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Spitfire Autumn

ISSUE:  Autumn 1978

The funny thing is neither of us had ever seen a Yank before much less danced with one. Here he was, a little dark man on crutches standing in the corner of the pub chewing a chocolate ice cream where what we expected was a tall dreamy cowboy with pistols and high boots. The very first Yank for two runaround girls of 18, and he turns out looking underfed, underpaid and under-you-know-what, not the other way around like everyone was saying. But what was so extraordinary was he was chewing on the ice cream, not licking it like anyone else would have done.

“I’m going to dance with him,” Angel said just like that.

“You can’t!” I said for no particular reason except my being there to watch out for her. That and because seeing all those brown uniforms for the first time sent shivers all down my spine and I couldn’t think very clear.

What you have to remember was that to Angel and I, growing up south of the river, the West End was just as far-off and foreign as Texas or California or anywhere else. And I’d lost my mum in a raid you see. They’d taken her away to hospital during the night, and since Mrs. Williams next door was already gone off to work and I was oldest they had me wait by the tube station for my dad coming home. They gave me a piece of paper with the name of the street on it in case I forgot. Dad changed after that. I don’t think it was her dying so much as the time he had trying to get across the burning City to where she was. It took him the better part of all day, and when he got there it was too late.

But what I intended to say was that for a lot of girls like Angel and I coming on to be 18 or so the West End in those years represented heaven and all we could think of was someday getting there. Here we were cooped up in the Depression, then the Blitz, all the young men gone off, our baby brothers and sisters out in the country, not knowing if we would even make it to 17 much less 18, stuck there to rot in school with nearsighted masters who coughed and got the blackboard all moist so you couldn’t properly write your sums without the chalk slipping. . . . Here we were and not ten minutes away by underground was paradise swarming with Yanks and money and bright lights and all the things we’d ever dreamed about.

It was too much for a lot of the girls—a lot of them went out on the street straight away. And it’s a wonder Angel didn’t, too, because she was that type of girl in some ways. Wild like, full of fun, always needing new clothes and lipstick her mum and dad couldn’t possibly afford. They were terribly strict besides, and of course that’s what made half of them do it in the first place.

I suppose we must have looked that kind, God knows, all fancied up in nylons we’d practically stolen for, out the first time for ourselves in Piccadilly, and here Angel is going up to ask a Yank who’s at least four inches shorter than she is to dance.

“Wish to hell I could, babe,” he said, a little Adolf mustache under his nose from the ice cream.

I’m not sure what Angel said after that. There were a lot of Tommys there, too, and one of them was giving me the business, Polite like but you knew what he wanted. In those days it was always “Let’s you-know-what, Kay, we don’t have much time.” After the war it was always “Let’s you-know-what, Kay, we have to make up for lost time.” Nowadays, nowadays when all most of them should be thinking about is a nice warm chair in front of the fire and a quiet read it’s the “Let’s you-know-what, Kay, we don’t have much time” all over again.

But anyway the next I knew they were really dancing, Angel and the Yank, He still had his crutches with him—he was leaning on her shoulder while she held him up, the two of them swaying back and forth to a slow dreamy Vera Lynn. But then a fast lindy came on, the kind Angel liked, and she ran over and handed me his crutches to hold and sure enough they started whirling around the pub like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Angel laughing and the Yank with a big surprised grin on his face matching her step for step.

I don’t know what would have happened when the music stopped because just then the Yank’s sergeant came back from the gent’s. You can imagine how he must have felt, one second his friend standing there as forlorn as can be, the next waltzing across the room with a beautiful blonde. The sergeant started yelling and pointing trying to get everbody’s attention so they could see what was happening. The barmaid had been watching all along, too, and now she started pulling all the dancers apart trying to make room for Angel and her Yank.

“PardonmeI’vegottorun,” I said to poor Tommy just as fast as that. “Scuseme,” I said, “Scuseme,” pushing my way through the crowd. “Come on, Vee, let’s go!” I whispered, grabbing her by the back of the sweater and tugging her toward the door. All along we were supposed to be visiting my sister Flora in Lambeth, and there’s no telling what her parents would have done if they found out where we really were,

But anyway what I wanted to say. . . . That was Angel’s first Yank, September 10 or maybe 11, 1944. The newspapers only caught up with her after the second one in October so all along their tally was wrong, one behind if you see what I mean. Actually it should have been seven miracles by V-E Day, not the six they finally credited her with.

We were all so excited and giggly it never occurred to us it was a miracle. All we could think was here she had actually danced with a Yank and not only a Yank but a Yank who chewed chocolate ice cream. It was too early to go home yet so we started down towards Trafalgar Square, arm in arm, like two little Alices lost in Wonderland. It was all the crowds you see, all the different colored uniforms pushing by us smelling soft and warm in the rain. We felt anything could happen and at the same time felt safe and secure for the first we could remember, as if nothing could touch us here in the crowd, not the raid sirens we heard in the distance, not the bombs, not the thought of ever having to go back across the river.

The streets are just as crowded today, of course, but it’s not the same at all. I remember those old posters warning us that if we didn’t keep our lights off, if we didn’t save tin and petrol, if we whispered to the wrong person. . . . If any of those things happened or didn’t happen, the streets of London would be crowded with Germans and Japanese and Italians, and here it is 32 years later and they are crowded with Germans and Japanese and Arabs and God knows who else, even though no one I knew ever whispered or wasted a thing. A man on the telly said you could tell a native Englishman because he walked on the outside of the footpath away from the tourists. Well, out in the bloody street is more like it today, there being no room in near the shop windows for any except foreigners scurrying from store to store with their packages like they were looters sacking Oxford Street.

It’s funny thinking how things change and how little, too. Here Angel was so beautiful and yet she never married, though there were dozens who would have had her and one or two nearly slit their throats they couldn’t. I wasn’t half that pretty and I tied the knot before the war was hardly over, Jack and I having forgotten to be careful one night when the buzz bombs were coming down. Angel was my bridesmaid of course and I remember everyone saying well, it won’t be long before that one’s a bride you can bet a fiver on that. But she never was. And yet here I am today, Jack dead, Ronny and Carol both gone off to Australia, me just as alone as Angel ever was, as if all that family and marriage and pain and joy business never happened, had just been a dream.

Angel changed a lot after the war. She was never what you would call the Brain Trust sort, but she got so she was absentminded and you had to tell her a thing twice or so before she really heard you. And then it almost seemed she was deliberately being mean to her old self some of the things she did. It was like she didn’t want to remember any of those times anymore, wanted to deliberately spoil the memories so she wouldn’t be tempted remembering.

The job she took when she was made redundant at the office, her boss being Pakastani and having a sister just over he put in her place, is a good example—a dance instructor part-time in a studio near Paddington. It could make you cry seeing her go off to work all fancied up looking not all that different from the way she looked in the war. I mean here was a woman men had actually prayed to dancing every afternoon with Jamaicans and Indians and whoever came in off the street wanting to learn the fox trot or the waltz or whatever. She said she didn’t mind—we made a joke of it, comparing her foreigners with mine, me working as a shop assistant at Marks and Spencer at the time. She liked West Indians best, she said. They would forget to be shy after a while, giving themselves completely over to whichever dance it was they were doing. The Arabs you had to be careful with because they weren’t supposed to be there to begin with so you knew they weren’t the good kind. She didn’t like the way they kept staring at her legs.

Poor Angel. I felt so sorry for her the last few years only she would get mad and refuse to say anything if she caught me at it. She was never one to reminisce about the old days was Angel. The only thing was you couldn’t say anything bad about Americans and God help you if you did! That and the habit she had of looking off toward the sky saying “Well, Kay dear, Looks it’s going to be a real Spitfire autumn this year,” the same way that some people watch the leaves in Regent’s Park and predict winter’s coming. We’d walk arm in arm like when we were girls and for a time we’d both get good and misty-eyed. “Yes,” I would say, “Yes, it’s a real Spitfire autumn this year all right,” feeling nostalgic and sad, though I was never sure what there was in the air made her say that.

She had a horror of souvenirs—after she died last October I was surprised finding out she’d kept any. There were the newspaper cuttings and some badges and insignia her Yanks tore off their tunics to give her while they were dancing. She left them to me, mainly because she was afraid her niece’s husband Mickey would get them if she didn’t. Angel lived with them her last few months because she couldn’t afford anywhere else. Sally was all right, always the smile, always the kind word for me when I came to call. Mickey was something else again, always dressed in expensive suits, ingratiating like a baby lamb if you were someone better off than he was, lording it over Angel because she was stuck but giving her the eye from time to time, too, because she was a handsome woman still at 51 and you could see heads turning when she walked down the Bayswater Road on her way to work.

I’m not sure what Mickey’s actual job was—something to do with antiques he claimed. But what he really did was go around buying up old war medals from RAF fliers or Navy officers who had fallen upon hard times, selling them in turn to German collectors who were willing to pay a pretty penny for them. Mickey made a bundle on it I suppose. And I suppose the fliers got something out of it, too, which God knows they deserve the stingy way the government treats them. But what I hated so was his manner, him sitting there bragging about the Victoria Cross he had all wrapped up in his coat pocket and how he was meeting this rich German’s solicitor in the Ritz that afternoon to complete the deal, except he never called it a deal he called it a “transfer.” It got so after a while I had Angel meet me down below in the street. He was the kind of man who’s old enough to remember but who won’t, and I’ve always thought that’s the worst sin of all for us.

But anyway what I meant to say before I got started was we never learned the name of that first Yank. We wouldn’t have known the names of the others either if it hadn’t been for the newspapers, Angel, for all her madcap ways, being too shy to actually come right out and ask them. The articles would have their hometowns and how long they had been in the service and what they were going to do when they got out which was always something silly like eat the biggest steak in Kansas City or sleep till noon every day of the week. Sometimes when there’s nothing on the telly at night I take her scrapbook out and read them off trying to match the right name to the right face to the right club. . . . Read them right out loud like that and it brings it all back. . . . The soldiers calling out to us on the street, the girls who wanted to signaling back to them from off in the dark holding matches up to their faces. . . . The curly cigarette smoke that used to leak out the cracks near the window and let you smell the canteen before you were even across the street to it, the wall of music that hit you when you opened the door and maybe it was Tommy Dorsey they were playing and maybe it was someone else, but how it seemed another door you had to walk through before you belonged, sealing you in once you were through, in with uniforms packed so tight you wouldn’t think there was room for one more, the two of us getting up on tiptoe to see while the lady took our coats, the middle of the room seeming to tilt back and forth which was the only way you could tell people were dancing, that and the glimpses we had of tops of men’s arms looping over tops of girl’s heads as they turned them out into the crowd and brought them back again into their arms, . . . How the floor was always wet from spilled drinks and how no one cared but only went over to the bar for more.

“I’m going to dance with him,” she said and just like that she was up to him and whispering something in his ear and they were dancing, the Yank dropping his crutches, his arms around her neck like she was the life ring and he was the sailor going down.

This time though it was a much bigger club and the Yank had more friends. Before long everyone had cleared away from the dance floor to watch them like they do in the cinema, this Yank being much more handsome and tall than the first and Angel looking even more pretty and fancied up than usual. She always danced with her eyes closed but just before the music stopped something must have made her open them. . . . She realized they were dancing all alone. . . . She let go of him and pushed her way into the crowd like she was Cinderella caught out late with her prince.

“PardonmeI’vegottorun,” and I met her at the door, the two of us running outside so fast we each gave the coat lady a shilling, giggling as madly as before.

Next day it was in the Daily Mirror how an American PFC named Michael Manning from Little Rock, Arkansas, had gone to a nightclub in Piccadilly with his buddies expecting just to watch on account of the wound he got in France when this beautiful young British gal came up to him out of the crowd near the bandstand and asked him to dance.

“Thanks doll, but I’m going to sit this one out,” the paper said he said.

“Don’t you think you could try?” the paper said the Yank said Angel said. “Try just for me?”

“Well, sure honey. If’in you hold me real tight that is.”

And while his buddies stood there with their mouths open he really did dance, letting his crutches fall to the floor and dipping and bobbing with this British gal like it was old times back home and how the mysterious thing was just when he realized what had happened and people started yelling and applauding the girl disappeared, one moment she was there and the next she wasn’t.

Angel’s dad got the Mirror first thing every morning so we saw it soon enough. They had a picture of him standing in front of the bar with his crutches mounted crisscross over the Guiness sign like it was Lourdes. And the funny thing was we still didn’t think much of it. Angel cut the picture out and carried it in her purse for a while but that’s really all. We had new jobs in hospital kitchen, and I suppose we were too busy settling in to think much of anything.

It was only after the third, the bombardier without any knees, we started thinking maybe there was something to it. I remember she danced with some regular Yanks that night before spotting the one on crutches. All the papers had it on Sunday this time, most of them on the front page because there wasn’t much happening in the war just then. That was when they started calling her “The Angel of Piccadilly” and all. I remember they went into more and more detail every time it happened, A tallish girl with a dimple on her left cheek they said, shoulder-length blonde hair about five feet nine with legs that would make a dead man climb straight out of his grave. They were right on the hair, wrong on the dimple, which she never had. But what was funny was it made it seem she was the escaped criminal and all, headlines saying “Where Will Angel Strike Next?” and so on. Made her seem the Ripper actually, the two of us reading the paper in the morning and not giggling anymore because neither of us was quite sure what was happening. But all along this great mystery of her disappearing was simply because we both had to get home and were afraid if we didn’t her mum and dad would find out and we wouldn’t be allowed our Saturday nights anymore.

I don’t think she ever told anyone else it was her, Vee Latchford, who was actually Angel, at least not during the war. Afterwards she might have told Richard, but I’m not sure. I do know they were all set to go down the aisle together and then suddenly they weren’t and I had to return a pretty chiffon dress I’d bought special for the occasion. Richard hadn’t been in the war on account of his lung—he was the jealous type and I suppose it was too much for him thinking of her with all those Yanks and the praying for her to come dance with them, like the papers said.

It’s a wonder we remained friends come to that. A lot of pretty girls are like Angel was, always wanting a less pretty one around to act their witness. But I didn’t mind actually, It got so I felt protective over her being almost a year older than she was and having lost a mum in the Blitz and so on.

“Well, what do you say to them?” I used to ask her at lunch thinking that would be the important clue.

“I don’t know,” she said, spreading her chips around with her fork to let them cool like she always did. “Mostly I tease them is all.”

“Tease them about what?”

“Why about not dancing, silly.”

“They’re on crutches, Vee!”

“I know. What about it?”

Angel never was what you would call a talker.

“Why is it always Yanks?” I asked her, deciding on a new tack as it were.

“I feel so sorry for them really. Them being all alone over here with no family or loved ones. I’ll dance with a Tommy someday, you see if I don’t.”

She really didn’t know why it happened though and that was the mystery of it and not her disappearing like the papers said, Maybe it was her legs, I thought, thinking for her. They were lovely long like the way we said those days, and the papers were right about their being enough to make a dead man dance much less a wounded one. Maybe it was the sweaters she wore. Maybe these men saw her you-know-whats looking so soft and round they couldn’t resist the urge to put their arms around her, the rest happening naturally if you see. And if it wasn’t her legs or her sweater, maybe it was her manner. Maybe, I used to tell her, they feel the pity you have for them and yet they don’t feel ashamed of it, they feel it’s somehow bigger than you are or they are or the war is. . . .

“I don’t know actually,” she said, chewing on gum her last Yank had given her when they were still in the teasing stage. “Listen, Kay. I have to decide right now. Are we going out Saturday night or aren’t we?”

And what I think looking back really happened was that Angel was the right girl in the right place like Joan of Arc or somebody like that. Here she was this beautiful young girl who perfectly combined all the best qualities of her time and place, and here they were these handsome Yanks perfectly combining all the best qualities of their time and place and then London during the war and the raids and all the suffering and hoping was somehow mixed in too, and with all this, out of all this, a miracle—seven miracles—simply had to occur.

“I don’t know really,” she would say, mumbling now so I could barely hear her. “I only wish it would stop.”

The truth was it got to be a burden for her being The Angel of Piccadilly and all. Dancing like that would have gone to a lot of girls’ heads, and knowing her like I did I’d have bet it would have gone to hers, too, making her more the madcap and runaround than ever. But somehow it had just the opposite effect. She started biting her nails the fifth one—the more times it happened the less sure she felt about herself. For some reason it made her very sad, her growing to resent it like it was something keeping her from all the fun the other girls were having just then, the papers having stolen that fun away from her. She was afraid she’d someday ask a soldier to dance and he wouldn’t or what was even worse he would try to and collapse on the floor right there in front of her after letting go his crutches. I don’t think she could have stood that you see. To protect herself she got so she made fun of the ones she had already danced with, saying well, his wound wasn’t that bad, if it was bad he wouldn’t have been there, only a cushy twisted ankle probably and anyone could have danced with him not just me.

But she bit her nails right down to the quick just the same, and toward the end of 1944 we hardly went out on Saturday nights at all which was a shame because by then the blackout was over for good and V-E Day wasn’t that far off. The only time I ever remember her looking so sad and down in the dumps was the day I visited her in hospital after she broke her hip last year. I knew which room she was in, I knew when I walked in I would see her lying there, and still I couldn’t bring myself to actually go in for the longest time.

There she was on the bed, her beautiful leg all wrapped in plaster and a pin in it besides which you couldn’t see. But the shock of it was she’d already come down with pneumonia without her telling anyone, and they had put an oxygen mask over her face. I remember because the mask kept slipping off, and the matron became all superior and haughty when I went out and asked her to fix it, telling me to fix it myself if I was in such a hurry.

I sat there all afternoon on the edge of the bed. She could hear me, but she couldn’t answer back which was probably fine with her, Angel being Angel. But the funny thing was her bed rested right against the window, and looking out toward the sky while she was sleeping I discovered for the first time what she meant by her Spitfire autumns. . . . That what she saw on the days she said it wasn’t leaves or trees or anything like that but clouds in the sky, long and stringy ones reminding her of vapor trails the fighters would leave chasing bombers over the Thames back in the early days of the war when we were both girls. . . . How seeing clouds like that would bring it all back to her like nothing else could, the same way some people remember from the smell of burning wood or sugar. And we had a real Spitfire autumn in 1976, too. I remember all the clouds seemed to look like that, long narrow ones inward coiled on themselves like a necklace when you let it drop on the dresser, just as if there was a continuous dogfight going on high over London between ghost planes and ghost pilots right then and there.

After a bit I got up and left. I hired a private nurse to see to the oxygen and all, even though I couldn’t really afford it, Jack never having believed in his dying much less life insurance. But I remember being angry because hospital was so crowded, beds out in the hall just like during the war, though they promised us that would all be over with once we won. What was worse were the looks on people’s faces when you walked by, not like during the war when everybody had a smile no matter how bad off they were, People were angry, you could see that. Confused and angry and not sure who to blame for the fact they were lying there unattended in the halls of cold hospital and dying there for all anyone cared.

It was the same night this young cabinet minister came on the telly to tell us we had to tighten our belts again, that the time for miracles was at an end . . . that Englishmen should no longer expect miracles to happen. I mean it made it seem he was outlawing Angel and all she stood for really, shoving her off our history the same way the crowd had shoved her off the underground two weeks before. He sounded just like Mickey come to that. He even looked like him—each wavy hair pinned exactly in place, his eyes darting back and forth like they might miss some opportunity to score off someone if they stopped for even one second. A nation of Mickeys, that’s what we’re coming to if you were to ask me. Sometimes I catch myself thinking well, Kay old girl, it would have been better if you had died in the Blitz after all, but then I feel ashamed of myself and remember the ones who really did die and I feel stronger and happier and more able to cope.

You still have to do what you can you see. The Council held open house for pensioners Saturdays nights, and I had started going a month or two before Angel’s accident to help out with refreshments and all. It was quite fun actually—there were a lot of old soldiers and sailors about, and like I said before they weren’t past asking, though to look at some of them you’d think they would be. I went every Saturday night. When Angel’s studio closed that August and she had nowhere to go anymore, I invited her along thinking it would do her a world of good being among people like that, people who remembered the same times she did. At first she wouldn’t because she was scared so of turning into one of those ladies who sit in Greenwich park staring off into the mist remembering and waiting to die, I told her it wasn’t like that at all, but she still didn’t want to go and she wouldn’t have gone either if Mickey hadn’t forced her to.

It was like this you see. We’d been shopping one afternoon and I’d come into the flat with her afterwards, Angel having promised me Mickey wouldn’t be there.

“Surprise!” he said, popping out the loo with his zipper half down. “Where have you lovely ladies been this fine autumnal afternoon?”

“Out being chased off the streets by the bloody foreigners,” I said, there being no love lost like I mentioned.

“Times change,” he said, rushing over to help Angel off with her coat. “You should get to know some of them like I do. In a business way that is. Fine people they are the Germans. A man’s got to respect them for what they’ve done over there. The Arabs too, for that matter. A man’s got to adjust to the new order of things to get ahead in the world, now doesn’t he?”

He always talked like that Mickey did. I was going to leave, but Sally came in and I had to stop for a decent bit, her being down with the flu. Mickey started talking about one of his “transfers” he was making that night, bragging how this Japanese businessman was taking him out to a fancy new club in Knightsbridge.

“It’s called “The War Room,” “he said. “Old propellers on the wall, all the birds wearing clothes from the forties. Really quite a kick actually. Only you can’t get a pint there, least-ways not by asking for it. All they serve is their house specials what they call Blood, Toil, Tears, or Sweat. You have to order one or the other.”

“What’s Blood?” Sally asked, making a face.

“Vodka and tomato. I prefer Sweat myself,” and he laughed his little Mickey laugh. “How about coming with me tonight, Vee?”

That took me by surprise, and I think it took Angel that way, too, judging by the way she spilled her tea. Sally wasn’t fit yet and he needed what he called a “comely escort.” You should have seen the way he looked at her asking, like it was the most important thing in the world only he didn’t want to let it on. An eager cocker spaniel Mickey was, except for him being a snake.

“Well, you see I promised. . . .”

“Promised who?” Mickey said, on her just like that.

“I promised Kay I’d go with her tonight.”

You could see Mickey chewing his lip trying not to show how angry he was. He had to save face somehow, so when he heard where we were going he gave her some of his business cards.

“That’s an idea,” he said, like it was him suggested it in the first place. “If any of the old boys have war souvenirs laying about, you might have them ring me up.”

That’s the only way I got her to go, her being presented with two choices like that. And it’s funny but she rather enjoyed herself that first night. I mean it wasn’t a great mob of 80-year-old soldiers standing about talking over old battles. Some of them had been hurt all right, and you could see it in their eyes more than anywhere else, but it was just a friendly time to chat and eat cake and maybe dance a little those that were feeling up to it.

That’s where I first met John actually. He was a bit younger than some of them, having lied about his age to the recruiting sergeant when they were losing so many pilots they didn’t care. He still looked like a boy if you forgot his legs and the bad times he’d been through, leaning there against the soda machine minding the record player and changing them when the time came. We got so we knew most of the regulars before long, Angel and I. We were regulars ourselves come to that. It was doing wonders for her I thought, and then one night after I finished drying the teacups who do I find in the hall with her raincoat on like she’s about to leave but Angel, standing there all bent over and crying her eyes out.

I’d only seen her cry once before, that was the shock of it. And she was really crying, too, the way a grown woman crys when she’s lost a husband or maybe a son. It was that kind of crying and another besides, the kind when a woman catches sight of herself in the mirror one day and knows it’s gone, her looks, her figure, her being young and all. It was those two ways of crying combined.

“What’s wrong, Vee?” I said, putting my arm around her and feeling near a cry myself, seeing her like that, makeup running down her face and her lips quivering the way they were.

“It’s all so sad!”

That’s the only thing she could manage. Just that over and over again between sobs.

“Why of course,” I said. “Why of course it’s sad, Vee. It’s always sad come to that.”

But I didn’t have time to think much about it because that was the same night Angel broke her hip. She insisted she was better, so I let her go home alone, making her promise to ring me the second she got there. The tube was crowded, and her being already upset the pushing got her all in a panic and she started trying to fight her way to the next car where there was more room. But before she could make it the train stopped at Euston, and she was shoved out the door just like she was a sack of mail. But what was funny was her telling me how she had time to stop herself with her arms before hitting the wall, but how for some reason she had turned and taken the full of it with her hip instead. Angel doing that was like another person deliberately jumping on the rails,

I visited her all I could of course. But then she seemed to be getting better toward the end of October and wouldn’t have me missing my Saturday nights out on her account, so that week I stopped at the Council house for a quick look-see on my way to hospital.

“Hello, stranger,” John said, smiling like always. “Where’s your girlfriend?”

I told him. He started shaking his head.

“Well, it’s strange but do you know the last time you were here you were out in the kitchen when she comes up to me very quiet like and just stands there for a minute or two sizing me up as it were. I remember about ten it was because I’d just put on the Tommy Dorsey what I always save for last. She stands there in front of me just like you are now and all of a quick she comes right out and asks me to dance. Well, of course it was sweet of her, but I pointed to the sticks here and shook my head. She wouldn’t take no for an answer though. She started sobbing like after a while. It was embarrassing don’t you see, her sobbing that way and here I am in all this scrap iron.”

“Oh, John!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Pardon me, I’ve got to run,” and just like that I was outside in the cold trying to get to the tube station before it closed. I made it all right—I remember sitting there squeezed in between these two big Arabs and trying to keep my mind off things by looking at the sign they had on the end of the car warning everyone not to waste water on account of the past summer’s drought. But that was over with now, and the sign was all dog-eared so you could see underneath it to another sign warning everyone about unattended parcels lying about being terrorist bombs. This one was torn, too, and back of it was a third just barely showing which was about saving power during the winter of 1974 when the lights had gone off, And the funny thing was I knew there was another poster under that and another one under that and so on and so on . . . knew you could peel all the layers back until you eventually got to old yellow and purple ones warning what to do in a raid or warning you about whispering to strangers. And that even this wasn’t the end of it and further back were signs warning about what to do in the General Strike, what to do when the Zeppelins came.

But it was crowded like it must have been for Angel, and I never did think I’d manage to change trains for hospital. It was so difficult just getting across the platform it made me think how it must have been for my dad years ago trying to get across the burning City to my mum. Only it was somehow worse for me because no one else on the car spoke English. You could hear them jabbering away in all these different languages but none of them English, me sitting there with my eyes closed praying for Angel like all those men did in the war, shutting my eyes tight and concentrating on her because she was the one thing the foreigners couldn’t take from me, the only thing I had left in all the noise and pushing.

I remember thinking about us going to school together as girls and the different masters we had. I remember thinking about what a handsome couple she and Richard made and what a shame it was they didn’t go through with it. And then I had to change trains again, and I suddenly started remembering the only other time I’d ever seen Angel cry which was on V-E Night 30-some years before . . . remembered how she’d been moping around the first few months of 1945 on account of the newspapers like I said and how it was our last chance to have some fun because we were young but not so young we didn’t know that whatever happened after the war it would all be somehow different. Angel had made her mind up she would either prove herself that night or she wouldn’t. Maybe all her Yanks had only been slightly wounded like she said. Maybe it was true they could have danced with anyone. So what we did that last night was go looking for the most crippled Yank we could find.

There were soldiers everywhere once we crossed the river, people dancing and singing and shouting. The clubs were packed tighter than we’d ever seen them before, but I remember it was sad and somehow lonely really, not happy like you might think seeing newsreels of it today, not as if the good times were just starting but as if they were all over with now and everyone wanted a last fling to remember them by.

I don’t know how many pubs and nightclubs and canteens we stopped in. There were Yanks in all of them, some on crutches, too, but Angel wouldn’t have any of it, saying well, he’s just got a twisted ankle or a banged-up knee, tugging me out the door and in and about these dancing Tommys splashing about the fountains and climbing on the statues and all.

We ended up at Rainbow Corner in Piccadilly just like I knew we would, and there was her Yank, this tall, handsome lieutenant on crutches and God knows what else, a bandage full over one eye, a little scar underneath the other looking fresh off the battlefield and it was a miracle he was even alive much less standing there.

“I’m going to dance with him.”

“Don’t Vee!”

She let go my arm and started patting her hair down so it fell over her forehead.

“Don’t spoil it!” I said, pleading with her. “Please don’t spoil it now. Not tonight!”

But of course there was no stopping her once she’d made up her mind. I was watching her very carefully, but then she disappeared in all the bouncing heads and it was only because it was midnight now and everyone was standing on the tables so no one minded me stepping up on the bar I found her at all. She had made it over to him all right—she was standing on tiptoe so she could whisper in his ear. I saw him frown and I saw her whisper some more without anything very much happening and I’m thinking well, it’s too bad he won’t or can’t because she’s never looked prettier and sweeter and more embraceable than she does tonight. These other Yanks were climbing up on the bar hugging and kissing me now so I had to break away only this time it was too late because I lost sight of her and I was just about to give up when I turned and looked the other way and saw two people all alone in the corner and it’s Angel and her Yank swaying back and forth like they’d invented it, his crutches gone, Angel laughing and sobbing and holding onto him like she’d never let go. And that was Angel’s miracle and not any of those others and later when we went outside into the crowds near the Palace I suppose we must have been the only two girls crying in London.

But anyway that’s what I was thinking about last October on the long ride trying to get to Angel’s bedside in time. And why I was sobbing to myself like that wasn’t because of all the foreigners on the underground or me being afraid of not getting there. What I was afraid of was being the only one left to remember someday, the only one who could tell you how it was those days in the Blitz and then later on going about like that in Piccadilly. And I began thinking maybe that cabinet minister was right after all, that the time for miracles had passed and how that wasn’t bad really because we still had them in our younger days. We still had miracles there in memory and what we could do now was have a quiet chat with each other about the old days, we could drink tea and not have to dance if we didn’t want to, that the being with each other was somehow enough now. That’s what I would have told her you see. I had it all planned out.

“And besides, Vee,” I would have said. “It’s not as if he was a Yank, now was it? It’s not as if he was a bloody Yank!”

And Angel would have laughed at that and I would have kissed her and everything would have been all right.


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