Lilian tightened her grip on her littlebrother’s sticky, chubby hand, dragging him through the afternoon street of Whitechapel. If only he could walk faster! grumbled Lilian as she thought about her friend Betty’s birthday party this evening. Of course her parents would have to let her go; at sixteen she could legally work if she wanted to. She deserved this party for taking Ronny to visit their aunt today and helping Auntie waste all her sugar ration on cakes for him. Now, if they got home early, she’d have time to tidy herself up, and maybe mum would even lend her a dress for the party.
Her brother suddenly huddled closer to her as a wheezing old man reeking with alcohol stared at them; they got a lot of weird looks on the streets now, like all children staying in London after the government-issued evacuation. Most of Ronny’s friends had gone to the countryside for refuge, but their parents balked at handing him over to strangers. “Yer mum and dad don’t care nothin’ ‘bout yer safety, lass? They’re just keepin’ yer lil brother here for the Jerry bombs!” the old man croaked after them.
“Don’t listen to him, Ronny. He doesn’t know anything,” whispered Lilian as she hugged her brother to her side. She could not stand against his worried, puppy look no matter how much he annoyed her just moments ago.
“Will the Jerrys really get us?” asked Ronny, still distressed over the old man’s comment.
“Of course not! They’d have to step over my dead, cold body!” Lilian reassured Ronny, but she wondered if she could keep that promise. She had heard on the radio that the Luftwaffe had bombed not only East and West Ham but Oxford Street on August 24, the closest they had ever come to throwing bombs on their city. Would the Germans really bomb London? Lilian quickened her pace, because the sooner they get home, the safer Ronny would feel.
“Anyway, that man was probably just a dipso,” says Ronny, waving his small hand dismissively and swinging his gas mask.
“Ronny!” chided Lilian in a shocked tone, “where did you learn that word?” but she could not contain her giggle, and soon they laughed away the gloomy thoughts of German bombs.
Suddenly, the shrill sound of sirens sliced through the sky. Air raid! But air raids never happen in broad daylight! All these thoughts jostled in Lilian’s brain as she pulled Ronny towards the Tube station. Even as Lilian approached the entrance, she could barely hold on to Ronny’s hands, with people from all sides appearing and pushing. “Ronny!” she cried in panic as his hand slipped away. She fought against the current of people with all her might, using her elbows to shove them from her path. Five feet away her brother stood, only half as tall as everyone else. His gas mask sat askew on his face, his plump little hands fumbling to strap it on. Lilian reached out her arms to grab Ronny, but the mass shifted and jerked him away from sight. “No!” she screamed as the crowd, a mindless entity in its determination to survive, rushed her along into the station.
Once she was crammed inside the dimly lit Underground, Lilian tried to push her way through the tightly packed people. Already the vibrations from German bombers reverberated through the ground into the bones of men and women under the earth. Lilian, however, can only think of Ronny’s terrified face. “I have to get out, please!” she pleaded with everyone around her. “My brother is still out there!”
“Don’t you go out there, young lady. Your brother’s probably inside with us too, and there’s no need to risk your life running outside,” said a kindly middle-aged woman in a dark blue dress. Booms in the distance began to punctuate the constant pulsing of the Luftwaffe, and the crowd froze with dread, making Lilian’s attempted exit even more impossible. Some women began to whimper as the roar of bombs slowly approached their direction. As she breathed in the sharp smell of fear, Lilian wondered if her parents had escaped successfully to a shelter. Or did they stay home waiting for Ronny and her? “Oh, please! Please! Please!” begged Lilian silently to no one in particular.
Trapped inside the earth, Lilian’s train of thoughts continued to race in an endless, frantic circle: Ronny, Mum, Dad, Ronny, Mum, Dad, Ronny. She couldn’t shake the “what if”s out of her head: what if Ronny never made it inside? What if Mum and Dad are out there searching for them? She would never forgive herself if she survived this bombing by cowering inside the tram station while her brother was outside alone. No, she had to take action! Lilian stamped her feet to wake them from their prickly slumber and started to push more forcefully against the men before her. “Excuse me, excuse me…” Lilian had finally squeezed her way to the exit when she heard an ominous hiss, and she froze for one millisecond before a deafening blast shook the room and threw her backward. She tried to blink cement dust from her eyes before the world dimmed to blackness.
Moments later, Lilian struggled to stand on wobbly limbs, a high-pitched shrieking in her ears. Coughing and gagging because of the smoke, she dragged herself onto the streets. Once outside, she could hardly believe her eyes: the world looked as if someone had picked the whole street up, set fire to it, and dropped it carelessly back to the ground. Pieces of buildings slanted impossibly to the sides, and broken bricks and beams sprawled everywhere. Black-clad firefighters shouted in rasp voices as they directed their pipes to a flaming, crackling building still standing. Lilian teetered around jagged craters on the ground and scoured the chaos for her brother. Bile rose up from her throat when she realized she stepped on a pale, disembodied hand. “Oh, I hope Ronny didn’t see this!” thought Lilian desperately.
Among the rubble, an object caught her attention: a small gas mask that looked awfully like Ronny’s. “No, no no. It’s impossible! It’s not his. Please let it be someone else,” mumbled Lilian frenziedly. Scrambling toward the gas mask, she saw something that tilted her world again. “Ronny!” Lilian’s scream came out a hoarse whisper. Her brother lay face down among the debris, his body half covered by the fallen rubble. She grabbed her little brother by his shoulders and pulled him from the ruins, “Ronny, it’s okay now. I’m here. I’m here.” His bloodied, grimy face held no fear, as if nothing truly happened and he could wake up any minute and giggle at her gullibility. “Come on, Ronny, wake up! Just stop it! It’s not funny!” Even though in her heart Lilian knew Ronny would never come back, she shook him to rouse him from this stupor. With increasing despair, she hugged him close and felt his body already cold against her clothes.
As she hunched over her dead brother, Lilian could not shake from her head a piece of poem she read several days ago at a friend’s house.
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Lilian buried her head in the crook of her brother’s cold, scruffy neck and let out a gasping sob that dissolved into the din of the burning world.