Suddenly the cellar door burst open and a young man staggered in, his hair singed and blackened, and he collapsed at the feet of the two little girls. Almost immediately an invisible wall of hot air slammed into Petra's face, and her eyes were stingingly blinded for several moments. She could still hear the tremendous roar of flames, and the chilling screams of people outside, and the non-stop explosions all around; and she could still smell acrid smoke from god-knows-what heap of smouldering flesh. It hardly seemed real, and inside the blackness of her burnt eyes Petra felt she was in hell.
“Daddy, help me, I can’t see....my eyes...daddy !...” Her scream could hardly be heard in the din.
Moments before, her world had been the neat, bright, ordered world of a ten year old girl just home from school. She was munching her bread and jam sandwich, taking care not to spill crumbs on the carpet of her mother's dining room. When the last lick of strawberry from last year's garden preserves was licked from her lower lip, Petra Braun turned to her homework. In the opposite corner of the room her nine year old sister, Heidi, sat in the armchair reading, her thin legs tucked up sideways beneath her, the fingers of her left-hand unconsciously twirling the long curls of brown hair which fell across the book. Her geography teacher had been dealing with the cities of America that afternoon, and Heidi was reading about the steel and engineering factories in Pittsburg and Cleveland.
“Petra, what’s ‘Ohio’ ? Is it a nice place do you think? “
Over and over and over again the index finger with the prominent knuckles just like her daddy's was licked and twisted around the curls to make them stay in place. As the pages turned the swish of paper and occasional questions from her sister were all that disturbed Petra's concentration as she got to grips with the finer points of her long division.
But there was another noise in the air that fine, dry summer's afternoon. Something like bees. The bees of late summer were always large and slow with heavy loads of pollen, and rarely stung their bare legs as the girls climbed the trees of the well-tended garden. The bees could be a nuisance when the fruit for auntie Wilhelmena's jam was being collected.
“It’s the price you pay for delicious honey, my child,” she would say.
On the warm breezes of late summer they made quite a loud buzzing noise, carried in wafts of faint sound which ebbed and flowed around their ears. That sound now grew a little louder and Heidi looked up from her hair-twirling and peered questioningly at Petra. Petra drew her eyes away from her division, caught a glance from her sister, and turned to the open window where the growing buzz throbbed more persistently.
“What on earth can it be?” said Heidi.
“Don’t know......but look at the poems
/love'>lovely colour on the river,” Petra offered nonchalantly.
She could see nothing in the clear blue sky. Its deep colour was reflected in the calm waters of the estuary which spread out in the distance. Even the normal busy shipping traffic seemed to have been lulled to sleep this afternoon. There would usually be the sound of ships' horns out in the Elbe as they signalled for the lock gates to open. There would be the constant chatter of the riveting as damaged ships were repaired. There would be the occasional roar of the rusty drag chains as they slowed a newly built hull sent down the ways to the open water. Water was calm, sky was calm. It felt to Petra that she was looking at a painting where nothing was real or alive but only replicated in oilpaint. The ever-growing buzz was the only indication that the scene was real. Others had heard the sound as well.
‘Here they come again, Hans, and it looks like us this time boss, “ said a steady, almost automatic voice with no hint of surprise or panic.
In the civil defence headquarters just behind the main railway station, Petra's father, Hans, had heard it. Unlike his daughter Petra, he had spent the past six months in the city, while she and Heidi had been safely packed off to the country cottage of his sister, still acting as substitute mother to the girls after the death of their mother six months ago. He had experienced the full horror of war in a bombed city. Hans, like most of the population of Hamburg that summer of 1943, recognised the growing throb from the clear blue sky to the west. It was not bees. After a three week respite the Americans were coming back yet again with their terrifying B17s loaded to bursting with high explosives and phosphorous incendiaries. Hans's thumb moved to the panel of buttons in front of rows and rows of lights which were sometimes lit and sometimes not, depending on whether there were enemy planes detected by the offshore observer corps. Now all those lights were lit.
“Looks like a big one, we’re going to feel it this time I’m afraid, boys.”
Hans tried to sound calm, but he was worried about his two girls.
“Better get those steel helmets on quick.”
Hans was deputy commander of B-watch of the civil-defence teams for the city. Their main task was to give warning the population of Hamburg of impending air raids. His thumb pressed urgently down on the button until his knuckles went white and he felt it was going to be pushed through the desk surface. Immediately, an eerie but familiar pulsating wail rent the air above Hamburg that beautiful summer's afternoon, and the sound of the air raid siren reached Petra's ears as she gazed over the unmoving oil-painted city. Then she remembered what her daddy had warned her about when they returned from auntie Wilhelmena's last week. When the siren goes off, take Heidi and go quickly down to the cellar and don't move.
Petra dashed over to Heidi, knocked aside the book and its map of America, and snatched her sister's hand away from her curls, dragging her downstairs two at a time. The two little girls only got as far as the front door when the first ferocious explosions ripped apart the silence of the still afternoon. Petra's legs wanted to plunge down the cellar stairs to the left of the front door but they would not move. Her grip on Heidi's hand tightened as sticks of bombs crunched their way towards their door in ear-splitting roars. The window bellied in like a giant glass balloon suddenly over-inflated, and jagged, face-ripping shards of glass snarled across the hall and embedded themselves in the cushions of the sofa standing against the opposite wall. The woolly innards of the cushions spewed out and dangled life
less from the slash-wounds.
And then it was over. As the exploding fireballs gradually died away, the drone and throb of the B17s faded away to the east to torment some other part of the city. Walls crashed to the ground, gas lines exploded, people yelled and screamed, but the B17s had gone. The sisters simultaneously burst into tears and flung their arms around each other, shaking uncontrollably with a mixture of fear, relief and childish anxiety. Their unspoken thoughts turned to their father and his safety. Heidi did not want to speak her fears in case Petra thought she was being too childish, and the older girl said nothing in order not to alarm her younger sister. Petra fumbled for her St. Christopher medal inside her school uniform collar, but she could not reach it.
“Oh Petra, I’m so scared, what was that huge noise? Are we going to die? Will daddy find us dead?
Why does he not come for us? Do you think daddy’s all right? I can’t find my medal.”
“It’s all over now, don’t worry, don’t be scared. Your medal’s in your blouse somewhere. I think daddy’s all right. Let’s get down to the cellar.”Down into the dark they stepped, put on the light, and sat down to find Heidi’s St Christopher medal, all tangled up in her blouse and her hair.
Several minutes slipped by for the arm-entwined girls, and then in the once well-tended garden the shiny time-delay fuses made in Cleveland, Ohio, clicked over their last seconds and more explosions ripped through the rescue workers outside their front door, and sent flames shooting into houses yet undamaged. Suddenly the cellar door at the top of the stairs burst open, and the blinded girls found themselves standing over the charred body of the young man. Further up the street the last of the fuses did its deadly work. There was silence again. Several minutes dragged timidly by, until only silence remained. It was all over, and Petra knelt down over the obviously dead young man.
She screamed, “Oh God, who is this? I can’t even see his face..it’s all burnt, Aaaiiiiee”
The girl began to stutter out a prayer for him and for their own safety. She felt for her own medal through her shirt, found it this time, and gripped it tightly with her knuckles turning white. Her daddy had given her the medal three years ago and told her it would keep her safe from the wolves around his sister's farm, and the foxes, and the bee stings of late summer. And, just as he had said, it had always protected her out at auntie Wilhelmena's in the country.
But it could not protect her today, for as she gasped out choked words to the heavens, she could again hear in the distance the faint buzzing of what seemed to be bees up high in the clear skies. It was the Americans yet again with more shiny stinging cargoes made in Cleveland, Ohio.
Three miles above the wrecked docks at Cuxhaven, Mike Darkovic of the USAAF 918th bomb wing strained his eyes into the viewfinder, hoping for an accurate visual fix before the sun disappeared over the blinding North Sea behind him. In the distance ahead rose a column of smoke about ten minutes flying time away. The young navigator drawled into the intercom to the pilot -
“Two degrees to port, skipper, ten minutes or less.”
”Two degrees it is Mike.”
He eased back in his seat, his job over now, and felt unconsciously inside his leather jacket for the medal. St. Christopher will look after you while you're away from Galveston, son, his mother had promised. He'd worn it every trip, and this was number twenty four. One more and he'd be home for a few weeks. Religion didn't mean much to him, but home did. Mike glanced back at the Cuxhaven port. It wasn't too different from Galveston. There was old man Bush's wharf, just downriver from the oil refinery. And that could just as easily be the chemical plant where dad had worked before his accident.
His father’s lost job had forced Mike, as oldest son, to join the air force before the war, just about the only well paid job going then. Economies had been forced on the family. The car was sold. Mike's two sisters had been taken out of their catholic boarding school. The fees were just too much. They were at home now helping mum with the looking after of dad. Mike would see them in two weeks, with St. Christopher's help.
The navigator pulled his parachute harness tight and leaned into the intercom -
”Right down the pike, skipper, one minute.”