She has been trying to make the best of it. She settled down with the treat of the new Norman Collins, and for a while this worked perfectly well, but then finds herself instead thinking of waterfalls, or more particularly of one waterfall, the one up in the woods behind the house in Scotland, and the sound it makes when it’s in spate in spring, melt water churned to milky coffee, the sound that you can hear from all the back rooms of the house, that rushes at you when you open a window and let it in, along with the sweet wet air. Her own skylight is propped open to let the London afternoon swirl through, all smuts and dust and diesel fumes. She can hear traffic going past at the top of the street – the occasional motor car or van, the clop of horses and creaking drays and carts, and she can hear children playing and music from someone’s wireless and she feels pretty much content. This is not so bad, after all. She can manage. But she can also hear a waterfall, and there are no waterfalls round here.
She puts the book aside, and goes to the front casement and peers out into Woodland Road. It takes a moment for her to work out what’s different. The little grocers on the corner is shut, the blinds drawn. Mr Pritchard two doors down is on his knees in his small front garden, and Ilse and Hedy are playing hopscotch on the pavement, and Mrs Suttle is lugging a bulging string bag down the street. And all of that is perfectly ordinary. But Mr Pritchard’s trowel is forgotten in his hand, and he is twisted round to look up at the sky. And Mrs Suttle has stalled in her tracks, her mouth open. And Ilse and Hedy, who live with their aunt Miss Beck just down the road, are frozen at the hopscotchgrid, Hedy stopped on a square, Ilse holding her pebble as she waits her turn. They are all looking up, over the tops of the houses, into the distance. Charlotte cranes round but can’t see what they’re seeing. She leaves the casement, climbs onto the bed and heaves the skylight wide. Head and shoulders out among the slates and chimney pots, she startles a pigeon; it stares at her with an eye the colour of fire, then flaps away. The waterfall is louder here. A swarm of insects hazes the eastern sky with grey. A dark central core; around it there’s a shimmer of continual silvery movement. For a moment she can’t make any sense of it, doesn’t know what this that she is seeing.
And then she knows.
She drops back into her room. She slams the window shut. And then a siren starts up, the sound catching under her ribs, and squeezing her lungs. So this, after all, is it. You have to stay calm, don’t you; it’s important to stay calm. She grabs her cardigan, her coat, her bag – rummages through identity card, purse, keys, ration book, lipstick, toothbrush – her gas-mask in its cardboard box, and her Norman Collins. All of this juggled and slipping, she fumbles her door shut and races down the stairs. On the landing below Mr Gibbons is pulling on his greatcoat, steel helmet dangling on its strap over his arm.
‘Oh my word,’ she says.
A quiet kind of man, slight of build, fond of music and biscuits and good clothes, and never any trouble to anybody, he now finds himself in charge. He sets his helmet on his head and gestures her downstairs ahead of him. ‘You get yourself tucked up tight now.’
‘What about you?’
‘Up to the post,’ he says.
He opens the front door and lets in the outdoors; the sirens squeeze her tighter. The drone of the planes fills the air like electricity before a storm.
‘Good luck,’ she says.
He touches his brim to her, and closes the door behind him. She heads for the basement kitchen. Mr Gibbons has made a list, all up and down the street, of who lives where and with whom, whether there is a baby or a blind person or an invalid in the household, and where they intend to shelter in the event of an attack, so that any rescue party would know where to look, and when to stop looking, when the time comes. And now the time has come. Mrs Callaghan is already installed in her kitchen. She’smaking tea. She had taken the precaution of having the wireless moved down here, where it would, she says, be company for them. As Charlotte passes close by the walnut cabinet, the programme crackles and the voices break up.
‘Was that me?’ Charlotte asks. Disrupting the signal.
‘I don’t think so.’
They both glance up at the electric light as it yellows and dims. In the first flurry of preparations Mr Gibbons had pasted over the basement windows with gauze, and then painted that over with blackboard paint. He also built a sandbag wall around the area out front, and then, just to be sure, boarded over the back window entirely. He was very thorough. But it does mean that there’s no daylight here, so if the electric goes, then they’re down to a battery lamp and their torches.
‘Just put a shilling in.’ The wireless stays a gritty fuzz; Mrs Callaghan switches it off. ‘We’ll try and catch the nineo’clock bulletin. Got your mask?’ Charlotte holds up the box. Mrs Callaghan nods, grimly satisfied. ‘You don’t want to forget your mask. Holy terrors, them’uns. My Cedric knew fine rightly, he always said. He’d seen the worst, he had. So he knew.’
‘Where’s Lady Jane?’
‘Shot down here half an hour ago, hair all on end. She’s hid behind the washboard.’
There are some people who bustle and talk their way through fear, and Mrs Callaghan is such a one. She talks while aircraft thrum closer, while she puts the tea-cosy on the pot, turns off the gas at the meter, and unfolds the deck chairs which Mr Gibbons helpfully brought in from the shed. She is outraged at the slightest thing (awful how that canvas has faded) as well as weightier issues of the day (sure what is there to bomb down this way after all? Unless it’s them soldiers up to something in the park; she bets it is; why they can’t do it somewhere there aren’t so many people living, is beyond her). Charlotte, though, goes still, and quiet. She takes up as little space as possible. When Mrs Callaghan settles herself in her deckchair, a blanket over her knees, and gets out her rosary, Charlotte just perches at the kitchen table and traces the woodgrain with a thumbnail; and when the bombs begin to fall, distant for now, but streams of them, cascades, each single one of them a punching a hole right through the old life into a new and ugly one, and the lights flicker, and Mrs Callaghan whimpers, Charlotte silently takes a step aside, a step away from herself. She becomes the girl in a story that she is reading, a girl who is by turns clever and foolish and cunning and kind and occasionally downright bad, and who makes mistakes and sometimes even gets away with them, and who need not be judged so very harshly or indeed be judged at all, because once you take that step away you can see how it all fits together, how it all makes sense, and you can forgive almost everything.
‘There’s the sighreen,’ Mrs Callaghan says. ‘All clear. Thanks be to God.’
Charlotte lifts her head like someone waking, though she had not been asleep. Here they are, still. Here they are. And she does not go all to pieces, it turns out; she can hold her nerve. Some of the old strategies are useful, after all.
‘Half past six,’ Mrs Callaghan says, peering at, and then listening to, her watch.
The cat emerges from behind the washboard. Mrs Callaghan clicks her tongue to call her over, smooths her
fur with strokes from skull to tail-tip.
‘Turn the gas back on for us, lovie?’ Mrs Callaghan asks. ‘We’ll have a cuppa, eh? I’m parched.’
Charlotte turns on the supply, lights the gas under the kettle. The flame is feeble. It’ll take a month to boil a
kettle on that. ‘I’ll go out for a bit, I think; see what’s what.’
She opens the front door on twilight. It is untimely, wrong; she feels it deep in her instinctive self, like waking to snow in June, or to roses blooming in January. There’s a pink glow to the sky at the end of the street, as though the sun has set in the north today. Her neighbours are gathering, staring off that way, towards the city. She goes to join them. There’s a bonfire-night smell in the air. Where the docks and wharves and warehouses had glinted in the sun and elephant-balloons had hung in the air, now there burns a solid mass of flame, orange shot through with green and blue and red; above it rises boiling black smoke. She can’t even see St. Paul’s. And all across the city there are blotches of black ruin, patches of flame, grey plumes climbing into the sky. A few remaining barrage balloons writhe, wounded, and as she watches another collapses to the earth, pulled down by the flames. And from all around her from near and far comes the sound of bells. She turns around, confused, and then sees a fire engine flash past the top of the street. All the appliances from all over the city, racing towards the flames. This is the end, she thinks; this must be the end of everything.