He soldiered on, skirting craters in the street, asking his way. It was nearly full dark, now; he couldn’t be on the streets much longer. His anxiety began to ease a little as he started to see things he knew, though. Close, he was getting close.
And then the sirens began, and people began to pour out of the houses.
He was being buffeted by the crowd, borne down the street as much by their barely controlled panic as by their physical impact. There was shouting, people calling for separated family members, wardens bellowing directions, waving their torches, their flat, white helmets pale as mushrooms in the gloom. Above it, through it, the air-raid siren pierced him like a sharpened wire, thrust him down the street on its spike, ramming him into others likewise skewered by fright.
The tide of it swept round the next corner, and he saw the red circle with its blue line over the entrance to the Tube station, lit up by a warden’s flashlight. He was sucked in, propelled through sudden bright lights, hurtling down the stair, the next, onto a platform, deep into the earth, into safety. And all the time the whoop and moan of the sirens still filling the air, barely muffled by the dirt above.
There were wardens moving among the crowd, pushing people back against the walls, into the tunnels, away from the edge of the track. He brushed up against a woman with two toddlers, picked one—a little girl with round eyes and a blue teddy bear—out of her arms and turned his shoulder into the crowd, making a way for them. He found a small space in a tunnel-mouth, pushed the woman into it, and gave her back the little girl. Her mouth moved in thanks, but he couldn’t hear her above the noise of the crowd, the sirens, the creaking, the—
A sudden monstrous thud from above shook the station, and the whole crowd was struck silent, every eye on the high arched ceiling above them.
The tiles were white, and as they looked, a dark crack appeared suddenly between two rows of them. A gasp rose from the crowd, louder than the sirens. The crack seemed to stop, to hesitate—and then it zigzagged suddenly, parting the tiles, in different directions.
He looked down from the growing crack, to see who was below it—the people still on the stair. The crowd at the bottom was too thick to move, everyone stopped still by horror. And then he saw her, partway up the stair.
Dolly. She’s cut her hair, he thought. It was short and curly, black as soot—black as the hair of the little boy she held in her arms, close against her, sheltering him. Her face was set, jaw clenched. And then she turned a bit, and saw him.
Her face went blank for an instant and then flared like a lit match, with a radiant joy that struck him in the heart and flamed through his being.
There was a much louder thud! from above, and a scream of terror rose from the crowd, louder, much louder than the sirens. Despite the shrieking, he could hear the fine rattle, like rain, as dirt began to pour from the crack above. He shoved with all his might, but couldn’t get past, couldn’t reach them. Dolly looked up, and he saw her jaw set hard again, her eyes ablaze with determination. She shoved the man in front of her, who stumbled and fell down a step, squashing into the people in front of him. She swung Roger down into the little space she’d made, and with a twist of her shoulders and the heave of her whole body, hurled the little boy up, over the rail—toward Jerry.
He saw what she was doing and was already leaning, pushing forward, straining to reach … The boy struck him high in the chest like a lump of concrete, little head smashing painfully into Jerry’s face, knocking his head back. He had one arm round the child, falling back on the people behind him, struggling to find his footing, get a firmer hold—and then something gave way in the crowd around him, he staggered into an open space, and then his knee gave way and he plunged over the lip of the track.
He didn’t hear the crack of his head against the rail or the screams of the people above; it was all lost in a roar like the end of the world as the roof over the stair fell in.
* * *
The little boy was still as death, but he wasn’t dead; Jerry could feel his heartbeat, thumping fast against his own chest. It was all he could feel. Poor little bugger must have had his wind knocked out.
People had stopped screaming, but there was still shouting, calling out. There was a strange silence underneath all the racket. His blood had stopped pounding through his head, his own heart no longer hammering. Perhaps that was it.
The silence underneath felt alive, somehow. Peaceful, but like sunlight on water, moving, glittering. He could still hear the noises above the silence, feet running, anxious voices, bangs and creakings—but he was sinking gently into the silence; the noises grew distant, though he could still hear voices.
‘Is that one—?’
‘Nay, he’s gone—look at his head, poor chap, caved in something horrid. The boy’s well enough, I think, just bumps and scratches. Here, lad, come up … no, no, let go, now. It’s all right, just let go. Let me pick you up, yes, that’s good, it’s all right now, hush, hush, there’s a good boy …’
‘What a look on that bloke’s face. I never saw anything like—’
‘Here, take the little chap. I’ll see if the bloke’s got any identification.’
‘Come on, big man, yeah, that’s it, that’s it, come with me. Hush, now, it’s all right, it’s all right … is that your daddy, then?’
‘No tags, no service book. Funny, that. He’s RAF, though, isn’t he? AWOL, d’ye think?’
He could hear Dolly laughing at that, felt her hand stroke his hair. He smiled and turned his head to see her smiling back, the radiant joy spreading round her like rings in shining water …
‘Rafe! The rest of it’s going! Run! Run!
To the RAF flyers: “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”