was what it was.
If he asked his parents, his mother would advise talking to his superiors, reason with them. His father would say that management always exploit the lower ranks and that Bob should be in a union, which he hadn’t yet joined, not being able to spare the trifling fee. His brother would advise walking out and going to sea. Ridiculous, but he should, he thought, have followed his plan to join the International Brigade in Spain before it had been prohibited by law. If he had followed his instinct to leave and help others he wouldn’t now be in need of help himself. He was in a cage. He had walked into it, but Ogley and Painter had shut him in. No such thoughts were of any use in his situation. Ada’s assistance, he concluded, was what he needed and it was that understanding counsel he was least able to imagine, but it would be right. He read her letter again, hoping that a connection to her thoughts might guide him. Ada’s prattling on about girlish behaviour and disapproval of other students only depressed him. She had abandoned him. Such were the thoughts of several tired hours. Laying on the bed, still dressed, he saw the lonely clock through each hour.
By dawn he was drained of energy and thought. But he was determined, he would resist.
Walking to the bus stop shortly after rising he hoped he would meet Tom on his way to work. He managed to eat some of his bread and butter, which he was still chewing as he reached the news stand just by the Strand. The headlines on the front pages told of important news from Spain. He had scarcely seen anything other than local news in recent weeks. There was little loose change and no large coins with which to buy lunch later. By Wednesday each week he was usually out of money. The rent saw to that. Cheltenham was not a cheap place for a single man to live. The newspaperman recognised Bob from his regular passing each weekday morning. The man gave a gap-toothed grin in recognition that the young man had at last stopped today. Bob counted out his last pennies and bought a copy of The Times.
The lead story described how German light bombers had arrived in Spain with the aim of attacking specific targets in a bid to defeat the well-equipped republican resistance. It was unclear to Bob if the paper’s editor was in favour of the action. The German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion was in Spain to ensure the fascist regime took control of all Spanish regions including Catalonia. From the little that Bob knew of it, the small type of aircraft suggested by the article would be for targeted attacks, not widespread bombing. That kind of thing was unthinkable in Bob’s mind, even given the attacks on London in the Great War. That was unlikely to happen in Spain, the cities must be smaller than London and hardly warranted such action.
Large, cold drops started to fall from a clear sky. He took shelter under a shop awning while he waited for the Omnibus. The rain and the bread had refreshed him marginally. A chat with Tom would help him.
Talking the news through with Tom, while they travelled, brought home a significant truth that Bob hadn’t seen. The Chairman and Painter were associates, both were pictured with the Cheltenham & Nation Society. Tom mentioned, purely in passing that this group was thought to support a far right wing viewpoint, similar to the British Union of Fascists. Tom believed this extended further than making speeches and being pictured in the paper. Supplying fascists forces in Spain costs money. So said Tom, who always seemed to know more than Bob expected of him.
The following Monday Bob sat slumped at his desk turning his personal stamp around in his hand, looking at it thoughtfully. It had a small, round wooden handle and a circular rubber stamp at the end with the number 23. Bob’s ink pad was green. Each clerk had to ensure they only used their own stamp combined with the correct coloured pad. Bob now kept his stamp and pad in his jacket pocket at all times. He had to clean the stamp and pad of ink with blotter, but it still stained his pocket. Prior to recent events he had kept it locked in his desk. He was constantly worried about mislaying both items.
“Have you ever heard of someone having a duplicate stamp?” asked Bob of the Senior the day after his conversation with Tom about the Chairman’s political affiliations.
“Not heard of that, no. And it would be a serious matter if found to be so. Why do you ask?” the Senior’s face was a mixture of curiosity and concern.
“It just occurred to me that it might be possible,” Bob replied, then asked, “does everyone only have one stamp?”
“To my knowledge, yes,” the Senior replied.
Bob saw his questioning expression and expanded further, cautious of saying too much just yet. “I saw some bills with my stamp and signature, but I don’t remember checking them,” he said. The Senior said that they all had too many bills to check as the company was expanding so quickly, and not recalling a few was hardly surprising.
“I am worried that someone has the same stamp as me,” Bob said.
“Even so, their signature would be different, and anyway the stamps used in this department are each unique. I check them all myself,” the Senior replied shortly.
The Senior was plainly not in the mood for hypothetical discussions and didn’t like the idea that his organisation of stamps might be under question.
The Senior left his desk a short time after the exchange with Bob. Bob noticed that he had been gone for quite a while when the Senior emerged from Ogley’s office with a troubled expression.
“Looks like he’s been given a flea in his ear,” whispered the Junior, as the Senior walked back to his desk, “is it what old Painter was sticking you for the other day?”
“I really don’t know. You would do better to just concentrate on your work,” Bob said, irritated by the Junior’s wheedling. The Junior was surprised, but pleased at getting a reaction. Bob misread the Junior’s face.
“Have you been forging my signature? I wouldn’t put it past you. And using my stamp. Ogley been onto you, has he?” Bob spit these questions at the Junior, short and irrational from sleeplessness. The Junior faked shock and hurt, with a snide grin as the Senior returned to his desk.
“Something amusing?” the Senior asked seeing the Junior enjoying Bob’s anger.
“Not amusing, just intriguing. What happened? Is Bailey in trouble?” the Junior returned with tongue in cheek, loving the chance to stir it.
“Nothing that concerns you,” the Senior squashed him impatiently.
“Or you for that matter, Bailey. Please would you both get on,” the Senior ended, softening. He could not sustain impatience for long before returning to his usual affable, polite self.
During the day’s work Bob saw further bills apparently with his signature. The bills were being paid regularly to the same companies, fully checked and approved for payment. Bob spent much of the afternoon asking questions of other staff, trying to find out how these companies came to be approved. He was stepping out of his assigned role and this made the supplier clerks suspicious of his need to know. When Bob finally returned to his desk, the Senior was waiting for him. “Bailey, this really is the limit, I asked you to clear K through to M today and you’ve barely started. You’re in a world if your own these days. You’ll have to stay late and finish if we’re to stay on schedule. I don’t want to give Mr. Ogley any more reason to be on our backs.”
Bob was nearly finished with the tasks the Senior had set him when Gerald Painter sauntered in. Some of us have to work to pay our way, Bob thought. Most staff had left, but Gerald picked out Bob from those that remained. Bob groaned as Gerald came over.
“Dedication to the firm, eh Bailey?” greeted Gerald Painter with genuine friendliness.
Gerald Painter, like his father, was expensively dressed. His clothes didn’t have the grubby, worn look of Bob’s shabby, if still quite new attire. Bob eyed Gerald’s smart, fine wool jacket with a bold check pattern. Something Bob would not have the confidence to wear even if he could have afforded it. He thought how that one jacket cost more than everything he owned. He was offended at the sight of it. Bob ignored Painter’s comment.
“Come to quiz me more about Ada?” Bob asked.
“No need,” said Painter nonchalantly, beaming and smoothing his blonde hair.
Perhaps girls find his type attractive, thought Bob.
Then he registered what Painter had said, “no need? How so?” Bob asked, taken aback. Painter relished it.
“Ada and I have been regular correspondents this last few months Bailey, my good man. She really does think of you as a brother, doesn’t she? Very nice,” Gerald Painter said leaning over Bob with both hands on the desk.
Bob examined Painter’s face. Comparing it to his own. A regular blue-eyed boy this one. Money, certainly, and looks, probably, Bob Bailey by comparison poor and pasty.
“I thought I might offer you a lift back to town, Bailey,” said Painter straightening. Bob eyed the greasy marks left by Painter’s palms and bristled at the idea.
“No, thank you Painter.”
“Really not? Call me Gerald. We’re all friends now that Ada and I are getting friendly.”
Ada and I? Getting friendly? Bob stared at the greasy marks with a disbelieving frown. Was he really Ada’s type? It was a subject he and Ada had not discussed. Painter, it seemed had no intention of leaving without him. Bob decided to accept the lift and see if he could find out quite how friendly Painter and Ada really were. Painter’s two seater was parked directly outside the entrance to HA23. It was pouring down again. Bob was relieved he didn’t have to walk to the bus and wait in the rain, but also niggled by the fact that Gerald Painter could drive on site at all. He had no business there.
Bob’s shoulder pressed against Painter’s when they squeezed into the sporty auto. With the hood up it was claustrophobic and stuffy with the overheated damp. They left the Special Aviation site with the wipers barely clearing the screen and without exchanging a word. Once on the road to Cheltenham Painter broke the silence.
“Ada wrote to tell me she would be home for the Easter holiday, but I suppose she told you too,” said Painter.
“She didn’t,” said Bob.
“I suppose if you’re only friends then she shouldn’t need to tell you everything,” said Painter.
Bob winced and looked at the rain running down the side screen.
They travelled another mile without a word.
“How’s the job at Special Aviation going?” asked Painter finally.
“Fine,” said Bob.
“Must be difficult work keeping tabs on all those payments. Easy to make a big mistake I should imagine?” Painter asked turning to face Bob directly.
Bob drew a long breath, “I try to avoid mistakes,” he said.
“Of course. We all try. But mistakes happen,” Painter faced him again, “don’t they Bailey?”
He calls me Bailey, but wants me to call him Gerald, Bob thought. Bob was not aware that Gerald Painter had any employment in which to make mistakes. He seemed to saunter around funded by his father. They were at the edge of town. Not far now and he’d be out of this awful automobile.
“It must be a tricky business being in your position,” said Painter.
“What does that mean? My position,” asked Bob. The comment had struck him forcibly. Gerald Painter knew what was going on.
“In a town like Cheltenham, Bailey, how you are thought of by others is very important. One has to take care. Don’t you think? Even with old friends like Ada for instance. For a man in your situation, you have to take care how your reputation could affect her too, don’t you see?”
“What the hell are you insinuating Painter?” growled Bob through gritted teeth.
“Cool it Bob, just making observations. That’s my thing, looking and seeing, you know?” Painter said smiling back at Bob.
“Bob now is it? It was Bailey back there.”
They had turned into the road where Bob’s building had each window lit with a low light. All except the garret rooms at the top. Bob got out of the automobile without thanking Painter.
“Toodle pip!” Painter said and pulled away smartly with a rasping exhaust. I didn’t even tell him where I lived, Bob realised, standing in the rain looking up to his unlit window.
Over that week Bob had been thinking much about the conversation with Gerald Painter. The threats he had received from Ogley, and both the Painters seemed obscure, but were related to the spurious invoices that were appearing. He wondered to where the money paid for those invoices was being channelled. Gerald Painter was making a move on Ada. It shouldn’t concern him, but it did, greatly. Painter’s father and the Chairman had been pictured together at a right wing gathering. Everything the Painters stood for ran contrary to his own views. He, who had been prepared to go to Spain and support the Communists, if not fight for them. Thinking had exhausted him. His eyes in his shaving mirror had sunk beneath his frowning brow. Ada would be back at Easter, less than two weeks away.
On Friday afternoon, as Bob watched the clock down to finishing time, he received a visit. Bob had sat back in his chair, his desk clear of work with just over an hour to go. Pay day, they’d be handing out the weekly pay cheques shortly. He certainly wasn’t paid to become embroiled in fraud and receive vague threats. He might, at last, go to see his parents and talk over the invoice problem with his father. His father would be unhelpful at first, he was sure, but if Bob persisted with him and worked past being blamed by his father, he might help find a way to help. It might help to get away from his room. He was mulling on this as the office entrance opened, but no one came in. Then Tom’s head appeared around the door and peered around the room, looking up and down the rows of desks. Seeing Bob towards the back of the room, he nodded recognition, but didn’t smile. Tom had attracted attention and the impenetrable office receptionist stood to ask what he wanted. It struck Bob at that point it was the staff within the department of which they needed to be careful. Bob went over.
“They won’t let you in Tom,” Bob said. A stern look from the receptionist.
“I need a private word,” Tom said in a low voice.
They went into the corridor, it would be quiet until people started leaving for the weekend. In the corridor Tom leaned in to talk like a conspirator.
“Thought you might like to know, young Bob, my lad,” Tom began, “given your interest in the Spanish situation,”
Bob nodded for him to go on.
“Now lad, what I’m about to tell you is just what I’ve put together from what I’ve seen and heard.”
A meaningful look from Tom to Bob.
“Your mister Ogley was over in HA8 earlier. He was with your mister Painter and the company Chairman. Now, I managed to be round about their discussion without their knowing it.”
Bob cut in, “You were taking a big risk Tom. They could make things difficult for you.”
“Never mind. I know how to keep my ears close to the ground,” said Tom. He held up a hand to silence Bob and went on.
“Anyway, what I heard will interest you greatly. Now, the Germans recently sent some dive bomber aircraft to Spain. They want to focus their attention on soft targets after they failed with Madrid. Those packing cases waiting in HA8 are not bound, as I imagined, for the the Soviets supporting the republicans. They are equipping German planes to support the fascists Bob,” Tom let this impact on Bob, “our Chairman and that man Painter are fascist supporters, you know Bob. That’s as I see it.”
Bob was about to express some dark realisation, but was again brought up short.
Tom continued in a still lower voice, a growly whisper.
“Now then Bob, the reason why this concerns you so much,” a pause and another look which gave Bob a feeling of deep concern.
Tom said at last, “your name was mentioned.”
The door to the payments office opened and early Friday leavers started for home and the weekend ahead. Bob had forgotten weekends free of strain and worry. He just wanted to go to work, do his job and go home, like these people. Other offices connected to the corridor started to empty. It was not possible to talk.
“I’d better go and finish up. Can’t keep the missus waiting on a Friday. Fish night. Sorry, Bob lad, but I hope it ‘elps you in some way. I’ll be off then.”
At that moment Richard Ogley came out of Payments and passed them. He gave a look of surprise at Tom. He passed without a word, but looked back as he exited the building.
Tom took Bob aside to a quieter part of the corridor.
“That man has a troubled past, Bob. I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but there were some goings-on four or five years back that ended with him attempting…” at this point Tom mouthed the word ‘suicide’.
“His wife found him. Saved his life she did, but he was never the same after that.” Tom had been distracted by relating this, but then returned as if remembering why he had come.
“They are people not to cross; Ogley, Painter and the like, and not to be mixed up with Bob. I don’t know how it connects with you, but steer well clear. As best you can anyway.” With this warning Tom was off home to his comfortable wife and home.
It was a short, unsteady walk from The Swan to Bob’s lodgings. Bob had left his brother Christopher outside the public house and each had gone their separate ways. Christopher went towards the west of town, towards the seaman’s mission in the St. Paul’s area, there being no space for him to bed down in Bob’s cramped room. Bob went home past the Metropole Hotel with its imposing cedars in the gated garden. As he ambled past the entrance he collided with a burly character leaving the hotel. The man held onto Bob firmly to prevent him sprawling into the road.
“Alright, sonny?” the man asked, gripping Bob by the shoulders.
“Er, yes, thank you,” Bob replied, unsure how the man had come into contact with him at all. The man sent him on his way after setting him right.
Even through a drunken whirl, Bob was relieved that his brother had gone. Christopher would be sure to bring back a bottle and they would continue drinking into the early hours. As it was, Bob had already taken more to drink than he was used to. The short walk home was an unsteady lurch, followed by a scramble of unfathomable keys and impossible stairs, then a spinning bed. That day and the night whirred around him as he lay there. One foot planted on the floor trying to steady the ship. It had been a longer evening than he expected.
“Ahoy there matey!” the ironic shout had made Bob leap backwards, his hair standing on end. An instant flight response born out of the growing paranoia that they were watching him. It was Christopher, waiting for him unannounced as he arrived home that Friday. Bob took a few moments to regain his footing and steady his heart rate, then shook his brother by the hand, somewhat bemused. His brother had a grip of solid mahogany. Bob greeted him with the mixed feelings of wanting to be alone, and needing someone to talk to. Christopher though, was not the level-headed influence he needed. That would have been Ada. His brother’s assistance could involve anything; a drink, a bear hug, a punch up, leaving the country.
“Chris, for Christ’s sake!”
“Hello Bob! You look like you’re carrying the weight of the world – and you lack the shoulders for it. Come on, show a bit of cheer for your brother.”
“Sorry, just surprised to see you. Why are you here?” asked Bob.
“Charmed. I’m back for a couple of days. Mum gave me your new address. Your own place, a proper young gent. Well, it’s Friday, the weekend begins for you office boys, eh Bob?”
Christopher’s tanned features made the whites of his eyes stand out, and his rough shorn head gave him a wild, staring, criminal look.
“To be honest Chris, I’m not good company. I’ve a lot on my mind,” Bob said, embarrassed at his morose response compared with his brother’s bright eyed happiness.
“I won’t hear it Bob, get yourself brushed up and down to The Swan. I’ll give you five minutes, then I’m coming in to drag you out,” the elder Bailey said, pushing Bob by the back of the neck to enter the door. Bob knew he meant every word.
Within fifteen minutes Bob and Christopher entered the Swan pub by the former coaching inn archway. Two brothers out for a drink of a Friday night, sharing the drooping line of an eye-lid, but with little else of resemblance. The Swan public house was originally on the edge of town for those arriving from, and heading to, London. The sour smelling, dimly lit lounge bar was occupied with office clerks and workmen making their way home, spending their freshly received pay.
The two men were several rounds in before Bob began to open up to his brother about what was troubling him. As Bob described his situation, he began to see for himself how things stood. Several fortifying ales had the effect of bringing aspects of his present life to clarity, while others became less so. Christopher was recounting a tale, not the first of the evening and Bob’s mind had drifted. The Payments department, the Painters – father and son, the money paid to spurious companies, the league of fascists, Spain, the equipment being shipped there. The Germans going after soft targets. Cowards! Ordinary, soft, pliable people being killed in the fascist cause. Robert Bailey, a convenient scapegoat, new in position, pliable, controllable, one to take the rap if it all goes wrong. Above it all, untouchable, a man with a toothy grin; rotund, potato headed, Chairman of the Special Aviation Company, comfortable in his control and with the darkness about his gaze.
As Bob listened vaguely to his brother he looked about the pub lounge. Leaning against the bar was a figure he recognised in outline. A burly figure with a full beard and medium length hair slicked back over his head. Bob was sure he had seen the man accompanying his landlord when collecting the rent.
And now his brother turned the conversation back to Bob. What had he been up to since they last met?
“As I was saying, I’ve got some trouble at work. No, it’s more than that, I’m only just getting to see quite how terrifying it could be,” said Bob.
Christopher’s face initially prepared to dismiss Bob’s statement. Then as he finished, Bob’s genuine attempt to smile through the admission told Christopher that Bob was serious. Christopher inclined his head encouraging Bob to continue. His little brother needed time when things were like that.
Bob recounted the situation. It was the first time he had mapped it all out. It crystallised as he spoke. Christopher listened with an increasing smile. When Bob finished, he said, “this, Bob, this is your adventure. You wanted it. Like when you were going to go to Spain. Now, here it is – it has come to you,” Christopher looked Bob directly in the eye. “This, Robert Bailey, is it.”
“You know your trouble Bob? You don’t take opportunities when they fall in your lap.”
As younger children they had had little to do with each other. Their age difference placed them in different schools. Now, both young men, a world apart oftentimes, each one completely understanding the other. Empathy born out of jam sandwiches, a clip round the ear for each of them and bickering in the dark at bed time.
“This can be my resistance,” Bob said at last looking into the dark, foamy swirl of his beer.
“Look at Dad. Where did his safe life get him? Laid up and laid off,” laughed Christopher, “just look on it as an adventure. They won’t kill you!”
Bob thought not too. Surely not.
The evening continued, the wild looking one now in a whisper, now in a roar. The younger, sallow chap increasingly swaying with these changes. Their glasses charged a final time the two men, with a similar line to their sparkling eyes, drank to Adventure!
He was woken by the foggy light from the window. For a few moments his first thought was that he needed to get ready for work, but, no, it was Saturday. The curtains were still open. He was still dressed. Lying on top of the bedclothes, his mouth dry as straw. He lifted his head and the pain extended from the base of his skull to his brow. He sat up, eventually, and felt in his pocket for the pay cheque, there was an envelope, he breathed out in relief. He took it out, feeling inside. It was empty. Immediately he was fully awake and his heart pumping wildly. Each beat throbbed in his head.
He turned each pocket, he had few enough clothes to check. Even his shoes and cap he checked twice. He turned the bed clothes over and tipped up the bed. He checked his saucepan, cup and the cupboard where he stored his provisions. He checked his pockets again. He searched his mind in case he had cashed his cheque at the Swan. They only did that for a few regulars, of which he wasn’t one. He checked the landing, each stair, the hallway and his post box. He checked the outside steps, the front yard, and retraced his steps past the Metropole back to the Swan. It was too early for anyone to have stirred from their bed at the pub, and the hotel receptionist was most disdainful.
As he stood leaving the hotel, the tramps were walking their morning ritual from the shop fronts to the park on the Strand. In the morning mist they looked like shuffling monks attending vespers. He returned back to his room, wracked with the possibility of a visit from the landlord later that day. Bob’s landlord made his visits on a Saturday. Most of his tenants were paid on a Friday and he liked to collect before the cost of living took priority over rent. With any luck the landlord would miss a week and collect both weeks next time. That happened sometimes and he would have time to sort things out.
He sat on the bed feeling like he had a case of flu. He felt his pockets again. He didn’t even have any small change, he kept no money in his room. What he earned he spent. He must speak to Chris, which would mean a walk across town, but he should be at the seamen’s mission before Chris left for the day. It was odd that he ended the night with no cheque, no pound notes and no change whatsoever. He drank several cups of water and chewed what he could manage of toast with butter and left the room. A balding man with middle aged spread in a neighbouring room opened a door onto the landing, standing in his vest and underpants demanded, “what do you mean by this coming and going at all hours?” Bob grunted an apology through a dry mouthful of half chewed toast and tried to descend the stairs quietly.
As he walked, the cold, misty air provided some refreshment. The sun rose over the hills, lighting the fog, it lifted his spirits. This problem was also part of his real life adventure he told himself as he walked.
He was still drunk.
He left the town at the brewery, a hulking brick castle of a building, and went on to St. Pauls along streets of terraced houses that opened directly onto the street. The sickly smell of the brewery gave way to burning coal. At the end of a long terraced street devoid of trees, but tidy in its lack of ornament, was a Methodist church alongside which was the mission building. A building that looked like a disused motor garage, with timber boarded walls and few windows. The mission didn’t appear permanent, much as the occupants were only passing through.
Christopher had left the seamen’s mission early, Bob was told by the caretaker, a bowed and wasting gentleman; fit as a fiddle in his younger days, one for the ladies he was back then, he could tell you. The Bailey feller had left with other ships’ hands when their lift arrived from Gloucester in the early hours. Wished he was with ‘em he did. His mangy dog didn’t express any enthusiasm, lifting an eyebrow then returning to sleep. He viewed the old man. A life lived in his lined face. Bob momentarily sensed the range of the life before him, traced in those lines and weighed in that spine.
What a different life Christopher had to his own, Bob mused as he walked back across town. He must have had only a couple of hours sleep before being picked up for work, and on a Saturday. Bob was still new to working life and hadn’t yet had to work any weekend. But Christopher seemed not to have a care in his head, and plenty to spend in a bar. In recent months Bob could not say the same in either case. Fortunately the Payments department was closed up at weekends.
Bob walked back to the High Street past the brewery and assorted small establishments opposite. Brewery workers were loading barrels onto trucks and drays. He couldn’t face any more of what they contained. The smell of hops in the damp air was nauseating to Bob’s almost empty stomach. The lightness he felt on setting out had drifted down and shifted towards a precarious feeling. The difficulty of creating a situation for himself, succeeding in a job, being accepted there and in a community, dragged on his light mood like a weighted belt. He eyed the jovial brewery workers jealously. Light and settled as they lifted the weighty barrels with practised ease.
The brewery walls were pasted all along with advertisement posters. He scanned the marvellous variety as he passed and halted unconsciously at one. Among the visiting circuses, travelling orchestras and theatre billings was a lecture on fascism given by Oswald Mosley, to have taken place some months ago. Bob stopped in his tracks. The poster was ragged, but his eye was drawn to the still legible small type at the bottom ‘In association with T. J. Krugle & Co’. He recognised the company, he had seen it next to his own stamp and forged signature as he checked through bills for payment while sat at his desk at work. The money to be used to support the spread of their fascist ideology, by whatever means they chose. Means that included the supply of equipment from a British aircraft manufacturer to equip German bombers as they shifted their strategy to soft targets in Spain. In opposition to a cause in which he believed and, in his light headed state, was prepared to act.
His stomach churned with the thick air and brewing smell, which was now permeated with bacon fat from a cafe across the street. He moved on before the bacon became too much. He could attempt to stay out all day to avoid his landlord, or get back to finish his toast, fill his stomach and be out again. He turned left onto the High Street and walked back the way he had come. The shops were opening, laying out goods he could ill afford. Already, one lost pay cheque and he felt he was a peg lower in the society around him. His dishevelled appearance, pale hangover pallor and empty pockets stated quietly his social status to the shopkeepers standing in their doorways. When he returned to work on Monday he hoped he could arrange a sub from his next week’s pay. They could stop the cheque and give him a new one. That was what he hoped anyway as he mounted the stairs to his room for the third time that morning.
When he reached the landing his fears of a visit from the landlord were confirmed. Under the door was a folded note. He opened the door, picked up and read the note. The landlord would call again after four in the afternoon to collect the rent. Be sure to be in.
[Gloucester, 16th March 1937
My Darling Ada,]
I am disappointed not to have received a letter from you for some weeks now. I assume you will be home for the Easter holiday, but it would be nice to hear from you to let me know when. I fully hope you have been progressing well this term and are well prepared for your first year examinations.
I have some astonishing news to impart. I am informed by an acquaintance that Robert Bailey has been experiencing some difficulties, both in his employment and with his finances. I don’t know why I say it’s astonishing, it really doesn’t surprise me. I really think it’s time you moved on from that childhood attachment and pursue more appropriate connections. My acquaintance, a certain Mr. Painter, who was a friend of your father’s, has a son, with which I’ve been given to understand you are already familiar.
He’s just the sort of young gentleman that an intelligent young lady could support to great effect. And you can be quite pretty when you make the effort. This is something we can discuss when you are home for Easter.
Thinking of you always, your loving mother.
[Birmingham, 15th March 1937
[Only a quick note to let you know that I will be home for the Easter break this Saturday. I’ll be arriving on the 11:12 from Birmingham as I did at Christmas. I’ve had a hard working term and met some fun new people that I’ll tell you all about. I have a surprise for you too, which you’ll see as soon as we meet.
Ever your loving daughter,
Their letters crossed in the post.
Despite a mother’s belief in her daughter’s integrity, Mrs. Saint thought the worst of whatever Ada’s immediately visible surprise might be. She counted back the months, the problem increasing in urgency with each month she counted off. Surely, Ada had only seen Robert Bailey at Christmas, in which case it might not be too late, or much worse September, in which case it was.
She dismissed the thought.
In any case, she mused, she must, talk to Mr. Painter and help ensure Robert Bailey is in no position to persuade her daughter to do anything irrational. Irrational, like an engagement, or the Lord in Heaven forbid, an impromptu Easter wedding. Mrs. Saint’s shoulders shook with an abhorrent shiver. No, she had Ada’s best interests in mind. Mr. Saint had been too young when killed to have left an inheritance that covered all eventualities. It was left to her to make Ada a young lady of which he would have been proud. It was left to her to make the money last. It was left to her to make sure obstacles like Robert Bailey didn’t interfere with her carefully nurtured arrangements.
Tom Partridge wiped his feet as he arrived home to his small, terraced house, then greeted his small children and his small wife. He puffed his cheeks and blew out a long sigh. Another day done. Tom appeared every one of his forty two years of age. He had married young to Milly, and she had married much younger. Milly, now thirty five, still looked like a teenager. It took a close view to see her laughter lines. Tom and Milly had children late. Years passed in the early days after they were married and moved into their house where they thought they wouldn’t be lucky enough to have children. Then, as if arriving absent mindedly, came Billy, and Cecile came scurrying along shortly afterwards. Neither aware they were several years late.
Tom kissed Milly, as he did every day when arriving home, and his work day was behind him and forgotten. He had served honestly and good naturedly at the Special Aviation Company since starting as an apprentice at the age of fifteen. Almost as long as the company had been formed.
He shuffled the children and wife before him into the front room and headed for his favourite arm chair. He sat and was immediately lunged upon by Cecile. Billy now just old enough to refrain from jumping on his father, tugged at a sleeve to impart eager knowledge, fresh from learning at school that day.
Milly was close by in the kitchen. Tom laid aside his paper and got up carrying Cecile over his shoulder to go to speak to his good wife.
“There was a strange old thing happened this morning,” Tom began.
“What was that, my dearest,” Milly asked.
“There’s a young lad named Bob I meet occasionally on the way in.”
“You’ve mentioned him, you said you were going to offer him a place.”
“That’s right, I was, but lately I’m less sure of the lad,” Bob continued, “he seems to be one for getting himself into difficulties. Even if they’re not of his making.”
“How so?” Milly asked.
“Well, this morning he sought me out in the bus to ask me to pay his fare. Lucky for him I had the change to give the conductor.”
Milly gave a puzzled look.
“He mislaid his pay cheque on Friday and found himself with no money left. He looked a complete state, like he hadn’t slept all weekend,”
“I didn’t see him on the way home, so either he got a sub from next week’s pay or he found someone else to pay his fare.” Tom finished with a slow shake of the head.
“There’s more I’ve heard about him besides.”
Milly lent her husband an ear as she busied with the kitchen things. Milly had married Tom when just sixteen. She was a soft, loving woman, with a keen sense of what was right for her husband. She was right for him, and he for her. He was a talker, and she could listen until sun rise. She only needed to wait before Tom would share his day’s events, leaning on the kitchen doorway.
“I felt sorry for him. He looked like he’d had a rough weekend, well perhaps he drunk his pay, but he said he lost his cheque. I don’t know, what with this and what I know he’s caught up in at work, it’s best I take care how much he involves me.”
Milly gave him a plain look. It asked, is that what you should do?
“I know, I was young once, but at his age I was courting you. I had a fine woman on my mind and a future to build,” he grabbed Milly affectionately, “this Bob seems to be a troubled loner. Never seen him speaking with anyone else at work. Even at lunch he’s quiet. Not right for my section. I need someone who’ll get on with the other lads.”
Milly released herself and Tom leaned on the doorway. Cecile squeezed past her father’s legs and hung round her mother’s skirts, sucking on the knuckle of her forefinger. Like her mother she was wavy blond and rosy cheeked. She followed Milly’s steps to and fro and was finally paid off with a sliver of pork. Billy, who had been waiting patiently, attendant on each word the adults spoke, gave a jealous gasp at his sister’s cheekiness.
Tom went on, “it did give him not a little pain to ask for money in front of a busload of people. You could see it plain. He couldn’t look me in the eye for the rest of the journey.”
“You didn’t make him feel bad, did you Thomas?” asked Milly.
“Not intentionally. I don’t suppose he’s ever borrowed a ha’penny before. I tried to make out it was the most natural thing, just helping a friend, like,” said Tom.
“Set the table, my love,” said Milly in her gentle way as she began dishing up. Tom in his placid way complied and like each evening, and most days in the Partridge home, the meal and the rest of the evening passed peaceably.
In the wet, shining street where each door gave onto the pavement, came the muffled sounds of squabbling children, angry fathers, exasperated mothers, dogs barking in echo of other dogs streets away, and amongst the row of low-lit front parlour windows, through one of which could be seen a family sat around a dining table, eating their evening meal, contentment upon their faces. Soon the children would be ready for bed. Tom and Milly Partridge passed their evening sharing remarks on radio programmes, while Tom considered the case of young Bob Bailey. Twenty years to forge a life of frugal comfort should not be risked in the service of rescuing a young lad, mixed up in company matters and prone to losing his pay cheque.
“I like the lad, but it’s best I keep my distance,” Tom said later that evening resuming the subject without introduction.
Milly nodded to herself, satisfied.
On Tuesday morning Tom took his time over breakfast.
“You’ll miss your bus,” Milly fretted, as she fussed around Billy and Cecile, getting them ready for school.
“I’m going in a bit later. I’ve always been early, it’s time I saw my kids off to school. And, to see more of my wonderful wife in the morning.”
“Do you intend to avoid him all together?”
“Ah, well, for a little while at least,” Tom admitted.
Tom Partridge had been a below average pupil at school. Written work didn’t suit him, but he had a skill that wasn’t taught. He could make people like him quickly. He had been popular with the other boys without being the best or strongest or the funniest. He was liked equally by his teachers. This quality had seen him through poor exam results, he barely passed the school certificate, but as an apprentice at the Special Aviation Company he came into his own. During this time that he found that being able to discuss current affairs knowledgeably with his superiors gave him the air of a mature head on those shoulders. It was a reputation well made. After two decades he was still living on the benefit of that early reputational equity.
The sun shone on Tom’s face through the bus window. All the seats and standing room was taken at the later time, but the brighter sky was a benefit. He thought it high time he put less effort into the job, and he had avoided an embarrassing encounter with Bob Bailey since Monday. Sat at the window next to him was a tall thin gentleman with a long face and a long nose. The face had a disapproving look as if smelling something unpleasant in the large nostrils.
Tom spoke to the gentleman, “the war in Spain drags on doesn’t it?” The gentleman didn’t reply, but looked at Tom along that nose.
“Now the Russians have tanks there. Built for snow. Ha! British designed they are. Well, based on a Vickers in any case. And the Italian supply routes snow bound. In Spain, would you credit it? And the Germans there too. So much for non-intervention eh?” Tom gabbled out.
“Yes,” said the gentleman vaguely, plainly wishing to avoid any further words from Tom. But Tom continued anyhow, “Europe’s testing ground. When the military needs to try something out it doesn’t matter whose side they take. They just want the kit to be used, whatever the consequences may be.”
The long nose glared, “the subject is hardly appropriate, don’t you think, sir?”
“Just an observation, only my point of view. I’m not an educated man, unlike yourself, I dare say, but I have a view just the same,” said Tom, good naturedly, pleased he had drawn the gentleman into conversation.
The long nose raised his paper and shook the pages, forming a barrier. Tom shrugged and returned to reading the article about Republican aeroplanes that dated from the Great War strafing the snow bound Italians. He took an interest in the uses to which aircraft were put. He may not be a big wig, only the supervisor of a test and packing team, he considered, but he took an interest.
The new vector bombsights he had heard about, developed at the Special Aviation Company were to improve accuracy in the aerial bombing of ships. He mused on their potential use in targeting tanks on a battlefield. So, he mused further, raising his eyebrows in his internal conversation that was it, that was what he had warned young Bailey about. The Germans could use targeted bombing to neutralise the threat from Russian tanks in Spain. But, from what he heard about the testing of the prototype vector bombsights produced by the Special Aviation Company, they were temperamental, sensitive and took much instruction to be used effectively. Good thing this was all happening a long way from Cheltenham. Much as all this talk of Spain, war and ideals interested him, he needed to keep himself well out of any intrigue. He had warned Bob Bailey about the people he was dealing with, that was all he would do. He had his family to consider. Beyond the omnibus window the daffodils were out in the verges, golden headed. Soon it would be summer.
Arriving home that evening Tom Partridge exhaled deeply as he closed the door on a troubled day. Billy Partridge, quiet and patient for his father’s attention clung to the bannister at the bottom of the stairs waiting for a reassuring smile.
“Hello Bill, where’s your mother? Did you have a good day at school?”
Billy was confused at which question to answer first. Tom wiped his feet with a tired shuffle, stepped in and ruffled his son’s fair mop. Tom was understanding of his son’s thoughtful quietness and reassured him with a grin.
“Mum upstairs is she?” Tom went up. Billy took his hand as Tom stepped past and was given playful tow up the stairs.
Mrs. Partridge was putting away laundered clothes. Tom puffed his cheeks, an indication of his day, and rolled his eyes to say he had things to offload.
Milly said, “oh, how was your day?”
“Well,” he started slowly “I had a run in with Daniel Painter about some equipment that hadn’t been shipped out as expected,” he rubbed his face, “it’s been delayed in testing, but what troubles me is where I think it’s due to be sent.” Tom whispered, “Germans, in Spain.”
“It’s rude to whisper,” came a shout. Cecile had emerged from her bedroom, behind Tom.
“Hello trouble,” said Tom, looking round to his little daffodil. Blaring like a trumpet, extrovert, following her father; in contrast to her brother, pensive, even more so than his mother.
Tom saw the children off to their play so that he could talk with his wife as she tidied.
“This Painter was angry that these things hadn’t been shipped. It turned out they’d been delayed because suppliers hadn’t been paid and new parts weren’t received in time for trials to begin.
“He’s something of a big wheel, finance director type of thing. I think young Bailey is involved in it somewhere.”
“Have you seen him since Monday?” asked Milly.
“Yes, today. He appeared at my place and asked if I still had him in mind for a job.”
“No. I gave an excuse about plans having changed, but I don’t think he believed me. He tried to give me back the money I’d given him, but I told him it was fine,”
“Huh!” Milly exclaimed.
Tom held up his hand to finish, “he went away a bit sheepish. Maybe that’s that.”
“I hope so. Don’t bring someone else’s troubles to our door,” said Milly. Her tone said that should be an end to it.
Tom nodded. Milly could follow the most cryptic of stories and still make sense of it. She had seen Tom Partridge rise above the simple floor hands he had begun his apprenticeship with. Milly was respected by their friends because of it.
Pages fold at the waist and fall. Another story is told and forgotten. Quite as such for Italian soldiers in the teeth of Soviet tanks, praying Ave Maria for the support of German aircraft that will not arrive. Those aircraft are laid up, wires trailing in their cockpits, bereft of tachographic bombsights, while in a Cotswold town a penniless clerk hoards invoices in his desk drawer to face down his enemies, disrupt the fascist rise, and to present such invoices as evidence should it be called. No bills paid, no answer to the Ave Maria. A republican victory for which Bob Bailey has fought a small fight and paid a small price with a diminished position in life.
The 11:12 train left Cheltenham three minutes late the Thursday before Easter. Occupying a second class carriage, sharing a compartment with a middle aged lady of formidable solidness, and a young gentleman, gainfully employed in some travelling business, was Ada Saint. Not the Ada Saint of her Gloucestershire girlhood, nor the Ada Saint advising her friend sensibly over tea and cake, and not the Ada expected by Mrs. Saint in her taxi en-route to meet the 11:12.
The heavy-set lady and young gentleman each pursed their lips and gawped in equal measure as Ada, her hair freshly styled and longer than before, retouched her lipstick with a smack and returned to each a knowing look. Simple lessons Ada had learned outside the curriculum by the close of her second university term. She placed a feathered hat at a cocked angle upon her head and perched at the edge of her seat ready to open the door as the train jostled over the points into Gloucester. A comedy then ensued as Ada stood and reached overhead for her valise. Tip-toed in her heels and seamed stockings, the gallant young beau fell over himself, and Ada, in an attempt to gain his footing and her good impression of him. She could manage quite well thank you. The mature lady smirked. They all stood in silence, each variously pleased, amused and abashed as the train slowed to a halt at the platform.
Mrs. Saint stayed in the station waiting room as the train pulled in to avoid having soot and steam about her well prepared appearance. Mrs. Saint was a short, trim lady with clothes cut like a suit of armour. Her hair had held its shape for the best part of two decades, with only the most minor concessions to the fashions of the day. A curl or wave may come and go, but Valerie Saint was conservative in the slightest vagaries. Her forbearing stylist was a genius, bringing about barely perceptible change at the slowest possible, hardly noticeable pace. Only holiday pictures of Ada and Mrs. Saint gave away the changes wrought over time by the forbearing genius. To the ladies of her various, largely conservative interests, Valerie Saint was held in slow nodding agreement as a stalwart of the group. The parish council cowered before her unwavering written hand.
Mrs. Saint stopped short as she approached Ada to appraise her daughter’s appearance. They kissed their greetings.
“Well Ada dear, things have moved in a most helpful direction.” Mrs. Saint remarked with a highly raised, penciled brow.
“Oh really Mama, I’ve just picked up a few tips from my friends at Birmingham,” Ada replied noticing the station guard’s attention, “and what do you mean by a helpful direction?”
“Never mind, dear, I’ll explain later. And I’d prefer ‘Mummy’ if you please. This guard will take your valise. Our taxi is waiting outside.” Ada’s mother directed the guard, who didn’t need telling twice, and Ada followed.
In the taxi, Mrs. Saint looked her daughter over.
“Now then Ada dear, just where did you find that outfit?”
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Ada, instantly back into the role of brow-beaten daughter.
“Nothing at all, dear. It’s most becoming and quite modern. You must tell me the name of your tailor. It’s just a shame you never listened to me before on the subject of your appearance.”
“Oh mother. It was you that had me dress as a librarian. Anyway, it’s off the peg, but altered to fit. My friend Marcia suggested it to me.” Ada, for a moment was again the self-assured young woman that had stepped from the carriage a few minutes earlier. The change in Ada was still a work in progress. Mrs. Saint considered, however, that much progress had been made. She approved of Ada’s new university friend Marcia, she was having a most useful influence.
The rest of the taxi ride home was filled with Ada’s talk of the term’s events and her new friends. In her first term at Birmingham Ada had quietly joined in with student life. In the second term she had emerged. For the first time in her life, she realised she was beautiful. This knowledge had transformed her.
Her mother paid the taxi driver.
“It’s a shame that Bob is having such difficulty at his job,” said Ada as she and her mother took tea that afternoon. “I’ll drop him a note, or call in him to find out what is the matter.”
“Why bother yourself over Robert Bailey? You could turn your attention to much more deserving boys.”
“They’re men, Mummy, when they are Bobby’s age they are men,” said Ada.
“Tut! Bobby indeed!”
“And, what’s more I don’t give him my attention, nor does he request it. We are friends, that’s all.”
“Well now, what do you mean by they? Are there many men, as you call them, showing you attention in Birmingham? Well, it is no surprise with your appearance as it is.”
“My appearance, mother! You were complementing my appearance less than an hour ago.”
“You look wonderful, Ada dear. I am concerned that you attract the right kind of young man. A friend of your father’s has a son of your age, he’s a most charming boy.”
“Oh mother, Gerald Painter has written to me a few times already. I’ve known of him for a few years.” Ada said preempting, with exasperation, her mother’s interference.
“Are you going to see him?” Ada’s mother asked, sensing unexpected progress.
“If you must know, he is picking me up to go for a drive on Easter Monday,” said Ada with a blush.
Mrs. Saint smiled to herself, sat back in her chair and sipped her tea.
Ada took her luggage to her room to unpack. Her room was exactly as she left it at Christmas. It was a small room. Ada had kept it since occupying the room as a baby in her cot. The room was pink, her mother’s choice, with a single bed, soft toys, a small wardrobe, an old woollen coat hanging on the back of the door, a small mirror on the wall; two book cases, one low and wide, the other taller than Ada, both packed with books. She took one book, not neatly stacked, but left out on top of the low bookcase, We the Living by Ayn Rand.
Inside, the cover was inscribed,
To Ada, With love, Christmas 1936.
Ada closed the book and as she did so caught her reflection in the mirror. She looked back at herself plainly, her hair, longer and styled and her make up still unfamiliar, her eyes darker. This was her face. The room behind her the room of a child.
She sat on the bed amongst her unpacked clothes, an unmatchable mix of her worn, staid items and new perfect selections picked out by Marcia. She would choose her favourite the next time she saw Bob. Even though Bob was having a difficult time he would be pleased for her, to see the change in her. She imagined his eyes widening at that first sight of her in the close fitting green patterned suit. She smiled at the thought of his scratching headed awkwardness. It was then she remembered, she hadn’t written to Bob before coming home. No matter, he would know the term ended for Easter. If she wrote now she could get a brief note to him by the weekend. He might take a day off work and they could meet for tea in Cheltenham, at their favourite tea room off the High Street. He didn’t like the busy places, Bob really was a one for staying the same. Gerald Painter, she thought, by way of comparison was rather an unknown. Perhaps she should save the green suit for him. But she didn’t want to create too great an impression just yet. With Bob it was different. He was working now, living out of home. She just wanted to show how she had changed, showing him she was an adult too, like she might if she were his sister.
Ada decided to visit Cheltenham on Saturday in any case. She would buy a scarf to go with her green suit, to wear when she went out with Gerald on Monday, she thought. She may need to wrap up as there was still a lingering chill, despite the improving weather.
On Saturday morning Ada visited a ladies’ outfitters on the Cheltenham Promenade. She had passed the store many times, but had been intimidated by the sparse expensiveness of the window display. Her old clothes hardly qualified a young woman to walk through such a door. Today she took an assured stride to the door and entered with a confident thrill. She hadn’t been in such a place by herself before. She walked about lazily touching a few garments, then asked a store assistant to help in choosing a mostly purple soft woollen scarf. The assistant’s welcoming deference still felt a little misplaced in her mind. The scarf, she considered, would double as a wrap if it was chilly in Gerald’s car. She didn’t want to encourage any advances by hinting she was cold. The item she chose cost more than she could strictly afford, but anyhow, she could save by not having tea with Bob. Ada always paid her share.
Bob would have received her note by the morning post. At least, she thought, he would know she was home. They hadn’t been exchanging letters much since the Christmas holiday, he must be preoccupied with his work. Instead, she decided, she would pay an unarranged visit to his lodgings. He would be sure to be happy to see her. She wanted to see his reaction to her new hairstyle.
She walked up the Promenade and along the length of the High Street to where the shops gave way to hotels, residential blocks and then town houses. She was used to flat shoes. These new heels were still not comfortable for her. When she arrived at what she thought was the address, she checked the house number in her little, green fabric covered address book. She looked the outside of the house up and down. It was the correct number, but surprisingly shabby aside its neighbours. She approached the faded black painted door, peeling in places, with patches worn to bare wood with regular use. As she grabbed the tarnished brass knocker the door pushed open before her.
She entered, unsure whether to call for attention. In the entrance hall were post boxes for each of the occupants. In the top left was the name Bailey written on the label without much care, the previous tenant’s name rubbed out beneath it. The musty smell reminded her of mouldering hay. The hallway was tiled and led to a stairway carpeted in a murky brown. Bob, she knew from his description, lived at the top. She went up the stairs tentatively, checking the number of each room, expecting someone to appear and ask who she was looking for. As she ascended, she could hear someone knocking at a door on an upper floor. As she reached the third landing, she saw the man that had been knocking. The final stair creaked and he turned.
“I thought you might be Bailey, Miss,” he said, clearly frustrated. He was a big man with dark hair slicked back over his head, still puffed from the stairs, his hat in his hand. Ada found his bulk and irritation intimidating. She waited on the last stair, gripping the bannister with her right hand.
“No. I came to see if he was at home,” she said, turning ready to descend, “I assume that is Mr. Bailey’s door you were knocking at?”
“Won’t be his door much longer if he keeps this game up,” he said, “friend of his are you?”
Ada quailed as the man stepped away from the door towards the stairs. She could see him assessing her appearance, and perhaps judging Bob accordingly. Spent his rent on you, has he?
“A family friend. I’ll write him. Thank you.”
“If you see him, you tell him to pay his rent or he’ll be out and no reference. He won’t get a new place without one,” he almost shouted, as if Bob might be within hearing, perhaps waiting down the stairs.
Ada with no reason to stay descended the stairs quickly. The large man lumbered downstairs after her.
“Do you happen to know where he might be?” he called after her as she reached the bottom. She was out of the front door before he had reached the last flight, and hurried away from the house as best she could in heels.
Ada waited for the bus back to Gloucester. She had quite forgotten about her new scarf. She looked at it in the bag, but felt little pleasure with her purchase. She frowned at Bob’s problems with rent. He didn’t seem to be getting on the way they both expected when they talked about the future as children. Somehow then they were always going to be friends. Always together. Ada sighed at the thought. She could never marry Bob Bailey. Her mother would not allow it and now she was beginning to doubt her own attachment to him. It troubled her that she was so ready to begin dismissing Bob without having discussed his difficulties with him.
The bus was still yet to arrive. She decided she would be sure to speak to him during the Easter holiday. She must find out how it was that he wasn’t paying his rent. She wondered at his inability to settle into his job. It was not what she had expected of Bob when they were younger. In their childhood daydreams they were as children, but older, somehow adult. In any case they were still friends and attached in some vague sense. As teenagers they had long conversations, more realistic in their vision. Bob seemed conscious that there was a difference between his station and Ada’s. He would describe how they each differed and the options that were available. Ada had always respected his practical sense. Beneath it though, she felt that Bob had an over ambitious view of the future ahead of him. Ada’s mother had been firm in her opinion of Bob Bailey, a dreamer, with thoughts above his station, and moreover, not unlike his wayward brother, and somewhat rude father.
The young men at university were different altogether from Bob Bailey. In some sense, directly opposite; convinced of their station, but without question. On the other hand they held no romantic visions for the future. Only a position in their family firm and an inherited home in the future. In Ada’s mind, they lacked the independence she had revelled in when away from her mother’s influence.
It was as the bus arrived that she remembered an argument she and Bob once had. Bob was scathing of Ada’s middle class family background. Protected by her mother, and her father’s money, she didn’t need to think for herself. He had used phrases, which to Ada sounded much like his father’s language. Mr. Bailey had usually grunted at Ada, when he acknowledged her at all, on the few occasions she visited the Baileys’ small, terraced cottage. In return, she had called Bob an inverted snob and then ridiculed him for not understanding what it meant. He had been angry and vowed to show her what he was worth. She was at once impressed and disappointed in him. And now, in any case what did it matter?
They were only childhood friends, that was all. She boarded the bus, took her seat, paid the conductor, and thought how she would look in the passenger seat of Gerald Painter’s auto, in her green suit, with the new scarf around her hair.
Ada’s mother, Valerie Saint, had grown up the daughter of a respected university lecturer. She met Mark Saint while he was completing his architectural degree. It was a low risk choice of husband. He was marked out as a bright prospect, not only in technical ability, but also he knew the right people. Valerie, even without the encouragement of her father, which soon followed, knew that Mark Saint was the man to provide her future. Things had begun well. They were married and honeymooned in the south of France. There followed several pristine years, Valerie was proud of her husband, their position and of the crowd they moved with. Then after some vague, distant rumble, which to Valerie sounded entirely irrelevant, came the war. It was not until Captain Saint was persuaded that his country needed him that he left for France, leaving the future of the Saint name in Valerie’s hands.
Valerie Saint received the telegram without emotion. The postman, knowing well what the envelope contained did not meet her eye. It was not the first such news he had delivered in the village. All the same, he handed it over without a word, solemnly, bowing at the weight of it, as if he himself was, regrettably, delivering a death sentence. She opened it, sat, and with the telegram in her fingertips, one hand on her tummy, stared out into the garden. There, Valerie Saint began mapping the future for her unborn child. Please God, for its sake, in this new world, let it be a boy.
After the Easter weekend Valerie Saint sat opposite her daughter in the sunny lounge. A bright yellow light covered their afternoon tea tray. Thin biscuits were sweeter and more buttery for the effect of spring sunlight. Mrs. Saint put down her cup and saucer, pursed her lips and directed a searching look toward her daughter. Ada was munching another biscuit quite happily, warming her petite stockinged feet in the sun, scrunching her toes on the rug in front of her. She slowed her munching as she noticed her mother about to direct a question to her.
“I’m glad you enjoyed your drive with Gerald on Monday. His father was a friend of your father’s you know,” said Mrs. Saint as a sentence preparatory to something more.
Ada raised one eyebrow in reply.
“You do look so sweet with your new looks. I’m sure Gerald must have been most adoring,” Mrs. Saint continued.
Ada huffed a sigh and rolled her eyes.
“Gerald has excellent prospects, you know. I met his father recently. He may run as Member of Parliament for Cheltenham. He thinks there would be good support for the right, from Conservative voters.”
“Yes, Ada. You say it as if there were something bad about Fascism. Nationalism, more correctly, anyway.”
“Well, what is all that to me? I simply went for a drive with Gerald Painter to fill an afternoon. He tried to teach me to drive, which was fun, I admit. The days are rather dull during the holidays.”
“Ada dear!” Mrs. Saint cut in, both irritated by Ada’s indifference of the male Painters’ prospects, and hurt by her daughter’s boredom of being home.
“Ada, Gerald could be a very welcome match for you.”
“Welcome? Oh, mother! I’m not going to marry Gerald Painter. I have university and my future to look forward to.” And, Ada thought, you just want his father’s money. But she wouldn’t ever say that to her mother. Her mother could be rather sensitive on the subject of money.
Mrs. Saint edged forward in her chair and leaned towards her daughter with the most serious expression.
“You simply cannot marry Robert Bailey.”
Ada rolled her eyes again.
“Bobby’s almost my brother. He needs my help right now. He’s a more genuine soul than Gerald.”
“Please – don’t call him Bobby. I can’t stand that silly pet name you give him. He’s not right for you. You need a man who can provide the kind of life that, well, you deserve.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Robert. He’ll sort out the problems with his job and come good, you’ll see,” said Ada as an end to the matter.
“Nothing wrong? That sulky, tongue tied, idiot? He was going to go to Spain on the republican side. Communists!”
“He’s not sulky, just thoughtful, and well, yes, he can be foolish at times. That’s why he needs me.”
“Perhaps, Ada dear, but, you don’t need him.”
Mrs. Saint had the final word where her daughter was concerned. That had been the way with the two of them, and with Bob’s mother visiting occasionally. Being away at university had given Ada a detached view of their household arrangements. Mrs. Saint reminded Ada frequently, especially around Christmas, how lucky they were that her father had provided for them very well. That said, they lived well, but frugally. Ada, now sat in the sunny lounge perceived, barely, a relaxation of that frugality. It was in those delectable thin lemon biscuits, and looking around the room, there were small items she did not recognise. A picture frame, a cushion cover. Ada wondered if Mr. Painter senior was married. Gerald had not mentioned his mother, but then there was no reason he should.
“Mummy, why are so sure that I have any but purely friendly connections with…Robert? We grew up together, there’s nothing more than that.”
Mrs. Saint put down her tea and spoke quietly.
“Ada, when you were fifteen you were seen kissing that boy.”
Ada searched her memory for what on Earth her mother might be referring. Not straight away, but after her mother explained that she had been told by a neighbour, Ada recalled the kiss. She had done it for a dare, and now she remembered Bob’s dumbfounded surprise. She shook her head in dismissal and tried to reassure her mother.
“Really Mummy, that was years ago, and I did it for a dare.”
Ada told a half truth. She had accepted the dare quite willingly, wanting to see what it was like to kiss a boy. Bob was convenient, and a little likeable. Some of the girls liked him and cajoled her over their closeness. A kiss, she thought at the time, might reveal what he thought of her. He was shut up like a clam. When she kissed him she had been surprised at his rapt, wordless reaction. The girls giggled together at Ada’s description, as they hung their coats the next morning before the bell went.
Mrs. Saint’s lined brow troubled Ada. Ada had dismissed the occurrence, her mother, it was clear, still after all these years had the idea that it had meant something.
“It was after that ‘incident’ he started mooning around outside the house. I had to send him away on more than one occasion,” said Mrs. Saint, the lines deepening.
“Oh Mummy, you didn’t?”
“Yes, Ada dear. We couldn’t have him hanging around like that. People talk. I was protecting your reputation in the village.”
Ada sat back in the sofa and again squeezed her toes into the thick pile of the rug. The sun coming through the French windows warmed her feet.
“When I visited Bob’s lodgings there was a rent collector at the door. The man said he’s behind on the rent.”
Mrs. Saint did not reply, rather she gave her daughter a look that conveyed all her views on young men that couldn’t pay their rent – and let that be an end to the matter.
Weeks prior to Ada arriving home for Easter, Mrs. Saint read a quarter page advertisement in the Gloucestershire Echo. It announced a talk being given by a respected local businessman on the subject of the principles of nationalist politics. Mrs. Saint was not politically active, but her husband had been a keen Conservative and intended to run as a candidate in city council elections, primarily, but not overtly, as a means of influencing building developments from which his architectural practice might benefit. It was not the politics that attracted Mrs. Saint’s interest, it was the name of the person hosting the event and would be providing the introductory remarks prior to the keynote speaker. Mrs. Saint decided she would attend the talk to remake her acquaintance with Mr. Daniel Painter.
Valerie Saint and Daniel Painter shook hands after she had queued to meet him at the end of the meeting. The people before her in the queue were acquainted with Mr. Painter already. She grew impatient at their jovial greetings so that when they met finally she felt rushed and couldn’t follow her prepared words. She needn’t have worried.
“Valerie Saint? My apologies, I assume you are still Mrs. Saint?” asked Mr. Painter.
“Hello Mr. Painter. I found your speech very interesting.”
“Valerie, please, such formality. Call me Daniel, please. It’s good to see you after so many years. You still look wonderful.”
“And you, Daniel.” Mrs. Saint blushed faintly. Such familiarity and he a married man.
“I trust you are well – and your daughter, Ada?” Daniel Painter enquired, hesitating only momentarily over Ada’s name.
“It’s like you to remember Ada. I thought you might not recognise me.”
Mr. Painter looked down with slight discomfort.
“I’m afraid I’ve not been the godfather to Ada that you might have expected. I promised Mark I’d watch over you both.”
Valerie Saint waved away the years. Daniel had a way of paying direct attention to you. That hadn’t changed. His hair was thinner and he had a prosperous waistline.
“You must have had much to occupy your attention over the years. I think it is wonderful that are entering politics. It will suit you, I’m sure.”
She felt a flush around her neck and cheeks. It had been many years since she had talked to a man in a social situation. He was wearing his wedding ring. The meeting pamphlet described Mr. Painter’s family, including his son Gerald, who it remarked was a credit to his parents in his position as a Consultant in Commerce.
Valerie had survived nearly twenty years living well, frugally, but with a well heeled outward appearance. She had brought up her daughter along with employing Mrs. Bailey until Ada was in her teenage years, all on the moderate inheritance left by her husband. Mark was still to establish himself fully when he was called up. Maintaining their respectable village house, the gardens, Ada’s education, and her own appearance required careful management, and oftentimes, the guile to ask for a favour where most wouldn’t dare. Such bravery that Ada was beginning to practice in her own right. To ask for things the right way, with the required demeanor, and the appearance to charm women as well as men. The past twenty years had been time enough to perfect the art for Valerie Saint, to the point that those called upon were privileged by the request and keen to oblige.
A few days after the meeting, Valerie was sitting at the Painters’ dinner table with Mrs. Painter and their son, Gerald. The Painters lived in a sprawling mock Tudor villa in the Cheltenham hills. After the opening pleasantries Mrs. Painter began the conversation proper. She and Valerie were familiar only by sight, they had not met formally.
“Valerie, I think it’s wonderful how you’ve managed all these years with so little. Simply heroic how you’ve coped since your husband – well, got killed – in the war was it?”
Valerie was startled to be called by her first name, and by the innocent rudeness of Mrs. Painter’s opening words.
“Thank you. That’s correct, my husband was killed in the war,” she said demurely.
“Wasn’t he in the war with you Danny?” Mrs. Painter asked.
“Not quite. I mean, Mark was in my battalion, facing the Hun, in the trenches. I was more, er…,” he tailed off. Daniel Painter was a Major behind the lines near Ypres, organising troop movements.
Mark Saint had been killed in an offensive movement under Daniel Painter’s command. Had he lived, Mark Saint’s firm of architects might have been responsible for the buildings of the Special Aviation Company. Painter rewarded his friends that way. Those that were not his friends, or behaved in an inconvenient way toward them found that their business affairs would take a turn for the worse. Simple acts of inconvenience by return.
“You’re more a puller of strings aren’t you Danny? What strings are we pulling tonight?” asked Mrs. Painter, archly, looking from her husband to this lady invited to her home.
Daniel Painter was Mrs. Painter’s third husband, and she his second. She was not ‘Old Cheltenham’, born in Swansea and recently moved down from London to join her new husband. She and Daniel Painter had begun their acquaintance purely as such. They were acquainted through Daniel Painter’s former business partner. In due course they were lovers, then later, for some period, both men were seeing her at the same time. Within a few months of farcical liaisons the business partner of Mr. Daniel Painter, resident of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, died in unexplained circumstances. After some discussion between the said Mr. Painter and the coroner, a verdict of natural causes was entered. Mr. and Mrs. Painter were married two months later in the spring of 1935 soon after the inheritance from the former husband was settled.
Daniel Painter explained Valerie Saint’s visit again, “I promised to help Mrs. Saint with a family matter, dear. I’m godfather to her daughter and I’ve been remiss in my duties. I intend to put that right.” The extended syllables ending each sentence underlining that he was serious in this matter. Mrs. Painter raised her fine eyebrows. It might be that her husband of less than two years is actually in love with this buttoned up, purse lipped woman. Nothing to worry about there, she mused, Danny likes them a bit more up front. She tossed her shining coiffure.
There had been a time when Daniel Painter and Mark Saint were each vying for Valerie’s good favour. There was an edge to Daniel that frightened and attracted her. Mark on the other hand was reliable, less ambitious, but ambitious enough, and safe. Daniel Painter had respected Valerie for that choice. He wished the best for his friend and Valerie when they married. It was on the news of Mark’s death that he promised to support the widowed Mrs. Saint and her daughter, should it be needed.
“Perhaps we can discuss things in private later, Valerie?” said Mr. Painter.
The evening passed pleasantly enough, Valerie and Daniel shared stories of their young days. Gerald charmed Valerie with his youthful ambition and such worldly wisdom at his age. He showed an encouraging interest in Ada. It surprised Mrs. Saint that Gerald and Ada knew each other already. Mrs. Saint decided she would talk to Mr. Painter about encouraging Gerald’s interest in Ada. Robert Bailey would surely withdraw in the face of such competition.
It was past nine o’clock on Wednesday morning after Easter. There was an unusual hush to the Payments office of the Special Aviation Company as staff went about their work. Large ledgers were open at desks, pens marked figures in columns, junior clerks asked instructions of their seniors in hushed tones. The subdued mood of the office was reflected by the change in the weather since the Easter weekend. The bright spring sunshine had faded to a dull, white sky, with a temperature neither mild nor cold. With such indeterminate weather the staff of the Payments office of the Special Aviation Company were bereft of their staple morning conversation. And so to work. For everyone, that is, except the Junior of the Supplier Checking desk, looking distractedly at the time.
“Bailey’s late again,” the Junior said, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly.
The Senior nodded slowly, looking up to the clock above the doorway.
“Is that the second time this week?” the Senior asked absently.
“It is, and he’s looking rough. Muddy shoes too. Been stopping out I reckon.”
“He certainly seems distracted of late,” the Senior said.
“Did you hear he lost his pay cheque? And Wages wouldn’t give him a sub because the cheque had already been drawn against at the bank. He’s in a tight spot alright,” said the Junior, sharing the news with satisfaction.
The Senior got up from his desk and walked over to the receptionist. He asked to check the clock-in times. The receptionist was a severe woman with a sharp nose and a cactus tongue. She liked to get under the skin. She checked the clock-in records. Indeed, Bailey had been late the last two days. And, did the Senior know, Bailey had been refused a sub by the Wages department? Spent his pay in one weekend by all accounts. And, did the Senior know, what was that business with Ogley and Bailey? Everyone is talking about it. All this in the most indiscreet whisper. Well you certainly seem to be, thought the Senior as he returned to his desk. The Junior waited, the fingers of both hands interleaved, expectant of further news on Bailey’s misdemeanours. The Senior, however, was not one for gossip.
The Junior had been in the job six months longer than Bob. He resented Bob’s apparent quiet efficiency and that Bob ignored the office gossip. Nothing irritated the Junior more than someone who wouldn’t gossip. He got on well with the receptionist.
“Why does Ogley keep calling Bailey into his office?” he asked the Senior.
“I understand Bailey has been given some extra work, specifically requested by Mr. Painter. I don’t know the nature of the work.”
“Why should they choose Bailey over me? I’m every bit as good a clerk as he is,” the Junior moaned. He thought for a moment as the Senior dipped his pen in the ink well ready to enter figures in an invoice ledger. The Junior’s tongue found its way to his cheek.
“He hides bills in his desk and locks the drawer,” the Junior said. After a moment more, as he watched the Senior’s slow, serious reaction, he dropped in, “Bailey thinks no one was looking.”
“But you were,” said the Senior quickly, angered by the Junior’s tell-tale sneaking, worried at Bailey’s actions, but thinking there must be good reason. The Senior’s face signalled a mental note being made and then resolving to act more promptly.
I’d better check the files before Mr. Ogley finds anything has been missing. Bailey surely wouldn’t remove invoices for no reason? He thought for a moment more then said, “don’t say anything to Mr. Ogley if he asks.” The Junior smirked, and shrugged a gesture of innocence when the Senior looked over his glasses at him. That would teach Bailey to get in with Mr. Ogley in his place.
The Senior flushed at his own implied fear of Mr. Ogley, sensitive in personality and in appearance. Pale, smooth skinned, flabby around the chin, full lipped and softly spoken. He was quietly proud of his position in the Payments department and sensitive of things that may detract from how he was viewed by others, particularly by his superiors. He laid down his pen neatly in line with the sheets on which he had been writing uniform columns with tidy notes. He folded his hands, a mannerism with which he preceded well-meaning lectures to his Juniors. He couldn’t help himself in recounting stories of how he learned the lessons he now passed on.
“Now then,” he began to the Junior, the Junior raised an eye heavenward, “we need to work together here. Any little problems with Bailey and,” he hesitated, “his work, we should try to resolve amongst ourselves. Mr. Ogley need not be troubled with things we can sort out without him becoming, let’s say, disturbed.” He went on, “I’ve worked here for more than a decade now. I started when you were just a child,” the Junior slumped visibly, here we go again, the Senior went-on further, “Mr. Ogley trusts me, and others in my position to take care of problems like a few missing invoices. Bailey’s a good worker. I will discuss this apparent irregularity with him.”
The Junior knew the Senior to be a single man, living alone in a single room in a small Gloucester terrace. He thought himself plenty experienced enough for the Senior’s job already and was most put out by the Senior’s apparent favouritism for Bailey.
“If it was me being late, you’d be marking me down in the Late Book.”
“If you hadn’t spent the last hour counting the minutes for Bailey you’d have some of your own work done by now.”
“Yes, sir” the Junior conceded, then added to himself, “and I’ll be doing Bailey’s work too at this rate.”
The Senior went to the purchase ledger cabinets, slid open the wooden drawer and pulled out the ledger for the current month.
“I want you to go to HA9 and collect the delivery notes from Mr. Trestrail. Don’t be giving him any of your cheek. I don’t want any words back through Mr. Ogley.”
The Junior gave a military salute, a distorted grin and left straight away. He’d kill a few minutes going the long way.
When the Junior left the room, the Senior set about Bob’s desk with his spare keys, rattling key after key in the lock and drawing suspicious sideways glances from nearby staff. After several attempts and by wiggling one of the keys it unlocked. A woman sitting nearby looked on with a perplexed gathering about her brow. She sat full upright, nosing at what the Senior had discovered. The Senior gaped at the open drawer as if it contained some precious wonder. He began pulling one foolscap sheet after another, laying them on Bob’s desk. Unpaid invoices, stamped and signed for immediate payment, but now overdue. The Senior looked around the room searching quizzically as if beseeching the windows to illuminate the meaning of it. He must speak to young Mr. Bailey the minute he arrived.
He closed the drawer, locked it and returned to his chair placing the invoices squarely before him. He drew a deep breath through his nostrils, picked up and examined each one in turn. They were in the names of suppliers with which he was not familiar. They had each been stamped with Bailey’s stamp. The correct green ink. He had to think. Bailey’s actions had perplexed him. He was hunched over the papers deep in thought when a shadow extended across the desk. It was Mr. Ogley, looking wide eyed alternately at the invoices and the Senior. A moment later, behind Mr. Ogley, looking tired and shabby, trying to flatten his windswept hair, appeared Bob Bailey.
The day before the Senior found the invoices in Bob’s desk, Richard Ogley was sitting in his office, in the late afternoon, staring out of the window. Mr. Ogley’s office was a cramped, dark, cupboard-like space off the main Payments office. The office had shrunk over the years, from the inside from being filled with Ogley’s files, and externally by movement of the partition wall to make room for the growing archives in the room next door. Now the tall, lurching Ogley occupied a room with barely space for a visitor’s chair. The north facing window was half obscured by filing cabinets and there hung in the air a permanent smog from his smoking.
He began smoking when the drink became too much, and still drank now, but with the brakes on. He drank socially, with the cricket team on a Sunday, on Friday nights, though less socially, listening to the gramophone with Mrs. Ogley, but never to excess. Never again. So it was smoking that kept the Ogley nerves on the right side of the edge. Nerves were an Ogley family trait. Both Richard Ogley’s parents were quiet, nervous, small-framed, timid people. A wonder then, that between them they produced a son of such size.
The boy Richard grew month after month until school days arrived. He attended his first day as a worried giant amongst a group of boisterous, chanting pigmies. There were no brothers or sisters to follow for the young Richard to play with. The Ogley’s were so traumatised by their first child they couldn’t risk another. They were ill-equipped for child rearing and compounded their errors by instilling Richard with all the fretting fears of life’s risks. Richard took it all in, and also learned from other children such that his early school years were a see-saw of fear and fun.
“Ogley you are better than you know,” the words from Richard’s form teacher at the age of ten. Words he still repeated to himself at times of difficulty. His redemption came in two forms; a love of sport, especially cricket, and his ability in mathematics. Both served him well through school and into adult life. It was through the social life of the cricket club he learned to work past his nervousness and become popular in certain circles. These connections led in time to a comfortable niche at the Special Aviation Company, and through mutual cricket club friends he met his wife. In due course, quite as the Ogley’s planned, there was a perfectly suburban home and a son that could visit during holidays from boarding school.
However, Richard Ogley didn’t change completely from the nervous schoolboy he had been. As the pressures of a senior financial position increased in a fast growing company he became more like his early self. Then, following in sure succession there was the drink, the breakdown, and at last the suicide attempt. There was the Richard Ogley before all this, and the one after. The latter Ogley now sits in his cramped, smoky office the day before the Senior found the unpaid invoices hidden in Bob’s desk.
The phone rang.
“Mr. Painter for you,” the receptionist said, not asking if he wanted to take the call.
“Hello,” he said flatly as the call clicked through.
“Ogley, what on Earth’s happening with the project money? I was given assurances, by you,” a much elongated ‘oo’ syllable, “that it would be cleared through the bank by now.”
Ogley thought for a moment.
“I have authorised all the payments we discussed. The money should be through by now,” he coughed nervously and twitched his right shoulder, “well, I don’t know. I’ll need to check with the Treasurer.”
“Ogley, there has been one thing after another with this. You involve junior staff in things you should be taking care of yourself. You fret and prevaricate over the simplest decisions. There’s more to this than paying a supplier of rivets. This is the Chairman’s project. That alone should be enough for you.”
“I’ll see to it personally,” Ogley said reluctantly, his stomach clenched with tension, stifling anger at Painter’s patronisation.
Daniel Painter was, in Richard Ogley’s eyes, still a new arrival at the Special Aviation Company. In comparison with Ogley, Painter was indeed the new boy, although it had been several years now. Ogley felt that since Painter’s arrival his own fortunes had declined. The Special Aviation Company had been a place he was accepted, and had the respect of many people including the company Chairman. The Chairman had several times expressed his appreciation of what Ogley had done for the company over the last decade. He had indeed organised, calculated, documented, all in the name of order and clarity. Painter had arrived and in a short time there was less organisation, less clarity. But one thing of which there was more, to Ogley at least, was the meddling of Daniel Painter.
When Painter spelled out the Chairman’s instructions to pass funds to specific companies, it was Ogley who came up with a legitimate method of moving the money about that would not draw the attention of the company Treasurer’s department, and more importantly, the tax authorities. If the trail of funding was traced thoroughly, and the shipment of goods verified, the Chairman himself might well draw the attention of the Foreign Office. Britain was supposed to be following a policy of neutrality in the Spanish civil war. The Chairman’s support of right wing factions in Spain would be viewed as playing counter to Britain’s interests and could, if proved, lead to prosecution. As it was, Painter had been told to trust Ogley as the man to handle tricky financial problems, but it had taken time to set up. Time during which the situation in Spain had deteriorated and the money was required urgently – or Ogley might suffer consequences.
It took time for Ogley to assess the relative trustworthiness of Robert Bailey and the other junior. The Senior, he knew, was thorough but manageable, a see-no-evil character. The Juniors were the risk, and the quiet Bailey he deemed to be the lower risk of the two. That sneer of the other’s reminded Ogley too much of the jeering kids at school. Indeed, Bailey was new, impressionable, a shy type. Easily manipulated. He would do as he was told if Ogley laid it on him heavily. Richard Ogley needed this to work out well, to restore his good favour with the Chairman and make his work life comfortable again. Richard Ogley was to be the man to solve the problem. “You are better than you know,” he told himself.
He made enquiries with the Treasurer’s department. Indeed, the payments had not been requested by Mr. Ogley’s department. Ogley was not interested in politics, the war in Spain made no sense to him. There were factions whose motives he did not understand; Marxists, Catholics, Monarchists, Fascists. The latter he recognised dimly, and was faintly aware that Daniel Painter’s politics were in some way connected.
The next day, Ogley while sat at his desk, was musing on the missing payments that Painter was chasing. He had checked the files himself. He decided not to draw further attention by asking questions of the staff. He was gazing out across what he could see of the aerodrome. He remembered one day, weeks before, seeing what appeared to be Bailey and Tom Partridge cycling around the perimeter. It had made him uneasy, Bailey turned out somewhat prone to wandering off from his desk. Perhaps not the reliable hand he needed for Painter’s money movements. And what was he doing with Tom Partridge? He fidgeted in his chair at the thought. Bailey hanging around the site where highly sensitive projects were being run. The Chairman’s special projects were there too. He drew a long breath and exhaled at length. “I shouldn’t have involved Bailey,” he muttered. He stood quickly, strode from his office across to where the Senior was sitting at Bailey’s desk. Bailey was not there. On the desk were invoices he knew well even from several feet away.
Ogley held out his hand to the Senior. “Give those to me please,” he said authoritatively. The Senior handed the invoices to him without a word. Ogley became aware the Senior was looking behind him. He turned around. Bob Bailey was standing there breathless, looking drawn and disheveled.
“Sit down Bailey, and don’t move,” Ogley commanded, “I will deal with you later.”
Later that morning Mr. Painter came to Ogley’s office. “The payments are being made right now,” Mr. Ogley said before Daniel Painter could utter a word. “And the cause of the delay?” asked Painter with his customary drawn out last syllable.
“Bailey withheld the invoices after authorisation.”
“He had them locked in his desk. He hasn’t explained why. I believe he has done so on some principle.”
“And you approve of this principle, do you? You make it sound as if you do.”
“I am not political. I am employed on the Company’s terms to do the Company’s work.” Mr. Ogley fidgeted in his chair and coughed dryly. He was not comfortable in these terse exchanges with Daniel Painter. As the discussion progressed Mr. Painter would speak more quietly, more deliberately, it was like being caught in a tightening rope.
“You said he deliberately withheld authorised invoices from payment. An act that could materially affect the company’s relationships with its suppliers. What action have you taken with Bailey?”
“None, as yet.” Mr. Ogley stuttered out. Bailey was on his staff, he would deal with him his way. His mind worked to form a clear view. There was something about young Bailey he respected. There were political aspects to these payments. If Bailey had acted on principle – resisting the support of Painter’s politics, he himself was not motivated that way, but he could respect someone who was.
Daniel Painter was awaiting a response to a question Ogley hadn’t heard. He rushed out an answer, “I will issue Bailey with a formal warning,” Ogley said.
“Warning?” Mr. Painter was incredulous, “I want him dismissed. Today! Now!”
Daniel Painter left the office pushing through the doors forcefully, huffing in frustration at this slowing of progress; but Bailey being sacked would suit his purposes nicely. It would discredit Bailey in the eyes of Valerie Saint’s daughter and help clear the way for Gerald. He needed to explain the money situation to the Chairman and make sure the vector bomb sight project was on track. To Painter it didn’t matter if the sights weren’t completely effective. That was a purely technical issue. The nationalist offensive to take the North of Spain was getting under way in any case. The newly refined bomb sights could assist in neutralising republican resistance from tanks in the North Country, and destroyers operating out of Bilbao, but nationalist forces already had an advantage now they were joined by the aircraft of the German Condor legion.
Richard Ogley remained sat at his desk. He thought how he was always seated when Painter came to berate him. Painter would not take a seat so he had a height advantage. To have stood would have been odd, confrontational in such a small room. His wife was right, he didn’t assert himself the way he should, a man of his position, he should use his size and height. He had had an easy path for years at the Special Aviation Company. Some clever work early in his career had given him a reputation he’d been able to live off, until these recent problems with Painter. Yes, he thought, it was Painter who was the cause of these problems, but it was Bailey who would have to pay the price. Difficult for the young man to rebuild his reputation after being dismissed. No references to fall back upon would restrict his employment chances. It could even get him removed from his lodgings. Bailey had acted rashly though, he should have discussed his objections to the payments with him. To not go ahead and dismiss Bailey now would probably mean in the least a demotion for himself. He would be diminished in the eyes of the Chairman and unable to look Painter in the eye. He knew his earlier breakdown was still in people’s minds, he saw it in their face when talking to them. Another setback would be unrecoverable. He was angry at himself for not keeping a closer eye on Bailey – it had been the simplest of tasks. He felt the nerves rising within him, his neck twitched and he breathed quickly until they calmed. He had not had to sack anyone in his years at the Special Aviation Company.
Bob Bailey knew what to expect. As he waited at his desk for Mr. Ogley to come out of his office he thought on what he had been trying to achieve. People must have been turning their eyes from what was being done with company money. In effect the staff here were working to support the right and its funding of the nationalists in Spain. He sat back in his chair, he had done the right thing. Any time now Mr. Ogley will come to his desk and tell him he was dismissed from Payments. Probably to be moved to the post room, that was the usual punishment. He hadn’t gone to Spain, but he had acted, he had sacrificed something for a cause. He wouldn’t just sit and wait, he left his desk to see Tom, he may have a position available, he would understand.
All these weeks, and still packing cases are sitting in building HA8 of the Special Aviation Company. Instructions are written in French for the intermediaries who are to forward them to the German Condor legion in Salamanca in Northwestern Spain. Out on the aerodrome apron sits the Chairman’s personal transporter aircraft. Room enough for crates of light equipment. The aircraft’s range enough to reach Northern France with some to spare.
Today, 1st April 1937. As Bob Bailey is being dismissed from the Special Aviation Company with no references, in Jaen, Andalusia, one hundred and fifty people lie dead. The town largely destroyed. Bombed by aircraft of the German Condor legion. Among the broken blocks, shattered frames and cheap crumpled prints from a humble place, a pair of tiny red shoes, and nearby, a tiny broken body.
A security guard with a peaked cap, his eyes not visible, walks to the left and slightly behind Bob Bailey. They are walking towards the main gate. Bob looks around at the gentle green hills clumped with trees, a light breeze, the sun brightening. A five mile walk to his lodgings, and next week no money for rent.
Along the verges the daffodils were already fading. The omnibus to Cheltenham passed Bob stumbling in the long grass, tripping on straggling hawthorns dusted with early blossom. The driver slowed at a stop a short distance ahead, looking in the mirror to see if the stumbling figure would flag him to stop.
Bob didn’t want the bus. He was walking to save the fare, having trudged the opposite way only two hours earlier. Despite the fine weather the verge was still damp and soaked the bottom of his trousers. There were four more miles to cover to make it back to his lodgings. A room he could afford for only one more week once his final pay cheque arrived in the post. There hadn’t been a chance to arrange his pay before being marched off site. He considered his new circumstances. He had to find a new job and he should take a cheaper room. Secure a new position with no references, some chance, he thought with a hopeless shake of his head. The impact of this thought slowed him as automobiles passed with a gust of fumes. A passenger discarded a cigarette at his feet, a thin wisp between the sheaves of wet grass, it soon extinguished.
His bank account had not recovered since he lost his pay cheque two weeks earlier. He had economised in every way, with less food and walking the six miles to work these last few days. He was exhausted. In four miles he could lie down and sleep. The cost of another meal saved and he would recover some energy to start looking for work tomorrow. If he slept he didn’t need to eat. He wondered, had he taken it too far? He hadn’t foreseen the consequences of hiding the unpaid invoices. He saw it as making a stand, taking up the struggle in a small way; not risking his life, no bullets fizzing past, but the result had shocked him.
Early insects rose from swishing grass as he dragged his wet trousers through the last of the verge to where a path began. The spring breeze was suddenly cold on his sodden legs. He had eaten only two slices of bread with the last scrape of butter before leaving his room. Now he could feel tiredness behind his eyes, a shakiness came over him and he looked to a bench by a junction further ahead. He must sit and gather some resolve.
He reached the bench and slumped onto it, leaning forward with his head in his hands, pressing his palms into his eye sockets and rubbing. While he walked he had been rehearsing a conversation with Ada, explaining it all to her. He would tell her he didn’t want to work for a company that supported fascists. There was some truth to it. It had the ring of principle rather than the naivety of embarking on a pointless fight he could not win. She would be disappointed in him. “Bobby, I thought you’d put that behind you.” He sank as those anticipated words rang through his head. A blackbird hopped past his feet, pecked and flew into the hedgerow. He wanted things to be simple, straightforward. He resolved to visit the market stalls and ask for work, take some cheaper lodgings. He pictured an outdoor life. The reverie lifted his sprits. His mood sank again as he imagined his father, telling him he’d thrown away a solid future with a good company on a whim.
He sat up, blinking as he removed his hands from his eyes. It took a while to adjust to the brightness, his vision blurred while he focused. He should have followed his brother on board ship. Nothing to tie him to Gloucestershire, landlocked in a town where appearances and reputation counted as currency. He sighed heavily. He had little money and no work reference, few positions would be open to him now. People passed in comfortable cars and on lazy bicycles. The shakiness subsided, but his legs ached and hunger wracked his insides. If he could get home he could have another slice of bread and think about how to use the remaining money before his final pay cheque came. A fragment of consolation, he was starting up again. His time was now his own, and for a few days, although he had little money, he was free. Concerns about the funds going to Spanish fascists had been with him through the longest dark months. Waiting for the cold to subside, the mornings to lighten.
He reached home an hour and a half later, drained and footsore. It had been hard passing the shops and cafés. People with jobs, bakery smells. To Bob, people that passed knew he’d been sacked as if he was wearing a uniform, branded with it. The stairs to his room were a climb. Turning the key a task taking the last energy. At last his bed. He took a letter from his coat pocket. The envelope stained green. He’d forgotten to hand in his stamp. He took out the letter releasing him from the position in the Payments department. “Conduct contrary to the Company’s interests…bringing the Company into disrepute,” he scanned the words and let it drop and drew a deep restorative breath. It was early afternoon and the sun was shining through the tree branches, not yet in leaf, warm on his face. He’d have that bread in a minute, he thought, and soon lying in the warmth he fell asleep.
Bob woke thinking he’d heard a rap on the door, confused with sleep, his heart thumping. Instantly he thought Mr. Painter’s people had arrived to talk to him. He had been woken by his own snoring. He felt strange and the morning seemed a week ago. The room had cooled from the warmth of the afternoon as the sun dipped. He stretched, yawned and rubbed his face. He was awaking to the reality that he didn’t have a job and limited time before the rent was due.
He must find work before he had to tell his father what had happened, but he’d rather face his father angry, than his mother disappointed. Ada would be disappointed too. With those thoughts, wretchedness clutched at his stomach again and he could feel his spirits descending. He decided to get messages to them before rumour did its worst. Ada might be easier to discuss it with, but rumour being more readily believed than truth, he needed to reach her before anyone else. Bob recalled that Gerald Painter had exchanged letters with Ada. The son in the father’s silk-lined pocket. Gerald Painter would be quick to pass on news that showed Bob in a bad light, he felt sure.
April 1st, 1937
London Road, Cheltenham
You might as well know I’ve lost my position at Special Aviation. It was my own fault, but I had good reason for my actions. I hope you’ll give me a chance to explain before lecturing me. I know how you had such faith in me and I still value your good opinion. Can we meet before you return to Birmingham? It has been a difficult time, I hope this reaches you in time.
P.S. Please reply quickly. I may have to give up my room here very soon.
He put the letter on the cabinet by the bed next to the picture of him with his parents on holiday in Weston-Super-Mare, taken by Christopher using their father’s instant camera. Also, there was a professionally posed picture of Ada, not looking herself. Not as Bob remembered her. The picture made her look older, Bob thought her more like an elf. A canny elf, one that didn’t make mistakes. He had an envelope, but no stamp, he would visit the post office in the morning to make the midday post. Some of his last change, but he had enough for some tinned meat, butter and a loaf. That would see him through the week until his pay came. How he would eat when the cheque cleared the bank, what food he would buy. He folded and inserted the letter, licked and sealed the envelope. Early evening was starting to draw, the tree branches outside the window dark against a clear sky. He thought how he might miss the view if he gave up the room.
He chewed on the crust he’d left earlier and picked up the dismissal letter. The events since January replaying. They passed as discrete events as he thought them through. Taken each in turn they seemed controllable, alternative courses occurred to him, what he should have said at each juncture. Now for it to have come to losing his job seemed a most unlikely result, so easily avoidable, as all the thousands of employees at the Special Aviation Company had managed to do. Only he hadn’t. Any other person but him would have dealt with it appropriately. Anyone else would have followed instructions, done what they were told, blind to it, money for fascists, unopposed.
The tiredness of the afternoon had eased. He boiled some water in a pan to make tea. He hadn’t got into the habit of going to the kitchen downstairs to socialise with the other tenants. Maybe if he had been more sociable, made more friends at work, got to know people, he may not have been singled out. And so he went through it all again, relating recent events to the past and unearthing forgotten regrets, giving them fresh life and renewed pain. His afternoon nap had given him the wakefulness to berate himself well into early morning, it was becoming light again when at last he slipped into sleep.
Mid-morning, the man tailing Bob Bailey called Gerald Painter from a public telephone box at the crossroads close to the young man’s lodging house.
“Bailey has left and is walking towards the High Street. About time, I’ve been waiting all morning.”
“Stay with him. If he looks like he’s touting for work make sure you scupper it. A few words about his dismissal for fraud should do it,” said the junior Painter.
“Huh, you really have something against this lad. He looks a pretty straight character to me.”
“Well, that’s not your business is it? You follow him and see he secures no employment,” Gerald Painter replied.
The men his father employed were always questioning his directions. It was about time they took heed. They would learn, soon enough. Gerald Painter is a patient operator, he told himself. His father wanted Bailey discredited and to have no way back, and he was going to see to it. He would make sure Ada saw nothing of Bailey also. Don’t want her feeling sorry for him. He enjoyed this challenge, to see Bailey crushed and get Ada in the process. Bailey had always had that disapproving look in Gerald Painter’s mind, like Bailey was somehow superior to him, even though he was of an inferior class. And Ada was just the kind of girl Gerald needed, she would do him credit with her sparky wit. With her new looks she cut a desirable figure, and suited his purposes as an admirable, young businessman, perfectly. So it was that with these equal purposes Gerald Painter left home in his two seater to wait for Bailey outside his lodgings.
Bob spent his last coppers on a stamp and a loaf. The letter to Ada should reach her the next morning. There was just time for a return letter to set a time to meet with Ada. He worried that Ada would want to meet at their favourite tea room. With no money to pay he’d have to ask for the money to pay the bill. Perhaps he could suggest they walked in Sandford Park. He knew Ada would be disappointed in him. He grimaced to himself as he headed back home at the words he imagined she would say. “Oh Bobby,” it would begin.
Bob stopped, surprised out of his thoughts.
“Oh, Painter it’s you.”
“No need for that tone, Bailey.”
“What do you want?”
“Come now Bailey, I just happened to be passing and you appeared. Still living here then? Just for now, I should imagine.”
“You know about my dismissal then? Is that why you’re here?”
“No. As a matter of fact it’s a personal matter. I need to ask a favour.”
“Put a word in with Ada no doubt. Well I haven’t seen Ada since Christmas so I can’t help.”
“No. Ada and I are getting on great, thanks. Had a nice drive together. Picnic in the country, you know. Even had the mother around to dinner. No, what I want is for you to keep away. Don’t want Ada getting all confused by sympathy for a failure that can’t hold down a job. She has a future. And her mother is keen I’m part of it.”
“You took the time to wait here to tell me this? I must be a threat.”
“Not at all Bailey,” Painter nodded to the telephone box. A man watching them nodded barely perceptibly, “other people do the waiting.” Gerald Painter smirked at Bob’s shocked reaction. “When I need someone to bump into someone else, you might say, accidentally, perhaps check their pockets at the same time. I can see it’s done.”
“My pay cheque?” said Bob in a daze, clutching his loaf as if that too might be taken from him.
“Enjoy your breakfast,” Painter said as he hopped into the two seater. Bob watched as he stopped to collect the man that had been watching them and drove away past the hotel where Bob had collided with someone the night he lost his pay cheque.
He wished he had waited to write to Ada, he could have explained Gerald Painter’s actions in his letter, but he had used the last of his change. He wondered if his pay had been appropriated for funding fascists also. The cheque had been drawn on after all. Now he must wait for a response from Ada so he can explain. Perhaps he should go to the police. He felt sure the authorities would be interested to know the Painters’ involvement in the Spanish nationalist movement. He didn’t know which authorities to contact, or what he would report to the police. He needed evidence and he possessed none. He stood in the street for some minutes. His usually tensely hunched shoulders dropped, his whole frame indicating defeat. He planned to have some bread, freshen up and go and seek work. Now he felt lifeless. He had slept in his clothes. As he turned he saw his reflection in the house window, he looked away and dragged himself up the path to the door.
Friday 9th April
“Any progress with the young Miss Saint, Gerald? I thought things might have, progressed?” Daniel Painter asked of his son.
“Yes, of course father. Things are, as you say, progressing. I thought I might ask Ada to the company spring gala, the week after next,” Gerald replied.
“Wishy-washy,” Daniel Painter dismissed his son’s response, “you need to be more direct with the girl. She has a good mind that one, according to her mother. You won’t impress her with that attitude,” the father paused, coughed dryly then said, “you know Gerald, I promised the mother. A matter of, well, honour. My honour towards the memory of my fallen friend. My honour in the eyes of Mrs. Saint. You will act to ensure that honour remains untainted. Of course?”
“Father?” Gerald’s face appeared puzzled by his father’s comments, then the cloud clearing, “oh, well, why of course.” Gerald’s healthily tanned face clearly showed he had no objections. This was a directive he could follow to each extended, last syllable. He wasn’t quite clear though, how far he was expected to take his interest in Ada in service of his father’s honour. Well, it was better than going to war. He was not one of those fools.
Father and son were in the comfortable salon of the Painters’ residence situated above Cheltenham. Each sat in an overstuffed chair. The mullioned windows overlooking the town below on a fair day with fluffy clouds and the Malvern Hills dark in the distance. Out on the winding drive was parked Gerald’s baby blue two seater. A twenty first birthday present. He was replaying an image he recalled of Ada in the passenger seat smiling broadly that sunny Easter holiday Monday. Daniel Painter left the room saying he was due at the company. Gerald wasn’t listening as his father grumbled something about making sure money was being paid and “that idiot Ogley”. Gerald smiled a satisfied Cheshire Cat grin and settled back in his chair. That money business had done for Bailey nicely. After he had watched his father’s car leave he rose and went over to the telephone. He dialed Mrs. Saint’s number, was put through by the operator and Valerie Saint’s voice came through crisply.
“Ah, hello Mrs. Saint, it’s Gerald Painter. I hope you are well. I am calling to see if Ada is home.”
“Oh Gerald, lovely to hear from you. Ada’s out visiting friends. She will be back this afternoon. I know she’ll be pleased to hear from you.”
“I hope Ada enjoyed our afternoon last week?” Gerald asked, without a hint of uncertainty.
“Why, of course. I hope your father is well. The campaign is going well, I hope?” Mrs. Saint wasn’t sure what to say to the young man, but he was interested in Ada and that should be encouraged. Ada could be persuaded what a good prospect he was.
“Oh, for sure,” was Gerald’s slightly strained reply.
“I thought you might like to come for dinner,” Mrs. Saint said.
Gerald thought, what would that be like? Sitting at a table with the daughter and the mother making polite conversation about his father’s political campaign. He said “yes, of course,” and then, “actually, I thought I might ask Ada to a gala dinner at the aviation company a week on Saturday?” The question combined a request for permission and a gauge of Ada’s likelihood to accept.
“Why yes, Ada will be delighted.”
I’ll buy her a new dress, she thought, and book her in for her hair.
“Well I’ll be sure to call Ada later when she’s home,” said Gerald.
They exchanged their goodbyes and hung up. Gerald puffed his cheeks after replacing the receiver.
The coming Sunday was Ada’s last day at home before returning to Birmingham for the final semester of her first year at university. Her mother couldn’t contain her excitement at Gerald Painter’s call, so Ada was well briefed before the telephone rang in the hall later that afternoon. Ada wondered at Gerald’s employment given that he could call her from home at any time on a Friday afternoon. She had returned from visiting two school friends. They had chirped like excited birds at Ada’s hair. And what were the boys at university like? Ada could play the worldly young lady. They still seemed like children. She had enjoyed that.
Saturday 10th April
Ada had refused Gerald’s suggestion of collecting her from home. She preferred to see him away from her mother’s influence. So, on a cool April Saturday morning, promptly at ten thirty, Gerald Painter was waiting on the Cheltenham Promenade for Ada to arrive by bus from Gloucester. He was unused to being kept waiting and his impatience drove him to light a cigarette. When he had taken a few deep draughts, he was struck with the possibility of a kiss with Ada. Immediately he dropped the cigarette and squashed it under his sole. He took to pacing instead and pushed back the cuff of his coat to see the time, then he paced some more. She was late. Ada had suggested ten thirty after he said ten. Now she wasn’t even on time for that. The Gloucester omnibus passed and he caught sight of Ada sitting at the back. Gerald waved and Ada returned a tolerant smile, but didn’t wave. Now he was confused, unable to gauge her enthusiasm at meeting. He waited where they had agreed and watched as she came towards him. She held out her hand for a respectful handshake, which he accepted with disappointment and they went to a cafe of Ada’s choice, not the place Gerald had in mind. Her choice was definite, she made him nervous.
They occupied a table for four at a tea room which might have overlooked the Imperial Gardens had they not been placed away from the windows. Gerald was perturbed at their table, feeling that it looked like they should be expecting someone at the empty places. He was about to complain when Ada stopped him. He shouldn’t expect to have everything his way she chided him. He softened, her pale skin glowed in the relative gloom and her lipstick outlined her lips precisely. He stared in surprise and wonder, bewildered at how she tangled him up and bossed him. He toppled a cup and fumbled at spoons as he tried to be at ease. Ada, directly opposite him, was sitting back in her chair, her legs crossed, amused, but distant. Being with Gerald was much like the boys at university, the harder they tried the more ridiculous they became. Why were they so desperate to impress?
Gerald found himself at a loss for conversation. He reverted to safe topics, his father’s business, his father’s political campaign, his car – which his father bought for him. He tried to stay clear of the work he did for his father, except Ada was suddenly curious. She had shown little interest until then.
“Well, I’m a kind of organiser, if you like,” his looked about the cafe, “my father has a lot going on and I take care I some of the arrangements,” he stuttered.
“You have a lot of free time. Is it a proper job?” Ada asked quite genuinely.
“I, well, yes, well, yes it is. Very much so.”
“Hmmm, very much so.” Ada smiled playfully at his discomfort, thinking him privileged, but honestly employed. Who else would he work for in his situation? Had her father lived she might have expected the same for herself.
After the tea room they walked along the Promenade. The April wind still with a bite when it gusted, but a promise of summer when it dropped and the sun lit the tree-lined boulevard. Ada huddled to him and took his arm at which he became jovial and quite charming, remarking on spring and the promise of summer ahead. She shouldn’t encourage him, but he was alright really.
He wanted to tell Ada that her friend Bob Bailey had been dismissed from his job. He worried that it might inspire her to feel sympathy for Bailey. She might even want to visit him while in Cheltenham and cut short their rendezvous. He decided to keep quiet. After a minute walking together in silence, he said quite suddenly, “Ada, would you accompany me to the Special Aviation gala dinner & dance, next weekend? I know it’s short notice.” He exhaled with relief.
“I’m going back up to Birmingham tomorrow. I probably won’t be back until the summer,” she said.
He sank a little, the wind dying in his sails.
“Oh,” he said.
“I suppose I could catch the train down on Saturday morning, then back up later on Sunday.”
“I could collect you from home and drive you back to Birmingham. Make a day of it even.”
“I’ll come with you, but I’ll see about the time,” she said, but was she giving him too much to hope for?
He was relieved, but she could have been more enthusiastic.
Mother wanted her to begin a liaison with Gerald Painter that was obvious. It wouldn’t have surprised Ada to turn around and catch Mrs. Saint in dark sunglasses and headscarf darting behind a tree. She wasn’t clear what Gerald wanted, besides the one thing, of course, they all wanted that. Mother and Mr. Painter, Gerald’s father, had known each other a long time. Since before she was born. Ada was determined not to be the subject of any arrangement. Gerald would have to try harder, and mother would have to wait and see. It was as she was playing through these thoughts, her arm through Gerald’s, that she saw Bob Bailey coming the other way along the Promenade.
Bob awoke early that Saturday morning. He groaned heavily as he stirred to drink some water. He shook his head slowly, it had been the most arduous week. The previous day had been the end. Each day he had looked with increasing worry for employment. It began to appear that even the most menial positions were closed to him. Calling first thing on Monday into the town council offices to enquire of situations vacant had required teeth clenching courage. As he passed through the foyer he stopped, distracted by a notice announcing that the Air Raid Precautions Commissioner was to give a civil defence lecture in the town hall later in April. He thought it ridiculous hysteria that there could be bombers over Cheltenham. After a few unsuccessful attempts at walking into establishments to enquire after work he relaxed into it. He got his patter down eventually. Perhaps he could be a travelling salesman, he wondered. Shop jobs, clerk positions, porters and pot washers, all required a reference, a good word from a reputable source. Some employed only family, others only churchgoers, one only Catholics. The owner there questioned Bob on his views about what was happening in Spain, he wasn’t pleased with the answer. Bob let slip his republican support. All proprietors and managers wanted reassurance of his trustworthiness. Well, there would be a problem with that now, and, it began to appear he might never get another position.
Monday 5th April
The Senior arrived at his desk, perturbed. He had worried himself into sleeplessness about Bailey’s dismissal. After days of fretting he decided to approach Mr. Ogley. The Junior and the new payments clerk brought in to replace Bob giggled together constantly, like a pair of schoolchildren. The work wasn’t getting done the way the Senior had become accustomed while Bob occupied the Supplier Checking desk. The Senior knocked at Mr. Ogley’s door and entered when bidden by a dissolute call from behind the door. The Senior wrung his soft hands one over the other as he edged towards the chair he was not offered to take. He waited for the invitation to sit.
“Yes?” Mr. Ogley asked in a tired voice, slouched in his chair, his head supported by one hand.
“Mr. Ogley. I have been thinking about the dismissal of Mr. Bailey,” the Senior began, eyeing the chair, the hands working over each other.
“Bailey? Oh, Bailey. Yes?”
“Well, do you think it was, well, let’s say, proportionate?” the Senior said while Mr. Ogley waited with a bored look. The Senior continued, “might not a move to the Post Room have been more…fair? Don’t you think?” The Senior smiled feebly. Mr. Ogley did not reply, but looked out through the window, across the aerodrome to where ground crew were pushing out a silver fighter plane. Staff cycled along the perimeter on pool bicycles, clouds drifted over the fields beyond the control tower.
“I will not be reinstating Mr. Bailey,” Mr. Ogley said finally. The Senior nodded, half shrugged and edged to the door. As he left Mr. Ogley said after him, “Thank you, Mr. Rose. I appreciate your comments.”
Mr. Rose, the Senior of the Payments desk, thanked Mr. Ogley in return, closed the door behind him and looked across to the Payments desk. Young Mr. Emmett, the worrisome Junior would come good in time he thought. He still had his way to make.
Wednesday 7th April
By Wednesday dwindling hope was rewarded with opportunity. So far, Bob had been looking at advertisements in shop windows. Then he was able to pick up the previous day’s paper from a hotel lobby to trawl the classifieds. He had called in to the hotel to ask after work. He didn’t mind at all what work, anything. The severe faced, and to Bob, older, woman behind the reception desk rolled her eyes at Bob’s enquiry, screwed up her face, looked Bob over critically and asked, “do you have experience of hotel work?” It was clear that she already knew the answer. Bob flushed at the idea that he might lie, he couldn’t help being truthful.
“Not exactly hotel work,” he said.
Before he could expand she fired out a question, “not exactly, or not at all?”
Bob shrank before her. As he was leaving, the lady having shaken her head slowly with closed eyes, he noticed the paper and asked if he might take a look.
“Take it, it’s yesterday’s.”
He sat on a bench near the park gate to look at the paper. There was a situation vacant at the brewery. It was an odd feeling that the brewery, of which he had had little knowledge previously, now featured with regularity in recent days. The sour smell drifted to his lodgings regularly with the westerly winds. He walked across town to the brewery to enquire. So much walking.
The meeting with the drays’ foreman, conducted amongst the roll and heave of beer barrels, went well. He needed a reliable clerk and Bob, by his own account, was one. “Start tomorrow, Bailey.” Even a couple of barrel-men wished him a welcoming ‘see you’ for the next day. The walk to the brewery was a walk of anonymous humility, the way back one of proud relief. Bob Bailey could solve his own problems. He started picturing work at the brewery, the cheerful exchanges with the men, the clerk’s desk was close to where the barrels were shipped out. No bus to catch each morning. He was looking forward to it.
With any luck his cheque from the Special Aviation Company would be waiting with the post at home. Just time enough to pay it in at the bank before paying the rent. He felt sure the bank would allow him to draw on the cheque before it cleared. This might be a good day. He started planning the things he would eat. There would be doughnuts from the bakery. He walked home now with urgent, happy strides. What a difference one hour can make.
There was no post for him when he arrived home. He mounted the stairs to his room with mixed feelings, a nervous feeling about the rent due on Saturday. As he reached the top of the stairs it occurred to him that Ada hadn’t yet replied to his letter. She would be back in Birmingham soon.
Thursday 8th April
The next morning Bob presented himself for work promptly. The large burgundy painted swing doors at the rear of the brewery were open with jovial shouts of workers coming from the murky interior. Trucks were lined up along the side street waiting to be loaded, the drivers standing outside their cabs smoking and chatting amongst themselves. Bob approached the open doors. He had been told to report to the Dray Manager. He walked into the dark storage area with barrels piled high, a central walkway left clear. He ventured further among the barrels and came across one of the men who had welcomed him the previous day. He was a short stocky chap with a ready smile and curly blond hair beneath his worker’s cap. Bob removed his own cap and greeted the man cheerfully. The smile on the other man’s face erased instantly, he avoided Bob’s eyes and his outstretched hand.
“Er, look lad, there’s no job for you today,” the man said looking at the ground with embarrassment. He shifted past Bob and began manhandling barrels. Two other men appeared, but the Dray Manager was not around. Bob appealed to the blond man, “I was meant to report to the manager. Do you mean there is no work for me today?”
The man was shoving a large barrel. It was a few moments before he could respond, but Bob wondered if he was going to do so at all. He turned to Bob and said apologetically, “look lad, there’s no job for you. Sorry. Best be on your way now.”
Bob stood there, dumfounded.
The man busied himself, but seeing that Bob had not moved and was still gaping at him, he stood up and spread his arms without saying anything.
“Is the Dray Manager here?” Bob asked.
The man shook his head in frustration. He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder and almost shouted, “get!”
Bob saw that he must leave. As he was passing back through the large doors, he met the Dray Manager coming in. He met Bob’s eye, but ignored him and walked straight on. Bob began to speak, but it was clear he would be ignored. He left in a daze of dejection.
He couldn’t face approaching other potential employers. He walked slowly his shoulders more drooping than usual. He had no energy. As he neared home he went into the park and sat on the same bench. Clerks were taking their daily stroll to the office. He eyed them jealously, their confident steps and shrill laughter stabbed at him. They had no problems like his. He sank to his stomach. What would he say to his parents? He hoped he could persuade his landlord to let him stay until he could earn some money. If he was evicted he decided he would make his way back to his parents’ house. He would have to face telling them. Tell his father. He could walk there, he thought, walk and keep walking, he had traipsed all week, he could walk to London and leave everything. He was exhausted with thinking.
He stood up and returned to his room. Why hadn’t Ada written?
Saturday 10th April
As Bob left the lodging house with everything he could carry he spotted Painter’s man in the telephone box. He recognised the man, not by his face, he hadn’t seen it, but by the way he occupied the kiosk – in no way attentive to a telephone conversation. Bob had a few clothes and his personal belongings in a pale green canvas rucksack with thin, brown leather straps. It was heavier than he expected. As he walked away the landlord’s man stood on the pavement and watched him leave. Bob’s pleas to be given time were paid no heed.
Bob had only just risen and taken a glass of water when there came a knock at the door. He opened the door and a large man with slicked-back hair placed a heavy booted foot inside the door.
“Bailey. Rent’s due.”
Bob paused, looking down and around the room like there might be an answer lying about among his shoes. His eyes alighted on the cabinet where he kept his cheque book. Should he write a cheque? He might get some money before it was banked. If not, it would be returned, bounced they called it, Bob remembered. Did people do that? He hadn’t time or the presence of mind to think. The man was waiting, looking at Bob for a reply, his face lined with impatience. “Well?”
Bob smiled weakly, his stomach tied, throat collapsed, stuck together. This was it. He half lifted his right hand, open handed and let it drop. The man took the signal with a huff, understanding, but without sympathy.
As he walked away from the lodging house he hadn’t thought at all where he might go. His pay-cheque hadn’t arrived, he couldn’t draw at the bank. His fine wireless radio was left behind. The polished wooden case too large and heavy to carry away with him. He would come back for it when he found a new place. The man had eyed it, measuring its value at resale. Bob had left it there, hardly worthy of it now.
He might have to walk to his parents’ in shame. All that way, it would take until nighttime. He passed Painter’s man in the telephone box and went and sat in the park. There was one empty bench, others were already occupied by tramps Bob had observed dispassionately just a few weeks earlier. Then he had been separate from them, now he was among their number. He sat for some time and thought, still in a daze. The morning was cool, but at least it wasn’t raining. Would the weather hold before the day was out? After a few minutes he saw the telephone box loiterer walk past the park gates. Bob rose as if to go over to him, make him see what he was party to. The man tipped the brim of his hat and hurried along. Bob sat down again. What was the point? He remained for two hours more, immobile, watching the flow of people, each had their purpose, then he got up and started walking.
Ada was caught. Her arm firmly twined in Gerald’s when she saw Bob Bailey approaching along the Cheltenham Promenade. He was carrying a heavy bag, his tread looked tired.
Bob saw them together from a little way off. He recognised Painter immediately, but not his girl. Then closing with them; my God it’s Ada! He was startled at her appearance. His heavy tread faltered momentarily as he considered whether to stop, approach or dart away in another direction. Ada managed to disengage her arm from Gerald Painter’s. For a moment she sensed that he released her arm reluctantly. She approached Bob waving gladly, almost dragging Gerald Painter along with her. She came up to Bob, hugged him as usual and stood back looking him over. How odd that he was carrying so much with him in that old rucksack. He had that rucksack at school. He faltered in his greeting, hesitant, sheepish, there was something up with him, but better she didn’t pry in front of Gerald.
“Oh sorry, Bobby I think you know Gerald from your job.”
Bob raised his eyebrows at the mention of his job. She didn’t know. Hadn’t she read his letter? Painter stood close by, uncomfortable at Ada’s display of affection for Bailey.
They each stood still, each unable to proceed. Gerald trying to show a closeness with Ada by standing near her. He thought it might be unfortunate if Bailey was to mention his dismissal. He didn’t want Ada feeling any sympathy for Bailey. Painter tried to step on as if indicating that Ada and he might continue on their way. He was baulked as Ada stood her ground, taking a half-step towards Bob and slightly away from Painter. She laughed lightly turning an eye to Painter, amused, but nervously so, at Bob seeing them arm in arm.
“We were just having some tea,” Ada offered as an explanation, “mother knows Gerald’s father.” She grinned through her embarrassment, like she was eating a stinging nettle.
Bob winced at Ada’s familiar use of Painter’s Christian name. There followed again a difficult pause while they all three looked at one another. Ada gave another nervous laugh and blurted, “Bobby, are you going to the Aviation works gala? Next Saturday.”
Bob looked at Painter, a questioning look, checking if Painter had said anything of his dismissal. Ada plainly didn’t know.
“Oh, well, I might, you know. Not decided yet.” Bob wasn’t really sure what a gala might be, he only guessed and didn’t like the sound of it.
“Gerald is taking me. Perhaps I could fix you up someone to go with?” she said with enthusiasm. It would be great if Bobby could go with someone too.
That slew Bob, he almost buckled under. But this was confusing, he had told Ada he’d lost his job in his letter. He couldn’t explain his situation to Ada now in front of Painter with that gloating satisfied face. Painter’s face creased in a nearly suppressed evil smirk. He was enjoying Bob’s discomfort. It was Bob’s turn to indicate with a half-step that he wanted to go.
Gerald Painter couldn’t resist an opportunity and said, “but you don’t work at Special Aviation any more, do you Bailey?”
Bob was stricken motionless. The way Gerald had said ‘Bailey’ caught Ada’s curiosity. The boys didn’t like each other. It surprised her.
Ada looked at both men in turn, to Gerald incredulous, to Bob wishing that he would refute this silly story. She frowned, perplexed and again noticed Bob’s rucksack and unhealthy appearance.
“Bobby, what’s happened? What is going on?”
Bob sighed deeply, mumbled, but didn’t stay to explain, he had to get away. He left them without a goodbye.
A little under an hour later Bob waited to cross the main road to Gloucester. One vehicle after another passed. Cheltenham was a busy place. A bus passed him. He caught sight of Ada who looked back at him. He lifted his hand as if to wave. They kept their gaze as the bus continued, but she didn’t wave back.
Mrs. Bailey busied herself folding and re-folding laundry. She had been thinking of her younger son with increasing unease these last two days. Two days ago she had argued with her husband about Robert. Mr. Bailey described Robert as an inconstant wastrel that would turn out a disappointment to them. Mrs. Bailey reminded her husband that he felt that way only because Christopher was not the first son he had expected him to be.
“Christopher is a different matter. He’s being himself, following a life true to his nature.”
“True to his nature now is it? Never have I heard you say anything other than he was a ne’er-do-well. What’s brought this change in you? Wishing his was the life you’d had, now you’re stuck here dependent on me,” Mrs. Bailey released in a tirade. She glared at her husband, sitting in his chair. Mr. Bailey reeled under this multiple wave attack. She would do this, start on one thing and lead onto another. In his mind he ducked each jibe in turn to get back to his point.
“Look. It’s just that Robert gets these ideas and he’s such a stubborn fool, you can’t reason with him,” he said in a mild, reasonable tone.
“You talked him out of going to Spain. Young men are being killed out there.”
“That was you, you know full well,” he said.
“He listens to you, it just takes time for him to make up his mind.”
“He makes up his mind, but it doesn’t stay made.”
“He’s like you.” Mrs. Bailey said, with a cajoling thump. He could be reasonable when he chose to be so.
“He is not! I wish he was,” Mr. Bailey said with a considerable rise in pitch. In the few moments of quiet that followed he chewed on the similarities between himself and his younger son. After a minute he said, “what’s he got in his fairy cake head about the Saint girl?”
“Oh, that’s it. You don’t like her because she’s too good for him – us. Anyway, there isn’t anything there. He told me so. I’d always thought there would be, but no,” she said, going back to her laundry.
“He wants a nice straightforward girl, with a sensible head on her, that’s what he wants,” Mr. Bailey said to his wife’s back as she went to the kitchen.
“I dare say. But he hasn’t met anyone yet. He doesn’t go out of his way to neither.” And it was on this that Mrs. Bailey had been thinking, while folding her laundry. Ada wasn’t right for him, and it was ridiculous to think they had anything but simple friendship between them. But couldn’t she introduce him to a friend? One of the village girls? One that wouldn’t flit off to university full of grand plans.
It was now more than six weeks since Robert had last visited his parents. That was just before Christopher came home on one of his few stop-overs. Robert hadn’t written, and the Baileys had no telephone. They relied on Bob making regular visits to keep up with news of their youngest. Mrs. Bailey had been so encouraged by his job at the Special Aviation Company, but some gossip from Mrs. Saint was a worry. She couldn’t be sure it was true without speaking to her son. She had always felt that Mrs. Saint didn’t approve of Bob’s friendship with her daughter, even though she was no longer Mrs. Saint’s housekeeper. She was a snob that one.
It was a Saturday morning when Mrs. Bailey had met Mrs. Saint at the village butchers. There was a queue at the counter and Mrs. Saint was at the head giving orders to an inexperienced butcher’s assistant, whose face showed he was completely flustered by the well-to-do customer. Normally those kind of people sent their help, or dealt only with Mr. Mann, the owner.
“Poor lad,” murmured Mrs. Bailey in the ear of the woman in front. The woman made a gesture equally of agreement and sympathy. They’d already had quite a wait behind Mrs. Saint. Mr. Mann appeared eventually, offering servile apologies. She monopolised him while those behind her were served by the relieved young assistant.
“Oh, Mrs. Bailey, it’s been a while since I saw you last. How is your poor husband?” asked Mrs. Saint.
Mrs. Bailey deflected the ‘poor’ reference and answered briefly after the husband only.
“And poor Robert?” Mrs. Saint enquired further. She knew the answer.
“He’s doing well,” the mother’s stock response, then catching the reference for the second time, “poor? What can you mean? He is doing well at his employment Mrs. Saint,” and referring obliquely to Ada, “I’m sure you’ll have heard so.”
“What I’ve heard, Mrs. Bailey, is that Robert has lost his position. Dismissed. But not from Ada, as you seem to infer, from his employer. Well, his son that is.”
Mrs. Saint was not one to brook come-backs. She left with a perfunctory ‘good day’.
Mrs. Bailey, perplexed and red faced, left the butchers much embarrassed. Damn that woman, she has never liked Robert.
Mrs. Bailey finished with the laundry and returned to the sitting room. “I’m worried about Robert,” she said to her husband,
“Don’t start that again,” Mr. Bailey said from behind the Daily Worker.
“I’m worried about him,” Mrs. Bailey insisted.
Mr. Bailey knew better than to ignore this tone in her voice.
“You don’t worry so about Christopher. You never have.”
“I’ve not needed to. He’s like you. Christopher can take care of himself,” she said.
“Huh, hardly,” he retorted. The irony of the invalid husband was lost on the mother of the worrisome child.
“He has not visited or been in touch. Mrs. Saint said he’s lost his job, and, Christopher was going to see him when he was last here.”
“Perhaps the fool has gone to sea with his brother then. Do him good, probably.” Mr. Bailey didn’t know, how could such a sensible child be so much trouble, yet the wild one no trouble at all? He draw a long sigh and lowered his paper. His wife was still standing in the doorway looking at him, hands on hips. She expected something from the boy’s father.
He relented with a sigh. “If you’re really worried, we could go to Cheltenham, to his lodgings and see how he is,” he said, “mind you write first though. He won’t like us turning up unannounced,” he grinned mischievously, “might have a lady with him.”
Mrs. Bailey groaned and went upstairs to see to the w.c.
Stupid man, she thought, but felt better. She would write today saying they should meet Robert in Cheltenham next Saturday. He wouldn’t be pleased, in his way he was just as independent as Christopher, but she felt better.
Mr. Bailey returned to his paper. Actually, he would enjoy a visit to Cheltenham. He might be able to help the lad. If the fool would only listen.
Saturday 10th April
As the cab left them they admired the Regency terrace where Bob lived.
“Fine lodgings,” said Mr. Bailey, “fine price too. Tut!”
Mr. and Mrs. Bailey arrived at Bob’s former lodging a few hours after he had left. After taking the bus from Gloucester to Cheltenham, they took a cab from the bus station across town to the London Road. They stepped out and stood side-by-side, Mrs. Bailey supporting her husband on one side, he leaning heavily on his stick on the other.
“Don’t start on him. He’s proud of his new position. You have to let him live his way,” Mrs. Bailey said.
“While he spends every shilling he earns living here?” Mr. Bailey said and then seeing his wife’s glare, “oh, well, I won’t say anything to upset the boy.”
Mrs. Bailey helped her husband up the path to the door of Bob’s former lodgings.
Half an hour after ringing at the door Mr. and Mrs. Bailey were sitting at a table in the window of the Swan public house. Outside motor cars were passing in both directions along the Strand, out towards Oxford, in towards the centre.
“He can’t have gone far.” Mrs. Bailey said, worrying into a handkerchief, her half pint of shandy beer untouched, the foam gone flat.
“Probably on his way to ours,” Mr. Bailey said, taking a satisfying sup from his pint.
“How can he? He must have no money if he hasn’t paid his rent.”
“He has legs!”
Bob had indeed started the long walk to his parents’ house from Cheltenham. A distance of more than ten miles by road. Dangerous in spring across the fields, especially so in the flood plains of the River Severn. As his parents discussed him he hadn’t even made it out of town. He was, once again, sitting upon a bench, unsure what to do or where to go. He just couldn’t face his father’s lectures, and worse, his mother’s coddling sympathy. So he sat, and in time the motor traffic reduced, pedestrians thinned to a few, and the evening sky dimmed listlessly.
The rain had set in, late Sunday afternoon when the train arrived at Birmingham New Street station. The halls of residence were only a fifteen minute walk away, which Ada might normally have walked, even carrying her luggage. Today she would take a cab. The station was quiet in comparison to the Saturday she had left. Bored railway staff waved away the steam resignedly and kicked a corner as they discussed City and Villa. To transport Ada’s new wardrobe Mrs. Saint bought Ada a small portmanteau. This week Ada needed to find yet another new dress, to wear to the Gala. She would have to carry it back to Gloucester with her, there hadn’t been time to find anything suitable in Cheltenham after Gerald’s invitation. As she stood on the platform waiting for the guard to retrieve her luggage, she thought how much simpler things were before she had all these new outfits. Even what to wear on the train ride from Gloucester to Birmingham had been a decision. There was one benefit though. The job of hailing a cab and hauling bags was made markedly easier by a change in hairstyle, some make up and new clothes. An idea she would have dismissed with short words at the beginning of the first term. Oh, it had been a time of upheaval, but it was good to be back. She was looking forward to catching up with the girls in halls.
The halls of residence for lady technical students was a tall Victorian brick townhouse squeezed into the end of a commercial street of wholesale shops, storerooms and busy yards. The location must have been an afterthought, not particularly suited to young ladies. As such, the curfew of ten p.m. was strictly observed by the warder, but less so by the six ladies resident there. Ada’s room was on the third floor next to her new best friend Marcia. They shared a large bathroom on their floor, and enjoyed late night discussions, which compensated for the curfew. They had widely different politics, but passion and ambition they held in common.
Marcia was a student of Electrical Engineering and like Ada, was short, but slight. Her dark hair was an array of loose curls, and her large, bright eyes drew people to her. What marked Marcia out, though, was her style of dress. A clever mix of everyday style and high fashion. Marcia could spend, but she spent well. She was the daughter of two successful Chemists. Her father now a practicing pharmacist, her mother a research fellow in Cardiff. She had been born in Monmouth, but now her family, which included two brothers, lived in Cardiff where her father owned a small but prosperous chain of Chemist stores. Ada had never met a girl like Marcia. Gloucestershire didn’t have these kind of people, as far as her experience went. Marcia’s parents were modern people. Her mother had been a suffragist and was even arrested once, which had held her career back only fractionally. It was odd then that her friend should set such store in her appearance rather than academic achievement. Marcia was clever, naturally so, and always immaculate. Marcia did not, however, inherit her mother’s support of strong female independence. She’s one for the boys, thought Ada before they were introduced. Marcia saw a project in Ada instantly. Here was someone she could shape into a partner and they would both be brilliant, together.
Not having the influence of intellectuals in her life, Ada didn’t take her studies as lightly as Marcia. For Marcia it came easy, but Ada’s prime influence was her mother, it was Mrs. Saint’s view that for Ada not to depend on a man, she needed a career of her own – if for nothing else than to attract the right partner. A man that appreciated independence in a woman. And so it was by mutual influence Marcia made Ada a woman men noticed at first glance, and Ada influenced Marcia to follow her mother’s example of strong intellectual independence. And together they dominated living arrangements, leisure and cultural activities of the ladies of the technical halls. Even the implacable warder could be talked round by the two of them acting as a pair.
Once they had all arrived, unpacked and changed, the ladies went down to dinner in the cramped dining room. Meals were provided in the cost, which the warder did her best to provide, taking account of the various tastes of six vocal young women. Tonight they were in full voice, glad to be together as a group. After dinner they shared the clearing up, which the warder appreciated – that was Ada’s idea, and afterwards, with no assignments to complete they all met in Marcia’s room to share their news. It was not that the other four were shrinking violets, by comparison to the lead pair they may have seemed so, but they were after all ladies taking technical subjects dominated by men. Each could speak their mind when needed and Marcia’s room often had the sound akin to a German beer Keller, hot with violent debate. The warder two floors down raised a brow, rather impressed actually, and a little proud of this year’s bunch.
Ada had started the first term as one of the quieter of the group. The evening moved on and politics turned by turns to talk of romance, or the lack of it these days. Now she was holding forth describing the boyish antics of Gerald Painter. And they laughed in derision at his attempts to impress such a star as Ada Saint. What an idiot he must be. But he did have a baby-blue two seater Ada explained with arched brows. The laughter died down and the floor was held by another lady recounting a romantic tale slightly taller for the height of her cork heels, which she showed off proudly. The girl, Elise, walked in exaggerated model style up and down the room and the laughter became a little too loud for the warder to let go unchecked.
Ada didn’t mention Bobby. Why had he been carrying that big old rucksack? Perhaps, she thought, on his way to stay with his parents. If he had lost his position he might need to go home. If so, why was he wandering on the edge of town? Oh, walking to the train station, that would be it. Bobby had always had a fondness for trains. They had spent days together on the platforms of Gloucester railway station. Bob would enthuse on the idea that one day there would be electric trains which swished secretly through the countryside at night. He was rarely animated, but she remembered him talking at length on the idea. Bobby would deny it if pressed though.
It was like the argument they had regularly about which of them had been the most scared when the farmer found them at the barns that time. Ada maintained that Bob had run so fast because he was afraid. She went further. Bob was afraid, she said, because he was terrified of his father finding out. Ada didn’t understand the fear a son might have of his father. When they were much younger, before Mr. Bailey had had his accident, he had been quick to take a hand to Christopher and Bob. Over the years since they had repeated the debate and each time the reasons they had run were expanded. Ada took perverse pleasure in analysing Bob’s behaviour. He was so different from herself, or any of her friends.
Bob would tell her, he had had no fear at all. He had run, in fact, to help Ada get away more quickly. They both knew well how a bad word to Ada’s mother would mean a punishment. Ada’s punishments were much more far reaching. Ada had never been beaten as a child. Her mother relied solely on the giving and withdrawal of approval. In extreme cases, it was Ada’s dead father whose implied approval her mother withheld. This, Bob would say, too triumphantly, was why Ada had been so afraid. The discussion ended rarely with what had happened that day. They frequently explored their differences, but Bob could be particularly hurtful. Hurtful for Ada because it was the truth, and Bob all too often fell back to the fact that Ada was controlled by her mother whenever they had a disagreement. He had nothing else with which to taunt her.
Next morning, Ada checked her appearance before putting on her raincoat. A beautiful new pistachio coloured wax-cloth. She had an early lecture to attend and so she was up and ready before the rest. She hurried a breakfast, readied herself and left. She had returned on a quiet rainy Sunday, now on a busy Monday she was immediately immersed into noise, fumes, puddles and bustle. She walked quickly, umbrella up, thinking. It was troubling that Gerald Painter was talking directly with her mother. Her mother let on that Gerald had called her mother to tell her that Bob had been dismissed. This was most odd, and somewhat sinister. She shivered. I’m not having this meddling, she thought, I will speak to Gerald Painter next Saturday. Now being back in Birmingham it was a great inconvenience to be having to go back to Gloucester so soon. Bobby is such a worry. He really is incapable of sticking at anything. To allow a good position to slip away like that, so soon after he has started is just ridiculous immaturity. Oh, he’s not going to Spain is he? Ada had seen newspaper reports of young men dying there. Bob wasn’t even a committed socialist. Mother had called him a fool. Perhaps she was right. My God, I need to concentrate on my studies, I don’t have time for this. In a few years I will be a qualified engineer. Bob Bailey needs to look after himself. I can’t fight his battles.
She had walked quickly consumed with internal chatter and arrived at the engineering faculty building. She mounted the steps to the large doors, pushed them open, shaking her umbrella behind her and made for the lecture hall, looking up at the clock in the entrance. Early, good, time to read up before the lecture begins.
Bob shifted stiffly in his bunk at the Seamen’s mission. The mattress was thin, laid over the bare boards of a bunk constructed roughly to fit the space.
He laid next to a smeared window, grateful for a place to lie down, trying to cover himself with a moth-eaten blanket and his thin coat. The night had come in early with the rain, which spattered the window with large drops, and lashed as the wind gusted. Tap, tap went a dripping gutter. Bob watched drops run down the panes gathering other drops as they went. He closed his eyes grateful to be indoors for the first time since the morning. He opened them and stared at his distorted face reflected in the dripping window.
Bob had been one of the first men to arrive at the mission that evening. Other men arrived by one’s and two’s, some regulars, who had a proprietary air, but from their appearance not seamen, or not employed in any capacity that Bob could imagine. He pretended to be asleep as rough voices exchanged worn out comments from years of similar days. Did you ever get used to being homeless?
This was Bob’s second night with nowhere to stay. For two days he had raged within himself at his own decision not to walk to his parents’ home. As that dreadful Saturday had passed, after leaving the lodging house, he delayed making a decision until it was too late to do anything at all. He had to think of somewhere warm to spend the night that did not require money.
“Last train leaves at quarter past nine,” the platform guard said from behind Bob as he stepped onto the railway platform at Cheltenham station. Bob jumped, guilty at entering the station with no intention of boarding a train. The guard was a tall, skittle shaped man with a small head below his cap.
“Oh, I was hoping there would be a train to Bristol tonight,” Bob stuttered, the lie further slowing his normally hesitant speech.
The guard shook his head excessively, incredulous. Bob thought he had broken some rule that surely everyone knew about trains to Bristol.
“Not tonight. Not ‘til morning now. Next Bristol train will be five to six in the morning.”
“Ah. Can I wait in the station until then?”
The guard was immediately suspicious and with his small head tilted back, looking like a skittle that might topple, he looked Bob over assessing the true reason this young man wanted to wait.
“No home to go to?” the guard’s voice a hint less amenable.
“I’d have to go all the way back across town. I don’t mind waiting.”
The guard grunted, hardly convinced, but this lad didn’t seem like the tramps that usually tried to bed down in the waiting rooms. The guard turned and wobbled away down the platform, allowing the younger man to make for the waiting room.
Inside, the waiting room was stifling. The brass vents under the heavily varnished benches were giving out a gentle, lulling hum. In one corner a man had settled in and was snoring loudly. Bob sat across the room from him and prepared for a long night squirming on the hard bench. It had been a tumultuous day, the worst he had experienced, but still far too early to sleep. To pass a few minutes he listed his worst days and tried to place them in order. Poor exam results, rainy cross-country runs, even being dismissed from a decent job, did not compare. There was never a day like this. Just a matter of two weeks earlier this day’s events would have been unthinkable to him. He had passed into another world.
He drifted into sleep and jerked awake as his heavy head nodded. Sleep and wakefulness slipped one to the other and thoughts came as a series of horrible photographic slides. He sank with a lurch at seeing his mind’s picture of Ada on Painter’s arm. Well, what of it? Not my girl. Only a friend that’s for sure. He dozed in and out for an hour. As it approached nine o’clock other people began to come into the waiting room, banging luggage and fussing about. By five past, half the benches were full giving Bob something to occupy his mind. The behaviour of other people. Brief sleep had refreshed him and now he was fully awake. It would be many waking hours until he would have to turn out of the waiting room. He hoped the snoring man would be taking the nine fifteen train and he might have the room to himself. The man was still snoring despite all the coming and goings. The louder the noise, the quieter the other occupants became, but no-one would approach him. Bob observed the snorer closely. His high colour and shabby-smart clothes marked him as a respectable tramp. Bob considered his own appearance by comparison. This was only one day. The next was unknown and beyond that, unknowable. He considered, at some point he may have to relent and give in to his parents’ expectation. Soon they would want a visit from him at a weekend.
His mind made its way back to Ada; from his parents, the village, Ada’s mother’s house, Mrs. Saint and then to Ada. He groaned with his silent loss, catching the attention of the man sat nearest him. There is no privacy in homelessness. Ada had looked startling. Not herself, but someone like her. There was a light about the green of her eyes that he had not caught before. He regretted not saying he had noticed her appearance. He couldn’t with Painter there. She didn’t wave from the bus. That hurt badly. She had changed so quickly, as his own situation had swiftly moved beyond his control. Some people have such settled, predictable lives. How can they rely on it continuing?
Like the night at the station, he couldn’t sleep on the bunk in the seamen’s mission. He thought of a time he and Ada had sat atop the barns in the fields behind the village. The barley heads swayed in the gentle breeze, a sweeping pattern moved across the field with the light breeze and breathed summer over them. They had always discussed the future, it was a favourite topic for both of them. In their shared daydreams their adult lives were played out by themselves as child actors. They little realised how they might be as adults. Bob still thought himself now as a ten year old, but he had believed those dreams. Ada had always been an adult. Losing her father before she was born may have given her that. She would return to Birmingham soon, he thought. Now he couldn’t write, no telephone, she was out of reach.
It has been said that in the dark night of the soul it’s always three o’clock in the morning. Bob squinted at the time in the darkness. Just past three and no sleep yet. He searched his situation for any hope. There might still be a cheque for him at the London Road lodging. He should go back and check. With this chink of hope began a chain of thoughts of increasing possibility. By five the dawn lit the window a pale grey. He would get evidence of what Painter and Ogley were doing, whatever the consequences to himself.
It is not permitted to sit in public for long without moving on. A policeman walks his beat, stopping by the shops on his way, shopkeepers at their doors nod, each in turn, in the direction of a suspicious person. This part of Cheltenham does not tolerate suspicious persons. The same gentile elderly widows walk their dogs, the same schoolchildren carry satchels sullenly in the morning and skip by in the afternoon. The retired army captain collects his Daily Mail, it gets him out now that the good lady wife has passed on. The bobby’s boots crunched on the cinder path to where Bob Bailey sat like discarded litter, his rucksack by his side. He sat at the same bench at the same time yesterday, He sat
there because the sun warmed his face once it had passed the regency terrace and the tall Chestnut on the southeast side of the park. Bob had never spoken one word to a policeman in his life. Being spoken to in the policeman’s officious tone gave him the guilty feeling of a first time offender.
Each day presented the challenge of how much time could be passed in one place. Listening for the church bells to announce each quarter hour. Each quarter hour until the backside couldn’t sit any longer. Each quarter hour until the stomach could no longer pretend it wasn’t hungry. But he had shocked himself. Disappointed himself, you might say. It was market day. Passing a fruit and vegetable stall, he paused. The stallholder not noticing, busy serving savvy housekeepers. Bob spied an apple fallen from its neatly stacked display. He could pick it up, no one would miss a stray, bruised apple. For an entire minute he observed the apple unmoving. Between customers the stallholder looked up to see who was queuing and took in Bob amongst others. Bob saw he had been noticed and immediately recoiled from his fixation, ashamed and surprised at himself. Better to starve than steal.
Once the midday bells had tolled it was already time for Bob to begin looking for a place to spend the night. Move along before it was necessary for the friendly bobby to insist. A whistle blast could summon assistance from roundabouts. Later that day Bob queued at the Salvation Army kitchen with the ragged tail of Cheltenham’s human refuse. A former bank clerk had shown him where to get a meal, get a bed, and get a wash. He had taken Bob under the grubby wing of his, once respectable, grey trench coat.
“You can’t rely on anything, or anyone,” said Martin Jacobs, former clerk at the Gloucester branch of the Midland bank. He and the bank, like he and Mrs. Jacobs, had parted company three months ago. Not amicably in either case. Martin Jacobs, bank clerk, a respectable head of grey hair and an upright bearing had become a former bank employee, and of no fixed abode, following a calamitous love affair and the beginning of divorce proceedings commenced by his wife’s legal counsel. Martin Jacobs had taken well to homeless living. He appeared to regret nothing of his life and loved his freedom quietly. In just three months his face had already started to show the rough, not always healthy, complexion of a person that spends their daily life outdoors.
Martin took Bob as a newly initiated apprentice and began as he would in his former employ showing the new recruit the daily regime. The two passed some quiet respectable hours at the public art gallery and the library. Bob began reading a novel by an American author about the beautiful and damned lives of unfortunate inheritors of wealth. As a pair they were a little odd. Outwardly both respectable if a little shabby, but too wide an age difference to be friends and too different in appearance to be related. However they lounged too long over the literature to be casual visitors until the patience of the head librarian was exhausted. They would have to leave that for a few days Martin advised. A day at the public gallery of the courts might fill a day or two, but the Bobbies kept an eye on the public entrance.
Bob and Martin discussed the difficulties in finding work with no fixed address and no trustworthy referees.
“Don’t waste your energy Bob. You might as well have moved into another physical dimension as far as society is concerned.”
“Less than a week ago I had a good position. I’m not a leper. I fell out with my employer on, well, a political matter,” said Bob.
“Bit of a revolutionary are you? You seem too mild for that.”
“I tried to prevent their passing money to the fascist insurgency in Spain. Talking of revolutionary, you won’t know that Special Aviation is sending their experimental equipment to Spain for use by the Germans against the Spanish government. And our government is doing nothing.”
The older man was listening, surprised at Bob coming to life.
Bob continued, “would we expect people to stand by and do nothing if our elected government was ousted by the Army? If Oswald Moseley was the leader of a coup? We would expect the people to be supported in keeping their elected government. Innocent people are being killed by the fascists and British companies are providing the money.”
“You do sound like a hothead. I would sack you too,” said Martin Jacobs, not entirely joking. Bob was being too serious. The older man wasn’t one for talking politics. He talked mainly of his wife and their daughter, who had disowned him. It had been a cold and wet three months, he talked of plans to go to the south coast for the warmer weather, or possibly abroad. He had nothing to stay for. Bob didn’t feel the same.
Hours passed slowly, but it would soon be time to find a place to sleep for the night. Martin suggested he go to the Salvation Army if Bob would try the Seaman’s mission again. They would meet back in an hour to confirm. The old man at the mission shrugged sorrowfully, afraid he couldn’t help Bob this time. He remembered Bob, he never forgot a face, but he had done Bob a favour on Sunday and couldn’t repeat it. It was more than his mind’s peace was worth. Bob was given the brush off because he had no seafaring connection, despite Bob’s protest of his family’s line of work. Or, more likely, Bob realised, the man had his regulars who came first.
Only when you fall away from the normal run of things do you come into contact with the other people in the world, the people that live apart from society, occupying another dimension. They live in the same physical space as the people of the world, but they are ghosts.
Bob drifted back to where he and Martin agreed to meet. He hung around the base of a tree near an Omnibus stop where a woman was waiting with shopping bags and two young children, a boy and a girl in their school uniforms. The children were jibing each other. The girl had an ice cream, the boy being annoying, trying to make her drop it. Bob smiled distractedly at their amusing quips. Their mother was losing patience. The boy noticing Bob’s amusement was encouraged in his sallies towards his sister.
“You were here before,” the boy said to Bob accusingly.
“Was I, when was that?” said Bob in the friendly voice people use with children.
“Yesterday, I think, don’t know,” said the boy.
Then the girl said, “do you live in the tree?” Her mother told her off and apologised, but she ignored her mother.
“No,” said Bob. The question made him think how he was perceived in the eyes of an innocent child. “I’m waiting for a friend. He should be back soon.”
“Is he a tramp too?” the boy joined in.
The mother started away from the bus stop to gather the children, apologising again in horror.
“Can’t you sleep at home?” the girl chimed in as her mother grabbed her arm and pulled her away.
“Well, that’s a good question,” Bob tailed off as the children were dragged back to the bus stop. As they waited for the bus to come the children eyed him quizzically. Bob embarrassed, pretended not to notice their staring eyes, but as the bus arrived and they boarded he smiled a goodbye to them.
After an hour of waiting Bob marched to the Salvation Army to see what was happening with Martin Jacobs. They had no recollection of a Jacobs, or any grey headed man of his description. Bob turned away, they had no places free. They couldn’t place you just like that you know.
It was getting toward evening, he had no food and still nowhere to stay. This is what you are reduced to when they put the dagger in you. They can do this to a person. They are used to having their way. People like Robert Bailey existed to be used by them, for their ends alone. There is no other purpose for such people as Robert Bailey. When he stepped beyond his ordained purpose he had to be moved to that other dimension, out of harm’s way. He was made a ghost. Shop girls, office managers and delivery boys were making their way home, looking up expectant of showers promised by a shiny outlined cloud. Bob was invisible, sitting crumpled on a bench, less respectable with each day. Each day further from restoring his position.
He didn’t see Martin Jacobs again. Bob had to make his own arrangements, find somewhere to sleep, but he could think of nowhere that wouldn’t already be occupied by other men sleeping rough. He thought of sneaking into a pub toilet, or walking into a hotel lobby as if he was a guest and hiding somewhere; a theatre lobby, a warehouse – hide amongst the boxes. Perhaps there would be food. In this explorative frame of mind, thinking on the details of maintaining his life, thoughts began to lead onto how he could restore his position. Get back the foothold he had made in life. He moved on to a corner of the Omnibus station. Other rough sleepers were already occupying the best sheltered spots. Bob assumed the bearing of a passenger waiting for a bus. In time passengers would thin and he might be left to occupy a bench. At least he was out of the weather, the early evening was cooling quickly as the sun set.
Without references he could not take a job or new digs. Shaking his head, he needed to think through a plan that could provide a reference. Something to confirm his true character, evidence of his reliability. Right now all he had to his names was a dismissal and an eviction. He was free, but his choices were limited. The price of that freedom was cold, hunger and erosion of his remaining self-worth. He fumbled inside his jacket and felt the little round handle of the stamp, the flat shape of the green ink pad and something small and metallic like a penny. His desk key. He had been dismissed in a rush and they had forgotten to take them from him. Staring straight ahead across a splendid crescent, unseeing, he made a link in the chain of related thoughts. A link between the small round handle of the stamp in his pocket with the restoration of his reputation.
He picked up a discarded Times newspaper from a seat opposite him. The waiting area had been entered by two characters. Bob opened the paper to avoid being drawn into a drunken discussion. The two characters were escalating a profound agreement, each repeating “the thing is.” Listening in for a minute, the thing, whatever it was, did not make itself at all clear. He turned the pages and came to an editorial piece on His Majesty’s Government policy of non-intervention in Spain. The article was equivocal on the nationalist and republican sides, supporting business interests that might have limited scope under the republican reds. The “reds” as the editor termed them were democratically elected. A moral point that was a clear-cut from Bob’s uncomplicated point of view.
Another article worried over the progression of the National Socialist Party in Germany. There was a portent of doom about the journalist’s viewpoint. He could see war involving Britain within a year. Bob thought of the poster he had seen at the council offices about air raid preparations. War in Spain he could comprehend. In Britain, in Cheltenham indeed, it was unthinkable. But, it was coming close to home. Painter senior was a supporter of this viewpoint in Britain, in Cheltenham moreover. A rising tide, which Bob at least had acted against. He nodded slowly. To Painter, Ogley, his parents, his brother, Ada, he would prove he had acted correctly, morally. Ada! What had she thought of his walking off so abruptly? It was right to stop money getting to fascist murderers. The stamp was evidence, it matched the stamp on the invoices. The invoices were evidence. Proof, to his mind, of improper, immoral actions of those at the Special Aviation Company. He wasn’t sure of the legality, but surely the police would want to know what Painter and Ogley had done.
Through that evening, sitting in the cold shelter of the bus station he prepared a plan. The future path of his life might depend on the outcome.
Ada was alone in her room in Birmingham early on the Thursday evening before the gala. It was that odd gap in the day between the final lecture, back at halls, and the ringing of the dinner bell. The warder didn’t like the girls hanging around while she was cooking, the bell served that purpose. It was a rule they actually followed. There wasn’t time to get into homework and tricky mathematical problems, so Ada used the time to try on her outfit for Saturday night. She angled the wardrobe door, with the age-speckled mirror to check the lines of her dress. It would do. She had become bored of late with the constant effort of her appearance, checking details she once would have thought ridiculous. Hairs that strayed, eyes smudging, lip lines to redraw. Stockings didn’t last and cost as much as a new book every week. Well, she had been reading less anyway. She changed back to her day clothes and sat on the bed.
There would be ten more minutes before dinner, the smell of boiling vegetables already leached in from the stairwell. For Ada it was the smell of being away from home. It was in these moments before dinner when alone that she missed home. Her brow rumpled as she recalled how Bobby had walked off suddenly when she and Gerald met him in Cheltenham. Her face creased, pained at the thought of seeing him by the road as she passed by in the bus. She couldn’t make sense of what she had heard about him. Her mother had now heard from Gerald’s father that Bobby had been evicted from his lodgings. It made her unhappy, the thought of Bobby facing such difficulties without her. She knew he didn’t make friends without being pushed. It had been plain from Gerald’s voice last week that Bobby and he were not friends. There had been a short sourness in their few words. Gerald would not help.
There was distance now. She could not think of Bobby now without interference from the crackling static of other people’s opinions. It drowned out the previously clear voice in her head. A warm hearted voice. An understanding empathy. He worried her. She had been disappointed by his preoccupation when they had last met. Such a shame that Gerald had been there. Her dressed up like that, arm in arm with Gerald Painter, it played out the distance between herself and Bob like a scene in a moving picture. Nothing could have made it clearer. They couldn’t talk. She should have waved when she passed in the bus. Ada bit her lip at a wave of sadness. She had betrayed him. She hoped he would know that she was still his greatest friend. He could be such a fool!
There was a knock at the door. It would be Marcia, Ada had heard her door go. Of the two of them Marcia was the keenest to be together. Ada was happier to be alone occasionally.
“Going down for dinner?” Marcia asked.
Ada replied absently as Marcia came into the room.
“Something up? Man trouble?” Marcia asked airily.
“No. Actually, yes. Well, sort of. It’s my friend Bobby. He’s having difficulties and I’m worried about him.”
“Move on my dear. He’s not worth your time. Plenty more fish la, la, la.”
“Bobby is not my boyfriend, he’s my friend,” she retorted, then added with a thorny look, “my best friend.”
Marcia shrugged, but with a look of false hurt. “Are you ready?” Marcia asked to change the subject.
“I might give dinner a miss tonight,” said Ada.
“Oh come on. Don’t be offish. I just meant you need a distraction. You can always write to him.”
“I can’t!” Ada shouted. Marcia recoiled. Nobody had ever shouted at her before and meant it, ever.
Ada turned away tidying some books at her desk, it had been hard to concentrate this week.
“He’s been thrown out of his digs. I don’t know where he’s staying.”
“I know he’s your friend, but is he worth all this worry? I’m sure he must know how to look after himself,” said Marcia sitting down on the edge of Ada’s bed.
“It’s how he’s feeling that concerns me. He saw me all dressed up and cosy with that Gerald chap I mentioned to you. Bob looked most put out. I just don’t know what he’s thinking,” after a pause she went on, more to herself, but with a dismissive hint to Marcia, “it’s important to me.”
Marcia looked like a scolded pup. She had not seen Ada angry, she hadn’t expected such a reaction. The dinner bell rang. Ada heard upstairs doors being closed and the chatting girls making their way to dinner. The other girls would be a foil to deflect Marcia’s attention. But Marcia was a keen friend. She jumped up from the bed, took Ada’s arm and began joshing Ada, “Oh Ada, it’s me, Gerald your true love, I must have you!”
Ada allowed a reluctant smile onto her face. You just couldn’t keep Marcia down, it was this energy that Ada enjoyed.
Later that evening Ada decided to try on her dress again for Saturday’s gala. Marcia was still chided and after dinner had gone to her room to do some work. It was not like Marcia to do work so soon after dinner, normally it was a last minute rush. It didn’t last more than an hour, but it had given Ada some time on her own. It was less than a week being back in halls and already she was feeling that people were closing in around her. That was it! Gerald, Marcia, Mother, even Gerald’s father was exercising pressure on her, by proxy. The need to fit in with the girls here, to complete assignments, be a good student, be a woman amongst the young men taking her subjects, huh, boys mostly. Despite what she had said to her mother. Bobby didn’t fit in with people, he was himself, demanded nothing from her, but he was being carried away on a tide. She was taking out her clothes for Saturday and laying them on the bed. Saturday’s gala began to take on a significance that she hadn’t considered when she had accepted Gerald Painter’s rather presumptive invitation. Walking out with him at such an event would be interpreted as an unspoken declaration. Not a statement Ada wanted to make, no matter how inexplicit.
Oh! Gerald Painter just wasn’t worth her consideration. He wasn’t a real person, he was made up by his father. Controlled like a toy soldier, wound up and pointed at the enemy, sent on a mission without a thought from his own head. And then, perhaps, she herself was made by her mother. In that way Gerald and she were alike, but he was not, and never could be, someone to face the future with. Bobby on the other hand was made by himself. His mistakes, and such successes as he had, were of his own making. Together they would be facing the same way, bearing each other up, marching together.
What is the use of this silly thinking?
The next morning waiting at the breakfast table among the letters for other girls was a letter from Ada’s mother. Ada’s skin crept at her cloying mother’s caress. The letter was left aside unopened. It would be a list of ‘don’t forgets’ for the weekend. She regretted accepting the invitation to the gala. Ada was not talkative over breakfast. Marcia appeared sulky, as if they were not fully back on terms after the tension of the last evening. She would use the time in the walk to her morning lecture to think of an excuse not to go back to Gloucester that weekend. She could send a telegram from the post office at lunch time. She needed to be away, it was too soon to be returning home. Her mother’s letter could wait.
Walking slowly along a street of high Victorian blocks, heavy with empire built bricks and thick red paint, she eventually ripped open her mother’s letter. She wobbled on the uneven pavement while she ran over the lines, her mother’s voice distinct in the din. Ada was admonished to be properly prepared for Saturday. Gerald’s father would be there. All eyes would be on them. There was more along these lines and it left off with a reminder that Ada was taking an important step in her future.
Ada stopped at a busy junction. Snorting motor trucks and barking autos edged around placid horse drawn transport. She read the final remarks, added as an aside. Robert Bailey had not been seen for several days since being evicted from his lodgings. His worried mother had called to ask if Ada knew anything. Mrs. Saint’s last comment was a pointed demand not to let this distract Ada. The letter signed off. Ada’s mother obviously excited by the coming weekend.
Ada was miles away. In dropping Bob she considered she might be responding to her own disappointment in him and the persistent pressure from her mother to let go of the attachment. In her reverie, she pictured a life ahead much like her mother has experienced, but without the let-off of a war taking Bob away. Another war being very unlikely after the war to end all wars, although there was talk of war with Germany. However Bob was just the kind of fool to join the International Brigade, which, itself, was a reason not to marry him.
Where was this coming from? She had never had any such intention.
Ada stuffed the letter back into the untidily torn envelope and shoved it into her coat pocket screwing it up in her palm. She couldn’t wait any longer at the side of the road and crossed, darting between vehicles inviting sounded horns and catcalls. She ignored the crude shouts and hurried on to get to her lecture. When she arrived at the steps of the faculty building she had hardly noticed walking there. Her head ran with angry responses and the irresistible cares of Bob’s welfare. She had better go to Gloucester. She just had to get through the next three days. On Sunday, after the gala, she would have a serious talk with her mother, and she would make sure Gerald was clear where things stood.
The noon bell rang in a nearby church. Bob had begun to lose track of the days, but the reduced motor traffic reminded him it was Saturday. A week since being evicted and fully three days since his last proper meal. Bob eyed the clouds, dark accumulations, but fringed in light. They might pass over, he thought. Food and the weather, two constant preoccupations of homelessness. Bob’s first concern for the last three days had been how the weather might dictate how he would spend his time. Yesterday he was able to see today’s forecast in a local paper. A paper he had picked out of a litter bin while trying his luck for scraps of food. After the weather came food. Unable to get into hostels on account if his too respectable appearance, he had eaten only rare scraps these three days. Fragments and crumbs discarded by the unthinking. He had to make his presence felt amongst the fighting seagulls on one occasion. Hunger that started as pain on the first day became an insidious ache. Always present, sleep the only respite. Perversely while his energy ebbed the gnawing ache prevented anything but fitful rest.
There was a litter bin close to the bus station with a chip shop nearby. The greasy wafting smell triggered a churning pain in his gut. He had been hot with shame at rifling in a public litter bin. He tried to pick a quiet moment, but across the road two young women in Ladies College uniform, seeing him, shared disgusted glances and derisive sniggers. It did not occur to Bob that their reaction was more such because he did not have the appearance of a tramp than because he did, despite how he felt of himself.
Over the course of days, as his hunger ate further into his senses, his mind clarified, thoughts simplified, reduction to an essential way of being. Food and warmth, then came the hardness of places to sit or lie upon.
The clouds passed with a cool strengthening wind. He needed to find a sheltered spot. The bus conductors were not patient with people sleeping rough or hanging around their stands uselessly. Bob cleared off from the bus station at noon to go in search of some fragment of food. He even observed jealously the pigeons pecking at seed. Sometimes people threw bread for birds. He had to be quick. This was incredible to him. A coin-flip of circumstance brought him to scratching life with the street pigeons. There was a place where the back entrances to restaurants were easily accessed. He made his way there, but was warded off by the presence of surly looking waiters smoking on their break.
Weeks had passed since he had thought outside of his own head. Yes, he thought, it had been weeks since he’d had news of the Spanish war for instance. The nationalists might have taken Madrid by now, while he was preoccupied with crusts, scraps and park benches. This degradation visited upon him, attributed to a particular set of people, a group at the apex, atop a pyramid base of intolerance. The possibility of bombs on an English town like Cheltenham, smug, satisfied and safe. Were there towns like this in Spain, now only rubble? People homeless, scraping life from the dust amongst broken buildings and the bodies of their dead families. These are the actions of people at the apex of a pyramid base of intolerance. The base, these people all around us, banal, unthinking, pleasant people. If you only knew them.
“Come on Bob. This is your adventure. Something to tell the grandchildren. The road comes up to meet people like Painter. You have to make the road for yourself. What you do now will make the path you take in life. The invoices will be in the paid files. The key to those files is in the Senior’s desk. The windows to the building can be entered out of sight from the guard room. Take something to break a window. It’s Saturday night, the site will be quiet. Take the invoices to the police, explain the link to the Chairman’s fascist political group. Urge them to seize the cases bound for Spain. Vector bomb sights intended for German aircraft. Aircraft that could threaten a town like Cheltenham. Even here they are preparing for German bombers. The police will listen to you, Bob. This is your adventure, your Spanish war,” this train of thought brought him to his feet, “time to go.”
The light was just beginning to fade when he began walking to the Special Aviation Company site. He planned as he went his way. Keep off the main road near the site to avoid being seen by people going to and fro. There would likely still be some people working late on a Saturday. How clearly his mind considered these details. Hunger sharpens the mind.
“Tomorrow, Bob. Tomorrow you’ll be home. The evidence in hand, ready to strike a blow. Just think of the look on their faces as the police arrive at their comfortable homes. It’ll be late by the time you arrive back home. Probably three hours’ walk from the site. This is going to be a long night. Stay calm, conserve energy, take your time, be careful. Be vigilant.”
He walked slowly and steadily, two miles gently uphill. As he reached the junction to set off in the direction of his objective he was breathing heavily. His head sung with lightness, blood thumping and his legs shaky. The cumbersome rucksack swaying him off balance. The pubs were filling, giving out that homely amber light at the windows, that sour tang upon the air at each doorway. The shared complacent laughter of men issued forth like hot distasteful breath as Bob passed.
“A slight stagger, but the uphill is over. Now we need to stay off the road, just beyond these last terraces.”
He slowed on the level, recovering the regularity of his breath. Shortly after the last houses at the edge of the town he looked around, checking in front and behind him, before stepping off the path. He struggled with the latch of a five barred gate, the simplest task took energy. It opened on a grass field bordered by a thick hedge and in the middle of the far side, in the last of the light, he saw another gate to the next field. The last time he had walked in a field like this was with Ada. She wore trousers that day, and a cap rather like Bob’s own. He pulled his cap down now, the temperature was falling. Pausing just inside the gate to collect himself he had felt the change from when he set out just under an hour ago. He walked across the grass which became dense and wet, soaking the bottoms of his trousers. He had to lift his feet. Hard long strides. He stumbled frequently on thick tufts and the weight on his back nearly took him over. When he reached the second gate he was breathing hard again. Breathing the cold air taking the warmth from within him. Into the next field, easier this time. Across a lane, into the next and on again. A mile by this way took him more than an hour. He was slowed following hedgerows looking for the next link in the chain of fields that must lead past a village towards the Special Aviation Company site. The road would have been easier he thought, but it was justified, the road seemed busier than he had imagined for this time of day. “It is Saturday isn’t it?” he questioned of himself.
After another hour’s walk he left the faint light of the village and a brighter light lay ahead which he judged, by reference to the dark outline of the hills to the east, must be the Special Aviation Company site. It was not where he had expected, coming by this route he knew would be slower, but ought to be more direct. The site seemed so far away from this position in relation to the crests of the hills, whose familiar shapes he knew. If they were the outlines of those hills, he must still be miles away. He stopped, dropped his rucksack, walked over to a grey shape close by, and sat upon it heavily with his head between his knees.
The broken trunk he was sitting upon was below a tree split horribly in two, the remains reached out of the ground like a withered arm. At his feet celandines had closed for the night hanging their heads pitifully. “This is useless,” he thought, his face in his hands, “what if I get there and can’t make it past the gate? What if I get caught breaking in? Stupidity!” He stayed there, face in hands, breathing out long sighs, struggling to steady his head with these circling thoughts. A weary desire came over him to sleep, feeling the weight of doomed enterprise. The deficit of days of unfulfilled sleep came rushing on, bore down upon him, he breathed hard, his head whirred, the blood pulsed and the distant glow tilted upwards and went out.
Bob opened one eye, dark shapes before him. His face against a cold wet surface. He lifted his face from the wetness, he could make out his knees and hands with fingers curled loosely. In a few moments he perceived that he was on the ground. His face in the dirt. The damp ground soaked into his trousers. He sat up, the tree trunk next to him, his rucksack on the ground. He clambered back onto the trunk and remained sat for many minutes more. Far off he could hear the traffic on the road.
Finally, while there was still the faintest outline of the hills remaining he decided to go ahead. He must restore himself. Tomorrow he will be home with the evidence in hand. At home he will be protected from being chased down by Painter’s people. He pledged to himself in the darkness as he rose, he would speak to the police, but no one else. He could trust no one. He couldn’t even trust Ada. After all, she was a friend of Painter now.
He drew a deep breath, his stride struck the ground firmly, sure of his purpose. He negotiated two small paddocks, skirting a farmhouse with a dim light at a thin curtained window. A dog barked and emerged from an open barn door. He could make out with the briefest glance a white shape from where the bark came. It began coming towards him hesitantly. Bob broke into a run, his rucksack jiggling and jerking at his shoulder breaking any attempt at a running rhythm. The barking intensified, and a shout followed, a deep, angry, growling voice. The barking turned to a yelping, hysterical snarl. Bob didn’t turn, following the hedgerow of the adjoining field until he reached another gate, puffing painfully. To his relief he hadn’t been chased, but the dog was still barking. Bob’s senses now fully alert.
From here he crossed a field of short uniform vegetation that was easy under foot and entered a large field at a metal gate sloping down to what appeared to the lights he had been making towards. He needed to rest again. He leant on the gate. He imagined Ada now, all friendly with Gerald Painter. She was not the person he imagined. Surely she could see the type of person he was. She had surprised him. She was always so sensible, with a keen sense of what, and who, was right and good. In the talks they had shared, they agreed on the right type of people. People of sensitivity, humility, honesty, compassion. Painter didn’t fit that description in Bob’s opinion. The sensation of betrayal gripped him, enervated his determination and put heel in his stride.
Drawing great gusting breaths as he walked inflated his mind, provided life to his thinking. This endeavour was not doomed, either way, tonight he would have a bed to sleep in, a roof and walls to spend the night within. If he was caught, they would call the police, a cell to sleep in perhaps. Better though that he gets those green stamped invoices and presents a credible case at the police station. A night’s sleep and a meal would help. He would present the case; he would show Painter, Ogley, the Chairman, although he was just a cloth cap wearing clerk, he was determined in the face of their arrogance. He would show Ada what Painter was if she couldn’t see it herself.
He had been forcing his pace for more than twenty minutes along a hard track towards the light, running down to another hedge that bordered the road to what must be the Special Aviation Company site. Beyond the lights there became visible a trail of lights tailing off across the flat plain at the base of the Cotswold Hills. “That must be aerodrome. God, I’m nearly there.”
He started to plan. He needed to leave his rucksack somewhere and collect it afterwards. He almost ran the remainder of the slope, but was held back by a quickly emerging fear. His eager steps slowed to a disbelieving tread.
“What is this? Oh God, what is this?”
It was Saturday, 17th April. The date of Special Aviation Company spring gala.
From a gateway, crouched behind the hedgerow, he was just yards from the site gatehouse. He had not approached from this direction before, but the guardhouse was familiar. The extra flood lighting that made the scene unreal. He couldn’t believe it. He had forgotten Ada telling him about this just a week ago. He was sinking again. Such a fool.
Ada Saint was sitting in a baby blue two seater dressed in perfect silver, the car making its way with confidence past the Gloucester docks. The tall warehouses dark and brooding above a glass surfaced canal basin. Not a blemish on its surface. Ada was on her way to the gala, Gerald Painter, perfectly confident at the wheel.
Bob left his position from behind the hedge, opened the gate and walked as normally as he could along the road towards the company entrance. He would be brazen about it. It was a ticket only affair, but he could see the guards waving through the queuing autos unchecked. The single story guardhouse sat at the corner of the main road and the central roadway that served the company buildings. Bob walked towards it with what he supposed would appear confidence. He turned as he crossed the road and made out the guardhouse’s taller brother in the dim distance, the airfield tower, a half mile off, square and white in the service lights. There must be an aeroplane coming in, came an automatic thought. The lesser buildings were invisible behind the brightness, the illuminated scene closed in, all else was a blackness in which one could hide.
He calculated quickly a way into the site – approach the guard checking tickets, pretend he had forgotten his, say that he was meeting someone, give the name of someone if he had to. He considered his appearance in this gamble. His rumpled jacket, cap misshapen by rain, sack-like trousers, the sharp creases long lost to nights in the bus station and days on park benches. If pleading a lost ticket failed, he would scale the fence, or follow at a crouch one of the many vehicles being waved through, apparently with no ticket check at all.
Bob looked from under his cap at the guard. It was one of the regulars that used to greet him each workday morning.
“Ticket there, please,” the guard asked good naturedly.
Bob made a ham actor’s show of checking one pocket then another, then inside his jacket. The guard smiled, but with an arched brow as he looked over Bob’s shabby clothes.
“I’m sorry. I had it right here.”
“‘Can’t let you in without your ticket, sir,” the guard said, still with some humour in his voice, but his good nature was diminishing. Bob tried another tack. He removed his cap in a further display of fluster. The guard’s eyes widened in recognition, and Bob, inspired took out the stamp and pad from his jacket pocket. The pad stenciled ‘Property of the Special Aviation Company – Payments Department – Do Not Remove’.
Bob grinned an apology. The man and wife behind him huffed loudly.
“Oh, it’s you. I know you, of course,” said the guard.
Bob waited an age for what came next. He knew him because he was marched off site just over a week earlier. He was about to be refused entry and sent off in embarrassment. His heart was pulsing in slow, heavy throbs. He had to breathe in and out to keep from giving in to the fuzzy feeling coming over him.
“In you go, get on with you “ the guard relented, Bob clanked through the turnstile, “these youngsters!” the guard said addressing the couple behind Bob. The couple were open mouthed.
“It’s alright he’s one of my regular faces that one. A decent lad,” the guard said with a queer look at Bob’s clothing. Probably one of the young boffins. Can’t look after themselves.
Bob kept breathing deeply, in and out. The fuzziness passed. He looked across to the motors passing through the gates. It made no sense why those in motors were waved through and those on foot, coming mainly from the bus stop were herded through stiles like counting a flock. The second guard was tall, wearing a peaked cap. As Bob passed the second guard turned to see who had been holding things up. He looked at Bob, or might have, Bob couldn’t see his eyes shrouded by the cap in the flood lighting. Bob looked at the guard, they held this gaze as Bob continued. Any second he’s going to shout after me. That’s the guard that saw me off when I was dismissed, he’s bound to say something. He carried on unsteadily waiting for a shout. Then he leapt.
A horn had sounded. The anticipation didn’t stop Bob from tripping over his own feet and stumbling up a kerb. It jangled his nerves and set him quivering. The second guard turned back to the impatient motor driver and made a cursory check at the ticket on the dashboard.
“My God, I’m in,” Bob thought, “now, get this done and get out. How am I going to get into HA23?”
Bob made his way up the central road. There was no need to skirt around buildings, crawl through hedges, he had been let in. Everyone was going into the canteen building. They must be using the main hall for the dance. Other security guards were there keeping an eye out that people didn’t wander off anywhere else. He might have to take a detour. As he approached the canteen he kept to the shadows and as people passed him he stepped back out of the light into darkness by the entrance.
He waited by the entrance watching women pass in dresses, heels and smart hats. The men smart, upright, like proud cocks, their woman at their elbow. A figure emerged from within as others passed in.
“Alright there Tom?” one man said to the emerging figure. A short roundish shape, lighting a cigarette, standing square and blowing smoke upward into the air. The silhouetted curly hair was familiar to Bob. Tom Partridge was standing only six feet from him. Bob was so pleased to see a friend. Before he had any thought of caution he said, “Tom.”
Tom Partridge turned sharply.
“Hello Tom. It’s me, Bob.”
Tom Partridge looked at him vaguely as Bob came out of the shadow. “Bob Bailey? Oh, er…hello lad.” Tom looked about him as if trapped.
“Yes, Tom, it’s me.”
Tom looked Bob up and down as he came a little into the light. Bob leant in and whispered, grinning like an idiot, “I’m not meant to be here, a guard let me in. I’m going to get the evidence about why I was dismissed, about the equipment for Spain, money for nationalists, and take it to the police.” Bob was a little breathless, it heightened his irrational appearance.
“Listen Bailey, I don’t want to know. I’m nothing to do with it. I’m here to have a pleasant evening with my wife and my friends. If you had any sense you would just come in and have a drink. You look like you need it. What have you been up to?” Tom asked looking down at Bob’s soggy trousers.
“I can’t explain now. Look, Tom, just forget it. I’m here for my own reasons.”
Bob was just stepping back into the shadow as a small sports car pulled up at the door. Gerald Painter, leapt out of the opposite side, stepped briskly around the car through the headlights and opened the passenger door. Ada stood up out of the two seater, self-conscious in a silver dress gathering a shawl about her shoulders. She looked around unseeingly, the extra lighting around the hall entrance was bright after the dim car interior.
“Park her up and bring me the key,” Painter ordered a waiting attendant, taking Ada into the hall by the arm.
She didn’t see me, Bob thought as he slipped back around the side of the hall, walking in a concrete gully around the building.
“Where is she getting those clothes? Painter, of course. I suppose he buys them for her. Like he buys everything else.”
There was a door open at the back of the hall. A van was being unloaded of wooden boxes. Bob slipped past as the staff went inside. He kept to the darker side of site, this road would lead past HA8, Tom’s building. He wondered if those crates for Spain – printed with BV/88 – were still inside under cover. If he could get the police to come here, think of the trouble he could cause for Ogley, Painter’s father, maybe even Gerald Painter too. Ada would see what sort of person she was going about with.
The guard boxes were empty. This was the best day he could have chosen for this. He ran almost silently, keeping on the grass to muffle his footsteps. Only his trousers made a wet flapping sound as he went. Ahead was a light coming from the side of a building. Bob crept low at the edge of a white painted building. He peered around the corner and looked up at the stenciled number, HA8. He had not come to the building from this direction before. Further along, he recognised the large, green, sliding doors. It was slightly open and the light drew a line up the side of a canvas canopied truck.
He came away and cut across to the left towards his old workplace. He was again at the central road and waited low to the ground, looking in all directions for anybody nearby. He tried to slow his breath to listen hard. The music in the hall whined in the light breeze and there was a rhythmic thump out of step with his heart. Some motorcars were still arriving, their headlights illuminating the road in front of him. He would have to time his sprint across. About sixty feet to HA23 from here, he thought. Try the door? No. Check for open windows first. Make sure nobody is in there. As he waited on the grass the damp was soaking into his knees. I might need to break a window. He looked about him. Nothing that could break a window. Use his elbow through his jacket? His shoe? No, the elbow’s quicker. Wait for the music to make some noise before smashing. The lights from arriving vehicles ceased for a moment and he was up, sprinting, crossing the road, running low down, then safe, crouched with his back to the wall. Nobody had called out, all was still.
He circled HA23 checking in at each window. Above the distant music a droning throbbed lightly on the air. HA23 was dark, but the still chairs and empty desks looked like a school during a holiday. He went to his old office windows. He chose a window behind a bush. He checked around. The runway lights stretched across the field. The white tower was more visible from here, but too far away to see anyone. Inside the window the office was crowded with cabinets. It was Ogley’s office. He moved to another window, Ogley might have locked his door and the paid invoices would be put away in the file room.
An idling light hovered at an altitude above the runway, the drone throbbed and came in and out with the breeze. This was helpful. Use the noise of the landing aeroplane to hide the sound of the breaking window, and the distraction from anything happening around HA23.
The light came down and met the line of lights on the airfield and the drone deepened in a wave. Bob stood, jabbed his elbow behind him, sharply against the window pane. Hard crashing notes chimed as the aeroplane noise trailed off across the aerodrome.
“Your motor key, sir,” the attendant said, “a lovely one that, sir. I have parked you just opposite the doorway,” speaking from behind Gerald Painter’s shoulder, and then for Ada’s benefit, “so that you won’t be kept waiting as people leave later.”
Painter took the key without thanks and waved the attendant away. Ada glared at Gerald and half caught the man’s eye as he withdrew. A keen understanding shared in the glance. Gerald and Ada were standing in a group that included a middle-aged couple, the man tall red faced and to Ada’s eye rather jittery, his wife, also tall, barrel shaped and forbidding. The rest of the group consisted of a timid couple in their thirties who nodded and smiled, but didn’t speak, appearing terrified in company. Ada gave a weak smile of restrained empathy to the nervous lady who immediately looked down at the floor.
The band started up and people continued to mill about in the reception area, waiting for the signal to take their seats for dinner. Ada looked about the hall as Gerald and the jittery middle-aged man muttered some awkward comments. Gerald’s father was standing across the hall in a group separate from everyone else in full evening dress with other older men also bow-tied, champagne glasses in hand, each laughing stiffly as Mr. Painter held forth. Ada considered the elder Painter, assessing his character from his confident mannerisms.
Waiting staff were making final preparations to round tables set around an area in front of the low stage, left for dancing later. Embarrassed waitresses stood at the side of the hall with their hands wrung in front of them, glancing nervously to their friends and giggling. Girls pressed into service for the event. In a couple of years some of them might be in my position, Ada thought. She dreaded the idea of dancing. Marcia had made her practice a few simple steps, she couldn’t have her lovely Ada looking foolish. And, surely she would want to appear graceful, or at worst merely competent for Gerald? Ada had disabused Marcia of that idea quite forthrightly.
Ada looked about for Bobby. She was certain it was him she had seen just outside, lurking at the side of the hall doorway looking ghostly. He had retreated as she and Gerald pulled up, like an actor making a tentative entrance, unsure of his cue. He can’t have seen me, she thought in his defence, otherwise he would have come to speak to me. Then she recalled his urgency to get away at their last meeting in Cheltenham when she was with Gerald. And here she was with Gerald again, dressed like this, looking horror upon horror like an engaged couple. She admitted to herself then and there, she didn’t like Gerald Painter at all. Just not our type of person, Bobby would have said. Bobby, he looked so sickly wretched outside, what could be happening to him?
Gerald had said something to the little group, but for Ada’s benefit, they were looking at her for a response, but she hadn’t taken it in. She had just seen the curly headed man Bobby had been speaking to outside. She was contemplating a well-mannered way to break away from this group and approach him, when she noticed the group were all looking at her.
“I’m sorry, I’ve just seen someone I must speak to,” she said and left them.
“Ada’s a popular girl,” Gerald explained to the group with a forced grin that mixed embarrassment and annoyance. He turned to see who it was that she went to see and raised a quizzical brow to Richard Ogley, who was also looking across at Ada meeting Tom Partridge. It was clear to Ogley that Ada and Tom did not know each other and were meeting for the first time. He watched them intently, it did not appear a jocular first introduction.
“You were talking to Bob Bailey outside, I noticed,” Ada said.
“Yes, a friend of yours is he, young Bob?” asked Tom.
“Yes, we’ve been friends all our lives. I thought he might be with you. Do you know where he is now?” Ada asked, looking around as if he might be right next to them.
“I don’t know where he’s got to,”
This Mr. Partridge appeared a decent chap to Ada, and his wife pleasant too.
“I thought Bob looked very…tired, did he seem altogether alright to you?” Ada asked Tom, but also including Milly as if she might be helpful too. “He doesn’t work at this company any more, does he?”
Tom stuttered over his answer and shrugged a non-committal reply, his wife frowning, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Well, apparently not, miss.” Tom said.
“So, did he say anything to you about why he is here? He hasn’t come into the hall,” Ada pressed more directly.
“Look,” Tom leaned in, “I think that he’s up to no good. Getting tied up in things that don’t concern him. Things best left alone if you ask me.”
“Then is he in trouble?” Ada asked, a worried frown that lined her brow that Milly felt acutely, sensing the truth of Ada’s concern.
“If he is here to cause some trouble then I feel I should stop him. He is the sort of person to go and make things worse for himself,” Ada pleaded to Tom, “can you help me find him, please?”
Milly, listening to this, shifted in her posh shoes, heaving uncomfortably. That name, Bob Bailey, she remembered now. Tom had mentioned him weeks ago and now here it was again. It was a troublesome name. But this young woman was worried about him and there was something Milly Partridge detected in Ada’s nature that appealed to her better sense. Her husband needed that sense now in deciding whether to get involved. She could see Tom hesitating in his answer, their pleasant evening would be interrupted, and Tom loved to be amongst his friends at the company, proud of his clear witted wife.
“Tom, dear, you must help this young lady. She’s worried for her friend,” said Milly Partridge. Her husband wasn’t a man to ignore the troubles of a young lady worried for a genuine friend.
Bob was in the filing room. He had shut the door and switched on the light. Once the broken window was open it was an easy job to get the filing room keys from the Senior’s desk. Bob had saluted Mr. Rose, his former desk manager, mentally. He was a stickler in everything except locking things away. What could be so important in files of invoices?
Glass splinters had stuck to the mud on his shoes. The crunching noise as he walked across the office and out into the corridor to the filing room was loud in his ears in the silent empty building, filled with the absence of faces he had seen each day. He felt he had last been in this building months, not just weeks, ago.
Something was scratching at his arm as he went through the cabinets, taking out all the invoices for the companies he had checked off without the proper verification. His stamp and supposed signature on each. Each a reminder of being robbed of a start in a career, an independent life of his own, his opportunity to prove his mettle to his father and mother. And to Ada, especially Ada. He brought his right arm around to feel at the crook of his elbow, a straight cut in his coat and jacket, something sharp against the tip of his finger as he explored the cut and then a sting. He withdrew his hand sharply and inspected his index finger, a sliver of glass stuck in it, a bead of blood appearing.
He had just removed the little shard when he heard a noise. He froze, waiting for another sound. He heard low voices, the click of a switch in the corridor. His heart pounded hard. He moved the light switch silently to the off position. Feet were shuffling outside, deep muffled comments rumbled outside the door. There were exchanges then the louder words, “in here”. He held his breath. His chest beating, blood pumping in his head so loud he could scream and not hear his own cry.
The door handle moved, he couldn’t take a breath, his heart pumped, slow, hard, slow, slow. Light appeared around the door as it opened, he was back against the wall, eyes closed, numbness spread over his face.
He had a vague awareness of hitting something, he was falling, then at rest.
He was not awake. People were talking. “Am I lying on the ground? Are people talking about me?” his mind ran in its unconsciousness. He couldn’t make out what they were saying. He tried hard to hear their words. He fought to be awake.
He opened his eyes. He couldn’t understand what he saw. Close to his face against the smooth concrete floor was a rounded, black object reflecting a distorted ghoulish face. The black reflection had no eyes, a distended nose, hideously deformed. His head hurt, the floor cold against his cheek. He realised he was looking at the shiny toecap of a highly polished shoe. There were other shoes, not shiny, and some rough boots. He turned his head to look upwards, the room had several people in it, each clothed to match their shoes. They were standing about him, looking at him lying on the ground.
“I didn’t touch him,” Rough Boots said, protesting an unlikely innocence. He shrugged to the big man in shiny shoes. Bob scanned the big man from where he lay. He was dressed for dinner, a large, balding head, a sinister smile and the dark gaze of a man that controls the world about him. The company Chairman looked from Rough Boots to Bob and back again. The smile faded from his face leaving only dark foreboding in his staring eyes,
“So, what do we do with you, young man?” his expression not expectant of any reply. He stepped around Bob as Bob crawled backwards to sit up against the wall. The chairman picked up some of the invoices that had been removed from the files. He leafed through a few and nodded a quick understanding to himself at their common purpose.
Rough Boots piped up, “we could drop him as we go over the Severn.”
The Chairman turned his head from the invoices and looked at each of the other three men then down at Bob. Bob stared intently at the Chairman trying to read the slightest shadow of expression. Rough Boots’ suggestion had been answered with a frown, but not of disagreement, more so a calculating consideration of the merits of the idea. The Chairman was silent for a moment as he glared directly at Rough Boots.
“The last time you did that the body washed up in Tewkesbury after a storm,” he said calmly, then almost to himself, looking back to the invoices, “idiot.”
Coldness ran through Bob like spear of ice. His mouth fell open, shock prevented any verbal expression. He couldn’t breathe. The chairman was mulling the options. If not this suggestion then what were the others being calculated in the mind of the dark eyed Chairman?
“We’ll drop him over the channel, nearer the French coast. Get him tied up, we’ll take him with us.”
“I saw you were talking to Richard Ogley just now. Does he know young Bob is on site?” Tom asked Ada. Milly was shoving Tom by the arm, urging him to take Ada and assist her friend. Tom stood unmoved. He looked across at Ogley talking to the younger Painter, their heads close. The younger man shook his head lightly then looked around at Tom. Tom recoiled at the quizzical look on Gerald Painter’s face. Tom coughed a nervous interruption to Ada’s reply. Ada guessed that Richard Ogley must be the jittery man now talking to Gerald. She had been about to explain that she hadn’t mentioned anything to anyone about Bob being on site. Tom read Ada’s unspoken reply and took Ada gently by the arm. He dropped his head and shook it, unable to believe how his evening was turning.
“Ok, let’s go but don’t look around just walk through the door,” he said.
“Oh, okay.” Ada went along with him trying not to look around, feeling Gerald Painter’s exasperated eyes on her back as she left the hall. Outside Tom led Ada along the central drive towards HA23. They didn’t get far before a guard shouted to them and came over.
“Sorry sir, miss. People aren’t allowed to walk around the site this evening.”
Tom stepped back into the lights outside the hall and went to meet the guard.
“Ah, it’s you Tom. I didn’t realise.”
“I was just showing my neice here where I go every day,” Tom said feeling himself dragged further into trouble of Bailey’s making.
“Right, I see. No, neice? You’re an only child aren’t you?” said the guard. Local families knew each other well. Tom stared blankly.
“On Milly’s side,” he explained quickly.
“Well, make sure no one sees you. They’ll have my guts for garters.”
“Don’t worry we’ll be quick.”
“How do you know where he will be?” Ada asked as she tried to hurry Tom along, his short legs trying to match her urgent stride.
“There’s only one of two buildings he’ll have gone to miss. We’ll try his old place of work first. Then again, he might have gone to mine. It depends what he thinks he’s up to.”
“Did he say anything to you about what he was here for?”
Tom explained as he puffed alongside Ada, she hurrying him more quickly than his habitual saunter.
“Come on, we might be able to stop him incriminating himself. He is liable to do something silly if someone isn’t there to guide him away from it,” she urged.
Tom uttered an understanding grunt. Bob Bailey was trouble, that much he knew. It concerned Tom that he himself might be found red-handed with Bailey and be assumed a party to whatever Bailey was up to. He should have resisted Milly’s pressing him to assist this young woman. But she seemed a sensible one, and she was genuinely concerned for Bailey. Perhaps he should take her to HA23, leave her to it then come away. The trouble wasn’t worth it.
Tom pulled at Ada’s arm as they were approaching HA23. There was a light on at the entrance and the main door was being pushed open by someone struggling with something. Tom pulled Ada away from the path and into a shadow by a neighbouring building. A large motor car was parked on the road outside HA23. It gleamed in the dark light. A figure struggled backwards through the door carrying something awkward. The load emerged with another figure struggling less so with the other end. The load bowed in the middle, sagging, lifeless.
As the figures emerged fully into the light Ada let out a gasp. Tom held firmly to her stopping her from running over in aid of the limp figure. Tom gripped her more firmly as the Chairman appeared in the doorway followed by a burly man. The burly man clumped in his heavy boots to open the boot of the motor car. Tom and Ada could hear his heavy steps from where they stood. The carried figure was swung and dropped, without care or caution, into the boot. The figure’s legs were crammed in roughly by the men and the boot slammed down on him. The door jammed against something soft making a dull sound. Then it was slammed shut.
Ada put her hands to her face and whimpered at her impotence. She pulled her arm away from Tom’s grasp roughly. The motor car pulled away.
“That’s the Chairman of Special Aviation in that car. And that, I imagine, is what I think is his private aeroplane over yonder, near the control tower,” said Tom. As they watched, the motor car, instead of heading directly towards the distant aircraft turned to the right and behind the far end of the building by which they were standing.
“How can we stop them leaving? He wasn’t moving, Oh…” Ada was caught, she was shaking with the need to do something. “You must do something. Stop that aeroplane taking off. They might take him with them,” she paused, looking down, “why would they tie him up and throw him in like that?” The worst horror of it passed across her face. In the darkness Ada’s face looked deathly. Her wide eyes darkly circled, her lips black, her cheeks sunken as in death. Tom knew these people. They were people to avoid getting involved with. They controlled their affairs ruthlessly. They brooked no challenge. They were the future, the most fitting, the best adapted; the race apart.
“I’ll telephone the tower, stall them,” Tom said, “we’ll never be able to get over there in time.”
He couldn’t breathe. He was lying on something hard against his ribs. His back jarred against a stiff surface. His chin jammed hard against his chest. He tried to move, twisting to shift the item from under him. Pain shot through his ribs with each jolt. He sniffed air deeply through his nose. His mouth was stuffed wide open with a rag, his tongue forced to the back of his throat. He felt the texture of the cloth with the underside of his tongue. He tried to swallow and gagged on the taste and smell of motor oil from the rag. He forced down panic, breathing in through his nose until his lungs were full and out as slowly as fear would allow.
The motor car must have been moving for only two minutes when it stopped. The engine died and people got out. He heard their steps fade and the sound of a sliding door opening, rumbling on its rollers. In the blackness thoughts passed through his mind like a rapid newsreel. The projector crazed, flashing from one scene to the next. His mother in the kitchen, his brother turning up unexpectedly, falling from an aircraft, the black sea below, his father sat in a chair with the paper, falling in the darkness. He tried to think of Ada, but the image wouldn’t come. The rapid newsreel couldn’t be stopped. Events had been set in train, his escalating panic unbearable. He feared he might not be able to control his breathing. He feared his own panic.
The sound of voices outside, low murmured instructions, inaudible responses and one he identified as Daniel Painter by the commanding tone only. The floor of the motor car moved beneath him and the engine started. Another, louder, rougher engine started also. He was moving again. He fought the panic of his suffocating restriction. Within minutes they would take him out and there would be relief. For a period, at least.
“We must call the police. He looked like he might be dead,” Ada had cried as the large motor car pulled away from HA23, her voice shaking.
“Not dead, miss, surely. They’ll be just, well, teaching him a lesson,” said Tom, then he went on, “I expect they’ll lock him in somewhere to keep him out of the way.”
Ada looked at him, unbelieving.
“We can’t waste time, can’t you help, Tom?”
“I don’t know that I can do anything, miss. I might be able to stall them from taking off if I contact the tower.”
While Tom spoke, Ada was removing her shoes groaning with exasperation. She hitched up the skirts of her dress and took off at a sprint across the grass.
Tom Partridge watched the silver fabric and flashing legs disappear in the dark. She can run that one. He sighed and walked over to try the door to HA23. It was locked so he stood for a moment to think, the fingers of one hand to his lips. After a few thoughts passed he began walking, as fast as was comfortable for him, back to the hall. He didn’t want to be found walking anywhere he wasn’t meant to be this evening. After all, it was Saturday night, he was here to enjoy himself.
As she ran, she spoke a high, emotional summation of the scene before her. Bobby might be badly injured. He looked like he might be dead. He didn’t cry out when they threw him into the motor. There wasn’t time to cry. She had abandoned Bob to these people and this is what had happened. It hurt her heart to think of it.
She reached the hall and ran on tip toes across the paving to the hall entrance. Gerald’s motor was parked across the roadway. She stopped to put on her shoes and, breathing heavily, pushed through into the warmth and chattering of the gala. People were just taking their seats and a compare was waiting on the stage with a band playing behind him. The last strains of a gentle tune dying in the scrape of chairs and conversations being finished hastily. Ada went directly to the table where Gerald was already seated, the jittery man was at the table with them.
“Where on Earth have you been, Ada?” Gerald asked.
“We must call the police, is there a telephone here?” she directed the question to Richard Ogley.
“Ada, what is this about? What’s happened?” Gerald Painter asked, standing as he did so. The other guests were all now seated and the compare was stalling, grinning nervously, waiting for Ada to sit down.
Ada was breathless. “It’s Bobby,” she began, Gerald Painter visibly lost interest, “they’ve taken him. He’s been tied up. He wasn’t moving! We have to call the police!” Ada’s voice rose above the dying chatter, catching the word ‘police’, the voices died to silence.
“Oh, it’s Bailey again. He is just plain trouble that man. What has he done now? Really, Ada it’s time you forgot about that no-hoper,” Gerald Painter said, motioning to sit down again.
“Bailey? Here, on the site?” the jittery man piped up, half rising from his chair.
“They’ve kidnapped him. He was tied up, thrown into the back of a motor car. He was lifeless.” Ada directed this, in terror, to a worried Ogley who was frozen in a half standing position.
Gerald Painter huffed, looking around, embarrassed at the scene his lady friend was creating. The compare coughed into the microphone to begin an attempt at commanding attention.
“Are you sure it was Bailey? Which motor car was it?” Ogley asked the agitated young lady that had arrived with Gerald Painter.
“Oh, I don’t know! A big one, light coloured, outside a building…twenty three, I think. Please! We must do something quickly!”
The man looked shocked, but no longer twitching. His mouth hanging open, still half standing. He had the look of a man who had been told the very worst by his doctor.
“Gerald, you must drive and stop them taking Bobby in an aeroplane.” Ada ordered Painter.
“What! I don’t think so, old girl.”
“Then give me the key.”
“No!” Gerald laughed, incredulous – the idea!
All around the hall the guests were looking on. At the table the quiet couple were rigid in their seats. The jittery man was frozen half standing, his wife helping him neither up nor down. Ada drew her right arm behind her shoulder and, with all her strength, feet planted, she brought her fist forwards in a viper strike, meeting Gerald Painter full in face.
Gerald Painter recoiled backwards then bent over, blood pouring from his nose. A strangled cry issuing from behind his hands covering his face. Something had cracked as Ada’s fist hit his nose. Ada held her hand gently, wincing at the pain. “The key, Gerald, now!” she demanded holding out her trembling left hand. Painter uncovered his bloodied face, a look mixed of horror, pain and bewilderment. He fumbled at his pocket, pulled out the key and held it out to Ada at arm’s length in a bloody hand.
“I will telephone the police, miss” Richard Ogley announced. “Make sure this man doesn’t leave this building,” he called out to the guests at large, pointing back at Painter, as he strode off to the telephone.
Ada took the key from Painter and ran out of the hall.
Crates marked with ‘tratar con cuidado’ were unloaded carefully from the truck into a twin-engined aircraft out on the aerodrome. When the loading finished the truck pulled away, drove around the aircraft and headed past the white control tower back towards the Special Aviation Company buildings. Figures could be seen standing in the dimly lit control room. Bob could see them from where he was lying on the grass next to the waiting aircraft. He twisted round to get a better look at the tower, wondering if they could see him there, bound and struggling.
The chairman stepped out of his motor, walked briskly across the grass and boarded the aeroplane. As the cream coloured auto moved away, the aircraft engines whined and spluttered, eventually catching and roared as the propellers span up causing a sharp fuel filled gust to pass over Bob lying under the rounded edge of a wing. He looked up past the wing and edged clouds at the stars. Soon he would be loaded onto the aircraft, like live cargo, heading to an unalterable conclusion. The events of the past weeks passed again, regretting with resignation each wrong step. An alternative course would have had him now placing a pan on a single ring, emptying a tin can for his dinner, looking out an attic room window at a plain tree, shadows of branches still to come into leaf, the summer ahead of him. The total reckoning of regrets crushed his resolve, he laid his head back on the grass and shortly afterwards two figures walked over to him, hoisted him up and secured their final piece cargo within the aircraft, just inside the door. A temporary place only – he wouldn’t see the end of the flight. Bob dropped his head to the metal aircraft floor and allowed his body to be jostled as the aeroplane bumped across the grass apron towards the end of the runway.
Ada steadied her breathing as she sat forwards in the driver’s seat of Gerald Painter’s two seater. She studied the various levers and switches with darting eyes and felt the pedals with her feet. She turned the key and the engine responded, a momentary relief, then pushing and pulling at pedals and levers, forcing reluctant gears into driving forwards. Then, lurching ahead, pulling hard at the heavy steering, trying to use her painful right hand lightly. The little car swung around in the roadway and bounced heavily up the opposite kerb. Tom Partridge, nearly back from HA23, dived off the pavement to be out of its path. Now facing the right way Ada gained speed and drove as fast as each gear would go up the central roadway, making wild adjustments to the auto’s direction in the darkness. She squinted briefly at the switches, looking for a light switch, but there was no time.
At the end of the road the little auto leapt heavily onto the grass aerodrome, the steering wheel was ripped out of Ada’s left hand and the vehicle veered out of control before she fought it back on track, towards the light of an aircraft at the far end of the field. The light was moving slowly and seemed to change direction gradually. She lifted out of the seat as the auto crested humps taking her feet from the pedals. She gripped the wheel as hard as she could, fighting it like a freshly landed eel.
The aeroplane began increasing speed.
Ada altered direction, judging the relative speeds, but she couldn’t gauge the distance in the darkness. The aeroplane increased speed yet further, Ada grappled with the steering, veering as she approached a point of convergence. She re-judged the point at which the pilot could stop, the point at which to pull alongside.
The aeroplane was already close. She could see its shadowy outline barely lit by the runway lights. The motor car rocked over rounded humps in the airfield taking her off course. As the front wheels reached the short grass of the runway the motor car straightened unexpectedly and the rear wheels powered the two seater across the runway into the path of the accelerating aircraft. The engines roared. Ada saw only a growing light. She ducked, letting go of the wheel. The auto vibrated. A shattering crack and a tearing rush. The two seater reared up and threw her against the door, the cloth hood tore away and glass flew at her as the massive shape of the aircraft passed over her exposed head. Then, everything was at rest and the aircraft continued low over the airfield.
Ada watched the lights as it moved away, the lights lost height quickly to meet those on the runway. There was a crunch and the white tail of the plane rose into the air and the aircraft flopped over onto its back. The engines died immediately.
There was silence for a moment. A light breeze brought the faintest sound of a band playing. From across the field a searchlight swept the field, the sound of a vehicle started up and a siren wound up slowly to a high pitch. The vehicle approached, its lights showing the aeroplane fully intact, its pale belly face up, its rigid wheels pointing upwards. Far beyond the airfield, blue lights flickered between the hedgerows along the road from Cheltenham, two-toned sirens could be heard on the drifting wind.
Ada climbed out of the two seater and staggered from it clutching her right arm which she held straight down, unable to bend it. The two seater’s pale shape clear in the low light, one door staved in, the hood and windscreen missing.
Ada stood still, frozen with uncertainty, approach the aircraft, and try to help, or run away to the arriving police. People were starting to emerge from the aircraft.
Ada was at home, in the kitchen, preparing breakfast on a tray. She found it tricky picking up each item with one hand. Scooping a boiled egg from a pan with a spoon. Buttering toast was especially difficult. The butter lay in melting lumps. But it was lovely like that.
An onlooker catching the slight frown, a line from her nose around her upper jaw, would have every reason to suppose she was troubled. Such were Mrs. Saint’s suspicions having stopped in the hall to observe her daughter, unnoticed by Ada.
“You really should allow Mrs. Bailey to do that when she comes,” said Mrs. Saint, “especially with your arm in a sling. It’s silly.”
“Good morning, Mother. I prefer to do it myself, even though it’s hard,” Ada said listlessly, “especially, because it’s hard.”
Mrs. Saint shook her head at her daughter’s stubbornness, “I don’t know why you blame yourself. What you did was very courageous. I’m proud of you.”
“I didn’t help Bobby when I saw him with nowhere to go. Carrying his things in a bag like a tramp. I could have helped him and what occurred after would never have happened.”
“But that Painter fellow got his just desserts. That was because of you and…Bobby.”
Ada had never once heard her mother call him that. As she caught her mother’s eye, and a conciliatory smile, the frown lifted and the line from her nose around the upper jaw faded. She placed today’s newspaper and a letter on the tray, picked it up with her good hand and took it upstairs.
Ada knocked at the spare-room door and went in. Bob was sitting up in bed. She tutted at him for having lifted himself without her help. He was recovering quickly, but he still looked stricken. Something behind his gaze. They didn’t need ‘good mornings’, they were too close for that, just a shared smile and the raise of an eyebrow, she indulging him as her patient, he enjoying being indulged. Ada turned on Bob’s beautiful wooden wireless radio, making a fine adjustment to the lovely dial to achieve a clear sound.
Even with serious, sometimes painful injuries, this beat sleeping in a bus station. And, Mrs. Saint! Almost insisting that he stay at her home rather than with his mother. His mother had enough to do looking after his father. In many ways, he pondered, things had turned out so much better than he could have expected. Ada was fussing with the tray and the newspaper, glancing at a headline on the front page. He watched her movements closely, her light touch, the sun illuminating the gold in her hair as she opened the curtains, her strength and determination exhibited by her right arm held in a sling. She came over to him, still not having uttered a word, lightly brushed the hair across his brow with cool fingers, smiled and left the room. Nothing could feel like that touch, he thought.
Outside the door, a murmur attracted Bob’s attention. His heart was light. He couldn’t hear a word of the mother and daughter exchanging comments on his condition outside the door. Mrs. Saint’s slightly deeper tone sounded concerned, then a lighter tone of relief that he was well and sitting up. That was his interpretation of the noises. Being bed-bound, his future ahead of him, a challenge and a triumph behind him, it was liberating. He was exhilarated at the possibilities his future might bring. A whole life laid before him, his heart filled and chest expanded, a little painfully. He heard Ada’s voice calling to a tradesman at the door. He turned to the window and looked off to the distant hills.
He chewed a piece of buttery toast and unfolded the Times.
27th April 1937
The Tragedy of Guernica
Town Destroyed in Air Attack
Eye Witness’s Account
The article by Special Correspondent, George Steer, described the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population of a Basque town by German and Italian bombers. Hundreds were believed to be killed, chased down in the fields by fighter planes as they fled.
He looked up from the newspaper and out of the window again.
Every young man should fight a war. The views of a youth disposed to romantic thoughts, a young man who has missed out on his own war, his few times of triumph, and, more pertinently, his very few failures, are scant foundation for an unshakable perspective. He was culpable in the plight of those people of Guernica. Accurate bomb sights would have enabled the targeted bombing of purely military targets. Crates containing experimental bomb sights from the Special Aviation Company were still held in a Royal Air Force store-room, retrieved by the Gloucestershire police from a crashed aircraft at an airfield near Cheltenham.
He put the newspaper aside, the toast rolled tastelessly in his mouth.
The letter on the tray was addressed to Robert Bailey esq. care of his parents’ address. The letterhead was that of H.M. Government, War Office.
Four days after the bombing of Guernica, commander of the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion, Wolfram Von Richthofen, made an entry in his diary after flying over the town. He commented upon the merits of the attack as he saw them;
“…As it was, just a complete technical success for our 250s and the EC.B.1s”
referring to 250kg high explosives and EC.B.1 incendiary bombs. The 250s destroyed buildings and the water supply, the incendiaries, following the 250s, Von Richthofen observed, “had time to spread and work effectively”.*
One reporter counted 600 corpses. Fields around the town were strewn with dead sheep.
It was market day.
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How culpable are we in the events that define our history? Bob Bailey did not join the International Brigade in the Spanish civil war. Instead, he finds adventure at home in 1930's Cheltenham. Or rather, it is visited upon him as he becomes an unwitting accomplice in one of European history's most notorious air attacks. But those responsible pick on someone who is more than he seems. The wilful Bob values his independence, however it is lifelong friend Ada whose help he needs when his problems become gravely serious. This story of youthful hope, abuse of position and bloody mindedness tells how our actions can have far-reaching and unintended consequences.