You remember Marion, the stuck-up one in ‘Lily’s War’? Well, I was commissioned to write a short story for Woman’s Weekly last month and I thought Marion had had a bit of a bad press so I wanted to give her a back story that might make you find her a little more appealing.
I’m really going to have to stop this being nice to my characters!
Anyway, I thought you might like to read it, so here it is: (Do let me know what you think. Just think, if you like it, I could do one for the prostitute, Glad!)
‘Bluebird’ learns to fly
Marion took her WAAF jacket off and laid it carefully on the bunk in front of her. She had chosen that bunk because it was by the window with the best light for doing her hair. She tucked her blue blouse into her hand-made uniform skirt and patted it with satisfaction.
She was the first to arrive at the Barracks at Innsworth in Gloucestershire for the induction course into the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Force and the Nissan hut resounded with her heavy, polished brogues every time she moved.
Marion put her hand on the mattress. It was hard and bristly, and she automatically quickly withdrew her manicured fingers. Then she looked again at the mattress, it had moved a few inches, leaving the metal springs underneath exposed. There were two other identical bits of mattress at either end of it.
“These must be the things they call ‘biscuits’” she said out loud to the empty room, her received pronunciation English resonating into the metal, rounded ceiling.
Marion made a mental note to send home of a list of essentials that she was going to need from the large linen cupboard in the west wing: a sheet, a soft blanket and…she tested the pillow…definitely a pillow that was not made of straw.
The door opened and two girls came in. Marion lifted her head to the usual superior position she had adopted from her first day at boarding school at the age of five.
“Good afternoon,” she said loudly, assessing the inferior cloth of the standard issue uniforms the two girls were wearing. One girl was tall with honey blonde hair that shone in the reflection of the November sunshine seeping through the high window behind her. Marion immediately recognised the swagger that came from confidence that life was a game this girl was going to win. The other was a smaller girl who looked nervously around her.
“Hello,” the blonde one said, “my name’s Lily and this is Amy, what’s your name.”
“The Honourable Marion Hill, but I suppose you may call me Marion.”
“Well, hello, the Honourable Marion,” the blonde one called Lily said with a smile. “Well, I hope you’ve chosen your bunk, because this one’s got my name on it,” and she unceremoniously plonked her battered brown case on the bed two down from Marion. “And here, Amy, you have this one next to me.”
Marion sniffed and turned back to the bed in front of her. She started to arrange the contents of her white, kid leather case into the small wooden cupboard, studiously ignoring the stream of questions that were being addressed to her bent back.
Eventually Lily gave up, shrugged and carried on chatting to Amy to try to distract her from the homesick sniffles that were threatening to engulf the small, thin girl.
One by one, more new WAAFs came into the hut and then the noise levels rose to a deafening chatter. Marion listened with envy but did not know how to join in.
An only child of a titled family, Marion Hill had spent her life in the company of adults. Her father had a monocle and a moustache, her mother a permanent wave and a perpetual glass of gin in her hand leaving her daughter to be moulded by a succession of nannies and private tutors. Marion had no idea how to talk to people of her own age.
It had been a moment of rebellion when she had informed her mother and father that she was going to join up. The war had been raging for three years and she had dutifully carried out fire duties in the village, for the first time mixing with some of the locals on an equal footing.
It had been Alfred Lyons, the kindly volunteer fireman who had suggested she should volunteer. One night when she had been on late duty with him, in the dark of the church tower, she had found herself confessing to him that she felt stifled by the atmosphere at the Dower House. He had always had time for her and his grandfatherly concern for her welfare had, for the first time, persuaded her to let her carefully nurtured guard down and talk with an openness that had taken her by surprise.
But in the hut, weeks later, she had already withdrawn back behind the comfort of the familiar cloak of superiority.
“I suppose there’s no choice- we have to live cheek by jowl, do we?” she suddenly said out loud.
There was a moment’s silence and then many of the girls burst out laughing.
“You’re in the WAAFs now,” the girl, Lily said. “We share everything.”
Marion automatically went to slide her expensive face creams under the bedclothes, but it was too late.
“She’s got Helena Rubinstein!” a Cockney voice said from behind her, unceremoniously pushing Marion out of the way and she found herself pinned back against the wall as a crowd rushed forwards to examine the luxurious array of cosmetics that she had unwittingly laid out on the bed.
For one brief moment, Marion thought of letting them try some of the new colours she had had especially sent from New York but then she visualised her mother’s appalled face and elbowed her way back in to gather her things quickly to put them at the back of the drawer in the bedside cabinet.
The girls moved away, looking at her with that expression she knew so well- the one where she was excluded.
The postings had been put up on the board at the end of the training; Marion was going to Blackpool to become a wireless operator. She knew that Lily, Amy and another girl, Alice were going too, and she had been surprised at how pleased she had been. Lily was the leader of the pack, always making the girls laugh, getting into trouble for minor misdemeanours such as having a stray hair on her collar or forgetting to salute an officer. Marion was secretly terrified of getting something wrong, so studied the endless rule book in the corner of the room but there was a part of her that envied Lily’s ability to flout the rules. With a Wing Commander for an uncle, she knew any infractions would prompt severe and lengthy letters of censure from her whole family.
She had her RAF issue duffle bag packed neatly and was ready to go, her leather case had been sent home with the remnants of her civilian life weeks ago. She sat impatiently on the bed and watched Lily pack and re-pack her bag with frustration and a great deal of noise.
“Do hurry up, Lily,” she called, “we don’t want to be late for Transport.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Lily shouted back. “Oh my rollers! I forgot them, they’ll have to go in my gas mask. Oh, there’s never enough room in these stupid bags.”
Marion stood up and started to walk to the door. She felt a shadow behind her, it was Amy who had appeared silently, as usual, but suddenly, she whispered to Marion in a conspiratorial way.
“I don’t know how she does it, she’s like a whirlwind. I can’t decide whether I admire her or think she’s dangerous.”
Marion looked at the small girl with surprise. She was normally so compliant and willing to please and rarely expressed an opinion. Her mother had just died from an infection after losing her leg in a bombing raid. Marion had heard Amy sobbing at night and knew she desperately wanted to be at home with her father and younger brother.
Listening to the sobs from the next bed, Marion had thought about her own family. She had hardly thought about them, but then again, she acknowledged, they had probably hardly noticed she had gone. It had been a strange few weeks with endless square-bashing drills, terrible food and a relentless timetable of lessons about planes, the RAF and the King’s Regulations and she had discovered she had loved it. Her own life in the middle of rural countryside seemed shallow with its constant round of tennis games, soirées and cocktail parties- even the war had barely affected her- but here were girls who came from terraced houses in the centre of cities that had been bombed almost to oblivion. They talked of the joy when their mothers would find a piece of scrag end of beef, ways to make four pieces of coal last a week and they were even delighted at the fact that the RAF issued free sanitary towels to WAAFs, saving their precious pay to send home. Marion had discovered a new world and she had been shocked by its brutality and deprivation but also by its resilience.
“I think she’ll come to bad end,” Marion found herself replying in a sharp manner. Amy looked at her in such a disappointed way that Marion wanted to bite the words back.
She leaned towards Amy and said: “I do know what you mean though. You can’t ignore her.”
Amy, who specialised in being ignored by everyone, nodded and then smiled at Marion. A feeling of warmth flooded through Marion and she looked in surprise at the girl in front of her.
“Was this what it was like to have a friend?” she wondered.
The group of girls huddled by the camp gate waiting for the garry truck to take them to the station. Only last week, Lily had been put on a charge and had spent the evening with a clipboard there, checking vehicles in and out while the others had all been to a local dance. Marion had been forced to dance with farmhands, a confession she would never share with her parents, but had found their firm, large, calloused hands on her back leading her around the wooden floor had been more pleasurable than she could ever have imagined. She could not help but compare their kindness and genuine interest with the Country Club aristocracy who treated women like an appendage rather than a real person.
Lily was moving around the group, giving hugs and promises of keeping in touch. Alice, her friend was doing the same but Marion stood to one side, pretending to watch the road for the truck. All of a sudden, the whole group suddenly grouped into a circle and she was dragged in to join them.
“We’ve been through hellfire and brimstone,” Lily was saying, wrapping her arms around the girls on each side of her. One of them was Marion. “You’ve all become my family, and I love you all.” She looked round the group and her gaze stopped at Marion.
“Even you, Marion.” The group all cheered.
Marion bit her lip, she was determined not to cry.
*WAAFs’ nickname was Bluebirds