‘Mr Abbott? Are you okay?’
My eyes open. A boy is watching me; I’m coughing.
‘Yes, yes. Sorry, David, I’m fine.’ I prise my face from the concrete wall and sit up straight, ‘Must have dozed off for a minute there.’ The boy is staring, his eyes fearful. I smile. ‘I’ve told you a million times, haven’t I? Call me Frank.’
He is shy, the boy. He wriggles back across the hard floor towards his sister and busies himself with a blanket, wrapping it tightly around the girl’s sleeping body.
I rearrange myself, tightening my coat. In the darkness, pockets of ethereal light illuminate snatches of people – crumpled bodies, tired faces – but amid the melee, as dust and dirt flutters between the candlelight, I struggle to locate the boy’s mother.
‘She’s still upstairs,’ he says, when I ask.
‘In the flat?’
‘She said she’d rather die in her bed than in this cesspit.’ He spits the words, an imitation of her, no doubt.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘I tried to get her out, but she wouldn’t listen. I begged and begged her, but she just…she wouldn’t.’ He leans forward, his voice earnest. ‘It’s not safe up there, is it, Mr Abbott? She’ll die won’t she?’
My heart jolts. ‘Not necessarily.’
‘But the other day, Johnny Heaton-’
‘Who’s Johnny Heaton?’
‘A boy from school, his family stayed at home when there was a raid on and a bomb fell on their house and they all, you know…’ He hugs his sister closer towards him. ‘They were only three streets away. What if that happens to Mum?’
‘How do you know?’
I concentrate on a stone quivering on the basement floor. I shake my head, ‘Because it won’t.’
A few hours later, the faint rumble of faraway destruction grows louder. A succession of thunderous booms is punctuated by the distressed shrieks of our neighbours and as my hands cling to the trembling walls, I catch David’s questioning eye; shamefully, I look away.
Three nights later, I’m sleeping again.
In my dreams, I am fighting an army. I am watching them fall. Above the trench walls, between the barbed wire, their bodies lie sprawled, tangled, in pieces. I am euphoric; coated in their blood, I am brave. Suddenly, I’m sitting in my mother’s kitchen and the once vibrant room is dismal; a suffocating shade of decay. My mother’s voice is shrill; my father’s chair is empty. I cough and choke, but even in my uniform, the grief clings, the guilt sticks.
When I wake, Mary, our landlady, is shuffling her portly figure beneath my coat. She frowns as I stifle a cough, then nods towards the notebook in my lap.
‘What are you going to do with that?’
‘It’s for David. I thought he could write something.’
‘Like a story.’
There’s a pause, then: ‘What for?’
‘Because I thought it would give him something to do whilst he’s down here.’ I gesture to the boy sitting just feet away from us, his arms wrapped tightly around his sister, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. He is, once again, parentless.
‘Look at him, Mary. He’s just a kid and at the moment he’s the sole guardian of his eight-year-old sister. Don’t you think it would be good for him to have a distraction?’
Mary nods, half-heartedly, ‘I suppose.’
Her indifference makes my skin itch. I move myself round so I can face her. ‘Why’s he even here anyway? He should have been evacuated. And what’s his mum playing at, leaving them down here on their own?’
Mary’s eyes meet mine. ‘Helen’s not really coping very well, Frank.’
‘How do you mean?’
Her voice drops to a whisper. ‘You know about David’s father, do you?’
‘He signed up, didn’t he?’
I swallow. ‘And now? Where is he?’
The word is there; it hangs in the cold cloud of her breath and I hear it before it is spoken, feel it before the punch reaches my stomach.
Sleep is a funny thing, isn’t it? Pre 1914, I don’t remember sleep being a chore. I didn’t loathe it in the same way my adolescent-self loathed washing-up or cleaning or taking a bath. I yearned for it, like many yearn for it now. The troubling irony is that once this is over, once time is liberated and we are all free – in the loosest sense of the word – to do what we please with it, restful, satisfying sleep will still evade us. It will remain the sole prisoner of this catastrophic war and no matter how much we want it or how hard we try to get it, it won’t be the same.
‘You look awful.’
Mary laughs. ‘I just mean…’ she shakes her head. ‘When you sleep, you cough and mumble and you push your arms out like you’re fighting someone, did you know that? You were doing it yesterday and then again just now.’
I nod; at the forefront of my mind my fragmented dreams continue to push themselves forward – the blood, the bodies, the terrifying guilt – jumping over each other in a bid to gain top-spot, prime dwelling space. I push them away. I focus on the present.
‘I gave David the notebook.’
Mary smiles, ‘That’s good.’
‘His first story was pretty awful.’
‘It was about a bomb falling on an ammunitions factory; didn’t explode until twenty years after the war and killed over a hundred people.’
‘I see. Not the kind of thing you were hoping for, I’m guessing?’
I shake my head. ‘I thought he could write something light-hearted, something frivolous.’ Momentarily, the boy’s written words come back to me; I shudder. ‘What am I going to do?’
‘Well,’ Mary’s legs are propped on top of her gas mask, she folds her coat behind her head, ‘I’m no expert on children, but maybe you should just talk to him, explain what it is you want him to do rather than simply telling him.’
‘Hmm.’ I stretch. I think. Outside, the whistling bombs have been silenced and the distant hum of a low-flying plane is slowly meandering away. ‘Perhaps it’s a silly idea. Perhaps it’ll just make things worse.’
Mary rearranges her makeshift pillow. ‘Perhaps you’re right.’
The ‘all clear’ signals an hour later. As David prepares to leave, I notice the look of concern that is now a permanent feature of the young boy’s face and I wonder, as I rub my own tired eyes, when it was that the child last had a restful, satisfying night’s sleep.
It’s not going well. David does not appear to understand the concept of ‘making stuff up’ and both of us are getting extremely frustrated; until he asks this question:
‘Why aren’t you fighting, Mr Abbott?’
I look up. ‘Sorry?’
‘Why aren’t you fighting in the war, like all the other men?’
‘I’m too old, David.’
‘Did you fight in the first war?’
‘Let’s just stick to the task in hand, shall we?’ I pick up the notebook and flick to a fresh page.
David crosses his arms. His eyes reach out to me.
I swallow. ‘I was in the first war,’ I say reluctantly. ‘Signed up when I was nineteen.’
He leans in closer. ‘Were you in France?’
‘My dad was in France,’ he says quietly. ‘Not during the first war, but…recently.’ He bites his lip. ‘What was it like, being a soldier?’
I hesitate. He’s searching for answers, I understand that. He needs to know that his father’s death meant something.
I shake my head; what can I tell him? The truth?
In the distance, a siren wails. The candles inside the small shelter flicker. The boy is so close now that I can hear his shallow breaths, smell the acrid scent of his unwashed clothes.
‘So,’ I move back slightly, my voice forcibly light, ‘what shall we write about today? A magician? Superhero?’
A week later, there is a familiar woman sheltering in the corner of our basement. I catch my breath as I notice her, my eyes drawn by the skeletal hunch of her back, the pained expression on her face. As I move closer, I hear her voice – a shrill, almost piercing tone that I find difficult to reconcile with my once softly spoken neighbour.
‘It’s ridiculous,’ she is saying, ‘absolutely ridiculous.’ She catches my eye as I sit down opposite her. ‘This is you, I suppose?’ she nods towards the notebook, open in her son’s hands. He looks at me, pleading.
‘Helen, I…’ But my condolences catch in my throat. She glares at me, her cold eyes challenging. I swallow. ‘If you’re talking about David’s new-found interest for writing, then yes, I was the one who encouraged him.’ I sit up a little straighter. ‘It distracts him from his situation.’
‘Distracts him?’ Her emaciated features contort; she leans towards me. ‘I don’t want him distracted; I don’t want either of them distracted! They need to hear, they need to listen.’ She snatches up the notebook and takes David’s face roughly in her hand, ‘This is life, David. It’s horrible and it’s cruel. Don’t start kidding yourself that it’s all fun and games.’ Forcefully, she pushes the boy away, leaving deep red finger marks in his cheeks.
Inside the basement, the woman’s panting recovery is met by fervent whispers. I glance at Mary; almost imperceptibly, she shakes her head.
Then, suddenly, hurtling towards us like a falling bomb, there is a voice: ‘David, why don’t you read Mummy a story?’
My heart sinks; I look across at the girl, at the hopeful look on her face, and I silently beg David to discount his sister’s suggestion, knowing that the notebook will never survive a recitation of his unexploded bomb tale.
But the boy doesn’t do telepathy. With a small smile, David carefully prises the book from his mother’s hands and, assuming her silence to be consent, he flicks to a story towards the back.
For the first time since my neighbours and I sought sanctuary in the basement of our ailing block of flats, all is eerily quiet. To me, it feels like even the enemy above has paused to listen to David’s narrative and as I watch the boy – his small mouth opening and closing automatically, his eyes scanning the page without ever settling on the words – I know this story is different.
When he finishes, he looks up. ‘What did you think, Mum?’
Helen’s expression is blank.
‘Mummy?’ Lizzy inserts a little finger into her mother’s waist, ‘Did you like David’s story?’ She pauses. ‘It’s about Daddy.’
Daddy? My brain scrambles around for a link; then, suddenly: France, of course!
A man, a boat, an escape; it was a story that was so simple, so rich in childhood innocence, so thick with unquestioning idealism, that its premise seemed almost plausible. Amid a jumble of haphazard facts, David had managed to weave the hopeful tale of a soldier, assumed lost, who discovers amidst the chaos of battle, a vessel that takes him, not back to his loved ones, but to a place high above them, where he can keep a vigilant watch over the safety of his much-loved family.
I look across at Helen, at the small dark line that runs the length of her stony face and suddenly I am back in my mother’s kitchen, staring at that empty chair, absorbing a grieving woman’s anger as if I were the sole perpetrator of her loss. This time, however, the guilt does not stick, but slides freely from my clothes, forming a small heap on the floor in front of me. I pick it up, I lay it on the table and – as I watch David grasp a now heaving Helen tightly – I mould my mother’s grief into words.