Saskia thinks I’m mad. I know this because she told me when she arrived at the house at half nine on Saturday morning with suntan lotion and wearing not much clothing. One of the drawbacks of living in a flat apparently, is having no garden in the summer. Even though our garden would resemble a building site - we had decided to dig under the dodgy patch. I made the diggers (David and Jack) promise not to start without me – me and my boy were off to the stables. We had such fun and I managed to get Blue for the third successive week – turning up half an hour before our lesson started paid off, even though Mac did find time to sit in some manure – tragic really because I was taking him straight round to Eliza’s – we had to find a replacement pair so we went shopping in Bexleyheath. I wasn’t myself to be honest, and Mac took advantage of mummy’s strange mood. He came away with a new pair of chinos, a couple of T-shirts and a funky pair of shorts and some jelly shoes for “the beach mummy”.
I’d had a restless night. Understandable perhaps. David was treating it all with a great amount of scepticism. “Until this Gladys stands in front of me and says hello, I won’t believe it” he said as he climbed into bed next to his wary wife. “But then why are you digging for the air raid shelter?” I asked him. He huffed something and snuggled down the bed.
So, there we all were at one o’clock, spades at the ready. “Shouldn’t we say something?” I asked nervously. We were, after all, disturbing something that had been buried for the past 60 years or so. It was like we were grave robbing. Saskia snorted with laughter and turned to Heat magazine. David started humming the National Anthem and grinned at me as we perused the pristine area in front of us. It did seem a shame to dig it up but, I had to know.
We’d read that these shelters were dug into the ground four feet deep and had about a foot of earth on top of them and a couple of foot of earth either side – Jack was wary about standing on top of the shelter (“If it’s there!” said Saskia) and digging so we decided to start to one side. The obvious side was the right hand side as you were looking at it. Because, as David said, it’s the quickest route from the back door and so that’s where the entrance would be. That fitted with the shape of the shelter and the shape of the garden. We started digging in the earth at the front, next to the path, working silently.
Half an hour later we’d uncovered enough rubble to fill a skip and were dispersing the earth we found around the garden like a POW escape committee. Jack started humming the Great Escape on his third trip round the garden. David rested on his spade and suggested we break for a drink. “I think there’s definitely something there, even if it’s just bricks.” he said, looking at me. I wondered if Gladys was watching us. And what she was thinking. The dogs were all lined up on the patio, Junior Dog quite keen to join us in this digging lark.
Another half an hour and we’d found some house bricks about two foot down, they were covered in black dust as was the chunks of metal with them. We couldn’t make out what they were. We all stood around just staring at each other. Even Saskia got off her back and peered into the hole. “Oh shit” she said. We started digging in now, rather than down – and found corrugated iron. Not whole, but in pieces. I was now beginning to feel slightly uneasy. Every time I looked at the house I imagined seeing Gladys standing at the window. Alex hadn’t said that she had bad intentions but I didn’t want to start annoying her. We broke for a late lunch and I rang Andy who rang Alex. We waited until they both arrived before we went back out into the garden.
I really can’t describe how I was feeling – even typing this now is sending shivers up and down my spine. Alex stood out in the garden for a while before calling me outside. I think the others were quite pleased to leave me to it.
“She wants to know why you didn’t believe her, but understands you needed proof and she’ll try and give it to you.” he said as I joined him. We both stared at the mess in front of us. According to Alex (Gladys was obviously pleased that he was back), after the war, Gladys says the local children used it as a play hut until the council came and filled it in for “safety’s sake” after the war. They filled it with the rubble from bomb sites and “finished off” the garden with a layer of earth to make it look nicer. I can’t believe it’s been there all this time and I knew nothing about it. All that time I’ve stood on top of it, digging and cursing at the plants that died after a few days of planting them. There was only about a foot of earth on top – I could have sunk into the garden!
Jack and David joined us, eager to know if we were going to keep digging. “It’s full of rubble” Alex said “but you might as well”. We carried on digging, with Alex chipping in with information. I felt twice removed from reality as he kept laughing to himself, Glady’s was obviously enjoying watching us toil away – being talked about by a ghost is something new to me. We were all asking questions now, some of which Alex was able to answer, others he was a bit vague about. “You could have looked that up on the internet!” Saskia scoffed as Alex told us, courtesy of Gladys, a bit more about air raid shelters.
The corrugated iron we were finding formed the shell of the shelter and Gladys tried to make it as homely as possible, according to Alex, with a nice picture propped against the wall, some nice sheets for the makeshift beds candles and a big ornate wooden clock “from the parlour” so that they “could see what time Hitler stopped bombing”. After the war had ended, Gladys nor her mother in law could bear to go back into the shelter and it was left as it was to be filled in and covered. Her children came back long after the shelter had been filled in – they hadn’t been evacuated until late in the war. “1943” I said without thinking. “That’s right, it was August 1943 when they left London.” Alex said, perching on a stool. I nearly fell down the hole. Where the hell had that come from? I wish I could say that “I heard voices” but I didn’t, it was just a feeling. David was looking at me with his mouth open and the only sound were the bees buzzing in the lavender.
There was just piles of rubble and a few hessian sacks that I was desperate not to move let alone open. Jack was now beginning to tire, he had been digging while we were chatting and David was tidying the garden up – it looked like, well, a bomb had hit it. We’d found what we were looking for – Gladys had told us there was a shelter under our garden and we’d just found it.
Just as Jack was calling it a day he stood stock still and just stared in front of him. “I don’t want to worry you” he said in what could be described as a strangled voice. We were all instantly worried. “There’s a clock in here” Jack went on, his dirt streaked face paling. We all froze and my legs went all wobbly. Alex laughed and said “You wanted proof? She’s given you proof.”
I asked Jack to leave it where it was – David looked at me in surprise. “Don’t you want to see it properly?” he asked. Jack reported that it was broken and crushed but definitely a clock – and a beautiful ornate wooden one at that, wedged under a pile of rubble in what we deduced would be the left hand side of the shelter as you entered it. I wanted it left where Gladys and her mother-in-law had left it. I was very near to tears as we started the long job of re-burying the shelter. Even Saskia was subdued and kept shooting Alex querying looks. “Okay, so now what?” she asked as she threw her magazine on the floor. “Do we all have to pay homage to Gladys every time we come into the house? Should we be frightened of her?”
Apparently, we’ve got to carry on as normal. “Why should things change?” Alex asked “She’s always been here - only now you know about her”
So, I’m still going to lose things only to find them in the utility room, I’m still going to feel a light stroking on my head whenever I’m upset and I’m still going to imagine I’m seeing things.
Only now I know it’s Gladys.