“Mother, please,” Helen begged.
“I survived one war, and I’ll live through another without any foolish running to and fro.” The old woman pushed Helen’s hand away.
It was the same argument every night. Her mother refused to take refuge in a shelter during the bombings.
Reluctantly, Helen left with the children, dragging them through the thickening darkness, a woolen blanket of descending gloominess. The frantic pounding of their feet was obliterated by the shriek of the air raid siren.
“Hurry, children,” Helen urged, but her words were devoured by the pervading grayness. Charlotte stumbled and Helen scooped her up, letting Jack follow behind without his mother’s hand to pull him through the dusk.
Nausea rose in Helen’s throat as she heard the drone of enemy aircraft rising over the sirens, and she passed Charlotte into reaching arms at the shelter. She screamed for Jack even while turning and instinctively grabbing for him. She pushed him ahead down the stairs, avoiding the panicked eyes of the others already entombed in the crowded space. She found their spot, the place where they’d spend the night, and gathered the children against her, like a hen nestling between wingless chicks.
Never would she be accustomed to this, the relentless screaming of the siren, beckoning them to the cramped, airless shelter, being squeezed together, fear mounting like a fever, till all were infected, morose, brows glistening. And the torturous blackness.
Overhead, the bombers dropped their screaming lethal cargo. Helen closed her eyes and waited for the earth to thunder. Fine silt sifted onto her forehead.
“Oh, God,” someone whispered nearby.
Charlotte whimpered, and Helen wrapped her arm more snugly around her, willing the little girl to sleep.
“When I grow up, I’ll be an Air Force pilot, just like Father,” exclaimed Jack. “I’ll shoot the enemy right out of the sky.”
“Sleep, Jack.” One pilot was enough.
Another bomb shuddered the shelter. Gasps and cries echoed through the stuffy, damp chamber.
“Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee,” a plaintive voice sang feebly in the ebony void.
“‘Ave a mercy and quit yer bawlin’,” came a gravelly response. The song ended abruptly.
Silence reigned, interspersed by the bombings and the ensuing trembling of the shelter. The air became thick with dust and the nearness of sweaty bodies. Helen tucked her face into Charlotte’s neck... and slept.
She awoke, stiff and cold, to the sound of the door being shoved open. Several men shovelled rubble away from the steps.
“What’s the state of affairs, Warden?” People crowded around the entrance anxiously, wanting to know how their homes had fared.
“Bradley Avenue took some hits. Up to Taylor. Church tower is gone. Can’t see more.” There were a few sobs at the announcement.
Helen pushed with everyone else, Charlotte’s arms nearly strangling her as she held on, Jack trailing behind. The morning air was thick with the smell of brickdust and burning. Craters gouged the street, houses swiped clean away, nothing left but a jumble of bricks and smoldering timbers. Whole trees lay in the streets, scorched, like giant hearth logs yanked from enormous fireplace grates.
Panic-stricken, Helen ran, her breath ripped from her lungs in wrenching gasps. Glass crunched beneath their feet, and scattered about were bits of humanity, a tea-towel, a man’s tie, a broken teacup. And worse things. Children, don’t look!
They turned onto their street. What about their house?
It was untouched. Geraniums sat on the stoop, gaily unaware of the tragedy hovering in the smoky, dust-laden air.
But, the front half of the house next door was sheared away. Helen was mesmerized by the sight of the upstairs lavatory, a towel hanging neatly on the tub’s edge, bottles of scent lined up over the sink, everything exposed to the street like a stage set for a performance.
Men were digging in the rubble. “Whole family perished. Fools. Shelter just down the street, didn’t they know?”
Helen ran to her own door. Her mother was sitting in her chair, calmly drinking tea.
“Helen, love, please fetch my lap-rug. I’ve had a rather uncomfortable night, and I’d like to rest.”
While tears streamed down her dirty cheeks, Helen thought, One lives, another dies. There’s no knowing, no seeing.
She tucked the blanket around her mother’s shoulders and watched the old woman sleep.
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