The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 12 (March 2, 1936)
Limited Night Entertainments — Part X. — The Shadow
Limited Night Entertainments
Perhaps by comparison with such devices as television and radio-telephony a shadow would seem almost a clumsy thing when it comes to linking places as far apart as the King Country and Lumen Street, Pimlico, which is close by Victoria Station, London.
But the shadow in this instance did more than traverse 12,000 miles of space—it bridged a gap of fifteen years as well.
It was, as befitted one of such capabilities, a heavy shadow; it blurred outlines and distorted contours to such an extent that, being cast by the brim of a man's hat as he stood beneath the lamp on a station platform, it made the wearer of that hat appear rather horribly minus his lower jaw. And I, gazing sleepily from the interior of a railway carriage which had come to rest opposite, was startled into wakefulness by the disquieting feeling that I had seen it all somewhere before, the shadow, the man, and the hat, under circumstances which recalled themselves as vaguely macabre and grotesque.
Dirty brick walls—a low, arched ceiling from which the plaster was flaking and dim electric bulbs that quivered to the thud of distant explosions. A crowd of people, two or three hundred of them, maybe, closepacked and slightly hysterical. Men and women who sang and made tensely facetious jokes in a fetid cellar while the ominous sounds of bombardment drew nearer.
That was the place, the time was October, 1917—a month it will be remembered, in which the Germans did their best by repeated air raids to destroy the morale of the civilian population of London. This particular fragment of the civil population, however, was not, at the moment, in a mood to have their morale destroyed. The entrance to their burrow was below street level, and they had over their heads a concrete ramp, reputedly bomb-proof, which gave access to a taxi garage upstairs. So they cried, “Let 'em all come,” and “Are we down'earted?” and when an extraheavy concussion powdered their shoulders with plaster from the ceiling they sang spasmodically, “Oh, we 'av'nt seen the Kaiser for a 'ell of a time!”
I was fortunate that, being in such a place at such a time, I had my back against the wall and a curb which raised me six inches above the floor to stand on, for the most trying thing about improvised funk-holes during an air raid was the interminable waiting. Long hours of standing, hemmed in with the bodies of one's fellow beings which neither gave support nor allowed one to assume a more comfortable attitude; there was nothing one could do or say or think to relieve the nerve racking tedium.
The crowd in that cellar in Pimlico were, for the most part, of the clothcapped, fur-coated munition worker type, with a sprinkling of khaki and one or two “collar and tie” men, clerks presumably, who, working late after the alarm had been given had become stranded on their way home, by the stoppage of trains.
One of the latter stood not many feet away from me, a tall, delicatelooking chap who was trying without success to read an evening paper. Close beside him—his face shadowed by the wide brim of his hat was a New Zealand Digger.
That shadow, what with the bad lighting and overburdened atmosphere, played queer tricks with the imagination; it seemed at times, quite inconsequently, to deprive the Digger of his lower jaw, and it was from an idle contemplation of this phenomenon that I was roused by a mild disturbance the centre of which appeared to be the tall clerk. His face, in contrast with the pallid features around him was flushed with anger, and while it was impossible for him to move hand or foot more than a few inches he attempted to twist the arm of a little rat-faced man who stood next to him. Under most conditions this would have proved an agreeable diversion to the bored and weary crowd, but here they were too tightly wedged to be able to enjoy a rumpus. Those near at hand had corns to be trodden on and ribs to be elbowed, and the people at a distance, who could not see what was going on, echoed their disapproval accordingly. There were cries of “Cut it out!” and “Put a sock in it!” to which the clerk replied, with a sense of concentrated fury, “He's got my wallet—the little swine's got my wallet!”
From my vantage point I could see fairly well what was happening. The little rat-faced man kept darting his head from side to side, peering at the angry faces about him while he maintained a running fire of protest.
“No, I never—S'help me—leggo me arm guv'nor, that's me bad arm—where I copped a packet at Wipers.”
Here a stout man with a red nose raised a hand which he had miraculously freed from the press. “Leggo his arm Mister,” he bawled, “didn't yer 'ear 'im say 'e was a swaddie?”
“Shyme,’ cried a woman, “to strike a wounded sojer—why ain't yer in khaki yerself?”
“The little swine's got my wallet—!”
The stout man's hand descended and crushed the clerk's hat over his eyes.
“That's the stuff to give 'im!” chanted the woman.
I raised my eyes with the rest, and them because I dreaded the rising tide of panic which that ceiling-ward gaze induced, quickly returned to the erst while actors in the little drama on the floor. The clerk was wrenching at the brim of his ludicrously battered bowler, and the little rat-faced man had half turned towards a flashily dressed woman at his back. I saw him nudge her sharply and something passed between them. Rather foolishly I shouted, “There's your wallet—he gave it to that woman!” and I sensed rather than saw the woman surreptitiously slip the wallet into the side pocket of the Digger's tunic.
Then, because I felt that trivial action could somehow detract from the disaster threatened by the droning engines above, I tried to leave my perch and struggle towards the ratfaced man. Heavy hands restrained me—“Nah then, son,” a man said not unkindly, “nothing's goin’ ter—”
His voice was engulfed by a tearing crash in the street. I had a momentary vision of the crowd swept backwards, like pebbles on a shelving beach, before the lights went out and a second stunning explosion overhead shattered the concrete ramp and rained it down in shards and half ton lumps upon the heads of the crowd. Followed a period of utter pandemonium. Men struggled and fought in pitch darkness, strangling as waves of dust and fumes enveloped them. Blocks of masonry thudded down sickeningly and over all was the bestial inarticulate screaming of panic stricken humanity. It seemed incredible, when torches and hurricane lamps at last came weaving through the wreckage in the hands of brass helmeted firemen, that any one should emerge breathing and comparatively unhurt. But we did, some of us, and were a little shocked to find the harvest moon still shining down in tranquil beauty.
The street had been burst open and rather indecently displayed its bowels of gas and water pipes. Around the edges of the crater, ambulance workers were moving quietly about the silent forms that were being brought up from below.
Presently the stricken area was roped off, the curious and anyone undamaged or not actively engaged in rescue work were removed, and there remained nothing to do but make an effort to get home, which I did, without further sight of either the ratfaced man, the tall clerk, or the Digger.
That then was the story which came flashing back through the years at the sight of the shadow-scarred man on the station platform, and in my half-wakened state I did not reason the absurdity of supposing him to be the Digger of the Pimlico cellar. To me, at that moment, the spectre of fifteen years ago was a reality and since the spectre himself gave no sign that he intended to travel by the train, I leaped to my feet as the guard's whistle blew, and gathering my hand luggage jumped to the platform as the train began to move.
Of course, the instant my feet touched the boards I realised I was behaving like a lunatic. There was nothing in this place but a few scattered lights from the township, and bush, black and mysterious against the stars. Ruefully I watched the cars slipping past and sensed derision in the ruby wink of the tail light, as I reflected that there were no more trains for nearly three hours.
I turned towards the man beneath the lamp, wondering how on earth I could accost a perfect stranger with my fantastic idea, and while I swear I fully intended to say, “Look here, were you in a cellar that was bombed in 1917?”, it seemed at the last moment too ridiculous, and I muttered something about accommodation.
“House just across the road,” he answered, “it's a two-storeyed place with a fanlight over the door.”
“Are you going there?”
“Who, me?” he laughed, “No, I've got some fellows trucking sheep down the yard, and I came over to see if the refreshment room people could let us have some tea. Just having a look at the train while I was waiting—might have seen someone I knew.”
“And you didn't?”
He looked at me curiously, “No,” he answered.
We walked down the platform together and I took heart from his kindliness and ease of manner.
“It's rather strange isn't it,” I said, “that you should have thought there might be someone on the train you knew—I got off it because I thought I knew you.”
And then I blurted out my belated explanations. We had by now reached the station buildings and he halted abruptly beneath the lights.
“Taihoa,” he pushed back his hat and stared for several minutes, “I don't know whether you are mad or I am,” he announced at length, “you honestly know nothing about me except that you think you saw me in that cellar in London?”
I assured him that I didn't.
“It beats anything I ever heard of,” he said, and then feeling in an inside pocket of his tweed jacket produced a worn leather wallet.
“This,” he said, “is one of the things that young chap lost that night.”
“And what else—?”page 34 page 35
“Come into the tearoom, and I'll tell you my part of the story.”
“I spent six weeks in hospital after that affair,” he told me when we were settled with cigarettes and cups of tea, “broken leg and a crack on the head from a piece of that bombproof concrete, and it was not until after the first week that I was able to sit up and take notice, and incidentally check over my personal effects. You can imagine the surprise I got when I found this wallet amongst them. At first I imagined it must have been put with my things by mistake—but they assured me it was found in my tunic, so there was nothing to do but go through it and try and solve the mystery—which, by the way, has only just been done by you coming out of nowhere to-night.
“There was a season ticket in the wallet made out to John Sothern, of Streatham Hill, a ten-bob Bradbury, and the photograph of an extremely pretty girl.”
He paused a moment, then—
“Ever had a broken leg?” he asked curtly, almost defiantly I thought. “No? Well, it's a rotten tedious business, but I improved the shining hour by writing to the address on the season ticket and studying the photograph of the girl. And the more I studied it, the more I hoped that John Sothern wouldn't answer. I need not have worried because some days later I received a bulky envelope containing my letter to Sothern and a note from his landlady saying that he had unfortunately been killed on the night of the raid, and would I please send any personal effects I might have of his to an address in Buckinghamshire.
The chap who had given his opponent twenty out of a hundred and run out without laying down his cue, put on his coat, lit his pipe, and started to talk about smoking. “There's some blokes,” he said, “and I know two or three, will smoke for ten minutes. Then they've had enough. Me, I like a smoke to last for two or three solid hours—and then some.” They all laughed. “What's your tobacco, old sport?” asked somebody. “Why toasted Navy Cut No. 3,” he replied. “I say I can smoke it for two or three hours at a stretch—yes, and enjoy every whiff.” Well, lots of men can do that (any number), if they smoke toasted. It contains no nicotine, you see, worth talking about. It's the real Mackay! —doesn't affect the throat, or the heart, either, for that matter. For a pure, mellow, sweet and fragrant smoke there's nothing like the genuine toasted brands—there are just five of them—Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold.*
“I am afraid there is no excuse for my next action, or rather lack of action. I like to think it was the irritation of my setting leg that made me peevish and self-centred, but it wasn't really that. The truth of the matter was, I had become so fond of that photograph that I couldn't bear to part with it. I decided that as poor Sothern was dead it would make little difference if I postponed sending the wallet to his people until I was out of hospital.
“But when I did finally get out and found myself with a week's leave before returning to camp, I felt rather mean about the whole affair, and decided to go down to Buckinghamshire and explain matters.
“Do you know a place called Lutbridge at all,” he asked.
I said that I had played cricket at Aylesbury, which is not far away. He nodded.
“I guess it must look pretty good in the summer, that country;” he said, “round Lutbridge, there's a lot of old trees, elms and beeches, and all the houses have great lawns and flower gardens.
“In November when I went down, there was quite a fog in the City, but at Lutbridge it was no more than a light mist—the trees seemed to float in it, and all through the countryside was the smell of burning leaves.
“The house was about two miles from the station, an old grey stone place with iron gates—imposing enough from a distance, but not so good close up. There were weeds in the drive and the flower beds were full of the dead stalks of asters and rubbish that ought to have been pulled out weeks ago.
He paused, and draining his tea cup, slapped his pockets for a smoke. I offered my cigarette case.
“Dash it,” he said, glancing at the clock, “I'll have to be getting back to those fellows with the sheep.”
“They seem to be doing alright,” I said, listening to the barking down at the loading pens. “Anyway, I can give you a hand if you're late.”
He grinned, “Alright—well, as I was saying, the girl opened the door. She was dressed ready to go out—all in black—it made her look even prettier than the photograph, and I was hard put to it to give an explanation of what I was doing there.
“However, after a second or two, in which I dare say I just stood staring like a big gawk—I managed to say something, and produced the wallet. She did not take it from me, but asked me to come in, and I waited awhile in a big room with a very small fire while she went away upstairs.
“I took out the wallet to have a farewell look at that picture and all my good intentions vanished. After all, I thought, they don't need the photograph, and I do. The girl lived there, or seemed to, and I was going back to London, to camp, and France, and would never see her again. I slipped the photograph out of the wallet just as the girl returned with an elderly couple whom she introduced as Sothern's mother and father.
“I suppose amongst themselves people in the Old Country are as standoffish as they are reputed to be—not mixing with people who haven't the right accent or wear the wrong clothes and all that, but I don't think any Colonial ever had any cause to complain, especially during the War.page 36 page 37
“At any rate we all sat down and had tea round the very meagre fire, and they asked me all about New Zealand and how I liked England, and the Army and so on. Not a word about John Sothern until after we'd finished and then the old lady said, 'I believe you had something to give me,’ whereupon I handed over the wallet, not without a twinge of conscience, on account of that photograph. She just passed her hand over it gently and then laid it on the table at her side.
“After a moment's silence she asked if I would care to tell them about the raid, and if I had known John very long, and so on. It must have hurt them deeply when I told them the facts—it all seemed so incongruous —and then old Mr. Sothern, by way of changing the subject, asked me how I had managed at Lutbridge station.
“The taxis have no petrol, and the cabmen don't care to come so far,’ he said.
“I told them I had walked, and then because I felt foolish and ill at ease, I added rather churlishly that I must be walking back again if I wished to get to Town that night.
“At this the old lady cried out, 'But you aren't going to leave us tonight?,’ and the old man cleared his throat and said it was unthinkable. And the long and short of it was that I stayed not only that night, but the whole of my leave as well. They couldn't do enough for me, simply because they felt, in spite of my dubious position, that I was the last contact they had with their boy, although they never mentioned it.
“I was a little disappointed at first when I found that the girl didn't live with the Sotherns. Her home was at the vicarage nearby, but she used to visit the old people every day. She had been engaged to John, and they looked upon her as a daughter, and I got into the habit of walking home with her. More than that, having nothing to do I set to work to put the Sothern's place in some kind of shape; their man had gone to the war and there was only a decrepit old bloke who used to come up from the village once a week, and when the girl saw me hoeing into the weeds and rubbish she put on a pair of gardening gloves and came to help.
“You know how it would be,” he said with a slight laugh, “the War and the rest of the world seemed a long way away during that week; we used to live in a world of our own with the old trees and the sleepy village and the still November days as a very satisfactory background. It came as something of a shock when putting the tools away in the potting shed one evening I realised that I was doing it for the last time.
“We didn't have very much to say to each other, the girl and I, as we walked home together, but when we got to the vicarage I told her about the photograph and asked her if I could keep it.
“I don't quite know what I expected her to do, probably go off the deep end a bit and give me a slating—or freeze up and tell me I was a cad. I don't think I quite expected tears—or the way she ran through the gate and left me standing in the road without so much as a 'good-bye.’
He relapsed into a thoughtful silence.
“I'm sorry,” I said, “if I've roused a painful memory.”
“Don't be a goat!” he laughed, “I was just thinking I would like a whisky now. I showed you Sothern's pocket book didn't I?” he continued more seriously. “Well, the old people gave it to me with a cheque inside for a wedding present when I married their vicar's daughter early in 1920!”page 38