Everyone in the audience was staring at the screen, but when the Museum Cinema in Bethnal Green went dark, people turned to the shapes in the seats next to them and asked, “What happened? Did you see?”
Some described what they thought they’d seen, some what they imagined. Several boys switched on torches and when the voices began to subside, the cinema manager, standing on stage, said the usual bit about a raid: “If you wish to leave, please do so quietly.”
Someone in front shouted, “Nevermind! Put the film back on!”
The manager sighed. Four films had been shown through the night the evening before, after a large portion of the audience had refused to leave. He stared a moment, remembering the fish-and-chip mess he’d had to clean up in the theatre that morning and the puffy, sleepless face of his youngest projectionist. Tonight, he wanted the crowd to go.
“If you wish to leave, please do so quietly,” he said again.
The audience stayed, the torchlight settled. There wasn’t much incentive to go. Cinemas were considered fairly good shelters and the Museum Cinema that night was sold out, people standing along the grimy walls and sitting on the floor. The dark wasn’t a problem; they’d all been living under the blackout rules for years. At home behind boarded windows it could be oppressive, but the darkness of the streets or shelters or theatres, especially on the night of a raid, was a world they knew. When the ice cream vendor opened the back door, however, breaking the theatre’s seal and letting in the sound of the siren, people began to move.
The third-floor room Magistrate Laurence Dunne reserved for the inquiry was charmless; high ceilings and a wall of windows opposite the door were its only attributes. In one corner, under a rolling chalkboard, a pile of gas masks huddled like a small clan of burrowing animals. In another, several crates overflowed with a collection of used books, the beginning of the shelter library started with much fanfare by Books for Blackout before it was apparent that in Bethnal Green, at least, cards and dancing were the preferred activities. West Ham, though, was supposed to have a thriving circulation. The room was carpeted, burgundy, and painted, white splotched with gray damp. Cracks ran through the white plaster ceiling, here and there a seam widening into a hole the way a stream feeds a lake. The place was freezing and dusty and in general smelled like a church, putting Laurie in mind of candles.
“Quakers and conscientious objectors,” said Ian Ross, the Bethnal Green constable who had been appointed Laurie’s secretary for the duration of the inquiry. “They’ve had a few meetings here.”
A small stage, just a foot-and-a-half high, also carpeted in burgundy, anchored the far end of the room. Between Laurie and this stage stood a small sea of chairs. Most were wood but a few upholstered ones, like royalty among the masses, had been dragged in as well. The uneven rows gave the room, that first morning, the air of an amateur theatrical production or a children’s story hour rather than the site of an official inquiry. The lights were dim, the curtains heavy, though someone had tied them back to let in what light there was from the street.
Laurie walked to the windows and looked down. From here the crowd, so animate and visceral when he’d arrived, was reduced to a nearly continuous layer of trembling black umbrella. Where there were gaps in the fabric, he saw a stoic dripping face, pale damp skin. He thought they had every right to be angrier than they seemed.
“These chairs,” Laurie said, turning.
“A protest, sir,” Ross said.
“It is the hope of the clerk who brought them in that the borough residents might storm the doors.”
“And then be pleased to find a place to sit?” he said, smiling at Ross.
“Yes, sir. I believe there’s one chair for every victim.”
“What’s his name?”
“Ah,” Laurie said. He turned from the windows. “They don’t seem to mind standing out there.”
Ross began stacking chairs. When Laurie was asked to conduct an inquiry he’d written to Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, saying he wanted the inquiry to be public, if the need arose, and Morrison had responded favorably, by morning post. By second post, however, after Laurie had already begun to make arrangements, Morrison insisted that the inquiry be private. The reason: secrets of home defense must not leak to the enemy. Laurie knew the real concern was morale.
“No,” Laurie said, stopping Ross. “Leave them. It will give the papers something to write about. They won’t have much else.”
The crowd from the theatre filed out slowly along the smudged red carpet and it seemed to Bertram Lodge, at the end of a row and alone, that everyone was holding hands, touching shoulders, whispering. He missed Clare, but she’d gone to the shelter to sketch, something she often did when she didn’t have a nursing shift. He stood up, concentrating on the shoes of the girl in front of him, a sleepy girl who kept leaning into the shoulder of a young blond boy, lifting and twirling her right foot whenever the crowd halted. The soles of her shoes were lime green, beautiful and astonishing. How was it that trousers could not be made with cuffs or pockets or buttons, yet the soles of shoes could be this color? Bertram thought it must have something to do with surpluses.
They moved into the damaged, dingy lobby, past the gold-painted ticket stall, already abandoned, the proprietor notoriously nervous, and out the doors onto Cambridge Heath Road. It had been a beautiful day, though later no one would remember that. A football match in the Museum Gardens had drawn a large crowd, and when the game was won on an impossible header from the young borough engineer, the cheer could be heard as far as Stepney. Afterward a group gathered outside the Plots & Pints on Russia Lane (its proximity to the cemetery earning it this affectionate name). The air felt thinner, cleaner, partly because it was—no raids in the area since January had given the dust and smoke of broken, smoldering buildings time to clear—and partly because the sun was making a rare appearance, polishing the winter-weary houses and trees. The night followed mild and clear, and the Thames was at low ebb. When the war began, everyone would have looked up, searching for planes, and been delighted to see stars. Now the crowd from the cinema understood a clear night with a full moon was dangerous and they were quiet.
Bertram followed the quick licks of green in front of him, wondering if he could find a pair of shoes like that for Clare. He turned left with everyone else toward the corner and Bethnal Green Road, undecided about where he was headed but happy for the company of the crowd. In spite of the siren, no one seemed rushed or worried.
According to Laurie’s notes, Bertram Lodge was a clerk at the town hall, twenty-two and not at the front because of flat feet. Laurie saw that he also had a white part in his hair like a gash and moved in his chair as if trying to collect his bones into the smallest possible pile. Despite this apologetic manner, however, the boy seemed to show a certain disdain for the proceedings by wearing, Laurie was fairly certain, his pajama top under a cardigan and a pair of mismatched boots.
“You’ve been unwell?” Laurie asked, giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Bertram didn’t answer, but the rims of his eyes reddened a shade as Laurie watched. His skin looked sensitive, almost damp.
“Well, these chairs,” Laurie said, looking about the room. “You placed them, correct? They have not been un-useful.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“They did some good, actually. Got the government to release the number of dead sooner.”
“173,” Bertram said.
“Right.” Laurie looked at his notes. “Were you in the crowd outside the shelter?” he began.
“I was, sir.”
“What was your intention there?”
“I wanted to get in.”
“When you arrived, what did you see?”
“The entrance backed up with people.”
“What were they doing?”
Laurie looked at him. “Pushing.”
“I think it was quiet.”
“Just pushing, then.”
“Mr. Lodge. Are you aware that you are the first person to come before this inquiry and admit to pushing?”
The boy looked confused. “What do others say?”
“It’s not important.”
“If others do not feel guilt . . .”
“They obviously do,” Laurie said. “There have been five suicides in the borough.”
Bertram said nothing.
“Why were they pushing then?” Laurie asked.
“I don’t know! Something seemed to be wrong. The crowd wasn’t moving.” Bertram looked at his hands, stretched out on his knees as if exiled.
“All right. Now, Mr. Lodge, I’d like to ask you about your correspondence with the borough council …”
Bertram breathed a word. “Finally.”
Laurie stared at him and kneaded the back of his neck. “Right. Well. You were kind enough to tell the papers about your remarkable prescience. Maybe you could elaborate a little for us?”
“It was the prescience of the Borough Council responding to Warden Low’s recommendations. I merely sent the memos to the Regional Commissioners. If I did anything right, it was to keep doggedly at it after the Commissioners refused to approve the work.”
“What exactly was refused?”
“The Council felt there was a possibility that a heavy flow of people into the shelter might cause the wooden gates to collapse. They wanted a brick wall and piers built to strengthen the entrance and, because it would be enclosed, permit more light on the stairs. They had a member of the AASTA approve the plan.”
“Well,” Laurie started, but stopped. If you wanted to rouse the authorities to action, citing a member of the Association of Architects, Surveyors, and Technical Assistants was not the way to do it. For six years they’d been at odds with the government over the problems of air-raid shelter and evacuation.
“When was this?”
“1941. September through November. About Christmastime we gave up.”
“Did anyone from Regional Headquarters examine the site with you at any time?”
“No, sir. It was quite easy, however, to schedule a visit with an AASTA member. He was very helpful.”
Laurie shook his head, the lines across his forehead twitching in consternation. Bertram cracked the knuckles of one hand, and asked if the interview was over. Laurie nodded.
“Then could I show you something, sir?” Bertram reached into the bag at his feet. “I was told Regional Council requested this, but now Regional Council says they did not. They think perhaps it was the London County Council or possibly the Ministry of Information.” He opened the notebook as he spoke. “I was asked to inventory the victims’ belongings. The bodies were still in the hospital and the morgue and I went through their pockets, but now no one seems to want the list. No one seems to know why it was needed.”
“Let me see,” Laurie said. He skimmed a few pages, read what he might have expected:
Amanda Park: four buttons, two hairpins, a broken silver earring.
Matthew Popper: one white chess bishop, a pair of steel pocket scissors, some crushed juniper needles.
Eliza Cannon: a spool of blue thread, a buttonhook, a small pocket handkerchief monogrammed WFW, a trunk key.
William Fendell: ten pennies, a toothpick, a key ring.
On and on.
Laurie closed the notebook.
“Looking at the still bodies was the hardest part,” Bertram said. “After I accepted the stillness, touching was less difficult than I’d feared. I tried to be gentle, but some of the pockets were so small. I had to apologize to a little boy whose only possession was a key on a strip of leather.”
Laurie cleared his throat. “Were the items returned to the families?” he asked quietly.
Bertram explained that some of the families had found him, and he’d handed over what he could without ceremony. The rest he’d wrapped in paper and distributed.
“Good.” He held the notebook out to Bertram.
Ross stood, but Bertram didn’t move.
“Sir, I’m not an expert, but I wanted to say that I concur with the coroner’s initial evidence. There was nothing to suggest a stampede or panic or anything of the kind. No bruises, no blood, no wrongly angled limbs. I saw all the bodies, eighty-four women, sixty-two children, twenty-seven men.”
“You’ve done a good job,” Laurie said. “It must have been very difficult.” He was still holding up the notebook.
“What am I to do with it, sir?”
Laurie hesitated. All three men stared at the green cover. “Type it up,” Laurie said. “Someone will want it eventually.”
Bertram asked if it should be alphabetized.
“I don’t see how that will matter much.”
“Plain or bond paper?” Bertram asked.
Laurie turned to Ross.
“All right, Bert,” Ross said. “Time to go.
When the siren started, Ada Barber covered her ears. All day in her grocery people had been talking about the expected reprisal for Monday’s bombing of Berlin. “The heaviest air raid so far,” the Times had said. Fires, people were saying, seen from a hundred miles away. There was much speculation about new high explosives. At four o’clock, half an hour before blackout, the mothers had brought their children out to breathe the healthy tar on the new portion of Jersey Street and it was all they could talk about. Tonight seemed a likely time for the enemy response, so when she’d come in, Ada had folded two jumpers into her bag and put the extra blanket by the front door. She hadn’t been to the shelter in some months, but the new bombs worried her. Among other things, people were saying there would be less time to get to shelter.
Her daughters were finishing dinner. Tilly, eight, had dark half moons beneath her eyes. Emma, nearly four, had lost weight. Neither girl looked well, and as they put on their winter coats, Ada pulled Tilly’s collar close to her neck more firmly than she meant to. “Stay warm,” she said. Tilly winced.
“I’ll try to get us a bunk,” Ada offered and the girls glanced at each other. To have a bunk was much better than sleeping on the platform or the tracks, but it was rare for them.
“Can you bring something to eat?” Tilly asked.
“There isn’t anything,” Ada said. “Now go.”
“We’ll play checkers,” Tilly whispered, rubbing Emma’s hand. “I’ve got them in my pocket.” Emma asked if she could be red, her favorite color.
“Of course,” Tilly said, and gave her hand a squeeze. “And if we get a bunk, you can have the pillow.”
As Ada locked the door, the girls waited behind her, then the three joined the stream of people pouring out of the tenements that formed the low and boxy skyline of the borough. Ada had moved to Jersey Street when she married, but she and her husband Robby, like many young couples in Bethnal Green, had grown up only a few streets away. They lived in a row of Victorian terrace houses chopped up into tiny three-room flats, two upstairs, two downstairs. They were luckier than most, though: they had their own cooker and shared a toilet on the landing with only Mr. Levin from across the hall. One street over, on Elsworth, they kept their green grocery, Barber’s. “Proof you can escape your name,” Robby often joked.
Ada looked down the street, which was quickly growing more crowded, curious if Robby would come for them, or head straight to the shelter from the Plots & Pints. There were several pale faces bobbing forward against the dark tide, but none she recognized.
“Your father will meet us there,” Ada said brightly, hoping Robby wouldn’t have had too much to drink. “Look at all these dark heads,” she said, trying to sound funny.
“We should have left sooner,” Tilly said, scanning the crowd. “There are a lot of people tonight, Mum.”
Emma started to cry and Ada picked her up. “Don’t pay any attention,” she said. “We’re fine. Let’s count the faces. Do you want to?”
“How?” asked Emma.
“See how bright they look in the dusk, with everyone else walking the other way? A little ghostly. We could count them.”
Nothing about this reassured the girls or her, and Ada shook her head and gave up. Her girls liked to be quiet anyway. She often tried too hard with games and stories and things, and was never at her best when she was out alone with them. Before Emma was born she’d managed all right, but her mother urged her to have another baby. Two hands, two sides, two children, she’d said. Ada wasn’t convinced and when it happened, she’d felt the strain immediately. It’s just the time, people told her, a difficult time to bring a child into the world. Emma was born in 1939, just after the declaration of war. Then Ada’s mother died, and she was overwhelmed with the business of running the grocery and caring for two children. Tilly was an enormous help, but Ada worried she relied on her too much.
At the corner of Jersey Street and the Bethnal Green Road, Ada spotted Martin Henderson speaking to a group of boys. It was a comfort to see a man in uniform, and Ada put Emma down and called his name. Martin acknowledged her, but was preoccupied with the boys, all of whom were holding bottle rockets and torches, one of them lit, a blackout violation.
“Look,” Ada said. “Constable Henderson. Everything’s going to be fine.”
She waved as she passed and Emma, taking her mother’s hand on one side, her sister’s on the other, blinked away her tears.
It was obvious to Laurie that Ada Barber had taken great care with her clothing, her best gray wool, a blue scarf over her hair. She had long legs, a short waist, and walked pitched forward a bit, like a shore bird. She was very nervous, and it took her a few minutes to settle herself. A cup of tea was made, the window closed. Then Ada said she believed she was the last person to have escaped from the stairs before the crush.
“A man helped me out, on the right side where there was a lane open for a moment.” Ada’s voice thinned to a whisper, but now she took a breath. “Have you talked to him?”
“What was his name?” Laurie asked.
“I don’t know.”
“No one’s told us yet that they pulled anyone out.”
“You said a lane was open for a moment.”
Ada swallowed. “A woman fell.”
“Did you know her?”
“Her name was Mrs. W.”
“Mrs. Wigdorowicz. We shortened it, everyone shortened it.”
“Mrs. W. Mrs. four-by-two.” Then Ross whispered to Laurie, illustrating for him the rhyme. “Jew.”
“She tripped,” Ada said. “I had my two girls with me so I had to keep moving.” She tucked her hands beneath her legs, trying to warm them between wool and wood.
“You knew her from the area.”
“No. She came into our grocery sometimes. But they don’t make a regular practice of it the way we do. They shop around, sometimes as far as Stepney.”
“I see. How did she trip?”
“I don’t know. She was carrying something, a bundle of blankets or a pillow or something.”
Ada buried her face in her hands.
“And this was on the right-hand side of the stairway?” Laurie continued.
Ada raised her head and nodded.
“And you said,” Laurie flipped back a page in his notebook. “You said you were on the right as well?”
Ada paused. “Did I? I don’t think so.”
“But you saw her fall?”
“It’s hazy now,” she said.
“Of course. What do you remember?”
Ada hugged herself and rubbed her sleeves. “I don’t know. The stairwell was so dark, we were all hurrying.” She began to rock and looked up suddenly. “I lost a child, Mr. Dunne.”
“Mrs. Barber, it is our hope …”
“Too late for that!”
“I understand. But your surviving child. She was pulled out just ahead of you?”
“Tilly,” Ada said. “Yes. I was carrying Emma.”
Laurie turned to Ross, who quickly produced a handkerchief.
“I lost her on the stairs,” Ada whispered.
“Would Tilly speak to us?” Ross asked Ada gently.
Laurie frowned. He’d interviewed few children, finding them unreliable narrators at best, but Ada’s reaction interested him. She wiped her eyes and looked scared.
“No,” she said.
“Why?” Laurie asked.
Ada hesitated. “She hasn’t talked much since the accident.”
“It’s a common reaction.”
“Could I stay with her?” Ada asked. “I, well, I wouldn’t want her to tell any stories.”
He agreed to let Ada stay when Tilly came.
At the door, Ada turned around. “I just remembered. Mrs. Wigdorowicz’s name was Raisa.” She paused. “It means rose.”
“Thank you,” Laurie said. “I’ll make a note of it.”
Two hours before the alert, Chief Shelter Warden James Low reported to his post. He expected large numbers in the shelter that night and wanted to make sure everything was in order, particularly the bulkhead light in the ceiling over the stairs. It needed to be replaced and he wanted to see to it himself. He exchanged the burned out twenty-five-watt bulb for one slightly brighter. He didn’t need a stool. It was easily reachable from the twelfth step down. He removed the filthy glass covering, screwed in the light, then wiped the glass with his shirt before replacing it. He adjusted the light as far as possible to strike the edge of the first step down, but the stairway was still dim. Even with the full moon, he thought more light was needed.
After attending to the lightbulb, Low watched the early arrivals from his desk in the booking hall. He spoke briefly to the many he knew, nodded to the faces he recognized. He was routinely impressed with the calm and methodical manner of his charges. It was not hard to imagine them a population attending a concert or a festival instead of preparing to spend the night underground during a bombing raid. He was short one staff nurse, so when he saw the young nurse and artist Clare Newbury come in with her drawing supplies, he asked if she would be on call.
“Of course,” she said.
A few minutes later pensioner Bill Steadman approached and asked, as he always did, whether it might be all right for him to remain in the booking hall instead of descending to the “subterranean depths.”
“Yes, Bill,” Low said warmly. “You know that’s fine.”
Bill clutched his chest with his left hand. “My heart thanks you.” He suffered from a weak heart, supposedly, but most thought he was simply fastidious about sleeping on the platforms.
After the first rush of regular users, people trickled in for a time. Then at ten past eight, James Low heard the deputy warden’s relay wireless go off, a sure though unofficial sign that there would be an alert. And indeed, at 8:17 p.m., the sirens began. Almost immediately the flow of people into the shelter increased. Not unusual considering many locals often socialized in the street near the entrance, not willing to commit to the dank shelter platform until absolutely necessary. But when Low looked up from his desk and saw empty space where there should have been a line at the table, he was among the first to understand what was happening.
Again and again, witnesses told Laurie of a sound, something they heard that night that was different—a screaming blast, a crack, a rocket. What was clear was that it had made no sense to them. The East Enders knew the nightmare of aerial bombardment: the sirens, the drone of aircraft, the rumble of guns. They had nicknames for the searchlights and the barrage balloons, the pilots and the bombs. They claimed to be able to gauge by sound alone the location of a bomb, exploded or unexploded, incendiary, oil, high explosive, or other. That night, they insisted, they’d heard something new.
Others told Laurie that what had happened was this: no panic, no crush, just a new kind of bomb that took the breath out of people. The victims, it was said, looked alive, some sitting as if watching a film, until a warden or fireman touched them. Then they disintegrated. He was also told that some families had taken the bodies of their children home with them, convinced that the government, for unspecified reasons, would not allow a proper burial.
And then there was testimony like this, from a young woman who had done everything she was supposed to:
“I heard a man say, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I don’t know where he was. I couldn’t talk by then. I could hear other voices, but they seemed far away. I had my boy with me. I was holding his hand, and he was next to me on the stairs, he was only three, but when we started falling I must have pulled him in front of me. I don’t know how. He was beneath me. I tried to give him room. I thought if he would just turn his head.”
The woman shook suddenly and started to cry.
“After the all clear sounded, we still couldn’t move for a long time. Then we were out of it. They were laying out the bodies in the station and I found him there. He’d lost a shoe.”
Laurie stood and brought this woman his handkerchief.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She didn’t move. No authority had said it to her yet.
For Bertram, the bang came from somewhere to the north. He had wandered past the shelter, along the stretch of road by Bethnal Green Gardens. The railings between pavement and park had been removed for scrap, so he walked straight in and found an empty bench near the water. The siren wailed, but Bertram thought he might wait it out. Some thought the park was lucky; he assumed the German pilots understood the richer darkness of fields and trees as well as he did. He watched a family of ducks in the reeds at the edge of the pond, startled from sleep by all the noise. They rustled and flapped their wings, trying again and again to settle. One of them finally broke away and headed out for a solitary paddle.
After the bang, all the ducks took flight, and something about their decision made Bertram leave the park and head back along Cambridge Heath toward the shelter. The road was full of people, many of them running. This was unusual. He looked around for someone he knew. He thought he spotted Martin Henderson, but when he called out the man didn’t turn. When he was still quite far from the entrance to the shelter, the crowd began to slow. He was only as far as Costas, the chip shop, yet people around him were beginning to shuffle and jockey for space. Yelling and shouting came from somewhere up ahead, but Bertram couldn’t make out the words. He thought of the shelter, its smells, its mosquitoes and rodents, and decided to go home. Clare would find him there. They’d planned to spend the night in the shelter—he had their blankets and a surprise, a new notebook for her—but she would understand. After a time, she’d come home and they’d curl up in bed. If the raid was bad, or if it went all night, then they would go to the building’s cellar. He began to turn, but there were so many people he couldn’t. Fear blossomed in his chest then, like a sudden infection, a fever, turning his head hot and his bowels cold all at once.
Bertram stretched up as tall as he could, trying to see what was keeping the crowd back. He hated the shelter, but he’d never been denied entrance. All he could see was a jostling black mass darker than the night. He smelled sweat rising from his shirt, and the breath and sweat of the people all around. His stomach heaved, his mouth convulsed, it felt not his own. He knew this street; it had always seemed spacious. He remembered a bus accident that had once blocked the intersection for hours, but that was a crowd paralyzed by tragedy. This was a crowd that wanted motion. Even the tree branches above looked reaching and wrong. People pressed against him from all sides. He felt elbows and shoulders, moisture covered his cheeks but he couldn’t raise his hands to wipe them, his arms were pinned. He thought of the plans he’d had, to meet Clare at the shelter, to watch her slow smile when she saw the notebook. Plans that already felt lost. The crowd compressed even more, he couldn’t draw a deep breath, and then Bertram, temperate and kind, who would have said compassion would last longer, struggled to get his arms up, his hands on the back of the man in front of him. The crowd pressed tighter, friend against neighbor, teacher against student, mother against child, screaming, pushing, crying.
“Were you in the street crowd outside the shelter on March 3?” Laurie asked the witness.
“What was your intention there?”
“The alert sounded, sir. I wanted to get in.”
“When you arrived, what did you see?”
“I couldn’t see much. The entrance was backed up.”
“What were the people doing?”
“How do you mean?”
“What were they doing, how were they behaving?”
“We were trying to get into the shelter, sir. We thought the bombs had started.”
“We heard the bangs. People were yelling they’d started dropping them.”
“Who was yelling that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were people pushing?”
“Why not? A lot of people wanted to get in. It’s a small stairway. Surely there was pushing quite often.”
“No, sir. With due respect, sir, we’re more careful than that. How many times have we heard that safety at home depends on us not losing our heads?”
“But I will say that later, after something seemed to go wrong and the crowd stopped moving, well, then there was a lot of pressure.”
“You mean pushing?”
“No, more like being pressed into the person in front of you.”
Ada saw a young woman she knew in the crowd, one of the refugees she and her friends called Mrs. W. What was she carrying? Ada recognized the pretty bag, it was the same one she often brought into the shop, but she was also holding something across her chest wrapped in blankets. When Ada had been attending the shelter regularly, she’d noticed how well Mrs. W managed. She always seemed to have a bunk with sheets and pillows and extra blankets for privacy. The last time Ada had brought the girls to the shelter, she’d seen Mrs. W with bread and cheese to eat. How did she do it? How did a refugee manage the dual existence so well?
The crowd was growing tighter and suddenly a man’s elbow bumped Emma’s head. He turned immediately and said, “Sorry,” in an earnest, Yorkshire accent, but Ada frowned and pulled Emma close. Many more people than usual were going to use the shelter tonight, she realized. Of course. She should have thought of it sooner. She was both scared about what it meant—it would be a terrible raid, everyone seemed to sense it—and furious with herself for not planning better. She’d told the girls she’d get a bunk, but there were probably already none left.
“I’m sorry,” she started.
“Mum?” Tilly said. “Is everything all right?”
Ada looked at Tilly. Her daughter’s face was not beautiful, but it combined all the best features of hers and Robby’s. His cheekbones, her brown eyes and pretty lips. Emma was actually the lovelier of the two, with blond hair and a set of features that seemed to be of her own invention or from generations long ago. Ada loved the two of them more than she ever said and was terrified the war wouldn’t end before they were grown. She’d told no one that she was haunted by a recurring nightmare in which she hovered over her girls in their last seconds, their faces perfect, their eyes appealing to her for help, the backs of their heads crushed by something she hadn’t seen.
“Yes,” she said. “Of course. Just keep moving.”
Suddenly there was a loud noise, a bang. A surge of voices went up. Someone yelled, “They’ve started dropping ’em!” Ada didn’t know what had happened, but in the wake of this jolt she was unnerved. So was everyone around her. Emma’s head was bumped again, by the same man. The girl flinched and leaned into Ada, who shielded her head with her arm. “Watch out,” Ada yelled and tried to get the man’s attention so that he would see her daughter. The woman in front of Ada stepped back and her narrow heel came down on the top of Ada’s foot, a pain sharp and surprisingly severe. Then their part of the crowd flowed into the stairwell and she saw that Mrs. W was in front of them, with all her things, and Ada couldn’t believe it. How had she managed to get in front? Why was the crowd moving so slowly? What if there wasn’t room tonight in the shelter for everyone? She tried to scoop up Emma, but couldn’t. She took her hand, pulled Tilly to her side, and hurried down the steps. Flanked by her girls, she was as determined as she’d ever been.
Then, for just an instant, Ada let go of Tilly. She and Tilly stumbled to the landing, steadied by a strong man reaching toward them in the crowd. Ada turned Tilly down the last six steps into the booking hall, then twisted back into the stairwell. Her left hand, arm outstretched, still held on to Emma’s. But something was happening, people were falling onto the landing, and she felt the small hand slip. She heard Emma’s voice call for her, then she was gone. The stairwell seemed to swallow her; the weight of the crowd sucked her in. Ada screamed and clawed at the people in her way. Tilly did too, but Ada ordered her to move back. A few seconds later, she turned to one person for help. “My daughter’s in there!” But when she saw the terror and confusion on this man’s face, she became silent and driven, full of purpose. She would get Emma out by herself. She ran at the wall of people again and again, still able to hear Emma calling.
When Laurie returned home after the first day of testimony, a messenger was waiting for him with a note from the Home Secretary:
“Received a resignation yesterday from Chief Shelter Warden James Low. Seems he’s responsible for no light on the stairs. Says this caused the crush. The letter is dated March 4, but the postmark says March 11. A crisis of conscience there, no doubt. I’ll await word from you before releasing the news and taking the appropriate steps.”
For several hours, Laurie sat in his study and read through his notes. The thing was a mystery. He’d thought at first the stories wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny, but the coroner confirmed everything: some people on the bottom survived, while people on top did not. Everyone had suffocated. There was only one fracture, a fibula, and this in a five-year-old girl on the very bottom, almost the last to be rescued, who got up and limped away by herself. Ada Barber was concealing something, but this hardly seemed noteworthy; women like her were often pointlessly distrustful of authority. A constable should have reached the shelter entrance sooner and, doing so, might have done some good. But would that have prevented the crush? Probably not. Warden Low should have seen to the stairwell bulb, but was his failure to do so the cause of the accident? Hardly.
What about the bang or cracks people heard? Laurie had spoken to members of the local Home Guard and learned there was an experimental weapon, one of the new rocket guns, to be used soon in defense of the city. Could there have been a test that night? he’d asked. The Home Guard adamantly refused. They had not been called for a test, and before the first test there were plans to give the borough a special warning. There had been no warning, therefore no test. Laurie could see in their eyes the effort this belief required.
When Home Secretary Morrison did not hear from Laurie, he rang.
“The matter at Bethnal Green is not about a light bulb,” Laurie said.
“No. Whether it was missing or smashed by shelterers worried it was too bright. Either way, it doesn’t matter.”
Morrison had a habit of ticking his tongue when he was thinking, putting Laurie in mind of a field in summer.
“But I have a resignation.”
“Low’s popular. No one wants this.”
“But if it’s his fault?”
More ticking, then Laurie heard him send someone out of the room.
“I’d like to know more about the new rocket guns,” Laurie said.
“Why?” Morrison asked.
“Many have spoken about a strange sound, something different from the anti-aircraft fire they’re used to.”
Morrison grew impatient. “Boys with bottle rockets. And didn’t a woman fall? That’s what the papers are saying. A refugee carrying a baby in blankets? I’ve forgotten now which one was supposed to have survived.”
“Women stumbled often,” Laurie snapped. “You can check the first aid station on that.”
More ticking, then silence. “The Home Guard was not called out March 3,” Morrison said. “There was no anti-aircraft response that night because there were no planes.”
“The people heard …”
“The people panicked,” Morrison interrupted. “Not a single bomb fell on the city.”
Laurie kept silent.
“Well,” Morrison said, at last. “Ring me if you need anything. We’re looking forward to the results of the inquiry.”
Laurie nodded but said nothing.