Jack had the shelter built at the bottom of the garden right after Mr. Chamberlain came back from Munich. I used to stand in the back bedroom and watch the men digging out the ground then laying the brick and putting on the concrete roof.
“When Hitler comes we’ll be safe now,” he told me. “And we won’t have to share it with anyone.”
He was wrong about that. But Jack was wrong about most things; the only time I can remember him being right was building the shelter. Even then, we didn’t need it. No bombs dropped in these parts of Leeds. We had a few raids, but nothing like those poor people down in London. I can’t imagine how they stood it.
Whenever the siren went off, everyone in the street would come into our shelter. None of them had built one; they’d more sense than brass, I suppose. Jack had signed up to do his bit. God only knew where he was – the only thing he’d managed to get past the censor was that he had brown knees. The way he managed to swing things he was probably in Filey, not Egypt.
So it was me and Michael for the duration. But he was at school during the day, and after that he was off with his pals until dark, pretending to machine gun every Nazi and win the war by himself. Still, once that siren wailed he was down in the shelter and as scared as the rest of us.
I had a job three mornings a week at the museum on Park Row. It might not have been as worthwhile as assembling shells or putting Spitfires together, but it was a little something. I enjoyed it, working there with Miss Woods and Mr. Johnson, who was too old to fight. He knew all about history, though. He’d given me a proper tour of the exhibits one day, even telling me about the Indian stuffed tiger that stood inside the doorway and the Egyptian mummy at the top of the stairs. Mr. Johnson boasted he could read the hieroglyphics. I didn’t believed a word, of course, but it didn’t matter. I liked the work there and it took me out of the house, around people, into all the whirl and bustle of town.
For some reason, I loved that tiger. It was threadbare, a little like an old teddy bear that had been loved too much, but it had personality. Every week I’d dust it and polish up the glass eyes in its head. The snarling mouth didn’t scare me. I always felt as if I could stroke it and it would just start purring.
From the bus I’d seen some of the damage the early raids did, all that wreckage at Marsh Lane Station, and it made me shudder. We weren’t safe at all; if a bomb landed on the shelter, we might as well have been hiding under cardboard. Jack had just wasted his money on an illusion again.
Michael was already in bed when the siren sounded. It was a Friday night, right on the stroke of nine, and for a moment my heart stopped, the way it always did when it heard the wail. In less than a minute he was down in the kitchen, socks, slippers and dressing gown over his pyjamas. I’d been listening to the wireless, one of those dance bands that sound like everyone else.
It was March. Outside, the sky was very clear, so many stars up there, and very cold.
“Stay there,” I told Michael, and dashed back into the house for our overcoats. Over the next quarter of an hour the neighbours drifted in. We talked for a while until all the gossip had been given out and we all knew which butcher might have mince the next day. There was a primus stove down there, the kettle boiling to make a pot of tea, and with the oil lamps at we could see each other – well, make out the faces and shapes, anyway.
After an hour and a half we’d run out of things to say. Shivers kept running through me from the cold. We were ready for the all-clear to sound, to go back to our beds and warm up. But there was only silence. Then I heard something off in the distance, like a hum growing louder. The Germans were coming.
It seemed like we were down there forever. We could hear the explosions down towards the city centre. God, I thought, what if one of them goes off course and drops its load on us? Old Mr. Henderson from number eleven climbed on the roof of the shelter to give us a running commentary. He was sixty if he was a day, but he was still active and in the Home Guard.
“Those are incendiaries,” he announced with a shout. “I can see them burning.” And later, when the planes seemed to come wave after wave and the soft crump of bombs was a constant sound, he’d cry out, “That must have done some damage,” until we all clambered out to join him.
A little after three we were all back in our houses. Michael trudged up to bed, the poor lamb could hardly keep his eyes open, but I couldn’t sleep. It had been like a thousand Guy Fawkes’ nights all in one, all light and fire and explosions. Except there was nothing fun about this. There was just terror and destruction and death.
I thought about the museum, hoping it had survived. And then I thought about Jack, somewhere in the world with his brown knees and I lay in bed and cried quietly until the alarm clock went off.
The bus could only go as far as Buslingthorpe Lane before the wardens stopped it. I wasn’t going to give up. Instead I walked into town. Quarry Hill Flats had taken a hit and there was smoke still coming from the roof of the market, with water running down George Street. The air smelt like gunpowder and I had to tread carefully around the rubble.
“You’d best watch yourself, luv,” one of the auxiliary firemen told me. “There’s stuff here that could tumble down on you.”
I smiled politely at him and walked on. There seemed to be plenty like me, people on their way to work, hoping there’d still be a business standing, and those who simply needed to see what the Germans had done to us. It seemed bad, but nothing like the newsreels, where street after street in London had been blown to nothing. If this was our Blitz then we’d come off lightly.
As soon as I turned onto Park Row I could see something was wrong. There was a huge hole in the road, a crater, and I started to walk faster, almost running down the pavement. I could see Miss Woods in the distance, holding something to her face. She was a spinster, fifty-three years old – she was always very exact – with some small private income. She worked at the museum because she wanted to, not because she needed the money. She was the first in and the last to leave every day, caring for the place as if it was her own home. I watched as she bent down and picked something up.
The whole front of the building had gone, as if a giant, petulant child had swept his hand across and crushed it. Stone, glass and wood were all scattered across the street, fallen into the hole and all around it. Men stood around, one or two in their ARP helmets, most just in caps, staring, pointing and talking.
Miss Woods seemed to be in shock when I looked at her, dazed, her eyes quite blank. She held up her hand and I could see what she’d rescued from the ground, a piece of old, dirty linen. At first I didn’t know what to make of it. Then I took in all the gaping frontage of the museum, the staircase little more than splinters now, and I realised it must have come from our mummy. It might be all that was left of him.
Everything I could see inside the building was blackened. Even the air seemed charred and dead. The desk where I worked didn’t exist any more, only a space on the burned and buckled floor where it had once been.
The tiger, I thought. But he was gone, too, not even a scrap of fur. It had all gone. Everything had gone. There was nothing they could shore up, they couldn’t make do with what was left. The museum was gone. I put my arm around Miss Woods’ shoulders. For a moment the contact seemed to startle her and she began to pull away. I smiled at her gently.
“I know,” I told her. “I know.”