Bio Preview: In Pursuit of My Father
One of his earliest memories dates from midnight, 7th September 1940, the night of a big raid. Jake and his mother stood hand in hand on the top step of the ancient tenement buildings he’d been born into and watched London burn. The sky red all round, the smoke, fumes and flames, the aroma of roasting meat – which significance didn’t strike him for years – the jangle of fire bells, the shriek of police whistles, and the nearby rumble of falling masonry, all combined to load his mind. As he watched, seas of sparks shot into the night sky as blazing roofs collapsed into the gutted shells of buildings. His mother quietly cried.
Jake was four and a bit. He was ‘responsible’.
‘You’re a big boy now,’ his Dad said. ‘I’m making you responsible for looking after your mother.’ He’d squeezed her hand. Close by, a roof collapsed in flames.
‘There goes the bathhouse,’ his mother grizzled.
They took their bath in the bathhouse. There were no baths in the damp and dingy flats.
They’d spent the last few hours side by side on an old orange box in the shelter at the bottom of the yard. His beloved bike was hidden behind it. The cold damp shelter reeked of something rotten. Giant black beetles lived under the mouldy mattresses. The beetles smelt horrible when he was able to squash one. Together they’d listened to the drone of aircraft, the staccato roaring of ack-ack guns and the crump of bombs, which shook the ground, making his mother whimper and cry out. Jake wasn’t scared of bombs. They were outside. He patted her knee.
‘BOOM,’ a huge explosion rocked the shelter. The candle fell askew in the jam jar. In the brief silence, which followed the bomb-blast the jar gave a loud ‘CRACK’ inches from his ear. He flinched more to that sound than he had to the bomb.
‘We’ll all be killed,’ his mother cried, and clung to him. He kissed her hand and wished his Dad were there.
Outside, after the ‘All Clear’ siren, they’d scrunched round their three-storey block. All the windows and most of the roof slates crackled and crunched beneath their feet. He could feel the shards of glass and slate through the worn soles of his shoes.
The flapping of nearby wings made his mother scream. She feared fur and feather.
‘It’s only Mrs Tarney’s parrot,’ he said.
Polly was a huge blue and red macaw. The terrified creature edged sideways toward them along the remains of the yard wall. The bird was calling, ‘Shut up, Polly,’ and ‘Be quiet you noisy bugger,’ over and over again. Though sympathetic, Jake smiled at the swearword.
His Mum lifted him up to look for Mrs Tarney in her ground floor flat. He saw nothing in the inky black. They never saw Mrs Tarney again.
‘Take me to see my bike, Mum,’ he’d insisted.
All three tyres were pumped up but it was still too big for him. It must have been just before war was declared that his Dad had taken him to buy his heart’s desire. Dad had pushed him home in the dark past ‘lighted’ shop windows. Jake’s mother smiled at his inability to reach the pedals.
‘It will last him for years,’ she said and, ‘where did you get the money?’