BY GEOFFREY HEPTONSTALL
Copyright is held by the author.
An English Village 1942
MIST OF smoke and dust drifting across the ruins of a domestic scene disrupted in a moment’s irrational blast. The War was destroying so much in so many unexpected ways. This had been a quiet street where lives were lived without serious incident. There had been no reason for the bomb to fall here where there was no target of strategic value. It simply happened as things happen, especially in wartime.
The usual noises could be heard in the background: shouts, screams, sirens, engines. It was first light after a night’s attack. Not long before there was the explosion followed by fire in the darkness. Now in what seemed no time there was daylight. For this family there was no new day. An old woman lay crushed and utterly lifeless. There were others buried in the debris. Who could have survived this?
Someone had. A voice sounded faintly, “Hello? I’m here. Is there anyone?” She seemed to be speaking from another life, another time. Then out of the mist came a young woman walking unsteadily towards the crowd that had gathered. Her face was smeared and bleeding. Her clothes were torn. But she looked at first glance to be relatively unharmed. Her good fortune was extraordinary. There were whispers of a miracle. Somehow she had escaped the inevitable.
This young woman was going to live. There was every chance she would live.
“I was in the basement,” she explained on reaching the uniformed officials. At that point her resources gave way, and she feel into the arms of a police sergeant who cradled her as if she were his daughter.
“She’ll need water,” someone said. It was a nurse who had experience elsewhere of air raids. A body if dehydrated may suffer loss of consciousness. Death can occur quickly if nothing is done. The nurse skilfully administered the water someone had brought out from a nearby house. The young survivor drank a little, then more when urged by the nurse. That water saved her from the approaching ease of death. The onlookers applauded as the young woman was led carefully to an ambulance.
Hawley had not been a witness to the blast. He had heard it, of course. Everyone had. He woke at once, shaken and instantly alert. His first thought was that other explosions were likely to happen. He dressed quickly after a rudimentary wash, then went downstairs. Hawley caught sight of his reflection in the entrance hall mirror. His face looked concerned. He seemed to have aged several years in the 15 minutes since the incident. Hawley barely recognized the young man he had been the day before.
There was activity in the street outside, loud and frantic. Mrs. Finch, his landlady, could be heard calling to people in the street. Everyone was asking one another the same questions, to which nobody had an answer until a policeman arrived, quietening them down with his firm but kindly authority. He told the gathering where the blast had occurred, and that it seemed to be a single incident. There was no general air raid.
The policeman turned to Hawley respectfully when he saw the clerical collar. “Well, Reverend, I think a prayer might be needed now.” Hawley hurriedly complied, offering a short, impromptu prayer intended to calm the nerves of the anxious crowd, In fact, he had not thought of praying but of discovering what practical help he might give.
“It’s a new family, I believe,” the policeman said. “Very unlucky. There was just one survivor. She don’t seem too bad all in all.”
Hawley said he would go to the hospital later that morning. He gave further words of reassurance that everyone clearly needed. Hawley felt his words to be inadequate as such words often were at times of extreme experience. He was young, only recently ordained. So much fell on him at all times but especially now. He had no means of explaining and only meagre resources of comfort.
By the time the gathering had dispersed it was fully light. The chill of dawn suddenly penetrated through the shock and panic. People felt in need of warmth and food. They drifted back into their houses, grateful that they remained intact and seemingly as solid as ever. When they said “Thank God” they were sincere.
Time had passed so quickly. Or was it slowly? Everything was confusion. Hawley, like everyone else, could not make sense of life now. The problem was others expected a man of God to have perceptions and understandings not given to others. Such was the faith to which people clung in this war.
Hot tea was the inevitable remedy Mrs. Finch prepared. A cooked breakfast was also in order, she said. Life had to go on as normally as possible. That attitude was as much a part of the war effort as munitions and air raid precautions. Mrs. Finch rolled up the blackout curtains to let in the daylight.
After breakfast Hawley called in at the rectory. He was new and junior, a mere curate, an assistant who felt it better to seek the rector’s permission on most things. The rector’s face registered relief on hearing Hawley’s suggestion that he go to see the bomb blast survivor. The rector feared that the task might fall to him. But it was, he persuaded himself, good experience for the young curate. “In your time, Mr. Hawley, you will deal with many difficult not to say tragic situations. In wartime, alas, we are daily confronted by bad news. The War has come here to our parish, and we must deal with its terrible consequences”
Hawley passed the ruined house on his way to the hospital. Soldiers and official-looking civilians were sorting through the rubble. A woman was scrutinizing the scene with a look of disapproval. The wallpaper, perhaps, was not of up to her exacting taste. Standards had to be maintained. What else was the War about but standards?
The hospital was quiet, although Hawley detected a slight tension in the air. On his many visits he had not felt this edge before. It was only slight and almost imperceptible, but it was there. No cause for alarm was the general line, the accepted way of looking at the situation. Everyone publicly agreed. No-one in themselves was free of some apprehension.
It was a small, local hospital. Hawley had no difficulty finding the new patient. A nurse escorted him to the ward. She explained that the patient although conscious was in a state of confusion and unable to explain herself coherently. Her answers to questions made little sense.
The nurse paused before speaking further. “Her clothes were unusual, and not in any style I have seen before. Her voice is strange, too. I’m not sure of her nationality.”
Hawley was not surprised by any of this. To have survived a direct hit was remarkable, perhaps one might say miraculous. The survivor could not be the same person as before.
Sister Malik had noted in her mind several curious things about the patient whose name was Kate Warner. Kate had given her date of birth as September the First, 1942. That was the day of the explosion. Obviously she had not understood the question. Sister Malik had decided not to press her on this. Did Kate understand what had happened to her? She had no idea. Sister Malik explained there had been an explosion. “An unexploded bomb!” Kate replied. She looked horrified by the thought. “You mean from the War?”
Kate did not seem to be slow-witted. However, she clearly remained in a state of shock. It was fortunate indeed she had been in the basement. But why was she there so early in the morning and fully clothed? They were not evening clothes. She had not come in very late from a party. “I live in the basement flat,” she explained. “I was getting ready for work. That’s the last thing I remember.”
Hawley was not sure what to say next. Fortunately Kate continued: “You know, I’ve been meaning to say there’s something familiar about you. I thought I recognized you. I do almost. But you look younger.”
“Ah, the cares of a parish in wartime,” Hawley said.
“You seem surprised, as if you thought it was over,” Hawley said, trying to suppress the irritation he felt at her strange attitudes. There was something wholly misplaced in her whole demeanour, but he could not signify it precisely.
“Well, it is, isn’t it? It was years ago. Germany lost.”
Sister Malik and Dr. McNamara overheard this. Later they spoke to Hawley in Dr. McNamara’s room. “I think it’s a case of amnesia, of needing to forget a traumatic event. It will take time for her to come to terms with the reality of her situation. Hardly surprising. In time the patient’s memory will return. There’s nothing to worry about at this stage.”
These words of Dr. McNamara gave Hawley some assurance without entirely lifting the sense of unease. The most he could do was to thank doctor and nurse before leaving.
Hawley had many other duties. His crowded life allowed far less time for reflection than he needed. Too much was falling on his shoulders. He felt burdened. The explosion had shaken him of course. It had shaken everyone. It was to the church that people looked to for answers that were not there.
There were times when Hawley felt there was nothing there. The world was colourless, still and silent, like a photograph. Time was passing and yet not moving. There had been an explosion not too far away. It had woken Hawley. Unless, of course, the explosion was in the dream. No, that much had happened: a bomb had fallen in the quiet suburban district where nothing much happened even in wartime.
And yet many everyday things did happen despite it being wartime. Hawley’s duties were mainly about attending to those everyday things, like visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, and baptizing the newly-born.
It was the questions that troubled him most. People always expected a man of God to know answers to questions to which there was no answer except “Trust in God”. It concerned Hawley that trusting God was not enough. “We have to learn to trust ourselves. We have to believe in ourselves,” he told one Sunday congregation. Every face registered incomprehension. They had come to praise God, not to praise themselves.
That was not what Hawley meant. People were not certain what he meant. At times he was not certain of his own mind. He felt the demands of faith to be as much an oppression as they were a liberation. Of course Hawley told no-one, certainly not the rector, about this doubt.
There were other doubts, too. “Perhaps you need to take things easier,” Dr. McNamara advised him the next time they met. “Are you sleeping properly?” Hawley spoke of disturbed sleep and some strange dreams.
“Dreams,” Dr. McNamara replied, “tell their truth. It will not be the reality we know in our waking lives, but it will be a deeper reality. Something hidden comes to the surface. Dreams are our way of dealing with things our conscious minds cannot face.”
“I dreamed about the explosion,” Hawley tried to explain. “Someone survived. She came here, the survivor.” McNamara said nothing for a while, but his face registered that he was listening intently to what Hawley was telling him.
“That night of the blast you were in distress, Mr. Hawley. You seem calmer now.”
There was a long pause when neither man spoke. The silence enveloped them in its air of unease. Finally Hawley spoke. ”I have much to do, doctor.”
There was a child newly born. The fear was that in its frail condition it might not live. The task fell upon Hawley to visit the mother and her child. The name of the mother sounded vaguely familiar. Surely he had heard that name recently? There was a family of that name, wasn’t there?
Yes, it had been people of that name killed in the bomb. Warner: wasn’t that the case? “They survived,” Mrs. Finch had told him before he left that morning. She was quite insistent on that. But surely the house had been destroyed? “No, the bomb landed on the waste ground. Shook the house, mind. Shook them, too. Such a noise. A miracle nobody was killed.”
“But I thought . . .” Hawley began before admitting to himself he was not sure what he thought.
“Lucky that the mother was in hospital having the baby,” Mrs. Finch continued. “Girl, I hear. Nice to have a girl. Though what world she’s being born into I don’t know.”
“She’ll survive,” Hawley replied.
“Well, I don’t know how you can be so sure, Mr. Hawley. I really don’t.”
Nor did Hawley know how he could be sure. But he had that conviction firmly in his mind. It was as if he knew what he could not possibly have known.
“She’ll survive,” Hawley repeated.
But Mrs. Finch paid no further attention. The young curate had been acting strangely under such stress. Too much was expected of him. He needed some respite from the cares laid on him. He was going to fall sick soon if he wasn’t careful. People had to stop taking him for granted. In wartime nothing could be taken for granted. Nor, for that matter, was it the case in peacetime. Life had so many twists and turns.
The air raid warden had a firm but reassuring manner, ideal for his task of calming nerves and bringing order into situations that threatened to collapse into chaos. “Funny thing about bombs is that they’re nothing like what you expect. You’d think they need to be big for the damage they do, wouldn’t you? But, no, they look small. They look small enough, yes, but they don’t half cause some trouble.”
Hawley persisted with his enquiry. “So it’s possible one landed and didn’t explode?”
“No, I told you we checked that. Looked all over them grounds. There was nothing. You’re quite right, Reverend, that there might be one. So that’s why we checked. There wasn’t one.”
“I feel sure,” Hawley said. The warden simply looked at him without saying a word. It made no sense that young Mr. Hawley could be so sure. Of course these religious types had some funny ideas, so you never knew exactly what they were thinking. That was the problem: they did too much thinking. Living so much in your head you can go peculiar. The warden had seen it happen before.
There was nothing more for Hawley to say. He walked away from the house, reassured that it had not been destroyed. It had been shaken, but it had withstood the blast. It was going to last for many years.
Hawley could not imagine how life was going to be. The War cast a dark shadow over everything. Once there had been peace. Eventually there would be peace again. But what that peace was going to be like he could not imagine. Defeat was unthinkable. Victory was the hope none dare lose sight of. Victory, at a terrible cost, then peace in a new world, a different world, freer, happier and thankful.
One day the War was going to be a distant memory, something the older folk talked of from time to time. What had it been like? Well, there was always a sense of fear. There was confusion. There was deprivation. There was sadness. Yet spirits were not broken. It was not only houses that withstood the blasts. Hearts were as firm in their determination to live and laugh and love as best they could.
Occasionally, of course, something was going to happen that would bring back the years of war. There might be an unexploded bomb, for example. Years later the War would return out of the blue. Peace was always going to uncertain. All manner of conflict could occur after the ceremonies of peace were over. The War was never entirely over. That was something Hawley was sure to learn even if he had not supposed it to be true. There was always the fear. There was always the possibility of the small missile with its devastating potential waiting for the moment when it could shatter lives so unexpectedly, so cruelly, and for no reason except that it had the power to destroy everything of life.
The years passed. Canon Hawley returned to the parish where he had begun years before. Peace had been declared long ago, but memories of wartime returned at various moments, often unexpectedly.
One day there was another explosion. Mist of smoke and dust drifted across the ruins of a domestic scene disrupted in a moment’s irrational blast. The only occupant of the house at the time was Kate Warner. The family home where she was born had been divided into apartments. She lived in the basement. That was how she survived.
Geoffrey Heptonstall’s fourth collection of poetry, A Whispering, was published by Cyberwit June 2023. His first collection, The Rites of Paradise, received critical acclaim when first published in 2020. Sappho’s Moon and The Wicken Bird followed. A novel, Heaven’s Invention, was published by Black Wolf in 2016. The Queen of Alsatia, a novella, was published in Pennsylvania Literary Journal in 2023. A number of plays and monologues have been staged, broadcast and/or published. He is also a prolific short fiction writer, essayist and reviewer. He lives in Cambridge, England.