By the time the war entered its third year, there were few able-bodied young men in all of Britain who weren’t in uniform. Even those who had claimed reserved occupation status in the early days had begun to disappear into the service of their country, either leaving those all-important posts vacant, or in the hands of women, children, and old men.
Brian Lane, when he was first contacted by the Metropolitan Police in April of 1942, took this as confirmation that the Met were, indeed, scraping the bottom of the barrel. If they wanted him of all people back, it was a clear sign of desperation.
He and his former employers had not parted on the best of terms six years earlier. They called it a pensioning off; he called it, at least in mixed company, “getting the boot”. They had alleged drunkenness and incompetence on his part, while Brian shouted about conspiracies. He had never ceased to insist that he had been nothing but a convenient scapegoat, and for them to be inviting him back into their ranks at this point in time roused his not inconsiderable natural paranoia to a fever pitch.
The fact that he accepted the position after all owed more to this paranoia than to the public fiction that he was “doing his bit”. That was what his wife proudly told the neighbours, and what she wrote to their son who was stationed somewhere in Europe. But Esther had been married to him for nearly thirty years; she knew him well enough to realise that he simply wanted to know what they were up to.
The poky little basement chamber to which he and his new colleagues were assigned seemed proof enough that the four of them weren’t exactly on the roll of high-status recruits. It was a cheerless, windowless room full of mismatched desks and tables not currently needed elsewhere. Cast-off notice boards covered with a variety of photographs and other paraphernalia relating to the occupants’ cases lined the long wall. Another stood against the stairway, displaying a huge map of Europe. Coloured pins and flags marked out the progress of recent battles as soon as the large wireless set in the corner brought them the news.
At the moment, all it was bringing them was a cheery rendition of that silly song from the beginning of the war, the one about hanging out the washing on the Siegfried Line.
Gerry Standing, another of the new war reserve pensioners, insisted on singing along with it as usual, no matter who might object. Gerry was one of those cheerful, scrappy Cockney coppers who had filled the ranks of the police force in the years between the wars. There was some faint whiff of scandal attached to his service record, but unlike Brian’s, no one ever mentioned precisely what it was. The only thing anyone could remember about the former Detective Inspector Standing was that he had not one, not two, but three ex-wives, and a daughter by each one of them. How in the world he had managed to keep such a thing from destroying his career was anyone’s guess. The more Brian got to know the man, the more he suspected he might simply have ignored any condemnation that came his way and BS’ed his way up the ladder.
“You’re in a good mood today,” Brian greeted him from the doorway. He bumped his bicycle carefully down the stairs and took his place at the desk across from Gerry’s.
“I’ve every reason to be. Got a letter from my youngest, and I just found out this morning that my eldest will be out of the flat at the same time my girl’ll be in town on her 48. Life couldn’t be better.”
“Some would say life might conceivably be better if there wasn’t a war on, Gerry,” observed Jack Halford, the third and most serious of the trio of pensioners in the group. He was, like Brian and Gerry, in his late fifties.
Gerry winked at him. “Dunno about that, mate,” he teased. “We still may be speakin’ German by the time this is all over.”
Halford, despite knowing better, rose to the bait. “Not a chance,” he disagreed. “We’ve held them off thus far, and now the Americans are in it at last—”
They spent the next twenty minutes arguing tactics, politics, and the probabilities of where their newest allies would be best deployed. Brian, who could never stay out of any such discussion, took possession of the map, and argued his points with the aid of his near-perfect recall of facts and figures from the Great War, more than a quarter century in the past. He got so thoroughly caught up in the subject that it took him several moments to notice that the other two had gone quiet, and that his name was being called with increasing volume and irritation.
He looked up, his attention finally engaged, and said, “Oh. Sorry, Sandra, I was just…” His voice trailed off.
WDS Sandra Pullman was, despite her rank and sex, nominally their boss, by virtue of the fact that she was the only regular in the group. She was proud of what she considered the promotion, but to Brian it was merely another confirmation of their low-man status. Another team mightn’t have stood for it.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. She held out a piece of paper ripped from the telephone notepad. “Now, as I was saying, if you gentlemen can bear to pull yourselves away from your important war meeting, we have a case. Another break-in at another corner grocery, and this time they took ration coupons as well as a considerable amount of foodstores.”
Gerry bent himself into an odd position to read the name and address she’d written on the notepad. When he managed to make it out to his satisfaction, he unkinked himself and let out a whistle of amusement.
“Archibald Swift?” he hooted. “Well, if Archie Swift’s involved, he hasn’t told you everything that’s been took. The rations and stuff may be worth a packet, but if his main stock was still on the premises, he’d never let a copper within thirty yards of ’is front door. Booze,” he clarified, when she just looked at him blankly. “At any given moment, ol’ Archie’s got more o’ the stuff in his cellar than your average off-licence and two pubs put together.”
“I see. So he’s…?”
Hearing that, she changed her strategy. “All right, then. Gerry, since you’re acquainted with this Mr. Swift and his establishment, you’ll take the call. Take Brian with you.”
“You really think this is a two-man call, guv?”
“No. But he’ll keep you honest.”
“Sandra, you wound me,” he said. “You really do.”
Gerry grabbed his hat and his battered overcoat and, since Sandra was watching him, took the stairs two at a time without so much as a missed breath. He looked down at her and winked.
“Spry for an old geezer, aren’t you?” she said crushingly, and turned her back on him.
“Old geezer,” he muttered to himself. He took out his pique on Brian, who was nowhere in sight. “Brian, where the hell are you? I thought we were meant to get there sometime today.”
Brian’s head appeared from the cupboard below the stairs. “Just a sec,” he called. “I just had to lock up my bike.”
Gerry pulled a disbelieving face at this eccentricity, and Jack looked up from the pile of paperwork on his desk. “You do know you’re in a police station, don’t you?” he asked.
“It’s a very nice and expensive bike,” said Brian. “More to the point, it’s a very nice and expensive Italian bike.”
“A nice, expensive Italian bike in a police station,” Jack reminded him.
“You think just because it’s a police station everyone’s immune to excess patriotic fervour? I’d rather not have it wrecked just so some clown can say ‘Up yours’ to Mussolini.” He shrugged on his coat as he made his way up the steps.
Jack snorted. “I take your point, but I don’t think most of that sort would know the difference between your expensive Italian racing bike and the average, bog-standard bobby’s bicycle.”
Gerry, after all his laughing, abruptly switched allegiances. “Only takes one,” he reminded Jack. “And ’s not like I’d wanna be drivin’ around in a Daimler just now. Hence my nice, sympathetic Citroen, which may or may not start.” As he and Brian headed out, he muttered something which sounded suspiciously like, “Bloody French.
It was generally agreed that the morale of the British public was running reasonably high these days, the occasional V-1 raid notwithstanding, but the once-festive spirit of the Christmas season had all but disappeared. The strict rationing had made the traditional Christmas dinner a thing of the past, gifts were too dear to bother with for the most part, and the trees, pine boughs, and mistletoe once hawked on every street corner in London were now luxuries known only to those lucky souls who lived in the countryside and could cut their own.
Esther was one of the few who continued to bother with getting the box of glass baubles and things down from the loft every year. Treeless they might be, but she hung the ornaments from the lamps and the fireplace, and wound fairy lights through the banisters. It was she who nagged Brian into inviting “Sandra and the lads” to come and celebrate with them, and she who came down to the Met in person and made them all change their minds after her husband came home bearing three refusals. There was no reason, she said, for all of them to sit alone on this of all days when they could be with friends.
Combining the ration books to secure enough provisions to make a meal fit for a king had been Gerry’s idea, and it was Gerry, in Esther’s kitchen, who did most of the cooking. Sandra provided the wine, and if they all had their own ideas where it had come from, no one said a word.
Jack, unusually morose, arrived late and empty-handed. He handed Brian his coat and his trilby hat, and greeted his hostess with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. His friends exchanged a look and set out to get him as drunk as possible just as quickly as they could.
He never talked about his weekly visits to Purley, but they knew all about it. Three or four times a month, he boarded one of the increasingly crowded trains for the suburbs, and spent several hours holding vigil in the bombed-out ruin of the terrace house he had shared with his beloved wife. He sometimes believed he could still feel her presence there in the place where she had died.
Sandra pressed a glass into his hand. “Here, get this down you. We’re just about to eat, and it’ll help you survive Gerry’s cooking.”
“I heard that,” Standing yelled from the kitchen.
“You were meant to,” she called back.
Jack managed a faint hint of a smile. “I wish the two of you would simply admit that you like one another. You’ve been squabbling like children for more than three years now, and I don’t mind telling you it’s beginning to wear on my nerves.”
Sandra shrugged off the good-natured complaint. “The squabbling is inevitable for the simple reason that Gerry is a child, in spite of his age. And I do like him…but don’t tell him that.”
“Perish the thought.”
She smiled and took his arm to lead him towards the dining room.
Gerry inclined his head modestly. “I thank you, my good lady. And I thank the rest of you as well for pooling the meager portion allowed us by the government. We may well starve in January, but at least we’ve had a Christmas feast worthy of the name for once.”
Sandra opened her mouth to say something sarcastic, caught Jack’s eye, and changed her mind.
“Yes, we have,” agreed Esther. “And although I will probably be washing up for the next three days, I think it’s a small price to pay. Don’t you, Brian? Brian?”
Her husband, even more lost in thought than he usually was, sat transfixed on the edge of his chair, as if he had meant to get up and forgotten to do it.
Esther reached over and touched his hand gently. “Brian? Are you all right, dear?”
“Hm? Oh, yes, Esther, I’m fine. Do you realise, all of you, that this is the last Christmas of the war?”
“Isn’t that what they said back in ’39?” put in Jack. “It’ll all be over by Christmas, that’s what they said. And here we are, five years later — those of us who have made it this far.”
“Can’t go on much longer, though,” Gerry said. “I mean, what is it Churchill claims? Six months or less, right?
“Speaking of the prime minister,” interrupted Esther, “we don’t want to miss the king’s speech, do we?”
She got up and turned the knob on the wireless. The set whined for a moment as it warmed up, and then the mild, reassuring voice of King George filled the room. The party all crowded around to listen, although Brian still seemed somewhat abstracted.
He didn’t interrupt, though. In fact, he kept his thoughts to himself until his guests had gone and Esther was clearing the table. Absent-mindedly, he picked up a single plate and carried it out to the kitchen.
“Don’t you see, it’ll all be different next year,” he told her. “All the young men will be coming home, ready to take up their old places. We’ll all be booted out again, fit only to fill rocking chairs.”
“Just the place to sit to hold that first grandchild Mark’s wife is expecting,” she said unsympathetically. “And Mark will be home by then, surely. Anyway, you didn’t even want to go back at first. Don’t you remember?”
He thought that over. “Now that I have, though…Esther, I don’t wanna leave. I don’t know what I’ll do with meself after it’s all over.”
Esther put down the platter she was washing and dried her hands on her apron. With the affection of long years, she crossed to him and laid her hand against his cheek. “You’ll figure it out,” she said. “You always do. And remember, you’ll have me to help.”
“But me no buts. Brian Lane, you had a remarkably good war, and I intend to see to it that you’ll have a wonderful peacetime. Now, I want you to get out there and finish clearing that table, do you hear? No bringing in one plate at a time.”
He smiled, reassured in spite of himself. “Well,” he said. “All right, then.”