Another taster from Citizen Armies

This one is a snapshot of my hero Jim who is an air-raid warden, coping with his first raid. It is his first experience of what a full scale aerial bombardment was like, as it is ours, the readers.

Jim and Mrs Baker

His present call was to a rather cantankerous neighbour called Mrs Baker, who, if she’d taken his advice, ought to be sheltering in her Anderson in the garden. When he arrived, he found that the bomb had blown the back off the house, roof, chimney and all, so that it was sliced open like a piece of pie and stood exposed to anyone who looked up at it, the kitchen table still covered in dirty cups and messy saucepans, a grubby tea towel hanging on a hook by the door, two down-at-heel shoes on a chair, while in the room above it, an unmade bed balanced precariously on three legs while the fourth hung in the air over the gap, luridly lit by the glare from the fires raging on the banks of the river. He felt like a peeping Tom glancing up at it, as though he was poking his nose into other people’s private lives. But there wasn’t time to think about it. There was work to be done and it was his business to get on aCA FINAL COVER AUGUSTnd do it. The chimney was still in one piece, leaning drunkenly against what remained of the fence, but the shelter was smothered by the rest of the debris, piles of broken bricks, torn curtains, smashed beams, vicious shards of glass, and the air was full of dust, the way it always was after a bomb. While he’d been in the street he’d noticed a strong smell of gas, so he knew there was a gas main broken somewhere, and, now that he was in the garden, he could see at once that the shelter would have to be dug out. He sent a message to the A.R.P. Post reporting back and asking for assistance and then climbed over the debris to where the door to the shelter should be to see if he could make contact with Mrs Baker.

It took him a little while to lift away as much of the debris as he thought safe so that he could call to her through the gap at the top of the door but to his relief she answered him at once.

‘Bleedin’ Hitler,’ she said, crossly. ‘I knew this bleedin’ shelter was a rotten idea.’

‘Are you OK?’ he called back.

‘Don’t ask me, mate,’ she said. ‘How should I know? I can’t bleedin’ move.’

Not short of breath though, Jim thought, noting how firm her voice was. It was a hopeful sign but not a dependable one. ‘We’re gonna have to dig you out,’ he explained. ‘The rescue team on its way. Is Gladys with you?’

‘No she ain’t,’ the cross voice came back. ‘Don’t talk to me about Gladys. I’ve ‘ad jest about enough of her for one day.’

‘D’you know where she is?’

‘Street raking wiv her mates I shouldn’t wonder. She’s always off out somewhere or other. I’m sick a’ telling her.’

Jim’s fatigue tipped him into momentary irritation. Poor kid, he thought. She can’t be more than seven or eight an’ she’s been out in these streets with all this going on. She must be scared stiff. Why couldn’t the stupid fool woman go an’ look for her? I can just imagine my Rosie letting one of ours play out in an air raid.

‘Mr Jackson,’ Mrs Baker called.

He remembered his duties with a palpable effort and adjusted the chin strap on his helmet. ‘Still here,’ he called back.

Her voice was plaintive. ‘Put a jerk on will you? I can’t breave in ‘ere.’

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