Sunday, January 17, 2016

War Baby by Sinead McCabe

Sinead McCabe's creepy story about a woman driven to madness during the London Blitz will get under your skin, and then you'll want to read it again.

It was twilight when the siren began to wail, and the little street was bathed in lurid tones from the smoky sunset, as though already aflame. Mrs Emilia Blythe sat shuddering upon the ottoman, staring into the mirror at the shape of her own skull, unable to move; unable even to cry out. Five minutes before, upon the blue candlewick spread of the empty double bed behind her, she had seen the apparition of a child; a little baby no more than two years old. Wearing nothing but a ragged smock, with hair so tangled over its hollow eyes that they could barely be glimpsed, it reached out a tiny starfish hand to her, and wailed. Then, even while her upraised hair-brushing hand had frozen in the air and her heart had begun to beat hard and wild, that wail had deepened and become inhuman, blaring through the street and the neighbourhood and the whole great battered city. Had become, in fact, the air raid siren itself, and she blinked and somehow she was on the floor and the child had disappeared.

Emilia sat on the bed, clutching the photograph of her husband in uniform. The telegram announcing that he was missing in action had arrived the day before she was bombed out of Cripplegate, almost two months before. She put the photograph to her forehead with hot and shaking hands, trying to absorb strength from it, companionship, sanity - if Fred was here, there'd be no hauntings; this wouldn't be happening again!

The voices below of the Jones family, quarrelling their way into the Anderson shelter at the bottom of their garden, rose above the air raid siren and she took enough heart at the sound to run down the stairs to her back door, bypassing her own Morrison shelter in the living room. She avoided glancing at it as she always did; it was so like a great cage there in the cramped little room, beginning to echo to the bone-shaking thuds and booms of the falling bombs.

"There you are, love, we'd almost given you up tonight," was Mrs Jones's warm greeting as she slipped through the wild bushes that masked the broken fence between their back-to-back gardens, accompanied by Mr Jones's "Shut that door!"

"Now I know Emmy will agree that a lipstick's not a capital offence," was Sharon's petulant greeting, and Jimmy only sighed, "Gawd, as if we weren't cramped enough."

"Hush now, how'd you like to be all alone over there, caged up in a little Morrison on your own?" snapped Mrs Jones, snuggling her baby close, and staring at the baby's sweet head turned Emilia white and sick with the memory of that lost ghost child. "I didn't mean it, here, sit by me Mrs Blythe," said Jimmy, and she felt the feverish heat of his thigh and the ragged surge of his breath as she hung her head and winced her way through the cramped and malodorous hours, crump and bang and rattle and blast, without surcease. The ground shook, and so did Jimmy's breath as he tried to penetrate Emilia's thin summer frock with his eyes.

"You might at least put those black market chums of yours to good use and get some fresh milk for the baby," she heard Mr Jones grumble, on and on he went, Sharon tossing her glossy head in the gloom, "Oh do put a sock in it, Pa."

Emilia tried to concentrate on her own breath, pushing smooth and hot in and out of her chest, as the doctor had advised her, but every tremendous bang falling nearby shook the fortitude out of her, and she began to wonder wildly if there would ever be a time when the bombs didn't fall. An explosion so near that the oxygen was sucked from the air in a great wave pulled at all their lungs so they jerked forward as one. There was nothing in the world but fire, mud, rubble and the barrage balloons that floated hugely in the sky. Her beloved Fred had been missing in action forever. Hitler would torment and terrify and kill them in their thousands forever. It was all eternal and all unbearable. Mrs Jones had to shake her out of her blue funk to point out the all-clear at dawn.

Emerging from the shelter, Lambeth was aflame. Great filthy clouds rose into the sky.

"Oh Lor, that's Aggie's neck of the woods," said Mrs Jones sadly. Emilia shuddered as she always did to see her house standing alone, a solitary tooth in a gaping mouth, flanked by rubble where houses should have been. The only survivor of the terrace. The terrace of the Joneses, on the other hand, stood opposite, completely intact. The bombs were as gods, destroying at random.

"You really ought to join us down the factory line, Emmy," whispered Sharon into Emilia's ear, "it's ever so much better than hanging about here all alone."

Without replying, Emilia staggered back to her house. The day passed.

In the depths of that night, she was lost in the silence. Not a bomb, not an explosion, not a single ack-ack gun. No fluttering drone of bombers, attacking or defending. No sounds to either side - since moving here to this solitary house after her old flat, she had lost not only the thread-like sounds which connected her to life but also the insulating heat of other dwellings. Her house at night was as cold as a tomb.

The clock ticked steadily on the cold mantel, the gas lamp hissed, out in the street someone dropped a bottle, which smashed, and there was a woman's voice cursing. The furniture sat quietly in its accustomed places, the stairs creaked as they settled, she heard distant laughter in the blackout. There was another creak of a floorboard and the sound of soft, fretful breathing nearby, which was not her own. Emilia froze in her chair. "No," she whispered aloud, "oh god no not again."

The breathing went on. It was a baby's breathing. Emilia thought of the left-hand house next door, flattened three months ago, so she'd heard, and the whole family killed - mother, father, granny, two kids. Baby.

She had just decided that she was imagining things again, and talking calmly to herself as Dr Followes had taught her to, when there was a soft, infinitely melancholy little series of murmurs, "Umm umm umm, umumumum," from behind the settee, and shifting, rustling noises, for all the world like a baby crawling over the carpet, coming closer to the corner of the settee where she sat with her knitting, closer and closer ummumumumum -

She leapt from her seat in pure animal horror, huge white wild eyes flying about the walls as though she expected babies to begin crawling through them. Silence fell. She crept through the gaslight and shadows to the fireplace, and silently picked up the poker before tiptoeing, breath held in her shaking throat and heart pounding like bombs, to the settee, toe by toe, around the back where she saw, there on the carpet -

Nothing.

There was nothing there. She threw the poker at the fireplace with a strangled screech of rage and despair at her own disintegration, where it smashed the glass of her wedding picture. She fell down among the broken glass, and kissed Fred's homely grinning face a thousand times, and wept so much that she just about washed out her own veiled image. The night stretched on, endless and black, one night or another, all the same, all one black hole of loss and the fear of something gone missing that she would never find again.

Queueing for bread took up some of the hot and humid morning, and washing her linen in the shed helped to while away the languid afternoon. Running her shabby dresses through the mangle in her petticoat, she flinched away from the knock at the door in case it was young Jimmy, but it was only Sharon, sleek and smart as ever, perched incongruously amid the dust in her killing little green shoes.

"I wish you'd talk to Pa about letting me go for a WAC, Emmy, he'd listen to you. Thinks you're quality," said Sharon with a grin, offering Emilia a peppermint lozenge. It was cool and sweet in Emilia's raw mouth. "Why don't you come too? It must be ever so boring, hanging around this house all day, we never see you out at the church hall dances. Don't you feel you need an outing now and then? I know some splendid fellows who'd squire you about."

Emilia smiled. How young Sharon seemed. "I did used to go to the dances, around Cripplegate. With my friend Janice. I loved the six step best, it was so lively. But," she hung up a pale green limp rectangle of cloth with the others, "with Fred - missing - I don't seem to have the heart just now, you know."

Sharon's face fell. "Of course. I say, I didn't mean anything by that. I never met Fred you know. And what with there being no little ones I sort of forgot that you were married, and - I think if Perry were to go missing over Dresden or anything, I would go mad. But don't you wish you'd had a baby with Fred? At least it would be something of his you could keep."

"And who is Perry, young lady?"

"Oh! Emmy! My latest -" And she rattled on, heedless to Emilia's deathly pallor and the strangeness of her cooping herself up in that hot and stuffy shed. Emilia would do anything, now, to be out of her house, haunted as it was. The wails of a baby had disturbed her sleep all last night, she woke to find cold, pleading little fingers on her face and when she shrieked and threw off the dreadful little weight, there was a thump beside the bed, quite as if something real had landed there. It was horrific, in the dark. She couldn't find her ration book for two days and she was sure the food in the lower cupboard and little icebox, bread and jam and milk and pudding, was nibbled at, as though by rats. A bottle of lemonade she found on its side this morning, a sticky puddle surrounding it. It was all too dreadfully familiar. It meant that she was - not fully in this reality. Again.

She blinked, and Sharon had gone. Her mouth was very dry, the light slanting through the dust in the shed was low and red again.

When she emerged, the house loomed over her, with windows blazing in the setting sun. A movement caught her eye and from her own living room window, a woman stared at her, hostile as a bomb. Her skin was white as bone, her eyes hard and sparkling and utterly mad.

Emilia shrieked, her hand before her mouth. She tore up the path and through the kitchen in her petticoat, into the living room where she found nothing save a smell, faint, of excrement and rot.

She began to cry.

It was thunder which woke her in the night, but she thought of course that it was a raid. She ought to have felt relief upon realisation, for nothing could fly in a storm like this, but felt only the queerest, creeping dread. Not since she was a child had objects in the night-time frightened her so, the familiar shapes becoming deformed, full of evil purpose. Rain lashed her windows like machine gun fire, and the flashes of lightening made such ghastly shadows fall that she sat up and reached for the light, meaning to read a chapter or two of Northanger Abbey, wishing for her old radio and the sound of a human voice -

- When she looked into her mirror and saw, instead of her own familiar visage, the staring lunacy of the ghost woman's face, now much closer so that she could see despair as well as ferocity in her terrible gaze. "It is you," said Emilia to the awful face, "you're the mother. I know it. You did that baby to death, or else why would you be wandering here? Go back to hell, go back, you can never undo what you did, go back to the Devil!"

Lightning flashed again, thunder cracked and there was a wail of baby fright from the next room, almost smothered by Emilia's shriek as the terrible face lit up and revealed a world of madness and horror that sent Emilia leaping from her bed. She stumbled blindly along the hall and then stopped, her breath leaving her body only to return in a keening moan of horror as she stared at a door that the house did not have.

She would not open a door that could not exist. That way, true madness awaited.

Cold and stiff, her fingers reached for the knob and she opened the door, to stare in bewilderment into a nursery, heavy with dust and ordinary with children's toys. The bad mother waited by the window, having oozed through the wall to greet her here, and behind her green cotton skirts cowered the terrified little baby, its starfish hands reaching for Emilia in supplication. Thunder banged overhead and Emilia ran at the evil presence, driven to her limit, she lunged for the bone-dead face with her hands out like claws, only to find herself clutching, by the naked light of the lightning, at a handful of green curtain. The spectre had dissolved in the light like mist, but the howling of the baby went on and on. Emilia stuffed her fists into her ears and cried for Fred, Fred, Fred, Fred, into the stormy night, until she blinked and found herself sitting in the kitchen under the table, and the rainy grey dawn confronting her through the chinks in the blackout curtains.

She walked into Cheapside that morning, sheltering under a huge black umbrella, looking neat and respectable to anyone who didn't look into her haunted eyes. Her left boot was leaking but the rain laid the dust, the terrible red brick dust which was full of the floating atoms of the pulverised dead. Having realised this, she put her handkerchief over her mouth as she picked around the heaps of rubble, the shells of half-destroyed buildings looming overhead in the gloom.

The city was hell and nor was she out of it.

At Dr Followes's office there was a kindly greeting, his hands were always warm, though he had lost two sons in the Battle of Britain and now they always shook.

"It's my old trouble, Doctor," she began. "The nerves."

He nodded, listening.

"I begin to think - when I am alone in the house, I begin to think I see things. And hear things."

"Things, Mrs Blythe? What kind of things?"

"Just... things which aren't possible. Like - like how it was after mother died."

"Do you think you see your mother about the house, as you did then?"

"No," she replied, "I don't see Mother but I do see a woman, and a - and she can't possibly be there."

"Are you doing as I advised before, Mrs Blythe? Making sure to leave the house every day, socialise often, spend your time in healthy, wholesome pursuits such as sport or crafts?"

"Oh - yes," she said, but her eyes had fallen and she heard him sigh over the obvious lie. He began to write a prescription for her tranquillisers.

"I don't suppose there has been any news about your husband, Mrs Blythe?"

She shook her head.

"It is so very hard to bear I know, but where there's life, Mrs Blythe - there is hope." She looked up to see his eyes shining so kindly behind his little spectacles that she almost burst into tears. He started to ask her something else, but the standing wall behind his surgery that was all that was left of a Wren church chose that moment to fall, with a long and grinding roar that drowned him out.

It was a fine blue evening now and Emilia stood in her back garden, shaking. Jimmy wandered into his garden, whistling, but when he saw her there was something in her face that alarmed even him.

She ground her teeth, staring upwards as the stars appeared, watching for Fred's plane to return. She had thought once or twice about taking the tranquillisers the doctor gave her but then she looked at the label: "To be taken with food," they said. She and food did not meet often these days. The last time she'd opened her kitchen cupboard, there was nothing but a heel of nibbled bread. So she'd tipped the pills down the sink. She wouldn't need them anyway, Fred might come home soon. He might come home tonight!

She stared into the sky.

It was black night when she blinked and surfaced again, a warm black night with a great golden bomber's moon. It was the siren which brought her back to the awful world, and now she could hear Mrs Jones's voice: "Someone fetch Mrs Blythe to the shelter!"

"Well for Gawd's sake, can't she look after herself for once? It's like the bloody trenches, squashed into that stinking shelter all together!"

"Don't be such a swine, Herbert, you know Jimmy said she's not all there these days. And the smell coming from her house, Sharon said... she is a neighbour, we've a duty to her as a war widow -"

"Alright, alright, Lord help us, I'm going, just to save my eardrums. Don't forget my jigsaw! St Paul's in the spring!"

Hidden in the black shadow of the Norwegian fir, Emilia trembled with indignation. She was not a war widow! Fred would show them all when he came home tonight, landing his Lancaster in the garden! Hearing Mr Jones lumbering through the fence, she noiselessly fled, and slipped inside her back door like a ghost.

Holding her breath, she heard him crash about her garden calling her name as in the distance the first of the bombs began to fall.

"Mrs Blythe!"

The ack-acks had started. The stuttering, fluttering drone of the planes on the edge of hearing. Here they came again! But this time, Fred was here to fight them off, Fred was here to protect them all! On all fours in the living room, crouched behind the settee, she heard Mr Jones calling her name in increasing fury. "Mrs Blythe!"

It was so funny, this little game of hide and seek, that she almost began to giggle, before there was a moment of silence and the tiniest of little noises, a faint and breathless umumum.

There was nothing, nothing there, it was all in her mind, her poor overwrought lonely mind, and when Fred came home -

In the black depths of the Morrison, behind the wire of the door which closed the big metal box, something was moving. Something white. A dot of a thing; a bone-white, weary little starfish opened and closed, then two phantom eyes, tiny and perfectly round. She jammed a hand into her mouth as the apparition swam before her in slow and dreadful motion, dragging itself forward to cling to the cage wire.

Boom!

Close enough to feel the shock wave, close enough to feel the buildings crash to earth as they were annihilated, close enough for Mr Jones to yell, "Oh fuck this, this mad bitch isn't worth dying for, let her gawp around in the garden crying for Fred all night!"

He began to tramp away, leaving her alone in the dark amid the insanity of the raid, the flames already beginning to leap into the air on the skyline, yellow and blue and red all over London, her city disintegrating and unravelling into fire and destruction. Before her, the terrible neglected phantom tugging at her helpless guilty mad heart, and behind her -

An exhalation, long slow and triumphant, a foul wash of a stench, and Emilia knew that the evil spectre of the terrible mother had arisen, coldly boiling, from the earth.

Her strained shriek of "Fred, Fred, Fred!" as she ran blindly out into the smoky garden frightened the life out of Mr Jones, she flung herself onto his back as he tried to clamber through the stakes of the fence, still shrieking, and she didn't even realise that the bubbling, choking sounds in her ears were the death of Mr Jones, as the stake that her weight had impaled him on drove through his plump unshaven throat. She only clung like a leech to his fat dying body. Smuts and sparks of sooty black fell over their faces as the planes droned into view, and she cried out in triumph: "Fred! I knew you would come!" before the falling bomb landed, and obliterated the last house in the fallen terrace, casting it down into rubble like all the rest.



Sharon fell in love with the first of the wardens to arrive, of course, and through her genuine sobs over the remains of her father she found a smile for him - his name was Neil and he put a blanket around her shapely shoulders, promising himself he would take her out tomorrow after the all-clear, he would take some pleasure somewhere, somehow, before it was too late. There was nothing to identify her father, not even clothes; nothing but lumps of burned flesh, which he had covered from her eyes. There was quite a heap of them, he must have been a huge man.

"She lived there alone," said Jimmy numbly, "she'd only been there two months, she hardly ever left the house, her husband was missing in action."

"She was so nice, but she was going barmy in there alone," sobbed Sharon into Neil's shoulder, "she kept hearing babies cry when there weren't none. She told me so."

"Don't you speak ill of the dead," came from a muffled Mrs Jones.

"Now now, we don't know that she is dead yet. There was a Morrison in there? She might be in it, if we can only dig her out," soothed Neil. "No," and Sharon sniffed noisily, "she never went in it. She said it was haunted, would never invite me in to have a look though, we had to visit in the kitchen!"

Wardens and firemen crawled over the heap of rubble. Jimmy could see the bed, miraculously whole, sitting askew on top of the heap behind the fragment of living room wall that remained whole, and shivered with lust and sorrow. "She was beautiful," he choked, "I don't care if she was barmy."

"There, lad," Neil began when a shout went up from the excavated hollow behind the section of wall, and Neil put Sharon aside and ran. Swaddled in a blanket, Mrs Jones stood up.

It was ten minutes before the three wardens emerged, the flames dying so the remains of the Jones family couldn't see what Neil was carrying in his arms until he got very close, and then:

"A baby?" cried Sharon. Starving it clearly was, filthy and stinking with great hollow haunted eyes in a bone-white face, and tangled hair the same flame-red as Emilia's.

"Caged up in the Morrison, all alone, she must really have been mad," Neil's voice hoarse with smoke and tears.

Mrs Jones clapped her hand to her mouth and sat down with a bump as she began to understand.

"Oh dear lord, dear lord, you don't mean to say it was hers? Oh, and the times she told our Sharon the house was haunted by - oh God forgive her -" and she reached out her big worn hands for the orphan, folding it close.

Jimmy burst into tears.

11 comments:

  1. A visceral tale about derailed sanity in wartime. The relentless assault of the bombing and destruction on the senses, merged with torpid tumultuous weather and blazing sunsets created a forceful atmosphere. thank you for an evocative read,
    Ceinwen

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  2. What a fantastic read! Couldnt stop scrolling, really triggered my minds eye. Thank you :)

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  3. Very vivid and frightening. Found the twist at the end shocking. Great story!

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  4. atmospheric, vivid story of a descent into madness, truly powerful. brilliantly descriptive and realistic.
    superb!
    Mike McC

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  5. A beautifully written story, an intense and powerful insight on the shadows cast by the war times.
    Monica

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  6. This piece is so rich, as others have commented. What strikes me most is the wealth of metaphor and simile. So many great phrases, such as "a tiny starfish hand" and "a woman stared at her, hostile as a bomb." Compelling read!

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  7. Compelling, intense, imaginative. Sinead McCabe will be a force to be reckoned with in the genre.

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  8. This is indeed excellent. It's a tense, disorientating read, as if the page will blow up at any moment. It's hard to imagine how stressful life would've been for people during the blitz, the constant danger to oneself and to loved ones, and this conjures up a lot of images. A great setting for a creepy story like this.
    S.Lucas

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  9. An incredible story that had me hooked from start to finish.

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  10. Suspense, fear, claustrophobia, wreckage - all well done. Frank Beyer

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  11. Excellent story full of suspense. Had me gripped right from the beginning!

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