Creative Nonfiction

What Will We Do for Fun Now?

JANE RATCLIFFE’s work has appeared in the Sun, O, The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Guernica, Vogue, New England Review, the Believer, and other publications. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She’s just finished her second novel, “Run All the Way and Dodge the Shrapnel,” about the unpopular peace movement in London during World War II. She lives in Michigan with two cats and a dog.

1.

“When the Blitz was over,” my mom says, seated at the dining table, smoking one of her Kents, nails a perfect swish of red—I’m six or eight, though I could be any age, and already in thrall—“we were so fed up with kipping in the Anderson shelter we moved back into the house.”

The Blitz. Kipping. Anderson shelter. These words captivate my spirit, long before I understand they have already altered my cells.

“Then the doodlebugs came later, right?” I know these stories well. Yet I need to hear them, drawing them from my mom and dad like succor. I know little of my parents’ lives before the war. It’s as if the war creates them.

“Yes, V-1s. The buzz bombs. They were pilotless aircrafts,” my mom continues. How matter-of-factly she speaks. None of the usual tightness to her voice, no furrow to her brow. Adrift in Chanel No. 5, her hair a dazzling chestnut brown, she shapes a pilotless aircraft above the dining room table with the hand holding her smoke. “They would come over, and at a certain point their engine would cut off and they would fall and explode. As long as you could hear them, you were okay. But if you couldn’t hear the engine, you knew you were going to be a direct hit.”

I gaze out the window at our backyard. Rose bushes, gooseberries, daffodils, bird feeders. I lean forward, examine the sky. We are safe. Always safe.

Am I crazy to wish otherwise?

What child covets war?

But everything sounded so fantastic, so important.

“One night my dad and mum heard the whirring and they yelled upstairs, ‘Get down here now!’ We had this huge, heavy table, and as we tumbled down the stairs, my father pointed. ‘And get under the bleeding table!’ So, all of us girls who still lived at home scrambled underneath. One sister saw a mouse, and, just like that, we all jumped on top of the table and chairs. Our father was livid because we were more afraid of the mouse than the bombs.”

My mom was the youngest of nine children. My dad, the youngest of four. I have one brother. I’m a titchy child, as my father likes to tell me, a deep introvert, towheaded, with a pixie cut and a whopping love for animals. I live in white middle-class suburbia, with three meals a day, a soft bed, and the expectation of college.

My backbone tingles with delight as I conjure the mouse—silvery brown, with pink-lined ears. And the sisters in their white nighties smelling of Oxydol. And my grandfather, dead before I’m born, exasperated by their foolhardy displacement of fear.

How could I not be jealous of this? The camaraderie. The adventure. The extraordinary pluck of surviving the day.

“Then came the V-2s; rockets fired from across the Channel so fast and high there was no noise, no warning, nothing, until they were right on top of you. And then you were done for.” My mother rolls her eyes. “The Nazis thought they were going to win the war with those shocking things.”

My mom and I don’t always get along; she can be too clingy, want too much from me. But when she knows about rockets and bombs and speaks about Nazis as if they’re cheeky schoolboys in the middle of a spring afternoon, she’s a thing of

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