Back in 1940 we suffered a long series of what we kids called, hit and run attacks by German planes. (Their bombs hit our houses and we’d run for the shelters,) it was more commonly known as, the Blitz. During this time, me and a few other kids on my street, took advantage of a doddering old ARP warden called, Mr Spinks, though we called him Mr Blinks because of the really bad squint he had. If ever there was a man placed in the wrong job, it was Mr Blinks. His employment was typical of the twisted logic and unbelievable incompetence of the time. We used to wonder if patients from Bedlam or members of German high command were given the final say on many of these job allocations. Plumbers were given positions in the army looking after radio sets while electronics engineers were sent to the navy to look after the boilers on ships. The biggest laugh of all must have been had when the decision to make Mr Blinks an ARP warden was taken. A lot of tea will have been spat across the deployment manager’s desks that day. Giving the post of, spotter, for a forthcoming air raid, to a man that couldn’t see beyond the end of his nose was sheer, lunacy, but giving the job to a man who was deaf as a post and couldn’t see beyond the end of his nose, was just taking the piss.
During his first three weeks in the job he was dragged up before his superiors four times. Once for mistaking a squadron of German planes for a cloud of gnats, twice for turning up for work without his ear trumpet and once for missing an entire air raid when he nodded off after drinking a mug of Ovaltine. Mr Blinks was terrified of losing his position, it was a doddle of a job and he knew it. Most of his time was spent telling people off about the chink of light sneaking out from behind their blackout curtains or shouting at people to get out of his way as he ran for the air raid shelter, but his main responsibility was to sound the siren at the first sight, or sound of an enemy plane.
The wailing siren was driven by electricity and was strategically placed in a hut that had been built on the roof of the fire station. All he had to do to sound that alarm was to push a button marked, Air Raid. There was another button at the side marked, All Clear, but no one had ever heard what that one sounded like as Mr Blinks was always the last person to leave the safety of the shelter.
To make sure he kept his job, he used to bribe us to sit with him at night and watch for the aircraft coming over. Some of the kids could tell what sort of plane was coming on the cloudiest of nights because of the sound of its engine. Fritz, my childhood boyfriend, was brilliant at it. Everyone said it was because his father was a German.
No one ever accused Fritz of being either German, or half German, even though his dad had been arrested on the first day of the war just in case he was a Nazi sympathiser. Fritz was one of us, we played together, scrumped apples together, searched for bits of shrapnel together and even, on occasion, shoplifted together. He was the oldest and the best fighter in the group and he owned a real gun that he found in a bombed out house. He had no bullets for it but that didn’t matter, a gun was a gun. He would have been eleven then, two years older than me.
Fritz used to brag that he could pick up the sound of an enemy plane before it had crossed the channel. He knew them all, Dorniers, Messerschmitts, Heinkels, Junkers, the lot. I couldn’t say Messerschmitts back then. I used to call them Messyshits which everyone found hilarious.
One night we were sat on the fire station roof with Mr Blinks, sharing some chocolate that he had confiscated from a black marketeer, when we heard the faint drone of approaching airplane engines. Fritz cocked his ear towards the Thames and closed his eyes. ‘Four planes,’ he said. ‘There are Messers, Junkers and a Focke.’
Mr Blinks got ready to sound the air raid siren while Fritz and the rest of us scanned the skies.
‘There’s the Focke,’ shouted Fat Ernie as the first plane dropped below the clouds.
‘And there are the other three Fockers,’ I shouted excitedly.
Fat Ernie looked at me and shook his head.
‘What?’ I asked.
Mr Blinks ran to the electric siren and pushed the button. Nothing happened. ‘Bugger,’ he said, taking off his ARP helmet to scratch his head. ‘It was working last night.’
Fritz left his spotting duties and ran to the machine. It only took a moment to sort out the problem.
‘You unplugged it to boil your kettle.’
Fritz swapped the plugs over and a few seconds later, Mr Blinks sounded the siren but by that time two bombs had taken out the biscuit factory at the top of the road. Just then a plane dropped out of the sky headeding straight for us. We went through the door faster than a triple dose of Epsom Salts and hared down the stairs and across the main street to the underground shelter. Mr Blinks missed the entrance and ran down the steps to the public lavatories. We didn’t go back for him.
Two hours later we climbed the stairs that led to what was left of our street. Half of it was flattened or in flames. Our house was still standing, although the houses either side were little more than piles of bricks. Fat Ernie lost Mildred, his pet rat that night. It was a white one with pink eyes and it grabbed its chance of freedom when its cage came open during the raid. She must have been from good breeding stock because we kept seeing little brown and white coloured rats all over the place that autumn. Gran