Sitting astride the powerful motorbike, Freda Smith removed a large leather gauntlet from her hand in order to pull tight-fitting goggles from her eyes. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and yawned. Although only the first day of June, the air was sultry and not a day for being covered from head to toe in a heavyweight motorcycle uniform. Freda felt sweaty and would have loved nothing more than to pull off her jacket and feel the wind on her skin as she sped through Kent towards her destination. It had been a long day and no doubt many hours lay ahead before she would see her bed. Gazing towards an angry orange glow that could be seen even in the afternoon sky, she knew her journey was almost at an end. She was close to Canterbury.
Freda had always thought the notion of travelling to Canterbury appealing and she’d planned to visit this famous city just as the pilgrims had done centuries before her. Never in a million years did she believe her trip would be to carry important orders to the Fire Service when Canterbury was under threat from the Luftwaffe. Ahead of her now was a city decimated by enemy action. As a volunteer dispatch rider for the Aux¬iliary Fire Service Freda had longed for excitement, but she now realized that what lay ahead was death and destruction for this beautiful Kentish city and many of the people who lived there. After nearly three years would this terrible war never end?
Freda fervently wished she was back behind her coun¬ter at Erith Woolworths, selling the popular Mighty Midget books and Lumar jigsaws that not only enter¬tained the families but gave youngsters something to concentrate on during long nights when the country was under fire from the enemy. Life seemed so much easier then, even though she was often on fire-watch duties and had to sleep in her landlady’s Anderson shelter on many occasions. Knowing how lucky she was had made Freda yearn to do more to help this beastly war come to an end. She wondered what she’d discover when she reached the city walls. How would she find the fire sta¬tion, where she was supposed to report once she reached Canterbury? Fear urged Freda to turn back and not get any closer to the burning city.
The petite young woman gave herself a silent talking-to. Her job was important and lives depended on her handing over the instructions tucked safely inside the breast pocket of her uniform jacket. She was lucky to be able to work both at Woolies and be a volunteer in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Many people did not have a choice. Freda pulled the goggles back over her eyes and, slipping her small hand back into the gauntlet, she fired up the powerful Triumph motorbike. The bike had been assigned to her when she had completed her training only two weeks ago. Another fifteen minutes and she would reach her destination. Once her duties were com¬plete Freda could do something about the worry that had been nagging at the back of her mind since she left Erith fire station. She would be able to look for her friends. The best place to start her search would be Woolworths. Surely someone could point her in the right direction?
‘Thank you,’ Freda said, as she was handed a tin mug containing piping hot cocoa along with a sandwich by one of the WVS ladies who were dispensing refreshments from a large van to the fire fighters, soldiers and the many civilians valiantly working to find those injured in the destruction of a once noble city and to dampen down the flames from incendiary bombs. Try as she might, Freda couldn’t quite block out the sound of ambulance bells and the shouts for ‘quiet’ as men nearby dug with their bare hands, searching for people trapped in the rubble of what was until recently street upon street of fine shops.
‘You look exhausted, love. Can you find somewhere to put your head down for a while before you head off again?’ a WVS woman said as she wiped the counter.
Freda, who would have liked nothing more than to close her eyes and sleep for a few hours to ease her aching body after the long journey across Kent, smiled at the kindly woman. ‘No, thank you all the same; I need to find my friends and put my mind at rest. Once I know they are safe I can head back home to Erith. Would you happen to know the best way to reach Woolworths? I’m sure staff there will be on fire watch duties and hopefully they can tell me where my friends are.’
The woman stopped and thought for a moment. ‘I do believe that Woolworths is a couple of streets from here, but the road’s been blocked off as there’s an unexploded bomb. I doubt you’d get there anyway, what with so many shops and houses having been bombed. There’s nothing but rubble. Hang on, I’ll check with one of my ladies. She’s a local and may know more than I do.’
Freda nodded her thanks and bit hungrily into the Spam sandwich while she waited for the woman to return. It had been an age since she’d last eaten, but the grey National bread with its scraping of margarine and thin slice of Spam tasted like a feast fit for a king. Since arriving in Erith from the Midlands at the end of 1938, Freda had come to enjoy her food after most of her childhood was spent going without. Her landlady, and grandmother to her best friend Sarah Gilbert, was a wonderful cook and Freda reckoned her mutton stews, fluffy dumplings and steak and kidney puddings wouldn’t look out of place on the tables of any posh London hotel. Even with rationing taking a grip on the nation’s food supplies, Ruby Caselton could be relied upon to conjure up a tasty meal for any occasion.
Freda had just swallowed the last of the cocoa when the WVS lady reappeared.
‘I was right. You can’t get to where Woolies is as the street’s shut off. It seems the buildings down there have taken a bit of a bashing so I hope your friends are all right. Do they work there?’
Freda tried not to become alarmed. It wouldn’t help matters. She made herself think of everyone back home who would be relying on her to stay strong. ‘Er, no, but one of them is manager of the Erith branch and my other friend works with her. I just need to know they are not hurt. Would you know where I could possibly find them? That’s if they are not badly injured or . . .’
The kindly woman patted Freda on the shoulder. ‘Now, don’t go getting yourself upset. Why, you’re no more than a child yourself and riding that great big motorbike. You’re a brave one and no mistake.’
Freda took a deep breath and composed herself. ‘I’ll be twenty-one later this year. I’m just a bit on the small side for my age.’
‘Well, twenty-one or not, the world’s a bloody scary place right now and we are entitled to be afraid. Just don’t go bottling it all up. Scream and shout at the Hun if you want to. It does me the power of good, I can tell you.’ She placed a protective hand on Freda’s shoulder and pointed with the other. ‘Now, if you take yourself off down that road and turn left, you will come across a church hall. It’s being used as a rest centre as well as a first-aid post. I reckon you’ll get news of your friends down there. Leave your motorbike and helmet here. You can park up behind our van. They’ll come to no harm. I’ll keep an eye on them for you.’
Freda thanked the woman and, after securing her bike, she hurried up the small road to the hall. Struggling to gain entry as the hall was full of people, she pushed and shoved her way through the crowd. So many looked to be in shock, wandering aimlessly about, no doubt look-ing for loved ones just as Freda was trying to do. Spotting an officious-looking ARP warden with a clipboard, she elbowed through the crowd. ‘Excuse me, do you know if my friends, Miss Betty Billington and Mrs Maisie Carlisle, are here?’
The man ran his pencil down a list of names and turned a page. ‘Here they are, Billington and Carlisle. Hmm,’ he said, tapping the pencil on his teeth as he peered at the list. ‘They’ve been moved to hospital. I assume they must be injured, but details haven’t been noted. I do wish people would complete the forms prop¬erly,’ he huffed.
Freda tried to stand on tiptoes to look at the list, but the man was having none of it and held it close to his body. ‘What hospital would that be?’ she asked.
‘Margate General. It’s not too far from here. Local hospitals are overstretched at the moment. Here, take a look at the map.’ He pointed to a large map pinned to the wall.
Freda felt sick as she peered at it. Her head started to spin as she attempted to focus on where her friends had been taken and tried not to think too much about their injuries. They are still alive, she told herself as she thanked the man and rushed back to where she’d left her motorbike. Although now late afternoon, it was still warm and around her she could see men sweating as they pulled at bricks and masonry that had once been thriving businesses and family homes, seeking the living and the dead. Firing up the bike’s engine, she headed off to find Betty and Maisie.