Wednesday, 9th April 1941: 06.52 BDST: Smethwick, England
The sun was just rising when Doreen stepped out of the swimming baths on Thimblemill Lane. All night she’d longed for fresh air, so much perhaps, that she’d even dreamt of standing on a beach all alone, just looking longingly out to sea. The sea breeze blowing in against her as she tilted her head back, undoing her hair from its bun to let it flow free in the wind. She was wearing sunglasses, just like the type she’d seen Vivian Leigh wearing once, and it all seemed so grand, standing there in the sun.
Then she’d become aware that her mom wasn’t there. Why wasn’t she there, she’d wondered, taking the sunglasses off and looking around the beach anxiously. “Mom, mom!”, she’d shouted. But no-one answered. She continued her ponderous thoughts, “where is everyone?”, until she saw a figure in the distance, back turned from her, walking slowly away into the distance. “Mom?”, Doreen whispered quizzically, as she began to breathe excitedly before shouting loudly, “Mom!” But the figure never turned, so she’d tried to run after it, but found that she couldn’t move. Looking down, she was shocked to find the answer why: the sight of her feet buried ankle-deep in the sand. She turned hurriedly towards the figure to shout, “Mom, help!”, and then quickly back to look down again at her feet, noticing that the tide was coming in as she arched her back to lean forward, both of her hands grasping at her calf, trying desperately to lift her foot out of the sand. She could feel the fear growing, but tried to put a lid on it, as water slowly ran over the sand which had claimed her feet to lap at her ankles. “Oh my God, mom, oh God!”, she whimpered, as she looked up to see a large wave rolling in from the sea, growing larger as it came in ever closer to her. She crouched down to pull at her ankles, again tugging angrily in sharp, jolting motions and then slowly standing upright, resigned to it all as the waves came down to crash – and then she was awake. Sitting upright with the sound of the long all-clear siren melancholically wheezing out its emancipatory cry.
She was alive, and all was well. Then she thought of mom, her dry mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Looking at the world around her and then, while wiping sleep from her eyes, noticing that a woman sleeping nearby had her copy of the Radio Times held tight in her comatose grip.
A quick, furtive look around her own cot had confirmed that this must have been her copy. She arose quickly as she fixed it in her sights, a little too quickly perhaps, becoming light-headed for a second (the staleness of the air in the shelter may have had something to do with this as well) before sneaking over, crouching down to slowly ease in towards the woman to pull it slowly from her grip. The woman’s hand suddenly clenching tighter, holding it fast. Doreen, losing all patience now, alongside her temper, snatched at it like it was Christmas cracker, with a violent tug that caused the woman to splutter and say something inaudible under her breath as she drew her yanked out arm back in close towards her. “Silly old sod”, Doreen muttered, stepping back as she held her spoils of war up in the air triumphantly, checking for creases or torn pages, and then giggling as she noticed the headline on the cover: ‘Women hitting Back’.
She’d thought to herself at the time, as she ran up the steps from the shelter, that she was like a ‘rat out of a trap’ rushing up the meandering steps, before finally stepping out into a new day to come. Pulling up her coat collar with her rolled-up copy of the Radio Times stuck under one arm, she held firmly in her grip her cousin Freddie’s old sports bag, overflowing with her pillow and crumpled sheets. She was reborn.
Doreen had paid the price for her exertions though, trying to catch her breath as she paused to survey the world around her. “It was all still there”, she thought, as she cast her gaze up Thimblemill Lane, replying, “good morning” to a woman, whose name she’d forgotten, who walked by and had wished her the same. Both women were just happy to have another morning, to have another day. She looked at it all, noticing that everything was untouched and still all there. “It only took one bomb. Just one. Ten houses could be in a row and only one of them would be bombed, only one. It made no sense mom”, she thought, remembering the conversation she’d had with her mom, as she implored her to come to the shelter with her last night. But she hadn’t, choosing to sleep in her own bed.
But here at least all the buildings were still standing this morning. “Good!”, she thought to herself, thinking about her mom again and crossing her fingers, as she rushed up the road to get home.
Every morning that she walked back from the shelter, getting closer to home, her mind would always begin to play tricks on her. Each step, as she strode home up Thimblemill Lane, would become tainted by bad thoughts, evil thoughts. Ones that made her think, when she walked down her street on Hales Lane, just after passing Hillfield Road on her left, that when she’d turn the corner she’d find the bombed debris of home. With rescuers picking through their world, a body wobbling on a stretcher, while those carrying it walked on uncertain ground. All the time the neighbours, still in their dressing gowns, of course, gawking at the sight. They would always be there in her imagination to nosily look on.
“I bet Mrs Wexford would be there,” she thought, thinking of her with arms crossed and her nose up in the air, making a dry comment or two about the decor left behind in the rubble. Doreen often had those thoughts while walking home, thoughts of all being lost, and now she was about to turn the corner again to find out if it was. “Please God, please”, she said out loud, her hands wringing, feeling embarrassed when she realised that someone on the other side of the road had turned to look at her upon hearing her voice. Continuing on, she made sure to chant it only in her head now – and then there it was.
Still standing there in the early morning sun – 281 Hales Lane – home.