Business As Usual
Summary: An AU-Fic of Ash/Scribbs (Murder in Suburbia) placing them in London during WW2 and the Blitz. Written for Ralst's International Day Of Femslash Day 2009 challenge.
Disclaimer: Realising I didn't know more than upper school history I've read around the topic a little, but this isn't the best researched thing I've ever written. I apologise for any glaring errors and hope that there's nothing too much wrong with it. This story features a romantic relationship between two women, if that bothers you then this is your chance to walk away. I own nothing, the characters belong in their entirety to ITV and are used here without permission. No profit is being made from this work.
It was a dark and stormy night, as per the clichés of old. But not tonight the rolling echoes of thunder, the date was November 1940 and the German Luftwaffe were once again doing their very best to bomb the guts out of London. Looking up one could trace the searchlights criss-crossing the sky, occasionally picking out a plane for the tracer to reach out in flickering fingers grasping at nothingness to fall back over the huddled city. Under tired feet the ground rocked over and over, multiple explosions penetrating even the deepest shelters in the depths of the tube system, awakening frightened children who reached for their mothers, staring around with wide eyes, their sanctuary no longer the solid shelter they had believed.
Business as usual then.
In the shadowed doorway of an ARP post somewhere to the north of the current bombardment someone lit a cigarette. The flame sparked up, lighting angular planes of a nervous face and the darkness was dispelled by the red glow of the cigarette that blossomed and then faded as the hand carrying it moved away.
"You smoke too much."
A second figure emerged from the deeper recesses of the shelter to cast an eye down the street. Even in the blackout there was enough reflected light from the searchlights above to pick out the large W painted on her helmet. Some people might refuse to don theirs until the bombs were actually dropping around them, but Kate Ashurst (Section-Leader-Ashurst of the ATS and very proud of her uniform thank you) had always been one for following the rules. Just because some jumped-up Kraut with a silly moustache and a large fleet of bombers was currently attempting to wipe her beloved city from the map didn't mean she was going to let her standards slip.
Her subordinate and she had discussed the negative points of smoking before. No good had come of it, and the look she was getting indicated tonight would be no exception.
"Well you do!"
"I'm being bleedin' bombed here Ash." The smoker flicked the object of contention and a sparking cinder flew into the darkness. "I doubt whether or not I have a cig is going to count much in the overall scheme of things."
"You swear too much as well." In response the accused expressed her feelings with a succinct gesture.
Section-Leader-Ashurst leant through the small gap between a tense shoulder and the doorframe to stare up at the sky with its interweaving pattern of searchlight and tracer. Despite everything it was a pretty sight. Putting aside her impulse to explain once again the military rules and regulations with regard to rank and the respect it should garner from subordinate plebs, she instead settled against the doorframe to enjoy the display. Her junior was jumpy enough during a bombardment, best not to add to any tension between them when she had all the time in the world to address any attitude problems. Sub-Leader Scribbins (previously Chief Volunteer Scribbins – and wasn't Ash proud of her the day she got her promotion?) was not one for rules - or respect for authority - or anything Kate Ashurst had been brought up find admirable in a person's character. Consequently the said Kate Ashurst had spent the first few weeks of their time together fighting to maintain a ladylike cool (as befitted her station) in the face of incredible provocation. This situation might have continued indefinitely had not fate stepped in to intervene. Above her Ash watched a plane caught in the tracer, fire trailing from one wing as it vanished from the searchlight into the friendly darkness. There were planes that night too. Her mind skittered away from the still raw memories and she took a deep breath, carefully holding the lid closed against the rush of images. That long night, when Kate Ashurst, who was brought up properly and went to a good school, Kate who believed in right and wrong and had always thought that as long as you followed the rules you would make it through, died in the dust and the screaming and Ash was born. It may have been Kate who waved to the old man on the corner as she began her shift but it was Ash who picked over the remains of his house in the chill morning and knew nothing would ever be the same again.
That night, amid the choking swirls of what had been a street of tidy houses, Ash had decided that etiquette and everything else they'd taught in that posh girls school (Scribbs' words not hers) about maintaining distance between oneself and the lower orders had no bearing in a world where people could be there one minute and splattered around you in pieces the next. Scribbs might be common, might be rough and ignorant and all too frequently a pain in what Ash wouldn't even consider referring to as "her bum" despite what Scribbs said. But she was alive and real and for all her ribald comments that still made Ash blush, she could make you forget for a few minutes that death was falling from the sky. For now, that was enough.
Of course things didn't change completely after that night. Indeed at times it was impossible to see that they had changed at all. Scribbs was still incredibly annoying and Ash still followed all the rules, including the unwritten ones she made up as she went along and then expected Scribbs to know about without any prior notice. But somehow the connection made across the rubble that night stopped it from getting out of hand. Occasionally Scribbs did express the opinion, all evidence to the contrary, that she wasn't the annoying one but as time went by Ash was able to ignore this as the troubled ravings of an uneducated mind.
On nights like this as they sat in the darkness, waiting either for the explosion that would call them to action or the All Clear to sound, they could share a cigarette or a thermos of lukewarm tea and somehow manage a friendly conversation. That was something in this messed up world. It wasn't every night of course, but usually at least four nights out of seven, as long as Scribbs didn't bring up snobbery and Ash didn't make pointed comments about the use of the sugar spoon.
Over the months since the first bombs fell in September they had talked of any number of things. Usually light topics such as the latest movie Scribbs had managed to sneak into, the latest conquest she'd managed to achieve at one dance or another, or the freshest gossip from the lorry depot where she worked during the day as a mechanic. Ash never really had gossip that measured up to this high standard, her hours filled with the typing up of edicts regarding changes in soap powder rationing were never that interesting, no matter how she tried to spin the tales. And then in the small wee hours they talked of other things; Ash learnt about Scribbs' mother and sister (both working in the munitions factories at Acton) and Scribbs got to hear something of the Ashurst family's worries about David, currently somewhere in North Africa.
The murmured exchanges of information may only have been intended as a way to pass the time and keep them awake on long shifts, but over the months Ash had had to admit (even if only to herself) that Scribbs was remarkably intelligent for a London School Board educated thug and Scribbs would allow, if pressed, that Ash wasn't completely incapable of functioning in a world without butlers and maids. Though the woman still made terrible tea.
Talking of tea… Ash withdrew herself from her reverie and squinted at her watch. She couldn't clearly make out the hands in the gloom but guessed it must be sometime around midnight.
"Fancy a cuppa?" Leaving the fireworks display and stepping back into the shelter she dug around in her satchel for the thermos.
Scribbs' long term grievance with regard to the shortage of any decent source of caffeine had become legendary and Ash looked up to catch the smallest hint of a smile, the olive branch offered and accepted. Struggling with the lid she'd once again screwed on too tightly Ash caught the abrupt cessation of movement as Scribbs made as though to duck inside and then wavered on the threshold. She wouldn't come in Ash knew, hadn't set foot inside the shelter during a bombardment for over a week now. But the warden put her worries to one side and -the thermos open at last- poured out the steaming beverage into two mugs. Hesitating a second over the crockery she decided magnanimously to take the chipped mug herself tonight.
Tea up?!! Ash chastised herself silently. She was beginning to absorb Scribbs' slang, it was terrible what low company did to a girl, even one as well brought up as she had been.
Moving carefully over the uneven floor in the darkness she reached the doorway safely and handed Scribbs her tea before settling onto the sandbags beside her. Perching with knees together as mother had taught her all those years ago she sipped delicately from the un-chipped side of her own chunky mug. The hot liquid slid over her tongue like finest ambrosia and settled somewhere deep in her chest, the warmth spreading out to every extremity. Sighing out her pleasure she rested her cup on the flat of her hand, making it perform the duty of a saucer as these shelters were so sadly lacking in basic amenities. She caught the smallest smile flickering across her partner's face but when she raised an enquiring eyebrow she received only a headshake of denial. She couldn't possibly know that Scribbs was thinking how reassuring her idiotic little gesture was. That despite everything London was enduring, as long as Ash could sit there drinking tea with her little finger raised all was well with the world.
Scribbs could remember the first time she'd been faced with that curled little finger. The word had come down from above that volunteers were needed for ARP duty and after a week of little or no response the powers that be had decided to be a little more lax in their definition of "volunteering". Scribbs had fought the umpteenth lorry back into the depot after some unexplainable mechanical failure and abandoning it across three marked parking spaces had stormed into the office to have a detailed conversation with the duty officer about duty rosters and the fact she always got the worst tickets. Instead she'd been waved into the inner sanctum where Sullivan had informed her that she'd volunteered for night shifts as an Air Raid Warden and could she pick up her posting from the clerk and jump to it as she was already late. She'd had to swallow back her first response, the black mark a previous rant had got her most probably the jumping off point for this little venture. Her posting had been across the river, somewhere in North London and she'd had to run the last part, arriving at the small hut and island in a sea of sandbags hot, sweating and still covered in engine grease. Leaning heavily against the low protective wall in an attempt to catch her breath she was faced by a vision of uptight disappointment, uniform pressed and boots shiny with fresh polish, perched uncomfortably on a wooden chair on which a handkerchief had been carefully lain to protect the owners derriere.
Her immediate superior and Scribbs was sure future bane of her life sipped delicately from the dainty cup held in slim fingers. She stumbled through some attempt at an explanation, determined she would not apologise to this stuck-up-tart for something that wasn't her fault. The little finger was distracting, holding position perfectly as the cup was gently raised and lowered again and again and Scribbs eventually stuttered to a halt, her train of thought dismantled by one innocuous digit.
"Rule One of politeness, Scribbins, always be punctual."
"Scribbs" she had protested but in vain. Ash had delivered a short run-down on the rules regarding nicknames, expanded into the rules related to any personal communication between members of the armed forces and by correlation the ATS and concluded with a succinct explanation of what she required from a subordinate in terms of discipline and attention to duty. And the whole time that finger had not moved a muscle.
If you'd have told Emma Scribbins then that she'd hold onto those daft little mannerisms as a stanchion in the fast flowing river of fear and desperation she'd have laughed in your face. But now, watching Ash sip daintily from the ugly mug, her hair haloed by searchlights, she didn't know how on earth she'd be able to stay sane without it.
"Hey! Show a leg!"
Both wardens looked up as an ambulance pulled into the street, engine cut out to allow it to glide to a silent halt against the kerb. Neither expressed surprise at the unexpected arrival of medical personnel, Ash merely murmuring that it was typical of 'those two' to turn up as soon as decent people had a chance to sit down.
"Morning you two." A short dark haired woman dropped down from the drivers cab, slamming the door with what Ash considered unneeded force for a quiet street where people were presumably sleeping.
"Morning Nancy." Scribbs stretched as she stood up to greet the new comers, "morning Jo."
A second woman had emerged from the passenger side and now crossed the street to them carrying something in her hand.
"We brought you a present." She waved a small bag. "Hilda was brewing up just as we left and we knew this coffee hound would be chewing your ear off about her trials and tribulations so we thought we'd swing by and put you out of your misery."
"Coffee?" Scribbs' eyes lit up. "You brought me coffee? Oh I do love you chaps." She already had the bag open, scrabbling for the thermos she knew would be secreted somewhere inside. "You are the best friends a girl could have and I love you deeply and forever."
"Yes yes, get on with you." Nancy pushed her to one side so that she could slip inside the shelter. "You owe us biscuits and I've come to collect. Karen said the last time she'd been past you'd been scoffing away at something that looked most tasty."
"Karen talks too much." Ash followed the ambulance driver inside but found the woman not hunting through their storage tins as expected but instead calmly waiting for her in the gloom.
"She still not coming in?" Nancy's enquiry was nothing like her usual strident tones and her eyes were all seriousness as she examined the distant Scribbs over Ash's shoulder.
"Not for over a week now." Ash tilted back her helmet. "What did Karen say?"
"That you were worried and could we drop by? I bought Jo to see if she could get anything out of her."
Through the doorway Ash could see the medic leaning in as she topped up Scribbs' mug, the two laughing quietly together over some unheard joke.
"It's nothing much, it's just… she's not Scribbs, you know?" Ash couldn't think of any other way to put it. Scribbs had always been able to laugh anything off, but the incessant smoking and the irritability not to mention the non-sleeping were a worrying collection.
"It's probably just the lack of any kind of relief. Either she's at the depot or she's here from what I hear."
"We all are. There're just not enough of us to go round. I suppose I could ask Sullivan to give her a night off."
"You could, but I doubt it'd help." Nancy looked up at the growl of another plane over head. "What we really need is for Jerry to stay home for one blasted night, let us all get some sleep."
"Isn't there anything I can do?"
"Seems like you're doing everything right so far. Feed her when she'll eat, try and get her to sleep and do the best you can to distract her if she starts brooding. The way you two are always sniping at each other I can't see that being too much of a problem."
Ash gave a wry smile and moved away to hunt the errant biscuits before Scribbs noticed their absence and decided to investigate.
"It can't last for ever; Jerry's got to run out of bombs sometime." Nancy stifled a yawn and stretched as much as was possible in the cramped surroundings. "A couple of quiet nights and we'll all feel a million times more human, you see if we don't."
She took the biscuits Ash proffered and ducked out to wave them triumphantly at the two perched on the sandbags. Scribbs grabbed for them playfully, but Nancy was not to be denied and climbed over the low wall, taunting her with the waved packet once out of reach in the roadway.
"C'mon Jo, the victors must return with the spoils of war to be carried aloft in triumphant procession." She danced a couple of steps along the pavement, attempting a lindy-hop kick-turn but stumbling over unseen debris.
"I should go." Jo gave Scribbs a quick hug before sketching a wave in Ash's general direction and sliding off her perch. "She's not safe to be let out alone."
Scribbs grinned and gave her a push toward the ambulance. "Go. For the gift of coffee we give you much thanks. As to the biscuits… we will not forget. This terrible insult will be repaid in full."
"I'm quaking in my boots!" Nancy had rolled down the window and they could make out the faces she was pulling in the dim light as she struggled to get the vehicle into gear.
Scribbs threw them an example of her favourite gesture and then caught out of the corner of her eye Ash producing a face of such horrendous insult that she couldn't help laughing. Her superior had managed to produce an expression generally associated with opening a letter from a beloved aunt and instead finding the envelope full of duck manure, topping it off with an out-jutting tongue such as any 5 year old would be proud of. For all her partners protestations of a well mannered home Ash couldn't deny someone had taught her how to behave in a most common manner. Her brother's influence no doubt. Unable to contain her amusement Scribbs let the laugh bubble free, leaning back into the sandbags and snorting until the tears ran down her face at Ash's dismayed reaction to discovery of her less "posh" side.
"Don't look so miserable Ash, I knew you couldn't be solid prunes 'n' prisms all the way through." Scribbs was eventually forced to stop laughing even if only to catch her breath. Relaxing back against wall of the shelter she wiped the tears away with trembling fingers, the chuckles breaking through now and again. "I knew there was a human being in there somewhere. Seems I should be thanking Nancy for developing your potential."
"Prunes and prisms?" Ash thought a little degradation of her character was allowable if it helped Scribbs relax, but there was no need to let everything slide. "Have you been reading improving literature again?"
Scribbs was prone to finding 'edifying tales for girls' amongst the jumble sales that had become a regular occurrence amongst the rubble. She liked to read the more "interesting" bits aloud to Ash during quiet moments and as yet Ash had been unable to prevent her from doing so no matter how many different methods of distraction she tried.
"Nah, Jo was talking about one she found this afternoon. Apparently there are bicycles involved and a Mad Hatter's tea party. Billy and Bubbles attempt to convert little Gracie from a state of awful priggishness into something much more entertaining. Were you ever a prig Ash?"
"No! Of course not!" She probably had been at one point, but Ash thought that was no-one's business but her own. "Is Jo going to lend you this book?"
"Oh yes, don't worry, you'll get to hear all about how Bubbles can ride two bicycles at the same time." Scribbs' tone was distracted, her mind on other things. "It was nice of them to bring us coffee. We're a long way out for them to come though."
"They came to steal our biscuits; the coffee was just a distraction."
"But still." Ash silently consigned Scribbs and her overactive detection skills to perdition. "I suppose it's just a way they can spend some time together, skiving off with the ambulance, there can't be much privacy back at the station."
"Hmm?" Ash looked over at the silence in answer to her query and met Scribbs eyes dancing with something akin to mischief.
"You didn't know?"
"About Nancy and Jo."
"What about them?"
"About Nancy and Jo being together."
"Of course I know they work together. Don't be silly Scribbs."
"No. About them being 'Together' together."
There had been a time when Ash hadn't known about things like that. Girls from a good upbringing often didn't and though she'd been to an all girls school somehow it had never come to her attention. But hanging out with Scribbs and Scribbs' friends she'd been introduced to all kinds of new concepts. Girls who did, and girls who didn't, and girls who sometimes did but sometimes didn't. It had been a very steep learning curveaccompanied by the additional annoyance that Scribbs seemed perfectly clear with the concept already and incredibly amused that despite a year in the ATS and that aforementioned girls school Ash hadn't come across it yet.
And now apparently Nancy and Jo were as well. For all her mother would go spare Ash found that she didn't really care. In a world where perfectly upright and probably kind people dropped death on you out of the skies every night for no apparent reason, the fact that some people skived off with other people to get up to interesting endeavours in the cab of an ambulance didn't really cause her consternation any more. Besides it had distracted Scribbs from ferreting out the real reason the women had popped by and for that Ash was more than grateful.
"We should try and get some kip, the all clear should be sounding soon."
"You go." Scribbs wriggled to find a more comfortable spot, huddling into her coat. "I've got the remnants of coffee on my tongue to savour, wouldn't want to waste that opportunity by sleeping."
As on all the nights before, Ash didn't comment on the dark circles under her eyes, loud proclaimers of her urgent need for sleep. Instead she ducked into the shelter and grabbed one of the blankets they'd "appropriated" slinging it out into the darkness where she heard it collide solidly with the huddled form of her junior warden.
"Thanks" she heard Scribbs mutter ironically and laughed before wrapping herself in the other blanket and trying fruitlessly to find a non lumpy part of the cot to curl up on. Despite the chill, the scratchyness of the blanket and the uncomfortable surface she quickly dropped into dreamless sleep. The All Clear woke her less than an hour later and she opened bleary eyes to see a silhouetted form, cloaked in the blanket, looking up into the empty sky.
"Morning." Her voice croaked and she coughed to clear it.
"Morning." Scribbs didn't turn round. "I can do the check, you stay in the warm."
"I know you've read the handbook regarding the duties of ARP wardens both during and after raids Scribbs, I remember sitting there and watching you do so. It was an effort in patience I've yet to surpass."
Scribbs sighed, her impression of a long-suffering slave perfected over many conversations along the same lines.
" 'At the sounding of the All Clear Wardens must patrol the street and make a note of any damaged property and determine the extent of civilian injury, offering aid where required.' " She adjusted her blanket. "But it was a quiet night Miss Stickler-For-Protocol; there'll be nothing to do."
"I'm still coming." Ash swung her legs over the side of the bunk and shivered. "But I'm bringing the blanket with me. How does it get so cold?"
"I do believe the fact that it's winter might have something to do with it." In the darkness Ash caught a glimpse of teeth bared in a grin.
As they walked the streets, both looking somewhat less than the ATS regulation turnout with their bleary eyes and untidy old blankets, Ash made a note of any properties damaged and Scribbs regaled her with what she had gleaned from Jo about the latest "reforming tale for growing girls". Some mornings they would come across a resident who couldn't sleep, or one woken by the All Clear stumbling back into their house to attempt to grab a few hours of slumber in a more comfortable bed. But this morning they were alone and they made their way up and down the lonely streets enjoying the moment of peace. Scribbs breath made ghostly clouds in the air as she told her gripping tale of character development and lacrosse and Ash thought that these times, in the small hours of the morning, these times were the ones she liked the best.
Back in the shelter Scribbs finally consented to curl up on the cot and catch some sleep. Ash lit the small lantern; made sure the blackouts were hung and settled in to re-read her old copy of a collection of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Poetry. Turning to the inscription in the front: 'For Kate, on her 18th birthday. All our love, Grandfather and Grandmother' she traced the faded words with a roughened finger. They were both long dead those two, their early deaths a shock to the whole family and a still raw ache to their youngest grandchild who'd found in their beautiful Devonshire home the love perhaps lacking elsewhere. But though she'd mourned their passing deeply she could find it in her heart to be glad that they had missed this. Their well cared for home was overrun by soldiery now, her grandmother's carefully laid out garden where Kate had whiled away so many quiet afternoons probably in overgrown disarray. Her father had given it over to the Army, a rest billet for officers, telling her too late for her to salvage anything from the house before the hoards moved in. This was all she had of them now and though the book was dog-eared and dirty she'd not buy another copy. Flicking through the well thumbed pages she began to read. Beside her Scribbs muttered in her sleep and Ash crept over to tuck the blankets more securely around her form. As her watch ticked round to six and the moment they would have to get up and face a new day, she settled in to watch over her partners rest in the soft light of the lantern.
The next night was quiet, the Luftwaffe focussing their attention on the docklands. The night after that they hit a wide range of targets south of the river and Ash dared to hope that perhaps their little corner might make out the week without being hit. But on the third night their luck ran out and they caught it along with the rest of North London. They were doing the house check, stupidly thinking that perhaps the bombers would pass over tonight to other targets further west when the first bombs started to fall. The first stick fell two streets away, but they had enough experience to pin point the sounds and know that tonight they were in for it. Instinct kicking in Ash broke into a run for the shelter but felt the empty space at her shoulder where there should have been breathless swearing. She turned back and saw Scribbs, frozen to the spot, out in the open. In the few seconds as she sprinted up to her subordinate Ash managed to prepare a detailed rant but swallowed both it and the urge to shake some sense into the woman when she saw blank eyes drift over her without recognition.
"Scribbs?" Her voice was gentle amongst the reverberations. "Remember my rule about not standing out in the street when the bombs are falling?"
Scribbs blinked, her eyes coming back into focus. Looking past Ash to the backdrop of growing flame behind her she came to a realisation of where they were.
"Ash?" She frowned in confusion at the worried face before her. "What are you doing?"
Another explosion shook them, and Scribbs gave up on her quest for enlightenment, spinning Ash around and pushing the woman quickly ahead of her across the street to take shelter behind No 27's garden wall. As she lay there, Scribbs' comforting weight on her back and the muttered litany of cursing into her neck more reassuring than any lullaby, Ash felt oddly at peace. Amongst the noise and fury her mind spun away, presenting her with a slideshow of moments:
Last weekend, Scribbs laughing as she laid down a flush and claiming the winnings with an exuberant sweep of the hand. Scribbs, brow furrowed in concentration as she attempted to put back together some old toy they'd found in a garden of one of the destroyed houses, determined to fix it "in case they came back". Scribbs smiling, only three nights ago, her eyes shinning over that blessed cup of coffee.
The images were so far away from where they were at the moment, but lying there, the ever present dirt gritty between her teeth she held on to them. They were what was real, what was worth living for in this stupid war. Damnit she would ask Scribbs out to tea, face the possibility of rejection or Scribbs embarrassment. She'd sat often enough in her favourite café by the park thinking that Scribbs would enjoy the view not to mention the deep well of potential amusement posed by the varied passers-by. Just as she made the decision she felt the sudden chill as Scribbs hoisted herself up to scout a careful eye up and down the street. Deep as she was in thought, Ash had missed the lull in the bombing.
"Reckon we could make it if we run." Scribbs turned a grin on her and casting a quick glance up into the cloud shielded sky Ash shrugged and then nodded. The wet was starting to seep into her battledress and they had tea in the shelter. Lukewarm tea that tasted of the thermos it was stored in, but tea non-the-less. Scrambling to her feet she laid a hand on the other woman's shoulder for a moment. Thanks given silently for the protection and only a momentary softening of the hazel eyes to indicate gratitude accepted.
Just a whispered "let's go" and they were running, tearing up the street, surefooted amongst the rubble that littered the roadway. Halfway there it somehow turned into a race and when Scribbs put in a last lung-bursting effort to clear the wall of sandbags two strides ahead of her superior they both tumbled into the shelter to collapse in exhausted laughter.
"We're a disgrace to the service." Gasping for breath Ash looked across to her partner in insanity, bent double as she leant against the wall for needed support. Scribbs felt her gaze and raised her head to throw out that trademark grin.
"We?" Straightening up Scribbs attempted to disguise the fact she was still catching her breath. "I won, remember?"
Ash was just about to retort with some insight into possible cheating by one of the athletes when they were interrupted by the next stick of bombs. Two pairs of scared eyes met in the gloom, laughter dying in suddenly closed throats.
"Blasted Jerries." Ash may have had rules about the total lack of need for swearing under any circumstances, but that last explosion had been a little too close. She felt out along the wall for the satchel containing the precious tea and poured out a measure into the cap, the clattering of the thermos neck not commented on by either occupant of the shelter.
"Tot?" Scribbs had produced a bottle from the recesses of her clothing and at Ash's nod added a generous dollop to the lukewarm nectar.
Drinking was a new thing, Ash watched Scribbs wrap her hands around the cap as she drunk, somehow able to drink exactly half without needing to examine the liquid remaining at any point. The old Kate Ashurst didn't drink. Well, a glass of wine with dinner perhaps, her father pouring out measured amounts whilst expanding on the source chateau and region. At school there had been alcohol, but not amongst her set and she hadn't even had to turn down any pressured requests -the head girl was well known to be square. Her first introduction to strong spirits had been during one of the now common poker nights she'd been dragged to by Scribbs, squished in the cramped Ambulance girls office-come-radio room, Karen pouring from a bottle she'd "found" in the street. All eyes on her, Ash had knocked back the shot, coughed, her eyes streaming, feeling it burn all the way down – then held out her glass for another. She remembered it so clearly, Scribbs' grin over the back of her chair (the girl always turned them round for some reason – preferring to sit with legs astride the back) as she poured out another shot, proud and admiring.
Crouched against the wall of the shelter Ash looked across to those eyes, no longer proud or admiring but instead frightened and non-the-less trying to put on a brave face. Huddling there, the bombs dropping all around them it was her turn to feel pride. They might none of them want to be here, each and every Londoner wishing they were far away in more peaceful lands. But they were British, they had tea and they were damn well not going to lie down and roll over just because some Kraut asked politely. But as another explosion tore through the room, sending the crockery on the table rattling she wished they had something besides pride to defend themselves with.
It was hours later and the All Clear was still ringing in their ears when they stumbled back out onto the street, the dust not yet settled and drifting around them, insidiously coating the back of their throats. Scribbs bent down to pick up couple of toys secreting them in her satchel. They'd go on the shelf with the others, officially waiting for their owners to collect them, but until then part of Scribbs' growing collection. Distracted by thoughts of the bawdy re-enactments these were used for, Ash wandered on past her hoarding companion. She had pulled out her notebook -ready to go to work, but as her eyes at last grew accustomed to the gloom, she gaped and her mind stuttered to a halt, her advance drifting to a standstill as her gaze lit on what was left of their domain. There was rubble everywhere, broken buildings like teeth reaching up into the dark sky. Stunned she could do nothing but stand and stare, her shoulders slumping as though the strings that held her together had snapped all as one.
Unnoticed her notebook and pencil dropped from limp hands. She was lost her body no longer obedient to her demands and she watched as though in a dream the scraps of paper tumble past, turning over and over in the air like the finest acrobats. Then a strong arm slipped around her shoulders and a warm body held her up as she felt, as though from a distance, the cool smoothness of glass in her hand. Her teeth chattered against the neck as she brought the bottle to her mouth and Scribbs put a steadying hand over hers. Ash took more of a gulp than she had intended, the liquid searing a path all the way down and she fell back against that solid comfort, coughing and spluttering.
Held there, eyes streaming, she wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and hide in that warm embrace for ever or at least until the war was over. But the alcohol had broken the hold of whatever had had her in its grip and huddled there she felt her backbone reform, her limbs once again part of her. She straightened, drawing in a deep breath of that dirt laden air and pushed away from the encircling arm, determined to stand alone. A sway betrayed her but she held it together, forcing her will on unsteady legs. Beside her Scribbs took a long swig herself before recapping the bottle and slipping it back into that hidden pocket. Still distracted by intermittent communications between desire and outcomes in terms of balance Ash watched as Scribbs bent to pick up the abandoned notebook, brushing it off gently before handing it back.
"Let's go" and she led off, her hand naturally coming to rest under Ash's elbow giving support unasked for but non-the-less welcome for all that.
That comforting hand stayed at her elbow, guiding her as they picked a path through the brick strewn street. As the low murmuring voice checked off each house Ash made notes in her neat handwriting and tried to ignore the small voice at odds with the calmness of her penmanship.
She was meant to be the calm one, the leader. It was her job to set an example, not to fall apart at the first sign of difficulty. She'd got the ambulance girls out to talk to Scribbs, should she rather have called them for herself?
And that Scribbs had been there to witness her collapse!
Her mind, still not quite totally back to its usual efficiency took a detour from its self recrimination and she found herself drawing a finger daintily through the build-up of dirt on the low wall before her. Scribbs was round the back, checking on the family who lived here and as there was no-one to see her Ash allowed herself this moment. A sailing ship grew under her finger, sails burgeoning with wind, pendant fluttering at the masthead. There was dust everywhere. In the cold grey light of the morning she knew Scribbs would be complaining about the all pervasive dirt, about how she'd could never get clean with that basin of cold water they were all forced to use at her flat and how unfair it was that some people (mentioning no names of course) had access to baths.
The first time they'd had that conversation Ash had, stupidly, attempted to deny any silver spoon amenities. It had been the day after one of the early raids and they'd been picking their way through the debris on a morning quite like this, though admittedly not as cold. Scribbs had been involved in a detailed rant, highpoints of which included the degrading amenities at her lodgings and how she could never get the masonry dust out of her hair (Ash had looked over to those blond unruly spikes and wondered why she seemed so bothered)
"Bet you have baths at your place" Scribbs had accused, emerging from her rant to tread once again the well trodden path laying out the woes of the proletariat and how these would be addressed in the future – Ash had been informed early on that she'd be first up against the wall when the revolution came, but the twinkle in her accuser's eye had belied the warning. Justly pinned on the double prongs of Scribbs' wrath and bath jealousy Ash had spluttered, struggling to find an adequate defence.
"What we have or do not have in the way of facilities is none of your business Scribbs!"
"But you do have 'em though, don't you. Bound to. It's classy." And she'd brazenly used Ash's favourite descriptor while Ash could only stand there and fume quietly. People shouldn't be allowed to use Ash's favourite descriptor for things such as this, it cheapened the word. Lost for a retort (these were the early days and she hadn't yet developed the debating skills essential for any conversation with her unruly subordinate) she'd turned the conversation the only way she'd known how, work.
"Scribbs." Ash had drawn herself up, attempting to indicate that it was about time they got back to the business they were after all here for. "76 houses: roll call. Please concentrate."
Scribbs had sighed but returned to the task in hand for the moment. It was a point they'd returned to again and again though, but eventually Ash understood that Scribbs didn't actually think any the worse of her for the difference in their backgrounds. Didn't care one way or the other whether Ash had a bath or not. It was just talk. Reassured that their friendship would not be wreaked by the presence of modern amenities Ash could now let the grumbling recitative wash over her, its soothing waves calming the jagged edges of her mind still jangling after the night's bombardment.
As Scribbs reappeared round the corner of the house Ash took a deep breath, faced the world bravely and decided it didn't matter that her subordinate had witnessed her unprofessional behaviour. To have displayed such vulnerability, petrifying under other circumstances was somehow reassuring in this scenario. Scribbs offered friendship freely, wound herself -despite annoying character flaws- into a persons mind and insinuated herself under their skin. It wasn't the kind of friendship Ash was used to, she hadn't know you could be so infuriated by a person and yet still have a deep and abiding need to have them around. But she'd grown to appreciate the honesty of such a relationship. It was a different kind of friendship yes, but good non-the-less.
She met that enquiring smile with one of her own that trembled at the outset but strengthened into firm stability as eyes met and reassurance flashed across the gloom. In the midst of all the chaos there was calm and Ash found solid comfort in a realisation that bound by convention she would always be unable to voice. Even so it was true and she held onto it, her own solid foundation in all this upheaval.
"I'm glad she's here. I'm glad they posted us together. I really don't think I could do this without her."