"Ah, I need a little help!"
Gertrude slammed the register closed and motioned for her daughter. "Viola, can you please see to Mrs. Rover in the dressing room? I think she's gotten stuck."
Viola paused from dusting and approached the dressing rooms cautiously. Gertrude watched as she discreetly pulled aside the red curtain. For a split second, she saw a flash of Mrs. Rover's large frame sardined inside the velvet gown. She bit down a laugh, unsure why the woman chose a dress three sizes too small.
"Are you alright in there?" Viola asked.
"I think I'm stuck."
Keeping an ear on the drama in the dressing room, Gertrude slipped the day's coupons into a bag and locked them in a safe behind the counter. The safe was moved from its original place in the wall when the last attack blew the drywall into pieces. The store was rebuilt poorly but it would do until the war was over. Rationing had already hit the garment business and feared the store would have to close if the war kept going. Londoners were rationed heavily as it was and the women who visited today were slim with tokens. How long will this last? There hadn't been a raid for seven days and the news reports said ol' Hitler had given up. But she knew a man as stubborn as he wouldn't give up so easily. She found shelter during the last attack, though felt guilty Viola assumed responsibility for Lori's death. The girl might've been a harlot but she was the only friend her daughter had.
She glanced up at movement coming from the dressing room. Viola appeared holding the gown triumphantly in one hand. "Does Mrs. Rover want to try on another dress?" she asked.
Viola shook her head and dropped the dress into a basket. "No, I think she's a little ashamed." She leaned over the counter and whispered, "The dress ripped. Shirley's feeling pretty bad about it. Can we forfeit payment this time?"
Gertrude looked at the velvet lump by her daughter's feet. The material was expensive and hard to get, but customer loyalty was even harder to find. "I should be able to make something out of that material. Velvet always looked lovely on you."
Viola blushed at the compliment and returned to help Shirley who stepped out from the dressing room. Loose brown hair strayed from underneath her hat and her red lipstick had smudged across her cheek.
"No luck, Mrs. Rover?" Gertrude asked.
The large woman waddled over to the counter and planted her purse down onto the timber top. "I'm afraid not. But thank you for letting me stay passed closing time. I usually don't like going out passed dark. It's a wee frightening not knowing when those Germans will drop their bombs."
"Yes, I assume it is."
"Well, I better get home before the husband sends a search party. Take care."
When Gertrude said goodbye, Viola led Shirley to the store's back door and returned a few minutes later. "Do you think she'll get home alright?"
"She will," Gertrude replied with certainty. "There are two tram spots from the alley. She'll get home in time for the news."
A knock sounded at the front windows, attracting the women's attention. A young man in a white apron and cap waved through the glass. He held a crate of empty milk bottles.
"What's the milkman doing at this time?" Gertrude asked as she moved out from behind the counter.
Viola whizzed past her, getting to the door in two strides. "He's a friend of mine," she announced. "We met a few months ago in the train station." She opened the door and let him in.
Gertrude couldn't help notice the massive grin plastered across her daughter's face. She never looked that happy when in the company of Vernon.
"Kristoff, what are you doing here?" Viola asked, closing the door behind him. "It's a little late for a milk run."
He removed his cap, revealing a head of wild, sandy blonde hair. "Trying to meet my quota," he replied with a smile. "My employer has put more pressure on us. People are more concerned about the raids than wanting milk."
"And rightfully so," Gertrude interjected. "I've never seen you on this run before? Are you new in the area?"
Kristoff nodded and placed his crate down by his feet. "Yes. I took this territory from a fallen colleague."
Gertrude detected a slight German accent and felt her pulse quicken. "You're not from around here, are you, lad?"
He exchanged glances with Viola. "No, my family's from Berlin but I've lived in Britain most of my life. We moved over here after the Great War."
"Where are your parents?"
"Last I heard they were in Germany. My sister and I haven't received any news from them in months."
"Is your father in the Nazi party?"
Viola's shrill voice caught Gertrude off guard. For a fleeting moment, she felt her daughter's glare burn the back of her skull. She wasn't normally this defensive with strangers, but this boy's countrymen were tearing her beloved city apart. She held some level of aggression towards the Germans.
"Just curious is all," she said, stepping behind the counter. "Don't keep the conversation too long, Viola. I need to close soon."
Her daughter mumbled a response and led Kristoff to a chair opposite the dressing rooms. They sat shoulder to shoulder, too close for Gertrude's liking.
"This is a nice surprise. What brings you out at this time?" Viola asked.
"I came by request of Joan. She wishes to thank you for coming the other night. We both had a great time."
Gertrude glanced up, her interest piqued. She listened with one ear as she picked up stray shards of fabric behind the counter.
"I had a wonderful time as well. Joan's a skilled cook."
"We must do it again some time."
Kristoff stood and placed his cap back on his head. "I need to go. I have a few more collections to do before heading home." He leaned in and squeezed Viola's hand, then gazed over at Gertrude. "Take care, Ma'am."
Viola walked him to the backdoor and said goodbye. She reentered the showroom grinning like a school girl, cupping her cheek.
"You shouldn't be smiling like that when you're thinking of another man," Gertrude said coolly.
The joy slipped from Viola's face. "It's nothing, Mum."
"It doesn't look like nothing. Does he know you're married?"
"Yes, Kristoff is only a friend."
"Friends don't look at each other like that, my dear." Gertrude sighed and ran a hand over her face. "I don't understand why your marriage is crumbling around you. Vernon's a good husband. What did he do to attract you to another man?"
"Mum, I've already told you and I'm not repeating it," Viola said forcefully. "I'm a grown woman. I'm allowed to have friends."
"A woman with male friends is called a tramp, Viola. Do you want to become like Lori?"
A look of shock crossed her daughter's face before turning into anger. "Lori didn't pick that life, mum. She was forced into it."
"She always had a way out, but never chose to leave. Do you want a way out too?"
"Lori's dead. Do you want me to follow her path?"
"Don't be stupid, girl," Gertrude spat, slamming her palm onto the counter. "What a silly thing to say."
Viola recoiled from her outburst. "I think it's better if I leave. It's getting dark anyways."
Gertrude sighed, welcoming a wave of guilt. "I'm sorry, love. I just worry about you. War isn't a time to play games."
"I'm not playing games. I don't have many friends, mum," Viola admitted. "
"Sometimes I feel I'm locked in a cage. Being with Kristoff makes me feel – free."
"Whisper, my dear."
Viola smiled and reached over the counter to embrace her. "Take care, mum. I'll see you tomorrow."
"I'll be staying later tonight. I have some things to do before I leave."
"Okay, be safe."
The shrill cry of a violin jerked Viola awake. She sat up in her arm chair, cradling an open book against her chest. "I must have fallen asleep," she mumbled, not recalling sitting down to even read. It had been a long day at the store.
Reaching to switch off the wireless, she gazed at the Grandfather clock ticking in the hallway. It was almost eleven. Vernon hadn't returned from his training, and she wasn't expecting him until after midnight.
Yawning, she rose and stepped into the kitchen, yearning for a hot cup of tea. As she poured water into her mug, thoughts of Kristoff entered her mind. She didn't care what her mother's opinions were on their relationship. It was innocent, only friends. Wasn't it?
Her marriage to Vernon had dissolved to nothing more than strangers living in a house. He didn't pressure her to make love anymore nor forced himself upon her. In Viola's eyes, she was free to do whatever she wanted. He tended to think the same. She couldn't be certain, but Viola believed Vernon was seeing another woman. The late nights, the unfamiliar perfume on his clothes, the satisfied look on his face told her he was happy with somebody else.
She returned to the living room and stood at the bay window overlooking the darkened street. Pulling back the blinds, she scanned the starless sky. It was a still night, undisturbed by crickets chirping in the alleyway two houses down.
This was the time she would phone Lori and talk for hours, or sit by the fire and enjoy a glass of cognac in peace. Nothing seemed earnest anymore, as though the war had eaten away at her soul.
A low growl emanated from the sky, disrupting a colony of bats roosting nearby. Viola sucked in a breath and scanned the clouds, gripping the window sill until her knuckles turned white. It'd been weeks since the last attack. Why would the Germans bomb London now? Hadn't they caused enough destruction and heartache already?
Viola gave up and turned from the window. It couldn't be a German plane, she thought, pulling at her cardigan anxiously. It was a truck grumbling down the road.
The Grandfather clock chimed in the hallway, making her jump. It was 11pm and time for bed.
As she switched off the lamp, a large blast blew the curtains inwards, shattering the windows and sending plaster raining down. Viola shrieked and flew to the ground, lying on a bed of broken glass and torn carpet.
The roar of planes flew overheard, eclipsing her screams. Her ears burned with the boom boom of explosions rocking the street outside. The smell of cordite, dust and embers soured the air.
Viola cowered on the floor, face pressed into the carpet, frozen in place. The shelter was only meters away, though fear kept her pinned. She didn't move until the roar had descended, leaving behind screams and crackles of fire.
She cautiously climbed to her feet, covering her mouth with the sleeve of her cardigan. The living room was a mess. Plaster, shattered glass and broken furniture littered the area. The windows were gone, leaving a gulping hole at the front of the flat.
Viola exited into the bitter night, yearning to escape what was left of her living room. Most of the buildings in the area had been targeted, their remains spilling onto the street.
She gagged at the stench of fractured sewers in the air, noticing more people walk the streets, dumbfounded, in shock. As she passed a home untouched, a large bomb splinter lay embedded in a garden gate, hanging by one hinge.
A great fire bellowed from an flat down the road, its embers stroking the stars. Smoke clogged the horizon, making it hard to see the damage done to the city.
A fire truck flew by, skidding to a stop outside the broken building. Six firemen dressed in black tunics spilled out, dragging a white hose behind them.
She spun at the familiar voice, breathing a sigh of relief as Vernon dashed up the street towards her. He yanked her into his arms, pressing his body against hers.
"Thank the Lord, you're alive. I saw the bombs drop about ten blocks away. Are you alright?"
"Yes, the blast just destroyed the living room windows. I'm okay."
Vernon observed her from arms reach, gingerly inspecting a gash on her forehead and brushing dust and soot from her hair. It was one of the first times in their marriage she saw genuine concern in his eyes.
"Viola, I have some bad news."
She froze. "What is it?"
Vernon cleared his throat. "Your mother's in hospital. She was on the bus when it fell into a crater. She's injured but stable."
Viola's blood ran cold. She gripped her husband's arms as her knees gave way. Tears welled in her eyes at the thought of Gertrude lying broken and bloody alone in the dark, waiting for rescue. "The last words I said to her were 'be safe.' I should've never left her alone."
"Stop blaming yourself, Viola," Vernon scolded. "Gertrude is a stubborn woman. She wasn't going to let Hitler prevent her from doing her job."
Viola buried her face in his chest, blocking out the stench of the flames. "How do you know she's in hospital?"
"We were called to the scene after it happened. It was mayhem, Viola. Your mother was one of three survivors we pulled from the bus. She has a broken leg and some gashes but the medics told me they weren't life threatening."
A moment of relief washed over her. Then, finding her voice, she manages to ask, "When can I see her?"
"You can visit her tomorrow. I'm sure the doctors will let some family in."
"Will you stay with me tonight?" Viola begged.
"Can't. I must keep working tonight. Half the city is burning. I heard over the wireless Westminster Abbey is destroyed and all but one railway line is blocked. The Nazi's really got us this time."
Viola gazed down the road to the gaping hole left in their flat. Shards of glass littered the sidewalk, their living room blinds dancing freely in the breeze. "Where can I stay? Our home is…"
Vernon pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to her. "There's a shelter down the road you can stay temporarily. After my shift, I'll grab a few things from home and meet you there."
"The second level wasn't destroyed," she advised. "I can collect things now."
Vernon shook his head and gripped her shoulders. "No, it's too dangerous. Go straight to the shelter. I don't want to ask you again. Will you do that for me, Viola?"
She closed her eyes, burying the urge to scream. In one night, her home had been destroyed, her city decimated and her mother injured. What else could go wrong? "Alright, I'll go."