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The Willow Pool

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘It’s all right, Amy. They didn’t get yours …’

‘No, thank God,’ she breathed, her face crumpling into tears of relief. ‘What about Tippet’s?’

‘Dunno. Haven’t had a look yet, though it seems all right.’ Ahead, Meg could see slate roofs, gleaming black in the morning light. ‘I’ll push off, if you’re sure you’re OK?’

‘I’m fine …’

Tippet’s Yard was undamaged; not so much as a broken window pane to be seen.

‘Thanks be for small mercies,’ Nell muttered, her eyes ranging the roofs for missing slates, glad that the small, soot-caked huddle of buildings seemed not to have been worth a German bomb. It wasn’t much of a house, but it was hers and she called it home. She had even, she admitted, been glad when Liverpool Corporation had declared it a slum and placed a demolition order on it. Yet the Corpie was entitled to knock it down if the mood took them, Nell thought mutinously; the German Air Force was not! ‘You’ll not be goin’ in to work, Meg? You look like you’re asleep on your feet!’

‘Not this morning.’ She’d had to walk the best part of two miles yesterday to get to the store, only to find half the staff missing. ‘I’ll get a few hours’ sleep; maybe I’ll go in this afternoon.’ When she could think straight, that was; when she had washed away the smell of the crypt and had a couple of hours in bed.

Nell unlocked her door, calling down hell and the pox on Hitler, muttering that at least the Kaiser had been a gentleman and not a pesky corporal! ‘And if that lot come again tonight, I’m stoppin’ here!’

She couldn’t take another night of hard benches and air that almost choked you to breathe it. And she couldn’t stand one more night of whingeing kids, poor little sods, and the stink of pee and unchanged nappies. Tonight, Nell Shaw would sleep in her own bed, and Hitler could go to hell!

Tommy and Meg – and Nell, too – spent five more nights in the shelter of St Joseph’s church. Five nights more the sirens wailed. Liverpool was cut off from the rest of the country, railway stations out of action – no trains out, or in. Buses were thin on the ground; tram tracks lay in grotesquely twisted shapes, fires still burned on the docks either side of the river.

Poor old Liverpool, Nell sighed. How much more could it take? As much as bluddy Hitler could dish out, she decided, and then some, though what Meg would do now that Edmund and Sons had been flattened was another worry on her mind.

The girl had been lucky, for all that; had been given her pay packet only the day before, and the commission she had earned during the previous month. Meg wasn’t penniless, exactly; not for a couple of weeks.

‘What’ll you do – about a job, I mean?’ Nell asked a week and a day after that first raid. ‘I suppose you could sign on the dole …’ If the dole office was still standing, that was.

‘Suppose I could, though I don’t much care. All I know is that I’ve had just as much of this as I can take! Seven nights of it!’

‘Haven’t we all, queen? But there’s nuthin’ we can do about it! And you an’ me an’ Tommy are still alive and a roof over our heads!’

‘For how much longer?’ It was against the odds, Meg thought despairingly, for Tippet’s Yard to survive many more nights of bombing. Sooner or later it would be hit, and then they would join the homeless in makeshift rest centres and live from night to night, wondering when it would all end.

It was very soon to end, though those who waited wearily that Friday night with bags packed ready for the shelters did not know it. The moon was waning, Tommy had said cautiously, gazing into the sky. Soon the German bombers would be without the benefit of a city laid beneath them as clear as day, almost.

Not that they’d had it all their own way. Anti-aircraft guns blazed shells into the night sky and naval ships in the Mersey had elevated their guns and joined in the barrage too. Many Luftwaffe planes had crashed or been blown up in mid-air; it hadn’t been as easy as Fat Hermann thought.

‘They’re late.’ It was past the time they usually came; what trickery did they have in mind tonight, then?

‘Whisht what you say,’ Nell snapped. Like most of the people of Liverpool, she was tired and afraid, and wished she had relations in the country she could go to – if there had been a bus to take her there, that was. ‘Don’t do to go tempting fate, girl.’

At eleven that night, the sirens had still not sounded; at midnight Nell said cautiously that she was going to have one last ciggy, then be damned if she wasn’t going to bed.

‘Looks like you were right, Meg Blundell. Maybe they aren’t coming,’ Tommy ventured. Happen tonight some other city was to get Liverpool’s bombs. London perhaps, or Birmingham or Clydeside. ‘Think I’ll chance my luck and go to bed, an’ all!’

They weren’t coming, said the people of Liverpool in disbelief. To those who waited it seemed there was to be a reprieve. Watchers on rooftops searched an empty sky; fire crews and ambulance crews remained uncalled. In rest centres volunteers counted off another hour and said that maybe, perhaps for just one night, Liverpool was to be allowed to lick its wounds – and sleep.

This was the time, Meg thought, dizzy from so many hours of sleep, to take stock of her life. Of course, the bombers might return tonight and she would be back to square one again; but if they didn’t come, then top of the list was finding a job. Rumour had it that the city centre was in a mess, with roads blocked and ARP men still digging in the rubble for bodies, dead or alive. So maybe – if the Labour Exchange was still standing, that was – she could offer to help the rescuers. She was young and strong and could learn to handle a shovel. Or maybe they could do with help at the rest centres or at one of the hospitals. Just as long as the job paid money she wasn’t particular, and besides, she thought, it would be her way of giving a two-fingers-up to Hitler’s lot.

But first she would make her way to the city centre and see for herself exactly what the Luftwaffe had done. She’d heard that the city gaol had had a direct hit and twenty prisoners killed in locked cells, and that a match factory had been hit and blazed so brilliantly that it attracted still more bombers to flatten still more streets.

Rumour had it too that no cars were allowed in the city centre; that unidentified dead were laid in rows in makeshift mortuaries and that no one knew what was to be done with them. And where, she wanted to know, did you put the people from the seven thousand homes that had been bombed to the ground?

If she were honest, mind, she’d had no great love for Liverpool; Liverpool had been where she and Ma lived until they could go to the little house in the country. Yet now when it had suffered a terrible blitzkrieg, she pitied it with all her heart; felt in tune with the roistering, bawdy city because she had been a part of its terror. And Liverpool was, if you looked facts straight in the face, the only home she had ever known, dump though it was. In Liverpool lived people like Nell and Tommy, and others ever ready to offer a smile to strangers, or a shoulder to cry on.

What she could not believe was that there had been rioting in the streets and the military called in to put a stop to it. Nor could she believe that looting was rife and the homes of those who fled the bombing had been broken in to by angry mobs.

Yet she was to find when she reached the heart of the city that things were even worse than she had imagined. True, there were soldiers in the streets, but digging in the rubble and setting up a field telephone system, because so many telephone exchanges had been bombed. Of rioters and looters she saw none; only acres of emptiness that once had been streets, with here and there a shop still standing with ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’, defiantly daubed on its boarded-up windows.

She lifted her head and smiled with pride that she was a part of it; had endured seven nights of bombing and come out of it with her life. She was ready now to get on with that life and do whatever she could to help. Ready, that was, until she turned a corner to where ARP workers and soldiers were digging, and wished she had heeded the cry of the man who told her to go back; to stay away.

But it was too late, and she stood stock-still to gaze at bodies laid almost reverently side by side, some with staring eyes and open mouths as though they had died of suffocation; others with blood-caked, mangled limbs. And all of them covered in the dust of destruction. It matted their hair, their eyes, their clothes.

Yet even as the kindly soldier led her away, she looked back in disbelief, not just at wanton, stinking death, but at the small body of a baby that could almost have been asleep on the pavement were it not for the dust of death that covered it.

‘Away to your home, lassie,’ said the soldier. ‘Away and make yourself a cup of tea.’

‘A baby!’ she gasped as she flung open Nell’s door. ‘A little thing with no one to own it! Just laid there, all mucky on the pavement, as if it meant nothing to nobody!’

The tears came then as the motherly arms folded her close and hushed her and scolded her for going out looking for trouble.

‘I told you, Meg Blundell; said there’d be nothing gained by goin’ into town, but you would go, see it with your own eyes, you said! Not a pretty sight, by all accounts.’

‘It wasn’t, Nell. It wasn’t Liverpool any more. Just streets and streets flattened, and people with lost looks on their faces. And would you believe it – in the middle of all that mess there was that statue with not a mark on it! All that – that shambles, yet Queen Victoria looking down on it all with a right gob on her, as if it wasn’t her Albert’s bluddy lot that done it! The world’s gone mad!’

Her sobs were wild, as if all the bottled-up grief of the past months had burst out and was not to be silenced. Her body shook with anger and loathing for what she had seen. She wanted to run, but had no place to run to; only Tippet’s Yard to come home to. She fished for a handkerchief, dabbing her eyes, blowing her nose noisily. Then she took a deep breath and held it until her head pounded.

‘You finished then?’ Nell said sternly.

‘Yes. An’ I’m sorry if I upset you. I know I’m better off than a lot and I should be saving my tears for that little baby. But I’ll tell you something for nothing, if you’re in the mood to listen. I’m gettin’ out of this place! I’ve had enough. I’m off, Nell!’

‘Oh, ar. And where to, then? Your auntie’s place in the Lake District will it be, or yer posh cousin’s ’ouse in Llandudno?’ Nell asked with a sarcasm she didn’t really mean. ‘Oh, grow up, girl. Tippet’s Yard isn’t exactly the Adelphi, but it wasn’t bombed like Lyra Street. At least we’re sleepin’ in our own beds, and not on the floor of some drill hall. And where is there for the likes of us to go, will you tell me? And who’d pay our fares, even supposin’ the trains and buses was normal?’

‘She’s right,’ said Tommy, who had heard the commotion and come to see what was to do. ‘We sit tight and count our blessings and stick together. And hope them bombers don’t come back again for another seven nights!’

‘Sorry Tommy, Nell. It was just that I couldn’t believe what I saw. And the baby … It was so little, and lonely. What right have they to kill babies?’

‘We send bombers out too,’ Nell said mildly, nodding to Tommy to fill the kettle. ‘Wars are no respecters of innocence.’

‘I’m a selfish little cat, aren’t I?’ Contritely Meg shaped her lips into a smile. ‘And Ma would be glad to be alive, wouldn’t she – bombs and all?’

‘I’m not so sure about that.’ Tommy lit the gas with a plop. ‘Your mother had a hard life. She’s better off where she is, in heaven.’

‘Ma never talked about heaven, nor God. Don’t think she believed in all that, Tommy.’

‘Oh, my word, but she did! Not your religious ’eaven, mind, but if poor Doll’s soul is anywhere it’s at that Candlefold of hers. Her face’d light up when she talked about it,’ Nell said softly. ‘So don’t go wishing her alive, girl. She was a sick woman and she’s happy now. Heaven is where you make it, don’t forget! Now, who’s for a sup of tea, then?’

The May evening was warm, and what they could see of the sky a bright blue, still. They sat on wooden chairs in the little cobbled yard, wondering at the silence; trying not to think of those seven nights past, nor allow themselves to wonder if the blitz would happen again.

‘It’s true, then. He really did come,’ Nell murmured. ‘Was on the nine o’clock news.’ If it was on the wireless, you had to believe it.

‘Hess, you mean? Fishy, if you ask me. Will they shoot him, d’you think?’

‘Hope so.’ Nell gazed longingly at a cigarette, then placed it tenderly back in her pocket. ‘Suppose they’ll lock him in the Tower, though.’

‘I’d lock him in a house in the East End of London,’ Meg offered with narrowed eyes. ‘Then when his lot bomb London, he’ll get a bit of his own back. He must be mad, though, coming here. Maybe Hitler’s sent him to offer peace terms.’

‘Well, we don’t want peace with that lot. And won’t bluddy Hitler be annoyed when he finds out that his deputy was taken prisoner by a ploughman with a pitchfork?’ Nell laughed heartily. ‘Ah, well, it takes all sorts …’

The capture of Rudolf Hess was of no interest to Nell Shaw. Of more importance was where she would find her next five cigarettes and if the butcher – whose shop had survived the bombing – would have off-the-ration sausages for sale tomorrow.

‘I did hear,’ said Tommy, ‘that there’s an office been opened in Scotty Road – a sort of help place for bombed-outs. Seems a lot of folk have lost their identity cards and their ration books – just blown to smithereens. Got nuthin’ but what they stand up in. Mind, I’d have thought they’d have taken things like that with them to the shelter.’

‘Folk only think of finding somewhere safe when that siren goes,’ Nell defended.

‘Mm …’ Meg was thinking about the baby still, and about the cardboard coffins they were putting the dead in – those no one had claimed, that was – and burying them in mass graves. At least Ma had had a decent funeral. It made Meg wonder, since she was almost sure her mother had never been a one for religion, what she would have made of it all, and the vicar who didn’t even know her saying kind things at the graveside. And was heaven where you made it, and hell too? There was a lot of sense in what Nell said, because Meg already knew that hell was a blitzed city and a baby lying on the pavement. This morning, she had looked hell in the face.

‘A penny for them!’ A hand broke Meg’s line of vision. ‘You were miles away, girl. Thinking about Doll, were you?’

‘Yes. And about the baby …’
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