This story is a fantasy, but some of its background is true: the Belfast Blitz; the Auxiliary Fire Service; the Men from the South; and my toy fire-truck set…
I'd started to wonder if that toy was just a trick of memory, because in nearly fifty years I'd never seen another one. Despite eBay, Google and all the rest, it remained elusive. Then I found a photo on-line, from 1962, of a small boy playing with the exact same fire-truck set. He was even wearing the Fire Chief’s Helmet. That photo helped confirm my inspiration for the original story.
This present version has been slightly reworked from the one published in "The Magic Toybox" (2006). Partly I wanted to see it the way I'd like to have done with another week before deadline (I didn't get it, you never do) and partly because of the time of year and chatting with friends about Christmas presents after we watched A Christmas Story.
What is the best present? The one you really want to have ("a Red Ryder 200-shot BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time"), the one the manufacturers really want to sell you and all your friends are getting so your life will be incomplete without it (Cabbage Patch Dolls, Tracy Island) – or the one you don't even know exists until it's in your hands.
I know which did it for me.
The story had no printed dedication, but I knew who it was for from the moment it came together. My Mum liked it a lot. She'd never thought of her husband as a hero, but he was, and he even had a boring secret identity – an accountant(!) – yet when push came to shove he went to put out fires while the massed air force of an enemy nation tried to kill him for doing it.
He was a hero.
And he was my Dad.
THE LONGEST LADDER
© Peter Morwood 2005, 2013
“The longest ladder isn't the one where you never reach the top. It's the one where you never reach the bottom.”
– Robert George Smyth, Leading Fireman, AFS (NI) 1941
Everybody's had The Great Toy. I was lucky, if that's the word I'm looking for, because I had several.
They would be unwrapped with great ceremony on birthday or Christmas, and if they were especially handsome, then when I'd finished playing with them they'd be locked inside the china cabinet in the upstairs sitting-room. That sitting-room was, like in every house big enough to have one, the room that nobody went into except for weddings, christenings, funerals and in my family, at Christmas.
It wasn't some cruel parental trick, to give me a gift, allow me to admire it and then take it away again. Far from it. That china cabinet was a place of honour and a shrine to nice things: my Mum's and Dad's crystal, silver, porcelain, and now my plastic. That's where the Britains' Concord Overland Stagecoach lived, and the Herald Arctic Expedition Dogsled. They were perfect little replicas, far beyond toys. They were time capsules of their era, and thus far too good for any kid to play with on anything like a daily basis. So when I did play with them, I treated them carefully, because afterwards I knew they would be safe.
Between times, I could admire them through the glass of the cabinet, and show them off to friends who, though it was never said aloud, might not show the proper respect to something that wasn't their own. They were also thoroughly impressed by the company the toys were keeping. At first a toy stagecoach didn't look at ease among the Dresden and Royal Doulton china, the Waterford and Tyrone crystal, and the feather-light ceramic stuff with no name that Great-Uncle Johnny had brought back from China in the 1920s. But as time went by, that changed, and Mum's china cabinet became the appropriate place for such things to be.
Until one night…
It had been a terrific Christmas. I'm lucky enough to have had some really good ones, and this was the best I can remember. You'll see why.
The TV was fizzing away in the background. Since the Queen hadn't appeared for her usual lightweight talk yet, Mum and Dad weren't actually watching it, just using the sound to cover some sort of amiable parental discussion. Various relatives were gossiping; my sisters were comparing notes on some book of fashion as it related to a pair of expensively-dressed dolls, and I…
I was reading the instruction sheet for a new model aircraft, tentatively fitting parts together, and wishing I could get cracking with the paint and glue. No such luck. The order had come down from On High: "No weird chemical smells, not just yet. Let your dinner settle and have a bit of patience!"
It was the usual situation on a Christmas afternoon. The turkey and plum pudding had gone down a treat, and now the guests were probably thinking that with obligations discharged, they should move on to the next stage in the holiday social round. My parents were probably thinking that since no-one had so far said anything to provoke one of those icy family disagreements which happen so easily over the holidays, having the afternoon to themselves before the next lot arrived would be good. My sisters and I were definitely thinking that once they'd all left we could relax from Best Behaviour. We didn't intend to run amok, but what's the point of a stack of new toys when you have to play with them quietly?
And yet we were all so warm and well-fed and content that no one could be bothered to do any of that stuff.
The first notes of the National Anthem sounded from the TV, and various aunts hastily topped up their glasses of sherry before the Queen's Speech began. I wasn't interested in what she had to say, because at nine years old I regarded Our God-Saved Gracious Queen as a useful source of school holidays but not much else. So I folded up the instruction sheet, dropped the model pieces into their box, put the lid on and made my escape. With Christmas dinner over and Christmas supper still several hours of digestion away, there was pleasantly little else to do for the rest of the afternoon. I picked up a couple of the books I'd been given, and thought that if I went upstairs to the sitting-room, I would have some peace and quiet to read.
I was right about the peace and quiet. That was where we put the big Christmas tree, so that it wouldn't get in the way at dinner. This year it was a balsam pine rather than an ordinary fir-tree, and there was a scent like incense in the room. The only noise was the low murmur and crunch from a big coal fire well settled in the grate. It's very restful to lie on the rug in front of a fire like that, on a comfortably-full stomach, reading a book and occasionally stopping to take a mental inventory about how this Christmas's presents stacked up against those of previous years.
I hadn't done badly, not badly at all. Of course there were the things I wanted that I knew I was never going to get – the air rifle, for example. One of the aunts presently soaking up Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry downstairs was blind in one eye from an airgun pellet, so I didn't even bother asking any more. And there were things I'd wanted and never got because they disappeared so fast I might as well have imagined them. That plastic Roman centurion's helmet, for example, complete with the feather crest that was properly mounted crosswise, the only accurate toy version I've ever seen in my life.
But those rare disappointments were more than balanced on this Christmas by a toy – an amazing toy – I had never asked for, and never knew existed…
I was still half-drowsing over the book when my Dad came in quietly. I only knew he was there when I smelt the pipe that came out on special occasions, and glanced up in surprise at the package in his arms, a huge thing covered with vivid blue and gold wrapping-paper. He bent down to put it on the floor beside me, then patted me on the head and said, "Those exam results were better than Mum and I ever expected. Well done."
He went away in a trail of warm tweed jacket and fragrant pipe-smoke and left me with the present. I didn't get a chance to get over my surprise, or even say thanks, and maybe that was how he meant it to be. My dad had his own sense of style.
I sat up and pulled the wrapping paper off to reveal the more ordinary brown paper underneath. Inside that was a cardboard box with a picture printed on it. Nowadays, the art would be considered crude: no photos, no lavish description, just black and red ink on the white cardboard. But it illustrated the contents of the box, and that was enough: a fireman's outfit – and what an outfit!
The wording was surprisingly bland by comparison with the excitable way it would be written now; to this day I can't recall if there was a single exclamation mark anywhere in the dry text. All the excitement was reserved for the lucky kid who got that box. A kid like me.
The label simply read "FDNY Fire Chief Set. Classic 1930s Pump and Aerial Ladder trucks. With full crew. Chief's Helmet with Shield."
I was astounded. "FDNY" as in Fire Department of New York? For a kid living in Belfast's suburbs in the early Sixties, this could hardly have more rarity value if it had come from the Moon. I tore back the lid and the initial impression I got was of red. No, of RED, and most of that impression of redness came from the strangely-shaped helmet at the very top of the box.
Certainly it was strangely shaped to my eyes, bigger and bolder than anything a Northern Irish fireman would have worn. The ribbed, cross-braced crown had a gilded eagle-head supporting a big shield in front, and the enormous brim and neck-flap were completely unlike anything I'd seen before. The local helmets had high front-to-back combs like something a dragoon might wear when fighting Napoleon at Waterloo. By contrast this American helmet looked medieval, something from the Wars of the Roses exhibition that I'd seen in the Tower of London on a summer holiday. When I put it on my head and snugged the chinstrap in place, Arthur Pendragon wearing the crown of Britain couldn't have felt more grand.
But the helmet was just the gilding on a spectacular lily. When I turned my attention back to the box, underneath where it had been was not just one fire-engine, but two. Both were vivid scarlet with big, chunky black tires, white rubber hoses that could pull out from their reels, and the articulated aerial truck – with its own driver at the back! – had a tremendous ladder that at full extension was taller than I was. The deep, rich colour of the vehicles was splendidly enhanced by the chrome on radiator grilles and bumpers, pumps, exhausts and hose nozzles. They all sparkled, the hubcaps on the big black-and-red wheels gleamed; the extinguishers on their running-boards and the levers to operate the ladder were mirror-bright.
They might just have been toy fire-engines when my Dad bought them, but to me they looked like jewels.
I don't know, even now, what a real full crew means, or whether the toy-set had left out anyone important. But my crew was made up of thirty little red-plastic firemen with white-plastic helmets. They had clip-shaped hands to hold their white-plastic hoses, extinguishers, axes, and weird hooked spears that looked like fishing-gaffs.
Those little clip hands also allowed them to climb the ladders mounted on their engines, one hand for the ladder and another for a hose or for someone needing rescued. It didn't matter to me if the burning building thick with smoke was my youngest sister's doll-house, or just a cardboard box with cut-out windows, either of them draped with as much cotton-wool as I hoped Mum wouldn't miss. It didn't matter either that the victim being rescued was usually one of the doll-house inhabitants, stiffly expressionless and no more impressed by their plight than a wooden chess-piece. One of my new fire crew would save them: he – I – knew what to do to get them out of there.
When I had that helmet on, when I was playing with those fire engines, I was always equal to any task. I was a real fireman.
Just like my Dad had been.
He'd been in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the War, while holding down some other essential full-time job at the same time, but he didn't talk much about what he'd seen or done and I got the feeling that it had been boring. After all, Belfast was so far from the German bomber bases in Occupied France that London, or Coventry, or even Liverpool was much easier to reach. By the time I was ten I could quote chapter and verse on the reasons why, because I had a new hobby: building model kits of Second World War aircraft.
I'd been doing that for only six months but already, the way some kids today can remember and pronounce multi-syllable dinosaur names in a way their parents can hardly credit, I could rattle off the performance figures for every plane I'd put together. If there was a mistake in a movie or a TV show, it was my duty to point it out. At length. When The Battle of Britain came out, Dad took me to see it in the local cinema, but after the fourth shrill whisper of "Look! There they are again! I told you! Even the German planes have got British engines!" he was ready to either leave the place or throttle me. He did neither, which shows just what a nice man he really was. Even if his son was often a pain in the neck.
I was gluing yet another kit together when my Dad came in from visiting a friend in hospital. He was looking much more cheerful than when he'd gone out, so my Mum already sounded relieved when she asked him "How's Tommy?"
"Much better. He'll be home before Easter, and probably well enough for the reunion dinner."
"He should cut down on his cigarettes," Mum started to say, then pinned Dad with a hard stare. "Come to that, so should you."
"Another New Year resolution down in flames," said Dad. "I could write a book on giving up smoking; I've done it so many times." He sniffed, and his nose wrinkled at the pungent smell of Airfix glue as he looked over at where I was working. "At it again. If you spent as much time on your studies…"
"All right, son. I know, I know. Your mother wouldn't have let you start that unless your homework's done. So that's all right then. And what's this going to be? Another Spitfire? No, two engines. Beaufighter? Mosquito?"
I turned the box-top over to show him, and said, "Heinkel."
"Oh. Another one of theirs." The corner of his mouth tugged down a bit; he never said anything much about it, but looking back over far too many years, I think he was a little unhappy about how many Luftwaffe aircraft I built. As far as he was concerned, they were still the Bad Guys. After all, it wasn't so long ago that they'd been dropping bombs on him. "Heinkel bombers were mostly what Tom and the rest of us saw during the Blitz."
"Not this one, Dad. The ones in the Blitz were the early types with a dorsal emplacement. That's a sort of greenhouse-thing on the back. This has a proper upper turret…"
Then I stopped my babbling, because there was an odd expression on my father's face as he picked up the half-built kit. He pretended to study it, gave me a long, thoughtful look, and set it down again. "Turret, emplacement, whatever. I'm sorry to be so poorly informed about the fine details of aircraft terminology, son. But it looks enough like one from the Blitz for me. Don't forget, I only ever saw them from underneath…"
He went off to get himself a cup of tea, and started chatting to my Mum, leaving me embarrassed and somehow unnerved. I wasn't sure why. But I found out.
The reunion party two weeks later started in our sitting-room as it usually did, with twenty or so middle-aged men in dinner-jackets and their wives in going-out dresses, all gossiping about stuff that meant nothing to me until the taxis arrived to take them to the restaurant and dance-hall. My sisters had gone to stay at a friend's house for the night, so I was all by myself when I was brought in to make my introductions. That was when I got to show off the two big American fire-engines in the china cabinet, and natter on about how detailed they were.
I was pleased at how closely the older men looked at them, so pleased that I didn't notice how strange some of those looks were.
Aunt Margaret was minding the house while Mum and Dad went off to the dinner, and she was pretty strict about bedtime. That was why, for the first time since Christmas, I didn't have time to put the toys and the Fire Chief helmet back into the cabinet before I had to make my goodnights. Instead the vehicles were carefully set out on a shelf in my room, and the helmet was perched on a bedpost over my head. They were still there when I finished reading my book, turned out my light and lay back to sleep.
There were bombers overhead. Plastic ones, from Airfix and Revell, Frog and even hard-to-find Lindberg. A Heinkel, a Junkers and a Dornier flew in tight formation across my bedroom ceiling, suspended on fine white thread. They were harried by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, and if the Spitfire was a Mk IX from 1943 and the Hurricane was a Mk IIb from the Western Desert, it didn't matter much. Airfix had done their best, the intent was there, the Bad Guys were being shot down, and I could sleep well.
Lying back in bed and staring up into the darkness, I could see the vague outlines of the model planes as no more than silhouettes against the white paint of the ceiling. Someone's car turned the corner at the end of our road and a beam of light shone through a crack where my bedroom curtains didn't meet. The car continued its turn, and the light continued its sweep like a searchlight from some wartime newsreel. It illuminated the planes as it passed. But not all of them. The Spitfire and the Hurricane remained hidden in shadow, and only the German bombers showed briefly before the darkness swallowed them up again.
There are times, just as you're drifting off to sleep, when you jerk all over as if you're trying to keep yourself from falling out of bed. This was one of those times – except that the jerk felt like something had lifted the entire bed into the air and let it drop.
And then it happened again and I was suddenly, shockingly wide awake with a blast of icy wind hitting me full in the face. It was no draft from an open window, but the sort of wind that forces tears from your eyes.
I blinked the tears away, and what swam into focus as my vision cleared made no sense at all. There was no bed and no bedroom. Instead I was staring down a night-time road illuminated only by the harsh yellow-white glare of headlights and the staccato flash of red emergency blinkers. Between me and the road was a windscreen, and it wasn't doing nearly enough to break the freezing hurricane that came at me over the long bonnet covering a very big engine indeed.
That engine was roaring at full throttle as the vehicle plunged down its self-made tunnel of light. Its cab had no roof, no walls, no doors and I stared around in disbelief, feeling horribly exposed not just to the wind but to the landscape. The hedges were bad enough, but the occasional buildings or stone walls were far worse, whipping past entirely too close to my elbow. Whatever I was in, was big. And the strangest thing was that though I was sitting on the extreme right of the wide, leather-upholstered bench seat, there was no steering wheel!
I half-turned toward the man at my left and looked past him toward a driver sitting on entirely the wrong side. The dim glow from the dashboard instruments didn't light up their faces very well. The reflection from the headlamps helped a bit, but those flashing red lights did strange things to the shadows so that the only thing I could be sure about was that my two companions were both wearing helmets with a familiar silhouette. American fire helmets.
Helmets like – I put up a nervous hand – the one on my own head…
And abruptly it all made sense. Like every other time I'd worn that Helmet, I was equal to the task. I knew what we had to do.
Recognition flooded through me at the sight of the red hazard beacons all around, the Mars lights with their unmistakable figure-eight wig-wag, the Buckeye Roto-Rays spinning like electric Catherine-wheels. There was another vehicle close behind my own, engine bellowing, and though I couldn't see beyond the glare of its headlights I knew it would be an aerial ladder truck. If they had ever really been toys on a shelf, they were much more than that now. They were full-size fire-engines with their emergency blinkers furiously flashing as they stormed along a country road.
"Bells and sirens," I said, "now." The man sitting next to me threw a switch on the dashboard and the bell on the pumper I was riding started clanging. A few seconds later the siren spooled up to an ululating banshee yowl. It was echoed by the same alarms from the aerial ladder behind me, until we were racing through the night on the wings of off-key song.
Then we started slowing down. Other lights ahead of us were waving from side to side, and the headlamps picked up a striped wooden barricade across the road. As the pumper truck rolled to a stop, someone flicked the beam of a torch full into my face.
"Quicker than we were expecting," said the man behind the light. "No complaints there." The torchlight played over my truck, then the big aerial wagon behind me, and that same voice muttered something that sounded like an oath. "Where the hell did you come from? Drogheda? Dundalk?"
For an instant the significance of those names didn't register, but I knew what the label on the box had said, and what the letters on the golden helmet-shield stood for.
"Noo Yawk," I said in an American accent learned from too many Westerns, and tried not to grin when the voice swore again, this time in disbelief. "We were on a courtesy call," I added quickly. "One neutral country to another."
"I wasn't expecting—" he started to say, then there was a brief exchange I couldn't hear and a couple of raspy opinions. "I'm not objecting, understand that," the man went on. "And we appreciate the courtesy call too. But listen, if we're getting unexpected help from neutrals, then maybe we should look out for the Swiss and the Swedish fire brigades as well. They might not speak English as well as you do, er…?"
"Chief." That was what it said on my helmet, anyway. "New York Ladder Company—" I grabbed for a number "—Twenty-Five."
"You're a bit young for a chief, aren't you?" My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and the man with the torch had POLICE in big white letters across his helmet. It was a British Army helmet, a real "tin hat" from the Second World War. There was another man behind him, and though I couldn't see anything worth reading on his helmet, I could see the Lee-Enfield rifle cradled in his hands. It wasn't pointed at me, at least not quite.
"My first turn-out. I wasn't expecting it." That was no more than the truth.
"Like I said, no objections," the policeman said. "But my God, you've got a big one for your first. Happy Easter, chum! Now let's have those lights out. You don't have black-out hoods on them. Jerry's been able to find his way in well enough tonight, so let's not make it any easier, eh?"
"Right." When the headlights and the emergency blinkers went out it got darker than I could have believed, an almost tangible blackness studded with stars and stitched with the thin beams of shrouded torches. Then a couple of dim red beacons lit up ahead of me, and over the grumble of the fire-truck's idling engine I could hear motor-cycle engines being kicked into life.
"Follow the dispatch-riders. They'll lead you where you're needed – though from what we've heard, once you pass Hillsborough you'll know damn well where you're going. And… Thanks, mate!" I heard the slam of boots that told me he had come to attention.
I returned the salute, whether the policeman could see it or not, and gestured to the silent driver on my left. Except for me, not one of the firefighters had said a word. They'd just sat there like dummies.
But when the transmission grated briefly before the truck began to move and that first instant of motion kicked me in the small of the back, I realised that whether this was a dream or a nightmare or something else entirely, I was going to stay with this ride from its beginning right through to whatever waited at the end. And I knew, at the pit of my fluttering stomach, that I didn't want to wake up any sooner.
The policeman was right. Well before we got where we were going, the indigo of the night sky had grown brighter until its north-eastern horizon was an amber-red glow that washed out the stars. It wasn't a steady glow, either. It shifted and wavered like something alive, and there were frequent blinks of vivid yellow as if someone was touching off enormous flashbulbs. Most of the flashes came from the ground with a few sparks in the sky that suggested fireworks. But in this time and this place it was more probably anti-aircraft fire.
"Bells and sirens," I said again. Except for the sound of the fire-truck and motorcycle engines we'd been running in silence for almost two hours, and any noise was better than the jangling tension growing in my gut. There'd been no way to ease it with conversation, either. None of the other men on the truck had said a word for all that time. They hadn't even changed expression. Once my eyes adjusted to the near-total darkness, all I could see was faces fixed in square-jawed determination. There was no fear, which was good, but also no sense that they knew how to handle whatever was awaiting us. Their faces showed nothing that hadn't been moulded there, and I was starting to be scared again.
To be ten again.
But there was the Helmet. It and the confidence it gave was going to have to get me through this. Shaking a little I reached up to touch it again – and that was when I recognised the destination I had already suspected. Even in the darkness of blackout, even with the glare of enormous fires and the spasmodic flash of explosions changing the appearance of familiar landmarks like the broad high face of Cave Hill above the city, we were heading into Belfast. I realised, as everyone else had done in the past few ghastly hours, that once they'd been able to move their air bases into France the Luftwaffe could reach Northern Ireland after all.
I'd never read much about any air attacks on Belfast during the Second World War. There'd been no mention of it at all in my thousand-page Encyclopaedia of Twentieth Century Warfare, and if a book like that didn't have the information, there couldn't have been much to comment on. At least, nothing of interest to those editors. Even the word blitz seemed almost completely associated with mainland Britain, so much that when my Dad had used the word, I thought he'd been talking about London. I'd been wrong. As another stick of bombs stamped giant fiery footsteps across the horizon, I realised that his war hadn't been as boring as I'd thought.
The air-raid sirens were still wailing as we drove into the city, though what with the fires and the explosions and the throbbing desynchronised beat of scores of aircraft engines, they were hardly necessary any more. And just as I'd seen in my bed as I drifted off, there were planes above my head. But those had been small, safe models hanging by a thread. The shapes I saw now were neither small nor safe but ugly crosses that obscured the stars, and what fell from them wasn't confetti.
The American fire-trucks were out of all proportion to the small British-built pumps and ladder-escape engines, and my drivers were finding Belfast's narrow dockland streets as tight a fit as the country roads on the way to the burning city. Our big vehicles didn't belong alongside the home-bred stuff, City Fire Brigade apparatus or fire engines that had driven in from Lisburn and Lurgan. Our crews looked wrong as we pulled up outside the first block of burning buildings, piled out and went to work unreeling hoses and raising ladders. Their big helmets and long bunker coats looked strange alongside the tin hats and shiny-buttoned tunics of the local men. I stood among them in a whirl of sparks and a gust of hot wind, working out the best way to kill the roaring beast that was eating my city.
First we needed weapons, and I directed some of my crew to the hydrants. As they ran over with hoses dragging behind them and offered up the connectors I felt a stab of betrayal as the two sets of metalwork got close enough for me to see what was wrong. The American equipment was too big, the wrong shape, it would never match up…
But in the furious glow of the fires the metal at the hose ends went as soft as if they were just plastic. The helmet knew what to do while we were playing this game, and so did the truck equipment. Each connection snapped home and locked tight, water charged the hoses so that the canvas squirmed like snakes, then came spitting and crackling from the nozzles to slash at the heart of the flames.
That was when I saw the man across the street, and I froze because I knew that face from an old photograph. Heavy eyebrows and a cleft chin, the black tunic of an Auxiliary, and the two stripes of a Leading Fireman around the crown of his helmet. He wasn't commanding a fire-engine, just a towed pump, but he was directing the crew putting out a blaze in the neighbouring building with a calmness and control that I envied.
I wasn't fooled, because I could see the fear in his eyes. I desperately wanted to speak to him, to tell him it was all going to be all right, that he was going to survive, get married, have children...
I didn't dare. I didn't know what was going to happen: suddenly nothing was certain except that the man who would one day be my father didn't need to think that this Yank in his weird hat was crazy. I swallowed hard down a throat gone very tight and blinked rapidly – from the fire, definitely the fire, that smoke was thick and it stung – then got on with business.
The stark outline of the aerial ladder rose like the neck of a prehistoric monster against the background of the nearest building, a burning warehouse, and almost before it had reached full extension there was a fireman scrambling up it, one of my firemen, with a big coil of hose over one shoulder. A few seconds later, he had the nozzle deployed and was starting to play the high-pressure jet across the base of the nearest fire.
There were so many other noises – roaring flames, hissing water, the hammer and quick-revving growl of trailer pumps, even the occasional slushy rumble and crash as a building came down – that we barely heeded the one noise that underlay them all. Then the unchanging drone of the bombers shifted its key, one thread of that tapestry of sound pulling loose and starting to unravel. Everyone who wasn't already busy with the fire glanced up. The engine-note slid along some tuneless scale from hum to whine until it became a bellow of raw noise that Dopplered across the sky at rooftop height.
In all that unbelievable racket I wouldn't have dreamed I could hear anything else, but I did. There was a stutter of machine-guns, their rapid rattle in time with the muzzle-flashes from the aircraft's nose and belly as it swept over our heads. Red paint spalled away from half a dozen shiny bare-metal discs on the fire-truck's door. It kicked under my hand and slammed viciously shut while two of the windows broke and a splinter tugged at my collar.
Then the plane was gone again.
It had only been there for a single shocking second, but that was long enough for me to see the tapering Perspex nose, the wide wings and the shark-sleek belly with its bomb bay gaping like an open mouth, everything glinting copper-bright in the reflected glare from the fires. Heinkel! The identification came out of nowhere, but that conical glazed snout was unmistakable. And then there was a sudden shiver of realisation. Dad was right. You can't see the upper turret from down here. The thought shot through my mind and left it empty.
As empty as the top of the ladder where a man had been.
I stared for just a second, trembling with useless rage, and snarled one of the words my Dad hated hearing me use. Then because there was nothing else to do, I got back to work.
It was almost dawn before the next fire engines arrived. They looked more at home than the big pumper and aerial ladder, because though they certainly weren't as local as the Northern Irish apparatus, they were at least based on the same Dennis or Leyland chassis. But they weren't really at home at all, and the insignia on their sides confirmed it. These were the crests of fire brigades from Drogheda, Dundalk and Dublin, fire brigades from well south of the border. Fire brigades that for so many reasons didn't have to be here.
But they were. The crews, volunteers to a man, had driven through the night until they reached the border and then, just as we had done, they'd come the rest of the way in darkness, with only the red tail lights of the dispatch riders to keep them from the ditches.
As the Irishmen moved in to take over from my crew, I sat back on the seat of the pumper truck. I was more tired than I'd ever been in my life, and as my leaden eyelids flickered shut, I let myself unwind, rocked by the bump and sway of the truck as it began to drive away, sung to an uneasy sleep by the single-note lullaby as Belfast's sirens sounded the all-clear.
And then my eyes snapped open. There were aircraft above me; but now they were plastic again. Small, safe models hanging by a thread. For the first time the sight of them gave me a brief shudder. The light in my room hadn't changed, so there was no indication of how long I had been asleep. Had the siren created a brief dream then wakened me just as I was dropping off? It was real enough, not an air raid all-clear after all, just the alert that summoned my town's volunteer firemen to the station at the bottom of the Antrim Road.
I scrambled out of bed and pattered on chilled bare feet to the window, hearing the engine's twin electric bells long before the growl of the big eight-cylinder Rolls-Royce engine came blasting along Bachelor's Walk. Seconds later the apparatus itself came roaring up Railway Street, a bright red Dennis F12 whose amber warning blinkers woke strange jerky shadows beyond the glare of its headlights. With a metallic grunt of changing gears it accelerated down Bridge Street and away towards the Saintfield Road, leaving only echoes and dazzle behind.
After a few moments, my mind still full of bells and sirens from both dream and waking, I turned in the street-lit dimness to look at the shelf where the pumper sat. Then I blinked, because things weren't as I'd left them. Some figures were missing.
I leaned close to the shelf, and even just by the reflected streetlights outside I could see that both fire-engines were scraped and dented. There were bullet-holes in the body panels, far more realistic that the ones I put into my model aircraft with a hot needle. Some of the plastic windows weren't just broken, but perforated and starred in a way I didn't know how to replicate. And there were more fire axes and extinguishers than red plastic hands to hold them.
In eight places along the running-boards of both trucks, where there should have been toy firemen there were now eight small red lumps like well-chewed raspberry fruit-gums. I had owned this toy-set for long enough to give its fire-crew names, to know their little plastic personalities: which of them balanced better on the ladder than another, and which had a tiny moulding flaw that meant he could wear no other helmet but his own. I knew them and knew who they were. Or who they'd been. Just toys that had suffered the fate of most toys, nothing more than moulded plastic turned to molten plastic.
But it smelled worse than that. There was the sour reek of petrol and damp, charred wood, and a nose-tickling chemical tang like old redhead matches. The rest stank like a forgotten barbecue.
Not burned plastic, but burnt meat.
It made me feel sick. I crawled under the blankets and pulled them around my ears. I huddled there and tried, tried so very hard, to go back to sleep. But there was no more sleep that night. Behind my eyelids, waiting, was the memory of fire from the sky.
The nightmares lasted for the next couple of weeks, through Easter and well past it. And then, as kids will, I calmed down. I don't know what my parents made of the nights I woke up crying, startling them out of bed. Maybe they thought I was getting worried about the upcoming 'Eleven-Plus' exam at school. If they did, that was fine with me. It was an easier explanation than the truth.
I didn't play with the fire-trucks any more. No one particularly noticed when I never asked to get them out of the china cabinet. That suited me, because I wasn't brave enough to tell anyone that I didn't even want them in the house. It would have caused too many questions. But whenever I went into the sitting-room there they were. After a while it seemed that they were watching me. After a while it just got to be too much.
So who do you talk to, when you want to get rid of the best toy you ever had?
You talk to the one who bought it. But I didn't dare come at the question straight on. The one thing my Dad had never, ever talked about was what he did in the war. So I took a chance that I might be able to get at the problem sideways, by 'writing something for History class at school', and one quiet evening I asked him.
He looked at me strangely, then got himself a glass of Black Bush whiskey and sat down. I already had a cup of hot chocolate, and we drank quietly together for a few moments like two grown-ups.
"We weren't ready," he said at last. "Nobody believed the Germans could get as far as Belfast, and even when the Luftwaffe moved up to the Channel coast they still didn't believe it. Why come all the way here when the industrial midlands of England were that much closer? After all, they hit Coventry more than forty times besides the big one in the history books."
Dad sipped his whiskey. "We lost almost as many people in just four raids, but try and find that written down somewhere. What happened here was an embarrassment. Something to forget. Because nobody ever bothered protecting all our inviting targets. We had Harland and Wolff's, the biggest shipyard after Clydeside. We had Short Brothers, making Stirling bombers and Sunderland flying-boats. Just the sort of thing the Jerries would want to stamp out. It was easy. Both factories were right beside each other, the workers lived next door, and we had about two dozen ack-ack guns for the whole city. All we needed was one good raid. It was so bad, and we were so unprepared, that we ended up yelling for help from down south."
"But Dad, I thought Ireland was neutral during the war."
"They were neutral. They didn't want to be on anyone's side, even though they'd seen what had happened to Belgium and Holland, and those countries were just as neutral. We had this joke. If Germany takes Northern Ireland, what'll the Panzers do if De Valera lies down in the middle of the road at Newry? They'll stop. But it'll be in Dundalk, to hose him out of the tracks." He took another sip of Black Bush. "It wasn't much of a joke then, either. But thank God their firemen didn't stop at Newry either. They drove all the way up the east coast from as far away as Dun Laoghaire—"
"That far?" I said. Dublin was more than a hundred miles south, and before the good roads it was more than five hours away.
"That far." Dad reached up to my school shelf, where all the boring books were kept, and showed me a map of Ireland. "See for yourself." He looked at me, and through me, and took a pull of whiskey that was more than just a sip.
"And there were two engines that came from somewhere a lot further away. They must have been a present…" Dad looked thoughtful, as if he was running that word through his head and playing with a concept that didn't make sense. Then he shook his head as if dislodging the thought. "A gift to some town down south from New York, or maybe Boston. One of those cities that think they're Irish rather than American."
"Like my present last Christmas? The big fire engines?"
"That's what I thought of when I saw the toy set in the shop. All red paint and polished chrome, not something for wartime at all. The people in those big wagons didn't care how visible they were. And there were a lot of them, a bigger crew than any of our tenders could carry. It's a long time ago, but their Chief – he was just a kid – sounded as American as anything you'd hear in a cowboy movie. And that was impossible, because right then America was even more neutral than Ireland. It doesn't matter. Whoever they were, they weren't neutral against the fire. And I suppose eventually we'd have put out the fires without them, but…"
His face went remote, as if he wasn't talking to me anymore. "We climbed up the ladders to deal with the tall warehouse buildings," he said. "And every now and then one of the meaner bomber pilots would dive down low to give their belly gunners target practice on the men at the top of those ladders. We were silhouetted so nicely they couldn't miss. Bastards."
I was shocked; Dad never used bad language. But he didn't notice my shock at all. "You don’t know how long a ladder looks when you might not climb down again. When the big American apparatus arrived, their men went up the ladders as well. And sometimes they didn't climb down again. That's why I'm still here. Because we went up in alphabetical order. And thanks to the extra men from that big crew, the bombers went away before it was my turn." Dad looked into the fireplace, where the coal had collapsed into a bed of glowing embers. I felt sure he wasn't looking at that fire, but another one, far bigger and long ago. "Do you really want to get rid of those toy fire engines, son?"
I hesitated, then made up my mind and nodded. "Yes."
Mum was annoyed at the sudden disappearance of my favourite toy, but when Dad told her that we'd given it away to a charity shop, she seemed content enough. I don't know if he told her anything about our conversation. He never mentioned it to me again.
The reunions of Dad's fellow firemen continued each year, and each year there would be one or two fewer members at the party. Then came the year I was invited. I'd just turned eighteen, and in my dinner jacket with a drink in my hand I was sure I looked just like James Bond. But I kept quiet and listened when the older men started talking, and that was how I learned things that I'd never read in my history books.
People I knew to be as Orange as a bottle of Florida juice were raising their glasses to "the men from the South" or "the lads from Drogheda and Dundalk and Dublin and Dun Laoghaire" until finally someone proposed a toast to "the D-Specials from over the Border." That was an Ulster in-joke. The "B-Specials" were an auxiliary police force, and very much heroes or villains depending on what foot you kicked with.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck at the memory of the last time I'd heard anyone talk about "D-Specials", because instead of a murmur of conversation in the background there'd been the roar of flames and the smash of falling buildings, orchestrated to the throbbing bass-line of empty bombers turning for home. But I stayed where I was, and heard stories I suspect they told for their own comfort. One in particular got my attention, because despite my uneasiness it made me laugh.
"There was this family they dug out near the shipyard, all alive for a mercy, even the cat. Wee Billy was there – remember Billy? A fierce man for the Black Bush, so he was. But it's mostly the Dubs doing the work and the man of the house doen't recognise the uniforms, see, so he asks who they are. This Jackeen from Rathmines ups and says, "We're the Dublin Fire Brigade, sor," and the father says "Jesus Mary and Joseph, I didn't think Jerry's bombs were big enough to blow us that far!"
The men in the room laughed too, though they must all have heard that one a hundred times. "Just as well none of that other lot dug 'em out, then," said one of the oldest, "or they'd have got a real shock."
There was a sudden stillness on that side of the room, and two of those hard-faced, harsh-voiced men reached for the whiskey bottle at the same time. "You know the US Consulate down in Queen's Street still says it never happened," said one.
The oldest man said another of those dirty words, but under his breath for my sake. "They can say what they like. When that Yank Fire Chief in his fancy hat says to me, 'I wasn't expectin' this,' I ups and tells him to his face, 'No, Chief, you wouldn't be. All over the newsreels it might be, but you lot think you've got the Atlantic in the way. But it's not in the way tonight, an' how do you like that? Tell your wee Mister Lindbergh he can play the isolation card all he likes, but he and his buddies might wake up some fine morning an' find they've joined this party whether they like it or not. An' they might not even get an invitation…'"
"Thought you signed the Official Secrets Act, Sam."
Sam scowled. "They were there. I saw them. An' no bloody bureaucrat can make me forget—"
"Sam, those bloody bureaucrats can make your family forget you ever existed. Stop messing around and change the subject."
"Why? This is just gettin' good—"
"Little pitchers, Sam. Change it. "
They were all looking at me sidelong, so I stuck my nose into my flattening beer and pretended I hadn't heard a thing.
I came back to the business later, trying to solve the problem that just wouldn't go away. At university, for 'research', I got into all the period war records that were legally available, and thanks to some friends in the Public Records Office I also saw some that weren't legal enough to officially exist. They were quite clear about the personnel who came north of the border on the night of 15th April 1941 at a breakneck sixty miles an hour in the freezing dark. There were no fatalities among the Irish fire-crews, but those records are just as clear about the men who went up the ladders in alphabetical order – and who were shot off as they stood at the top.
Yet when it was my Dad's turn to climb that ladder, there were enough others in big helmets and bunker coats to go up before him, so he was able to climb back down again. Yet they were just moulded in the shape of people who go in harm's way to save the lives of strangers. But if the shape is there, does a courageous spirit find its way to where it needs to be?
No amount of musty records have ever had the answers to those questions. My Dad's gone more than a quarter-century now. The fire didn't get him in '41, but the cigarettes did at last. When he was gone I tried to close the circle, but the leg I broke on the motor-bike at seventeen meant I failed the physical, and sitting behind a desk wouldn't have been enough for what I owe.
I still collect model fire engines, and I've got examples from all over the world, but there's a space in my collection. It's reserved for an open-cab pumper and its matching aerial ladder: New York Fire Department, 1930s, 'with full crew' so I can meet my friends again. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, and there are so many names: Mack, Pirsch, Seagrave, LaFrance… Maybe mine weren't based on real vehicles at all. Maybe toys are all they ever were. The confidence and certainty granted by that Fire Chief’s Helmet is like my childhood and my parents, all gone, long gone.
Maybe one day I'll find those trucks. And on that day I'll have to make a choice. Not the usual one for a collector, which is 'Can I afford them?', but 'Do I want to have them in the house?' At the back of my mind is a fear that they might smell of charred wood and worse things. But there's also a hope that they’ll smell of balsam fir, and tweed, and fragrant pipe-smoke…
The smell of my best Christmas day of all.