When we arrived we were given cakes wrapped in soft paper, toothbrushes, fresh milk and lemon-scented towels.
Father spoke quietly and mother fussed with the sheets while my sister and I quarrelled over beds. There was a football; Father said I could kick it against the wall if I promised to be good, which I did for a while before my sister took a pair of scissors to it. Then a man wearing a raincoat came to drop off a box of wet books and oil paintings. “The milk’s out,” he said, like he was reading the weather.
The corridor was a tunnel of crumbling brick, locked doors and dull orange brume. It was so long you couldn’t see head or tail and, if you tried to trace the squeezing lines, both your eyes and the tunnel itself would vanish into a cloud of darkness.
Like the corridor, our room was doused in orange light; there were no windows and the ceilings hung low, our voices landing in blunt echoes from every surface. Mother’s oak chest, filled with silverware and family photos, cowered unopened against the far wall; in the corner, a heavy curtain hid the facilities: a metal toilet, two wall mirrors, and a low sink. I slept on the top bunk, my pillow about a foot away from the curtain; an arrangement I didn’t mind so much. At first Heather had tried to make me stand in the corridor and cover my ears when she had to go, but mother wouldn’t allow it saying that covering my ears was enough. At the foot of my bunk stood a shelf packed with candles, matches, sugar, pencils and blankets. Since father had given me his silver lighter, we didn’t have much use for the matches, and we only lit them after toilet business to hide the smell.
The rattling and pounding and scraping started after a few days. I missed Henry a lot. We’d left so quickly I’d not had time to look for him. Father said he’d be fine by himself, but I was worried. I asked mother if we could leave for just an hour to feed him.
“No,” she replied curtly, “We’ll be home soon. Henry’s a smart dog. You should be more worried about the mess he’ll have made.”
Heather’s lip curled – she hadn’t said a word since we’d arrived, choosing to communicate only by facial contortions, but I’d learned that this particular gesture meant ‘I disagree’. Still, I believed what mother said. Henry would be waiting for us like he always did: in his box in the library, chewing on father’s field jacket and ready to chase us out into the yard as he did the neighbours’ cats. Good ol’ Henry.
A lot of men passed our room during those few days, marching or running down the corridor and making Mother scowl. The only one she took a liking to was Captain Bernard, who, with his stalk legs and long neck, reminded me of a giraffe. Bernard would always duck through the door, kiss Mother on the cheek and say an encouraging word or two. “A nice adventure, ain’t it, little man?” he’d say, then frown at the deflated football hanging on the back of the door before striding off.
With each day the rattling and pounding and scraping got louder. It didn’t even stop at night when we were trying to sleep, and no matter how hard I wrapped my pillow around my head it always crept through and did somersaults in my ears.
With each day the rattling and pounding and scraping got louder. It didn’t even stop at night when we were trying to sleep, and no matter how hard I wrapped my pillow around my head it always crept through and did somersaults in my ears. It was a funny thing: no one else seemed to care, not even my mother, who was known to jitter at the sound of the ice box lid slamming. When I complained, she told me that I shouldn’t concentrate on the noise. I tried and, while I couldn’t close my mind to it completely, I discovered that if I put my fingers in my ears and sung my favourite hymn, I started to feel better. Heather must’ve been having trouble concentrating too because, while I sung, she crawled into mother’s bed and began playing with her hair and sobbing. I wanted to cheer her up, so I mentioned that the orange glow of the light bulbs made everyone look sunburned, like that time we fell asleep at the lake. But Heather only sobbed more loudly and told me to shut up and quit singing, saying that I didn’t know what I was talking about. She was wrong, but I did what my sister said and shut up, because I was glad that she was talking again.
With each visit, father’s appearance looked more and more like that of wet newspaper. He’d flop through the door, grunt or burp into his chest, then fold his great arms and legs over the bed and start snoring.
“I want to go home,” I told him as I dangled my head from the top bunk into his.
“The adventure’s not up yet,” he said, his eyes still closed. “Just a few more sleeps.”
“I want to come with you.”
After much horizontal shrugging and sighing, he shook his head. “I need you here to look after your mother and sister. The men’s office is no place for a child.”
“But I don’t want to look after them. I want to be with you and Captain Bernard, papa.”
“Go to sleep, Simon” mother said from behind the curtain.
Father opened his eyes into slits. “Later, son. Later. I promise,” he whispered and rolled over. Fifteen minutes later, he was back on his feet. He tousled my hair then went to kiss my sister. “I’ll be back later,” he said. I listened to his foot steps sweep down the corridor and out of reach.
It had been three days since father’s last visit and despite my pleadings, mother forbade me to leave the room. Every attempt to steal down the corridor was thwarted either by my sister, or by a quiet man in uniform who always seemed to appear out of nowhere.
My chance came one night after we’d gone to bed. After some fierce rattling, pounding and scraping, the ceiling grumbled and everything snapped. The orange light evaporated and our room shrunk into blackness. From their regular breathing, I could tell my mother and sister were sleeping, so, with my lighter butterflying in my trembling hands, I poured from my bed and snuck out the door. I padded down the corridor, one shoulder against the crackling wall, every so often stopping to listen for signs of movement; on and on I crept, my calf muscles reporting a steady ascent, my nostrils, the tang of gasoline. After several minutes, muffled voices drifted towards me. I was close. Music. A violin purring gently in space. The bubbling of a radio. I quickened my pace and my eyes soon made out a white strip of light ahead, then the silhouette of an empty chair and the dull rivets of a wide door. As I approached, my foot struck something hard. The object skated along the ground and smashed into the chair. A terrific echo filled with cigarette ash smacked the walls around me. The lighter fell from my hands killing the flame, and it took a few seconds for my retinas to yield to the glow escaping from crack beneath the door. I stopped breathing and closed my eyes, expecting an officer to materialise from the gloom and shake my collar. Nothing. The radio bubbled on. The voices warbled. With my ear pressed against the cool metal, I could hear a hundred different kinds of beeping, a typewriter tapping, the violin singing from somewhere high, men coughing and the movement of papers, glasses and feet.
“Did Stevenson report this?” I heard a gruff man say.
“It’s occupied up until the square where-”
“But, Stevenson. Did you hear that from him?”
“Then how can you be sure?” The gruff man growled, and I heard lots of stamping and the scratching of chairs against tiles. “Dispatch a note – we’re evacuating. Stevenson will meet us at the-”
“Thomas!” Something crashed and the violins stopped singing. It was my father. My heart pinioned my lungs and dragged them to my stomach. There were no sighs or shrugs in his voice now, only a broad shout, powerful and focussed. I thought of poor Henry sitting in the library chewing on a field jacket. “Have you lost your reason? Stevenson is static! The sector is flooded! Bernard’s dead and every front this side of the river’s been cut loose. To where exactly do you wish to evacuate?”
At the sound of Bernard’s name I heard footsteps coming towards the door. The handle squeaked, then world snapped again and the orange lights breathed back into life. I pulled my head back and ran. I ran as fast as I could, chasing that black cloud until I was through it and back into my bed.
“Simon?” I heard my mother’s voice as I gasped for air in my pillow. I didn’t dare speak.
I woke to the sound of mother crushing ginger biscuits into a bowl.
“Power’s up,” she said.
There was a knock. After some hushed conversation, a glove slipped through the door and handed an envelope to mother, which she took to the bathroom. It must have been a long letter because she stayed behind the curtain for a very long time.
“What’s going on?” I mouthed at Heather, who responded by furrowing her eyebrows and jilting like she was trying to shake my voice from her head. Was it a letter from papa? If he’d discovered that it was me who’d been prowling about in the corridor, then it’d mean more trouble than the time I painted all the doorknobs with butter.
It was a relief when the door swung open and father drifted into the room; he didn’t seem angry at all. My sister and I watched him as he unbuttoned his jacket, then let his belt slide to his boots: his finger nails were black and the half-moons under his eyes had turned to ash. He crouched down next to my sister’s bed and didn’t say anything for a while. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled something out and skidded it across the floor. It was the silver lighter.
“Is Henry going to be alright?” I asked.
“Henry’s going to be just fine,” he said finally. “We’re all going home very soon.” And when he started crying I knew that he’d meant it. Mother must have believed him too, because she stepped out from behind the curtain, shaking so much that tears shot sideways from her cheeks.
Then mother scared us. She screamed. She screamed so loud and with such rage that I scrambled backwards into the corner of my bunk. Even Heather looked rattled. My father tried to calm her, but mother rushed at him like an axe and he fell against Heather, spilling soggy biscuit down her dress.
“You! You! You!” mother screeched as she slapped father repeatedly over the head with the envelope. The noise that gargled in her throat was more terrible than the rattling and much worse than the pounding and scratching Heather grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the door, but not before Mother wound her arm and slapped father so hard on his face that the envelope ripped open. Four diamond-shaped pellets flew out of her hand and into air. They hit the ceiling, cracked and then floated in chips and powder to the floor. Father protested and ordered us to be still, but mother’s steaming glare melted his command to a mutter. I wanted to stay but my sister was too strong and she dragged me out, kicking and biting, through the dust and into the corridor, which now glimmered with a yellow blaze.