The cacophony of the city took on a new chorus when the construction of a new corporate imprint on the London skyline began. The whining of earth chewing machines carving out the footing for the new monolith metres into the historic soil, and soon argentine rods sprouted the intention of new growth. It was only the unexpected discovery of ‘them’ that slowed the anthem of progress.
It started with the desperate crackle of a two-way radio in the site construction office. ‘Base, this is Pit One. We got a situation here, guv.’
‘What is it this time, Baldwin? Tell me it’s not another bloody medieval gravesite,’ was the annoyed reply of the construction site supervisor, standing, moving the blinds to peer out the window toward the source of the annoyance.
‘It’s worse than that, Guv,’ came the reply. ‘They’re alive!’
In the pit all worked had stopped and a cluster of several dozen men provided a constant hum of speculation directed toward a foreboding five-foot high tunnel off the main pit. The site supervisor, half-running toward his foreman, had to shout over the din of the mumblecrust. ‘What the bloody hell do you mean ‘alive’? If this is some sort of…’
The collective gasp from the assembled workers was enough to interrupt him, and, there in the middle of the city, all sound seemingly stopped. The toots, screeches and constant combustion muffled into nothing and all available eyes stared at the tunnel opening.
From deep inside the blackness, on the edge of available light, a shuffling sound preceded an old pair of worn leather shoes, the toe caps popped up from the soles to reveal tattered grey-black socks. In the full sunlight, the shoes stopped. Dozens of quiet eyes followed the stooped figure’s rise from looking at his feet to meeting their intense stares full frontal.
The figure stood erect. It was a vision of greyness, from long, scrambled hair and twisted full beard, to the heavy double breasted greatcoat wrapped around a frame supported by patchworked trouser legs. Instead of a face there were two large flat glasses for eyes, surrounded by a mask of rubber, all of which was flecked with dried mud. Diagonally bisecting the greatcoat was a wide khaki belt leading to a bag at his waist. On the head was a cheese cutter hat. It was of indeterminate age, save for possible carbon dating.
The crowd of construction workers leans in the opposite direction as the figure’s arm moves up to the face and slowly peels off the rubber and glass revealing the grey face of an elderly man. Squinting through eye-slits against the sunlight, the man puts his mask under one arm, pinning it in place with his elbow and raises his hand horizontally across his forehead to better see the people before him with his sun-blinded eyes.
Like a giant basking shark, the collective mouths of the workers are agape at what they are witnessing. One man in the front, perceiving the tunnel figure’s gesture wrongly, slowly raises his hand in a return salute and keeps it in place until he realises the error and tries to pretend he was only wiping his brow, lowering his head to help his hand slowly return to his side.
The figure looks around the construction pit at the sea of yellow protective helmets and day-glo vests, then upwards eight storeys, taking in the huge crane branded ‘Schmitt’ along its working beak, and musters a crackled voice to ask: ‘Are you Germans?’ As the man scans faces under his hand to forehead for some sign of recognition of his words, there is no answer, no voice from the crowd courageous enough to reply. ‘Sprechen zie Deutsche?’ the figure tries in a louder voice. Still the reply is silence.
The workers lean back in unison, mouths still catching the wind, as the silence is broken by a muffled, incomprehensible voice from inside the tunnel. The man turns, bends and re-enters the tunnel head first, speaking to someone inside. Slowly he backs out holding the hand of that someone else, stooped by the constrictions of the passage. Into the sunlight the crowd sees another figure led out, bathed in the same grey cast, same tattered clothing and gnarled hair as the man. Her face too is gas masked and covered with what once was a brightly coloured babushka. Her trailing arm reveals that she is holding the hand of a third, much taller figure, this one covered in what appears to be an undersea diver’s helmet, a bell-shaped metallic contraption with a circle of glass the size of a dinner plate. Inside the spectators can clearly see the face of a younger bearded man, with long dark hair filling the sides of the container on his head.
Now the assemblage adopts a collective puzzled look as the crowd on one side faces the three shabby figures opposite with a five-metre buffer of mud and construction debris between them. The stare-down continues beyond polite levels until the construction site manager, safely three rows behind his charges, pushes his way to the front and steps into no-man’s land.
‘All right, that’s it!’ he says angrily, pointing a solitary finger at the bedraggled three, but talking to his foreman. ‘Now we’ve got bloody illegal immigrants tunnelling into the country. Call the Old Bill, Baldwin.’
Across the divide, the old man quietly speaks to his group. ‘They don’t sound German. Sound like us.’ The woman agrees with a series of nods, so the man tries again, this time to the site supervisor.
‘Ello there. I’m Barry. An this is me other half, Sylvia. And me boy, Winston. There’s no need for the Old Bill, we’re just the Andersons.’
The site supervisor is not moved from his original opinion of the situation and stabs his finger at the offenders to underline his words.
‘We’ll see. You’ll find we’re not the soft touch country you think we are.’
It wasn’t until later, inside the police station interview room, that the group was allowed a word, and then the Old Bill didn’t like those words.
‘Stone the crows! You’re makin’ a big mistake ‘ere. We’re Brits. Hell, named me boy ‘ere after our prime minister. Now if we can just go on our way.’ The tattered group was sitting on one side of table, facing a uniformed officer and a detective.
‘Not until we sort this out,’ the uniformed officer said.
The detective, a middle aged man named Horth, was dressed in his new catalogue black leather reefer jacket (50 weeks, £1.98 week!) which glistened in the fluorescent light. ‘And you don’t have any sort of identification? Driving licence? Passport? National Insurance card? Something that can prove you are who you say you are?’
Barry is quizzical at first, then, like a man who has lost a wallet, searches through the grimy layers surrounding him, patting pockets present and absent. Coming up empty he turns to Sylvia who also goes through the pat-pat routine until she hits something. She turns sideways for modesty and sticks a dirty hand down into her cleavage, retrieving a worn leather wallet and hands it silently to Barry. Cautiously, Barry offers it to the man in the shiny black leather coat. The detective thumbs through the yellowed papers, placing some on the desk before them, cautiously at first, as though he were handling a rare manuscript, but, upon reading each piece of paper, increasingly slaps them to the table.
‘Ration books? Food coupons?’ The leather wallet follows the papers to the table. ‘Are you takin’ the mick? I want to know who you are and where you came from. If you want to claim political asylum, you must declare it now.’
‘No. I keep tellin’ ya, we’re from London. We’re not political at all. We’ve been underground since the bomb hit. You know – Hitler? The Nazis?’
‘You expect us to believe that you’ve been in a hole in the ground since World War Two?’
‘Oh my giddy aunt! It weren’t a hole in the ground when we was there. It were our Anderson shelter. Course, at first I didn’t believe it would do us any good…just more government trying to make us feel better. But I’ve come to be a believer,’ Barry says with emphasis.
Sylvia nods in agreement. Winston watches their performance with no expression on his face.
‘What about you son?’ the detective enquires. ‘You got anything on you that proves who you are?’ Winston moves his upper torso back, afraid of the question, then looks for Barry and Sylvia for support. ‘He don’t have nothin’ more than what we’ve got,’ Barry interjects. ‘We’ve never even got him a birth certificate.’
‘Right. This isn’t going anywhere,’ the detective said leaning down across the table to confront the trio. ‘I’ll say it again: do you expect us to believe that you’ve been underground for 63 years?’
‘Do you think we’d stay in there? We’ve been waiting for someone to rescue us.’ Barry turns to his wife and son for affirmative and they nod in agreement. ‘By the way, did we win?’
‘The war, of course.’
Horth looks at the officer in frustration, rolling his eyes upward and withholding an answer just like you would from naughty children demanding answers to the obvious. The detective waves to the uniformed officer to join him outside the room.
As the door closes behind the departing men Winston ventures an opinion in a whispered tone. ‘Guess not. Gawd ‘elp us. Now we’re in for it.’
The group of four men in fluorescent jackets and health and safety helmet crawled their way through the crude dirt tunnel, their light-sabres of battery-powered illumination showing the way into the earth tube. Ahead lay the answers to the origin of the sub-species that had just escaped. Outside, in the innards of the construction site, police hierarchy and immigration stood guard, waiting for answers. They were complemented by a score of underlings ready serve their every whim. Their radio crackled: ‘Awright, base. This is Echo Charlie 2. Nothing but dirt and more dirt, so far, Guv and we’re at about 150 meters now. How much farther you want us? Over.’ ‘Keep going until you’ve got something to talk about,’ was the command.
And so they continued to crawl. ‘Me Dad was a miner,’ one crawler, the one bringing up the rear ventured mostly to hear the sound of his own voice. There was no answer.
‘Watch it!,’ the lead crawler warned. ‘There’s a drop-off just ahead. It’s…’ He inched forward. ‘It’s an entrance of some sort with corrugated around it like an igloo.’ He reached for his walkie. ‘Awright, base. This is Echo Charlie 2 and now I’ve got something to talk about.’
‘What’s that then?’
‘We come up to some sort of entrance. It’s got a half-round sheet of that corrugated steel over it, and right in the middle is a door. I’m opening it now…’ He pushed hard on the wood and it swung back to give up its secrets to the sweep of his torch. ‘Oh my gawd!’
Barry was sitting at the police interview table surrounded by two PCs and three other high-ranking police – enough big brass to build a tuba with.
‘We was blasted early one morning. 1945 it were. 27 March. I figure it were one of those rocket thingies because we never heard any bombers or anything…just a big whoosh and then it went all dark. Course me and her was in our Anderson. We always slept there, just in case. It were dark, but then I’m used to seeing dark after all them years.’
One of the brass, the one with the whitest hair, stepped forward. ‘Mr Anderson…’
‘Oh, it’s just Barry m’lud.’
‘Barry. If we are to believe that you’ve been buried inside your Anderson shelter for the past 60 some years, can you tell us how you managed to survive? What did you eat? How did you get enough exercise in one of those shelters? I mean, it beggars belief.’
‘Oh that’s easy m’lud. I was a trader y’see and I had access to all sorts during the war. Well, not the military essentials, y’understand. At one time I had five Andersons hooked up. But it weren’t just the Andersons as I told the other coppers, no sir. It were where those shelters led us. We found us an even better shelter after we figured there weren’t nobody coming to rescue us. And I had, let’s say, enough for us to live on. I told you, I had access.’
There was a whispered conference among the brass after this declaration, with the whitest hair man asking: ‘How could you find a better shelter Mr Anderson?’
‘Barry. Well, when we sussed there weren’t nobody coming for us we started digging, figuring we’d find a way out. But it seems we just found a bigger room. It were some sort of old Victorian sewer system, all high brick walls and a river running right through it. It had everything we needed.’ Barry looked at the whitest hair man and noticed a bulge in one of his pockets. ‘You don’t suppose I could cadge one of them fags?’
An exasperated high-ranking police official in the construction site pit grabbed the walkie and screamed: ‘Oh my god, what? What have you found?’ The answer came back immediately.
‘Sir, it’s like an underground cavern here. From the back of the shelter we found a short tunnel that led to this huge brick vault, like some sort of ancient sewer. There’s stuff everywhere. Like a rubbish tip. And some patchy furniture, even a bed. Somebody’s been living here alright sir.’
‘Alright. Take some photos and return. We’ll sort this out at HQ.’
Barry was now exhaling a long stream of white smoke from the confines of his beard. ‘If you don’t mind me asking m’lud, what’s this little brown bit at the end?’
‘It’s a filter. Helps keep the bad stuff out,’ replied one of the PCs before the whitest hair man could answer. ‘Nothing bad about this. I ran out about 50 years back. Never thought I’d see a fag again.’
‘You’re saying you had a 60 year supply of food underground with you Mr Anderson? That’s somehow hard to believe. Like what for example?’
‘Well, no I didn’t have 60 years’ worth. But like I told you I had access as a trader. We had the basics and then there was the food that we could catch.’
‘Well, yes, m’lud. Sylvia there is pretty good with fixing up meals.’
‘There’s more than one way to skin a rat, if you know what I mean sir,’ Sylvia added with a laugh at her own pun. Winston showed her support by reaching over and patting her back several times with his wide smile.
After the shocked looks at the very idea of main course rat there was another whispered conference with the brass assessing the information they had. But it was Barry who kept the conversation going.
‘Pardon me m’lud, but we’re all still confused about this. We ain’t getting any straight answers: Did we win the war, or are you just working for the Germans?’
‘Yeah,’ Sylvia piped up, ‘We’d just like to know who we’re dealing with here. I mean there weren’t much news coming through our home.’
‘If I am to believe your story Mrs Anderson,’ the whitest hair man said, ‘then I suppose the question is cogent. Actually, we won the war.’
‘Who’s we?’ Sylvia shot back. ‘You sound like an Englishman, but how do we know you’re not on their side?’
‘We. The English, won the war,’ was the reply.
Barrie and Sylvia embraced and Winston, who had been sensibly quiet throughout the interrogation, made it a threesome, embracing both Mum and Dad from behind, his gangly arms enveloping them shoulder to shoulder. ‘I told you!’ Winston shouted. They all jumped up and down and Barry even reached over to throw some papers in the air as substitute confetti.
The assembled law enforcement contingent watched this microcosmic VE Day celebration with a mixture of annoyance and awe. Detective Horth walked through the door in the middle of this celebration and stands and watches for a few seconds until the whitest hair man beckons him over to the corner of sanity. ‘Don’t ask,’ he says referring to the dancing threesome. ‘Something new for me?’ Horth leans over and whispers several sentences in his ear. ‘Mr Anderson? Mr Anderson, if you will?’ The celebration dies down and all eyes turn to the man with the whitest hair.
‘Mr Anderson, you are free to go. And there’s someone waiting for you out at the front desk. We will need to speak to you again, so make sure you leave us some contact details. Detective Horth here will show you the way and introduce you to someone who will ensure you have accommodation for the night.’
The long camel-haired overcoat shouted upper class expensive exposed as it was now in the interior of a police station. It was draped over the frame of a silver-haired, perma-tanned man standing at the sergeant’s desk in a way that suggested a 30’s black and white film – the arms of the coat hanging empty-handed, and the man gesturing independent of the cashmere appendages.
‘Something big is happening here,’ a passing PC stage-whispered to his companion. They stop a respectable distance away within sight of the man.
‘That’s Alex Whitford. Recognise him?’
‘Not really. Big man is he? Gangster type?’
‘No…he’s the guy what’s made a living out of getting publicity and shed-loads of money for people who want to make the most of their 15 minutes of fame. So either some pop star’s been nicked for drugs, or…hold on a minute…’ The PC hears a conversation start with the sergeant and hopes his super-hearing can pick up some of it.
‘Three people, a man a woman and a child, sergeant. I’m their…guardian, if you will. They were brought in from a construction site I believe,’ Alex said to the sergeant.
‘Yes sir. I believe they are about to be released, Mr Whitford,’ the sergeant says. ‘Can you let them know I’m waiting please? I’ve arranged accommodation and it’s getting late.’ He looks at his Girard-Perregaux, then around the room noticing the two PCs hovering.
The remote listeners immediately mimic looking at a clip board, and decide on an exit strategy – closest door and out.
‘I told you it was something big,’ the PC said on the other side of the door.
So, when a paparazzo called him with a tip that the police were holding three people buried in a bomb shelter since world war two, he didn’t flinch or question, but instead started the publicity machine rolling.
It was he who was waiting for the Andersons at the police station. It was he who arranged a hotel suite for them. It was he who had arranged new clothes and toiletries for them. It was he who would arrange the orgy of media that lie ahead. He and his son Jefferson, the apprentice PR man. Jefferson is a photocopy of his father, immaculately groomed, but in a younger style.
‘We’ll take full responsibility for them sergeant. Not to worry,’ Jefferson said. The introductions were done while walking down a darkened corridor toward a side exit Alex knew would throw off the scent to the troop of press waiting outside. His tipster would get exclusive access later.
‘What has the world come to?’ Barry asked as they wandered around the £1,250 a night suite. Barry and Syvia, still in their underground clothes, look over the luxurious amenities of the various rooms while Winston sits on the foot of a bed, TV remote control in hand. Oblivious to the function of what he holds, he’s not even facing the large flat screen mounted on the wall, but intuitively begins to push the buttons. Meanwhile, so many famous label shopping bags litter the floor that Barry and Syvia are drawn to wade through the tissue wrapped contents.
Barry holds up a pair of Y fronts, ‘These are the whitest smalls I’ve seen since we got married.’ Sylvia nods in agreement and holding up a pair of thigh-revealing underwear.
‘These knickers look like they’ve been through the war, Barry. Had a hip shot off.’ She opens them and holds them against her waist. ‘Both hips!’
Barry reads from the tag sewn inside, ‘Gordon Bennett! I thought they was meant to be getting us NEW clothes. What else they got in here?’ As they rummage in the bags.
Outside posh hotel suite Alex Whitford and son Jefferson conferred before knocking.
Alex conspired to his son, ‘Now, just so we’re clear: Whilst I talk to the Andersons, you’ll take young Winston under your wing. This whole retro family will be a mega-event, but the boy is the key. Show him the ropes of whatever it is young people do.’
Jefferson complied ‘For the agreed price, yes Father.’
Loud rap music startled Alex who looking to Jefferson knocked urgently on the door.
‘I wanna touch you, feel you, know your sex. You know you wanna mama, ‘cause I’m da best. Put yousef against me, feel da rise. It what’s you want baby, my secret surprise.’
In the hotel room Barry and Sylvia look around, then react quickly. Leaping on the bed, they wrestle the remote away from Winston’s tight grip. As Barry gains control, all slowly turn in wide-eyed horror at the image on the wide-screen television. With late 20th century instinct, Winston co-holds the remote while they all watch. On the television, the rap song continues with scantily clad women dancing and backing up the singer. ‘Sex me up, sex me down. Turn me around. Sex me up, sex me down. Turn me around. Put yousef against me, feel da rise. It what’s you want baby, my secret surprise.’
Louder is a knock on the door and Sylvia scrambles off the bed shaking her head in the interminable din. She opens the door with a helpless look on her face to Alex and Jefferson who instantly realise what is occurring. Jefferson strides over to the bed, and seizing the remote from a still struggling Barry and Winston, casually mutes the television.
Barry, relieved, shouts, ‘Bloody hell! That’ll clear out yer earwax. What the bloody…’
Alex answers, ‘Television. The media. Your ticket to fame and fortune Mr Anderson.’
Barry insists ‘You ain’t getting me up in no striptease film.’ And nodding towards Sylvia, ‘Her neither. And Winston, he don’t know about such things.’
Jefferson reassures them, ‘It’s only MTV, a music show. The best selling music of the week on television.’
Barry is now drowning in deep disbelief, ‘You mean Vera Lynn’s dead?’
Alex diplomatically proffers, ‘In a musical sense, yes. We have much to do Mr Anderson, everybody wants your story, and we have to make sure we make the most out of it. I wanted to get you settled. We need to look at how we’re going to handle this. Jefferson. Look after young Winston.’
Jefferson shows Winston the bedroom door and it closes behind them leaving the adults alone in the living room. Barry is all ears, ‘Well you can start by telling us what we missed.’
Alex opens his mouth to answer and what exits is a speedy montage of news events from 1945-present. At the end, Barry and Sylvia are legs akimbo on a sofa, exhausted by the march of time. A timid Barry can’t quite contain himself, ‘So Elizabeth’s the Queen, and the Queen has a band, and the Germans are our friends? Plus we have a cinema in every home, electronic post, £90-thousand a week footballers, a man on the moon, and fish ‘n chips ain’t our favourite food no more?’
That night in the posh hotel suite bedroom, Winston and Jefferson are seated at a table.
Winston whines, ‘I don’t know much about what’s happened since we was under, ‘n Dad says you’re to tell me.’
Jefferson begins gently, ‘Right young Winston…it all started about twenty years ago…’ and a young person’s oral history of everything missed comes out quickly in an uncut montage including bands, drugs, fashion and electronic gadgets.
Winston wants to know, ‘So, I can chain me trousers front to back, wear a bead necklace and ‘f-c-u-k’ on me shirt, and girls can dress in their smalls so’s you can see their protuberances. And they bounce to really loud music like what we just saw. I can drink and smoke lots of whatever I want, Lord luv a duck! I’m glad we won the war.’
In the ultra posh men’s clothing store, an army of solicitous sales people scurry about carrying armloads of trendy men’s clothing for Jefferson to veto or accept on behalf of his new prodigy. Winston is now cleaned and polished to an outwardly sharp young man but uncomfortable in his new clothes, he fingers the jumper embroidered ‘BEN SHERMAN.’
Winston needs to know, ‘Why I’ve got to wear Mr Sherman’s clothes? Doesn’t he want them anymore?’
Jefferson explains, ‘Because it’s a brand. And you wear so people will respect you. It’s the way things are here, my dear boy.’
Winston is now eager to confirm, ‘Tell me again about those girls who show their sparkly stomachs. Will they respect me? Why do some have sparkly stomachs and some don’t?’
Jefferson realizes, ‘Oh yes. But we must do a lot more towards your education. What do you know about girls anyway?’
The next day a knot of trendy, pierced navel, barely dressed teenage girls chatter excitedly and point toward Winston.
One girl whispers ‘It is! That’s Leonardo. I think I’d know him when I saw him.’
‘That’s Sweet Barry,’ Cargill says. ‘He’s alive!’
The news was flickering on the small TV set hanging off the wall in the sitting room of the care home. Barely half a dozen of the residents were there and only one was watching, the rest involved in their own worlds.
‘Who’s that who’s alive?’ said Parbinger from his wheelchair, the only one who heard the exclamation. ‘Sweet Barry from Stepney. Had a gimp leg what kept him out of the war. We all heard one of them Vee-twos got him and his missus back in ’45. But that sure is the Sweet Barry I knew. He was a right old magpie.’
‘And he’s ‘sweet’ why?’
‘’Cause Barry once had nearly two tonnes of sugar during the war. Never did hear where it came from, but folks didn’t much ask questions back then. Made him a fortune, he did, and the name Sweet Barry stuck. Now they’ve dug him up, didn’t they?’
‘Thought you said he was alive?’
‘He was. He is. Claims he’s been buried in his Anderson shelter since ’45 and some builders just dug him and his missus up. And their kid and all. Sweet Jesus that man has all the luck.’
‘I thought you said his name was Sweet Barry?’
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…