By Mickey S.
This is a fictional story. Most of the characters and events are figments of the author's imagination. However, some of the fictional characters take part in real events and some real characters take part in fictional events. In spite of that, this is a fictional story. My thanks to Tim and Drew for all of their help. The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at NJMcMick@yahoo.com.
A few days after Dad's birthday there was yet another change in the air war when bombs were dropped on central London and several communities north and east of the city, including Finchley, one landing only a few hundred yards from the street Terrence lived on. Up until then the targets had been military - airfields, aircraft factories or ports. While it had been feared since long before the war even began that there would be bombing of civilians in the cities, everyone hoped that wouldn't happen. The night after London was bombed the British sent planes to bomb Berlin in retaliation.
It was as if everyone in London was holding their breath. Several days went by and the German bombing continued as before, mainly focusing on military targets. The British continued to bomb Germany.
Finally, after several days of these attacks, Hitler made a speech on September 4 threatening to obliterate British cities. Three days later they launched a large-scale air attack on London, focusing on the docks in the East End.
In the midst of this the new school year started, although it was almost impossible to concentrate on our lessons. Every time one heard an airplane conversation stopped until the type of plane was identified.
Over the weekend the Germans continued to bomb day and night, hitting The City hard with other bombs falling as far west as Kensington, but still mostly in the East End. None landed anywhere near our house in Mayfair, but we could hear the explosions in the distance and at night the glow of the fires lit the eastern sky.
Tuesday afternoon when I got home from school I was greeted by an unusual sound - my parents arguing. While they often had differences of opinion they were usually quite civil and respectful in their disagreement. This was the first time I could remember since we came to England that they raised their voices to each other. They were in the kitchen so I dropped my books on a table in the front hall and walked back to see what it was all about. I could hear them before I even opened the door to the room.
"You can't seriously think he'd be safer."
"I didn't say I'd made up my mind, Lydia, just that we should consider it."
I pushed the door open and they both turned to me and froze.
"What's going on? I could hear you all the way at the front of the house."
"What exactly did you hear?" Dad asked.
"Not much, just the last couple of sentences. What are you fighting about?"
"We're not fighting, dear, but your father came home with a ridiculous idea."
"I just made a suggestion and your mother flew off the handle."
"You know I'm concerned with Woody's safety as much as you, but I think it's a horrible idea."
"This is all about me? How about letting me in on it then?"
"You're right, Woody, you have a part in this decision." Dad paused. "If there were a way, how would you like to go home and be safe from the war?"
"Home? You mean New York? Leave London, you and Mother, Bancroft's, Terrence? No, absolutely not! This is my home now. It may not be as safe as New York, but I'm not leaving. Besides, there's no way to leave."
"Actually, there is. I was visiting a friend at the Children Overseas Reception Board today. They've been evacuating children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for a couple of months now. It's a huge program and there are hundreds of thousands of children signed up. Anyway, they have a ship leaving Liverpool for Canada on Friday and my friend said he could squeeze you on board if we wanted."
"No! I won't go! You can't make me. You'll have to tie me up and carry me to the ship. There's no way I'll go voluntarily."
I knew I sounded like a child but I was shocked and horrified at the idea of leaving London and nearly everyone I loved, especially Terrence. And Friday, only three days away?
"You're not going anywhere, Woody. I know London isn't the safest place to be, but the North Atlantic is worse. You're the one who's always talking about all of the u-boats out there, William."
"Yes, there is that danger. But they are attacking military and commercial ships, not passenger liners. And a few days of peril on board the City of Benares has to be weighed against endless danger here in London."
"The City of Benares? That's the ship? I've never heard of it."
"It's not the Queen Mary, but it will get you to Montreal. From there you can take a train to New York."
"I won't do it. I won't go."
"And I won't let you go. So that's the end of it, William. We discussed the dangers of Woody staying in London over a year ago and made our decision then. The three of us are here for the duration."
"It was just a suggestion, Lydia. You know I haven't gone out of my way to try to send Woody home. But this idea just fell into my lap so I thought we should discuss it."
"And now we have." Mother's tone was firm.
"Yes, we have." Dad conceded grudgingly. "So how do we best take care of Woody here? What about boarding at Bancroft's? Do you think he'd be safer staying there?"
I thought about the boys who lived at school. They no longer stayed in their dorm rooms at night. The basement had been turned into a large barracks, with beds lined up one after another. I couldn't imagine sleeping in such a communal atmosphere. Besides, Terrence would still be at home with his parents, so unless we continued spending weekends at each other's houses we'd never get to sleep together again, although sleeping wasn't all I was thinking of.
"I don't see where school would be any safer than here. Don't forget bombs fell in Tottenham not far from Bancroft's that very first night. And the cellar here is just as safe as the cellar there."
Months before, back when the phony war was still going on, my parents had decided we'd use the basement of the house as a bomb shelter. The house itself was solid and substantial so, unless it was hit directly, the cellar would be a fairly safe space. Anderson shelters and even large public shelters would not withstand a direct hit either, so there was no such thing as completely safe. We had a couple of walls erected in the cellar creating two separate rooms. One was turned into a makeshift bedroom for Mother and Dad, the other for me, to be used in case of an air raid. There wasn't as much privacy or comfort as upstairs, but it wasn't as bad as an Anderson.
"You have a point, Woody. But maybe we should put an end to your weekends in Finchley. Terrence can still come here if he'd like." Dad said.
"I don't see why Finchley is any more dangerous than here. The Germans' main targets seem to be the East End and central London. Finchley is farther from both those places than Mayfair or Bancroft's. And while the house doesn't have a cellar they do have an Anderson shelter in their back garden."
"Then I suppose we'll just carry on as we have been, unless something changes."
And so my latest crisis ended. It appeared I would be staying in London permanently, at least until the war ended. Of course, I'd thought that before so I wasn't taking anything for granted.
That weekend it was my turn to go to Finchley. Saturday morning Terrence took me around to see where the bombs had dropped that first night. In the afternoon we went to a matinee showing of Gone With The Wind at the local cinema. We'd seen it in the West End when the film had first been released a couple of months before, but we'd both enjoyed it and didn't mind seeing it again. Besides, it was such a long movie it took our minds off current events for the whole afternoon. And I got to sit in the dark in the theater for nearly four hours brushing shoulders with Terrence.
That night in bed we continued our bedtime pleasure. As the wall between the bedrooms was thin we had to keep as quiet as possible when we were at Terrence's house. We'd come up with a way to do that while providing even more pleasure to ourselves. One of us would swivel around so we could take care of each other at the same time. That way we both had our mouths full at the moment when we would be most likely to make noise.
Wednesday when I got home from school Dad was sitting alone in his den, a drink in one hand, staring at the wall. I said hello and he got up without a word and hugged me tightly, holding me for a long time, before kissing me on the cheek and sitting down again. His silence along with his actions worried me. I was afraid something had happened to Mother so I turned and ran to the kitchen. She was at the stove, stirring a pot.
"What's the matter with Dad? Is everyone all right? Gran, Granddad? TR? You haven't received any bad news from home, have you?"
Mother gave me a sad smile.
"Everyone is fine. The family, that is. But your father got some bad news today that has upset him terribly. The City of Benares was hit by a torpedo and went down last night. A rescue is under way but there's no word yet on survivors or casualties."
A chill went down my spine. If not for Mother's insistence that I stay in London...
I quickly crossed the room and gave her a long hug, similar to the one Dad had just given me.
"Your father is feeling terribly guilty. His judgment is generally so sound. He has access to so much information the rest of us don't, so he's able to make good decisions, more often than not. But the idea that he might have lost you, well, that has shaken him."
"He's usually right but he's not perfect, you know. No one is. And it isn't like he had decided to send me away. He just wanted us to consider it, to talk about it. And we did. He listened to us and in the end agreed that I should stay. So he didn't make any hasty, catastrophic decision."
Mother smiled. "Why don't you go tell him that? I'm sure it will make him feel better."
A few days later we learned the tragic results of the sinking. Well over 200 were lost, including over 70 of the 90 children being evacuated. The evacuations of the Children Overseas Reception Board were halted immediately
As the bombing continued to be concentrated on the East End in the first week, the residents there were growing increasingly frustrated with the government. While it was of course the Germans who decided where to bomb, some of the East Enders, poor and often neglected by the government, felt they were being singled out. And, according to Dad, they had fewer public shelters to go to when the bombs fell. Because their houses were so crammed together and made of wood, there was significantly more damage done when they were bombed. The resulting fires were horrific and often caused even more damage than the bombs.
About a week into the bombing, a bomb fell and exploded in a courtyard of Buckingham Palace while the Royal Family was in residence. At first the government tried to keep it a secret, but Dad said it was Churchill himself who insisted the news be made public. He wanted to show that everyone in the country was at risk, no matter what class, that even the Royal Family was living with the same threat as the East Enders.
Generally, the government did censor the news of the bombing. No reports of the exact locations of the bombing or the extent of the damage were allowed. Of course, if you lived in an area that had been bombed you knew all about it, but the government didn't want the Germans to know how successful their attacks might be. Even the stories that Dad cabled back to New York were censored.
School went on much the same as the year before, although classes were occasionally interrupted by air raid sirens. When that happened everyone walked in an orderly fashion down to the cellar to wait out the attack that more often than not never came.
At home it was different. At first we attempted to go on with life as usual, retreating to the cellar only when necessary. But although Mayfair wasn't bombed regularly, the sirens went off every night, so after a few days we permanently moved our sleeping quarters downstairs.
Many people started using the Underground stations as bomb shelters. The government discouraged it but they couldn't really stop it. Once you bought your ticket and went down to the station they couldn't make you get on a train. Some of the platforms were still crowded with people huddling along the walls when I took the train to school in the morning. As time went on and the bombing became more concentrated at night the crowds in the stations grew.
On my weekends in Finchley it was more like the days before the war. We slept upstairs in Terrence's room, planning to go down to the shelter only when the sirens sounded. The first several weekends there were no sirens so we slept through the night. Terrence said they'd only had a couple of air raid warnings during the week, and nothing came of them. One Saturday night in mid-October, however, we were awakened by the blaring of the siren. Almost immediately there was a banging on the wall above the bed.
"Down to the shelter, boys!" Mr. Atkins shouted through the wall.
We scrambled out of bed, grabbed our clothes and ran from the room. Mr. and Mrs. Atkins were right behind us going down the stairs. They didn't follow us when we got to the back door, however. Terrence had explained to me that his father's claustrophobia wouldn't allow him to go in the shelter. Instead, he had fixed up a makeshift shelter in the pantry under the staircase. Mrs. Atkins wouldn't leave him alone so she was going to stay in the pantry as well.
"Please Dad, come down to the shelter. It's only for a short time. Close your eyes and don't look if that's what bothers you." Terrence pleaded with his father.
"I'm sorry, son. I've already spent far more time in trenches than I can stand and you won't get me in another one. If I'm not safe up here then that will be God's will."
"What about you, Mum? Come with us."
"My place is with your father, you know that. Go ahead, boys, we'll be fine right here."
So Terrence and I went out back to the Anderson. It was buried four feet deep in the yard so we had to go down several steep, uneven dirt steps to get to the doorway. The shelter itself didn't have a door but the Atkins had brought one out from inside the house and stored it inside. Terrence and I propped it up on the outside of the shelter, blocking off the open doorway. Once that was done I was feeling claustrophobic and I could understand Mr. Atkins not wanting to come along. I could barely stand up straight and Terrence had to bend his neck to keep from brushing the roof. There were two cots that took up most of the little room. We put on our clothes and lay down on the cots, making the place seem a little roomier.
For quite some time the only sounds we heard were faint explosions that seemed very far away.
"How long do we have to stay here?" It didn't seem to me as if there were any real reason for us to be there.
"Try to go to sleep, Woody. The other two times I came in here I ended up staying the night until the all-clear sounded."
It was chilly and damp in the shelter. The cot wasn't very comfortable and I didn't like the idea of spending hours there but I closed my eyes and listened to Terrence's rhythmic breathing. I was just dozing off when a loud blast shook the ground under us. It was followed almost immediately by an explosion that seemed to be on top of us. The sound was deafening and the impact knocked us both to the floor. For what seemed like several minutes but was probably only seconds, the wooden door and the metal roof of the shelter were pelted with debris. It sounded like the world was collapsing on us. I was afraid we were being buried alive.
All of a sudden it was over and there was a deafening silence around us. Terrence jumped to his feet and pushed at the door. It didn't budge. He pushed again harder.
"Help me with this, Woody! It's jammed."
He had both hands on the door, leaning with his weight against it. I stood next to him and did the same. It didn't move at all. I stopped pushing after a couple of tries, but Terrence put his shoulder to the door and pushed even harder. It was obvious to me that there was quite a bit of rubble piled in the hole between the steep steps and the door and the only way to clear it was from the outside.
As I started looking around to see if there was any way we could take apart the metal panels of the shelter, Terrence seemed to go berserk, throwing himself at the door, pounding on it, trying to break it down. I pulled him away from it and held him as tight as I could.
"Getting hysterical isn't going to help anything. If we can't find some other way out we'll just have to wait for outside help. Obviously a bomb struck very close by so someone should be along any minute."
"Don't you understand, Woody? The rubble that fell on us, that trapped us in here, that's my house. And my parents were inside." Tears were running down his face.
"That's a strong possibility, Terence." I'd realized that, of course, and was very worried, but seeing Terrence close to hysteria forced me to act calm. "But it may have been the house behind yours, or the one on either side. At any rate, rescuers will come soon and get us out of here. Until then, you must think positively. That space under the stairs is the most secure spot in the house. Even if the whole house is destroyed they could be okay, sheltered under the rubble just like you and me. Remember, we saw that kind of thing in a newsreel at the cinema."
"They should have been down here with us," Terrence sobbed.
"You know your father couldn't do that."
"But what if they're hurt? Or worse?"
"There's nothing to be gained from worrying about something that may not be. Take a few deep breaths and try to calm down."
I tried to think of anything Mother may have taught about dealing with hysteria but nothing came to me, so I just acted instinctively and pulled Terrence to me and hugged him tight. He was very tense and tried to pull away. I held on and pulled him back. Without thinking, I kissed him.
He stopped struggling and didn't move. I froze also as the enormity of what I'd done sank in. It was only a chaste kiss, my closed lips pressed against his. If it had been on his cheek it would have been quite brotherly. TR and I kissed each other on the cheek all the time. But not on the lips. And Terrence wasn't my brother.
I didn't have long to worry because after only a few seconds, Terrence kissed me back. And his kiss wasn't anywhere near as chaste as mine. It was a deep, open-mouthed, passionate kiss. I'd never experienced anything like it and it made my head spin. I didn't know how long it went on but when we finally parted we were both breathless. Terrence stared into my eyes.
"I know this isn't supposed to happen, but I love you, Woody."
I'd surprised myself by kissing Terrence but he shocked me when he returned the kiss. And then saying he loved me. He had to be in shock. It wasn't possible for two men to love each another. I loved Dad and TR of course, but that was different. The way I felt about Terrence was more romantic, and physical, too, but love? Maybe it wasn't the same as what a man felt for a woman, but it was as close as I'd ever come.
"I love you, too, even though it's wrong. But it feels so right."
Just then the all-clear siren sounded. After a few minutes we heard voices outside. They were too far away and too muffled for me to make out what they were saying, but it was a relief just knowing help was nearby. Terrence and I both started yelling and pounding on the door and roof of the shelter. A voice came closer.
"Is that you in the shelter, Albert? Are Jean and Terrence all right?"
"It's just me - Terrence - with a friend, Mr. White. My parents are in the house."
"Are you boys hurt?"
"No, we're fine, but the door's jammed. We can't get out."
"I'll get some help to get you out but first we'd better look for your mum and dad."
"Mr. White lives two doors down," Terrence explained to me. "He's seventy if he's a day so he's not going to be much help alone. But it sounds like there are others out there. If they have to look for my parents, that doesn't sound good, though."
"Try not to think the worst. Remember, it's dark out there."
We waited for what seemed like an eternity, listening to low-pitched voices and other sounds. The damage outside must have been quite extensive because it sounded like they were shifting piles of rubble. Finally we heard the sound of a siren as a vehicle drove away.
"Okay, boys, we got 'em. Now we'll get you. We'll have that door cleared in no time."
We waited impatiently a few more minutes as the men outside lifted the debris away from the door. We were finally able to push the top of it away from the shelter and they lifted it away completely. Terrence scrambled out through the hole they'd created and I carefully followed.
The scene that greeted us was unrecognizable. Terrence's house and the attached house next door were both gone. Where they had stood were piles of wood and brick rubble. This extended into the back yards, covering the Anderson shelter completely. I couldn't imagine how they had even found us in the dark. There was a bit of light from a small fire at the front of the neighbor's house, but the fire brigade had just about put that out. The only other light was from flashlights held by some of the rescuers. There was a smell of burnt explosives in the air.
"Where are my parents? Are they all right?" Terrence was addressing an elderly man with wispy white hair. I assumed that was the Mr. White who had first found us.
"The ambulance took them off to hospital. Your mother appeared all right but your father wasn't conscious."
"That's right, lad."
"Let's go, Woody."
The old man handed Terrence a flashlight and we picked our way across the ruins of the houses. It looked to me like the bomb had fallen at the front of the houses and had blown them back away from the street. When we got to the road Terrence started to run.
"Slow down! How far is the hospital?"
"About a half mile."
"Then slow down. I'll never make it that far at this speed."
Twice along the way I had to ask Terrence to go slower. I understood his haste but I wasn't very familiar with the area and I was sure if he got too far ahead of me in the dark I'd be lost. A couple of times we passed places where bombs had fallen, where there were small groups of people crowded around either rubble or fires. Just before we got to the hospital we had to detour around a street that was blocked off due to an unexploded bomb.
At the hospital Terrence led the way to the Casualty Department which was very busy. There were white curtains blocking off most of the back of the room and there were quite a number of people in the waiting area. Some looked like they had minor injuries and were waiting to be treated. Terrence ran up to the nurse at the desk.
"Where are Albert and Jean Atkins? They were brought in by ambulance a short time ago."
"Are you family?"
"Yes, they're my parents."
The nurse consulted a list on the desk, frowned and called to a man in a white coat who had just come out from behind a curtain. She pointed out her list to him and then looked up at us.
"This is the son."
"Come over here where we can talk," he said grimly as he stepped off to a quiet corner.
"How are they, doctor?"
"Well, your mother is fine. She's somewhat banged up and will be bruised and sore tomorrow, but she hasn't any serious injuries. I wish I could say the same for your father." He cleared his throat. "From what we were told it looked like he threw himself over your mother to protect her and took the brunt of the trauma when the building collapsed. He has a severe concussion, several broken bones and serious internal injuries. He's been slipping in and out of consciousness. To be honest, I have no idea how he's still alive. All we've been able to do for him is give him morphine for the pain."
"Then he's not going to make it?" Terrence's voice was trembling.
"I'm afraid not. He just has too many serious injuries. I'll take you to him."
The doctor led him to one of the curtained off areas and drew the curtain aside enough to pass through. I tailed along. Mrs. Atkins was sitting on a chair next to a gurney, in her robe and nightgown, looking very disheveled. Mr. Atkins was on the gurney. He was barely recognizable. His face was puffy and bruised and the skin had been scraped off one side of his forehead. His eyes were closed and he made a wheezing sound as he breathed. He had an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth
Mrs. Atkins slowly got up and put her arms around Terrence.
"I'm so glad you boys are all right. I didn't want to leave before they got to you but your father wasn't conscious and they insisted I go with him. And Fred White said he'd talked to you and you were all right. Since we got here your father was only conscious once for no more than a few seconds. He told me he loved me and asked for you."
Terrence went to the gurney, picked up his father's hand and lifted it to his lips. Mr. Atkins' eyes fluttered open.
"Thank God you're all right, son. I love you so much." His voice wasn't much more than a hoarse whisper and was barely intelligible through the mask.
And then he closed his eyes and stopped breathing.