‘Day faded into dusk. The river glittered red in the remnants of a sunset that, further to the west, silhouetted the dome of Dumbarton Rock and painted reds, pinks, blues and mauves in the western sky above the distant Cowal hills. For a moment he felt a surge of wonder that such beauty could exist in the midst of so much death and destruction.’
Extract taken from Where the Bridge Lies
By Frank Woods
Published by Ringwood
Kilbendrick, March 14th 1941
Joe Connor pushed back his ARP helmet, fished cigarettes and matches from the breast pocket of his blue overalls, lit up, and leaned his elbows on the wall at the top of Church Brae.
This spot, with its bird’s eye view of Kilbendrick nestling in the tight turn of the Clyde, was one of his favourite places. When he was a kid, he and his pals had often dangled their legs over this high wall and argued about which of the toffs’ gardens below them were ripe for raiding. The pears on the minister’s tree were always September favourites. On the other hand, Henderson the shipbuilder’s walled garden spread its treasures over a wide season – early rasps, strawberries, goosers, plums, apples. Then there was Dr Robertson’s. Despite the threat from his spaniel, his cherry tree needed regular, critical sampling before the decision to plunder could be made. To Joe this hadn’t been stealing, but an adventure that was his by right, a sort of balancing of the books. Looking back, he could see how those escapades seeded an attitude in him, a first understanding of social difference, of them and us. And they’d been stepping stones on a journey that had led him to serve his apprenticeship in Henderson’s yard, to become a tradesman, to become a trade union man, too.
And he’d stood here and proposed to Sarah as they walked back from a long kiss and cuddle in the bluebell woods. When she said yes, they’d wrapped themselves around one another and gazed down on the lovely vista of river and village. He’d thought his heart would burst.
Aye, that was a world away. Now he was up here on lookout while down there Sarah cared for his grief-crazed sister and got ready for another night of … of what? He looked eastwards towards Clydebank. Just two miles away, the damaged oil storage tanks at Old Kilpatrick continued to pour out flames and thick black smoke. In and around Clydebank itself, countless fires were still burning. He could just make out the barrage balloons above Brown’s shipyard. To their left, a square mile of desolation flickered and smouldered where Singer’s wood storage yard had been left to burn itself out while overstretched fire crews and rescue teams had focussed on saving human lives and dwellings. A menacing pall of smoke billowed like a warning above the devastated town.
High in the Kilpatrick Hills behind him, smoke still rose from the embers of the flimsy timber decoy towns that had been set alight last night in the vain hope of misleading the raiders. But the unmistakeable ribbon of the moonlit Clyde had beckoned the German bombers and tonight’s fires would make their job easier still. Those blazing oil tanks would draw them further west and more bombs were bound to hit Kilbendrick. At this thought, his eyes sought out the wreckage of Hillcraig Terrace then, nearer at hand, the burntout wing of Henderson’s mansion where the old woman had died. Twenty-four hours could make a hell of a difference. Boss or worker. Victim or rescuer. Life or death. For now, you could hardly slip a tram-ticket between them. Bombs didn’t give a shit about the social class of the people they were blowing to bits.
Day faded into dusk. The river glittered red in the remnants of a sunset that, further to the west, silhouetted the dome of Dumbarton Rock and painted reds, pinks, blues and mauves in the western sky above the distant Cowal hills. For a moment he felt a surge of wonder that such beauty could exist in the midst of so much death and destruction. In the village below him, a light flickered in a top floor window of Erskine View. Sure enough, Maggie Thomson had forgotten to close her blackout blinds again. What was it going to take before she got the message? He looked again at the flaming oil tanks and the burning town in the distance. What the fuck did it matter? Tonight wasn’t going to be about blackout rules, it was going to be about survival. He dropped his cigarette end, crushed it under his boot, and set off downhill.
As he approached the foot of Church Brae he could see beneath the railway bridge the shapes of tonight’s two Home Guard sentries. Although it was now almost dark, he recognised them from their shadowy outlines – Sandy Downer and Jock Wilson, respectively the shortest and the tallest in the shipyard. Sandy insistently described himself as ‘over five feet’, a claim that had once been put to the test in the plating shed where he had lain down and been marked out. Careful measuring put him a sixteenth of an inch over. Disbelievers subsequently claimed either that he’d kept his socks on or needed a haircut, but Big Sandy, as he was affectionately known, stuck to his guns. Despite his size, he was good for a full shift swinging his riveting hammer with the best of them. Wee Jock Wilson was a clear fifteen inches taller and about twice as broad as Sandy. Putting them on guard duty together was the one bit of evidence that old Colonel Somerville had a sense of humour buried somewhere beneath his florid and grumpy exterior.
Big Sandy’s face wrinkled in concern. ‘How’s it looking up there, Joe?’
‘Terrible. The tanks are still blazing and there’s fires all over the place in Dalmuir and Clydebank.’
‘Think they’ll be back the night?’
‘It’s not what I think, Jock. I’m sure of it. The weather’s perfect. They’ll see the fires from miles away. Those bloody incendiaries. Makes it easier to find the target the second night. Look at last year. Birmingham, three nights. London, two nights. Liverpool and Manchester got two each as well. Aye. They’ll be back all right.’
‘After what happened last night,’ said Wee Jock, ‘you wonder what we’re up against here. I mean. Just look at us.’ He held out the makeshift weapon he was carrying, a scaffolding pole with a bayonet lashed onto one end.
‘Stop complaining, you big lassie. We agreed it was night about with the musket.’ Big Sandy held up an old bolt-action rifle. ‘And tonight, I got not just one bullet, I got two. Bring on the Wehrmacht! Anyway,’ he added as an afterthought, ‘that thing you’ve got is too heavy for me. It’s designed for big brainless people.’
‘Sandy, if you kill any Wehrmacht it’ll be because they die laughing. I mean, look at him, Joe. Churchill’s secret weapon, done up to make the Jerries think Scotland’s being defended by wee boys dressed up as soldiers. The shoulders of that battledress are somewhere round about his elbows and the arse of his trousers is at his knees.’
‘Ach, the big eunuch’s just jealous, Joe. He’s bothered because I need a lot of room down there in my pants. Unlike him.’
‘Boys, boys.’ Joe pretended to placate with outstretched hands. ‘Don’t drag me into it. When you two are doing the sniping, my head stays below the firing line. But I’ll say one thing, Sandy. You showed plenty of balls the day. Crawling in under that roof.’
‘No. Don’t say that. I was the obvious one to go. The rest of you buggers are all too big. No. I’ll tell you who the real heroes are. Mrs Brownlee when I handed her wee Shona’s body. And people like your sister Nessa who’s lost her man along with most of her family. How is she?’
‘Still not talking. The doctor came in and checked her. “She’s one of many,” he said. “Time’ll take care of it.” Whatever you say, Sandy, you did a great job.’
‘What I can’t get over is Mrs Dagerelli. I knew I was in their kitchen, at the back of the café. Most of the walls were still standing but it was a hell of a mess. And a strong stink of gas. That really bothered me. I looked everywhere I could. There was no sign of her. When I crawled back out, Ernesto wouldn’t believe me. “I know she’s-a-there. In-athe kitchen. Please. Please. I know she’s-a-there.” So in I crawled again. Checked under the table, under the bed, in the pantry. Not a sign. The kitchen door had swung wide open. Then I noticed the door wasn’t hard up to the wall. I pulled it back. There she was. Bolt upright. And stone dead. It must’ve been something to do with the blast. Or maybe she’d changed her mind and was at the door on her way to the shelter when the bomb exploded.’
The other two had heard Big Sandy’s account before, but they listened respectfully. Joe clapped him on the shoulder. ‘You did well, Sandy.’ He set off to complete his rounds.
Where the Bridge Lies by Frank Woods is published by Ringwood, priced £9.99