The Night at Marble Arch
April 2, 2012
“I am not for this,” he thought as he stumbled down the stairs, wheezing, unable to keep up with his own clumsy feet. And then, almost simultaneously: “I can’t even hear myself think over this racket!”
The air raid siren—like a tail-less, one-eyed alley cat protesting the fresh tear in its shoulder and the sticky blood on its coat—mewled oppressively in the close and heavy darkness.
The coiling metal staircase rattled and clanked with Francis’ every footfall, and he felt for a second like he was in the bowels of a ship. He was convinced the whole suspect apparatus would come crashing down on him, crushing him to death. Or at least it would snap off one or both of his legs.
“Good,” he thought. “Then I won’t have to clean up this mess.”
Unfit for soldiering—which, to his mind, was literally a bullet dodged—Francis had been conscribed to the role of Air Raid Warden. “What is an Air Raid Warden, anyway? ” he wondered now as he heaved himself into the van, unscathed by his duel with the staircase. “Nothing real; the invention of a very particular time and place and circumstance, which will one day cease to exist.”
He thought of the months and years preceding the war as a distant Eden, where wine and whiskey flowed freely and bushels of food spilled from the arms of Muses; where there was intelligent conversation and witty banter and gut-busting laughter and mischief and frolicking—like he and his friends had all been a gaggle of Shakespearean fairies; where there was always a woman when he needed one, with milk-white flesh and honey breath and a tit that fit perfectly in his palm; where the beach was eternal and the murmuring waves lulled him to sleep; where there was Kenneth and Philip and John and Dick and all his beloved apostles; where it was easy to paint; where he was permanently inspired; where he was indubitably loved.
But now. Now he was no longer cavorting on Olympus. Now he didn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t paint. “People must have learned to separate the artist from the man and tolerated the artist because of the man but now that there is no artist . . . ” Francis didn’t complete the thought. Instead, he wondered about his lost boys—Kenneth and Philip and John and Dick. Especially Kenneth. Where was he now? What was he doing in this exact moment? “I hope you are able to preserve your individuality. I am afraid I’m rather a dim person these days.”
He put his hand to his heart, furtively, so the two men riding with him in the back of the van wouldn’t see. There in his breast pocket, he kept a picture from those now faraway days, a picture of the whole gang outside the cottage. They are shiny and dirty from a long weekend drinking in the sun and playing in the sand, their pants and skirts are cinched at the waist with bits of rope, the long scarves draped around their necks or wrapped around their heads like turbans are colourful and tattered, and they are grinning, every one of them, like the Cheshire cat. Francis caressed with his fingertips this memento mori just for a second through his heavy jacket. He was ready to hurl himself from the van.
“I know how to make things beautiful,” he pleaded silently. “Do you? Do you? Do any of these waggish boys who are using us like pawns? No, no! They are in the business of making things ugly.”
It so happened that at that particular moment, Francis was hurtling through the blackened streets of London towards an unfathomable ugliness. An ugliness that would be seared forever onto his brain. An ugliness that would shackle his heart, kill his appetite, deaden his once keen and ever-searching eyes.
You might say that at that particular moment, even as he mused about it, Francis didn’t really know what ugly was. Most of us don’t ever find that out, and we ought to thank whatever God we may believe in for that. Because ugliness like the kind Francis was about to see—it makes you recoil to some place unknown and inaccessible to most of us, and it’s very hard to ever come back.
“I wish I could call Buff!” thought Sally as she clambered breathlessly into the bus, teeming with excitement. She might start whistling from every orifice of her body like a kettle at a roiling boil. She couldn’t steady her hand to turn the ignition. It fluttered with its mutinous cohort first to her coat, to pull it up over her shoulders—“Christ, this thing’s like burlap!”—and then to her helmet, to fasten it over her indomitable curls. She breathed in deeply and—“Bugger and blast!”—the keys leapt from her hand and then, for a second that always felt interminable, she didn’t know if she was dead or alive, and then, as always, she laughed. Sparkling laughter that gurgled up from deep inside her and burst like bubbles on her lips.
Every time a bomb fell, even when she was expecting it, even when she could tell you it was coming in one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, NOW! Sally’s heart would seize as though she’d been electrocuted. Every time, she felt as though it would burst with the surcharge of volts. And every time that didn’t happen, laughter surged in her like a wave in the sea.
The ambulance lurched forward now, its shrill, frenetic blasts pitched with the almost melodious drone of the air raid siren, and the eerie, whirring cacophony seemed only to make Sally’s blood course faster through her veins. She careened through the streets of London, unused to the weight of her vehicle, nearly tipping it over as she screeched around one corner, then the next. She was driving into the rubble now, and with the billowing dust against the black curtain of night, she could hardly see where she was going, but at least she was driving away from the bombs now, and at least they were dropped more infrequently. Five one-thousands, then six one-thousands apart. One of them had fallen straight through the lift-shaft at the Marble Arch tube station, where hundreds of people were hiding. “I’m coming,” promised Sally, “I’ll save you.” Her knuckles whitened on the steering wheel as her foot leaned on the gas.
She was the first of the fleet to arrive on site, even with her shaky start. She spilled from her bus ready to do something, anything, she wasn’t sure, really, to transport some mangled body to safety even as it screamed bloody murder and sputtered red all over the sanitized interior of her truck. She thrummed with adrenaline, although she couldn’t have told you it was that, never having experienced it before. She was either going to vomit or take off in flight or both at once. “This is why I left Cornwall,” she thought as she stamped her feet to keep warm and waited. For that was all there was to do now. Wait.
The doors were still swinging on the vans of the Air Raid Wardens, who had arrived at Marble Arch just seconds before Sally, and already disappeared from sight into the bowels of the Underground. “They’ll be coming back up any minute now with the rescues,” determined Sally, bouncing from foot to foot.
“I wish Buff was here! Buff would love this!” Buff was the only thing in Cornwall which Sally missed. The cliffs, maybe, and the wind on her face, and the spray from the ocean when it ran headlong into the bluffs. But otherwise, life in Cornwall was unbearably dull, and Sally couldn’t fathom why her big sis who was always talking about real life in a real city hadn’t taken the chance to go to London with her. To be a hero.
Francis staggered out from Marble Arch and the first thing he saw was Sally. Time suddenly stretched like molasses and she and everything around her—the rest of the ambulances finally arriving on the scene and the other air raid wardens now emerging from the station—seemed to be moving as though suspended in the thick, brown syrup. Her curls bobbed under her helmet as she shifted from foot to foot. They flashed red and gold whenever a headlight or torchlight happened to catch them with their beams. Her blue eyes were startlingly clear and she grinned like the Cheshire cat.
At the sight of her like that, Francis crumpled in a heap on the street curb and wept. He sat there pitching and rolling in a sea of tears until every last drop was wrung from his body.
Sally stopped stomping her feet against the cold. She didn’t even feel the cold anymore. There was a chill in her bones but no amount of foot-stomping would rid her of that. Every last warden who surfaced from Marble Arch was empty-handed. There was no one to save down there. There was not so much as a recognizable human form down there.
“Jellified abstraction,” someone said; Sally didn’t know who, nor did Francis, but now these words passed from the lips of all the dozen or so living souls huddled there in the dark above the mass grave.
The ambulances pulled away and so did the convoy of Air Raid Warden cars. Sally stood for an indeterminate amount of time while thinking about the Cornish cliffs and the wind on her face, of sand between her toes and the beaches where she and Buff spent the endless summers of their girlhood, turning brown and ruddy. She turned the words “jellified abstraction” over in her mind. She wasn’t sure she really got it.
Francis remained in a heap on the curb, immovable. There was a gentle breeze now in the restored calm of those precious hours before dawn and it whistled through his head.
Sally noticed Francis just as she was about to turn back to her bus and drive off into the sunrise. She wasn’t sure at first if he was a man or shrapnel, but then she saw blinking eyes, and these appeared, upon closer examination, to be set quite intently on her.
“Hullo,” she called to him.
She turned back to her bus. Her purse was stashed under the driver’s seat, where she kept a flask of whiskey, even though, at this point in her life, she wasn’t much of a drinker. She fished out the flask and approached the crumpled man on the street curb.
“Here,” she said and handed it to him.
He looked up at her as he reached for the whiskey and she saw in his eyes not just thankfulness, not just deep, deep gratitude, but relief. Tremendous relief. As though in that moment he was delivered. He drained the flask in one long sip. Sally’s eyes widened. Francis’ eyes reddened.
“It’s the best medicine,” she said, and smiled at him.
They sat there together on the street curb as the encompassing blackness faded to grey and waited for the sun to rise. It did.