War seems to be the common lot for many of the inhabitants of this planet, all fortunately (for some) taking place far away from our ‘peaceful’ land; leading many to feel quite complacent of this fact, but who may need reminding that this hasn’t always been so, and that by contrast, present conditions might seem not so bad after all.
Here through the eyes of a small boy with little or no memory of the previous peace, is the last horrendous war to inflict this island, the events of which appear to him as nothing more than ordinary ‘daily existence’, when his whole life was war and bombs fell out of his sky.
Beads of condensation hang from the arched roof, cluster along the ridged metal above and run down the close sides of the corrugated-iron air-raid shelter. In the darkness the smell of a recently snuffed candle lingers in the dank atmosphere. The boy’s mother has just left and returned into the house, she will stay up a few hours longer unless tonight’s raid be overly heavy. Each evening by six o’clock he must descend into the dug-out and be in his bunk before the Germans begin their nightly onslaught. He lies back in the darkness and tries not to think of spiders but cannot sleep; his ears frantically tuned in the tense silence for the first siren to begin its long drawn out and undulating wail. Dotted sparsely through the streets outside the sirens sit atop long metal poles and rise above the surrounding rooftops like giant alien seedpods.
The shelter sits half-submerged in a rectangular hole dug into the lawn of the back-garden. The boy’s father had spent a week-end excavating with pick and shovel, and the boy had played at helping; too young to seriously contribute but much caught up in the drama of this occasion. Now he tries to remember his father and riffles quickly through his store of memories for one which he can examine closely, but the images are elusive and the face remains unfocused.
His father, a local factory hand has now been coerced into the military to defend his country against a continental warlord whose iron-shod threats assail this sceptred isle. Unaware of the coercion, and anyway too obedient to the mores of his decent working class standards to even consider for a moment the morals or ethics of his response, he had meekly and dutifully turned up at the recruitment depot with time to spare and now, since he is not fit enough for the front, serves his time in a bleak northern town as a signalman in an intelligence unit of the Royal Artillery. He has applied his workman’s skills to good effect in this new field and is now the master of fluent Morse, a skill rewarded by his recent elevation to the lofty rank of Lance Bombardier, a single stripe on his sleeve announcing his military clout.
‘Lance Bombardier’, the boy whispers it into the darkness, rolling the words around in his mind. ‘My father is a Lance Bombardier,’ he thinks, and tries this new status on for himself. ‘The son of a Lance Bombardier.’
A feeling of grandeur comes about him, as if his father frequents the company of Field Marshals, Brigadiers and other great captains of infantry. But now, intruding into this self-inflicted grandiosity, a twinge of fear sends a wave of coldness through his body. His ears have caught the barely audible and yet distant song of an air-raid siren. As he turns his attention fully onto this sound he becomes aware of other faint contenders for the silence. A far-off wailing choir of lusty metal voices cry warning of approaching enemy bombers, their unsynchronised engines thudding in dissonance as they climb in loose formations high against the stars.
Now the siren’s song is strengthened as the bombers, having completed their destruction in the city, head homeward shedding their surplus bombs at whim in a narrow path to the South coast. The boy’s shelter lies directly beneath this path as he knows from experience and he wonders if tomorrow, when the school register is called, there will be any names which remain unanswered, perhaps even his own. Sometimes a juvenile voice will deputise.
‘Bombed out Sir.’
The class has lost several children recently, although some of the families had escaped unscathed and now live amongst their relations, like it or not. He wonders if his mother will come soon, or if she will ‘stick it out’ for as long as she can. She doesn’t like Germans and is reluctant to concede defeat in the matter of the air-raid shelter. He hopes she will come before the bombers are overhead; he wants someone to be frightened with.
Now the warnings are very close, no more than a few streets away, and soon the siren at the end of his road will add its familiar voice to the wailing chorus. The forest of ululating tones are now punctuated by the deep throbbing drone of swastikered Heinkels and Dorniers, while the ack-ack’s roaring cannon unleash explosive shells irresponsibly into the night sky; barking madly like a pack of infuriated dogs they follow the German planes in their long path to the sea. Soon the bombs will start falling; he knows that once the planes are directly overhead he is safe since the bombs fall forwards, but it is as they approach that the danger lies and it is then that the whistle of falling bombs can be heard.
‘If you can hear it, then it’s coming your way!’ It is part of the mythical lore of the neighbourhood and the boy accepts these facts implicitly. ‘When you hear the whistle of a bomb, start counting, if you get past six then it has missed you.’
The boy hopes his mother will come before the counting starts, he can focus on her mouth as she sits with her hands over her ears and her eyes tightly shut, and watching her lips try to keep pace with her; alone, he does not know if he is counting too fast ─ or too slow.
The din outside the shelter is reaching a hellish crescendo, and occasionally he can feel a tremor shake the ground as the planes drop their random bombs. Now the great gun in the street outside swells the violent cacophony with its strange hollow cough and showers of shrapnel begin pattering into the back-gardens around him. Suddenly the blanket which hangs across the shelter entrance is thrust violently aside and his mother flings herself in. She is a frightened and angry cockney and her lips are tight as she mutters her unsolicited opinion of the Germans.
‘The bloody buggers’ she says, and there is venom in her voice.
‘The bloody bleedin‘ buggers.’
Art: Nick Victor