“You only live once” is a well-worn phrase, and usually true. Except a few souls, out of a mix of desperation and courage, and willing to take risks in a time of chaos, sometimes get to live more than one life. The difficulty, of course, is that the transformation is built on secrets and lies, and finding the resources to do the reconstruction is fraught with problems. Doing so in wartime gives a means to destroy the old life, but the new one is then complicated by regulations, rationing and even romance.
You could say I was reborn with a bang. That bang was the explosion of a parachute mine in a street not too far from the British Museum, which also got hit that night. I was on the roof of a modest office building firewatching with another woman named Sheila. We had a jury-rigged fire-watchers’ hut on the street side of the roof, which faced more or less East, and that was the direction from which we could see the German aeroplanes were coming in. Some had already passed over before letting loose their horrid loads, but others we could see still coming in the bright moonlight.
In the middle of everything, I needed to pee.
“Oooh. Got to go. Be right back,” I said.
There wasn’t a lavatory on the roof, of course. We just had a bucket, which we’d put between two large metal boxes that had some sort of equipment for something or other like ventilation or a dumb-waiter. The boxes were about three feet high and wide and six long, with a couple of feet between. so provided a bit of modesty. I suppose we could have put the bucket in the brick box that was the top of the stairwell. If we had, I wouldn’t be here probably.
I’d just relieved myself and was pulling up my knickers and two pairs of pants – for the warmth I always had double when firewatching – when I heard Sheila yell “Parachute mine!”
Looking towards the front of the building, I could see the parachute drifting down towards us, a few hundred feet up. I saw Sheila duck below the parapet of the roof. I knelt down between the metal boxes. My foot nudged the bucket, and I moved it out onto the roof so I wouldn’t kick it over and get piss on myself. Silly thoughts in the circumstances.
There was an almighty bang, and I think I blacked out for a few seconds. When I came to, I was squashed between the metal boxes. I pushed and they moved enough that I could scramble up. When I looked towards the front of the building, it wasn’t there. The front half of the building was gone. In fact, in front of the metal box nearest that side of the building was about two feet of roof then a gaping hole. The pee bucket had disappeared, as had a lot of the parapet, even at the back.
How was I going to get down? Maybe the fire escape was still there. It ran down the back of the building, with a swing-down ladder for the last storey. I eased myself to the edge of the roof on hands and knees. There was broken brick everywhere. The parapet had been damaged.
As I peeked over the edge, I saw the fire escape was still there. Hopefully strong enough to take my weight.
There was something I needed to think about. What? Oh yes. Check that I had my gas mask and my raincoat and my handbag. I had been wearing my coat and had my handbag on a long strap over my shoulder. The coat I’d set next to me by one of the metal boxes and I’d been on it when the mine went off. My gas mask had been in the make-do shelter. Have to arrange to get another.
I looked out to the West. There were several fires. A big explosion – another parachute mine, about a mile away. The Germans had a surplus of naval mines now that the Admiralty had apparently found a way to stop them exploding under ships. Hush-hush, apparently, but William claimed he knew all about it. My husband. A pompous ass who’d fooled me into thinking he would look after me. Well, not any more.
I put on the coat and buttoned it so it wouldn’t get in the way if I had to climb down. Made sure my handbag – fortunately a small, rather flat one – was in a good position a bit to the rear of one hip, then gingerly tested the fire escape. It seemed solid enough and I started down. Noises on the other side of the building suggested bits were falling or that there was a fire, or both.
When I got down to the first floor, I saw that the steps were on a hinge. I’d have to move onto them to have them swing down.
Stepping out two steps, nothing happened. I went further. Nothing. When I got out about half way, it was still horizontal. Had it jammed? I went two more steps. Now I was three quarters of the way out. I tried a little hop and there was a grinding noise and the steps moved a few inches. I tried again, and suddenly the steps swung down quite quickly. I gripped the railing for dear life. There must have been some sort of rope or cable that meant the steps did not swing down totally freely, but I still got thrown to the ground, which took the wind out of me.
I was in an alleyway behind the building. Better get out of here fast. There was rubble everywhere and I had to climb over some piles to get round to the street. As I climbed one, I realized I still had my tin hat on. I took it off, found a brick and made a big dent in the crown of the tin helmet, then threw it hard at the second storey of the building on the side of the alley opposite the building I’d been on. The helmet had my name in it.
When I got to the end of the alley and round to the street, some rescue workers were coming to investigate the building I’d been on top of. I pressed myself into a doorway – a broken down doorway because of the blast, but I was in the shadows of the light of a couple of fires, and the rescuers didn’t seem to notice me.
“The firewatchers’ shelter must’ve had a direct hit from that land-mine,” one of them said.
“Yes. More likely we can help someone back at number 22,” said another, and they moved away from me up the street.
Keeping to the shadows, I made my way westward. I wanted to find a wrecked building I could claim I was bombed out of. Then I could be Mary Smith rather than the name I’d had from birth.