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.