They had spent most of their time in the shelter these last few weeks. Since the raids began and the houses and streets had been decimated Robert thought it safer to live in the shelter. Outside boomed artificial thunder orchestrated by the mastermind’s toys as they fell upon the land. They were distant, now.
Robert had tried his best to make the shelter as homely as possible. It took him weeks but he had painted the inside walls, put up shelves, brought an old mattress in for a bedding corner and even brought the wireless and the kettle inside. The kettle of course, had to be boiled in the house, but he felt the aesthetic made the atmosphere more liveable. It was more a pastiche of a home than an actual one. Cracks and flaws were opened and the truth oozed in. The dirt beneath the wooden ground allowed entry for insects, wind rattled the tin walls and strong gusts blew out the candles altogether. Many times they had all sat huddled in the corner on the bedding, wrapped in blankets, sharing what little warmth they generated between each other. The raids came and went slowly. The noise prevented any real sleep and when one sounded too close, it always made the boys upset. Robert too, was terrified, but tried his best to not let it show.
Robert sat at the head of the small table in the centre of the shelter. His mother, Fran sat opposite with her youngest, Mary sat on her knee. Ben and William sat in the corner whispering to each other. Robert kept his eye on his brothers. They had each eaten a small portion of beans with slices of ham by the dim candle light in the centre of the table with a cup of tea. Mary had only drunk milk and William had left half of his beans which Ben had chased down and eaten so fast he almost drank them.
“Ere, stop whispering in the corner you two and come sit at the table.”
“Who made you in charge?” Ben asked.
“Dad did, remember.” Ben looked to his mother for reassurance, but she was preoccupied with Mary who was counting on her fingers.
“It’s boring in here.”
“It’s safe in here. You go out there you’ll get killed like your friend Terry, or worse.” Robert tried to emulate a gruff, deep voice like his father’s or like the voices he heard on the radio of the soldiers and men who controlled the war, pulling on the rope as hard as they could until the other side would be pulled over the line.
Ben slumped back against the tin wall and sighed. His sigh was short lived as William whispered something in his ear and both of the boys chuckled. Robert swiftly caught their eyes with a glare and they silenced. Fran watched her eldest son try to fill the shoes as best he could.
“You could be less hard on them chuck. They’re only little.” She said. Robert said nothing; instead he glanced over at them again and focused himself on the table. He rested his hands on the wood and his chin upon his clasped hands and closed his eyes.
William began whistling as Ben rose and plodded to his mother. Mary looked at him and beckoned for him to hold her. He declined but proceeded to hold her hands and play with her. She smiled.
A loud crash shook the shelter and everyone inside tensed for a moment. No breaths were uttered, no peeps, no noise at all. As suddenly as it rose, it died away and the atmosphere shakily dissipated. Mary hid in her mother’s jumper and covered her ears. Fran bounced her on her knee to calm her down.
Robert thought on what his mother had said for a moment and turned to Ben.
“Ben, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
He thought for a moment, chewing his finger as he did. “Don’t know. Fireman?”
“Well don’t ask me, it’s your life. Why a fireman?”
William began whistling again.
“Don’t know, I like the hose. Why, what about you?”
“Me?” Robert thought. He’d never thought about it. He had assumed he would work with his dad in the butchers. His dad was away somewhere, could be anywhere in Europe, could be alive, could be dead. Dad’s butchers shop was destroyed three days ago. “Not a soldier. Maybe I’ll open another butchers. Dad would.”
“Yeah I suppose… Could I have free meat?” Ben grinned.
“Tell you what; I’ll save you the best bits at the end of the week. Can you stop whistling Will?” Robert asked politely through clenched teeth. He didn’t stop, but he did whistle quieter.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?” Fran playfully asked Mary. Mary blew bubbles.
“Actually” Ben said. “I want to be one of those men that drive trains.”
“You mean a train driver?”
“Yeah, I want to be a train driver and I’ll drive it all over and see everything. William found a car when we were playing out after school with all the windows smashed. He said it had a ghost in it, but I didn’t believe him.”
“Did he now?” Robert passed a glance to William who sat wearing a large smile.
An ominous thunder snored from far away, muffled by the layers of tin and soil. A fingernail tapping started on the opposite side of the shelter door. Seconds later another, then two more. William stared at the door as it rattled and underneath, where the world outside was visible through a thin slit, water that had hit the door and dripped down snaked in.
“It’s raining again Mam.” William sighed. Fran nodded and tutted.
“Mam, if the rain fills up the shelter, can we go back in the house?”
“Probably best we don’t love.”
“Are we going to go away again?” Fran didn’t answer him. “Mam? Are we?”
“When can we go back in the house?” Ben asked.
“I dunno. When the war’s over.” Robert replied.
“When will that be?”
“I dunno. When the bombs stop falling.”
“Why are they bombing us?”
“I dunno.” He had no elaborated answer. He didn’t know. He had never listened to the world’s cares. He was too busy playing with his friends and studying at school when the bombs had began to fall. First one night, then a couple more, and more and more until it was every night. The truth was simple, he didn’t know.
William raised his volume.
“Will can you stop whistling?” Robert snapped. He lowered his volume once again.
“Wish it’d stop.” Ben.
“It will love, it will.” His mother said reassuringly as she patted his hand.
Robert glared at her with disbelief.
“How do you know that Mam? How do you know?”
“Well I just… Do.”
“They say it’s all of Europe, soon it’ll be the whole world. It might never end. It might carry one ‘till there’s no one left.”
It wasn’t the first time Robert had thought like that. He was often kept awake by the thought of the war lasting forever. When he was alone in the silence, he could do nothing but think. Men would fight and die over and over like the endless turning of a wheel until only one man remained. One man would have won the world. What would he do with it? What could he do with it? Robert found himself thinking what he would do with it. He supposed he would plant trees in as many places he could. According to his Dad, his Grandfather had gone off to fight the Great War, one that was supposed to end all the others. This one, Robert thought, would go on and would eventually end all wars, because if there’s nobody left, there’s nobody to do the warring.
“It won’t, and don’t talk like that, you’re scaring the boys.”
“Well maybe they need to be scared Mam, ‘cause if it carries on long enough, they’ll have to go away just like Dad did. It’ll be me next, then their turn.” Robert was unaware that he had stood up as he spoke and his voice rose. “They’ll bomb every night until nothing’s left. They’ve already done half the street. Our house could be next, could be tomorrow, the day after, could be a month after, but it will. That’s why we’re staying here where it’s safe.”
“Robert, calm down. I was only trying to keep them safe.” Mary was nestled in Fran’s clothes, crying. “See, you’ve upset Mary now, and Ben.”
“I’m just saying, what if it doesn’t end? Then what? Oh William stop whistling!” Robert turned and yelled at William who jumped in fright and stared, wide-eyed at his older brother.
“A wasn’t whistling.” William answered. Robert held his breath.
The whistling continued.
The family assembled around the table and held hands.
Was published in the LEP (Lancashire Evening Post) on 17/7/10
A family struggle to cope with nightly bombing from inside their shelter. The father has already gone to fight an the eldest boy struggles to carry the mantle.