My wartime exposures are memory enhanced
My mind a continual newsreel
Dogfights and tank battles shake the walls
Fragment memories of the Blitz flicker
Or thunder with bombers
To burning cities seen
Till I drift into uneasy sleep
Black and White
Names and Places
Names and Places puncture my body with time and random notes
Meaning into mosaic
London, September 3, 1939
I’m sitting on the rug in the front of the kitchen stove, curled up, my arms knotted around my legs, chin on my knees. I’m twice warmed—by the fire in the black-polished stove and by Granddad’s legs supporting my back. A slight stable scent comes from Granddad’s working trousers. Nana sings along with the radio: “Keep the home fires burning.” I feel the heat scorch my face as I stare deep into the burning coals, their sulphurous caves populated by leaping fire sprites. The smell of potatoes baking in the ashes fills the room.
I’m only five, but I know something is going on. Nana and Granddad seem subdued, despondent. There is a mood of expectation laced with nervousness. The kettle sings and Tiddles purrs at my feet. Granddad picks up his pipe.
The music is interrupted. “This is a BBC special announcement.” We listen as Prime Minister Chamberlain declares war, his voice sounding as if it is a tragedy for him alone. Granddad taps his pipe, blows through the mouthpiece, and refills the bowl with Three Nuns, his slender fingers tamping down the baccy. He lights the pipe, making smoke clouds as he puffs. Tiddles soundlessly crosses the kitchen to his bowl of milk. Nana pours boiling water into the teapot.
Nana turns off the radio as the front door opens. Mummy and Daddy are back, smelling of beer and ciggies. There is a muttered conversation. Granddad takes out his pocket watch, nestles it in his palm and stares at it. There is a long, hushed pause. I watch us reflected in the shiny kettle. We all go to the back steps. Mum and Dad smoke ciggies. Granddad sucks his pipe. Nana sings one of her hymns. We look at the garden with its regimented rows of radishes, parsnips, lettuce, onions, runner beans, and peas. Nana wipes silent tears on the corner of her apron. Mum and Dad nestle together; I hug their legs. Tiddles sits, watching.
Suddenly a loud roaring noise fills the air. An aeroplane flies over our roof so low I can see the pilot in the cockpit. I wave to him. As the plane roar fades, a distant wailing starts. Then another … closer, closer, louder, louder. Air-raid sirens begin to sound. We all go back into the kitchen, sip cups of tea. My eyes return to the fire and I imagine flying an aeroplane.
That night, I dream I am warming my hands before a burning doorway, watching the flickering flames lick at the bubbling paint. The smell of the scorched paint fills my nostrils. I stretch out my hands into the doorway. They seem to be on fire. I walk through the door into a corridor, my body surrounded by a nimbus of flame. I see another door and walk toward it. The door opens. My eyes are blinded by brightness.
A Night in the Shelter
For the last several weeks we have been sleeping every night in the shelter. The raids begin as soon as it is dark. I’ve just gotten warm enough. Even my toes are warm. But it’s hard to turn or move on the narrow bunk. The snug blankets tighten as I fidget. The sirens grow closer.
Mum whispers to no one: “Oh my God! Oh my God! Not another night! Oh, God! Not another night!”
Nana snuffs the candlelight and begins to knit. Click, click, click, click. She rocks gently with an inner rhythm and sings under her breath. “Oh God, our help in ages past. Our help …”
“Do you have to make that noise?” Mum says. “For God’s sake, shut up!”
“The Lord’s listening. He hears what you say.”
“What Lord? For Christ’s sake, shut up.”
Mum’s shrill, high tone increases my insecurity. Their constant disagreements confuse my loyalty. I will them to sleep. I want to listen to the raid. Breathing deep, I taste the dank, rank smell of the earth. The sacking curtain flaps silently over the opening of the shelter. Nana nods off with a throaty wheeze. Mum snuffles and sighs. She has a constant head cold. A draught gutters the candle; a blue thread of smoke rises. Nana and Mum are asleep. Needing to pee, I struggle from the warm cocoon of my blankets. I pull aside the sacking door cover. The night is bright; the air quivers with the intermittent murmur of bombers. Gunfire grows louder. “Ack ack ack ackackackack.”
The guns across the park bark with frightening intensity, shaking the shelter. Searchlights flash across the sky, illuminating the corrugated interior of the shelter. Bombs fall, screeching to the earth, which receives them with a shrug.
At my feet is a large, jagged piece of white-hot, gleaming metal. Kneeling beside it, my face is warmed by its heat. It is a prize piece of shrapnel, my biggest yet. The hot brilliance fades as I study its precision grooves, now broken into jagged peaks. I pee over it. It sizzles.
I climb the rear steps, then sit with my back to the door, curling my knees to my chest, hands cupped on my chin. The guns from across the park pause. It is possible in the sudden quiet to hear the bombers murmur, along with distant gunfire. Searchlights, like insect legs, wander randomly across the crimson sky, making rippling stains on the slate roofs. To my left, there’s a hiss as incendiaries fall. There’s an explosion. A golden spout of flame reaches to the sky. It’s a burst gas main. Its light illuminates the nearby houses, St. Saviour’s steeple, and the incinerator chimney across the road.
As I watch, a house across the allotments collapses, thickening the darkness with a cloud of dust that shrouds everything. The silence is broken by small sounds: the whisper of broken pipes, a slight shifting of debris. There is a sudden staccato moan of a hooter, the resonant purr of tires, the scream of a cornering vehicle. A fire engine appears, its crew silhouetted like pin-men figures against the smog of smoke and flame. A great whoosh of gas ignites, spreading across the debris, brilliantly backlighting the minuscule men. The poisonous air comes and I am assaulted by the smell of burning wood, pulverized plaster, brick mortar. Standing to see more, I’m conscious of movement behind me. I turn. There is a shadow of a figure. I feel scared and step back. The figure moves, too. It is only my shadow.
Aug 22, 09:11 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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