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Old 12-04-2020, 06:56 PM   #3 (permalink)
Born to be mild
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Join Date: Oct 2008
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Posts: 23,096

Well I can’t promise they’ll all be short. Or good. In fact, I can’t promise anything at all, except that I’ll post what I personally consider (or what I have been told are) the best of my work. So, like, two posts then?

Title: “Bluebird Down”
Genre: General Fiction
Written: May 19 2020
Word count: 1,973
Notes: I wrote this initially as an exercise to see if I could manage to break out beyond my usual comfort zone, which is science-fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction. I wanted to attempt to write a human interest piece, and I thought about it until I remembered a song off Dan Fogelberg’s album Windows and Walls, the title track in fact, which envisages an old woman sitting alone at home. Her husband has died, her children don’t call or visit, and she is left to wait out the inevitable. One line that really struck me was “The clock on the mantle chiming the hours must be the loneliest sound.” I think many of us have experienced this, and usually done something to get rid of that incessant ticking, maybe because it seems to be counting away the remaining time in our lives, or because it’s like a dripping tap, just really annoying. But also because, I can’t speak for any of you, but it really does make me feel lonely and isolated when I hear it. Not always, of course; sometimes it’s comforting, a break from the noise of the day or whatever, but it can be quite oppressive.

The idea of someone sitting at home, waiting essentially to die, is the theme of this story, though this woman takes that a step further. It was actually the first time I entered a story of mine for a competition. It didn’t win. Boo. Now I’m presenting it here, and you can make your own judgement. It’s certainly different to the kind of thing I usually write, and it has encouraged me to stretch out a little, to try things I might otherwise not have, so I guess that can’t be bad.


Now that the long drawn out wail of the siren has faded into the distance, taking with it the clatter of feet, the banging on doors and the harsh shouts that echoed up from the street below, she can hear herself think. There are only four sounds in her world now. One is the steady, indefatigable tick of the clock on the mantelpiece, counting off the remaining time she has left in this world, a subject of very little interest to her. Then there is the slow, muted creak of the rocking chair as she tips slightly forward, slightly back, the ball of wool in her lap slowly diminishing in size as the big metal needles eat hungrily at it, her eyes never even looking at the knitting.

And the distant, but very discernible muted hum which slowly grows louder, a sound that has sent everyone else scurrying to the shelters, and which is, for every inhabitant of Foley Street, unwelcome and terrifying, but to her is comforting, soothing and above all, full of dark hope.

Hope that has yet to be realised in all its terrible glory.

They used to try to move her, get her to go to the shelter, but eventually her stoic and stubborn refusal, coupled with the fact that she was both a woman and of advancing age, and therefore not to be forced, has won her the reprieve she wished for, the resignation of her would-be rescuers and the muttered oath that what happened must be upon her own head. So they have left her alone, which is, in the end, all she wants.

Two framed photographs stand on the mantelpiece, one a lot more faded than the other, both of men, both in military uniform, and very like each other. The older man is wearing the uniform of a Tommie from the First World War, a toothy grin showing as he pulls a ragged cigarette from between his lips, the background hinting at the horrors and misery of trench warfare. The smile may be forced – she imagines it is, for who could enjoy living in such squalour, with death their constant companion? - but she knows it was for her, and says “I'm all right, love. Don't worry about me. Be home once all this is cleared up.”

The crumpled and stained paper which the frame of the picture keeps imprisoned beneath it – stained with her long-dried tears – says otherwise, gives the lie to his cheery assurance, and announces in formal terms, endeavouring to be sympathetic but managing to be cold and uncaring, that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever strewn with her husband's scattered remains.

Ypres. It doesn't sound like a real word, like something a child might make up. Ypres. But it is a word, a place that has burned deep scorch marks across her heart and seared her soul. Ypres. Only one of, by some estimates, near on half-a-million soldiers to lose their lives there, but the only one of interest to her.

Apart from one other.

Also holding down a note of paper, its crispness and legibility denoting its newness, the other picture, the young man who looks proudly out of the photograph but whose eyes are haunted by what he has seen, and another word that will remain with her for however long she is forced to remain upon this world, which is now empty for her.


They called it a miracle. She snorts to herself. A miracle! So many dead, the entire continent of Europe handed over to that man Hitler to do with as he pleased, as his enemies ran, plunged into the water, making for the flotilla of boats – military and civilian – that came to help them escape. She remembers the encouraging smile he gave her as he looked up from the letter, the other letter, the one that advised him he had been called up, and how he assured her it was nothing, would be all over by Christmas. Well, it hadn't been over by Christmas, but by April 1940 Christmas was over for her. She would never again celebrate anything, and she would, till she was dragged before Him to rail against Him for taking both her men in such a senseless fashion, curse the name of the Almighty while she had breath to do so.

The words on the held-down letters, the photograph frames acting as paperweights for the heaviest weights that have ever encumbered her heart, are forever etched in her brain, her memory. She sees them every day scroll across in front of her eyes. They're there when she wakes up, and when she closes her eyes at night they remain with her, following her into dream and recurring nightmare, till she can find no respite from the curt, clipped opening which begins in an impersonal typewritten hand beneath the crest of the Ministry of War: It is with regret I write to inform you...

It was a long time before she could read past that first half-line; like someone receiving a rejection of a job application, the awful intent of the letter was implicit in those first nine words, and she didn't want to read any more. Almost as if, by refusing to read, she could pretend the terrible event, the one she had feared, had dreaded, but had somehow known would happen, had occurred, and her beautiful baby boy was still alive, grinning that cheeky grin and telling her she had nothing to worry about.

Well, remove the last three words and it was true: now, she has nothing.

And so, she waits for death. But, like some cosmic joke, as if God has not already had enough amusement at her expense, death does not come. She hears the bombers drone across the afternoon sky, high enough to evade the anti-aircraft fire: Heinkels and Junkers; she has learned their names, these angels of deliverance who refuse to visit their benison upon her. No Stukas. They used those in Europe, most notably in Poland and Czechoslovakia, she knows: screaming banshees of death powering down from the sky, diving towards the ground like birds of prey, releasing their lethal load and climbing back into the clouds. Terrifying, no doubt.

Not here though.

As if obeying some traditional rule of conduct, German bombers only attack Britain from high above, level, almost keeping a respectful distance, mindful of etiquette. Who would send the common Stuka screaming down into English streets? It just would not be cricket! No, the stately Heinkel 111s and the Junkers JU-88s and the Dornier... oh, something or other: she cannot remember the designation, and what does it matter anyway? These are the aircraft Hitler, or Goering probably, sends to pummel England into submission, a job both are finding harder than expected.

But she doesn't care about that. What shall it gain a woman if her country win the war and yet she loses her only son? Why should it bother her if, should she survive, she should do so under the Nazi heel? She would not want to live in such a world, no, but then, should England and her allies triumph, she would not want to live in that world either, not without Harry.

Oh, God! The very mention of his name in her mind sets the tears beading in the crusty corners of her glaucoma-ridden eyes. Perhaps it might be kinder were she blind, but this world is not kind. She has learned that over the course of the last twenty-five years or so, and she expects nothing more from it. She wants nothing more from it. She wants nothing to do with it.

An empty, cracked plastic bowl sits unregarded on the floor, the faint outline of letters just barely discernible on its side. T-I-D-D-L... Her last companion in this cold and heartless world, the one thing that made living less of an agony, and they even took that from her. Though she can't in fairness blame the Nazis, or even the war, on the death of poor Tiddles, run over by a delivery lorry. Perhaps she can though: the lorry was delivering supplies for the troops, and if the war had not been on, that particular van might not have been on her road at that particular time, just as Tiddles realised it was time for dinner and walked into the road with a cat's arrogance and disdain for everything but itself, including oncoming traffic.

The fourth sound is the crackling, tinny voice of Vera Lynn, issuing with false hope and reassurance from the old record player, once her favourite record. Once their favourite record, now nothing more than a terrible reminder that she is alone, alone with Vera. In happier times, Tiddles had jumped at the record player, chasing some toy or other, and hit into it, causing the needle to tear a ragged scratch across the surface of the record. Now, every time she plays that song it reminds her of her beloved cat; the stylus sticks, so Vera is left singing, endlessly, over and over, trapped in a repeating loop from which there is no escape.

There'll be bluebirds over...
There'll be bluebirds over...
There'll be bluebirds over...
There'll be bluebirds over...

But she knows this is a lie. Vera lies. There will be no bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, not for her. The birds are black now, not blue. Her bluebirds are gone, both flown to, hopefully, a happier place, away from the horror and misery of this unfair world, away from Hitler and Churchill and the Somme and London and Berlin and Warsaw.

And some day soon, she is determined to join them, leaving Vera Lynn to crackle away to herself till, if she so wishes, the very end of time.

An explosion rocks the house, and for a moment her heart soars, then dips. The bombs have fallen on another street, perhaps Clarence Road, she's not sure; it is only the shockwave she is feeling. With trembling hand, she raises what first looks like her fist towards the ceiling as the humming buzz grows so loud that the bombers must surely be right overhead now. It is not a fist, however, but an open hand, which moves in a beckoning gesture.

Come here, come here. Over here. Please.

But now the drone is retreating into the distance, getting fainter. The chatter of machine-guns high above tells her the lads from the nearby airfield have engaged the enemy, and as the Spitfires and Hurricanes perform the deadly daily dance high up above the clouds with their mortal enemy, she sighs and heaves herself with difficulty out of the rocking chair, laying aside the knitting. She tries to remember what it was she was knitting, and then remembers. A scarf. A scarf to keep him warm.

Nothing will ever keep him warm again now.

Sadly, she carefully lifts the needle from the record and Vera is silenced for another day, to be pressed back into service tomorrow. Taking one more glance at the two photographs, she blows each a kiss, wipes the tears from her eyes, and makes her way to the door. People will be returning from the shelters, now the raid is over; returning to their houses, carrying on their lives.

To her intense disappointment and frustration, she too still has a life to live, if you can call it that.

But there is a steely resolve in her eyes that almost makes her smile. She knows the Luftwaffe does not give up so easily, and the Germans will be back tomorrow.

Yes, tomorrow, once again, there'll be black birds over the white cliffs of Dover.
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There's always tomorrow.
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