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Open Features: The Angels

…‘They’ll not get you, son. I’ll take your life and then my own before their wicked boots come through that door.’..

Judith Jacks bases her dramatic story on the shelling of a North Eastern town by German battleships at the start of World War One.

Joseph never forgot the day of the bombardment: Wednesday, December 16th, 1914. Early morning. He was nearly fifteen and Ma had put his bed in the hall alcove as he was getting too heavy for her to lug up and downstairs. He had been in there fast asleep, his wheelchair folded and just out of reach, when three German battleships nosed out of the North Sea mist into the bay and began to shell the town.

It was as though something had taken the house by the shoulders and shaken it. Outside, people were screaming, running up and down the middle of the street as chimneys toppled and glass and bricks showered down upon them. A dog yelped past the house.

Ma appeared, ducking her head and crawling into the alcove like a great bear entering a cave. She crouched over him, her grey hair hanging wild over her face, her breath sour and rapid.

‘The Hun are coming, Joseph,’ she said, ’They’ll slice us up without a thought, so they will.’

He had panicked then and thrashed his limbs in terror. He had seen posters of snarling German soldiers with spiked helmets and curlicued moustaches, dead babies dripping from their bayonets like dumplings hoisted from a stew.

Shells seemed to be landing everywhere at once. In the kitchen a whole shelf of plates rattled and crashed to the floor. There was a sudden smell of gas and a great draught of dust swirled into their hiding place. They could smell burning.

‘I can’t run from them, Ma…’

Ma gave him his first communion prayer book to hold, turning his face and making him look at the angel on the cover. She was pinning him down, whispering fiercely into his ear.

‘They’ll not get you, son. I’ll take your life and then my own before their wicked boots come through that door.’

He lay there quietly under her as she told him about the pills she had got off old Dr Morgan.

‘It was when poor Ena next door was dying. She screamed for three days, so she did, lying in the front room with her insides just seeping out of her.’

Joseph remembered. They had to keep the curtains closed as Ena could not bear the light in her eyes nor anyone to touch her. Ma had rigged up a kind of hammock from the stained sheets and suspended her there like a foul pudding.
That was when Doctor Morgan gave her the pills.

‘One of these should quiet her for a while,’ he had said in a low voice, pressing them into her hand and closing her fingers over them.

‘And when that wears off?’ Ma had to be angry at someone that day. Her oldest friend’s belly was gurgling and swelling as though a great boiling baby was inside refusing to be born.

‘Then let her have another…’

‘And then?’

Doctor Morgan had taken off his spectacles as though he preferred to see the world through a mist at that point.

‘And then you must do as you see fit?’

Joseph remembered the slow dreamy fall in the screaming from next door. And then the silence. Then only the drip of poor Ena’s sheets and the sobbing of the neighbour women who came to help Ma lay her out by candlelight.

His mother’s face had seemed harsh and yellow, her voice stern, as she told them: ‘The angels have taken her to her rest, so they have.’

That early morning in December 1914, as the bombardment continued, Ma showed him the pills she had left. There were four of them in a tiny grey box and she held them close to his face and stroked his hair while the shells crumped overhead. Then, as other louder and more terrible blasts came from somewhere close by, she quelled his wailing with a hand over his mouth.

‘‘Them’s ours,’ she told him. ‘It’s the guns of the battery on the sea wall.’

The Germans melted away back into the mist and he fell asleep. The hospital, its dank morgue sluiced clean with seawater each tide turn, would soon overflow with those killed and injured during the bombardment. But Joseph slept more peacefully that morning than ever before, his cheek resting on the little round box, his fingers curled around the prayer book with the angel on the front, the angel who would take him to his rest if ever the Germans came again.

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