Wumpf! It was like a dull thud but it shook the house and rattled the windows.
“That was a bit close,” muttered Margaret.
“Are we going to die?” whispered William, nestling against her.
Margaret immediately regretted her involuntary comment. “No, of course not, darling; we’re safe and snug here under the stairs.”
It had been a long one tonight, over an hour since the chilling sound of the siren had roused her and she’d shepherded ten-year old James and five-year old William to the dubious protection of the cupboard under the stairs. It wouldn’t provide much protection from a direct hit of course but, until the long-awaited Morrison shelter arrived, it represented the best chance of survival. Night after night recently they had huddled together under there, listening to the drone of enemy planes overhead, the anti-aircraft guns and the occasional thud of an exploding bomb. More often than not, here on the outskirts of the city, the wave of bombers would pass fairly quickly on their way to more important targets but tonight they had apparently decided to have a go at the munitions factory on the other side of the town and it had gone on and on.
At last the noise receded and soon they heard the welcome long, single note of the all-clear. William, as usual, was up and out of the cupboard like a shot. Every night in that confined space he clung to Margaret terrified; not of the raids, which he found quite exciting, but in case there were any spiders.
Margaret tucked the boys back into bed and then went back downstairs to make herself a cup of tea. While the kettle was boiling, she put her coat on and slipped out into the street. As far as she could see in the moonlight, none of the houses in Stafford Road had been damaged and she offered up a silent prayer of thanks. Somewhere in the town though, she knew would be people who at worst would be dead and at best homeless and she felt the tears welling up as she thought of the sheer futility of it all. When she went back in, the kettle was boiling furiously and the scullery full of steam but by now she had gone off the idea of tea and went straight to bed.
She lay there for a long time clutching a pillow to her for comfort. It was the pillow that Frank’s head should be resting on but Frank was in India and, aching for him, all she could do was imagine the pillow was him and wait for sleep to come.
The next morning was bright and promised to be sunny, the summer doing its best to hang on into mid September and, in spite of the succession of disturbed nights, she was up early and felt ready to face the day. She supervised breakfast and got the boys ready for school. James, at ten could now make his own way to school with his friends and she waved him off at the gate and watched him stride confidently down the road, his satchel on his back and his gas mask round his neck. She waited until he was out of sight before setting off in the opposite direction to take William to the infant’s school. He had been there for three months now and at last seemed to be showing signs of settling in. She worried far more about him than she ever had about James. Whilst James had always been confident and outgoing, William was a quieter, more nervous child. Perhaps it was something to do with Frank having been away for so much of his life. He could barely remember having a father.
When she got back she stopped off at number six to make sure the Miss Watlings had survived last night’s raid all right. They were a pair of spinster sisters, both now in their eighty’s and most of the neighbours kept an eye out for them.
Emily opened the door. “Hello Mrs. Griggs, come in dear. That was a long one last night wasn’t it?”
Margaret took a deep breath and walked into the familiar smell that would still conjure up memories of the two ladies fifty years on; a mixture of moth balls and paraffin heaters. It was not unpleasant but very powerful, a bit like the smell in a hardware shop. “Are you both all right then? It was a bit scary.”
“Oh yes,” said Jane. “It would take a better man than old Hitler to scare us. And if there is a bomb with our name on it, so be it. We’re a long way past our three score years and ten so we can’t grumble” It always cheered Margaret up listening to their simple philosophies and she went back to number twelve uplifted. All in all she thought they were very lucky with their neighbours. There was a terrace of seven late Victorian houses, all rented from the same landlord, none of them with bathrooms or indoor lavatories and, without living in each others pockets, all the residents got on pretty well.
There were still three men left in their terrace, exempt from military service for one reason or another. Mr. Napier at number two had some sort of government job in Whitehall. The Napiers were pleasant enough but there was always the feeling that they were a small cut above the rest. The Brewsters at number four had sons slightly older than James and William. Dad, George was a motor mechanic by trade and his talents were now being employed on a remote RAF station in Lincolnshire. Next came the octogenarian spinsters and at number eight were Mr. and Mrs Pawson, a slightly odd couple. He certainly was not too old to serve his country but sadly had been struck down with TB and was quite a sick man. He spent much of his time in his garden, which was immaculate and all day long he could be heard whistling an extremely limited repertoire of tunes, punctuated at regular intervals by clearing his throat and spitting.
The story at number ten was a sad one. Sadie Randell was an unmarried mother with a two-year old son. Engaged to be married, she and her fiancé had anticipated the event in a desperate act of passion on the last night of his embarkation leave not knowing if they would see each other again. Ten days later he was dead and six weeks after that it was confirmed that she was pregnant. Margaret’s closest friend and confidant was Enid at number fourteen. With adjacent back doors and a fence exactly the right height for leaning on, they enjoyed many a good gossip. Enid was quite a bit older than her and her husband Fred, fifteen years older still, was too old to be called up for active service. Not that she called them Enid and Fred; they were Mr. and Mrs. Howley. It was strange looking back, but all the neighbours were on formal terms.
She was shaken from her thoughts by the sound of the Howley’s front door slamming as Enid went out and realised with a start that she ought to be going too.
Once William had started school she had found herself a little job at the grocers shop in the high road. She’d never worked in a shop before but had taken to it immediately. She seemed to have a natural talent for dealing with customers, and proved very popular with them. She had been doing it for two months now, loving every minute and already Janet, the owner, felt perfectly confident leaving her on her own during slack periods. It fitted in quite nicely with school hours and if she did have to work a bit later, she was able to bring William to the shop where he played happily with Janet’s six-year old Alice, either upstairs or in the store room.
She’d cut things a bit fine and was quite breathless as she hurried into the shop dead on time. Janet greeted her cheerfully, “Hello, where’s the fire?”
“Sorry, I got carried away with housework and forgot the time. I’ll just go through and put my overall on and I’ll be with you.”
“You can make a cuppa while you’re out there. You make it so much better than I me.”
”Flattery will get you everywhere,” said Margaret.
They had become quite good friends in the last couple of months and enjoyed working together. With her husband, Gordon in the navy, Janet was in constant fear of receiving the dreaded telegram and she was grateful for the shop and her new friend to keep her mind occupied.
Over the next couple of hours, through various customers, they were able to get an idea of the effects on the town of last night’s raid. The attack on the munitions factory was mercifully inaccurate and it had suffered little damage but the surrounding area had taken a battering and several houses had been hit causing many casualties, Three bombs had fallen their side of the town but, as far as they could find out there had been no serious casualties.
It was just before 12 o’clock when the siren went off. There hadn’t been a daytime warning for a few days and they’d hoped Hitler had run out of “doodlebugs” The V1 of course was about to be superseded by theV2 but this time it proved to be one of the last doodlebugs. They had gone outside to look up at the sky when they heard the familiar sound approaching and as usual they silently willed it to keep going until it was well clear. But this time it stopped before it reached them and they knew it was headed in their direction. It didn’t even occur to them to dive for cover . They just stood there, mouths open as it came into sight over the cinema descending silently in a shallow dive looking for all the world like a small ‘plane with a strange pipe on top. In their minds they had been counting seconds since the engine had cut out; 10…11…12…13… It passed over them at no more than a hundred feet and they waited for the explosion; 14…15…16… On ‘22’ they heard a massive crash….but no explosion
“It didn’t go off,” said Janet, “the bloody thing didn’t go off.”
“No, but it hit something,” said Margaret, “it can’t be far away from me.”
Janet looked at her. “Do you want to pop round and check, just to put your mind at rest?”
“Would you mind? I don’t think I could concentrate until I know for certain.” She turned without waiting for an answer and started, half running, half walking towards home.
As she turned into Burgess Road she could see the backs of their houses and her heart went cold. Almost in the middle of their terrace was a gaping hole and she knew immediately which house it was. “Oh no,” she said out loud, “not the old ladies.” She ran to the end of the road, turned left into Stafford Road and stopped in surprise. She wasn’t sure what she had expected but it was more than this. The front garden of No. 6 was piled high with bricks and timber and beyond that was a narrow, surprisingly neat trail of bricks and rubble running across the road. At the far side of the allotments opposite, were the remains of the doodlebug, its deadly warhead buried in the soil. She was amazed at the precision with which the thing had scythed through the house. The roofs of Nos.4 and 8 were damaged where the ridge timber had been ripped away taking a lot of the slates with it but the walls were virtually intact. She learned later that the thing had banked at the last moment and it was the wing that had torn through the house
There were a number of neighbours congregated there already staring in disbelief and she learned from them that others were round the back trying to see if they could get to the old ladies. Not that they would have stood much chance in there, poor dears.
Margaret went and let herself into No. 12 to see what damage had been done in there and found that, apart from some broken windows there was none. It didn’t seem fair somehow; two innocent old ladies wiped out and she’d come away scot free. She went into the back garden and saw that there were about a dozen people, including Jack Pawson and Fred Howley, frantically moving bricks and rubble to see if they could get through to the sisters. She went through to the front again just a fire engine turned up. Three fireman, bleary-eyed after a long night, got out and surveyed the damage.
“Not much chance in there I’m afraid,” one of them muttered, “but we’d better give it a try.”
They were told of the efforts going on round the back and decided to have a go from the front, climbing carefully onto the pile of rubble calling all the time, “Can you hear us in there? We’re going to try to get to you.” Margaret, Sadie and Mrs Brewster decided the best contribution they could make was to provide sustenance and went to make some tea which they took to the workers
After half an hour, everyone agreed that it was useless to continue. No one could have survived. To the fireman of course this situation was all too familiar but to the neighbours the decision to give up on two of there own was heartbreaking. Margaret stood a bit apart from the group and glanced over to the allotments where the obscene agent of murder lay and a vision came into her mind of Adolph Hitler. For the first time in her life she swore. “You evil little bastard,” she said softly. She hadn’t thought anyone was close enough to hear her but a voice behind her said, “That’s a bit naughty, Margaret.”
“Yes,” said another voice, but I think in the circumstances it’s justified, don’t you dear?”
For the second time that day, her heart went cold. She was hearing ghosts now. That sounded just like ……; she turned and there, standing in front of her were Jane and Emily Watling
“Oh, you’re alive, you’re alive; thank God.”
“We told you it would take more than old Hitler to get rid of us, didn’t we dear?”
“But where have you been? It’s not often you go out”
“Oh, the accumulator for our radio ran out so we walked round to Mr. Grayson’s shop to have it recharged and while we were there, Mrs Grayson invited us it for a cup of tea.”
“Look everybody,” Margaret called out. Look, they’re here; they’re all right.”
For a few minutes no one knew whether to laugh or cry. The overwhelming feeling was joy and relief but the shock of what a narrow escape they had all had was beginning to sink in; and of course, lucky though they were, the two old ladies had lost everything.
Over the next few days the famous war-time spirit kicked in with a vengeance. The Napiers took the sisters in for what proved to be three months until other accommodation was found and others pitched in with items of clothing and food from their own meagre rations until new ration books could be obtained. Mrs Brewster and Sadie paid a visit to the local WVS depot to seek more help with clothes and other necessities.
Although many people were still to be killed by the even more lethal V2 rockets, the terrace survived intact until the final all-clear sounded on 8th May the following year. But, although they hardly noticed at the time, the relationship between the neighbours had undertaken a subtle change after the doodlebug. Politeness had become friendship, ‘Mr and Mrs’ had become ‘George and Betty’ and a passing chat had, as often as not, turned into a cup of tea in the parlour. Perhaps one tiny thing Adolph Hitler had inadvertently done for humanity.