© C R Burman
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(Please read the synopsis as these are not opening chapters )
A chill winter drizzle met Raine on the other side of the revolving doors of Rumfield & Sons, Solicitors. She buttoned up her raincoat and opened her umbrella.
‘The station cafe?’ she asked Faye. ‘We’ve time for a quick cuppa?’
Faye nodded and Raine led their way along Morphett Street through the crowd of scarfed and hatted office workers stepping quickly to their trains. The only other customers in the steamy cafe were two elderly women spreading jam on their scones, bulging string bags collapsed at their feet as if exhausted by hours of shopping.
Raine bought two teas and carried them to the table Faye had chosen near the door.
‘Needed that.’ Faye set her cup down on the pink gingham tablecloth. ‘A good day?’ she asked Raine. ‘Mr Rumfield, junior Mr Rumfield, is nice, isn’t he?’
Raine cradled the thick teacup in her hands, warming them, thinking it was time to find her winter gloves. ‘He’s a real gent. Appreciative too. Says thank you a lot.’
‘Like his father.’
Faye’s boss was Mr Rumfield senior, which was how Raine came to be working at Rumfield & Sons.
Raine giggled. ‘Except Mr Rumfield senior doesn’t run his hands through his hair so he could double as a spiny anteater.’ She could see her boss when she had called good night to him: bent over a thick yellow legal pad, fountain pen in hand, tufts of shiny Brylcreemed hair sticking stiffly up like devil’s horns.
‘I knew you’d like him,’ Faye said. ‘Not like the leering piece of work Ronnie works for.’
‘Pearson? Ugh!’ Raine leaned towards her sister. ‘If he ever pats me on the backside, he’ll feel my fist in his fat red face.’
Faye laughed. ‘You wouldn’t.’
Raine sipped her tea. Perhaps best to simply keep out of the man’s way. Which led her to tell Faye: ‘That awful man who lounges in his doorway with a beer in his hand called out to me last night.’
The drunken man who from time to time leaned against the open door of his hut, thick arms crossed over a greying singlet, braces stretched across a bullfrog belly. ‘Hey girlies, come an’ have a drink with a lonely old man,’ he would slur, brandishing a brown bottle.
‘Did you tell Mum?’
‘Yes. She wants to fetch me from the bus stop, now it’s getting dark so early.’
Raine shrugged. ‘He’s not normally there. And if he chased me down the road, I’m sure I could outrun him.’ Her toes twitched, remembering how adrenaline had added wings to her feet as she fled through the puddles of the camp’s dark tracks last night.
‘Perhaps you could hit him in his fat red face?’ Faye smirked.
Raine smirked back and changed the subject.
‘What’s it like at Grandma’s?’
‘Great. My own room – don’t have to listen to the kids snuffling and you snoring all night. And only two of us to fight over the bathroom.’
Raine wrinkled her nose. ‘Lucky you, getting away.’ Trust Faye to have the idea before she did, to flee the half cylinder of corrugated iron on the soulless migrant camp where the family was housed. ‘I know it’s only fifty miles from home, but it’s a whole different world, the camp, isn’t it?’
Faye shrugged. ‘Only temporary. You and Mum and the kids’ll be out of there soon, don’t worry.’
Raine wanted to ask how her sister could be so sure. After all, it was all right for Faye, living it up at Grandma’s cosy cottage out at the Port, with its homely scents of warm cake and old books. Faye didn’t have to trudge the dreary rows of Nissen huts housing strangers who came and went too fast to ever become neighbours, or run past drunken louts waving beer bottles.
But Faye was gulping the last dregs of her tea and pushing back her chair. ‘Time we left,’ she said.
The showers had passed, for now. Umbrella furled at her side, Raine marched beside Faye in the winter greyness along North Terrace. Once, she had been impressed by the grand edifices which rose in Victorian splendour along the boulevard. Now she was heedless of them, her thoughts speeding ahead to the far less grand, confused pile of red brick and grey stone buildings which made up the hospital at the eastern end of the Terrace.
‘How do you think Pop’ll be?’
‘No idea.’ Faye briefly faced Raine. ‘He’s so up and down, it’s hard to predict.’
Up and down, with the downs lasting longer than the ups these days. As she stepped from circle to circle of light on the wet paving stones, Raine made sure not to step on the cracks, to keep at bay the lurking demons of ill luck.
They were five minutes early. Raine stayed standing, ignoring the few chairs not occupied by other visitors waiting in the green and cream foyer redolent of disinfectant and cleaning fluids. A bell marked the beginning of the hour they were allowed with their father. Raine took a deep breath and nodded to Faye.
They walked the corridors with their squeaky brown floors and signposted walls in silence, and up concrete stairs to a second floor ward. Nurses striding past recognised them with cheery nods as if they were passing in the park on a sun-drenched holiday. Raine nodded back, wishing her father hadn’t been here so long the nurses knew the family by name. All Pop had seen of the city was the inside of a hospital ward.
‘No problem, love,’ he had said when Raine pointed this out. ‘Reckon I’ve a terrific view to make up for it.’
It was true. Pop’s bed was by a window overlooking the neighbouring Botanic Gardens. In the early days of his incarceration the window had framed the deep green of alien trees and rainbows of flowers brightening summer-faded lawns. Now, in winter, the view was blighted by the bare branches of those same alien trees and the humped brown of dug-over flower beds ravaged the rainbows. Raine kept to herself her fancy that the Gardens were keeping Pop company on his journey back to health; that come the spring, new life would emerge everywhere – the trees, the flower beds – the hospital ward. The soft murmurings of other visitors whispered in her ear that her father wasn’t alone on his journey. She tried to be comforted.
Faye claimed the visitor’s chair. Raine hovered over the bed, hat in hand, raincoat draped with Faye’s across the high bed’s bottom rail. Pop lay on his side, sleeping, delivered temporarily from the disease’s hacking coughs and gasps for air. He opened a bloodshot eye and lifted dry lips in a shallow smile.
‘Hello, dolls,’ he greeted them. His voice was phlegmy. He barked a clearing cough, strained to sit up and fell back into his pillow. ‘What you been up to today?’
They told him. Raine made Pop grin over Mr Rumfield’s devil’s horned hair and over the client suing the tramways because her stiletto heel had snagged in the metal track. ‘Imagine! A tram could have come! I could be dead!’ Raine mimicked the woman’s breathy dramatics while Faye nodded and smiled and poured water into a glass which she held to her father’s lips. He sipped at it between rasping breaths. Each one of those breaths made Raine hold her own, her heart pattering in fear of Pop never drawing another one.
Thick wet drops assaulted the bus window, smudging the street lamps and obscuring the lights fighting to illuminate front porches. Raine stared into the gloom. It had been an up day for Pop today, which was good. Not as good as things used to be, though, when every day was an up day. She sighed softly, remembering Pop coming home from the store, teasingly asking if she’d behaved herself or had her teacher had to smack her for being naughty; lifting her into his arms so she could nuzzle into his shoulder, sniff his Old Spice scent of vanilla and oranges. And the times he had played Father Christmas at the school. The tiny Raine had hidden under a desk, her terror of the old man in red raised to sickening heights when she saw the dreadful, hairy creature was wearing Pop’s shoes. What had the wicked beast done with Pop to steal his shoes?
What had this wicked tuberculosis done with Pop to steal his smiles?
She yanked the cord, the bus squelched to a halt and she stepped down to the bare earth of the camp’s bus stop. Another passenger alighted behind her and trotted away, his hat pulled over his forehead. Raine grabbed at her own hat before it was lost to the wet southerly wind whipping through the camp’s straight, flat tracks. When she fought open her umbrella, the cloth flapped like a trapped bird. Raine eyed her way home: the paths between the rows of Nissen huts ran with cold mud. One grudging street lamp at each crossing marked her otherwise dark way. Her heart took up its nightly drumming. She prayed the drunk man would be minded to stay out of his doorway this evening, out of the fierce weather.
She ran along the track, umbrella held horizontal against the deluge, hearing the water hammering on the huts’ tin roofs. The noise was as deafening inside as out. Raine hated these huts. During the baking summer, the tiny wood burning stove which her mother cooked on had transformed the metal structure into Hades. It was worse in winter, when the draughts around the poorly fitting windows (jerry-built, Pop would have said if he’d seen them) whisked away whatever warmth the stove threw out. The family was on a Housing Trust list to move to a more permanent home, with no idea of how long the wait might be.
The drunk man’s windows were dark but Raine was certain she spotted the twitch of a curtain as she scurried by, her feet dipping in and out of unseen puddles to soak her shoes. She reached the poor welcome of the street lamp, spun around the corner and kept running, at last pushing open the door of the family’s hut to fall into the concrete-floored space which served as kitchen, eating and living room. She banged shut the door and stood, panting, catching her breath.
‘Hi, Raine.’ The kids – Raine’s young brother and sisters – sat around the table slurping mutton soup. They waved chunks of sodden bread at her in greeting.
‘Hi, brats. Hi, Mum.’
Betty stood at a bench in front of a once-white sink, peeling potatoes for tomorrow’s tea.
‘Hello, love,’ she greeted Raine. ‘Take off your coat and I’ll get you some soup.’
Raine shook out her coat and hung it on the overloaded stand by the door, leaning the dripping umbrella against the plywood-lined wall. She pulled out a chair while Betty fetched a bowl from under the kitchen bench and a spoon from a metal tin which served as a cutlery drawer.
‘You’re soaking, poor thing,’ Betty tutted.
Raine ran a hand through the damp strands of her short mousy hair. ‘Feel like a drowned kitten.’
Betty ladled out soup. ‘How was Pop?’
‘Having an up day. I even made him laugh.’
The kids had finished eating, which allowed Raine to shoo them from the table. ‘Go and get ready for bed, off you go.’
They squirmed off their chairs, Joy and Rosie giggling, Jack scowling, and headed to the curtained-off space at the end of the hut which served as bedroom for all of them.
Betty placed a full bowl in front of Raine and moved on to cutting thick slices of bread from the loaf on the table. ‘He appreciates you going so often,’ she said. ‘Loves to see you and Faye.’
Raine dipped her spoon into the soup and gave it a cooling puff.
‘Did that awful man annoy you tonight?’ Betty asked.
‘No. Suspect this weather was too much even for him.’
Raine didn’t mention the twitching curtain.
While she missed her sister’s presence in the noisy, draughty Nissen hut, Raine saw Faye at work every day, striding down a corridor bearing pink-tied manila folders and wearing her I’m busy frown, or washing cups and saucers in the kitchen alcove. Raine was busy too, keeping up with Mr Rumfield’s hectic days. She loved the work: the clack, clack, clack as her fingers thumped the round keys of her typewriter, forcing up their long, thin arms to strike the waxy stencil, stamping their mark, letter by letter, before falling back into their curved lines like well-trained soldiers. Best of all was the mystery of shorthand, the scratches intelligible only to the initiated, the pride of reading it back with no mistakes.
On sunny days Raine and Faye wrapped themselves in their coats and ate their sandwiches sitting on a bench by the river. Raine liked to watch the canvas-covered boats full of noisy children and their parents wending the short distance to the zoo. A fun, family outing. When Pop was well again, Raine would insist they take the kids on the boat to the zoo on their own fun, family outing.
Most days after work, Raine went with Faye to visit their father. Tonight they walked along North Terrace under the pink and gold remains of a winter sun which had blessed the city with its presence all afternoon. Raine’s heart was light. The sunny day was a good omen and when they reached the hospital, she had decided, Pop would be having a really good up day. She played the scene in her head: he would be propped against pillows, chatting with them. The antibiotics, he would say, beaming, are working. The doctor was optimistic.
‘Hello! I thought it was you!’ A tall, slightly stooped young man with untidy hair the colour of hay bales stood in Faye’s and Raine’s path. He proffered Faye a cautious grin, his fingers touching the brim of his hat.
Raine arched her eyebrows at her sister.
‘Yes, it’s me.’ Faye returned the young man’s smile, which grew bolder.
‘I was on my way back from lectures and saw you from over there.’ He waved across the road. ‘At least I thought it was you, so I dodged the cars ...’
‘And here you are.’ Faye finished the sentence for him.
He crinkled his eyes at her.
Raine needed to remind her sister of her own existence. ‘We have to be getting on, Faye,’ she said. ‘We’ll be late if we don’t hurry.’
The youth swung his head to Raine. ‘You must be Raine. I’m Charlie, a friend of Faye’s. Pleased to meet you, Raine.’
He stuck out a long-fingered hand. Clean, well kept nails. No manual worker. Of course. He had said he was on his way back from lectures, therefore he must be at the university. A student.
‘Are you on your way to see your father?’ Charlie asked when he’d returned Raine’s hand. He frowned when he said it, telling Raine he knew about Pop.
Raine bristled. Faye was hers, her sister, her best friend. How did this stranger know something so intimate about her?
Faye nodded quickly. ‘Yes, we are.’
‘I’m so sorry to have held you up, my apologies, really, I’m sorry, I’ll leave you to get on.’ He touched his hat again, his spoken apologies reflected in his light brown eyes and creased forehead as he stepped aside to let them pass.
‘Who?’ Raine asked as they walked faster to make up for the lost minute.
‘Charlie Stanhope. I met him at a church do, with Grandma. His gran goes to the same church. He came along one Sunday.’
‘The grandmas set you up?’
Faye gave Raine a sideways frown. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Clear as day he finds you most attractive. I mean –’ Raine threw out a hand towards the strident tangle of buses, cars and trams ‘– risking life and limb simply to say hello? Not even sure it was you?’
Faye sniffed. Raine’s light heart lifted higher.
Afterwards, the sisters parted outside the hospital; Faye to the train, Raine to the bus. Raine waited at the stop, shivering in the chill wind penetrating her coat. Like the sunny day, her light mood had soured, curdled into leaden despair at her father’s state. A down day. He hadn’t woken during their hour visit. Raine had silently counted the seconds between his rattling breaths, hating how his once happy face had become a crushed road map of pain. Would the angry, ragged creases disappear when he was well again?
If he was well again. No. Raine huddled in her coat on the emptying bus and stuffed the terrible thought into the long pocket of her anxious soul. And don’t come out, she warned it with glistening eyes.
No one else got off at the camp’s bus stop. Raine hesitated at the beginning of the dark track. A silver moon was rising, its base a jagged line where it hadn’t cleared the surrounding hills; its light nowhere near what Raine considered adequate. She eyed the street lamp at the far intersection – a lighthouse beacon with a shark-filled sea between her and its tentative safety.
She drew a breath and ran, fast, head down, clutching her hat with one hand. Her handbag flapped heavily against her thigh. Home, home. It was only darkness. Light and warmth were around the corner.
‘Hey, doll! Come an’ have a drink with a lonely ol’ man! Come on! Ya know ya wanna.’
Smack! He was on the track, the drunken man with the bullfrog belly. In her racing blindness, Raine had careened right into him. She lurched, nearly fell. He caught her by the arm and reeled her in like a flopping fish.
Raine opened her mouth to scream. He clamped wet beery lips to her open mouth, strangling the scream. Rubbery fingers fumbled at her skirt, digging into her crotch. He gyrated his thighs, moaning. Raine was choking in the stink of his sweat and the force of his tongue pushing her teeth down her gagging gullet. She banged at his fat arm with her handbag, kicked at his legs with her heeled shoes.
‘Oi! What the hell you doin’?’
Someone pulled Raine away, at the same time shoving her attacker in the chest. He stumbled backwards, arms wheeling.
A cockney-accented voice shouted, ‘Here Alf, take her!’ and strong hands spun Raine into outstretched arms. Raine’s pounding heart beat harder. More attackers? But the arms steadied her and with a ‘You all right, love?’ set her aside before the young man attached to them swung back to face her assailant.
Raine had two saviours.
She stared at the men and fought to stiffen her trembling legs. She wanted to vomit.
‘What you bleedin’ thinking mate?’ Her first youthful saviour punched clenched fists into the heavily breathing man’s shoulders. The man lurched, stayed upright. ‘Get out of here, before I shout for the rest of my mates!’ Another punch, another backward tottering step.
‘Hooligans!’ the drunken man spat. He waggled pudgy fists like he might square up to the youth. A further shove, this time from Raine’s second saviour, changed his mind. He waved his fists in the air, shouted his cry of, ‘Hooligans!’ and swayed back to the door of his hut.
The youths hooted their victory. ‘Drunken coward, picking on girls!’
The door slammed. Raine heard the clank of a bolt.
Her saviours gave a final cheer and closed in on Raine, all frowns and head shaking, inspecting her for damage as best they could in the dimness.
‘You all right?’
‘Did he hurt you?’
Raine’s nausea had passed although the rest of her body had joined her legs in their shaking.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Raine.’ It came out at the end of a shuddering breath.
‘Rain? Funny kind of moniker. Got a sister called Wind?’ The second youth, shorter and tubbier than his friend, tittered at his own wit.
‘Huh? Oh, no. It’s short for Lorraine,’ Raine managed, through chattering teeth.
‘Lorraine. I like that.’ The tall one gave her a lazy smile. All the energy he’d directed at her attacker had leaked out of him. He was as limp as a punctured tyre, slouching, hands in the pockets of his open jacket while he casually appraised Raine. ‘Think I’ll call you Lorraine.’
When will you call me Lorraine? Are we going to see each other again? Raine wanted to go home.
‘Where’s your place, Raine?’ the tubby one asked. He too was appraising her, his frown suggesting he might understand Raine’s trembling. ‘We’ll take you there, okay?’
‘Th..th..thank you.’ Raine lifted a hand which had grown several pounds heavier since last she lifted it. She pointed at the dull street lamp. ‘I’m just around the corner.’
They walked either side of her, slowing their pace to fit her unsteady legs. The tubby one reached for her elbow. Raine let him hold it. It was comforting, like having Pop take her hand to cross a road when she was as small as the kids.
‘This is it.’ Raine stopped at the door. The smell of mutton drifted through the gaps around the thin wood. The nausea rose in her throat again. ‘I’ll be right now. Thank you, both of you.’
‘Any time, love.’ The tall one took his hands from his pockets and gave her a bow, arms across his front and back. ‘Knights of old, me and Alf. King Arthur and Lancelot.’
‘Arthur’s no king,’ Alf protested. He winked at Raine. ‘Wait ’til you meet him, you’ll understand.’
Meet him? When? How? Raine’s head was thick as cotton wool. Her legs shrieked to be allowed to dump the load of her weighty body and fold themselves to the ground. She forced her lips into a smile shape. ‘Good night, and thank you very very much.’ She pushed at the door, fell through, shut it behind her and burst into tears.
Raine sobbed into her arms, crossed on the table top. Betty stood beside her, kneading Raine’s heaving shoulders as she listened to the halting story. The kids stared from the couch.
She’d beat her daughter’s attacker to death with her bare hands, Betty stormed. Raine believed her.
‘You’ll stay home tomorrow,’ Betty decided. She’d go to the only phone box on the camp and telephone Rumfield & Sons, explain what had happened and tell them Raine needed a day off. Perhaps two.
‘No!’ Raine hid her wet face in her hands. ‘You can’t tell them anything! Please, Mum.’
What would they think? They’d think she was the type of girl whom strange men bothered, that somehow she’d made the drunken man think she’d welcome his advances. What if the story reached leering Mr Pearson? He’d think Raine wanted him to pat her bum.
‘No, Mum, let’s forget it. I’ll come home a different way, avoid his place.’ It would mean a longer walk in the darkness. ‘We’ve got a torch, haven’t we? I’ll take that.’
Betty appeared to understand about not wanting the story spread around. She gave Raine’s shoulders a final squeeze. ‘You’re sure?’
‘I’m sure.’ Raine reached around her mother’s narrow waist and pressed her head into her bony chest. It felt good. Safe.
‘I wish Bill was here,’ Betty muttered into Raine’s hair.
Raine wished Pop was there too.
‘Poor kid.’ Alf selected a beer from the tub by the back door of his parents’ hut and handed it to his friend. ‘Think she’ll be okay, Teddy?’
‘Lucky we came along, that’s for sure.’ Teddy cracked the cap of the beer against the table edge and took a swallow. ‘Thirsty work rescuing damsels in distress.’
Alf opened a bottle for himself and pulled out a chair. ‘She was plucky, wasn’t she? Kicking the freak’s shins, did you notice?’
‘Didn’t notice. Too busy getting stuck into the creep myself.’
‘You think she has to go past there every night?’
‘By herself?’ Alf persisted.
A plump, dark-haired woman was waiting at the bus stop when Raine arrived the next morning. She was folded into a red overcoat which offered the only colour in the sunless, shades-of-brown landscape. The woman gave a last puff on a cigarette before tossing it to the ground and absently grinding the butt into the dirt with the heel of her polished pumps. She squinted at Raine from black button eyes which shone vividly against the pale creaminess of her skin.
‘You’re from the camp, aren’t you?’ Her cockney accent was as thick as Raine’s saviours of the previous night. ‘You live ’round the corner from us, don’t you?’
It wasn’t a friendly question, neighbour to neighbour. Rather, twin vertical lines appeared between the woman’s plucked brows. Had the kids annoyed her somehow and she’d worked out Raine belonged with them?
‘I don’t think so,’ Raine said, her voice tight.
‘You were in a spot of bother last night, right?’
Raine shifted from foot to foot, peered up the road, past the woman’s dark head. Trust the bus to be late. ‘Uh, I’m ... I’m ... not sure what you mean.’
‘My Teddy told me. How he had to rescue a girl, him and Alfie. Way he described you – little thing, rosy cheeks, brown hair, comes back late – I worked out it must be you.’
Comes back late? The woman made it sound immoral. Besides, it wasn’t very late. Not like midnight or anything. What did she think Raine was up to? Raine’s back went up. She wasn’t going to explain. Let the old bat think what she wanted. What was it to Raine?
‘Not me.’ She waved a hand airily. ‘I’m home before dark.’
The woman frowned, delved into her handbag to bring out a broken pack of cigarettes, pulled one from the pack, saw the bus approaching and put it back.
Raine stood aside, a deliberately polite gesture, to allow the woman to mount the steps to the driver. She didn’t thank Raine. Raine found a seat as far from her scowling face as she could.
Teddy? That must be the young man’s name, the tall one who’d rescued her. The tubby one was Alf, she remembered. Teddy had been pleasant enough. Not like his strange mother. An uncomfortable dread settled in Raine’s stomach. She hoped, with no belief in the hope, that the woman wasn’t a gossip.
The day dragged. Mr Rumfield was mostly closeted with clients, meaning Raine spent hours making cups of tea and laying out cream biscuits on doyley-lined china plates. And washing up and doing it all over. There were pages of dictation in her notepad waiting to be typed up. Raine longed to get to them. It wouldn’t be today. She hoped Mr Rumfield would understand.
She and Faye rushed lunch in the station cafe. Raine didn’t tell Faye about the attack. She was going to, only there never seemed to be the right moment. Besides, Raine’s insides squirmed whenever the memory crept into her mind, which was too often. She wanted to pretend it had never happened, to bury her feeling of being dirty, muddied.
Also, she justified, she didn’t want Faye feeling guilty about leaving her younger sister to face the lonely night time camp by herself.
All afternoon, Raine fretted about going to the hospital which meant a dark walk home whether or not she avoided the man’s house. She kept checking her handbag for the torch, a great weighty thing which would make an ideal weapon if push came to shove. Her mother had handed it over with a warning not to lose it. It was their only one and the number of electricity cuts in the camp, especially with the coal strike going on and on, made it a key piece of kit for the household. Betty had a Tilley lamp and a box of candles too.
‘Are you all right, Raine?’ Ronnie found Raine in the ladies’ toilet, where Raine was staring into the sliver of mottled mirror above the hand basin.
‘Yes, I’m fine.’ Raine pulled her comb from her bag and yanked it through hair which had put aside any pretense of the curls she had started the day with. She eyed Ronnie’s luxurious chestnut waves in the mirror, envying the shiny cascade falling to her workmate’s shoulders. She might get a perm, when she could afford it.
Ronnie squeezed in beside Raine to repair her lipstick. ‘Oh, well, back into the fray.’ She dropped the lipstick into her handbag and headed to the door.
‘Your boss giving you a hard time?’ Raine asked.
Ronnie stopped to breathe a heavy sigh. ‘He’s harmless, mostly. It’s when he’s been to lunch with clients or the other partners ... that’s when he gets well, skittish, you know what I mean?’
‘Don’t know how you put up with it.’ Raine frowned at her colleague. The memory of the drunken man’s attack broke on her, churning in her gut. No, it wasn’t the same thing. Old Pearson, the slimy lech, didn’t mean any harm. Still, it shouldn’t happen. ‘Maybe you should scream, see what he does?’
‘Lovely idea, sweetie. Sack me is what he’d do.’ Ronnie pulled open the door, waggled her fingers in farewell and walked into the corridor. Raine listened to her shoes with their metal tips tapping on the polished tiles.
Raine followed, her frown returning. She had to go and see Pop, despite the dark walk home. She couldn’t disappoint him and she had to find out if he was any better, if the new tablets were working. See if today had been an up day.
A starless, moonless night trailed the sunless day. It fitted Raine’s mood, made worse by her hour at the hospital. Pop hadn’t shaved, been shaved. Raine had leaned closer to his sleeping pale cheek, wanting to lay her own cheek against those homely bristles and suffer the itchy prickle she would always associate with Pop’s strong hugs and smile-wreathed face. Before he was ill. Now those homely bristles sprang from a stranger’s face, crumpled where Pop’s face had been smooth, lines creasing a forehead beneath hair turned to wisps. Raine wanted Pop back again, to see this interloper banished. She wanted to believe what the solemn doctor said, about how effective Pop’s new antibiotics were. They had to be.
The bus grumbled to a halt, the door squeaked open and Raine stepped down to the weedy unpaved footpath. No one else got off. She eyed the track ahead. The shadows were heavier than normal. Her nerves jumped: the camp’s ever unwilling street lamps were dark. The only lights were the occasional flickers showing in the small windows of the huts ahead. Candles or lamps.
The coal strike. Damn the strikers. Damn these cuts.
Two men with their hats pulled over their foreheads waited at the stop. When Raine cleared the doorway of the bus, the men made no move to climb aboard. The driver peered out. One of the men shook his head. The door squealed closed. The bus rumbled off.
Oh God. Raine’s stretched nerves tightened.
She trotted into the darkness, fast, not running, as if the men at the stop were wild animals who would be startled into the chase if she proved herself to be prey by breaking into a run. As she hurried, she dug into her bag, hauled out the torch. With only one hand, she couldn’t find the switch. The path ahead was a black hole.
‘Hey, Lorraine, wait up! We’ve come to walk you home,’ a cockney voice called to Raine’s back.
‘Not canter you home!’ another voice laughed.
Raine spun around. ‘You?’ She squinted, fumbling with the heavy torch.
It was the youths from last night. Tubby Alf and the tall one whose mother Raine had met that morning. Teddy.
‘’course. Said we was knights in shining, didn’t we?’
The tall one sauntered towards her. Raine managed to switch on the torch. She shone it in his face.
‘Hey, turn it off!’
Raine glimpsed a confident big-toothed grin before she swung the light to the track. She didn’t turn the torch off.
‘You frightened me to death,’ she scolded, ‘waiting there in the dark.’ Her heart slowed its pounding.
‘We saw the drunk hanging about his doorway.’ The tall one, Teddy, was at Raine’s side, grinning. ‘He went in when he clocked us. Still, me and Alf considered you might need an escort tonight.’
‘That’s really kind.’ Raine’s face grew hot at Teddy’s grin. The darkness shifted from foe to friend. ‘There’s no need, though. I’ve got my torch and I can go a different way, not past his house.’ She jiggled the torch, sending its beam across both young men’s faces.
They shielded their eyes and grumbled. Behind the beam, the darkness persisted. Perhaps Raine did need an escort.
‘Blimey, you could do real damage with that.’ Alf jumped away from the torch’s glare, laughing again.
‘C’mon, let’s take you home. I’m Teddy by the way, and this is my mate, Alf.’
‘Pleased to meet you.’ Raine held out a gloved hand.
The young men stared at it before Alf swooped, collected up the hand and pressed the back of the glove to his lips. ‘The pleasure’s all mine,’ he stated, solemn as a judge.
‘Sorry about my mate,’ Teddy growled. ‘Are we going or not?’
They took Raine’s normal, shorter way, past the drunken man’s house. A round pale face lit by a pale light watched them – watched Raine – through a nylon curtain. Raine cringed. If she’d come by here alone, he’d have flown out his door and ... She’d almost prefer him to be lounging on his doorstep, catcalling. She could run, fast. Hiding in his house, spying on her in the dark ...? A shiver trickled down her back. She smiled gratefully at Teddy, then at Alf.
Alf took the lead in the conversation as they walked along by the light of Raine’s torch. Ambled, rather. Raine wanted to hurry.
‘Where you from, Raine?’ Alf wanted to know. ‘You’re an Aussie, aren’t you? What you doing in the camp with all us foreign immigrant types?’
‘I’m no foreigner,’ Teddy complained.
‘You’re not Australian’ –¬ Alf pronounced it Orstralian – ‘therefore you’re a foreigner.’ Alf paused to give Teddy muttering time. ‘You, Raine? What you doing here?’
Raine shrugged at the nosy question, calmer now the danger of attack was behind them. Was the awful man still peering out the window? Well, Raine was safe for tonight.
‘We’re from the country, south of here. My Pop’s ill and had to come to a big hospital in the city. We ended up in the camp because there’s too many of us to stay with relatives.’
‘We’re from London,’ Alf explained. ‘East End.’
‘Bomb site, the whole place. The blitz.’ Teddy offered this up with a swagger, as if he assumed the global fame of the blitz was transferable to each individual who’d lived through it.
Perhaps it was. Raine knew about the blitz from the news at the pictures in her old home town: hellish, wall-size images of flames and ruin and haggard figures sifting through shredded curtains and splintered furniture for the shards of once whole lives. The insensitivity of introducing those images with Movietone news’ joyous kookaburra had bewildered her. She peeked at her escorts, wondering how they could appear so, well, normal, after living through such horror. No wonder they and their families had fetched up here. It might be humble, but it wasn’t the unfound dead under blackened stone and charred timber. Teddy deserved his swagger.
‘I know,’ Raine told him. ‘Saw it on the newsreels. Awful.’
‘Yeah. It’s why we’re here. No rationing, not to speak of. No bombed-out houses.’
‘Plenty of work.’
‘Land of opp-or-chun-ity,’ Teddy finished with a dramatic wave of his hand.
Raine gave him another glance. She supposed, too, you were allowed to be cynical after spending the war in the East End, skulking in underground stations which might fill with water and drown you. Had Teddy and Alf been there when the tunnels filled? Had they watched friends and families washed away in a swirl of littered icy water? Raine shivered.
‘Your dad any better?’ Alf asked with a sympathetic tilt of his head.
‘No.’ Raine was sorry it came out as short as it did. Alf appeared to actually care. She tried to do better. ‘He’s not worse. I think.’
‘What’s wrong with him?’
After what he’d lived through?
‘Here we are.’ Raine was grateful to reach her door. ‘Thanks, again.’ A thought struck her. ‘How did you know when I’d be back?’ And how did you know that man was lying in wait?
‘We waited for you,’ Alf said.
‘We were passing the stop and saw the bus and reckoned you might be on it,’ Teddy said, at the same time. He glared at his tubby mate, who sniggered.
The street lamps flicked into brightness as if Alf’s snigger had commanded them. The light above Raine’s front door glowed too, spotlighting Raine and her rescuers.
Raine grinned. ‘I don’t expect you to do it every night, you know.’
‘We know.’ Teddy kicked at the dirt with the pointy toe of his shoe. ‘Alf was wondering, though, if you’d like to go to the camp dance Saturday week.’
‘Dance?’ Raine hadn’t heard of any dances at the camp. Her mind sped home, to the country, to the blithe days when she and Faye would go dancing in the church hall on a Saturday night: men sawing at fiddles, the church organist doubling as a pianist and she and her girlfriends in their best frocks whirling from one heavy-footed farm boy to the next. It would be something to take her mind off hospital wards and hacking coughs, if only for a few hours. She might even have fun.
Teddy was waiting for an answer. ‘Might do,’ Raine said. She shouldn’t sound too easy, not with these strangers. ‘I’d have to ask my mother. She might not let me go by myself.’
‘Don’t you have a sister who could come too?’ Teddy probed.
Raine frowned. How did Teddy know about Faye? Had he been watching them? Like the drunken man? Was he pretending to be nice, and safe, and then ...? Or maybe, the irritating idea came to her, they were being heroes because they wanted to meet Faye. Prettier, older Faye with her blonde hair which stayed in place and her confident ways. Raine stiffened.
‘I do have a sister. She doesn’t live here anymore.’
‘She still might want to come to the dance, hey?’ Teddy persisted.
Alf stood with his hands in his pockets, head down. Raine saw his shoulders shake.
‘I’ll ask her, when I see her next.’ It was all she’d concede.
The door opened with a squeak of unoiled hinges. Raine jumped.
‘Who’re you talking to, Raine?’ Betty poked her head out and stared at the two young men.
‘Mum, this is Teddy and Alf. They’re the ones who rescued me last night. They met me off the bus tonight and brought me home.’
Betty smiled. Raine loved to see her mother’s rare smiles. It made Raine think more kindly of the youths, whatever their motives for playing the hero.
‘Thank you, Teddy and Alf,’ Betty said. ‘That’s very good of you. Can I offer you something? Tea? Haven’t any beer, I’m afraid.’
‘No, thanks, Mrs ...?’
‘Merrett,’ Raine told him.
‘Mrs Merrett. Me and Teddy’ll be on our ways. Got Raine home safe.’ Alf gave Raine a smart salute, like a soldier. ‘Maybe we’ll see you Saturday week, Raine?’
‘With your sister?’ Teddy added.
‘Maybe.’ Raine heard the sourness in her voice and nodded to make it all right, show she didn’t care.
‘Saturday week?’ Betty asked.
Raine stepped inside. ‘Later. It’s cold out here, let’s go in. Bye Alf, bye Teddy.’ She ushered her mother back into the hut and followed her without looking back.
‘What about Saturday week?’
‘They’ve invited me and Faye to a dance here on the camp.’ Raine’s shallow enthusiasm had been dampened further by the suspicion it was her sister the youths were interested in, not her. And she would never be allowed to go without Faye.
‘Not by yourself. Especially after what happened.’
Raine’s suddenly churning stomach agreed. Fun or not, she didn’t want to be wandering the camp, in the dark, by herself.
‘If you can tempt Faye out of the luxury of Grandma’s, perhaps we’ll see.’
Or even wandering the camp, in the dark, with Faye.