In spite of the fact that she’d got only a few hours sleep, Elsie Bates was in great spirits. Nothing like a nice bit of dock to make a girl smile. When he’d told her this was his first time, she’d expected him to be clumsy and done too fast, but he wasn’t. She’d helped him out here and there but mostly he’d learned all by himself. Of course, like any man born to Eve, he’d started to show a bit of possessiveness right off the bat, and she’d had to make it clear that nobody owned her. Elsie grinned at the memory, then impulsively pushed down on the accelerator as far as she dared. The sun wasn’t yet up and the road, which was hemmed in on either side by tall hedgerows, was pitch black. She had her headlights on, inadequate as they were with the strips of blackout tape across them, and she was driving as close to the middle of the road as she could, the lorry rattling and shaking on the rough surface.
She started to sing to the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March.” Hitler has only got one ball,Goering has two but they are small
Wait ’til she told Rose about last night. Rosie kept saying she was saving herself, but as Elsie reminded her, “There’s a war on, my pet. Butter’s rationed but that don’t mean we have to be.” Himmler has something sim’lar,But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.
Elsie fingered the strap of her dungarees and smiled at the feel of the two bank notes she’d sewn in there. Two quid would go a long way. When she’d told Rose the story, her friend had been nervous.
“Oo, Elsie, be careful. People don’t like to be blackmailed.”
“Who said anything about blackmail? I didn’t say nothing. Nothing at all except to mention what I’d seen, and out it popped: ’Ow much to keep that to yourself? Didn’t come from me first.” She’d pinched Rose’s thin cheek. “We won’t be greedy. The occasional quid will do nicely. Stroke of luck, weren’ it? Me being there at that moment. Next leave we get, we’re going to Birmingham for a few larks. Nobody’ll wonder where the dosh is coming from. If asked, we’ll say it’s our wages saved up, which is a joke.”
“You’re as cunning as an old cat,” said Rose. “I just hope you’ve got as many lives.”
Elsie had taken the remark as a compliment. She’d learned at too early an age to be that way. You had to if you were going to get out of that bleeding hellhole of a slum in any way intact. She made the sign of the cross over her chest. “May God see fit to drop a bomb on all of them.” Hitler has only got one ball,The other is on the kitchen wall.His mother, the dirty bugger,Cut it off when he was small.
The lorry went over a bump, gave a short cough, a splutter or two, then went silent and began to roll to a stop.
“Sod it, not again.”
It was the third time this month the bloody thing had acted up. Elsie managed to steer over to the side, as close to the hedgerow as possible, before the momentum died. The road was barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and she’d bring a lot of aggravation onto herself if she blocked the way completely. She tried turning the ignition key but the lorry was dead as a doornail. Sod, sod, and more sod. She was on a tight schedule. She had to pick up the girls at the hostel on time. Miss Stillwell, the warden, could be a bloody tartar. “Late again, Miss Bates? Do pull up your socks, or I shall have to put you on report.” Toffee- nosed old cow. If ever a woman acted like a dried- up spinster, it was her.
Well, no sense in sitting here on her arse. Good thing she’d brought her bike. She climbed down from the lorry. Somewhere along the way her back light had been knocked out, but the front lamp was working. Not that it was a lot of use, with the obligatory taped strips across it.
The woods pressed in close here, narrowing the road even more. Elsie didn’t like the country in the dark. She was used to paved streets and houses crammed together; a sense of the surrounding humanity. You could go for miles out here and not meet a soul. The rooks were putting up a God- awful clamour. Old Morgan had told them that sometimes birds can be as good as a watch dog, giving off warnings that there’s danger near.
She almost wished she’d brought the gun with her. As she pedalled, she began to sing again to the tune of “Land of Hope and Glory.” Land of soap and waterHitler’s having a bathChurchill’s looking through the keyholeHaving a jolly good laughBe . . . e . . . e . . . e . . . cause,Hitler has only one small ball . . .
She was glad for her overcoat. The pre-dawn air was chill and damp, just a bit of a hint that summer was ending. Fresh though, very fresh; one good thing you could say for the country. Since she’d been here, she gained some weight and a good colour, which they had all admitted when she went home last time. After she’d signed up with the Land Army, her dad, the miserable bugger, had said she wouldn’t last a week, which only made her determined to show him. It hadn’t been easy. When she’d first arrived in Shropshire, she’d never even seen a live cow before, let alone the bloody huge bull with the ring in its wet nose and its enormous goolies hanging down. The work in the fields was backbreaking, the hours appallingly long, and at first many of the farmers had been contemptuous of the girls, not willing to take into account their inexperience. Now the Land girls had earned their grudging respect. They worked as hard as men and learned fast. Elsie, herself, had been promoted to forewoman after only two months. When she’d written to tell Ma and Dad and the others, nobody’d bothered to answer. Sod them anyway.
Dawn was starting to seep through the trees and the exercise was getting her blood flowing. She kicked her feet off the pedals and did a little swoop from side to side just for fun. Whoopee!
There was something to be said about this war. She’d never have had this experience stuck in the filthy London back- to- back housing where she’d grown up. She kicked out again. Whoopee!
There was a dance in the village tonight and she’d be there, new frock, new sweetheart.
Hold on, was that a car? Maybe she could cadge a lift. She glanced over her shoulder. She heard the roar of the car as it emerged out of the darkness, the slitted headlights gleaming like cat’s eyes. It was travelling fast. Too fast. Elsie swerved out of the way.
“Hey, slow down,” she yelled.
But in a moment the car was upon her.
Excerpted from Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings. Copyright © 2011 by Maureen Jennings. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.