Start at the beginning here
Ernest woke up suddenly to find the house shaking and the air raid sirens blaring outside. For a moment, he was disoriented, but then felt the house shake again and immediately jumped into action, pulling on a pair of crumpled trousers, and a thick scratchy jumper over his pyjamas.
He moved the black out curtain aside and peered across the street in front of him. Ordinarily the street would be dark, nothing could be seen, but tonight, there were beams of light waving into the air above, searching for the enemy aircraft that were attacking the city.
Ernest could see that a fire was blazing less than three streets away. Willoughby Street, he calculated, and turned away from the window. He had to get to the air raid shelter in the back garden before his own street was hit.
He rushed from his bedroom onto the landing outside, the door next to his own, the door to his parents room, was closed. Perhaps she hadn’t woken yet, perhaps she didn’t know what was happening, he had to get to her, make sure she was ok.
Ernest tried the handle, but the door wouldn’t move. It was locked. He took a step back, turned sideways and threw his body into the door. The weight of his tiny eight year old body was not enough to move it, but he tried again, this time, aiming his elbow at where the lock connected with the door frame.
A spasm of pain shot up through his arm, and Ernest swore loudly as tears pricked in the corner of each eye. Still, the door hadn’t moved, but he couldn’t give up on her. He roared loudly as he threw himself back at the door, this time crashing through it into his mother’s bedroom.
“Mum!” He shouted, as he tried to ignore the blinding pain in his arm. He looked over to the double bed in the centre of the bedroom, it was empty. She’d already gotten out. She would have grabbed hold of Raymond and made her way down to the shelter, he told himself, she would be there right now, waiting.
He moved back out on to the landing and was startled to discover it had started to fill with smoke. Somewhere a fire was burning and he knew then that the attack was closer than three streets away. Ernest crouched down to the floor as he’d been taught and moved towards the stairs.
Only when he was halfway down did he hear a noise that sent a shiver down his spine. Raymond was crying somewhere above him.
He turned again, without hesitating, and rushed back up the stairs towards his younger brother’s bedroom. He shoved open the door and immediately could feel the heat upon him. The smoke forced him to clamp shut his eyes and for a second time he dropped to the carpet.
He crawled across the floor, moving towards his brother’s cot. He could still hear Raymond’s bawling, but now it was accompanied by the crackling sound of flames. An almost distant memory of once finding the noise of a fire comforting flashed through his mind, but he quickly dismissed it. He was anything but comforted.
Ernest forced open his eyelids and immediately felt the stinging heat of the ash in his eyes. In front of him, the exterior wall of the house had been ripped away and through the gaping hole, Ernest could see the streets stretching away from him. All around him houses were burning, and theirs seemed to be at the centre of it.
He moved closer to the cot, and the floor below him creaked. Only then did he realise that it wasn’t just the wall that had been blown away, but part of the floor had also been destroyed as well.
One leg of the cot was resting on nothing but smoky air, hanging precariously over the kitchen, ready to crash down onto the broken floorboards and bricks below. The other corner leg, closest to the night air, was supported by a broken floorboard, one that looked as if it would snap at any moment.
As he pulled himself to his feet, his eyes were drawn to the garden below, also scattered with bricks. And then Raymond cried again, reclaiming his attention.
The cot was covered in dust, and pieces of brick and glass. Lacerations were spread across Raymond’s bare face and arms, and the blanket he lay on was red from his blood. Ernest grabbed hold of the now crimson fabric and scooped his younger brother up into his arms.
He held him close to his chest and turned to the door, but was stopped by a thick wall of heat. He couldn’t be sure, but either the fire had spread or another one had started. The flames were now licking at both Ernest and his brother, causing Raymond’s pained screams to become louder.
Ernest squinted through the door onto the landing and could see that the fire had begun to burn on the stairs in front of him. The wooden banister running around the edge of the staircase was beginning to crumble into a black ash, the foul smell of burning paint filled the rooms and a thick, dark smoke lingered at the top of the stairwell.
A moment of indecision flushed through Ernest as he began to panic over what to do. He had to get his brother out of the house and down to the air raid shelter where their mother was surely waiting for them, but the wall of fire blocked his way.
He looked over again at the hole in the side of Raymond’s bedroom, the burning beams circled around it, the dark garden littered with debris outside and then the shelter at the end, a welcoming oasis in a chaotic battlefield.
Without thinking, the small boy hugged his younger brother closer to his chest and sprinted at the fire. He launched himself off the end floorboard and out through the flames just as the wooden planks crumbled into the kitchen below.
He landed on his feet on the grass but immediately a spasm of pain shot through his foot and up his right leg. His body, unable to cope with the agony, fell forwards to the ground. To avoid crushing the babe in his arms, he twisted as he fell. His head hit the grass, but his back hit a lump of rock, and in that moment Ernest’s screams were louder than those of his brother.
Still holding on to Raymond he pulled himself up to his knees and stared at the house before him, trying to ignore the excruciating pain all over his body. He couldn’t see his brother’s bedroom through the thick smoke, but he could see the kitchen, lit up by orange flame, excited by the fresh wood of the cot that had fallen from above.
From outside, the damage to his house looked minimal, at least compared to that of the other houses he could see. The house next door, the Andersons, was completely alight; the entire top floor crushed. Whatever had hit his neighbour’s was what had caused the destruction in his brother’s room, nothing had actually hit their own house.
He heard a scream nearby and it jerked him back to reality, he stood up on his good leg and moved towards the bomb shelter, grimacing with each step he took, trying to block out the pain that seemed to flow through his entire body.
He hobbled toward the shelter, pulled open the door and threw himself inside, slamming the door shut behind him.
“Mum, I’ve got Raymond, he’s alive, but – ” He looked around the shelter, but there was no one there. It was empty. “Mum?”
He remembered the locked door to his mother’s bedroom, the bed inside, undisturbed, not slept in and his brother, Raymond, left behind in his cot. The realisation hit him harder than the rock he had landed on. His mother, their mother, had left the house without them. She’d left before the air raid had started.
“Mum? Where are you?” His voice came out small and timid and the only reply was that of his own plea, echoing around the damp, metallic structure. Wherever she was, she’d been there for some time. She’d put Raymond in his cot at around seven and then Ernest had gone to bed an hour or so after.
He pulled a pocket watch from his trousers where he’d left it before he’d gone to bed and checked the time. It was just past four in the morning. He stared at the hands of the watch, the second hand slowly ticking round, trying to figure out just where his mother might be. His chain of thought was interrupted by Raymond’s screaming and he held him close to his chest once more.
“Hey, Raymond, come on, shh. We’re going to be alright.” He looked nervously at a puddle that had appeared in the corner of the shelter. “We’re going to be fine.”
Ernest felt a small scratch sharper than even than that of his jumper against his chest and pulled the baby away from him. He looked at his brother’s face, a piece of glass was embedded in it. Without thinking, he pulled the shard out and used his sleeve to stop the bleeding as Raymond’s screams increased, the wound painfully exposed.
Ernest began to dust away the grit from his brother’s hair, humming softly as he did trying to comfort not only Raymond, but also himself. He noticed a small piece of glass on Raymond’s neck and, again, without thinking, pulled it away. Blood began to spew violently from his brother’s neck.
“Oh God! Raymond!” Ernest cried out in surprise as he quickly became covered. He tried to plug the bleeding, laying his brother down on a chair and kneeling in front of him. Raymond’s crying became more breathy with each sob. He pulled off his jumper and wrapped it around his brother’s neck in a useless attempt to stem the flow of blood.
“Raymond, come on, come on.” Ernest took a deep breath, in an effort to keep his own tears inside. He picked his brother up again and held him close. It was only when Raymond’s sobs stopped suddenly that Ernest himself began to cry.
He put the child down again and started to back away from him. Raymond was no longer crying, no longer screaming, no longer in pain – but he was looking. Looking straight at Ernest, a glassy, accusing stare.
He sped through the door of the shelter, slamming it shut behind him and leant on it, tears streaming down his face. He screamed loudly, hoping his mum would hear, hoping that anyone would hear and help him.
A cold, unbearable wind hit him, and he shivered uncontrollably. Staring around at the crushed houses and the flames around him, Ernest instinctively turned and went back into the shelter.
Raymond was still there, still staring, still facing the door. Ernest slowly stepped over to him and picked his jumper up off of him. He hesitated for a moment, before slipping it back over his head. The scratchy wool felt infinitely better than the sticky, blood-stained parts that came into contact with his chest. But both felt hugely better than the bitter cold that had enveloped him outside the shelter.
He moved to the opposite side of the sanctuary, leant against the wall and slowly descended to the floor, loudly sobbing. He held his father’s pocket watch in his hand and stared at it for a moment. He screamed with a ferocious roar and angrily threw it against the side of the shelter.
As he did, he heard the noise of another loud explosion outside.
Doreen hurried out of the house and moved quickly across the yard in front of it. If her parents found out that he had gone missing again, it would be her that would be in trouble. After all, she was supposed to be the one taking care of him. She was the one responsible for getting him up in the morning, she was the one responsible for cooking his meals and getting him to help her father feed the animals and tend to the pregnant, hungry sheep. And she was the one responsible for making sure he didn’t go missing. Again.
Her parents hadn’t been very enthusiastic when Ernest’s father had asked if he could live with them. He’d said he couldn’t take care of him on his own and go out to work, not anymore. He would pay them any money for his upkeep, of course. As soon as money had been mentioned, they’d been only too happy to take him in. Of course we have to take him in, they’d said to Doreen – he’s family. Doreen wasn’t exactly sure how they were related, second cousins fourteen times removed or something like that. They dressed him in hand-me-downs and then pocketed the money they received every month.
Since Doreen was not strong enough to work in the fields, nor old enough to have found her own husband, she was the one contributing least to the house. Yes, she helped her mother clean and cook, and yes, she cleaned up all of her brother’s cuts and bruises, but now she had a role in the family. A proper job, she was the child-minder, looking after yet another young boy.
“Ernest!” She whispered harshly, quietly hoping he would be able to hear her, but her parents wouldn’t. “Ernest, where are you?”
There was no answer and Doreen looked around her, helplessly searching for a clue as to where to look. When no clue presented itself, she tried to think where he would go.
He liked the barn. He liked sitting in the hayloft and staring out the window, it was his favourite place to sit. But that was locked at night, there was no way in and only her father had the keys. As daring as Ernest might be, he would never dare to sneak into her parent’s bedroom and steal them.
Think, she told herself, where else would he go?
Then she remembered, the very first day he’d come out to them, just two months before, it had been up to her to give him the tour, introduce him slowly to life in the country. She’d taken him right to the edge of the farm, and they had spent almost an hour at one spot, looking out at the valley that separated their fields from the large hills that stretched across the countryside.
Ernest had been amazed by it, she remembered as she carefully stepped through the dark grass in front of her, the vastness of the landscape had silenced him. Since that first day, she’d often found him quietly staring out at the valley when he should have been helping out with the work.
And that was how she found him then, sat on the wooden post of the gate, leaning back against a thick tree trunk behind him.
She watched him, silhouetted against the moonlight. At fifteen, he still had the slender frame of childhood, yet there was a broadness beginning to creep in on his shoulders which gave away the man he would become.
“What are you doing out here?”
For a moment he said nothing to her, he simply turned and stared, soaking in the sight of her face, her milky skin glowing in the moonlight. And then he turned his head back to the hills ahead of him.
“It’s odd, isn’t it?” He asked, ignoring her question.
“What is?” She joined him at the gate, leaning instead of sitting, staring at him instead of the hills.
“You can live for years in London – the biggest city in the world – and you feel so big, just because you live there. Then you come out here and you realise just how small you are, just how big the world really is. Look at that.” He gestured to the space in front of him. “It’s so big, it’s bigger than the farm, it’s bigger than London. It’s bigger than any of us.”
“How old are you really?” Doreen asked the curiously sensitive boy sat next to her. He merely smiled at the joke but said nothing. There were several moments of contemplative silence where Doreen studied Ernest intently and Ernest studied nothing in particular, just as hard. “I know it’s difficult for you Ernest, being stuck here with strangers, not seeing your dad. Your mum…”
Ernest climbed off the post and faced her as she trailed off. “You can say it. I do know, it is my fault after all. She’s dead.”
Doreen said nothing. What could someone who hasn’t lost their mother possibly say to someone who had?
“It would have been her birthday today. Every year I’ve wanted to celebrate it, do something special for her, but Dad never acknowledged it – he barely acknowledged me. It’s because I killed her.”
“You didn’t kill her.”
“I promised my father I would look after her!” He shouted at her, unwelcome tears starting to form. “I told him I would keep her safe and I couldn’t! I didn’t even know where she was when the bomb hit.”
“That’s not your fault. Your mother was a grown woman, you were just a child – you were eight years! There was no way you could know where she was. You couldn’t have helped her.”
“What about Raymond?” Ernest stared at her and Doreen bowed her head, silent. “He would have been eight by now, if I hadn’t killed him!”
He descended into a series of racking sobs and Doreen put her arms around him and hugged him tightly. As she did she had to fight to keep herself from crying. “It’s not your fault, you hear me? It’s not your fault, it was war. Your brother, he was small. I’ve heard what happened, they said there’s no way he would have survived, even if you’d landed in a hospital bed when you jumped out that window. The way you got him out of that house… your mother would have been proud of you.”
“Proud? I let him die!”
“You were there with him at the end. He didn’t die alone, and that’s the most important thing. That baby died knowing that he was loved, that there was somebody there fighting for his life, willing to risk his own life.” Tears were streaming down Doreen’s face. She felt so sorry for the young man in front of her, he was so vulnerable, so fragile. “That was you, Ernest, you did that. He didn’t die alone. Your mother… she… she didn’t have anyone. But she would have been so happy knowing that you were looking after him instead of her.”
Ernest turned away from her and swallowed. More tears escaped from his eyes. After a moment he leant forward and gently kissed her on the lips. Startled, Doreen kissed back, before suddenly jumping away from him.
“Now, come on,” she sniffed, ignoring what had just happened, “we’d best get you to bed, you’re going to have to be up early tomorrow – Father wants you to help out with the lambing.”
She frogmarched him back across the fields, into the farmhouse and up the stairs towards his bedroom. The whole way she could hear him breathing loudly, trying to keep back the tears. He was still thinking about his mum, but her mind was on that kiss. Her parents would be horrified to know how many young men she had kissed, but Ernest was the youngest, and the only that had ever caused the hairs on her neck to prickle in the way that they had. His mouth had been firm on hers, she could still feel the slightest hint of stubble on his top lip. It had excited her in a way no man ever had before.
Ernest stopped and stared at his door. “Can’t I spend the night with you?”
Certainly not,” she bristled, “for a start, you’re too young. And secondly… well, secondly…”
“This isn’t about the kiss.” Ernest put a hand on her shoulder and she felt her legs go weak. “I just don’t want to be alone. Not tonight. I just need somebody to hold me. You’re the only person who cares about me. Doreen, please, just one night.”
“Right, well, perhaps you could, just for a few hours. But you do need to forget about that kiss, nothing can come of it.”
“There was no kiss.” Ernest smiled at her and walked into her bedroom. “Besides I’m sixteen soon.”
Doreen cautiously looked around the corridor before following him in. Ernest was more grown up than her brothers had ever been at that age. It was easy to forget how young he was.
They sat on the edge of her bed for a moment in almost complete silence.
“She wasn’t alone when she died.”
“Pardon?” Doreen only realised how tense she was as Ernest spoke. She was not in the present at all, just nervous, excited about what could happen next.
“Mum, when she died. She wasn’t alone.”
“Oh.” She was brought back to reality by the realisation that Ernest was not thinking about her, not trying to seduce her. He was still a boy, a young man grieving for his mother. “We were told that they found her in the garden.”
He shook his head and stared down at the floor. “They… they didn’t. I found her in the neighbour’s garden.”
“Oh, Ernest, I’m so sorry. If you… if you don’t want to talk about it, it’s ok.”
“No, it’s ok. I… I want to talk about it. My best friend, Jimmy, he died that night too.” Doreen took his hand but Ernest just smiled and pulled it away. “It’s stupid, really, I watched his house burn and I didn’t even know. I woke up and saw a fire, only a couple of streets away, I didn’t even realise it was Jimmy’s house until they told me he’d died. Well, Jimmy… you see, he, he always had a vivid imagination, he… he used to tell me that he had a cousin on the other side of the city, and that he and his family went to their air raid shelter one night and they were found the next morning and they’d all drowned. A dodgy air raid shelter, built in the wrong place or something. One of the bombs cracked a mains pipe in the ground, and the shelter just… filled up.”
“They drowned in an air raid shelter?”
“He swore it was true, I never really believed him. But that night – the night my mum died – there was this puddle of water in the corner, and I swear it was just getting bigger and bigger.” He pulled a pocket watch from his trousers. Doreen tried to get a glimpse of it, but he held it tightly in his hand. It was almost like he’d forgotten she was even there. She could just see that the glass was cracked and one of the arms bent. “When Raymond… when Raymond died… I threw this at the wall. It was my dad’s, I felt… I felt like I’d let him down, that I didn’t deserve to be his son any more. It landed in the puddle at the same moment that the last bomb hit. I watched it floating there in that puddle, and I just couldn’t stop thinking, what if I’m next? Raymond was on the chair, I could still see his face, his eyes open, staring at me. I couldn’t stay there…”
Ernest began to cry and Doreen put her hand on his. “I left him there, I left my brother there in that… tin shack and I went outside. The… the whole house was flattened, completely destroyed, so was the Anderson’s. I climbed through a hole in the fence, and I started to move towards their shelter. Theirs was above ground, I… I thought it would be safer, that if it started to fill with water that we could just… open the door and it would be ok. But I got to the door and the all clear sounded and I… I turned back to face the houses and they were nothing, just two piles of rubble in the street, and I… I saw, I saw this leg, sticking out of the rubble.”
Doreen put a hand to her mouth as she gasped. Ernest was shaking as he continued his story.
“She was… buried, but somehow… I knew it was her. I started to dig her out, and… and she was cold and… and naked.”
“Naked?” Doreen asked. “You mean, she’d…?”
Ernest laughed through his tears. “Our own next door neighbour. All the time that my father was out there fighting, my mother was…”
“Oh, Ernie…” Doreen pulled him into a hug.
“That’s why it’s my fault. If I had looked after her like my father had asked, she would have been there with me and Raymond. If I had kept a closer eye on her, then, then she wouldn’t have been able to do anything with that… She would have heard that air raid siren, she would have taken Raymond and she would have woken me up and they would both still be alive.”
They rocked together, tight in embrace until they pulled one another down onto the bed. She held him close, stroking the back of his head. Doreen was silent for a long time, as she felt tears running down her own face. It was only when she felt his lip brush against hers that she pulled away from him and sat up.
Ernest sat up again and took hold of her hand with one hand and cupped her face with his other.
Doreen felt a soft, pleasant tingle run through her body as his hand traced its way down her chin, fingered the top of her blouse and then moved over the top of it to her breast.
“Ernest – “
“You need to get some sleep. I’m going to go… brush my teeth, you get ready for bed. I have a blanket and I’ll get a spare pillow from the cupboard, you can… you can sleep on the floor.”
Doreen crossed the hall into the bathroom. She stared into the mirror at her own reflection, at her tear stained face and sighed. She could barely believe what the boy had told her, everything that he had seen that night.
She wanted to comfort him, to make him feel better, but she didn’t know what to do, what to say. The boy had lost so much to this stupid war, so much in one night and she didn’t know how to make it better.
When she returned to her room, Ernest was naked in her bed. And she found a way to make him feel better.
Ernest walked in the door, kissed his wife on the lips and handed her a small wooden box. “Happy Anniversary.”
Doreen ripped off the bow and opened the box to find a pair of diamond earrings. “Oh Ernie, this must have cost you so much! Can we afford this?”
“I’ve got news!” Ernest grinned. “Me and dad have decided to expand. We’re opening up a second store.”
“You are?” Doreen flung her arms around her husband and hugged him tightly. “Come on, sit down, I’ve cooked you your favourite dinner.”
Ernest sat and watched as she brought two steaming plates of roast chicken through from the kitchen. She sat down opposite him and started to eat, but stopped when she realised he was continuing to watch her.
“What is it, Ernie? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, honey, I was just looking at you.” He smiled at her and Doreen felt her face redden. “Can you believe we’ve been married for five years already? I never thought I’d be married by the time I was thirty, let alone celebrating my fifth wedding anniversary when I’m only twenty one.”
“We didn’t exactly have much choice, really, did we? Not that I regret it for a moment of course.” Doreen put her fork down. “Why don’t you go upstairs and see him before you eat? I can slip this back in the oven, keep it warm.”
Ernest looked at the clock hanging above their heads and smiled at Doreen. “I think I’d like that, it feels like I haven’t seen him for weeks.”
“Off you go then,” said Doreen, already on her feet, picking up their untouched plates, “just don’t keep him up too long.”
“I won’t,” he promised her, “and as soon as I’m done with him, I’m spending the rest of the night with you.”
Ernest climbed the stairs and slipped into the darkness of his son’s room. “Hey kiddo,” he whispered, “are you awake?”
“Daddy?” A small voice sounded from underneath the duvet.
“Mind your eyes, son.” Ernest turned the light on and saw the young boy pulling himself up into a sitting position, rubbing his eyes as he did.
“Daddy!” He hugged his father as Ernest sat on the bed next to him.
“Oh, God, I’ve missed you, I’ve really missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too, daddy, where have you been?”
“Me and Grandpa have been on a little holiday.”
“Where have you been?” The boy asked sleepily.
“Lots of places, we went to London and to Birmingham and to Bristol. We even went to Wales, that’s a whole other country.”
Ernest proceeded to tell his young son all about his plans for expansion of the small corner shop that he ran with his father. All the while a puzzled look adorned Raymond’s face.
“How is Grandpa going to work in two shops at once? That’s unpossible.”
“Impossible, and no it’s not, Grandpa’s going to work in the new shop and I’m going to work in the old one.”
“Maybe… maybe I could work there too?”
“Perhaps when you’re older, would you like that?”
“I’m nearly six.” The young boy said with a grin and Ernest couldn’t help but smile as he watched him, his head cocked to one side, like a small puppy, considering for a moment before smiling and nodding enthusiastically. “I like playing in the shop.”
“Well, when you’re older, me, you and Grandpa are going to have lots of shops to play in. We’re going to have shops in every town in the whole of Britain and we’re going to live in big, beautiful expensive houses, and have maids and servants to help us with everything. Would you like that?”
“Won’t we get lost? If the house is too big, we might lose each other.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure I never lose you. Now, you’d best get to sleep, or we’ll both be in trouble with mummy.” He kissed his son on the forehead and made his way over to the doorway. He switched the light off and was about to leave when a voice spoke in the darkness.
“I love you, daddy.”
Ernest smiled. “I love you too, Raymond.”
You can read the next chapter here