‘Hey, mate,’ he said casually to the young soldier beside him. ‘What year is it?’
The boy—he couldn’t be more than seventeen, and Jerry felt the weight of the five years between them as though they were fifty—looked at him wide-eyed, then whooped with laughter.
‘What’ve you been having to drink, Dad? Bring any away with you?’
That led to more ragging, and he didn’t try asking again.
Did it matter?
* * *
He remembered almost nothing of the journey from Salisbury to London. People looked at him oddly, but no one tried to stop him. It didn’t matter; nothing mattered but getting to Dolly. Everything else could wait.
London was a shock. There was bomb damage everywhere. Streets were scattered with shattered glass from shop windows, glinting in the pale sun, other streets blocked off by barriers. Here and there a stark black notice: Do Not Enter—UNEXPLODED BOMB.
He made his way from Saint Pancras on foot, needing to see, his heart rising into his throat fit to choke him as he did see what had been done. After a while, he stopped seeing the details, perceiving bomb craters and debris only as blocks to his progress, things stopping him from reaching home.
And then he did reach home.
The rubble had been pushed off the street into a heap, but not taken away. Great blackened lumps of shattered stone and concrete lay like a cairn where Montrose Terrace had once stood.
All the blood in his heart stopped dead, congealed by the sight. He groped, pawing mindlessly for the wrought-iron railing to keep himself from falling, but it wasn’t there.
Of course not, his mind said, quite calmly. It’s gone for the war, hasn’t it? Melted down, made into planes. Bombs.
His knee gave way without warning, and he fell, landing hard on both knees, not feeling the impact, the crunch of pain from his badly mended kneecap quite drowned out by the blunt, small voice inside his head.
Too late. Ye went too far.
‘Mr MacKenzie, Mr MacKenzie!’ He blinked at the blurred thing above him, not understanding what it was. Something tugged at him, though, and he breathed, the rush of air in his chest ragged and strange.
‘Sit up, Mr MacKenzie, do.’ The anxious voice was still there, and hands—yes, it was hands—tugging at his arm. He shook his head, screwed his eyes shut hard, then opened them again, and the round thing became the houndlike face of old Mr Wardlaw, who kept the corner shop.
‘Ah, there you are.’ The old man’s voice was relieved, and the wrinkles in his baggy old face relaxed their anxious lines. ‘Had a bad turn, did you?’
‘I—’ Speech was beyond him, but he flapped his hand at the wreckage. He didn’t think he was crying, but his face was wet. The wrinkles in Wardlaw’s face creased deeper in concern, then the old grocer realised what he meant, and his face lit up.
‘Oh, dear!’ he said. ‘Oh, no! No, no, no—they’re all right, sir, your family’s all right! Did you hear me?’ he asked anxiously. ‘Can you breathe? Had I best fetch you some salts, do you think?’
It took Jerry several tries to make it to his feet, hampered both by his knee and by Mr Wardlaw’s fumbling attempts to help him, but by the time he’d got all the way up, he’d regained the power of speech.
‘Where?’ he gasped. ‘Where are they?’
‘Why—your missus took the little boy and went to stay with her mother, sometime after you left. I don’t recall quite where she said …’ Mr Wardlaw turned, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the river. ‘Camberwell, was it?’
‘Bethnal Green.’ Jerry’s mind had come back, though it felt still as though it was a pebble rolling round the rim of some bottomless abyss, its balance uncertain. He tried to dust himself off, but his hands were shaking. ‘She lives in Bethnal Green. You’re sure—you’re sure, man?’
‘Yes, yes.’ The grocer was altogether relieved, smiling and nodding so hard that his jowls trembled. ‘She left—must be more than a year ago, soon after she—soon after she …’ The old man’s smile faded abruptly and his mouth slowly opened, a flabby dark hole of horror.
‘But you’re dead, Mr MacKenzie,’ he whispered, backing away, hands held up before him. ‘Oh, God. You’re dead.’
* * *
‘The f**k I am, the f**k I am, the f**k I am!’ He caught sight of a woman’s startled face and stopped abruptly, gulping air like a landed fish. He’d been weaving down the shattered street, fists pumping, limping and staggering, muttering his private motto under his breath like the Hail Marys of a rosary. Maybe not as far under his breath as he’d thought.
He stopped, leaning against the marble front of the Bank of England, panting. He was streaming with sweat and the right leg of his trousers was heavily streaked with dried blood from the fall. His knee was throbbing in time with his heart, his face, his hands, his thoughts. They’re alive. So am I.
The woman he’d startled was down the street, talking to a policeman; she turned, pointing at him. He straightened up at once, squaring his shoulders. Braced his knee and gritted his teeth, forcing it to bear his weight as he strode down the street, officerlike. The very last thing he wanted just now was to be taken up as drunk.
He marched past the policeman, nodding politely, touching his forehead in lieu of cap. The policeman looked taken aback, made to speak but couldn’t quite decide what to say, and a moment later, Jerry was round the corner and away.
It was getting dark. There weren’t many cabs in this area at the best of times—none at all, now, and he hadn’t any money, anyway. The Tube. If the lines were open, it was the fastest way to Bethnal Green. And surely he could cadge the fare from someone. Somehow. He went back to limping, grimly determined. He had to reach Bethnal Green by dark.
* * *
It was so much changed. Like the rest of London. Houses damaged, halfway repaired, abandoned, others no more than a blackened depression or a heap of rubble. The air was thick with cold dust, stone dust, and the smells of paraffin and cooking grease, the brutal, acrid smell of cordite.
Half the streets had no signs, and he wasn’t so familiar with Bethnal Green to begin with. He’d visited Dolly’s mother just twice, once when they went to tell her they’d run off and got married—she hadn’t been best pleased, Mrs Wakefield, but she’d put a good face on it, even if the face had a lemon-sucking look to it.
The second time had been when he signed up with the RAF; he’d gone alone to tell her, to ask her to look after Dolly while he was gone. Dolly’s mother had gone white. She knew as well as he did what the life expectancy was for fliers. But she’d told him she was proud of him, and held his hand tight for a long moment before she let him leave, saying only, ‘Come back, Jeremiah. She needs you.’