Jack Hancock's War by Alex Keegan
January and February 1942 had been tough for London's East End, with the German bombers over every night dropping their high-explosives and incendiaries, but so far Camper's bakery hadn't even suffered a near-miss. There had been casualties all over, Whitechapel, Millwall, Stretford, but the baker Jack Hancock never let the bombs worry him. If he was asked, he'd speak quietly and say, "If it's got yer name on it, matey, it's got yer name on it, nowt yer c'n do owtit, anyways."
When the raids came, Jack would disappear for just as long as it took for his supervisor to give up and presume he was already down the shelter. Then Jack would get back to work, alone, oblivious, whistling, sniffing the deep smell of rising bread, the black-cat warmth of the ovens, ignoring the distant droning, the puk-puk-puk of the AA batteries at Greenwich, the occasional scream of a close one, the crump of H.E., the muted far-off clangle of the fire engines. And every time, after the all-clear, Jack would grin as the supervisor led the girls back into the bakery. Jack would tell them their loaves and cobs were all doing fine, wink at the oldest woman, smile at the youngest and carry on regardless. And it drove the supervisor mad.
The supervisor was a short man, thin, with small eyes and a sharp way of standing. He moved in jerks and his head nodded or clicked slightly back, depending on his mood. The supervisor's nickname no doubt would have been "chicken", had his first name not been Adolph, but his first name was Adolph, very unfortunately Adolph, (after a German cousin), and now that Europe reeled from the ambitions and actions of that other, more famous Adolph, not only was the supervisor unloved but he knew he was ridiculed too. And it drove him mad.
It drove the supervisor mad too, that his hair insisted on being like Hitler's, that no matter what he did with brush or comb or brilliantine, he would end up with the black slap of the Führer's coif across his forehead like an insult. It was Neville Fowler's crown of thorns.
In 1937, seeing what was coming, the supervisor had changed his name by deed poll, from Adolph to Neville Fowler, after Mr Chamberlain the Prime Minister. Then, when the PM came back from Munich waving a piece of paper to tell a waiting Britain that he had secured peace in their time, the supervisor started wearing a name badge with NEVILLE written large upon it. He had announced also that "Any disrespect to management in the form of using long-discarded names will NOT be tolerated, and any bakery worker found using insubordinate language will be summarily dismissed."
Long before the annexation of Austria, Neville had shaved off his Chaplin moustache and it was a distant memory by the time Poland fell. Now Neville was clean-shaven, and he had considered having his hair close-cropped too, even wearing a hairpiece. In one particularly long depressed period he had travelled in secret to Harley Street, to a firm which specialised in them, only to leave there flushed and angry when the proprietor mentioned, unable to suppress a grin, how much Mr Fowler resembled Mr Hitler.
All this was Neville Fowler's cross to bear but he would not bend. Instead, the supervisor strengthened his backbone with the steel struts of bitterness, spoke to his workers in sharp, tiny barks, was ruthless in his application of the rules, utterly unforgiving of lateness or carelessness. At the start of every night shift Mr Fowler would insist on a roll-call, insist on making managerial announcements and insist on reminding his workers, men, boys, girls, "Bread is the staff of life, we fill the bellies of London!"
Jack Hancock had been a baker in Yorkshire when the war started. He had lost an eye as a child and though he was fit as a fiddle and wanted to do his bit he had been told he could do more feeding the munitions workers, the dockers, the people making tanks and planes, the land-girls digging for victory. "We'd like you to go down to London, Jack. There's a big bakery down there and they could do with another pair of hands to help out." They mentioned the bombs and Jack just smiled.
Jack Hancock wasn't a bad bloke. He wasn't even the type to bear a grudge or carry on an argument. Jack didn't make a song and dance about it, but quietly he liked to help people, and though he knew that making bread was important for the war effort, really he wanted to be in khaki or blue and doing his bit directly, like other blokes.
But Angry Adolph Fowler at the bakery, now he was something else. When Jack had arrived down from Pontefract he had immediately clashed with the old git. At first he'd tried to make it into a lark, a bit of a joke, but there was no way the supervisor would bend, and gradually their secret war had become entrenched. Jack thought that Fowler's problem was he lived alone and cut himself off from everybody, the way he spoke, the way he locked himself away upstairs. Jack thought the supervisor should get out a bit and one week into their little war he had suggested a pint some time, only to be told that "Management does not fraternise with either the women or the men." After that, Jack ran the ovens and kept his head down, chatted with the girls, went for a drink with one or two, no strings attached. He hadn't set out to be the thorn in the supervisor's side but as far as he was concerned, Fowler had had his chance and now he was fair game.
Jack knew he had to be careful. He was conscientious, did more than his fair shift, and was helpful when anyone new came into the bakery. He kept himself out of Fowler's way as much as he could, learned to be polite and move along when he couldn't, and was quick to put a stop to any Adolph joke whenever he walked in on one, in the canteen or in the yard when, in the last half-hour before the bread was ready, some of the girls went out for a walk and an early morning fag. Jack was a happy bloke, a great favourite with the girls, always ready with a joke, a wink, a smile, but sometimes he would wonder, sometimes he'd feel eyes somewhere, and he would look up and see Neville Fowler at his high office window. And much as he didn't like the old bastard, seeing the supervisor in the half-darkness made Jack sad.
By that February, Jack Hancock and Neville Fowler had reached a stand-off, a bit like what was happening in the war, as if both sides were testing each other, building up their arsenals for one final conflict.
But then, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a new bakery assistant arrived. Her name was Alice Morgan, and she was twenty-seven, a widow since Dunkirk where her husband, a sapper, had bought it on the beach.
And Alice Morgan changed everything.
She was a sweet, soft woman, nothing too much to look at, mid-brown hair when she wasn't wearing her white baker's cap, and, without being startling, a nice round face, pleasant, and gentle brown eyes. Neville Fowler had fallen in love with Alice before she had finished saying her name and handing over her cards. Jack Hancock took longer but only because he was doughing up and trying not to take notice of the supervisor. But when Fowler said, "Say hello to Mrs Morgan, Jack," and Jack turned round, his hands and front covered in flour, he had fallen head over heels in love too.
Alice Morgan didn't notice, but Neville Fowler did and when red puffed in the supervisor's face, Jack knew that war was finally declared.
By that February, Jack Hancock and Neville Fowler had reached a stand-off, a bit like what was happening in the war, as if both sides were testing each other, building up their arsenals for one final conflict.
"Anyway, Hancock, a few complaints yesterday, a thousand loaves that went to Clapham. We had a telephone call. Mr Bickerstaffe there says the lot was overcooked, crusts burned and the loaves too hard."
Jack grimaced. "Did they return them, Mr Fowler?"
"No," Fowler said, his head jerking and inching backwards. "But I had to let them have them half-price. I'm going to have to talk to Mr Camper."
Jack Hancock looked at Neville Fowler, and then, just obviously enough so Fowler could have no doubt he had done it, he looked at Alice Morgan.
The red blushed further in Neville Fowler's cheeks and his jerkiness increased. He brushed a hand to push back his Hitler slick.
Jack smiled. "Understood, Mr Fowler, Sir."
"G-good," the supervisor said, gathering his composure, then to Alice Morgan he said, with a softness which surprised his rival, "Alice, I have no choice but to leave you with Jack, but you make sure he stays in line. Any problems at all, my office door is always open."
Mrs Morgan smiled.
"That'll be a first," Jack said as soon as his manager had gone. "We call the super's office Fort Knox. The only reason anyone gets called in there is to get their cards."
"Well he seems quite nice to me," Alice Morgan said, and Jack Hancock's stomach lurched with anxiety.
That night, Jack taught Alice, and all through the night he wanted to touch her, all through the night his talk of burgeoning bread, of rising, of hot ovens and growing strength, all the long yeasted night, whatever he said, he only thought of Alice, of Alice falling slowly backwards, with soft promise in her brown-bread eyes.
And in the half-hour before the bread was ready, when they walked out into the yard, Jack took Alice a little aside, down to the silver canal, and under a sky spangled with starlight she talked of her husband and he talked of bread, and then, when they knew the bread must be ready, they put out their cigarettes and walked back to the bakery, a little closer than they were before, and Jack made a little joke of it when he asked if he could walk her home and Alice said that would be nice, no, that would have been nice but Mister Fowler had said he would drive her home in his little Austin and she couldn't really say no, he was so kind, and desperately Jack threshed around and said, "Hampstead, I was hoping to go to Hampstead on Saturday and I'd like it if you - " and Alice Morgan said she would love to and Jack was so giddy, so full of air that he thought he might faint, and they went in and drew off ten thousand loaves and the bread smelt wonderful, like children.
When the bread lorries had left Camper's bakery that morning, with their racks upon racks of loaves, for Whitechapel, for Millwall, for Stretford and beyond, their doors shut tight on a smell so gorgeous it could turn heads, Neville Fowler walked Alice Morgan to his little Austin, opened the rear-hinged door and swept her in. Alice Morgan had only been in a car twice before, once to get married at Brompton Oratory, once before then - the memory still made her stiffen - when she had made a mistake, and taken a lift home with a car-sales chap from Epping.
But there was no fear in Alice Morgan now, and when they puttered from the baker's yard, and when they passed the other workers, she was excited, and when Mr Fowler peeped his horn to get a man pushing a bike to move aside, and when the man glanced back and it was Jack, she felt a tiny flutter move through her and she smiled at him, suddenly thrilled with life.
But for Jack, Alice's smile was painful, for it looked to Jack like a grin of pride or one-upmanship, and beside her grin, Neville Fowler, the supervisor, smirked, and before Jack quite knew what was happening, his right arm had risen in a Heil Hitler salute and Neville Fowler's face had changed, and Jack had turned away from them, his ears on fire and the hairs on his neck fizzing with anger. And Jack Hancock stared down at the cobbled lane he walked along, the handlebars of his Raleigh, it's tiny silver bell, and though he ached he seethed too with something close to murder in his heart.
The Austin moved on, the angry baker in its wake. Alice Morgan had seen only an odd wave from Jack, a bit like a Seig Heil! she might have thought, but she did not see it as that, for she did not know that the man beside her was really called Adolph or know he saw the gesture differently, or know that whatever his name, public or private, he bristled, and that he planned, knowing he had all the advantages, and that but for his vision and dreams of Alice Morgan, widow, he might there and then have turned the car round and run Jack Hancock down like a dog.
Instead, Alice Morgan smiled, thinking how lucky she was, as if maybe, an angel now, Harry Morgan was watching over her. For apart from that time with the car-sales chap, Alice still had a quiet innocence, the innocence of a war-widow blighted by chance on the beaches in France, but lifted again by a war job, flour, fat, the smell of bread rising.
Alice Morgan had the basement of a big terraced house near Pudding Lane. It wasn't much, but she survived, and except for the lack of light, she thought her little flat was pretty cheerful, and when the supervisor dropped her off, popping round to her side like a real gent to open the door, she said, "It's just there, Mr Fowler. It's not much, but I like it, maybe I'll show you some time."
Then Alice Morgan floated away and down her steps, eager to put on the gas and make a nice cup of tea before getting forty winks, and she was gone and Neville Fowler sat in his car, rolling her words round, like echoes of bird-song, time and again, delicious, delirious, "show you some time, some time, some time. I'll show you some time, some time soon."
Only the carping horn of an exasperated omnibus (dock workers going down to Tilbury) brought Neville Fowler to his senses and he drove away. As he did so, heading for his little house in Stretford, Alice Morgan, sweet, brown-eyed, not much to look at, was undressing while the tea mashed.
That night Jack Hancock was unsure in his actions and his thoughts. At first he was determined to remain aloof, but he fell again, deep into that ordinary, round face, and by the time the ovens were ready, the black cast doors hot and swelling, he had laughed at something Alice Morgan had said, grinned once in triumph at the high-up window and the man there, called his love, "luv" for the first time and touched her arm once, leaving a white floured fingerprint on her forearm so perfect, that Alice stopped to see. It was like a moth, a cabbage-butterfly, and when she showed Jack he touched her again.
That Saturday Jack and Alice went to Hampstead Heath, and walked high above the city, Alice's arm hooked inside Jack's, the pair pulling together for warmth and weight against the wind. And that Saturday night Alice Morgan kissed Jack before slipping away from him, down into her dim but cheerful flat. Jack had wanted to kiss Alice back but Alice had already fluttered and said, "Thanks for a lovely time, Jack. See you tomorrow for the shift."
On Sunday morning, Alice went with the supervisor to Richmond Park and they sat still in his car, quietly waiting for the red deer to drift from the trees and graze. Alice thought the deer were beautiful, one stag magnificent, and she thanked the supervisor profusely for being so kind. The shift that night was quiet and Jack a little unhappy, but in the half hour before the loaves came out, Alice said something to him about going up town for a Lyons tea one afternoon and would Jack come? Jack said yes, a moment before he heard the supervisor's door open and Neville Fowler bark down, "Jack, a word, if you'd be so kind," before stepping back inside.
"Is there something wrong?" Alice asked.
"No," Jack said, "but Mr Fowler and I have some things to sort out."
Jack took off his apron, removed his hat and hung both on a hook. Then he went upstairs to face Fowler. He hadn't called in any of the older women to assist when the bread was ready, so that left the supervisor with no more than five minutes to do his dirty work. When he got to the top of the open stairs, he went in without knocking, grunted a hello to Betty Wilkins in accounts and went straight through to the supervisor's office.
"You wanted me?"
"Only the bread is almost due."
"This won't take long, Jack. We'll be letting you go."
Jack smiled. "A bit sudden, isn't it Mr Fowler? Do you think the women can manage without me, then?"
Fowler sneered. "You mean you're looking after more than one, Jack?"
"No, Mr Fowler, I mean when we're traying up and traying out, that's allus bin a man's job. It's hot and heavy work."
"The women get stronger every day, Jack, they're tougher than you think. It wouldn't surprise me if after the war we find they're not so keen to just stay home and look after their kids."
"Even so -- "
"Easter," the supervisor said, "and we are bringing a man in. He's a chap called King, a fighter pilot. Was a baker before the war and got himself shot down, face-burned last summer. But they say he's ready to do something useful on the home front now. They called me and I said you'd not mind going back up North, especially to make way for a fighting man. I said unless they could get you in uniform. That's right isn't it, Jack?"
"Is that your final word, sir?"
"Then I'll go back downstairs and sort out today's batch."
"You do that, Jack," the supervisor said.
On the way out Betty said something cheerful and was Jack hunky-dorey?
"Well, Betty," Jack said, "If you think that getting your cards is the bee's knees, then I'm in the pink."
"Oh, Jack!" Betty said.
That shift, Jack managed not to say anything. The next week he took Alice up town, told her she was pretty, told her that in a few weeks he was finished at Camper's and might have to go back up North.
"Oh, Jack!" Alice said.
"I bloody well wish people would say summat a bit more than 'Oh, Jack!' " Jack snapped. He put his cup down and reached for Alice's hand. "I've asked to join the ARP so I can stay in London."
"Oh, Jack -" Alice said, and then she said, "I'm pleased."
On February the twenty-seventh, Alice finally let Jack kiss her properly, on March the seventh she first wondered about throwing off the dryness of widowhood. On March the seventeenth, after a few drinks, Alice didn't stop Jack fondling her breasts while they stood in the basement well, and early in the morning on the twenty-ninth of March, at work in the last half hour before the loaves were due, she giggled softly to Jack and said, "Oh, God it was so nice, it had been a while."
But on February the twenty-eighth, Alice had gone up the West End with the supervisor, on the ninth of March he had taken her out to the Romney Marshes and asked her had she ever considered remarrying? and on the twenty-sixth he had brought up the subject again and said, "Because if you do -- Alice -- ever consider marriage, I mean, then Alice, I would be honoured to look after you, honoured."
And then Alice Morgan, widow, smiled, even flushed slightly, and she said, "Oh, Neville!" and in his little Austin, the supervisor found his thin hand lifted and laid gently, quietly, on Alice Morgan's cardiganned chest.
But on April the second, Maundy Thursday, just before her night shift, Alice Morgan went to Neville Fowler's office and explained to him, the door closed behind them, that affection was one thing, but marriage, marriage, Neville, was a big step, and perhaps it was too early after Harry's death for her to consider letting go.
The supervisor sagged slightly and his hair fell across his face making him look like -- like -- and Alice went to speak but the supervisor barked at her, "Hitler! Hitler! You think that's funny, do you, Mrs Morgan?" and Alice, shocked, almost ready to cry and whimpered, "Oh, no! No, Neville, I thought Charlie Chaplin, and really," she raised a hand and pushed back his hair, "really, Neville, it just needs a good cut, here and here."
And suddenly, feeling the gentleness of Alice Morgan, the supervisor felt wretched, and he thought, not of himself, but of Jack Hancock down on the bakery floor, and he lifted his hand to take her hand, pressed it to his cheek and said, "Off you go now, we've got ten thousand hot cross buns to bake."
Alice Morgan went downstairs in time for the start of shift and she was at the bottom of the stairs as Jack walked in. She nodded, but her smile was awkward, and Jack's was thin, and she walked quickly off to the ladies' toilets to freshen up and dab her eyes. "At fag-break," she thought. She could tell him later. "In the half-hour before the bread comes out, then we'll talk."
Neville Fowler picked up the telephone, and after a few crackly moments got through to Jeremy Camper. He had a letter in his hand, a letter he had intended to burn, but had kept for one long day.
"Mr Camper, it's Neville Fowler."
"What can I do for you, Fowler?"
"Mr Camper. I have a letter from the Ministry of Defence. They need senior men in Army Catering."
"You're in a reserved occupation, Fowler."
"Yes, sir, but there are others who could do my job, like Jack Hancock, for instance. He's a good man."
"Hancock. I thought you were letting him go?"
"Sacrifice, sir. This is wartime. We do what's right. This Raff chap, King, he needs a job to give him back his dignity. I thought Hancock would cope."
"So what are you saying, Fowler?"
"Sir, I'd like to offer Hancock the chance to take over here and if that's all right with you, then I think I'll contact the MOD and make myself available."
"You're sure, Fowler?"
The supervisor was not. "Yes, sir. Do the right thing, sir."
"He can do the job?"
"I'm sure of it, sir."
"What time does the shift finish tonight?"
"The work load is higher tonight, sir. It's Good Friday and we're producing hot-cross buns. I'd say seven o'clock, sir."
"I'll be there. If Hancock comes up to scratch, I'll let you go."
Neville Fowler put down the telephone and sighed. He imagined he could still feel Alice Morgan's hand upon his face and he raised his cold fingers there and touched his mouth, his cheek. Then he stood and walked to his dark window and looked down at the bakery floor.
Jack Hancock was preparing dough. The supervisor knew that the bread would go in earlier than usual tonight, followed around four o'clock by about two hundred trays of hot-cross buns. He watched the busy, steady skills of Jack Hancock. Whatever else, Jack had always worked hard and as he watched, the supervisor felt a quiet smile of admiration come to him.
Jack was still doughing up when he sensed the supervisor's eyes on him. He looked above him and saw the dim-lit face, the smile, imagined him, Adolph, smirking, thinking himself victorious. He felt angry and impotent. Fowler had all the big guns, all the power, and Jack was just a bloke, a baker, with fifteen thousand loaves and ten thousand buns to make. He stared back and saw Fowler smile again. Tonight, he thought, these buns, tomorrow and Sunday off, Monday his cards. Tuesday he'd start training with the ARP. Jack thought of that. Soon he'd be away from the Führer and out there in the action, at least he'd feel more involved, maybe even save a life or two instead of feeding God knows how many. He glanced up again. Fowler still smiling. Oh, how he wanted one last chance to pay the old bastard back.
Alice had forgotten that tonight, Good Friday, was the only night of the year they wouldn't get their ciggie break. Jack wasn't unfriendly but he wasn't friendly either and she was desperate to explain to him that maybe she wasn't ready to remarry, but she was ready for more, and more with Jack. She had decided she was a modern woman and this was wartime. Heck, it was time to jump the brush and get Jack Hancock into her bed.
But there was no break. While the bread was finishing they had to start on the buns and though she was frustrated, there was nothing that Alice could do. But then the sirens started and Mr Fowler came out, barking his orders, "Shelter! Shelter! Straight away, the lot of you!"
Alice turned round and, as if by magic, Jack had disappeared.
"Shelter! Shelter! Straight away, the lot of you! Where's Jack?"
"I don't know, Mr Fowler. He must've gone to the shelter already."
The others were filing through.
"Come on! Hurry along," Fowler said. "Has anyone seen Jack Hancock?"
Neville Fowler followed his staff down to the shelter and sure enough Jack Hancock wasn't there. He watched everyone go inside, everyone, plus Betty Wilkins and finally Alice Morgan, but then Alice cried out "Jack isn't here," and he said, "I'm going back up to find him, he's playing silly buggers again."
The mill was quiet, and far off, maybe as far down as Kent, Fowler could just hear the tiny puk-pukking of the ack-acks. He knew once the sound changed that another batch of bombers was heading for the docks. And he called out, "Jack Hancock, you silly sod!"
But there was no answer, only himself echoing back, and the growing drone of the bombers, puk-puk-puk.
"Jack Hancock, you dozy bugger. Don't get yourself blown up. Not tonight of all nights. I've got some good news!" But still just the drone, puk-puk-puk.
He found him in the main furnace-room, row upon row of Good Friday's buns on the big tables, racks of them already finished, about to go in.
"Well, well, the Führer's getting brave!"
They heard a loud one.
"Jack, come down the shelter, this is a big one."
Jack continued working. "Just finishing the buns, Mr Fowler. And you know. If it's got yer name on it, it's got yer name on it, nowt yer c'n do."
"Jack, Mr Camper's coming to see you at seven o'clock. If you want it you can have my job."
The noise was rising.
Neville Fowler was right by him now, shouting. A close one whistled and there was the roll of crumps, some windows went. Jack worked on, fixing his hot-cross buns.
"I'm off, Jack, off to work for the Army. Mr Camper says if you're up to it, he'll give you a crack at my job!"
"My job! I'm leaving!"
Another salvo rolled close, certainly on the jacket if not the button.
"She'll be staying. I think she wants a bloke called Hancock!"
"Oh, Mother Mary!" Jack Hancock said.
He looked down at his handiwork.
The supervisor looked.
Row upon row of swastikas.
"My good-bye present," Jack shouted. Then they heard the screamer, a stick meant for them and they dove together under the metal tables.
The blast took out all of the west wall, most of the south, every window in the bakery, plus most of the next two streets, but the Camper & Knight ovens, cast-iron and twenty-two inches of brick, remained impervious, and though there had been a substantial roof-fall, the shelter was cleared and everyone inside released in good health by the ARP.
The women climbed out and looked at the rubble. Alice Morgan could not speak but Mrs Wilkins explained.
"Mr Fowler, Jack Hancock, they -- "
Jack Hancock and the supervisor were found almost untouched, both deaf as posts, and the shorter man without his hair. They were under a metal table close against the Camper & Knight ovens, surrounded by the smell of toast and laughing like drains. Both men were shot through with flour and cement, white as ghosts, and when the scalped man emerged he was eating what appeared to be a hot-cross bun, the cross strangely deformed by the blast.
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The Blue Moon Review, All Rights Reserved.