Some people seem to have a remarkably close relationship with Death, and their very long lives are punctuated by what for the vast majority of people would be regarded as very close encounters of the fatal kind whenever Death comes calling. For a fortunate few, when Death arrives it is more like a visit by a much loved uncle.
Thoughts of Death and his hit and miss progress through all of human lives came this week when I saw within a day or two a film of the Spanish Civil War and one of those British crime films where someone either jumps or is pushed in front of a London Underground train. Two names and memories of long-ago friends immediately came to mind. George, a foreman at the factory where I worked, and Tubby Abrahams, a great news photographer best known for his work with the Keystone agency.
Both are no longer with us, so to speak. However long Death may spare some individuals, amusing himself like a cat playing games with a mouse, eventually all must go on that one way journey when summoned. Death finally met both men and on that occasion when he left he took them with him.
Death was exceedingly busy during the London blitz, and on the night he met George he spared his life – but broke his heart instead.
George, his wife, his 15-year-old son, and is 12-year-old daughter slept each night in a shelter, one of hundreds built under railway arches – despite the fact that the railway lines that ran above were prime bombing targets. Each end of the arch was enclosed with a thick brick wall, there was a small door, and just inside, shielding the people inside the shelter, was an eight foot blast wall.
Every Friday evening, pay day, George and his family, along with friends sheltering in the arch, would leave the shelter for and hour or two for a drink at the local pub. For the first time ever no one felt like accompanying George to the pub. For the first time ever he left on his own.
As he reached the blast wall and the door he looked back into the shelter that had become a home from home – there was even a snooker table. His wife sat chatting with their neighbours, his son lay on the snooker table, doubled up with laughter as his daughter and her friends tickled him. At that moment his view was blocked by a very large lady who had walked up behind him, also intent on leaving. It was the last time he saw his family. As he entered the space between the blast wall and the door a deep penetration bomb landed on the railway line and exploded in the shelter.
When George came to he was covered with blood from head to foot. At first, he thought it was his own blood – later he realised the blood was that of the woman immediately behind him. There were no recognisable remains of her body.
As he stumbled to his feet he turned – and where the shelter had been was an enormous smoking hole in the ground. The brick walls at each end of the arch had been blown out and there was a neat hole in the roof, showing the sky above the rail line.
George had no visible wounds. When they had washed him clean of brick dust and blood there was not a scratch, not a bruise to be seen. No identifiable bodies of of any man, woman or child in the shelter that night were found – could be found. There was nothing to be found. The only survivor was George.
For weeks George existed in a half daze, in the streets, in the pubs, in shelters. Night and day, stamped into his waking and sleeping mind was the picture of his son, daughter, and wife with their happy group of friends seconds before Death snatched them away. The picture that was George's unseen wound, a source of unending pain and heartbreak.
One day George decided he'd had enough of pain and heartache. After a drink at the Elephant and Castle pub in south-east London George staggered to the near-by Underground station, made his way to one of the platform, whispered goodbye to his wife and children – and threw himself on to the electric rail.
Death still wasn't ready to take George – and the man who was saved on his way to a pub was now saved coming from a pub. At that moment, the power was switched off – not an uncommon experience in wartime London. This time George suffered some minor injuries but after a short time in hospital George got on with his life the best way he could.
He never completely recovered, of course, but there was a happy ending of sorts. Two years after losing his family George quite by chance met a lady – like himself she had lost her children and husband in the bombing. She had gone out, left her husband and three children in their flat, in order to go to the local grocery store .She had just reached the store when the bomb struck – and Death snatched her family away.
George, his wife, the widowed lady, and her husband had all been friends at school but had lost touch as they moved away, married and started families. George eventually married the widow, the one-time schoolgirl friend, and by the time I knew him he'd regained a measure of happiness – although he said, by agreement with his new wife, there would never again be children.