The eighteen months from June 1941 to December 1942 saw virtually no bombing on London. We were graciously allowed to recover and take stock and learn from our lessons. The AFS and the old professional brigades were merged into the new NFS or National Fire Service. There were huge improvements to their water supply, with static tanks on bomb sites and pumps on the Thames bridges, so that if mains were fractured it would matter the less. But the social disruption was not so easily solved.
Not to mention the injured and the orphaned, the Blitz had left tens of thousands without possessions beyond what little they might salvage, and, worse, without roofs over their heads. They might be able to live in a battered slum, but not in a pile of rubble. The welfare service existed to find them alternative accommodation — an organisational nightmare — and to supply replacement ration books and identity cards and even money to buy food. Houses that were not wholly beyond redemption were patched up and made somewhat more habitable. But tight little communities where everyone knew and helped each other had been shattered. In their place came disorientation and insecurity. To make matters harder, clothing — all fabrics and all footwear — went on the ration, and Stepney, which no one could ever have called well-dressed, became yet shabbier with cobbled-up garments and recycled pass-me-ons.
The lull had other repercussions. Mum and Dad, although they ventured to bring Brenda back from the country, did not for a moment think the threat of air raids was over for good. Nor did the Government. It was concerned that, as more and more ARP workers joined the Home Guard or were called up to the army, much experience was being lost. Not wanting Civil Defence to run down below a certain level, it therefore obliged key personnel to continue with their duties until released. Dad was one of these. Instead of being called up, as otherwise he might, he was kept on as a warden. But, with the lull, Doug and I could drop our self-imposed full-time role and revert to part-time duties.
This allowed us to return to Scout activities, where our careers had been on hold. Now fifteen, we were first made patrol leaders and then leaders of the whole 11th Stepney Troop. We continued training, whether in the parish room which, no longer needed as a rest centre, was given back to us, or in camp out in Epping Forest. Thus we advanced to First Class Scouts and finally to King’s Scouts, all of which took a great deal of time.
The respite, too, gave us a chance to catch up with each other. During the Blitz I had seen Doug virtually every day, and I had leant on him more heavily than ever. But there had been none of the leisure or privacy needed for proper talk. Now there was, and now we could get things off our chests. We talked of the past and of our experiences. We talked of the present and of our scouting programme. But we did not talk of the future, which was shrouded in the mists of uncertainty. We could see no distance ahead.
All the Balkans were now in Axis hands. East of Britain and west of Russia, the whole of Europe was against us, save only four nations which sat on their hands in glum neutrality. Then in December 1941 Japan burst out and attacked south-east Asia and Pearl Harbor. This not only brought the United States at last into the war, but opened up a whole new battleground in the Pacific. The immediate result was a major conscription. While Dad stayed in Civil Defence, Fred was called up. Our parents had long since agreed that, if this should happen, Doug would be in our guardianship for the duration, and would live with us. The flat was lent to Roland House for the use of temporary visitors. Apart from Doug’s inevitable pain at parting from his father, the arrangement worked excellently. To Mum and Dad, he was already almost a second son. To me, his presence was an unmitigated delight. And with the loss of our scoutmaster and — what with the call-up — no prospect of a replacement, the two of us took the running of the troop into our own hands, with some distant supervision from Roland House.
1942 was a year when little took place to affect our life at home. The lull continued, and so did our scouting. The Luftwaffe mounted a number of attacks on coastal cities, but what ignited Hitler’s especial fury was the massive RAF raids on Lübeck, which were our retaliation for the London Blitz. In a further tit for tat, the Germans launched the so-called Baedeker raids on purely cultural and historic targets. Thus Canterbury and Norwich were hit, and York and Bath and Exeter. But not London, or not significantly.
Abroad, the war of attrition continued in Russia, in the Pacific, and in North Africa. And in August, although we did not hear of it for months, Fred was taken prisoner of war in Libya. Better a POW, however, than dead. He was moved first to Italy and then to Bavaria. Doug and Dad could exchange brief letters with him, under censorship at both ends, and at long and irregular intervals because such mail was handled only by the Red Cross in Switzerland. But all seemed as well with him as could be expected. Finally, in November, church bells were rung, for the first time since May 1940, to celebrate the victory of El Alamein.
1943, however, had barely started when the Allies opened a new bombing offensive against Germany. Hitler retaliated by sending the Luftwaffe back to London. Air raid alerts began again, and the shortage of manpower in Civil Defence immediately showed up.
“Look, boys,” Dad said. “we’re well enough off now for messengers. What we’re in desperate need of is wardens. Full-time, full-blown wardens. How about it?”
“But we’re only sixteen! Wardens have to be at least thirty.”
“They’ll bend the rules again. They’ve got no choice. After your experience in the Blitz, you’re as well qualified as anyone. And I can pull a string or two if I have to.”
So full-timers we became, that very day, with a W on our tin hats instead of an M, and dark blue battledress and beret which we rarely wore on duty, still preferring our boiler suits. It was our first paid employment. We opened bank accounts for our wages. We felt very grown-up and responsible.
Perhaps Mum and Dad recognised it, or perhaps they had a premonition. They did now talk about the future.
“If anything should happen to us, go straight to Mr Lavender the solicitor in Commercial Road. Some time ago, Charlie, we signed a document appointing Auntie Sybil as guardian for you and Brenda, should it become necessary. And our wills leave everything to the pair of you. Doug, your father also signed a document transferring you if necessary from our guardianship to hers. He didn’t want you two to be split up. And as you know, he left a sizeable sum with us to dole out as your allowance. I’ve instructed our bank to carry on paying it, if we can’t. No doubt Fred’s safer as a POW than as a soldier, but if anything should happen to him, Mr Lavender has his will too.
“Now if Sybil does become your guardian, she has the legal power to dictate where you live and what you do. But we’ve just written to her to say that in our view you’re plenty old enough to make your own choices. If you want to stay here, as you probably would, tell her so. You can support yourselves financially now. You’ve got responsible jobs. More important still, you’ve got each other. Have the courage of your convictions. But with this new round of bombing we’ve asked her if Brenda can go back to Oxfordshire.”
A sobering prospect. And for Brenda it was already too late.
The third night of this new round, Doug and I were on duty in Post D1, and we were nearly as busy as at the height of the Blitz. On my return from one incident, I found Doug had gone out to another. Mr Goldstein, however, who was still with us, was in the post, and so were two other wardens and their messengers. In ran Doug’s messenger Sol. Although Jewish by background, he was a member of our St Dunstan’s troop, a bright youngster of barely fourteen, his voice still in the throes of breaking. This would be his first taste of action, but he knew his drill and was remarkably composed. He went straight to the phone and called Control Centre for an ambulance to Ocean Street. Only then did he turn to me.
“Charlie, bomb fell near us. Too near. A bit got Doug in the leg. Here.” He patted his own calf muscle. “Don’t look too bad, but he’s bleeding quite a lot. I bandaged it.”
Alarmed, I was already on my feet to go to Doug when the phone rang. Mr Goldstein picked it up and listened.
“For you, Charlie. Bill Chambers at C4. Urgent.”
Damn. Bill was a warden in the next sector to the south, which covered Arbour Square and our house. I knew him. I took the phone, intending to put him off.
“Sorry, Bill, I’m up to …”
But he interrupted me. “Charlie, I’ve got bad news.”
I froze. I understood, instantly and exactly, what this was about. There are some messages that cannot be sanitised. I knew that all too well. I had delivered plenty of them myself. And I recognised the tone of his voice, empty of any tinge of hope or comfort.
“Thanks, Bill,” I said dully. “All dead?”
“I’m sorry, Charlie. Yes.” He was no doubt relieved that I had lightened his burden by cottoning on so fast. “Direct hit on their Morrison. They wouldn’t have felt a thing. Your parents …”
They had been on day shift. They would have been inside their shelter.
“Yes. And a girl too? My sister?”
She would have been in it too. She was not yet thirteen. At least she had been spared any suffering.
“That’s right. We found them quickly. They’ve been taken to the morgue.”
“Which one? Glamis Road?”
It was the nearest.
“Yes. But …”
I understood the ‘but’. It meant ‘don’t go to see the bodies — it would be too painful.’
“Thanks, Bill,” I repeated mechanically. Empty, I put the phone down.
Mr Goldstein, who had heard my end of the conversation, took charge. Hands on my shoulders, he sat me in a chair. He clicked his fingers at a messenger, who filled a cup from the teapot which was kept hot on the primus.
“Drink it. Don’t worry about Doug. He isn’t badly hurt. You heard. Sol’s gone back with Jack to look after him. He’ll be all right. It’s you I’m concerned about.”
I drank the tea. It did no noticeable good. I sat there, staring at nothing, still empty. Mr Goldstein was silently gripping my hand and transmitting strength. It was a technique we all used when breaking such news. Now, I doubly appreciated it. Then Jack and Sol came back. Sol looked at me with sympathy in his brown eyes, as if he too had been where I was now, and he patted me on the arm.
“Doug’s safely on his way to the London,” said Jack. “Sol had done a good job on his leg, and I doubt they’ll keep him in. Or that he’ll be out of action for long. No damage to property from his bomb. Oh, and we brought his bike back.” He sat down to write up his notes.
“I’m going to see him,” I announced.
“All right, Charlie,” said Mr Goldstein. He knew about our domestic arrangements. “Where will you take him? His old flat?”
There was no alternative, apart from a rest centre. I nodded.
“Good. I’ll look in on you tomorrow, then. Take time off, Charlie. Several days at least. Don’t be a martyr. We can manage. I’ll square it with Control.”
I rode fast up Redmans Road to the London. Doug would be in Accident and Emergency. It was not too busy, and I located Doug by his voice.
“Don’t cut my flipping boiler suit!” he was protesting. “It’s on points. It’s precious. Just roll the leg up. That’s right.”
He was laid out flat with a doctor and nurse bending over him. He spotted me.
“Oh, Charlie! Good of you to come, but you didn’t need to. It’s only a littl’un. Ow!”
The nurse was still dealing with the bloodstained trouser leg, and the doctor glanced up. I recognised him from my time here in the Blitz, and he recognised me.
“Why, if it isn’t Charlie Johnson! Back for more excitement, are you? Oh thanks, nurse. Just whip the bandage off and clean it up, would you?”
The nurse’s swabbing revealed a jagged tear a couple of inches long, weeping blood among the fine smarmed-down hairs. From it protruded a piece of metal considerably bigger than a half crown coin. Doug was gritting his teeth.
“Hmm,” the doctor said. “Need to get that out. Doesn’t look too deep in. Nurse, have you got a local on your trolley? And some pincers?”
“Can I keep it?” asked Doug. “The bit of bomb?”
“Morbid. But you’re welcome.”
The nurse was injecting Doug’s leg. Despite his obvious pain, he was obstinately cheerful. But that was Doug.
“Why morbid? Not everyone’s got a bit of a bomb that nearly killed them.”
It was too much. So far I had not opened my mouth. I could not interrupt Doug’s treatment. But now, with this talk of bombs and killing, a sob escaped.
“Charlie! What’s up?”
My emptiness turned into pangs of almost physical pain. The dam burst, and I broke into outright howls.
“Oh Doug!” I blurted, grabbing his hand. “Home. Bomb. They’re all dead!”
“Oh Christ! Oh Charlie!”
His own face crumpled. He tried to push himself towards me, but the anaesthetic was taking effect and his leg failed to work. Frustrated, he twisted his body to pull me down, and in each other’s arms we quaked. The doctor and nurse looked on. In wartime, such people witness most terrible things, and I lift my hat to them. These two must have understood the gist of our tragedy, and they were marvellous.
“I’m sorry,” said the doctor after a while. “I’m terribly sorry. But one thing at a time. We really must get this young man’s problem out of the way before you deal with your joint one. May we get on with it?”
Fair enough. Doug lay back and submitted while we held each other’s hand, tight. I did not see the metal come out, but I truly believe that even without the anaesthetic Doug would not have noticed a thing.
“There, all done,” said the doctor at last. The wound was hidden under a large padded plaster. “I’ve stitched it up. Don’t put weight on it for a week. Stop at the desk on your way out and get them to lend you some crutches. Come back tomorrow for us to check that leg, if you can. If not, here are spare dressings and aspirin. With your first aid training, you’ll know the drill. Will you,” he asked me, “be looking after your friend?”
I nodded dumbly.
“Don’t let him be too energetic. And you, young man, look after Charlie. We know him here, and he’s worth looking after.”
“Yes,” said Doug faintly. “He is.”
“Again, I’m sorry. Thank you for what you do for us, both of you.” He had seen our warden’s helmets. “And good luck!”
Hanging on to me, Doug hopped to the desk and borrowed a pair of crutches. We made rather faster progress to my bike, at which point the All Clear sounded.
“It’s got to be the flat, hasn’t it? Only hope there’s nobody there.”
I manoeuvred him onto the saddle, and as he held his crutches I pushed him to Stepney Green. It was two in the morning. We rang the bell and there was no answer. Using his key, we went in and I hoisted him upstairs. No sign of anyone in residence. Good. For the time being, keeping busy had held the fiends at bay, and there was more to busy myself with.
“I’ll make up the beds. You in your old room, me in Fred’s?”
“Yes. Sheets should be in that cupboard.”
All Doug’s clothes had been in Arbour Square. So had mine. There was nothing here except the bed linen and some civvies of Fred’s. Not even pyjamas, not even a toothbrush. We would have to rebuild our lives from scratch. Remembering with an effort to check that Doug and his wound were all right, I undressed to my pants and fell into bed before the fiends should catch up. I must have dropped straight off. But after an unknown time I was woken by my own howls. There was also a strange thumping sound which turned out to be Doug limping into my room. Without a word he got in beside me. The bed was a double one, but he did not keep his distance. He snuggled up close and took me in his arms. He too was whimpering. It sank in that I was not the only one bereaved. He had loved my family almost as if it were his own. As I hugged him back, strength and solace seemed to flow between us. The fiends retreated, and I slept again.
It was eleven when I woke. The pangs had been replaced by a dull ache, and I was very conscious that we were young and alone. Doug was not in the bed. I found him in the bathroom changing the dressing on his leg.
“Thanks for last night, Doug. It did the trick. It was what I needed. So did you, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I did.”
Blood had soaked through the old plaster, but a scab had formed on the stitched gash.
He grimaced. “Pulling the plaster off was agony. Ripping the hairs out. But it looks all right. Still hurts a bit, so I’ve taken an aspirin. What about you?”
“Emptiness. Still hurts like fury, and aspirin won’t help that. But we’ve got to work out what to do next.”
“First thing’s to eat. I’m famishing. No food here. Ration books gone. It’ll have to be a British Restaurant. I’ve got enough money.”
“Just let me wash.”
“Sorry, this place is an icehouse. I’d light the gas fire if there were any matches.”
A quick splash in cold water. No toothbrush, and I shaved twice a week at best. Shivering, we climbed into our boiler suits. The leg of Doug’s was stiff with dried blood, but he had no choice because Fred was a small man and none of his clothes would fit. Then the doorbell rang. It was Mr Goldstein with young Sol in tow. I took them up.
“We’ve come to see how you are,” Mr Goldstein said.
We were still young, but we were no longer alone. “That’s very kind of you.”
“Fellow feeling. Sol lost his parents in the Blitz. I lost mine to the Zeppelins. So we know what you’re going through, even if we can’t help. All we can say is that wounds heal. Slowly. Maybe never completely. But they do get better with time. And we also know that you’ll have a mountain of things to do, where perhaps we can help. But first of all, Doug, how’s your leg?”
“Fine, thanks. Sol did a great job with the bandage.”
“I’m sure he did,” said Mr Goldstein. “Take care to keep it nice and warm.” He glanced at the gas fire. “Bit chilly in here, isn’t it?”
“Ah. I’ve got a lighter.” He used it. “That’s better. We’ve just had a look at your house. Not a hope of salvaging anything, I’m afraid.”
A good thing, probably. A complete break. No ghoulish scavenging for tattered relics.
“Have you eaten?”
“No food. No ration books. We were just off to the British Restaurant.”
“Very sensible. May we join you? And talk about what needs to be done?”
We went, slowly because Doug was still mastering his crutches. British Restaurants might not be exactly cordon bleu, but they were a godsend to people like us who had lost their ration books; and with the price of a three-course meal fixed at ninepence they were good value. Over the meal we hammered out lists. Never having had to run a household or cater for ourselves, we were very ignorant, but Mr Goldstein was a tower of strength and knowledge. Our list of things to be done ended up with ten main headings.
Tell Roland House the flat was no longer available.
Go to Welfare for new ration books.
Take some money out of our bank.
Find more clothes, new or more likely second-hand.
Go to the Town Hall for new uniforms.
Buy food and other necessities.
Send a telegram to Auntie Sybil. Luckily I could remember her address.
Get death certificates from the registrar.
Arrange the funeral with the rector and the undertaker.
Talk to Mr Lavender the solicitor.
Sol was a huge help. “Me uncle’s got a shop,” he said. “Sells lots of fings what ain’t on the ration. He’ll let yer have ’em cheap.”
We gave him money and our list of necessities like soap and toilet paper and toothbrushes and razor and matches, and he came back with them all, and more. Mr Goldstein remained with us as our tower of strength who knew infinitely more than we did about death certificates and undertakers and outlets of second-hand clothing. Mr Lavender — a friend of Dad’s, whom I knew already — confirmed the legal arrangements. With our new ration books we made ourselves known at Mum’s grocer and butcher, for it paid dividends to be on good terms with them. When finally we got home, Doug weary and the rest of us laden, we found a telegram from Auntie in reply to ours. She would come over tomorrow morning, it said, if we could find her somewhere to stay.
“Here, I suppose,” Doug said. “Put her in my room. So long as you don’t mind …”
“Of course I don’t.”
We scribbled another telegram telling her how to find the way. Sol offered to send it as he went home as he would be passing the head post office, which stayed open late. Mr Goldstein also took himself off, both of them pursued by our thanks. I put up the blackout curtains. At least the flat was warmer now. Inexpertly I concocted a simple meal. We might be up to toasting sausages over a camp fire or, in Doug’s case, to the occasional meal for Fred, but our ambitions had never extended to a cookery badge.
We had still not talked, however, about our loss. Doug put his hand on mine.
“There’s nothing to say, Charlie. Nothing useful. Nothing that I can think of.”
“Nor me. It’s happened. All we can do is accept it and move on. Thank God we’ve got each other. And people like Mr Goldstein and Sol.”
“What about your Auntie Sybil?”
Doug had never met her. It must be strange to be in the guardianship of someone you had never met. I considered.
“I’m not sure. She’s a nice enough person. You know, loving. Good with young children. But we aren’t young children any more. I don’t know if she’ll understand us and what we’re doing. Not like Mr Goldstein does. Not like Mum and Dad did.”
The thought of Mum and Dad was an evil reminder. Now that I had less to do, the emptiness and the fiends were returning. I half-choked.
“Let’s go to bed, Charlie,” Doug said. “We’re both knackered. Together tonight as well?”
“Yes please. Oh God, yes please.”
As last night, we hugged, and sobbed and, comforted, finally slept. Well before midnight the siren wailed the Alert.
“Oh hell. Suppose we’d better …”
We were wardens, after all, who ought to set an example. We dragged the mattress and blankets into the Morrison in the middle of the living room, and crept in. Their Morrison had not helped Mum and Dad and Brenda, but …
“If there’s an Alert tomorrow,” said Doug, “when Auntie’s here …”
“She comes in too. She’s got to.”
We slept again, through the ack-ack fire and the distant bombs, drawing the same strength from each other. We woke late and had some breakfast. Doug’s wound was behaving well. I changed the sheets for Auntie, tried to tidy away our new possessions, and put Doug’s bloodstained boiler suit into the sink to soak. We were now in ordinary trousers, if second-hand.
The bell rang. On the doorstep was Auntie Sybil, in tweeds and brogues which were definitely not Stepney. After a formal embrace of greeting and commiseration as between aunt and nephew, I took her in. Her first reaction was disappointing, and became worse. She headed for Doug as if to bestow the motherly cuddle needed by a poor little almost-orphaned waif; but, seeing it coming, he forestalled her by holding out his hand, which she had to shake. For a moment they stood, guardian and ward, sizing one another up with constraint on either side. Then, rather than talking about our joint tragedy, she glanced out of the window and launched into stilted conversation
“It isn’t as bad here as I thought it would be. I saw some bomb damage coming into Paddington, but you’ve got off lightly.”
True, the short stretch from the underground station to the flat had so far escaped. But little did she know. Next she looked round the room and nodded at the cage in the middle of the floor.
“What in heaven’s name is that?”
“Morrison shelter.” I felt myself emptying again. “Mum and Dad and Brenda were in one when they died.”
“What’s the point of it, then? It didn’t do them much good.” There was almost hostility there. Or was it just lack of understanding?
“A lot better than nothing” I said hotly. “It’s fine against falling masonry. But it can’t withstand a direct hit. Nothing can, except six feet of concrete. They were just unlucky.”
To lighten the tone, Doug offered her a cup of tea, to which she said yes. He went out, not on his crutches but moving between chairs and doorposts for support.
“Have you hurt your leg?” she asked, following into the kitchen.
“Yes. Got damaged, the night before last.”
“Look at this,” I put in, squeezing the leg of the boiler suit in the sink so that a brown stain spread cloud-like through the water. “Though it could have been much worse. It could have got him somewhere vital.”
She wrinkled her nose at the sight. “But what was it that hurt you?”
“Fragment of bomb casing.”
“Bomb! But you weren’t in the … in the shelter, were you?”
“Oh no. This was in the street.”
“What were you doing in the street during an air raid? That sounds irresponsible.”
“Not irresponsible. It’s our job.”
She frowned. “Your job? You mean they send errand boys out in raids?”
“Auntie,” I interrupted. This had gone on long enough. “Even when we were messengers, we were much more than errand boys. And now we’re wardens.”
“You can’t be! You’re only sixteen!”
Dad’s letter had evidently not mentioned our promotion. Without a word I pointed to the tin hats hanging on the back of the door, both marked with a W.
She gaped, the wind out of her sails. “What on earth possessed your father to allow it?”
“He suggested it.”
Auntie was exuding waves of disapproval. It turned out that she lived in a different world. There were wardens in her village, but beyond checking on blackout they had nothing to do. She had never heard a siren, let alone a bomb. All that disturbed her peace — and set her complaining bitterly — was planes taking off from a nearby RAF base. From farms she could get all the milk and eggs and meat she wanted, off the ration and without queuing. It had not crossed her mind, it seemed, to bring any for us; and even if she had, I doubt we would have accepted. Rationing fosters a sense of fair play.
She simply had no idea. It was understandable, I supposed, because the papers and the wireless played down bomb damage at home. But she seemed to share none of Mum’s intelligence and sensitivity and compassion. Well, she was in for a shock; and after a simple bite of lunch — she asked if we had any ham — we set about her education.
First we led her to St Dunstan’s, where the destruction was much worse than round the flat. Her eyes widened at the gap-toothed terraces and the open acres of rubble, but she made no comment. Sections of street were barricaded off where men were repairing broken pipes and cables. We passed a couple of Boy Scouts who were bent double, eyes searching the ground, and threw a greeting to them.
“What are they doing?”
“Collecting shrapnel from bombs and ack-ack shells. For recycling for the war effort.”
We took her into Post D1. The day shift was normally a quiet one. Only two wardens and their messengers were in residence, including Mr Goldstein and Sol, whom Doug introduced.
“This is Mr Goldstein, who’s been an enormous help. And this is Sol, who bandaged me up the other night and did a marvellous job of it. It’s getting on nicely, Sol, thanks to you.”
“Flipping heck,” said Sol, blushing again. “Least I could do. Blow me, that blooming bomb knocks yer flat, and first fing yer does is ask if I’m all right, when blood’s pouring outer yer.”
Typical Doug. And he clearly had an admirer. Another admirer.
Auntie was appalled. “But you’re so young … How could you put up with the sight of blood? Had you seen it before?”
“Lumme, lady, seen plenty.”
Sensing the tension, Mr Goldstein redirected the conversation. “Doug and Charlie, you won’t have heard about last night. I’m afraid C4 took a direct hit. Bill Chambers and Maurice his messenger copped it.”
Bill was a great man, not much older than us. And Maurice was one of the troop’s refugee members from the Channel Islands who, though he arrived speaking almost nothing but his Norman French patois, had picked up very fair English. What a tragedy to die so far from his home. What a waste.
“So Control’s given us part of their territory,” Mr Goldstein went on. “Down to Commercial Road. If things get lively, the night shift’s going to be busy.”
“I’m afraid we can’t be on,” I said, flicking my eyes towards Auntie. “But after that, yes. Just me, that is. Not Doug, not yet. Would you let Control know?”
“Already have. And you’re taking tomorrow night off as well. I’ve told them so.”
We resumed our pilgrimage through the desolation, Doug faster on his crutches today. In Arbour Square the two of us stopped, heads bowed, by the flattened remains of Post C4, while Auntie boggled at the ack-ack guns and the searchlights and the WAAF team launching a blimp. Finally we stood in front of what had been our house. As Bill had said, as Mr Goldstein had said, not a hope. Nothing more than a rubble-piled gap, shaved neatly down at the party wall on either side. The three of us were holding hands now, all in tears. And I was empty again, in a bottomless pit of emptiness.
As we walked home not a word was spoken. Being January, it was already growing dark. Silently I did the blackout, switched on the light, and put the kettle on. Auntie remained taciturn, but she did ask for details of the funeral tomorrow, at which the emptiness was reinforced.
“Eleven o’clock at the church,” I said. “Then burial in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. At least they’ll have their own service and their own grave.”
“What do you mean?”
“During the Blitz there were so many dead it was often a matter of communal services and mass graves. No time for individual ones. But tomorrow I expect there’ll be lots of people. Mum and Dad were so well respected. And in the ARP there’s a huge … what do you call it? Esprit de corps?”
I don’t think she believed me. The ice was still thick. When she went out to the loo Doug and I exchanged a despairing word.
“What if she wants to take us to Oxfordshire? Dig our toes in and refuse to go? She can hardly drag us there by force.”
“No. But the law might, if she insists.” Here too our ignorance was profound. “Maybe Mr Lavender would help. He knows what was in Mum and Dad’s mind.”
We took her to the British Restaurant for a silent meal. Barely were we back at the flat than the siren went. Auntie started and looked wildly around.
“Sorry,” I said. “They’re getting earlier and earlier.” I opened the side of the Morrison. “Inside, please, Auntie. Doug, you go next.”
With three occupants, the shelter was too cramped for comfort. We sat, and before long heard the barking of the ack-ack.
“Poor Mr Goldstein. Poor Sol. They’ve already been on shift for eleven hours.”
Between the barks, the drone of bombers became audible, and the whine of fighters trying to intercept them. Distant blasts, then nearer, then very near indeed. The whole house shook, and there was a crack as our window broke.
“Bloody hell!” said Doug, earning a venomous look from Auntie. “That was too damned close.”
“I’m going,” I announced.
“But you’re off duty,” Auntie bleated. “You said so.”
“I did. But I can’t not go.”
“That’s right,” said Doug, obviously wishing he could join me.
I wriggled out, shut up the Morrison again, and collected my tin hat and a second-hand jacket that hardly fitted. Out in the street, it was obvious. My torch lit up the house almost opposite, two doors along. No fire. But shambles. And whimpers. They led me to the garden. Mrs Harvey and her son Cedric, who was twelve or maybe just thirteen and a member of the St Dunstan’s Troop, had been caught in the open on the way to their Anderson. She was beyond help, but he was still conscious. Far to the east, where searchlights and tracer trails were criss-crossing the sky, came a mighty fusillade of bangs. Probably a bomber shot down with its full load on board. In a lull in the noise I heard Mr Goldstein’s and Sol’s voices.
“Round the back!” I shouted. “Sol, phone Control. 34 Stepney Green. Ambulance and morgue van needed. No fire.”
Mr Goldstein and I did what little we could, as far as the first aid supplies in our satchels allowed. Sol came back to grip Cedric’s hand, to utter soothing words, and to hold lint in place as we bandaged. He had a cool head and a heart of gold, that boy; yet another boy condemned to become a man by the fastest and hardest of routes. The ambulance and the morgue van carried the victims separately away. In one sense it was an easy incident, as these things went. In all others it was a horror. Mr Goldstein did not bother to ask why I was there. He knew.
I returned to the flat, having been out for little more than an hour. Everything was quiet again. Our front window, my torch showed, was only cracked, not shattered. Doug and Auntie were still in the Morrison, silent. I took off my hat and wriggled in.
“There’s blood on your trousers!” cried Auntie plaintively. “And your hands!”
I did not care a tinker’s curse if I was being rude. I was feeling sick, as sick as when I had rescued my girl all that time ago.
“It was No 34,” I explained to Doug. “Mrs Harvey was dead. Cedric wasn’t. The blast had torn his pyjamas off. Deep cuts all over his body. Flying slates, probably. And one of them had sliced his willy off.”
“Oh Christ!” cried Doug.
Auntie gasped. No doubt I should have been more considerate in my choice of words. But at this moment she seemed a total irrelevance.
“Young Sol was there,” I added. “And marvellous, again.”
“You mean you let that little boy see …”
I did not reply. Heaven help us, truly she lived in a different world. Mercifully soon the All Clear went. The evening had not been all that lively after all; not in terms of the number of bombs. We crawled out of the Morrison. I scrubbed off the offending blood. With that reminder, visions of mutilated bodies surged up. Imagined visions of Mum’s and Dad’s and Brenda’s had to be suppressed. The all too vivid vision of Cedric’s body resolutely refused to be suppressed, and I was belatedly and noisily sick, at which Auntie clucked. So we went to bed. Faint sounds from the next room suggested that she was tossing and turning. Fretting and empty, Doug and I hugged. Hugging, we sobbed again. After a while we slept.
Next day, the funeral. We wore our new ARP uniforms. Of the service itself I remember little. What I will never forget is the support. It was overwhelming. There were teachers and kids from Brenda’s school, even some from my old one. Neighbours from Arbour Square. Former colleagues of Dad’s from the London Docks. Representatives from the Mother’s Union and Dr Barnardo’s. Many from other Civil Defence teams such as Rescue and First Aid and AFS, and from the police and WVS. The whole of the St Dunstan’s troop in Scout uniform, and some senior Scouts from Roland House. Above all, serried ranks of wardens and messengers, pretty well every single one who was not on duty, not only from nearby posts but from throughout the borough, all in their black or white helmets. Even the Controller himself was there. The congregation must have numbered three or four hundred. More than once I saw Auntie look back from the front pew as if she could not believe her eyes.
From the church, we three rode in the hearses, with a deviation or two where streets were still blocked with rubble from earlier raids. Everyone else, or nearly everyone, followed on foot for the half mile to the cemetery. The two warden’s helmets and the endearingly childish teddy bear were removed from the coffins. So were the Union Jacks. The rector spoke the final sentences. My father and my mother and my sister were lowered into their joint grave. Auntie was in cascades of tears; understandably, for Mum was her only sister. Then something happened which had never happened at any of the ARP funerals we had hitherto attended.
The haunting notes of the Last Post rang out. The bugler was young Sol.
It was too much. So far I had been not exactly empty, but wholly numb and dry-eyed. Now the floodgates burst open. The three of us again stood hand in hand, guardian and wards who did not see eye to eye but, as in Arbour Square, united in grief.
After countless people had offered their condolences, Mr Lavender the solicitor came up and took Auntie aside for a lengthy chat. Meanwhile we had a word with Mr Goldstein. Though not a demonstrative man, he let us know his support by putting his hands on our shoulders. He had been in this very same cemetery twenty-seven years ago, he told us, burying his own parents. And the Last Post, he said, had been at Sol’s personal initiative. We therefore went over to Sol, where we were rejoined by Auntie.
“Bumped into Mrs O’Farrell this morning,” he said. She was a local lady who had been the driver of the ambulance last night. “And she got talking. Sorry to say Cedric died on way to horspital. Loss of blood. Poor bloke. Know what he said when you wuz bandaging and I wuz holding his hand?” Sol swallowed hard. “Could tell he wuz hurting like hell. But what he said wuz, ‘I’m a Scout. I can take it.’”
We thanked him for the Last Post.
“Only right,” he said, blushing. “That’s what it’s about, innit? Duty over, rest in peace.” He lowered his head, perhaps to hide his tears behind the brim of his Scout hat. “I’ll be doing it for Maurice too. And Mr Chambers.”
Was a new tradition being born?
At long last we were free to go. The hearse drove us back to Stepney Green, where Auntie repaired her make-up. Then, sitting down in front us, she finally unburdened herself, and very frank she was.
“Charlie and Doug, I couldn’t help seeing that you’ve been frustrated with me, and I’ve an apology to make. I was so astonished by your father’s last letter that I hardly believed it. Yesterday when I arrived, I thought you were boys playing games, on the fringe of the serious things. Really I did. And I had no idea how serious the serious things were. I came here, I admit, intending to take you to Oxfordshire where you could do useful work on the land until you were called up. But you’ve opened my eyes, you and all your colleagues. And Mr Lavender spoke in glowing terms of your responsibility. Your work here is truly terrible, but it’s far more useful than anything you could do in the country. I see that now. Don’t hesitate, of course, to come to me if you have any financial problems, or for my consent to anything you can’t legally sign yourself. But as far as I’m concerned you’re free to run your own lives.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so blind. And thank you for being so patient, despite your loss, despite your frustration. Happier now?”
“Very happy. Thank you, Auntie.”
She intended to find some lunch at Paddington, so we saw her to the underground station, waved her goodbye, and went home in a state of profound relief, not only at her attitude but at her departure. All the formalities were over. Yet it was difficult to settle down. We ate a desultory and basic lunch in the form of bread and dripping. It was spoilt by a lack of salt, which we had forgotten to put on our shopping list. Why did a silly little niggle like that loom so large amid the infinitely more important events of the last few days?
Dissatisfied, we sat on. With nothing urgent now to do, my thoughts floated slowly back from the trivial to the fundamental. Brenda with her young joie de vivre. Mum with her boundless love, ever-present and ever-displayed. Dad with his wisdom and his own version of love, less open but no less real. I had leant so heavily on them. So much had been snatched away in a single flash. My emptiness struck home again — my loneliness, my lovelessness, the loss of my anchors — deeper than at any stage so far. And so much more had been snatched besides. Bill Chambers, Maurice, Cedric — the image of Cedric’s battered body would not leave my mind. Anger flared that good people had been so thrown away, that promising lives had been so squandered. The fiends were returning. The howls were building up.
But Doug had seen inside my head. He limped across to kneel between my legs and wrap his arms round my waist.
“We need cheering up,” he said. “Let’s try the magic treatment that’s worked the last few nights. No, not quite like this. You can’t hug me back. Let’s lie down.”
We took off our shoes, lay down on the bed, and hugged there. That did not work either.
“Still wrong,” he diagnosed. “It isn’t the same as it’s been at night. It needs to be skin to skin. Let’s undress.”
We did, as usual down to our underpants. Doug was sitting on the bed, peeling off his socks. Apart from armpits and shins, his body was as smooth as Cedric’s. But it was unblemished, other than the plaster on his leg, not disfigured with gashes and gore. It was clean and wholesome and normal. I found myself staring.
“What’s so interesting?” he asked. “You’ve seen it all before.”
Not quite all. Not yet. Close though we had always been, we had never seen each other totally naked, not at least since we were very young. At Arbour Square we had had our own bedrooms. To lay my spectre I had to see the whole of him. But first I had to explain why.
“Sorry, Doug. I can’t get young Cedric out of my head. It’s haunting me, the sight of him. His body slashed deep all over, masses of blood. All right, I’ve seen plenty like that before. And looking at your body sort of reassures me, because it’s clean and normal. But what really haunts me is his willy. A stump, chopped off short. Little wisps of hair above it, matted thick. Blood pouring down over his balls. Useless. A write-off. About the most ghastly thing you could think of. It was so, um, personal. That’s why I was sick.”
I was feeling sick again.
“I’m glad I didn’t see it,” said Doug, hauling himself up by the bed head to stand on his good leg, his eyes full of sympathy. “But I do understand. You want to be reassured over that too, don’t you? By seeing a complete and normal willy — at least I hope mine’s normal. Well, why not? Of course you can.”
He slipped his pants down to pose in front of me. Yes, it was normal, larger than Cedric’s would have been, circled by much more plentiful hair, to all appearances in full working order. It did the trick. It did reassure me that some normality was left in the world. A healthy normality. That particular spectre was laid.
“Fanks, mate,” I said, after a good look. “Better now. Am I being very strange?”
“Oh no, Charlie. Not strange. Just at sea. Like me. After the last few days when nothing’s been anywhere near normal. Come on, we need our hug. But even stevens — you drop your pants too.”
I did, and for a long moment he gazed at me. Then we slid into bed and into each other’s arms where, sure enough, the magic worked.
“Ah!” he muttered. “This is what we’re after.”
Yes, it was. I felt the strength and the comfort flowing almost physically between us. I felt the fiends in retreat. And then, both at the same moment, we felt something else, something unmistakable. Nothing like this had been in my mind, ever, over all the years, with any boy, let alone with Doug. It had not even been in my mind when I looked at his willy. It was not what our friendship was about. But now it was happening.
Tentatively we rubbed against each other. His face was an inch or two from mine, his eyes wide in … what? Shock? Enlightenment? Pleasure? And his mouth was slightly open. Automatically, without thinking, as if it was the only natural thing to do, I moved mine to it and gently nibbled with my lips. He responded. Our tongues met, and we were instantly transformed. Mouth tight now on mouth, tongues frantic, body hard to body, our tentative rubbing became a passionate grinding as we soared into realms unknown. Soon, all too shatteringly soon, came the climax.
Still hard together, we lay there recovering our breath … winding down … revelling … thinking.
For years our minds had met. Now our bodies too had met, naked and undisguised and unashamed. Not in a brief and sordid surge of lust, but as a normality, as a union that was permanent and right. It needed no justifying and no debate. I simply knew it. I was not after all alone. I was not unloved. I did have an anchor. Sorrows would remain, but the fiends were gone for ever. They had been banished by Doug. Not by the part of Doug I had known for so long, good though it was, but by the whole Doug I had never seen as a whole before. Once more the relief was profound.
And his eyes were wide again, this time with wonder.
“Why on earth,” he asked at last, “haven’t we done that before?”
A very good question. But this was uncharted territory, and it needed exploring.
“You know,” I said carefully, “we used to think we were friends, didn’t we? Damn good friends, but just friends. It’s more than that now, isn’t it? Much more.”
“Yes. I think it must be love. I don’t know what else to call it.”
We lay on, as tight together as ever, contemplating love. After a while he wriggled his hips.
A repeat performance, less frenetic, longer drawn out, culminating in an even higher pinnacle.
Once more we lay on, savouring, cheek against cheek.
“Charlie,” he said out of the blue. “You know how to kiss. When did you learn?”
That was descending from the sublime almost to the absurd. But I could guess why he asked. I chuckled.
“Oh, back in the Blitz. Remember that girl messenger? Florrie. She grabbed me outside the post one night, black as pitch, and tried to canoodle. ‘Gi’s a kiss,’ she said. And before I knew it she had me pinned against the sandbags with her tongue halfway down my throat.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
“No. I mean it didn’t, um, arouse me. Not at all. But yes. It was rather interesting.”
“You never told me.”
“I think you were out at an incident. Anyway, I managed to escape her and slink inside, and the wardens hooted with laughter. Turned out I’d got lipstick all over my face. God, was I embarrassed! That’s why I never told you. When did you learn?”
“Same sort of time. From Florrie too. Just the same. Quite a tart, she was.”
We laughed, for the first time in days. “Did you enjoy it?”
“No, like you. But yes, like you. Set me wondering who I would like to do it with.”
“And who did you come up with?”
“You. Just to kiss, mind you. Not to go any further. I never even thought of going further. Not with a boy.”
That had me dredging deep in my memory.
“Much the same with me, even earlier. That first night when we wet our pants, remember? I was walking you home. And I wanted to kiss you. Not a Florrie sort of kiss. A kiss-it-better sort of kiss. And a cuddle. Nothing like what we’ve just been doing, though. I’d never dreamt of that either.”
“Mmm. And even before then. On the church tower, watching the dogfights. Saying we wanted to stay together until the end. Was it starting as early as that? After all, we were fourteen. Oh, why didn’t we do something about it then? Why didn’t we recognise it? It would’ve helped. I mean, I couldn’t have got through the Blitz without you …”
“Nor me without you. But it never entered our heads. At least not mine.”
“Nor mine. All right, I’d used my hand often enough before. And in those days, if I thought about anyone while I was doing it, it was some film star. Judy Garland, say. The sort you’re expected to think about. I didn’t know of any alternative. But during the Blitz I never used my hand once. I was too tired.”
“Same here. And we’d have been too tired to do anything together.”
“Yes, but we weren’t too tired for love. For a quick cuddle or a kiss. To show we loved each other, loved in that way. Knowing that one day when we weren’t so tired we could let rip. That would’ve helped even more.”
It would. I saw it now. But it stood far outside our experience. We were the prisoners of our upbringing. Like Doug, I had long since discovered how to use my hand. But that was wholly private. I was not conscious of any particular taboos, but we no more talked about such things than we talked about crapping or about the bogeys from our noses. They were personal things which remained purely personal, not to be shared even with one’s best friend. Never, until the door was unlocked, could I have admitted to Doug that I had wanted to kiss him. And as I had understood it then, kissing, like hugging, was a sign of nothing more than friendship and comfort. Never had my desires looked further.
“Yes,” I agreed. “But that’s hindsight, isn’t it? After all, even after the Blitz when we weren’t so tired, we still didn’t do anything about it. I think we were just too timid. No, not timid. Ignorant … innocent. Too innocent for it even to cross our minds. It had never come our way, had it? All right, there was that brothel in Juniper Street where someone told us boys were for sale, remember? Just like girls were in the ordinary ones. But in those days we never thought of going to places like that, any more than we would now. We thought all that stuff was dirty. And so it was, that sort of stuff. We were too innocent to know it could be clean and above board.”
Yes, innocence. That was the culprit. Simple innocence, unquestioning and unadventurous, blind to the possibilities. How naive of us. How daft. How sad.
“Well, thank God we’ve lost our innocence at last.”
We continued to lie there, in unity, throughout the rest of that afternoon, and the evening, and the night. Thanks to whatever power that organises such things, there was no Alert.
We did have a qualm or two, though, about the loss of innocence. A few days later we were lying in bed reading a booklet we had just come across, Fred’s copy of the Scout Law. Scouting meant a great deal to us, and we had sworn to uphold the Law. But it was years since we had reminded ourselves of what it said.
“Doug, listen to this. The Eighth Law. ‘A Scout smiles and whistles under all circumstances.’ Well, not quite all.”
We smiled wryly. No, there were circumstances when smiles and whistles were out of place.
“And the Tenth. ‘A Scout is clean in thought, word and deed. Decent Scouts look down upon silly youths who talk dirt, and they do not let themselves give way to temptation, either to talk or to do anything dirty. A Scout is pure, and clean-minded, and manly.’ What about that?”
Doug pondered. “Not one of Baden-Powell’s best efforts, is it? All right, that bit in the middle’s fair enough. If we’d given way when that tart Florrie was tempting us, if we’d bragged about doing her, then it would have been dirty. Sex for the sake of it, like going to a brothel. But pure and clean-minded … Well, B-P was married, wasn’t he? Surely he knew about love. Surely he reckoned he was pure and clean-minded himself. And so do we. What’s the difference? Our love isn’t unmanly, any more than his. If his Law is getting at love between men, then it’s just plain wrong.”
“Agreed. And Doug … remember what my Dad said when we became wardens, when he was talking about the future? He said something like, ‘More important still, you’ve got each other. Have the courage of your convictions.’ Can he have seen the way the wind was blowing? Even if we hadn’t seen it ourselves? Was he actually hinting that we should get on with it?”
“Hmm. Let me think.”
Doug’s thinking took so long that, for something to do, I stroked him, up and down, neck to knee, as far as I could reach. I was still learning my way around a wonderful body that was attached to a wonderful mind.
“Yes,” he said at last. “It does make sense, doesn’t it? It makes every sense.”
“God, haven’t we been dim, then! And what about your Dad? What will he say when he knows?”
“His head’s well screwed on too, isn’t it? Like your Dad’s was. I think he’ll take the same line. And right now, Charlie, look at the state you’ve got me in! You’ll have to do something about it.”
Doug wrote with news of the disaster, and a month later a warm message of sorrow and sympathy came back. Fred had yet to hear our other news. There are some things you do not put on paper for the censors to read.