© Shane Gladstone
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Ernie had walked as he did every week until his chest felt tight and his legs ached. Leaning on the railings, he got to work rolling a fag. His fingers felt useless - riddled with arthritis and numb with cold - but still he persevered.
He was wearing the jacket he had worn every day for as long he cared to remember. It was threadbare and stained in places with the ketchup and egg yolk of past meals. It was the jacket of a man who stopped caring what other people thought a long time ago. Or who didn't have anyone to care about.
The wasteland of the Albert Dock sprawled before him: empty, dilapidated warehouses once full of cotton and sugar; a dock once full of water and boats now silted up with sand. The ghosts of a thousand dockers. He knew a thing or two about ghosts, but that was another life - as ruined as these once-grand dock buildings.
A gang of blokes stood on the other side of the dock with some scaffolding up the side of the wall. They looked like matchstick men from where Ernie was stood - his eyes wet and straining to focus. He'd read something in the Echo about the dock being set for some big redevelopment - not for boats and warehouses but shops and restaurants. More change, more dismantling of the past, dressed up as a progress. None of it made sense. Nothing.
September 2nd, 1939, Hull
It was the way she smoked a cigarette that first caught his eye.
Of course, she was beautiful but anyone could be beautiful – it was no measure of class. But smoking, well, that was different. You could tell a lot about a person by the way they smoked a cigarette.
And she smoked like they did in the movies – cigarette positioned elegantly between two slender fingers. The kind of fingers his mother had always called ‘pianist’s’. And when she exhaled she turned her head to one side and pointed her mouth downwards – the smoke cascading towards the wooden floorboards in a near-perfect cylinder.
He had been looking for a distraction. The threat of war cast its ugly shadow over every conversation, every plan for the future and even every passing thought. He had followed the news bulletins like everyone else - with a strange, perverse interest. As though there was something exciting about one's own impending doom. August had been a big dipper ride of terrible and not so terrible news: ambassadors marching to Berlin to hand Hitler strongly worded letters, German troops advancing on Poland, a grim faced Chamberlain confirming Britain would indeed support Poland if Hitler invaded.
He'd read a report in the Daily Telegraph a few days earlier that said one thousand German tanks were lined up on the Polish border waiting to attack - the first newspaper report he'd seen that suggested war was about to break out. Then this morning it had been cofirmed on the wireless. Tanks and soldiers had ridden into Warsaw, with planes flying overhead dropping bombs. Listening to it, the BBC announcer's clipped voice sounding clinical and removed, it seemed unreal. As though the boil that had festered for months was about to be lanced, oozing its rotten badness over the world. Good god. The hopelessness of it all. He'd felt the only option was to go to the pub and drink 'til he could no longer stand. So now he sat, at a table at the Ritz ballroom. Taking a long slurp of beer, he looked back to the girl.
She had a look of Jean Harlow – brilliant blonde hair the likes of which he’d not seen before. The actress they called the ‘blonde bombshell’ had caught Ernie’s eye when he saw her play opposite Jimmy Stewart in Wife Vs Secretary. He remembered where he’d been when he found out Harlow was dead. He was on his dinner break at work and someone had left a newspaper on the table. The headline splashed across the front page. He’d recoiled at the news. That someone so young and beautiful, with the whole world at their feet, could just die left him angry and confused. She was 26 years old, not that much older than Ernie.
Now the idea of dying young didn't seem so remote. It was something he'd thought of often over the past weeks and days.
Hull was all he had ever known. The river and the docks and the main roads that serviced them and the web of narrow streets growing from them like spindly branches from the trunk of a solid oak tree. He had grown up on Porter Street between the main thoroughfares of Hessle Road and Anlaby Road.
He'd spent the early evening in the Coach and Horses – a dockers' pub just off Porter Street. Built in Victorian times, it had a public bar and a saloon with open fires in both. A shabby stag’s head hung over one of the fireplaces. It was a solid, old-fashioned kind of pub and he liked it; it was somewhere his family always drank. He'd found his father, Harold, with his friend, Ted, and for a while he'd sat and listened to the two older men. They talked about their experiences in the trenches of Flanders some twenty years earlier, and argued about Chamberlain and whether Britain should or should not be going to Poland's aide.
'Hitler invades Poland,' Harold had said. 'German planes bombing villages and towns and cities. And still we do nowt. It’s a disgrace.’
Ted had sat back in his chair, and pushed back his elbows. Ernie had grown up around Ted and his family. He and his father had been friends since they were small. He was a big man - strong and gruff. But he was a sensitive soul. Harold would often call him a 'wet bloody apeth'.
‘That’s not fair, Harold,' Ted said. 'Yes, I don’t want to go to war – but that doesn’t make me a disgrace. I’ve known you for thirty year, from short pants to the bloody trenches. And I’d do anything to not have to go to them same bloody trenches again.’
All around the pub it seemed similar conversations were being had. The atmosphere was sombre and tense. There was no one playing the piano, no raucous singing nor splashing pints being lined up on the lid. Tonight was different, a sense of violence hung in the air. Men’s conversations were closed, quiet. The atmosphere had been the same in shops and sitting rooms, offices and factory floors. Like an elastic band pulled backwards by a schoolboy, ready to offload a hard paper bullet with another fraction of stress.
Ernie couldn't stand it; didn't know what to say nor really even what to think. That's how he ended up here in the Ritz. He didn't do dance halls. But after leaving the pub and walking the streets in the rain the flashing lights and music drew him in. When he stepped through the double doors and into the main room it seemed the messages of impending war had yet to reach this part of town. A maple-sprung dance floor glimmered beneath twinkling lights. At the front, a raised stage on which men in expensive-looking suits played jazz music.
Tables and chairs lined the edges of the dance-floor, and as was tradition, the girls stuck to one side and the men the other. The girls sat waiting for a feller to ask them to dance – that was the way. He was sat with his beer and a fag, turning thoughts over. He had been drinking the last of his pint when he caught sight of her over the other side of the bar, smoking. He sat and watched from afar for a few minutes - admiring her elegance and poise as one might admire a snatched glimpse of a fawn on a country lane at dawn. For she was a beautiful creature - almost alien in her difference to the girls he would normally see around.
He pulled hard on a cig and ordered another pint to buy some time. He was rubbish at talking to women but he knew that if he walked out of here and into the cold night without at least having a go he would never forgive himself. His guts were turning over and his mind racing. He would never in a million years have considered going up to her on a normal night. But this didn't feel like a normal night. It felt entirely different - hedonistic and reckless and removed from the realms of social acceptance. With a surge of adrenaline he rose to feet and into the thick, smoky crowd.
Dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief and pushing his fingers through his Brylcreemed hair, he pushed through folk with a newfound sense of purpose. On a Saturday night it was like trying to cross an ocean getting to other side of the bar. It was a rough crowd; full to the rafters with fishermen and dockers letting off steam after a week of hard graft. Some of the lads had been away at sea for weeks – living on trawlers thrown about like balls of wool on the North Sea. They'd be spoiling for a scrap. He made it to other side in one piece though and sat down at the bar next to her before he had the chance to turn back.
‘Did you want something?’ she asked.
‘Yes… of course - Ernie,’ he spluttered, putting out his hand. If she’d looked closely she’d have seen it was shaking. She held his gaze but didn’t say anything. It was as though she was totally comfortable in a silence he found suffocating.
‘Do you come here often?’ was about all he could muster – worrying the beads of sweat he could feel on his forehead were twinkling in the light. He took his handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at his forehead.
‘That your best chat-up line is it?’ she asked.
Ernie blushed crimson – even in the darkened room it must have been noticeable. In truth he’d never really ‘chatted up’ anyone. He’d heard someone say that line – or something similar – in a film once.
‘No, it’s not that,’ he replied after a few seconds. ‘It’s just, I come here all the time, and, well, I’ve never seen you before.’
‘Perhaps you’ve just not been looking,’ she replied – leaning close enough to him that he could smell her perfume.
His head swam. He knew he was out of his depth.
‘Gin and orange,’ she said – putting a cigarette into her mouth and gesturing for a light. It took him a second to pick up on the gesture and she had to nod her head again before he retrieved a match from his inside pocket and lit her up. Spotting an empty table just across the dance-floor, she motioned to him and walked ahead. She wore a long black gown – quite unlike the dresses worn by many other girls at the dance – and her blonde hair was cut short and pinned back at the side. She glanced back at him and pursed her rosebud lips into a half-smile.
So, Ernie, what shall we talk about? And for heaven’s sake let’s not make it about this bloody war,’ she said.
Ernie was stunned. The war was all anyone was talking about; all anyone had talked about for weeks – even though it hadn’t actually started. That was certainly the case in his house and at his place of work. And in the pub with his father earlier on. Now, quite by chance, a woman – a very attractive woman – who shared his disdain was close enough that he could touch her. Not that he ever would.
‘Are you not interested then?’ he probed. ‘About what might happen?’
‘No I am not,’ she said – lighting another cigarette.
‘I do, and always have for that matter, live my life for the day in question – carpe diem,’ she threw up her hands flamboyantly. ‘I’ve never been too fussed about what could happen tomorrow or next week or next month. Why should I bother now?’
Ernie was struck by many things: her confidence, her outspokenness and her general poise. He too had similar thoughts about the war that hung over their heads ¬– yet he could never imagine being able to articulate them with forthrightness and eloquence before an audience.
She laughed, more to herself than to him.
‘I’m sorry. You must think me frightfully unpatriotic. It’s not that I don’t care for those soldiers who will be going to fight, or that I don’t worry about my family and myself but, well, there’s nothing we can do about it. And I refuse to cow down, to go into hibernation mode, to disappear off into my little mouse hole while Hitler rides roughshod over me.’
‘And the war means an end to fun, and end to life as we know it. Dances ruined by stupid blackouts, rations taking away my make up and stockings. Sorry – I am a beast,’ she giggled as she sipped her gin and orange.
She said dances like daahhrnces. Like they did in the movies. He’d never heard anything like it. She was so very different to other girls he had known. She talked proper - her accent he couldn't place. It certainly wasn't the broad, lazy drawl of Hull's common people. She had manners, and she was sharp as a tack - too sharp. He could tell that already. The way she held herself; it was as though she'd had breeding. Refined. That was it, she was refined.
‘No,’ he said, ‘not at all. I think you’re fantastic.’
He hadn’t meant to say it, it just, well, came out. And now he was blushing again.
‘What you’re saying, I mean,’ he tried to backtrack. ‘You know exactly what you think and you know how to say it – how to put it across. I’ve never met anyone quite like you.’
'You barely know me - I'm a terrible woman,' she leaned in again giving him another head rush of perfume. He couldn't place it, nor describe what it smelt like. But it was intoxicating and seemed to perfectly complement her milky skin.
'So, tell me something about yourself, Ernie,' she teased - flashing him a coquettish smile.
'Well, I live close to the river,' he stuttered, 'with my mother, father and brothers.'
'Like Goldilocks and the three bears!' she squealed in delight. 'Only kidding. Brothers? Do tell me how many?'
'There are six of us,' he replied - trying to shake off the jibe. 'Our Frank is the eldest, and left home and married with a young 'un. Then there's Bob, then I'm next.'
'All the boys together,' she said. 'Boys can be so horrid and smelly. I do hope you're kind to your poor mother,' she was teasing again - tilting her head at him in a schoolmarmish fashion. He felt the sweat soaking into his collar and spreading across his back beneath his jacket and shirt.
He thought of his mother, Mary. And of how dear to him she was. There was so much he could say about her - so much he wanted to say. But it seemed too intimate for this setting - for this girl however bewitching he hardly knew, and he let the thought of her pass from his mind.
'We're good lads,' he joked. 'Course we look after her. Anyway, tell me something about you,' he urged.
'I am a girl who is looking to have a nice relaxing evening with a smart, polite gentleman,' she answered. 'It's rude to ask too many questions don't you know.'
She sipped her drink and playful slapped the back of his hand.
'I want to forget myself for the night - to dance, and to laugh and to feel... reckless. As though it wouldn't matter if there was no tomorrow,' she said. 'So please don't fill this night with boring, meaningless questions. We mightn't ever meet again - you could be off to war within the coming weeks and months,' she fixed him with a mock-stern look. 'And how pointless would it all have been? Finding out where I worked and where I lived and what my favourite colour was?'
'Let's live for tonight and tonight only and see what tomorrow brings.'
She was getting louder and more flamboyant - her speech slurring and her hand gestures animated and sweeping - theatrical almost. He was sure she was quite drunk. But god, she was beautiful.
'Anyway, I want to know more about you - about your father, your brothers. I am going to the ladies' room and then I want answers, young man - answers.'
She was giggling again, her cheeks flushed with the warmth of several gins.
He was about to say something about it being okay for her to ask him questions but she was gone. He thought about his father, Harold. His days were spent loading and unloading cargo from trains onto boats. The work was hard – hauling, heaving and lugging heavy boxes in often freezing wet weather. Sweating, swearing and smoking got them through. Ernie had been the first of his brothers to not follow his dad onto the docks.
It made him different. An outsider in his own family. Of course no one ever said anything but it's actions not words that count, and he envied the closeness between Bob and Frank and his father. He remembered being eaten up with jealousy one morning when peering through a gap in the curtains, he saw his elder brother and his dad cycling off to the docks together. They looked so similar - not just the bicycles and outfits but their frames, the way they held themselves.
Before he could start brooding she sashayed back from the ladies.
'So?' she probed. 'What about your family?'
'I'll tell you about them another time, lass - will there be another time?'
He was out on a limb now. She tilted her head and fixed him with a look, stubbing out her cigarette in the ashtray.
'Maybe,' she said. 'Maybe.'
At the end of the night they shared a slow dance; her forgiving him for clumsily stepping on her toes, and giving him a chaste kiss before disappearing. As he walked home he realized he’d talked a lot about himself, but that he didn’t know the first thing about her. Not even her name.
September 3rd, 1939, Hull
Lizzie wiped the sick from her mouth with the back of her hand and looked up. The Odeon: it was a magnificent building. It reminded her of the Titanic, before it sunk - all modern and elegant with its curves and lines. She felt shameful for having vomited amid such luxury.
The day she had heard they were going to be opening an Odeon Cinema in the town she knew she must work there. For its Art Deco beauty and carefree Hollywood glamour were everything she dreamed of and craved.
She looked at the building again while waiting for the nausea to pass. It stuck out like a sore thumb against the dour red brick high street. She knew how it felt. Her boyish clothes, peroxide hair and bright red lips put her at odds with the town – subject to gossip from the girls and disapproving looks from the older women. She’d once heard someone refer to her as ‘that wild woman’. Then again, she was reading a copy of Vogue while wearing high-waisted trousers.
And that was before she even opened her mouth – for she talked ‘proper’ or ‘like someone at the BBC’ according to the boys at the cinema. She’d scrimped and saved to pay for elocution lessons. Why? She couldn’t have all that hard work and money spent on her appearance going down the drain when she spoke. The Hull accent, as much as it had a place in her heart, was no friend to a girl who was trying to get on.
Having said that there was nothing high-minded about how she had behaved this morning. And last night too for that matter: very unladylike indeed. The taste of sick lingering at the back of her throat was an unwelcome reminder.
Inside she gathered with her fellow usherettes in the foyer. The manager was about to perform the daily inspection where they would be vetted to ensure they met the required standard of an Odeon usherette. Mr Williams would always find fault somewhere – eyeliner a touch too heavy, a hair just out of place. They allowed him his nitpicking for they were all immaculate – and he knew. Being an usherette was a serious business.
Lizzie loved it: the smart green uniform and pillbox hat, the feeling of being looked at, of being on show. The fact she was paid to look her best. ‘You’re selling dreams, girls,’ said Mr Williams ‘for a shilling a pop’. She always remembered that – that she in some small way was helping people to escape the drudgery of everyday life outside on those grey and dreary streets.
Fred, the projectionist, caught her eye and winked. He was stood on the stairs, trying to look busy – and failing. She blushed, remembering the first time he had asked her into his projectionist box, and they’d shared a whispered joke as his lamps cast the film across the auditorium. It was through Fred’s eyes that she discovered Hollywood: Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman – Fred knew them all, and everything about them.
Sitting and watching them from the projectionist box, with Fred murmuring little snippets of tantalizing detail, well, you felt as though you knew them – as though you were their friends. There was something about watching them from that angle high up, the intimacy of being in the box, of Fred’s tidbits about their private lives, that peeled back the layers of stardom, beyond the make-up, and crafted lines of dialogue and impeccable clothes.
And boy did Lizzie watch. She’d learnt from them how to move, how to pack a trunkful of emotion into a single glance, how to be desired. She’d gorged herself like a magpie hunting silver: the blonde hair from Harlow; the sex appeal of Hayworth and the relentless ambition of Bette Davis.
But Bette Davis was her favourite. She’d already seen her in three films that year. Dark Victory was the one she enjoyed most. In fact it had knocked her for six. It was about a fast-living woman with money to burn who finds out she’s dying of an inoperable brain tumour. She has surgery, and for a while she thinks she’s been cured. Everyone else however knows the truth – that the raging tumour, feeding off of her brain, will render her blind and then kill her in less than a year.
Lizzie thought it impossibly bleak at first. But as it got going she became consumed. As Davis realizes the truth and time begins to run out – to Lizzie’s mind, well, she caught fire, became tormented, haunted like a wronged spirit trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead. It was different to other roles she’d seen Davis play. Those entitled but petulant female leads who were helplessly swirling down the plughole of self-destruction. Catty and chaotic. She played them so well.
But this was so utterly different.
Fred reckoned she’d done so many films this year to make up for the fact she’d been cast aside for a big part in Gone With The Wind. The part of Scarlett O’Hara had been in the news as the subject a talent contest across America. Lizzie had seen it on a newsreel before the odd picture months earlier. Anyway, Fred had heard somewhere that Davis had been up for the part but she’d refused to work with Errol Flynn. In the end Scarlett O’Hara was to be played by Vivien Leigh.
And Bette lost out.
Lizzie didn’t really know about all that – apart from she’d never refuse to work with Errol Flynn. But she wanted to believe it was true. That Bette Davis was strong, thick-skinned and principled – that she was no pushover. She liked that. She thought of the gossiping women in the street, the disdainful glances, the jokes about her put-on posh voice. To be an outsider, to stand out from the crowd, takes a strong stomach.
Today though her stomach was not strong. After the inspection she’d gone to sit in the tea room, in effect no bigger than a cloakroom and somewhat at odds with the glamorous world of the cinema as seen by the crowds. She sat with her friend Violet, an incredibly pretty but quite unambitious girl whom Lizzie had know since school.
It was ten thirty am and they were enjoying a brew before the lunchtime show. The hot, sugary tea burnt her throat but it felt good and Lizzie greedily drained the mug.
‘Was he worth it?’ Violet giggled.
‘To justify your pasty face he’d have to be as rich and as famous as Cary Grant. You’re not half green around the gills.’
She reached out to stroke Lizzie’s face and shook her head in mock-disapproval.
‘Don’t you think there are more important things happening at the moment? Than going out to dances and getting drunk?’
Lizzie snapped her head towards Violet.
‘What, this godforsaken war that’s been hanging over our heads for what feels like months? That’s on a cliff-edge, and could start within hours?
‘Oh, I know all about that. Endless newsreels forced down our throats about Hitler’s latest move? Germny rolling into Warsaw with tanks on a death mission.’
She took out two cigarettes and lit both, passing one to her friend before pulling her chair closer – the legs of it scraping harshly against the floor.
‘All the while we sit here waiting – feeling like insects trapped in a giant spiders’ web. Will it be today, or tomorrow, or even next week?
‘Only a couple of months ago we were hearing Chamberlain promise peace for out time – stood on the steps of a bloody airplane after Munich.’
And now all of this
Violet looked as though she didn’t know what to say.
‘Oh yes I know about the more important things that are happening, all too well. Do you not think it’s because of those things that I went out to get drunk in the very first place?’
‘Have you finished?’ Violet asked. ‘I only wanted to know if you’d got cosy with anyone. I won’t bother asking next time,’ she added huffily.
'Anyway, I wasn’t with a man,’ Lizzie said with feigned virtue, ‘at least, not at first.’
‘Not at first? Do tell.’
Just then Mr Williams burst through the door.
‘Girls, quick – it’s Chamberlain – he’s coming on the wireless, quick.’
They stubbed out their cigarettes and followed him out to the foyer. She thought of what he had just said about not knowing - would it happen in hours or days? It seemed that question had been answered. Her face burnt up and she felt wet patches of sweat beneath her armpits.
‘This is London. The Prime Minister,’ said the announcer.
Chamberlain began to speak, and straightaway Lizzie was taken by how tired and old he sounded. The words came out slow and somber. He was speaking plainly but even so the words washed over her as though she was in a dream. Everyone had gathered in the foyer and stood around the wireless in a sort of scruffy horseshoe, with Mr Williams twisting and tweaking the dials like the captain at the wheel of a sinking ship.
Out of the hisses and crackles came a voice.
'Unless they were prepared to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us'
Everyone was starting straight at the floor. No one was looking any anyone else as the words sunk in. Fred wasn’t winking at her. She thought again of Chamberlain on the Pathe newsreel after Munich. Waving from the steps of an aeroplane at Heathrow Airport - ten foot high on the cinema screen, his smile beaming out at the crowds. Peace in our time.
And now this.
'I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received'
He sounded defeated, crumpled. Like the stuffing had been knocked out of him. The walking dead.
More hissing. The shuffling of feat and sweaty palms. Collars being adjusted.
'This country is at war with Germany'
Chamberlain kept talking for another few minutes, but Lizzie didn’t really hear what he said. The world had shifted on its axis, and with those seven words everything had changed. in just a few seconds the humdrum concerns that filled people's minds had been replced by somthing much blacker, much biggger. Daark Victory flashed in her mind - the cancer greedily eating Bette Davis' brain. Inside she felt numb, incapable of finding tears. The sheer inevitability of it all. For weeks, months even, this very moment had been hurtling ever closer – one day at a time. She’d been as helpless as anyone to stop it.
Now it was here.
She thought of the little sister she had packed off as an evacuee yesterday morning. Thought of writing out her name and address and tying it to her little suitcase. She remembered the feel of the string in her fingers; the questions as they walked in the crowds of other children towards the station. Waving goodbye to her as the train pulled away from the station – the questions left unanswered.
She thought of getting done up to blot it all out. Her mascara running as she cried. The first drink she poured for herself and drained. Choosing her most flattering dress. Dousing herself in Chanel No 5. The feeling of being utterly empty.
A telephone rang and Mr Williams disappeared. Violet burst into tears. Fred, always so fast with a quip or a line, remained solemnly silent.
‘They’re shutting us down, the Government,’ he came running back out of the office.