Francesca Fabrino, Fran to her friends, grasped the lever just above her and pulled it down, watching through the Perspex lens of her goggles as the drill bit bored a hole into the solid cylinder of metal. Feeling the tip of the bit reach its goal, she quickly released her hold and allowed the spring to raise the mechanism. She pressed the pedal by her right foot and the component – designed to allow the propellers of a Lancaster bomber to turn – popped out and joined the others in a wooden crate to her left.
Pushing away the tendril of ebony hair dangling in her vision, Fran shifted her foot across to the other peddle, stamped on it and released another plug of aluminium into the drill bed, then repeated the process.
She, with at least two hundred other women and girls, was deep beneath the ground working in the newly opened Plessey factory. The factory, which had previously been used to assemble field radios and wirelesses, ran along the tunnel of the Central line between Leytonstone in the west and Newberry Park in the east.
Francesca was working in the aircraft engine component section under Wanstead Station. She and the other women operating the machinery sat facing the platform wall with the dome of the tunnel arching over them. Behind her ran the narrow gauge railway used to ship the finished components to the collection shafts from where they were taken to the surface. Although she was in one of the deepest sections of the tunnel, at five hundred feet below street level, the vibration of the German bombs above could be felt. She’d been allocated to work at the factory when she’d signed up a couple months ago when the new war Conscription Act meant all women between the ages of eighteen and fifty, without dependants, were required to register for war work. As she was twenty-four and single, she had volunteered for factory work to ensure she didn’t get drafted into the ATS.
It wasn’t that she would have minded being in the ATS. Not at all. In fact, if the truth were told, she’d have preferred to be up top driving a petrol wagon or ferrying supplies to army bases rather than deep beneath the earth but her father had been through enough and she didn’t want him to worry any more than he already did, so she’d opted for the safer option of factory work.
Feeling the sweat trickling down between her shoulder blades, Francesca yanked down on the lever again. A fine spray of lubricant drenched the fresh metal plug and curls of aluminium escaped as the drill bit deep again. As she released the lever the hooter, signalling the end of the shift, blasted out. Giving a silent prayer of thanks, Francesca stamped on the pedal and ejected the metal component. She flicked the red switch off and the whirling drill ground to a halt. Yawning, she stepped away from the now-idle machine then turned towards the double doors of the exit.
The cream-tiled changing room, which was situated between the two platforms at the bottom of the stairs, was already abuzz with women changing into or out of work clothes. Francesca yawned again. Moving her goggles up to her forehead, she removed her ear plugs. She squeezed her way through the half-dressed women to her metal locker on the far side of the room. Looping her mother’s crucifix out from beneath her clothing, Francesca took the key dangling alongside the cross and slide it into the lock.
‘Cor, I thought that night would never blooming end,’ said a woman’s voice as Francesca opened her locker.
She turned to see Joan Dunn, a jolly blonde who worked on the machine three along from her on the assembly line.
‘At least in the old factory you knew when the sun came up you’d soon be done for the night,’ Joan added, as she opened the metal door of her locker.
‘I know.’ Francesca stowed her goggles and ear protectors on the top shelf. ‘But it was worst for them up top. Still,’ she continued, unbuttoning her overalls. ‘At least we’ve got a day off tomorrow.’
In the dim light from a forty-watt bulb above, Joan’s blue eyes rolled heavenwards. ‘Praise the Lord.’
‘For what?’ asked Daisy Willis as she joined them from the factory floor.
‘For strong handsome men and gin,’ Joan said. ‘Although I’ve not had much of either lately.’
Francesca smiled. ‘And for a day off.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Daisy with feeling as she removed her goggles. ‘Got anything planned?’
‘Just a date with my bed for about ten hours,’ Joan replied. ‘Then off down the market to join a queue.’
‘Are you after anything special?’ asked Daisy, sliding the straps of her tan-brown dungarees off her shoulders.
‘No. Whatever’s on offer,’ Joan replied, untangling herself from her work clothing. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m having me hair done,’ said Daisy. ‘Then going up West to the Trocadero with a few of the girls from seven section to see if we can catch ourselves a couple of rich GIs.’
‘Well, you watch out that you don’t end up being the one “caught”.’ Joan winked. ‘They don’t call ’em over-sexed for nothing, you know.’
Daisy laughed and looked at Francesca. ‘Why don’t you come with us, Fran?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she replied, lowering her gaze as she stepped out of her boiler suit.
‘Come on, it’ll be fun,’ urged Daisy.
Standing in her knickers and brassiere, Francesca laughed. ‘I’m sure, but I promised to give Dad a bit of a hand in the cafe.’
‘I’m sure he can manage without you, especially –’ Daisy’s eyes twinkled ‘– if it meant you hooking up with some rich American with an Italian grandmother.’
‘It would make his day,’ Francesca replied. ‘But I’ll give it a miss this time if you don’t mind, Daisy, as I don’t want to play gooseberry.’
Her friend laughed. ‘Well, if you change your mind, we’re all meeting at Bow Road Station.’
The radio’s pips, heralding the morning news bulletin, cut through the changing room hubbub.
‘Cor, is that the time,’ Daisy said, shoving her arms in her coat. ‘I’d better dash or I’ll miss my tram.’ She slammed her locker door shut. ‘Have fun and I’ll see yah.’
‘Not if we see you first,’ Francesca and Joan called back in unison.
Daisy waved cheerfully over her shoulder. ‘And don’t forget, Fran,’ she said, gathering up her handbag and heading to the door. ‘Seven o’clock at the station.’
Francesca smiled but didn’t reply.
She turned back and unhooked her light blue dress from the peg inside. Slipping her gown over her head, she whipped off her head scarf and shook out her long ebony tresses.
‘You know I used to have hair as long as that,’ said Joan wistfully, as Francesca brushed out the tangles ten hours bound inside a scarf had caused.
Joan’s pale eyes softened. ‘You know, you really should think about meeting up with Daisy and her mates and having a bit of fun up west.’
‘Maybe another time,’ said Francesca, deftly winding one coil over the other as she plaited it.
‘It’s not as if you’ve got a sweetheart,’ Joan persisted as she took her coat from her locker.
‘I know,’ said Francesca, taking her rucksack from her locker and shoving her dirty overalls in it. ‘But I’m just waiting for the right man to come.’
‘I don’t say it ain’t important you find the right one,’ agreed Joan. ’Cos if you don’t, you’re blooming well stuck with ’em until one of you’s pushing up daisies, but—’
‘Which is why I’m not going out looking for him,’ cut in Francesca. ‘And with my brother Giovani in the army, Dad needs me around so I’m happy to wait.’
‘Well, I hope he don’t take too long for your sake,’ Joan said. ‘Because, believe me, there’s nothing quite like having a strong, handsome man to keep you warm at night.’
‘So I’ve heard.’ Taking her three-quarter-length red coat out of the narrow metal closet, Francesca put it on, then closed the door and locked it. She picked up her haversack and turned to Joan. ‘Now, I’d better get my skates on or I’ll miss my bus. See you Saturday.’