The sound of the siren’s ‘All Clear’ would prompt sighs of relief but on that particular night I recall my mother’s face remained empty, her movements flurried.
How strange it felt buttoned into my winter coat in the middle of the night with my gas mask box around my neck. Then cold air rushed about my legs as we stood on the doorstep and mother bid me,
‘Be good. Mrs Budd is taking you somewhere safe in the countryside.’ Her voice wobbled as she hugged me and fright tweaked my insides.
I knew the word ‘Blitz’. It was fun kicking over the rubble of someone’s home with my older brother and quarrelling about who found the best piece of shrapnel. I knew he’d gone away to safety with his class at school.
It was like a game of Blind Man’s Buff through the city but Mrs. Budd carried me and found her way to the ‘bus in the pitch dark. People talked in whispers as the ‘bus bumped over craters and my stomach churned with an ache to be home in Bristol on my snug bed under the stairs. Mrs. Budd told a woman she was going to a village near Devizes.
I must have slept because the swooping wail of the siren’s ‘Alert’ made me jump. A whoosh, a big bang and crashing glass ripped the black out blind on the window and sucked out my breath. I tried to squirm away as big arms lifted me from Mrs. Budd’s warm lap and heard voices mumble,
‘Driver can’t turn back!’
Someone was looking inside Mrs. Budd’s handbag with a torch. I was carried off the ‘bus and set down on a stony road. My chest tightened like it did when I gasped the rubbery smell inside my gas mask. A man and woman took each of my hands and hauled me along a track beneath dark, whispering trees.
‘Shush!’ they warned when I trod in puddles and sobbed to go home.
A low ceilinged cottage with strangers huddled about a smoky fire. My small suit case appeared with a pair of dry socks with my coat spread on a clothes dryer by the fire. Images of witches leaked tears into a bowl of hot broth that burned my lips.
A draught of cold air hit me as I was led out into the night by a stooped old man. The moon raced in and out of clouds as we crossed fields of scratchy stubble and he lifted me over a style.
Few people spoke to a child in those days or explained what was happening so sensibilities were heightened and imagination fuelled thoughts. I was trapped in a terrifying Grimm’s Fairy tale and when a big hairy creature snuffled nearby my heart did a loop. A house loomed out of the darkness and the man let go my hand.
‘Nell? It’s Ernie!’ he shouted out. The door opened a crack and I saw the shape of a tall woman.
‘Whom be she, then? She’ll ‘av to double up with our Chris.’
Tired and shivering I forgot to tell her my name and address as my mother had taught over and over again, ‘In case you are lost.’
A huge bolster smothered me. The sheets felt icy cold and my feet curled up frozen. A sharp elbow shoved me to the side of a bed and I gripped onto the edge of the metal base to stop falling out.