Heather was cold. She pulled the two gray blankets up to cover her nose. She could feel her breath warming her face that way and it was surprisingly comforting. Mummy had said she wouldn’t be a minute, but Heather knew better. Every time the air raid warning went, (and sometimes even when it hadn’t) Mummy would bundle Heather out of her nice warm bed and pull her down the stairs and into the shelter. Then she would disappear.
Well, sort of disappear. If there was no noise from the planes overhead, Heather could hear her Mummy making funny sort of coughing noises outside the door. The shelter, which was like a big cage, took up the whole of the room so if you couldn’t come into it, you had to stay in the hall. Mummy had something called asthma and she couldn’t get enough air in the shelter.
“But I’m here, darling,” she wheezed through the door when she found enough breath to speak.
Heather thought it was all a bit silly. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t be out there with Mummy, instead of being cramped up in the cage thing. Mummy said it was to keep her safe, so even at eight years old, Heather knew that meant that Mummy wasn’t safe in the hall. She tucked her thumb resolutely into her mouth and decided not to think about it.
They had been meant to go and stay with Granny today to keep each other company, and because Granny had a big shelter in her garden. However, when they had got to the station the trains weren’t running. They waited for a long time, but in the end they had come back home.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” said Mummy.
Heather wished she had brothers and sisters like Angela over the road. She had told Heather how her whole family crammed into their shelter and sang songs and their Dad played the penny whistle for them.
Heather didn’t have a Dad, either. Not at home, anyway. Mummy said her Daddy was a hero, that he’d come back to them soon, and they would all be together and life would be back to normal. Heather wondered what normal was. Perhaps it meant not being in the cage so often and Mummy having lots of air.
She hoped Daddy would like her. She had a Daddy secret. Sometimes she thought that she could see him inside her head. She could tonight. In sort of pictures. She closed her eyes tightly and knew that he was in a place that was as dark as here and that he was very, very hot.
She was just nodding off to sleep when the crash came.
Patrick could feel that it was night. Thank God, the dreadful heat of the day had receded. He had survived another day. Now all he had to do was try not to freeze as the night progressed. He curled himself into an even tighter ball. He could feel every bone in his body. It was hard to recognise his physical self, ‘six foot tall and broad with it’ as his Mother used to say proudly. Somewhat diminished, he thought ruefully.
He had managed to lick most of the condensation off the ceiling during the day, but his fingers were still finding the occasional missed drop, which he harvested carefully and then sucked off his fingers. He thought this was his fourth day in the sweat box but couldn’t be sure. He had seen chaps come out completely out of their minds with all their faculties shot to pieces. No more idea how long they had been in there or even who they were any more. Brave soldiers reduced to gibbering idiots. Their captors loved that. Thought it was funny. Used them as examples to hold everyone in fear.
Patrick had discovered, rather to his surprise, that you could only take so much fear. That it was like climbing a mountain. Suddenly, you reached the top and there was this plateau. Like there was nothing any worse that could happen to you now, so fear became superfluous. When they threw him into the box for some minor infringement of their ever changing rules, he attained that plateau. The interior and inviolable calm that went with the cessation of fear swept over him like sunlight on a cold day.
Patrick had something to live for, and, by God, he was going to make it. They were not going to take his mind and memories away. Slowly and deliberately he conjured up in his mind the picture of Maureen, shaking her long red hair out of its daytime plait as she sat at the mirror, readying herself for bed. He advanced across the room and picked up the brush, slowly and rhythmically counting the prescribed hundred strokes. Then he watched himself replace the brush and take her hand and put it to his lips. His lovely, delicate wife with the laughing eyes and the loving heart.
They had said that she would never bear children. It didn’t matter. They had each other. But all the experts were wrong. His beautiful little daughter had been born almost effortlessly. A gift from God. They had called her Heather in tribute to the purple covered moors and heaths that bordered their village.
Patrick could see Heather now. She was in the Morrison Shelter. He didn’t know how he knew but it was like a film in his head. He watched as she began to nod asleep. Then he heard the crash and watched her start awake. Saw the fear in her eyes. Heard her call out ‘Mummy’. Heard the silence that answered her.
Heather called again loudly: “Mummy! Where are you?”
Mummy didn’t answer. Heather could hear other sounds though. After the big crash there were lots of little crashes which gradually lessened until there was one last ‘plop’. Heather started to cough as dust swirled into the shelter. She began to cry, but didn’t really have enough breath for that and the coughing, although she could feel the tears running down her face anyway. She crawled the length of the cage and began to push at its door but there was a pile of rubble holding it shut.
“Mummy, please can you open the door?’
The dust was settling now and her quivery voice sounded more like her own. But she knew even before she spoke that there was not going to be any answer. She retreated once more to the back of the cage and went to pull the blankets up over her head. But instead of being gray, they were white now and she thought they would start the coughing off again. She pushed them aside and lay on the thin, ticked mattress that was under them.. Her hankie was under the blankets so she tried to wipe her nose on the hem of her nightie but that felt horrid, too.
She curled herself into a small ball. She would wait for the grownups to come. They would find Mummy and open the door to the cage. She must concentrate on that. That was when she heard the voice. And she knew straight away that it was Daddy’s voice.
Patrick held his head up as far as it would go and tried his voice out tentatively. The one facility he had forgotten to keep well oiled.
“Heather, sweetheart,” he whispered, and saw her eyes spring open. “Heather, it’s Daddy,” but even as he said it, he saw that she knew that already.
He began to push at the pile of small boulders that were trapping his daughter inside the cage and he watched them move with agonising slowness, until he could see that it was possible for her to squirm out.
“Heather, move to the door of the shelter. I will help you open it.”
When she reached the door, he held it open for her. Free of the cage, she half fell, half knelt by the closed door that led into the hall. She reached up and turned the handle. The door opened a crack. Standing, she pushed as hard as she could at it, but it wouldn’t move any more. She couldn’t see Mummy.
“Mummy, are you alright?”
“Stand back, Heather. Let me.”
But he could feel his strength was waning. No, he thought, not now, not yet. Then, at the same moment, they both heard voices outside the house.
Heather heard them say:
“Oh, nasty surprise for Mrs Holmes when they get back from her Mum’s. Mind you, lucky escape. Good job they weren’t here tonight.”
But we are, thought Heather. Standing up shakily, she called out: “But we are here!” and heard some rubble move behind her, as if in answer.
Patrick picked up one of the small boulders and threw it after the men. As they turned to see where it had come from, he reached out and touched the electric light switch. The wires around it were exposed and as he touched them he felt the palm of his hand burn. But the light still worked, and shone through the ruined blackout curtain.
“My God, there is someone in there.” The two men rushed back, calling for aid as they went.
They rescued Heather quite easily, but took longer to get her Mother free. When they finally managed it, they were surprised to find her still breathing and she was rushed to the hospital, Heather holding her hand. In the ambulance, Maureen opened her eyes and smiled weakly at her daughter.
Heather asked: “Did Daddy help you to breathe through the dust, Mummy?”
Remembering the way his mouth had covered hers and how he had breathed for her, Maureen nodded. As the ambulance man looked benignly on, both Mother and daughter knew instinctively that they had a secret they would wordlessly share forever.
The sun illuminated the sweat box as it was thrown open. The guard prodded suspiciously with his rifle. No life there. Later, just before nightfall, under the eyes of their guards, his fellow prisoners buried the body in a rough grave. After they had stood together, in the quiet respect for their friend that could not be taken away from them, they returned to the shade of their makeshift huts.
“Poor bugger,” said his friend Jock, “and how the hell did he get that enormous burn on his hand?”
“Too late to ask him now,” replied Tony, “but it can’t have bothered him. I never saw anyone so obviously at peace. After all he’d been through. Defies reason, I
The mind and memories that were Patrick Holmes listened to them dispassionately from another place. His war was over. Now he could save his passion, and his loyalty, for watching over his girls. It was what he did best.