December 1940: The Elements of War

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Frankie was ten years old when his father told him about the Curse of the Pharaohs.
Francis Wilfred Cooper was born in Norwich in 1914, and his earliest childhood memory was watching the men come back from France after the War. His childhood was golden; that was the color that came to mind when he remembered his youth – the sunlight, the buttercups and the daffodils in the back garden, the fields of wheat that he used to cycle past on his way to school, the grassy banks that he used to roll down, getting his knees grazed and his short trousers muddy. Even the air itself seemed golden.
When he was ten years old his parents took him on a day trip to the British Museum in London. He stared up in awe at the colossal stone faces of Pharaohs with exotic names such as Amenhotep and Ramesses, unreadable weathered expressions in granite, limestone, and quartzite. He goggled at the bas-reliefs of unearthly gods with their heads of birds, jackals and crocodiles, and frowned at the tantalizing hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone.
“Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922,” his father had told him the day before they went to London, “and four months later, Carnavaon had died from a mysterious infection. By the end of 1924 six other members involved in the expedition had died. Some folks say …” Dad lowered his voice, rolling his eyes for effect.
Some do say it was the curse that did it, reaching out from the tombs of the dead …”
“Oh, give over,” his mother had chided. “You’ll scare the child.”
On the contrary, his father’s words, and the arcane masks of the ancient gods, sparked an obsession with Egyptian mythology that was to stay with Frankie for the rest of his life.
Not that Frankie said anything about that to the Medical Board when he applied to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
It was December 1940. Christmas in wartime. Holly and barbed wire. Tinsel around the rim of a tin hat. Sandbags around the church walls, and papier-mâché coffins down in the crypt. Everyone used euphemisms and jokes to describe the Blitz because the reality was too horrific to contemplate. Every day, as Frankie cycled from his digs to St. Bart’s, he passed a fish and chip shop with wooden boards nailed up to replace the blown-out windows. Last week, there’d been a hand-painted sign on the planks saying –
THANKS TO HITLER, CHIPS ARE LITTLER This week the sign said –
BECAUSE OF HESS, THE FISH IS LESS
It made him Frankie chuckle, and that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? You had to laugh. Because if you didn’t laugh, you’d sit down and cry and never stop crying.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run, Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun, He’ll get by
Without his rabbit pie,
So run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run …

Frankie had a room in a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. These were the lodgings of the lab assistants, on Bury Street, near Leadenhall Market, a short bicycle ride away from the nurse’s homes and hospital wards that nestled in the city’s bosom, and a few streets away from the mighty edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral itself. Frankie’s residence was a musty narrow room with a cracked window at the top of three flights of creaking wooden stairs, and it had damp in the winter and it never got enough sunlight, but to him it was paradise. Every time he swung himself onto the bed to put his feet up and stare out at the grey rooftops before he closed the blackout curtain, or listened to Tommy Handley (It’s That Man Again!) on the crackling crystal wireless, he had the same, inescapable feeling; this was where he was supposed to be.
Before the war, when Frankie met people they often asked him why had taken up a job as a pathologist’s assistant in the coroner’s office. “How can you stand it?” they asked, furrowing their brows. “Dealing with blood and death every day? Ooh, you poor dear.” Frankie would just shrug the question off – “Well, someone’s got to do it!” – and then change the subject. Nobody wanted to hear the grisly details of what he actually did in the labs on a regular basis, and that suited Frankie fine. There was beer to be drunk and nice girls to run after.
Then after the War started, questions were superfluous. Frankie applied for the army, but he was in a reserved occupation. He was “doing his bit”, and “helping the War Effort”. Say no more.
At the end of 1939, many of St. Bart’s wards had been closed down for the Duration, and most of the nursing staff and patients had been evacuated to the Home Counties. A hundred and thirty three medical staff remained at the three main hospital buildings in Smithfield. One of them was Frankie.
Although the number of staff had been reduced, the number of hospital beds kept on climbing. At the beginning of December there were over sixteen hundred, with each ward having at least sixty beds. The main task of the wards that remained open was to receive air-raid casualties. Only the lower floors were in use, and the windows had been fortified with sandbags and sticky tape. Bomb blasts had already seriously damaged the Nurses’ Home on the east side, the student’s quarters and one of the operating theaters. The windows of the Pathology Block in Giltspur Street had been completely blown out.
The basements had been converted into extra mortuaries, where Frankie spent most of his time. It was impossible to get a hospital gurney down the stone steps, so Frankie and the others had to carry the dead down on stretchers. Not an easy job. Especially not on the evening shifts, when the blackout was on and the bombs were falling, and the orderlies had to step carefully over the big bags of coal stacked out in the yard because there was nowhere else to put them. One night Frankie was down in the dark, amongst the dead, on his own, when he heard a dry rustling and pattering, like something slithering its way down the steps towards him. Finally summoning the courage to go and look, he found a hole had been torn in one of the bags and the lumps of coal were rolling down the steps.
Frankie’s colleagues carried on their duties with a quiet, firm determination, in spite of all the blasts and blowings-up Hitler could muster. The senior doctors went on their rounds with those stiff, chill, impassive faces that the English always wore when they seethed with emotion. The orderlies cracked jokes of the darkest gallows humor; once, someone dropped his Spam sandwich on the floor of the mortuary. Everyone looked at each other in silence for a few seconds until a man next to Frankie said, “Well go on Ted, Wheeler’s always saying this floor should be clean enough to eat off.”
When there was no room left on the porcelain post-mortem tables, the rankless dead were laid out on the floor. Old, young, male, female; crushed by debris, covered in plaster dust, their guts blown out, burned, charred, some with faces literally blue from violent asphyxia, and some miraculously unblemished, lying as if simply asleep. Frankie and his mates attended to them all, tying identity tags to the bodies, and putting any belongings found with them into little bags.
After a big explosion, there would be very little of the body left. A direct hit from a five-hundred pound bomb would leave just fragments of flesh, gumboots, cloth, and mangled tin hats. Once, after a factory had been bombed, the ambulance crew came back with part of a man’s leg. That was all they could find. Frankie tagged it straight away as the night watchman because the leg still had the braid from the trousers stuck to it.
The corpses that remained intact had horrific, disfiguring injuries. Identifying the remains
seemed impossible. Sometimes, when Frankie was in the mortuary and the other assistants moved quietly back and forth between the rows of the dusty, tattered corpses, it seemed to him that every wound had become a mouth. The ripped-open faces and bodies of the men, women and children were mouths stretched open, and all the pain and grief of their prematurely shortened lives was coming out in their endless, silent screams.
“I don’t know how you cope with it, old boy,” his family and friends said to him on the occasions when he had leave and went back to Norwich. “I don’t know how you stay sane.” Frankie shrugged his shoulders and kept his own counsel. He had never, ever, told anyone the real reason of how he was able to cope.
Auntie threw her rinds away, To the lock-up she was taken. There she is and there she’ll stay, Till she learns to save her bacon …
In London, in the grim winter of 1940, there were two ways to survive. One was to do your bit as a plucky Londoner, to keep calm and carry on. The other way was to fall in love.
That was the reason why Frankie was waiting in the Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand just before twelve, on a chilly Friday afternoon. He usually got there early, to make sure he got a table for two in a nice cozy place, and also to do a bit of reading. He wore his best suit, the one with the pockets just big enough to slip a Penguin Classic into. Today he got there in time to be shown to his favorite table in the corner, sat down, and proceeded to read while waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.
He saw her enter the café and stood up to beckon her over. She picked her way through the tables, smiling all the time.
“Hello, Frank.” She never called him Frankie.
“How are you, Liz?”
He held up his copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
“I’ve been getting on with the book you lent me.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s much better than I expected, to be honest. I thought it was going to be all maudlin and depressing but it’s jolly interesting. Especially the parts written from Septimus Smith’s point of view.”
She put her handbag and gas-mask case on the chair beside her and dabbed at her brow with a lace handkerchief. Elizabeth Hague, district nurse with the Smithfield Health Office, was
really quite striking. She had an oval face with a clear complexion, eyes of an unusual amber color and rich, dark hair cut in the current bob and wave style. She looked adorable when she smiled, which was almost all the time; her wide mouth, her white, even teeth, her eyes crinkling merrily.
Liz had trained as a nurse in an infectious diseases hospital in Gateshead, Newcastle-on-Tyne. After her move down south, she had totally lost her Geordie accent, and now spoke in almost BBC English; northern accents, in those days, were too common for London society. She had applied to work as a District Nurse in London and had been stationed in Smithfield. Frank first spoke to her at a tea dance for the medical services at the Savoy Hotel because he’d seen her before, talking to some of the doctors and nurses at St. Bart’s, and riding her bicycle around Smithfield. He’d asked her for a dance, they’d struck up a conversation, he’d invited her out to lunch, and that’s how it had all started. Romance was blossoming during wartime; Londoners knew they had nothing to lose but time.
Frankie took a menu from a waiter and said, “Let’s have some wine.” Liz nodded enthusiastically. “Are you pushing the boat out?”
“Just a glass of the house white. Well, maybe two.”
He looked at the menu. “Good Lord. Beef and kidney pie.”
Her smile broadened. “I’m sure it’s still just potatoes and vegetables. Matron says that finding the kidney in a kidney pie is a bit like finding the threepenny bit in a Christmas pudding.” “That’s a good one. Yes, and you’d probably have more luck with the pudding.”
After they had ordered, Frankie said, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Virginia Woolf. I went to the Smithfield Public Library and looked her up.”
“I’m glad to hear the library’s still standing.”
“Yes, Jerry hasn’t got to that one yet. Anyway, I found out something rather interesting. Have you ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?”
She raised her eyebrows. “No, I haven’t.”
Frankie pulled the library book out of his briefcase and passed it over the table. “The Dreadnought Hoax, by Adrian Stephen,” Liz read from the cover. “That’s Virginia Woolf’s brother.”
“Yes. It turned out those Bloomsbury Set people pulled a bit of a wheeze on the Royal Navy. They disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and persuaded the captain of the HMS Dreadnought to show them around the ship.”
“Oh, they didn’t! Whatever for?”
“Apparently, it was the idea of this … let me see. … someone called Horace de Vere Cole, who was famous for his public hoaxes. Look at the frontispiece; that’s the Bloomsbury lot,
with boot polish and turbans and false beards. That’s Virginia Woolf on the far left.”
Liz took one look at the black-faced and robed figure, white eyes wide and staring under the turban, and burst out laughing.
“The Captain took them all round the ship,” said Frank, laughing himself now, “and they spoke in a mixture of Latin and French and made-up words. And to cap it all, whenever they saw something exciting, they jumped up and down and shouted ‘Bunga Bunga! Bunga Bunga!’”
Liz was now laughing so hard Frank though she might have to make a trip to the Ladies’. “Well I never,” she said. “Trust you to find something as queer as that.”
They tried to calm down when the first course arrived, and Frank lifted up the glass of wine as a toast. “Bunga Bunga!” he said, in a voice so loud the customers nearby turned to frown at him.
“Stop it, Frank! You’ll set me off again.” Liz tried to control her laughter as she started on the potted salmon.
After spending time on their food and discussing its quality, Frankie said, “Well, anyway, how about the Christmas Party?”
Liz nodded. “Matron says that it’s all right for me to attend.” She flicked a quick glance at his smiling face. “If you dare say Bunga Bunga I shall hit you.”
“Perish the thought!”
“In fact, quite a few of the girls want to come. The Smithfield Health Authority includes St. Bart’s, so it seemed reasonable to Matron to have one big party instead of several smaller ones. Get everyone together for a jolly time.”
“Safety in numbers.”
“In a sturdy main building basement behind the sandbags, yes.”
The main courses arrived and Frankie got to work on his pie. The crust caved in under his knife and fork and beneath it lay mostly air, but there was indeed meat swimming in the gravy at the bottom, and it did look recognizably like beef.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas Dinner,” Liz said. “Real turkey! I can’t believe the Medical Board came up with one.”
“A rich former patient who owns a farm, I suppose. There’s a big meeting this week where they’re going to tell us what the menu will be.”
Liz went on, “As long as it’s not Snoek fishcakes, I don’t care. I can’t stand that horrible fishy stuff.”
“And what about whale, eh? Mr. Farrow tried to sell me some whale meat sausages the other day. He said I was lucky because they weren’t rationed. I told him I could see why they
weren’t rationed.”
“You ought to be on the stage, Frank Cooper.”
“Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I’m thinking of doing a bit of a turn for the Christmas Party.”
“What do you mean?”
“Telling a few jokes. I’ve asked Wheeler if I can do a Max Miller act.”
“The Cheeky Chappie?” Liz looked at him slyly. “Don’t you think that’s a bit rude?”
“Well.” He shrugged. “It’s either that or Tommy Trinder.”
“Those lucky people!”
The time flew, and Frankie called the waitress over with the sweet trolley. “Fairy cake, pear tart or stewed prunes? There’s no ice cream today, and no Queen’s Pudding, I’m afraid.” “Fairy cake, please.”
They both chatted away, with Frankie wanting to forget the clock on the wall and the shifts they both had to take later this afternoon, but he couldn’t. He sat back and laid his pastry fork on the crumb-laden plate. “Would you like more wine?” he said. “Live dangerously.”
Liz breathed out as a gesture to say she was full. “I think we’re living quite dangerously enough, thank you.”
“Liz … I really do appreciate you coming to the party. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, I’m really looking forward to it. Cheer up the patients. It’s the old Christmas magic, you know!”
“Have you ever thought about that?” Frankie said shyly, peering at Liz to watch her reaction. “Have you ever felt that maybe there was … magic? Not conjuring tricks, but real magic, in the world?”
“Angels dining at the Ritz, and nightingales sang in Berkely Square?”
She laughed, and he laughed with her.
“You know,” she said, “you remind me of one of my patients, old Mr. Kelly. He’s eccentric.” Frankie’s eyebrows went up. “Me? Eccentric?”
“Well, you know. He talks about his dreams and he’s mentioned magic to me a couple of times. He keeps a pack of Tarot cards on the mantelpiece and he’s got some queer paintings in his front room, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds like a nice fellow. What’s wrong with him?”
“Arthritis. He can’t walk very fast.”
“Neither can I now, after that meal.”
They said goodbye with a quick peck on the cheek. After waving Liz off on her bicycle and
turning to walk back down the Strand, Frankie felt both happy and depressed when thinking about Christmas. Eccentric, he thought. Eccentric! That wasn’t a word he wanted anyone to describe him by, but he knew Liz meant well. Oh well – he asked for that, he supposed. Never mind; he had other things to worry about.
His spare time to find a good present for Liz was running out. His main present wasn’t really a Christmas gift at all, but something special he’d planned. Then he’d saved up his chocolate rations to buy her a nice bit of nutty, but he needed something else. Something interesting. Something that would surprise her. A book, that was it. He would find a book that she’d never read before.
There was a huge crater in the middle of the Strand and the cars were driving gingerly around it. On the skyline, smoke was still rising from the direction of the South bank. Stepping over a pothole in the street, moving around the other shoppers and pedestrians walking along the Strand, feeling the heaviness of the pastry and stodgy potatoes digesting in his gut, Frankie was suddenly aware of how normal his thoughts were in this totally abnormal world. London was being torn apart on a nightly basis by a giant, faceless war machine from across the sea, and here he was daydreaming about bookshops and Christmas presents.
But then, what else could he do?
The whole of London was doing the same thing. Just as the bodies of the dead on the slabs at work had been blown into grotesque, eviscerated shapes, the lives of the living had been forced into new roles and routines. Everyone was now a ‘plucky Brit’. Everyone was now ‘helping the War Effort’. Even delivering the milk or driving a bus was a statement of personal courage. The lives of everyone in London were taking place mechanically, like the back and forth swing of a pendulum. Like a chess game in which every move had already been decided with mathematical precision.
On a whim, Frankie took a left turn, and entered the warren of little alleyways between the Strand and the river. Walking was something he loved; it helped him think and turn over things in his mind. Since he’d started going out with Liz, they’d taken long weekly walks in Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath, ending with tea and scones in one of the cafes. Before he’d met Liz, he’d regularly taken long walks around the city center to get the tantalizing feel of it, to soak in the atmosphere, the mystery. London fascinated him with its hints of staginess, of secret knowledge hidden in the architecture of the churches and the geometry of the streets. London haunted his dreams, and he haunted its avenues and alleys, drifting through them like a Dickensian spirit.
Just a few streets away from Frankie’s place of work stood Christopher Wren’s testament to the mysterious; St. Paul’s Cathedral. The massiveness of the stone interior, the Whispering
Gallery, the inscription RESURGAM – I will rise again – inscribed on the south door … they drew Frankie’s attention and resurfaced in his dreams. What did they all mean? The statues of pelicans and peacocks, the cubes, pyramids and obelisks that colluded with the more familiar crosses and angels in the churches of Smithfield and Whitechapel – what were they all for? The Blackout had made things even more primal, plunging London into darkness every night. Churchill’s boys in the press were trying to keep a lid on things, but Frankie knew there were burglaries and muggings all over the city. It was like the city had been thrown back in time several thousand years, to a barricaded cluster of huts with the tribesfolk huddling inside, guarding themselves against the darkness and hoping they would live to see the morning.
His perambulation today took him inevitably to one of his best-loved haunts, Cleopatra’s Needle, as if the obelisk were magnetized and he was a mote of iron that could not resist its pull. He sat down on a bench opposite the stone monolith, feeling a little flushed with the wine, the food, and his lady friend’s dazzling eyes, and stared at the obelisk, its stately dimension, its unreadable hieroglyphics, and the gouges and scratches deliberately left unrepaired after the Zeppelin raids of World War I. He breathed in the charred air, looked up at the sky, looked around him at the coat-and-hat wearing Londoners walking slowly along the Embankment, and let his tensed-up body relax.
Even Liz. He hadn’t even told Liz why he’d taken up the career of pathologist’s assistant. But perhaps the time had come to tell someone.

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
This entry was posted in Art & Design, Literature, Modernism, Short Stories, UK, Weird World War. Bookmark the permalink.

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