The First Attack: 16 October 1939

A short story. 70 years ago tomorrow…

She stood on the platform at Haymarket and waited. Someone will come and help, she thought. The afternoon was cool, but the train brought with it a blast of warm air heavily laden with dust and the acrid smell of burning coke. Her heart sank as each coach passed by, finally coming to a stop too far away for her to clamber aboard with her bags. Then a young lad came up. 

‘Can I help with those?’ He pointed to the bags.

She nodded and he dragged them along the ground to catch up with the train.  He reached the last carriage and hauled one bag and then the other up and onto the high step. The guard was blowing his whistle when the boy grabbed her hand and pulled her on board. 

She gasped for breath, and her head spun so she sat down where she was on the hard floor. 

‘Are you all right? Are you …?’  He couldn’t finish the question. ‘I could get help?’

She smiled and shook her head. 

‘I’m here, that’s all that matters. You are very kind. My bags are heavy.’

‘Can I help you to a seat? 

He didn’t look any older than sixteen and had a thin face with extraordinarily blue eyes and hair like stubbly stalks of hay.  He helped her stand as the train began to pick up speed and he pulled back the door of an empty compartment and helped her inside.

‘I’ll lift your bags onto the luggage rack.’  

She managed to steady herself and sit down. The boy sat opposite. 

They both stared out of the window.  At first they saw rows of blackened tenements and dismal backyards strangled with washing lines. An old mangle and a rusty bike had been abandoned on an embankment. But soon there were flat fields of ploughed earth and the horizon opened up under an immense sky of steel grey. A flock of starlings furled and unfurled, disappearing into a copse of yellowing oak trees.  Lilly settled back into her seat and allowed herself a long-drawn-out sigh. For the boy it was too much.

‘Are you sure you’re all right? 

‘Don’t worry, not due for a month. Where are you heading?’

‘Dundee. Dad’s got a job there. Commercial traveller, sells soap.’

‘I’m going to Leuchars. If you’ll give me hand with my bags when I get off I’ll give you sixpence.’

The boy suddenly stood up and pointed to the sky. An aeroplane came into view. It flew alongside the train and then looped off towards the north. It was dark green with a yellow circle painted on the body. 

‘Spitfire,’ he said. That’s what I’m going to do. Be a pilot.’ He kept watching the plane until it disappeared. 

‘Have you ever been up in an aeroplane?’ asked Lilly. 

‘Nope. But I’ll get a chance one day.’

‘That’s what my husband does. Fly spitfires I mean. He’s based at Turnhouse. The 603. Perhaps one day he could let you see inside one.’

The lad’s cheeks turned pink and the blue of his eyes intensified.

‘Do you think he would?’

The train curved northwards, and the afternoon sun broke through the clouds.  They approached the bridge and leaning her head against the window, Lilly could see ahead of them the rust red arches.  She closed her eyes and felt the familiar fluttering inside her belly. 

She opened them with a start when the train screeched to a stop and the boy was thrown across the compartment onto her lap. The weight of his body against her chest left her gasping for breath. As she pushed back he stumbled and fell on the floor, banging his face on the wooden edge of the seat. Blood began to pour from his nose. Her heart beat wildly, as if desperate not to deprive her baby of oxygen. 

They were under the first arch, and outside she saw men half climbing, half jumping from scaffolding. Even from that distance she could see fear in their eyes.

The boy struggled to his feet, rubbing his face with a handkerchief. As the train finally shuddered to a halt, he pulled back the compartment door and went out into the corridor and looked downstream. 

Lilly was still shaking. And then she felt a tightening across her stomach. It was painful, and the shock made her cry out. 

The boy ran back inside. ‘You’re hurt. I’ll find someone.’ His nose had begun to bleed again and he wiped it with his sleeve.

They heard the drone of an engine coming nearer and nearer, until it seemed as if their eardrums would burst. Both of them instinctively slid between the 

seats to the floor. Lilly found herself holding his hands. When the next contraction came she squeezed hard. 

A long thin aeroplane with a triangular fin came into view. It was flying parallel with the bridge and they could see the gunner in his cockpit at the back.

‘Ouch,’ he said, pulling his hands away, and then with another look out at the sky, ‘Germans.’

At the same time, an explosion and a huge plume of water rose into the air and then seconds later, the grinding of train wheels as the train jerked and began to roll forward. Someone must have decided it was safer to be off the bridge. 

‘We’re moving again,’ Lilly whispered to herself. She began to cry and wrapped her arms around her baby. Again, a plane passed them, this time so close they could see the pilot in his cockpit. They saw the single engine of a spitfire. 

‘The 603,’ shouted the boy. ‘Up and at ‘em.’

A minute later the train was over the bridge on its way to Dundee. 

‘So it’s begun,’ sighed Lilly.

She felt another contraction, but this time not so strong. 

‘What’s your name?

‘Sandy,’ he said. He was pacing the carriage up and down. 

‘Same as my husband,’ she said, cradling her bump.