Joyce was always a timid and nervous girl.
One of eight children, she often wished that she was more like her sisters.
Oh to have some of Olive’s audacity, a touch Betty’s confidence or if only a bit of Irene’s glamour might rub off. She watched her older sisters closely, looking for clues. They had plenty of admirers calling at the little terrace house to take them out dancing, or to the pictures.
Joyce always stayed in the background, watching intently as Renee put on her makeup, breathless as she listened to Betty flirt, giggling as Olive played the fool with her boyfriend, Fred.
When the young men waited in the front room, she kept well hidden, fearful of being noticed or teased, but she was safe with her older sisters around, soaking up all the admiration.
Renee was already engaged to be married to Sid, Olive was going steady with Fred, while Betty could take her pick.
When war was declared all her brothers signed up, even the youngest, Wilfred, lying about his age in his eagerness to get a piece of the action.
Betty went to work in the local munitions factory and was soon dating GI’s based at the airfield nearby.
Everyone expected Joyce to go to the factory too but she had other ideas. She’d seen an information film about the Auxiliary Territorial Service with her school friend, Elsie.
They agreed that it looked far more exciting than the munitions factory and had promptly both decided to join.
When Joyce told her family that she had joined the ATS they were amazed. Olive wanted to know if she would get to see enemy action. (certainly)
Renee was interested in the uniform (the smartest), while Betty asked about the dances she might get invited to. (plenty)
For once Joyce was the centre of her sisters’ attention and she enjoyed the glow of feeling different from them, she knew that she was going to be doing something important for the war effort.
Joyce spent a month in training, where she was taught how to operate an anti-aircraft gun.
While Renee was looking after her new family and Betty was out dancing with GIs, Joyce spent her evenings at her post sending flak up into the night sky to protect the docks.
Waiting at her post, staring into the inky sky and hearing the waves lapping on the shore, she was always ready to respond to any call from base and tune in to aircraft activity overhead. She never felt nervous operating the big gun.
When she had an evening off, she would go with Elsie to a dance at the army camp where ATS women were always welcome. It was at one of these, that Joyce met Sam Lane, an army despatch rider. He asked her to dance and didn’t let her go all evening. She didn’t feel shy when she was in Sam’s arms, in fact she felt quite at home there.
She proudly told her sisters about her new boyfriend, Sam, who looked like the Hollywood actor, James Stewart.
Betty said ‘Really, when can I meet him?’ and Joyce was worried.
To Joyce’s relief, Betty soon became engaged to a GI pilot called Bob and started planning for her new life in America.
Joyce felt safe, now knowing that Sam was all hers.
They married during the war and later went to live in Sam’s home town. They were a close unit. Sam worked as a painter and decorator after the war, while Joyce ran the home. Joyce would often go to stay with Renee, especially when Betty was over visiting from America. Joyce and Sam didn’t have children of their own but enjoyed spending time with their many nieces and nephews.
When Sam died, Joyce moved into a care home. She was popular with the staff and residents there, because she was such a gentle soul.
The staff told Joyce about the virus and explained why she had to stay in her room, but she forgot. She wondered why her niece didn’t visit her any more. On the news she heard the government say that the elderly would be shielded and Joyce thought of her big anti-aircraft gun. Now she would be protected, just as she had once protected the country from attack.
But this was an invisible enemy: one that was fought with hand sanitiser, face masks and social distancing.
Joyce would sometimes wander into the day room seeking company. The staff would gently usher her back to her room and explain again why she must stay there on her own.
When she felt funny, all hot and a little bit dizzy she didn’t like to say anything. She didn’t want to be a bother, to the staff who always seemed to be so busy.
In the night, when a heavy weight was pressing down on her chest and she couldn’t breathe, she felt frightened. So she did what she always did when she was scared; she thought of Sam.
Joyce was dancing in his arms when she slipped away.
Aged ninety-seven, Joyce had outlived all of her siblings. She was the last of her generation in the Crome family, but she was just another statistic in the grim national death toll of 2020.
Joyce’s funeral was small and quiet, like thousands of others across the country.
Her nieces and nephews mourned her passing from a distance.
Timid auntie Joyce, who manned those big anti-aircraft guns in the war.
Beverley Kemp is the author of the novel The Chandlers (Molecular Press) and two collections of short stories Splash (2015) and Moving On (2017). After a distinguished career as librarian at the Women's Library and the Society of Friends (The Quakers) she now writes fiction.