KEN O'STEEN - SHELTER
Ken O’Steen’s short story, “Godsent Vermin,” which appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Sleet Magazine, has been nominated by the magazine for a Sundress Best of the Net Award. “Dinner at Musso and Frank,” was included in the anthology, “The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking” edited by Charles Coulombe, published by Citadel. Ken's stories also have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Connotation Press, Blue Lake Review, Litbreak, The Wolfian, Whistling Shade, Litro, New Pop Lit, Literary Juice and Quail Bell Magazine.
I stood at the rail squinting, peering into the dankness. The mist enveloping the sea enveloped the ship as well. There must be other passengers up and about in the pit of the night I thought. If so they too are hidden in the muck.
I took out the flask and warmed myself. So here I was, exiled from New York for my own safety. No more superb meatballs on Mulberry Street or delicious stew on Twenty-third.
I could understand things I had done were unacceptable to many, criminal to others, not in my own interest perhaps. Yet they derived from my inescapable nature did they not?
I went below, fiddled with the key to the stateroom for a ridiculous amount of time. I sat on the edge of the bed, took my shoes off, each flying halfway across the room when I yanked it off. Then I stretched on the bed in my clothes and slept.
The train clacked along past towns and villages, fields and moors. I was weary of it. I had travelled from New York, gone from Portugal to Ireland, ridden trains across the length of the latter, travelled by steamer on a route that carried mail, and then back onto the trains again for the purpose of crossing England.
In a matter of hours I would arrive in London. I had bought a map of it the night before in a shop prior to boarding the train. The map was useless until the break of day, lights no longer an amenity on the railways of England since it had joined the war. Even finding the station had been
a challenge. Signs were painted over to impede the Luftwaffe.
From the second I boarded the train was crackling with news of an attack the night before in London. Till then, the English had struck me not merely as impassive but as practically mute. At least compared to the New Yorkers to whom I was accustomed. But the nearer we got to London the more frenetic the talk became.
All this effort expended getting to a location as fraught as London under siege by Hitler felt entirely absurd. Yet given my unique circumstances, seeking safety in a place under bombardment was what my life had come to.
I could see from the taxi, not very far from the station where the bombs had landed, causing damage, but not complete destruction. Even now smoke clung to the horizon to the south and east.
“All the docks were set afire, all the way from the bridge to the King George. Gerry got the ships too, while he was at it,” the taxi driver told me.
Fortunately I was headed elsewhere. I was going to Westminster, so far at least relatively spared. While I had no idea what a normal day prior to the war had looked like, Londoners appeared to be going about their business in a normal way.
There were oddities. The sky was dotted with “barrage balloons,” as the driver called them, which resembled large, fat fish hovering among the clouds. Their purpose was to obstruct the bombers. Here and there sandbags were piled in front of buildings.
“Those are police stations and air raid posts,” the cabbie said. “Important offices and posh companies.”
As we were pulling up in front of the Dorchester, the cabbie announced, “That’s the safest building in London.”
“Concrete reinforced with steel. A third of the place is underground.”
It was the sort of place my family would set me up in, if for no other reason than it was the kind of place they would situate themselves. More relevant, they were friends and associates of the people who ran the place, who had agreed to grant a favor. Such favors travelled back and forth no doubt.
That this was better than I deserved under the circumstances was never left unsaid. Handing me a wad of cash and allowing me to seek my refuge anywhere across the globe was entirely out of the question. Perhaps if I accumulated sufficient funds on my own, eventually I could make a run for Switzerland.
The law firm in Grosvenor Square where I was to obtain the weekly stipends intended to keep me alive was nearby. It had been made clear to me that the sums involved likely were to remain paltry. It was my mother’s and father’s, and perhaps grandmother’s epiphany no doubt to place me in a gilded prison of sorts, safe from harm, yet without the means to satisfy appetites for what was put in front of me.
Hyde Park, of which I had a view from my room, normally was a pastoral splendor I was told, though now it was tarnished with anti-aircraft guns, Ack-Acks as the Londoners called them because of the sound they made.
The bar was elegant, and surprisingly brisk with business for early in the afternoon, though one had to keep in mind the time available to the British leisure class. If I couldn’t share a similar affinity for the class into which I had been born I could share its taste for leisure.
Noticeable immediately was the panting hedonism and official gravity present simultaneously. There were unmistakable government types, British and American. There were English men and women of every age, a few youthful, and vaguely decadent. There were exotic types, foreign exiles and refugees of means, nationalities I would have been hard pressed to guess correctly.
But there was too much of the monocled and mustachioed for my own taste. I hadn’t lived at arm’s length from my family just to squander my time now with the habitués of places such as this.
I woke up from my nap slightly after seven. The first thing I did was to close the blackout curtains, a precaution not taken lightly by authorities or civilians either. I went to the basin and splashed water on my face, seeing my bloodshot eyes and sallow face in the mirror. I’ve the look of a lost dog I thought.
I was toweling my face when the sirens wailed, and I raced to get a shirt, then stood in the middle of the room with no idea on earth what I ought to do. I was drawn to the terrace, curious to see this turning of the world upside down.
The park was bright as day, searchlights tilted skywards, sweeping back and forth scouring the clouds. There were shouts in the street, but nothing that would qualify as panic. You heard the bombers long before you could see them. From a distance they were a swarm of metallic insects. Once directly overhead they were a grinding, mechanical cataclysm swooping down from above.
You felt the concussions even at a distance from where the bombs struck. Flames from below turned the heavens crimson. Plumes of white smoke billowed up from where clusters of the bombs had landed. The bulk of the destruction appeared to be to the south and east again, around the river.
I went back inside and retrieved the flask, and sat on the side of the bed trembling. The clanging bells of an armada of fire trucks replaced the drone of bombers.
Not long after the air raid sirens began to howl again. I jumped up, got dressed as quickly as I could, and scrambled as fast I could to the basement. Not only was the bar bursting at the seams, it appeared to be in the throes of a frenzied bacchanal. The highly respectable were highly uninhibited.
In the course of several dull but useful conversations I was apprised of numerous wartime restrictions and regulations. Unlike most, residents of the Dorchester could regard the nation’s ever tightening rationing largely as a mere abstraction. Few things were unavailable on the pricey menu, though when they were it elicited moans from those abruptly faced with sacrifice.
I spent my nights safe inside the hotel for a week or more. As there had yet to be an air raid during the daylight hours, I began venturing about in the afternoon. Occasionally sirens would sound, but bombers never materialized.
The first trip was to visit the lawyer, or more accurately, pick my allowance up. A secretary handed me an envelope and that was that. More Americans were thereabout than anywhere I had been in England. The embassy was close of course. I thought of stepping into the Connaught Hotel for a drink, mostly to see what sort of yanks were around. I didn’t, preferring to avoid questions concerning my presence in England.
I strolled once to Piccadilly Circus, a poor man’s Times Square, where there was no shortage of pubs at least. Even in the afternoon there were gaggles of boozing British soldiers. But they came nowhere close to meeting my requirements for seediness.
The gent behind the bar at the Dorchester in the evenings was relatively free of pomp, and I grew to enjoy our conversations. For the purpose of explaining myself, I conjured a fake sister currently attending Oxford, an unconvincing story of being commissioned by the family to keep a watchful eye.
Once I had a story, my partiality for conversation blossomed. Then I met Lady Ellington.
I brushed against her in the crowd at the bar. After a spicy exchange, I was invited to join her at her table, where she told me, she occasionally hosted her ”dearest friend” Lady Weller. She was older than I, in her thirties, her appearance a mixture of society matron and Flapper flourishes.
I related the cockamamie sister story, which she seemed to weigh as possibly true, or an amusing lie.
“In any case,” she said authoritatively, ”you are in the proper place for the time you are here.”
She related that she had been raised in Sussex, and owned a home with her husband in Kensington, which they had boarded up after the initial night of bombing. They’d come to the Dorchester “for as long as required.”
Her husband she said remained in his room and practically never left.
“He has all sorts of hobbies and proclivities that absorb his time. He isn’t very social, and he doesn’t really drink.”
A man in a charcoal suit and vest tipped his hat to her while passing by, and she nodded her head in acknowledgment, along with a cordial smile.
“He’s an assistant to the Foreign Secretary. An exasperatingly dull fellow,” she said. She paused, and with a bit of a grin, added. “But such men may save us in the end.”
Besides a predisposition for lingering in the proximity of booze, we shared an attraction to the school of Decadent artists. We prattled on about Huysmans and Machen, Nerval and Beardsley, Symons and Montesquieu. I told her that to my family’s distress the best thing I’d taken away from the fancy education they’d purchased was a romanticist’s infatuation with decadence. It appeared to strike a chord, and may have slightly endeared me to her in the casual way of people spending time together in bars.
It was our second night together at her table when she opened her purse, and removed what looked to be a silver cigarette case. She took a thick scrap of paper out, snapped open the cigarette case, then dipping the paper in, scooped a tiny pile of snowy powder out. She sculpted it into a single slender line that resembled a piece of string. She said nothing, as if showing me something I had never seen before.
“Cocaine,” she said. “I adore it.”
“I’m rather fond of it myself,” I told her casually.
“Really?” she said.
“It crossed my path with a bit of frequency back in New York, yes.”
“Ah. Well I’d be delighted if you would join me.”
Rounding the piece of paper, and bending down, she daintily sniffed. Then she pushed the paper and the snowy pile in my direction.
After we had refreshed ourselves she set out a remarkably lengthy, highly enthusiastic, and not altogether uninteresting historical overview of the substance itself. It incorporated Freud of course, the Incas naturally, Emile Zola, Queen Victoria, Pope Leo and Jules Verne. The Coca-Cola Company got its due, as the inventors of Ryno's Catarrh Remedy did.
“During the Great War, they sold it at Harrods,” she said.
Denouncing the “banality” of its illegality, she added with a confidence born of wealth, something of a family legacy of my own in fact, “I do what I wish to do.”
I noted that the war wasn’t really good for the shipping business, and that cargo coming from South America must be highly endangered.
'I’m worried this fuss with the Nazis is going to dampen the availability,” she told me. “I fear it terribly. I’m running a little dry already in fact.”
Here, for the first time since I’d been in England, it occurred to me that my background and recent employment history had a potential relevance.
“It’s possible I can be of use,” I said.
Without providing details, I made clear that I had a bit of experience in this, and if given sufficient time to get the lay of the land I could solve her problem, and a couple of my own.
She brightened, and said, “That would be wonderful.”
Later in the evening I was counseled that due diligence in the pursuit of pleasure ought to lead me to Soho, where she had spent “many a colorful evening.” In fact, I already had designated it as my first nocturnal outing beyond the walls of the Dorchester.
I began to think about how exactly to proceed with the mission I had discussed the night before with Lady Ellington. It had to some extent been my business when I was in in America.
Nozynski, who had hired me, owned the hotel, though the Grimecki brothers were minor, if crudely bare-knuckled partners. He was amused by my expensive education, but recognized in me a deep intuition for sordidness lovingly nurtured.
It was happenstance that had led me to the Densmore, literally passing by it, a shabby façade on 22nd a little east of Lexington. Evening desk clerk at a shady hotel may not have been what was expected of me. But in its peculiar way it was nearly perfect.
The hotel provided its customers with “girls,” a routine service in establishments such as these. There were women everywhere in New York, and often enough they were fond of me, but it was “the girls” who sparked my ardor most. Looking after them, along with making arrangements with our guests were among the principal duties I held.
Other amenities were rarely kept on site. Reefer perhaps. Cocaine and heroin were fetched only as needed. Seeing to their procurement was another function of mine.
It was my daily habit to employ the services of one of the “girls” myself, sometimes two any given evening, paying at the going rate of course. There were nights when a prelude to visiting a “girl” would be the substance Lady Ellington doted on.
My affection for one of “the girls,” Jeanette, blossomed quickly into infatuation, and eventually it was Jeanette and Jeanette alone to whom I would pay a nightly visit.
Lou Grimecki liked the “girls” as well. He helped himself, though never with any thought of paying. That night when Jeanette came to me with her proposal I knew that Lou was in the room, there with Jeanette and Esther both. I never should have considered it. But I joined them in spite of knowing better.
Then I saw something terrible happen. I watched as Lou committed a vicious act, brutal even by a criminal’s standards.
I knew immediately that the Grimecki brothers would never in a million years leave me walking around alive after what I had witnessed. Benny Grimecki even told me as much. Nozynski assured me they would hunt me down anywhere in New York, anywhere in the country, so long and sticky were their criminal tentacles.
Forever at odds with family, and for the last few years estranged entirely I was now in an indefensible position so to speak. The only means available were the family’s means, which were quite considerable, even if I had shunned them for many years.
When I revealed to them what had occurred, a plan was quickly devised. I was to have no future contact with the family whatsoever lest the Grimeckis manage to get a whiff of my whereabouts. Moral repugnance surely was a factor as well. At the very least, it shook me out of their hair. And if I met my demise in Britain, mother and father might pass it off as a casualty of war, a tragic sacrifice against the terrible evil that had engulfed the world.
In the morning, every front page shouted the same news. The Germans had bombed the palace. Not only Buckingham had been hit the night before but several government buildings, the BBC and the National Gallery among them. Even in the lively basement of the Dorchester the explosions had made an impression. Westminster was a target now. No longer it appeared would the poor sods living in the East End be the only ones catching hell from the Germans.
Nevertheless Lady Ellington had her needs, and so did I. I set out from the hotel in the evening shortly after the sun was down, quickly understanding the challenge of getting from one place to another in a darkened city. Cars rolling down the street with their headlamps off were alarming enough. Busses lumbering around in the pitch black were dicier still. The populace of a great city crept about like mice in the night.
Practically all who had made a stop at Lady Ellington’s table managed to ballyhoo the Café de Paris as the toast of Soho. Shortly after arriving there I could see why. The dance floor was bulging with frenzied jitterbuggers, all the tables were jammed. Dressed to the nines, it was a clientele not altogether different from that at the Dorchester, even if slightly younger.
The air raid sirens began to wail, the first of the nightly raids. The band could barely be heard above the ruckus. Yet it was obvious that the chaos which transpired outside only enlivened what was happening inside. At one point when the band had stopped, one of the Messerschmitts accompanying the bombers could be heard spiraling to the ground after being hit.
Despite the presence of one or two in the crowd who I eyed as possible confederates in seediness, as expected the place was an attraction to sample but not to frequent.
While there were revelers aplenty going about in the streets even during an air raid I was petrified. Feeling not so much vulnerable as utterly naked I dashed through the door of the nearest pub. While it was racier it still was not precisely what I was hunting for. Mercifully the All Clear sounded.
I slipped down a darkened Moor Street, where there appeared to be no shortage of alehouses and rowdy inns. I saw the pub, only a hole in the wall, next to it the kind of place I’d been searching for, a bleak hotel called The Baxter Arms.
Flushing out what I needed from the desk clerk was easy enough, speaking his language more or less. The barman in the adjacent pub would accommodate my order for powder he told me, and assist with “a tart” as well.
After several schnapps I departed the pub with the “tart” enthusiastically attached at my arm, and a package of cocaine. I stayed with her for an hour or so, positive I would visit the Baxter Arms again.
The following evening I reported my success to Lady Ellington. Passing along the bounty that had been procured I assured her, “There’s going to be more to come. There’s work to be done though.” I was compensated extravagantly, and accepted what she offered without demur.
Shortly thereafter we were joined by two of Lady Ellington’s “acquaintances” introduced to me as Dahlia and Clarissa. I still had no idea what “Lady” actually signified, nor did I ever bother to ask. The two seemed entirely modern. Lady Ellington, newly flush, sprinkled some of the fairy dust on the table in a generous gesture.
After snorting it up in her own rather dainty style, Clarissa exclaimed, “Oh, cocaine is wonderful,” twinkling with delight.
“I used to know a place I could regularly obtain it when I was of a mind to,” she added.
Twinkling a bit myself I said to her, “What if I could make some available here in the hotel for any time you’re of a mind to?”
She squinted at me as if ascertaining my degree of seriousness, then judging it satisfactory, said, “In that case we most certainly could make a nice arrangement.”
“Bravo,” Lady Ellington said, so drolly it made you envious.
“You Americans are just quite the resourceful ones aren’t you?” Dahlia noted.
“When it counts,” I told her.
“He’s something of a dark one,” Clarissa remarked as if I wasn’t there, yet admittedly with a sizable grain of truth.
The following morning in need of a list of mundane commodities like shoe polish, socks, underwear and razor blades I began to wander in search of a shop. The metal Anderson Shelters that protected against explosions if not directly hit were present in quite a few of the yards. The residents of Westminster were just the sort who would possess the means to obtain them and the yards to put them in. They resembled large, overturned garbage cans, or giant rural mailboxes with a layer of dirt dumped atop the entrance.
As if to emphasize the point of the shelters, the shop I found, which was beyond the boundaries of Westchester, was located on a boulevard of smoldering ruins. Buildings were little more than teetering heaps of pretzel-twisted pipes, and shattered rebar. In places there was only half a house, as if it had been sliced in two by a giant knife. Occasionally a house had escaped entirely.
The windows of the shop itself had been blasted out, and everything inside was layered with dust. A woman out front had been sweeping broken glass when I approached, and had pointed at a sign propped in the windowless pane: Open For Business.
I found the items I was looking for, and took them up to the man at the counter to pay. He tallied the purchases as if it were any other day
“This is a shame,” I said, “what the Germans have done.”
“Yes,” he answered with a faint smile, “but here we are, still here.”
In the evening I returned to the Baxter Arms. The barman from the night before was there again, standing at his station behind the taps. I explained that there was no particular hurry arranging a “tart”. I might have myself several pints, or even a glass of whiskey first.
The barman‘s name was Albert. He was solid, not especially burly, hair slicked back and seemingly glued down. He asked the usual sort of questions about America, but by and large was curious only about New York.
He said, “I’m thinkin’ I could make a go there, yes I could.”
He was probably right. I instantly thought of several downtown taverns and other establishments at which he was sure to thrive. He spoke of the agony of rationing, a conversation seldom heard at the Dorchester. He bemoaned the sparse availability of everything from a pair of shoes to a chunk of cheese.
“A wee tiny bit of butter, a wee tiny bit of sugar, a wee tiny bit of jam. All yer left to eat half the time is bread and soup like a bloody prisoner.”
I kept it under my hat that I was holed up like a squire at the Dorchester, where a good meal still could be had even if priced outrageously.
“The Fuhrer seems to think if he cuts you off long enough, eventually you’ll be in a terrible fix.”
“Bad enough now innit? Banging about in the dark at night, standing about in queues fer half the day, it’s a lot of drudgery.“
“At least Gerry hasn’t stopped the booze and the other goodies,” I said, tapping my nose.
“Aye, but living without butter is making Jack a very dull boy,” he said.
When the sirens began to blare half the customers silently got up out up out of their seats and scurried out the door. The rest sat as if nothing had changed.
“It stays jolly ‘round ‘ere no matter what,” Albert said with a laugh.
Indeed, when the bombs began to whistle down, and the Ack-Acks started to pound Albert continued drawing pints, and the rest of us continued to drink them.
I arranged for the “tart,” picking up another package of powder for Dahlia and her friend Clarissa.
Philippa, my companion for the evening was tiny. Her hair was jet black and her skin pale as ivory. It was novel to cavort with bombs going off, and searchlights passing across the curtains, though it was less distracting than I might have expected.
As Philippa and I lounged in her bed afterwards, startled by the occasional whistle of a straying bomb, she was equal parts inquisitive and jaded. She asked about America of course, and more convincingly than usual assured me this was only a temporary occupation for her, more lark, or ritual of youth than any resort to desperation. But who could know?
Like Albert she was bitter about the quotidian hardships the war had brought. The price and unavailability of fabric and the absence of clothing in the stores vexed her most.
“I’m starting to be ashamed presenting myself to customers,” she told me. “And even what I’m wearing in the streets is pitiful.”
After missing several nights at the Dorchester I returned again to Lady Ellington’s table. Clarissa and Dahlia joined us, Clarissa informing me not only that she wished to modify our arrangement by getting a larger portion, but that friends of hers in the hotel had expressed interest in making arrangements for themselves. I told her that if she would provide me with a list of their names then I would do my best to accommodate them.
My dilemma was that if I obligated myself to serving all of the clientele seeking to make arrangements, the supply I was able to get from Albert would be insufficient. Albert however
acted gallantly, in addition to steering me to an alternate supplier of powder and “tarts” authorizing me to use his name.
Then he told me something that enflamed my interest.
“The tarts ‘round ‘ere are ordinary English girls all in all. But down there,” he said, referring to the hotel to which he was directing me, “they’re from all the world. Even the English lot there are a wicked bunch. Do things to make the devil ‘imself blush.”
He also warned me I was out of my mind to go.
“Won’t do you any good if you go before midnight. The East End takes a floggin’ from the Gerries every night about that time. ‘Ave to be a madman to be down there when the bloody krauts are blastin’ away.”
Nevertheless, the following night I commandeered a taxi, and when I informed the driver of my destination he asked to have it repeated. Halfway across Westminster Bridge you could see the smoke seeping from the blackened vessels along the banks of the Thames. Docks were crispy shells bobbing in the water. Buildings next to the river looked as though they had been stomped on by the feet of giants.
I instructed the driver to let me out a block away. Once I was standing in front of it the only signage I saw was a chipped wooden green placard over the front that read: Lodgings. I entered through a dim, narrow vestibule into a cramped and dimmer lobby.
The man behind the desk was huge. His size was apparent even when sitting. He was however unexpectedly cheerful.
Albert’s cachet was the gateway I’d expected it would be. The transaction was quick and easy. With ample cocaine now in my possession for my expanded list of clientele, I lingered in order to fulfill the second objective.
I saw it in her instantly. Her resemblance to Jeanette back at the Densmore was only a part of it. Physically she was hardly identical, with her flowing red curls, turned up nose nose and emerald eyes. But her idiosyncratic potency as a whore was much the same. Her name was Effie.
When we were in the room, I took out a small lump of the powder. I kept the flask near at hand on the table beside the bed. We were half undressed, and fully entangled, when the air raid sirens began to scream. I ignored them, less shaken by them than in the past, unwilling to forfeit the moment.
But then the bombers were directly overhead making a fearsome drone. The whistle of bombs made it sound as if they were aimed directly at your head. Effie asked if I would prefer to stop and make a run for the shelter. I told her no at first. And then the explosions caused the building to shake with a violence I had never felt before.
She led the way, first out of the hotel, and down the darkened street. There were others dashing in the direction of the shelter. The canopy of bombers seemed to stand still just above our heads. Glancing around me as I ran, I thought, such an ugly place to die.
The air raid wardens came into view ahead guiding those arriving into the shelter. Not far beyond him flames had so thoroughly consumed the innards of a building it resembled a massive torch in the cavity of a skeleton. The street was chocked with smoke.
We hurried down the steps into a large, though not enormous concrete and brick cavern. It appeared surprisingly organized, a wall of bunk beds, and an area with a modest pantry. A stove adjacent to a brick column produced sufficient warmth. We claimed an empty stretch of bench for ourselves and rested.
Many were asleep, nestled under covers, which was perplexing since the raid had only been underway for a relatively brief time, making a hellish cacophony. Effie told me she had talked before with several neighbors who came on a nightly basis. Some arrived each night at the same time, bringing provisions, and staying till early morning. Those in the shelter did not appear frightened, but rather weary and bored. I was soon among them.
The raid continued for another hour or more. When we came up out of the shelter the sky was red, and the air thick. It was eerily quiet, people barely speaking as they trudged away. A fire truck careened down the street with its bells clanging, pulling up in front of a building where men already were pointing a giant stream of water.
I told Effie, when we were standing in front of the hotel again, that I would return another evening. I didn’t withhold that I was taken with her.
Getting back to the Dorchester in the middle of the night was problematic. After twenty blocks or so I stopped at an ARP station and availed myself of the coffee there. When I left, the first light was beginning to seep out near the horizon. I eventually found a cab on the street outside of a railway station, which got me back to the Dorchester just as day was fully breaking.
Now with a fairly extensive list of fellow residents with whom arrangements had been made I spent a considerable portion of the following evening roaming the hotel halls distributing to my clients.
I was eager to reunite with Effie. When I arrived, I told Henry, the giant behind the desk, “I’m surprised the place is still here.”
“Gerry’s never laid a scratch on us,” he said.
“Fortunate,” I told him quite sincerely.
“Hasn’t been much luck for the “tarts” here though. Three of ‘em been killed already going to and fro in the evening.”
With that sobering bit of news I returned to Effie. Against all odds the night was a relatively calm one. The air raid came as it always did. But the Germans seemed to have found targets to their liking in another part of London.
The following evening, while tempted to stay the night at the Dorchester, the prospect of foregoing Effie’s delirium-inducing professional artifice was more than I could bear. There was no resistance for me to summon. It simply didn’t reside in me anywhere.
We sat up in her bed, taking turns with the flask, ever so tentatively revealing ourselves. To become too personal risked ruining it all, a truth she understood better than I. Yet at times she would carry on a demure soliloquy, ruminating about wild, or exotic places, places it was evident she knew at least something about, Pogo for instance, and Crete. She would say matter-of-factly it was unlikely she would ever see them. Like others, she would speak of the deprivations, rationing and the worsening shortages. She would say as Philippa had that the scarcity of fabric was the hardest perhaps, lamenting the woeful disintegration of her wardrobe.
When the sirens went off .it felt as if only seconds had passed before the rumble of bombers was overhead. The first bomb to explode couldn’t have been more than a block away. We dressed as rapidly as we were able, and set off for the shelter again
The stove was on the fritz, or it hadn’t been lighted long enough to warm the place. Gazing around, even more than the night before I thought there was a stony-eyed look of exhaustion. Clothing was threadbare, soles of shoes in some cases peeling away, and in other instances there was embedded grime.
We were confined less than an hour before the All Clear. Walking back, we passed an air raid volunteer talking on a telephone on the porch of a house. Effie explained that because only a handful of the residents in her neighborhood owned a telephone, at houses that owned one it would be left on the porch at night for the volunteers to use.
We had only been in the room for a little while, but were entwined already under the covers, and thus ignored the wailing sirens and the roar of the bombers when they returned. And then in a split second my body was entirely numb, I could hear nothing, finding myself gazing through a gash in the ceiling at a purple London sky. It was a gala sight, even a gorgeous one, sky illuminated with searchlights, spurts of anti-aircraft flickering everywhere, orange reflections of flame. I may even have smiled.
The hospital was utterly wretched, though the steady doses of morphine I was given rescued it from being hellish. Eventually I got the news that I would never see again in one of my eyes, and that only one of my arms would be of much use. I assumed that I would make a story up, a wartime tale that would vividly recount how I incurred my wounds. At least I could exploit what I could of the pity sure to come my way.
I doubted it would come from my family. I hadn’t told them yet. They would want to know, and rightly so, why I couldn’t simply have stayed in the safest place in London, available only to the luckiest in life. On the other hand, I expected they would have a clue as to why I hadn’t.
I never did learn the fate of Effie. Nor was there any way of finding out. Soon as I was able to travel they put me on a ship. I made the long, rigorous journey back to New York. But I wondered about Effie often.
The family had saved me from the Grimeckis. I was quite certain the two had altogether forgotten me. And besides, I was an invalid now.
If nothing else, I assumed the lesson to take from all of this was altogether obvious: who needed the Grimecki brothers when you had Hitler?
11/3/2018 11:08:05 pm
Brilliant piece! I'm impressed with your knowledge of wartime England.
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