The canteen was a long, cavernous corrugated iron structure sited at the edge of the shipyard. Rows of trestle tables stretched from end to end to accommodate the continuous stream of wielders, riveters, drillers, borers, some male but mainly females and clad in faded dungarees and coloured headscarves. Two giant ceiling fans stirred the stale, muggy air which hung like a wet blanket.
Delores plonked her tray on the table, dropped onto the bench and said to no one in particular, “Jeez, I feel like I just walked across Africa. I never felt it so hot and humid. Is it always like this?”
“Yep,” replied Mabel, “Anywhere south of Pittsburgh is gonna be like this ‘til the rains come.”
“Don’t you guys ever want to go somewhere cooler, somewhere it ain’t so clammy?”
“There’s a war on, honey. Our boys are away fighting and we are doing essential war work.”
“It’s too bad there ain’t nowhere around here that’s any cooler,” observed Betty.
“Whatta you gotta do to beat the heat, go up to Canada?” asked Delores.
“Honey, summers down here are long, hot and humid, gotta learn to live with it,” quipped Mabel.
“Look, we got three days off starting at five o’clock, do we have to suffer this all this noise and heat? The digs are handy for work but hell, all that racket. I need some peace, quiet and fresh winds.”
They fell silent, as if the idea was foolish or simply absurd.
“I know a place.” offered Kitty, the young, shy, soft spoken one.
They turned to her with looks that suggested she had just uttered some idiotic, juvenile remark.
“Yeah?” said Delores, expectantly.
“My uncle has a fishing cabin on the creek, near Delville about an hour’s train ride north,” she continued. “Ain’t much but it’s only half a mile from the sea, just two bedrooms, lounge and small kitchen, French windows leading to an open deck, steps leading down to the creek...”
“And it stinks of fish, and seagull crap and rotting sea weed. Yeah, I seen loads of them fishing shacks all across the state!” Mabel snarled.
“No, it’s kinda nice, always a sea breeze blowing thro' the French windows. There’s a sun shade on the deck and you can swim in the creek.”
“Yeah, and there’s river rats, snakes, mosquitoes, sand flies and - ”
“Why don’t you just put a sock in it, Mabel,” snapped Delores. “The kid’s trying to help out. Butt out will yer. Tell me more about the place Kitty, don’t mind her, she’s just an old killjoy!”
“Who are you calling a - ?”
“Yeah, go on Kitty; tell us what the cabin is like, inside and outside,” echoed Betty.
She spent a few minutes describing the cabin, the creek and the fun she’d had in her youth.
There was a pause. “Think your uncle might let us use it this weekend Kitty?” ventured Delores.
“I could call him, anyone gotta dime?”
She came back from the payphone smiling. “He says it’s OK, ain’t nobody bin there recently so it might need a clean up. If I call Herb at the grocery store he’ll put a food hamper together and arrange a ride for us from the station.”
“Hey look kid,” said Mabel, awkwardly, “I was kinda sharp with you, earlier, ask the grocery guy to put a case of Budweiser with the food hamper and I’m in. I need a few days away from here; stinking fish is better than shipyard racket! Promise to not to be the Chief Witch!”
There was a mad dash as soon as the hooter sounded. They scrambled out of their work clothes, scurried to their digs, had a quick wash, packed bags and hurried across town to the railroad station.
“Holy cow!” snarled Mabel as she stood on the platform, her chest heaving and gasping for air.
“It’s gonna be OK, Mable, we’re goin’ to be there in an hour and then you can really relax, put you feet up and doze under the sun shade,” Delores said, soothingly.
“Yeah, listening to the seagulls, bullfrogs and mosquitoes.”
The train shuffled north through the fields of waving corn, stopping at whistle-stop stations to load milk churns, mail bags, crates of fruit. The sweating passengers gasped for breath and wafted themselves with paper fans. Delores sneaked the occasional glimpse at Mable, clearly suffering travel sickness and looking like she might throw up. Eventually, Kitty called, “Next stop girls!” and they shuffled to the carriage door.
An old man sat in his pick-up as they climbed down onto the platform and asked, “You girls the shipyard dollies?”
He pulled to a halt at the white gate fifteen minutes later. The cabin looked plain and basic. The paint was peeling, the small garden overgrown and strewn with litter and the cabin had an air of neglect. “Mother of God!” muttered Mable.
Kitty found the key, opened the front door and they trooped inside. “Needs a little dusting, that’s all,” said Kitty, aware of their disappointment. She threw open the French windows and a cool draught of air flowed through. “Come see the deck and the views,” she invited.
“Anything you need, the store is open ‘til late afternoon. Bicycle in the shed. Enjoy your stay.”
They stood in a small knot on the wooden decking, silent and inhaling the cool, salt kissed air. They eyed each other nervously, reluctant to proffer an opinion of the place. Mable eventually broke the silence with her customary frankness. “Ain’t much, kid, but it’s better than our stuffy digs next to the shipyard. Thanks for making it happen. Sun’s over the yardarm, I’m having a beer, anyone else?”
“I’m going for a swim,” said Kitty. “There are some bathers in the bedrooms. Anyone one coming?”
“Yeah, wait for me, a swim will wash the dust away and clear my head,” said Betty.
Mabel and Delores sat on the bench watching them splash around. Mabel took a swig from the bottle. “I know I ain’t been the best roommate this last year. I can be irritable at times, it’s just - .”
“It’s OK,” Delores interrupted, “it’s been a tough year for all of us.”
“It ain’t that, I gotta a son, Louis. He’s serving with the navy in the Pacific, his Pa died some years ago, I worry a lot. This break will take my mind off things, let me relax and let off a little steam.”
For three days, they lounged around, swimming, dozing, and walking on the beach and through the surf. They picnicked under the sunshade and in the dunes, letting the breeze ruffle their hair and blow away the cobwebs. In mid afternoon, with the sun was high above, they turned on the radio, lay in on the deck and sang along with the Andrews Sister, Jo Stafford and new kid called Francis Sinatra. They relaxed and let the tensions seep from their bodies and minds.
Late on Monday the old man came in the pick-up and they packed their gear as the clouds began to roll in. They sat on the crowded, stuffy train and it began to rain. Four faces were pressed against the pane, grinning like teenagers and watching the rivulets trickling down the window.