‘Table three with that,’ says Olive. ‘And walk more ladylike.’ Dotty’s reply – it might be impertinent – is lost in the rattle of plates up her pink arms, sucked into the haze of cigarette and woodsmoke. Truth is, both of them are worked to the bone trying to wait these tables. Olive leans against the bar, murmured conversations lapping against her. It’s fatal to stop, but the fleshy folds that tried so hard to follow baby George out into the world are dragging worse than ever. The hours on her feet pull and pull, until she fears her insides will drop onto the hotel’s floorboards – for all to see. She glances down. Presses a toe into dark, over-polished oak. Can’t she feel the wood of this place in her shins? She touches her brow, flaking like the white plaster in the oldest rooms. For a hundred years her family has owned The Melbourne. This is their centenary year. 1940. Olive turns and rubs a cloth along the bar top, pleased and irritated in equal measure by the way she knows its every dip and swirl. How wearying it all is: the wardens and their rule changes, the ever-shifting threat, the strain of keeping this place up and running. Suddenly Davey’s image ambushes her: reaching for his fireman’s hat, dropping kisses onto the children’s heads. She sees them pawing at his legs, pleading, Daddy don’t go. Beyond the bay windows, smothered in blackout fabric, Davey is such an easy target – scurrying through the night, trying not to lose face in front of his crewmates. It never bothered her, his size, and yet war – doesn’t war require big, brash, bold men? And war’s what they’ve got, for certain. After months of nothing much, the raiders came dashing through Southampton’s skies last weekend, searching out the town’s biggest factories. Down in the vaults, Olive wrapped her arms around the children, counting explosions in her head. Davey returned at dawn, looking every inch the coalminer, tearing damp bandages from girlish hands. Beneath, his skin was angry red. When she reached for him, he flinched. ‘Davey?’ ‘It’s nothing.’ ‘Nothing?’ ‘Steam burns.’ He turned his back, shaking off wet clothes. ‘Oh! Surely they must give you proper gloves—’ She watched his shoulder blades moving, fragile as a bird’s wishbone. ‘Spare your gasps for them at the top.’ He dropped into bed, trailing smuts over starched sheets. ‘The top?’ she asked. ‘Top o’ the ladders.’ Why would he want to be at the top, anyway? Left on the spindly chair, his tunic was sending fat, dirty drops of water to the floor. Olive gathered the garment into her arms, a poor substitute for her husband – already asleep. Trying to dry the damn thing – the first chore of the day. Keg-rolling, meat-carrying, trap-driving Davey was gone. The Davey who adored her--completelyvanished. Now the restaurant sways, as if he’s swinging her round the dancefloor like old times. ‘Marry me, marry The Melbourne,’ she used to tease, turned tipsy by half a shandy. ‘Miss!’ The mariner beckons Olive to the table nearest the hearth, the one most people avoid. He’s all chest and shoulders and solid as a whale, sea salt dried into his clothes. The heat from the fire splashes her side, wood pops and hisses, and she feels a twinge of excitement somewhere half-forgotten; yes, she is imagining tumbling with this huge man in the marital bed. ‘Any pheasant?’ he asks. ‘Salmon? Steak?’ ‘Where d’you think you are, The Savoy?’ ‘Soup, then,’ he says, tossing the menu aside. ‘What’s on offer?’ ‘Cauliflower.’ ‘Tasted it yourself?’ There’s a wry smile on her lips, for the broth has suffered from Mrs Bartlett’s wrath. Somehow it became Olive’s fault that the Cold Store was bombed last Saturday, sending the town’s dairy rations up in flames. Forced to soften onions in lard, of all things, and shape dumplings from something unspeakable, Mrs B took off – stomping miles to fetch butter from her sister’s Totton farm, and of course Olive took the blame for the crop of blisters, too. ‘I’d be a fool not to take a recommendation from you.’ The man rocks backwards. Olive’s eyes linger too long on the creases at his crotch. She looks away to see Dotty flitting on the far side, white pinny undulating in all the right places. And yet this man is turned square on Olive, as if she’s the only woman in town. ‘Any pudding?’ He wets his lips. ‘Jam roly poly.’ She senses Mrs Peston pressing a napkin to her face across the room. She and Mr Peston have returned to their confectioner’s two doors up, feeling it was wrong to creep off to the country after all. A long, shuddering train journey has swept them back, in search of a hearty meal. But Mrs Peston seems to read Olive’s thoughts, clear as a stain on her skirt. Can you commit adultery, in your mind? ‘So, soup,’ she says briskly. ‘And for mains? Chops, or mutton?’ The siren blasts through the man’s mouth, answering for him. There’s a momentary pause – followed by the clatter of cutlery and scrape of furniture. The sailor heaves to his feet. ‘Here we go again,’ he jokes. As the room dips and whirls, Olive’s hands flutter to her middle, momentarily. ‘Everyone—’ She sounds like a shoddy showman, a trickster. ‘Please make your way down to our vaults – the oldest and best in town.’ This is the speech Davey urges her to make, each time. But she feels the vaults’ frailty more than their strength. She stops short, suddenly comparing that secret space to a woman’s womb. Wondrous, and yet-- ‘Hadn’t even started my main,’ complains Mr Peston. ‘We’ll bring your food down for you, sir.’ She takes his elbow. ‘Want to finish what we paid for.’ Mrs Peston gathers the wine bottle into her bosom. Again, Olive feels the sharp pain of hearing that awful woman call Davey an army dodger, right to their faces.It’s just as bad as any trench or tank, Olive tried to retort. But Davey was pulling her away, telling her to leave off. The Auxiliary Fire Service hadn’t exactly been his choice, either. ‘We’ll do our best to serve you down below,’ she says, ushering them towards the hallway. Her lungs tighten, demanding a cigarette. The sailor tilts a scruffy packet. ‘Here.’ She shakes her head, pushing up the spiral staircase, once the hotel’s grandest feature. This action pulls at her prolapse, and her resolve. She’d take a straight flight of steps, just now. And fewer demands on her courage. The little attic room reeks of stale milk; the blackout makes everything so stuffy. Gloria’s body is warm and puppyish. ‘Mummy’s here, sweetie.’ Olive feels for the cool of the chamber pot, guides Gloria over it. ‘The sirens are singing us down to the cellar, can you hear?’ ‘Will Daddy be there?’ ‘Soon, soon.’ Olive works socks onto her daughter’s pudgy feet. George’s nappy changed, he flops lightly over her shoulder. She wishes there was more substance to him, more heft. He snuffles. Autumn has gifted him a streaming cold, of course. With no open windows, germs have a field day. She takes Olive’s clammy hand in her own. ‘Let’s count the steps as we go. One, two, three …’ * The sirens rise and fall like catcalls. Davey re-enters C station, satisfied he’s given the trailer pump a thorough check. It’s still a surprise this building was once the school he attended as a lad. Now it’s filled with wooden bunks, every window bricked up to protect against blast damage. Percy’s at the telephone, and slams the receiver so hard Davey jumps. ‘Action Stations, at the docks.’ ‘Docks? Again?’ ‘At least there’s water aplenty.’ Percy grips Davey’s arm. ‘Look, let’s stick together, like before?’ ‘Course.’ A shrimp compared to the others, it’s a relief to know he’s of some use, grounded as he is by that stupid medical: those sharp pokes in his puniest places, the cold tape measure. Tongue out, say arrrrgh, breathe in. A few discreet pen strokes, and his hopes shattered. Percy’s black eyes move skittishly, at odds with his bulk and experience. The Cold Store changed everything, for them all. Its steel-framed windows are still imprinted on Davey’s mind, his ears still pulse with the roar of destruction. A fire is so loud. It must be fought. Fire fighting. A week on, his muscles are strained from aiming the hose upwards – wild as a snake – even though he was only holding on behind Percy. Despite doing everything by the book, the warehouse is still belching black, and they’ve felt the scourge of their sub-officer ever since. Percy drives slowly. The pump leaps behind. Davey tries his best to navigate. The dimmed lights catch white paint on pavement corners, and Olive’s frown follows through the black. Each shift he works adds another layer to her resentment, like plaque on a tooth. When he’s out here, she’s left running The Melbourne pretty much single-handed. He longed to empty last weekend into her lap, let her smooth away the mayhem and madness. But he mustn’t give her more cause for concern. Less she knows, less she’ll worry. Percy swerves. ‘Bloody hell, Jerry’s here already.’ Parachute flares swing down. Their light picks out the pot-bellied barrage balloons, straining at their wires. Spires and steeples hove into view like giant chess pieces. Next comes the headachy rumble of heavy bombers, rolling in from the sea. Bombs start to drop. Each explosion judders up Davey’s spine, loosening his vertebrae, jiggling his jaw bones. Searchlights thrash – a migraine in the skies, streaked with angry ack-ack fire. It’s a thunderstorm, with none of the release. Pressure building, not lessening. This is what they must head into. A few men on the ground, trying to contain this chaos. ‘Alright there, Davey?’ ‘Yep.’ He tugs his helmet strap. As they chug past The Melbourne, Davey’s eyes dart to the roof. God how he wishes he could pick up that building and move it to the country, hook line and sinker. ‘Pull up, mate!’ He presses against the window. ‘There’s incendiaries coming down. Need to check the roof!’ ‘We’ve orders, lad.’ Davey swings to face his crewmate. ‘Percy, I’m begging you—’ ‘Look, I know it’s your place, lad—’ He’ll not stop. They’re in too much trouble after last weekend. In a split second, Davey pushes open the passenger door, flies out in a fast roll across the road. ‘Davey!’ He’s already springing lightly towards The Melbourne despite the drag of his boots. The truck roars away. He hurls down the alleyway, swings boyishly up the iron staircase, icy cold beneath his fingers. He hears the drone of a fighter plane, the rapid spatter of machine gunfire. The whole building seems to lean, as if it longs to run away. He senses the town grasped by its collar, held tight. His town. Arriving on the roof, his breath is down to a thin, scraggy line. The incendiary writhes and hisses a few feet away, burning fast into solid slate. God Almighty, if it gets through … He opens the roof crate (something he insisted on carrying up here, despite the effort). He drags the pail through damp sand. Despite the weight, he clatters over tiles, swerves the chimney stack, empties the bucket and--the blighter is out! He stays bent for a moment, thinking only of Olive and the children, tucked up in those mighty foundations beneath. Good job those medieval merchants were so keen on their claret, eh? He stands, trying to breathe. The High Street stretches out below, awash with yellow flame. Jagged walls showing, like an abandoned theatre set. The shops Davey has known all his life … churches … pubs … gone. His heart pumps woozily. There’s no time to look in on the vaults. Clanging down the steps, he’s already forming excuses in his mind. For Olive, and his sub-officer. * Olive is the only one who can open up, and her guests wait in the hallway with huffs of impatience. ‘Here now,’ she says, easing past with the children. The ancient key she keeps at her belt; a piece of history, craved since childhood, hers now. The door swings open with an immense sigh. ‘This way, everyone.’ Her nostrils fill with musky cellar smells. As the past comes swirling into the present, she’s certain the vaults disapprove of being opened like this, for all and sundry. She looks up, pictures Davey above, fighting flames. Another thump brings sticky dust onto her face. If they were hit, would he come? Doubt probes at her, and she pictures that strange little doctor peering into her privates: a circular pessary, inserted high, could hoick things back into place – allow her to conceive and carry again. She thinks of it like a curtain ring. Hardly a priority, not now. She places candles at intervals along the floor. The vaults fling out, forced to reveal their decorative details; a carved rose, a chipped face. She wishes everyone would lower their voices and show some respect down here. In one corner, the children wait to be nestled into their usual mattress. But something stops Olive: a strange prickle up her back. Davey is wrong. The vaults aren’t invincible. The stones seem to speak to her. Look, here. Her eyes rest on a narrow archway, sunk deep in the wall. She’s no idea of its original purpose – a smugglers’ tunnel maybe, twisting all the way out to sea. She leans in, sniffs, flicks her hanky round; it seems to promise an extra level of protection. Having wrapped George in a woollen bonnet, she feeds him inside, like bun into oven. Thankfully, one or two strokes of his cheek is enough to send him to back to sleep. ‘Your turn.’ She lifts Gloria onto the ledge. ‘Why here?’ Her little heels kick against the stone. ‘Pretend to be a statue.’ Olive pulls her daughter’s socks up, to keep out the cold. ‘Tell me all the things you’ve seen from your perch, over the years.’ ‘No.’ There’s an echo of Davey’s obstinacy in Gloria’s tone: the same stubbornness that keeps him firefighting, even as Olive pleads for him to give it up. ‘Perhaps you saw a fine medieval lady coming to inspect her wares? Or maybe a ship’s cat, chasing mice—’ ‘I want Daddy.’ Olive reaches for the twist of brown paper she keeps pocketed. ‘Sweeties!’ ‘Snuggle back, and suck them slowly, while Mummy settles everyone in.’ The hard orange glow of a cigarette shows where the sailor sits, hidden in shadow. His eyes follow her, leaving a grubby layer on Olive’s skin. She’s ashamed of her earlier thoughts, despairs at her disloyalty. Having directed Dotty to heat water on the paraffin stove, Olive stands at the main doorway. People arrive in bursts, hunched and breathless, eyes watering. They’ve been hustled out of public shelters – blown open in the blasts – and bring muddled accounts. Olive wonders at the thick dandruff on their shoulders. Ashes, she realises, white ashes. Both the town’s department stores – Edwin Jones and Plummer Roddis – are said to be alight. Holy Rood’s spire lies across the road. ‘Is that right?’ says Olive, taking hats. ‘I’m so sorry.’ She was annoyed, at first, that Davey advertised their vault far and wide – three deep chambers, room for all. But now she happily hands out bread and butter, sugared tea, nips of brandy. These are the numbers The Melbourne would have seen in its heyday. Maybe when this is all over, they’ll choose to come back? She breaks off to check on the children. George is over-heating. She loosens his bonnet, fears his cold is turning into something more sinister. Didn’t Davey have meningitis and TB, as a boy? It’s why the RAF wouldn’t have him, poor chap. She pats round Gloria, tucking the blanket back into place. Asleep, thankfully. Just as Olive inches the remaining sweets out of her grip, there’s an unearthly sound, directly overhead. A primeval groan. A terrible screeching. A great downward thrust. She sends her upper body into the arch, protecting her babies—and Davey isn’t here. Above, The Melbourne breaks, floor by floor. Wrong parts pierce wrong places. And Olive knows for certain they’re one and the same; she and the building, too weak to withstand war. Slowly, everything slides to a stop. In the darkness, dust settles. More than anything, Olive wants to save Davey from the discovery of their deaths. * All along the docks, a biblical blaze pushes the night sky all the way back to France. Reinforcements arrive from across the country, unfamiliar accents and conflicting orders adding to the confusion. Finally, dawn brings the smooth tones of the all-clear. Davey longs to lie down. But hundreds of fires still need to be tackled. His crew is relocated. They turn into the High Street, readying themselves to work till the end of time itself. It’s been a long night for poor Olive, down in the vaults. He strains his eyes. Blinks. Squints. There’s a blank where The Melbourne should stand, like a tooth knocked out. He tries to make sense of a ragged pyramid of rubble. The steps to the vaults are smothered in debris. Percy pulls in. ‘My God—’ Davey’s already out, turning circles like a rabid dog, howling down the street. His voice echoes through black shapes and scorched structures, stark as skulls. Suddenly he despises himself, working so hard for everyone else when-- here, here-- his family lies buried. * Olive braves the bending blackness. She sucks gingerly at the air, as if closing her lips round that first cigarette. She cups her children’s heads and tries to call for help, knowing that every breath drives some deadly part of her skeleton deeper into her lungs. Outside someone says, leave them, it’s hopeless. * The rubble rips holes in his knees. He shifts blocks of masonry. Warm blood runs over his hands. He will lift every block until he reaches them. This will not be their tomb. Percy’s thick hand is on his shoulder. ‘We’ll sink a vault, Davey ...’ ‘You think … could they be, alive?’ He spins round, unaware of the hysteria in his voice. ‘Tell me they’re alive!’ He crouches again, desperate to turn himself liquid and squeeze through the gaps. ‘I’m here,’ he says, cheek pressed to a chunk of stone. ‘I came too bloody late, but I’m here.’ * She hears the impossible. ‘Davey?’ she croaks. * To think he can conjure her voice, so clearly! He cries her name, again and again, until dirt dribbles down his chin. The children’s names. Did he send them to their deaths? He rues his blind faith in the vault. Nothing can resist the enemy. Nothing. ‘Davey?’ ‘Olive!’ His cracks his front tooth on a stone. ‘Olive!’ ‘Davey?’ Her voice is distant-sounding, trembling. ‘Everyone … is … dead.’ ‘The children?’ ‘Not the children, but—’ He hears Gloria’s cries. He flips to standing. ‘They’re alive!’ He sees the disbelief on his crewmate’s face. And then Davey’s eyes bulge as he sees something else, beyond. Delicate droplets fanning out, pretty as a fountain. A burst main. His gaze follows the water over the road, swooping towards the fringes of the rubble, slipping out of sight. His ears tune into a dreadful gushing. ‘Olive!’ He sprints, drops low. ‘Where’s it up to?’ No answer. He springs up, growls at Percy. ‘We can’t let them drown like rats.’ He breaks off, bent double by a coughing fit, weak lungs finally overcome. Percy’s thick lips stretch and move. Overnight, thick stubble has covered his cheeks and chin. Davey can’t follow his words. ‘Davey!’ His shoulder blades come adrift. ‘Davey! Use your axe, make an opening, then reverse pump, yes?’ Percy grips him tight. ‘You’re a fireman, remember? One of the best.’ It’s enough. Davey works with demonic strength, forcing an opening, hauling the hose. He tugs, shoves, heaves. A small man – an ant – with a huge task. ‘Olive,’ he yells into the ravaged brick. ‘Pull the hose down, as far as you can.’ He races back to the pump, turns it full throttle. He sees vibrations ripple the floodwater. ‘Come on!’ Stooped over the drain, he wills the water to arrive. Nothing. He roars in frustration. A trickle appears. Then a gush. He drops the hose and is back at the rubble just as a pale face is lifted upwards: a baby boy delivered into the light, like a new-born. ‘That’s my George!’ Next comes Gloria – red-faced, fists clenched, furious. ‘My wife! Where’s my wife?’ * It’s painful to speak. ‘You came for us.’ Her words turn to bubbles of blood. ‘Shhh, now,’ says Davey, ‘Shhh.’ Her smile must do the talking. She lies very still on the stretcher, to stop her innards ebbing away. And Davey’s hands are here – small, strong. Holding her together.
Chrissy Sturt - About the Author
Chrissy is a freelance journalist and writer based in Hampshire. She was born with one foot in the past, wholly unsuited to modern ways and in desperate need of a time machine. After taking a double first in History at Oxford she began her career in print, first working for free on her local paper and eventually landing a junior position with the BBC in Southampton. From there she enjoyed a varied and exciting career in news, always with one eye on her true love - fiction. Nearly five years ago she began this quest in earnest, initially concentrating on historical stories for children. She came second in the Wells Festival of Literature, was chosen for the competitive mentoring scheme run by Write Mentor and scooped another second at the Winchester Writers Festival. Alongside this she developed a passion for writing flash. She won the Writers Bureau flash competition, has been twice published in the prestigious National Flash Fiction Anthology, also Reflex Fiction and the American journal Literary Mama. Constantly seeking to learn and improve she is a serial course attendee, always with a view to meeting and making new writer friends. She is married with two teenage children, who do their level best to avoid reading anything she's written. She is currently working on a novel set in the Napoleonic Wars, and loves nothing more than to be buried in a dark rabbit hole of research. Oh, and she's still looking for that time machine.
Collapse was the winning entry in the Historical Writers Association Short Story Competition 2022 and appears here with the kind permission of the author.