Here’s my response to a friend’s Facebook challenge to write a short story for Hallowe’en. Even though the date is over, why not write one of your own and post it in comments? And, of course, would love to get your reactions to my effort here.
I was eight years old during the Blitz. All these years on, close to the end of my life, I still sometimes waken in the middle of the night to the sirens sounding the all clear. Worse, if I were to draw back the curtains of my room (my cell, I call it) in the home, I see the woman who wears the gas mask. She stands there, beneath the branches of the ash tree in the middle of the back garden. She’s still holding the baby. She’s been holding it in her arms all this time.
There’s something horrible about the way the gas mask hides her face. The rubber and metal skin with its huge saucerlike eyes which seem to express perpetual shock or surprise. The woman doesn’t know the all clear’s been sounded. All her concentration is on that bundle in her arms, swaddled in a grubby woollen blanket. The blanket was once white, but its grey now, its nap flat like the fur of a wet dog. The woman’s frock, though, is immaculate. A floral sleeveless A-line number with a hem just below her knees. The height of fashion back then. In the ’40s.
The baby was dead, you see. Buried beneath the rubble of the collapsed buildings after the final bombing raid. When we all emerged from the tube station, amid the still-settling dust, the remarkably untouched edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral seeming to mock the devastation all around, I saw her on her hands and knees across the street. Pawing the shattered bricks, the shoals of broken wood and glass. I never saw her face, though. Because she was still wearing her gas mask. But, remarkably, she found her baby beneath that scrapheap of devastation. I swear it. I saw her pick it up, gentle as you like, and wrap it in the blanket, and cradled the unmoving form in her arms. She stood up slowly, ever so slowly, the weight of the world on her shoulders. Stood up and looked straight at me. None of the others who’d emerged from underground with me paid her any mind. Or maybe they never saw her. They were only happy to have escaped once more the enemy’s latest attempt to erase them from the face of the earth.
I wanted to do something for the woman. Help her, maybe. Even though her face was concealed by the mask, she reminded me of my own mum, who’d died only last week. The floorboards in the living room had given way, weakened by the previous day’s bombing. A doodle bug. Somehow failed to destroy our tenement but must have unravelled part of its structure. A pulled thread that parted the boards and sent mum plummeting to her death, splintered floorboards puncturing her jaw, slashing a jugular.
There was an unexploded bomb down there, too. In the basement. I fell onto it when I tried to save mum. But it didn’t explode. I blacked out, and when I woke up I was being hauled out of the basement by my uncle Fred. His glasses were misted up with tears. I tried to warn him about the bomb. But it wasn’t there anymore.
It’s back now, just as I knew it would be. That metal egg of death. The woman in the gas mask is still cradling it out there, the way she has done every night since. Like a baby. An unexploded bomb wrapped in a filthy baby blanket. Swaddled and comforted in all these years I have come from being a young girl to an old woman.
She saved me, you see. Whoever she is. When she couldn’t save her own baby, she chose to save me instead.
The sirens sound again. My heart’s stuttering. I hate this old folks’ home. Hate it. So it is perhaps with some defiance that I throw back the blankets and stagger on creaky legs to the window. I pull back the curtain. The woman with the gas mask is there. Cradling her baby. I can’t read her expression. Because of the gas mask, you see. But as I look more closely the streetlights around the garden wall are extinguished, one by one. It’s the blackout all over again. The woman’s body seems to sink in on itself. Because of her baby, you see. You hold onto a baby for 70 years or close to that and it’s bound to get heavy. It will try to drag you down. Which leaves you with only one option.
It’s okay, I say to the woman without moving my lips. You did everything you could. More than most people. It’s okay. You can let go now. You can let go. And then the world fills with light.