Blackout







Tony Hill



 
Copyright 2022 by Tony Hill

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Just as she had done every working day for the past six months, Mrs.Harris put on her tweed overcoat and thick woolen scarf at the end of the day shift.Well protected against the cold winter weather,she bought an evening paper from a vendor outside the factory gates and joined the queue at the bus stop.She was a short, stocky woman who, many said, bore a physical resemblance to the queen.In fact,she was born on same day,something  she always liked to tell people.She also possessed that same steely determination. 'Keep calm and carry on' was the order of the day and that was exactly what she intended to do.

Her employer,Merrick Industries were manufacturers of electrical components for cars but following the outbreak of war,they switched to making tank parts.

Mrs Harris did not enjoy her job on the assembly line. She preferred her previous job as school caretaker,at Hennessey Road school, taking over from Gilbert Leek when he was called up. But Gilbert was soon invalided out of the army and lost no time in claiming his job back. This meant that Mrs Harris,instead of repairing things, which she loved to do,was now  monotonously assembling things. However,she consoled herself in the thought that she was "doing her bit" for the war effort.

Her bus arrived. Under normal circumstances the journey would take 45 minutes to her Castle Oak stop then another 10 minute walk home in the gloom of the blackout.

An hour's journey at the most. But in February  1940, circumstances were far from normal.

She settled into a seat on the lower deck and unfolded her newspaper. 

The front page was all war news.A cargo ship had been bombed off the coast of Scotland.Many lives had been lost.On page 2,the latest on the search for the killer of 4 women,all strangled within the last 5 months and all within a couple of miles of her house.The police were not close to an arrest.

Mrs Harris frowned as she recalled the police interviewing her husband,Jimmy, after someone who knew him had reported seeing him riding his motor cycle in the area where the body was found at about the time the murder was thought to have been committed.

Luckily,Jimmy had an alibi.He was playing darts in his local pub with 3 friends who all vouched for him. Besides, as he told the police,he hadn't ridden his bike for months,what with petrol being rationed.

Mrs Harris, shuddering slightly,paid her fare to the conductor and looked around at her fellow passengers. Many had newspapers but were struggling to read them in the bus's dim light.

Mrs Harris recognised the woman sitting a few seats in front of her.Lynn Green lived close by so she would be getting off at the same stop and walking in the same direction. Lynn would be pleased about that.She  would be glad of the company."Safety in numbers"she would be thinking.

Although Lynn was much younger than Mrs Harris, she did not enjoy the same good health.She looked frail.She worried a lot. About her husband across the channel, about food shortages,about air raids, about murders, about her arthritis. It all showed in her gaunt,lined face.

The bus made slow progress.The covered headlights were almost useless and with no street lighting, accidents with other vehicles and pedestrians were becoming more frequent.Greater care was needed which meant slower speeds and longer traveling times.

Eventually,the bus neared Mrs Harris's stop.She got up from her seat and made her way to the platform.As did Lynn, whose expression brightened when she saw her.

"I'm glad I've got someone to walk part of the way with".she said."There's safety in numbers you know."

Mrs Harris smiled to herself and nodded in agreement. 

There was man also standing on the platform who had come down from the upper deck. She recognised  him as Gilbert Leek, the caretaker at Hennessey Road school.The one who had taken her job.He didn't know her,but she knew him.She had seen him on the bus the previous week.He was then,as now,leaning on a  walking stick.There was an obvious injury to his right leg.

The three got off the bus and the man immediately crossed the road,heading in the same direction. The darkness, now total,temporarily disoriented the two women. Both reached in their pockets for their torches, an essential accessory for walking in the blackout.They proceeded slowly, concentrating on the two small beams of light at their feet. 

"Heard from your husband lately?"asked Mrs Harris 

"Still nothing.It's been about three weeks now" Lynn replied."He's somewhere in France.That's all I know.Still I suppose no news is good news."She winced as she spoke.The arthritis in her knees made walking difficult and Mrs Harris had to slow her pace so that she could keep up.

 They were more or less level with Ron Leek, who was walking parallel to them on the other side of the street.Mrs Harris could just see his tall thin shape limping along, holding his stick in front of him and tapping the ground occasionally, like a blind man.She turned and looked behind her.She could neither hear or see anyone else. 'Be aware of your surroundings'was the police advice.

In the distance there was a shout from an  irate ARP warden to a house that was showing a light.Then,for the next few minutes,nothing but eerie silence broken only by Leeks occasional stick tapping. This began to irritate Mrs Harris and irritation invariably  brought on one of her headaches.

Lynn was talking."I suppose it will mean more shortages and longer queues"

"What will?"said Mrs Harris

"That cargo ship being torpedoed."Lynn gave a look of surprise that she had to repeat herself. 

"Oh yes,very likely."

Mrs Harris looked around again.Still nobody other than Gilbert Leek in sight.Then she saw him turn left into Stanley Road and gradually disappear from view.

Mrs Harris relaxed a little.'Be aware of your surroundings'.

They were now approaching Bloomfield Road on the right,Lynn's turning.

Lynn shuddered at the thought of having to walk the remaining 400 yards to her house on her own.

"You don't look at all well" said Mrs Harris. 

"Oh, I'm O.K."Lynn replied. But she was cold,tense and in pain and it all showed in her face.

"Here,take my scarf. It'll warm you up".

"No,no, I'm fine".

They had paused outside a closed and boarded up corner shop.

"Step into this doorway, out of the wind,and put on the scarf."insisted Mrs. Harris, waving away Lynn's protests. 

 They both stepped inside the shop doorway.Mrs Harris wrapped her scarf around Lynn's neck,tying a knot and pulling it tight.

She kept pulling. 

There was a look of startled bewilderment in Lynn's eyes as she scrabbled at the scarf,trying to ease the ever increasing pressure.The look slowly changed to one of dreadful realization as Mrs  Harris continued to pull on the scarf and gradually  the world of Lynn Green faded to black.

Mrs Harris lowered Lynn's lifeless body slowly to the ground. She looked around. No-one in sight.'Be aware of your surroundings'.She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the small diary that Gilbert Leek had unknowingly dropped while she stood behind him on the platform of the bus the previous week. Mrs Harris tossed the diary on to the pavement a few feet from the body.Hopefully, that would set in motion a train of events that could result in her getting her job back at the school.

She started to walk away towards her home,then hesitated,turned and walked back to the body.She removed her scarf from Lynn's neck and draped it loosely around her own.

There would be no more mistakes. She had been stupid to use Jimmy's bike that last time.It was too conspicuous in these days.

She went off once more into the darkness, her mind now occupied only by thoughts of what she could prepare for their supper. 




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