By Kayla Martini
“Mum! Mum! Where are you?”
My vision blurred as I was jerked awake from a deep sleep. Mother’s voice echoed loudly up the stairwell. “James William Henderson get your bum downstairs this instant! You are going to be late for your studies!” Followed by an additional vigorous bark from my dog Max commanding me to knock up.
Groaning, I woke from my dreams slowly dragging myself out of bed. Today was yet another day of Christian Academy. Lazily, I put on my zoot suit then brush my hair and teeth as I stumble downstairs. My mum passes me fried bread as I feed my dog, Max. Quickly, I give my younger sister Mary a hug and smooch on the head as I rush out the flat. Since mother had work to attend, I was walking to school today wishing my mate Max could keep me company on my mundane trek. How pleasantly entertaining it would be getting pulled along by his strong body while telling him to stop barking at every noise or movement along the streets of London. Having Max come along is a brilliant idea. Perhaps next time he can accompany me. When I finally made it to school, our headmaster and advisers were standing outside of the building telling the children to go back home because school would not be in session today. Immediately, out of curiosity, I walked over to Mr. Johnson, my headmaster, to ask what fiascos were occurring this time. Mr. Johnson explained because of increased bombing raids near our town, the Superintendent of London’s Christian Academy decided to cancel school until the War was over. My thoughts soon turned from unfriendly to amicable, considering at the very least there would be a whole month without completing assignments or perhaps even longer. Rapidly, I rush back to the flat, exclaiming the good news to Max as I throw him a treat and make myself a victory sandwich.
“Why are you home so soon James? Is there something the matter?” my mum inquires with a confused sound to her voice.
Trembling with excitement, I offered the news grinning ear to ear. However, mother’s reaction was not the one I was expecting. Instead, she froze, standing motionless for a couple of moments while processing my words. Slowly and carefully she put her arm on my shoulder leaning in close, she whispered these eight words to me, “James, prepare for all hell to break loose.”
“What do you mean? The Germans are not predicted to attack London, this is only a precaution,” I exclaimed.
“No, my dear James. This is serious, and we need to prepare for the worst,” she stressed.
Immediately, mother created a list of preparations. One in which I was struggling to complete was titled “James get ration books and food, now!” Never in a million years did think my mother would take “preparations” this seriously. Usually, Mother was more fun and adventurous, always bringing Mary and me to enjoyable places. Now, diligently she gave orders, even to Mary. Rapidly, I grabbed Max’s leash as my mum sternly passed me a list. Such a sudden change in my mum’s attitude was unsettling. Typically, she politely made requests. Even Max reacted to her rudeness with a growl. Often, I am convinced Max, and I can read each other's thoughts and feelings. Whenever I’m upset or angry, he reacts in some manner. Honestly, this action is strange but highly interesting in a way. As Max and I approached Oxford Street, I could see a large sign posted in the middle of a storefront window with a message from the Ministry of Food stating “Ration Booklets Available Inside.” After swiftly tying Max to the nearest lamp post, I burst through the doors immediately getting in the queue for ration booklets. To prepare for the War, every adult and child per family is issued a ration book. Each coupon inside the book represents the amount of sugar, eggs, flour, cheese, ham, or bacon we could purchase during a certain week. Officials say rationing is fair and guarantees that no matter how rich or poor a person is, available food is shared at equal prices. With booklets in one hand and Max’s leash in the other, I rushed to the first retailer my mum had listed, F.R. Hills Family Butcher, 31 Cheriton Road, to get meat. The long queue moved surprisingly fast, I was able to move quickly on to the next retailer for fats like lard or butter, then on to the grocer for dry goods. At each store, I registered our books declaring we promised to use our ration coupons only at that location. Traveling to different stores for different items was complicated, but I knew I had to do this task for my family. Plus, Mother will be proud. After untying Max, I began walking home. Suddenly, I felt Max’s body turn slowly around as he let out a subtle growl. Instantly, I knew trouble was about to begin. With a brisk motion, I looked over my shoulder and out the corner of my eye saw a man staring at me. This man clearly wanted my food rations, but I could not risk my family going hungry at a time of war. The man was wearing a dark wool coat with torn up trousers. The scar under his left eye looked menacing, and his presence made my body shudder. Shaking my head back and forth indicating no, the man moved closer to me. Stepping backward I turned to continue my walk home, suddenly I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and then around my neck choking me. At this point, Max was barking and wildly attacking the man’s legs trying to collapse his grip, but it was no use. The man was ten times larger and stronger than me, I had no chance. My eyes moved everywhere, glancing from place to place for an escape. The man reached into his coat pocket while still holding me in a headlock, his hand right over my breathing tube. Pulling out a long, thick knife, he held it to my throat. Immediately I turned pale, Max still fighting at my side struggling to free his grip.
I forced out the words, “Okay, okay. Take what you want.”
His grip loosened and he grabbed a loaf of bread. The man took a step back with sadness and regret in his eyes, then slowly walked away in the opposite direction. Filled with new fear, I realized how serious this War situation was and why my mum was anxious to get supplies. From now on, I will definitely be more careful walking the streets of London. New dangers were lurking. As a teenage bloke, I have to learn to defend myself and my family.
Walking afraid in the streets of London, my heart filled with sadness as I approached my flat. What was happening to the safe, wonderful city I knew? I sighed as I walked through the door closing it softly behind Max. Entering the kitchen and placing the bags of food and water on the countertop, I awaited my mother’s loud voice with new orders. In the meantime, I knelt down next to Max, patting him softly thanking him for his deeds, he licked my face lovingly in approval. Surprisingly after ten minutes of waiting, all was quiet. A note on the cabinet read “Ran out for more supplies. Mary asleep on the couch -Mother.” Slowly, I moved over toward the couch spotting my sleeping sister’s head propped up on two pillows, she looked so peaceful holding her stuffed elephant with not a thought or care in the world. I sat down next to her, stroking her back with my hand whispering into her, “Don’t worry Mary, I promise you I will protect you, just like Dad would if he were here.”
Father died a year ago after taking a bullet for mother while robbers invaded our home. When I spoke to my father for the last time, I gave him my word that I would always protect our family, especially Mary. Max whimpered quietly as my eyes filled up with tears. I missed my father, and his sudden death was difficult, especially now when we needed him. Quietly, I returned to the kitchen with Max close behind and started putting the groceries away when mother barged through the door, a look of terror on her face. Mary immediately sat up as I asked Mother, “What is the matter?”
“The Germans are coming sooner than expected, we must make our shelter,” she exclaimed.
Immediately I rushed to her side, putting my arms around her as she sobbed over my shoulder. When we pulled apart, she took my hand leading me to the cleaning supply closet. Unexpectedly when she opened the door, she pulled out several large sheets of steel and buckets of bolts.
“Your father purchased these supplies right before his death. Instinctively, he knew this War would reach us some day,” she explained.
“Father always thought ahead, and I am thankful he did. Even in his absence, he protects us,” I added.
Mother handed me a portion and instructed me to carry the materials outside and place them next to the carrots in the garden. Max barked approvingly as I quickly picked up six large sheets of steel and a bucket of bolts carrying them outside as mother instructed. After I placed the materials, or as mother referred to them as “precious materials,” by the three rows of growing vegetables, Max sat down next to me as I looked up. The sun was partially covered by three large half-translucent clouds. Although these clouds seemed and looked normal, they were not typical rain clouds. They were made from bomb explosions that I learned about in school. Immediately, I ran to tell Mother what I saw as we started building our safety shelter.
The clouds thickened tremendously as Mother, Mary, and I worked building our shelter that was expected to keep our family safe. I instructed Mary to take Max and fetch more materials from the supply closet as mother worked on finishing digging a large hole about six feet deep and five feet wide. Luckily, Father had already begun digging the hole a month before he died, so we did not have much to do. After bolting sheets of steel together, forming walls and a ceiling, I assisted my mum with digging. After we completed the hole, she instructed me to start placing the walls of steel inside of the hole, shaping them correctly to properly fit while she visited Mary inside. Reshaping portions of the hole, I made the edges smoother and easier to work with. In addition, I added customizations to our shelter consisting of storage and a cardboard floor so our clothes and supplies would not get soiled. When I finished the task, I stood up feeling the cool September breeze on my face. As the sun set on the cloudy horizon, I heard the most horrifying sound, a sound that would change my life forever. A huge booming, crashing sound came from West of our home, filling the sunset with more gray translucent clouds. Faint screams could be heard over the explosion. Max whimpered running swiftly behind my shaking legs. Frozen, I stood in mother’s garden horrified for my life and my family. What would happen to us? Would the German soldiers come for us too? Would Mary survive? Would I survive? My thoughts were broken by mother’s hand gently cupping my face, wiping the tears that sprung out of my eyes onto my cheeks like a flowing river.
“James, do not be afraid. We will get through this together, please be brave. We must hurry and finish our shelter,” she pleaded gently.
“Yes Mother, okay. Back to work, it is,” I stated with a forced, weak smile.
Mother instructed Max and me to start piling dirt over the shelter roof, causing our family safe haven to look as though there was simply a medium-sized pile of dirt made from the wind and past storms. Finally, after hours and hours of strenuous work, we finished building and supplying our garden shelter. Racing inside, I called for Mary to come out of the flat before we locked all doors. With a frightened look on her face, Mary ran to the back garden clutching her stuffed elephant tightly as I guided her down into the shelter where Mother was waiting. When mother closed the shelter, I felt darkness surround my body. The silence eating away at my own skin. I was shaking, my teeth chattering from nerves and worry. The wind picked up, revealing the sound of three more explosions coming from the East side of town. Shivering, I silently prayed my family would survive and live to see another day. Lying down on the makeshift bed, I felt Max’s soft body curl up against mine. Exhausted, I dozed off to my mother's gentle voice humming a lullaby to Mary.
September 7, 1940, I woke with a jolt, hearing two enormous explosions in the distance. The German Blitz aerial bombing of London was in full force. The night bombings were disturbing. My heart pounded heavily in my chest as I reached for the lantern, glancing all around the shelter searching for Mother, Max, and Mary. Surprisingly, Max and Mary lie sound asleep next to me. As I laid back down, placing my head on the cold, damp cardboard floor hearing more explosions in the distance. Fear consumed me, as I secretly cried for my family’s life and my own. Mother approached me and explained, “I must set out to help Mr. McGregor as I promised. He has no one to look after him, and he needs food rations. Stay in the shelter. Do not leave.”
“No Mother, please do not go. The air strikes are coming closer. Perhaps we can share our supplies with him,” I pleaded.
“Mr. McGregor is much too old and weak to come to the shelter. He needs his medicine and supplies. I will not be long. I love you, James.”
“I love you too, Mum.”
My mum is a person with integrity, and I knew I could not stop her from helping. Kissing my forehead, she carefully opened the secret door revealing a horrible burning smell. On the horizon, the sun was slowly rising, and my instincts were to stop mother, but she was determined to help our old neighbor. Explosion after explosion, worry consumed me. Keeping track of time in the dark shelter was an impossible task, and I wondered when my mum would return. Closing my eyes, images of better times filled my mind. Playing crochet in the park, Mary laughing on the swing, waving to mum and dad from the Ferris Wheel at St. James's Park, if only we could travel back to those carefree times. Mother demanded that we do not leave the shelter and in my heart, I knew I must obey her request although I was tempted to search for her. The wind howled louder, and explosions quickened, causing the shelter to shake violently. There was a brief silence followed by a sizzling and popping sound, quickly I wrapped my body around Mary and Max, bracing myself for what was to come.
“Close your eyes, head down,” I shouted to Mary.
“Help! Help us! I want Mummy,” Mary wailed.
No one could have prepared us for what followed, the deafening sound and the massive impact. My mind flashed images of my life like a movie on a theater screen. Scenes of a joyful young boy playing trains and a toddler holding his baby sister moved in slow motion. As I walked, Father appeared as clear as day sitting on the curb of Clink Street. Immediately our eyes met, and he motioned for me to join him. At first, I did not understand what was happening, and Father saw my hesitation. Slowly and nonchalantly reached his hand out to me, motioning again for me to join him and somehow telling me not to be afraid.
“My dear James, do you remember the promise you made me?” Father spoke, his deep voice sounding just as I remembered, so strong and calm.
“Yes, of course, I do Father,” I replied confidently as his deep blues eyes looked into my soul.
“James, you must stay strong. You must protect Mary with your life,” Father stated in a serious tone.
“I promised you I would father, and I will promise you again. I will protect Mary and Mother with my life,” I spoke to him, matching his tone.
When Father heard mother’s name, his face lost expression, and he looked down in sorrow.
“What Father? Why are you looking sad about Mother? What are you trying to tell me?”
Father brought his head back up, tears forming in his eyes. Reaching for his hand, I felt the hard concrete of the curb and cold air rushing across my hand. My eyes widened, and my hand winced at the sensation. Looking back up at Father, his form became lighter. His image disappearing gradually like a dimming bright light in the night sky.
“Father, what's happening to you? Please do not leave me. Tell me about Mother,” I pleaded. The thought of losing him again was unbearable.
“Son, my time is up. I am terribly sorry, it is not up to me. I must go now,” Father replied.
The image of my father was almost completely gone, slowly fading away into thin air. With so much left to say, my body started shaking as tears poured from my eyes. No, I could not let him go! Attempting to grab my father’s hand was no use because he was almost completely invisible now.
“I...I love you father,” I sobbed. All I saw were father’s radiant blue eyes, the rest of his body was gone.
Glancing at me one final time he whispered, “Remember, you are not alone James. You are never alone.”
Inevitably, his voice was fading away with every syllable, with every sound. Getting softer by the second until his bright blue eyes faded too, leaving me alone in the darkness on the edge of Clink Street. Looking in the distance, all of my surroundings were fading away as well. At the end of the street, I saw a shining bright light and someone was calling my name. Rapidly, I got up from the curb sprinting to the light. As I got closer, the light got brighter, blinding me as I ran. Squeezing my eyes tightly together, my head started throbbing, my legs became motionless, and my eyes felt heavy on my face. Stumbling into the blinding light, becoming weaker by the second, I fell down falling faster and faster into the abyss of death.
Suddenly, the sound of a million screams filled my head making it feel as if it would tear apart. Reaching around, I patted something furry. Instantly, I knew it was Max, and my mind jolted back to reality. Blinking my eyes came into focus, I spied Max towering over me, and he began to lick my face. His wagging tail moved as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. Excruciating levels of pain traveled to my brain, as I realized I could not move my left arm. Wincing, I crawled to my feet clutching my injured arm. Whimpering, Max touched his nose to the wound, showing me compassion. Lying unconscious across from the garden shelter was Mary. Her limp and lifeless body looked peaceful somehow. Immediately, I rushed over to my little sister kneeling down beside her, shaking her awake remembering what I had promised Father. After what seemed like forever, she began groaning, and I held her close. I knew she was alive and for a moment I smiled.
“Mary, my sweet sister Mary. Are you all right?”
“I think so, James. I want Mummy. We must search for her,” she cried.
“There, there Mary. First, tell me are you hurt?”
“No, just very scared,” Mary replied with a weak, shaky voice.
I sighed in relief as I examined Mary, grateful she had not broken any bones or damaged anything only dirt and black soot covered her face. My mind began to race, where would I bring Mary and Max? Protecting them was my first priority. The garden shelter was badly damaged, and I knew we had to hurry to find cover.
“Mary, keep quiet and stay close to me.”
“But...but, what about Mummy? What if she comes back for us?”
“No more questions Mary,” I exclaimed, firmly grabbing her hand.
Swiftly, I led Mary and Max up Clink Street, away from the explosion. As we ventured down the road, I barely recognized the streets of my neighborhood. My thoughts instantly recalled times when I was a child. Taking family walks every Sunday afternoon after church; simply walking and laughing with no cares or worries. Farther down the street, a red double-decker bus dangled at the edge of a massive hole in the pavement caused by a German bomb. The enormous crater covered the entire width of the street, making it impassable. Citizens of London stared into the hole with disbelief. The building to the right of the huge explosion was torn in half leaving debris scattered in all directions. Destruction appeared every place my eyes moved to see. Covering Mary’s face, I gasped at the sight. Dust and dirt swirled around Mary, Max and I, causing our eyes to burn and water. Innocent women, men, and children were dead because of senseless fighting. I could not help but wonder what would become of the great city of London knowing that German nighttime air strikes, called The Blitz, had just begun and might continue for months.
Three more small explosions went off only a few feet away from us. People scattered everywhere, running in all directions. Confusion and chaos were taking over. Grabbing Mary’s hand, I commanded Max to follow me into the alleyway. Catching my breath, I recalled my mother speaking of a program called Operation Pied Piper. The government was assisting with relocating children living in London to rural areas where the risk of bombing attacks was lower. That is what we had to do, find the nearest bus or train station. My mum had told me if we ever got separated to go to the station and we could be relocated to the outskirts of London, and she would find us later. The sun was setting, and I knew there was no time to spare.
Just as we started walking in the direction of the nearest bus station, Max’s head turned the opposite direction, his ears pricked up like sticks, and his nose searched the ground wildly picking up the scent of something. Max turned back to me, his eyes looking serious and determined to bring me to what he had sensed. I gave in, after all, we had nothing else to lose, we failed to find Mother and our shelter was destroyed. I really had no choice but to follow Max’s lead into the darkening night. Max led us passed the engulfed double-decker bus straight to Arding and Hobbs Department Store. I thought Max was going crazy, why would he bring us back here? Then I remembered, Mother had gone to get supplies for Mr. McGregor. The store had been hit with a bomb, and the front entrance collapsed down onto the street. Leaving Mary near the front, I ran to the side of the building.
“Mum, Mum! Where are you,” I yelled.
No answer. Max sprinted ahead with me close behind holding my bleeding, broken left arm tight to my chest. Max led me to mother's body. I gasped at the sight, telling Mary to stay back and not to come. It was too late, Mary was in tears standing next to me. I backed off, leading Mary against the wall of the store while she sobbed in despair. Walking back over to mother, I knelt down beside her, checking for a pulse or a heartbeat, any sign of life. Nothing. Tears welled up in my eyes, Mother could not be gone, please God no I begged. Then I recalled my father’s reaction during my dream when I asked him about Mother. Now I understood why he put his head down showing sorrow, he was trying to tell me Mother was dead. I whispered in her ear,
“I love you forever Mother.”
Mary came over, and we both kissed her cold, smooth cheek. We spoke our farewells not wanting to leave her side. Knowing we had to go, I lifted Mary to her feet. Suddenly, I felt dizzy. For a few hours I had been losing blood from the wound in my arm, and it was taking its toll on me. Before I knew it I passed out, everything went dark as I yearned to see my mother again.
A warm hand touched my shoulder, I had a feeling this person did not have evil intentions but was compassionate. I relaxed instantly, falling asleep again in their arms. Unfortunately, I was jerked awake by the strong sensation of pain. Opening my eyes, I saw a girl about my age with brown hair and blue eyes. Her gaze met mine, a worried look stuck on her face as she spoke.
“Don’t look down, close your eyes tightly, and squeeze my hand.”
Not realizing what was happening, I squeezed her hand tight shutting my eyes. Someone lifted my left arm, poking at it with a sharp object. My skin felt numb from the break so I could not feel much of anything. All I felt was something weaving in and out of my skin. I winced in pain every time the sharp object pierced deep into my skin, almost bringing me to tears. Once the stitching portion was over and I could finally relax, a warm cloth was placed on my left arm.
“You can open your eyes now,” she stated.
Once opened, my eyes darted everywhere searching for Mary and Max. Luckily, I noticed both of them sleeping together in the corner of the room, Mary hugging Max on a green cot with three blankets covering them. With a sigh of relief, my gaze returned to the girl standing beside me.
“Who are you? What’s your name,” she asked.
Her soft hand cupped my cheek, sensing my hesitancy.
“If I had not found you, James, you would have died. The cut in your arm is deep, and you lost a lot of blood,” she explained.
“I..I..lost everything. My father, mother, our shelter, supplies...I have nothing to live for. The woman lying on the ground next to me was my mother. I cannot accept the fact she is gone. Part of me wants to join her, to end everything before the Germans end it for me,” I spoke bitterly.
She stepped back in shock, unaware of what to say. Her eyes looked at me with great sorrow. My thoughts were racing, I did not want Bonnie, this stranger, to feel sorry for me. After all, when I thought about it, I was breaking my promise to Father by giving up and leaving my little sister alone in the middle of a harsh War. Ashamed, I broke down in tears. Bonnie embraced me.
“My mother died in an explosion too. I understand how you feel. It is an empty hole in your heart, one that can never be filled. Please do not let depression take over your thoughts, telling you to give up. There is always hope,” Bonnie empathize in a meaningful tone.
Crying, her tears fell heavy on my shoulder. I rubbed her back trying to calm her. After a few moments, a man who had been standing there the whole time observing the situation spoke.
“I am Bonnie’s father, Robert. I stitched your arm mate, and I hate to ruin this touchy moment, but I need to put a brace on your broken arm until we can reach a hospital.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.” I nodded sitting back down allowing him to wrap my arm against a piece of straight metal temporarily keeping my bones in place.
“Your lucky, it seems to be a clean break or bracing your arm would not be as easy,” Robert explained as he finished wrapping my arm.
“Thank you for you for helping us in this time of need,” I stated.
Robert nodded, seeming to understand how I was feeling. Mary stirred rubbing her sleepy eyes, awakening from her slumber. Carefully, I placed my arm around Bonnie’s shoulder for support as I slowly walked over to Mary. Her beautiful face had been cleaned, she had new clothes, and her hair was styled in two braids. I kissed her head, pulling her into a gentle hug as I did with Bonnie. With a wagging tail, Max popped up to join us. Max had been cleaned as well wearing a brand new collar. Showing off, as he pranced around the room barking.
“Do you have any family..left son,” Robert asked concerned.
“No sir, my father passed on a year ago, and now my mother is gone as well. We have no other family around anymore,” I replied my eyes becoming misty at the thought of my mother and father.
Robert glanced at Bonnie and then nodded.
“Well son, we realize you have the option of being relocated to a safer area, but would be most honored if you would consider staying with us. We own another home in the countryside way outside of London. You could become part of our family; we all could start over with a new life and new possibilities. What do ya say,” Robert asked with a wink?
Almost instantly, Max barked as if to agree. Mary came up to me nodding her head yes.
“Yes, yes. That would be wonderful. We would love to give it a try,” I replied with a wide grin on my face.
Instantly, Robert and Bonnie were smiling ear to ear, hugging each other. In my heart, I knew it would take time for us to feel like a true family, but I was open to the idea after experiencing so much heartache.
“Well then, we better get you to a nearby hospital so I can properly fix your arm and we should not take any chances with your blood loss. I know it sounds risky with the Germans continuing to bomb the city, but your health is important,” Robert insisted.
“So YOU can fix my arm,” I questioned.
“Yes, mate, I am a doctor, and it is your lucky day,” Robert told me with confidence as he opened the door to his car, helping me inside.
Bonnie carried Mary inside the car, placing her between us in the back seat. Bounding inside, Max sat in the passenger's seat next to Robert. He was petting Max as he slowly backed out of the alley where his car was hidden. In the distance, I heard explosions. Once we were done at the hospital, I knew we would have to leave London quickly. The Germans were not backing down and little did we know their frequent heavy bombing would continue until May 1941. As we drove off, I heard a tender voice whispering in my head.
“You are not alone.”
As I looked out the car window, I smiled. It was father reminding me not to be afraid because I was not going to be alone. Was it a coincidence or had his spirit played some part in creating this new family? Through the hazy sunset, I saw two dazzling blue eyes shining through the clouds.
“Thank you father,” I whispered.
One last time, I saw father’s face, and his left eye winked before disappearing, leaving for good. Through all the sadness and fear instantly, I felt calm and hopeful knowing for now we would not be alone.