Black Country fiction: Take Shelter

By Daniel Wiles

 

John stops at the wall. It’s at least eight feet high. He turns and slams his back against the bricks. He holds his cupped hands against his knee and shouts, ‘Hurry!’

The second and third lads, Liam and Joseph, come running around the corner. They are all young boys, dressed in brown boots, oatmeal socks, brown shorts, and white linen shirts. They step their muddy boots on John’s hands and reach to climb over the wall. Then John turns and jumps. Liam pulls him over. They run down the side street. The sirens have been screaming for a few minutes now. They run past Jim Ball’s chip shop, past the Smith’s hard-boiled sweet shop, and around the newsagents on the corner. They run through gardens, over hedges, decapitating flowerbeds with their boots, scraping their bare knees and shins on the thorn bushes. They reach a spiked fence about five and a half feet tall. It’s taller than all of them. They slow down on approach and decide it’s climbable, it will just take care. They each put a foot on the lower horizontal strut, then on the upper strut. They hold their hands around a pair of spikes each… and tentatively climb over. Then, breaking through the sound of the sirens, there’s the horrific wail of a German bomber. It slowly streaks across the blue sky. All the boys look back for a moment, and see tiny black dots fall lazily from the sky. Then they jump. Joseph lands funny on his ankle. John grabs him.

“Less go.”

He and Liam help him up and run. They see the shelter. Outside, two women stand in gas masks waving their arms, moving frantically. John looks back, Joseph’s arm around his shoulder. The bomber gets louder and closer. They must get across one more hedge, and then across another small garden. Liam is first over, clearing it with a great stride and running into the shelter. John half-throws Joseph over. He rolls along the prickly holly. The noise from the bomber is now unbearable. There’s a piercing sound of explosions on buildings and fields, sheds and cars. John jumps over. Joseph, ahead of him, is almost at the shelter. A masked woman is running towards John, who, on landing, is taken by the urge to look up.

He sees a black capsule floating about a hundred feet above his head. Everything slows down, and in that moment, he sees the beginning of the war, three years ago. He sees himself and his family around the kitchen table listening to the radio; the speaker announces the war, his mother gasps and rests her hand on his father’s arm. He sees his father leave to become an infantryman, kissing his mother on the head, telling his great-grandfather not to worry, that he was doing the right thing, and that they were going to win. He sees his mother crying at the kitchen table, head in hands. The bomb is within touching distance now. He sees the local council assembling the first shelter on his street, taking each sheet of metal around the back as Mrs Johnson complains about her patch of chrysanthemums. He sees him and his family frantically pulling on gas masks and running towards Mrs Johnson’s. He feels the weight of the bomb begin to crush him. It does not explode. He still sees; he sees his mother leave to shop for rations. He sees them; him, his great-grandfather, and her, sitting around the table by candlelight with the faint sound of bombings to the south. The bright fires that shine through the raids remind his great-grandfather of the Black Country in more prosperous days. He sees the papers, delivered every morning, almost every page documenting the war effort.

He does not see his life before the war. He is a child of war, coming up on fifteen this month, and yet the first 12 years of his life are a mystery to him.

The bomb has almost landed now. Nothing can stop it and John sees the better things of the war, like fishing with his great grandfather along a Black Country cut. Playing slam against the side of the butchers. Hunting round the town park with his friends for live rifle rounds left behind by stationed army personnel. Finding an empty house, sometimes weeks later. Going to the kitchen and placing the rounds, one at a time, on the gas burner. Waiting for the bullets to explode and ping off the walls in any random direction.

 

Biography

Daniel is a 22-year-old Univeristy of Wolverhampton graduate currently working on an interwoven collection of short stories based in and around the Black Country. He enjoys reading Southern Gothic fiction, watching old Western movies, and photography.