The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘And remember, Eddy, we don’t eat cake before the bread and butter’.
Mum was drilling me for the Great Event, Granny’s 75th birthday party. Granny was a formidable lady, born back in the reign of Queen Victoria, and Mum was frightened that I would disgrace myself and her at the tea table. So here I was being polished, cleaned and drilled, ready for the tram and tube ride across London to Granny’s home in Surrey.
But because this was July 1944 there a change in the usual table manners.
‘If you hear a bomb coming, Eddy, you can leave the table without waiting for the grown-ups.’
I thought about this and decided to ignore it. I too was frightened of Granny, more frightened of her than the ‘doodle bugs’, as everybody called the German flying bombs. Any way the bombs came all the time, throbbing across the sky day and night, making a huge noise for miles around. It was only when the noise stopped that one needed to take cover. Our teacher said that you had 15 seconds between the engine stopping and the explosion.
What I didn’t understand then was that if I left the table it would allow Mum to follow. Granny didn’t approve of people who were too quick to run for cover. To complicate things she was also deaf, so it was difficult to know if she had heard the doodle-bug.
We had saved up enough ration coupons for a birthday cake, a wonderful iced cake that I carried carefully across London. Not that it was very big, because there were only three of us around the table, Granny, Mum and myself. All my uncles were overseas doing there bit for the war effort, except for John, the oldest, who was in Swindon – he had done his bit in the Last War, on the Somme.
The table was set in the rear room, in front of the big French windows overlooking the garden, facing south into the sunshine, in the direction of France. I sat with my back to the windows, nibbling at small pieces of bread, spam and salad, waiting for the cake.
The grown-ups chatted their usual polite, boring chatter. I spoke when spoken to, which was seldom, and tried not to fidget. The tea was poured in tiny thin cups from a chunky tea-pot. My mind wandered out into the garden and spread itself in the sunshine. The window glass was vibrating slightly – there was a flying bomb coming up from Normandy.
Idly I listened to the doodle-bug throbbing nearer; an alternating ram jet, so Teacher had told us. At night-time it had a red, fiery tail.
The noise crept louder and louder and the window panes behind me began to rattle. Wasn’t it time the grown-ups took notice? I looked at Mum. She was expressionless but smelled of fear. This was not unusual; Teacher told us that bombing was very frightening for our mothers who had not been used to it as children. I looked at Granny, still looking like Queen Victoria in her long black dress. She carried on pouring tea.
I began to think about glass at my back. They weren’t covered in sticky tape like most windows. Flying glass caused horrible wounds.
The doodle-bug’s engine cut out and it began the death-glide. There was a cold feeling in my tummy. They must do something soon! Can’t they hear the silence!
Carefully Granny rose to her feet, the black dress flowing around her. She was going to make a speech. ‘Maggie, I think we should go to the shelter.’
The shelter was only three feet away, a Morrison shelter, built like a heavy steel table with a bed made up inside, where Granny slept. The three of us were safe inside well within the 15 seconds.
I was last in, pulling down the wire mesh behind me and curling up against Mum to wait for the explosion, for the muffled ‘crump’ and perhaps the shudder that brought down some plaster from the ceiling. Nothing … Nothing… but Nothing! Surely it must have landed by now?
The grown ups were pushing across me, so I released the mesh, pulled it up, crawled out and got to my feet.
The world had gone! It had vanished into a dense grey fog. I moved forward across the familiar sitting room, but it was no longer familiar. I stumbled over invisible broken rocks, as if I was on the moon.
I stopped and looked up. Through the murk a little yellow star came spiralling down and settled at my feet. It was a burning splinter from the ceiling or beyond. For several moments I stared at it. It was obvious what had happened but I had to keep saying it to myself, to make myself believe it. ‘We’ve been hit . . . we’ve been hit . . . we’ve been hit.’ Of course we had, but in five years of bombing it was always other people who were hit.
Towards the front of the house the fog was getting thinner and I could make out what looked like a silver screen, like the screen at the cinema. It was the front windows, or rather the space where the front windows had been. And then the show began. A figure came onto the screen, a fireman with a helmet and an axe. With two strokes he swept away what was left of the window frames, stepped through the screen and came towards me.
He stopped close enough to touch him and called out, ‘Is there anybody here?’
‘Please, Mister, I am’, I said, tugging at the seam of his trousers. He started.
‘What are you doing here, Sonny?’
‘This is my Gran’s house’, I said. ‘I’m here becos’ it’s her birthday. Mum and Gran went to the kitchen to find her handbag’. I recalled Granny fretting about her handbag as we climbed out of the Morrison, rightly so for it held her identity cards and ration books.
‘Ill go and fetch them. You’d better get out of here, Sonny, before that wall falls down.’
I climbed through the window into the front garden. The air was clearer here and I could see the whole street, except there was no street. The houses opposite were knee-high smouldering matchwood. The houses on our side still stood to the level of their bedrooms, but the roofs and most of the upper stories had been tumbled into the rear gardens. The bomb must have come in from the rear, skimmed our roof and slammed into the houses opposite.
There was a low wall dividing Granny’s small patch of front garden from the rubble choked street, so I climbed across and sat on it and waited. After a while Mum and Granny came out of the ruins, arguing with each other. ‘There you are, Eddie’, said Mum, ‘Good boy.’ They sat down beside me and carried on arguing. They were both covered all over in thick grey dust, clothes, hair and skin, everything except their eyes, as if they had been working in a chalk pit. I supposed I looked the same.
The ruins were soon swarming with people, like an ants-nest that had been kicked open. Some were rescue workers, others welfare people and others just sightseers. ‘How many were killed?’ asked one man. ‘I wasn’t’, answered Granny, ‘now go away’.
A welfare woman with a notebook asked Granny if she wanted to contact any friends or relatives. ‘My son is a solicitor’, she said proudly, ‘and has a car and a telephone. Please phone him and ask him to come and fetch me and his sister Maggie and her little boy.’ She gave the phone number and the woman left. After that whenever anybody asked if they could help Granny sent them away saying ‘my son is coming to collect us.’
It grew late and Mum became impatient. ‘We can’t sit here all night’ she told Granny. ‘It’s obvious John isn’t coming. There’s a loudspeaker van at the round-about saying there’s free meals at the Reception Centre – let’s get something to eat.’
‘Maggie, what are you saying?’ gasped Granny. ‘I brought up the six of you on a widow’s pension and we never asked the Poor Law for anything, and we’re not going to start now!’
‘Are we really going to sit here all night?’ I asked. It sounded exciting.
‘If need be’, said Granny.
Granny at once became one of my heroes. ‘Gran,’ I said, ‘when we went into the shelter I was last in ‘cos I stayed to save something for you’. It wasn’t quite true, but from my pocket I fetched a crumbled piece of birthday cake.
If you liked this story you might also like to see ‘The Red Car’ and ‘Changing Places’, about my other wartime adventures as a young child.
And for all the other posts in the 2014 Christmas Blog Hop see below.
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