Friday, 2 January 1942

Margaret smiled to herself. You were supposed to run away and join the circus, weren’t you? Well, she had run away and joined the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. She had even been desperate enough to write a letter, asking if she could please have a job that didn’t involve working with the public. She had no idea whether anyone had paid attention to her request, or whether she would have been assigned to engine-cleaning anyway, but it didn’t matter. She was here now and she loved it. There was something deeply satisfying about giving a loco a jolly good clean. Everyone depended on the railways. They were an essential part of the war effort and Margaret believed all the way down to her toes that the war couldn’t be won without them. Troops, munitions, food and fuel were all transported around the country by rail. As a railway worker, Margaret was aware that dummy tanks were moved about on the back of huge flatbed wagons, just to keep Jerry guessing when he flew over in his spy planes. And then there were the ordinary passengers, of course, who put up with all sorts of delays because they were at the bottom of the pecking order these days when it came to deciding which trains were given priority; but folk took it on the chin, because everybody knew the importance of transporting soldiers, coal, weapons, food and other essentials.

Margaret stopped for a moment to roll her shoulders inside her boiler suit. All the women in the engine sheds wore boiler suits or else heavy-duty dungarees with old blouses underneath or, in some cases, old shirts that had previously belonged to their husbands. Although Margaret preferred dungarees in warm weather, she was in a boiler suit now, because this January was proving to be colder than usual.

‘Let’s hope it’s even colder in Russia,’ Alison had said a couple of evenings ago at home in Wilton Close when Mrs Cooper was busy preparing hot-water bottles for her, Margaret and Mabel. ‘That’d freeze Jerry in his tracks.’

Wilton Close. A warm feeling crept into Margaret’s heart as she pictured it. Even now, after living there for a few weeks, she still sometimes felt like pinching herself to make sure it was real. Imagine her, Margaret Darrell, having such good luck. It wasn’t just that she appreciated having a clean and comfy billet after the frankly shoddy bedsit she had lived in previously. It was the feeling of home that permeated the house, thanks to the kindly good nature of Mrs Cooper, her landlady, and also of Mrs Grayson, who was really another lodger but who did all the cooking and was a wizard at producing tasty meals in spite of shortages and rationing. Mabel joked that Mrs Grayson possessed a magic wooden spoon, and she wasn’t far wrong.

‘Forget Elsie and Doris Waters and Freddie Grisewood and The Kitchen Front on the wireless,’ Mabel had declared. ‘Mrs Grayson should have her own programme. It could be called Meals by Magic. How does that sound?’

‘Get away with you,’ Mrs Grayson had said, but she hadn’t been able to hide how pleased she was.

Margaret shared a bedroom with Mabel, and Mrs Cooper had turned the old box room into a little bedroom for Alison. Living with the other two girls had helped Margaret to feel very much a part of the group of friends she had been drawn into last summer. It had been daunting, to say the least, to join a group of such established friends. Margaret had Joan to thank for her inclusion. They had known one another back at Ingleby’s, though it hadn’t been until they were put on fire-watching duty together that they had become friendly. Truth be told, it was because Joan had left Ingleby’s in a state of such pride and excitement to join the railways that Margaret had decided to do the same when she had been in need of a bolt-hole. And how glad she was that she’d done it. Thanks to that decision, she now had a cosy billet with the loveliest landlady in the kingdom, and she had a group of chums to whom she felt closer than she had to anybody else in a long time.

Life was looking up and sometimes the past didn’t matter quite so much any more.

Sometimes.

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