The true story of a young girl during the most terrifying 24 hours of her life …
It was the smells that I had come to dread most of all. In fact, the thought of the smells, and what they signified, amounted to a real fear. Even today, some odors still affect me and bring back frightening memories.
I had learned to handle a lot of the different noises. I had become used to a number of them and could even tell to some degree what they were caused by, and whereabouts they were. But the awful smells that a person had to encounter under a bombing siege were something that I dreaded most of all.
The thought of being killed was an element I had not pondered. I believed in the theory that “if the bomb had your number on it, you would cop it – no matter where.” I was however, truly afraid of being horribly maimed or losing a limb. I had seen injuries and heard the cries of so many people hurt in the unending raids that I knew it was far harder to live when terribly burnt or mutilated than it was to be killed outright.
I had witnessed members of families who had lost loved ones. Their suffering was of a different and agonizing kind.
This story is about a twenty-four hour period in my life during the bombing of London in World War II. I lived with my mother in the dockland area of East London and I was 14 years old at the time. My older sister was married and lived in North London. My brother was also married and served in the Royal Navy. He had evacuated his wife and baby son to Somerset some months previously.
At one time, there was nowhere in the world so heavily bombed as the dockland area of London. There were far more casualties there amongst the civilians than were in the entire armed forces. The Forces, unless they had duties in the London area, were forbidden to take their leave (or furlough) there because of the continuous danger of air raids.
The area in which I lived was known as “the docks.” It was the target for the heaviest bombing throughout the war. There were fire bombs, land-mines, oil bombs, pilot-less planes, rocket missiles and incendiary bombs. Long after the actual docks were completely destroyed and made utterly useless, the raids still continued on the residential districts for miles surrounding the dock area. This bombardment continued in an entirely indiscriminate manner for almost five years.
As I was really only a young kid, it would have been possible for my mother and I to evacuate to a safe place but she had the kind of grim determination that said, “No one will make me leave my home”. We suffered very much because of this decision – not only in terms of danger but also in lack of food, water and heating. I virtually had no friends near my age still living close to us. But I guess it was my mother’s kind of “grit” that made the whole nation bind together in their determination to win the war.
On the day I want to tell you about, my brother Bill had telephoned our home to say he was being sent on a four-day course to a ship located at the Victoria Embankment in London. H.M.S. Chrysanthemum was a ship that in peacetime was a showplace for tourists. It had been made over as a training ship for the Royal Navy soon after war was declared.
Bill had been given permission to sleep at our home and was phoning to tell us he would be staying for three nights. We had not seen him for about nine months so it was a very joyful occasion. However, we were concerned as to how we were going to provide the extra food needed for his breakfasts and suppers. I was very excited that I was going to see my big brother again and took great pains with my appearance. I remember dampening my hair (rolling it in pipe cleaners) so that it would produce a great amount of “frizz.” This, I considered, was very attractive. I chose to wear the only dress that still fitted me properly. One needed ration coupons for clothing and these were almost as precious as were the food coupons.
Most families in our area had air-raid shelters in their tiny gardens but we did not have one. To take cover during daylight raids, we would sit beneath the stairs. Night time raids forced us to get out of warm beds, place blankets under the dining room table and lie there in the hope it would provide some protection. Windows were always covered with “black-out” materials and sticky strips. These were to help prevent glass from flying about should the windows be blown out.
Bill drove up to our home on a naval motorcycle at about noon. He told us over lunch that his wife had asked him to go to their apartment in East Ham, about five miles away. She needed him to pack up and mail some extra clothing for her and their son. I badly wanted to have a ride on his motorcycle and so asked if I could accompany him. Bill explained that this was not allowed. He suggested I travel by tram and meet him at his home. He also asked me to break my journey on the way and go to “Boyd’s – The Piano People”. He needed me to pay a further installment on a piano he had been buying for some time. I agreed and said I would walk the remaining three or four blocks to his apartment which was in the upper part of a large house. It seemed like it would be fun to help him sort and pack the clothing.
I knew the piano shop very well, having gone there to make payments for Bill a number of times. I had only been in the shop for a few minutes when the air-raid sirens began to wail. The Manager immediately told customers and staff to go down into the basement cellar. I told him I would prefer to leave because my brother was waiting for me and I only had a short way to go. By now it was obvious that the warning had not been given early enough. We could already hear the drone of the approaching bombers and the “ack-ack” of the anti-aircraft guns. There was nothing I could do but take cover.
The cellar had been very well fortified with sandbags and the only window was boarded over. There was one naked light bulb to light the room. It was also evident from the blankets, books and knitting materials laying around that the staff had tried to make life down there as comfortable as possible on the numerous occasions they had needed to use it. I was also relieved to note there was a toilet next to the shelter, and that too had been well protected.
We sat under cover for almost two hours. Every time there was an extra heavy barrage outside, the staff would chat louder – as if this would help to screen their alarm. It was one of the worst bombardments we had endured for weeks. Finally, the sirens sounded the “All Clear” signal. I was one of the first out into the street and what met me there was shocking. Everything seemed to be ablaze. Firemen, policemen, air-raid wardens and ambulance workers were rushing about in a furious frenzy. All were grime-covered and many had soaking wet clothes. As the raids were so constant, I knew these people were continually on duty and never had time for rest.
Great plumes of black smoke billowed over the area. The smell of broken gas mains was alarming and I clutched my gas mask closer to me. It was forbidden to ever go out without carrying one. I dreaded the thought of having to use it sometime for the “proper thing” and had tried to dodge going to the gas mask practices whenever possible.
I started to pick my way towards my brother’s home. Broken glass and rubble was everywhere. Again, the smell of burning, wet wood and gas turned my stomach. Each time I tried to hurry, I was stopped by an official who told me, “It is impossible to get through this way….try going around such-and-such a street”.
After what seemed an age, I got to within a block of my destination. There were several army trucks positioned right across the road. It was impossible for anyone to enter. I asked a policeman if I could go through because my brother was waiting for me. He explained there was an un-exploded land mine hanging from a tree in a garden further down the road. The order was that no one would be allowed to go near until such time as it was either detonated or made inactive.
Peering through the dirt and smoke, I tried to see which house was the one to which they were referring. It was impossible to tell. I hung around as close to my brother’s road as permitted. Any time an official rushed past me, I inquired as to which house had the land-mine. Finally I was told, “Number thirty nine.” To my horror, I realized it was Bill’s home.
Knowing there was an air-raid shelter in his garden, I agonized as to whether or not Bill was sitting in it, perhaps unaware of the land mine hanging on the tree. I began to tremble and wondered whatever I would tell my mother. I knew his house had been empty for several months and that the shelter would not have been maintained properly.
The acrid smell of the smoke was nauseating. An ambulance man who was struggling to carry a stretcher told me to move away. It seemed there was a large earth removal truck being brought into the road to help dig for an entire family who were buried beneath a house there. So far, all attempts to free them had failed. I moved further away but as soon as the machine began to dig and I caught a whiff of the stench that came from the hole it made, I knew I had to leave.
I wondered how badly the raid had hit the part of London that my sister lived in. I decided to telephone her as soon as I could. I thought again of my mother alone all this time and I decided it was better if I returned to her. I knew she would be worried sick about me and my brother because she could probably tell in which area the bombs had dropped. One became accustomed to the scream of the bombs and able to judge, roughly, where they would land. Knowing there was nothing I could do to help Bill, I made my way to a telephone box to call my mother. I tried for a long time to get through to her and finally decided that the lines must all be down.
After making my way back to the main road for the tram ride home, I was relieved to see the trams were still running. When I boarded one, the driver refused my fare. He told me he could only take me part of the way because further down the road, the track had been bombed. As we rode along I could see nothing but utter chaos everywhere. Many buildings I knew well were completely missing – they were now just piles of steaming rubble. Some buildings were still ablaze. I was particularly upset to see Trinity Church also on fire. My parents had been married there. Firemen were still trying desperately to cope with the flames but lack of water defeated them.
I saw families dragging pieces of furniture and personal belongings from their homes – a hopeless attempt to save something. Outside some blitzed houses, there were the familiar tarpaulin-covered bodies. Ambulance drivers were striving to block hysterical family members who wanted to ride in the already over-crowded ambulances. They were told to make their own way to the hospitals to see their injured relatives. One woman was screaming, “Which hospital? Which hospital?”…..but I don’t think the driver even knew the answer to that question.
Foul air filled my lungs. Burning wet wood smelled like death. The bells and sirens of the various fire trucks, ambulances and bomb disposal squads were almost deafening. My head ached, I was hungry and cold. By this time it must have been around 7 p.m.
On leaving the tram, I made my way as quickly as possible towards my home. A number of times I was redirected on a much longer detour because some roads were completely impassable. By 8:30 p.m. it was getting dusk. This did not bother me as I only had about ten more minutes’ walk to reach home. I was very tired by now. Picking my way between holes in the pavement and piles of debris, I stumbled over a fire hose. The pain that shot through my ankle was almost unbearable. At first I thought I had broken a bone but on examining it, I decided it was a bad sprain. There was nothing I could do but go on.
As I turned a corner from the main road I saw a Women’s Voluntary Service Van standing a few feet away. I hobbled up to the lady on duty and offered her the 2 ½ pence I had saved on my tram fare. She took one look at my appearance and handed me a tea-bun, adding, “Go on Missy, that’s okay.” I thanked her gratefully and ate the bun so fast that I caused myself to have a pain in the chest. On leaving her van, she called after me asking what I had done to my ankle. Looking down, I saw with dismay that it was now very badly swollen and I wondered how much further I could manage to walk.
Much more slowly, I then proceeded to carefully make my way towards my home. Suddenly there was the sound of aircraft and almost at once the whole sky was lit up by flares dropped from the planes. The noise of the aircraft flying so low was terrorizing. I knew when planes came over, to light up a whole area, before the wave of bombers, that it was the forerunner of a very heavy air attack. I hopped along faster and as best I could, trying to ignore the pain in my foot.
My heart almost stood still as once again the sirens wailed their warning. Knowing how important it was to reach my road quickly, I hurried along and tried to keep out of sight. The last thing I wanted was to be placed in another shelter. I jumped out of my skin when an air-raid warden bellowed at me.
“Take cover! Take cover!” In my concentration not to stumble again, I had not seen him. Ignoring him, I limped my way onwards but he quickly overtook me. I can still remember his haggard face. His eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot. He quite likely had not had time to take his clothes off for days. We argued about my going on in the raid and I tried to explain why it was so necessary for me to continue. However, the “ack-ack” of the anti-aircraft guns made it almost impossible to communicate. In a momentary lull, the warden bawled at me that the bombers were almost overhead. He pushed me towards a building that I knew to be almost a shell of what had previously been a school. This building had received a direct hit some months before. Desperately, I pleaded with him not to make me go inside but he was adamant and he hustled me back the way I had so recently and painfully come.
We had hardly reached the shelter when the first stream of bombs started to shriek their way downwards. One, two, three, four – then a lull, and suddenly another one was on its way. I knew that the missing sound of an explosion meant another un-exploded bomb and how vicious and terrible they could be. The shelter was a very small one. It had obviously been part of a basement in the school. The sandbags smelled of damp canvas and some were burst. The wood used to shore up the walls stank as if they had already been in a grave. I knew I would hate it in there and wished miserably that I could have managed to take my chances outside.
When my eyes had become accustomed to the dim light, I saw to my disappointment that there were no amenities at all. It was cold and damp. Being the last person to enter the shelter, I was huddled between the warden and an old man. It was obvious he was employed at the Gas Works at Becton for his clothes reeked of gas. Older men had been pressured to return to work from which they had previously retired to replace the young men who had gone to the war.
The plain wooden bench on which we sat was very uncomfortable. I peered down the shelter to look at the other occupants. It seemed they used the shelter regularly because they had blankets and little packages of food with them. There were a mixture of ages, shapes and sizes as best as I could tell in the dim light. How I wished I had been allowed to run through the rain of shrapnel and flying glass rather than sit in this cramped, poorly equipped cover. Each time a bomb exploded a little too close for comfort I heard an Irish voice increase in volume another string of “Hail Mary’s.” I squinted to get a better look at a woman sitting quietly at the far end. She was a very weird shape. Her bust line was unusually large. Next to her sat a young man who shouted “there you go!” every time the shelter was violently shaken. After some hours of this I felt I wanted to strangle him!
Some time later, there was a quiet spell in the pandemonium outside. Everyone started to speculate on what was happening. The “ack-ack” of the anti-aircraft guns had also ceased yet it was still possible to hear the drone of the planes. Every so often there was a kind of swishing noise followed by a small thud.
After the disturbing quiet had lasted for awhile, the air-raid warden stood up, rubbed his stiff legs and went outside. He might have been checking on what was happening there but on the other hand, I knew that men sometimes slipped out for a moment to relieve themselves. “Lucky thing!” I thought. A few minutes later he returned. We all waited expectantly to hear what he had to tell us.
“It’s hell out there,” he said. “Whole world seems to be on fire. They’re using a new kind of fire bomb. It’s called an incendiary and they are coming down in thousands!”
We continued to wait in the dank shelter in a numbed, miserable silence. My thoughts returned again and again to my family. I wondered how my sister was faring in her area of London. She had already been bombed out once from her home and was still mourning the loss of her beloved cat. What agonies of mind must my mother be suffering on her own? I tried not to think of whether she might be injured or killed. In my heart I truly believed we would survive this dreadful time. It was these thoughts that helped me to get through that night.
The hours dragged on and on and I dozed from time to time. In one quiet period, a tired, dirt-covered policeman entered the shelter. His tin hat had a large dent in it and his gas mask case was broken. He had come in to count how many people were sheltering there. The warden gave him a drink of water from a flask. I asked him the time. It was almost 4 o’clock a.m.
As we continued to wait, thoughts still flew around in my head. Was my brother safe from the hanging land mine? Was my own home intact? How about my cat Tim? He had a way of sensing trouble and would vanish long before the alarms sounded. Was my sister at home or at work? It did make a difference. I imagined my mother lying alone on the floor beneath the table listening to the world shattering around her.
I dozed again and a sudden increase in the bombardment above woke me in alarm. On opening my eyes I saw two tiny lights shining across the shelter from me. “Oh God!” I thought. “It’s a rat!” My heart thumped in my throat and the constrictive feeling made me feel faint. I tried to breathe deeply. I was far more frightened that a rat was among us than I was of the havoc outside. The woman opposite me moved her head slightly and I saw the dim light shine on her spectacles. I knew then that my imagination had tricked me.
After a while I dozed some more and must have leaned against the man next to me. As I gradually awoke I became acutely aware of the sour, pungent smell of stale cigarette smoke on his clothes. This made me more conscious of the closeness and dank odor in the air. I longed even more for the “All Clear” to sound.
It was around 5:30 a.m. when there began a particularly ear splitting and furious bombardment of guns and exploding bombs. This caused everyone in the shelter to start talking hurriedly and excitedly. It was almost as if we were trying to put a protective shell around us. A small pale man sitting opposite me began to explain in much detail how his neighbours had been burned to death in their home. Apparently an oil bomb had landed in their garden. On exploding, the fire had run directly into their house. “They didn’t stand a chance,” he said, adding, “even if they had been in their garden shelter it would have got them.” This story led to other persons telling equally gruesome accounts of what had happened to their families and friends.
One woman said that after one very bad night of intense bombing, she and her family had decided to travel up to the centre of London to look for shelter and a place to sleep on one of the underground station platforms, as many thousands of bombed-out people had to do. “What was it like?” asked a voice from the far end of the gloomy room. “Orrible!” the Cockney voice replied. “Ain’t goin’ agin – take our chance ‘ere. At least we can soon git ‘ome and see if there’s anyfin’ standin’.” She said this in an almost joking tone. I felt it was to cover her feelings.
I asked again, “What is the time?” and was told about 6:30 a.m. My legs were numb with cold and the hours of sitting on the hard wooden bench. I longed to stretch but there was not enough room.
Without the screaming warning of a falling bomb, the shelter suddenly seemed to quake. We felt as if we had been lifted upwards and then violently dumped down again. We had all automatically ducked towards the floor. “My Gawd”, said a different Cockney voice nearby. “That was bleedin’ near!” The noise and sensation of movement was something unfathomable. The air became thick with dirt and smoke. Everyone coughed a lot and tried to clear their throats. My ear drums felt as if they would burst and my chest seemed to be pressed by a heavy weight. The shelter suddenly seemed to be a lot colder. Whatever it was that had exploded was obviously very close, if not right on top of us.
By the time the air had cleared a bit we found that the tiny light we had sat under for so many hours was shattered. The utter blackness was terrifying. Each time I felt someone move near to me, I froze. We sat in a very uneasy silence, broken only by a voice trying to pray and someone quietly crying.
A new wave of bombers passed over and again we counted the bombs as they fell. “For God’s sake, how much longer?” enquired a voice in the sooty gloom. The nerves in my teeth jumped every time an explosion boomed. The pain was agonizing and frightening. I prayed that it would stop for I had fears of becoming entirely toothless if it didn’t!
I could hear that the woman opposite me was making unusual sounds. I couldn’t determine what was happening to her. Gradually I became aware that the man next to me was very silent. The air was fetid. I listened to some poor soul retching in the darkness and dreaded the thought we might have to sit near a pool of vomit for some time. We sat on and on in the total darkness. I had a lump in my throat and began to feel panicky. The waiting seemed like an eternity.
Some time later, we heard the “All Clear” sounding. A cheer of relief went up from us all. We heard the warden rise from his seat and feel his way in the darkness. “I’ll soon have us out of here”, he said. He started pulling the sacking covers away from the metal door of the shelter. His breathing was loud as he strained to open it. He tried over and over again but it would not budge. We all sat listening intently in the darkness until at last he exclaimed, “Christ! It won’t move!” Another man clambered over feet and knees in an attempt to help the warden. The door refused to move and quickly there was a feeling of panic in the shelter.
My breathing seemed to be affected and I really thought I was going to die. The warden quickly took charge of the situation. He shouted over the noise of the voices asking questions and he convinced us that very soon there would be rescuers to get us out. The woman sitting across from me finally spoke up about her problem. Apparently she had a very violent nose bleed a while before and she was, by her description, “entirely covered in blood”.
I told the warden that I could no longer feel the man next to me. We all scrambled about on the floor feeling with our hands and after a minute or two we located him. The warden had a small flashlight and we saw the man was unconscious and had a very large gash beneath his right ear. It appeared that a piece of shattered wood, blown from a wooden bean, had entered his head when the ‘hit’ had partly collapsed the shelter. There was nothing we could do in the darkness to help him except that the warden took the man into his arms to help keep him warm. We placed his legs and feet across our laps and tried to rub them in an attempt to keep his circulation going.
An old man’s weak voice asked if we wanted to sing. No one answered him. I guess that everyone’s throats were as parched as mine. The Irish voice still droned on in fervent prayer. After a while, we heard sounds above us. Voices shouted to ask if anyone was injured. We shrieked back in chorus, “Yes, get us out!” Much noise went on above us. A thumping and banging sound made me think there was a truck moving back and forth. I wanted, above all, for the light to come on. I felt that if only I could see and there was some amount of light, everything would be okay.
As we waited, I thought about what would happen to my family without me. Thankfully I took comfort from the fact that there were people outside who were aware of our imprisonment. We all knew they would never stop in their labours to release us. My mind seemed to wander. I almost felt like laughing. I thought, “What a funny situation!” I wrote in my mind’s eye glowing epitaphs about myself. These, of course, would be printed after my removal from the “bowels of the earth.” This was a line I was sure I had read in the Bible. Thoughts of my mother again soon sobered me. The feeling of being outside of myself and looking in, had vanished. I was very conscious of being extremely cold and hungry and that my ankle and teeth hurt badly.
I bent over to feel if the swelling in my ankle had gone down at all. To my horror I realized there was about three inches of water around my feet. Someone else discovered this at the same time and shouted, “Water’s coming in!” Alarmed voiced queried, “How?” and “Where?” The warden sensed this was a situation that could get out of control. He bawled above the uproar, “I guess it’s a broken water main. Don’t worry. The rescue squad knows we’re here. They’ll have us out in no time.” I felt the bitter taste of bile rise in my mouth. I fought the feeling of wanting to vomit and bit my lips until I realized I could taste blood.
Anxious mutterings and questions broke the intense concentration of everyone in that underground prison. We waited in huddled misery and listened to the hurried labours of our rescuers. Slowly the water continued to trickle in. It crept higher and higher as the moments dragged by. I couldn’t stop myself from continually putting my hand down to see how quickly it was rising. It was now up to my mid-calf and my frozen feet felt as if they did not belong to me.
It was comforting to listen to the shouted orders and banging going on over us. However, with each thrust of their tools, more of the shelter and debris collapsed around us. Breathing became more difficult as the dirty atmosphere choked us. But we remained hopeful. We knew that they, whoever “they” were, toiling away above us, would never give in until we were reached.
The water rose higher. There was continuous coughing. We realized that with each effort to help us the shelter disintegrated more and more, causing extra danger every minute. The water level was now near our knees and it was terribly cold. I felt light headed and thought, “It’s alright, I can swim.” And then reality dawned on me – there was nowhere to swim. Resignation was very close to hand. My head throbbed violently and my ears felt as if they were on fire. I began to feel that it didn’t matter if I ever got out. All I wanted to do was sleep.
There was a deafening noise above and unexpectedly a sudden rush of air and light. Pieces of broken wood and debris fell with a loud splash into the water around us. I peered towards the light, unable to see. Very firm hands grabbed me and I was hauled unceremoniously upwards. The cold air hit my face like a whip. I couldn’t open my eyes as it was too bright. I could still hear the shovels and other tools striking the metal cover of the shelter. The voices were warm and assuring as the rescue party encouraged those who waited below.
Being almost the last person to enter the shelter, I was one of the first to come out. The warden followed with the unconscious man. He looked terrible. A fireman with a black-streaked face and sore, red eyes pulled me through the soil and rubble. His mouth had caked crescents of dirt around it. I just stared at him, unable to move on my own. He quickly handed me over to a waiting ambulance man. Although he looked completely exhausted, he had to almost carry me away from the now rapidly collapsing shelter. I could only stumble as my feet and legs were numb. He asked me if I needed a stretcher and I told him no.
As we moved away from the digging party, I heard voices saying things like, “It’s a miracle they got out!” and, “That was a close shave!” I turned to see how the others were faring just as the woman with the huge bosom was pulled from the hole. As she was released, a large, terrified tabby cat sprang from inside her coat. The woman screamed, “Don’t let him go, don’t let him go. He’s all I’ve got now!” Willing hands grabbed towards the cat but he was already gone. I felt as if I was apart from all that I was looking at. It did not seem to be real. But the smells were very real. Dried blood, sweat, urine, burning flesh, dampness – they were too real not to believe. Once again I felt the bile burning in my throat and I thought I would be sick. But nothing came.
The ambulance man asked if I was injured. I told him I was fine and then felt completely surprised at my reply. He quickly ran his hands over me and when he saw my ankle, he told me to get off it as soon as possible. I stared at him in a detached manner and far in the back of my mind I thought, “He looks dreadful – as if he has been going for a hundred years.” I sensed he wanted to get back to the other so I thanked him and again said I was okay.
A policeman approached me and wanted my name and address. He was trying to account for the number of people who had been in the shelter. He then asked if I could get home on my own. I told him I could manage and did not have far to go. He looked relieved and advised me to start as soon as I was able. Smiling, he added, “I don’t suppose you’ll be able to have a hot bath dearie. The water mains were all blown up yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” I thought. “What a funny word! When was yesterday?” It seemed like eons ago. My only thought now was to get back to my mother. Shakily, I picked my way across the mess. It was a very slow and painful process. My shoes were covered with mud and slime. I could feel water squeezing between my toes each time I took a step. My dress clung wetly to my legs and felt very uncomfortable. I knew I looked awful. My hair was covered in dirt and hung in long, straight lumps. I hoped I could reach home without being made to take any more detours.
After a dozen or so steps I realized there was a middle aged woman standing in front of me. She was holding a large enamel cup of hot tea. Without a word she thrust it into my frozen hand and waited for me to drink it. The sudden heat of the cup in my hand acted like an electric shock. I stared with terrified eyes into her face as I felt the hot urine running down the insides of my thighs. Her eyes travelled to my feet and the steaming puddle around them. She gently took the cup from my hand and said, “Oh Gawd! You poor little sod!” This sympathy was more than I could bare and a dry sound, something like a gunshot came from my parched throat. She put a comforting arm around my shoulders and said in her Cockney twang, “Cummin dearie, I’ll fix yer up”.
We proceeded very slowly past houses entirely devoid of windows. Some had no roofs. Rubble, hoses, wood, bricks and pools of water were everywhere. I asked if she knew if the road I lived on had been hit. She replied she was not sure but that she felt it was alright. When we finally reached her house, I saw that it was nothing more than a shell of its former self. Part of the roof was intact and the rest covered by a tarpaulin. None of the windows remained but they had been boarded up with slats of broken wood. She took me through the house into the garden where there was an outside toilet. Placing me on the toilet seat, she left me sitting there with the door open. Returning with a towel, she explained she was unable to wet it as there was no water but she had moistened it with some tea from her flask. I cleaned my face and legs as bet I could but I knew that I must have looked a pretty awful sight.
Having drunk the tea, I thanked her gratefully and started on my way again. What was I to find? I had been away from my home for almost twenty four hours. I imagined the anxiety my mother had gone through worrying about her children. I wondered if my sister was safe in her part of London. Above all, what was I to tell my mother about Bill?
As I turned out of the road of the woman who had helped me so kindly, I looked back and saw she was once again carrying her flask and cup – going out again to nurture some other unknown soul with her own precious ration of tea. I wished fiercely that such a brave person might be spared further torments of uncalled-for hostilities. I recalled her high-pitched Cockney whine and my answering “Ta”, unconsciously in her own kind, to thank her for her generosity.
At last I arrived at my own street. What had been a green-grocer’s shop on the corner was now only a steaming crater. A neighbour I knew well was standing as if rooted to the spot, staring blankly at the rubble. I asked him if the family who lived over the shop was alright. He lifted his shoulders, unable to answer me. His grey face quivered and I knew what his silence meant.
With my shoulders heaving, I stumbled on down my street. It was difficult to see through the smoke and grit. Carefully picking my way between piles of someone’s roof tiles and glass, I could see my own home and it appeared to be stable. I hobbled along, feeling very apprehensive and frightened at what I might find. It was almost as if in a dream that I noticed the Victoria gates and fences that had been the decoration outside the homes had all gone. I stared at the black stubbles of iron left in the concrete and then remembered that they had been taken away for making munitions a long while ago.
At last I was in front of my own home. With my heart in my mouth, I saw that the windows had been blown out and a number of roof tiles were strewn around the front of the house. There was no sign that anyone had tried to cover the gaping holes in the window frames. Again, I felt that tight restriction in my throat as I wondered what had happened to my mother.
What would she say when she saw me? I looked filthy and exhausted. I attempted to brush some of the grime from my dress. I was surprised to see streaks of blood all over the skirt. With shaking hands I feebly tried to brush my hair back from my face but I knew my efforts were worthless. My head ached and it seemed that my brain was nothing more than a blank weight in my head. The pain in my foot made it hard for me to concentrate.
My mother had never been a demonstrative person. I think life had dealt too many unfair blows for her to completely let her guard down. I did not expect her to shriek in delight at my safe homecoming. But I longed that, just once, she would put her arms around me and say, “Thank God, you are safe.”
I stared at our front door as if willing it to open. I leaned against the porch to ease the pain in my ankle. Finally, I decided that if I knocked on the door in my usual manner, she would realize I was alright.
It seemed an eternity before I heard the latch turn. The door opened only slightly and finally, my mother stood there. Silver curls lay on her forehead. The rest of her silver and red-gold hair hung down her back in complete disarray. I had never seen her look like that before. I felt as if I were staring at someone I did not know.
There was complete silence between us and I squirmed in anguish on my one good foot. I asked, “Mum, are you alright?” She did not answer. I stared at her feet and saw to my relief that my cat was brushing against her shins. Through his coat of fur, I could see the sores that were the sign of the malnutrition he suffered. We had tried so hard to keep him fit but it was impossible with the food that we could offer.
Again, I looked into my mother’s face. It was like a piece of grey marble. Her eyes seemed to be staring right behind me. Panic filled me and I was startled to feel a sense of guilt flood through me. Did she have news of Bill that I did not know? I thought again of the hell she must have suffered and I repeated, “Mum?” There was still no movement from her. Hurriedly I rushed on to explain how I had tried to telephone her but that the lines were all down. She still did not move. “I really did try,” I said weakly.
Unable to bear the silence any longer and filled with terror at what her news might be, I asked again. “Mum? Is Bill…..?” Her eyes moved slightly to just above my head. They reminded me of two pieces of grey stone. My ankle was aching so badly that I had to lean against the doorway. The pain was making me feel faint again. Once more, I burst out, “Mum? Are you…..?” The blank eyes turned to look straight at me and she made a small movement behind the door. As she turned back and walked down the passageway all I heard her say as I entered the house was “Come in”.
~ The End ~
Firemen – Public Domain
Thumbnail Dornier 17 Bomber – Creative Commons
London Blitz – Public Domain
Dornier 17 Bombers Over London – Public Domain
Blitz Bomb Damage – Creative Commons
Blitz Fire – Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Mary was born in London, England, the youngest of four children. Her Mother was widowed when Mary was only one year old. This led to her Mother working long, hard hours at whatever she had the opportunity to do. A lifetime of “making do” and scraping was the only life the family knew and this also resulted in each child having to leave school early to find work. Mary always had the ambition to travel and has visited over fifty countries. In 1967 Mary and her husband Colin immigrated to Canada with their little daughter. Mary is a talented artist who enjoys painting, writing and the challenge of crossword puzzles.
Did you enjoy this article?
Please let the author know by leaving them a comment below!
And, subscribe to our free weekly digest!
Simply add your email below. A confirmation email will be sent to you.