The Cupboard Under the Stairs
´This is a useful space,´ said the estate agent, opening the door of the cupboard under the stairs. ´Big enough to walk into, is this.´
Annie stared into the blackness, her old heart beginning to beat harder. She was finding it hard to breathe and beads of sweat broke out on her forehead. Why was she so afraid? It was only a cupboard. But Annie was remembering another cupboard just like this. Where she used to hide all those years ago when the German planes flew through the blackness, releasing their deadly cargo over Liverpool.
´Are you feeling all right?´ asked the man anxiously. ´You don´t look well.´ His voice brought her back to the present.
´I´m sorry,´ she whispered. ´Just give me a minute. This house took me back a ways – to the war. I lived in a spot like this during the blitz. I haven´t thought about it in years.´
Chris stared at her. He reckoned she must be over eighty.
´You couldn´t have been very old then.´
She nodded. ´I was eleven when the worst of the raids hit Liverpool. Our house was close to the docks, you see.´
Chris frowned. ´We read about it at school but the teacher told us the kids were evacuated to the country.´
´Most were but my mam wouldn´t let us go. Our dad was in the navy and she said we were all she had. Not that Sean and I minded back then. We´d no desire to be sent God knows where and maybe get split up.´
´Is Sean your brother?´
Annie sighed and closed her eyes. ´That´s right, love. But none of us knew what it would be like. Night after night, not knowing if your house would still be standing next morning. Or even if you´d be alive to see it.´
Chris nodded. ´I can´t imagine living through something like that. But what made you think about it now?´
The old lady opened her eyes and stared at the hated cupboard. ´This spot. We didn´t have one of the fancy Morrison shelters so we just had to do the best we could. Our mam used to take us below the stairs and close the door. We had warm blankets and a few toys but I still hated the noise that door made when it banged shut. I´d seen my uncle laid in a coffin the year before and I remember Father Gilmartin closing the lid at the funeral. That door used to remind me of that. I´d imagine the bombs falling on the house and trapping us in there. Just like someone closing the lid on my coffin.´
She shivered and Chris guided her away from the hall and into the kitchen. He hadn´t meant to upset her. She seemed a nice old lass and her story fascinated him. He was only twenty-two and it was impossible to imagine the modern city devastated by bombers night after night. Besides, Annie reminded him of his gran.
´Sit down, Mrs. Jones. You´ll feel better in a minute.´
Annie smiled and did as she was told. He seemed a nice lad. ´There was one night worse than the rest, you see. Probably the worst night Liverpool ever saw. And our house was in the thick of it.´
´Tell me about it.´ He hesitated. ´That´s if you don´t mind.´
She shook her head. ´No, I don´t mind. Maybe it´d do me good to talk about it after all this time. Back then we didn´t have a chance. We just had to get on with our lives as best we could.´
She leaned back in the chair and remembered…
The mournful lament of the siren woke Annie from her sleep. The little girl wasn´t sure she could move. She was so tired she would probably just have lain there but Sean was out of bed and pulling the bedclothes off her.
´C´mon, Annie, the Germans are coming. Come on!´ His young frightened voice rose to a crescendo and Annie couldn´t ignore it.
´It´s all right, Sean, we´ve got a while yet. Grab your dressing gown and put your slippers on. Mam´ll be coming for us in a minute.´
But she was far from sure that was true. She was only eleven but she´d had to grow up fast these last few months. Since her dad went away, Annie´s mother had taken to easing her loneliness with a bottle. Just an odd glass at first to help her sleep. Then two, then three…
Annie didn´t blame her. Everyone knew Rosie Mullen couldn´t cope on her own. Her family said she´d always been nervy, even as a girl. She was sensitive and delicate. Her other grandmother called her feckless. Once, when she thought Annie was asleep, she railed on at her son.
´For God´s sake, Liam, Rosie´s a grown woman. It´s time she started acting like one and taking a bit of responsibility. It´s not up to you to do the cleaning. That´s a woman´s job! You´re out at work all day.´
´Shush, Ma, she´ll hear. And it´s not her fault. She isn´t strong like you. You know her nerves are bad.´
Her dad always defended her mam. In spite of everything he loved her. She was gentle and she loved him too. He didn´t mind looking after her. But now he was in the navy and Annie was left to carry on. She tried to take care of the house and help with Sean but she was tired and lonely. Her dad was her best friend and she missed him so much. She knew her mam cared about her but she was poorly and fretful. She stayed in bed most of the time. Especially if she´d had a drink.
´Where´s Mam?´ whimpered Sean. ´Didn´t she hear the siren?´
Annie sighed. He was only seven; no wonder he was scared. ´Stay here a minute. I´ll go and fetch her.´
Annie ran along to her mother´s room but her heart sank. Rosie lay on the bed, fully clothed and dead to the world.
´Mam, there´s a raid. Wake up!´ She started shaking Rosie. ´Please, Mam, you´ve got to wake up!´
The slight, pretty woman groaned softly and caught Annie´s hand. ´What´s the matter?´ Her voice was thick and broken.
´It´s a raid, Mam. The Germans´ll be here in a couple of minutes. We´ve got to go under the stairs.´
Rosie tried to make sense of her little girl´s words. Her temples were pounding and she felt sick. Why did she finish the bottle? She hadn´t meant to. Annie pulled her up from the bed.
´Please, Mam. Our Sean´s so scared, he´s wetting himself. And the planes´ll be here soon.´
Rosie cursed herself for her weakness. What sort of a mother was she? Other women coped with their man being away at the war, so why couldn´t she? But she worried about Liam constantly, imagining horrific scenes. U-boats blowing his ship out of the water. She hardly slept. She couldn´t stand the thought of life without him.
´Mam!´ Annie´s voice broke into her thoughts. She shook herself.
´I´m coming, love. You get Sean downstairs and I´ll fetch the torch and something for us to drink.´
Annie didn´t need telling twice. She scurried back to their bedroom and collected her tearful, terrified brother.
´Ready, Sean? We´ll get settled in the shelter and Mam´ll be along in a minute. Bring Sammy with you. He´ll be scared left on his own.´
He nodded and grabbed the rabbit he slept with. Their grandmother said he was far too old for stuffed toys but Sean took after his mother. He was gentle and sensitive too. And none the worse for that, thought Annie, pushing him into the cupboard. Besides, she could do with something to cuddle herself right now. She turned and pulled the door shut.
The slam coincided with the crash of the shell.
Later Annie couldn´t remember if the screams she heard belonged to her or Sean. She couldn´t remember much of anything except the nightmare blast of the explosion. The noise deafened the children and the dust and plaster threatened to suffocate them. Bricks crashed violently to the floor, building an impenetrable wall where the door used to be. Fortunately Annie couldn´t see that. The two children clung together in the middle of the floor, screaming, certain the house was about to collapse on top of them. A beam gave way under the weight of masonry and the debris burst through on to the young, terrified prisoners.
Rosie heard the cries of fear and pain. They grew fainter – until there was silence. She screamed for all she was worth, a desperate, anguished howl. Her children were trapped behind that door. Was no-one coming to help them? Every muscle in her body ached as she crawled painfully along the hallway. She didn´t care. She had to do whatever it took to save her beloved children. She couldn´t live without her family.
´And that´s all I remember until I woke up in hospital the following morning,´ said Annie quietly. ´I must have passed out.´
Chris stared at her, horrified yet fascinated by the experiences of this woman. He hardly dared ask her to finish her story.
´It´s all right,´ said Annie, guessing his feelings. ´It´s been good for me talking about all this. You´re a good listener.´
´Was Sean okay?´ asked Chris tentatively.
Annie nodded. ´Aye, eventually. I mean he survived the bomb although he was in hospital for weeks afterwards. It took him much longer to get over it emotionally. Sean was always a soft lad and he missed our mam so much.´
Chris looked at her in surprise. ´Your mam?´
The old lady sighed. ´She died that night. She was badly hurt by the blast – internal damage they said afterwards. But when she realized we were trapped, she forced herself to stay awake and dig away at the rubble until she got through to us. The ambulance men said she must have been working at it for hours. And they swore she´d saved our lives. Apparently we´d have suffocated in there with all that dust, not to mention the lack of air.´
She stopped for a moment. Her eyes were far away. ´Mam gave her life to save us kids. That´s how much she loved us.´
She smiled wryly. ´That shut my grandmother up once and for all. She never dared say a word against her mother again, sour old biddy.´
Chris smiled too. ´Quite a woman, your mother.´
She nodded. ´That she was. Anyway my dad was discharged from the navy so he could come home and look after us - and we did all right between us. He tried to keep cheerful for our sake but he never forgot his Rosie. If anyone mentioned her, he´d still defend her to the hilt. "Aye well, my Rosie was always delicate of course. But there wasn´t a braver, stronger woman anywhere." I can hear him saying it.´
´And he was right,´ added Chris.
Annie laughed. ´Yes, I reckon he was.´
Chris pushed his chair back and stood up. ´Come on, Annie, you don´t want to live in this house but I know a place might suit you.´
She was happy to go along with the lad. She didn´t have much else to do these days. They got back into his car and headed out towards the suburbs. Finally Chris drew up outside a small, pleasant property with a tiny garden and a flowering cherry.
´This any better, Annie?´
She stared at it for a moment and grinned. ´I reckon so.´
Chris smiled. ´I noticed this was for sale because my Gran lives just across the road. I thought you might like it. After all, a bungalow doesn´t have a cupboard under the stairs, does it?´