Connie Willis is an American writer who has won eleven Hugo Awards and eight Nebula Awards – more than any other writer. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Science Fiction Writers of America named her its twenty-eighth Grand Master in 2011. This story, first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1982, won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award.
History hath triumphed over time, which besides it nothing but eternity hath triumphed over.
Sir Walter Raleigh, The History of the World
September 20 – Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone. And of course it wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t dedicated until 1951, accompanying a speech by the Very Reverend Dean Walter Matthews, and this is only 1940. I knew that. I went to see the fire watch stone only yesterday, with some kind of misplaced notion that seeing the scene of the crime would somehow help. It didn’t.
The only things that would have helped were a crash course in London during the Blitz and a little more time. I had not gotten either.
“Traveling in time is not like taking the tube, Mr Bartholomew,” the esteemed Dunworthy had said, blinking at me through those antique spectacles of his. “Either you report on the twentieth or you don’t go at all.”
“But I’m not ready,” I’d said. “Look, it took me four years to get ready to travel with St Paul. St Paul. Not St Paul’s. You can’t expect me to get ready for London in the Blitz in two days.”
“Yes,” Dunworthy had said. “We can.” End of conversation.
“Two days!” I had shouted at my roommate Kivrin. “All because some computer adds an ‘s’. And the esteemed Dunworthy doesn’t even bat an eye when I tell him. ‘Time travel is not like taking the tube, young man,’ he says. ‘I’d suggest you get ready. You’re leaving the day after tomorrow.’ The man’s a total incompetent.”
“No,” she said. “He isn’t. He’s the best there is. He wrote the book on St Paul’s. Maybe you should listen to what he says.”
I had expected Kivrin to be at least a little sympathetic. She had been practically hysterical when she got her practicum changed from fifteenth- to fourteenth-century England, and how did either century qualify as a practicum? Even counting infectious diseases they couldn’t have been more than a five. The Blitz is an eight, and St Paul’s itself is, with my luck, a ten.
“You think I should go see Dunworthy again?” I said.
“And then what? I’ve got two days. I don’t know the money, the language, the history. Nothing.”
“He’s a good man,” Kivrin said. “I think you’d better listen to him while you can.” Good old Kivrin. Always the sympathetic ear.
The good man was responsible for my standing just inside the propped-open west doors, gawking like the country boy I was supposed to be, looking for a stone that wasn’t there. Thanks to the good man, I was about as unprepared for my practicum as it was possible for him to make me.
I couldn’t see more than a few feet into the church. I could see a candle gleaming feebly a long way off and a closer blur of white moving towards me. A verger, or possibly the Very Reverend Dean himself. I pulled out the letter from my clergyman uncle in Wales that was supposed to gain me access to the dean, and patted my back pocket to make sure I hadn’t lost the microfiche Oxford English Dictionary, Revised, with Historical Supplements I’d smuggled out of the Bodleian. I couldn’t pull it out in the middle of the conversation, but with luck I could muddle through the first encounter by context and look up the words I didn’t know later.
“Are you from the ayarpee?” he said. He was no older than I am, a head shorter and much thinner. Almost ascetic-looking. He reminded me of Kivrin. He was not wearing white, but clutching it to his chest. In other circumstances I would have thought it was a pillow. In other circumstances I wouldn’t know what was being said to me, but there had been no time to unlearn sub-Mediterranean Latin and Jewish law and learn Cockney and air raid procedures. Two days, and the esteemed Dunworthy, who wanted to talk about the sacred burdens of the historian instead of telling me what the ayarpee was.
“Are you?” he demanded again.
I considered whipping out the OED after all on the grounds that Wales was a foreign country, but I didn’t think they had microfilm in 1940. Ayarpee. It could be anything, including a nickname for the fire watch, in which case the impulse to say no was not safe at all. “No,” I said.
He lunged suddenly toward and past me and peered out the open doors. “Damn,” he said, coming back to me. “Where are they then? Bunch of lazy bourgeois tarts!” And so much for getting by on context.
He looked at me closely, suspiciously, as if he thought I was only pretending not to be with the ayarpee. “The church is closed,” he said finally.
I held up the envelope and said, “My name’s Bartholomew. Is Dean Matthews in?”
He looked out the door a moment longer as if he expected the lazy bourgeois tarts at any moment and intended to attack them with the white bundle; then he turned and said, as if he were guiding a tour, “This way, please,” and took off into the gloom.
He led me to the right and down the south aisle of the nave. Thank God I had memorized the floor plan or at that moment, heading into total darkness, led by a raving verger, the whole bizarre metaphor of my situation would have been enough to send me out the west doors and back to St John’s Wood. It helped a little to know where I was. We should have been passing number twenty-six: Hunt’s painting of The Light of the World – Jesus with his lantern – but it was too dark to see it. We could have used the lantern ourselves.
He stopped abruptly ahead of me, still raving. “We weren’t asking for the bloody Savoy, just a few cots. Nelson’s better off than we are – at least he’s got a pillow provided.” He brandished the white bundle like a torch in the darkness. It was a pillow after all. “We asked for them over a fortnight ago, and here we still are, sleeping on the bleeding generals from Trafalgar because those bitches want to play tea and crumpets with the Tommies at Victoria and the hell with us!”
He didn’t seem to expect me to answer his outburst, which was good, because I had understood perhaps one key word in three. He stomped on ahead, moving out of sight of the one pathetic altar candle and stopping again at a black hole. Number twenty-five: stairs to the Whispering Gallery, the Dome, the library (not open to the public). Up the stairs, down a hall, stop again at a medieval door and knock. “I’ve got to go wait for them,” he said. “If I’m not there they’ll likely take them over to the Abbey. Tell the Dean to ring them up again, will you?” And he took off down the stone steps, still holding his pillow like a shield against him.
He had knocked, but the door was at least a foot of solid oak, and it was obvious the Very Reverend Dean had not heard. I was going to have to knock again. Yes, well, and the man holding the pinpoint had to let go of it, too, but even knowing it will all be over in a moment and you won’t feel a thing doesn’t make it any easier to say, “Now!” So I stood in front of the door, cursing the history department and the esteemed Dunworthy and the computer that had made the mistake and brought me here to this dark door with only a letter from a fictitious uncle that I trusted no more than I trusted the rest of them.
Even the old reliable Bodleian had let me down. The batch of research stuff I cross-ordered through Balliol and the main terminal is probably sitting in my room right now, a century out of reach. And Kivrin, who had already done her practicum and should have been bursting with advice, walked around as silent as a saint until I begged her to help me.
“Did you go to see Dunworthy?” she said.
“Yes. You want to know what priceless bit of information he had for me? ‘Silence and humility are the sacred burdens of the historian.’ He also told me I would love St Paul’s. Golden gems from the Master. Unfortunately, what I need to know are the times and places of the bombs so one doesn’t fall on me.” I flopped down on the bed. “Any suggestions?”
“How good are you at memory retrieval?” she said.
I sat up. “I’m pretty good. You think I should assimilate?”
“There isn’t time for that,” she said. “I think you should put everything you can directly into long-term.”
“You mean endorphins?” I said.
The biggest problem with using memory-assistance drugs to put information into your long-term memory is that it never sits, even for a microsecond, in your short-term memory, and that makes retrieval complicated, not to mention unnerving. It gives you the most unsettling sense of déjà vu to suddenly know something you’re positive you’ve never seen or heard before.
The main problem, though, is not eerie sensations but retrieval. Nobody knows exactly how the brain gets what it wants out of storage, but short-term is definitely involved. That brief, sometimes microscopic, time information spends in short-term is apparently used for something besides tip-of-the-tongue availability. The whole complex sort-and-file process of retrieval is apparently centered in the short-term, and without it, and without the help of the drugs that put it there or artificial substitutes, information can be impossible to retrieve. I’d used endorphins for examinations and never had any difficulty with retrieval, and it looked like it was the only way to store all the information I needed in anything approaching the time I had left, but it also meant that I would never have known any of the things I needed to know, even for long enough to have forgotten them. If and when I could retrieve the information, I would know it. Till then I was as ignorant of it as if it were not stored in some cobwebbed corner of my mind at all.
“You can retrieve without artificials, can’t you?” Kivrin said, looking skeptical.
“I guess I’ll have to.”
“Under stress? Without sleep? Low body endorphin levels?” What exactly had her practicum been? She had never said a word about it, and undergraduates are not supposed to ask. Stress factors in the Middle Ages? I thought everybody slept through them.
“I hope so,” I said. “Anyway, I’m willing to try this idea if you think it will help.”
She looked at me with that martyred expression and said, “Nothing will help.” Thank you, St Kivrin of Balliol.
But I tried it anyway. It was better than sitting in Dunworthy’s rooms having him blink at me through his historically accurate eyeglasses and tell me I was going to love St Paul’s. When my Bodleian requests didn’t come, I overloaded my credit and bought out Blackwell’s. Tapes on World War II, Celtic literature, history of mass transit, tourist guidebooks, everything I could think of. Then I rented a high-speed recorder and shot up. When I came out of it, I was so panicked by the feeling of not knowing any more than I had when I started that I took the tube to London and raced up Ludgate Hill to see if the fire watch stone would trigger any memories. It didn’t.
“Your endorphin levels aren’t back to normal yet,” I told myself and tried to relax, but that was impossible with the prospect of the practicum looming up before me. And those are real bullets, kid. Just because you’re a history major doing his practicum doesn’t mean you can’t get killed. I read history books all the way home on the tube and right up until Dunworthy’s flunkies came to take me to St John’s Wood this morning.
Then I jammed the microfiche OED in my back pocket and went off feeling as if I would have to survive by my native wit and hoping I could get hold of artificials in 1940. Surely I could get through the first day without mishap, I thought, and now here I was, stopped cold by almost the first word that was spoken to me.
Well, not quite. In spite of Kivrin’s advice that I not put anything in short-term, I’d memorized the British money, a map of the tube system, a map of my own Oxford. It had gotten me this far. Surely I would be able to deal with the Dean.
Just as I had almost gotten up the courage to knock, he opened the door, and as with the pinpoint, it really was over quickly and without pain. I handed him my letter and he shook my hand and said something understandable like, “Glad to have another man, Bartholomew.” He looked strained and tired and as if he might collapse if I told him the Blitz had just started. I know, I know: Keep your mouth shut. The sacred silence, etc.
He said, “We’ll get Langby to show you round, shall we?” I assumed that was my Verger of the Pillow, and I was right. He met us at the foot of the stairs, puffing a little but jubilant.
“The cots came,” he said to Dean Matthews. “You’d have thought they were doing us a favor. All high heels and hoity-toity. ‘You made us miss our tea, luv,’ one of them said to me. ‘Yes, well, and a good thing, too,’ I said. ‘You look as if you could stand to lose a stone or two.’”
Even Dean Matthews looked as though he did not completely understand him. He said, “Did you set them up in the crypt?” and then introduced us. “Mr Bartholomew’s just got in from Wales,” he said. “He’s come to join our volunteers.” Volunteers, not fire watch.
Langby showed me round, pointing out various dimnesses in the general gloom, and then dragged me down to see the ten folding canvas cots set up among the tombs in the crypt, also in passing, Lord Nelson’s black marble sarcophagus. He told me I don’t have to stand a watch the first night and suggested I go to bed, since sleep is the most precious commodity in the raids. I could well believe it. He was clutching that silly pillow to his breast like his beloved.
“Do you hear the sirens down here?” I asked, wondering if he buried his head in it.
He looked round at the low stone ceilings. “Some do, some don’t. Brinton has to have his Horlick’s. Bence-Jones would sleep if the roof fell in on him. I have to have a pillow. The important thing is to get your eight in no matter what. If you don’t, you turn into one of the walking dead. And then you get killed.”
On that cheering note he went off to post the watches for tonight, leaving his pillow on one of the cots with orders for me to let nobody touch it. So here I sit, waiting for my first air raid siren and trying to get all this down before I turn into one of the walking or non-walking dead.
I’ve used the stolen OED to decipher a little Langby. Middling success. A tart is either a pastry or a prostitute (I assume the latter, although I was wrong about the pillow). Bourgeois is a catchall term for all the faults of the middle class. A Tommy’s a soldier. Ayarpee I could not find under any spelling and I had nearly given up when something in long-term about the use of acronyms and abbreviations in wartime popped forward (bless you, St Kivrin) and I realized it must be an abbreviation. ARP. Air Raid Precautions. Of course. Where else would you get the bleeding cots from?
* * *
September 21 – Now that I’m past the first shock of being here, I realize that the history department neglected to tell me what I’m supposed to do in the three-odd months of this practicum. They handed me this journal, the letter from my uncle, and ten pounds of pre-war money and sent me packing into the past. The ten pounds (already depleted by train and tube fares) is supposed to last me until the end of December and get me back to St John’s Wood for pickup when the second letter calling me back to Wales to sick uncle’s bedside comes. Till then I live here in the crypt with Nelson, who, Langby tells me, is pickled in alcohol inside his coffin. If we take a direct hit, will he burn like a torch or simply trickle out in a decaying stream onto the crypt floor, I wonder. Board is provided by a gas-ring, over which are cooked wretched tea and indescribable kippers. To pay for all this luxury I am to stand on the roofs of St Paul’s and put out incendiaries.
I must also accomplish the purpose of this practicum, whatever it may be. Right now the only purpose I care about is staying alive until the second letter from uncle arrives and I can go home.
I am doing make-work until Langby has time to “show me the ropes”. I’ve cleaned the skillet they cook the foul little fishes in, stacked wooden folding chairs at the altar end of the crypt (flat instead of standing because they tend to collapse like bombs in the middle of the night), and tried to sleep.
I am apparently not one of the lucky ones who can sleep through the raids. I spend most of the night wondering what St Paul’s risk rating is. Practica have to be at least a six. Last night I was convinced this was a ten, with the crypt as ground zero, and that I might as well have applied for Denver.
The most interesting thing that’s happened so far is that I’ve seen a cat. I am fascinated, but trying not to appear so, since they seem commonplace here.
* * *
September 22 – Still in the crypt. Langby comes dashing through periodically cursing various government agencies (all abbreviated) and promising to take me up on the roofs. In the meantime I’ve run out of make-work and taught myself to work a stirrup pump. Kivrin was overly concerned about my memory retrieval abilities. I have not had any trouble so far. Quite the opposite. I called up fire-fighting information and got the whole manual with pictures, including instructions on the use of the stirrup pump. If the kippers set Lord Nelson on fire, I shall be a hero.
Excitement last night. The sirens went early and some of the chars who clean offices in the City sheltered in the crypt with us. One of them woke me out of a sound sleep, going like an air raid siren. Seems she’d seen a mouse. We had to go whacking at tombs and under the cots with a rubber boot to persuade her it was gone. Obviously what the history department had in mind: murdering mice.
* * *
September 24 – Langby took me on rounds. Into the choir, where I had to learn the stirrup pump all over again, assigned rubber boots and a tine helmet. Langby says Commander Allen is getting us asbestos firemen’s coats, but hasn’t yet, so it’s my own wool coat and muffler and very cold on the roofs even in September. It feels like November and looks it, too, bleak and cheerless with no sun. Up to the dome and onto the roofs, which should be flat but in fact are littered with towers, pinnacles, gutters, statues, all designed expressly to catch and hold incendiaries out of reach. Shown how to smother an incendiary with sand before it burns through the roof and sets the church on fire. Shown the ropes (literally) lying in a heap at the base of the dome in case somebody has to go up one of the west towers or over the top of the dome. Back inside and down to the Whispering Gallery.
Langby kept up a running commentary through the whole tour, part practical instruction, part church history. Before we went up into the Gallery he dragged me over to the south door to tell me how Christopher Wren stood in the smoking rubble of Old St Paul’s and asked a workman to bring him a stone from the graveyard to mark the cornerstone. On the stone was written in Latin, “I shall rise again,” and Wren was so impressed by the irony that he had the word inscribed above the door. Langby looked as smug as if he had not told me a story every first-year history student knows, but I suppose without the impact of the fire watch stone, the other is just a nice story.
Langby raced me up the steps and onto the narrow balcony circling the Whispering Gallery. He was already halfway round to the other side, shouting dimensions and acoustics at me. He stopped facing the wall opposite and said softly, “You can hear me whispering because of the shape of the dome. The sound waves are reinforced around the perimeter of the dome. It sounds like the very crack of doom up here during a raid. The dome is one hundred and seven feet across. It is eighty feet above the nave.”
I looked down. The railing went out from under me and the black-and-white marble floor came up with dizzying speed. I hung onto something in front of me and dropped to my knees, staggered and sick at heart. The sun had come out, and all of St Paul’s seemed drenched in gold. Even the carved wood of the choir, the white stone pillars, the leaden pipes of the organ, all of it golden, golden.
Langby was beside me, trying to pull me free. “Bartholomew,” he shouted, “what’s wrong? For God’s sake, man.”
I knew I must tell him that if I let go, St Paul’s and all the past would fall in on me, and that I must not let that happen because I was an historian. I said something, but it was not what I intended because Langby merely tightened his grip. He hauled me violently free of the railing and back onto the stairway, then let me collapse limply on the steps and stood back from me, not speaking.
“I don’t know what happened in there,” I said. “I’ve never been afraid of heights before.”
“You’re shaking,” he said sharply. “You’d better lie down.” He led me back to the crypt.
* * *
September 25 – Memory retrieval: ARP manual. Symptoms of bombing victims. Stage one – shock; stupefaction; unawareness of injuries; words may not make sense except to victim. Stage two – shivering; nightmares; nausea; injuries, losses felt; return to reality. Stage three – talkativeness that cannot be controlled; desire to explain shock behavior to rescuers.
Langby must surely recognize the symptoms, but how does he account for the fact there was no bomb? I can hardly explain my shock behavior to him, and it isn’t just the sacred silence of the historian that stops me.
He has not said anything, in fact assigned me my first watches for tomorrow night as if nothing had happened and he seems no more preoccupied than anyone else. Everyone I’ve met so far is jittery (one thing I had in short-term was how calm everyone was during the raids) and the raids have not come near us since I got here. They’ve been mostly over the East End and the docks.
There was reference tonight to a UXB, and I have been thinking about the Dean’s manner and the church being closed when I’m almost sure I remember reading it was open through the entire Blitz. As soon as I get a chance, I’ll try to retrieve the events of September. As to retrieving anything else, I don’t see how I can hope to remember the right information until I know what it is I am supposed to do here, if anything.
There are no guidelines for historians, and no restrictions either. I could tell everyone I’m from the future if I thought they would believe me. I could murder Hitler if I could get to Germany. Or could I? Time paradox talk abounds in the history department, and the graduate students back from their practica don’t say a word one way or the other. Is there a tough, immutable past? Or is there a new past every day and do we, the historians, make it? And what are the consequences of what we do, if there are consequences? And how do we dare do anything without knowing them? Must we interfere boldly, hoping we do not bring about all our downfalls? Or must we do nothing at all, not interfere, stand by and watch St Paul’s burn to the ground if need be so that we don’t change the future?
All those are fine questions for a late-night study session. They do not matter here. I could no more let St Paul’s burn down than I could kill Hitler. No, that is not true. I found that out yesterday in the Whispering Gallery. I could kill Hitler if I caught him setting fire to St Paul’s.
* * *
September 26 – I met a young woman today. Dean Matthews has opened the church, so the watch have been doing duties as chars and people have started coming in again. The young woman reminded me of Kivrin, though Kivrin is a good deal taller and would never frizz her hair like that. She looked as if she had been crying. Kivrin looked like that since she got back from her practicum. The Middle Ages were too much for her. I wonder how she would have coped with this. By pouring out her fears to the local priest, no doubt, as I sincerely hoped her look-alike was not going to do.
“May I help you?” I said, not wanting in the least to help. “I’m a volunteer.”
She looked distressed. “You’re not paid?” she said, and wiped at her reddened nose with a handkerchief. “I read about St Paul’s and the fire watch and all, and I thought perhaps there’s a position there for me. In the canteen, like, or something. A paying position.” There were tears in her red-rimmed eyes.
“I’m afraid we don’t have a canteen,” I said as kindly as I could, considering how impatient Kivrin always makes me, “and it’s not actually a real shelter. Some of the watch sleep in the crypt. I’m afraid we’re all volunteers, though.”
“That won’t do, then,” she said. She dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “I love St Paul’s, but I can’t take on volunteer work, not with my little brother Tom back from the country.” I was not reading this situation properly. For all the outward signs of distress she sounded quite cheerful and no closer to tears than when she had come in. “I’ve got to get us a proper place to stay. With Tom back, we can’t go on sleeping in the tubes.”
A sudden feeling of dread, the kind of sharp pain you get sometimes from involuntary retrieval, went over me. “The tubes?” I said, trying to get at the memory.
“Marble Arch, usually,” she went on. “My brother Tom saves us a place early and I go…” She stopped, held the handkerchief close to her nose, and exploded into it. “I’m sorry,” she said, “this awful cold!”
Red nose, watering eyes, sneezing. Respiratory infection. It was a wonder I hadn’t told her not to cry. It’s only by luck that I haven’t made some unforgivable mistake so far, and this is not because I can’t get at the long-term memory. I don’t have half the information I need even stored: cats and colds and the way St Paul’s looks in full sun. It’s only a matter of time before I am stopped cold by something I do not know. Nevertheless, I am going to try for retrieval tonight after I come off watch. At least I can find out whether and when something is going to fall on me.
I have seen the cat once or twice. He is coal-black with a white patch on his throat that looks as if it were painted on for the blackout.
* * *
September 27 – I have just come down from the roofs. I am still shaking. Early in the raid the bombing was mostly over the East End. The view was incredible. Searchlights everywhere, the sky pink from the fires and reflecting in the Thames, the exploding shells sparkling like fireworks. There was a constant, deafening thunder broken by the occasional droning of the planes high overhead, then the repeating stutter of the ack-ack guns.
About midnight the bombs began falling quite near with a horrible sound like a train running over me. It took every bit of will I had to keep from flinging myself flat on the roof, but Langby was watching. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of watching a repeat performance of my behavior in the dome. I kept my head up and my sand bucket firmly in hand and felt quite proud of myself.
The bombs stopped roaring past about three, and there was a lull of about half an hour, and then a clatter like hail on the roofs. Everybody except Langby dived for shovels and stirrup pumps. He was watching me. And I was watching the incendiary.
It had fallen only a few meters from me, behind the clock tower. It was much smaller than I had imagined, only about thirty centimeters long. It was sputtering violently, throwing greenish-white fire almost to where I was standing. In a minute it would simmer down into a molten mass and begin to burn through the roof. Flames and the frantic shouts of firemen, and then the white rubble stretching for miles, and nothing, nothing left, not even the fire watch stone.
It was the Whispering Gallery all over again. I felt that I had said something, and when I looked at Langby’s face he was smiling crookedly.
“St Paul’s will burn down,” I said. “There won’t be anything left.”
“Yes,” Langby said. “That’s the idea, isn’t it? Burn St Paul’s to the ground? Isn’t that the plan?”
“Whose plan?” I said stupidly.
“Hitler’s, of course,” Langby said. “Who did you think I meant?” and, almost casually, picked up his stirrup pump.
The page of the ARP manual flashed suddenly before me. I poured the bucket of sand around the still sputting bomb, snatched up another bucket and dumped that on top of it. Black smoke billowed up in such a cloud that I could hardly find my shovel. I felt for the smothered bomb with the tip of it and scooped it into the empty bucket, then shoveled the sand in on top of it. Tears were streaming down my face from the acrid smoke. I turned to wipe them on my sleeve and saw Langby.
He had not made a move to help me. He smiled. “It’s not a bad plan, actually. But of course we won’t let it happen. That’s what the fire watch is here for. To see that it doesn’t happen. Right, Bartholomew?”
I know now what the purpose of my practicum is. I must stop Langby from burning down St Paul’s.
* * *
September 28 – I try to tell myself I was mistaken about Langby last night, that I misunderstood what he said. Why would he want to burn down St Paul’s unless he is a Nazi spy? How can a Nazi spy have gotten on the fire watch? I think about my faked letter of introduction and shudder.
How can I find out? If I set him some test, some fatal thing that only a loyal Englishman in 1940 would know, I fear I am the one who would be caught out. I must get my retrieval working properly.
Until then, I shall watch Langby. For the time being at least that should be easy. Langby has just posted the watches for the next two weeks. We stand everyone together.
* * *
September 30 – I know what happened in September. Langby told me.
Last night in the choir, putting on our coats and boots, he said, “They’ve already tried once, you know.”
I had no idea what he meant. I felt as helpless as that first day when he asked me if I was from the ayarpee.
“The plan to destroy St Paul’s. They’ve already tried once. The tenth of September. A high explosive bomb. But of course you didn’t know about that. You were in Wales.”
I was not even listening. The minute he had said “high explosive bomb”, I had remembered it all. It had burrowed in under the road and lodged on the foundations. The bomb squad had tried to defuse it, but there was a leaking gas main. They decided to evacuate St Paul’s, but Dean Matthews refused to leave, and they got it out after all and exploded it in Barking Marshes. Instant and complete retrieval.
“The bomb squad saved her that time,” Langby was saying. “It seems there’s always somebody about.”
“Yes,” I said, “there is,” and walked away from him.
* * *
October 1 – I thought last night’s retrieval of the events of September tenth meant some sort of breakthrough, but I have been lying here on my cot most of the night trying for Nazi spies in St Paul’s and getting nothing. Do I have to know exactly what I’m looking for before I can remember it? What good does that do me?
Maybe Langby is not a Nazi spy. Then what is he? An arsonist? A madman? The crypt is hardly conducive to thought, being not at all as silent as a tomb. The chars talk most of the night and the sound of the bombs is muffled, which somehow makes it worse. I find myself straining to hear them. When I did get to sleep this morning, I dreamed about one of the tube shelters being hit, broken mains, drowning people.
* * *
October 4 – I tried to catch the cat today. I had some idea of persuading it to dispatch the mouse that has been terrifying the chars. I also wanted to see one up close. I took the water bucket I had used with the stirrup pump last night to put out some burning shrapnel from one of the antiaircraft guns. It still had a bit of water in it, but not enough to drown the cat, and my plan was to clamp the bucket over him, reach under, and pick him up, then carry him down to the crypt and point him at the mouse. I did not even come close to him.
I swung the bucket, and as I did so, perhaps an inch of water splashed out. I thought I remembered that the cat was a domesticated animal, but I must have been wrong about that. The cat’s wide complacent face pulled back into a skull-like mask that was absolutely terrifying, vicious claws extended from what I had thought were harmless paws, and the cat let out a sound to top the chars.
In my surprise I dropped the bucket and it rolled against one of the pillars. The cat disappeared. Behind me, Langby said, “That’s no way to catch a cat.”
“Obviously,” I said, and bent to retrieve the bucket.
“Cats hate water,” he said, still in that expressionless voice.
“Oh,” I said, and started in front of him to take the bucket back to the choir. “I didn’t know that.”
“Everybody knows it. Even the stupid Welsh.”
* * *
October 8 – We have been standing double watches for a week – bomber’s moon. Langby didn’t show up on the roofs, so I went looking for him in the church. I found him standing by the west doors talking to an old man. The man had a newspaper tucked under his arm and he handed it to Langby, but Langby gave it back to him. When the man saw me, he ducked out. Langby said, “Tourist. Wanted to know where the Windmill Theatre is. Read in the paper the girls are starkers.”
I know I looked as if I didn’t believe him because he said, “You look rotten, old man. Not getting enough sleep, are you? I’ll get somebody to take the first watch for you tonight.”
“No,” I said coldly. “I’ll stand my own watch. I like being on the roofs,” and added silently, where I can watch you.
He shrugged and said, “I suppose it’s better than being down in the crypt. At least on the roofs you can hear the one that gets you.”
* * *
October 10 – I thought the double watches might be good for me, take my mind off my inability to retrieve. The watched-pot idea. Actually, it sometimes works. A few hours of thinking about something else, or a good night’s sleep, and the fact pops forward without any prompting, without any artificials.
The good night’s sleep is out of the question. Not only do the chars talk constantly, but the cat has moved into the crypt and sidles up to everyone, making siren noises and begging for kippers. I am moving my cot out of the transept and over by Nelson before I go on watch. He may be pickled, but he keeps his mouth shut.
* * *
October 11 – I dreamed Trafalgar, ships’ guns and smoke and falling plaster and Langby shouting my name. My first waking thought was that the folding chairs had gone off. I could not see for all the smoke.
“I’m coming,” I said, limping toward Langby and pulling on my boots. There was a heap of plaster and tangled folding chairs in the transept. Langby was digging in it. “Bartholomew!” he shouted, flinging a chunk of plaster aside. “Bartholomew!”
I still had the idea it was smoke. I ran back for the stirrup pump and then knelt beside him and began pulling on a splintered chair back. It resisted, and it came to me suddenly: there is a body under here. I will reach for a piece of the ceiling and find it is a hand. I leaned back on my heels, determined not to be sick, then went at the pile again.
Langby was going far too fast, jabbing with a chair leg. I grabbed his hand to stop him, and he struggled against me as if I were a piece of rubble to be thrown aside. He picked up a large flat square of plaster, and under it was the floor. I turned and looked behind me. Both chars huddled in the recess by the altar. “Who are you looking for?” I said, keeping hold of Langby’s arm.
“Bartholomew,” he said, and swept the rubble aside, his hands bleeding through the coating of smoky dust.
“I’m here,” I said. “I’m all right.” I choked on the white dust. “I moved my cot out of the transept.”
He turned sharply to the chars and then said quite calmly, “What’s under here?”
“Only the gas ring,” one of them said timidly from the shadowed recess, “and Mrs Galbraith’s pocketbook.” He dug through the mess until he had found them both. The gas ring was leaking at a merry rate, though the flame had gone out.
“You’ve saved St Paul’s and me after all,” I said, standing there in my underwear and boots and holding the useless stirrup pump. “We might all have been asphyxiated.”
He stood up. “I shouldn’t have saved you,” he said.
Stage one: shock, stupefaction, unawareness of injuries, words may not make sense except to victim. He would not know his hand was bleeding yet. He would not remember what he had said. He had said he shouldn’t have saved my life.
“I shouldn’t have saved you,” he repeated. “I have my duty to think of.”
“You’re bleeding,” I said sharply. “You’d better lie down.” I sounded just like Langby in the Gallery.
* * *
October 13 – It was a high explosive bomb. It blew a hole in the choir, and some of the marble statuary is broken, but the ceiling of the crypt did not collapse, which is what I thought at first. It only jarred some plaster loose.
I do not think Langby has any idea what he said. That should give me some sort of advantage, now that I am sure where the danger lies, now that I am sure it will not come crashing down from some other direction. But what good is all this knowing, when I do not know what he will do? Or when?
Surely I have the facts of yesterday’s bomb in long-term, but even falling plaster did not jar them loose this time. I am not even trying for retrieval, now. I lie in the darkness waiting for the roof to fall in on me. And remembering how Langby saved my life.
* * *
October 15 – The girl came in again today. She still has the cold, but she has gotten her paying position. It was a joy to see her. She was wearing a smart uniform and open-toed shoes, and her hair was in an elaborate frizz around her face. We are still cleaning up the mess from the bomb, and Langby was out with Allen getting wood to board up the choir, so I let the girl chatter at me while I swept. The dust made her sneeze, but at least this time I knew what she was doing.
She told me her name is Enola and that she’s working for the WVS, running one of the mobile canteens that are sent to the fires. She came, of all things, to thank me for the job. She said that after she told the WVS that there was no proper shelter with a canteen for St Paul’s they gave her a run in the City. “So I’ll just pop in when I’m close and let you know how I’m making out, won’t I just?”
She and her brother Tom are still sleeping in the tubes. I asked her if that was safe and she said probably not, but at least down there you couldn’t hear the one that got you and that was a blessing.
* * *
October 18 – I am so tired I can hardly write this. Nine incendiaries tonight and a land mine that looked as though it was going to catch on the dome till the wind drifted its parachute away from the church. I put out two of the incendiaries. I have done that at least twenty times since I got here and helped with dozens of others, and still it is not enough. One incendiary, one moment of not watching Langby, could undo it all.
I know that is partly why I feel so tired. I wear myself out every night trying to do my job and watch Langby, making sure none of the incendiaries falls without my seeing it. Then I go back to the crypt and wear myself out trying to retrieve something, anything, about spies, fires, St Paul’s in the fall of 1940, anything. It haunts me that I am not doing enough, but I don’t now know what else to do. Without the retrieval, I am as helpless as these poor people here, with no idea what will happen tomorrow.
If I have to, I will go on doing this till I am called home. He cannot burn down St Paul’s so long as I am here to put out the incendiaries. “I have my duty,” Langby said in the crypt.
And I have mine.
* * *
October 21 – It’s been nearly two weeks since the blast and I just now realized we haven’t seen the cat since. He wasn’t in the mess in the crypt. Even after Langby and I were sure there was no one in there, we sifted through the stuff twice more. He could have been in the choir, though.
Old Bence-Jones says not to worry. “He’s all right,” he said. “The jerries could bomb London right down to the ground and the cats would waltz out to greet them. You know why? They don’t love anybody. That’s what gets half of us killed. Old lady out in Stepney got killed the other night trying to save her cat. Bloody cat was in the Anderson.”
“Then where is he?”
“Someplace safe, you can bet on that. If he’s not around St Paul’s, it means we’re for it. That old saw about the rats deserting a sinking ship, that’s a mistake, that is. It’s cats, not rats.”
* * *
October 25 – Langby’s tourist showed up again. He cannot still be looking for the Windmill Theatre. He had a newspaper under his arm again today, and he asked for Langby, but Langby was across town with Allen, trying to get the asbestos firemen’s coats. I saw the name of the paper. It was The Worker. A Nazi newspaper?
* * *
November 2 – I’ve been up on the roofs for a week straight, helping some incompetent workmen patch the hole the bomb made. They’re doing a terrible job. There’s still a great gap on one side a man could fall into, but they insist it’ll be all right because, after all, you wouldn’t fall clear through but only as far as the ceiling, and “the fall can’t kill you”. They don’t seem to understand it’s a perfect hiding place for an incendiary.
And that is all Langby needs. He does not even have to set a fire to destroy St Paul’s. All he needs to do is let one burn uncaught until it is too late.
I could not get anywhere with the workmen. I went down into the church to complain to Matthews, and saw Langby and his tourist behind a pillar, close to one of the windows. Langby was holding a newspaper and talking to the man. When I came down from the library an hour later, they were still there. So is the gap. Matthews says we’ll put planks across it and hope for the best.
* * *
November 5 – I have given up trying to retrieve. I am so far behind on my sleep I can’t even retrieve information on a newspaper whose name I already know. Double watches the permanent thing now. Our chars have abandoned us altogether (like the cat), so the crypt is quiet, but I cannot sleep.
If I do manage to doze off, I dream. Yesterday I dreamed Kivrin was on the roofs, dressed like a saint. “What was the secret of your practicum?” I said. “What were you supposed to find out?”
She wiped her nose with a handkerchief and said, “Two things. One, that silence and humility are the sacred burdens of the historian. Two” – she stopped and sneezed into the handkerchief – “don’t sleep in the tubes.”
My only hope is to get hold of an artificial and induce a trance. That’s a problem. I’m positive it’s too early for chemical endorphins and probably hallucinogens. Alcohol is definitely available, but I need something more concentrated than ale, the only alcohol I know by name. I do not dare ask the watch. Langby is suspicious enough of me already. It’s back to the OED, to look up a word I don’t know.
* * *
November 11 – The cat’s back. Langby was out with Allen again, still trying for the asbestos coats, so I thought it was safe to leave St Paul’s. I went to the grocer’s for supplies, and hopefully an artificial. It was late, and the sirens sounded before I had even gotten to Cheapside, but the raids do not usually start until after dark. It took a while to get all the groceries and to get up my courage to ask whether he had any alcohol – he told me to go to a pub – and when I came out of the shop, it was as if I had pitched suddenly into a hole.
I had no idea where St Paul’s lay, or the street, or the shop I had just come from. I stood on what was no longer the sidewalk, clutching my brown-paper parcel of kippers and bread with a hand I could not have seen if I held it up before my face. I reached up to wrap my muffler closer about my neck and prayed for my eyes to adjust, but there was no reduced light to adjust to. I would have been glad of the moon, for all St Paul’s watch cursed it and called it a fifth columnist. Or a bus, with its shuttered headlights giving just enough light to orient myself by. Or a searchlight. Or the kickback flare of an ack-ack gun. Anything.
Just then I did see a bus, two narrow yellow slits a long way off. I started toward it and nearly pitched off the curb. Which meant the bus was sideways in the street, which meant it was not a bus. A cat meowed, quite near, and rubbed against my leg. I looked down into the yellow lights I had thought belonged to the bus. His eyes were picking up light from somewhere, though I would have sworn there was not a light for miles, and reflecting it flatly up at me.
“A warden’ll get you for those lights, old tom,” I said, and then as a plane droned overhead, “Or a jerry.”
The world exploded suddenly into light, the searchlights and a glow along the Thames seeming to happen almost simultaneously, lighting my way home.
“Come to fetch me, did you, old tom?” I said gaily. “Where’ve you been? Knew we were out of kippers, didn’t you? I call that loyalty.” I talked to him all the way home and gave him half a tin of the kippers for saving my life. Bence-Jones said he smelled the milk at the grocer’s.
* * *
November 13 – I dreamed I was lost in the blackout. I could not see my hands in front of my face, and Dunworthy came and shone a pocket torch at me, but I could only see where I had come from and not where I was going.
“What good is that to them?” I said. “They need a light to show them where they’re going.”
“Even the light from the Thames? Even the light from the fires and the ack-ack guns?” Dunworthy said.
“Yes. Anything is better than this awful darkness.” So he came closer to give me the pocket torch. It was not a pocket torch, after all, but Christ’s lantern from the Hunt picture in the south nave. I shone it on the curb before me so I could find my way home, but it shone instead on the fire watch stone and I hastily put the light out.
* * *
November 20 – I tried to talk to Langby today. “I’ve seen you talking to that old gentleman,” I said. It sounded like an accusation. I meant it to. I wanted him to think it was and stop whatever he was planning.
“Reading,” he said. “Not talking.” He was putting things in order in the choir, piling up sandbags.
“I’ve seen you reading then,” I said belligerently, and he dropped a sandbag and straightened.
“What of it?” he said. “It’s a free country. I can read to an old man if I want, same as you can talk to that little WVS tart.”
“What do you read?” I said.
“Whatever he wants. He’s an old man. He used to come home from his job, have a bit of brandy and listen to his wife read the papers to him. She got killed in one of the raids. Now I read to him. I don’t see what business it is of yours.”
It sounded true. It didn’t have the careful casualness of a lie, and I almost believed him, except that I had heard the tone of truth from him before. In the crypt. After the bomb.
“I thought he was a tourist looking for the Windmill,” I said.
He looked blank only a second, and then he said, “Oh, yes, that. He came in with the paper and asked me to tell him where it was. I looked it up to find the address. Clever, that. I didn’t guess he couldn’t read it for himself.” But it was enough. I knew that he was lying.
He heaved a sandbag almost at my feet. “Of course you wouldn’t understand a thing like that, would you? A simple act of human kindness.”
“No,” I said coldly. “I wouldn’t.”
None of this proves anything. He gave away nothing, except perhaps the name of an artificial, and I can hardly go to Dean Matthews and accuse Langby of reading aloud.
I waited till he had finished in the choir and gone down to the crypt. Then I lugged one of the sandbags up to the roof and over to the chasm. The planking has held so far, but everyone walks gingerly around it, as if it were a grave. I cut the sandbag open and spilled the loose sand into the bottom. If it had occurred to Langby that this is the perfect spot for an incendiary, perhaps the sand will smother it.
* * *
November 21 – I gave Enola some of “uncle’s” money today and asked her to get me the brandy. She was more reluctant than I thought she’d be, so there must be societal complications I am not aware of, but she agreed.
I don’t know what she came for. She started to tell me about her brother and some prank he’d pulled in the tubes that got him in trouble with the guard, but after I asked her about the brandy, she left without finishing the story.
* * *
November 25 – Enola came today, but without bringing the brandy. She is going to Bath for the holidays to see her aunt. At least she will be away from the raids for a while. I will not have to worry about her. She finished the story of her brother and told me she hopes to persuade this aunt to take Tom for the duration of the Blitz but is not at all sure the aunt will be willing.
Young Tom is apparently not so much an engaging scapegrace as a near criminal. He has been caught twice picking pockets in the Bank tube shelter, and they have had to go back to Marble Arch. I comforted her as best I could, told her all boys were bad at one time or another. What I really wanted to say was that she needn’t worry at all, that young Tom strikes me as a true survivor type, like my own tom, like Langby, totally unconcerned with anybody but himself, well-equipped to survive the Blitz and rise to prominence in the future.
Then I asked her whether she had gotten the brandy.
She looked down at her open-toed shoes and muttered unhappily, “I thought you’d forgotten all about that.”
I made up some story about the watch taking turns buying a bottle, and she seemed less unhappy, but I am not convinced she will not use this trip to Bath as an excuse to do nothing. I will have to leave and buy it myself, and I don’t dare leave Langby alone in the church. I made her promise to bring the brandy today before she leaves. But she is still not back, and the sirens have already gone.
* * *
November 26 – No Enola, and she said their train left at noon. I suppose I should be grateful that at least she is safely out of London. Maybe in Bath she will be able to get over her cold.
Tonight one of the ARP girls breezed in to borrow half our cots and tell us about a mess over in the East End where a surface shelter was hit. Four dead, twelve wounded. “At least it wasn’t one of the tube shelters!” she said. “Then you’d see a real mess, wouldn’t you?”
* * *
November 30 – I dreamed I took the cat to St John’s Wood.
“Is this a rescue mission?” Dunworthy said.
“No, sir,” I said proudly. “I know what I was supposed to find in my practicum. The perfect survivor. Tough and resourceful and selfish. This is the only one I could find. I had to kill Langby, you know, to keep him from burning down St Paul’s. Enola’s brother has gone to Bath, and the others will never make it. Enola wears open-toed shoes in the winter and sleeps in the tubes and puts her hair up on metal pins so it will curl. She cannot possibly survive the Blitz.”
Dunworthy said, “Perhaps you should have rescued her instead. What did you say her name was?”
“Kivrin,” I said, and woke up cold and shivering.
* * *
December 5 – I dreamed Langby had the pinpoint bomb. He carried it under his arm like a brown paper parcel, coming out of St Paul’s Station and around Ludgate Hill to the west doors.
“This is not fair,” I said, barring his way with my arm. “There is no fire watch on duty.”
He clutched the bomb to his chest like a pillow. “That is your fault,” he said, and before I could get to my stirrup pump and bucket, he tossed it in the door.
The pinpoint was not even invented until the end of the twentieth century, and it was another ten years before the dispossessed communists got hold of it and turned it into something that could be carried under your arm. A parcel that could blow a quarter mile of the City into oblivion. Thank God that is one dream that cannot come true.
It was a sunlit morning in the dream, and this morning when I came off watch the sun was shining for the first time in weeks. I went down to the crypt and then came up again, making the rounds of the roofs twice more, then the steps and the grounds and all the treacherous alleyways between where an incendiary could be missed. I felt better after that, but when I got to sleep I dreamed again, this time of fire and Langby watching it, smiling.
* * *
December 15 – I found the cat this morning. Heavy raids last night, but most of them over toward Canning Town and nothing on the roofs to speak of. Nevertheless the cat was quite dead. I found him lying on the steps this morning when I made my own, private rounds. Concussion. There was not a mark on him anywhere except the white blackout patch on his throat, but when I picked him up, he was all jelly under the skin.
I could not think what to do with him. I thought for one mad moment of asking Matthews if I could bury him in the crypt. Honorable death in war or something. Trafalgar, Waterloo, London, died in battle. I ended by wrapping him in my muffler and taking him down Ludgate Hill to a building that had been bombed out and burying him in the rubble. It will do no good. The rubble will be no protection from dogs or rats, and I shall never get another muffler. I have gone through nearly all of uncle’s money.
I should not be sitting here. I haven’t checked the alleyways or the rest of the steps, and there might be a dud or a delayed incendiary or something that I missed.
When I came here, I thought of myself as the noble rescuer, the savior of the past. I am not doing very well at the job. At least Enola is out of it. I wish there were some way I could send St Paul’s to Bath for safekeeping. There were hardly any raids last night. Bence-Jones said cats can survive anything. What if he was coming to get me, to show me the way home? All the bombs were over Canning Town.
* * *
December 16 – Enola has been back a week. Seeing her, standing on the west steps where I found the cat, sleeping in Marble Arch and not safe at all, was more than I could absorb. “I thought you were in Bath,” I said stupidly.
“My aunt said she’d take Tom but not me as well. She’s got a houseful of evacuation children, and what a noisy lot. Where is your muffler?” she said. “It’s dreadful cold up here on the hill.”
“I…” I said, unable to answer. “I lost it.”
“You’ll never get another one,” she said. “They’re going to start rationing clothes. And wool, too. You’ll never get another one like that.”
“I know,” I said, blinking at her.
“Good things just thrown away,” she said. “It’s absolutely criminal, that’s what it is.”
I don’t think I said anything to that, just turned and walked away with my head down, looking for bombs and dead animals.
* * *
December 20 – Langby isn’t a Nazi. He’s a communist. I can hardly write this. A communist.
One of the chars found The Worker wedged behind a pillar and brought it down to the crypt as we were coming off the first watch.
“Bloody communists,” Bence-Jones said. “Helping Hitler, they are. Talking against the king, stirring up trouble in the shelters. Traitors, that’s what they are.”
“They love England same as you,” the char said.
“They don’t love nobody but themselves, bloody selfish lot. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear they were ringing Hitler up on the telephone,” Bence-Jones said. “’Ello, Adolf, here’s where to drop the bombs.”
The kettle on the gas ring whistled. The char stood up and poured the hot water into a chipped teapot, then sat back down. “Just because they speak their minds don’t mean they’d burn down old St Paul’s, does it now?”
“Of course not,” Langby said, coming down the stairs. He sat down and pulled off his boots, stretching his feet in their wool socks. “Who wouldn’t burn down St Paul’s?”
“The communists,” Bence-Jones said, looking straight at him, and I wondered if he suspected Langby too.
Langby never batted an eye. “I wouldn’t worry about them if I were you,” he said. “It’s the jerries that are doing their bloody best to burn her down tonight. Six incendiaries so far, and one almost went into that great hole over the choir.” He held out his cup to the char, and she poured him a cup of tea.
I wanted to kill him, smashing him to dust and rubble on the floor of the crypt while Bence-Jones and the char looked on in helpless surprise, shouting warnings to them and the rest of the watch. “Do you know what the communists did?” I wanted to shout. “Do you? We have to stop him.” I even stood up and started toward him as he sat with his feet stretched out before him and his asbestos coat still over his shoulders.
And then the thought of the Gallery drenched in gold, the communist coming out of the tube station with the package so casually under his arm, made me sick with the same staggering vertigo of guilt and helplessness, and I sat back down on the edge of my cot and tried to think what to do.
They do not realize the danger. Even Bence-Jones, for all his talk of traitors, thinks they are capable only of talking against the king. They do not know, cannot know, what the communists will become. Stalin is an ally. Communists mean Russia. They have never heard of Karinsky or the New Russia or any of the things that will make “communist” into a synonym for “monster”. They will never know it. By the time the communists become what they became, there will be no fire watch. Only I know what it means to hear the name “communist” uttered here, so carelessly, in St Paul’s.
A communist. I should have known. I should have known.
* * *
December 22 – Double watches again. I have not had any sleep and I am getting very unsteady on my feet. I nearly pitched into the chasm this morning, only saved myself by dropping to my knees. My endorphin levels are fluctuating wildly, and I know I must get some sleep soon or I will become one of Langby’s walking dead, but I am afraid to leave him alone on the roofs, alone in the church with his communist party leader, alone anywhere. I have taken to watching him when he sleeps.
If I could just get hold of an artificial, I think I could induce a trance, in spite of my poor condition. But I cannot even go out to a pub. Langby is on the roofs constantly, waiting for his chance. When Enola comes again I must convince her to get the brandy for me. There are only a few days left.
* * *
December 28 – Enola came this morning while I was on the west porch, picking up the Christmas tree. It has been knocked over three nights running by concussion. I righted the tree and was bending down to pick up the scattered tinsel when Enola appeared suddenly out of the fog like some cheerful saint. She stooped quickly and kissed me on the cheek. Then she straightened up, her nose red from her perennial cold, and handed me a box wrapped in colored paper.
“Merry Christmas,” she said. “Go on then, open it. It’s a gift.”
My reflexes are almost totally gone. I knew the box was far too shallow for a bottle of brandy. Nevertheless I believed she had remembered, had brought me my salvation. “You darling,” I said, and tore it open.
It was a muffler. Gray wool. I stared at it for fully half a minute without realizing what it was. “Where’s the brandy?” I said.
She looked shocked. Her nose got redder and her eyes started to blur. “You need this more. You haven’t any clothing coupons and you have to be outside all the time. It’s been so dreadful cold.”
“I needed the brandy,” I said angrily.
“I was only trying to be kind,” she started, and I cut her off.
“Kind?” I said. “I asked you for brandy. I don’t recall ever saying I needed a muffler.” I shoved it back at her and began untangling a string of colored lights that had shattered when the tree fell.
She got that same holy martyr look Kivrin is so wonderful at. “I worry about you all the time up here,” she said in a rush. “They’re trying for St Paul’s, you know. And it’s so close to the river. I didn’t think you should be drinking. I – it’s a crime when they’re trying so hard to kill us all that you won’t take care of yourself. It’s like you’re in it with them. I worry some day I’ll come up to St Paul’s and you won’t be here.”
“Well, and what exactly am I supposed to do with a muffler? Hold it over my head when they drop the bombs?”
She turned and ran, disappearing into the gray fog before she had gone down two steps. I started after her, still holding the string of broken lights, tripped over it, and fell almost all the way to the bottom of the steps.
Langby picked me up. “You’re off watches,” he said grimly.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
“Oh, yes, I can. I don’t want any walking dead on the roofs with me.”
I let him lead me down here to the crypt, make me a cup of tea, put me to bed, all very solicitous. No indication that this is what he has been waiting for. I will lie here till the sirens go. Once I am on the roofs he will not be able to send me back without seeming suspicious. Do you know what he said before he left, asbestos coat and rubber boots, the dedicated fire watcher? “I want you to get some sleep.” As if I could sleep with Langby on the roofs. I would be burned alive.
* * *
December 30 – The sirens woke me, and old Bence-Jones said, “That should have done you some good. You’ve slept the clock round.”
“What day is it?” I said, going for my boots.
“The twenty-ninth,” he said, and as I dived for the door, “No need to hurry. They’re late tonight. Maybe they won’t come at all. That’d be a blessing, that would. The tide’s out.”
I stopped by the door to the stairs, holding on to the cool stone. “Is St Paul’s all right?”
“She’s still standing,” he said. “Have a bad dream?”
“Yes,” I said, remembering the bad dreams of all the past weeks – the dead cat in my arms in St John’s Wood, Langby with his parcel and his Worker under his arm, the fire watch stone garishly lit by Christ’s lantern. Then I remembered I had not dreamed at all. I had slept the kind of sleep I had prayed for, the kind of sleep that would help me remember.
Then I remembered. Not St Paul’s, burned to the ground by the communists. A headline from the dailies. “Marble Arch hit. Eighteen killed by blast.” The date was not clear except for the year. 1940. There were exactly two more days left in 1940. I grabbed my coat and muffler and ran up the stairs and across the marble floor.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Langby shouted to me. I couldn’t see him.
“I have to save Enola,” I said, and my voice echoed in the dark sanctuary. “They’re going to bomb Marble Arch.”
“You can’t leave now,” he shouted after me, standing where the fire watch stone would be. “The tide’s out. You dirty—”
I didn’t hear the rest of it. I had already flung myself down the steps and into a taxi. It took almost all the money I had, the money I had so carefully hoarded for the trip back to St John’s Wood. Shelling started while we were still in Oxford Street, and the driver refused to go any farther. He let me out into pitch blackness, and I saw I would never make it in time.
Blast. Enola crumpled on the stairway down to the tube, her open-toed shoes still on her feet, not a mark on her. And when I try to lift her, jelly under the skin. I would have to wrap her in the muffler she gave me, because I was too late. I had gone back a hundred years to be too late to save her.
I ran the last blocks, guided by the gun emplacement that had to be in Hyde Park, and skidded down the steps into Marble Arch. The woman in the ticket booth took my last shilling for a ticket to St Paul’s Station. I stuck it in my pocket and raced toward the stairs.
“No running,” she said placidly. “To your left, please.” The door to the right was blocked off by wooden barricades, the metal gates beyond pulled to and chained. The board with names on it for the stations was x-ed with tape, and a new sign that read ALL TRAINS was nailed to the barricade, pointing left.
Enola was not on the stopped escalators or sitting against the wall in the hallway. I came to the first stairway and could not get through. A family had set out, just where I wanted to step, a communal tea of bread and butter, a little pot of jam sealed with waxed paper, and a kettle on a ring like the one Langby and I had rescued out of the rubble, all of it spread on a cloth embroidered at the corners with flowers. I stood staring down at the layered tea, spread like a waterfall down the steps.
“I – Marble Arch—” I said. Another twenty killed by flying tiles. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“We’ve as much right as anyone,” the man said belligerently. “And who are you to tell us to move on?”
A woman lifting saucers out of a cardboard box looked up at me, frightened. The kettle began to whistle.
“It’s you that should move on,” the man said. “Go on then.” He stood off to one side so I could pass. I edged past the embroidered cloth apologetically.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m looking for someone. On the platform.”
“You’ll never find her in there, mate,” the man said, thumbing in that direction. I hurried past him, nearly stepping on the tea cloth, and rounded the corner into hell.
It was not hell. Shopgirls folded coats and leaned back against them, cheerful or sullen or disagreeable, but certainly not damned. Two boys scuffled for a shilling and lost it on the tracks. They bent over the edge, debating whether to go after it, and the station guard yelled to them to back away. A train rumbled through, full of people. A mosquito landed on the guard’s hand and he reached out to slap it and missed. The boys laughed. And behind and before them, stretching in all directions down the deadly tile curves of the tunnel like casualties, backed into the entranceways and onto the stairs, were people. Hundreds and hundreds of people.
I stumbled back onto the stairs, knocking over a teacup. It spilled like a flood across the cloth.
“I told you, mate,” the man said cheerfully. “It’s hell in there, ain’t it? And worse below.”
“Hell,” I said. “Yes.” I would never find her. I would never save her. I looked at the woman mopping up the tea, and it came to me that I could not save her either. Enola or the cat or any of them, lost here in the endless stairways and cul-de-sacs of time. They were already dead a hundred years, past saving. The past is beyond saving. Surely that was the lesson the history department sent me all this way to learn. Well, fine, I’ve learned it. Can I go home now?
Of course not, dear boy. You have foolishly spent all your money on taxicabs and brandy, and tonight is the night the Germans burn the City. (Now it is too late, I remember it all. Twenty-eight incendiaries on the roofs.) Langby must have his chance, and you must learn the hardest lesson of all and the one you should have known from the beginning. You cannot save St Paul’s.
I went back out onto the platform and stood behind the yellow line until a train pulled up. I took my ticket out and held it in my hand all the way to St Paul’s Station. When I got there, smoke billowed toward me like an easy spray of water. I could not see St Paul’s.
“The tide’s out,” a woman said in a voice devoid of hope, and I went down in a snake pit of limp cloth hoses. My hands came up covered with rank-smelling mud, and I understood finally (and too late) the significance of the tide. There was no water to fight the fires.
A policeman barred my way and I stood helplessly before him with no idea what to say. “No civilians allowed here,” he said. “St Paul’s is for it.” The smoke billowed like a thundercloud, alive with sparks, and the dome rose golden above it.
“I’m fire watch,” I said, and his arm fell away, and then I was on the roofs.
My endorphin levels must have been going up and down like an air raid siren. I do not have any short-term from then on, just moments that do not fit together: the people in the church when we brought Langby down, huddled in a corner playing cards, the whirlwind of burning scraps of wood in the dome, the ambulance driver who wore open-toed shoes like Enola and smeared salve on my burned hands. And in the center, the one clear moment when I went after Langby on a rope and saved his life.
I stood by the dome, blinking against the smoke. The City was on fire and it seemed as if St Paul’s would ignite from the heat, would crumble from the noise alone. Bence-Jones was by the northwest tower, hitting at an incendiary with a spade. Langby was too close to the patched place where the bomb had gone through, looking toward me. An incendiary clattered behind him. I turned to grab a shovel, and when I turned back, he was gone.
“Langby!” I shouted, and could not hear my own voice. He had fallen into the chasm and nobody saw him or the incendiary. Except me. I do not remember how I got across the roof. I think I called for a rope. I got a rope. I tied it around my waist, gave the ends of it into the hands of the fire watch, and went over the side. The fires lit the walls of the hole almost all the way to the bottom. Below me I could see a pile of whitish rubble. He’s under there, I thought, and jumped free of the wall. The space was so narrow there was nowhere to throw the rubble. I was afraid I would inadvertently stone him, and I tried to toss the pieces of planking and plaster over my shoulder, but there was barely room to turn. For one awful moment I thought he might not be there at all, that the pieces of splintered wood would brush away to reveal empty pavement, as they had in the crypt.
I was numbed by the indignity of crawling over him. If he was dead I did not think I could bear the shame of stepping on his helpless body. Then his hand came up like a ghost’s and grabbed my ankle, and within seconds I had whirled and had his head free.
He was the ghastly white that no longer frightens me. “I put the bomb out,” he said. I stared at him, so overwhelmed with relief I could not speak. For one hysterical moment I thought I would even laugh, I was so glad to see him. I finally realized what it was I was supposed to say.
“Are you all right?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, and tried to raise himself on one elbow. “So much the worse for you.”
He could not get up. He grunted with pain when he tried to shift his weight to his right side and lay back, the uneven rubble crunching sickeningly under him. I tried to lift him gently so I could see where he was hurt. He must have fallen on something.
“It’s no use,” he said, breathing hard. “I put it out.”
I spared him a startled glance, afraid that he was delirious and went back to rolling him onto his side.
“I know you were counting on this one,” he went on, not resisting me at all. “It was bound to happen sooner or later with all these roofs. Only I went after it. What’ll you tell your friends?”
His asbestos coat was torn down the back in a long gash. Under it his back was charred and smoking. He had fallen on the incendiary. “Oh, my God,” I said, trying frantically to see how badly he was burned without touching him. I had no way of knowing how deep the burns went, but they seemed to extend only in the narrow space where the coat had torn. I tried to pull the bomb out from under him, but the casing was as hot as a stove. It was not melting, though. My sand and Langby’s body had smothered it. I had no idea if it would start up again when it was exposed to the air. I looked around, a little wildly, for the bucket and stirrup pump Langby must have dropped when he fell.
“Looking for a weapon?” Langby said, so clearly it was hard to believe he was hurt at all. “Why not just leave me here? A bit of overexposure and I’d be done for by morning. Or would you rather do your dirty work in private?”
I stood up and yelled to the men on the roof above us. One of them shone a pocket torch down at us, but its light didn’t reach.
“Is he dead?” somebody shouted down to me.
“Send for an ambulance,” I said. “He’s been burned.”
I helped Langby up, trying to support his back without touching the burn. He staggered a little and then leaned against the wall, watching me as I tried to bury the incendiary, using a piece of the planking as a scoop. The rope came down and I tied Langby to it. He had not spoken since I helped him up. He let me tie the rope around his waist, still looking steadily at me. “I should have let you smother in the crypt,” he said.
He stood leaning easily, almost relaxed against the wooden supports, his hands holding him up. I put his hands on the slack rope and wrapped it once around them for the grip I knew he didn’t have. “I’ve been onto you since that day in the Gallery. I knew you weren’t afraid of heights. You came down here without any fear of heights when you thought I’d ruined your precious plans. What was it? An attack of conscience? Kneeling there like a baby, whining, “What have we done? What have we done?” You made me sick. But you know what gave you away first? The cat. Everybody knows cats hate water. Everybody but a dirty Nazi spy.”
There was a tug on the rope. “Come ahead,” I said, and the rope tautened.
“That WVS tart? Was she a spy, too? Supposed to meet you in Marble Arch? Telling me it was going to be bombed. You’re a rotten spy, Bartholomew. Your friends already blew it up in September. It’s open again.”
The rope jerked suddenly and began to lift Langby. He twisted his hands to get a better grip. His right shoulder scraped the wall. I put my hands and pushed him gently so that his left side was to the wall. “You’re making a big mistake, you know,” he said. “You should have killed me. I’ll tell.”
I stood in the darkness, waiting for the rope. Langby was unconscious when he reached the roof. I walked past the fire watch to the dome and down to the crypt.
This morning the letter from my uncle came and with it a five-pound note.
* * *
December 31 – Two of Dunworthy’s flunkies met me in St John’s Wood to tell me I was late for my exams. I did not even protest. I shuffled obediently after them without even considering how unfair it was to give an exam to one of the walking dead. I had not slept in – how long? Since yesterday when I went to find Enola. I had not slept in a hundred years.
Dunworthy was in the Examination Buildings, blinking at me. One of the flunkies handed me a test paper and the other one called time. I turned the paper over and left an oily smudge from the ointment on my burns. I stared uncomprehendingly at them. I had grabbed at the incendiary when I turned Langby over, but these burns were on the backs of my hands. The answer came to me suddenly in Langby’s unyielding voice. “They’re rope burns, you fool. Don’t they teach you Nazi spies the proper way to come up a rope?”
I looked down at the test. It read, “Number of incendiaries that fell on St Paul’s _____ Number of land mines _____ Number of high explosive bombs _____ Method most commonly used for extinguishing incendiaries _____ land mines _____ high explosive bombs _____ Number of volunteers on first watch _____ second watch _____ Casualties _____ Fatalities” The questions made no sense. There was only a short space, long enough for the writing of a number, after any of the questions. Method most commonly used for extinguishing incendiaries. How would I ever fit what I knew into that narrow space? Where were the questions about Enola and Langby and the cat?
I went up to Dunworthy’s desk. “St Paul’s almost burned down last night,” I said. “What kind of questions are these?”
“You should be answering questions, Mr Bartholomew, not asking them.”
“There aren’t any questions about the people,” I said. The outer casing of my anger began to melt.
“Of course there are,” Dunworthy said, flipping to the second page of the test. “Number of casualties, 1940. Blast, shrapnel, other.”
“Other?” I said. At any moment the roof would collapse on me in a shower of plaster dust and fury. “Other? Langby put out a fire with his own body. Enola has a cold that keeps getting worse. The cat…” I snatched the paper back from him and scrawled “one cat” in the narrow space next to “blast”. “Don’t you care about them at all?”
“They’re important from a statistical point of view,” he said, “but as individuals they are hardly relevant to the course of history.”
My reflexes were shot. It was amazing to me that Dunworthy’s were almost as slow. I grazed the side of his jaw and knocked his glasses off. “Of course they’re relevant!” I shouted. “They are the history, not all these bloody numbers!”
The reflexes of the flunkies were very fast. They did not let me start another swing at him before they had me by both arms and were hauling me out of the room.
“They’re back there in the past with nobody to save them. They can’t see their hands in front of their faces and there are bombs falling down on them and you tell me they aren’t important? You call that being an historian?”
The flunkies dragged me out the door and down the hall. “Langby saved St Paul’s. How much more important can a person get? You’re no historian! You’re nothing but a—” I wanted to call him a terrible name, but the only curses I could summon up were Langby’s. “You’re nothing but a dirty Nazi spy!” I bellowed. “You’re nothing but a lazy bourgeois tart!”
They dumped me on my hands and knees outside the door and slammed it in my face. “I wouldn’t be an historian if you paid me!” I shouted, and went to see the fire watch stone.
* * *
December 31 – I am having to write this in bits and pieces. My hands are in pretty bad shape, and Dunworthy’s boys didn’t help matters much. Kivrin comes in periodically, wearing her St Joan look, and smears so much salve on my hands that I can’t hold a pencil.
St Paul’s Station is not there, of course, so I got out at Holborn and walked, thinking about my last meeting with Dean Matthews on the morning after the burning of the city. This morning.
“I understand you saved Langby’s life,” he said. “I also understand that between you, you saved St Paul’s last night.”
I showed him the letter from my uncle and he stared at it as if he could not think what it was. “Nothing stays saved forever,” he said, and for a terrible moment I thought he was going to tell me Langby had died. “We shall have to keep on saving St Paul’s until Hitler decides to bomb something else.”
The raids on London are almost over, I wanted to tell him. He’ll start bombing the countryside in a matter of weeks. Canterbury, Bath, aiming always at the cathedrals. You and St Paul’s will both outlast the war and live to dedicate the fire watch stone.
“I am hopeful, though,” he said. “I think the worst is over.”
“Yes, sir.” I thought of the stone, its letters still readable after all this time. No sir, the worst is not over.
I managed to keep my bearings almost to the top of Ludgate Hill. Then I lost my way completely, wandering about like a man in a graveyard. I had not remembered that the rubble looked so much like the white plaster dust Langby had tried to dig me out of. I could not find the stone anywhere. In the end I nearly fell over it, jumping back as if I had stepped on a body.
It is all that’s left. Hiroshima is supposed to have had a handful of untouched trees at ground zero. Denver the capitol steps. Neither of them says, “Remember men and women of St Paul’s Watch who by the grace of God saved this cathedral.” The grace of God.
Part of the stone is sheared off. Historians argue there was another line that said, “for all time,” but I do not believe that, not if Dean Matthews had anything to do with it. And none of the watch it was dedicated to would have believed it for a minute. We saved St Paul’s every time we put out an incendiary, and only until the next one fell. Keeping watch on the danger spots, putting out the little fires with sand and stirrup pumps, the big ones with our bodies, in order to keep the whole vast complex structure from burning down. Which sounds to me like a course description for History Practicum 401. What a fine time to discover what historians are for when I have tossed my chance for being one out the windows as easily as they tossed the pinpoint bomb in! No, sir, the worst is not over.
There are flash burns on the stone, where legend says the Dean of St Paul’s was kneeling when the bomb went off. Totally apocryphal, of course, since the front door is hardly an appropriate place for prayers. It is more likely the shadow of a tourist who wandered in to ask the whereabouts of the Windmill Theatre, or the imprint of a girl bringing a volunteer his muffler. Or a cat.
Nothing is saved forever, Dean Matthews, and I knew that when I walked in the west doors that first day, blinking in the gloom, but it is pretty bad nevertheless. Standing here knee-deep in rubble out of which I will not be able to dig any folding chairs or friends, knowing that Langby died thinking I was a Nazi spy, knowing that Enola came one day and I wasn’t there. It’s pretty bad.
But it is not as bad as it could be. They are both dead, and Dean Matthews too, but they died without knowing what I knew all along, what sent me to my knees in the Whispering Gallery, sick with grief and guilt: that in the end none of us saved St Paul’s. And Langby cannot turn to me, stunned and sick at heart, and say, “Who did this? Your friends the Nazis?” And I would have to say, “No, the communists.” That would be the worst.
I have come back to the room and let Kivrin smear more salve on my hands. She wants me to get some sleep. I know I should pack and get gone. It will be humiliating to have them come and throw me out, but I do not have the strength to fight her. She looks so much like Enola.
* * *
January 1 – I have apparently slept not only through the night, but through the morning mail drop as well. When I woke just now, I found Kivrin sitting on the end of the bed holding an envelope. “Your grades came,” she said.
I put my arm over my eyes. “They can be marvelously efficient when they want to, can’t they?”
“Yes,” Kivrin said.
“Well, let’s see it,” I said, sitting up. “How long do I have before they come and throw me out?”
She handed the flimsy computer envelope to me. I tore it along the perforation. “Wait,” she said. “Before you open it, I want to say something.” She put her hand gently on my burns. “You’re wrong about the history department. They’re very good.”
It was not exactly what I expected her to say. “Good is not the word I’d use to describe Dunworthy,” I said and yanked the inside slip free.
Kivrin’s look did not change, not even when I sat there with the printout on my knees where she could surely see it.
“Well,” I said.
The slip was hand-signed by the esteemed Dunworthy. I have taken a first. With honors.
* * *
January 2 – Two things came in the mail today. One was Kivrin’s assignment. The history department thinks of everything – even to keeping her here long enough to nursemaid me, even to coming up with a prefabricated trial by fire to send their history majors through.
I think I wanted to believe that was what they had done, Enola and Langby only hired actors, the cat a clever android with its clockwork innards taken out for the final effect, not so much because I wanted to believe Dunworthy was not good at all, but because then I would not have this nagging pain at not knowing what had happened to them.
“You said your practicum was England in 1400?” I said, watching her as suspiciously as I had watched Langby.
“1349,” she said, and her face went slack with memory. “The plague year.”
“My God,” I said. “How could they do that? The plague’s a ten.”
“I have a natural immunity,” she said, and looked at her hands.
Because I could not think of anything to say, I opened the other piece of mail. It was a report on Enola. Computer-printed, facts and dates and statistics, all the numbers the history department so dearly loves, but it told me what I thought I would have to go without knowing: that she had gotten over her cold and survived the Blitz. Young Tom had been killed in the Baedaker raids on Bath, but Enola had lived until 2006, the year before they blew up St Paul’s.
I don’t know whether I believe the report or not, but it does not matter. It is, like Langby’s reading aloud to the old man, a simple act of human kindness. They think of everything.
Not quite. They did not tell me what happened to Langby. But I find as I write this that I already know: I saved his life. It does not seem to matter that he might have died in hospital next day, and I find, in spite of all the hard lessons the history department has tried to teach me, I do not quite believe this one: that nothing is saved forever. It seems to me that perhaps Langby is.
* * *
January 3 – I went to see Dunworthy today. I don’t know what I intended to say – some pompous drivel about my willingness to serve in the fire watch of history, standing guard against the falling incendiaries of the human heart, silent and saintly.
But he blinked at me nearsightedly across his desk, and it seemed to me that he was blinking at that last bright image of St Paul’s in sunlight before it was gone forever and that he knew better than anyone that the past cannot be saved, and I said instead, “I’m sorry I broke your glasses, sir.”
“How did you like St Paul’s?” he said, and like my first meeting with Enola, I felt I must be somehow reading the signals all wrong, that he was not feeling loss, but something quite different.
“I loved it, sir,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “So do I.”
Dean Matthews is wrong. I have fought with memory my whole practicum only to find that it is not the enemy at all, and being an historian is not some saintly burden after all. Because Dunworthy is not blinking against the fatal sunlight of the last morning, but into the bloom of that first afternoon, looking at the great west doors of St Paul’s at what is, like Langby, like all of it, every moment, in us, saved forever.