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Jo'Burg Days: Dust In The Air

Barbara Durlacher chose Henry Moore’s picure ‘Underground’ as the inspiration for this sombre story.

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She sat there, wrapped in a nondescript grey coat, looking old and tired, hair piled up untidily, worn carpet slippers on her misshapen feet. Ranged along the walls of the tube were hundreds of other equally grey and frightened people, huddling together for warmth, moaning uneasily in sleep. Occasionally an arm or leg would move involuntarily in the grip of a grim nightmare or a moan become a stifled scream as a dreamer, surfacing momentarily, woke with a jolt before subsiding into uncomfortable sleep again.

The air was foetid with the smells of unwashed people and old shoes, the lingering sour smell of poverty and fear. Since the trains had stopped running during the blitz the forced ventilation had been switched off, and the limited exits to the street provided little respite from the stuffy conditions, and what air there was had been fouled by the above-ground explosions and clouds of ancient dust hanging in the streets.

“Eeee, tha’d ‘ad a narrow escape, tha’ time!” she mused to herself. “Only jus’ managed to grab me coat and purse before the whole house came toppling down around me. Thank God the kids are safe in ta country, an’ away from all this bombing and explosions. Although I hated sending them pore lil’ mites awa’ from their Ma, it was right in the end, it was, especially with the bombardment getting worse ever’ night and promise of ‘em ‘doodle bugs’ to come in a few weeks.”

Sitting there, rubbing her aching legs with gnarled fingers, she thought about the house and all that its contents had meant to them. The pictures of the grandparents on the wall, the lovingly crocheted antimacassars on the worn lounge suite and chairs, the warm kitchen range, blacked to a high shine and the many hot dinners she had cooked and served in that room, always the centre of family activities. She remembered their meagre possessions, all gone now, and how long it had taken her and Joe to accumulate them. The hard scrimping and saving necessary to provide for the family and their contentment when they surveyed their small home, revelling in what their efforts had achieved.

Now Da, her husband Joseph, was away at the war, working at one of the most dangerous jobs a man could have, as a seaman on a merchant ship, sailing between America and Britain carrying loads of aircraft fuel. If they were hit, the ship would go up like a bomb itself, and precious little chance of any man surviving the explosion. They both knew that there was little hope they would ever see one another again, but these were the perils of war; the chances they were all taking trying to beat this monster Hitler and his Nazis.

As Mr Churchill said, it was a case of “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” and they had to close their minds to life as it had been before – although God knows, that had been no easy ride, with Joe at his bench in the factory from early morning to night, coming home almost too exhausted to eat his dinner, with hardly the energy or spirit to get down to ta pub after, for a half-pint and a yarn wi’ his mates.

An’ now here she was, sitting in this stinking hole, waiting for the next bomb to fall and wondering what the dawn would bring and how much longer this war would go on.

Ker-rrrrrmph!

And there was a final enormous bang, a splintering crash, total darkness and in the dark, screams and moans as the 1200 Londoners crouched down there in fear and trembling breathed their last as the roof of the tube collapsed.

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