Summer in the Country
We present here the first chapter of Summer in the Country in its entirety. For the remaining thirteen chapters (as well as many other short stories), please purchase Collected Short Stories and Summer in the Country, published by Fand Music Press! (Some reviews of the anthology appear at the foot of this page.)
Chapter 1: An Unexpected Departure
I lay on my mother’s bed by her side and, as the engine of the V1 cut out, held my breath, waiting for the explosion. When it came, it was as though the end of the world had come. The house shuddered and the room filled with dust and flying glass; the noise was deafening. It was a warm July night in 1944, and the time was 9pm.
The doodlebug had fallen on the last house but one in a terrace of eight houses diametrically opposite ours. The memories of that night are, even after 43 years, still vivid and powerful although, like a broken kaleidoscope, they are made up of jagged fragments which no longer fit together in any semblance of order or pattern.
I was 12 years old. My father, an Air Raid Warden, was on duty and thus not in the house at the time. My sister was out playing tennis. My first clear memory was of somehow making my way upstairs to the toilet through broken glass, broken tiles, plaster, household items – many in bizarre twisted shapes – and the acrid smell of cordite. Then, as I sat on the toilet having diarrhoea – a reaction to sudden shock and great fear – I saw the Vicar picking his way precariously up the stairs through the debris. He asked me if I was alright. I said that I was but that I was very worried about our cat. He said he would look for the cat and disappeared downstairs again, crunching over the broken glass and tiles.
I was fascinated by the door of the toilet, no longer on its hinges but halfway down the narrow landing, locked in a kind of insane embrace with the door of my own bedroom, the two inextricably jammed together by the force of the blast and leaning crazily against a bookcase on the landing. I could hear running water to my right, in the bathroom next door.
When I had finished in the toilet I managed to get into the various bedrooms and was fascinated by the mad chaos I found in them: the contents of drawers and wardrobes all over each room, broken mirrors, smashed furniture and plaster, glass and tiles underfoot. Most bizarre of all, in the front bedroom, there were great bulging ‘sacks’ of shattered glass where the window panes had broken and all the pieces were held in by the wire mesh of the protecting frames, which had stretched incredibly but not broken. Frightful splinters of glass, some as long as kitchen knives, were imbedded in the doors of the wardrobe in my father’s room and, in my sister’s room at the back of the house, some of the coiled, spiral net curtain wires had stretched out with the blast; one was still attached to the window frame at one end but with its other end imbedded in the wall opposite, the wire stretched across the room as taut as a telephone wire.
I recall wandering about in a kind of daze, not really aware of the fact that the street was now full of people: air raid wardens, police, ambulance men, firemen, neighbours. My sister arrived, looking incongruous in her tennis gear.
I went back downstairs and into the back room, the sitting-room which had become my mother’s bedroom some time before, as her ever-worsening rheumatoid arthritis had made it impossible for her to get upstairs. By this time my father had arrived and I was aware that he was endeavouring to make some sort of arrangement on the telephone – miraculously still working – with an aunt who lived at Eltham, so that my mother and I would have somewhere to go. Clearly, with every pane of glass in the house gone and virtually every tile stripped from the roof by the blast, we could not stop in the house for the night.
It was at this point that it dawned on me just how lucky my mother and I had been. We were shocked and bruised but otherwise unharmed. My right shin was hurting where, as I lay on my mother’s bed, an art deco light shade – a large, thin copper ring with a fringe of minute beads – had fallen on it, its flex severed by a piece of flying glass. On the other side of the French windows of my mother’s room was a glass conservatory, now entirely denuded of glass, including the glass roof. Incredibly, all the glass had been sucked into the garden by the blast, rather than being blown into the room. I felt quite sick as I thought of the many glass ‘daggers’ imbedded in the furniture in the front bedroom upstairs: my own bedroom, the little box room over the front door, was next to it, and I might well have been in it. I was glad that I had been downstairs, lying on my mother’s bed: this was so as to be near the reinforced stair cupboard, which we all used as a shelter during air raids.
The real damage, to my hearing, did not become apparent until the 1960s when tinnitus was finally confirmed by tests in 1970. At the time the ringing in my ears, caused by such a close explosion, died down and all seemed to be well.
My father came off the telephone and told us that we were to go to my aunt’s house in Eltham, and that he would take us in the car. We helped my mother with her two walking-sticks down the hall, through the front door and down the front path to the kerbside to await the car. This was a slow and painstaking business, with so much debris underfoot. While waiting for the car at the kerbside I was able to see the appalling devastation the V1 had caused. Most of the house which it had struck was missing and the houses either side were very badly damaged. The road and the pavements were almost completely obliterated by broken glass, shattered tiles, odd items of clothing, household objects like saucepans and cutlery, smashed fence palings and so on.
There seemed to be an enormous number of people scurrying about, helping others and organising things. Someone I asked – whether a neighbour or an ‘official’, I do not now recall – told me that a lady in the house the doodlebug had fallen on had been killed outright and that another lady in a house obliquely opposite to that house had been injured. The most extraordinary sight of that extraordinary night was a bath in the middle of the road. I was told that someone had been having a bath when the V1 dropped and they ended up in the road: still in the bath, bruised but otherwise unhurt. There was no water in the bath. “Hardly surprising,” the man added with a grim laugh. Blasts played such strange tricks frequently.
It was some time later I heard that a school friend who lived opposite the house the V1 struck had also been hurt. He had ignored his parents’ pleas to come into the Morrison shelter with them when he heard the engine of the V1 cut out, and he had gone to the window to see where it landed. Since it landed about 40 feet in front of his face, he had been lucky not to have been killed. As it was, he had to have an emergency operation to remove a piece of shrapnel which had entered his brain through the forehead. He recovered from this without any after-effects.
We finally set off on a journey from Beckenham to Eltham that went through a nightmare nocturnal landscape painted by Hieronymous Bosch: the night sky was criss-crossed by searchlight beams and the car jolted and shuddered through debris in the road a great deal of the time. The journey was also punctuated by occasional explosions, some near, some far off, as other V1s landed. I do not recall now, but we no doubt arrived on the rims of the wheels, since it must have been impossible to drive through so much broken glass without punctures.
When we arrived at Eltham we found that my aunt had made up two beds, one on the ground floor for my mother. We settled in for the night after a very welcome hot drink and, somehow or other, I managed to get to sleep. My last thought was not of my cat but of my white mouse, now a splendid vermillion colour. My bedroom had also been my laboratory. On going into it on my investigation of the damage upstairs I had seen that a bottle of hæmotoxylin – which I used to stain botanical specimens in my microscopy – had somehow been overturned by the blast and emptied itself out onto the marble top of a wash-stand I used for my chemical experiments. The mouse, having escaped its cage, was scampering madly through the spilled dye in its panic. I never saw this mouse again, though no doubt it gave the cat quite a surprise when it finally returned to the house.
Buy this book and read it; enjoy the gentle humour and wonder about a man who so loves to write he does it in words, songs and music; and all very well indeed.
[Readers] may well be surprised, one hopes pleasantly, by this lovely and entertaining collection of [Carey Blyton’s] short stories, written over a period of thirty years.
There were times when I thought seriously to myself that Carey Blyton may well be a better writer than composer, but then I thought again…
Some are whimsical, some ironic, a few sentimental and one or two autobiographical – parallels to his compositions, perhaps. All are readable and pleasantly written…
…fascinating as an insight into Carey [Blyton]’s formative experiences…
…a charming autobiographical essay…