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.

The extraordinary sense of unreality persists. Among ordinary people -- husbands trying to comfort their wives, mothers folding away the blankets from a child's bed -- it underlies every other feeling. From moment to moment it swirls up and drowns them all. It is incredible that we are at war; it is incredible that the children have gone away. We look up at the grotesque balloons, at the lean muzzles of guns in the parks and on the roofs of high buildings; but they do not make us realize it. Not even air-raid warnings can do that. Not even the thought, recurring: 'Look, look! You may never see it again.'

When the reality breaks through for a moment, it comes from infinitely simple things: a young woman looking at her newly bought chairs and curtains and thinking, 'I shall have to store these somewhere'; another remembering her child's face in the instant before the train swept him from sight; the spoiling and ruin of uncounted simple lives. A minute of intolerable grief and anger, then the numbing sense of unreality closes down. And so we wait, with scarcely any emotion, for something to happen.

Night-dark London, with the moon in its last quarter, has an air of extraor dinary beauty, endurance, ease. So it must have looked in the seventeenth century, to eyes accustomed to this halfdarkness, to squares in which the darkness rises to the tops of the buildings, to corridors of half-deserted streets without lamps. No seventeenth-century eye would have known what to make of the balloons, now glittering like swans, against rippling white clouds. At ten o'clock Trafalgar Square is almost empty. The columns of St. Martin's in the Fields have the whiteness of young birches. The child squatting on the steps has his back to them.

'Are you lost?'

'No.'

'Do you want to go on sitting here' It's late.'

He looks up with a derisive smile and doesn't answer. The policeman emerging from the darkness a dozen yards away says: 'Oh, I know him all right. He'll go home in his own time. There used to be four or five of them come every evening. The others'll have gone.'

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