Requiem for a Woolwich Canary by Sarah Doyle
“…for some, the effects of their work were immediately visible; a lurid shade of yellow that stained their skin and hair and earned them a nickname – the Canary Girls.”
These women are doing their bit –
Learn to make munitions
– Ministry of Munitions recruitment poster, circa 1915
REQUIEM FOR A WOOLWICH CANARY
“Doin’ their bit? Fallin’ to bits, more like!”
The mouth that squawked the joke had very few teeth in it and was a vivid slash of scarlet against a jowly and slightly jaundiced face. It belonged to the largest woman I’d ever seen. Certainly the loudest I’d ever met. The fabric of her brown overall strained across an enormous bosom that heaved with laughter. “Doin’ their bit!” she repeated, clearly delighted. “Where are you from? Under the mulberry bush?”
“No, Esher. And this is my first visit to Woolwich”. She howled with mirth and immediately I regretted my embarrassingly straight answer. Flustered now, I tried again. “You see, the poster, last year, in the Guildhall, it said that we should all do our bit and I’ve been waiting until I turned eighteen –”
“And very noble you are, too, angel. Now if you’d just like to pop your halo and wings in the staffroom –”
She was interrupted by the approach of a tall, straight-backed woman in spectacles. “Thank you, Violet. I was unaware that your duties had been extended to include the reception of new recruits. Perhaps you would kindly return to the line, I’m sure your particular brand of morale-maintenance is being missed. And wear your hairnet!”
The woman called Violet winked at me, cast a stage-whispered “See you later, angel!” out of the side of her crimson lips and waddled off in the direction of a distant tinny clatter, muttering “Who ruffled her feathers, then?” all the while.
I tried to regain some ground. “Hello, you must be Agatha, I’m –”
“Yes, I know who you are. And I –” she bristled a little – “am Miss Thewell. Follow me, please – we need to get you into overalls, gloves, net and so forth. You have lodgings?”
She started walking and I scurried to keep pace. “Yes, thank you. I’m at Mrs Wattle’s. A large room, at the top of the house, quite comfy, with two windows, and only one other girl sharing the bathroom –”
My enthusiasm for my lodgings was genuine. I had expected dark walls and stark austerity, but my new rented bedroom was papered with a cheery mix of flowers and birds, the two windows of my attic eyrie affording far-reaching views of rooftops, chimney-stacks and the welcome water-colour green of distant trees.
I would have told Miss Thewell all of this, too, if mercifully she hadn’t silenced me with a curt nod as we entered what I took to be a staffroom-cum-changing room. Battered but serviceable armchairs lined three walls, while a fourth was dominated by a rail of outdoor coats at one end and overalls at the other. A rimed kettle perched on a two-ring gas hob next to a large butler sink in one corner.
“Yes, yes, Mrs Wattle keeps a respectable house. You will wear these.” She held out a long brown coat, the smaller sister of the one that Violet had been wearing. “And a hairnet. Boots, mask. Gloves, no jewellery. No cigarettes or matches to be about your person. One tea-break per shift, as per the rota. When you’re changed, please come to the floor and ask for Daphne. She’ll show you the ropes, and talk to you about safety precautions. You’ll be on mortar shells, with relatively light duties for a day or two, until we see what you’re made of –”
“I hope of sound moral fibre,” I interrupted her, still eager to make good my apparent faux pas in associating myself with Violet. She arched an owlish eyebrow. “Quite. Hurry along now.”
Her heels clicked a staccato exit across the tiled floor.
* * * * *
“I take it you’ve met Naggy Aggy, then?”
Daphne was as thin as Violet had been fat but her sharp features were softened by a crinkle around her eyes and a surprising, generous smile that transformed her sallow face. “Oh, Miss Thewell, yes –” I tried not to betray my shock at such blatant insubordination. Daphne was quick to respond. “Don’t worry about Naggy Aggy, love. She knows what we call her. Just don’t let her hear you doing it. Come on, I’ll take you over.”
She led me across the factory’s vast floor, navigating rows of workbenches peopled by hundreds of women, through the confused din of voices and machines, the mingled smells of sweat and metal and something more pungent – perhaps oniony, I thought. It was a cathedral of a place, heads bent over benches and bomb-parts in a parody of prayer. And it was freezing.
“Why is it so cold?”
The question had left my lips before I’d had a chance to bite it back. I knew that I must have sounded silly, and was embarrassed by it, but really, my arms were covered in quivering goose-bumps, even beneath the thick fabric of my overall sleeves.
Daphne stopped and looked at me. “Have you ever worked with explosives before?” I shook my head. “Well, try heating the place up and see what’d happen.” Seeing my mortified look, she gave me that smile again. “Don’t worry, I’ll take you under my wing. Come and meet the girls.”
Violet I recognised, of course. In addition, I was introduced to Joan, Mags, Reenie and Queenie (spinster twins of indeterminate middle age) and sundry other women whose names and faces blurred before me. This was my first foray into the world of work – into the world at large, come to that – and I felt shy, overwhelmed and giddy. Again, Daphne read me with hawkish intuition. “You’ll soon get to know us all, you’ll see. And you’ll settle right in, I’m sure. Just eighteen, ain’t you?”
I nodded. “Yes. Not much older than the century, my father always says.”
“Not much of a century it’s turning out to be!” came Violet’s shrill call from the other side of a work bench. “Bombs, bullets and getting blown to buggery!”
“Violet!” Daphne was laughing in spite of herself. “Having a soldier for a son doesn’t mean you can talk like one.”
Violet laughed her booming guffaw. “Stop clucking round the new girl, Daph, she ain’t made of china. She’ll go from green to yellow soon enough.”
Daphne shook her head indulgently, calling out a good-natured “Just you mind your own business, Missus Sticky-Beak!” before taking me gently by the arm. “Come on, love,” she said, “I’ll take you through what’s what.”
* * * * *
With Daphne’s patience and the ready help of my new colleagues, I started to settle in and to feel more confident with each passing day and week. Although the work was physically demanding, not to say unpleasant – dirty, fiddly, smelly – I loved it, taking to factory life like the old duck to water. I was on shell assembly, tamping waxy phosphorus into the glitter of cordite within surprisingly delicate metal casings, before inserting the stiff strand of a fuse: a yolk for every egg. I had been terrified of the materials at first, flinching at my every own movement, but familiarity and pragmatism soon replaced my initial wariness. Sometimes, I couldn’t help but worry about ending up like Vi and some of the rest of them – thinning hair, lost teeth, and the other-worldly dull gold of their skin and hair. But when I thought of the horrors and hardships being suffered by our soldiers in France or Belgium, my resolve was always bolstered.
I’d never felt useful before and certainly had never had any money in my purse – at least not my own earned money. I had also never experienced such company. I remembered very little of my mother, having been so young when she’d died, but the memories I had were of a softly-spoken reserve and a brittle femininity. Similarly, the girls I had known during my sheltered schooling had been from comfortable backgrounds like mine and, like me, they had been versed in politeness and constraint. The language used by the women at Woolwich would have curled every hair on my quiet, academic father’s head. And yet, after a while, my shock subsided into acceptance and even pleasure at hearing the chirpy factory banter – although I drew the line at joining in with Violet’s improvised choruses of “It’s the wrong day to lick a Mary”.
I learned that Violet was cheerfully widowed, the mother of two sons, Percy and Dickie. Percy was away, fighting, and she couldn’t have been prouder of him, keeping her anxiety for his welfare well-hidden beneath frequent jokes about the Kaiser, combined with stinging criticisms of what little she knew about British military strategy. Her older son, Dickie, lived at home with her. He was what Daphne described to me privately as simple, although Violet herself would have no truck with the word. “He’s a special one, is my Dickie,” she would proclaim, at least once a day. “A good boy. A true comfort.”
Reenie and Queenie were identical, lived together and spoke in unison, too. Both had missing fingers, although I never liked to look closely to see if these injuries were also identical. The twins were friendly in a self-contained kind of a way, although I was often disconcerted by their dual voices and the way their bright, darting eyes always seemed to be conveying some secret or other.
Joan had four adult daughters, all married and all ‘doing their bit’, working in different munitions factories nearer their own homes. All had been married to men who’d enlisted. Two were widowed.
Mags was also married, and fairly recently from what I could make out. Her husband was a corporal, fighting in France, and she carried his photograph with her everywhere she went, tucked inside the left cup of her brassiere – next to her heart, she said. She claimed not to have slept a wink since he’d gone, and although I suspected that this could not actually be true, I sympathised with her fretfulness and included her Alf every night in my bedtime prayers.
* * * * *
Months passed. Although I’d be exhausted each night and fall into bed gratefully, I had begun to feel frequently bilious, and found that my own sleep – once easily come by, and with very few dreams – had become increasingly erratic since starting at Woolwich, and was populated by progressively vivid and confusing images. Mags’s Alf, Violet’s Percy, Joan’s surviving sons-in-law and countless other faceless men all flickered across my night-time landscape in distorted whorls of flying mud, accompanied by the chaotic cacophony of male screams, shell blasts, horses’ terrified whinnies. Night after night, I would lurch into queasy wakefulness, burning up yet still shivering, blinking my eyes free of the ghastly visions before slumping back onto my sweat-soaked pillow. My teeth ached and my scalp prickled. I didn’t speak to any of the other girls about my night-terrors, not wanting to appear weak or highly-strung.
* * * * *
It was with gratitude mingled, if I’m honest, with a little trepidation, that I accepted an invitation to Sunday tea at Violet’s house. I had grown to like her enormously, her constant fund of chit-chat and dirty songs having helped us all to keep our peckers up throughout the long shifts, but I wasn’t sure that we would have a great deal to talk about when it was just the two of us. That said, I felt that I’d had a great honour conferred upon me with such an unexpected and kind invitation, and wouldn’t have dreamed of giving offence with a refusal.
Violet’s front-door was a well-kept lacquered affair, its glossy black finish and gleaming brass knocker somewhat incongruous in the greying expanse of an unevenly cobbled street. The watery Woolwich sunshine showed where my fingers left small, dull smudges on the yellow metal.
I’d barely finished my tentative knock when the door was opened a crack and the large, moonlike face of a man peered at me with suspicious curiosity through the narrow space. I mustered a smile and spoke with artificial breeziness.
“Hello. You must be Dickie. Is your mother here? I’ve come for tea.”
He closed the door abruptly and I could hear his heavy footsteps retreating into the house, his slightly slurred voice calling, “Mum, mum, she’s here, lady’s here, lady’s on the step, mum –”
I heard the distant flush of an outhouse, followed by Violet’s unmistakable tones. “Well, don’t leave her there, Dickie. Fetch her in. Go on. Like you wanted to. Like we practised.”
A few seconds passed and the door was opened again, fully this time, to reveal a tall, rangy man sporting freshly-oiled hair, knee-length trousers and what was, without doubt, his best shirt and pullover, the whole ensemble finished with a lopsided bowtie. He smiled shyly but determinedly and made an elaborate gesture of welcome with his hands.
His pronouncement was touchingly well-rehearsed. “Please do come in,” he intoned, solemnly. “We are glad to make your acquaintance.”
My smile was genuine this time. “Thank you. And glad to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.” I struggled out of my coat, which he placed with care on the bottom banister.
Violet emerged, occupying her narrow hallway’s entire width. “Yes, yes, you’re glad, he’s glad, we’re all glad, even the King’s glad, I’ll wager. Now fetch yourself in, angel, for Gawd’s sake, and we can all have a bite of tea.”
She ushered me into the front parlour, where a table had been set for three. Dickie rushed to pull back my chair for me and laid a napkin solicitously on my lap, while Violet brought in a cosied teapot. I was peckish for once, and didn’t need telling twice to tuck into the sandwiches of potted meat. “Crusts cut off, they are,” Dickie informed me through a half-chewed mouthful. “Like posh.”
Violet laughed with a softness and affection I’d never witnessed in the factory. “He insisted,” she said. “Been talking about this all week. Ain’t you?”
Dickie blushed and rolled his eyes, then resumed his surreptitious appraisal of me, whilst nursing a succession of further sandwiches. I was relieved to find that Violet and I chatted quite easily, with me telling her about my father, our house, the dogs, my old school; and her sharing reminiscences of childhood, courtship, the boys’ long-dead father. We ate home-made scones (“Dickie helped, didn’t you?”) and drank more tea. An hour passed comfortably, although Dickie was becoming increasingly agitated, trying to catch his mother’s attention, rolling his eyes in the direction of the parlour door. Eventually, Violet laughed. “Oh, go on then, I know you’ve been dying to show her.”
Dickie dismounted his chair and shot out of the room like a cannonball, careering off the doorframe as he went. I heard his footsteps pounding the stairs. There was a brief hiatus before he crashed back down, entering the room at a skid, something clearly clutched behind his back. At this, his resolve seemed to leave him a little, and he looked to his mother for reassurance. Violet’s voice was all tenderness. “Go on, you wanted to show them to her. She’d like to see them.” She turned to me: “Wouldn’t you?”
I answered in the affirmative, with what I hoped were encouraging tones, despite not knowing the contents of Dickie’s hands. Slowly, like a half-wild thing newly-tamed, Dickie approached me. He brought out from behind his back a large, battered biscuit-tin with a faded picture of the king on its lid. His voice was tentative, but clear. “My c’llection. I wanted to show you.”
With a nod of consent from Violet, I prised open the lid, folding it back on rusting hinges. Inside the tin lay an assortment of feathers, ranging from the workaday greys of pigeons to the warmer brown tones of pheasants, and all peppered with the occasional blue flash of a magpie’s garb. But what caught my attention was the large white feather that curled round on itself several times, clinging to the tin’s perimeter like an exotically fronded snake. Compulsively, I reached out a hand to it. It was so soft, my fingertips could hardly register it.
All this time, Dickie’s eyes had been fixed on me, a look of pride and wonder on his face. “I find them,” he told me, earnestly. “I don’t hurt the birds. I keep what they don’t want.”
Violet’s voice was almost reverential. “Walks all the way to Falconwood Field for ’em, don’t you, Dickie? Sits dead still for hours, he does, just watching the birds, hoping for a feather.”
I smiled, still stroking the white feather. “They’re lovely,” I said, and meant it. “But what about this one, Dickie? There can’t be many ostriches in England.”
His face split into a grin and the eyes rolled again. “That was Percy. He sent me it. From France. From a lady.”
I looked at Violet for an explanation. “It’s true,” she said. “Percy and his lot had a couple of nights’ stopover in Lille on their way through. He sent Dickie this feather and a note, all about how it belonged to a showgirl he’d met, but whether or not that’s true…” She shrugged. “He always was one for stories. Lawd knows what he got up to, a mother doesn’t like to think.” Her tone became pinched. “I just hope he’s alright, wherever he is now.”
Without even looking, she reached a hand behind her, where she sought and found a framed photograph, one of a forest of them on the mantelpiece, and passed it to me. Percy’s face was strong, angular. His eyes were direct and clear, just a hint of a smile playing about full lips beneath a toothbrush moustache. Photographed from the shoulders up, he was in cap and uniform, any trepidation buried beneath a discernible layer of defiance and pride. I was surprised to find my heart beating faster and hastily handed back the picture, trying to hide my stupid girlish blushes by manufacturing renewed interest in Dickie’s feathers. Not long after, I made my excuses, offered my thanks for a lovely afternoon, and left.
Although tired, I couldn’t bring myself to lie down that night, instead dragging a chair to the larger of my windows and perching on it, for hours perhaps, adrift in thought. My eyes took in the nightscape: the thinning curls of pale chimney smoke against the dark sky, the indiscernible smudges of tree canopies, the smear of stars. But my gaze was unfocused, distant, as I imagined what lay beyond my view: the terracotta terraces of south London, the fields of Kent, the English Channel, Lille, France. Battlefields.
I closed my eyes and pictured a French showgirl, hitching up her skirts and high-kicking her legs in time to raucous accordion music, accompanied by the approving roar of soldiers – of Percy. I imagined his face: the full, nearly-smiling lips, kissing her, kissing me, whispering promises that would inevitably be broken.
I must have dozed off, because I jerked awake as I slipped sideways, almost falling off my seat. I was chilled to the bone. Too late for a fire, I pulled on my outdoor coat for instant warmth and slid into bed, hunkering down beneath my bedcovers, hands deep in my coat-pockets. I was almost asleep before the fingers of my right hand registered something alien. I extracted the article and held it up. It was a raven’s feather, no doubt one of Dickie’s collection, which he must have secreted in my unattended coat pocket. A souvenir of the day.
I fell asleep holding it, to dream of soldiers and showgirls, mud and music, and of a sky raining with sharp black feathers.
* * * * *
1916 became 1917. I spent a muted but contented New Year’s Eve at home with my father, glad of a respite from the rigours of Woolwich and from Dickie’s attentions. He had taken to leaving little tokens for me on my landlady’s doorstep. An old wren’s egg; a dry, curling fern tied with ribbon; even a dead sparrow, frost-rimed and stiff as sticks.
The winter was harsh, bitterly cold and long-lasting. We would arrive for our shifts already frozen to the marrow, feet and hair damp with slush or sleet; and we’d stay that way throughout the day in the well-ventilated cavern of the factory. I was a walking ghost, pale and insubstantial as London snow, never sleeping properly, but never fully awake, either. Even the onset of a feeble Spring and the subtle change in the gifts that Dickie left me – withered bluebells, unidentifiable mushrooms – failed to penetrate the fug that seemed to surround me, like smoke.
* * * * *
When I did sleep, I’d dream frequently of Percy, although in my dreams he was often an amalgam of the characteristics of others, my unconscious imagination filling in the gaps as it saw fit. He was variously English or French; he would wear an army uniform with short trousers and a bowtie; he sat in my father’s chair and read me stories about showgirls; he was standing still as a statue on the blood-drenched mud of a battlefield, draped in sinuous white feathers, an arm stretched out to me, an arm that I couldn’t quite reach, no matter how desperately I tried…
The morning after a particularly disturbed night dawned with a grey, half-hearted drizzle and I made my way unsteadily to the factory with face bent low over my chest, my scarf pulled tightly about my head and neck, already exhausted before the day had begun. I knew something was wrong as soon I entered the staffroom to change. Mags, Reenie and Queenie, Daph, Joan – even Naggy Aggy – were all sitting on the tattered armchairs in an atmosphere of thick, soupy silence. The kettle started to whine its readiness and Joan obeyed its summons as if in a daze, busying herself with cups and spoons. I perched on the arm of a chair. “What is it?” I asked. I scanned the room. “Where’s Vi?”
Daph spoke in a flat monotone, not meeting my eye. “She’s had the letter. A telegram. Her Percy.”
My heart pulsed tightly in my throat. I swallowed. “Missing?” I didn’t dare hope.
Daph shook her head. “Gone. Killed in action. They won’t even tell her where. She don’t even know if there’ll be anything to bury”.
“Oh, poor Vi…” It was all I could muster although my mind was flying and I wanted to say so much more. I wondered if she’d held the letter in her hands a long time before opening it, not wanting to know its awful contents, or if she’d torn at it desperately, needing to get it over with, to face it head on. Did Dickie know? Would he understand, even if he did? Poor Vi, I thought again. It would be just her now; just her, and her sweet, simple son, and no-one to look after her if she gets old – only worry and loneliness and loss. Fury and pity eddied around inside me until I felt myself sway a little on my perch.
“Drink this. It’s nice and sweet. We all need one.” Joan forced a hot cup into my hands. Naggy Aggy stood and smoothed her hair with fluttering fingers.
“Five minutes, girls. Then back to the grindstone.” Her voice had lost all its crispness and bluster, and I found myself longing for yesterday when everything was normal and Vi had had two sons and Naggy Aggy hadn’t seemed human.
The day dragged like no other. Out on the floor, we girls barely spoke as we worked, each of us locked in our own private worlds, and no-one wanting to break the spell of hush that settled on our corner of the factory. With the surgical deftness I had come to perfect, I placed another finished shell in the soft straw of its pallet. It nestled there innocently, like a chick in its nest. Absently I traced my initials onto the smooth metal of its body. My gloved finger left no mark, so I moistened it with my tongue and drew my initials again. This time, the snake of the letters glistened wetly and I experienced a satisfied thrill, thinking that when it exploded in some German trench I would be there, too, a part of it. Doing my bit. I wondered if there would be a German version of Vi, weeping bitterly for a lost son in Hamburg or Berlin or wherever, and I hoped that there was. I hoped there were hundreds, thousands of them, weeping for lost sons, lost sweethearts, lost hope. My initials, though dried, were still discernible on the shell’s casing when I closed the crate at the end of my shift. A part of me, going into war.
That night, my dreams were stranger than ever, yet much clearer, too. I dreamt that my fingers were receding, my arms tapering to wings, while the heavy, aching clubs of my bones contracted, thinning into fine, porcelain reeds. I was flying, though where I didn’t know. France, perhaps? Belgium? I was aware of a new-found resolve and a metallic determination pulsing through my veins. Phosphorus lay expectantly in my gut, ready to drop with me. I couldn’t tell if I was a bird or a bomb.
* * * * *
The face regarding me in my bedroom mirror the following morning was tinged with a sickly lunar patina; but, though disoriented, I was filled with a clarity of purpose completely unfamiliar to me.
At the factory, I barely spoke to the other girls, just nodding a curt greeting before applying myself to my work. Surreptitiously, at intervals throughout the day, I slipped off a glove and bit through one of my fingernails until I had a jagged half-moon between my lips. Everyone was still so cut up about Vi, no-one was looking at me. It was easy to slip a fragment of fingernail, a tiny talisman, into a shell along with its legitimate explosive contents. At the end of my shift I left the factory, satisfied in the knowledge that ten Woolwich shells would be taking a miniscule part of me into battle with them. Ten talons, ready to claw out the eyes of any number of German soldiers. I slept well that night, for the first time in months.
* * * * *
Of course, the nightmares soon returned: the strangled screams of dying men, the stench of blood and faeces. The smoky, choking air. Exhaustion and dizziness had become the natural order for me, to such a degree that I hardly noticed them, simply accepting the heavy ache in my limbs and joints.
I had a couple of back-teeth that had started to come loose and which I would jiggle with my tongue or a finger at every opportunity. It took several weeks but I finally wrested them free of my bleeding gums, wrapping them carefully in a hankie to take to the factory. The girls had become accustomed to my withdrawn conduct and took little notice of me. Even Vi, who was back at work now, barely looked up when she saw me.
I worked diligently, as always. Twice through the morning, I opened my hankie and retrieved one of my twin treasures, embedding it in the pungent phosphorus before tamping the potent mix into its shell. I would tear at the enemy’s flesh with my teeth, I thought. And I wouldn’t stop until they were shreds. With a giddy satisfaction, I carried the second of my adapted shells to the crate –
My eyes were so unfocused, I hardly had time to register the smooth metal ovoid slipping out of my limp hands and arcing gracefully towards the floor.
* * * * *
Distant voices insinuated themselves at the edge of my consciousness.
“Quick, Doctor, I think she’s waking up!” – Naggy Aggy?
Then an unfamiliar male voice: “I don’t think so, Miss Thewell. She’s slipping –”
The voices faded to nothing, as if whipped away by fast-moving fog. I was dimly aware of a prone figure but the image had been so fleeting that I couldn’t retain it on my fast-flickering retinas. My world was metamorphosing, my mind a map, every synapse and fibre a burgeoning fund of geography.
My belly and breasts smoothed into one continuous aerodynamic curve, my legs shrinking to spindles and folding perfectly into the feathered undercarriage of my almost weightless body, my arms taking on the familiar fan-shape of wings. My small, pointed tongue sought out and loosened any remaining teeth as my lips hardened, elongating into a beak.
From somewhere – from everywhere, from around me, from inside me – I heard the high, trilling song of a canary and knew that the voice was mine. Before the darkness came, I filled my tiny lungs with sky, to sing my name, again and again and again: Ava.