After the War

April 6, 2008
By Gillian Greer, Clondalkin, Dublin 22, ZZ

I started as a gruff hand dragged me from the safety of my dreams back to reality.I heard a harsh voice bark my name. I groaned blearily in reply, reluctant to abandon my fantasy refuge as the train groaned to a halt. I could hear the conductor bellow: “London!” and the entire carriage erupted in a frenzy of movement. As I was frantically thrown further and further towards the exit, I could do nothing but gaze wondrously out the dingy window as I was jostled forward, desperate to catch a glimpse of the great grey chaos of my home – London. My imagination crackled and sparked as I remembered the dizzying heights of towering old apartment blocks scratching the sky, the buzzing crowds of well-to-do ladies and gentlemen, the gleam of brightly coloured automobiles as they zoomed and honked along the cobbled streets,. It was as though the city was alive itself, like a wild, roaring animal, exhilarating and restless – not like the monotonous pulse of the countryside. London was bright, vibrant, and so very grown-up.
Lost in my distant memories, I found myself at the head of the train, caught among a stampede of other children desperate to taste the London air again. The conductor guarded the door like a snarling watchdog, glaring as we scrabbled desperately, teasing us as we begged to be released. After what seemed an age, the towering conductor – haggard and gangly, hook-nosed and beady eyed, like a vulture circling it’s prey – threw open the great metal doors with a sickening squeal and I bounded through the train station amid the maddened throng. Oblivious to the cries of the vulture-like conductor we raced through the train station almost blindly, a thousand thoughts skimming the surface of our collective minds, all buzzing and bouncing on a sudden inexplicable energy. Without a thought I had joined them, tiredness lost forgotten, madly running and jumping and whooping, eyes searching wildly for a familiar face amid the mass. There could have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of us spilling from a trail of carriages, wheezing old traind still belching black smoke after us, tingeing the azure sky with wisps of ebony.
Instinctively I followed the flock as a certain order befell the ranks. At the head of our brigade, a very grand commanding gentleman marched purposefully, like our pied piper. He was nothing like the scraggly conductor, with his leering eyes and unshaven chin, though this man seemed much older. His face was sharp and steady, as though carved of ice; but his blue eyes seemed weary, as if I could see the cracks where the frost had started melting. As our great gaggle seemed to dissolve – eager parents snatching their children from the crowd, stillness engulfed our meagre party. Our shouting, whooping excitement had extinguished as the eerie silence washed over us. Slowly I began to notice, the well-to-do ladies and gentlemen, the towering grey buildings scraping the horizon, the mad honking of traffic in the streets, all gone. Our small cluster were soon completely silent, eyes once alight with adrenaline now simply wide with fear. This was not our London.
Ahead of us loomed the exit of the station, an enormous bblack gate leading out into this mysterious, quiet London. My heart throbbed urgently in my chest, terrified. The silence was unlike any I had ever before heard. Not even a birds song dared break the ominous hush. Our group leapt in unison as the gate creaked open, the sickening sound just as unwelcome as the silence that had gone before it. At the gate stood a great bus, but it was by no means shining or bright as the automobiles I remembered. What would once have been dazzling red paint was encrusted with dust and grime pockmarked with battle scars and bullet wounds.
Solemnly we marched on board, lost and confused. Our pied piper instructed us to silence – none of us had the will to speak anyway. Soon the bus began chugging its way along the cobbled streets. I heard talk of patients and casualties as I gazed helplessly out another dingy window, unsure where I was going or why, but still engulfed in the transformation of my hometown.
The streets were almost empty, dead as the crumpled autumn leaves along the pavements, and the once grand solid magnificence of London skyscrapers lay, shattered ruins of stone scattered across the ground. They could have fallen as easily as toys, I thought mournfully, a stack of building blocks torn asunder by some monstrous giant. The streets of London were a shambles, as though the giant had rampaged through the city, unstoppable. Those who dared to roam the streets carried defeated, frightened looks, as though terrified the monster may return. My imagination was soon at work again as I saw the gargantuan creature storming through the streets of London, ripping buildings apart, sending squealing men and women hurling through the air like dolls, leaving nothing but destruction in its wake. The giant’s name? I’d heard it whispered time and time again. It brought fear to the faces of those who dared speak it, ignited rage in the nations it threatened to attack – War.
My thoughts were cut short as the bus came to a shuddering halt, the Pied Piper mumbling words I could barely listen to. Broken spirited, our company filed out of the bus to face the first fully intact building I had seen since my return. Whitewashed stone shone dully in the bare morning light, the word ‘hospital’ all I could recognise carved into the limestone building’s face. I thought of the giant War again as we followed blindly towards the entrance, of the bodies that lay strewn in it’s path. For the first time I thought of my mother, my father, victims of the giants rampage. Cold, dark fear gripped my throat and I plunged into a sea of terror – more icy and horrible than I had ever thought possible. I imagined my family, torn apart as easily as the mighty city of London, left as nothing but scattered debris, cold, dead, lifeless.
We followed winding corridors, like rats lost in a maze, startled by the artificial glare of electric light bouncing around the glassy marble surfaces. The air was stagnant and medicinal, empty and dull, like everything else I’d seen today. The eerie silence remained, haunting our tiny cluster as we meekly followed our stony silent Pied piper, scurrying to match his great, sweeping strides. Through the thick, torpid air, a melodic voice wafted towards me, the familiar sound like a beautiful song; once loved, long forgotten. The voice called my name, much softer than the harsh bark that stirred me from my dreams on the train, what seemed like an age ago. I turned warily, for fear the mangled bodies and vicious ogres of my nightmarish thoughts would soon materialise. Instead what stood before me seemed to wrench me from the murky depths of my pool of fear. A tall, slender figure, dressed in a snowy white hospital gown, rested a gentle hand on my shoulder. I opened my mouth to speak, but my voice seemed to leave me.
In an instant, the horrors of my imagination seemed to melt into the swirl of my mother’s white hospital gown as I glided through the corridor, lead gently by her long-awaited touch. Finally we met my father, asleep in a bed as white and crisp as mother’s gown. War had hit him, the doctors had said, but not badly. War was gone, mother assured me, the monster had moved on. Gazing curiously at the rhythmic rise-and-fall of my father’s chest, mother swept me into a gentle embrace. Warmth flowed throughout my ice little frame, and from another dingy window I saw the first rays of a warm orange sunrise spilling onto the horizon. War was gone. It was time to start rebuilding.

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