A Safe Place To Stay
From the bedroom window that afternoon, I could see three houses across the road, numbers 16, 18 and 20 but by the following morning there were only two houses standing and in between them, a great hole with a smouldering mass of rubble where the third dwelling had been. When I stood there, looking out though I had no idea of what was coming. It wasn’t new or unexpected of course and it had already happened several times all over London and, a few times, near- by in our corner of Islington.
The air raid siren began wailing at around nine that evening. My mother was rushing around getting my sister Paula out of bed and dressed although she had only just settled her down for the night. Then she was packing her bag with snacks like potato crisps, chocolate and lemonade and a brief shout, while on the move, to me, to get moving quickly. I never needed prompting, I already had my hand round Charlie’s collar and was leading him to the scullery at the back of the kitchen where I would lock him in. He didn’t make any fuss but went there in docile manner; he had been deposited there enough times to be used to it. Then we grabbed canvas chairs, Mum carrying two and me one and we left the house at her signal, a nod of the head and a widening of the eyes, and set off down the hill. Paula was showing no sign of urgency as the siren squealed out again, raucous and threateningly loud now that we were out in the street. I grabbed her little hand and said something like come along, quickly and pulled her as I walked.
Under the concrete roof of the football stadium there were already quite a few
people settled down on makeshift chairs or sitting on blankets on the cold ground. The space was big, a wide corridor leading to the main parts of the stadium but well equipped to offer at least immediate safety from bombs. We always preferred the football stadium to the underground station platform; the tube was much further down the hill and when you got there it was far more crowded with bodies huddled in close together; the noise unsettling, the odour of perspiration unpleasant and the dank, sour air in the tunnel most unpleasant.
My mother undid the top of her thermos flask and poured herself a mug of tea. Paula was wandering round peeping into corners, looking at people sitting with their books, newspapers or knitting, many of them glancing up to smile at the little girl.
‘Keep an eye on her Bobby, would you?’ Mum said softly. ‘And bring her back here if she’s annoying anyone.’
I nodded. Outside I could hear the muffled boom of Hitler’s bombs exploding but I never felt or even sensed any danger. Too young to take it in I suppose, ready to live the adventure of the moment where bombed houses toppled into piles of rubbish or you might find a piece of jagged silver shrapnel in the garden the next morning.
I wandered around for some time, watching people’s activities, checking to see if they
were reading books or newspapers or doing crossword puzzles or just dozing off to sleep. When I spotted Paula just standing glaring at an old couple, one in a wheelchair and both looking uncomfortable, I decided it was time to take her back to mum. Actually, my mother herself had closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. I remember thinking how peaceful she looked asleep, eyes tightly closed, light brown hair wispy on her forehead and her expression bland. Normally, when awake, her expression was always fraught with anticipation or frustration. Now she looked free of care for a minute or two anyway and Paula snuggled down next to her in her chair and immediately stuck her thumb in her mouth and closed her eyes. I wandered around some more looking for something, anything of interest but gave it up after a while and returned to our spot where I sat down; eventually my eyes closed as well, and I fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke Mum was handing out chocolate bars and lemonade and we were well into devouring a big bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk when the all clear siren sounded; a long continuous note that indicated there was no further danger overhead, for this night at least. Or so we thought.
We trudged home wearily, eyes full of sleep, up the hill into pitch black night, no cracks of light to be seen from any blacked-out window and the street lamps unlit. There was nothing to do on reaching home other than to pile into our beds and sleep fitfully for what was left of the night. Mum put Paula to bed first although my sister was asleep as soon as her head touched the soft white pillow. I undressed swiftly and as I got into bed my mother appeared, smiled and wondered aloud how long I would be able to stay awake and concentrate at school the next day. I told her I felt fine and I would be all right in the morning too. She smiled. ‘I’m putting your light out right away,’ she said, kissed me swiftly and left me in the dark again.
The explosion, when it came was shatteringly loud and shook the very walls of our house. There had been no further air raid warning and it was still dark outside but only just. Mother and Paula appeared suddenly in my bedroom almost immediately and both looked stricken. They both sat down on my bed and mum took my hand.
‘Are you all right, Bobby?’ Mum asked.
‘I’m fine,’ I replied, ‘Is the house on fire?’
‘No,’ she said, smiling grimly. ‘It was very close though.’
‘I don’t know but I’m going to find out.’
I followed her to the window and looked out onto a scene of utter chaos and confusion. There was an ambulance and a police car and a fire engine and lots of men in various uniforms rushing about all over the place. The pile of rubble where number 18 had been was still smouldering but there was a fire hose directed on it. My mother turned and rushed towards the staircase, shouting to me as she went that she must go across the road and asking me to keep an eye on Paula. I looked at Paula but she had fallen asleep on my bed, so I went downstairs and found mother putting the dog in the scullery and then getting her coat and putting it on for it was cold in the early hours. She began telling me that she must go and see if the neighbours were all right, and gave me instructions to lay the table for breakfast while she was gone. I nodded to everything she said, but then followed her out into the street as the jangling bell of another ambulance sounded in the distance. A burly policeman and an ARP warden soon blocked my mother’s progress towards the other side of the road.
‘Please go back to your house, madam,’ the police constable said in a loud voice.
‘I have to call on Mrs. Bailey,’ mother said in agitated voice and tried to step forward but the two men restrained her. ‘I need to see if she is all right, and see if I can help.’
‘You can’t do anything at the moment,’ the ARP man said in a softer, gentler voice. ‘If its Mrs. Bailey in number 16 you’re concerned about she’s alive and being comforted by an ambulance man.’
‘Oh, thank God,’ Mum said breathlessly. ‘I just wanted to see if I could do anything for her.’
‘Plenty –a-time later,’ the constable told her. ‘Just let the services get on with their jobs ma’am, there’s a good lady.’
‘But what about the old couple in number 20?’ Mum asked, her voice again shrill with anxiety.
‘Both all right. Shaken up and their house considerably damaged but both unhurt, just shaken up considerable.’
‘And no hope for anybody in 18,’ Mum said very softly, as though talking to herself.’
‘No. ‘Fraid not.’
‘James lived alone and worked in a munitions factory, often doing night duty,’ Mum was saying, again as if talking to herself. ‘We can only hope and pray he wasn’t in.’
‘Yes, madam, and now I must ask you to return home and keep your little boy safely in the house.’
She looked down at me, frowned and seemed to be only just conscious that I was there. She shook her head and reminded me that I was supposed to be looking after my little sister so I told her Paula was asleep. The policeman though, getting impatient had taken hold of her arm and wheeled her round and was propelling her towards our house.
Back in the house she went to get Paula and set about getting the kettle on and preparing breakfast for the three of us. Just before serving it up she went into the dining room and switched on the wireless set and left the door open so that we could listen to it in the kitchen. The news broadcast was full of all the various raids on London and the bombing of homes, mostly in the East End, a few miles down the road. Mum toyed with her shredded wheat but seemed to be lacking appetite. Paula and I wolfed ours down as though there was no tomorrow. Maybe there wouldn’t be! Mum was talking to herself again, softly, reflectively. She surmised that it must have been a stray bomber that was late going back but dropped its hideous load of bombs before flying out towards the coast.
‘Time to go,’ she said, suddenly, shaking her head in agreement with her own thoughts. ‘Time to head out to Hertfordshire.’
Two weeks after war was declared on Germany it was very quiet and almost peaceful in London. No bombers in the sky, no bombs falling on the houses. People went out into their back gardens and looked up curiously at the sky but by late September and early October it was all bright sunshine and clear blue skies. We went out into the garden one clear Saturday morning and pottered about with flowerbeds and plants, Mum instructing us what to fetch and carry. I filled up the watering can and left it on the pathway, under the dining room window for use later.
‘Is the war on now Mummy?’ Paula asked, gazing expectantly up at the sky.
‘Yes it is, darling,’ Mum replied, not pausing to look up from her flowerbed.
‘Are they going to drop bombs on us?’
‘Yes, I expect so. In due course.’
The talk everywhere was about German bombing raids, in the shops, schools, offices, up and down our road. Wherever we went. But on a walk up to the fields, past the clock-tower and away from the busy main road all was warm and pastoral, autumn colours; Indian summer. People played on the tennis courts or walked across the field happily enough.