They should have chosen a warmer place to meet, Helen Coles thought as she huddled at the end of a bench next to Cleopatra’s Needle. The ancient Egyptian obelisk offered little protection from the biting wind that was buffeting down the Thames. The sky was as murky as the river. A pale young woman wandered into view. She sat down beside Helen, propping a battered umbrella against one knee. As the woman’s fingers absently caressed a sizeable chip in the wooden handle, Helen glimpsed the gold rim of a wristwatch.
“Excuse me, what time is it?” she asked.
The young woman glanced at her wrist. “A quarter to twelve.”
Ralph was forty five minutes late. Helen laced her fingers together. It wasn’t as if her brother was the most punctual of men, she reasoned, even before the inevitable wartime delays to public transport. She glared at the river, thinking of all the things she would like to say to him when he finally arrived, but knowing she’d be so relieved to see him that she wouldn’t say any of them.
This would be only their third reunion since the war began. The first time had been after Dunkirk where Ralph had been rescued by a fishing boat from Ramsgate. That was the last time the four of them had been together. Six months later, Jerry dropped a bomb on the Coles’ terraced house in Bermondsey. Ralph was back in Europe. Helen was at the pictures. But Mum and Dad were in the kitchen.
The next day, Helen had signed up for work in the munitions factory.
Now, the young woman beside her had taken out a novel. The title was French, but Helen knew it immediately: a translation of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. After her parents’ deaths, Helen took her old sixth form grammar book down to the shelter. As shrapnel screamed above her, she would conjugate French verbs, clenching the book until her knuckles were white.
A young man in civilian clothes limped into view, leaning on an umbrella. She offered him her seat, which he gratefully accepted. Helen walked behind the monument, hands in her pockets.
“Where is he?” she murmured to one of the sphinxes, but it gazed cryptically back it her.
Big Ben chimed the hour. A raindrop splattered against the brim of her hat. With a sigh, Helen set off up the Embankment. Just ahead, she recognised the man she’d offered the seat to. His limp seemed to have miraculously disappeared as he was striding up the street as if Hitler himself was after him. Thrust under his armpit was an umbrella, only it wasn’t his umbrella. Even from here, Helen recognised the chip (a bullet hole?) in its handle.
As the downpour started, the man stopped and pushed up the umbrella. It was only a second, but enough for Helen to see him slip a paper from its folds. He crushed it into his pocket before continuing on his way.
To be continued.
What’s going to happen next in Liberation?
That depends on the talented community of writers at The Story Mint who will be continuing this multi-author historical fiction serial. But for now, I can tell you the story behind my serial starter. Wartime Britain has always held a special fascination for me, perhaps because I’m half-English. My British grandfather served on an aircraft carrier and my grandmother’s last wartime posting was at Bletchley Park (although she didn’t come across any coded messages inside umbrellas!)
Like many Kiwis, I did the obligatory O.E. to London in my twenties and spent several years working in offices close to the Thames. Wandering up and down the river during my lunch breaks, I would often marvel at how one city could hold so much history. What had life really been like for the people who lived here during the Second World War? My generation’s lucky enough not to know that. The closest I got was being in London during the 7 July bombings , which although terrifying, were one day.
Liberation is a complete work of fiction. I’ll never know what it was really like for people like Helen, or my grandparents, but I do believe that stories can help us to imagine.
If you’re curious to find out what Helen does next, you can follow the rest of the serial on The Story Mint website. I’ll also post Twitter and Facebook updates when a new chapter is published. Upcoming contributors include historical fiction authors Suraya Dewing and Ray Stone.
Enjoy and thanks for reading!