Leslie Chesterton in F.W. Woolworth’s (Belgrade Road, Leicester, 19th November 1942)

My Grandad, excluded from the draft on account of his flat feet, was a searchlight operator in London during The Blitz. Typically stationed on the tallest buildings in the city, a team of three operators would turn an arc of clarifying light across the night sky, reaching for the glimmer of nose, tail or wing that would announce the bombers’ arrival. It was unglamorous and dangerous work. Fighters, at the leading edge of a run, would strafe the light’s wide eye to protect the camouflage of darkness.

Worse than that, my Grandad used to say, was the feeling of hopelessness when his lights found the targets but the gun crews did not. ‘There was a hum – then a low whistle as the bombs and parachute mines came down. My light caught them for a second and then you lost them and closed your eyes for the bang’. Some of the operators followed the incendiaries’ descent as accurately as they could. They hollered down to the people on the streets who’d not found cover. But their shouts were lost in a thunderous crack and shudder; they could only watch as fire swallowed terraces, businesses, empty squares, and burst ragged heat over the slow unfortunates still running for shelter.

After moving to Leicester, Grandad became a ticket collector on Midland Red buses. A bright, mathematically gifted child, he’d been denied a grammar school education because his parents could not afford the uniform. The management at the bus company recognised his feel for numbers and put him in the office to help out when accountants came in for the annual audit. ‘Make the numbers stand up’, he was told.

On the night of 19th November 1942 my Grandad had just come off duty. There was little cloud, no rain, and the winter moon was on the wane. He decided to walk home from the bus depot in central Leicester to his council house in Knighton Fields Road East. Grandad had stopped, as he always did, at a flower stall to buy a burst of colourful flowers for his wife, Christine. He headed on home towards the west of the city.

At around six thirty he passed F.W. Woolworth’s on Belgrade Road and decided on impulse to buy some small gifts for his two daughters: Anne wanted a skipping rope, Christine a toy cat. He was at the counter when a hum found its way through the clatter and bustle of the tills.Then came the long, low whistle and my Grandad was shouting and running towards the back of the shop, grabbing as many people as he could, fleeing from the front window and all that glass, all that heavy glass; and he was some two thirds there before the bomb connected with the pavement outside and sucked in the everyday world and blew it out in a million dark fragments.

The front of F.W. Woolworth’s was vaporized instantly – erasing the polished main counter, the ‘pick and mix’ sweet stand; and the Christmas decorations just erected. And the milling customers (the talcumed pensioners, bustling parents, and school children with high tinkling voices) were gone without a moment’s notice, replaced by a fierce burning space.

The explosion had reached the back of the shop where my Grandad lay. It’d toppled clothes racks, blasted fragile china from the displays, and dislodged expensive leather shoes. ‘A man’, my Grandad said. ‘A big man was blown twenty feet across the shop and lay concertinaed across a field of pots and pans. His legs had snapped back to his head, like this…’

My Grandad got unsteadily to his feet. He ran his hands over his private parts, legs and face to check he was whole. The eyebrow on the left side of his face was gone. The index finger on his right hand was broken and would never be supple again. ‘But I was me. I was me.’

Then through the amber light of the fire he saw the St. Christopher necklace. Scattered from the jewellery display, it was just a cheap and dreary trinket. But my Grandad, Leslie Chesterton, made a deep fist around the thin, tarnished silver, and waited for help to come. He prayed and waited for rescue from the blackened, booming world.

© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.

Advertisements