CHAPTER ONE: FETTER LANE, LONDON 1980
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THE OVERSIZED KNUCKLE DUSTER DISLOCATED HIS JAWBONE LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN flicking away a Mini stuck on a crossing. The shock of the pain was immense, but he forced himself to kick out and landed a solid blow to his assailant’s groin. But there were two of them...
Sometimes a split second makes all the difference. A split-second faster, and the back of his head would have missed the swinging crowbar wielded by the second assailant. The pain had slowed his reactions only a fraction – but it was a fraction too long. The steel bar landed a sickening blow, tearing skin, fracturing bone, and compressing the back of his delicate cerebrum. He fell forward, knees crashing into the hard pavement before his face followed suit ripping lips, smashing teeth, and crushing fragile nasal cartilage with a mechanical crunch. His briefcase went flying and he felt painful blows to his torso, to his back and to his legs. He managed to turn his head to see two thugs standing over him, kicking him with all the energy they could muster.
“Muzzer fucka!” one of them said in an eastern European accent before letting fly with another vicious kick into his mid-section. He tried to stand, but it was impossible, the blow to the back of his head meant he was fighting to retain consciousness. The only thing he could do was try and curl up into a foetal position as he listened to the sound of his bones being dislocated and broken. The pain was excruciating and he knew he was about to pass out.
“Complimentz of Miztar Brazwait,” one assailant laughed, kicking him one final time in the head, and this time he did pass out.
People had started to gather to see what was going on and one burly man shouted,
“Oy, leave ‘im alone you bastards!” and rushed towards them, and was soon joined by a few others. The two thugs thought that they had done enough, turned and ran off.
Two women rushed to the man’s side, one a nurse, turned him on his side to make sure he would be able to breathe and wouldn’t choke on his own tongue, or on his own vomit. She checked his pulse which was still strong although there was blood everywhere.
The blaring sirens of an ambulance could be heard less than ten minutes later, by which time a police car had already arrived and two policemen were taking statements from the eyewitnesses. Two ambulance paramedics rushed over to check the victim’s vital signs and got a quick summary from the onlookers who said he’d, ‘just had the shit kicked out of him,’ which wasn’t a strict medical definition but was pretty close to the truth.
Sirens were wailing in the blackness. Urgent Voices. Sears of pain throughout his body with every jolt and every bump. And then he faded deeper, much deeper, but the sirens were still there broadcasting danger.
CHAPTER TWO: LONDON UNDER ATTACK 1940
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CHARLIE ROBERTSON KNEW HE MUST BE DEAD BECAUSE HE COULD FEEL HIS MOTHER next to him in an Anderson air raid shelter listening to the warning sirens as another bombing raid hit London. As the Stuka dive bombers got much closer, he knew the flimsy corrugated iron shelter couldn’t withstand a direct hit. The screaming sound the Stukas made in their bombing runs coupled with the piercing wail of the whistling bombs they released, signalled imminent death and destruction.
Charlie cowered up to his mother, knowing that they might soon be dead. A few seconds before the bombs landed, the Stukas pulled out of their dives and the screaming sirens stopped, only to be replaced by the sound of a massive explosion a few moments later. Charlie pressed his hands over his ears to try and cut out the noise, but it was useless. He couldn’t escape the anguished cries from the women in the shelter as bombs fell close by, or the vibrations as the shock waves hit dislodging dust and dank odours from every crevice of their temporary refuge. He huddled closer to his mother in the dim light of a hurricane lamp, hoping that somehow, they would survive.
“Don’t worry Charlie. It’ll soon be over,” Ethel Robertson said weakly, trying to comfort her only child.
“I know mum. I know.” Charlie bravely replied, knowing deep down that their survival was just a matter of chance.
Fine splinters had lodged into his fingers from gripping the wooden bench he was sitting on, but he hardly noticed them. Charlie stared at the grim faces around him, the elderly Mr and Mrs Burge, who lived in the upstairs apartment in their terraced house. Their adult daughter Wynn, as well as her teenage daughter, were all sitting opposite him. Wynn and her daughter were visiting the Burges when the warning sirens first sounded, and they’d all rushed down into the cramped shelter half-buried at the far end of their garden. Only the arched corrugated iron roof was above ground level, and even this was covered in soil and grass, but inside, the shelter was dark and unwelcoming.
Charlie breathed in the musty air overlain with a wisp of perfume and was just able to make out the expressions on the four faces of the Burge family in the dim light. Mr Burge, in his late seventies, was struggling to stay awake with his eyelids closed most of the time, only to be abruptly opened whenever another bomb exploded close by. Mrs Burge was holding her husband’s arm tightly, forcing her eyes to remain closed and trying to block out the bombs and the noise. Wynn and her daughter were huddled together crying softly, oblivious to the dust and dirt that had tarnished their pristine skirts.
Charlie wondered what they were feeling: fear, most certainly; that they should be anywhere else but here, probably; that they might die tonight, possibly. Charlie’s thoughts were of sadness and regret, that if he were to die tonight, he wouldn’t have achieved anything, but he was puzzled how he could die again if he were already dead. But his dark dreams were abruptly interrupted by another barrage of explosions.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
A series of bombs landed nearby with the shock waves hitting a moment later.
“Jesus Christ that was close!” Mr Burge stated the obvious, whereas Mrs Burge, Wynn, and her daughter just cried out. Charlie briefly thought that being well-dressed wasn’t helping Wynn or her daughter right now, but then he turned to look at his mother’s face, and all he could see was that she was quietly sobbing.
“It’s okay mum, it’s okay, they missed,” was all Charlie could think to whisper to his mother, but she carried on crying, barely acknowledging her son’s comforting words.
The air raid lasted for another hour, but for Ethel Robertson, it seemed like an eternity before the all clear finally sounded at just after 3 am. She couldn’t it take any more. The bombing raids by the Luftwaffe were increasing over London, with the warning sirens keeping her awake almost every night, and it was taking a severe toll on her both mentally and physically.
“Well, Adolf didn’t get us tonight!” Mr Burge tried to put on a positive spin as they filed out of the shelter and across the damp grass back into the house. Although there was a complete blackout, plenty of light was coming from houses burning nearby.
“How about a nice cup of tea?” Mrs Burge tried to follow her husband’s lead and cheer everyone up.
“Thank you… but I think I’ll get Charlie to bed,” Ethel murmured, feeling nauseous both from the acrid burning smell, and knowing that some of her neighbours would now be dead under tonnes of rubble. Charlie might be able to sleep, but she wouldn’t. The noise from the fire engines, the shouts from the firemen and air raid wardens, the crashing of falling brickwork from destroyed houses, and the thought of scores of dead bodies amongst the ruins would make sleep impossible for her. She also knew that she had to be up herself in two hours to get to her early morning cleaning job at the Midland Bank, followed by working at the local Co-op store during the day. It was exhausting, but even so, Ethel Robertson was barely making ends meet.
She couldn’t keep it up any longer and had already collapsed several times from overwork and nervous exhaustion. The doctor recommended that she go and live with her sister, Henrietta, down in Hampshire, to get away from the constant bombing. But there was the problem of what to do with Charlie.
Ethel’s sister had married a naval officer who was away in the war and had no children of her own. She considered herself to be upper middle class and not the working class of Ethel and Charlie. She would look after Ethel as a compassionate sister, as her contribution to the war effort, but she certainly wasn’t going to look after a scruffy working class urchin like Charlie. What would the ladies at the bridge club think?
“No,” she had said, “it was unacceptable. Charlie would just have to go elsewhere. Anyway, it was much safer to be away from England altogether. Yes, that was it, Charlie should be sent abroad until all this silly nonsense with Hitler blows over.”
Her husband, Reginald, who wasn’t really a commissioned naval officer, had said before he left to go to sea,
“The war will be over within a year. So what’s the harm in sending the boy away, it will be a new adventure for him.”
Ethel was heartbroken, but she had no choice. She couldn’t carry on working two jobs, so she’d spoken to the local doctor, who’d arranged for a ‘placement’ abroad to an Anglican boarding school in Western Australia.
The bombing raid over, Ethel Robertson had all these thoughts in her head and was agonising over telling her son he had to go away. She slowly trudged across the damp grass with her arm around Charlie’s shoulder squeezing him too tightly, not wanting to let him go.
“What’s wrong mum?”
“Nothing Charlie. It’s nothing. Let’s just go into the kitchen and I’ll warm that soup up, and we can talk before you go back to bed.”
They walked into the weakly lit kitchen and Charlie sat at the old wooden table with its hefty wooden planks scrubbed white from years of cleaning. Ethel walked over to the gas stove where even the effort of striking the match was almost beyond her, her hand shaking, trying to form the words to tell her son she was sending him away. The gas flame finally burst into life, and in a few minutes, the watery soup was bubbling away in the small saucepan as she turned to face him.
“Charlie, I … I’m not coping very well at the moment, and … and things are difficult here …” she hesitated, not wanting to say what had to be said. Charlie just looked intently at his mother, fearing that now, something definitely was wrong.
“So, I can’t properly take care of us here Charlie …”
“It’s okay mum, I can look after both of us.”
“I know you can Charlie, I know, but the Council won’t let a seven-year-old look after himself and his mother. The doctor has recommended that I go and stay with my sister down in Hampshire to get away from all of this.”
“That’s okay mum, we’ll manage down there as well.”
Ethel Robertson looked at Charlie and was amazed yet again at the resilience of such a little boy. Tears began to well up and were running down her cheeks as she took in a deep breath and was about to speak when Charlie said,
“Why are you crying mum?”
“Charlie… you’re not going to Aunt Hett’s. You’re going on a new adventure. To Australia.” She tried to make it sound like an adventure, but to Charlie, it just sounded like a death knell.
“I don’t want to go to Australia. I want to stay with you!”
“It’ll be fun, Charlie. Like a big holiday. And then when this silly war is over, you can come back and tell me all about it.” But Ethel Robertson didn’t say it with any conviction.
Charlie tried to convince his mother not to send him away, that he could look after her, that they didn’t need Aunt Hett, Australia or anyone else. But he could see in the shadowy light, the gaunt and exhausted face of his mother, and the look of despair in her eyes. He knew, even though tears were streaming down his face, that he had to go to Australia. He couldn’t put his mother through any more anguish. He jumped up to cuddle her, sobbing that everything would be alright, as they cried in each other’s arms until Charlie finally fell asleep on the kitchen floor. Ethel didn’t have the strength to pick him up, so she got some blankets and a pillow and made him as comfortable as possible before collapsing into her own bed for a brief respite of sleep.
But Charlie’s sleep was full of troubled dreams where his life was being turned upside down. When he finally woke his mother had already left for work, and as usual, he made his own breakfast and got himself ready for school. All the while he thought that he’d never considered himself ‘not good enough’, but he knew that’s why he was being sent away. He vowed to himself to come back to England one day. One day he wouldn’t be a scruffy, penniless kid anymore. One day he would be more than good enough.
A week later, Charlie’s Aunt Hett arrived at their small terraced house drinking tea in the kitchen with his mother, while Charlie was upstairs in his bedroom packing. He’d found a small brown battered suitcase on a bomb site and was placing his meagre belongings into it when he could just make out the conversation below.
“Why does he have to go? Why?”
“You know why. We’ve been through this a hundred times Ethel.”
“But surely he can come with us to Hampshire.”
“No, he can’t. You know he can’t. It’s best Charlie goes away altogether.”
“Please Hett, please!”
“You know I’m right. He’ll be safe in Australia, but he won’t be safe here.”
“Are you sure Hett? Really sure?”
“I’m sure. Anyway, it’s only temporary. He’ll be back soon enough, so don’t worry.” And the only further sounds he could hear were those of his mother softly crying.
Charlie was stunned. So, there it is, he thought. ‘Hett doesn’t want me in her ‘posh house’ and is convincing my mother to send me away, and get rid of me. Well, I won’t forget, and one day I’ll be back.’ He stared at the small black and white photograph of his mother on her wedding day that she’d given him earlier, and saw a smiling woman staring back at him, completely unlike the enervated face he was now familiar with downstairs. He carefully placed the photograph between two shirts, knowing it was the most precious thing he owned, then closed the case, and trudged down the narrow, dimly lit stairs for the last time. It was time for him to leave.
Dressed in his best shoes, trousers, and jacket, he’d combed his blonde hair in a conscious attempt to ‘look good enough’ so maybe his mother might change her mind even now, but as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he was greeted by his Aunt Hett.
“All ready to go on your new adventure Charlie?” It sounded far too flippant and didn’t justify an answer. He just brushed past her and went straight into the kitchen to his mother.
“I don’t want to go mum. I can behave. I can be smart. I won’t cause any trouble, I promise” he pleaded in one last attempt to try and change her mind. Ethel Robertson was still sitting at the kitchen table and looked up with a rare smile on her face when she saw her son.
“I know Charlie. I know. But it’s for your own safety, and I couldn’t bear anything to happen to you. You’ll do well wherever you are; I know you will, just follow your instincts, and they won’t let you down … but no more secretly smoking Woodbines or stealing lead from the Town Hall roof when you’re in Australia.”
Charlie was amazed that his mother knew about the cigarettes and the lead, and realised for the first time in his life that he’d got his intelligence from his mother.
But now, the dreaded time had arrived for Charlie to leave, and his mother tried to reassure him that it would just be like an overseas holiday as she walked with him down to the Town Hall where the children to be sent overseas were assembling. A fat, middle-aged man was ticking names on a list. He pompously asked,
“Charles Robertson, my son,” Ethel replied.
Charlie had never been called Charles before, and he realised that his mother was immensely proud of him. The man ticked his name off the list saying,
“Go over there boy.”
His mother hugged and kissed him.
“Don’t forget what I told you Charlie.”
Standing there, outside the Town Hall, the young Charles Robertson felt enormous resentment towards his Aunt Hett, his mother’s own sister who wouldn’t take him in. He would never forget that. But even more upsetting, lurking in the deep recesses of his mind, was the thought that even his own mother was abandoning him. With a supreme effort, Charlie held back the tears, looked at his mother and managed to whisper,
“I love you mum.” He couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.
His mother kissed him again, then turned around and walked away quickly so her son wouldn’t see the tears streaming down her own face.
Charlie watched his mother walk away without turning back, and although his outward tears could be wiped away, the darkness forming within him couldn’t.
Stabbing pains were shooting through his body and up his spine with every movement, but he had no control over it. His head was pounding, and he tried desperately to block out the pain, but it was futile. Then the movement stopped and was replaced with the gentle hum of machinery.
The paramedics rushed him straight to the Emergency Department of St Thomas’s Hospital for an immediate triage assessment. Fortunately, the senior registrar on duty, a Dr Adrian Sutcliffe, was one of the most experienced trauma specialists in the hospital. He was immediately concerned by the massive blow the patient had suffered to the back of his head which may be causing internal bleeding, but was optimistic because his blood pressure was normal, his pulse was strong, and there were no signs of bleeding from the nose, ears, or eyes.
Sutcliffe, who’d seen more than his fair share of accident victims, felt sorry for his new patient, whose face was now a bloody mess, because he knew it was going to hurt like hell when he finally awoke. Both of his eyes were completely swollen shut, his nose was smashed, he had several teeth missing, and there were numerous deep lacerations across his face which was covered in dried blood. Those were the injuries Sutcliffe could see. He organised immediate CT scans, to be followed by comprehensive x-rays of his ribs, shoulders, arms, and legs, and was grateful at least that his patient was unconscious. He knew the pain would be unbearable if he were awake.