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My Blue Satin Dressing Gown, by Miss M Risborough


It is 1940, and I was 24 years old. A cold October night as I raced home from work. I am too tired to bother about anything. I have worked late at the Union (Tailors and Garment Workers) offices and want my supper and bed.

Most people are already in the air raid shelters. I donít like ours, as it is under a railway arch. The railway lines are still in use and as the trains pass over, the electric sparks light up the track and give the enemy planes the chance to see their target and dive-bomb it. I prefer my own bed and am prepared to take the consequences.

My bed sitting room (rented with others) is in an old Victorian house, and I have the first-floor-front. I hurriedly make my meal (of cheese, celery and two slices of bread and cup of milk) and settle down in bed, hoping that I can drop off before the raid starts in earnest. I am soon asleep.

My rest does not last long. The noise of the planes overhead, wake me up. Followed by the Ack-Ack (so called due to the noise they made) fire from our own little gun on Clapham common. The bombs come screeching down, some very near. They rock the building with their explosions.

This is the worst raid I have experienced. I pull the bedclothes over my head trying to hide from the noise and the blast effect. I am petrified. The bombs come faster than ever, five or six in rapid succession. I think the building will be rocked off its foundations and collapse for, by now the noise is incessant.

The next thing I know, I am up in the air; then I land beside the bed, with the mattress and bedclothes on top of me. The blast has rushed under my mattress and batted me up in the air like a ball.

I disentangle myself and reach for the bedside light. There is no electricity. I struggle with the mattress and lug it back into place, then the bedclothes. I am annoyed more than frightened. It is no good trying to make my bed in the dark so I scramble back and bury myself under the heap of blankets.

I lie there wondering what to do next. Shall I get dressed? But there is nowhere for me to go, I cannot possibly go out in this. There seems nothing else to do but to lie quiet, keep calm and hope for some sleep.

Whoo-oops! I am rolling over and over again on the floor. The wall of the bay window stops me. Slowly I sit up and recover my senses. I sit there thinking; if that wall had given way, I might have been out on the street among the rubble, or down in the basement with the rubble on top of me. What would have happened to me then? It does not bear thinking about.

The window had gone. The curtains and the blackout caught on jagged bits of the glass that remain. The door has blown open and will not stay shut. It is draughty and cold. I look out of the window. Everywhere is desolate and grey. Not a living thing in sight. The houses hold an uncanny stillness against all the noise and activity. The searchlights are scanning the skies. Fires have been started. The Ack-Ack continues to crackle but is as effective as a barking dog in this massive attack.

I sit down. My mind keeps going back that near miss of a few moments ago. I tell myself it did not happen. Forget it. Turn your thoughts to something else!Resigned that my last hour has come, I sit quietly musing over the past. My year and half in America, on a scholarship, had been a wonderful time. I had made a lot of friends, many still write to me.
My meeting with Louis! Our gay times together. How we had become engaged. He died just before we were due to marry. He was not a war casualty, but I must not dwell on that.
Oh! There is my trousseau, still in the bottom drawer! What will happen if I die? Will somebody else find it? And wear it? Will all my lovely needlework be appreciated? It really is lovely lingerie. Those smocked nightdresses. And that gorgeous blue satin dressing gown, I shall never wear it now!

But I can wear that dressing right now! It will cheer me up. I feel my way to the chest of drawers. Rummage in the bottom drawer. Yes, thatís it in the paper bag. I shake out the tissue papers and put it on. I swish around and feel the swirl of the flared skirt. There is warmth in it. But that does not matter. Nor can I see what I look like. Never mind, the smooth satin is soft to the touch. At least I have worn it.

Longingly, I want to put on my favourite nightdress. But to wear it would be daft! My pyjama suit is warm. Anyway I made that especially for an emergency such ad this. Just be satisfied with the dressing gown, I decide.

If the Air-raid Warden finds me, at least I will look nice. It will show them that I tried. Those poor chaps have a rotten job, picking bodies out of the rubble, all covered with dust and debris.
What next? Are we supposed to keep a stiff upper lip and take it? That is what Churchill says. Well I am taking it. There is no option!

Then show you are taking it. Sing something rousing, a marching or revolutionary song. I think over tunes the American Labour Movement have taught me. I start up, and make several attempts but it is not good. My voice is very feeble. Thatís not convincing. Try something else. Think up some fine words to say. But there is nobody to tell the world I said them. Write them down. But I cannot see to write anything. In any case I expect my words will get blown away when I go.

My thoughts turn to Jim. Where is he at this moment? I wonder. I wish he would come round and get me out. Jim is much older than I. He is a reliable mature person.

Unconsciously, Jim and I had developed a strong telepathic relationship. When I was thinking about him he would know it, and vice versa. We would meet by chance at the must unexpected places. It was quite spontaneous.

Will it work tonight I wonder. Think hard about him. Get a message to him that I need help. No, that is not fair. I expect too much. Nobody should be brought out on a night like this. Stop wishing the impossible.

There seems to be a slight lull in the bombing, at least it has moved further away. The night is young yet. Anything could still happen. Conserve your energy and try and to get some sleep.

That is the sound of car breaks screeching under my window. I leap over and lift a corner of the tattered blackout. I hear Jims voice, get out of there. They are bashing Clapham to pieces!

You are telling me they are! I scream back and fly down staircase to let him in. I thought I would find you here, he says. Are you alright? You canít stay here a minute longer. Itís too awful. I have been watching the raid from my rooftop. I am on fire-watch duty. They are raining them down, stick after stick, (a stick was a successive run of bombs, usually three to six at a time). Thatís all very well, I replied, but I have nowhere to go.
Then you must come with me"
We hurry upstairs. Jim lights the way. Wartime restrictions only permit a tiny pencil like torch, not more than four inches long, during a raid. Jim flashes the torch over me. That thing is no good, put your coat on.

Crestfallen, I do as I am told, obviously I do not look as good as I thought. I suppose it is not very appropriate, after all I did make it for my wedding night! Collect up your clothes, put your shoes on and bring your slippers with you, says Jim. Iíll bring your bed clothes in case we need them.

We hasten down to his small car, and drive off in the dark to Brixton Hill. We donít see another car, nor a solitary person during that journey. Devastation was everywhere. I am so happy and relived that I can think of little to say. Jim has to concentrate on his driving, as the roads are strewn with all sorts of scattered objects.

Jimís bed-sitter is on the ground floor and partly reinforced, as it is next to the air-raid shelter. I feel much safer here. As we enter, the warmth of the central heating almost overpowers me, and for the first time I realise how cold I am.

Jim puts a chair beside his bed. Put your clothes neatly on the back of this chair, he says. Your handbag on the seat, and your shoes underneath. In case you have to get dressed in a rush, then you will know where to find your things.

He tucks me up like a small child and kisses me goodnight. Try and get a little shut-eye, he says. I will be outside with the other fire watchers. If I think it necessary for you to get dressed, I will wake you. As he leaves the room, Jim calls over his shoulder, donít worry, I shall not be far away. I sleep soundly.

Next morning when I wake up, Jim is already washed, dressed and shaved ready for work. Where did you sleep? I ask. Sleep? says Jim, the buggers did not shut up till five thirty, and the all clear did not go before six fifteen. I know I have said the wrong thing as Jim rarely swears in front of me.

I am eternally grateful to Jim. I shall never forget his kindness. Not everybody would risk his life to get somebody out of that hell. As for the satin dressing gown, I never wear that again.