… the piles, oh the piles, of children’s tiny shoes and the helmets that men wore and their weapons.”
July in London and the air is muck and I haven’t had a clean, deep, draw of breath since I arrived in this city, my once-favourite place. All of the edges wobble when I’m breathless, the light sparkles. And everything looks like it is behind a pane of glass.
July in London and the air is muck and this Friday afternoon it is as hot as a furnace. I’ve been in the hulking Imperial War Museum for hours. I’ve filled up on the memorial to those killed in the Holocaust, on the stark drawings of war and the posters and the artefacts and the piles, oh the piles, of children’s tiny shoes and the helmets that men wore and their weapons. Now I am on the main floor of the museum watching people: the boys and their grandfathers and the pairs of women from Japan and the grey-haired, hiking-booted couple from Germany. They are all strolling around the guns and the tanks and the bomb casings on display and overhead there hang some planes from the First World War. It makes me think of the dinosaur skeletons we used to take my nephew to see when he was a boy. I am awash in nostalgia.
July in London and the air is muck and, on my way out, I notice a sign pointing downstairs, “Replica of London house, 1940s” and I decide to go down and look at it. I am edgy and my struggle for breath has worn on me but I don’t want to miss a thing. It is London, after all, my once-favourite place.
I descend the stairs and land in the front hallway of the house, a worker’s cottage, I think, small. The wallpaper has tiny pink flowers, and the lamps cast dank ponds of light into the dimness. Here, it is evening and the windows are covered with heavy blackout curtains. In the parlour sit two armchairs, one with a lace doily on its shoulders, and there is a console radio between the chairs. I can smell that someone has just left the room. The parlour flows into the dining room where the table, small, is set for supper and beyond it there is the kitchen with an old range and a back door that must lead out to a patch of garden surrounded by high brick walls. The door is locked. From the back of the kitchen, a narrow staircase carries me upstairs to where there are three quiet bedrooms with beds dressed in homey counterpanes and meagre pillows and I can see the impression of the bodies that sleep there every night; this house belongs to those people.
I take another staircase down and land by the front door again and now I see a khaki jacket hanging on the row of coat hooks by the door, and a pair of women’s shoes that look like my Granny’s old lady shoes. Just to the left there’s the pantry with its tall turquoise-painted shelves and back to the kitchen and into the hallways and now I want to leave this place and I can hear voices behind the wall. The edges are warbling and the light is sparkling and my breath, tight in my chest, nags me to get out so I look for an exit but I can’t find one and I begin to wonder if I’m in a dream. Every corner I turn leads to another room and more shadows.
I stand as still as the air in the hallway until I hear footsteps on the stairs. A young Chinese couple comes into the house. I am so relieved I could weep. I shadow them for the few moments they are in the house and I follow them out and back upstairs to the main door of the museum. I don’t think they even notice me.
July in London and the air is muck and the edges of everything wobble and the light sparkles and everything, even the Thames, looks as if it is behind a pane of glass.
I am so relieved I could weep.”