London, September 1940
A bomb had fallen in Victoria Street. It had gouged a wide
crater in the road and taken down the fronts of several shops.
street was roped off; ARP men and volunteers had formed a chain
and were carefully moving rubble from one of the ruined
Harry realized there must be someone under there. The efforts of the rescuers, old men and boys caked with the dust that hung round them in a pall, seemed pitiful against the huge piles of brick and plaster. He put down his suitcase.
Coming into Victoria on the train, he had seen other craters and shattered buildings. He had felt oddly distanced from the destruction, as he had since the big raids began ten days before. Down in Surrey, Uncle James had almost given himself a stroke looking at the photographs in the Telegraph. Harry had scarcely responded as his uncle snarled red-faced over this new example of German frightfulness. His mind had retreated from the fury.
It could not retreat, though, from the crater in Westminster suddenly and immediately before him. At once he was back at Dunkirk: German dive-bombers overhead, the sandy shoreline exploding. He clenched his hands, digging the nails into his palms as he took deep breaths. His heart began pounding but he didn't start shaking; he could control his reactions now.
An ARP warden strode across to him, a hard-faced man in his fifties with a grey pencil moustache and ramrod back, his black uniform streaked with dust.
'You can't come up 'ere,' he snapped briskly. 'Road's closed.
Can't you see we've 'ad a bomb?' He looked suspicious, disapproving, wondering no doubt why an apparently fit man in his early thirties was not in uniform.
'I'm sorry,' Harry said. 'I'm just up from the country. I hadn't realized it was so bad.'
Most Cockneys confronted with Harry's public school accent would have adopted a servile tone, but not this man. 'There's no escape anywhere,' he rasped. 'Not this time. Not in the tahn, not in the country either for long, if yer ask me.' The warden looked Harry over coldly. 'You on leave?'
'Invalided out,' Harry said abruptly. 'Look, I have to get to Queen Anne's Gate. Official business.'
The warden's manner changed at once. He took Harry's arm and steered him round. 'Go up through Petty France. There was only the one bomb round here.'
'That's all right, sir.' The warden leaned in close. 'Were you at Dunkirk?'
'There's blood and ruin down the Isle of Dogs. I was in the trenches last time, I knew it'd come again and this time everyone'd be in it, not just soldiering men. You'll get the chance to fight again, you wait and see. Bayonet into Jerry's guts, twist and then out again, eh?' He gave a strange smile, then stepped back and saluted, pale eyes glittering.
'Thank you.' Harry saluted and turned away, crossing into Gillingham Street. He frowned; the man's words had filled him with disgust. At Victoria it had been as busy as a normal Monday; it seemed the reports that London was carrying on as usual were true. As he walked on through the broad Georgian streets everything was quiet in the autumn sunlight. But for the white crosses of tape over the windows to protect against blast, you could have been back before the war. An occasional businessman in a bowler hat walked by, there were still nannies wheeling prams. People's expressions were normal, even cheerful. Many had left their gas masks at home, though Harry had his slung over his shoulder in its square box. He knew the defiant good humour most people had adopted hid the fear of invasion, but he preferred the pretence that things were normal to reminders that they now lived in a world where the wreck of the British army milled in chaos on a French beach, and deranged trench veterans stood in the streets happily forecasting Armageddon.
From Winter in Madrid. Copyright C.J. Sansom. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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