Fire and Fury for the Tobacco Girls – Lizzie Lane (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from Fire and Fury for the Tobacco Girls by Lizzie Lane

Chapter One

Bristol, 3 January 1941

Bridget Milligan and Maisie Miles

The ambulance careered through total darkness, bouncing over potholes, missing lamp posts by inches, skimming round corners and passing familiar landmarks barely discernible against a blanket of blackness.

Bridget Milligan, in her capacity as first-aider, clung on with her left hand, her bottom bumping up and down on the passenger seat. With her free hand, she yanked the emergency bell for all she was worth, its loud clatter joining a tumultuous choir of other ambulance and fire engine bells clanging and jangling as each raced to where they were needed.

It might be a bit too much to hope that the raid wouldn’t go on too long, that some sleep might be snatched before morning.

Harry Flinders, production operative in the tobacco factory by day but ambulance driver tonight, was hunched over the steering wheel in an effort to better see the road ahead of him in the midst of the blackout.

Street after street of blackness steadily blended to grey, then a pale dirty lemon colour, which in turn exploded to a reddish gold. It got warmer and warmer until the sweat trickled down Bridget’s neck and then her spine. At last the heat was there before them, buildings smouldering against a blanket of orange.

‘They don’t look like flames,’ she muttered, her voice sounding unusually small and far away.

‘Well they are!’

Harry’s curmudgeonly tone put her off saying what she wanted to say: that it was as though somebody had daubed the night sky with a huge brush dipped into a tin of bright orange paint.

If hell could ever be on earth, then this was it. Night had become day and the cold receded with the heat of bombs that had found targets and exploded with grim ferocity. Having been told there’d been indiscriminate bombing on St Michael’s Hill, they had gone from Bedminster towards the city centre. They’d heard that other areas of Bristol were also experiencing air raids. It was a big one, the raiders having followed the River Avon from its mouth into the city, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Harry considered himself a bit of an armchair strategist so had plenty to say on the subject.

‘They let loose their main load on Avonmouth and Filton – harbour and aeroplanes – and ’avin’ a few left decided to drop them on people. Bloody Germans! Oh God!’ Harry’s jaw went slack and the cigarette that had been jammed in the corner of his mouth fell to the floor. ‘Good God,’ he exclaimed. ‘St Michael’s Hill. Redcliffe. All houses!’

The ambulance swerved to avoid a fire engine and only barely got away with it.

Bridget swiped at the beads of sweat on her forehead. Her navy blue siren suit, so called because it was an item of clothing donned the minute the air-raid siren went off – if not before – felt hot and restrictive. The cold night might help, though thankfully there had been no snow this year, so no vegetables lost to extreme cold.

New Year had been just a few days ago. Some of the residents of Marksbury Road had got together for a party. There’d been a little beer and sherry, along with sausage rolls made without meat and fish paste sandwiches. There was always fish paste to be had. Bridget vaguely wondered how much fish paste would have been eaten by the time this war was over. Thinking of trivial things helped her cope with the scene beginning to unfold outside of the vehicle. She thought of her big family in Marksbury Road, of her friends at the tobacco factory: Maisie who was in another ambulance, and Phyllis who was serving abroad. She thought of the love of her life, Lyndon O’Neill who was far away but still in her heart.

Suddenly the whole horror of war had come home and was there before her.

‘Oh God,’ she muttered.

The windscreen proved no barrier to the increased heat she could feel on her face. The tight knot in her stomach that she’d had since the moment the air-raid siren had sounded tightened so much that it seemed her stomach was cleaved to her spine. This was her first time as first-aid assistant on one of the ambulances supplied by W. D. &. H. O. Wills. Months of the phoney war when nothing seemed to happen had made people think that nothing ever would. The retreat from Dunkirk had surprised and shocked and the air raids on Bristol had been relatively light until the heavy raid of the twenty-fourth of November. It was on that terrible night that she’d been forced to shelter in a wine cellar beneath St Nicholas Market. Maisie and Phyllis her very best friends and workmates from the tobacco factory had been with her. She sometimes wondered whether the experience had influenced Phyllis into joining up – besides her chaotic personal life. Phyllis seemed to fall in love at the fall of a hat – or what she thought was love. First there’d been Robert her fiancé who became her husband. She might not have married him if she hadn’t been pregnant, but as it turned out she’d lost both husband and the baby she’d been expecting, fathered by her typing teacher.

Her eyes misted at those precious moments with her friends.

Once the raid was over, they’d walked home, taking detours as advised by air-raid wardens, remarking sadly that they’d never go shopping in Castle Street ever again. The medieval heart of Bristol had been destroyed, old buildings that had stood for centuries reduced to rubble and dust. Obliterated.

It was back then that W. D. &. H. O. Wills, one of the city’s biggest employers and producers of cigarettes, cigars, snuff and pipe tobacco, had organised its own ambulances and facilitated the training of staff to man them, but the writing was on the wall. By the following raids of early December, they were up and running.

Bridget had swallowed the fear and declared the country needed them. ‘It’s our duty,’ she had said to her good friend Maisie Miles. In response, Maisie, younger and slighter than Bridget and brave of heart, had declared that it might be fun, so accordingly they had put their names forward. Maisie had grown up in a tough neighbourhood, neglected by her mother and stepfather. She’d not been keen to work in the tobacco factory, but on doing so had found true friendship with Bridget and Phyllis. There’d been three of them but now there were only two still working in there.

It was certainly a bit different to their day job. Besides, the short six-week course on basic first aid practising on willing patients and despite the serious intent of the training, overall it had turned out to be fun. Maisie and Bridget had taken turns to be patients and allotted a specific injury and bandaged accordingly. Both she and Maisie had learned a lot and giggled a lot, especially when Maisie had drawn the short straw and been given a complete body bandaging.

‘I can’t move,’ she’d spluttered through her bandaged mouth.

Bridget had told her that she’d looked like an Egyptian mummy. Maisie’s muffled response had been to say that bandaging wasn’t necessary and that all she needed for her injury was a cup of tea.

Such an innocent time, she thought as fear prickled all over her skin. Her courage was diminished and in its diminishment she found herself wishing it had stayed as fun, wished there’d been no more air raids, but there had. A new year had dawned and Bristol was once more under attack.

‘I thought they were after the aeroplane works,’ she said in as brave a tone as she could muster. Everyone knew Bristol, with its large port, excellent railway connections and, most of all, its aeroplane works, was a prime target.

Harry Flinders scowled through his sweat. ‘They was, but their aim ain’t as good as it could be. They ain’t RAF – they’re the boys that do it right.’

Bridget was none too sure about his boast but liked to think he was right. Being in the right and being better at things made everyone feel braver.

‘It looks like a rank of houses.’

Harry nodded, said ‘yep,’ but nothing else. His expression hardened. ‘Poor buggers chucked outa their bed.’

Bridget gulped; this was the first night both she and Maisie had become ‘operational’. They’d been apprehensive, both fully aware that this would be very different from practising on perfectly healthy people and in a safe environment. All that she’d learned on the course broke into fragments at the sight of the flames.

‘’Ere we go,’ muttered Harry as the vehicle came to a shuddering halt.

He fell out of the door on his side, slamming it shut behind him. Bridget did the same on her side, one shoulder weighed down by her first-aid kit.

The heat hit her. Water gushing from firemen’s hoses quickly turned to steam. It was a scene from hell and the air she breathed tasted gritty. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and more grittiness transferred to her lips.

Cinders from burning buildings were like fireflies rising skywards, the air full of the sound of water thundering from fire hoses trained on fierce flames, black smoke soaring.

Bridget’s attention was drawn to the arrival of yet another ambulance sporting a W. D. &. H. O. Wills logo.

An air raid warden silhouetted against the fire shouted at it. ‘Shut that bloody racket!’

Maisie fell out of the new arrival. Like Bridget, she was grasping her first-aid kit.

Her driver, old Fred Winter, who’d retired some years before from driving company vans and lorries but had been brought in to help, climbed stiffly down from the other side.

‘Crikey,’ exclaimed Maisie as she came to a halt beside Bridget.

They both stared round-eyed at the terrible scene being played out before them.

‘Is anyone injured?’ Bridget asked an ARP warden who was bent almost double, hands on knees as he coughed and spluttered, then cleared his throat in an effort to catch his breath.

He looked at them pityingly with red-rimmed eyes in a face blackened from the choking smoke. ‘You’ll get more than injured.’

Just as Bridget was about to ask him if there was anything she could do to help, a man began waving at them adjacent to where the fire hoses had doused the worst of the fire, though the rubble smouldered like coal. ‘Don’t stand there gawping. Come over ’ere.’

‘On our way,’ Maisie shouted back.

‘Better leave these here,’ Bridget said, laying down her first-aid box where the ground was clear.

‘Keep an eye on them, will ya,’ added Maisie, speaking to Fred. ‘People’s lives might depend on it.’

Bridget frowned at her. ‘Maisie, nobody’s going to steal first-aid boxes.’

‘You don’t think so? Well, Bridget Milligan, you don’t come from where I come from.’

Bridget didn’t respond. Maisie had grown up in the Dings, a pretty grim area where the stink of the boneyards and the soap factories fouled the air. Her father, who she’d later found out to be her stepfather, had been a small-time criminal who was currently in prison for selling rotten meat on the black market. As a result of that, two children had died and many others become very ill. He was likely to serve ten years at least. Her mother, downtrodden and abused all her married life, was dead and Masie now lived with her grandmother, Grace Wells, who also happened to be the mother of Maisie’s natural father.

One thing Maisie had gained from living a rough life was guts and outright honesty. If you wanted an honest opinion, Maisie was the one you went to. Her courage was indisputable – as she was currently demonstrating.

Arms outstretched so she could better keep her balance, she picked her way over the debris of what had once been the upper storeys of a house of some age, one of a terrace.

‘Go careful,’ the man shouted. ‘The upper floors ’ave collapsed on top of the cellar, but there might still be somebody down there. And no more water. This bit’s out. Don’t want to bloody drown ’em!’

Bridget and Harry followed on until the three of them joined a huddled band of auxiliary firemen and rescuers silently scrutinising one particular spot.

Harry asked if somebody was trapped.

The man rounded on him. ‘Of course somebody’s trapped, you big lummock. Now shut yer gob. I can’t ’ear bugger all with you yapping.’

‘Sorry I’m sure,’ murmured Harry.

‘Never you mind, Harry,’ said Maisie in an extra loud voice that nobody could help but hear – including the bloke who’d told Harry to shut up. ‘When somebody needs a big bloke to lift somethin’ heavy, you’re the man for the job.’

The man was unimpressed and glared pointedly at Maisie. ‘I said shut yer gobs!’

‘Just pointing out a fact. Just in case,’ said an unperturbed Maisie in a smaller voice, though still with a cocky tilt to her head.

All round them, people clambered like ants over mounds of rubble and blackened timbers. Steam rose and mixed with the smoke from fires that were still burning, making the air a claustrophobic fog that was difficult to see through.

The man who’d shouted at Harry now shouted again. ‘Well, don’t just stand there, grab a shovel!’

‘Keep yer ’air on,’ snapped Maisie.

Harry was ordered to another area where plumes of smoke were turning to a cloud of hissing steam thanks to the rush of water from a fire hose.

‘I can ’ear tapping,’ somebody shouted out. ‘Give us a bit of quiet.’

The clattering of tools and chatter amongst the rescuers stopped abruptly. Even though the fire wasn’t fully put out, the firemen turned off their hoses. The only sound remaining was the hissing of steam from smouldering timbers.

‘It’s coming from back ’ere,’ somebody shouted. ‘But I’m warnin’ you, it ain’t safe. One foot wrong and it’s down’ill all the bloody way.’

The man who looked to be in charge surveyed the band of rescue workers. ‘Can I ’ave a volunteer to ’ave a go?’

‘I’ll go.’

‘It’s Harry,’ said Bridget.

Maisie poked at the brim of her tin hat so it was shoved further back on her head. ‘That’s brave of ’im.’

With bated breath shared with all those round them, they watched as Harry began to make his way across mangled metal, shards of what had been doors, towards where a staircase hung precariously from a wall. Just like the other houses, the upper storey of the house had fallen down and piled on top of the cellar. If anyone had survived, that was where they would be.

A piece of wallpaper had come adrift from the wall and was fluttering like a flag above the staircase to nowhere. It was decorated with characters from nursery rhymes.

‘Hey diddle, diddle,’ whispered Bridget woefully. Please God let them have survived.

‘The cat and the fiddle,’ returned Maisie, swallowing the bile that accompanied the words. Thinking of the child that might have been sleeping in that room, the family preferring to take their chance rather than go to the shelter made her feel sick to her stomach.

A quick glance at Bridget’s tense expression was enough to tell her that their thoughts were running along the same lines. The family might or might not have made the wrong choice. It could indeed be that a survivor was tapping on a water or gas pipe and that the child too was alive and being held in a loving embrace. She closed her eyes tightly and willed that it was so.

Somebody close by suggested that the family might have gone to the shelter and it really was only the sound of water hammer.

A senior fireman pushed his way through, the others making room, their dirty faces tensing as they waited to act on his judgement of the situation.

Hands resting on knees, he bent over and looked and listened, then held up a hand, a signal for everyone to be quiet. There was a sound like breaking glass when he took a step forward, along with two of the others.

‘Stop,’ he shouted. The raised hand again. ‘We need to get closer, but I reckon this is too thin a layer to take our weight. We don’t need a heavyweight, we need a bantamweight.’

A man who was indeed a bit thinner than anyone else offered to go further forward and take a closer look.

The fire officer glanced at him before shaking his head. ‘If you’re any more than about eight stone, you’ll go right through before you can get there.’

A lone voice rang out into the fragile silence. ‘I’m a bantamweight. More like seven stone in me bare feet.’

Maisie’s face was gilded with gold and made Bridget think of the statues of saints in the Catholic Church more richly attired than when they’d been flesh and blood and not painted plaster.

The three men standing at the heart of the desolation eyed Maisie’s slight frame and the fireman, a man of senior office and used to being in charge of such situations, beckoned her forward.

‘Now listen carefully,’ he said, a thick moustache quivering with bits of soot and grit. ‘All you got to do is shine a torch down into the hole and see what’s there. I can see the rim of the hole from here, so I know there is one. Got that?’

‘I got it.’

‘Right. John, fetch a rope and tie it round her waist.’ Its use was explained. ‘So we can pull you up if you fall through. We shouldn’t have any trouble doing that, you being such a lightweight.’

‘Good job for you,’ said Maisie in her normal cheeky style. Inside she was scared but nicely so. She was going to help someone. It was what she’d always wanted to do. Up until the January raid, she’d been at a distance from this war. Now she was part of it, feeling useful, but also important because people would be depending on her.

‘Take this torch. Shine it down into the hole.’

‘I ’eard you the first time. I know what I gotta do.’

Heart in her mouth, she showed a bit of bravado at first, stepping forward as though everything was perfectly flat, perfectly normal. Her manner was more to reassure herself rather than impress anyone else – not that she would ever admit it – now or in future.

A sudden shift of debris slowed her progress. Common sense and the will to survive came into play.

Ahead of her were lumps of brickwork; a gas oven lay on its side next to the handle of a pram or pushchair; more evidence of a child. The closer she got to her objective, the stronger the smell of gas.

She paused on thinking she heard something; waved her hand, signalling total silence from those behind her.

The sound was still there: tapping.

‘Is anyone there?’ she called out.

The sound of her voice started a small avalanche of rubble. She held her breath.

She dared call again. ‘Hello.’

There was a sound, not a word as such, but a grunting, snoring, bordering on a squeal.

Toe then heel, she took one step, paused for the sound of more falling rubble. Took another step, again toe forward, then heel following. It was such a tiny advance, but she knew it to be necessary. Her life, and perhaps also those trapped, depended on it.

She allowed her mind to stray on how it would be with these people when they heard she’d been instrumental in saving them. That would be a very glad day indeed, and her mind dwelling on a positive outcome helped keep fear at bay.

The rough ground, the broken woodwork, the stones and brick and busted furniture posed obstacles, but she judged she was close to the tapping and the other sounds she could hear.

Suddenly her foot slipped and she cried out. In response to her shout, the rope round her waist became taut.

‘You all right, me love?’

She swallowed hard. Her heart was racing like a train, but she hadn’t fallen. A few more steps and all would be well.

The beam from the flashlight bounced over all the things that made a home: a broken teapot, battered saucepans, the ragged fringe of a rug, twists of cloth and linoleum. After that there was nothing, the column of light disappearing into a gaping hole.

‘I’m there,’ she shouted over her shoulder. ‘Just give me a bit of slack.’

They’d been holding her too tightly, wary lest she disappear out of sight at any moment. The tautness eased. Taking a deep breath, she took another step, another and another, and finally a fourth one.

‘Hello,’ she called, her voice dropping down the hole, along with the light she was levelling down there.

That odd sound again, somewhere off to her right.

First there was only a jumble of items. Most prominent amongst it was a cast-iron fireplace, a huge Victorian one. Steadying her hand, her gaze followed the light from the torch. A little cry escaped from her throat. It looked like a gas pipe had come loose from fixings that had kept it firmly attached to a wall. Nothing held it now; the whole length of pipe was swinging backwards and forwards, tapping the mantelpiece of the fireplace.

She chose to believe that they weren’t all dead and reminded herself of the grunting, snoring sound she had heard.

Determined that someone should come out of this alive, she tried again to locate someone – anyone – who might have survived.

Suddenly there were two faces. She gulped and in doing so breathed in some of the thick dust that was lay heavy on the air. The dust coated her tongue and she needed to spit. In an act of reverence, she turned her head so that whatever she spat out would not land on the pale faces beneath her.

Chilled but determined, she dragged her gaze back to the job in hand. Not job. People. They were dead but still people.

Taking a firm grip on her emotions, she took in the details. One was an adult – a woman if her fine cheekbones were anything to go by. The other was a child. Their eyes were closed and their faces shone whitely, which she guessed was dust from the plaster of fallen ceilings and tumbled walls. In a way, they looked peaceful, but it did nothing to take away the sheer horror of the scene. They might just as well have been in bed together, buried as they were beneath the surround of a marble fireplace, their dust-covered faces framed by an inner band of decorative tiles.

Her breath caught in her throat before she whispered to herself, ‘No. I heard something…’

Someone behind her was asking loudly if she had found anything.

She stared down at the two faces which didn’t look real. They were too still, too lifeless. The child’s head lay on its mother’s chest. The mother’s arms hugged the child close in a useless act of protection. She became vaguely aware of another face behind both of them, the face turned slightly away. It was hard not to sob, hard not to cry. With her free hand, she brushed at the wetness trickling down her face. She heard nothing and saw nothing except white, dust covered faces.

‘Are you ready to come back?’

She felt the rope tightening round her waist. They were preparing for her to back away, reeling her in as they might a fish on the end of a line.

‘Yes,’ she shouted, her voice strident and oddly confident.

Bit by bit and very slowly, she retraced her steps, though backwards instead of forwards. It wasn’t easy, but she had faith in the men bringing her back to the surface and all she had to do was place her feet as close as possible to the steps she’d taken earlier.

She was shaking like a leaf when her feet finally found solid ground and the rope was being untied. She’d seen her mother die, but not like this. Never like this.

Bridget pushed her way through. ‘You all right, Maisie?’ She sounded worried.

It was obvious to everyone from her expression that nothing was all right.

She sniffed and wiped her nose on the cuff of her sleeve. ‘They’re dead. Two for definite, though it could be three. I thought I heard something, but…’

‘It’s a pig! It’s a bloody pig!’

The interruption came from Harry, who, although he’d been told he was too heavy for the route she’d taken, had gone his own way.

A crowd headed in his direction.

‘Finders, keepers,’ somebody shouted.

One of the rescuers, she couldn’t tell who, patted her on the back. ‘Job well done,’ he said solemnly. ‘We’ll get them out as quick as we can. Got yer stretcher ’andy?’

Maisie nodded.

‘No need, I’ll do it,’ said Bridget.

‘No.’ Maisie was shaking but adamant. ‘I found them. I’ll get them to the morgue.’

He shook his head. ‘Poor sods. They stayed in the house to keep their pig from thieves.’

Maisie looked at him in shocked surprise. ‘A pig? A real pig?’

He rubbed at his face, making white patches in the sooty sweat that covered it then nodded. ‘Everyone’s got to eat and takes care of their own. By the looks of it, the family were keeping a pig in the back garden – probably a joint ownership between neighbours. They couldn’t risk leaving it alone and it not being there when they got back from the shelter. So they stayed put to guard the pig. Even in the middle of a bombing raid, there’s thieves about. Didn’t do them much good though did it.’ His voice and expression was sombre. ‘They ain’t lost their bacon but they’ve lost their lives.’

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