THE conga went right down the street. There was a bonfire, beer and baked potatoes. The war was over, and it was a party like no other.

But behind the blackout curtains at next-door-but-one, she feared the crying would never stop.

There had never been a celebration quite like VE Day. Flags fluttered from windows, parades marched to a triumphant beat and sugar rationing was cast aside, for one day only, as neighbours jostled at tables to eat cake. They drank the pubs dry and sang into the small hours.

But it was perhaps also the saddest party we have ever known. When the bunting came down and the dancing stopped, there were still men dead and missing. Husbands, fathers, brothers and sweethearts would become a cherished memory, a name said quietly, and a face in a frame on the sideboard.

Rationing was still in place, and would get worse for years to come. Homes were destroyed. Families torn apart. Lives shattered. For those who did come home, wounded, haunted, forever changed, it was back to the daily grind - shut up and get on with it.

And for many others, serving in far corners of the world, that terrible war continued long after May 8, 1945.

Today we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day. For most of the remaining survivors, this will be the last of the big anniversaries. Those of us who weren’t around in 1945 can only imagine the joy and relief at the end of those six dark years, among the darkest the nation has known. But the partying was brief and the reality for many was bittersweet.

This week I asked my aunt, who was 13 when the war ended, what VE Day was like. “We had a street bonfire; people brought potatoes to throw on it, there were a few fireworks someone managed to get hold of,” she recalled. “Everyone came out, apart from next-door-but-one. She spent the day in tears. One of her boys was killed, the other was still away. He never came home either. That was a very sad house.”

The war has been romanticised so much, in films, music and 1940s-themed weekends, that it almost seems an appealing time to have lived through. We think of Glenn Miller, painted Nylons, dashing young officers, plucky land girls, black market pigs, V for Victory, GIs in jeeps, White Cliffs of Dover, powdered egg, little evacuee faces peering out of steam trains.

And over the years we have romanticised VE Day too. What a knees-up! In the first week of lockdown, bewildered at how quickly the rug was being pulled from beneath, I wondered what returning to ‘normal’ life would be like. Would we conga down the street and drink the pubs dry? Would it be like the end of the war?

It seems laughable now to think that. The Covid crisis is like nothing we’ve ever known, and it does seem to have channelled a wartime spirit. But I can’t imagine returning to life after lockdown in anything but cautious phases. I get twitchy if I see two or more people together in the street, so the thought of being in a busy public space gives me the shivers. The enemy is on the doorstep, the virus that has swiftly taken thousands of lives, and I’m fearful of a world where it’s still out there.

With time, we’ll just get on with it, like they did in 1945. But it will be a gradual process, with no mass knees-up. This pandemic will continue to kill; and many more people will become a beloved, much missed face in a photograph frame.

Like the grief clinging to next-door-but-one, there will be a lasting fall-out from this challenging time.