The War in the Air – Day 114 of 115

“But ’ow did the people get killed?” asked Teddy presently.

“There was the War. The War was the beginning of it. The War banged and flummocked about, but it didn’t really kill many people. But it upset things. They came and set fire to London and burnt and sank all the ships there used to be in the Thames– we could see the smoke and steam for weeks–and they threw a bomb into the Crystal Palace and made a bust-up, and broke down the rail lines and things like that. But as for killin’ people, it was just accidental if they did. They killed each other more. There was a great fight all hereabout one day, Teddy–up in the air. Great things bigger than fifty ’ouses, bigger than the Crystal Palace–bigger, bigger than anything, flying about up in the air and whacking at each other and dead men fallin’ off ’em. T’riffic! But, it wasn’t so much the people they killed as the business they stopped. There wasn’t any business doin’, Teddy, there wasn’t any money about, and nothin’ to buy if you ’ad it.”

“But ’ow did the people get killed?” said the little boy in the pause.

“I’m tellin’ you, Teddy,” said the old man. “It was the stoppin’ of business come next. Suddenly there didn’t seem to be any money. There was cheques–they was a bit of paper written on, and they was jes’ as good as money–jes’ as good if they come from customers you knew. Then all of a sudden they wasn’t. I was left with three of ’em and two I’d given’ change. Then it got about that five-pun’ notes were no good, and then the silver sort of went off. Gold you couldn’t get for love or–anything. The banks in London ’ad got it, and the banks was all smashed up. Everybody went bankrup’. Everybody was thrown out of work. Everybody!”

He paused, and scrutinised his hearer. The small boy’s intelligent face expressed hopeless perplexity.

“That’s ’ow it ’appened,” said old Tom. He sought for some means of expression. “It was like stoppin’ a clock,” he said. “Things were quiet for a bit, deadly quiet, except for the air-ships fighting about in the sky, and then people begun to get excited. I remember my lars’ customer, the very lars’ customer that ever I ’ad. He was a Mr. Moses Gluckstein, a city gent and very pleasant and fond of sparrowgrass and chokes, and ’e cut in– there ’adn’t been no customers for days–and began to talk very fast, offerin’ me for anything I ’ad, anything, petaties or anything, its weight in gold. ’E said it was a little speculation ’e wanted to try. ’E said it was a sort of bet reely, and very likely ’e’d lose; but never mind that, ’e wanted to try. ’E always ’ad been a gambler, ’e said. ’E said I’d only got to weigh it out and ’e’d give me ’is cheque right away. Well, that led to a bit of a argument, perfect respectful it was, but a argument about whether a cheque was still good, and while ’e was explaining there come by a lot of these here unemployed with a great banner they ’ad for every one to read–every one could read those days–‘We want Food.’ Three or four of ’em suddenly turns and comes into my shop.

“‘Got any food?’ says one.

“‘No,’ I says, ‘not to sell. I wish I ’ad. But if I ’ad, I’m afraid I couldn’t let you have it. This gent, ’e’s been offerin’ me–‘

“Mr. Gluckstein ’e tried to stop me, but it was too late.

“‘What’s ’e been offerin’ you?’ says a great big chap with a ’atchet; ‘what’s ’e been offerin you?’ I ’ad to tell.

“‘Boys,’ ’e said, ‘’ere’s another feenancier!’ and they took ’im out there and then, and ’ung ’im on a lam’pose down the street. ’E never lifted a finger to resist. After I tole on ’im ’e never said a word….”

Tom meditated for a space. “First chap I ever sin ’ung!” he said.

“Ow old was you?” asked Teddy.

“’Bout thirty,” said old Tom.

“Why! I saw free pig-stealers ’ung before I was six,” said Teddy. “Father took me because of my birfday being near. Said I ought to be blooded….”

“Well, you never saw no-one killed by a moty car, any’ow,” said old Tom after a moment of chagrin. “And you never saw no dead men carried into a chemis’ shop.”

Teddy’s momentary triumph faded. “No,” he said, “I ’aven’t.”

“Nor won’t. Nor won’t. You’ll never see the things I’ve seen, never. Not if you live to be a ’undred… Well, as I was saying, that’s how the Famine and Riotin’ began. Then there was strikes and Socialism, things I never did ’old with, worse and worse. There was fightin’ and shootin’ down, and burnin’ and plundering. They broke up the banks up in London and got the gold, but they couldn’t make food out of gold. ’Ow did we get on? Well, we kep’ quiet. We didn’t interfere with no-one and no-one didn’t interfere with us. We ’ad some old ’tatoes about, but mocely we lived on rats. Ours was a old ’ouse, full of rats, and the famine never seemed to bother ’em. Orfen we got a rat. Orfen. But moce of the people who lived hereabouts was too tender stummicked for rats. Didn’t seem to fancy ’em. They’d been used to all sorts of fallals, and they didn’t take to ’onest feeding, not till it was too late. Died rather.

“It was the famine began to kill people. Even before the Purple Death came along they was dying like flies at the end of the summer. ’Ow I remember it all! I was one of the first to ’ave it. I was out, seein’ if I mightn’t get ’old of a cat or somethin’, and then I went round to my bit of ground to see whether I couldn’t get up some young turnips I’d forgot, and I was took something awful. You’ve no idee the pain, Teddy–it doubled me up pretty near. I jes’ lay down by ’at there corner, and your aunt come along to look for me and dragged me ’ome like a sack.

“I’d never ’ave got better if it ’adn’t been for your aunt. ‘Tom,’ she says to me, ‘you got to get well,’ and I ’ad to. Then she sickened. She sickened but there ain’t much dyin’ about your aunt. ‘Lor!’ she says, ‘as if I’d leave you to go muddlin’ along alone!’ That’s what she says. She’s got a tongue, ’as your aunt. But it took ’er ’air off–and arst though I might, she’s never cared for the wig I got ’er–orf the old lady what was in the vicarage garden.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)