The Girl In The Red Coat
What was it about the winsome child that made Woolworths girl Sarah feel even more uneasy than the air raid siren did?
Look, there’s the little girl I told you about,” Freda Smith said to her fellow worker as they stood behind the high mahogany counter in the busy Woolworths store.
Sarah Gilbert peered over the counter to watch as the young girl skipped along the polished wood floor, oblivious of shoppers around her who hurried about their chores in case there should be another air raid warning. “She seems to be alone.” “This must be the fourth time I’ve seen her and I’ve yet to spot an adult with her.”
“Hello there,” Sarah said as she leaned forward over the carefully displayed Christmas cards, and waved to the child who was wearing a deep red coat trimmed in black velvet. The girl giggled and continued her happy dance.
“She’s a little beauty, isn’t she?” Freda sighed. “I’d kill to have such lovely long glossy curls. I drew the short straw when it came to glamorous hair,” she added, shaking her short mousey bob.
“You ’ave lovely hair and a wonderful disposition. Don’t put yerself down,” their friend Maisie said as she appeared carrying a large box. “Give us a hand, Freda, before I drop the blooming lot. Betty said these came in late from the warehouse and she doesn’t want to be left with them in the New Year.”
Freda helped Maisie lower the box to the floor in the small area behind the counter and dived in to see what goodies had been sent.
“Oh no, not more calendars,” she sighed. She stood up with an armful of pretty cardboard images that had small white booklets hanging below with a page for each month starting January of the new year. “Take these before I drop them please, Sarah.”
Sarah counted change into a customer’s hand and passed the purchased items to her that had been carefully packed in a brown paper bag. “Thank you, madam,” she smiled warmly before turning to her friend. “We’ll just have to try our hardest to sell them. Head Office will be none too pleased if we don’t.”
Sarah climbed onto a small wooden stepladder and moved some packets of coloured paper chains to make more room for the calendars and hung them carefully, one by one, from their red ribbon loops.
“I know Lord Beaverbrook made a deal with Woollies to provide the paper for books and suchlike, but he could have cut back on these.”
Sarah froze as a chill ran down her spine. It was as if someone had walked over her grave. She quickly rearranged the calendars so that a pretty snow scene with sheep and cattle was at the front.
“What’s wrong? Yer look as though yer’ve seen a ghost.” Maisie helped her mate down from the ladder.
“I’m all right, its just one of my feelings, forget it,” Sarah said as she reached into the box. “Oh my goodness,
“There goes MOANING MINNIE,” she called. “EVERYONE into the CELLAR”
look at these. I’ve not seen glass baubles in stock for ages,” she said as she tried to shake off a feeling of foreboding.
Maisie coughed. “Going by the amount of dust on ’em they’re old stock left lying somewhere. Pass me the duster, Freda.”
Freda had hardly moved when the distant moan of an air raid siren started to wail, growing steadily louder and louder. “There goes Moaning Minnie,” she called out loudly. “Everyone into the cellar as quickly as you can, please,” she called out to the customers.
Sarah grabbed her tin helmet and gas mask that she kept beneath the counter. “I’m on fire watch duty on the shop roof.”
“So am I,” Maisie called. “Wait for me.” Up on the roof of the high street store Maisie checked that the stirrup-pump was working before joining her friend, Sarah, who was peering through binoculars towards the River Thames. She could see the strong beams of the powerful searchlights as they sought out enemy planes on their way up the river to London in the darkening sky.
“Nothing yet, but I reckon they’re on their way. I can hear the ack-ack guns on the marshes further down river. Did all the customers get to the cellar all right?”
“Yes, I checked before following you up here. It’s funny, though. I didn’t see that pretty little girl.”
“Perhaps she left with her family. She may be down at the public shelter.”
“No, she couldn’t have got there in time. I saw her still in the store as the air raid siren went off. She was looking at the Christmas tree in the window,” Maisie said thoughtfully. “By the way, what was it shook you like that as we were unpacking the stock?”
Sarah shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t want to frighten her friend when they were stuck three floors up on a roof in the dark and possibly about to have bombs dropping any time soon but Maisie was insistent.
“It was one of those calendars. I could have sworn the one which had the painting of a pretty cottage, with roses around the door, had that little girl standing at the door waving to me. It shook me up a little bit. Silly of me.” Maisie gave her mate a close look. “You’re not one for getting spooked. The kid is dressed rather old-fashioned. Likely there was just a similarity.”
“You’re probably right,” Sarah said, although even thinking about it made her feel a little wobbly. “Here, let’s have some of that cocoa from the flask. The cold is creeping into my bones and we’ve got two hours before we’re relieved.”
The girls huddled together, sipping the hot drink as they sat on two upturned boxes, hoping that the Luftwaffe didn’t drop any early Christmas gifts on the small Victorian town on the bank of the River Thames.
Early next morning Sarah headed back to work. One more air raid warning later meant she’d spent the night with her nan down in the air raid shelter.
Having washed in cold water due to the gas being turned off, she felt out of sorts and a little grumpy as she pulled on her smart maroon overall and ran a comb through her bouncing curls. Even thinking about working on the Christmas goods counter could not cheer her up.
“Oh my goodness,” she heard her young friend Freda exclaim as she neared
the long counter. “Just look at this mess.”
Sarah walked behind the double-sided counter and stopped dead. The pretty baubles and paper decorations lay crushed and broken on the floor.
“However could this have happened? There wasn’t even an explosion nearby last night to cause anything to fall.”
“I’ll get a broom and start to sweep this up before the store opens. It’s such a shame for this to happen when we hardly have enough stock to sell,” Freda sighed.
Sarah started to pick through the damaged decorations looking for anything that could be salvaged. There was one item – a calendar with the image of a country cottage, and the girl in the red coat, smiling back. She picked it up and jumped as she heard the echo of a child’s tinkling laugh.
Two nights on the trot fire-watching is no joke,” Maisie said, pulling her woollen hat down over her ears, covering her blonde hair. “At least I ’ave me mates to keep me company,” she added.
“It helps,” Freda agreed as she checked the stirrup-pump was close to several buckets of water. “How long has it been since the siren sounded?”
“Half an hour, and going by the ack-ack guns it’s going to be a lively night,” Sarah said as a loud boom shook the building. “Do up the chin strap on your tin helmet, Freda. You’re going to need it tonight,” she added as she flashed her torch in the direction of her friend.
“PUT THAT LIGHT OUT!” bellowed a voice from the street. Sarah did as she was told immediately.
Bombs were starting to rain down on the nearby Thames docks. Maisie swore quietly. They were incendiary bombs, which could do much damage to homes and shops as small fires started.
“Best have those buckets of sand and water to hand, girls,” she shouted as she rushed to where a small flame could be seen on the edge of the Woolworths roof and quickly put it out.
Peering over the wall that ran the length of the rooftop Sarah peered into the darkness. Something had moved down there, but she couldn’t say what. The light from another incendiary lit that part of the street and she spotted the young child in the red coat, skipping and waving up to her.
“She’s going to be killed!” Sarah screamed out to the other two girls. “Quick – come and help me find her.”
The three women climbed down a ladder to the window of the staff room and rushed downstairs to the store. Maisie unlocked one of the front doors.
“Where was she?” Maisie asked as she flashed her torch up and down the street.
“I swear she was just here by Hedley Mitchell’s front door,” Sarah said as she joined Maisie, shining her torch.
“Not you three again,” the ARP warden greeted them. “You’ll have the Luftwaffe wiping out the whole town if you keep using your torches.”
“They’re doing a pretty good job of it themselves,” Maisie retorted. “’Ave you seen a young girl in a red coat out here?”
The warden gave them an oldfashioned look and shrugged.
“As far as I’m concerned everyone’s down the shelters. Get back to your jobs or go off home to your ’usbands,” he said grumpily before going on his way.
They had another quick look and hurried back up to the roof as bangs and crashes were heard overhead. Climbing onto the roof, the three girls were halted in their tracks by the sight of a large chimneystack that had toppled right onto the ledge where the three had been standing not ten minutes earlier.
“We’d ’ave been brown bread if we ’adn’t gone looking fer that kid,” Maisie said in a strangled voice. “You could say she saved our lives.”
It was late when a subdued Sarah arrived back at her nan’s house to a welcome cup of cocoa.
“I swear we’d have been killed if we hadn’t gone off looking for that young child. I’m so worried about her, Nan.”
Ruby Caselton sat down beside her granddaughter and spoke gently.
“I don’t think you’ll find her, Sarah. It was the child that came looking for you.” Sarah frowned. “What do you mean?” Ruby cleared her throat. “The story goes that a runaway horse and cart killed a little girl in a red coat after she pushed her little brother to safety. A few years later she appeared to the family who owned the grocers in Pier Road. They fled in surprise minutes before a gas mantle exploded and the living quarters were gutted by fire. They’d have all been killed if it wasn’t for the little girl. They say she is seen mostly leading up to Christmas, as it would have been her birthday on Christmas Eve.” “You’re saying she’s a ghost?” Ruby nodded. “She may be just that, but she comes to save people. She did the same for you and your friends.”
Christmas Eve was busy in the Woolworths store and Sarah had little time to stop and think, let alone tell her friends about the girl in the red coat.
At closing time she found the calendar with the pretty cottage lying beside the till. Had someone forgotten to take it?
Holding it close, she was surprised to see the child in the red coat was missing. Holding it up to the light to check, a flash of red caught the edge of her vision followed by the sound of fading laughter.
“Thank you – and happy birthday,” Sarah whispered.
They were HALTED by the SIGHT of a CHIMNEY STACK that had TOPPLED