August 28, 1940. Sometime during the night - I'm not sure when - my father picks me up, wraps me in a blanket, and carries me downstairs. There he places me gently at one end of the sitting room settee. Still half asleep and not yet accustomed to the bright light, I cover my eyes, and as soon as they begin to adjust, peek through the cracks between my fingers and look around. The rest of the family is there. Alan, my brother, six years old and two and a half years my senior, lies at the other end of the settee; Dad having resumed his place sits in his armchair to the left of the fireplace, and Mom, looking pale and apprehensive, sits on the edge of her chair at the other side. No one speaks. Things are very much the same as they were when I went to bed.
Puzzled by what is going on, I break the silence. 'Is it morning?' I ask, my voice still full of sleep.
'Of course not, Silly,' Mother replies, my ingenuousness lightening her a little. 'Didn't you hear it?'
'Hear what?' I ask.
'The siren,' she says.
I should have heard it. For months, it had shrieked at twelve noon precisely each day, a strange wailing noise that reminded us that we were at war, and that when it sounded in earnest, it would send us scurrying for the nearest place of shelter. Hear it? I can still hear it, but that night . . . .
'No,' I say.
Dad is astonished. 'Well, if he can sleep through that, he can sleep through anything,' he says.
'Sleep of the innocent,' Mom murmurs.
'Are they coming?' I ask, not really knowing who they were.
'Yes,' she says, and leaves it at that.
It is two months since Mom and I greeted survivors of Dunkirk who had been assigned to the Royal Hospital. Since then, Mom and Dad, convinced that invasion is imminent, have been tense and uneasy. After I have gone to bed, I hear them discussing the situation with low voices. Next morning when I ask awkward questions like 'What is war?' Mom fobs me off with patronising answers. 'A kind of fighting' is the best answer I can get. In anticipation of coming raids or even invasion, she has fitted blackout blinds on the windows and crisscrossed the panes with strips of sticky brown paper.
A few days ago, bombs fell on London. Now our turn has come. We are about to experience our first air raid. I think my parents, in a way, feel some kind of relief. As for me, still half asleep, I do not know how to react. Should I be thrilled, or should I be afraid? I think I am both. I need to ask questions, lots of questions, but silence has returned, a deep menacing silence such as I have never before experienced.
Only one noise disturbs it. At the far end of the street, Sammy Scrivens wearing a tin hat and armband, ARP written on both, calls out to one of the residents. 'There's a chink of light showing, Mrs. Green,' he says, his voice barely raised. We hear it as loudly and as clearly if he is in the room with us.
We should really have been outside in an Anderson shelter. We had one, one that, shortly after the beginning of hostilities, two men had come and installed. After they had dug a one metre deep hole in the reddish clay earth at the side of the house, a lorry delivered sheets of corrugated iron, some curved, some straight. After they had lain there for a week or two, two other men came and bolted the structure together. The first two men then returned and shovelled the earth they had excavated over the top of the half-buried shelter. At last, it was complete. Or was it?
For a few days, the children treated the shelters as cubby houses. The girls next door turned theirs into a make-believe shop, making transactions with leaves and stones; to my brother and I, ours was a castle to be fought for and defended. Then the rains came and filled up the excavation with water. Now, when we needed it, only frogs and tadpoles could make use of it.
Father rakes the ashes in the fireplace, and tries to revive a fire long since dead. Uncharacteristically silent for so long, mother finds her tongue, and starts to ask questions, rhetorical, childish questions that all begin 'what if?', the sort of questions I have wanted to ask. Alan and I begin to fidget and whimper.
Then, like the sound of an approaching storm that rumbles ever nearer, distant aircraft come over the horizon of our awareness. Like startled animals, Alan and I take refuge under the dining table. Instinctively, we stay perfectly still and silent, afraid the least movement or the slightest breath will betray our presence to the eagle that flies overhead.
The first planes almost upon us, mother can contain herself no longer, 'What if an explosion demolishes the house,' she asks, 'if falling debris traps us, alive but injured, alive but unable to escape?' (Rats are running through her mind.)
Too late to surmise, father, trying to appear calm, expresses a completely unfounded faith in the invaders' accuracy. 'They are not after us,' he explains. 'They are looking for factories and airfields.' The theory reassures no-one, least of all himself.
Planes pass directly overhead. Mother shrieks, almost in triumph, 'And what if a bomb should hit us?'
Father says nothing
But he is right: No bombs do drop. More planes follow. Still there are no bombs. Yet more planes come, wave after wave. A distant anti-aircraft gun offers token resistance. And still they come. And still no bombs fall. The planes are destined for the port of Liverpool 100 kms to the north. The direct flight path just happens to pass overhead.
After what seems like an eternity, the last planes drone off in the distance, the 'all-clear' sounds and the eerie silence returns. We have survived. Congratulating ourselves, we sigh with relief, and eagerly return to bed.
No sooner does my head hit the pillow, than I fall asleep. They might as well have let me sleep through it all; I am sure I could have. But soon, maybe an hour later, I am not yet familiar with the topography of night or the concept of clock-time, father again snatches me from bed and takes me back to the sitting room. In our relief, we have forgotten that what goes north must come south. The raiders are returning. This time a few unused incendiary bombs are jettisoned haphazardly on the town, but they create little damage.
The whole experience had been weird. Like some adult radio presentation, our own 'Appointment with Fear', squadrons had been silhouetted against the sky, searchlights had scanned the skies, and flak had streaked the sky. Too afraid to venture out, we had seen none of this. Growing up was proving to be a peculiar business, a gradual unlearning of innocence, fascinating, but at times bewildering. And that was just the beginning . . .
The following morning, I am allowed to lie in, make up for my loss of sleep. By the time I come down, father, who will not return until Alan and I are in bed, has already left for his job at the aircraft factory on the far side of town. Mother, worried about Alan being out of her care, has taken him to school, and then queued at the shops for whatever happens to be available. The sun is shining and the street buzzes with the events of the last twelve hours. Everyone has their story.
The incidents we experienced that night repeated themselves over the next three days, and for the next few months recurred at regular intervals. I quickly learned to respond to the siren, to grab my pillow and run with the others to the small dank shelter that shortly afterwards was waterproofed with a concrete lining. Father managed to exist with little sleep. Although the raids greatly disturbed our quiet, mundane routine, we managed, one way or another, to adapt, and things went on pretty much as usual.
Despite all the inconvenience, in the end, we missed out on most of the bombing. Save for two successive nights the following spring, that is. But that's another story.