The pale evening light filtered through Cath Downie's window, fading by the second as the sun sank down behind the horizon, leaving the sky a watery mixture of pink and grey. Reluctant to draw the black-out curtains, she stubbornly applied her make-up without the help of a lamp. She squinted into the small pocket mirror in her hand as she put on some lipstick, smacking her lips with satisfaction when she was done. The shade was perhaps not the one most suited to her complexion, but with so few coupons available for frivolities such as lipstick, she had had to take whatever was there. With her face complete, she turned her attention to her hair, removing the curlers carefully.
Cath's brown hair kept snagging on her coarse hands; they were covered in callouses from working in the munition factory on Ewing Road. She sighed; her hands hadn't been like that before the war, they had once been soft and smooth. She had changed. Everything had changed.
Standing up, Cath briefly adjusted her skirt. It had been a Christmas present; her mum and nan had spent weeks making it from the old spare room curtains. It felt so good to wear a skirt again, instead of the dungarees she used for her shifts in the factory. Pausing before leaving the room, Cath walked over to the dresser and picked up a small framed photo. It showed a young man. He had a very wide mouth which was grinning cheekily in his round face, but his hair was hidden beneath the cap he was wearing. Cath smiled faintly, reading the writing in the lower corner of the photo:
Remember me and keep smiling - Love, your Robbie.
Her lips curved upwards as she gazed at the picture for a few moments, but suddenly a call from downstairs roused her from her memories, and, picking up her hat and coat, Cath left the photo sitting forlornly on the dresser. Running lightly down the carpeted stairs in her flat-heeled shoes, she paused to hug her mother.
"Are you sure you don't want to come?" she whispered.
Her mother smiled at the question, and shook her head.
"I'd better stay with your nan. Besides, I'm too old. You go and have a good time."
"Alright then, if you're sure…"
Cath gave her nan a quick peck on the cheek, and the old woman smiled up vaguely at her. Poor woman, her mind had been wandering these past few years, and no doubt the war hadn't helped.
Opening the door, Cath stopped to give her family one last wave, and her mum chided her.
"Don't let out the light, now on you go!"
Laughing, Cath did so, letting the door slam shut behind her as she walked down the path.
The sun had set and, of course, the street lamps couldn't be lit, but Cath was knew the roads like the back of her hand, and the white lines painted on the kerbs kept her safely on the pavement. Her shoes clicked as she walked alongMontrose Street, and she was glad of her warm brown winter coat. The sky was clear and cold, the silver moon hovered above the small town of Clydebank like a watcher, though whether it was benevolent or malicious Cath couldn't tell. The buildings around her seemed to be made of shadows and moonlight, surreal and abstract. She was the only one on the streets, not even the ARP wardens were abroad on their bicycles. It was as though she was the only one alive. The creepy thought chilled her far more than the icy breeze, and she quickened her pace, soon coming to her destination: the town hall. She knocked and Jimmy, one of the Home Guard, opened the door, letting light and sound spill out into the evening air. Cath entered and the door was hurriedly shut behind her.
Inside, the band was tuning up, and Cath was greeted by several fellow factory girls and friends of the family. Jimmy came up behind her, his Adam's apple wobbling as he swallowed several times before speaking.
"Hello, Jimmy, how are you?"
"Och, fine, fine, how's your nan these days?" his voice quavered, betraying his age even more than his patchy white hair and trembling hands.
"She's doing well – getting a bit tired lately, though, so she couldn't come tonight. The cold goes for her, you know. But she's fine. Fine."
Fine. That seemed to be how everyone was. Fine. Well, how could they be anything else when they were at home while the soldiers fought and died on the front?
"That's a shame, she always loved Hogmanay, so she did. Used to dance me off my feet until the bells." He chuckled and Cath joined in, but she immediately fell silent at his next question.
"Any news from young Robbie?"
Cath swallowed and gave the old man a bright smile.
"No, no. Nothing since he was home on leave. He'll be fine, though, probably just busy. Lord knows, the war won't be won if the soldiers spend all their time writing letters."
Jimmy gave her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze, and thankfully wandered back to his post on the door.
She looked round, sadly noticing the lack of young men in the room. There were a few American soldiers, but all the local lads had long since disappeared over the sea to fight in the war. Just like Robbie…
The accordion music suddenly started up, and laughter filled the air as couples began to move round the floor. She considered sitting out, but then thought of Robbie. He would want her to enjoy herself on New Years Eve, not mope about after him.
Forcing a grin on her face, Cath grabbed the hands of a young lad who lived across the road and danced with him. The teenager blushed a bright red under his freckles and seemed afraid to put his hand on her waist, but by the end of the dance they were both laughing. It was hard not to enjoy yourself at a ceilidh, the atmosphere was infectious. All around them the air was filled with music and voices, and Cath's laughter joined the merriment. Robbie had always loved hearing her laugh, he said that she bellowed loudly like a bull. For a few hours, as she spun and waltzed across the polished floorboards, it was as though he was with her, that he hadn't joined up to fight, that he was still at home, still safe.
It was about eleven when the sirens suddenly went off, blaring over the accordion music and stopping everyone in the hall. The noise was deafening, wailing up and down in a haunting dirge. Cath felt a shiver go down her spine, all her happiness vanishing into a cold abyss. Why tonight? Couldn't Hitler leave them alone for one night?
"The shelter!" called out someone, "Everyone into the shelter!"
There was mass movement as everyone fled the ceilidh, seeking out the uncertain safety of the town air raid shelter. Cath gasped as she stepped outside, the freezing wind cutting right through her. She could hear children crying round about her, and mothers trying to calm them down. The shelter was fairly close to the hall, so it was only a few minutes later that they were all being herded down a set of stairs into a close, dank room. With the sirens still wailing dimly overhead, the people of Clydebank settled down as best as they could in the small, uncomfortable space. Cath looked around at the faces in the dim lamplight, wondering if she looked as pale and scared as they. There was a huge, solid boom from overhead – the first bomb must have been dropped. In the long silence that followed, Cath prayed a silent plea for her mum and nan, and a child over in the darkened corner tried unsuccessfully to muffle its sobs.
"Here," she heard someone in that direction whisper, "Here's a sweetie for her."
The girl's mother murmured her thanks. There was another heart-stopping explosion from above, and everyone in the shelter tensed up; that had sounded closer than the last one.
They sat in silence, wordlessly drawing together and strengthening one another. No matter what petty differences they might have; right here and now it was all of them against the bombers overhead, and all they had was each other. The bombs continued for what seemed like an eternity, though Cath knew that it couldn't have been much more than half an hour. They finally fell silent completely, and everyone sat in a hushed, uncertain quiet.
Suddenly, they heard the distant sound of the church bells chiming midnight. There was a moment's silence, then Jimmy, who was seated near the door, turned to the woman next to him and offered her a hand.
"Happy New Year."
She shook it, smiling shakily.
"Happy New Year."
"Happy New Year!" exclaimed one of the American soldiers, turning to his neighbour who returned the favour. Within seconds the entire atmosphere had changed, and everyone began to shake hands and embrace. Cath didn't know who started it, but suddenly a familiar song rose up, filling her with an indescribable sense of pride.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne!"
She joined in, grabbing hands with the people on either side as they sang it through, defying the German bombers, Hitler, and even the war itself. It was a new year, and maybe this year they would triumph. Maybe this year the war would end.
"For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
In days of auld lang syne"
Even as she was filled with hope, Cath felt tears begin to fill her eyes. Maybe this year Robbie would come home, and come home for good.
"Oh, Robbie…" she breathed, her voice almost inaudible, "I miss you so much."
The following morning they re-surfaced, climbing carefully out the shelter and emerging to blink in the pale sunlight. What met Cath's eyes was harrowing. The bombers had hit many houses last night. Piles of rubble filled the streets, and several large houses were still on fire. The fire brigade looked exhausted; they must have been up all night.
Cath felt a lump in her throat. She wondered how many people had died last night, had never seen the start of the new year. She wished Robbie was home. Even if they were both killed in a bombing, at least they would see each other before they died.
But Robbie wasn't home beside her. He was away, far away in a foreign land, and he could die there and she wouldn't know. She scrubbed at her eyes with her hanky, all the pride from last night buried underneath her loneliness. Someone put their hand on her shoulder and she turned to see Jimmy. He stood beside her, taking in the sight of the decimated buildings and shaking his head sadly.
"Don't worry, love. Wars don't last forever."
Cath shut her eyes, thinking of Robbie.
"No – but neither do we…"