It was typical – completely bloody typical – for Beatrice to be interrupted by the ear-splitting wail of the air-raid sirens just as she was getting ready to settle down for the rest of the evening. Sighing deeply, she snatched up her coat and hurried into the kitchen.
“Betty!” The short, mousy-haired woman looked up from the piece of paper lying on the table, staring blankly at Beatrice. “Betty! Come on, we practised this – the sirens mean we have to go to the air raid shelter.”
“Okay…” Betty hopped off her chair, only to stop still halfway across the room. “Wait.” Beatrice noticed, with growing dread, that the familiar look Betty always had when she got an idea had appeared on her face.
“No, we’re not waiting. Come on.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Yes, there they were: the fateful words.
“Unless it’s a way of reassembling yourself after you’ve been blown apart by a bomb, I don’t give a damn. Move.” Without waiting for any response, Beatrice grabbed hold of Betty’s sleeve and dragged her out of the house. Trotting to keep up with her taller friend, Betty carried on chattering as Beatrice half-led, half-pulled her down the street towards the shelter.
“What if we painted the roof of our house to look like a house what’s already been bombed? Then when they come to drop the bombs, they won’t drop any on our house ‘cause they’ll think they already bombed it.”
“Yes, yes, great idea,” Beatrice, muttered, not bothering to listen properly. “You can tell me more about it in the shelter. Wait…” Beatrice, stopped, her eyes scanning the street. Where’s Mum? Mum?” Through the darkness, Beatrice managed to catch sight of Eleanor Atkins’s familiar figure, just a little further up the street… in the wrong direction. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake…” Still dragging Betty by her sleeve, Beatrice doubled back and approached her mother. “Mum, what are you doing?”
“Oh, girls, there you are,” Eleanor turned around, but her eyes kept darting away to other people moving through the street. “Hurry up and get to the shelter, I’ll just be a minute.” Beatrice ignored her and reached out to grab Eleanor with her free hand.
“Mum, come on.”
“No, you go. I need to make sure old Mrs Miller gets there okay, you know what her legs are like…” Eleanor broke off to stare up at a house a little way up the street.
“Mum, Mrs Miller’s already there,” Beatrice said, not entirely sure it was true, “Come on.”
“But what about the Reynolds? Mr Reynolds is half deaf, maybe he didn’t…”
“You’d have to be buried twelve feet deep in reinforced concrete not to hear this racket, just move.” Another tug at Eleanor’s sleeve only moved her a few inches closer to the shelter. How long did they have left until the bombs began to fall?
“But…” Eleanor made a last attempt at a protest, but Beatrice had decided enough was enough; seizing her mother tightly around the arm, she turned and pulled both Eleanor and Betty towards the shelter.
“I swear, if a bomb hits us now, I’m coming back to life to kill you both again.”
Safely inside the shelter, Beatrice, Betty and Eleanor sat huddled together in the darkness, surrounded by other frightened people. Beatrice felt her mother’s grip tighten on her arm each time the walls shook with the sound of an explosion above.
“Oh. I hate hearing them…” Eleanor whispered, her hand pressed to her mouth.
“I don’t mind so much,” said Beatrice, “It means for a few brief, blissful seconds, I can’t hear Betty.” Though there wasn’t enough light to see it, Beatrice could sense the disapproving look her mother was surely giving her. As the sound of the last bomb faded away, Betty’s ramblings could be heard once more.
“So if the roof looks all bombed and stuff, yeah? They’ll think they already got our house, so we’re safe!” Beatrice edged away from her, rolling her eyes.
Once the all-clear was given, people spilled out into the night, anxious to know whether their homes had been hit. Eleanor hurried past Beatrice and Betty, throwing a glance back over her shoulder as she passed.
“Just going to check on everybody,” she called.
“All right,” said Beatrice, more willing to indulge her mother’s altruistic impulses now the danger had gone, “See you at home.”
“Look!” Betty pointed. “Our house is still there.” This turned out to be one of those rare, treasured moments when she was right.
“All in all, a successful evening,” Beatrice decided, “Especially since I managed to get…” She reached inside her coat and produced with a flourish: “Three wallets.”
“Nice!” Betty nodded approvingly.
“Maybe there’s an upside to this whole ‘war’ business.” Beatrice nudged Betty with her elbow. It may have been a little too hard – it sent Betty stumbling slightly to the side – but she made no complaint. “For us, at least.” Betty dug into her own coat, eager to show what she had found.
“I got a shoe.” She presented it proudly, not noticing Beatrice’s look of exasperation.
“First of all, how? Second, and more importantly, why?” Betty shrugged.
“Thought we might need one.”
“Yeah… For if we need to hop somewhere.”
“Yes, I have a feeling a situation like that is just around the corner.” Sighing, Beatrice opened the front door and pushed Betty over the threshold. “Get inside.”