Anything was better than that.
Mab glanced at the clock. Time for work. “Give me a kiss, Luce. How’s that finger?” Mab examined the upheld knuckle where Lucy had run a splinter yesterday. “Good as new. Goodness, you’re grubby . . .” Wiping Lucy’s cheeks with a fresh handkerchief.
“A little dirt never hurt anyone,” Mrs. Churt said.
“I’ll draw you a bath when I get home.” Mab kissed Lucy, fighting irritation at her mother. She’s tired, that’s all. Mab still winced to remember how furious Mum had been, enduring such a late addition to a family that already boasted five children. “I’m too old to be chasing after babies,” Mum had sighed, watching Lucy crawl about the floor like a crab. Still, there hadn’t exactly been anything they could do about it except manage.
For a little while longer, anyway, Mab thought. If she landed a good husband she’d wheedle him into helping her sister, so Lucy would never have to leave school for a job at fourteen. If he’d give her that, Mab would never ask for anything else.
Cold slapped her cheeks as she hurried out of the flat into the street. Five days until Christmas, but no snow yet. Two girls in Auxiliary Territorial Service uniforms hurried past, and Mab wondered where she’d sign up if service became compulsory . . .
“Fancy a walk, darling?” A fellow in RAF uniform fell into step beside her. “I’m on leave, show a fellow a good time.”
Mab shot him the glance she’d perfected at fourteen, a ferocious stare leveled from below very straight, very black brows, then sped her pace. You could join the WAAF, she thought, reminded by the fellow’s uniform that the Royal Air Force had a Women’s Auxiliary branch. Better than being a Land Girl, stuck shoveling cow shit in Yorkshire.
“Come on, that’s no way to treat a man going to war. Let's have a kiss . . .”
He sneaked an arm around her waist, squeezing. Mab smelled beer, hair cream, and an ugly flicker of memory pushed upward. She shoved it down, fast, and her voice came out more of a snarl than she intended. “Bugger off—” And she kicked the pilot in the shins with swift, hard efficiency. He yelped, staggering on the icy cobbles. Mab pried his hand off her hip and headed for the Tube, ignoring the things he called after her, shaking off the shiver of memory. Silver linings—the streets might have been full of handsy soldiers, but plenty of soldiers wanted to take a girl to the altar, not just to bed. If there was anything war brought in its wake, it was hasty weddings. Mab had already seen it in Shoreditch: brides saying their vows without even waiting for a secondhand wedding dress, anything to get that ring on their finger before their fiancés went off to fight. And well-read gentlemen rushed off to war every bit as fast as Shoreditch men. Mab certainly wasn’t going to call the war a good thing—she’d read her Wilfred Owen and Francis Gray, even if war poetry had been deemed too indelicate for “100 Classic Literary Works for the Well-Read Lady.” But she’d have had to be an idiot not to realize that war was going to change her world beyond rationing.
Maybe she wouldn’t need to get a secretarial post after all. Could there be war work somewhere in London for a girl who’d come tops in typing and shorthand, some post where Mab could do her part for king and country, meet a nice man or two, and look after her family?
A shop door banged open, releasing brief strains of “The Holly and the Ivy” from a radio inside. By Christmas of 1940, Mab thought, things might be entirely different. This year, things had to change.
War meant change.
I need a job. It had been Osla’s first thought, returning to England at the end of ’39.
“Darling, aren’t you supposed to be in Montreal?” her friend Sally Norton had exclaimed. Osla and the Honorable Sarah Norton shared a godfather and had been presented at court a Season apart; Sally had been the first person Osla telephoned when she stepped back on English soil. “I thought your mother shipped you off to the cousins when war broke out.”
“Sal, do you think anything was going to keep me from finagling my way home?” It had taken Osla six weeks, seething and furious, to scheme an escape after her mother had shipped her to Montreal. Some shameless flirtation with a few influential men for travel permits, some creative fibbing to her Canadian cousins, a tiny bit of fraud—that air ticket from Montreal to Lisbon had been much better off with Osla than its original owner—and a boat ride out of Portugal later, voilà. “Goodbye, Canada!” Osla sang, tossing her traveling case into the taxi. Osla might have been born in Montreal, but she didn’t remember anything before arriving in England at the age of four, trailing behind a recently divorced mother along with the trunks and the scandal. Canada was beautiful, but England was home. Better to be bombed at home among friends than be safe and corroding in exile.
“I need a job,” Osla told Sally. “Well, first I need a hairdresser because that horrid boat from Lisbon gave me lice, and I look like a dog’s dinner. Then I need a job. Mamma’s in such a pelter she’s cut off my allowance, for which I don’t blame her. Besides, we’ve got to poker up, as the Yanks might say, and do our bit for the war.” The old sceptred isle in her hour of need, and so forth. You couldn’t be booted out of as many boarding schools as Osla Kendall without picking up a good bit of Shakespeare.
“Don’t talk slush, Sal, everyone expects girls like us to join the WRNS.” Osla had been called a silly deb enough times for it to sting—a burbling belle, a champagne Shirley, a mindless Mayfair muffin. Well, this Mayfair muffin was going to show everyone a society girl could get her hands dirty. “Let’s join the Land Army. Or make airplanes, how about that?”
“Do you know anything about making airplanes?” Sally had laughed, echoing the dubious labor superintendent at the Hawker Siddeley factory in Colnbrook, where they applied several days later.
“I know how to take the rotor arm off an automobile to save it being stolen by Huns if we get invaded,” Osla retorted pertly. And in no time at all she was clapped into a boiler suit, drilling eight hours a day in the factory training room beside fifteen other girls. Maybe it was dull work but she was earning a wage, living independently for the first time in her life.
“I thought we’d be working on Spitfires and flirting with pilots,” Sally complained across the workbench on New Year’s Eve. “Not just drilling, drilling, drilling.”
“No grousing,” the instructor warned, overhearing. “There’s a war on, you know!”
Everyone was saying that now, Osla had observed. Milk run out? There’s a war on! Ladder in your stockings? There’s a war on!
“Don’t tell me you don’t despise this stuff,” Sally muttered, banging her Dural sheet, and Osla eyed her own with loathing. Dural made the outer skins for the Hurricanes flown by RAF squadrons (if RAF squadrons actually flew any missions in this war where nothing yet was happening), and Osla had spent the last two months learning to drill it, file it, and pot-rivet it. The metal fought and spat and gave off shavings that clogged her hair and nose so thickly her bathwater turned gray. She hadn’t known it was possible to cherish a hatred this profound for a metal alloy, but there you were.
“You’d better save some swoony RAF pilot’s life when you’re finally slapped onto the side of a Hurricane,” she told the sheet, leveling her drill at it like a gunslinger in a cowboy film.
“Thank God we got tonight off for New Year’s,” Sally said when the clock finally ticked over to six in the evening and everyone streamed for the doors. “What dress did you bring?”
“The green satin. I can slither into it at my mother’s suite at Claridge’s.”
“She’s forgiven you for bunking out of Montreal?”
“More or less. She’s chuffed about everything these days because she’s got a new beau.” Osla just hoped he wouldn’t be stepfather number four.
“Speaking of admirers, there’s a gorgeous fellow I promised to introduce you to.” Sally threw Osla an arch look. “He’s the goods.”
“He’d better be dark. Blond men simply aren’t to be trusted.”
They pelted laughing through the factory gate toward the road. With only twenty-four hours off every eighth day, there was no point wasting a minute of those precious hours heading back to their digs; they hitched a ride straight into London in an ancient Alvis, its headlights fitted with slotted masks to meet blackout regulations, driven by a pair of lieutenants who were already absolutely kippered. They were all singing “Anything Goes” by the time the Alvis pulled up at Claridge’s, and as Sally lingered to flirt, Osla skipped up the front steps toward the hall porter who for years had been a sort of butler, uncle, and social secretary combined. “Hello, Mr. Gibbs.”