by Brenda Gunning
Malted hot drink
Her fingers aren’t as flexible as they used to be, the joints a little stiff with rheumatism. Her eyesight has never been too good and she leans forwards now her chin uplifted to read through the bi-focal lenses of her spectacles. The sheet of music propped up on the piano is creased across both sides as well as the corners being curled and folded and the paper yellowing. But though it is difficult to read, it is an easy piece for her and she has played it many times over the years. Her eyes glance over the first line, then she leans back again and closes her eyes.
She was trying to concentrate on what the minister was saying, but it was difficult, difficult for everyone in the congregation, as they all had other things on their minds. Her eyes drifted away from the pulpit and towards the large wooden framed clock on the side wall. 11am. The service had started at 10.45 as usual, one hymn had been sung and one short prayer said. She realised that already she could not remember what the hymn had been even though she had sang heartily and with pleasure as she always did. The hymns were her favourite part of the service. At fourteen it was not always easy to stay focussed on the preacher’s words but many of the Bible readings she knew by heart. She brought her eyes back to his face and her mind back to his voice.
‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.’
Her eyes were again diverted as Mr Brown, the usher and giver out of hymn books, hurried down the aisle and the rest of the congregation’s eyes turned to follow him. He reached the pulpit as the minister stopped speaking and bent his head sideways slightly to listen to the words that were murmured to him. A small frown could be detected on his face as a piece of paper was pushed into his hands, then his expression changed back to the hint of a reassuring smile as he turned back to the congregation. Her eyes glanced again at the clock on the wall. 11.15.
‘I am afraid there is an announcement that I need to make to you "the minister began. ‘The Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, has made a statement that I will read now.’
She wondered if she imagined the tremble of his hands as he held the piece of paper and began to read aloud -
‘This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government the final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o' clock, that they were prepared, at once, to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’
Much later, when she remembered this time, she imagined that there was a hush in the chapel, as was usually the case in films or dramatic scenes in novels. But there wasn’t. A murmur began immediately between people sitting in the same pew, which then spread to those in front and behind, getting louder by the second. She looked around to see people standing up and beginning to move out of their confined spaces. ‘Ladies and gentleman, children, everyone’ The minister’s voice was raised to be heard.
‘Let us say a short prayer together and then we will end this service and make our way home.’ He clasped his hands together in front of him, and with closed eyes bowed his head. The congregation followed suit, some sitting some still standing. ‘We ask God that He will ensure that our actions are true and honourable in these troubled times. May the Lord bless us and keep us and our loved ones safe. Amen’.
The murmuring and shuffling began again, as people starting moving out of the pews again and down the aisles. She felt a sudden feeling of nausea in her stomach as the anticipation of what might happen next washed over her. What would happen next? What should she do now? What happens when your country is at war? Get home, that was what she needed to do. Mumbling ‘excuse me, excuse me’ she pushed past a few people standing around in the aisle and reached the back of the chapel. Then to the door and out into the open air. She ran.
Down the path of the chapel and out onto the street, turning right in the direction of the bridge without thinking of anything except home. Usually she would have got a tram at the corner of Bridge Street, which would take her almost to the bottom of her street, about three miles away. But today she had no thought of trams or buses, and was not even aware, until later that in fact all public transport had stopped, shortly after the announcement from the Prime Minister had been heard on the radio. In the streets other people were hurrying too, some running, some holding children’s hands and almost dragging them along as their small legs struggled to keep to the pace of the adult.
As she reached the bridge crossing over to the north side of the river, a strange sound began, starting low and deep like an orchestra tuning up and becoming louder and higher before sliding down low again to repeat its cycle. She stopped still long enough to see other people also listening tothe noise, and looking up into the sky at the sound of the siren, before hurrying on again. Her mouth was already dry and her throat ached. A pain was beginning in her left side as she began to run again, almost blindly. The metal spans of the bridge flashed past her as though she were looking out of the window of a moving train at another train travelling fast in the opposite direction.
'Hey, Miss?’, the man’s voice caught her by surprise. She stopped again and looked at him reaching his arm out to her, reading the letters ARP on the band around his sleeve.
‘Come here, quickly, you must get inside the shelter!’ He was tugging at her coat now, trying to get her to the steps that led to the shelter underground.
‘No, No’, she tried to keep her voice calm, ‘I don’t need to. I’m going home – I’m almost there.’ She hoped he believed her; she was almost convinced herself.
‘Well, OK then, if you’re sure it’s not far. But hurry’.
She set off again in spite of the pain, mouthing to herself, ‘almost there, almost there.’ Down past the library, the cinema, the park. Rows of shops went unnoticed as she ran on. ‘Keep going, keep running’ a voice inside her urged her on, ‘Don’t stop, you’re almost home’.
She wouldn’t have stopped if something hadn’t fluttered to the ground in front of her. It settled, then lifted again in the wind and rested again on the pavement. She put out her foot and caught the tip of it beneath her shoe. A double sheet of paper, flicking itself like a trapped butterfly. Bending to pick it up, she turned to see a young woman in the door way of the music shop behind her.
‘Keep it’, the woman shouted to her, ‘That’s the third piece that’s blown away while I’ve been tryingto lock up here’
The woman closed and locked the shop door, and hurried off down the street. She turned back to the paper in her hands – a double sheet of music,
‘Traumerei, (Kinderscenen) by R.Schumann’, she read. She rolled the sheets carefully like a scroll, and held them loosely in her hands as she continued her running, her breathing a little easier now and a power in her legs that she hadn’t felt before. Her house was in sight now and she could see her father at their gate looking anxiously down the street for her. He began to smile as she turned the corner, and put his arm around her shoulder as she reached him. She was safe, she was home.
A warm feeling melts through her body again, as it did then. She opens her eyes and leans forward to read the music, in front of her now - ‘Traumerei (Kinderscenen)’ - Dreaming (Scenes from Childhood). She rests her shaky fingers on the piano keys and begins to play.
I have been writing since I was a child and have had articles, short stories and poetry published in a number of magazines, newspapers and online.
My book ‘Crossing Borders’ is a travel/biography and I have the follow up to this, a novel and a poetry anthology in progress.