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- 08 November 2003
A lorry arrived in our road, and began unloading corrugated iron sheeting over hedges and fences into front gardens. Over the next weeks people were busy dragging all this heavy material to the backs of their houses, and digging deep holes in their vegetable patches. Like gravediggers, I thought, watching from my bedroom window. I was eight, this must have been sometime in 1940. Soon the corrugated sheeting was bolted into place, curved roof sections fixed above, and finally the displaced soil was piled back on top of the whole structure. My uncle had it done in no time at all. Thus we acquired our shelter, our Anderson air-raid shelter.We thought it great my cousin and I (he was a year my senior): a ready-made hidey-hole.
We were five: my mother and myself, uncle, aunt and cousin. The war and my father's death had thrown us all together in a small semi. We did a trial run to the shelter, putting on our gas-masks: we fitted in quite quite well, we thought. For our comfort uncle had installed two wooden benches, but, apart from candles and matches, and our gas-masks in cardboard boxes, there was nothing else down there. We should not, we hoped, be using it much.
But within a few days, I was woken up in the early hours to hear the up-and-down wail of the siren. We threw a grey blanket over pyjamas, slid into our slippers, and, still muzzy with sleep, made our way to the Anderson. We waited. How long we shivered and waited I don't recall. But nothing happened. Nothing to be heard, apart from muffled voices of neighbours in nearby holes. Nothing to be seen either looking up through the pale light of the entrance (our shelter had no doors). Then a long steady note on the sirens, the all-clear. Reassured by the sound, we were soon back to the warmth of our beds.
This was repeated several times during the next few months. As we became used to false alarms, we began to have done with the pyjama and blanket rush, taking time to slip on warm clothes and shoes, and take torches, illegally, to light our way along the concrete garden path to the shelter. Jokes and banter were freely exchanged over garden hedges with neighbours on either side; there was a feeling of mateyness in a road which had hitherto largely kept itself to itself. My cousin and I were allowed to stand outside too, pretending (in my case at least) to be part of the adult cross-chat that produced so much merriment. We knew that bombs were falling elsewhere, but we were untouched.
One day, after school, my cousin was kicking a football against the house wall in the back yard, when suddenly the noise of ball on wall stopped, and he came running into the kitchen to report that he had seen a rat go into the Anderson. At least he thought it was a rat: large, grey, long tail. No one appeared to want to investigate further.
Two nights later, once more the wail of the siren in the early hours. Dragged unwillingly from under sheet and blankets, once more I experienced the dreadful sinking feeling that the sound of that alert produced. This time with reason. There were dull noises and thumps in the distance, and going quickly downstairs and through the kitchen door into the cold night air, I saw clouds in the sky being raked by searchlight beams, like theatre lighting at pantomime time, and there, to the south, the sky was on fire.
Four doors away lived another uncle and aunt. Practical by nature, uncle Two had turned his
Anderson into a miniature de luxe dwelling. It was in that direction we now scuttled. We should have gone to the front gate,opened it, turned left along the front garden hedges between us and them, left into their drive, by the side of their house, down their garden , into their shelter... But we didn't. Just as this plan was forming in our minds, and all five of us appear to have hit on it at exactly the same time, we were forced into an abrupt change of mind by the sudden appearence, in the middle of the road, of two fizzing, sparking, flaming objects. The same instantaneous and collective decision-making dictated that we vaulted, I don't know how, over three sets of neighbours' fencing separating us from our goal. We piled all five into the de luxe Anderson to our enormous relief and to the great surprise of Uncle and Aunt Two. We had avoided sharing wih the rat.
We sat shivering, indiarubbers in our mouths, and listened. A plane was approaching, 'one of theirs'. 'Ours', rumour had it, made a high-pitch engine noise, but 'theirs' could be identified by a vibrating low-pitch growl. This was definitely 'one of theirs'. Then , in proof, there was the shrill whistle of a bomb which, growing every second in intensity, would surely come to earth right on top of us. Instead, there was an enormous 'crump' somewhere near, the earth shook, then - silence. A silence which appeared to go on for an eternity. Then, suddenly, the sound of a car being started and driven up the road.
The following morning, late out of bed, (we had stayed on in the de luxe shelter a long time before we heard the all-clear) we went out into the road. Neighbours were all out, talking excitedly. The fizzers in the road had been of course, incendiary bombs, eventually doused by ARP men with buckets of sand. The whistler ( the india rubbers, hard-bitten between our teeth, were supposed to prevent teeth being driven into gums by the shock-aves of exploding bombs) had made a deep crater at the bottom of the road, outside the grocer's shop. It had not exploded. It cut our water supply for several days. We were kept well away while the Army made it safe. The car, a Vauxhall, was the grocer's. He had driven it to safety away from the crater, up to our end of the road. He needed it and its precious rationed petrol, he said, to drive to market. We didn't know if he had put his wife and daughter in it beforehand. The sky in flames was over Coventry, 25 miles away. My cousin and I had two days off school. There was no further sighting of the rat.
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