This month has seen the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. To celebrate the event, Excalibur Books presents a preview of a story published in “Dimensions Unknown” Volume One … a tale of love and magic, amidst the horrors of the London Blitz. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
FRANK COOPER’S WAR
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 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, Carnavon 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 folks 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 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, on Bury Street. These buildings were the lodgings of the lab assistants, near Leadenhall Market, a short bicycle ride away from St. Bart’s and the nurse’s homes, 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, suffering from damp in the winter and never getting 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 curtains, 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 he’d 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 shrug the question off – “Well, someone has 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. A job was a job, and it didn’t pay to think about it or talk about it too much. There was beer to be drunk and nice girls to run after.
Then after the War started, questions were superfluous. Frankie applied to join the armed forces, 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 were closed down for the Duration, and most of the nursing staff and patients were 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 Department 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, Ted Matthews 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, dig in! 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 paper 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 only 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 uniform’s trousers stuck to it.
The corpses that remained intact often had horrific, disfiguring injuries. Identifying the remains, in some cases, was 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 wide, 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 went back to Norwich on leave. “I don’t know how you stay sane.”
Frankie shrugged his shoulders and kept his own counsel. He had never 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 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?”
“Oh, quite well, all things considered.”
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 Davies, 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, with 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 worked hard to lose her Geordie accent, and now spoke in precise 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 also 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 accepted the menu from a waiter and said, “Let’s have some wine.”
Liz nodded enthusiastically. “Are you pushing the boat out?”
“Just a glass of 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 only 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 bearded 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 interesting, they jumped up and down and shouted ‘Bunga Bunga! Bunga Bunga!’”
Liz was now laughing so hard Frank thought she might have to make a trip to the Ladies’ Room.
“Well I never,” she said finally. “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 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.”
“As long as it’s not Snoek fishcakes, I don’t care,” Liz said. “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.”
“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!” Liz quoted.
The time flew, and Frankie called the waitress to bring the sweet trolley over. “Fairy cake, pear tart or stewed prunes?” she said. “There’s no ice cream today, and no Queen’s Pudding, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll have the fairy cake, please.”
“Better not have the prunes, so pear tart, 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 wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, I’m looking forward to it. It’ll cheer up the patients. 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 Berkeley 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.”
“Makes a change from dirty postcards.”
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 had good intentions. Oh well – he’d asked for that, he supposed. Never mind; he had other things to worry about.
His spare time to find another 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…
Of course, he suddenly realized, a book! Why hadn’t he thought of it before? He would find a book that she hadn’t read yet.
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, to get away from this morbid sense of mechanical routine, 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.
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 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, and 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 friends 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 were 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.
If you’ve news of our munitions
KEEP IT DARK!
Ships or planes or troop positions
KEEP IT DARK!
Lives are lost through conversation
Here’s a tip for the Duration
When you’ve private information
KEEP IT DARK!
Frankie stood in the Egyptian desert once more, and he knew that he was dreaming, and he knew that he had dreamed this many times before.
He could smell and taste the dry heat and the mummy dust on the wind. The sun glared, flooding the landscape with a miraculous light.
In the distance lay a maw in the dunes, the entrance to a tunnel leading beneath the sand. Frankie ran towards it in a loping, easy gait, bounding high into the air on each step. Everything was effortless in his dreams. He felt the warmth of the sun giving way to shaded cool as he entered the tomb.
He reached out to touch the crumbling faceless statues that lined the tunnel, but their limbs had the dreamlike feel of glass beneath his fingers. A dim light shone in the darkness ahead and he grew aware of the pungent and almost overwhelming smell of incense.
One room was lit at each moment; the next room was dark but prepared. He walked from one to another, looked into the chamber that was lit, and then walked through it to the next, the chamber falling dark behind him. He did not know the rooms ahead, but he knew that he could not change them. There was also the awareness that he was not alone; he felt the presence of anonymous figures, left behind in darkened rooms.
Eventually he came out into a vast cavern, lined with massive statues, seated figures like the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. Their heads were not human, but jackals, hawks, crocodiles, and scarab beetles.
The statue nearest to him turned its jackal head towards him, the grinding sound of stone breaking the cold, incense-laden silence.
– I am the flame that burns in every heart of man, the statue whispered, and in the core of every star.
Frankie felt the words bubble up in his mind and opened his mouth to let them out.
– I am Life, and the Giver of Life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the knowledge of death, he replied.
The jackal-headed god lifted his arm and gestured to the left. Another door stood open, a light softly glowing. His head high, Frankie walked forward and entered the chamber.
He entered a vast chamber with a smooth floor of tiles, black and white in alternating squares. Before him was a low altar on which was placed roses, candles, incense, a chalice, and dishes of salt, bread and water. On either side of the chamber were statues of more seated gods.
Behind the altar, lying on stone slabs and receding into the distance, were the bodies of the dead. ARP Wardens, firemen, ambulance crews, old men, teenage girls, housewives, mothers, fathers. Their wounds gaped open, distended with blood and burned flesh. Severed heads were laid next to their limbless trunks, freed from the mortal constraint of organic unity, waiting for the promised afterlife to begin. Frankie looked upon them, seeing the rows fade into the distance, the darkness of a chamber that had no end.
Again, he heard the whisper of the jackal-headed god behind him. – In the Sign of the Lion thou shall be purified, and in the Letter of Judgment thou shall be consecrated. Thou hast a task to perform, O man, for the Fraternity of the Inner Light.
From the darkness at the other end of the chamber came a golden radiance, like the dawn of a new day in the desert above. The light grew and warmed everything in the chamber around him…
And the mouths of the dead all began to scream; the vibrant, shattering howl of the air raid sirens.
The sound shocked him out of sleep. He was in his cramped room on Bury St, and the sirens were sounding the all clear. The dim grey charred December dawn was trying to slide its way through the Blackout curtains. He lay there, blinking the sleep out of the eyes, pulling the blanket around him in the morning chill, and as he drifted in and out of slumber the noises came to him, the gruff voices of people outside, the coughing of car engines, the chime of broken glass being swept up from the pavements, the scraping of metal on brick like a giant knife being sharpened on a whetstone. The city was waking up. London was a prize-fighter, getting up again after being knocked to the canvas. Night after night.
Over a breakfast of porridge with milk and a little salt, Frank scanned the morning edition of the Daily Express. On page five, he found news of the Western Desert Campaign; Churchill had confirmed a major allied attack for sometime later in the year, to break the Axis grip on eastern Libya and western Egypt.
Egypt. Mussolini. Rommel. Nazi tanks grinding their way over Egyptian sand.
Maybe everyone in London was having nightmares, he thought; but even bad dreams couldn’t be as bad as the War.
Frankie had never spoken to anyone about the myth of Osiris and Horus.
When he’d first came across the myth, in the school library at Norwich Grammar School, he was so impressed by its profundity that he thought he was going to faint.
Osiris, God-King of Egypt, is murdered by his brother Set, who usurps the throne. The divine body of Osiris is mutilated and dismembered, and the limbs scattered throughout the land, with the head thrown into the river Nile. Isis, his wife, travels ceaselessly across the desert to recover the parts of her husband’s body. With the help of the gods Anubis and Thoth, she reassembles the body of Osiris and breathes temporary life into him, enabling them to conceive a child. He sinks once more into the Underworld, until Horus, the child of that union, deposes Set, takes power, restores peace to Egypt, and brings about the glorious ascension of his father Osiris into the true afterlife.
The book in the library said the myth was the basis for the Egyptian practice of making mummies and the belief in a splendor-filled existence after death. To Frankie, it was much more. It was the start of an obsession that led him into a career in the medical services, where spending most of his working life in a mortuary made perfect sense. He wasn’t only examining the bodies of the dead, like specimens under a lens; he was restoring them, reassembling them, preparing them for their entry into the next world. When Frankie performed his duties – washing the deceased, cutting them open, resealing them – he felt as if he were performing a magical act. He was an ancient Egyptian priest, respectfully removing the entrails of the deceased and placing them in Coptic jars. Sending them on to Anubis, who weighed their souls on his scales forged of divine metal. Easing their traumatized souls from the shattered flesh to a painless afterlife.
But of course, he knew that if he ever said that to anyone, he’d be carted off as a right nutter.
He left the copy of the Daily Express in the communal kitchen and walked out into the front yard to unchain his bicycle. He cycled to work, swerving around the piles of smoldering rubble and ripped cloth lying in the road, and the sites of destroyed houses looking like gaps in a mouth with missing teeth. Other homes had their walls blown out, exposing sagging ceilings, tattered strips of wallpaper, bathrooms filled with shattered plaster, bricks and tiles. Everyone’s life was public property now.
Frankie passed a barricade made of kitchen chairs and two oil drums with rope strung across them. Propped against the middle chair was a wooden plank, which declared in hastily-painted white letters; DANGER – UNEXPLODED BOMB.
As the Blitz ground on, recently Frankie had been wondering if Hitler was having the same dreams as he had. Perhaps what the Waffen SS were really trying to do was cut open London’s flesh, twist it and stretch it into unnatural shapes, rearrange it into occult hieroglyphics.
Perhaps they were trying to finish the work started in Smithfield and Whitechapel by Saucy Jack, all those years ago; carve out a spell in a dark language with meat and blood and bone. A ritual of divination, reading the entrails of an entire city.
How can they catch me now? I love my work and want to start again…you will soon hear of me, with my funny little games.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I call this meeting to order.”
The Medical Superintendent at St. Bart’s was a Dr. Wheeler, who looked a jovial character, despite his frequent bouts of bad temper. He was rather plump, bald from brow to the Brilliantined strands of hair on the back of his head, had large bushy eyebrows, and smoked a pipe almost constantly during the day. At the head of the table in the hastily rearranged staff canteen, he tapped his pipe out in the big glass ashtray and looked down at his notes.
“Ladies and gentlemen, doctors and nurses, this will be the final meeting of the Christmas Party General Purposes Committee, for the day will soon be here and we only need to tie up the loose ends.”
The muttering of the fifteen men and women around the long table lapsed into a respectful silence.
“The latest news from the Home Office,” Wheeler announced, “is that the Nazis have called a truce for the Christmas period – perhaps three or four days, from Christmas Eve. When I say truce, I mean a reduction of bombing, not a cease fire.”
“Do you really believe that?” one of the staff nurses said. “They also said they weren’t going to invade Poland, and look what happened.” The muttering started up again.
Wheeler straightened his back and looked around the table. “Nevertheless, we should hope for the best. This party is supposed to cheer up the patients, and of course ourselves, so let’s be positive and make it the best it could be, with our limited resources. Matron, how are the decorations coming along?”
“We’ve nearly finished making the paper chains, Doctor, and we’ve managed to get some real holly and mistletoe to put on the tree. One of our land girls is sending it up from Kent.”
“Splendid. Now, about the carols…” Wheeler turned toward the nurses on the left. “Let me stress that the main thing here is, everyone should know the words. Last year’s carol singing was a pretty embarrassing affair, and everything has changed since then. I hope we can count on you, sister, to provide everyone with song sheets.”
“Doctor.” One of the nurses held up her hand. “The BBC is broadcasting a special carol service from Coventry, because of what happened to the cathedral. Do you think we could have the wireless on during the party?”
“Why yes, that’s a good idea. It depends on what time the service starts – sister, could you look into that? Thank you. Now, I’d like to move on to the most important part of the menu – sorry, I mean the agenda – which is the dinner itself. Mrs. Nichols, who owns the flats near Leadenhall Market, has been growing quite a few vegetables in her Dig for Victory garden in preparation for this dinner, so I’m proud to say potatoes won’t be a problem.”
Higgins, another orderly from Path Lab, leant over to whisper in Frankie’s ear, “That means it’ll be turkey with spuds, spuds, and more spuds.”
“Higgins, do you have a question?”
“Me? Oh no, doctor, sorry.”
“Now let us remember the words of Lord Woolton…this is a food war. The vegetable garden is the nation’s medicine chest; the battle of the home front is also the battle of the kitchen.”
“Well it’s all right for Lord Woolton, I bet he doesn’t eat potatoes every day.”
“Higgins, if you have something to say, could you address it through the chair? Thank you. There’ll be potatoes, of course, that we’ll have roasted, mashed and boiled, and also we have parsnips, cauliflower and carrots. We’ll be using grated carrots in the Christmas pudding instead of currants and sultanas. Mr. Babcock has kindly allowed us to have a jar of pickled silverskin onions, which he pickled himself – and I’m very happy to say that Mrs. Walsh has been able to get her hands on some oranges, which have slipped their way through Mussolini’s blockades.”
There was a brief smattering of applause.
“Now, the main issue is of course the turkey itself. Matron will be taking care of the cooking, and she will be using the oven in number one kitchen, which is the biggest one in the hospital.” While talking, Wheeler scooped more tobacco from his pouch into his pipe, and smoothed it down with the little silver tamper with the royal coat of arms embossed on the side. “Matron will also handle the stuffing…”
“Parsley, thyme and chestnuts,” Matron announced gravely.
“Therefore, could I ask Path Lab and the orderlies to prepare the vegetables?”
Frankie looked around. The men and women glanced at each other and nodded until someone said, “Yes, Doctor, that’ll be fine.”
Tucker, a West Country-born senior doctor sitting at the back, raised his hand. “What’s going to happen to the turkey bones, Dr. Wheeler?”
Wheeler harrumphed and straightened his cuffs. “They’re going to help the War Effort, you know. They’ll be collected in special bins and taken to the War Office. Meat bones are a source of nitroglycerine for high explosives, glue that can be used in aircraft, food for cattle, and fertilizer for crops.”
“Just as long as the bins are kept out of the back yard,” said Matron severely. “We’ll have stray dogs all over the place if we’re not careful.”
“I hope you’re not throwing the giblets into one of those bins?” Tucker suddenly piped up from the back, his face indignant. “They make a smashing gravy, giblets do. With a pinch of salt.”
“Yes, what about the gravy? Can’t forget that. Turkey can be very dry, you know.”
“Never mind the gravy, what about the parson’s nose?”
“Just a minute. Just a minute.” Wheeler banged his little silver tamper on the table for quiet. “I was about to get to the giblets. My wife has volunteered to be in charge of the gravy, and rest assured, the giblets will be put to good use. Now, does anyone else have anything to contribute?”
One of the orderlies held up his hand. “Joe Chapman the butcher told me he could be able to get us a few sausages. Just don’t ask where they came from.”
“Don’t trust him,” said the orderly next to him resentfully. “They’ll turn out to be whale meat or horse.”
“I wouldn’t have sausages from him any more,” said someone behind Frankie. “The last ones we had from him were so full of bread they were like toast when they came out of the grill.” He turned to the nurse next to him and nudged her in the ribs. “I didn’t know whether to put mustard on them or marmalade!”
Wheeler looked at his watch. “Can we move on from the sausages, please? The quality has been noted in the minutes. I would like to turn our attention now to…”
Once Wheeler had tapped his pipe to announce ‘meeting adjourned’, everyone stood up to chat as they headed for the doors, until the head doctor caught Frankie’s eye.
“Cooper, could you stay behind?” This was the old hospital habit of always using surnames, even in a friendly chat.
Frankie shot a worried glance to his colleagues as they filed out and left him behind.
Wheeler made a grand show of filling up his pipe again while Frankie waited nervously in his seat. Eventually lighting it, the head doctor sat back in his chair and regarded his subordinate. “Do you think the Nazis celebrate Christmas, Cooper?” he asked conversationally.
Frankie tried to think of what to say. “I’ve never really thought about it, sir. I suppose they do…the normal German people, I mean. The ones who aren’t bombing us.”
Wheeler puffed at his pipe. “There are some queer stories coming out of Nazi Germany.”
Frankie made no reply.
“Swastikas decorating Christmas trees. Pagan bonfires and torchlight parades. Turning December 25th into some German ‘Blood and Soil’ ceremony. Oh yes, I’ve heard all kinds of queer goings-on.”
Frankie waited, wondering what was coming next, as Wheeler shifted in his seat and looked rather embarrassed.
“Matron tells me that you were talking to some of the patients on the children’s wards about…mummies.”
Frank inwardly sighed and forced himself to smile. “Yes, I was telling them how mummies were made.”
“And scaring them into the bargain, I think.”
“What, sucking the brain out of the nose with a couple of straws? Kids love that kind of thing!”
“Well the boys might, but the girls are a bit more delicate, Cooper. It gave some of them quite a turn. We need to cheer them up, not scare them out of their wits.”
Frankie suddenly recalled what Liz had said to him. Oh, I get it, he thought with irritation. Wheeler thinks I’m ‘eccentric’ as well.
“Are you a Christian?” Wheeler asked.
He stared back at his supervisor. “Yes,” he said eventually.
“I’m not a big God-fearing man myself,” Wheeler said, “but it would be a good idea if you could join us at the Sunday services at St. Bartholomew the Great occasionally. As far as I know, you’ve never been. Show a bit of support and decency.”
“Onward Christian soldiers,” said Frankie with a nod.
Wheeler put away his schedule book and stood up, ready to leave. “That’s the spirit. Smile a bit more, Cooper, look happy. The most important thing here is to keep the patients cheerful, they need…”
“Well, sir, I am doing a music hall routine at the Christmas party. That’ll cheer them up!”
“Oh yes, of course – your Max Miller routine. Good show. Perhaps I could join you. I’m rather fond of Robb Wilton, you know.”
Wheeler fixed his eyes on Frank and said in a nasal, high-pitched voice, “The day war broke out, the missus said to me…”
“The day war broke out, my missus said to me, you’ll have to stop it. I said, stop what? She said, the War.”
Reading was a passion that Frankie had held ever since he could remember, and he’d been delighted to discover it was one of the things he had in common with Liz. On his days off he spent a lot of time in the second-hand bookshops on Charing Cross Road. One of them, Doorway to the Ages, kept him coming back with its treasure trove of first editions in the back, and lurid, yellowing pulp thrillers in the basement.
Today, he was not only browsing, but looking for something special; a present for Liz. He needed something else, something to give her a little bit of intellectual stimulation, and spend the rest of his meager festive budget on something she’d like. He didn’t have enough money for a first edition, but he thought he’d at least be able to find something interesting.
He pushed open the door with its glass square of window covered with brown sticky paper, letting the bell above tinkle to announce his arrival. There was nobody to be seen. A half-eaten cheese roll lay on a handkerchief next to today’s Daily Telegraph; perhaps the shopkeeper had restrained himself from eating the full lunch, so he had something to look forward to in the afternoon.
Frankie let the door close and the hubbub of the street behind him sunk to a quiet hum. He felt a wonderful sense of calm settle upon him; here, for a short while, he could escape the War, and lose himself in ancient lands, in other worlds, in Pre-Revolutionary France, in Prohibition Chicago, communing with cowboys, detectives, Highland chieftains…he could lose himself and find the mysterious something else. The dusty smell, the mild yellow color of the aged books, the touch of the paper as he turned the covers to flick through them, they were all treasures far better than anything he could find on the black market.
Someone cleared his throat; Frankie turned, and the shopkeeper stood in the doorway leading to the back room. “Call me George,” the man had once said to Frankie, on one of his frequent visits. He was a large man with a ruddy, cheerful face, who was watching Frankie with interest. “Looking for anything in particular, sir?”
Frankie turned round to face him. “Well, I have a lady friend who’s rather keen on Virginia Woolf. I wondered if there were any similar writers who she hadn’t, er…”
“Oh, yes. Other members of the Bloomsbury Group, you mean. Well, let me see.” George opened a drawer and pulled out an old pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses. He put them on and squeezed his way around the counter into the main part of the shop.
He stood in front of a bookcase of second-hand Penguins and Frankie moved over to join him. “Let me see,” muttered George, “A Passage to India, A Room with a View… I suppose your lady friend will have read all of those?”
“I think so.”
“You’re looking for something modern, but that she probably wouldn’t have heard of. How about The Love Song of Albert J Prufrock?”
“I’ve read that, and it didn’t seem like a love song to me.”
“How about James Joyce? This is his latest work.”
Frankie leafed through a copy of Finnegans Wake and sniggered. “I think she’d prefer something written in English.”
George put it back and turned round to look at the Art section. “How about a nice bit of Wyndham Lewis, sir? Not just Modernism, but also Vorticism.”
Frankie glanced through the thick folio called BLAST! that George handed him, and frowned. “This all looks a bit too masculine to me.”
“You’re right, sir, Wyndham Lewis is an acquired taste.” He peered at the other books on the shelves, tut-tutting, until he pulled out something with a classically plain gray cover. “She probably hasn’t read all of E.M. Forster’s works, has she, sir? What about short stories? Quite a few good ones in here. It includes the classic, The Machine Stops – one of my personal favorites, sir.”
“Well, she told me which of Forster’s novels she’s read, so…hmm. The Eternal Moment, and other stories – that’s a nice title. Yes, good idea, isn’t it? She can dip into them whenever she’s got time. Sitting in the café. On the bus.”
“Reading by candlelight in the Anderson shelter.”
Frankie looked at the shopkeeper quizzically.
“Only a joke, sir. It’s my sense of humor.”
Having found the present he’d been looking for, Frankie thought he’d treat himself with a bit more browsing before the blackout. He soon found himself in the History section, amidst the Classic Civilizations, on the small but always intriguing shelf of Egyptology.
“Excuse me,” Frankie said after a while, “could you tell me about this?”
He pulled a thick volume from the shelf and held it up. George peered at it through his spectacles; a sly smile crept over his face.
“Ah, yes. Liber AL vel Legis sub Figura CCXX. Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law. A most interesting choice.”
“I’ve heard of Crowley,” Frankie said, puzzled. “Isn’t he that bounder they go on about in the newspapers? He worships the Devil, or something?”
“Oh no, sir. Crowley founded his own school of belief, called Thelema, which has nothing to do with Satanism.”
“So what’s the connection with Egypt?” Frankie thumbed through the book and stopped at an engraving of an ancient stele. “What are the translated hieroglyphics for?”
“Well you see, sir, it all goes back to 1904. Crowley and his wife spent the night in the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza…”
“Good Lord! How on earth did they wangle that?”
“I don’t know, sir, they must have bribed someone in authority. Anyway, after performing certain magic rituals, Crowley’s wife went into a trance, and she claimed to have contacted some kind of…supernatural intelligence. A few days later, in their residence in Cairo, they were able to communicate with the same intelligence again. It named itself as ‘Aiwaz’ and dictated the Book of the Law to Crowley. This book.”
Frankie felt his eyes getting larger and tried not to let the shock show on his face. “That’s…extraordinary.”
He turned to the back cover to check the price, delicately penciled in at the top left corner. “But I can’t really…”
“How about I do you a deal, sir? Seeing you’re a regular customer, and you’re looking for a present, and it is Christmas…three shillings for both this and the Forster.”
Frankie was blushing freely now, despite his efforts to control himself. “Mr…George – I don’t know what to say.”
Hurry up and buy them, you idiot, an inner voice screamed at him, before he changes his mind!
“Thank you, that’s so awfully kind of you! Thank you so much.”
That night, Frankie pulled the Blackout curtains, pinned them shut and began to read the Book of the Law by the light of his bedside lamp. The air raid sirens began their mournful wailing, and soon he heard the throbbing engines of the bombers flying in from the coast, and the crump and roar as the night’s detonations began. As he read he felt the building around him shake, and the plaster cracked and shifted uncomfortably in the walls. There was a shelter in the basement; Frankie and a couple of the other lodgers declined to use it.
When his eyes grew tired, he closed the book, switched off the lamp and settled down into the thin sheets under the blanket.
I can’t make head nor tail of it, he thought sadly. Nut? Geb? Harp-Or-Kruat? The names and the arcane phrasing of the liturgy were a meaningless jumble to him, and his mind kept drifting back to Liz, her face and her dazzling smile, and the question he had planned for her …
Kiss me goodnight Sergeant Major,
Tuck me in my little wooden bed,
We all love you, Sergeant Major,
When we hear you bawling, “Show a leg!”