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The inside of Gray’s, the posh draper’s shop just up from the funeral director’s, smelt of dark cloth and shiny buttons. Two women at the counter looked up at the sound of the bell and Josie fought the impulse to reach up, tip-toed, to still its jangling. She approached a rack of dresses, trying to keep her heels from clacking on the shiny parquet. The women resumed their low-toned conversation with the regal dowager who reigned from behind the counter.

Josie took down a dress from the rack, pretending to admire it and replacing it when she realised she was examining a lurid crimson tartan that, combined with her rolls of red hair, would almost certainly break black-out regulations.

The bell tinkled again as the women left the shop. The tartan outrage had somehow locked hangers with the next dress on the rack and Josie struggled to restore the regimental line that existed before she broke up the ranks.

“Good morning, Madam. May I help you?”

The traitorous dress slid to the floor with a clack of metal buttons as Josie turned.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she gasped, stooping to recover the bright tangle.

“Not at all Madam. Would Madam care to try it on?”

“Um… No, thank you. Er, actually there’s a dress in the window I’d like to buy. The one for 31/6d.”

The shop mistress took the tartan creation from Josie’s hands, frowning at it through half-spectacles with a gaze to strike fear into any speck of dust that might entertain clinging to it.

“Of course. And no doubt Madam will wish to try the fit of that one?”

“Oh.” The possibility that the dress might not fit had somehow escaped Josie’s planning and determined saving.

“Yes, please.”

She stood, feeling alone and adrift in the centre of the shop as the woman threaded through the mannequins to retrieve the dress from the window. She’d saved everything for weeks, sure every day that it would disappear before she’d amassed the great wealth of its purchase price. Last night, Dad had returned from work in good spirits and presented her with a ten shilling note, bringing her within reach of her dream.

Now, without doubt, she would discover that it was the wrong size.

The woman returned with the dress and held it up in front of Josie, maintaining a respectful 18-inch gap that made judging its suitability impossible. “It’s rather lovely, isn’t it? Quite striking with Madam’s hair.”

Josie detected the slight taint of Birmingham behind the shop woman’s clipped accents and relaxed just a little. She put down her shopping bag and followed the woman to the fitting rooms, pulling the dark blue velvet curtain across behind her.

It fitted perfectly. She admired her reflection; the skirt was the dark green of a mallard’s head, flaring in an immaculate “A” from the tiny pinched waist. The bodice, cut high and with puffed shoulders, was buff, with a floral pattern that matched the skirt. Perfect.

She surreptitiously inspected her ration book; just sixteen coupons left. This would leave five; enough to last the rest of the year, given plenty of sewing and mending. Walking back along the High Street she slid a hand under the flap of her shopping basket, feeling the tissue crackle expensively. Then a sudden rain made her bolt for the Milk Bar, tumbling through the door, almost colliding with a small man leading an even smaller dog that yapped at her disapprovingly. She bought tea and a slice of yellow cake, seating herself on a brown leatherette stool at the window bar. The wireless twittered from a loudspeaker above her head. Outside, people hurried along the streaming street, huddled under umbrellas and newspapers.

The rain showed no sign of abating and, the tea drunk and the cake consumed, Josie began to contemplate a saturated dash to the tram stop. She checked her purse: just enough for the ride home.

“Excuse me.”

She turned. A young man in RAF uniform was standing behind her, holding two steaming cups. He smiled nervously. “Hello. I’m terribly sorry, but would you mind if I bought you a cup of tea?”

He looked impossibly young, his uniform stiff and new. He was of medium height, slightly built and dark, almost swarthy. His features were pleasant enough despite a prominent nose that, while not actually excessive in size, commanded attention in the way that it shadowed the unfortunate moustache he’d tried to cultivate.

“It looks as if you already have.”

He blinked at the two cups. “Oh. Well, yes, I suppose I have. Look, I’m really very sorry, I’m not trying to… you know, give you the chat or anything, but could I just talk to you for a few minutes?”

She looked outside. The rain poured steadily; her cup and purse were empty… “OK, just a chat, then.”

He sat on the next stool. “My name’s Tony. Thanks ever so much. Do you want my sugar?”

She hesitated for less than a second. “Yes please, if you're sure you don't want it.” He emptied both of the filled spoons into her cup.

“You didn’t say your name.”

“I know.” She smiled and stirred her tea. “Oh alright then, it’s Josie. You’re a pilot, then?”

“Nothing that grand. Flight engineer.”

“What? Like a mechanic?” “No. I sit behind the pilot and work the engines. I’m on Lancasters.” He hesitated. “Well, I will be after tonight. I’ve just finished the maker’s course at Castle Brom.”

“You live far?” she asked.

“No. Just up by Pype Hayes Park. I ship out with the squadron tonight.”

“I’d have thought you’d have wanted to be at home then, this being your last day.”

He smiled. “That’s the reason I’m here actually. My Mum gets a bit emotional and it was just too damp at home. She thinks I’m bound to be killed, which cheers a chap up no end.”

Josie inspected her cup, unsure how to respond. The music from the loudspeaker changed and she brightened. “Oh, I love this one!” She sang softly along to the singer’s thin soprano, “J'attendrai le jour et la nuit, J’attendrai, dah de dah de dah.”

“Yes, my mama used to sing it around the house. It’s called ‘Tornerai’”.

“No, it’s called ‘J’attendrai’: I will wait. She’s French.”

“It’s in French, but she’s Italian. So is the song, actually. It’s called ‘Tornerai’: You will return.”

He sang a fragment, “Tornerai… da me perché l'unico sogno sei… del mio cuor.”

Josie was impressed despite herself. “You speak Italian?”

“No.” He laughed. “But when your mother’s Italian you pick up the sounds. I’ve no idea what it means.”

“Italian? But isn’t she…?”

“The enemy? No, she’s nobody’s enemy, my Mum. She met my Dad at the end of the last war and came back to England with him.”

They listened in silence to the song. The rain had stopped and Josie began to think of leaving. Tony put down his cup.

“Look, I know this was supposed to be just a chat, but…”

Josie was faintly disappointed; he was a little boring, but he’d seemed so genuine. “But…?”

“But could I buy you lunch? I really couldn’t stand to be back in the house, with all the tears and wailing. We could go to the Stockland.”

“That’s miles away. We’ll get soaked.”

“It’s not, and it’s stopped now anyway. We can walk it in ten minutes or so. Please: my treat; us aircrew get paid fortunes.”

She thought for a moment. It wasn’t uncommon for her to stay out until early evening on Saturdays, and with these summer nights it wasn’t dark enough for the bombers until well after nine. And she didn’t get to eat in a restaurant that often. And he was quite nice-looking in his RAF uniform…

“OK, but I’ll have to go home after.”

They bumped shoulders several times as they walked down to Five Ways and Josie eventually threaded her arm through his to make it easier to move through the Saturday shoppers. She noticed his slight smile and suspected a faint blush on his cheeks. There was something old-fashioned about him; she noticed how he took care to switch to the outside when they crossed into Reservoir Road.

“What’s in the shopping bag? Anything nice?” he asked as they passed the hospital, where a great, wrinkled silver barrage balloon rippled between a cluster of olive-dun trailers behind the spiked railings.

“I loathe those things,” she said. “They look sort of slimy, like a giant slug or something.” She looked back at him. “The bag? Oh, yes, I’ve bought a new frock. Been saving up.”

“Really? You must show me when we get to the restaurant.”

She laughed. “And why would a chap want to look at a frock?”

He laughed with her. “Well, for a start I can imagine you wearing it. You know how you see those tickets in drapers’ windows? They’ll have a dress and a sign by it saying ‘Lovely on’. Well I bet your new frock will look lovely on.”

“So you’re interested in dresses and you look in drapers’ windows?”

They were both laughing now. “Yes, it’s part of our training. If we’re captured we have to operate undercover as a rather ‘so’ spy.”

She looked at him quizzically. “Really?”

“Of course not really. My mother used to drag me round the dress shops. You notice things.”

“What’s she like, your Mum?”

“Very Italian. Always dressed in black, never stops cooking or talking, and she wails at 100 decibels when it’s time for her son to go to war.”

The Stockland Inn was an imposing stone-faced building with tall gables. To those from the city it was a large Ansell’s pub, but to a seventeen-year-old girl, the youngest daughter of a Birmingham gunsmith, it was the Ritz. She stayed shyly behind Tony, despite his courteous attempts to have her precede him, as the black-uniformed waitress led them to a table. Music played softly from somewhere, though she could see neither a band nor a wireless set.

The menu was a typewritten sheet in a shiny, padded folder. Tony opened it and presented it to her, flicking back the gold tassel with a flourish. “Would Madam care to make her choice?”

Josie accepted it regally, “Thank you, young man, allow me to peruse,” she replied in the tones of the draper’s shop lady.

Little perusal was necessary; the choice consisted of tomato or potato soup to begin, with either fish or meat of the day, with seasonal vegetables, to follow. Dessert was apple pie or cheese. Her eyes widened: three courses. On a Saturday.

Nameless dance music wafted from the radio and Josie swayed slightly in time as the waitress took their orders. Apart from the two of them, the restaurant was deserted.

“You certainly like your music. Do you like dancing?” he asked.

“Love it. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason.” He polished his knife on his napkin, clearly embarrassed. “You move like a dancer, that’s all.”

“Do you think so?” She was pleased. “I’ve actually won a couple of trophies.”

“I’m not surprised. You must dance a lot then.”

“Not now. My dance partner got called up. It’s not the same, dancing with the other girls.”

“But you must get lots of invitations.” He flushed again.

She looked at him for a moment. “You’re not very good at this chat thing, are you?”

He returned to polishing his knife, his head down. “I suppose not. I’m really not trying to chat you, though. I mean, someone like you wouldn’t…” He stammered to a halt.

“Wouldn’t what? Look at someone like you?”

He looked up, surprised by her frankness. She smiled, softening her voice. “If I go to a dance on my own I can guarantee I’ll get propositioned by some reserved-occupation lounge lizard with a sharp suit and bad breath. Believe me, you’re a breath of fresh air.”

His flush deepened still further. “Oh! Well, thank you! In that case, I wondered…”

He was interrupted by the arrival of the soup. As the waitress placed the bowls in front of them, the music changed again. The slow opening tones resolved into the voice from the Milk Bar singing “J’Attendrai”.

“It’s that song again. What was it you called it?” she asked.

“Oh, ‘Tornerai’. It’s Italian for ‘You Will Return’”

“Sing the Italian words for me.”

“No, I can’t.”

“I thought you said you’d learned them.”

“I have. I meant I can’t sing.”

“You did in the Milk Bar.” She grinned over her soup spoon, teasing him.

“Oh, well, not really. I, er…” His colour was deepening again.

“You know, I’ve never seen anyone blush as easy as you do,” she laughed. “OK, tell me what you wondered, then.”

“What I wondered?”

“Just before the soup arrived. You said, ‘I wonder…’”

“Oh, that.” He was quiet for several seconds. “It’s just that… well, I know we said just lunch, but…”

“But…?” she prompted.

“But there’s a farewell tea dance at the training school. Would you like to come?”

“We did say just lunch, didn’t we?”

He sagged. “Yes, we did.”

“But you hadn’t mentioned a tea dance then. Eat up, I want to go dancing in my new frock.”


The severe formality of the Castle Bromwich Training School was softened by tri-coloured bunting and a banner wishing Good Luck to 44 Squadron. A six-piece band played subdued dance standards from a small stage. Josie slipped into the Ladies as they arrived, emerging triumphantly in the new dress, her hair combed and shining coppery in the harsh lights.

Tony met her at the door. “Wow! You look, um… nice.” He held out a glass of pinkish liquid. “It’s only fruit cup, I’m afraid.”

“You’re such a silver-tongued flatterer,” she laughed, taking the glass and sipping. “Flipping heck! Fruit cup? Are you sure?”

He tested his own drink. “Ah. I think someone’s accidentally spilt gin into the bowl.”

“I think everyone in the room has.” She drank experimentally, trying not to grimace at the unaccustomed bitterness.

“Good grief, Beaky, where did you find this one?”

A large man in officer’s uniform had appeared next to Tony.

“Oh, hello, Skipper. This is Josie. Josie, this is my skipper.”

“Hello Josie,” said the skipper, shaking hands, “Call me Christopher. What on earth are you doing with Beaky here?”

He was tall and broad-shouldered, with white, even teeth, a blue chin and the self-confidence of a successful ladies’ man. Half of Josie found him repulsive. The other half…

“We’re very good friends, Tony and I. I’m here to see him off,” said the repulsed half.

“Tony’s good friends with everyone.” He turned to Tony. “And I’m sure he won’t mind if his good friend Christopher dances with his good friend Josie.”

Tony clearly did mind. “No, of course not.”

As Hunt led her to the floor the band changed songs, leafing through music sheets as the clarinet began a familiar, slow introduction. She looked helplessly around Hunt’s shoulder and smiled at Tony who shrugged and smiled back. He mouthed the words to the song: “J’Attendrai”.

The dance closed at seven o’clock and somehow Josie found herself agreeing to a lift home in Christopher’s car. She seized a moment to speak apologetically to Tony.

“I’m sorry to run off like this, Tony, but it’d take me ages on the tram. Thank you, I’ve had a lovely day. I’ve really enjoyed spending it with you.”

“No, of course, that’s absolutely fine. Good of the skipper to offer. Listen, do you think I could have your address? I was hoping you’d let me write to you.”

“Yes, I’d like that. Have you got a pencil and paper?”

She wrote her name and address inside the cover of the notebook he produced from his breast pocket. She looked up, the pencil poised. “How do you spell the Italian for that song?”

He spelt it for her and she wrote “Tornerai” in a heart under the address.

“There, now you know you’ll return. And the lads in the mess will be jealous because you’ve got a girl back home.”

“Have I?” He held out his hand to shake hers. “That’s wonderful. Goodbye Josie, thank you for making it a special day.”

“Goodbye. I hope I’ll see you again.” She hurriedly kissed his cheek, turned and climbed into the officer’s car.


There was no letter on Monday or Tuesday, but Josie felt nothing but slight disappointment; after all, even if he’d written as soon as he arrived, it was unlikely to arrive sooner. And he was just a briefly-known, chance acquaintance anyway. But by Friday she admitted to herself that she was scanning the doormat each morning with more expectancy. But there was no letter.

It arrived on Saturday. She saw the RAF crest on the flap and paused, uncertain who the writer might be; guilty that there should be doubt.

Dear Miss Sharples,

It is with the most profound regret that I must inform you of the loss of Flight Sergeant Anthony Fielding. I must ask you to excuse my ignorance of your relationship to Anthony. However, your name and address were found in his personal effects and so I felt it my duty to inform you of his death.

Flight Sergeant Fielding was killed in action on the Monday following his arrival here at the base. He was a brave and popular young man who will be sadly missed.

With my deepest condolences,

Yours truly,

Alexr. E. Calthorpe, Sqdn Ldr

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