Rose did not leave the factory straight away after work. She volunteered to help the porter out, knowing she shouldn’t avoid going home but not caring. They had to move some strangely shaped packages from the warehouse to the factory floor. ‘What are these?’ asked Rose.
‘Buggered if I know,’ replied Barney, the elderly porter.
Rose smiled to herself. The porters seemed to think they could shock her with coarse language. It was not the case. She had heard worse things before.
After that she had no other reason to stay behind so slowly she began her journey home. The other girls rode bikes but Rose lived too close to justify using one. Edith lived on the other side of town and so did most of the others. She walked casually, pausing every now and then to look at something. Her father would have called it dawdling. Eventually she came to her home. She banged loudly on the front door with the cast iron knocker. The maid, Barbara, opened the door. ‘Good evening m’am,’ she said in a hushed voice.
‘Hello Barbara,’ said Rose. ‘Are they here yet?’
‘The drawing room.’
Rose had always wondered why it was called that. ‘I’ll be upstairs.’
Barbara looked surprised but murmured her acknowledgement. Rose strode purposefully up the stairs in stark comparison to the way she had come home. Once she had shut the door she felt little of the outside world could interfere with her. She was wrong.
Her father tapped lightly on the door and strode in without waiting for an answer. ‘That’s hardly the right way to greet company,’ he growled.
‘I’ll meet them at some stage.’ The conversation didn’t go much further than that.
‘At dinner then.’
For the next hour Rose listened to the music on the radio. It was a distraction to current events. She did not want to meet the Polish family, did not want them to be staying at her home. It wasn’t because she was an unkind person. It was because their presence would remind her of greater things, external things.
Michael called up the stairs when it was time for dinner. Quickly checking herself in the bedroom mirror which was part of an expensive looking dresser Rose left the protection of her bedroom and went downstairs. The whole family were at the table and sat with them the Poles.
‘Rose, glad you could join us,’ said her father. She was not sure of the validity of his words, whether they were soaked with sarcastic tones or not. She had only heard polite comment. He carried on. ‘This is Abram and Marya.’ He indicated two adults sitting at the table. ‘And these are their children, Szmul and Liba.’ Rose smiled politely. ‘They’ll be staying with us indefinitely.’
She looked at the Polish family and immediately the temporary ice of her emotions defrosted. The man was in his twenties and his face carried with it burdens she could not comprehend. Already he suffered with lines that only age or extreme worry should bring. His face was thin as though he had not eaten well for some time and the pallor of his skin was like a colourless autumn leave. His dark hair did not share in the general image of a man older than his years. It remained thick and lush and well groomed. The eyes too danced as though they were those of a boy. He smiled up at her. ‘Powitanie…hello’, he said. His voice was deep and bellowy, deeper than she had expected. ‘My English…not so good.’ Rose looked to the wife. She was small and petite and seemed to look down most of the time. She gave Rose a quick fleeting look and Rose caught a glimpse of hunted, furtive eyes.
The children were the same as children everywhere. They had clearly been told to behave but excess energy lived in their movements, waiting for an opportunity to burst out. Rose smiled at them as well but it was a different smile, a conspiring smile. It was not that long ago that she had been a child herself. The boy, with solid blonde hair, beamed back at her. He had his father’s eyes of deep blue that seemed full of wisdom. But that could not be, he was only eight or nine. The girl was a few years older. She shared the same hair and the same eyes and was a beauty waiting to flourish. Rose nodded at them and took her place at the table.
Barbara came in with a large pot of soup, which she began ladling into white porcelain bowls. It was a creamy mushroom concoction. Barbara then disappeared and bought back three baskets of freshly cooked bread. Rose watched the Pole’s reactions. It was clear they had not seen food like this in a long time. When butter and cheese appeared Abram’s eyes almost popped out of his head. They were polite and despite temptation they only took small amounts of what was on offer. It was only soup and bread thought Rose but it was treated as a feast.
When they had all finished Rose’s father cleared his throat. ‘A drink Abram,’ he said. ‘In the study.’
Rose and her mother looked at each other. This was one element of society that her father had been reluctant to adopt. It was rare for him to disappear with other men for customary tobacco and political discussion. He was adamant in his rejection of that particular feature of modern life but it seemed he had changed his mind. ‘We need to discuss a few issues.’ Abram nodded in agreement and Rose thought she caught a look of understanding pass between the two men but when she looked again it was gone and she was not sure if it had ever been there.
Marya and her children showed no concern when Abram and her father left the room, as if it were to be expected. Barbara came in to clear the dishes, which were all empty.
‘Are things well with you Barbara?’ asked Rose’s mother.
‘Good evening ma’m,’ she replied, ‘ with me things are well but items are getting difficult to get hold of …’ and so began a conversation about expectations.
Whilst employee and employer where talking Rose tried to ask a few questions to the newcomers about the state of Poland but she was not understood. She did not know if this was deliberate or not. After about twenty minutes she disappeared back upstairs into the sanctity of her bedroom.
She had bathed and was about to settle for the night when there was a gentle tapping at the door. It was her father but this time he did not bound in but respected her privacy. From the poorly lit landing, they had electric downstairs but gas up here, he spoke quietly. ‘Can I come in? I’ve one or two things to say.’
Rose answered in the affirmative and seconds later her father was sat at the end of her bed. ‘Things are going to change a great deal.’ He spoke the words in a low sinister tone which matched the serious countenance he held. ‘You realise that?’
It was a question and Rose nodded.
‘The war: it’s only just…’ his words trailed away as if he could not finish them. Or perhaps he didn’t want to. He tried again. ‘No-one knows what’s in store. What’s happened in Europe won’t necessarily happen here.’ He carried on and appeared to get emotive as he spoke: varied, almost comical, expressions took over his face. The more passionate his words became the more extreme the expressions were. When he had finished flickering shadows and church silence seemed to conspire to give the situation an eerie feeling. Rose spoke, if only to break the silence. ‘What will happen to us?’
Her father didn’t answer her with words. Instead he leant over and hugged her.
‘Well, I’ve not heard of any other families coming over. Special, are they?’
They were special but Rose did not want to sound foolish. ‘No, just normal.’
‘Bloody yids I expect,’ interjected Frances.
Rose did not like Frances. She disagreed with a lot she said. On this occasion Rose chose to ignore her. Instead she elaborated on her first answer. ‘They’re a normal family, like any of us here, ‘cept they’ve had a really hard time. We’re just trying to help.’
‘Should be helping our own not bloody foreigners.’ It was Frances again.
Rose felt angry words building up. She stole some of her fathers because any of hers would not be good enough and would melt away without impact. ‘The Poles might speak in a different language but their voice is the same as yours or mine.’
Frances did not answer but muttered a profanity into her coffee.
They were sat in the canteen on their morning break. Some of the girls had not come in. Rose had wondered why at first but Edith had explained. ‘The Suffolk second battalion left for France today. A couple of the girls have got boyfriends or family in the regiment. The boss gave them the morning off. They’ll be back this afternoon.’ It was nice of Mr. Williams to think of the girls. Rose liked that about the factory. They were like a family.
Their break was coming to an end. The strange shaped boxes had contained an array of military equipment from metal detectors to guns. The guns had been adapted so they could not be fired. Mr. Williams had explained it all to them that morning. ‘We’ve been asked to come up with some camouflage materials for these items.’
Edith had asked the question they had all been thinking. ‘Why can’t they just box ‘em up. Paint the boxes or something?’
‘It is not our place to ask such questions but as you have things were explained to me. Often equipment like this is left outside. As well as protection from the weather it needs protection from the skies, from the lutwaffe. Boxes are an obvious target. We need to make covers that are quite accessible but at the same time offer protection from the elements and are camouflaged. We have a few tricks to be able to do this. A couple of other factories have been asked the same thing and the military will adopt what works best. This is an opportunity to put us on the map.’ For Mr. Williams it may have been an opportunity. For Rose merely another reminder that not all was right.
‘The items we have been asked to work with may need some assembly, a task which will fall to Barney and Richard.’
The two men stepped forward and Rose’s interest was stimulated by the contradictions between them. Barney was nearing his fiftieth year. His skin was gnarled and rough and grey streaks were appearing in his dark hair. Richard was about the same age as Rose and she wondered why he hadn’t been called up. His skin was young and pink, characterised by the numerous freckles that appeared on it. His hair was lighter but not totally blond. It had wisps of brown about it, almost caramel in colour. She wasn’t attracted by him. She caught the black look of his eyes and instinctively knew he did not like women. Especially those who showed a little independence.
The two men joked with each other and Rose caught Richard glaring at her. But a smile accompanied his angry stare.
It seemed as if war work was beginning to dominate the factories output. It was two weeks into October now and the quick war that a few had promised seemed certain not to appear. Instead a long drawn out process replaced it and the nation was left in no doubt as to the ambiguity of the situation. The radio was filled with reports of the battles that raged in Europe. Once or twice they mentioned the navy’s role and the hopes of the enemy to disrupt shipping lines. The reports were always a few days out of date. This was done deliberately in case any sensitive information was revealed to prying ears. Rose had retuned her radio to the BBC in the hope of educating herself about the current situation and learnt a little about what was inappropriately described as the ‘theatre of war.’ Inappropriate because no acting was involved, just original and unadulterated suffering. She had learnt from the descriptions of her guests about the suffering that was occurring over the water and every night she prayed that it would not come to their shores.
Apart from this Abram and his family talked of their own pasts and histories. Most of the narrative belonged to Abram. The others spoke in broken and tangled English. He though managed to paste sentences together in the semblance of a story and in this way they communicated. She categorised it all as the ‘horror of Poland.’ It sounded brutal and in an ultimate way uncompromising. That was the way it was and from that there was no escape.
Life at the factory was fairly mundane. As at home certain supplies seemed to be hard to get hold off and as a result there was little to be had at the canteen. Coffee, a recent arrival, was the first to go, quickly followed by sausage pies and certain types of soup. Inevitably there were comments and complaints. Rose did not offer an opinion. She had heard what war could do to people. Failing supplies were inconsequential.
The month of October passed. The blackout was still rigorously enforced, despite the absence of air raids, and as a consequence Rose’s social life suffered: not that she had much of one anyway. The curfew was still in place and the evenings became a choice between listening to the radio or listening to the endless debates between Abram and her father. They did not always talk about the war but about many other things. Rose did not know what unsaid rules guided these discussions but it became clear to her that a friendship was growing between these two men. One evening Abram approached her and in broken accented English told her how wise her father was. ‘I know,’ she had replied, disappearing upstairs before hearing an answer.
Once or twice she was asked to work a little later at the factory. Like any other institution the factory had to respect curfew so it was not too late. On that day they had been working on a machine gun. Richard had set up the tripod upon which it was housed and it was Edith who had uncharacteristically expressed an idea on how to cover it. They had been experimenting with new materials, but these were difficult to get hold of. One was called nylon and Mr. Williams had it imported from the United States. Rose was responsible for sewing the edges and finalising the fit. The other girls went home on time. She stayed behind to finish what she had started. At first, as on past occasions, she thought it was Barney who would be staying to dismantle the tripod. It was not. It was Richard.
The atmosphere in the room built up slowly but it was definite, a solid mass of discomfort. All the time she was working on the camouflage she could feel the eerie presence of Richard and it bothered her. She was reassured that soon the factory would close and she would return home, in mundane fashion as ever.
‘You seem nervous,’ said Richard. His voice was sinewy, as if stretched too much. ‘Are you nervous?’
It was something Rose didn’t want to admit. ‘’Corse not.’
‘The other lads say you’re nothing but an arrogant snob.’ The words were expressed in a harmless tone but Rose detected their threatening edge.
‘Do they? Probably don’t like a woman who can think.’ Her father had bought her up to always think. She was not about to deny that now.
‘I hate arrogance. People thinking they’re better than others: above them.’ His eyes became blacker than they were before and Rose wondered how it might be that someone could hate so much. She began to feel more intimidated as he physically moved closer to her. ‘You need to realise that we’re the same, you and me.’ Rose desperately wanted to correct his sentence structure. Here he was threatening her in a casual and underhand way and all she could think about was the way he spoke. ‘You and I,’ she said, ‘it’s ‘you and I.’’
He looked confused at that and his eyes narrowed as if he were trying to solve a particularly cryptic problem. Then he took a few paces towards her. ‘You need sorting out, fucking prick tease.’ She backed away. He grabbed her arm and placed his left hand upon her leg. He began to rub it, lifting the dark cotton of the skirt back and forth.
‘Get off me,’ she said.
He looked directly at her and smiled. ‘I’m stronger than you, and there’s no one here to see.’ She did not know how to answer him but they were both shocked by a hail of air that passed their heads.
Someone had fired the empty machinegun at them.
It was Abram.
‘Leave,’ he said in accented English. Richard stepped away from Rose. ‘No harm meant mate. Didn’t know she had a boy friend.’ It was a stupid comment but the only one he could think of.
‘Leave.’ The word may have been accented but it still contained authority. Richard left.
Rose and Abram were left staring at each other. Rose did not like being in anyone’s debt but her relief had swept that away. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘You’re welcome,’ came the reply.
For a moment Rose was sure the accent had slipped. She looked up at Abram for an explanation but he said nothing. ‘What did you say?’
Abram shrugged his shoulders but did not repeat himself. Instead another solitary word. ‘Home.’
She followed him out of the factory door.
There was no rain but it had become very windy. It seemed to contradict the sun that was doing its best to shine. As they walked it suddenly occurred to Rose to ask a question. ‘What were you doing there, at the factory?’ Rose had to repeat herself several times before he seemed to comprehend her meaning.
‘Your father sent me. He was worried.’
The answer did not satisfy Rose’s curiosity but she let it go, not savouring the idea of another session of misunderstandings and counter explanations.
When they got home they were greeted by Rose’s parents. Her father merely nodded in Abram’s direction and no words passed between them. Rose did not have to explain why she was late and most of all she did not need to explain about Richard.
She went upstairs to her room after declaring her intention to take a bath.
Once she was there she turned the radio on. It was getting dark outside, but not yet completely. She spied a new poster that was next to the one of the cat. This was not about blackouts. It pictured a girl with her hair let down, stood in a field of hay. A paper sun beat down. Below it stood out the legend: ‘Land Army.’
Rose thought no more of it but drew the gloomy heavy blackout curtains then lit the gas lamp in her room to erode the self imposed darkness.