The Anderson Shelter
I was woken up one morning by the sound of workmen tipping a ton of what looked like, scrap metal on our back yard. I walked out, half asleep, to see what was going on and was presented with a docket from a man wearing a blue cap and overalls. This was, he explained, our new Anderson shelter.
‘Sign here, love.’ The man pointed a grubby finger at a grubbier sheet of paper. ‘You are twenty-one aren’t you? Good.’
I wrote my name in my best joined up writing and handed back the clipboard and pencil. The man climbed back into his truck and stuck his head out of the window. ‘A council bod will come to check you’ve put it up right.’ Then he drove up to the vicarage and began to offload a similar mountain of crap onto their garden.
I looked at the pile of corrugated junk and wondered if he meant that I had to build it. ‘He’d have more luck plaiting snot,’ as my dad used to say when he was here.
Nowadays you’d get a pdf file from the manufacturing company website and try to work out how everything fitted together from the Chinglish instructions, but in those days there was nothing, not even a drawing, and as we were the first on our street to get one, there was nowhere to go for help. There was no point in asking the vicar. He’d still be sleeping off last night’s ‘holy water.’
I took the docket inside and dropped it on the kitchen table then I went upstairs to tell mum that I wasn’t going to build whatever it was, no matter what the council thought.
Mum shared her room with Josie, Beth and Marje, three of my older sisters. I shared my room with Jean and Ruth. Phil, the only male in the house, slept on the sofa downstairs. My two grown up bothers were in the navy, defending some other bugger’s shores.
Before I could enter, Mum opened the door with the night bucket in her hand. Her other hand covered her mouth and nose with a dirty-looking hanky.
‘Marje’s got an upset tummy again,’ she croaked through her fingers. I pulled a face, went into my own room and picked up a bucket that only contained pee. I followed her down the stairs and out of the back door to the outside toilet where we emptied the foul smelling receptacles and rinsed them under a rusty old tap on the wall.
Back out on the yard, mum surveyed the pile of scrap, scratched her head and looked up and down the row of gardens to see if she could spot the person responsible for dumping it.
‘A man put it there a few minutes ago,’ I tried to remember what he’d said. ‘I put the docky thing on the kitchen table.’
‘Why would he dump a load of scrap metal on our yard? The council would pick it up if he let them know he had some. They need it to make planes or bombs,’ said Mum with a puzzled look on her face.
‘He said he was Andy’s son,’ I replied, helpfully.
‘Well Andy can send his bloody son to take it away again. Where does he live, do you know?’
‘He said we had to keep it,’ I insisted. ‘There’s a council man coming to make sure it’s all right.’
The puzzle was solved by Mr Barker who was walking his dog past our gate.
‘Got your Anderson I see? That should keep you safe and sound.’
Mum looked unimpressed. ‘Will it? How?’
‘It’s an air raid shelter kit,’ said Mr Barker. ‘You need to dig a big hole and cover it with the metal bits. Your young un’s right. The council man will be round to inspect it before too long.’
‘Well, he can bloody well put it up himself then, he’s the one who wants us to have it,’ replied mum.
We walked back in together, I washed my hands and face in the kitchen sink, then went upstairs to get dressed. Mum stayed in the kitchen and heated up half a pan full of solid-looking porridge that she’d saved from yesterday.
We used to eat in two shifts as the kitchen table could only seat six. Mum chiselled out lumps of the rubbery substance, slapped them into our bowls and we did my best to chew them. Some days our teeth weren’t up to the job and we had to go hungry until dinner time.
On Sundays we got an egg each, a treat donated by Uncle Graham from Lindley Street who kept chickens in his back yard. Graham wasn’t a blood relative, he was one of the half-hour uncles that used to come round to keep mum company in the back room. Another, uncle, John, used to donate a grey-looking loaf and some margarine so that we could make soldiers to go with the eggs.
It was Uncle Graham and Uncle John who built the Anderson shelter for us in the end. They didn’t have a clue what the specification was, so they just set to and dug a hole six feet deep, four feet wide and six feet long. Mum had a look and said it was nowhere near big enough for eight of us so the men set to again and made it bigger.
We soon hit another snag. There wasn’t enough Anderson shelter to cover the hole, so me, Fritz, Fat Ernie and Tin Ribs made night time raids on other people’s Anderson kits until we had enough to finish ours. Mum still wasn’t happy with it though, and Mardy Marje, my whiny sister, said she wasn’t going to go in it because there were worms crawling out of the sides.
Uncle John told us that he had been a bricklayer in his youth, and he took his wheelbarrow to the bombed out pile that used to be the house next door, and carted back a few hundred bricks to line the sides of the shelter. We soon discovered that Uncle John had never been a bricklayer, he had actually repaired dry stone walls on a farm for three months in the early nineteen-twenties. The first wall fell down three times; he kept blaming the cement mix. He finally managed to get most of the bricks to stick together but to be honest it was a mess, there was more gap than mortar. Marje still said she wasn’t going to use it because the worms could get through the holes, so Uncle John filled a load of sandbags and lined the walls with them. He also offered to run an electric cable down to the shelter but after seeing his attempts at bricklaying, Mum said we’d be fine with candles.
Thankfully, Uncle Graham was far better at woodwork than Uncle John was at bricklaying. He produced a nice front door from the mess that used to be number 7 and fitted it to the entrance. Then he laid a row of floorboards down to cover the clay at the bottom. Uncle John, not to be outdone, made a rickety ladder so we could climb down into the hole. He helped Uncle Graham build a set of bunks for each wall and produced a lovely antique side table from somewhere so we could play board games while the air raid was going on.
Mum still wasn’t happy, she was worried in case something fell across the entrance and we got stuck inside, so Graham made an exit for us at the other end. The dome of the shelter was covered in about a million tons of earth and the whole lot was surrounded by a four-foot high pile of sandbags. Uncle John boasted that we had the safest shelter for miles around, he reckoned a direct hit wouldn’t have scratched it.
The men’s reward for all their hard work was an afternoon in the back room with mum. They obviously liked playing, parlour games’ as they both came out smiling. The games must have been very energetic though, they looked like they’d done three rounds with a fairground wrestler.
The council man, a Mr Ropey… Roper… something like that, came round to inspect the shelter the following week. I was the only family member in the garden when he arrived, unannounced. He condemned the construction immediately.
‘You do know that it’s only supposed to be three-feet deep don’t you?’ he ranted. ‘You can’t brick up the inside and you can’t have a wooden door on the end, think of the splinters if a bomb goes off… You are supposed to have a thick blanket or a curtain… The whole thing is far too long and…. Where did you get all the extra bits from anyway?’
I shrugged, ‘I dunno, I’m only nine,’ I said.
He rolled his eyes and clambered down inside the shelter. When he came back out he put his clipboard on the pile of sandbags and drew about a hundred little crosses on his form.
‘It will have to be knocked down and rebuilt,’ he spoke slowly, like he was talking to someone who cared.
‘You’d better tell mum,’ I said. She’ll be out in a minute, she’s in the back room with Uncle Roger.
Mr Roper, or Uncle Timothy, as he was soon to become, tapped his form with his pencil and informed me that our shelter was the worst he’d ever seen and that we had fallen foul of just about every regulation it was possible to fall foul of. Luckily, Uncle Roger and Mum came out just then and saved me from receiving a lecture on building regs.
After hearing a brief summary of the faults, Mum invited Mr Roper into the back room for a cup of tea and a chat. He came back out about an hour later with his tie under his ear and lipstick all over his face and neck. He must have known that I was an experienced docket handler because he scribbled his name and the word, PASSED, onto one and handed it to me.
Mum waved him off at the gate, then came back in looking rather pleased with herself.
When I enquired as to why she was looking so smug, she replied. ‘Uncle Timothy’s going to condemn the house unless the landlord does it up a bit. So, it’s goodbye to the leaky roof and goodbye to rusty tap water. He’s going to have to do something about the rats too.’
Uncle Graham had to fit a false floor in the shelter because the bottom two feet kept filling up with water when it rained. Uncle John stopped coming round a few weeks after that. Mum discovered he was taking rather too much of an interest in our Josie who had just turned fifteen. She caught him spying on her as she stretched to hang out the washing or clean the downstairs windows. He started complimenting her on how pretty she was and gave her little presents that she was supposed to keep secret. I couldn’t work out what he saw in her. She was always blushing, she got spotty, her arse got fat and she grew tits. I vowed I’d never let myself get like that.
Things came to a head when he was caught peeking through the window while Josie was in the hip bath in front of the fire. Mum hit him with the big iron skillet and chased him up the street. At the time I thought she was jealous.