Tom watched the heat haze dance on the railway lines blurring the distant track. He slid his hand into his jacket pocket and fingered the playing card, turned it over and over, wondering if he would see her tonight.
Arthur shuffled beside him, jingling coins, rubbing the toes of his shoes on the back of his trousers. ‘Good turn out tonight, ain’t it?’
Glancing down the platform Tom saw girls in summer dresses and peep-toe sandals linked arms with friends; young men his own age stood alongside the girls, practicing their banter, as nervous as he was. ‘We’ve got to get our fun while we can, Mate.’
‘Oh, it’ll be alright. My mam says Hitler’s bound to back down and …’
The whistle blew at the crossing, drowning Arthur’s words. Steam clouded white against the sky and the engine swam into the haze, taking solid shape as it approached.
‘Bunny run is it, Lads?’ The station master strode past them. ‘Won’t be too many of them when there’s a war on.’
‘My mam reckons there won’t be a war,’ Arthur said, the coin jingling reaching a crescendo and then the train rolled in, brakes squealing, steam belching, the wheels grinding to a stop and the girls ran to pull open doors and be first to the window seats.
Edging down the carriage, against a tide of handbags and cardigans, Tom saw Pearl from the baker’s shop. He pretended not to notice her trying to catch his eye, her gloved hand patting the seat beside her.
He and Arthur stood for the five minute journey. A farmer’s son joined them, a grin lighting his face. ‘Joined up yesterday,’ he said.
Tom gave him a gentle punch on the shoulder. ‘Where’s the uniform? You’d be king of the run tonight.’
‘Trousers were too short. I get it Monday.’
‘But what if there ain’t a war?’ Arthur rummaged for peppermints.
The lad from the farm frowned but Tom nudged him, gave a shake of his head; didn’t want to ruin Arthur’s evening.
At Morton there was a crowd on the platform but Tom knew they weren’t waiting to board the train. He and Arthur climbed down aware they were under scrutiny. Heat gathered in Tom’s cheek creeping up to his blonde hair roots.
Taller than most of the crowd he scanned the girls but couldn’t see the jet black hair cut shorter, her girlhood ringlets a memory now she was working in the bank.
‘Don’t know why on earth you want to go bunny running. It’s nothing more than a cattle market,’ his mother had said at tea time. Tom had been cleaning his shoes, hoping the rhythmic movement would calm his nerves.
‘It’s the only place for miles around where there’s any life,’ he said.
‘Rubbish. You could find a nice girl from this village and settle down before it all kicks off. Won’t be much courting to be done then, what with this Land Army all the girls are running off to.’
‘Baker’s lass has her eye on him,’ his sister Josie piped up, ‘but he’s got bigger fish to fry?’
‘Who’s that then?’ His mother pulled the cosy down over the teapot.
Tom kept his eyes on the shoe he was buffing.
‘Eve Redmond,’ Josie said, then crammed a sandwich into her mouth.
‘Bank manager’s daughter? Are you out of your head, Lad?’ His father looked over his spectacles. ‘I’d set your sights a bit lower. She’ll never look at you.’
‘Why shouldn’t she look at him? He’ll have a decent job when he’s out of his apprenticeship and at least he won’t be going off fighting.’ His mother’s cup rattled in its saucer.
‘I Might be. You never know.’ Tom couldn’t look some of his friends in the face these days.
‘Draughtsman is a reserved occupation.’ She gave him a smug smile.
‘I’ll still have to do something. Word is they’ll send us down the pits for a time.’
His mother seemed to ponder on this for a few seconds. ‘Well, at least you’d be coming home every night.’
‘Anyway, Mam,’ Tom laced his shoes. ‘You just said I should find a girl in the village.’ His smile was as smug as hers.
‘Young Arthur still thinking it won’t happen?’ His father pushed his plate away and picked up the newspaper.
‘It’s his mam trying to make him feel better. Won’t do him any favours in the long run, though.’
‘Best thing that lad could do is shoot himself in the foot when he’s poaching. That’d keep him at home.’
When Tom walked out to the gate his mother hurried after him and pressed half a crown into his hand. ‘Buy her a bag of chips if she’s not too posh for them, and maybe take her into the picture house, as long as her dad don’t mind.’
‘Come on, Lads and Lasses, on your way.’ The ticket clerk came out to shoo them off the platform. Tom and Arthur joined the crowd surging over the level crossing into Morton High Street.
The evening was warm and when Tom checked the playing card again his fingers were damp against its smooth surface. It would all be for nothing if Eve wasn’t out tonight. They stopped outside the flower shop.
‘I’ll bet they make more money tonight than they’ve done all day,’ Arthur said, lingering by a bucket of sweet peas. ‘Do you reckon I should buy some?’
‘Do you have a girl in mind to give them to?’
‘Not really, but you never know your luck.’ He gave an exaggerated wink. ‘Are you buying any?’
Tom shook his head. ‘Not tonight. I’ve something else up my sleeve.’
Arthur seemed to hesitate, examining a few coppers in his hand. Tom flicked him a shilling but Arthur missed it and had to pick it up off the floor. Tom felt his heart contract with worry for his clumsy friend. How the heck would he cope if they called him up? He’d be a disaster in the army.
‘Tell you who loves sweet peas, Mate,’ he said, ‘Pearl from the bakery. She’s just ahead, look.’
Arthur licked his hand and ran it over his hair then pulled a bunch of flowers out of the bucket.
The evening was running its usual course. Youngsters lingered in groups along the street, their chatter rising in volume until people living over the shops leaned out of windows, begging them to pipe down or move away. A few of his friends were drinking outside the pub but Tom didn’t want a beer tonight. He needed to keep a clear head, but after a circuit of both pavements he failed to spot Eve. Dusk was falling and he knew he’d never find her in this crowd after dark.
Arthur was following Pearl, holding the posy of flowers behind his back, water dripping into his trouser turn-ups. Tom moved on knowing he’d meet up with them both at the station for the last train home. It was hard to look nonchalant when you were scanning the crowd and he found his spirits sinking. Maybe Eve had gone into the picture house with that friend of hers who never seemed to leave her side. Then, if the evening wasn’t frustrating enough, he saw the constable’s bike parked against the kerb by the chip shop.
‘Keep moving. Come on you lot. You can eat your chips at home. You’re blocking all the pavement.’
The policeman held both arms wide as though herding sheep. When a collective groan rose and the crowd shuffled away Tom saw her.
She was standing alone; her head bowed over a small bag of chips, her elegant fingers selecting one. He watched her lips part and was just about to approach when her friend caught her up, and linked arms. Tom hesitated a second too long and she was swallowed up by a group peering into the motorbike showroom.
Eve was tall and Tom spotted she was first to turn away and move on. He liked the way her skirt swayed against her slim legs, hugging her hips and small waist. But she had almost reached the shiny black door that led to her family’s rooms above the bank. He crossed the wide pavement in two strides. ‘Hello Eve.’
His stomach did a flip when he saw a blush rise from her neck.
‘Tom. I didn’t think you were here tonight.’
Did that mean she’d been looking for him too? Tall as she was she still had to look up to meet his gaze.
‘I was going to show you a…’
‘There you are.’ Her friend arrived, snatching at a chip. ‘Let’s go, Evie, it’s boring tonight.’
‘Hang on,’ Eve said. ‘Tom’s going to show me something.’ She turned to him and raised neatly pencilled eyebrows. ‘So what is it?’
‘I can make …’
Two lads he’d known at school strolled up and now he had an audience.
‘It’s a little trick and …’
He couldn’t back down and be a laughing stock so he drew the King of Hearts from his pocket praying his shaking hands wouldn’t ruin his efforts.
‘Come on then,’ someone said. ‘You’d be no good in the music hall.’
Tom drew in a long breath and looked at Eve. ‘If this makes you laugh will you come to the pictures with me next week?’
She handed the bag of chips to her friend as though she might concentrate better without them. ‘Now, why would I agree to that?’
He couldn’t tell if she was teasing or cross but he held his hands in front of him with his fingers tips touching so they looked like a pair of gates. The card was secreted behind them, held with his thumbs. Hardly daring to breathe he slid the edges of the card under his thumb nails, moved them back from his fingers and raised them. The King appeared to levitate into view. He lowered his thumbs and it sank back down. Repeating the action several times Tom kept his gaze on his hands until finally flipping the card into the air and catching it between finger and thumb. Her friend clapped her hands and when he looked at Eve she was smiling.
‘So will you come?’
‘You said if it made me laugh and I haven’t laughed … yet.’ She snatched the King of Hearts away, grinning now, turned on her heel and pushed open the shiny door. Without looking back she and her friend disappeared inside and it closed with a slam. He heard their feet clattering up the stairs.
Someone patted his shoulder. ‘Bad luck, Mate. Nice trick though.’
Mortified Tom turned away. Across the road he saw Arthur; Pearl at his side. She was carrying the sweet peas. Arthur’s smile was wide; thoughts of Hitler no doubt forgotten.
Why on earth did I try to be flash? Tom thought. Damn fool. He leaned against the window of the bank, watched his friends draping casual arms around girls’ shoulders, chatting and joking, buoyed up by a pint of stout.
Half an hour passed and the crowd thinned to a few stragglers. Still he was rooted to the spot outside the bank. Street lamps drew moths to dance in mesmerising patterns above his head. He’d miss the train now and it was a five miles hike across the fields. Arthur would be worried, or maybe he wouldn’t with Pearl to think about. This was stupid, he should go but …
Above his head a window slid up and he turned to look. Eve was smiling. Not grinning or laughing, just giving him the look that had melted his heart since junior school. She leaned out and dropped the playing card. It fluttered and spun but he caught it, glanced up to thank her but the window was closed. Slowly he turned the card over. It wasn’t the King of Hearts. It was the Queen.