A gang of kids take over an old bomb shelter
Park street, East London, home to eleven-year-old Sam, and his friends.
Signs of the war were evident, even ten years after hostilities ended. Some buildings in the row of terraced houses still showed bomb damage. The kids in the street were allowed to roam freely, just as long they were home for tea. Sam and his friends had made a secret club room in one of the old bomb shelters that still existed on the park across the street.
“See you at the shelter!” Sam shouted out to his friends after school had finished for the day.
Water dripped down the walls, there was no direct light, but the kids took candles and matches from home, and set them around the dark space.
Candle light flickered on the black, pitted concrete walls. The bomb shelter was deep. It had been deep enough to protect local inhabitants seeking safety from the onslaught of the German Luftwaffe on their nightly sorties across the English Channel. It had done its job well then, but now, ten years later, it hosted a group of children who had taken it over as their clubhouse.
Sam sat on a broken chair, taking a drag on a cigarette he’d taken from his dad’s packet of fags. Tony, his younger brother Alan, and the youngest member of the gang, Brian, were half lying on the damp, musty mattress playing cards, the two girls, Alice and Sally, were watching the game.
“Mum used to bring me down here when I was a baby” Sally said, staring up at the arched brick roof.
“Yeah, ‘spect all of us came here when the bombs were dropping,” Sam sighed. “Wish I’d been old enough to remember, it would have been great.”
“You’d have been frightened out of your wits Sam,” Brian taunted his friend.
Sam glared, “Don’t you mean, you would have been, you’re scared of your own shadow.”
Brian, although small in stature, was feisty, and he jumped up and threw himself on top of Sam. The boys wrestled on the ground.
“Stop fighting, you two,” Alice ordered. She was the bossiest of the group and they all usually played the games she wanted, and followed her rules. “My mum told me somebody died down here.” Alice whispered.
Everyone stopped and stared at ten-year-old Alice. Her blonde hair and white face seem to glow in the shelter's gloom. She held a candle in her hand, and in the dimness, her eyes turned from their usual soft brown, to black, the shadows flickering on her face made her look demonic.
“Alice, put the candle down, you look weird,” Brian said, taking the candle from her, placing it on a rotting wooden shelf.
Alice laughed, “You’re all scaredy-cats.”
“I’m not scared of ghosts,” Sam said, pushing up his round glasses, which were always sliding down his nose.
“Who said anything about ghosts?” Alice asked, “I just said that somebody died in here, not the shelter is haunted.”
Six pairs of eyes darted around and into the darkness where the light of the candles didn’t reach.
“I wish you had said nothing about ghosts, Alice,” Sally whispered, her voice trembling.
They could all hear the fear in her voice and Sam said, “There’s no such things as ghosts Sal.”
Alice liked the fact she’d made her friends scared. “Oh? What makes you so sure Sam?”
“I’ll prove it then,” Sam retorted. “I’ll stay down here all night. Anybody dare stay with me?”
They all made excuses about how their parents wouldn’t let them, but that they weren’t scared, and they would, if they could.
“Your Mum wouldn’t let you stay down here either Sam,” Brian said.
“She’d never know, I’ll tell her I’m sleeping at yours,” Sam replied. “I’ll do it tomorrow night.”
After school the following day, Sam told his Mum that Mrs Jessop had said it was okay if he stayed at Brian’s for a sleepover, but only if it was alright with Sam’s parents. His mother looked doubtful.
“It’s Friday Mum, no school tomorrow. Can I?” Sam pleaded.
“All right, but be good, and mind your manners.”
Sam gathered the supplies he’d need to stay the night in the shelter. He took a sleeping bag and pillow, a torch and some of his precious chocolate, which was still rationed, even so long after the war. As an afterthought he decided to take the camera his dad had bought him for Christmas. There was still half a roll of film left, and if he saw a ghost, he could get a photograph to prove he’d stayed the night.
Everyone met up as usual, they were all eager to see if Sam would actually go through with it.
“How will we know if you don’t just go home when we all leave?” Alan wanted to know.
“Cos me Mum thinks I’m staying at Brian’s tonight, it would seem a bit weird if I go home in the middle of the night, wouldn’t it?” Sam replied, “and anyway, any of you can come and try the door, I’ll lock it from the inside, I want nobody coming in while I’m asleep.”
All the gang were secretly full of admiration for Sam’s bravery, but none of them wanted to show it.
At nine o’clock it was going dark, the rest of the kids started to leave their friend for the night..
“Sleep well Sam, I’m worried about you,” Sally started to cry.
“He’ll be okay Sal, there’s no such things as ghosts, I told you that,” Alice put her arm around her friend. “Come on, let’s go home, we’ll see Sam tomorrow and he can tell us all about his good nights sleep.”
The boys were amazed at their friend’s bravery, but would never tell him so. “See’ya Sam,” they chorused as they closed the heavy metal door behind them.
It all suddenly seemed very real to Sam. He really was down in the shelter alone, and he wished now, he’d never said he’d do it. He jumped up and quickly ran to the door; he peeked out into the darkness. He couldn’t see anyone hanging around in the park, so he was sure no one knew he was there. He slammed the door shut, sliding the rusty bolt closed. Taking a deep breath, he started to prepare his makeshift bed. The candles were burning away.They won’t last for more than another hour, he thought. He wanted to be asleep before then. He sucked on the last of his chocolate, making it last as long as possible. Taking out his camera, he took two photographs of the shelter and his bed, using the flash, as it was so dark. He would have to wait until he’d used the rest of the film and he saved enough pocket money to get them developed at the chemists in the town.
The walls seemed to close in. In the silence he a heard faint scratching noise, he pushed down the feelings of panic, which were threatening to overwhelm him. His thoughts of rats made him scramble to get into his sleeping bag, scooting down until only his nose showed. He eventually slept.
When he awoke, he reached for the torch, shining it on his watch to check the time. It was seven in the morning. He had done it, he’d slept the whole night.
Leaping up from the floor, he wrangled the stiff bolt and opened the door wide. The sun shone, it was so bright after the utter darkness of the shelter, Sam screwed up his eyes, rubbed his freckly nose and pushed up his glasses.
He smiled, I did it! Wait till I tell the others. I’ll tell Alice that I’m the leader now. He gathered his gear and went home.
Weeks passed after Sam’s night in the shelter, the rest of the kids seem to treat him with more respect, and rightly so he thought.
Sam and his family went to the coast for two weeks during the summer holidays, he used the rest of the film in his camera. He took photos of the beach, his little sister on the donkey rides, and his dad, fast asleep in a deck chair, his mouth wide open.
“I picked up your photos Sam, they’re on the table,” his mother called out to her son, as she started to unpack the bags of groceries.
He ran inside from the garden, where he’d been playing football with Tony.
“Thanks Mum, can’t wait to see that one of Dad,” he laughed, and took the unopened Kodak packet back outside.
Most of the twenty-four pictures were blurry, or showed the subject’s heads missing. Sam wasn’t a great photographer. There were the two photos he’d taken in the shelter. Sam took those out, and shoved them into his pocket, he’d forgotten all about taking those pictures and he didn’t want his mum to see them. Then the blood drained from his face, his freckles stood out like chocolate sprinkles, on the whiteness.
“What’s wrong Sam?” Tony asked, seeing the look on his friend’s face.
Sam silently passed him the picture, it was a flash photograph of Sam in the bomb shelter, fast asleep, his torch in one hand.