City Without Children

A correspondent describes the early days of Britain's war with Germany when, in anticipation of bombings and gassings, more than half a million children were sent away from London.

London south of the Thames is a crazy quilt of swollen spoiled towns and villages; decent, squalid; old, bleakly new; with parks and commons, without. Stretched tight between a shopping street and the railway line, a dozen rows of scabrous little houses, two families to a house. The streets between the houses are asphalted wide gutters, on any holiday alive and running with children. All now as empty as though they had been upended and shaken. The silence was deafening. In a few of the houses women had seized the chance to clean up, but the women down here are slatterns compared with the women in the smoke-infected industrial towns of the north. There was a woman idle in most doorways or lounging with an elbow on the windowsill. And now that they could have clacked without raising their voices over the shrieking voices of the children they had nothing to say. Further on, a long street of shabby houses with ragged ends of garden, unnaturally tidy. A lorry-load of Anderson shelters had been sent here, and obediently and skeptically planted. 'I don't mind standing in one myself,' a woman said, 'but could I have squeezed in five children? I saw photos in the newspaper of bombproof rooms, but they say it costs a fortune.'

'Aren't there any children left in this street?'

'Yes, there are. The people in the end house kept theirs. Risky, I call it.'

In the end house three blond children, a girl and two boys, were playing in the kitchen: they had been into the street, their mother said, and had run in again because it was strange. She offered with a little defiance to show me the dugout her husband had made in the garden: he used the Anderson shelter and revetted the rest with boards. It took up the whole of that narrow space. He was there working on it, a middle-aged man, with that look of extreme patience and gentleness many English workingmen have. He was a young soldier in the war, the last war. He had been married twelve years, and for the last seven he had been unemployed. 'My sister offered me years ago to go to her with the little girl,' his wife said, 'and let the boys go to a home, and him do what he could. But I said, "No, we'll stick together, thank you," and my husband said the same. So when their teacher came here telling me to let them go with the others I wouldn't. God knows what it's taken us to keep together all these years; we're not going to break up now. I reckon if it's bombs we'll be safe enough in there. Anyhow we'll be smashed up together. I don't know why the government is so anxious about us. You wouldn't have thought it these last years.'

They stood and watched me from the door when I came away. At the end of the street I looked back. They were standing close together, small.

In a pleasanter street a small handsome boy ran his scooter up and down alone. His mother came to the end of the garden to call him in. 'He misses the others,' she said soberly. 'My neighbors blame me for keeping him; one woman this morning said I was wicked. "That's a strong word," I said. I was vexed. "Downright wicked," she said, "making him wait to be murdered. Didn't you see the Spanish pictures? There was a child with both legs gone." It worries me, but what I say is there will be time to send him to my sister in Cornwall when they come. I couldn't let him go into billets; he might get anywhere, with any sort. But I can't believe they'll come. This isn't Spain. How could anyone, even Germans, bring themselves to murder thousands and thousands of people in cold blood? Why, you can't believe it; it would be the end of all things. They'll never do it. Never.'

After the summer rains the wide Common was a clear vivid green. On the edge of it the swings and bars for the children had been painted, blue, white, green. The six children had it to themselves. Bored, they picked up their gas masks and began trying them on. Before the trees and dew-bright hedge they looked like the child-players in a mediaeval farce. They rolled their eyes behind the yellow mica, nodded their heads to make the snouts move up and down, until the little lively boy wanted to laugh, choked, lost his head, clawed at the mask, and had to be helped out, frightened and sobbing.

'You've spoiled your mask now,' sister reproached him.

II

What had been grotesque became fear that had emptied the city's play grounds and streets. It is an old fear. The last raiders ran their black cruel-looking boats against the land, came ashore, burned, killed. A woman who had escaped them might come back to what had been her home and look for a child's body among the smouldering wood and the stones. The image, a precise one, has been lying in wait, to return unaltered, unsoftened by the centuries that have silted down on it, as sharp and intolerable as it was that day.

In the centre of London, the City proper, there are squares that have changed little if at all since the eighteenth century. The houses have become the the offices of sedate firms. Unless they shout, little marble-playing boys are not ordered off, and not many weeks since I watched children playing in one of these squares a game with flat stones that was probably old in Troy. The children have vanished. Two big paunchy business men, carrying rolled copies of The Times, self-conscious with gas masks in canvas boxes slung on their shoulders, stroll across in the sun. The steps going down into a small church are well sandbagged. It is as dark as a crypt in this sunken place, and nearly full of people praying, as people have prayed here for five centuries, for help in the day of trouble and lamentation. Without looking up, a woman said in a loud voice: 'My son! Oh, my son!' To what listener?

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