“I can’t find George Arthur,” said Lois. “He’ll be scared.”
“George Arthur will be perfectly fine,” reassured her mother, nestling her chin atop her daughter’s flyaway hair. “You know as well as I do how wonderfully brave he is. He's just like you.”
“Yes, and just like Daddy,” put in Lois. Barbara blinked back a hot sting of tears. “But he can’t see in the dark, Mummy. George Arthur won’t know where he is.”
Barbara felt Lois’ pain. Living here alone wasn’t what she’d planned but everyone she knew appreciated the tacit understanding. They would get through this; with courage and mental fortitude they would endure. At least she and Lois had each other even if the child was too young yet to appreciate the circumstances. Many other children had been sent away but Barbara had refused to be parted from her firstborn.
“Ah, but it’s a well-known fact that all London teddy bears possess the remarkable instinct of turning up exactly where they should be at exactly the right moment. You’ll see, when the lights come back on we’ll find him enjoying a lovely warm cup of his favourite bean soup from your tea set or tucked happily into one of the seat cushions.”
“He’s not real, Mummy. He’s just a toy,” Lois whispered. “He can’t really drink, you know.”
A lone tear made its unseen escape down her cheek and Barbara smiled in the dark. It wasn’t the first time she’d underestimated her daughter. With her right arm gently but firmly embracing Lois, Barbara searched uselessly about the floor with her other for the errant stuffed toy, finding only the sturdy wooden leg of the table. Imitating this mother and daughter pair, the child kept her adored companion close at all times so how bloody typical that it should go missing in action at precisely the wrong moment. It wouldn’t be far away but in the black-as-pitch dining-come-sitting room, it may as well be on the other side of the country. These constant blackouts were nuisance enough but when one had an anxious four-year-old to contend with, blind nights were particularly fraught.
“George Arthur misses me. He feels like crying.”
“Gosh, really? He’s a silly old bear, isn’t he? He should be getting used to this by now. Doesn’t he know that crying really doesn’t help much at all? We’ve tried that, haven’t we? We must be brave little soldiers.”
“The same as Daddy.” Lois tightened her hold.
Barbara called into the depths of the blacked out room, “George Arthur, it’s all right to feel a little worried but the three of us are here together and we love each other very much.”
Barbara’s legs were beginning to cramp on the floorboards so she adjusted the reedy child on her lap in order to stretch her aching limbs. “Let’s sing some songs together while we wait for the lights to come back on, shall we? That way, George Arthur will feel all snuggly and safe when he hears us.” She began with better known nursery rhymes and after a few minutes when she felt Lois’ breathing deepen and her small body relax comfortably around the shape of her own, Barbara slowed the tone to a low rhythmic hum, letting her mind drift back to brighter days; days where an idle stroll to the butcher’s shop for plentiful cuts of good quality meat had been taken for granted, and when it hadn’t been a frantic rush to join a lengthy queue, clutching your precious rations tickets in gloveless hands in the hope of acquiring meagre offcuts.
She tried to picture her sweet husband’s face. Could she really have forgotten the feel of the stubbly dimple in his chin and the comical look of that one slightly crooked front tooth so soon? How long had he been gone? It seemed such a long time ago that husbands came home every afternoon, played with their little ones, tucked them into bed at night after a filling supper and helped them recite their bedtime prayers. “If I should die before I wake…” she mouthed.
Their happy little family had lived and laughed under muted spring skies by day and read un-newsworthy newspapers by bright electric houselights in the evenings. A once contented, carefree mother, Barbara hadn’t realised then how precious it was to have seen only childish daydreams and curiosity on Lois’ young face. Fear, the terrifyingly real fear they now lived and breathed hourly had once been an unknown element relegated to fairy tales in story books written by imaginative authors.
An air raid siren screamed out, breaking through the deathly quiet of the neighbourhood, the false peace of wartime silence. Lois jerked awake but didn’t move. How sad it was that one so young had learned to recognise the short blasts that signalled the beginning, and the single, long ‘all clear’ siren at the end, contemplated Barbara. Two minutes later when the screeching ceased, relief loosened the tautness between Barbara’s shoulder blades. London and its inhabitants could breathe again.
“Right then, Little Miss, what’s say we flick the switch and find out where this cheeky bear has propped himself?” Lois rolled to one side to allow her mother to get up. She crawled out from beneath the dining table and dragged herself upright, using the table for support, her fully rounded midriff adding to the difficulty of the simple exercise. Golden light from the single overhead bulb cast deep shadows against walls and furniture.
“There you are, George Arthur!” called Lois, retrieving her threadbare teddybear from the tired brown sofa behind her. “You really ought not to have gone wandering off in the middle of an air raid by yourself. You know the rules. You must have been terribly frightened sitting there alone in the dark. I shall have to smack your naughty bottom if you ever do that again.” Barbara hugged Lois and George Arthur before straining her ears at the empty air.
“Shhh…” she murmured. She thought she heard … but no. Yet there it was again, the very faintest of whines, like a tiny mosquito on a far off breeze. The sound grew louder until there was no mistaking the aeroplane’s engine for any common insect.
“Under the table, Lois. NOW!”
When the dull grey wash of a new London dawn crept up and over the smoking rubble in Brixton, a child’s upended shoe and an old teddy bear lay atop the freshly deposited dust and blackened bricks in Hollingbourne Road.