Ten Days in September
12th September 1943
Mrs Roberts died this morning.
I was sent out to find wood for a fire, the ground is too frozen for us to bury her. We buried her children last month when the ground was softer, her husband a week later. I’ve lost count how many people are buried on the grounds, my sister and parents among them.
It took me more than an hour to pick my way through the deep snow towards Hyde Park. The silence is deafening. I can’t remember when I last heard birdsong. The ground crunched underfoot as I sank into the snow, trying not to slip or lose my footing as I struggled deeper into the park, passing the silent ack-ack guns. When I first walked this route a year ago, I saw a young woman in uniform slumped next to the gun. I’d run over to her thinking that she needed help but as I drew nearer I could smell the stench of death and saw that her skin was raw and peeling. Her eyes stared up at me, or where her eyes would have been and it was all I could do not to retch, but I forced myself to pull the jacket from her body, trying to ignore the way her skin slipped off with each tug. It was getting colder and warm clothing was scarce. With a quick prayer, I left her body to the animals savaging in the park and hurried home. I couldn’t risk staying to bury her, not then.
Pulling that coat tighter against the chill, I offered a secret thank you to the woman who had never abandoned her post and promised that one day I’d find out who she was. Turning my attention to the trees, I began searching for viable firewood. The trees are all dead. Every single one of them. It means there’s no shortage of firewood, but most people avoid the parks and open spaces. There aren’t that many scavengers around now, but those who are, are far more dangerous.
Gathering up my small bundle I heard a distant crack. I froze, quickly scanning the area around me for cover should I need to hide. There was nothing but the dead trees and the snow-covered ack-ack gun. I heard another crack, this time closer and in a moment I was racing the short distance to the gun. I dived beneath the wheels, making myself as small as possible as I pressed against the cold metal.
I don’t know how long I stayed there shivering, but my trousers were soaked and heavy with snow, my fingers numb and painful. Everything hurt as I pulled myself out of safety, looking around to see if the threat was real or if I’d imagined it. Shuffling forward, my foot kicked something and snagged. Reaching down I saw that my foot was caught in the strap of a tin helmet and the skull of the young woman was now rolling through the snow. Without thinking, I quickly scooped up the skull, holding it up in the fading daylight. I stared at her before slipping her into my bag along with her helmet.
Heading back to where I dropped the firewood, I noticed the fresh tracks in the snow. There had been someone there. Growing colder, I fumbled with the firewood and began my slow journey home. I hid the skull under my bed.
We burned Mrs Roberts at 8:25 pm and shared two potatoes as we watched the flames dance.
13th September 1943
“Knock it off Lizzie,” Thomas said with a grumble as I went through the wireless frequencies listening carefully for any sign of life in the static.
I ignored him. He’s always grumbling about one thing or another. He’s probably just tired, he kept most of us up last night with that hacking cough of his. He’s got thinner recently as well and lost three more teeth. I counted. I listened to him shamble away before going back to check all the frequencies again, clicking methodically through each one, listening intently for something, anything.
We lost the wireless shortly after it was announced the USA was joining our fight against Hitler and that they had a powerful new weapon that would end the war, would end all war. A week later, winter came. It’s been winter for a year and still nothing on the wireless. Once I thought I heard, very faintly ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square‘. I wonder if I’ll ever hear a nightingale.
Sometimes I like to sit back, close my eyes and picture the room filled with people dancing. Men in uniform, women in uniform. Then I open them again and see a room filled with people wearing an assortment of mismatched clothing and no one is dancing.
14th September 1943
Thomas died last night. It was awful. We were woken by a horrific gurgling sound and found him choking on blood. We tried turning him on his side, but it didn’t help. All we could do was watch as he coughed and spluttered before finally becoming still. I went out to gather snow to melt so we could wash his body. That helmet is becoming quite useful.
Luckily there’s still enough firewood left from Mrs Roberts.
15th September 1943
Was up all night with stomach cramp.
16th September 1943
Felt better today. Mr Daniels went out on a supply mission and found an old rusty bicycle still in good condition! I remembered I’d seen a pump in one of the garages and much to our delight, the inner tubes had held and with some air they were almost as good as new!
It was very funny watching him trying to ride it around the hall. I laughed until my sides hurt and couldn’t help smiling as one by one he took the children for a trip. They whooped and cheered as he looped the room, everyone had to smile at the children.
To celebrate we filled an old tin bath with snow and melted it on a fire, the last scavenging party discovered some dusty old tea bags in the back of a kitchen cupboard so we all had a very weak cup of tea.
17th September 1943
Stomach cramp again.
I went for a walk up to the second level to try to ease my nausea. Standing at the window at the far end of the corridor I looked out. It was snowing again, each snowflake catching the moonlight as it floated softly towards the ground. The snow reflected back, the moonlight bathing everything in an eerily beautiful blue glow. Reaching out I pressed my hand to the cold windowpane and cried.
18th September 1943
Woke up to find clumps of hair on my pillow, even more on my hairbrush.
I took the scissors and hacked my hair until it was short. Mrs Smith took pity on my poor attempt and offered to finish the job neatly. She didn’t ask why I was cutting it short. When she was done, I risked a glance in the mirror. I can barely recognise myself. I studied my thin, pale features, my sunken eyes. My fingers traced a line from my lips to where my cheekbones stood prominently.
“Wait a moment.” I glanced up as Mrs Smith bustled off back to her bed. She came back a moment later with something hidden in her hand. “It were our Elsie’s, I didn’t know what to do with it after…well.” She held out a small pot of rouge and looked embarrassed. “Nothin’ special. Bring a little bit of colour to those cheeks.”
I stared at the pot. “I couldn’t.”
“It’d bring me great pleasure to see someone enjoy it.”
I took the pot and unscrewed the lid. Inside there was just the tiniest amount left. I felt tears prick at the corners of my eyes and wondered when everything would go back to being normal.
19th September 1943
Mr Daniels dropped dead this afternoon. One moment he was fine riding around on his bicycle, the next there was a scream and he was just there lying dead with blood pouring from his eyes, bicycle wheels still spinning as it lay on top of him. Now the bicycle is standing in the corner and everyone is afraid to touch it.
There wasn’t enough firewood for a fire, but I’m too tired to struggle through the snow, someone else will have to go.
20th September 1943
Sick all night. The cramps are getting worse and nothing seems to help. I walked the corridors for hours last night. I felt like I had to find something but couldn’t remember what just that I had to find it.
21st September 1943
I’m so tired, but sleep won’t come.
I found my way up to the attic, pausing on every other step to catch my breath and using the handrail to pull myself up, but I got there.
As I struggled the final few steps into the room, I saw a gramophone player in one corner. I needed a moment but soon stumbled over but fell before I could reach the table. I lay there for a time before slowly dragging myself over and using the table to pull myself up. It wasn’t too difficult, there’s hardly anything left of me now. With great difficulty I turned the handle and much to my joy, ‘White Cliffs of Dover‘ began to play.
All I could do was smile as I slid back to the floor, closing my eyes. I’m so tired.
I felt something wet and cold on my arm, opening my eyes I saw Crackers, his tongue lolling out of his mouth as he smiled his corgi smile at me. Reaching out I pushed my hand into his soft fur and closed my eyes.