Background

York Blitz: Young James' Gun

Posted on 15 August 2012 | Narrative

He had tied a piece of string across the room. Several model aircraft were suspended from it. One end was tied to the curtain rail: the other to a convenient hook above the door.

A Spitfire, taking full advantage of the light behind it, was poised to attack a Messerschmitt. A Flying Fortress, with guns bristling, had begun its bombing run and flew dangerously close to the arm of the settee. Should the pilot make a false move it would blow itself to smithereens before reaching its target near the coal scuttle. A Lysander, almost out of sight, was innocently taking photographs behind the table.

James lay prostrate on the floor behind his anti-aircraft gun with legs braced against the skirting-board, barrel trained upon the Messerschmitt, his finger resting delicately upon the firing mechanism, conscious that the slightest touch would spew out the lethal match-stick with a sharp crack. He fired, but this time it was to fly harmlessly past the tail of the aircraft, to fall somewhere behind the paper-rack.

Undeterred, he reloaded the gun with a fresh cap, and inserted another matchstick into the smoking breach; this fraught interval accompanied by the life-like noise of the pom-pom battery on his right, by the cupboard door.

Meanwhile, an army convoy was setting out from underneath the armchair straggling its way across the hearthrug. A Churchill tank gave support, and with turret gun poised could throw off any surprise attack with ease.

To relieve his aching legs, James would sometimes turn to fire a shell at an unsuspecting invader to destroy their gun battery and shout with excitement at this victory.

A sudden opening of the door made the string shake dangerously, almost bringing every aircraft crashing to the floor without a shot being fired.

“James, can you hear me?”

Old Mrs Smith glared at him.

“Please make less noise. Your mother is trying to sleep. Anyway, your dinner is ready. Now, clear up this mess immediately!”

James responded reluctantly by slowly putting the convoy back into its box.

With a parting shot Mrs Smith added, “Make sure you leave nothing on the floor for me to fall over. You know I have bad legs.”

A strong smell of disinfectant wafted through the open door.

Nurse Enderwick had called to attend to his mother. He’d sometimes hear her arrive as she leant her bicycle against the wall outside, near the trellis. More often than not the brake handle would make a scraping noise.

She would come into the house dressed in black: a black coat: black stockings; and carrying a black bag. A few wisps of white hair had often escaped from beneath her black cap.

She would pat James on the head and ask how he was; and stride purposefully up the stairs. Later, he could hear her footsteps going backwards and forwards across the bedroom floor. Low voices: and the toilet flushing more than once; and then, the smell.

James continued to clear up. He didn’t feel like food, especially if it was to be bread and butter pudding. One day he’d said that he liked it. Since then, Mrs. Smith had given it to him almost every other day. Now he hated it.

He remembered that Dad wasn’t coming home until late; something to do with ‘balancing the books’ and ‘year end’: James was to lie awake waiting; and wile away the time looking through a Children’s Encyclopaedia which he’d borrowed from Miss Matthews last week. She lived on the estate near the Moor. Her daughter was a teacher, big and kind. He’d look at the book underneath the bedclothes using his new torch, although No.8 batteries were scarce. It was a large book; and hard to turn the pages quietly.

Some of the pictures gave him a tight feeling deep inside. One, showed an angel guarding the gates of heaven and holding a flaming sword, shafts of brilliant light dramatically breaking through the clouds. Another picture, showed frightened people desperately trying to outrun a gigantic tidal wave that threatened to engulf the whole earth.

The sound of Dad’s footsteps coming up the street would make him close the book with relief and tiredness. Then he would fall asleep.

One night, the air-raid warning sounded. They used to go to the air raid shelter down the garden. But Mum couldn’t be moved any more. James wasn’t sorry, because it was cold and damp; and the light from the candles in the plant-pots threw weird shadows onto the bare brick walls. James didn’t like that.

Mrs. Smith told him to play quietly under the living-room table, whilst she stayed upstairs holding Mum’s hand. Dad was fire-watching.

Then the drone of aircraft; the thud of exploding bombs; the sharp staccato of machine guns; the screeching noises, which he at first thought were made by Mr. Singleton blowing his air-raid warning whistle as he ran up and down the street.

Later, he realised they were real bombs dropping.

Panic caught in James’ throat. Could he smell gas? He remembered the gas-masks hanging on the hallstand in their yellow tins underneath the coats. He dashed into the hall, banging his head on the table in his haste. He grabbed one, and holding his breath, ran upstairs to Mum.

“There’s no gas,” said Mrs. Smith. “Go back under the table and play quietly.”

James walked slowly downstairs drawing in huge gulps of air.

Eventually, the all-clear sounded. Dad took him into their bedroom and showed him the red glow in the sky over the city. It would soon be light.

James climbed into bed and went to sleep.

The following night, on his way to bed, he crept into his Mum’s bedroom, and said, “Goodnight Mum.” Without turning her head she whispered, “Goodnight darling.”

She lay without moving, looking so small: so still.

The smell was stronger.

Not long afterwards something woke James. His Dad had his arms round him.

“I’m going to have to be your Father – and Mother now,” he said. He was crying.

Dad took James into town that morning. Many windows were boarded up with “Business as Usual” written in large letters outside the shops. The Bar Convent had a corner missing. They went to Woolworths and stood for a while looking at the model counter. Lysanders. Spitfires. Messerschmitts. Wellingtons and Lancasters all lined up by the score ready for take-off.

“Which one would you like?” asked Dad.

“May I have the Lancaster please?”

There’s a space on the string near the window, James thought.

- Peter Hodgson