- Author: Mike Hollow
Book online «The Stratford Murder Mike Hollow (e manga reader TXT) 📖». Author Mike Hollow
THE STRATFORD MURDER
For Jackie: my sister, my friend
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BY MIKE HOLLOW
She wondered what it would feel like in the instant your body was blown to pieces. Would there be time for you to register the sensation before you ceased to exist? Or would some part of you live on beyond death, able to remember the pain? She brushed the thought from her mind. There were more pressing things to focus on, like not falling down a broken manhole in the blackout.
She was used to brushing thoughts from her mind. At work they called her a no-nonsense sort of woman. The sort who got on with the job. The sort who coped. Now she was coping with holding down a job in the daytime and being an air-raid warden at night. At first, when the really big raids started at the beginning of September, she’d been twitchy, yes, but even then not panicky like some – men included. As always, she’d just got on with it. Now, six weeks later, if a bomb landed round the corner and took out a house or two she barely flinched. Some people said it wasn’t natural for a woman to cope like that, but she knew that’s what women always did.
Not all women, of course. There was one she saw every night in one of the public shelters she patrolled, a worn-looking creature about her own age, muttering prayers for her husband, her children, her home, quivering with the fear of losing them. But that was the difference: Sylvia Parks had nothing to lose.
Next birthday she’d be forty-nine, if she managed to dodge the bombing that long. Past her prime, people would say, if they knew. At forty-eight she’d already been a war widow half her life, a leftover, one of the tens, the hundreds of thousands seen but unnoticed every day on every street, slowly ageing women married to ghosts.
She paused to pull her scarf tighter against the chill as a train rumbled across the bridge over Carpenters Road and on into the night. Pushing her steel helmet back from her forehead, she mouthed a silent curse at the planes that droned with their irregular engine-beat in the darkness above. For twenty-four years she’d felt numb, adrift, and only now had the nightly risk of death made her feel alive.
She glanced down at the pavement and stepped over a cat’s cradle of fire hoses. A house to her right – or what was left of it – was still smouldering, but one of the other wardens had told her they’d got the old lady out just in time. Sylvia knew the type. ‘It’ll take more than Hitler to get me out of my bed,’ she’d have said, silly old fool. Well, she was wrong, wasn’t she?
It had been cold like this on their wedding day, November 1915, with Sylvia shivering in borrowed white lace and Robbie spotless in his Royal Field Artillery uniform, a pair of corporal’s stripes on each sleeve. She was twenty-three, and he a year older. Four days’ leave from shelling the Germans for him, two days as a married woman for her before he had to go back. And by May he was dead.
She heard the crash of three bombs landing somewhere towards the London and North Eastern Railway works the other side of Stratford station. A target the German aircraft would be pleased to hit, she thought, like so many other places in West Ham. Big bombs too, by the sound of it, but no threat to her here. She’d wait till they came a bit closer before she thought of taking cover.
This wasn’t her own sector, but she could imagine Carpenters Road, crammed with factories and works, would be another important target. The post warden, her superior in the Air Raid Precautions service, had sent her over from her regular patch to gather information on the situation here. Not long ago he’d described her to a visiting dignitary as fearless, and her conduct as an ARP warden under bombing conditions as exemplary, but the truth was she simply didn’t care. What was the worst that could happen? Yes, a hundred pounds of high-explosive bomb might blast her to anonymous shreds of flesh on the back streets of Stratford, but there’d be no husband, no children, no parents, no siblings to mourn her. No hearts stabbed through by grief at her death, no unfillable void left by her passing. In her oblivion she might even be reunited with Robbie – who could say?
Up ahead, just before the bridge, she could see flames raging skywards from the site of the old William Ritchie and Sons jute factory. She checked her watch as she approached it: just coming up to three o’clock in the morning, but no chance of a break yet. Her job was to find out the extent of damage from the firemen, as well as details of any casualties and possibly unexploded bombs, and then take her report back to the ARP post.
She crossed the road, then stopped as something caught her eye. Not another one – would these people never learn? At the back of one of the houses adjoining the jute works site a ground-floor window was shining like a beacon. Of course, even an idiot should be able to see there was no serious risk of light in a kitchen window guiding the German air force to its target when there was a huge blaze like that right next door, but nevertheless she wasn’t allowed to ignore it. She’d have to tell whoever lived there to turn the light