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Authors: Maureen Jennings

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Traditional, #War & Military, #Traditional British

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BOOK: Beware This Boy
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“No, I didn’t.”

“They couldn’t say where it had taken place – they never do. It was just called a Midlands town. They said there were three fatalities, but one of the injured girls is in critical condition. It’ll be four dead soon. Endicott’s is closed down tomorrow, so you’ll get a chance to have a gander ’round.” He tried to stifle a yawn.

“One more thing, Alf,” said Tyler. “Our Mr. Grey is wondering if there might be sabotage involved. Communists and so on.”

Mason frowned. “I doubt it. All of the workers get security clearance, but we don’t clap somebody in irons just because they’re on the bolshie side.”

“Anybody I should pay particular attention to? Nationalists, for instance?”

“Don’t get me started on the bloody Celts. They don’t know which side their bread is buttered on. They’ll be singing a different tune if Hitler comes knocking on their doors. Do you think he’ll welcome them? Fat chance. He hates nationalists of any stripe.”

“No
IRA
sympathizers?”

“Not that I know of. I hope to God we squelched that lot when the last two got the drop for trying to blow up the police station.”

“That was back in February, wasn’t it?”

Mason nodded. “We haven’t heard a peep since then. Good as bloody gold they are. So, sabotage? I doubt it. It’s my view that the explosion was an accident. Those gals are rushed through their training. They’re young, heads in the clouds. One mistake, one lapse of attention, and
boom
, you’re a goner.”

He yawned again. “Beg pardon. Long day. Sorry I don’t have much more I can give you. I did ring over to the factory, though, and they’re getting you a place to work from. Endicott’s secretary will meet you and show you around. His name’s Cudmore.” Mason made a flip-flop gesture with his hand. “He’s a good fellow, for all he’s a bit limp-wristed. You might not even see Charles Endicott. He avoids trouble like the plague. And he’s notoriously tight-fisted. If you do recommend changes to routine, he’ll put up a fight if he thinks it’ll cost money. Just ignore him or pull rank if you have to. Tell him you’re a personal mate of Winnie’s. That’ll shut him up.”

He got to his feet. “If you want to come back here for your meals, just sign up with the canteen. Frankly, you’ll get better food at the British Restaurant on Broad Street. It’s just opened.”

“I’ll look into it.”

“There’ll be some breakfast served here at seven thirty. Not much to write home about these days – toast and tea.”

“I don’t have to go to morning lock-up parade, I hope.”

“We’ve suspended that for the duration, thank God,” said Mason with a chuckle. “At least with this war, justice is swift. Nobody’s much bothered with so-called reasonable doubt, which as far as I’m concerned is a crock of shite. You were caught red-handed, matey, off you go to clink. No toffee-nosed lawyer to whinge for you.”

Tyler laughed. In spite of his tough talk, he knew Alf was a fair and conscientious copper.

“I won’t see you till tomorrow night,” continued Mason. “It’s going to take an elephant’s age to get to Nuneaton if the fog keeps up, so I’m off at the crack of dawn. Ready?”

Except for the fact that he knew it would have embarrassed both of them, Tyler could have hugged his friend. His kindness and matter-of-fact manner were a balm. Mason banked down the fire, then led the way into the hall, snapping off the light behind them.

“I’ll say good night then. You know where the loo is. I’m bunking in number twenty-six.” Mason looked at him. “Sleeping all right these days?”

“Not bad,” Tyler lied.

“It’ll take time, Tom.”

“To tell you the truth, I was glad to be called up here. Change of scene.”

“Thought it would be.”

They parted company at Tyler’s door with a couple more thumps on each other’s arms.

Tyler went into the bedroom. He unpacked the few things he’d brought with him. Two fresh white shirts, a couple of sombre ties in case he spilled something on one of them, warm underwear, woollen socks. He put them into the top drawer of the dresser. The previous occupant of the room had left behind a wrapped toffee. Tyler considered having it but he wasn’t sure how long it had been there. He left it alone.

He got into his pyjamas and slipped under the covers. Typical of police-issue furniture, the mattress had known better days. The middle sagged like the belly of an old donkey.

A constable in the adjoining room was playing a record on his gramophone, not loudly, but the music was still audible. It sounded like the weedy American, Frank Something or other. He was singing
I’ll never smile again, till I smile at you
. Tyler found the song disturbingly pertinent to his
situation. Only three months ago, but it seemed like years since he’d heard from Clare Devereaux, Clare Somerville as she was to him, the woman he had always thought of as his one and only love. He’d had one brief note saying she was still in Switzerland but she hoped she would see him before too long. Rationally, he knew she couldn’t say much – her letter would be censored – but he was disappointed that there were no words of love, no endearments. Did she miss him the way he missed her? He’d written three letters but had no way of knowing if they had reached her.

The music from the next room was getting slower and slower. The gramophone must be the kind that needed winding up, and Tyler wondered if the constable had fallen asleep. Frank’s voice was starting to drag as if he’d been on a drunken spree.


Don … t … kn … ow … whe … re … do … kno … w wh … en …

Finally, to his relief, it stopped completely.
Reminds me of myself
, thought Tyler.
I could do with a good winding up
.

Last month he’d actually gone to the conscription board and tried to enlist. He’d even take a desk job. He couldn’t say the men behind the desk had laughed at him. They were rather kind, in fact, but his request had been turned down without preamble. “You’re much more valuable doing what you’re doing,” said one of them. He was a lean, posh-voiced bloke with an eye patch. “We’ve got to maintain law and order at home, by Jove.”

So, by Jove, here he was. Not exactly maintaining law and order but at least trying to sort out accident from intention. His thoughts shifted to the conversation he’d had with Grey.
Common sense, really
. He hoped that was true. An investigation like this wasn’t going to be easy. Alf had said there were three fatalities. If he did indeed discover that there had been sabotage, that was three murders.

He snapped off the light. “
Goodnight, Clare, my darling
,” he whispered. “
I hope you’re safe
.”

Eileen sat up in bed, her heart bumping.
Tap, tap, tap
. Soft yet persistent, coming from outside.
Tap, tap, tap, tap
. She knew the windows were latched and nobody could get in, but it was frightening that at this hour somebody was at her window. She picked up the torch that stood on her table, ready for the times they had to go to the shelter, swung her legs out of bed, and walked cautiously to the window. She lifted aside the thick curtain just a crack and peeked out. Her own shadowy face reflected back at her, but as she pressed closer she could see a shape on the other side of the glass, distorted by the fog and darkness but recognizable. It was her nephew.

Quickly, she pushed up the sash window. “Jack. What are you doing here? What’s the matter?”

“Auntie Eileen, I’ve got to talk to you,” he whispered.

“Why are you at the window? You scared the heck out of me. For God’s sake go to the front door and I’ll let you in.”

“Please, Auntie. I don’t want Granddad and Gran to get up.”

“I’m not going to hold a conversation with you through the window. It’s perishing.”

He turned away at once, and she closed the window. She slipped on her dressing gown and, torch in hand, went out to the front door.

Jack was on the threshold, and even in the darkness his fear was palpable. She didn’t speak, only beckoned, and he followed her into her room. She closed the door behind them and switched on the light.

He looked terrible. His face was covered with dust and
streaked with tears. There was a large bruise on his cheek and one bare knee was badly scraped.

“Just a minute.” She went over to her bedside table and poured some cocoa into the cup. Then she opened the corner cupboard, took out the bottle of brandy, and poured a generous splash into the cocoa.

“Here. Drink this down.”

He did so, coughing and spluttering as the brandy hit his throat. Even then he took the precaution of pressing his sleeve against his mouth to stifle the sound.

“Take your time. Can you get down some more?”

He shook his head. “No, it’s awful.”

The floorboards overhead creaked and both of them waited, looking upwards.

“It’s only Granddad,” said Eileen. “He usually goes straight back to sleep.”

The creaks retreated and were still.

Jack looked over at her, his face full of misery. “Thanks, Auntie Eileen.”

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on or not?”

“It’s our Brian …” he choked.

“What about Brian? Has something happened? Did you get a telegram?”

“No, nothing like that.” The boy rubbed hard at his eyes as if he could erase the memory. “I found him in a bombed-out house.”

“What do you mean you
found
him?”

It was on the tip of Eileen’s tongue to ask what he himself had been doing in a bombed-out house in the middle of the night, but she thought it would be wiser to leave that for now.

“He was hiding. He’s gone
AWOL
, Auntie. He’s deserted.”

Eileen sat down on the edge of the bed. “My God, Jack. I can’t believe it.”

“It’s true, Auntie. He’s been there since Friday.”

“Is he going to turn himself in?”

Jack shook his head emphatically. “He said he won’t. He won’t go back to the front and he won’t go to prison.” He bit his lip. “Auntie, I think he’s gone off his rocker and I think he might do something really bad.”

“Does he know you’ve come here?”

“Yes. He said Granddad and Gran and you were the only ones he could trust. He wants you to come to talk to him.”

“Where the dickens is he?”

“In your shelter in the backyard –”

“What!”

“Please, Auntie. I had to do what I was told. He don’t seem like our Brian at all. He said if I turned him in, he’d get me, brother or no brother.”

Jack’s lips were quivering. Eileen tried to make sense of what he was telling her. Brian was her nephew, her godchild, her family. How could he have deserted?

“I’d better go right now and talk to him.”

“Be careful, Auntie. He’s not himself, honest.”

“Well,
I
am myself, so maybe that will bring him to his senses. Stay here.” She pointed to his knee. “I’ll take care of that when I come back. Let’s sort this out first.”

She took her overcoat and wellies out of the wardrobe and went through the kitchen to the back door, moving as quietly as she could. She knew what a light sleeper her father was.

She snapped on her torch, waved it in a low circle, then began to walk slowly forward. It helped that Joe had painted the stones that lined the path white. Near the entrance to the shelter, she could make out a dark shape that moved slightly as she approached.

“Brian, is that you? It’s Auntie Eileen.”

“Come inside.” His voice was so hoarse she might not have
known it was him, except she risked flashing the light up to his face. A dark stubble covered most of his face, and his eyes were hollow. It was less than six months since she had last seen him, but any soft boyishness had gone. Brian was twenty-one years old and he looked forty.

Brian held back the entrance blackout curtain for her to step through. In the close space she could smell the acrid stench of his unwashed body. She went ahead into what her father jokingly referred to as the lounge. Brian had lit the oil lamp but kept the wick low. There were deep shadows in every corner.

“So, Brian, what’s going on?”

“Just what it looks like, Aunt Eileen. I’ve left the army. A personally justifiable but nevertheless dishonourable discharge.” He stopped. “You don’t have a fag on you, do you?”

“I thought you didn’t smoke.”

“I do now. I told Jack to tell you to bring me some fags. What did you do with him, by the way?”

“He’s waiting in my room.”

“He’d better not bugger off to the police.”

“Of course he won’t. Don’t be silly.”

It was then that Eileen understood what Jack had meant when he said Brian was off his rocker. A muscle in his face was twitching non-stop and he could hardly stand still, jigging like a caged animal, one that would bite without hesitation.

Brian went over to the little dresser that her mother had moved into the shelter for her tea things. The cramped space had Beatrice’s signature written all over it: the spirit stove on an upturned painted box, the two camp beds covered with colourful quilts and cushions, an old rug on the floor. Two chairs. An oil heater was in the corner. There was even a photograph stuck on the bare wall of a pugnacious Winston Churchill, whom her mother greatly admired. A green velour curtain
discreetly hid the chamber pot in the corner. One of the family jokes was that if Beattie Abbott ever mistakenly got sent to Hades, she’d start fixing it up to make it homely.

BOOK: Beware This Boy
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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