All through the long, hot summer of 1939 the grown-ups debated and prophesied over my head;the subject of discussion was always the same - war - and to and fro, over and over again, round and round,the question:will the peace talks succeed? I already knew there would be a war: my Dad said so,and he knew about most things. I also knew what war was like;I had read 'All Quiet On The Western Front' and seen all the pictures of ruins and craters and broken bodies in the books in the great glass-fronted bookcase in the Best Room. I awaited the inevitable with considerable apprehension.
When the Day finally arrived,my brother was upstairs, ill with one of his temperatures. Mum was cutting bread nervously, and it was crooked as usual in times of stress(a 'doorstep' at one end, wafer-thin at the other) so I knew Dad would be mocking her later. The voice from the wireless said, quietly and formally,' ...we are at war with Germany' and almost immediately we were invaded by the wailing of the sirens. Mum instinctively abandoned the bread-board, and hastily made for Bob, helpless in his hot-bed of sickness: Dad,with the casual bravado of a veteran,went OUTSIDE and up the front steps. There he stood,gazing up into the open sky, which was soon(I knew) to be raining bombs and debris upon us. They would all die.
I sat alone on the massive tool-chest in the scullery,waiting for the first explosions and the collapse of buildings. As I struggled to drag over my face my disgusting rubbery gas mask,the all-clear sounded. Miraculously,we had survived:externally, nothing had changed;but for the next few years I was always aware of the shadowy threat of death,and held myself in readiness for the destruction of my familiar world.
Little by little we gained confidence:the nightly sirens became part of routine, and although gas masks were considered essential for school I no longer lived in fear of deadly clouds of creeping green gas. I could imitate the all-clear so well( without even opening my mouth) that on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion I was responsible for the whole school filing out of the trenches in the midst of an attack, open-mouthed as aeroplanes zoomed and crackled above us in a clear blue sky. My wickedness remained a dark secret:the teachers were utterly confused,and I told no-one, although my stomach smiled as we were hustled back underground.
One day we heard the dull thump of bombs as we sat, cramped and bored,in our damp hideouts:but by the time school was over we had long forgotten. When I finally arrived home, lop-sided as usual with my heavily loaded satchel,wearily plodding up the steep hill,all the neatly painted houses slumbered in the golden sunshine of a late autumn afternoon. The appearance of normality reigned over all. I shut the gate carefully, and gratefully descended the steps. The brass doorstep gleamed. The sun-blind was stiff, heavy and hot to touch:pushing it aside, I opened the door and went in.
The inside felt different: cool and dark as usual,but emptier. I called: no answer. This was to be the only day in my entire childhood in which I entered a motherless home. My ears drummed, my heart battled inside my ribs as I carefully pushed open the kitchen door..... The note on the table simply said 'Gone to Grandmas'. Mrs Bowrah-next-door elaborated:there had been bombs in Freshfield Street, and I was to follow Mum.
I dumped the satchel and set off,still palpitating, fearing what was to come. Up towards the race-course,over the windy hill,not pausing to look down at the town and the distant sea,on I hurried,my imagination leaping ahead. Soon I could see clouds of smoky dust:the air grew thick and smelt of plaster. Finally I turned the corner of the familiar, humble, comfortable street.
There had always been a little row of shops:here I had carefully expended pennies on sheets of cardboard cut-outs,satin sherbets and sugar mice, and, once, some wonderful sweets that looked exactly like the pebbles on Brighton beach. Here I had bought biscuits or tea for Grandma or Aunt Lily. All that remained was an enormous heap of rubble. A grave, silent crowd stood respectfully around the edge:no-one moved or spoke.
ARP workers,in dark overalls, had been scrambling and scrabbling on the pile:one of them was calling through a megaphone,down into the darkness beneath. "Tap once for yes, twice for no. Are you hurt?" The silence around and over the ruins was solid,almost tangible:it was as if all the incidental sounds of ordinary, everyday life had been sucked into that awful mound. The world stood on tiptoe. Once a dog barked--people looked round, angrily, then turned back to watch and listen again.
I dragged myself back to my task, filled with foreboding. Images of Grandma's house came and went inside my head as I hurried on - the knife-grinder in the kitchen and the damp smell of the deep stone sink, the charcoal-flavoured dog-biscuits I used to consume in secret.white scented violets in the tiny back garden, the polar-bear paperweight with shiny brass soles to his feet, the 'Votes for Women' lady on the mantelpiece, grim and grumpy, nodding her china head.
And Grandma,ruling her kingdom from the black chesterfield:where was she now? Crushed under a heap of bricks and slates,broken with all her treasures?
I reached the house, to find another Passover miracle. All the windows were shattered, dust and glass littered the little parlour:but Grandma seemed to be enjoying all the excitement - and the polar-bear stood as always beside the 'Votes for Women' lady: even one of Hitler's bombs had not parted her from her grimly nodding head!
Audrey Deal ( then Audrey Fuller)