Part three of The Bear Pit. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.
The siren wailed as she ran through the dark empty streets, a child’s hand in each of hers gripping tight enough to break, the shelter too far to go now, the bombs about to fall. She felt like an animal on the run, out of her mind, almost too scared to move, her only thought to find somewhere safe, somewhere deep and safe. The bombs came at night - mostly - many people heading up into the hills that ringed the city before dusk these days, where families would sit and wait till morning, some with tents, some with tarps, some with only overcoats, OK as long as the rain didn’t come too. Batteries of artillery ringed the city, up there on the edge of the moor, and she supposed sitting where these guns blazed at dark shadows in the cloud made people feel better, not like victims. But that was what they were, no great speeches from the prime minister worth a damn when the ground began to lift and shake, your babies screaming in the cellar. The bombs were flung down at the steelworks, at the railways, at the coal yards, but most fell on the people like her, as the hammer of war always did. Some had shelters in which they hid, walls a foot thick of concrete, the ones who did not wish to take to the hills, knowing full well that a bomb would kill you with just its blast, crush your body inside out. She had seen a family one morning, a mother and three small ones, laid out between two houses, naked - their clothes blown off - and dead, without a scratch on them. You hear about death first, just people you don’t know, abstract and sad. Then it’s your neighbours, and then your friends, no tragedy - at first - until you see your own death wrapped in theirs. Next comes something else: relief, that it’s not you, the death used up by them, the shards and shrapnel soaked up in their blood, that someone has to die, please make it anyone but your own. Then, after a while you just feel numb to it, don’t allow yourself to give death feeling or reason, second guess its coming, consider your own end.
The sirens stopped, faded away until there was only the sound of her feet and her panting, the whimpering of her kids, one pulling hard away from her. She screamed at him to come with her, afraid for a moment they may hear her high above, yanked his arm hard, not sure where she was even going. “The bear pit” shouted the boy, pulling hard towards the dark space of the botanical gardens. Down the lane they ran, straight through the ghost of the mighty and noble gates long since melted down for bullets and spitfires.
The guns began firing on the moor. They ran through the dark, over vegetables patches and fields of potatoes which were once rhododendrons and roses, her feet knowing the way from a childhood spent playing here, the statue of a long-dead queen, bronze-green with neglect, passing within a few feet, known though unseen.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The first bombs began to fall, hammer hard but miles, the sky lighting up, fading before lighting once again as the mother felt the ground steepen, knowing it wasn't too, knowing far above bombs were falling.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
More bombs dropped, closer now, on her street and streets close by, the noise nothing to the punch to their chests that sent them flying to the dirt, both children crying now. Now bombs were falling all around them, the soil moving under their feet as she pulled her children up and made a blind dash, face whipped by hedges, the light from firebombs illuminated the hole where the big black gate had guarded the tunnel once, now part of a battleship of bombs raining down on ‘them’.
And then they were inside the tunnel and safe, running to the end, their heads bowed, into the pit itself, the mother dragging her children into the bear den, a hole in the rock arched with cut stone, the sky above jagged and red and alive as they ducked inside. They pressed themselves together as hard as they could, the ground dry and sandy and warm, felt the press of the rock around them, solid as any bunker, safe unless a bomb landed right in the pit, the war far above them, only the smell and sound of it finding them deep in here. A big fire was burning close beside them, houses lit by incendiaries, lighting up the pit, crazy shadows cast backwards and forwards by searchlights and bombs and shells crackling. Her children pressed their faces into her, her hands cupped over their ears, but she could not take her eyes from the cave, feeling for a second as if the bear was there with them, its spirit, or the spirit of something. The ground shook hard again. A bomb landed close by, a thousand pounder, a rock falling from the stone arch above and landing at her feet, a stone that seemed to flicker and move in the storm of light, her eyes on a chiseled lightning bolt set in its side.