April 1, 2016

When the All-Clear Went (Manchester Guardian, 25/11/64)

Blitz London_resize
Bomb damage in London during the Second World War

The people who had the bottom flat in our house were air raid wardens. They were often out at night, but in their flat there was a narrow stone pantry with solid walls, the safest place in the house. If they would allow it when bombs were falling close, people in the house could shelter there. But they would not allow it. It was their pantry. They were not interested in unofficial help.

We went to see the agents to whom we all paid rent, and who sympathised with us all. I was expecting a baby soon. Eventually we won a sour agreement from the public-spirited wardens that their door would be left unbarred.

That November night, the bombs were falling very close. I lay in bed, flat on my back as pregnant women lie, and did not know if the room was shaking me or if I shook the room. It was to be many years before I could pass under a bridge with a train going over it and not be transfixed with terror at the roaring and the shaking. We slipped coats over our bare bodies, and hurried downstairs. The door was barred.

My husband rammed his shoulder against the door, and at the third crash it flew open. We just had time to shut it, and to crouch on the stone floor of the little pantry, when the pantry door flew right off its hinges and crashed grotesquely on my husband’s face, and a jagged crack ran round the wall. The house had blown up.

Smothered white with plaster, we groped our way out. We found the front door, or the place where the front door had been, but the long flight of steps had vanished and there was nothing there but an enormous gaping hole. We got out through the side of the house, through the collapsed wall.

In front of the wrecked house was a solid wall of flame. The landmine that had entangled in the trolley wires outside the house had blown up the gas main and knocked down the row of houses. Above that fantastic, crazily brilliant light the Nazi planes were circling round and round watchfully. They had machine-gunned children in a playground not many days before. Drained by shock of all feeling, I walked along the wall of fire, and at last round it, and across the road to the surface shelter on the heath.

The water was two inches deep on the floor. A narrow plank ran along the inside wall, where perhaps people could sit, but not a woman seven months pregnant. The deck-chair owners had brought in their chairs from the hill.

We came in silently, but they must have known disaster had hit us, for they said nothing, looked instantly away, and hunched themselves concentratedly over their bags and their chairs and their limping hearts. One woman had an empty deckchair standing next to hers. I moved towards it. But it was hers. Her hand shot out. She gripped it, pushed me furiously away.

All night long she held tight to that empty chair, and all night long I walked up and down in that icy water, while the deck-chair owners concentrated intensely on the status quo. After all, the chairs were theirs.

When the All Clear went, the grey November dawn was flushed with fire. We did not even look at the ruin that had been our home. We walked down the middle of the road (I have often wondered why refugees always walk down the middle of the road, never along the pavement?) down towards Kentish Town, where buses might perhaps be running to take us – where? Somewhere, just somewhere.

There was a little ragged procession of us after a while, no speaking, mindlessly trudging. Scattered knots of people stood on the street corner as they always did after air raids, with the curiosity that hides unacknowledged anxiety of people who are on the fringe of disaster and wonder what it is like to be right inside.

Among them, I saw a man I knew by name. He was a German refugee. His name was Ernst. He saw us, waved his arm as a signal, ran into his house, and ran out again with a pair of shoes which he threw after us. We had half-halted, doubtfully, not knowing for sure if he had gestured to us.

No word had been spoken; there was only a swift immediate response to a need. We did not smile at him. We could not have smiled at him. My husband bent down and put the shoes on. I stared at the damp stones of a November road. Then we moved on again down the hill, mechanically. We have never seen him since. He must have known we would never see him again.

©Leila Berg
published in The Manchester Guardian, 25/11/64