The Safest Place in London

BOOK: The Safest Place in London

Also by Maggie Joel

Half the World in Winter

The Second-last Woman in England

The Past and Other Lies

First published in 2016

Copyright © Maggie Joel 2016

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin

83 Alexander Street

Crows Nest NSW 2065


(61 2) 8425 0100

[email protected]


Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia

ISBN 9781743310601

eISBN 9781742698601

Set by Midland Typesetters, Australia

Cover design: Lisa White

Cover photography: Getty Images / @Stephen Carroll, Trevillion Images

For my aunt, Anne Benson





































Odessa Street was situated just north of Bethnal Green Road in London's East End, part of the sprawling warren of terraces put up in a great hurry during the late Victorian period when the easternmost reaches of the city were full to bursting and needed somewhere to overflow. It was bordered at one end by the red-brick arches of the bridge that had once carried a branch line of the Great Eastern Railway, long since decommissioned and fallen into disrepair, and at its other by the Hero of Trafalgar public house, which had had no beer to serve since 1942 and had closed its doors, seemingly for good, a year later and now stood abandoned and boarded up, a magnet for looters, deserters and local children. The north side of the street was overshadowed by warehouses, repositories in a previous century for the bolts of woven cloth and French-polished cabinets bound for the West End, but more recently used as a temporary mortuary when the hospital was unable to cope.

The occupants of Odessa Street came and went, sometimes in the dead of night when rent was owing, their numbers varying
as births and deaths, new arrivals and hasty departures dictated. Number 42, located halfway along its length, was connected to the identical row of houses on the other side of the street by the lines of washing that permanently crisscrossed the slender space between and from which grey and never-quite-dry washing hung. It was, like its neighbours, a simply constructed dwelling consisting of two rooms up and down, with a privy in a tiny bricked yard outside and at some point a scullery had been added at the rear. Two families currently resided at number 42: the Rosenthals, who lived upstairs, and the Levins, who lived downstairs. There had been menfolk in Odessa Street at one time but at this present moment—January of 1944—the men were, for the most part, absent, Lenny Rosenthal being in Burma fighting the Japanese and Joe Levin having recently returned to convoy duty in the North Atlantic courtesy of His Majesty's Royal Navy. And so the women and children were left to cope as best they could.

On this particular day—a Saturday evening at a little after six o'clock—the wireless set at number 42 erupted with static, the electric light bulbs flickered and, a moment later, the air-raid siren began. Nancy Levin, serving tea in the kitchen, a pan of spitting chips clasped in both hands, her lips clamped around her cigarette, said, ‘Bugger,' under her breath.

She was a tall woman with a slimness that was only partly a result of wartime privation, deep-set green eyes and a heavy brow that hinted at Middle-European ancestry. One or two loose strands of long yellow hair were visible beneath a carelessly wound headscarf above very high, dramatically shaped eyebrows, a small nose and a mouth set hard.

The fat in the chip pan had begun to congeal.

Nancy Levin had recently turned twenty-four. A wife. A mother. She had, for a time, worked in a hat shop on Bethnal Green Road. She had dreamed of working in Bond Street. She had grown up in a boarding house less than a mile away and had twice seen the ocean, though on neither occasion had she bathed in it. She had never met her father and her husband had left that morning to return to the war.

‘Bugger,' she said again. She turned off the gas and put down the pan.

A small child, three years of age, was seated at the kitchen table watching in anticipation.

‘Don't you touch them chips,' warned Nancy, and she went out into the passageway to listen for the single long note of the all-clear. Out of sight of the child she closed her eyes and offered up a silent prayer:

Not tonight; any night but tonight.

The siren continued to wail. The all-clear did not sound and the chips, quietly sizzling in the pan, were destined never to be served. Nancy experienced the small wave of despair and anger that followed every failed prayer.

‘Right, that's it, Em,' she announced as the kitchen, the small child, the chips slid back into focus. ‘We're going down the shelter.'

Emily Levin watched the still-sizzling chips that were just out of reach and her mouth opened in mute protest then closed again in the way of one whose life has been lived entirely in wartime and for whom hope, inevitably, was crushed before it could properly flourish.

Her mother left the kitchen and wrenched open the door to the cupboard under the stairs fumbling in the blackout in her haste to turn off the gas.

Outside the siren continued to wail.

When the raids had first started the sirens would go off when the German bombers were flying over the English coast. Now, and for reasons best known to themselves, Fighter Command waited until the bombers were approaching your district before alerting you. This meant that the time from hearing the siren to actually hearing the first low drone of the approaching German squadrons was no time at all. For eight months they had lived like that—September '40 to May '41—when every night there had been a raid and it seemed like the world had ended. Then, quite suddenly, the raids had ended and everyone had emerged, dazed and stupefied, into the world—which, it turned out, had not ended after all. And now the tide had turned. Now the BBC daily reported Allied victories in North Africa and elsewhere, Hitler had been pushed back to Italy, Hitler was on the back foot, and yet out of the blue there had been a raid last night and it looked likely there was to be another one tonight. Somehow, the second time around, it was worse.

Nancy emerged from the space under the stairs pulling on a man's overcoat over her dressing-gown, as though she were someone for whom night and day held no distinction. She paused to glance at the ceiling. The Rosenthals occupied the two rooms on the upper floor but the top half of the house was silent and she had not seen or heard any of the numerous Rosenthal children nor Mrs Rosenthal herself all day. Nancy snatched up her own child, ramming a particularly ugly red woollen hat on Emily's unwilling
head, and with her free hand retrieved the bundles of blankets and bedding that had been put away months ago and hurriedly dug out again yesterday. Her final act was to whip out a compact from the pocket of the coat and a lipstick from the other pocket and, with a deftness born of practice, she applied the vivid red to her lips, peering with a critical eye at the result in the tiny mirror. (A man had once stopped her in Shoreditch High Street to take her photograph. She should be in films, he had said, she should be on the page of a magazine. He had handed her his card, though his intentions had turned out to be carnal rather than artistic.) Nancy snapped shut the lid of the compact and they left the house, locking the front door behind them as though there was every expectation that the house would still be there waiting for them in the morning.

The siren had cranked itself up to a shrill scream and for the second night in a row Odessa Street braced itself for death to fall from the sky.

The feeble winter day had long ago sidled into a protracted evening and Nancy shivered. Outside was as dark as only a British winter combined with a wartime blackout could be. Odessa Street was all but abandoned. Many people had left for good—bombed out and rehoused elsewhere, families who had lived in the area for three, four generations vanished with no forwarding address as though they had never existed, and whether they intended to return if the war ever ended, who knew? In most cases there was nothing for them to return to.

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