I was not far from the station when I heard my name being called with the urgency Bernard used when he needed a towel getting out the bath. Looking around me I swore someone was taking my photograph -- the flashlight's spark burnt spots on to my eyes. But then my legs were lifting off the ground. I could see the pavement lowering under me, feel a whoosh of air, a roaring waterless sea rushing my ears. Then everything was quiet except for a note that sang sharp and high in my head. I wasn't the only one flying. Over there a woman, a bundle of rags, was rolling over -- a cardigan, a skirt, twisting and flapping. A man, or was it a boy? making an arc, diving off a swimming-board. A silent ballet so beautiful my eyes were sucked from their sockets with the sight. Something hit me hard across the back taking all the wind from me. And then I was coming back down. Sliding down the slide near our school. Wilfred in his dead dad's boots screeching like a girl. 'Shut up,' I told him, 'you'll wake the dead.' Landing with such a thump -- the ground is so hard in winter. 'It's dark. Look at the fog. What a pea-souper! Go home. I don't want to slide again, Wilfred, and I'm out of puff now. You find your own way home. Go on, hop it. I'm going to stay here and have a little sleep.'
When I woke up, Wilfred's sharp screeching had stopped. He must have gone home. No, Queenie, he was never there. And that wasn't fog, that was bricks and glass and wood and soot billowing in thick folds of dirty cauliflower smoke. One of my shoes was gone, my coat was ripped, and my skirt was up round my waist, knickers on view for anyone who wanted a look. Crunchy slivers of glass were in my hair. The taste of blood was in the corner of my mouth.
Perhaps I was dead. My back was against a wall, slumped where I'd fallen, unable to move, watching silently with an angel singing in my ear. A doll falling slowly from the sky towards a tree: a branch stripped of all its leaves caught the doll in its black spikes. A house had had its front sliced off as sure as if it had been opened on a hinge. A doll's house with all the rooms on show. The little staircase zigzagging in the cramped hall. The bedroom with a bed sliding, the sheet dangling, flapping a white flag. A wardrobe open with the clothes tripping out from the inside to flutter away. Empty armchairs sitting cosy by the fire. The kettle on in the kitchen with two wellington boots by the stove. And in a bathroom -- standing by the side of a bath, caught by the curtain going up too soon on a performance -- a totally naked woman. A noiseless scream from a lady who was gazing at the doll in the tree that dangled limp and filthy in a little pink hat. The lady landing hard on her knees started to pray, while a man in uniform turned slowly round to vomit. But surely the dead don't feel pain, that's the whole point. Population, that's what I was. Smouldering like a kipper, I was one of the bombed. If it was a doodlebug I hadn't heard its low moaning hum. Hadn't had time to plot where it was going to come down. But surely I'd been walking among houses? A woman had called out from a window, 'Herman, get in here,' and I'd thought, How common. The boy running past me had made a face as he went by. And a tabby cat was stretched on a step. Too everyday to remember but surely there were people walking, looking at watches to see if they were late for a train, arm in arm, carrying bags? There was an old man reading a paper and a pub on the corner with a sign that swayed. Where had they gone? Now it was all jagged hills of wreckage, crumbling, twisting, creaking, smoking under far too much sky. There was only this bleak landscape left.
From Small Island by Andrea Levy. Copyright Andrea Levy 2004. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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