It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. The night before Christmas was quiet on the beach but at least there were no more explosions. I never got used to sleeping in our cellar with the noise of collapsing masonry above our heads. My mother feared for our lives every day for two years. She never slept a wink. It was hard on my father, too. He was always on his guard and watchful throughout the night. My sister and I were too young to know what was happening and father never showed his fear, but I could tell. His comforting smile wasn’t real when he assured us it would be over soon. Mother would stroke my forehead and sang lullabies to us when the explosions rocked the foundations. She’d hold us in her arms as the crumbling mortar dust cascaded into our hair. When the electricity failed and left us in darkness, we knew we’d be safe beside her in our underground shelter. We were never in darkness for long because my father had candles and matches to hand. He’d soon strike a match so we could all see and light a candle, placing it in an empty bottle. Looking back, it was never comfortable going to sleep, but the flickering candlelight helped us nod off. Our eyelids would droop like wilting petals and our lolling heads bobbed like wooden rocking horses at the end of a mighty gallop. If anything, we all drifted away through exhaustion, huddling close for warmth like hibernating mice; dreaming about a change of season and an end to the dreadful evenings cowering in our murky basement.
My mother tried hard to make it a homely place. She draped old curtains over the damp bricks and hung up half a dozen pictures to brighten up the place. My favourite one had yellow sunflowers in a blue vase. When the siren wailed, we’d run downstairs, and she told us stories about her childhood. My favourite tales were about her family holidays. They used to travel to the countryside and slept under the stars in waxed cotton tents. We asked her what it was like and she said our basement was a bit like a tent with its canvas wall coverings.
When the morning came and the planes stopped flying overhead, mother always swept away the flaky mortar dust and father removed any large chunks of plaster fallen from the ceiling. One day, he returned home with four long pieces of heavy timber and jammed them under the rafters in our cellar. I asked what father was doing and mother said he had also been on camping holidays. Father said that when he was a youngster, tents had wooden ridge poles that kept the structure upright and he was trying to make our pretend tent more like a proper one.
The night before our basement collapsed, father came back with good news. He’d spoken to a man in the fishing port who’d promised to help us. My mother was so excited she hugged him and started sorting all our things, but father said we shouldn’t do too much packing because it would be difficult. What did he mean by difficult, my sister asked him? Well, he said, it’s just that there wouldn’t be much room. My mother frowned and asked why she couldn’t take pictures and books and everything. It’s just that it’s going to be difficult, my father replied. How difficult, I asked, uncertain what he meant. I mean, we haven’t got many things, but we’ve been careful, I said. We’d preserved all our cherished items for safety in the cellar. My father revealed more details and said the boat wasn’t big enough for much luggage. But what do you mean? she asked, sitting down. How much room is there on the boat? He said lots more people had asked to accompany us on the boat and now there wasn’t much space for bags. How many cases can we take, asked my mother? Father stuck his hands into his trouser pockets and shrugged his shoulders. I swallowed and looked at my sister, who placed her arm around my shoulder. We hadn’t any choice, my father said. There must be another way, my mother said, holding her head in her hands as if she was about to vomit into an imaginary bucket. My sister squeezed me close, and I bit my lip. There is no alternative, father said, at last. My mother raised her head to face him and snorted air through her nostrils as if she were about to dive off a cliff into the cold ocean below. You’ve used all our savings, she said. Yes, he said. We don’t have a choice now.
The night before we walked to the water’s edge, the sky above was quiet. The mighty siren was silent as well. The only disturbance was when our cellar roof fell in. We all woke with a start as if our world had ended, which it had, of course. We neither had a secure place to go at night nor any savings to spend on food. Our futures lay at the end of a boat journey in a land we’d only ever seen on television and read about in books and magazines. A world of plenty where people gave each other gorgeous gifts wrapped in glittering paper and everyone looked content with big smiles on their shiny faces. It looked like a land of plenty and a safe world away from the nightly explosions. Perhaps we’d get to go on camping holidays in our beautiful new country and have a home with hot running water again. Maybe we could choose what to eat and where to eat it. All we had to do was make a short voyage across the water. My father promised us it would all work out, and we’d feel safe once more. The man in the fishing port had made lots of promises, too. He sounded like a nice man because he’d been so helpful.
It was Christmas Eve when we met our fellow travellers on the stony shoreline. The evening sky was clear and I could see my breath by the time it went dark. There were at least fifty other people waiting for the boat to arrive. They’d also given the boat man all their savings because he’d promised them a way out. He’d promised them room for cases too, however I couldn’t see a single bag between all of us. We had the clothes we were standing in and that was all. In the end, the boat man said there was no room for our possessions. He told my father we were the lucky ones. We should thank him for helping us and if we didn’t want to leave, well, that was up to us. My father said we had no choice.
It was three o’clock in the morning when I heard a murmur of voices. I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes because of the cold. Somebody down by the water’s edge stood up and shouted, Look! Look! It’s here! Somewhere out there was the high whine of a straining diesel engine. It sounded as if it was about to take off and fly away or explode. Either way, it was bearing a heavy load.
Yes! I can see it! Someone shouted, and we all stumbled to our feet. It was difficult to see in the darkness. There was an excited hum of voices. Who would go first? Could we all fit on board? How long would it take?
Out of the gloom approached a wooden vessel that sat low in the water. The engine noise changed to a low chugga-chugga and we could hear its hull grinding on the rocks and pebbles as it slowed down. It was then that we could see the passengers on board. Their faces were pale and ghostly white in the moon’s merciless glow. There were people I recognised from earlier in the day. The babble of voices surrounding me diminished as the lifeless phantoms disembarked and waded towards us from their beached craft. None of them said a word as they wandered past us. Their frozen expressions spoke volumes. Instead of the warm welcome our saviour had promised, our fellow travellers had received a firm refusal.
And what had happened to our hero?
Where was the boat man now?
He was nowhere to be seen.