Children's Fiction, Middle Grade Fiction, Short Story Middle Grade

FICTION: The Ins and Outs of War by Marissa Hoffmann

Little Albert’s scared so I’m holding his hand. The warden’s shouting AIR RAID DAMAGE down the receiver in the phone box. Seems daft to me with all the smoke scribbling up into the sky. I say to Albert, ‘can’t imagine who don’t know,’ and he laughs, nearly choking on his Arrowroot biscuit.

Same as usual, Dad got us from the shelter this morning and now we’re waiting outside The Star of India. Dad’s inside with the other men from the Auxiliary Fire Service, they’ve all been out all night. When Dad brings us bottles of lemonade, I see Pat Duggan and his Dead End gang inside and some of them’s only our age, reckon they’ve been out all night too. Dad says they’re a bunch of scruffy urchins. They ain’t supposed to even be in London, they was sent to the countryside for their safety. He says they’re unattended, and that means who’s gonna stop them? They must’ve got homesick I reckon and one by one they snuck back to Liverpool Street on the train. Their clothes are tatty but they’ve got great big just-had-strawberry-jam-style smiles on their faces. They ain’t got no-one to keep them in the shelters so they’re hell-bent on mucking in, saving the East End.

Dad comes out the pub to walk us home cause Mum said we need a scrub-up and others ain’t lucky enough to splash water on their faces. I ask Dad, ‘so what’s Duggan’s gang done now?’ Because the word is they’re heroes—rescued horses from a burning yard and old ladies still in their armchairs. 

‘Their game’s out of hand Nicky-my-boy,’ Dad says. He shakes his head slowly and his back is arched as he walks like his shoulders are too heavy. I don’t ask more.

We turn onto our street and we stop dead at the sight of it. Tenement building next to ours is down. Roots of my hair start prickling. The East door frame is still there but the walls either side are gone, just a tall chimney wall in the middle and all the other walls kneel or lie collapsed all around. The insides of people’s flats are on show, naked—ripped wallpaper barely covering their insides—horizontal wood slats showing—like the ribs on the chests of the dock workers—stretched all the way up. Dad says it happened two nights ago but people’s belongings are still strewn all about and I feel right nosey looking. Dad hurries us along cause Albert’s dawdling, kicking around in the bricks. I see him pick something up and I’m thinking it might be good enough to get us into Duggan’s gang.

When we get inside our own flat, Mum’s fried some spam and there’s bread and milk. We eat together but none of us talk. Dad’s tiered, his left arm rests the weight of his upper body on the table as he eats. Mum watches Dad the whole time she’s chewing, like she’s waiting, or listening to him or holding onto the sight of him. That makes me look at him too and I make my eyes blink slowly ‘cause I want to photograph him into my brain—the shininess of his face, his eye lashes and hair still caked in brick dust.

That night, it’s filthy hot in the public shelter and it stinks to high heaven. Mum sits on the ground against the wall, her eyes are closed but I know she’s not sleeping. She drags her top front teeth over her bottom lip again and again. Albert’s asleep—his head in her lap—and she strokes his hair from time to time as though she suddenly remembers she’d promised him she would. I feel itchy all over, I can’t sleep, I wanna be out with The Dead End Gang throwing buckets of sand on the incendiaries with Dad. But it’s no good me asking Mum what use I am jolting about just listening.

Next morning, first person I see is Maureen Duggan, she’s Pat’s sister, no sign of Dad. Dust is bad and Maureen’s got a hosepipe, but it’s snagged on something. I’m thinking this is my chance to help, so I run up onto the a door laying flat on the rubble, hose is caught round the handle, so I unhook it.

‘It’s free now,’ I shout.

Maureen sprays me in the face.

‘Hey!’ I say.

‘You’re alive, ain’t ya?’ she says, ‘you heard?’

She don’t wait for me to answer.

‘Wall fell on Ronnie and Bert from our gang last night.’

I don’t have words so she starts talking like a race dog off the gun.

‘Died instantly, no chance,’ she says, ‘saw it with my own eyes and our Pat’s in the infirmary, some fella pulled him out, both of ‘em wounded, proper heroes.’

I can’t take it all in. It’s like she’s making it up but no-one would do that. She presses her lips together so tight her chin dimples and it ain’t the dust making her eyes red but I don’t know what to say. I wanna ask her which fella? but then I see Albert walking over and I thought he’d gone home with Mum. Something’s odd about him, his shorts look shorter or his legs look longer. He’s cupping his hands closed and when he gets over to me he opens his palms and inside I see there’s a sparrow—bird looks sleeping, head resting sideways—Albert’s hands start shaking and Maureen sees that too. She folds in her lip inside her mouth like Mum does and when Albert looks up at me he’s white. 

‘Blast was too much for him Nick,’ Albert says, head tilted. 

He fills his chest with a string of little puffs of air through his nose like he’s putting the brakes on breathing.

‘Nicky,’ he says, ‘Mum says we gotta go home.’


Marissa Hoffmann

Marissa Hoffmann

Marissa lives with her family in a small village at 1000 metres above sea level. She writes across genres and forms and her flash fiction has been highly commended, shortlisted and long listed in prestigious international competitions. She is published online in literary magazines and also in print anthologies. Her large work-in-progress is a young adult novel and she continues to write short stories and flash. She’s fascinated by human behaviour. Marissa is a reader for Atticus Review. Links to her work can be found at her website below and she tweets from @hoffmannwriter

You can find out more about Marissa at her website here.


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