'The Air-Raid Shelter'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, pilots, and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—spend a dramatic night in a London air-raid shelter amongst an assorted group of civilians.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.
Walking down Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill, London, one crossed Gloucester Avenue then continued on along a short cul-de-sac, an extension of Fitzroy Road, till one was brought up short by the high solid granite wall protecting the numerous railway lines serving Euston Railway Station, slightly to the south. Formerly simply a forbidding blank fortress wall rising some twenty-five feet over the head of the speculative observer, or late night drunk relieving themselves against it as the situation demanded, for purposes of Governmental necessity in this time of war a large entrance-doorway protected by a barricade in the form of head-high rows of sandbags had, pretty soon after hostilities had been announced, one day mysteriously appeared in the wall. Quickly enough the locals, aided by Air-Raid Wardens passing out leaflets explaining all, came to understand that inside lay a circular staircase with metal treads leading down some twenty feet, at which point a large space had been dug out, under spare railway land, to form a vast twelve-foot high, thirty-foot wide room making up an air-raid shelter citizens for the use of; and very handy it had made itself, too, considering the nightly activity indulged in by the wholly inconsiderate Luftwaffe.
The structure was only meant as a purely local unit, temporary home to the families of nearby Gloucester Avenue and Fitzroy Road; along with such places as Morgan's Hotel, a small establishment along Fitzroy Road: a painted sign on the stone wall above the entrance formerly noting the shelter had a seventy-five person capacity; though actually anyone passing by and caught in a raid was free to dive down into it, thankful for any safe port in time of need. Depending on circumstances there was usually a nightly head count of thirty to forty souls; though when there was no raid it generally lay empty except for the auxiliary wardens helping out in the place; it being a secondary Warden's post, too.
On the date of the present tale, August 18th 1943, a late-night raid had come over unexpectedly, somewhere around ten o'clock in the evening. As a result many locals who would normally have come down to use the facilities thought better of the cold dark walk in their night-clothes and instead made do with scuttling down into their own house cellars or going out to their back gardens and the small Anderson shelters awaiting them uncomfortably there. A little along Gloucester Avenue, on the same side as the railway lines, the Argon-Cromley engineering works had their central factory, employing some forty or so mostly female war-workers producing mainly small but useful items of an engineering nature, small petrol engines and suchlike. They had their own buried air-raid shelter, so did not usually come to the Fitzroy St premises. On this night therefore, apart from the four Air-Raid wardens operating the shelter, no more than fifteen customers had availed themselves of the safety of the establishment, at just past one o'clock in the morning.
The shelter was not just the one large room, but had several side-rooms of varying sizes. One was a toilet block for men, another similar for women, both working on the chemical principle; then came an office for the wardens, a store-room, and a small kitchen with a gas cylinder to operate a light stove and tea-brewing equipment. The large room itself was divided into sections by head-high wooden partitions standing out from the two long walls, wherein were low camp-beds or benches to sit or lie on. There was a fan in one wall which was meant to provide fresh air, though it never worked properly to anyone's satisfaction.
And so most of the unwitting subjects of the night's drama had assembled.
"—'ere, what's this?"
Harry Carson was one of those archetypical Londoners who met every eventuality with a sarcastic remark and inbuilt sneer of discontent; though he had soon found to his cost the local housewives were more than a match for him, and had thereby had by necessity to reign in the higher flights of his conversational style.
This from Air-Raid Warden George Cawsley, a man of fifty-five lately an accountant in a swish London office but now retired. He liked to think of himself as having a military attitude to circumstances, though everyone pretty soon saw through this exterior to the heart of gold within.
"This 'ere damp patch on my favourite bench, George." Harry liking to milk a grudge to its limits. "Fancy yer bloody ceiling's leaking agin, mate."
"No it ain't." George felt himself on the higher levels of righteousness as far as this claim went. "Had a visit from the boffins just a week ago. They went over the whole place with a fine-tooth comb, and issued a certificate-of-use to A1 standard, I'll have you know. No cracks in this ceiling."
"An' mind yer bloody langwidge, Harry Carson—Ladies present."
The upholder of the social niceties in this instance being Mrs Cecilia Browne; a feisty lady of indeterminate age, though certainly mature, who had once worked as a maid to various private establishments. Her present claim to fame being that during the Great War she had worked in a munitions factory over Camden way producing artillery shells, until it had one afternoon accidentally blown itself up, leaving her one of the handful of survivors.
"—Ooo, it were awful." She was wont to memorialize, if not stopped in time. "There was only the right 'and an' wrist left o' poor young Milly James, lying on the ground, it was, among the broken slates; you could tell it 'ad formerly been her because o' the wedding ring—oh dear, oh, dear. An' Priscilla Wentworth? Well, someone found most o' her innards over to the perimeter wall a hundred yards off; while 'er 'ead, God bless 'er, was a sittin' on the roof eaves of the office block, a'starin' down on the mayhem as bold as brass. An' Dorothy Morrison, she—"
But perhaps old memories should be left in decent obscurity—most of the inmates of an evening in the shelter certainly thought so.
"George, where's that new tub o' marge? Can't find it anywhere."
Rosemary Johnson, twenty-eight, light brown wavy hair, and a member of the ATA, had been seconded to Air-Raid duties in a period of quiet from her usual military activities.
"Ain't unpacked it yet." George pointed to the side of the little kitchen. "Still in the cold cupboard, only bought it this afternoon; Henry Wainwright, at the Co-op, wasn't for letting me have it seeing as my shelter ration book was out of the appropriate stamps—but I gave him a piece of my mind and he finally shelled out."
"Good on you, George."
There was a faint coolness in the atmosphere of the shelter, mainly because of the air-conditioning fan which was for once doing its duty; but also because the main entrance door at street level was still open, allowing the passage of clean air from Fitzroy Road. This would soon change if a raid came over, when a warden would race up the spiral stair to slam the exterior door closed, though not locked so that late-comers could still enter. During the course of a long air raid the atmosphere could certainly reach uncomfortable levels of noxiousness, resulting oft-times in a warden having to cautiously re-open the street door temporarily for fresh air.
Another point associated with the shelter was that, because of its position buried under railway land close to several main lines, the thunder of passing engines and trains made itself felt as rumbling vibrations in the surrounding earth and walls of the concrete-lined edifice. These, attuning themselves to the atmosphere within the long rectangular room, sounded like the moaning's of monsters or devils in distress; as someone with altogether too much imagination had once told the rest of the unhappy inmates one particularly noisy night.
Reverting to Rosemary's semi-NAAFI duties, a cup of tea came in at tuppence; a slice of buttered (for which read margarined) bread was a penny-ha'penny; while a full-blown meat-paste sandwich cost the hungry refugee three-pence. Quite often, depending on circumstances and the make-up of the clientele present of a night, she could do a roaring trade.
Apart from the main entrance at the top of the spiral metal staircase there was also an emergency exit at the other end of the long main room where everyone congregated; this being nothing more than a series of metal rungs set vertically in the far wall leading to a circular turret-like cover giving access to open ground at the side of the railway lines proper. As everything was pitch dark above ground because of the black-out, this could be extremely dangerous for people if it was ever necessary to use this escape route; they suddenly finding themselves amongst a maze of railway lines, whilst a sixty-ton steam engine, even at full swing, was often an unexpectedly silent entity when coasting along the rails towards any hapless pedestrian.
The trouble with being, relatively speaking at least, so close to Euston Railway Station was the ever-present likelihood of stray bombs falling all round—if not actually right on your head, courtesy of the German High Command's Airborne Efforts. The Blitz itself was now safely in the past, but Herr Göring continued waving a clenched fist in the air in London's direction, just from spite; so, sometimes, a nicely set-up Air Raid Shelter was still a very nice place to be of a night.
During the earlier part of the evening things had been more or less composed, not to say languid; the wardens telephoning to their Regional Command Post to gain orders and pass on local information of interest. The ladies, also ARP officers, setting up the kitchen appliances and brewing the first wave of what would eventually become a flood of tea, no coffee thank you. Rosemary looked after what might be termed the liquid side of the proto-café's output, while Ann Clements, a 24 year old secretary, brushed her hands together, testing the sharpness of several handy knives preparatory to attempting to beat her personal best of 105 meat-paste sandwiches made over one night.
Partnering George as fellow Warden was Thomas Darron, clerk in a household goods company, and all of 22 years old, exempted from military service because of flat feet, though these were only observable to a doctor; Tom himself never having had any trouble in his extremities, and being rather put-out to discover, on reporting for his draft, that the King wanted no business with him; ergo, an Air Raid Warden. The two men got on well together, finding a similarity of character and determination to do their best in the positions they found themselves in, under trying circumstances not of their own making.
First warning the night was not going to be just another date on the calendar to tick-off and forget came from the office telephone, via the Command Post two miles away. George, on answering, found himself the purveyor of bad tidings.
"That were Command." George always referring to the distant officials in this manner. "Say there's activity over the Channel, comin' our way, by the looks of it. Batten down the hatches, Command says, an' keep yer tin hats tight."
"Jeez," Rosemary raising an eyebrow. "How long?"
"Meb'be an hour, meb'be less." George shrugged. "Not seen any build-up o'Jerry planes yet, but there's somethin' nasty in the offing, Command thinks. Be prepared, bein' the gen'ral accent they're puttin' out. Talkin' o'which, where's Larry Kennedy an' Pete Brown?"
Although the shelter was connected by telephone to its immediate Command Post, there was always the possibility of this going down due to enemy action; and, anyway, there were several other secondary shelters in the vicinity, as well as hospital units and of course the Fire Station to keep in contact with. Therefore for this eventuality it was, somewhat unbelievably but certainly officially sanctioned, the job of two 14 year old Boy Scouts to be messengers on bicycles to cover this important activity.
"Schools're on holiday, so they'll have gotten their sleep in during the afternoon yesterday; they goin' ter be on duty till eight this mornin'." Rosemary glanced at the Government issue wall clock, shelters for the use of. "What time is it? Hum, three-ten; Larry'll be on his way back from Command with the usual night's orders; Pete's gone t'the Fire Station fer a copy of their night operational standings. They should both be back in quarter of an hour, or so."
There was a clatter from the iron steps of the spiral stair as two more prospective clients found their unsteady way into the bowels of the Shelter. As they stood in the long room, taking stock of their position it could be seen they were both female ATA officers; one tall with sweeping black hair; the other shorter and a light brunette. Looking first carefully around they both then approached the counter where Rosemary eyed them fixedly as her first bona-fide outside customers of the night. The fact she too, though not in uniform, sported her ATA badge giving her a feeling of fellowship with the new arrivals.
"What'll it be, gals?" Rosemary breaking out her humorous side for the occasion. "Beer, cider, port, wine, whisky, rum; y'can have anythin' yer hearts' desire—as long as it's strong tea, without sugar. Though you can spill some tinned concentrated milk in it if you're brave enough."
"Har," The young blonde speaking first, wrinkling her lips in disdain. "Heavy on the strong tea, nix with the concentrated milk, thanks. You, Ricky?"
"Thanks fer askin', young 'un." The tall dark lady speaking with a strange foreign lilt. "Same fer me, please; but I'll try a spot o'the white stuff, too—jest t'give it that zing strong char needs, y'know. Moonlightin', are you?"
"You could say that, yeah." Rosemary replying as she clicked switches and turned levers on the hissing metal contraption that held a cargo of scalding hot tea in its interior. "Nuthin' doin' officially, so I'm seconded t'the depths o'Tartarus for the duration. I blame it on my past, charmingly outré, lifestyle. I was an artiste, before the present conflict, y'see."
"Oh, yeah?" The brunette perking up, seemingly interested in the arts. "Landscape? Portraits? Or this modern, er,—er,—umm,—"
"Abstract, y'mean?" Rosemary ready with the technical details. "Nah—fan-dancer. I was the prime dancer at the Regency, down Soho way in nineteen thirty-eight. Now, I don't suppose anyone remembers me, at all; 'specially as the Regency got bombed t'buggery a year since."
The tall woman bent low over her cup, her long hair helping to hide her expression; the brunette, after a fit of choking, came back fighting.
"Ah, dancing? Very, uh, professional, that. Wish I'd had the pleasu—er, I mean—"
"What she's tryin' ter say is she never was a night-club bird; were ya, Gabs?" The dark lady smiling over at Rosemary.
"You tryin' t'embarrass me in front of friends, or what?" Gabs not seeming much affronted, all the same. "Hope you can return to your career, when all's quieted down some. Ricky an' I'll both come an' see your act, then—what's your professional name, by the by? Jes' for the record."
"Alyssa, the Hungarian Tzigane—though I'm thinkin' of changing to something more homely, like Rose of Picardie, or similar; something the punters can get an easier grasp of —"
"—'ere, did I hear you call my beautiful hotel the annex t'Tartarus? That ain't nice." George, passing by, springing to the defence of his loved premises.
"What? That was ages ago, George." Rosemary no way discomfited. "Can you free that tub o'marge from its bondage anytime soon; I think Ann may have a couple o'customers, right now. Fancy a paste sanny, dears? Only the best, Shippams, y'know; bottles o'beef paste; or tuna paste, direct from the Atlantic, so it says on the bottle, anyway. Get it while y'can, dears; nobody knowin' what these dam' U-boats'll be up to next, eh?"
Claire, the tall dark lady, seeming to be the braver of the duo and acknowledging a certain level of hunger Ann set to work with loaf, knife, and small bottle of paste; presenting her customer with the finished sandwich in less time than it takes to so describe the action.
"So, what brings you both down here, at this time o'night, then?" Rosemary, being free, opening the conversation on equal terms with the other two ATA officers.
"We're shacked up at the Morgan, just up the road." Gabs, the brunette, smiling in reply. "We, my partner an' I, bein' on three days furlough, we decided t'come up t'town an' try our dam'dest t'paint the place red."
"All the bits Jerry's missed so far, anyway." Claire coming in with a snappy bit of repartee.
"Ha-ha." Rosemary no way behind in enjoying a good joke.
An hour later things had perked up in the shelter; it now being just past two o'clock in the morning, darkest night in fact—especially so as the Blackout was in full-swing. Anyone wandering around loose in the streets above the heads of those safely ensconced in the shelter would need torches to find their way—useful tools, but frowned on by Air Raid Wardens if used improperly.
The establishment now boasted some thirty-five inmates, mostly from nearby houses and streets; the reason being a false air-raid warning had gone-off forty minutes earlier. That is, the sirens had sounded, that wavering ululation which sent shivers down the spines of all who heard it, but with no appearance of the Luftwaffe—something which happened quite often; but several people, anxious on their own or their families' behalf, usually took this as the push to drag themselves out of bed and make their way to the nearest subterranean shelter.
Present were some six families, mostly with young teenage children, but some with squalling babies. Even with so relative few the shelter was now a thriving thrusting market-place of movement, gossip, conversation, and general somewhat restrained noise, like a well-behaved football crowd. Gabs had volunteered to help Ann with her sandwich duties, while Claire backed Rosemary on the tea-machine.
"Gives us something t'take our minds off the War, y'know." Claire had jokingly answered when Rosemary enquired about their enthusiasm to muck-in and help.
"Jee-sus, they're here agin'." Harry Carson, from his bench stating the obvious.
"OK, Lads an' Lassies, it's a raid, you all know what t'do. Keep calm an' don't mill about. We're perfectly safe down 'ere." George Cawsley clapping his hands to gain attention, though not speaking over-loudly. "Jest sit pretty an' it'll all be over in half an hour or so; though I suggest you all stays here till the morn, anyway; jes' fer safety's sake—we not wantin' you all milling around in the dark up on the streets after a raid, gettin' in everyone professionals' way, t'no good end."
As he stopped speaking there was a clamour from the far staircase where the noise of hurried footsteps could be heard; many citizens, hearing the warning sirens, had decided the better part of valour after all was to be found in a cosy deeply-seated Shelter. In the event the customers of the shelter were increased by around another twenty or so over a sparse ten minutes—the shelter now really beginning to live up to its name. The general noise of people talking together, the note of excitement, if not outright fear in their voices, an almost herd-like movement around the open floor as people jostled quietly in groups, and the increase in heat because of the many bodies in a confined space, all mixed together to form the usual curious atmosphere of a night-time shelter at full-go.
This increase in personnel also meant a similar increase in the need to wet dry throats with the brew that calms the nerves. Rosemary and Claire suddenly found themselves run off their feet trying to keep ahead of the demand; while Ann and Gabs cut bread and spread margarine and paste as if serving manna from Heaven to the Angels after they had endured a more than busy day doing whatever Angels did of a day.
Then the bombs started dropping.
Being twenty feet underground in a cement-lined shelter, with the upper street door now closed, the shelter inmates did not hear the Luftwaffe planes roaring overhead, nor the terrifying whistle as the bombs dropped; all they knew of the presence of such was when the bombs hit and detonated, usually with enormous thuds which shook the entire fabric of the shelter as if it were being held in a giant's hand and shaken unceremoniously.
If the bomb hit say half a mile away or so, all the shelter customers felt was the reverberating thud as the vibrations travelled through the ground; but if a bomb landed within five hundred yards the actual explosion could be clearly heard, followed by the blast tremors. Anything exploding nearer than two hundred yards deafened the ears with the huge bang and nearly shook people off their bench seats with the unbelievable level of vibrations caused by the blast travelling through the ground like a solid wall moving at forty miles an hour. But it was amazing how citizens, after some experience of sheltering over several weeks, came to take even this in their stride.
"Bit warm tonight, ain't it?" Some wit towards the back of the shelter piped up in a sarcastic tone which started a titter of laughter throughout the shelter.
"Dam' that bloody 'itler." A woman's voice echoed in the long concrete-walled room. "An' dam' that there Luftwaffe leader, what's 'is name, too."
A round of outright laughter greeted this stab at the enemy.
"Goring." Someone who read the papers informed the throng.
"Dam' bloody Goorin', then." Came back the original speaker, she obviously determined to make her opposition to the enemy quite clear.
"D'ya know why that there Goorin' don't fly over in one o'his planes 'isself?" A strong deep man's voice rumbled through the shelter from an indeterminate source. " 'cause if he tried he's so fat the bloody plane wouldn't get off the ground in the first place, ha-ha!"
This sally really caught the mood of the crowd in the shelter, the round of following laughter loud enough of itself to cause ear-ache. But then, an instant afterwards, the War really came home to roost for the inmates of the shelter—without any prior warning at all.
A whole string of bombs hit the ground, seemingly all within twenty yards of the shelter, causing something akin to mayhem in the interior. The long room was filled with concrete dust, as cracks appeared in the walls or fell from the ceiling; some of the wooden partitions creaked alarmingly or actually keeled over; a bench broke free from the far wall, dumping eight people on the cold floor. The walls and actual air vibrated to blast waves never felt in such intensity before. Everything in the shelter not screwed down rattled around or fell on the floor with noisy clangs. The standing groups of people, caught unawares, staggered against each other, grabbed the arms of bodies of anyone within reach to keep their own feet, or simply collapsed on the floor. The whole framework of the shelter rose and bucked as if being dragged out of the ground by enormous steam-diggers. Then everything went quite once more; only the ongoing thump of far more distant explosions reverberating through the walls of the shelter again. The electric lights in the ceiling had flickered, gone out, come back on, flickered waveringly for some seconds, gone out again, then finally returned to normal duty, though now continually flickering every few seconds just to show they still had the option up their sleeves if pressed.
"Everyone OK?" George, pretty much bruised, picking himself up from the unforgiving concrete floor, looked around for casualties. "Anyone hurt?"
Claire released the shoulders of Rosemary, she having dragged her bodily away from the tea-urn in case of accidents; but thankfully, though shaking like a jelly and giving off clouds of steam from various joints, it stayed roughly in place on the counter. Gabrielle had dropped her latest beef-paste sandwich on the floor, having joined Ann kneeling under the counter for protection. Then there came the rattling jangle as someone in a hurry negotiated the iron staircase from the street-door.
"Half of Fitzroy Road's gone!" Pete Brown, 14 year old Boy Scout in uniform, staggered along the length of the crowded room to stand in front of George. "Saw it happen, as I came back from Command. Blew me off my f-ckin' feet, it did. Most o'this end o'Fitzroy Road jes' ain't there anymore—includin' the Hotel."
"Which Hotel?" Gabs quick to ask this pertinent question.
"The Morgan—there ain't any other in the Road." Pete looking round at the young brunette in ATA uniform. "It's gone, miss. Nothin' left mostly but a bloody big 'ole in the ground. The back's still standin', I think; you can see the insides of some rooms, but the most o'it's blown t'rubble an' dust; all over the street, like the houses on either side o'the Road all the way down t'the junction outside the shelter."
"Jee-sus, there were around ten other guests in the Hotel when we left, never mind the staff." Gabs looked across at her partner. "Reckon we should go up an' see what's t'be done?"
"Yeah, come on; the rest o'you stay here an' listen t'what George here has t'tell you." Claire going into professional mode. "Just stay calm, the Fire Service an' who-all else'll be along t'help out in the street pretty quickly. George, we're goin' up top, see ya around."
Two minutes later, armed with large torches from George's officcial stock, they stood in the centre of what at first looked like Armageddon come to reality.
Surprisingly, there were already three Fire Service vehicles present, two pale grey-blue and one dark green. They couldn't reach into the street itself because the road was buried under hills of debris for some distance up from the junction, so the firemen were busy running out hoses to deal with the several thankfully small fires evident along both sides of the destroyed road. To Gabs and Claire's horrified glances the hotel where they had taken up residence had indeed been mostly destroyed by what appeared to have been a bomb exploding directly in the road outside its frontage.
Having been allowed to proceed by an Fire Service officer noting their uniforms, Gabs and Claire climbed as quickly as they could over the uneven piles of debris to reach the remains of the hotel. The most difficult part being the enormous hole in the road outside the building.
"Jeez, must be ten feet deep an', what, thirty feet across?" Gabs standing astounded at the sight. "What in Hell was it?"
"Just a bloody big bomb, is all." Claire intent on other matters. "What we got'ta do is get over t'the building, or what's left—see if there's anyone still alive in that mess."
"God, it's so dark I can hardly see a foot in front of my feet." Gabs bending down to use her hands to feel her way forward slowly and carefully. "They'd made the cellar in'ta a kind'a amateur shelter; d'ya suppose anyone's still alive down there, if we can reach it?"
"Dun'no." Claire following alongside her partner, with equal care. "Got'ta find if anythin' remains of it first, then see if we can get in'ta it, at all. May need the Fire Service guys, with their equipment. Try over here, think we can get nearer this way."
"God! Look, Ricky!"
Turning quickly at the note of concern in her lover's voice Claire aimed her torch beam at the ground where Gabs was already pointing hers. Lying amongst a pile of loose broken bricks was a severed arm; the hand all the way up past the elbow, the torn end showing where it had been ripped from the shoulder; of the body there was no visible sign.
"Come on, let's keep goin'; we got t'find out if there's any bloody survivors in the cellar, yet." Claire taking the hand of her lover in a firm grip as they moved on into the main area of the now partially demolished building. "Watch your feet, this is a dangerous place. Keep an eye out up above, too; don't want bricks, or walls, or the remains of the bloody roof fallin' on our heads."
The surrounding darkness hampered any real movement; the fact the sky was lit intermittently by searchlight beams scanning the heavens for the sources of the present mayhem not helping at all in providing light on the ground. Only the few large Fire Service lights and numerous hand-held torches showed where anyone was, or where the search for survivors was being concentrated. Where Claire and Gabrielle scrambled amongst the ruin of the former hotel no-one of the official rescue units had as yet arrived.
Clouds of smoke and dust wafted through the air accompanied by that curious, but once smelt never forgotten, scent of pulverised plaster and torn wood fittings. The ground simply a mass, or more accurately morass, of loose debris, shattered bricks and stone, or the actual furnishings of the nearby buildings; each item now impossible to identify as whatever it had previously been. And, of course, crushed glass fragments littered the ground underfoot like a field of diamonds reflecting the wavering torches and searchlight beams. The whole area had, simply, been in an instant transformed from a quiet residential street into Hell itself, complete with noxious fumes, escaping gas, flickering electric cables, horrendous smells, and the remains of what had a few minutes ago been living breathing human beings.
And now, close after the initial shock and destruction of the falling bombs, those who had survived but were still trapped began to make their presence felt by agonised groans, pleadings in weak voices for help, or just fearful unidentified cries alone in the dark night. Claire and Gabrielle continued making their way over the heaped debris which had been the hotel's interior, making for the back area where the entrance to the cellars had been; while all around them the air-raid continued, the noise of the exploding bombs all across the district being far more audible now—as well as blast waves like minor hurricanes coming from all directions at once. Suddenly a bomb fell very close indeed, loose bricks from the shattered hotel walls above their heads falling like raindrops, crashing by their feet as the women scrambled to find escape by hugging the side of the remaining wall to their left side.
"Keep under this archway, Gabs." Claire grabbing the sleeve of her companion. "A doorway, I think. Is this wall safe?"
"The whole hotel's bombed t'b-ggery, lady—of course it's not safe!" Gabrielle scared but still well aware of the realities of their situation. "If we hang about in here much longer the Fire Service'll be draggin' our bodies out, later. Where the hell's that dam' cellar entrance?"
The scatter of bricks falling from above ceased after two minutes, allowing the women to continue their search; a search which finally found it's source of the Nile.
The area round where the kitchen area of the hotel had been, and the set of descending stairs leading to the extensive cellars, was now only a gaping pit some ten feet deep and twenty feet in length. Lined with loose earth, shattered bricks, and lumps of larger stone debris, there was nothing left of the cellar; only, amongst the material wreckage, could be seen several bodies, and body parts covered in dust and in no way looking like the living breathing thinking and caring human beings they had formerly been, or represented part of.
"Look, it's not a hole, it's a crater; a bomb must'a fallen right on their heads."
Gabrielle stood on the edge of the horrendous scene, wavering clouds of dust still rising from below in the slight breezes caused by the ongoing bomb blasts. The ever-present almost sickly scent of destroyed plaster walls and torn bricks and wood surrounded the two searchers, accompanied by an underlying smell which, on noticing for the first time, Gabrielle realised she wanted no further part of.
"Let's get out'ta here, lover; there ain't nothing we can do for anyone here—they're all gone, that's for certain."
Back out on what had been the road but was now an uneven plain of rolling piles of debris the women made their way past the Fire Service personnel hauling their water hoses along to the next seat of the many flickering fires still evident.
"Let's get back t'the Shelter." Claire having had quite enough of the whole business. "We're just in the way, here. These fellows are all trained for this sort'a thing. Let's leave 'em to it."
Two minutes later they descended the circular iron stair to the deep shelter, where an even larger crowd of refugees seeking safety from the destruction above in the streets had congregated.
"God, a real football crowd, now." Gabrielle shoving her way towards the counter behind which Rosemary and Ann were struggling under the strain of feeding the masses. "Let's get back t'giving the gals a hand, OK?"
"Too right, doll; at least it's somethin' useful."
The next morning outside on the street by the railway wall all was the same, somewhat changed, and entirely different all at the same time. Where a large section of Fitzroy Road had stood the day before was now a rolling sea of debris mounds like sand dunes in a desert. Standing up from this ocean of shattered brick and tumbled earth the wreckage of the houses remained; looking like the ruins of Antique Rome. Single walls standing sixty feet high, the individual floor-levels clearly apparent as were the lines indicating where interior room walls had stood. On the vertical sides of these walls, still for the moment in situ, the fireplaces, wallpaper, and even in some circumstances wall-mirrors or paintings could still be seen. As citizens who had survived the night came back to survey the areas where they had spent the last few years of their lives but which were now wholly or partially obliterated; or the remaining Fire Service and other Departments who showed-up at these scenarios to begin the clearing operations so vitally necessary for the ongoing life of the City, mingled in groups or single figures like some kind of hideous deranged oil painting, life began once more to pull itself together and carry on.
Amongst these, though now keeping well away from the rescue and clearance services, Claire and Gabrielle surveyed the scene from just outside the entrance to the Air-raid Shelter which had, indeed, saved their lives.
"Looks like Hell." Gabrielle shaking her head as she gazed over the destruction.
"It is Hell, darling." Claire agreeing with a shake of her head. "Thank God we brought all our worldly goods with us, when we took shelter here."
"Yeah, our papers an' wallets." Gabrielle pursing her lips as she gazed across the sea of destruction. "Don't it look—oh, I don't know—unreal, somehow? These holes and spaces where a whole street used to be? And the rubble everywhere; and the junk and rubbish scattered across the whole dam' landscape. What the hell's it all for?"
"Better minds than us have asked that—and come t'the same conclusion—dam' all, in the end." Claire waxing more philosophical than usual. "What's War good for? Only a dam' idiot would think it was ever good fer anythin'. Come on, gal, Euston Station's this way—at least I think it's this way; mind the rubble an' broken bricks; don't want ya breakin' an ankle, after surviving all bloody Göring's thrown at us this last night, an' all."
"Don't worry, baby; I'm with you, all the way." Gabrielle taking her lover's hand in hers, tightly. "There's something come of all this destruction, at least."
"Oh, what'd that be, lady?"
"At least now, I know what we're fighting this dam' war for—freedom from this, this all round us now; from this ever happening again."
There was a short silence as the two women walked, or rather picked their careful way, along the rubbish-strewn road.
"With ya there, baby. Come on, let's make tracks; the mornin's gettin' on, an' there's still time fer us at least t'make an impression of whatever's left of this dam' business, yet."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.