Notes: This was written on the spur of the moment, after I caught the tail end of a documentary about the Blitz.
It’s not the dark that she’s scared of, as such.
It’s not the dark at all.
The dark is safe; the dark is underground, and underground equals safe at the moment.
They’ve come here every night for a month, now. Always at the same time, arriving at the locked gate for half past four. Late enough so that they don’t look undignified, early enough to ensure being near the front of the inevitable queue, thus guaranteeing a spot in the underground for the night.
Her mother always makes her wear her best winter coat and wraps her in a hairy old afghan that used to belong to a great aunt. It still smells of boiled cabbage and mothballs.
The baby gets the soft blankets; the woollen ones that have bright tartan patterns on them.
Mother gets what’s left.
It’s all very orderly, all very British.
Some people have mattresses, dragged from the ruins of their doodle-bugged houses. The adults sit and weep, the children play macabre games; trying to imagine the singe marks into the shapes of fantastical beasts. She usually creeps over and joins in; insisting that she can see all manner of centaurs and unicorns before her mother catches her and pulls her away.
Tracing myths in the burn patterns of mattresses is not British at all.
Her mother says that they have an example to set, and mocking those whose lives and properties and been destroyed is the wrong tone and not done.
She sighs, nods her head and pretends that she agrees with her mother and that her ten year old mind understands what her mother is trying to say. After all, when the electric lights flicker and fade and the caped and capped policemen and black-out wardens come around and shake people awake, she and her mother still have a home to go to.
They’ve been lucky.
Stepping out of the underground and into the tired light of a new day is like surfacing in a murky lake; a breath of air that seems fresh, until the smells of brimstone, death, and a city in disarray reassert themselves to the senses. The smells hint at the danger that is hidden close by; just around the corner, or behind the still-proud Georgian stonework of the grand city buildings.
Daytime in the house is always… disjointed… mother bustling around, checking that no looters or n’er-do-wells have broken in during the night, trying to hush the fracticious baby, keep an eye on her, and always keeping both ears pricked, ready to react if the air raid sirens begin to wail.
They haven’t got a proper bomb shelter; not like the one the school had in the cellar, before the lessons got cancelled because of the danger of the increased raids. They have a kitchen table; it’s big and wooden and old. She remembers that father— before he had to go off and fight the bad people— father had always told her that the table was made up of the bits of wood that Noah didn’t need for the ark.
Really, Daddy? She used to ask.
Really, really chicky. He used to tell her. So if you ever here the sirens then you must climb under it and it will keep you safe, like the ark did for Noah and the animals, you understand?
Yes Daddy, I understand.
So she’d been prepared, but it still came as a shock when the first explosion went off, seemingly on top of her head. She screamed, then again as the smoke and dust came billowing in the open window where she was playing with the doll on the sitting room floor.
There hadn’t been any sirens at all; she didn’t think the explosions were allowed to happen without the sirens to warn people first. Because, if sirens didn’t go off first, then people wouldn’t know, and they could get hurt—
At first she thought the thin rising wail was the baby, scared by the noise. But then it continued to climb in pitch and volume and she knew it was the air-raid sirens, cranking up to full volume.
She ran to the kitchen and slid under the table, kicking a chair over in her haste, dolly dragged along with her. Part of her wondered where mother and the baby were, but she barely had time to think before the explosions started again.
They’d never been this close before— the whole house seemed to be dancing and shaking with each detonation, and each seemed louder than the one preceding it— the dust and smoke turned into a howling demon that rattled through the house, toppling and turning things every which way, without a care for the order that Mother had tried to cling to.
And still they sounds get louder—
And she wishes she was underground, but it’s daytime and the police aren’t letting people underground in the daytime yet—
And then the demon comes thundering back and this time, instead of howling stinky breath, he also has big feet that crash and smash around the house.
She curls into a ball, under the table, hides her face in her doll, lets the doll hide its face in her petticoats, and she sobs and sobs until it all goes quiet and still.
The dust hanging in a haze on the air stands taller than the house does now. If she was old enough to know such words, she would be able to explain that the intense feelings of unease and loss she felt were caused by the incongruity of seeing the lion-footed iron bath tub laying in the garden, one end a crumpled wreck.
The smashed bricks and shards of tiles slither and slip under her feet as she stumbles her way slowly towards the street. Most of its cobbles are hidden under debris; bits of building mashed up with shards of homes.
She still has hold of her doll— soggy and heavy— by one leg and she clenches her fist until her fingers and knuckles go white. Material ruffling in the breeze that is making the smoke danse macabre through the air catches her attention and she picks up the old afghan, wrapping it around her shoulders and holding it tight with her free hand.
In the distance, she can hear wails; these ones human, rather than a siren warning of more bombs, but she ignores them and stare blankly at the ruins in front of her for a long moment, before shuffling forwards to search.
She’s not entirely sure what she is looking for.
She finds the carriage clock first. It is still ticking, and she sets it on a plank of wood, the sound of the clockwork loud in the bubble of silence that seems clamped over the area.
When she finds the baby, it looks like a broken dolly.
She finds one of the shoes— black button boots that she’d admired— that her mother had been wearing. There is red on the boot, but it doesn’t look like paint and she can’t remember there being any red paint in the house.
The clock begins to chime; half past the hour. She looks at it. Half past four.
She’s going to be late for the queue to get underground.
She runs through streets that seem to be full of ruins and empty of people until she comes to streets that are full of people and empty of ruins, following the steps that her mother had led her on twice each day— a route that is burned into her memory.
She arrives at the gate just as the blackout warden is unlocking it. He doesn’t seem to see her, standing alone, so she simply joins the queue and waits her turn to file down into the dim warmth of the station.
Without her mother to stake a claim on the platform, she ends up following the example of some others and climbing off the platform to snuggle down between the cold metal of the train rails.
No trains are running at the moment.
Because she’s small, she has to go to the end of the platform, where it slopes downwards, so that she can reach the ground level without having to jump and risk injuring an ankle. She opts to sit in the middle of the rails; back braced against one, feet stretched out towards the other, doll in her lap.
It’s dark at this end, something made more obvious by the yawning black maw of the tunnel that rises on her left side.
The dark is safe though, her mother always told her that.
She can hear the scritch-scratch scuttle of the rats down the tunnel.
The dark is safe, because the dark means underground and underground is safe.
Her mother always told her that.
The electric lights begins to flicker and dim as they are turned off to conserve power, shadows crawling and leaping along the curved tile walls.
She can hear the rats.
Her mother always told her that the dark was safe.
There is a faint smell of ammonia and sulphur in the air.
She wishes that her mother was here to tell her that again.