Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The familiar klaxon wait comes late, but when I hear it I feel the remnants of my meagre supper force their way up my throat. I want to hide beneath the table and cry like a child, but that’s more than enough to earn me a shake and a slap from Mother. Besides, in these times we do not think – only run. I fetch my bunker bag from beneath the stairs and I feel a pang for the tiny sack left behind in the dusty little room. The bag contains the standard: gas mask, a light, an identity card...and a bettered, worn teddy bear. He brought that bear everywhere with him, and in the end, the bear was safer than he was...
But I mustn’t lose my concentration now, and I fight the flashes of memory. The sirens are still screaming but I hear my mother, shrill above the din: “Amelia! It’s time! NOW!” The panic in her voice is obvious, and I know that she, too, fears that we will die here. In this damp, paisley patterned excuse for a home that we’ve lived in since our house was bombed to bits a few months back. A real home, filled with memories as warm and rich as a cake made with real sugar. A home of red brocks, smiles, bedtime stories and fearing nothing but the apparently-haunted apple tree in the garden. I instinctively smile at the memories of Victor and I taking turns to try and climb the apple tree. We were told that a ghost lived at the very top of it, and almost every day my cherubic, red-haired brother would demand that he and I climb higher to find her. We never did, of course, but we shared apples from the tree – we created a whole world up there, he and I.
A whole world that now lies rotting in ashes, much like the smiling red- haired boy. His body was never recovered, so deep in the remains of 34 Cherrywood Road lies my little brother. And here Mother, Father and I remain, shell shocked ghosts of ourselves. I was at a friend’s the night of the bombing, and Mother and Father won’t speak of what happened that night. And it’s hardly the time to ask, running through the tiny garden towards our houses’ bunker. I have time only to take a lungful of smoggy London air before I’m being pushed down, down, down...
After Victor died, I woke up screaming every night, seeing him trapped beneath layers of debris, alive, gasping for air. Not exactly conducive to a weekly stint in a dank little space beneath the ground, but what choice do I have? The steps down to the bunker seem endless, the crashing sirens keeping twisted time with our footsteps. I hear Father mutter “again...this is the third time this week...do you think that...?” but Mother immediately shushes him, with a meaningful glance at me. Ignoring this strange conversation, I go down deeper towards the bunkers. The sirens are quieter now, as they drive us deep below the ground, away from light and freedom and safety. I shiver – not only from cold, but because fear of the bunker pips fear of the Germans to the post for me. The thought of the tiny, narrow room beads my forehead with sweat.
Eventually – eventually – we unlock the narrow grey door and floor the shelter with light. I see something move about in the gloom, but luckily it’s only a mouse and my scream is drowned out by the Vicar crashing in. Round-faced and booming, Reverend Winters is the perfect sort of man to have in a crisis. “Evening, folks! Quite a night for it, quite a night!” His unflappable manner affects us all and by the time he and his wife have settled in, I feel almost calm. He begins to chat quietly to Mother, giving me time to take in my surroundings. Steel beams reinforce the stone ceiling and the place has a musty, unkempt smell. Something drips in a corner and the hanging gas masks give the place an eerie feel, their empty eyes staring into the blackness. It’s the sort of place meant for sadness and fear – it’s completely without happy memories. It’s also impossibly small and I begin to fidget uncomfortably, feeling as though the walls are closing in on me. One...two...breathe in. I stare at the floor, feeling sure that the rooms boundaries creep closer. Three...four...breathe out. Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on. It’s easy to be strong, proud and British above ground, but deep in this underground place, considerably less so. My stomach tightens and again. Breathe slowly to try and calm down...one...two...breathe in...
And that’s when the first bomb hits. It resonates deep in my body, my bones. It threatens to shake the teeth from my skull. The bunker shudders, but only dust falls from the ceiling. The five of us creep closer together, powerless against the Nazi monsters in their giant places, fighting the unknown, unseen war above our heads. I’m terrified. My legs cramp. Blood rushes to my head and I fully expect the ceiling to open up, the sky raining death.
Suddenly, the lights go out. Total darkness reigns and I lose myself to panic. I leap Father’s arms and scramble towards the door, uncaring about the outside chaos. I try to scream but it lodges in my throat and I emit only a strangled sob. I’m crying, tears running down my cheeks as I pound the door. “We’ve...we’ve g-got to get out!” I choke, slamming against the walls uselessly – if they can hold out against the rage outside, what chance do I stand? But I need to get out. “We’ll be trapped. Trapped like Victor, nothing but ashes. Don’t you see? We’ll all die here! Buried alive!” I don’t realize that I’ve spoken aloud until I see the shocked, uncomfortable looks on my parent’s faces. Nothing about hysterical teenagers in their guides to The War, I suppose.
Again, the room is shaken by a blow that brings cans from the shelves and drowns out my screams. I need to run. To hide. The rooms quaking like it’s going to collapse around us and I know that now, I am not alone in my screaming. A drawn out vision of death flashes before my eyes as the bunker rattles. For a few minutes – or hours? – I know nothing but the screams of the Luftwaffe planes but I can imagine the chaos outside all too well. People, running and screaming, becoming balls of flame. Bodies littering the street. Fire and death at every turn. In my daze I hear a muttered “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name...” and we all join in, even though my family aren’t religious. Perhaps God is our only way out of this. We sit together, chanting every prayer we know for what feels like hours, feeling the bombs explode around us, buried beneath it all.
Eventually the all-clear sounds and it’s suddenly eerily silent. I feel as though I’m in a tomb, as though that this London street has surely a graveyard for thousands, and though Mother is sobbing softly with relief and Rev. Winter’s is thanking God for keeping us safe, I can hear only one thing. The screams of the German fire bombers ring in my ears with each step we take towards the shattered street, mingling with what I am sure are the moans of the dying above. Surely Mother, Father, even the Winters’ must know this. The shocking, unadorned truth: we aren’t safe, not really. We’ll leave this unkempt, unloved prison underground safe and unharmed, yes – but what of above?
Sickening images thunder through my head: people running and screaming, flash ablaze, crying out for loved ones. Houses lying in ruin, crippled by Nazi shells. Bodies of those who didn’t get to a shelter in time littering the streets maimed and burned. Everywhere we’ll turn, we’ll be followed by carnage – and yet, that won’t be the worst part. London will become a graveyard again and again until this War is won. Mr. Churchill won’t stop, Hitler certainly won’t stop and I reel backwards as I realize the truth: nothing in the world can make me feel safe again. The gas mask’s faces seem to be teasing me “as if you can feel safe again after this. As if anyone can feel safe again after this, after the bombs. We can pretend, of course. We can adapt, repatch, and keep fighting for victory and for Britain. But I realize in that moment, deep underground, that there’s no real victory, no real leaving. That I’ll never leave this dark, dusty cellar, cowering powerlessly, never truly escaping the horror of the bombs.
I think it's testament to the sheer power of a Florence + The Machine show that I've listened to nothing but her last two albums since she set foot on the 02 stage last Friday night. Florence - and her Machine - have played Ireland three times before but I'd never quite managed to catch her, but my god she was worth the wait.