The sky muffles the land like an army blanket. Stars and moon are hidden it will be a long night. The man's heels click on the cobbles as he gropes his way down the hill. He flicks on his torch. The faint slit of light picks out the white painted curb edge guiding him. It will suffice until he needs to cross over. Concentrating on the pavement his head makes impact with a street lamp and he falls unconscious.
Police whistles! Running footsteps, someone yanks him to his feet. He is bundled into a van. Dazed he hardly hears their questions, could not answer them even if he knew what they were. At last they threw him into a cell where he lay drifting in and out of consciousness the whole night long.
They dragged him out at dawn and once more the questioning began. He could give no answers. Didn't know who he was or where he had been going. He wanted to know the answers far more than they ever could. Overwhelmed by this horror he scarcely heard the rest of their demands.
At last they took him back to the cell. A tall middle aged constable brought him a mug of tea, black stewed, and a bowl of grey murky slop. He needed to relieve himself. The constable indicated a bucket in the corner of the cell. He rubbed his chin felt the stubble, asked for a razor.
"You remember how to shave then?"
Perhaps his memory was returning, if he saw himself in a mirror...but they brought him neither razor nor mirror. Hour after hour he lay desperately seeking the answer to their questions. The cell door opened a slim grey haired man entered. He introduced himself:
"I am doctor Mainprise. I want to help you."
His blood pressure was checked, a stethoscope applied to his chest. The lump on his forehead pressed. A light shone into his eyes. His ears were peered into.
"Tell me what you remember."
"I remember the dark and being afraid."
"I don't know perhaps just of the dark itself."
More questions before he was taken back to the cell.
Another night passed before he learnt the dreadful truth. His was not the only recumbent form found on that street. It was the solicitor that enlightened him. Nearby where he lay they had found a young woman with her throat cut.
They shaved him before putting him in a line with six other men of roughly the same
height and age. A witness picked him out as the man seen drinking with the murdered woman earlier on that fateful night. He had no defence couldn't say he had never met the woman... he didn't know!
Innumerable days and nights before the trial was fixed. The charge murder!
He could neither eat nor sleep. In the exercise yard he leaned miserably against the wall. Overhead he heard the drone of planes followed by the sharp crack of ack ack fire.
A daylight raid! The enemy were getting cheeky or desperate. There had been no raid that fateful night. No stars or bombers' moon to light the way. He struck his forehead. He had remembered that. Perhaps his memory was returning. Before he could grasp the hope a long drawn screech alerted him, he threw himself to the ground. The blast lifted him, carried him to the rubble that had once been the outer prison wall.
How long he lay there he didn't know. He saw the glare of flames realised the prison was on fire and he was on the outside. Crawling his way over the heaps of brick he swore as he caught his leg on a tangle of barbed wire. The voices of the ARP echoed as they ferried the injured and the dead.
He summoned up all his energy to take himself as far as possible from the scene. In the medley of helpers he was invisible but he knew sooner or later he would be challenged.
For once lady luck was with him. He stumbled through the smoke to a street of mean houses. They sagged like drunken men. All were empty the inhabitants had been evacuated. Although the houses were in imminent danger of collapse they had to be safer than the open street. If he could hide until dark he might have a chance.
Once inside he made his way down to the cellar and fortune smiled on him. The cellar had been roughly furnished to provide some comfort during air raids. There was a camp bed, a small collapsible table and a chair. Bombs are strangely selective. A building is destroyed and a cup is found undamaged in the rubble. Here the bed and its occupant had been flattened while the table and chair were intact. On the bed lay a body only recognisable as male by the underpants which lay tattered over his dismembered leg. Carefully draped over the chair was an army uniform.
He striped off what was left of his convict garb and donned the uniform. He had to let down the braces. The dead soldier must have been an inch shorter than him, fortuitously he had, as is the habit of men, emptied his pockets before retiring.
Now in possession of a name, a ration book and a travel document private Bill Smith left the cellar.
He picked his way through the glass lined streets where shops had lost their windows.
The sky itself seemed on fire and fire hoses played hopelessly on flaming buildings.
"A right bleeder, this is. You going back mate?"
The uniformed speaker was caught in the glow of fire from the nearby factory. "For two pins I'd go AWOL but my Mam reckons I'll be safer back at barracks."
Bill Smith didn't answer and the two walked side by side, until inside the station his companion was greeted by another serviceman and the pair made off together leaving Bill Smith alone in the crowd on the platform.
The train shunted its way in hissing smoke. The seats were all taken men sat on their kit bags in the corridor. Bill Smith had no kit bag. He stared down at the moving lines. What was he doing? What mad instinct had made him steal this uniform? The instinct for self preservation?
Preservation of what? He was a man without a name, without a self since he didn't even recognise his own face. A man who, according to the police, picked up a young woman and slashed her throat. A man without a past and with no future.
Now they had left the burning town behind them. Some long forgotten words came to his mind: "Out of the night that covers me. Black as pitch...." black as pitch, black as pitch -
He opened the door and the darkness swallowed him.
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