Sunday 28th August
Siobhan was the sixteenth reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Sun 28th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.
Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
A short bio
Siobhan is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Edinburgh.
She is a finalist in the Twin Peaks Festival Short Film Contest 2016 for her film ‘Diane.’ Her Story Shop entry ‘Sadie and the Bomb’ is based on the experiences of her paternal grandmother during the Belfast Blitz of the Second World War.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The story she read
Sadie and the Bomb
a short story by Siobhan Shields
Sadie was at the bottom of her staircase, one arm cradling baby Sam, the other reached out to turn off the hall light, when the bomb landed in the back garden. She had paused for a split second, her memory clicking in as she touched the switch, remembering the first time she had encountered electric light.
With her father in the British army, Sadie had spent her earliest years in India, sleeping under a mosquito net, thinking nothing of the small cups of paraffin guarding the feet of the bed, keeping the scorpions away. In the morning the sun would stream through the net, the shadows marking her skin with tiny criss-crossed lines. Her mumma didn’t like the sun and always had a tired red face but Sadie and her little sister Dorothy loved the brightness and the heat when they where allowed to play outside. Sadie’s earliest memory was toddling towards a bright patch in the garden with no hat on, a singsong voice in the house behind her…
“Memsahib Sadie, put on your dobie.”
Even more than the sun they loved the rain in Monsoon season. Sadie and Dorothy danced in the rain, the raindrops large and warm, they would be soaked through to their skin in seconds. The dusty ground turned into mud, coating their bare feet in a red that stained their pale Irish skin. When Sadie, as a teenager, met Tommy at the Plaza Ballroom in Belfast they would spin around the dancehall faster and faster, egging each other on and she felt the same giddy freedom as dancing in the warm Monsoon rain.
The Indian servants laughed at the little memsahib’s and kept one eye out for their mother. The rain was so infrequent and the rest of the days so hot that when the rain did come the worms would poke out of the earth, grateful for a drink they could guzzle through their translucent skins. They wriggled towards the sky, swaying in unison, like a field of tall grass in the wind. When Sadie was five and she could count her age on the fingers of a whole hand, the other soldiers started calling her daddy Colour which confused her. Colouring in was one of her favourites but she had never seen her father scribbling with pencils at the art table. One day he took her aside and showed her three pointed stripes on the chest of his Colour Sergeant’s uniform and explained they would be taking a ship back to Ireland, the place where she was born but couldn’t remember.
The ship had electricity. Sadie and Dorothy were entranced by the magic that made the sun shine at the flick of a switch. On their first night as the magnificent RMS Brigid was gliding across the Indian Ocean and their parents were dining upstairs, Sadie and Dorothy were tucked up in bed. Across the ocean the lookout of another ship, the SS Magdalena noticed a pinprick of light that went on and off in an unusual pattern, growing larger as his smaller ship approached the bigger one.
In the cabin, Sadie was teetering atop her father’s suitcase, her small fingers clicking the light switch on and off. Dorothy hugged Tedward the bear as she watched, her mouth hanging open. Sadie snapped the switch on, off, on and off…
The lookout watched the intermittent light and realised a foreign spy may be aboard the British ship, sending messages by Morse code to an enemy vessel, probably a submarine. He quickly notified his own captain who radioed the RMS Brigid. They sent a team of their strongest sailors to the cabin right away.
Sadie and Dorothy were shrieking with laughter, drunk on the power of controlling the sun. The magic was real and they had discovered it together. Sadie helped Dotty onto the suitcase and lifted her up so that she could be the controller of the sun too, then it was Sadie’s turn again and Dorothy jumped around the cabin, swinging Tedward, jumping up and down on all the beds. When the sailors burst in they were relieved to discover two small girls in their nightgowns rather than an enemy spy with a Luger pistol. So relieved they treated Sadie and Dorothy as their mascots for the rest of the crossing, showering them with gifts and holding them up so they could pretend to steer the ship’s wheel on a special trip to the Captain’s bridge.
The glass shattered in the kitchen window shocking Sadie awake. She switched off the hall light and opened the door to the cupboard under the stairs, their makeshift bomb shelter. John and David were inside, doing as they had been told, sitting on the floor looking smaller than usual in their matching striped pyjamas, their hands over their ears. The air raid siren was still wailing; the noise made Sadie’s stomach queasy. She could tell from John’s red face and David’s wet eyes that the loud noise had scared them, but they didn’t make a sound; trying to be brave for mummy.
“Good boys, good boys,” she cooed but her soft voice couldn’t be heard over the siren. She reached up to a space above the door and found the Cadbury’s Ration chocolate bar she had stashed there.
“John,” she shouted “hold Sammy for mummy, that’s it carefully now…David, share this with your brother…I’ll be back in a minute.”
Their joy at getting to hold the baby and eat the chocolate was short lived as she shut the door. She could hear them sobbing at their abandonment on the other side in the darkness. When they had practiced she was always there with them. Sadie ran down the narrow hallway and into the small kitchen picking up the metal bucket of sand waiting by the back door. She ran out into the garden in her bare feet, the grass felt cold and wet between her toes. The bomb was an incendiary, smaller than she had imagined but fizzing with light designed to show the Luftwaffe pilots where to drop the bigger, high explosive bombs.
Sadie was cold in the sharp night air but she could feel the heat of the bomb on her chest like a heavy weight. Hot sparks sprang up and nipped at her bare face. For a moment Sadie was transfixed by the pure clean beauty of the whiteness at the centre of the bomb, and it in turn imprinted its shape onto the retina of her eye. The power of the thing held everything still and her tiny garden looked alien to her in the brightness as the bomb blazed magnificently, as if she had stepped into a different reality, like that moment you look up in your own day to day life and wonder who and where you are. There was an acrid smell of burning like bonfires but with an electrical edge that felt dangerous. This pretty wee bomb was a marker that could bring another plummeting from the dark sky that would land on her house and destroy everything. She thought of her tiny children, their bodies torn apart by metal and fire, crushed by toppling brickwork. She felt terror rising up through her throat, her whole body shaking with rage at the evil thing. She would have to kill it. She took the cold, heavy bucket, one hand on the base, the other clutching the rim and threw it forward so the sand landed with a dull thud onto the bomb. She ran back to the house, finding another bucket by the back door. The incendiary was spluttering, Sadie tipped the other bucket of sand over it and the bomb gave out a low guttural gasp. Tendrils of grey smoke rose from the mound of sand. She stood there counting in her head until she was sure that it was truly dead and wouldn’t spring back to life after she had turned her back. She wouldn’t be tricked like that. One elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four elephant…
While she counted elephants Sadie thought of Shelia, the elephant that lived in the basement garden at number 52, next door to her sister. The Royal Ulster Constabulary had been ordered to shoot the animals in the zoo in case they escaped in the chaos of the bombing. Mrs Austin, who lived at 52, was a zookeeper. She raged at a government that had done little to prepare its citizens for bombing except for destroying their beautiful animals. No air raid shelters, no anti aircraft guns, just kill the poor lions, wolves and polar bears. She couldn’t bear the thought of the baby elephant scared and alone as the Luftwaffe droned in the sky—or being gunned down because of the folly of a human war—so she brought her home and sang into Shelia’s large ears to comfort her while the planes dropped bombs overhead.
“If we go, we go together.” She said to Dorothy, as they shared a cup of tea in the small walled garden, Shelia lying by their feet in a patch of sun. Maybe she could take the boys to visit Sadie thought. Try and replace their nightmare memories of tonight with the wonder of a real live baby elephant. Then her neighbour Mrs Adair was running through the side gate, a bucket in her hands.
“Sadie!” she wheezed, red faced.
“Don’t worry Maggie, it’s out already.”
“Thank god” Maggie exclaimed “Dead on love! We heard the shrieking of it from across the street, like a banshee. Mr Adair shat himself the eejitt.”
“Did a shit right there and then, in his good trousers on my brand new sofa. If the bombs don’t kill him then I just bloody might.”
“He thought he was going to die” Sadie said.
“I bet your weans didn’t shite their own trousers.”
“Oh, the children!” Sadie ran back into the house, Mrs Adair still prattling on behind her. It was only later when she was sitting cross-legged in the cupboard under the stairs, children all piled in her lap asleep, that she began to laugh. She was still laughing when Tommy came home from his air warden shift, ashen faced, expecting the worst.
The next day instead of visiting Shelia the elephant, Sadie and the children were on the bus to Carryduff, to her father’s house away from Belfast in case of more bombs. Tommy was at the station to wave them off, taking a brief break from his day job as a printer. Sadie stepped onto the open platform at the back of the bus. Tommy handed the baby up to her. As she leant over to grasp him, the words came out without her realising until they were there between them.
“Come with us.”
“I wish I could” Tommy replied. John and David waved from the window in the back of the top deck, the only seats left on the crowded bus, David already wiping his nose in the condensation. Sadie expertly climbed the stairs one handed as Sammy began to cry. The conductor gave out a final unintelligible yelp. The bus pulled out of the station in a big curve. Tommy watched until they were a tiny speck in the distance.
At her father’s house, Sadie lay on the small single bed in the spare room. Her father had told her to go and lie down, let her stepmother take care of the children. A suggestion neither woman would entertain. Baby Sam lay next to her on the bed, fast asleep. David and John, sensing something wrong, played quietly at her feet until they too clutched at her and slept. Sadie could not. She tried to picture her Tommy, who she had not seen for over a month. She had gone up to him in the dancehall, that first night they met as part of a bet with her friend. He was so handsome that all the girls wanted to dance with him but were too intimidated by his good looks so sat in their chairs and gazed longingly, hoping he would take the hint. Sadie marched up to him and shook his hand. He laughed shyly and they danced together the rest of the night. The other girls considered her lucky to get such a catch.
That morning the postman had described the blitz the night before in the centre of Belfast. “All dead” he had said. The words rang in Sadie’s head. All dead. She wandered the rooms of the small farmhouse unsure of what to do, her face red raw from crying, snot and tears dripping from the end of her nose. She had only managed to compose herself when her father pointed out she was scaring the children. She lay still and thought of Tommy. He was well known for never telling a lie, for being an honest and caring man. They were on the brink of marriage when his father died and he had come to her with a pained grey face and said that he couldn’t marry her yet, he needed to look after his family and bring up his brothers and sisters, help his grief stricken mother. He loved Sadie and hoped she would wait but he understood if she could not. She waited. She was considered an old bride at twenty-five but she didn’t care. She knew she wasn’t a beauty but on that day she felt wonderful with Tommy by her side.
The thought that he was dead sat like a glass bowl in the cavity of her chest where her heart used to be. She tried not to cry, for the movement would wake the children. They would be scared and confused. The adult world had hurt them so much already. She poured all her grief into her glass heart; it filled with the sour grey smoke of an incendiary bomb. She struggled to hold it in her chest, to stop it from shattering into a million pieces, shards of glass piercing everything she knew and loved. She would have to hold this awfulness within herself forever and keep it for her own. She heard a shout from downstairs. Her father had stood at the garden gate all day waiting for any news.
The baby started crying, she scooped all the children up and made her way fast as she could downstairs. The old man must be mad.
Outside her father was hopping from foot to foot, a strange grin on his face.
“Sadie-I saw him! I saw Tommy!”
Her glass heart lurched. She thought she might vomit.
“Don’t joke with me Dad!”
Her eyes scanned the road again. She wiped her snotty nose on her sleeve. Sammy vibrated in her arms as he cried, sawing on her last nerve. The other children hanging on her legs tired and afraid.
The problem with this road, thought Tommy, is all the hills. His tendons strained as he pushed himself against the bike and up the hill. The road was straight but not flat, a recurring pattern of hills and then dips. The horizon you would be able to see at the top of the hill and then it would disappear as you descended, allowing your legs to stretch out as the pedals spun on their own. Since the war he had not been able to exercise and this journey, one he used to do as a young man with Sadie on a tandem, was more strenuous than he remembered. He wondered if she had heard of the bombing last night. He hoped not. She would be worried.
She could see him! Surely it wasn’t her imagination? A tiny dot in the distance at the top of the hill. She nearly fell to her knees as she realised it could be anyone and when she looked up the dot had vanished again.
Tommy sped down the hill. Feeling the fresh cool breeze on his face. How refreshing it felt after the thick yellow air of the city, filled with dust particles from the destroyed buildings. He hoped this cool breeze could erase the memories of the night, the feeling that any moment a bomb could hit and a whole row of houses destroyed, the buildings crumbling on fire, the people inside screaming; dying. This morning the shop fronts all along their street with the windows blown out, he had stood in the middle of the road, after stopping and getting off his bike to see what was lying there; a pair of shoes. Tommy cycled the feeling away, he tried to gain as much speed as possible so that he would glide up the next hill but there was always a point where he had to start pedalling, dragging his own body weight.
“It’s him, it’s him!” her father shouted pointing into the distance. Sadie wondered if they had collectively willed this apparition into existence just by wanting it to be true and by the time it reached them it would just be a ghost cycling past or a black flock of birds swarming low to the ground. Every time she saw it she would look for distinguishing features, something she would know in her poor cracked heart was Tommy but every time she thought she had got the truth of him, it disappeared again, down into the curve of the hill.
Tommy thought he could see them. His little family, standing by the gate of the house. His Sadie, his wife who had waited for him, who could diffuse a deadly bomb half asleep, carrying three children on her hip. She had been worried about him; he could see that now, even from so far away, her face crimson from crying. He cycled faster towards them, her red, puffy, beautiful face a beacon to guide him home.
(c) Siobhan Shields, 2016
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
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