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?

My Weekly - - Contents - By Elaine Ever­est

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

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