Counting is a technique children learn quite often even before going to school. It is useful for many purposes; counting how many sweets they have left or counting their steps when playing games. However, in some circumstances the ability to do so can have a much more serious and even terrifying purpose.
Morning comes and the boy wakes early, but his mother is already up. It is Monday, and she will be loading up the copper with sheets and pillow cases before lighting the gas beneath. As he prepares to leave the shelter he hears a shriek from the garden. Climbing up he sees his mother standing by the coal-bin which stands outside the back door. It is a heavy galvanised iron box around four feet high with a lid at the top where the coalmen empty their sacks and a trap below to give access to the coal. She is peering intently at something on top of the box and again with hand pressed to bosom she shrieks in alarm. The boy runs across and standing on the step leading into the kitchen looks to where she points. He sees a jagged hole in the metal an inch or so across.
‘I was standing there on the step last night,’ she says breathlessly, my elbow was right there.’ And she points to a spot adjacent to the ragged edges of the hole.
‘I heard it,’ she says excitedly. ‘It went ping! And it was hot!’
She lays her hand fingers spread across her chest. ‘Oh,’ she sighs. ‘It did give me a turn’.
Now he remembers her sudden entry into the shelter the night before. She had not mentioned the matter then, since no sooner has she flung herself below than the throbbing engines of the homeward bound Germans had caused them both to freeze; they sit, stomach muscles painfully tight and wait for the dread whistle. One wave of planes pass overhead without incident and their roar is just receding when there are more. The boy shrinks inside until he is a tiny mindless point of purest terror as a ghastly whistle begins its shrill song. High pitched, the thin tone descends the scale increasing in volume as it nears and the boy is desperately counting, hands over his ears and watching his mother’s lips intently.
One, two, three… and two more whistles join the first; he panics, should he start again? Lost and shaking with terror he feels his mattress sink away beneath him to return with a thud a moment later, and outside is occurring the loudest sound he has ever heard in his life. It is red and bright yellow and fills the universe, while two more mighty hammers strike the earth close by… then silence.
He can no longer hear the bombers or guns, but a constant bell is ringing in his head. His mother looks up, she is regaining her aplomb.
‘Well let’s hope that’s the lot for tonight.’ She says, lighting a candle and putting on her nightie.
To be continued…
Art: Nick Victor