It was Good Friday, and Mum went shopping. She came back with some Easter biscuits. We could only afford two, so Mum and Mary had to share one. The biscuit was delicious, and it was my lucky day, because Mum wasn’t very hungry, and she gave me most of her half.
Father Doyle called in the afternoon. Mum told me to act as if I were still ill. She sat at the top of the bed with me, and told Father Doyle he should keep his distance, as what I had was very infectious. He stood by the door and told us a story about Easter.
He told us about the Last Supper and Judas Iscariot. He told us about Pontius Pilate and Barabbas, and then he told us about Jesus Christ. How he was forced to wear a crown of thorns, and how he carried the heavy cross up the hill of Mount Calvary. He told us how Jesus was crucified and died. It was a cracking story and I was right into it. I was waiting anxiously for the happy ending, and I was quite disappointed when Mum interrupted to tell Father Doyle that it was time for him to leave. He threw some holy water at me from the bottom of the bed, shouted ‘Dominus vobiscum’, and made a hasty exit down the wooden stairs.
Back then, when our city was under nightly siege from the German bombers, I would always go to bed fully clothed, apart from my boots, which sat by the side of the bed. That way, we were always ready for a quick getaway. I often wondered if my mother ever slept. She always seemed to be there at the ready when the sirens sounded. She roused me from a deep sleep at just before nine o’clock that night. We sat and listened to Alvar Lidell reading the nine o’clock news. Yet again, there was no good news. Our armies were in retreat, our shipping was being sunk and our cities bombed. I waited in vain for my father to get a mention, but once again, he didn’t.
“I don’t know why we bother to listen.” Mum looked glum. She took off my shirt, lifted my vest and started to rub the Wintergreen on my chest. I was still half asleep and not really listening as she chatted away.
Just before ten o’clock, the sirens sounded for the 538th time since war had been declared. This time, it was the real thing. The guns were barking away, the searchlights were scanning the skies like demented fire flies, and the dreaded drone of the bombers filled the air. Mum sat on the bottom of the bed, with her head in her hands. She started to cry as she rocked back and forth.
“I don’t know what to do” she said helplessly.
I was listening to the voices in my head. They were doing battle. It was Mr. Lloyd versus the Doctor
‘Another night in there could kill him.’
‘If one of those big bastards has got your name on it, you’re a goner.’
‘It’s every man for himself.’
I knew what I had to do.
Mr. Lloyd won the day; I jumped off the bed, and sprinted out of the house. I was heading for the sanctuary of my tunnel. I heard Mum’s frantic voice calling me. Slowly, it faded into the distance, as I ran bare-footed and bare-chested down Hotwell Road.
Mr. Lloyd had been adamant. There was no chance of ‘Jerry’ coming to call on Good Friday. ‘Stands to bloody reason.’ he said. ‘Jerry’ didn’t come over at Christmas, so he won’t be over for bloody Easter.’ Yet again, Mr. Lloyd was wrong.
It was quite a long haul from where we lived in Hotwell Road to the tunnel on the Portway. I had made the journey on many occasions with my mother, but never in the middle of a major air raid. I had always walked slowly; lagging behind Mum; usually dragging my heels, and insisting on numerous pit stops along the way. That Good Friday night was very different. By the time I had set out on my panic fuelled dash to safety, the raid was in full swing. The first wave of enemy bombers had avoided the customary frenzied, but wholly ineffective gun fire, and the first bombs had been delivered. Amongst the early casualties were the buildings housing the Cheltenham Road Library, and the neighbouring Colston’s Girls’ School.
I was still only three, and my running style was, to say the least, lacking in coordination. My arms and legs had minds of their own, and flapped wildly in different directions, but I had no intention of hanging around, and the one hundred and fifty three German bombers flying overhead in perfect formation added both strength and resolve to my young limbs. Furthermore, the knowledge that any one of the planes could also be carrying the ‘big bastard with my name written on it’, gave wings to my heels. That night, I ran every single step of the way, and to my eternal shame, I ran with neither a backward glance, nor a second thought for the safety and welfare of the mother and sister whom I had left behind.
The man on the door of the tunnel looked quite startled as I burst past him, and splashed my barefooted path through the puddles. I was heading towards my bunk at the very far end of the tunnel. A queue was already forming for the smelly toilet block behind my bunk, and the crowd gave me a good natured round of applause as I arrived.
I knew Mr. Brookes would be waiting; he always was. He was sitting, as usual, on his bunk. He was peering anxiously into the gloom, and looking out for Mum. Mr. Brookes slept on the lower bunk, which was directly underneath me. He was a good looking man, with dark hair, a black moustache, and a shiny white, sparkling smile. He bore a striking resemblance to Clark Gable, the famous film star, but he had a high pitched squeaky voice. He sounded just like Donald Duck, and to make matters worse, he was afflicted with a very bad stutter.
I liked Mr. Brookes. He always made me laugh, and he always made Mum smile. He was one of those people who constantly told her she looked like Hedy Lamarr. More importantly, he always had a large bag of toffees in his pocket, and I loved toffees. I loved them more than anything in the world, apart from Easter biscuits, or maybe fish and chips, and maybe pig’s trotters.
“Where’s your m-m-m-m-mother?” enquired Mr. Brookes as he clasped his hands together and gave me a leg up to the upper bunk. His stutter always seemed to be far worse whenever Mum was involved. I waved vaguely in the direction of the entrance. I never dared to speak with Mr. Brookes myself. On the one occasion I had, I found myself mimicking his stutter, so I restricted myself to sign language only.
We didn’t have long to wait. Mum wasn’t far behind me, and she soon came splashing through the puddles herself. She was carrying Mary in one arm, and my shirt, a pullover, my boots, a pair of socks and a dry blanket in the other. Her face was a mixture of relief and anger. I knew that look well, and experience told me the anger would prevail. I prepared myself for a smack. It never arrived, because Mr. Brookes stood between us with his arms outstretched.
“L-L-Leave it be, M-M-M-Mrs. Kelly. He’s only a y-y-young child. We are fighting the b-b-b-b-bloody Germans, not each other.”
Mum let it be, and Mr. Brookes gave me a toffee. Mum dressed me, and tucked me in for the night.
I always tried to sleep, but sleep was hard to come by in the tunnel. The canvas in my bunk was damp and rotting, there were more holes than canvas, and I was basically lying on the rubber webbing, and could clearly see Mr. Brookes in his bunk below me. There was a constant buzz of nervous conversations. The toilet queue shuffled in, and back out again. Mothers scolded their children, and the children cried. Men drank beer, played cards, and argued, with the arguments becoming louder as the drinking increased. The little, old, white haired man who lounged in his brightly coloured deck chair would, from time to time, squeeze a tune from his accordion, and Mr. Brookes would squeak and stutter away, as he chatted nonstop with my mother. Mum sat, always looking extremely uncomfortable, in a wooden dining chair, cradling Mary in her arms. Mr. Brookes alternated between sitting and lying on his bunk.
The only light in the tunnel came from the handful of oil lamps and candles people had brought with them. These provided an eerie, yellowish half-light, and created strange, flickering shadows on the brick walls. Water ran down the walls, and dripped constantly from the curved roof.
The early bombing was light and sounded to be far away. We felt in no immediate danger, and it came as no surprise when the all clear sounded before midnight. Mum rapidly prepared us for our homeward journey. I could clearly hear the disappointment in Mr. Brookes’ squeak as he said his goodbyes, and gave me another toffee. We lingered on the way out, and Mum had a chat, and shared a cigarette with the man on the door. I was glad that did, because within minutes, and before we had left, the sirens wailed the alarm again. The Luftwaffe had regrouped and they were back for another go. This time it felt and sounded as if they meant business. The bombs sounded closer. It felt as if we were the target, and we were all uneasy.
Somehow, I managed to get to sleep, but it was a troubled sleep, and a troubled sleep meant troubled dreams. I dreamt that I was helping Jesus Christ carry his cross up the slopes of Mount Calvary. Jesus was wearing his crown of thorns, and the blood was streaming down his face. The cross was over his shoulders, and I was doing my best to lift it from the base. It was too heavy for me, and I wasn’t much of a help, but I struggled on, doing my best. Mr. Lloyd was with us, and he was waving his fists, and swearing at the Roman soldiers. Father Doyle was beating his chest and shouting ‘Pax vobiscum.’ I suddenly realised I was bursting for a pee. There was a low stone wall to our left, and I asked Jesus for permission to go behind it to relieve myself. He nodded agreement, and as he nodded, the blood on his face splattered on to mine. I went behind the wall, and emptied what was a very full bladder. When I came back, the road was empty. Everyone had gone. It started to rain heavily, and I raised my face to the skies. The rain washed away the blood of Christ, but then I heard shouting. I woke up just as another drip from the ceiling of the tunnel landed on my face.
I realised I had been dreaming, and then I realised I had wet myself; I had wet my bunk, and I had wet Mr. Brookes. He was on his feet now, a look of disgust on his face as he shouted at Mum whilst he wiped himself down with the backs of his fingers.
“He’s just a child.” said Mum defensively.
“He’s b-b-b-bloody three.” Mr. Brookes squeaked loudly in reply.
I needed to put him straight. I leant over the side of my bunk and looked him in the eyes.
“I’m not b-b-b-bloody three.” I yelled. I’m nearly f-f-f-four.”
There was a stunned silence, and then slowly, everyone started to laugh. Even Mr. Brookes joined in and the old man in the deck chair squeezed his accordion, and played a tune. Everyone joined in and sang along with a rousing chorus of K-K-K-Katie, b-b-beautiful Katie,
You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore.
I felt a warm glow of satisfaction. It felt as if I had just told my first adult joke.
The ‘all clear’ sounded at four thirty and as everyone else settled down to sleep, we prepared to make our way home. Mum had a brief chat with the man on the door, and then we set off.
I will never forget the walk home that night. It’s just as if some great artist had painted a canvas, and placed it inside my head. The moon smiled down at its reflection on the river, and we had what was almost the perfect silence. It was broken only by the sound of our footsteps. Mum was wearing the same green coat, with the black fur trim; the same coat she had worn when we’d made our journey from Kingsdown to Hotwells all those months earlier. Mary, who was dressed all in pink, was leaning over Mum’s left shoulder, and she was oblivious to everything. She was chuckling and chatting away to the white woollen doll which Mum had knitted for her. I was waddling along in the rear; lagging behind with my trousers wet, cold and clammy against my thighs. My socks were down around my ankles, and the early morning breeze was whipping cold against my bare legs. All I wanted was some sleep and some food.
We turned the final bend into our bit of Hotwell Road, and walked into an inferno. Anchor Road was burning from one end to the other. Jacob’s Wells Road was badly damaged, and there was a massive fire on College Green as the big shop that Mum loved so much became a pile of smouldering embers, and a memory. The sky over Brandon Hill was blood red, and Park Row was on fire yet again.
A neighbour came running down the road, threw her arms around my mother, and whispered something in her ear. The pair of them sobbed together, as they rocked in one another’s arms for several minutes. Every window in our house, together with most of the doors had disappeared. We spent the night in a strange bed, in a strange house, and when I woke up, it was late afternoon. Mum was dressed, ready and waiting.
“We’re moving.” She whispered. This time I didn’t argue. This time I didn’t mind. This time I wanted to go.
Mum had already rescued the clock, Dad’s photo and my tennis ball, so we set off down the road. We were heading off to another adventure. Mary was leaning over Mum’s shoulder again, still playing with her doll, still chuckling and chatting. Mum expertly steered the push chair with her spare hand.
“It will be a new life and a better life.” Mum smiled and strode off at speed again. “We’re going to Long Ashton; we’re going home.”
I asked to see Mr. Lloyd. I wanted to say goodbye. But my request only started Mum crying again. She explained that he was still in town, doing a ‘fact find’. I wanted to believe her, but I had seen the hole in the garden where the Anderson shelter had once stood, and I was worried.
I slowly fell behind, but I wasn’t dragging my heels. In fact, there was just a hint of a swagger in my step. I’d realised that it was Saturday, and on a Saturday we always had cheese and chips for supper. That was one of my most favourite things in the whole world. All I wanted now was for Mum to stop crying.