My mother was nine when the Second World War began and often told me stories of her childhood.
The stories made her family’s casual attitude to air-raids very clear. They never used their air-raid shelter, never had black-out curtains and went to bed in their house and slept while the bombs fell and the anti-aircraft guns fired. My mother wandered the streets with a friend during daylight raids, giving marks out of ten to gardens.
One story I particularly liked to hear Mum tell was about the day my uncle Richard, without warning, broke this pattern and said, “Don’t go to bed tonight, our Mother. They’re going to drop a bomb on we tonight.”
He prophesied thus as he sat on a straight chair in the crowded kitchen, with the dog sitting between his legs. (The dog that he used to ‘drive yampy’ by putting on his Home Guard’s gas-mask and
staring at it.)
The rest of the family took exactly no notice at all. My mother went to school. Her mother and older sisters went to work. Her brothers went to work — including Sam, the oldest brother who had been profoundly deaf all his life. He worked in a steel-rolling mill, where he and the other men, in steel tipped clogs, used tongs to fling lengths of white-hot steel along steel plated floors. Being deaf in that environment may have been an advantage.
That evening, when the family met again, they found Richard still insisting that a bomb was going to fall on them that night. He urged them not to go to bed but to sit up with him, waiting for
the coming bomb. They laughed at him and told him he was daft as a brush.
My mother was sent to bed as usual. (She shared a large bed with her mother and two sisters while the brothers shared a bed in the other bedroom.) She never told me that she was worried by her brother’s words but perhaps she was.
Downstairs, Uncle Richard continued to plead with the rest of the family to stay up. His anxiety sent the dog yampy again. (And with a large table, a range, all the chairs, the sink, a sideboard and six people all crammed into one small kitchen, a dog going yampy is a serious inconvenience.) Nevertheless, one by one the rest of his family trooped off to bed. There’d been raids before. Nothing had happened — at least, not to them. They weren’t going to get all of a tizz about another raid. Perhaps they felt, as so many of us do, that ‘it’ will never happen to them.
Uncle Richard stayed in the kitchen, alone except for the dog, waiting, bearing witness. In the early hours a bomb fell on the house two doors away from them and utterly demolished it, killing everyone inside and leaving nothing but a crater. The explosion smashed every window in the street and left a crack across my grandmother’s bedroom ceiling that used to be pointed out to me, decades later, when I shared that bed with her. ("That's from the night the bomb fell on we.")
My grandmother, her three daughters and her youngest son William all came crashing down the narrow wooden stairs to join Richard and the (yet again) yampy dog. They rushed out into the street. All the other neighbours were pouring from their houses too. My mother was a little skimpy on what happened then. Did people dig in the ruins? Did they wait for the emergency services? I've no idea.
Mum did remember a crowd of people in her kitchen, drinking tea and asking Richard, “How did you know?”
“I just knowed,” he said.
At his usual time for getting up, deaf Uncle Sam came downstairs and was surprised to find everyone there. They yelled at him, “Didn’t you hear the bomb fall in the night? The bomb, Sam! Just like Dick said! A bomb fell! Didn’t you hear it?”
“Oh, that,” Samuel said. “I thought that was Dick hanging his trousers on the bed-rail.”
The telling of the story was not complete until I’d heard that line.
Mum said that in the days after, swarms of children came from other streets to view the bomb crater because they’d heard that you ‘could see the brains’ of the people who’d died in the houses. Mum went herself to scramble around the wreckage.
There was also a little craze that went like this. You got hold of a small tin with a lid, the kind that pastilles or loose tobacco was sold in. You cut a hole in the bottom of the tin so that you could hold it in your hand while having one of your fingers inside the can, through the hole. You surrounded your finger with cotton-wool, to hide the hole. Then you splashed your finger and cotton wool generously with red ink, red food colouring, red paint or whatever red you had. You went up to unsuspecting people and said, “Look at what I found at the bombed house.” Taking off the lid of the can with a flourish, you showed them an apparently bloodied and severed finger. If someone leaned in for a closer look, the bloody finger suddenly wagged at them. This often went down very well, as you can imagine.
I’ll end with a tale from the other side of my family. My Grandad Price wasn’t called up for WWII, as he was too old and also, as a skilled brick-maker, in a reserved occupation. But he had several younger brothers and one of them, Arthur, went to war. He was posted to the East and captured. The family were left wondering what had happened to him. None of them were great letter writers.
Years passed. Hiroshima happened. The war in the East ended. Even then, they had no idea what had happened to Arthur. And then, a telegram — Arthur was coming home! The family gathered at the matriarch’s home to greet Arthur when he arrived.
He finally did, in his de-mob suit, with his kit-bag, looking thin and exhausted. He was seated in their midst. And my aunt, then a little girl of ten, planted herself in front of him, held out her hand and said, “What have you brought me back, Uncle Arthur?” (It was an unbreakable rule, then, that if you went away on holiday you ‘brought something back’ for friends and family.)
Arthur blinked, reached into his kit-bag, rummaged about and brought out an orange, which he placed in my aunt’s hand. And she was well pleased, an orange being a great rareity. (She told me this story herself. She’s over eighty now.)
And where had Arthur been on holiday? Oh, he’d been having a bit of a gap year, helping to build a railway between Thailand and Burma.