Vi Bellows was nine when Germany attacked her home in London. Seventy-five years later, she can’t forget what she saw, and she’s never talked about it until now. The rogue fighter jet with teeth like razors was always out to get her, and today her family insists she join them at the WWII memorial. Vi, however, fears the monster from her childhood is awaiting her arrival.
About the AuthorHaving lingered in libraries as a toddler, some magic book dust must have rubbed off as writing is the only thing I have consistently returned to after experimenting in an obscure selection of professions. At night I shed my mother/wife/mother/teacher skin and venture into fiction. I grew up in the West of England but live in Thessaly with my two gorgeous kids, super husband and of course, two adopted cats.
For Barbara Tinson
There are so few of us now; we, who remember the Blitz. We are like the solitary standing stones whose circles are lost in the swathes of time and our purpose is no longer clear. Without true understanding, without our consent, everyone agrees that the memory of what we have seen must be preserved to remind future generations, to warn them. I disagree, the atrocities and horrors should be buried piece by tiny piece with each memory as it is lost and would that my memory could be wiped clean like a chalk slate, the passed erased. That is why I have kept my silence and do so still for as much as I would like to forget I cannot allow myself to.
Since Frank left me a month back, the fear has returned. I see things in the shadows of the scudding clouds, hear raucous laughter in the thunder claps and know that my time is short for I am being stalked once more now my protector has gone. Frank was the only living soul who understood I was and am once more, fighting my own relentless, personal war.
Jeanette bustles in and opens the drapes to a monotone sky with only the temperature and angle of the light denote the season. Cloud lies like a damp blanket smothering the countryside, leeching my will to resist, that’s why I shut it out. Ostrich defence policy.
‘Mum, aren’t you ready? I told you last night, we’re going out today!’
With just two days to go until the New Year it is too soon to start actual party preparations and too far from Christmas to feel festive, or so my daughter claims. She will never understand that routine is safety! I don’t need something to break it or to liven things up a bit; life is not my problem.
‘Where to on such a rotten day?’
‘It’s a surprise.’
Defiantly, I slip two more crumpets into the toaster, at my age I don’t have to wait for the afternoon to have tea.
‘I’m not going anywhere unless you tell me.’
‘Now Mum, don’t be difficult.’—it was a hollow echo of my own voice fifty-odd years ago admonishing a younger Jeanette.
I can remember my dismay on hearing my mother’s voice in my own but to hear my own in my daughter’s, is a whole new kettle of fish.
‘Don’t be getting smart on me young lady; I can still give you a good lickin’!’
There is much tittering behind her.
‘Mum please!’—to me and then to my granddaughter, ‘Belinda see if you and Jacob can help your grandma out with whatever she needs.’
Belinda winks at me from behind her mother. I pretend not to notice her but once Jeanette has exited I smile and accept her kiss and embrace.
‘So what’s this big surprise your mother has got planned for me?’
‘They’re doing a WWII memorial thing for the Blitz.’
My blood runs cold. Instinctively I want to roll into ball and huddle under the bedcovers like a fearful child.
‘Oh Gran, it’ll be fun, displays of old strength and all that.’
‘Old strength, my – why on earth would anyone want to do that?’
‘It’s been 75 years Gran!’ my beloved Belinda berates me.
I need no reminding. I have counted every single one with a prayer that I am still here, still keeping my head above water.
‘Honour the dead by all means but you young ones forget the living still carry the scars in their souls.’
‘You were just a kid, do you even remember?’
‘I was nine, just like you.’—how easy the young confuse a decrepit body with a decrepit mind! ‘And I remember more than I care to.’ I add for emphasis.
‘But you never tell us anything. Jacob can’t believe that you are that old!’ Belinda nudges her young school friend in the ribs.
He has been in permanent residence since Boxing Day; I suspect something to do with his parents’ imminent divorce, his mother would have strangled him with her hugs if she hadn’t drown him in tears before she left to sort out some issues. He turns the colour of beetroot.
I can tell he thinks my bone china cups and the Queen’s portrait are too colonial for good taste but he is too well brought up to say so, bless him. Just for my own entertainment, I take advantage of my years and remind him that the i-pad cable hanging from his ear is terribly bad manners in good company. He cheeks deepen the colour of ripe aubergines!
‘But Mrs. Bellows,’—he isn’t really the shy one he pretends to be. In a few years he’ll have Belinda eating out of his palm and she’ll be none the wiser! It would not be a bad match.
‘I told you call me Vi, Aunty Vi if it makes you feel better,’ I remind him.
‘Vi, um, Aunty Vi, you must share your stories with us don’t you see that? For posterity.’
‘Posterity eh? Is that what they’re teaching you at that posh school of yours?’
‘Your stories are historic record,’
‘Thank you very much for the reminder, young man. If stories are what you want then let me tell you one I’ve never shared before but don’t tell me you regret asking.’ I have made the promise before I realise what I have said and now it’s too late rescind.
They slip buttered crumpets onto my bone china plates, guilt free, and sit at my feet expectantly. My smile is too stiff; usually I love playing the benevolent ‘grandma’ but today, blame the weather or the day, or Jeanette’s determination to get me out of the house, I am reveal my fear. I hope and pray that there will be no repercussions. Perhaps it was all coincidence or childhood fancy. I sincerely hope so.
‘It was this day in 1940 when Bert saw Shark Nose first. Bert was my closest brother, fourteen, handsome and brave as our old Pops. We were all home for the holidays – a rare thing then – even Pops had made it back on leave. Well, Bert’d been coming back from Mrs. Perkins’ next door. He’d gone to return the colander Ma had borrowed ‘because ours had got busted and there weren’t enough coupons to get a new one. We’d just finished supper and were thinking about bed when the sirens went off. We all froze for a split second before leaping into action.
‘Gerry – the Germans – had been quiet for the previous week, only two air raids, and we thought we might get a good night’s rest before we returned the next day to Kingston St Michael where we’d been evacuated to Ma’s third cousin once removed. (Ma and Pops had brought us back for Christmas and we were due back before the New Year.)
‘We had an Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden. Pops’d dug it with a couple of the other men in the street and several families huddled down there. We were all safely inside only Bert left out. We could already hear the droning engines of the planes over the wailing sirens.
“Where has Bert got to?” Ma was frantic.
‘”I gotta shut the door, love.” Pops was trying to sound like he meant it but he was waiting for Bert too.
‘Seconds later, the impact of the first bombs dropped were reverberating through the shelter and everyone was shouting at Ma and Pops to shut the door, as an avalanche of dust tumbled down upon us. Just then Bert came scuttling across the garden, bending double, the colander upturned on his head like an ARP warden’s helmet.
‘”I seen a flying fish.” He said as he scrambled in, sirens blaring all around and the ground shuddering displacing more dust. He was paler than death, eyes round and wild like the colts for breaking in.
‘”Don’t be daft!” Percy berated him. He was seventeen months Bert’s senior and liked to think he knew a thing or two more because he’d kept his head down at school and was going to train as a pilot as soon as he turned eighteen in the spring.
‘”I’m not pulling your leg! I swear! I saw its gums gleaming in the gloom as it swam in the void above.”
Percy didn’t believe him.
‘”Flying fish! Not even the Nazi’s wouldn’t have achieved such a thing – not real flying fish.”
‘”It swooped right over me, its shadow like the dark of midnight, I tell you. It saw me, looked me right in the eyes, like it was toying with me. I tell you, I don’t want to see that face again. It knew I was there.”
‘No one laughed as he shuddered at the thought of the monstrous vision he had seen. We all harboured our own superstitions now we were targets. Things we did to avoid being next, like wearing socks inside out or working through daily chores in a certain order. You young ones don’t get that. It was life and death. There was a Superpower, a huge faceless terror that ate the land in its path and demanding supplication until we were no longer ourselves. Whatever was unique or resisted would succumb and be destroyed. It wanted us gone, wiped from the face of the earth, least that’s how I felt it then. If Bert wanted to put a shark face on his image of what was going on who was I to stop him?
‘So there we were in the flimsey shelter. Bert hugged me close to him like he knew I was the only one who didn’t secretly doubt him, like he knew I had remained faithful. He was trembling all over and when I searched his blue eyes I could have swore I saw the reflection of teeth, like a manic, malicious grin swimming in his gaze. He nodded in acknowledgement.
‘It chilled me and I buried my face in his chest listening to his heart pounding against my ear. The shelter shook and rattled, even old Mrs Baits who’d been trying to jolly us along by singing Vera Lynn and old favourites like ‘My ol’ man said follow the van,’ fell silent.
‘Then we heard what we feared the most, amongst the explosions and rattling; there was a long drawn out whistle that lasted about 30 seconds after that there was silence.
‘We sat and waited; no one spoke each holding his own thoughts close to his chest, not daring to voice our fears. Silence meant that the bomb was close to the ground, ready for impact. The question was where? I was trembling with cold as, in my fear, I had urinated, but Bert still held me tight. He whispered that I should put my hands over my ears so that I couldn’t hear the silence. He put the colander on my head and pulled me onto his lap. I kissed his cheek but couldn’t force even a tiny smile.
‘”I’ve got you safe Vi. I love you.” The words were hollow and echo-y, coming from far away.
‘We were dug out of the shelter in the early hours of daylight. The colander had saved my head from being split in two by falling masonry. Bert had protected my back with his battered corpse as the bomb impacted in our street. I wonder even to this day if I really heard him utter those last words or if I just imagined them. What I do know is that by the time I heard them, he’d already passed over.
‘That was December 29th, 1940, the night of the Blitz. London was raised to the ground. A firestorm had blazed all night long and had threatened to swamp the centre of the city. Two days later Bert was buried and we returned to Ma’s third cousin once removed.’
‘Gran you can’t stop there!’ Belinda wails at my feet.
‘That can’t be the end.’ Jacob chips in.
Jeannette lets out an exasperated sigh as she pokes her head round the door, ‘Are you still eating breakfast? Come on the three of you we’re going to be late.’
‘I’m staying in.’ I inform her.
‘Don’t be daft Mum; you can go out without Dad. It’s hard I know, but you must move on.’
‘You don’t understand – it’s not safe now.’—I twist my hands in my lap feeling the helplessness of a child whose parent cannot see the monster in the shadows.
Jeanette clasps my hands in hers, ‘Dad may be gone but you are not alone. We are all here with you, right by your side.’
Belinda and Jacob nod in allegiance.
‘That’s what you say, but if you were with me, you would not lead me right into the jaws of the enemy!’
‘I won’t hear anymore nonsense from you, Mum! You have to face your fear! Now let’s move. You can finish your story in the car.’
This slip confirms what I already suspected: that Jeanette listens at the door of the bedsitter with en suite they’d had built to accommodate me but I never thought she’d so gleefully betray my wishes.
I stiffen my upper lip resolutely, ‘Jacob dear, have you finished up? Be a love and take the tray to the dish washer while Belinda helps me get ready.’ There is no point in fighting.
He nods silently and dies as he is told. Belinda smiles after him.
Later, in the drive, I put on a brave face, but my heart flutters like a butterfly in a killing jar.
‘You up front mum.’
I stare at the impossibly high step of the Range Rover.
‘I’d like to be in the back with Belinda and Jacob if you don’t mind.’
‘But your legs,’
‘Jeanette, my legs are going to ache no matter what, now will you at least honour my last request? If you are going to drag me to my death, have the good will to humour my idiosyncrasies.’
I glare at Robert, my lawyer son-in-law, to whom I haven’t spoken a civil word to in nine years as I suspect he is having an affair. I am not going to give him the satisfaction of such an easily won victory.
Once trussed in our seatbelts and the bleak winter countryside chasing along beside us, all black bramble hedges bereft of leaf and the rich umber earth bared to the frost’s icy fingers, Belinda and Jacob beg me to continue my tale.
‘Let your grandmother alone.’ Robert pipes up, ‘She needs her peace and quiet.’
He will not dictate to me.
‘Like I was telling you,’ I say, ‘I saw Hitler’s advance across Europe like some faceless monster from a fairytale but after Bert’s death it became more personal. Country life was hard work rather than idyllic and Bert and his dealings with the flying fish had become something of a legend amongst the village kids. Percy had perpetuated the story until we younger kids almost believed Bert had fought a heroic death in the face of some mythological beast.’
‘What a foolish notion.’
I smile at Belinda, ‘No one so young should be taken without good reason so we gave his death meaning.’
Robert’s pinched features pucker a little more, if just for a millisecond, all framed in the rear view mirror.
‘So what happened?’ Jacob intervenes before we start sniping again. He’ll need to be a diplomat to survive in this family.
‘Yes, do tell us.’ adds Belinda.
‘Well, Kingston St Michael is one of those quintessential English villages with a manor and a church, a main street and a school house. We loved it there. Having grown up with red brick of London’s East End, the sandstone buildings and endless green were like paradise. But even the azure seas of paradise have sharks lurking in their waters.
‘Day in day out, there were raids on London and in my heart I knew it was just a matter of time before I heard what I dreaded.’
The children fidget uncomfortably beside me. Even Jeanette looks ill at ease.
‘As I told you I was staying with my cousins, I was alone now as Percy had enlisted as soon as he’d turned eighteen. It was May and as we, me and my cousins, were coming home from school one afternoon we heard a plane. Now as Kingston St Michael ain’t that far from RAF Hullavington as it was then, we didn’t pay much attention but then as the engine sound got closer and louder we realised that it wasn’t the familiar drone of a Spitfire but something quite different.
‘I glanced back and up. It was coming straight for us its mouth seemed agape like a black void, its teeth razor sharp glinting through the blur of its spinning propeller and beading black eyes pinned on me as if it was saying, “I’m coming for you.”
‘Bert had not been lying.
‘I screamed and at that moment it let loose a hail of bullets from its machine guns. We hit the ground hollering and shouting, our satchels drawn over our heads like they would have protected us. The ground was thrown up around us in clods of mud and daisies and shuddered beneath us like it was readying to swallow us whole. It was circling, taunting me.
‘I arrived home to find my aunt dour faced and serious. A telegram lay on the table announcing my parents’ deaths.
‘That night I dreamed of Shark Nose. I was swimming out too deep, floundering and splashing about. Homing in on the disturbance, that mincing aquatic plane swooped through the brine, out to get me. I froze in the ocean, treading water instinctively, trying not to make waves. It passed me close snapping at my dress and again, this time unleashing a hail of bullets pinning me spread-eagled in the water. On the third pass, its jaw opened and swallowed me whole.
Inside its cavernous stomach, I found Bert but he didn’t talk anymore, like he’d no words for what he was experiencing. My parents were there in shadow form not substantial enough to embrace or really even comprehend. Instead, I held Bert’s hand tight in mine so that he knew I understood. There were other shadows in the belly of that infernal creature but they did not approach or bother us. Next to Bert, my parents and I, there was space for one more. Percy. This was personal, I realised.
‘I wrote to Percy telling him of my experience, my dream and my fears. No reply ever came.’—I look up. Anticipation mixed with fear of the inevitable pales Belinda’s and Jacob’s expressions, even Robert is tight lipped.
‘You never told me that.’ Jeanette’s voice is quiet but her resentment resonates around the car.
‘You never asked.’
It was the truth. Jeanette and I had never had that sharing of moments that most mothers and daughters had. I guess she was whisked away to boarding school before we bonded that way.
‘So, what happened?’
Is this Robert easing the tension?
‘Why didn’t Percy reply?’
‘I didn’t find that out until the day after a bomb meant for Hullavington air force base had nearly crushed the Priory and we were all out marvelling at the enormous crater and thanking our lucky stars that none of the houses had been hit. I stood a little apart from the local children; Percy’s stories of Shark Nose had promulgated not only the legend but also the curse. I was marked. Slowly, I became aware that the space me and them had been filled. Two young pilots had come and stood beside me.
‘”You must be little Vi?” one of them said.
‘I didn’t answer them. As the tears blurred my vision like a mirage swimming in the desert sun, I could see the sharks teeth reflected in their eyes.
‘”You look just like Percy.” The other one added.
‘He held out his hand, I took it and he walked me away from the crater and the crowd and the life I had known.
‘”How?” Although I already knew, I had to hear it from their lips.
‘”We were out on a routine training mission,”
‘”It appeared out of nowhere,”
‘”A rogue fighter,”
‘”Nose painted like a shark,”
‘”Percy put up a good fight.”
‘I can remember it as clear as crystal. Each one supplementing the other’s comments as if they had carefully rehearsed this speech but their emotion was as acute as my fear of Shark Nose was raw. The empty space in my dream had now been filled by Percy so all that remained was for me to join them.
‘One of the pilots squeezed my hand tight and, as if reading what was on my mind, whispered in my ear, “We won’t let it get you though.”
‘”Frank, don’t make promises like that.” the other one said but then your Great Uncle Walter was always cautious. Frank knew the limits of what he could do and if he made a promise he would keep it as long as he lived.’
‘That’s how you met Dad?’ Jeanette is fuming now, I can feel the heat of her rage radiating off her. She’d never been privy to this and now I am sharing non-exclusively.
‘We’re here.’ Richard pronounces, silencing us.
He pulls up to the entrance of the airfield. Humped backed hangars lumber along the horizon between strips of tarmac that merge with the bruised sky.
I came of age in places like this. Military bases the world over in varying shades of camouflage harbouring the hope of peace and fear of destruction in secret nooks and crannies. These were places I had come only under the aegis of Frank, but now Jeanette has forced me out into the open. I am left exposed and alone.
Planes taxi to and fro whilst crowds gather beneath the flags of once enemy nations now united. A seamless slick of cars lines the edge of the display area, roped off like ponies. On the tufted grass between the runways and the makeshift car park, museum pieces sit, estranged like geriatrics in and old folk’s home, their owners buffing them up, squirting oils and polishing wheel hubs, trying to convince them they still have a purpose in this supersonic world. Robert and Jacob both coo in the manner of contented doves, Jeanette, Belinda and I approached with caution.
There are biplanes and bombers, night flyers and jets, Glosters and Messerschmitts, Westlands and a Lancaster. I gingerly pet a Spitfire like a faithful friend and warily touch the flanks of a Henkel now it is no longer a foe. My curiosity peaks momentarily, what made man create such masterpieces of destruction when there is so much good that could be brought of genius?
That is when I spy it.
All gleaming steel and vicious teeth glinting in the dull light, it prowls menacingly before me. Its laughter ringing clear over the crowds, its mouth curls triumphantly. Shark Nose is there. I understand now, that it always has been, biding its time, waiting for the right moment. It knew there was no hurry. It knew that getting its quarry was no more than a matter of time and patience.
I watch it weave back and forth, taunting me. It turns to the sky and takes off at great speed as if trying to convince me of its innocence. But before long it is returning, skimming low over the hangars grinning maniacally at the crowds. Then with one final whip of its tail, it is above me. My feet are wrenched from under me. I feel myself going down but can do nothing to stop it. The ground comes up and thwacks me round the head with its tarmac fist. Jeanette and Belinda are barking like troubled seals and the whole dizzying world becomes a sea of faces washing in and out of focus. I tread water in an ocean of semi consciousness, gasping for breath, scanning the murky depths for signs of the creature that had already taken so many bites from my soul. There is nothing yet, but I know how sharks attack. They wait until their victim is weakened after the initial assault; their cunning and patience are unequalled. Then they strike.
I stay still hoping that it will not detect me all the while haunted by a terrible sense of déjà vu.
‘Quick! Belinda, give me your jacket, she bleeding!’ Jeanette’s cry of distress and their attempts to stem the sticky flow slowly congealing in my blue-rinsed perm where my head has hit the ground let me know I am done for. Sharks smell blood.
‘Oh why did I have to insist?’ confessing her role in my betrayal is pointless now.
Shark Nose circles, its propeller no more than a blur before cerated teeth, its stare already triumphant. I feel it churning the current, ripples rocking my grasp on consciousness as I drift far from the shore of life. For one second I allowed myself a glance at my family’s concerned faces rolling further away with the surf, the sounds of their frantic desperation a distant rumble on the shore. Below me Shark Nose jerks upward and I am petrified by its terrible button eyes. The movement is swift and certain; it razor-edged teeth gorge upon flesh and soul.
I exhale, let go and surrender to my place Shark Nose’s dark belly, finally reunited with my family, knowing that war, public or private, is no worse than the fear that fuels it.