When the bomb hit, Cora was glad to find someone looking out for her . . .
AS soon as she opened the box, the memories came flooding back as if it were yesterday. It was a perfectly ordinary shoebox, slightly battered after all those years in the loft.
She had tied it closed in the old-fashioned way, with tough brown string, finished with a neat bow.
The label, written in a rounded, childish hand,
said Cora Watson. September 14, 1941, aged twelve. PROOF.
She had been ill for a long time after the scarlet fever. The doctor had been called, his visit costing vital shillings that could have been spent on rent or food.
He’d prescribed calamine lotion, good food and plenty of rest, and told her mother to keep Cora’s temperature down with sponge baths.
“Make her drink plenty, Mrs Watson.”
Cora’s grandmother had tutted disapprovingly.
“Waste of money. That child is in God’s hands now. You’ll see.”
But gradually her temperature had come down.
Good food was difficult to come by, with rationing. Cora’s mother worked in the munitions factory and didn’t have time to join the long queues that snaked down the street at the first hint of something good arriving at the butcher’s or the greengrocer’s.
Her father had been away for more than five months, somewhere in Africa.
Cora missed him desperately, and stubbornly refused to be sent away to safety in case he came home and she wasn’t there.
Home was Bermondsey – what was left of it. Bomb craters littered the area, with missing houses in almost every street.
They’d been lucky so far, but Ma was worried because their house was so close to the railway. Every time a siren went off she was certain they’d be next.
They didn’t go to the shelters when the sirens sounded. People still got killed in the shelters.
Cora’s friend Joan and her parents had been sheltering there. None of them had survived.
Ma said she’d rather be in her own home, so they hid in the little sloping cupboard under the stairs instead.
It was snug in there – Ma had brought the blankets in, and all the pillows and bolsters.
“We’ll make ourselves a cosy nest, Cora,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter that it’s dark – we’ll snuggle up and go to sleep. When we wake up, it’ll be over.”
Cora wondered about that for a long time afterwards. Had Ma known?
On that awful night in September, the sirens had begun to wail just as they were about to go to bed.
Sighing, they’d pulled all the bedding down the steep stairs into the cupboard below and snuggled up together. Then they heard it. The sad miaow of a frightened cat.
Cora looked at Ma. “We can’t leave it out there,” she said. “We have to let it in here with us. It might get killed.”
Ma said no, and that the cat would have enough sense to run.
It miaowed again, louder this time.
“Perhaps it’s hurt, Ma. We can’t just leave it. Please?”
Ma sighed and got to her hands and knees.
“I must be mad,” she grumbled. “You stay right there.”
She darted towards the front door just as the blast hit, and the wall between the sitting-room and the hallway came crashing down on top of her.
Cora could still recall the shock, the dust and the sudden silence. Ma was flat on her back, wearing a look of surprise.
Even at twelve years old, Cora had recognised that her mother was dead. Then there was an ominous creak, and terror zigzagged like a hot wire down her spine.
She could see the stars through the hole above her where the landing should have been. Her parents’ bedroom had vanished, together with half of the roof.
She watched in horror as one of the fat red chimney pots came crashing through, showering bricks and mortar in huge chunks around her.
Cora was beyond terror. Her mouth was filled with dust. She couldn’t shout for help; only odd, highpitched croaking sounds came out when she tried.
She couldn’t move as something was pinning her foot. Then one of the cold water pipes gave way and began to gush above her, soaking her with icy water, turning the dust to glue.
She realised with dread that she was going to be buried in the rubble, or drowned. She wouldn’t be rescued and they would never find her.
She began to pray, desperately, hurriedly, her mind a jumble.
“Please, God, don’t let me die.”
It was then she saw the angel. Gently, softly, it drifted down and slid into the cupboard with her, settling on Cora’s feet and arching its beautiful feathery wings to hold up the sagging stairs.
Cora could feel the warmth seeping into her body, inching up her trapped legs.
The angel smiled,
and Cora found her eyelids growing heavy. The downy softness of the angel’s wings spread over her like a blanket, and she drifted into sleep.
She was woken by loud voices and a torch beam shining right into her face. Bewildered, she raised an arm to shield her eyes from the bright light.
“Quick! There’s a kid here!”
Frantic hands reached in, pulling her roughly through the rubble, wrenching her stuck ankle free with an agonising jolt.
As she reached the air, there was a rumble, and she was half thrown, half carried to safety just as the wall collapsed over the stairs, which surrendered to the inevitable with a crunch.
Cora had been the only survivor pulled from what had been a row of eight houses in their terrace. It took a couple of days before they managed to dig Ma out.
By then, Cora was in hospital with a broken ankle and concussion. She had told the nurses about the angel and they had laughed gently, patting her hand and explaining how the brain does funny things when it hasn’t got enough air, or if a person got a nasty bang on the head.
“You’re safe now, love, whatever it was,” they said kindly. “You just thank your lucky stars that something was looking out for you.”
But she had proof. She hadn’t looked in that box for 70 years, but now that she was moving in with her son, everything in the old house had to be sorted out.
“What have you got there, Grandma?” Phil, her grandson, busy and brusque, reached out.
She held the box closer and he peered over her shoulder.
As he reached out to take it, she shook her head.
“Don’t touch it. It’s special.”
He shrugged and walked away, looking a bit miffed.
Cora looked down into the shoebox, where one single white feather glowed up at her, and smiled.