The War in the Air – Day 112 of 115

The little boy regarded the rusty evidences acrosss the narrow muddy ditch of cow-droppings that had once been a High Street. He was clearly disposed to be sceptical, and yet there the ruins were! He grappled with ideas beyond the strength of his imagination.

“What did they go for?” he asked, “all of ’em?”

“They ’ad to. Everything was on the go those days–everything.”

“Yes, but where did they come from?”

“All round ’ere, Teddy, there was people living in those ’ouses, and up the road more ’ouses and more people. You’d ’ardly believe me, Teddy, but it’s Bible truth. You can go on that way for ever and ever, and keep on coming on ’ouses, more ’ouses, and more. There’s no end to ’em. No end. They get bigger and bigger.” His voice dropped as though he named strange names.

“It’s London,” he said.

“And it’s all empty now and left alone. All day it’s left alone. You don’t find ’ardly a man, you won’t find nothing but dogs and cats after the rats until you get round by Bromley and Beckenham, and there you find the Kentish men herding swine. (Nice rough lot they are too!) I tell you that so long as the sun is up it’s as still as the grave. I been about by day–orfen and orfen.” He paused.

“And all those ’ouses and streets and ways used to be full of people before the War in the Air and the Famine and the Purple Death. They used to be full of people, Teddy, and then came a time when they was full of corpses, when you couldn’t go a mile that way before the stink of ’em drove you back. It was the Purple Death ’ad killed ’em every one. The cats and dogs and ’ens and vermin caught it. Everything and every one ’ad it. Jest a few of us ’appened to live. I pulled through, and your aunt, though it made ’er lose ’er ’air. Why, you find the skeletons in the ’ouses now. This way we been into all the ’ouses and took what we wanted and buried moce of the people, but up that way, Norwood way, there’s ’ouses with the glass in the windows still, and the furniture not touched–all dusty and falling to pieces–and the bones of the people lying, some in bed, some about the ’ouse, jest as the Purple Death left ’em five-and-twenty years ago. I went into one–me and old Higgins las’ year–and there was a room with books, Teddy–you know what I mean by books, Teddy?”

“I seen ’em. I seen ’em with pictures.”

“Well, books all round, Teddy, ’undreds of books, beyond-rhyme or reason, as the saying goes, green-mouldy and dry. I was for leaven’ ’em alone–I was never much for reading–but ole Higgins he must touch em. ‘I believe I could read one of ’em now,’ ’e says.

“‘Not it,’ I says.

“‘I could,’ ’e says, laughing and takes one out and opens it.

“I looked, and there, Teddy, was a cullud picture, oh, so lovely! It was a picture of women and serpents in a garden. I never see anything like it.

“‘This suits me,’ said old Higgins, ‘to rights.’

“And then kind of friendly he gave the book a pat–

Old Tom Smallways paused impressively.

“And then?” said Teddy.

“It all fell to dus’. White dus’!” He became still more impressive. “We didn’t touch no more of them books that day. Not after that.”

For a long time both were silent. Then Tom, playing with a subject that attracted him with a fatal fascination, repeated, “All day long they lie–still as the grave.”

Teddy took the point at last. “Don’t they lie o’ nights?” he asked.

Old Tom shook his head. “Nobody knows, boy, nobody knows.”

“But what could they do?”

“Nobody knows. Nobody ain’t seen to tell not nobody.”


“They tell tales,” said old Tom. “They tell tales, but there ain’t no believing ’em. I gets ’ome about sundown, and keeps indoors, so I can’t say nothing, can I? But there’s them that thinks some things and them as thinks others. I’ve ’eard it’s unlucky to take clo’es off of ’em unless they got white bones. There’s stories–“

The boy watched his uncle sharply. “Wot stories?” he said.

“Stories of moonlight nights and things walking about. But I take no stock in ’em. I keeps in bed. If you listen to stories– Lord! You’ll get afraid of yourself in a field at midday.”

The little boy looked round and ceased his questions for a space.

“They say there’s a ’og man in Beck’n’am what was lost in London three days and three nights. ’E went up after whiskey to Cheapside, and lorst ’is way among the ruins and wandered. Three days and three nights ’e wandered about and the streets kep’ changing so’s he couldn’t get ’ome. If ’e ’adn’t remembered some words out of the Bible ’e might ’ave been there now. All day ’e went and all night–and all day long it was still. It was as still as death all day long, until the sunset came and the twilight thickened, and then it began to rustle and whisper and go pit-a-pat with a sound like ’urrying feet.”

He paused.

“Yes,” said the little boy breathlessly. “Go on. What then?”

“A sound of carts and ’orses there was, and a sound of cabs and omnibuses, and then a lot of whistling, shrill whistles, whistles that froze ’is marrer. And directly the whistles began things begun to show, people in the streets ’urrying, people in the ’ouses and shops busying themselves, moty cars in the streets, a sort of moonlight in all the lamps and winders. People, I say, Teddy, but they wasn’t people. They was the ghosts of them that was overtook, the ghosts of them that used to crowd those streets. And they went past ’im and through ’im and never ’eeded ’im, went by like fogs and vapours, Teddy. And sometimes they was cheerful and sometimes they was ’orrible, ’orrible beyond words. And once ’e come to a place called Piccadilly, Teddy, and there was lights blazing like daylight and ladies and gentlemen in splendid clo’es crowding the pavement, and taxicabs follering along the road. And as ’e looked, they all went evil–evil in the face, Teddy. And it seemed to ’im suddenly they saw ’im, and the women began to look at ’im and say things to ’im–’orrible– wicked things. One come very near ’im, Teddy, right up to ’im, and looked into ’is face–close. And she ’adn’t got a face to look with, only a painted skull, and then ’e see; they was all painted skulls. And one after another they crowded on ’im saying ’orrible things, and catchin’ at ’im and threatenin’ and coaxing ’im, so that ’is ’eart near left ’is body for fear.”

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