A Scream Away From Someone
Short story: A shortlisted entry to our This Means War series competition, marking the centenary of the start of the first World War
Deirdre Sullivan is a writer from Galway
During the blitz, my uncle moved to London. He was one of those gay men and it wasn’t easy for them here at the time. It probably isn’t easy for them now. I wouldn’t know. He was the only one I ever had any contact with.
My uncle was a tall, thin, soft-spoken man. He had a fondness for pale colours- dove grey, bone, that sort of thing. They blended better into a big city like London. People got away with things there that they couldn’t in other places. That’s still true.
He was an able-bodied man and he found work. He had been worried people over there would call him a coward for not fighting. He’d heard things from men who hadn’t fought in the first one, soft feathers pressed into their hands like little knives, stabbing looks from patriotic women.
It was alright though, he was left alone to find his way. There was a calmness about him, a sort of peace. A blankety thing like him wouldn’t do too well in combat and people sensed that and left well enough alone.
My uncle liked the night-time. It was calmer and emptier than the day back home but here the night was different. The sky was different. Different shaped clouds and the stars were hard to make out in the distance. Hauling bodies was what he worked at. Long after people had been rescued, brought to hospital he’d trawl through what was left to find the dead.
I only met him a few times. I was born when he was older still, long after the war had ended. Back in those days women had litters instead of families and my mother was the runt of hers. She had me at fifteen, and they sent her over there to live with him. Otherwise, she would have had to go into a home for the unmarried.
I never found out who my father was. “A man” she’d say, which wasn’t very helpful. She knocked six months off my age when she moved home. And added in a husband. With TB. I think she modelled him on my uncle’s friend. Not that he got TB and died. He didn’t. but in the looks and personality of things. She needed someone who’d be in a photo she could show them. She didn’t know a lot of other men.
I believed the lies she told for ages. About the husband, about where I came from. It was only later, safely married that she started to let pieces of my early childhood spill out at me. Stories about my uncle and his friend.Their little flat. The life they had together. The friend had a wife as well as my uncle. But he had had my uncle first and they would stay friends till one of them was dead.
They had an arrangement about that as well. If my uncle died first, his friend was to go to his funeral. But if the friend died first, my uncle was to avoid the service at all costs and mourn him privately in his own way. The friend loved the wife, you see. But like you’d love a sister. My mother often wondered if the wife knew. And, once my mother married, how she didn’t.
My uncle had a two-bed apartment that he owned, and she stayed there till I was two or three. I was small. She cleaned the place for him, and made him dinners. Told him when he had toothpaste in the corner of his mouth, or an eyelash on his eye. For a man who took pride in his appearance, there was always a little bit of dishevelment about him. A little flaw.A tattered patch of furze he’d missed while shaving, or a piece of lettuce stuck between his slightly bucked front teeth.
He would have liked her to stay, she thinks. He never asked, but he told her she was welcome to when she began to make her plans to leave. Which might have been politeness, but my mother is perceptive. She knows things about people instinctively. She hated my first husband, made him put the milk in his own tea.
Trawling through the rubble is hard work, and my uncle’s soft hands became callused and scarred from it. In later life, he wore leather gloves with soft wool lining when he left the house, and always carried hand cream. The cement and brick and wood and dusty plaster debris. You keep a scarf over your nose so you don’t breathe powder in and even so your handkerchief fills up with grey and black.
My uncle found babies roughly twice a week. Children were scarce, a lot of them had been sent to the country. The ones that were too loved stayed in London. Rarer than babies, but not uncommon. A lot of people want their children by them. My mother wanted me. She could have given me away but kept me close instead. I’m glad of that.
He would find photographs a lot, in frames or wallets, sometimes in the gutters or blowing through the streets like dirty leaves. My uncle would always try to pair them with their owners. Leaving them in nearby shops, post offices or with the police. He would return to ask if anyone had found them, and if not would take them home, file them away, leaving his address. We found boxes of them when we cleaned out his house. Pictures of his family and friends all mingled in. It was hard to tell the strangers from the blood.
The worst thing that ever happened to my uncle didn’t seem that bad to me at first. I loved this story when I was a child, and so did my mother. She was still a child when she had me. She shouldn’t have been let. I mean, she didn’t know what sex even was until she had it. Even then. She said that once and when I asked her more her mouth got tight and she emptied out a drawer full of keys and receipts and bits of string and cleaned it out and made it tidy.
I helped her, tying all the string together, winding it into a ball the size of my fist, still smaller then than hers. She was a big woman. Not fat, but tall and wide. She must have developed early. Women shaped like that so often do.
My uncle only told it to her once. The night before she left. They were sitting down on his uncomfortable sofa. He loved old furniture with wooden legs and velvety upholstery, and it always looked beautiful and felt horrible, especially on bare skin. She was all packed, and ready to go back and he told her she didn’t have to.
He was drinking a large glass of red wine. He called it that ‘a large glass of red wine’ and she had a small one that she sipped. A sherry glass. It was her special one. She hadn’t known the difference at first. My mother wasn’t very fond of wine. She didn’t like the taste, but she wanted to try it because it looked so elegant. And they sat together on the uncomfortable furniture and she had me, at that stage, a little sleeping toddler in the boxroom and they sat together and they sippedand he told her a story.
Sifting through rubble is hard work and hauling corpses out is harder still. After a while, you start to see pieces of people you know. Your father’s nose on someone else’s face.Your mother’s fingernails.The forehead of your schoolmaster. It’s like a jigsaw that makes the wrong picture. Not the one that’s on the box, but something only slightly like it. This is what my uncle told my mother and I do not disbelieve him.
He didn’t want to work with his hands, he wanted to do brain-work and he got that later, translating texts. Before that though, the hours he had to keep were strange and irregular. You take what you can get when you’re an immigrant. You do what you need to do to keep your head above water.
Some nights, there’d be very little to do, they’d wait around. And others, they could work into the morning, afternoon, until they couldn’t move. He always hoped to find somebody living. Every now and then that happened. Once he found a nest of kittens in the stuffing of an old armchair. He kept one but it died before my mother lived with him. Probably for the best. Cats don’t always like to live with babies.
One night, he found a shoe, sticking out of the rubble. It was a soft tan leather shoe. He knew the sort. They came from Woolworth’s. He had seen them. They were more expensive than what he wore. He had no money at that stage. This was in the days before the good job and the rich friend. My mother always suspected my uncle’s friend helped him out financially.
The building, or the what had been a building, was in a good area.Leafy, white houses with the steps up to them and the wide streets. Big houses for big people my Mother used to say. I think her mother said it before her. And the shoe was attached to a foot, which was attached to a leg and something about the leg was quite unsettling. He couldn’t put his finger quite on what. The angle or the shape. He had seen other legs but this was different and he didn’t know exactly how. My uncle noticed things about people. He was observant, fond of music, art. A decent listener. It bothered him that he did not know why he felt so awkward looking at it. The trepidation, or the birth of fear.
With the Luftwaffe in the forefront of your mind, there wasn’t a lot of time to be unsettled by the job at hand. Finding little children, especially inside their mother’s arms would do it. But grown men were rare enough, a lot of them had gone to fight the war. My uncle pulled hard at the leg but the pieces of house would not dislodge and so he had to pick and pick for ages.
The men who found the bodies worked in pairs, two of them in the one place. If you were on your own and something happened. Some people worked in tandem, digging and chatting. My uncle and his normally went to separate bits and teased a body out then helped each other. My uncle was a quiet man, not much for chat unless he knew you. He found the women easier than men. He liked the gentle people. His workmate was a rough sort, with a fancy voice. My uncle reckoned he might have come from bigger people once. He never asked him and he never offered.
In the blitz-lit darkness, there were always scavengers around as well. If you asked them, they’d pretend that it had been their house but they were lying and you had to run them. They were only out for things to steal from other people’s sorrow. Scum my uncle called them and he meant it too according to my mother.
It happened on a cold night, and my uncle’s workmate (respiratory issues and flat feet) wanted to get back to his wife who’d had a baby. He called her “the missus” and the words sounded strange on his posh tongue. There was grime all over them, not black grime like miners get but a matte white pallor. “We looked like ghosts” he told my mother “The skin and in the eyes.”
My uncle kept on digging. And digging. Soft wool trousers, charcoal grey. It’s hard to tell in the dark, but they had a flashlight, and they felt charcoal grey. They felt expensive. The body had been dead a while, it was stiff but pliable. Rigor mortis had been and gone. The building had been bombed the night before. Looking back, my uncle thought it strange, but at the time he didn’t know enough to put a name on his unease.
Digging and digging. A slim, soft stomach covered by a waistcoat. Mother of pearl buttons.Thin and delicate. Tasteful. No jacket, in his shirtsleeves, rolled up. The arms were outstretched, and it took the length of torso to uncover them. The corpse, it seemed was completely upside down, splayed unnaturally. It was peculiar.
My uncle didn’t like it. His partner smoked and sighed, not offering to help while he scrabbled at it with his two big paws. Pulled the arms out by the elbows, awkwardly.
His workmate came to haul the body out with him. He needed help, it’s hard to lift a man’s weight by yourself. Men are heavy things. When I was little my mother told me to be careful of all men. Strangers and the ones I knew as well.
If you are in a room beside a man, she said. Keep the doors open, love. Always be a scream away from someone.
When the body was stretched out, my uncle found himself examining it. It reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t put his finger on who. He wiped the dust off the man’s face with his sleeve. The small eyes, widely spaced, the high sharp cheekbones, the little port wine stain upon the chin.
His wormate eyed the corpse, and said “It’s you mate, only older.”The more my uncle stared, the more he saw the truth in that. It had his face, but didn’t have his life. They lumped it on the stretcher, sent it on its way to a decent burial.
My uncle never found who that man was. The one that sort of lived inside his body. Like town houses, they look the same but you don’t know what’s inside until you peep. The workings of a dead man close the curtains. Condemned my uncle thought, fliching through the silk-lined empty pockets. There was no wallet. No man had lived inside that house, a neighbour told him later. Only spinsters, and their little niece. My mother always gave that girl my age, the times she told it.
Not a scratch on him. Dust but not a scratch.
The story wasn’t scary enough to stop me sleeping as a child, but still it gave a pleasant nervous feeling and she told it to me quite a few times. The ending never changed. Her brother sad, and staring at his wine and saying dully:
“When I look in the mirror, Aoife love, it isn’t my face that I see. Not anymore. It’s always his. Since that night. Never mine.”
I never really understood the horror of that until I was older and began to shy away from mirrors, taking better care of my skin but knowing it was quite a pointless action. Sometimes I look at my own face and imagine it’s a stranger far away. Someone I’ve discovered nearly dead. I wait for it to move and when it does, I get a sick little thrill. I’ve caught it out.
I lie awake sometimes, beside my husband, a scream away from no one. My two fled the nest as soon as possible. And I think of my uncle. We visited him twice, after that. Once when I was ten, for a weekend. And again, at his funeral. His friend long gone, and no one in the chapel knew our names.My mother in her little suit beside me. Knees together, hands inside her lap and stared ahead.
I scanned the faces in the crowd and wondered if someone here was happening upon his own face and body at the end of someone else’s life. I wondered if I screamed who would hear me, and how many would come and would they help at all or make things worse. I held my tongue and counted the letters in the Lord’s Prayer, and then counted again. The answers were completely different both times. I still don’t know which number I got wrong.
Deirdre Sullivan is a writer from Galway. She has written three YA novels, Prim Improper, Improper Order and Primperfect.