An Extract from The Night Watch
They had to go north-west to get to Hugh Street, and the route was a grim one, the shabby houses at the heart of Pimlico giving way, with dismal regularity, to patches of devastated land, to mounds of rubble, or hollowed-out terraces. The ack-ack guns still pounded on; between bursts of fire Kay could make out, too, the dreary throb of aircraft, the occasional whistle and whizz of bombs and rockets. The sounds were very like those of an ordinary Guy Fawkes night, from before the war; the smells, however, were different: not the simple-minded smell – as Kay thought of it now – of ordinary gunpowder, but the faint stink of burning rubber from the guns, and the putrid scent of exploded shells.
The streets were deserted, and lightly fogged. In raids, like this, Pimlico had an odd sort of haunted feel – the feel of having until recently swarmed with lives, which had all been violently extinguished or chased off. And when the guns stopped, the atmosphere could be even weirder. Kay and Mickey had once or twice walked along the edge of the river after their shift was finished. The place was uncanny: quieter, in its way, than the countryside would have been; and the view down the Thames, to Westminster, was all of humped, irregular masses – as if the war had stripped London back, made a series of villages of it, each of them defending itself against unknown forces, darkly and alone.
They arrived at the top of St George's Drive and found a man – a Police Reserve – looking out for them, waiting to direct them to the site. Kay raised her hand to him, and wound down her window; he ran over to the van – ran lumpishly, because of the weight of his uniform, his hat, the canvas bag that was strapped to his chest and swung as he moved. 'Around to the left,' he said. 'You'll see it all right. Keep well out, though, because of glass.'
He ran off, then, to flag down Partridge and say the same thing to her.
Kay went on more cautiously. As soon as she turned into Hugh Street there began to come, as she knew there would, specks and smuts upon the windscreen of the van: dust, from pulverised brick and stone, plaster and wood. The light from her headlamps – which was poor enough, because the lamps were dimmed – seemed to thicken, to cloud and swirl, like stout settling down in a glass. She leant forward, trying to see, driving more and more slowly, hearing the crunch and snap of things beneath her wheels; afraid for the tyres. Then she made out another faint light, fifty yards ahead: the beam from the torch of an ARP man. He slightly raised it, hearing her come. She parked the van, and Partridge drew up behind her.
The warden came over, taking off his hat, wiping beneath it with a handkerchief, then blowing his nose. Behind him was a line of houses, dark against the almost-dark of the sky. Peering through the swirling dust, Kay could see now that one of the houses had been almost demolished – its front compressed, reduced to rubble and beams, as if under the carelessly placed boot of a roving giant.
'What was it?' she asked the warden as she and Mickey got out.
He was putting his hat back on, and nodded. 'Hundred pounder at least.' He helped them get blankets, bandages, and a stretcher from the back of the van, then began to lead them over the rubble, shining his torch about as he went.
'This place caught all of it,' he said. 'Three flats. The top and the middle we think were empty. But the people from the other were all at home – had been in their shelter and were just coming out again, if you can believe it. Thank God they never made it to the house! The man's pretty cut about with glass from one of the windows. The others were all more or less knocked flying, you'll be able to tell how badly. One old lady's got the worst of it: she's the one I think you'll need the stretcher for. I told them all to keep in the garden till you arrived. They ought to have a doctor look at them, really; but control say the doctor's car's been caught in a blast – '
He lost his footing, then righted himself and went on without speaking. Partridge was coughing because of the dust. Mickey was rubbing grit from her eyes. The chaos was extraordinary. Every time Kay put down her feet, things cracked beneath them, or wrapped themselves around her ankles: broken window-glass mixed up with broken mirrors, crockery, chairs and tables, curtains, carpets, feathers from a cushion or a bed, great splinters of wood. The wood surprised Kay, even now: in the days before the war she'd imagined that houses were made more or less solidly, of stone – like the last Little Pig's, in the fairy tale. That amazed her, too, was the smallness of the piles of dirt and rubble to which even large buildings could be reduced. This house had had three intact floors to it, an hour before; the heap of debris its front had become was no more than six or seven feet high. She supposed that houses, after all – like the lives that were lived in them – were mostly made of space. It was the spaces, in fact, which counted, rather than the bricks.
The rear of the house, however, was more or less intact. They went through a creaking passageway and emerged, bizarrely, into a kitchen, still with cups and plates on its shelves and pictures on its walls, its electric light burning and its black-out curtain up. But part of the ceiling had come down, and streams of dust were tumbling from cracks in the plaster behind; beams were still falling, the warden said, and the place was expected to collapse.
He took them out to the little garden, then went back through the house to the street, to check on the neighbours. Kay put up the brim of her hat. It was hard to see, through the darkness, but she made out the figure of a man, sitting on a step with his hands at his head; and a woman, lying flat and very still on a blanket or rug, with another woman beside her, perhaps chafing her hands. A girl behind them was going dazedly about. A second girl was sitting in the open doorway of a shelter. She had a whimpering, yelping thing in her arms – Kay took it at first to be an injured baby. Then it wriggled and gave a high-pitched bark, and she saw that it was a dog.
The dust was still swirling, making everyone cough. There was that queer, disorientating atmosphere that Kay had always noticed at sites like this. The air felt charged, as if with a rapidly beating pulse – as if still ringing, physically vibrating – as if the atoms that made up the house, the garden, the people themselves, had been jolted out of their moorings and were still in the process of settling back. Kay was aware, too, of the building behind her, threatening its collapse. She went very quickly from person to person, tucking blankets over their shoulders, and shining her torch, looking into their faces.
Then, 'Right,' she said, straightening up. One of the girls, she thought, might have a broken leg or ankle; she sent Partridge to look at her. Mickey went to the man on the step. Kay herself went back to the woman who was lying on the rug. She was very elderly, and had taken some sort of blow to the chest. When Kay knelt beside her and felt for her heart, she let out a moan.
Copyright (c) Sarah Waters. All Rights Reserved