Before the second siren blared, my mother was chastising strangers. She cocked her cane above her small frame at any potential offense. She spat an unusually terse “Rude!” at a soldier who splashed as he ran through puddles. A few minutes later, a woman cut in front of us and caused Mum to stumble. “Cow!” Mum shook her fists. “There’ll be seats for all when we bloody get there. No use knocking old women down.”
Mum believed we were on our way to see a motion picture. I used to correct these confusions of hers until I realized it was like waking a sick child from a pleasant dream. That and I envied her ability to fly off.
My mother’s rancor pulled strangers’ gazes up from the dappled sidewalk and I found myself seeing her through their eyes: the caterwauling, the labored hop-step, the way her black shawl hung below her raised arm, she looked and sounded exactly like a crow. The offending woman ignored the row, but a whiskered face peeked above the line of her shoulder and in seconds Mum went from hurling insults to crooning over a stranger’s pet. Her moods had always zigzagged. The woman gave an alarmed glance over her shoulder; it asked for explanation. I gave none. I just stooped to wrap my arm around Mum’s waist. “No time now,” I said stepping in time to the words. “We’re running late.”
And we were. Flora and her family were awaiting our arrival. While stitching collars at work yesterday Flora asked if Mum and I would consider staying with her in Stratford. I refused at first, wondering how she knew we were without, but then I thought of my frail mother sleeping in a thin sweater on the station platform, of our stay in the shelter during the sortie last Friday, and of opening the door to smoldering rubble that had recently been our block. I thought of Mum’s hexagonal armoire—the only thing standing upright in that chaos, oddly untouched. Its glass door glared at us. Just look at what they’ve done, it said.
Three crackling siren blasts gave testimony to the enemy planes overhead. Everyone on the sidewalk quickened their already-fast pace. Within seconds I saw between a butcher shop and a telegraph office the gaping maw of a tube station.
I placed Mum’s cold hand on the railing that halved the somber stairwell and stepped to the other side. I was happy to have a free hand to keep my skirt in place and a break from stooping to help her at first. I kept encouraging her slow progression downward, but impatience simmered as I watched dozens of people maneuver around her. Hundreds more massed behind us. Some boys wearing dirty knickers pushed past, gliding through like common starlings. Mum stopped mid-stride to raise her cane at them.
“No use, Mum, they’ve gone. Will you please walk faster? People are waiting for you.” Every muscle in me fought the urge to flee, to leave her to her own devices.
Mum held her stance, her eyes on the downward tide before her. “Do we know these people, Melina? Did you invite them along?” She was so far away.
I took her hand again, wishing the railing away so I could pick her up. I was willing despite my shoes sticking to the steps. The rain and cement dust had made a viscous glue. “Again. Step down again. Do you fancy seeing the picture or not?”
“Don’t rush me, child. We have plenty of time.”
A strange eruption above shook the earth, sucked the air from my lungs. After a beat the crowd panicked and surged forward; a smell of sweat blossomed. Instinctively I turned sideways, slipped one leg through the railing, and hugged my mother’s shoulders, steeling myself against the thrust of the crowd and anchoring my mother. I saw a woman grab the crucifix at her neck. Someone else cried out. A large man reeled, then fell forward onto a boy. I shut my eyes, but heard the grotesque slaps and cracks that followed like sides of beef hitting a butcher’s block, then I heard only gasping, moaning.
Mum gently pulled away from me at some point. I opened my eyes to see her scrutinizing my face, memorizing it. Her lips were sputtering words of comfort, and I knew at least in that moment she had landed again in front of me.
This story is based loosely on the Bethnal Green Disaster.