Friday, March 08, 2013

The East End of London

This is another of my short stories, taken from the beginning of my novel "Amanuensis" (available from

The East End of London
One of my earliest memories is of my father waking me in the middle of the night and giving me a piece of shrapnel. Half asleep I stretched out my hand to grasp the gray, metallic object.  It was heavy and hard, and the light glinted off its irregular surfaces. I still remember the feel of it sharp and warm in my hand.
Many years later he told me how he had acquired this fragment of a German bomb.  He had been on patrol as a Civil Defense Guard in the East End of London during the War.  "One night during an air-raid I was standing on a street corner, Commercial Road, near the railway lines into Liverpool Street. It was completely deserted. And I 'eard this plane comin' over low, an 'e's droppin' a stick of bombs, an 'e's comin closer, an I could feel the ground shake, and the shock waves and 'eat started to 'it me, an I could tell from the delay between the explosions that the next one was goin to 'it me, an I thought to myself 'blimey, this is it,' an I grabbed 'old of a lamp-post and waited. And all of a sudden it stopped!"  The string of bombs had run out before reaching him.
Fortunately, everyone was in the shelters because there had been an air-raid warning. But my father investigated to make certain no-one had disobeyed the siren, that was his job. As he examined the wreckage of a bombed, smoldering house, shouting and then listening for survivors, he saw a piece of shrapnel glistening in the moonlight.  "When I picked it up it was still 'ot." Although he was on patrol all night he rushed home and woke me to give me the shrapnel. Perhaps he wanted to communicate the miracle of his deliverance.
            For many years I treasured that odd-shaped hunk of metal sent from Germany to kill. I imagined a being wrapped in darkened shrouds hunched over his weapons. Motivated by strange beliefs he dropped his bombs over the blackened city, now alight with spreading explosions scattered like dice on a vast checkered board.  Swathed in darkness he finished his deadly business and flew on. He came to kill my father, but my father lived.
During the Second World War the East End of London was devastated by German bombs. Whole neighborhoods were reduced to ruins. Brick Lane is a narrow scar that winds through the East End, connecting the districts of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, their bucolic origins long since submerged under layers of decaying slums and bomb-sites.  The Bethnal Green end of the Lane was the center of the woodworking and furniture-making area.  It was honeycombed with hundreds of shops of all sizes, making cupboards, tables, chairs, and during the War even Mosquito aircraft.
My father's workshop was a single room directly on the Lane itself.  Wood of all types and sizes was stacked around every inch of it. I was fascinated by the different types of wood and loved to repeat their strange names, "sycamore, mahogany." I never envisaged them as trees. A huge bench covered with tools dominated the dark room.
When he was not there I would quietly enter this sanctuary and gaze around in awe at the strange objects. I loved to see the planes hung in ascending sizes, their flat shiny surfaces reflected my distorted face.  The curly shavings and sawdust crunched under my feet. I carefully grasped the bradawl and, mimicking my father, dug a hole in a piece of lumber.
The shop contained no wood working machinery, since my father could not afford it, and preferred to do as much work as possible by hand. He only used the machines in adjoining shops when he had to, and then he paid for them. He considered himself to be a cabinet-maker, and was insulted if anyone referred to him as a carpenter. Sometimes I would have to help my father. The smell of the hot glue repelled me, yet for years that pungent, acrid odor brought a flood of memories.
As he poured the molten glue my father yelled, "nah rub it in."  I hastened to obey his commands, brandishing the sharp-bristled brush. "Spread it, spread it all over."  I spread the gelling, brown goo, while he carefully retrieved a piece of veneer from the tub of water.  Then he quickly and expertly laid the precious fine sheet of wood onto the sticky surface. Using a flat-edged tool he began to express the glue from between the two pieces of wood. It was crucial to prevent air bubbles and to remove lumps of undissolved glue.  His forearm muscles bulged and the veins in his hands stood out like blue rivulets as he applied all his strength. In the small, hot room his hair hung down in dank strands, acting as conduits for the sweat that poured from him. It dripped steadily onto the veneer, becoming one with the glue. When he was satisfied he took the huge iron off the gas ring and pressed the veneer until it was bonded with the wood beneath. Then he trimmed the edges, and raised the veneered wood high in both hands like a torah to see its beautiful grain etched in the dim light.
(Copyright  © Jack Cohen)


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