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U3A Writing: The Luck Of The Draw

Vera Sanderson tells the wonderful tale of an encounter that was to change her life.

To read more of Vera's words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=vera+sanderson

The train lurched to a violent halt and he awoke with a start. It had stopped on a high viaduct just short of the station of yet another grimy industrial town. For a moment he did not realise just where he was, his senses bewildered by his deep sleep. In his dreams he was still at home and had been walking to school along the shore. The golden sands were bathed with morning sun and reflected the pristine whiteness of the houses along the bay. He could feel the soft comfort of his school shirt and socks and hear the seagulls shrieking their harsh symphony as they swooped and dived for food among the shoals. The noise suddenly began to fade and blend into the guttural tones of the ticket collector yelling “’Uddersfield next stop! Stay put for Manchester and Liverpool! ‘Alf an hour’s delay!”

He sat on his case in the crowded corridor. The khaki collar of his battledress was chafing the soft smooth skin of his neck, and contrasting with the feel of the cotton shirt and flannels in his dream of time back home. Every inch of him longed to turn back, but the “Empress of Scotland” was already waiting in Liverpool docks and he would be bound for Malaya on the morning tide.

The train was packed with troops and girls in uniform, and one or two girls smiled and blushed at this Viking of a man as they eased their way past him along the corridor. He was well over six feet tall, lithe and slim. His skin was taut and suntanned to a pleasant bronze which accentuated the soft waves of his rich brown hair. But it was his eyes that held the promise. They looked intense with darkness and inborn arrogance. He was a “lady killer” if ever there was one! At the moment they were dull with disinterest as he gazed at the town below. He thought “God, what a dump! From hell, Hull, and Halifax, and yes, most certainly Huddersfield, dear Lord preserve us!” How could anyone live here? Even for the stacks of money the industries created. Just look at those black stone houses and the permanent haze of smoke and fumes gushing out from all those chimneys! The noise of the bellowing factories, the hooters howling the hours of starting and finishing work. The swarm of navy-clad ants oozing homewards, released from machines and chained gates, to booze another night into oblivion. He could almost taste the pungent odour of Dixol and hot oil fumes lingering on their clothes and hands long after work had ended.

He remembered the invasion of his beautiful hometown each summer, the cacophony of loud voices tempered by the noise of machinery. Well-fed bodies fat with food and money. “Be nice to the visitors” indeed – how he hated them for disrupting his life. But their money was useful and had a beauty all of its own, like the gleaming Rolls Royce in the showroom below. “Where there’s muck there’s money”. That’s what they said – but what a price to pay to live!

The train suddenly lurched forward, then glided slowly along to the station platform and when it came to a halt he could see the mobile tea-trolley. The train was emptying now, so he claimed a seat with his greatcoat and pushed his case up onto the rack above. He groped in his pocket for the carefully-packed meal and smiled as he found his mother’s note on how to wash his underwear. There would be plenty of time to read that later. Now for a “cuppa” – sixpence should be enough, he thought. He leapt down and eased his way through the crush. “Milk and sugar luv?” The tea lady winked and grinned as she pushed a cup of hot milky tea into his hand. “Return the cup please”, she said. He headed back along the platform to the train door.

But just past the ticket office some sort of commotion had broken out. The angriest piercing female voice he had ever heard was giving the ticket collector hell. “Let me through at once or I will miss my train to Leeds! You know damned well I have a ticket – you watched me buy it!” She came galloping out through the entrance on wild colt-like legs, hair flying in the wind like a palomino’s tail. Her eyes were firmly fixed on the Leeds train on the other platform across the lines. She dived sideways for the underpass leading to the platform where her train was just about to depart, but she missed the turn, her foot slipped, and she crashed into him. His long-awaited “cuppa” shot into the air drenching her elegant tweed suit and shattering on the solid stone paving. “You stupid idiot!” Her pale large eyes blazed and she spat the words out like flames from a frying pan.

“Why don’t you look where you’re going, you big clot!”

“Me? That’s rich! Get some stronger specs for those “Bette Davis” eyes!”

She stopped short in her tracks. No man had ever spoken to her like that. She looked up angrily. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat, but his eyes! For a whole second the world stood still and receded into a mist around those dark contemptuous eyes. Who needed a seat in the one-and-nines watching celluloid Stewart Grainger when the real thing was standing so close.

A whistle blew. He leapt sideways up onto the train, saluted mockingly, and was gone. When she looked over to the Leeds train, that was gone as well.

She made her way thoughtfully down the underpass and up into the waiting room to powder her nose. This was going to be such a wonderful night. Her boyfriend would be waiting for her on Leeds City Station with a ring to celebrate their engagement. He was a lovely man, so handsome in his air force uniform. Much older than her of course, plump and comfortable. Well-heeled in Civvy Street and educated, he spoke several languages and liked the good life. She would probably always have everything a girl could crave. She had dressed with more than usual care for the occasion. The war was still raging, and clothes were strictly rationed, but her granddad had had left some fine cloth in the most marvellous shade of lilac, and her uncle was a good tailor. The suit looked really elegant matched with the French grey accessories. There would be dinner for two at the Queen’s, followed by a box at the theatre and the undivided attention of her distinguished man. And yet… The wheels of the train clattered their way to Leeds. “Bette Davis eyes”. She tried to put the vision of his dark intense eyes out of her mind and focus on the next few precious hours….

The Liverpool train slowly struggled its way through Standedge tunnel. Ahead lay the moors, gaunt and primeval in the failing autumn light. “That stupid woman!” He looked again at the tea stains all down his tunic. He’d have to get it cleaned before presenting himself to Malone. But how? They were due to embark on the morning tide. He’d be glad to get back to Malaya. It was a good substitute for home. Sun, scenery and girls. A bit browner than he was used to, but lush nevertheless. It would be bliss when peace came. The colonel had promised him a place on his staff if the Indian army contract was renewed. The only fly in the ointment was Regimental Sergeant Major Malone. This man was the blight of his life – why couldn’t he ship off back to Bradford where he belonged, preferably on the wrong end of a Jap bullet. He cast his mind back to the battalion raffle for home leave. By a hundred to one chance he had drawn it of course. Malone had said it was a fiddle, but lady luck had smiled on him again and the luck of the draw was his. For six weeks he had been home back in the arms of Doreen again. What a leave! Pretty petite Doreen – a farmer’s daughter with her own little crop of combined harvesters for hire. Either way, life looked good. C’est la guerre, he didn’t care. He’d settle anywhere. Anywhere that is except one of those terrible industrial towns. He walked through the Liverpool dock. Ahead lay the “Empress of Scotland”, the sea, Malaya...

**

The “Nebraska” slowly edged its way into the Liverpool docks. It had been a terrible journey through many years and some stormy seas since he had left Liverpool on that misty September day. In the Bay of Biscay a huge storm had blown them off course, and he was one of the few eating kippers at breakfast. The rough seas did not worry him – he was born and bred to the rhythm of the tides. What worried him was the vacuum of the future. The colonel had retired and the contract with the Indian army had not been renewed after all. This left him surplus to requirements and he had been shipped home. His life and his hometown job had gone with the war. Even Brian, his close chum had left and settled in, of all places, Huddersfield. Perhaps he should break his journey there for a few days and look him up.

**

She sat in her Aunt’s kitchen drinking tea and staring moodily at the late summer flowers. “Why don’t you go for a night out?” her cousin coaxed, “you’ve been on your own long enough, and you never go out except to work. The past has gone and you should be picking up the pieces.”

“No, I don’t want to, I can’t be bothered. I like going out with Pop.”

“More fool you. I’ve got a blind date tonight with two smashing blokes, are you coming or not?”

“Perhaps just this once”, she said, “but I’ve got nothing to wear.”

“What about your lilac suit, you always look smart in that.”

“That old thing, it must be five years old – alright, I’ll go.”

She dressed nervously, and drenched herself in “evening in Paris”.
“Come on, hurry”, her cousin shouted as they dashed for the bus into town.

**

They were very very late, and he didn’t really want to go on this blind date, but Brian was very persuasive, and promised him first choice of the girls.

“What are they like?” he asked. “I’m not wasting my time on tatty tarts – I’d sooner read a good book. I don’t know what I’m doing in this darned town anyhow, I’m going home tomorrow”.

“Oh, come on, you always get the luck of the draw.”

He supposed that he would have to put on his “good” suit. The old demob jacket looked a bit tatty.

They drifted down and sat in the cocktail bar with a couple of gin and tonics, and puffed on cigarettes while they waited. It wasn’t exactly the Raffles Hotel, but it would do. He had grown used to a life of luxury overseas, and coming down to earth was painful.

“I’ll give those birds another ten minutes then I’m going”, he sighed. Then they appeared, stilettos galloping across the floor. The legs looked familiar. Then it dawned on him slowly across the years, the station, the tea, the “Bette Davis” eyes…

“I’ll have the long skinny one with the palomino hair”, he whispered. Brian told him he fancied the little redhead anyway.

**

She woke up the next day and suddenly the sun was shining and the world was bright again after the long night. The milkman was clattering about down below with his churn, and filling the jug in the pantry window. It was late – she must have a quick cuppa and hurry off to work. She reached in the pantry for the jug. The window was open, and there, rolled up in newspaper was the biggest bunch of roses she had ever seen. The note read:

7pm sharp tonight – for better for worse, forever, for you….

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