Below is my entry for the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Short Story Competition 2015: ‘Wartime Girl'. I wrote this short story in November 2014.
by Simon Duke
I looked up and saw Daddy smiling. His uniform was torn. His black tin helmet was missing. His small silver-coloured badge dangled from his dirty ripped-open shirt. Daddy’s face was black with smut. He was bruised and bleeding, but his smile remained.
‘Follow me,’ he said, in a calm and reassuring voice; the same voice he used when I was afraid, especially when the street lamps went dim at night and we were forced to stay inside.
He stood at the attic doorway, his back leaning against the frame. I knew then that I was safe and that none of the screams and loud explosions or the annoying siren noise outside would ever get to me. He was here now.
Daddy motioned for me to approach and extended his hand, told me to clutch tight.
He led me down the attic stairwell and across the landing, hastily scurrying past my bedroom and down the stairs again to the ground floor. The inside of the house was dark, only intermittently lit-up by outside flashes of white and dazzling light, which were accompanied by tremendous roars like lions spitting bolts of lightning.
On the way down I caught sight of Polly on my bed. She was my favourite doll and I cherished her so much.
‘What about Polly?’ I asked.
‘Blimey! We don’t have time,’ Daddy said.
Tears filled my eyes as he dragged me downstairs. We halted at the front door.
‘Nuff’ said. We have to leave, Christina,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘But before we step outside, I want ya to do something very important.’
I wiped my tears away with my wrist and nodded without really knowing why.
‘We won’t be coming back home for a while and we don’t have time to take Polly with us. There’s nothin’ we can do about it,’ he continued.
He crouched and our gazes locked. He was at my height and his face was only inches away from mine.
‘But no worries,’ he said. ‘We’re goin’ to play a game. You’ve been hiding. Now it’s Mummy’s turn to hide. And she said that if we find her, she’ll have a surprise for ya.’
I looked at Daddy in amazement. ‘Really?’
He nodded and smiled again. It was forced, I could tell, but it didn’t really matter. I couldn’t wait to be with Mummy again and find out what the surprise was.
‘You’ll get your surprise only if you follow a few rules, all right darlin’? And whatever happens outside, you must do what I tell ya.’
I was curious to find out what new game Daddy had invented, especially since it was dark and way past my bedtime. I loved his stories, his impromptu treasure hunts. He was a gifted storyteller and generous with his imagination. I was always eager to listen.
Daddy pursued, ‘There are three crucial rules you must follow no matter the circumstances. Firstly, you hold onto my hand and never, ever let go of it. Secondly, you close your eyes at all times. And thirdly you will open your eyes again only when I say so and after I have counted to ten.’
The rules seemed simple enough to me. I nodded. ‘I understand, Daddy.’
He nodded in turn and a flicker of pride momentarily conquered his gaze.
I closed my eyes as we crossed the threshold and ventured into the street. I fended off the urge to look up at the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a regular habit of mine. Instead I gripped his hand firmly and we began to walk faster and faster. But I walked at Daddy’s pace, not mine. It was hard and I wasn’t used to it.
The noises were even louder outside, and I think I even heard our neighbour, Mrs. Cunningham, scream, though I wasn’t sure why. I was tempted to catch a glimpse of what was going on, but decided against. I didn’t want to lose out on the surprise in store for me. So I forced my eyelids to remain shut, grinning in the process.
‘I’ll start counting now,’ Daddy said. ‘It won’t take long…'
I’d played outside in our street so often that I didn’t really need to know what our surroundings were like anyway. I’d played all summer on our doorstep. Oftentimes, Michael Bates would walk up to me and ask if I wanted to be goalie. I hated football, and besides Michael never had a ball or any other teammates to speak of. I’d tell him to leave me alone and he’d walk away, hands in his pockets, sulking. I much preferred to play with my best friend, Emily Cunningham. She had a skipping rope, and her doll was just like Polly, only that she had more clothes to choose from and a miniature set of porcelain tea cups and a tea pot. She was much more fun than Michael could ever be.
‘Two,’ Daddy said, interrupting my thoughts.
The ground was somewhat different. It was overturned and jagged. Cobbles were missing and I kept on treading in gaping holes dotted around us. Moments later I even bumped my shin on a pile of rocks. It hurt like hell and I began to cry again. I wanted to let go of Daddy’s hand and rub my painful bruise. It felt swollen and dense.
‘Sshh. Be strong now,’ Daddy whispered.
He paused. ‘Three. We’ll soon be there.’
I clutched him with a tighter grip and dug my nails into his palm.
‘Was that Mrs. Cunningham screaming? Why does the ground feel strange? Where’s Mummy?’ I asked in an uncontrolled flow of words.
‘Everything’s goin’ to be all right, Christina. Mummy’s not far,’ Daddy replied, simply ignoring my other questions.
We marched on.
The siren I heard earlier on that evening wailed again, hurting my ears. Daddy picked me up and swung me close to his chest. I could feel his heart thumping like a fist knocking on a door and I smelt something burning and unpleasant, just like when Mummy would sometimes forget the porridge on the stove and it would turn into a burnt mass of black mash.
‘Five,’ Daddy said.
He held me tight as he started to run. I buried my face into his chest and he ran his fingers on my head before placing his palm on my nape and pressing it to keep me still against his sweaty body. A wave of heat submerged us. Daddy’s heart was beating faster and I felt him swerve as I heard the sound of a crackling fire, louder, much louder than any chimney fire we’d ever lighted at home.
‘What’s that smell? Why is it so hot?’ I said in turn.
I distinctively heard the voice of Michael’s daddy, Mr. Bates, crying in the distance. He screamed, ‘Michael…!’ with intense rage and suffering. It seemed so close to us. It was overwhelming and painful to the ear. It added another twist into my already tense stomach knot.
‘Go to the shelter, Bates!’ Daddy hollered, before tilting his head down.
He whispered ‘seven’ in my ear.
Daddy continued to run. It felt like a dream, as if I was being carried by a giant who’d whisked me away from my home back to the land of giants. Yet I felt somewhat secure in his grasp. I tried to ignore Mr. Bates’s sorrow and buried my face even deeper into Daddy’s chest.
Mr. Bates’s tears were drowned in a medley of screams and motion of people running around us. In the distance I could hear the fire engines approaching during each pause of the wailing siren, by far the loudest noise in the street.
‘Daddy, why is Mr. Bates crying and why are all these other people screaming?’ I asked, this time hoping for an answer.
‘There’s no need to worry,’ he replied. ‘They’re just trying to scare us, but it won’t work. I don’t think they’re very happy we’re winning the game.’
I knew he wasn’t telling the truth. Surely no-one else was familiar with the game we were playing, but I wanted to believe him anyway.
Suddenly he put me on the ground and let go of me. I continued to close my eyes and fumbled around like a blind person trying to secure his clutch. I was panicked.
‘Daddy, don’t let go!’ I cried out. ‘Where are you?’
It was only a matter of a few seconds, but I was alone in my darkness with the sounds and smells of evil fury dancing all around me.
Daddy finally seized me by the shoulders and spun me around gently. Standing behind me, he led me for several footsteps and told me to duck as we entered a stairwell. With each step down, the outside world became increasingly silent. Yet with each step down, I felt a thud of fright echoing in my heart.
And when no steps were left and the noise outside had faded, he said, ‘Ten. You can open your eyes now.’
I was relieved the game was over. And so I did.
The room was dark, lit only by several candles on a table in the centre. We were in a cellar, a makeshift shelter.
People were gathered around Mummy who lay in the far-end corner of the room. I couldn’t quite see her and had no clue what the fuss was all about. So Daddy and I approached.
The people made way for us and scattered to other corners of the room. And by doing so, only Mummy was left.
Blankets had been placed on the ground beneath her. She sat, her legs spread on the floor and her back leaning on a large and dirty pillow pressed against the wall. She was half-naked and she carried a sleeping baby, rocking it gently in her arms.
She looked up at me and smiled. It was one of those smiles which meant nothing more than sheer happiness and relief. She stared at me for a moment and then directed her gaze once again to the baby.
‘What’s going on?’ I said.
Daddy and Mummy both laughed in complicity, but not loudly so as not to wake up the baby.
Daddy rested his hand on my shoulder and I looked up at him. ‘Remember the bump in Mummy’s tummy?’ he said. ‘Well, a little boy was growing inside. Now he’s come out.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘He’s your little brother, Christina. He’s your little brother!’ he said cheerfully.
I was speechless and utterly shocked. It felt as if someone had knocked me on the head with something heavy. Tears of a totally different nature sprang from my eyes, trickled down my cheeks. A drop even splashed the baby below me.
Mummy raised a hand and caressed my face. Daddy kissed me on my head. It was a blessing and it brought us smiles of joy.
And on that dark night of September 1940 we huddled together and cried.