This is the chapter from my novel that I submitted to Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, for a two-week fellowship that I’ll be attending in December.
This chapter is about midway through the book. t’s set in England in 1940, at the time of the Blitz. The scene takes place in a converted boat-shed by a river near Southampton.
Characters in this Scene
Jenny Harper is a talented young photographer who has spent the summer working with an American man on a propaganda movie, designed to help bring America into the war. She’s been forced to abandon her dream job (and her lover) in order to care for her sick father.
Father is a World War I shell-shock victim. Nervous and timid, he lives as a recluse, mending boats by a river. After a nearby bombing raid, he suffers a breakdown and reverts to child-like behavior. He requires constant care and attention.
Valerie is a dealer in used goods, who lives in the big house at the top of the garden where the boat-shed is situated. She is Father’s sympathetic landlady as well as Jenny’s newfound friend and confidante.
Jenny secures air-raid blinds over the boat-shed’s single window. She sparks up a paraffin lamp, listens to its hissing overture to her evening routine. The room smells of oil, dirt and the sweat of her father.
He slowly undresses himself, lays in his cot and pulls a gray, woollen blanket around his thin body. Jenny collapses onto a wooden chair, stretches her legs out and opens the book to read aloud to him. They are getting to an exciting scene. She wonders how he’ll react.
“‘Ob,” he says and smiles at the ceiling.
Since the bombing raid, since his collapse into himself and her arrival three weeks past, it’s the only word he’s said to her: “ob” three nights running now.
Perhaps, she wonders, this signifies a small step towards a mending. Maybe there’ll be more words, sentences, thoughts, conversations. One day he might be able to look after himself and she can return to her work … but no … she forces this thought down. Her life is here now.
“Yes Dad. We’ll see how they’re all getting along.”
It was Valerie’s notion to read to Father, an idea that popped out of one of their drunken, nightly conversations. Even through the boozy mist and campfire smoke, she recognized it immediately as a solution to her problem, of how to soothe Dad at night, when the sun went down, when the bombers began their drone.
Jenny could have kicked herself for not coming up with the idea herself. Maybe her misery was changing her, or making her forget her own passions. By indulging one pleasure, she might be reminded of all those obliterated comforts of her lost summer, her lost life.
The day after Valerie’s suggestion. Jenny put her mind to what might make the most appropriate reading material. She knew better than to narrate a newspaper to him, filled with their marching columns of fighting and death.
So she’d looked for a good book. On Valerie’s hungover, disinterested invitation, Jenny plunged into the big house’s treasure trove of junk, where she discovered several dozen boxes of books.
She ignored all the grisly murder mysteries and anything centered on war, like “Gone With The Wind.” She did not think he’d respond to action adventures or cowboy stories. So she settled on “Tender is the Night,” an escape into glamorous lives and cocktail party intrigues. But when she began reading to Dad, he didn’t respond. He lay in bed and stared at the ceiling of their shed, just as he’d always done. The Riviera smart set was put aside.
Next she tried a well-thumbed copy of “I, Claudius,” a historical novel she’d read and enjoyed a few years before. But the emperor, struggling with a speech impediment and fearful of all around him, didn’t feel right, given the audience.
Digging deep through the boxes of books, she finally found a pile of tattered volumes displaying gaudy covers of magicians, monsters and dragons, the sort of thing a schoolboy might enjoy. She grabbed one and decided to give it a go.
That night, she read to him …
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor a dry, bare, sandy hole …”
She’d never heard of the book or the author, or of hobbits, but she persevered with the strange story. When she stopped reading that first night, that’s when Father had sat up, a gleam in his eye, and said his first and only word. “Ob.”
Hiding tears of relief from him, she continued with the story until, his eyes drooped and he fell asleep. Later, she and Valerie met in their usual place, and toasted the fellow Tolkien and all his strange fancies.
Now, a few nights later, she is deep into the story. They are getting to a bit where the heroes are in danger once again. She worries that the lurid tale might over-excite him, but he lays still on the cot, his eyes gleaming with anticipation..
“His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall … “
An air raid siren booms from afar, maybe from Southampton. She knows the local warden will take up the tune and start up the village siren, much closer and louder.
The sirens are early tonight. They’ve howled every day and every night since she arrived here but there’ve been no bombs. Daytime airplanes soaring above have been a constant, distant ribbons of contrails twisting in the sky. And then the bombers come at night. But they boom along their way.
The local siren screams. Father jerks and fusses in his bed, but the sirens, like the airplanes, distract and irritate him, more than they frighten him. She continues reading, raising her voice a little to account for the sirens.
“…suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel …”
She hopes the sirens will stop soon, that Father will fall asleep, that Valerie will come tottering down the garden with a blessed bottle of gin.
“He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the – “
A boom, faint and distant, but unmistakably an exploding bomb. Her father sits up, immediately, his eyes frantic, looking at Jenny as if she might offer some explanation as if she might tell him that it’s only thunder, that he mustn’t be afraid.
She tries to find her place on the page, reads on, her voice tightening with fear.
“He did not go much farther, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while – “
More bombs, closer and louder than the first, magnified by their number, a horrible pattern. Southampton is under attack. The docks most likely, ten miles to the east.
Her father cringes. He throws the blanket over his head, wholly unconcerned by his shocking nakedness. He whimpers and cries like a small boy, curls himself up into a foetal position.
Jenny places the book on the floor and sits next to him on the cot. She places her hand on him and tries rubbing his back, the sharp ridges of his spine ratcheting along her palm
“It’s alright Dad,” she says, softly as she can. “They’re a long way away. They can’t hurt us here.”
In the big house, a hundred yards up the garden, she guesses Valerie is quietly climbing under her kitchen table, a bottle under her arm, calling for her cat.
Bombs fall more rapidly, louder and louder. Are they coming closer or are the bombs just bigger? She thinks of the ships in the docks, the shiny sea leading the bombers right up to the city, like a lighted path.
Frantic young fools are above her, bombsights shaking in their hands, the flak of guns slamming into their planes. How much of an error would it take for one bomb to come crashing down on them, just as it had on that house she’d wanted to film, the sorry pile of bricks and broken belongings.
Father weeps, his face in her shoulder, his hands gripping her arms, hurting her.
Another crash, a flash of light breaks through the edges of the blackout blinds. The world wobbles, glass in the window rattles. Father moans and shakes fiercely. His tremors take on an energy of their own, a rapidity beyond nature.
Another boom, a lightning of red. Books and crockery tumble from their places and roll on the floor. A kettle falls, tumbles across the floor, a crazy dance of spout and handle until it barges into the paraffin lamp and knocks it sideways. The paraffin spills and blazes. “The Hobbit,” suddenly soaked in oil, erupts in flames. Now Jenny hears her own whimpers of dread.
Father screams and pushes her away. She tries to hold onto him but he smashes her away. She scrambles onto the burning floor. Heat and fire bloom on the fringes of her skirt. She screams, twists and turns, grabs a blanket and smothers the fire, stamps on the book until it’s beaten to a scattering of embers.
Father is underneath his cot, gasping as if short of breath, as if beyond the ability to scream.
She rushes to him. “Dad,” she cries, reaching under the cot.
The air swells with cruel anticipation. Glass bulges inwards. It smithereens, the howling of the outside rushes in at them.
In the dim light, his eyes roll with the madness of terror. He gasps again, an awful sound of desperation. She sobs and touches his face. He scratches at the floor, as if to escape through the earth itself. He gasps. His eyes bulge like a drowning man.
“Dad,” she cries. But he is beyond her. Father and daughter can no longer hear one another. The world is noise and bombs.
Tools clatter to the ground. The cot rumbles and shakes. She hides her head under her arms.
Father stops screaming, abruptly, as if now he understands that it’s not helping. He stares at her, eyes like those of an animal in a hole. The shed shakes again as another bomb explodes.
“Dad,” she cries. She screams into her arms, into her own flesh. She screams and then she whimpers and then the crashing is gone, the sound returns to distant thunder.
She looks up, and then she looks again at her father, under the bed. The terror in his eyes is frozen fast. She reaches under the cot, under his armpits to try to pull him out, praying out loud. “No, no, no, no, please.”
Even before he is clear from underneath the cot, even before she reaches for the blanket, to drape it over his nakedness, she knows he’s gone. His broken mind has finally taken a grip of his heart and squeezed the life out of him. It’s been more than two decades, but finally, Paschendale takes its due.
(Copyright Colin Campbell.)