Where T. Allerdyce, Textbooks & Stationery should have been, there was nothing but a flight of stairs, silhouetted against a white sky. The air was full of grit, the rubble seeded with ruined books, their pages snapping back and forth in the cold wind. Noel flipped open a cover with his foot, and saw an illustration of the human digestive system, its cross-sectioned owner breezily eating an apple, apparently unconcerned that his innards were exposed to the world.
The whole street had gone, a roped-off crater showing where the V-2 had actually landed, the shops and houses marked only by the odd truncated wall or empty door frame. The staircases alone had survived, some still with remnants of carpet, some spoked with broken bannisters. Noel was tempted to climb the nearest, and see the destruction from a height, but half the treads were missing.
The V-2 rockets had been dropping out of the sky for a couple of months now, though ‘dropping’ implied that you could see them descend, whereas they fell at such speed that no warnings were possible; a crack and a boom, and then death. ‘Like God clapping his hands,’ Vee had suggested, fancifully. Each one knocked the roofs off a quarter of a square mile of houses, and flattened those at the centre; ‘more like God stamping his foot,’ Noel had said.
They’d been lucky so far this year, at home in Hampstead; nothing but the occasional Heinkel unloading H.E.s, and a single doodlebug which had landed in a pond on the Heath and hurled a flood of green water over the bank and down the road, marbling the tarmac with waterweed and sending a dead duck surfing through the chemist’s door.
Noel let the book-cover fall. Last time he’d visited the shop, Mr Allerdyce had given him a cup of tea, and talked eloquently about his years as a teacher in Tonga. ‘The young ladies there – how can I describe them? They have flesh as firm as a Michelangelo marble, but when they dance, every part of them vibrates . . .’ Noel had thought about this image quite a few times over the succeeding months and had rather been looking forward to continuing the conversation.
There was a sudden movement in the rubble, and a rat emerged from behind an angled pipe, a packet of semolina in its teeth. It caught sight of Noel, and froze, and he hopped off the mound of bricks (best not to think of its grave-like contour) and walked away. Perhaps, he thought, Mr Allerdyce had been asleep when the bomb fell; asleep and dreaming of Tonga.
At the end of the road, a church had escaped the worst of the blast, though half the roof had fallen in, and the windows were empty. In the road beside it, glass crunched underfoot, a million splinters of indeterminate colour and occasional larger pieces, red and blue, a glimpse of a gesturing arm, a broken halo – and there, upright in the gutter, an unbroken rectangle of amber glass the size of Noel’s palm, still edged with lead. He held it up to one eye and looked along the road, and the V-2 devastation was transformed into something much older, a sepia photograph from one of Mattie’s books, Pompeii emerging from the ash. And between the excavated walls, a short, rounded figure, purposefully approaching. Noel slipped the glass into his pocket.
It was a lady ARP warden, two white stripes on the sleeve of her tunic, her boots filthy with beige dust, the legs of her slacks rolled several times above the ankle.
‘Were you looking for something?’ she asked, her tone brisk.
‘I was,’ said Noel. ‘I had a list of books to buy at Mr Allerdyce’s shop. Geography and History, mainly.’
‘Oh dear. Well, you’re out of luck, I’m afraid. You’d better cut along – half these walls are unsafe.’
‘What happened to Mr Allerdyce? Is he still alive?’
‘Yes,’ she said, unexpectedly. ‘He was in his basement, reading a book.’
Her official expression eased and she almost smiled. ‘I can’t tell you, but it had a red cover – he was still clutching it when we got him out.’ She looked back at the empty street, as if still unable to believe that anyone had survived. ‘So where are you at school?’
‘I’m not. I have tutors.’
‘What – tutors in the plural?’ She looked sceptical.
‘Yes, actually.’ There was a pause. ‘It’s not as grand as it sounds, they’re just our lodgers. They teach me according to the areas of their expertise.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Fourteen. Nearly fifteen.’
‘You look younger, but you sound older. So go on—’
She glanced at her watch and then folded her arms, and shifted her weight more comfortably. She was quite young herself, with a pleasant, round face, and a frizz of brown hair beneath her beret. ‘What subjects are you studying?’
‘Well, Geography and History, obviously, though I’m tutoring myself in those at the moment, hence the textbooks. English and Latin from Mr Jepson, who’s a journalist. Mathematics and book-keeping from Mr Reddish – he’s a cashier – sciences from Dr Parry-Jones, French from Miss Appleby – though, to be honest, I don’t think she knows very much, only a few phrases like ‘your eyes are very lovely’ and ‘how much is the lipstick?’ – and cookery from Miss Zawadska, who’s a canteen supervisor. She’s also teaching me Polish.’
‘You’re pulling my leg.’
‘Dzien dobry. Mam na imie Noel Bostock.’
She actually laughed this time. ‘You’re a tonic,’ she said.
She checked her watch. ‘Come and see something. It’s quite educational.’
There was a cardboard sign reading ‘DO NOT ENTER – DANGER!’ strung across the door of the church, but she opened it anyway. Light spilled into a broad porch; there were hymn-books stacked on a bench and a print of a girlish-looking St Francis feeding doves. ‘I think this part’s Victorian,’ said the warden, ‘but the vicar says the main structure’s far older. This was in the ceiling wreckage.’ She pulled away a fold of canvas from some- thing lying on the floor. ‘It’s called a roof boss,’ she said. ‘We think it’s not seen daylight for centuries.’ Noel crouched down. A wooden face the size of his own looked back at him, green vines pouring out of each side of the open mouth and encircling the head. He leaned back so that his shadow no longer fell across the carving, and the colours leaped out: the eyes pure white, a blue dot at the centre of each, the flared nostrils lined with red. It was as brilliant as if the brush had just been laid down – brighter, newer, than anything he’d seen for years, in this tired city where everything looked in need of a scrub or a lick of paint, or a wrecking-ball.
‘What’s going to happen to it?’
‘Someone’s coming from the University to take a look,’ said the warden. ‘There might be more in the rubble, the vicar thinks.’
‘Will it go to a museum?
‘I suppose it might.’
‘Which one? The V&A? I go there quite often.’
‘Tell you what,’ said the warden, taking a small notebook and a stub of pencil from her pocket and handing it to Noel, ‘scribble your name and address down here and I’ll drop you a card if I find out. Whatever happens, I hope they take it soon or it’ll end up getting swiped – people will loot anything, you’d be amazed.’ She pulled the canvas back across and Noel furtively patted his pocket to make sure he still had the glass.
Outside, the sky had darkened.
‘Oh,’ said Noel, tilting his head.
‘What’s the matter?’ The warden turned from the door, and then heard it herself.
The faint clatter, like a stick dragged along an iron fence, was coming from the south-east.
‘I thought we’d finished with those buggers,’ she said. ‘Pardon my Polish. Come along – there’s a shelter on Cheshunt Road.’
Noel followed her, craning upwards as he walked. The ugly rattle grew louder and the V-1 came into view, far overhead, its silhouette as prosaic as a piece of drainpipe.
‘It’s going over,’ said the warden, slowing her steps. ‘Heading towards Finchley, I’d say, or Hampstead.’
A cold hand seemed to grip the back of Noel’s neck. ‘Hampstead’s where I live.’
She gave him a quick, appraising glance. ‘It’ll probably go even further,’ she said. ‘It might end up missing London altogether.’
‘All the same, I’d better get back to my aunt. Goodbye, and thank you for showing me the roof boss.’ The last words were over his shoulder; he was already heading for the Tube, half running, a thread of panic reeling him in. Was Vee at home this afternoon? No, he remembered, she was at her Thursday knitting circle – in which case, was she anywhere near an adequate shelter? He could hear the V-1 grinding into the distance, the engine still running – a deadly clockwork toy, wound up fifty miles away and chugging to a random end somewhere in the suburbs.
And as he jogged past the rubble dunes, the same old vision came sliding into his head, the final image of a recurring dream from which he regularly woke with a gasp: of himself sitting up in bed and looking out through a missing wall at a dawn sky, and realizing that the house had been bisected and that he was alone, poised on the edge of a vast, sandy crater.
He turned and saw the warden waving the notebook in which he’d written his address. She shouted something else – ‘No’, or ‘I know!’ – and beckoned, but he shook his head and hurried onwards.