by Cleo Egnal
7 September, 1940
She drummed her fingers softly on the worn oak of his writing desk. It belonged to his father, he had mentioned that once, but the details and context of the conversation were lost to her. She tapped rhythmically, playing out a tune that got itself stuck in the recesses of her mind. A sharp pinch of memory reminded her that he hated when she did “that blasted thing” with her fingers when she was nervous. Out of belated courtesy she folded her hands together and rested the shape in her lap, trying to keep her buzzing body steady. He wasn’t there, of course, to reprimand her absentminded habit, but she thought it polite, regardless, to cease her nervous tapping. Maybe she was worried he could hear it, wherever he was. Maybe they were that connected.
The tune, faded and distant and blurry, somehow, continued to dance around in her head; she tapped (her foot, this time) in time with the nonexistent music as she blocked the sounds of sirens and checked the clock again. He was late. And bombs were falling.
They had spoken earlier that afternoon about what to have for supper, but never decided. The thought, when it occurred to her, prompted her to move from where she had been sitting, sorting through mail like she always did right before he came home to her, and make her way to the kitchen. The sirens grew louder (or had she just started really paying attention?) as she made her way without thinking through the flat.
As she stared at the empty plates set out on the small square table in the corner of the kitchen, trying to orient herself and remember what exactly it was she came into the room to find in the first place, she thought about whether or not he was hungry. They usually ate together at six-thirty; they were both punctual about things that way. Well, she only was when it came to food. He could have been made of gears and ticking clocks, though, the way he navigated time effortlessly and always managed to arrive exactly when needed, or intended. She constantly found herself wanting to be somewhere and only arriving when the odd workings of the universe finally allowed her to find her left shoe. He wasn’t like her in that regard. So it was odd, terribly odd, that at eight-fifteen the plates were empty and the kettle was screaming and her reliable clock was broken.
She snapped her fingers as she recalled her purpose for venturing into the kitchen; she meant to turn the kettle off before heading down to the shelter. It was shrieking, the kettle, that was what reminded her; it was a miracle its voice didn’t get lost in the droning sirens. She wondered why the sirens had to blare on so incessantly. Surely one or two warnings would be enough. But no, it had been going on too long and her ears were ringing and as she turned the knob on the stove all the way to the right, and as the kettle began to quiet and all that was left was the slight sizzle of boiling water, she wondered what would happen if she just stayed. He would be confused, after all, if he wandered in and she was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t very well duck into the shelter without him, he wouldn’t know where she’d gone. He’d be standing in the foyer, absolutely muddled.
Of course, this was all fanciful thinking. He could hear the sirens just as clearly as she could (although she wished sometimes she couldn’t, they were completely bothersome at times) and would know immediately where to find her. But something about him coming home to an empty flat made her incredibly sad, she didn’t know why, and so she contemplated staying. She could make them both some tea — after all, the kettle had been prepared — and reheat dinner and he would come home to a warm meal instead of wondering if she was still in one piece. She supposed that was what she was wondering, at the moment. If he was in pieces somewhere, bits of him scattered throughout the city. She imagined a corner of his ear carried by the wind through Trafalgar Square, right by his office, while his ring finger headed south along the dusty streets toward Whitehall. She imagined his pinky toe sauntering off to Charing Cross to catch the train home, unaware that it had lost the rest of him. She imagined this all somehow detached from the idea that it was entirely possible he wasn’t, at the moment, whole.
Her instincts for self-preservation proved stronger than her worry at him coming back to an empty flat. After a few more moments of wandering around, waiting for him, she grabbed the basket filled with snacks and knitting and old magazines she had begun keeping by the door, threw the first thing she saw on the coat rack over her shoulders, and headed out toward the building’s air raid bunker. She brushed aside the creeping heat of fear that was making its way up the base of her spine and turned her thoughts instead to whether or not she would be able to carve out a comfortable spot for herself among the thirty or so others she predicted were already there.
The sirens continued and the night wore on, seemingly endless, occasional shudders racking the brick wall against her back. A single bulb rattled overhead, swinging ever so slightly, a present reminder that the earth above them was turning to rubble. She passed her time knitting the beginnings of a scarf and tapping out music on the concrete floors. No one asked her to please stop doing “that blasted thing,” and somehow the lack of reprimand struck her harder than if the action had been met by communal disdain. The quiet of the bunker, louder almost than the sirens, hummed like electric lights, the very outsides of it electrified by such intense fear she wondered if they would all simply perish from that. The inside of the silence was vast, dark, terrifying. It was so loud, all that quiet, she pressed her hands against her ears to try to block it out but all she heard was muffled sirens screaming from all corners of London and some occasional sobbing. She couldn’t tell from whom it was coming; it might have been her.
For seventy six more days, each time she made her way to the bunker, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he would suddenly walk through the door, expecting his tea and supper, and she would have to explain that she was terribly sorry, but preparing a meal had slipped her mind in all the chaos, and would he be opposed to eating out just this once? He would wrap his arms around her and say no, he didn’t mind at all, and he would take her by the hand and they would walk together through an unbroken city, without worrying about anything but rain falling from the sky.
Cleo Egnal is a fiction writer with a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she spends her days dreaming of the English countryside and working on her novel. She has been published on The Other Stories and Ranker. Besides writing fiction, she is also passionate about Victorian history, fashion history, and music.