On the evening of 3 March 1943, 173 people died in a crush on the stairs down to Bethnal Green tube station, in the largest loss of civilian life in the UK in World War II. (The station was used as a shelter during air raids.) Jessica Francis Kane’s new novel The Report looks at the evening of the incident, as well as the report commissioned to discover the reasons for such an apparently avoidable disaster. In this extract from chapters three and seventeen, Ada Barber, a woman from the East End, heads to the shelter as the siren goes off; later, in 1973, Paul Barber interviews Laurence Dunne, the magistrate who wrote the report.

 

Three

Ada passed Constable Henderson and kept on toward the shelter. She wanted the girls to speed up, but they were getting tired. She glanced around, more and more surprised at the number of people. The waistband of her skirt was pinching her side; her bag had slipped off her shoulder and was pulling her coat along with it. She walked faster, and the tiny bones of Emma’s hand moved and cracked in hers. Emma didn’t seem to mind, but Ada tried to hold her hand more loosely.

She was sure she’d once been a more patient woman. But watching her children grow thin, explaining over and over why there wasn’t more to eat, why there weren’t warmer clothes, that it wasn’t her fault, was exacting a toll. Victory was inevitable, the government promised. Peace and plenty would return. But when? How long would they have to wait?

At the next corner Tilly bent down to tie her shoe. She hopped as she did so, trying to keep up with her mother and sister, but Ada looked back and yelled, ‘Come on!’ At the same moment, she saw a young woman she knew back in the crowd, one of the refugees she and her friends called Mrs. W. What was she carrying? Ada could make out the pretty bag – it was the same one Mrs. W often brought into the shop – but she also had something across her chest. When Ada had been going to the shelter more regularly, she’d noticed how well Mrs. W managed. She was registered for a bunk, and her bundle always included a pillow and sheets and extra blankets for privacy.

Blankets! Ada had left theirs by the door when they’d argued about food. All they had now for the night were the extra jumpers. She looked back again at Mrs. W. How did she do it? How did a refugee manage the dual existence so well?

The crowd was growing tighter, and suddenly a man’s elbow bumped Emma’s head. He turned immediately and said ‘Sorry’ in a Yorkshire accent, but Ada frowned and pulled Emma close. Many more people than usual were going to use the shelter tonight, she realized. Of course. She should have thought of it sooner. She was both scared about what it meant – a terrible raid; everyone sensed it – and furious with herself for not planning better. She told the girls she’d get a bunk. What if she couldn’t?

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

‘Mum?’ Tilly asked. ‘Is everything all right?’

Ada looked at Tilly. Her daughter’s face was not beautiful, but it combined all the best features of hers and her husband Robby’s. His cheekbones, her brown eyes and pretty lips. Emma was actually the lovelier of the two, with blond hair and a set of features that seemed to be of her own invention or from generations long ago. Ada loved the two of them more than she ever said and was terrified the war wouldn’t end before they were grown. She’d told no one that she was haunted by a recurring nightmare in which she hovered over her girls in their last seconds, their faces perfect, their eyes appealing to her for help, the backs of their heads crushed by something she hadn’t seen.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Of course. Just keep moving. We’re almost there.’

 

*

 

Seventeen

Paul arrived early wearing a jacket and dark tie, the most conservative he had. Dunne had been ambiguous on the phone about whether he intended to cooperate, but Paul thought he’d detected a developing curiosity and wanted to make a good impression. He could see Dunne through the front window, asleep in front of the television. He watched him for a time, surprised to feel sorry for the old magistrate. He looked vulnerable, head back, mouth open for air. When Dunne finally answered the door, sleepy but clearly pleased with the business of the day, Paul pretended he had not been waiting on the step for five minutes. He noted that, while he had made an effort to dress up for Dunne, Dunne seemed to have dressed down for him. He was wearing a cardigan and loose trousers over slippers. Once more, they proceeded slowly down the front hall, Paul simultaneously loosening his tie and working hard to avoid stepping on Dunne’s bare heels. When he slowed to the older man’s pace, he noticed that the walls were lined with certificates and awards as well as a heavily textured green and gray quilt.

‘Now,’ Dunne said when they were sitting, ‘what will the point of this film be? What will you be trying to prove?’

Paul smiled. ‘Well, I’ve always been interested in –’

‘Hosting a documentary, it would seem.’

‘Not hosting it, sir. I probably won’t appear at all, actually.’

‘Interviewing me, then.’

‘Someone else might film the interviews.’

This news seemed to please Dunne.

‘I’d write the script and direct the whole thing,’ Paul said defensively.

‘Good for you.’

‘Yes, well, it would be, rather. I’ve wanted to make this film for a long time.’ Paul took a quiet breath. ‘Sir Laurie, my parents used to say you were the only one who understood the crowd wasn’t guilty.’

‘Barber. It’s a common name.’

Paul thought Dunne meant uncommon for someone who looked like him. He was used to this. He had responses, jokes, a whole range of things he usually said. Now, though, he shrugged and tried to change the subject.

‘As you know, the thirtieth anniversary is approaching, and many producers will find it a compelling time to look back.’

‘Thirty years.’

‘Hard to believe?’

‘Why not the twenty-fifth or the fiftieth?’

Paul smiled again. ‘I see. Well, I suppose there is an arbitrary aspect, but if we wait until the fiftieth –’ He stopped.

‘Oh, I know I’m not going to live forever. Of course, you always think death might make an exception for you, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence.’

Paul tried to start again. ‘The report, sir, came at such an interesting historical moment. I wonder if you could tell me –’

‘When did you read it?’

‘At university. I was twenty-two.’

‘So the subject is academic to you.’ Laurie frowned. ‘No, you said you grew up in Bethnal Green.’

‘That’s right.’ Paul looked down, and when he looked up, his eyes were wide and innocent. ‘Sir Laurie, it’s not academic for me.’

‘Oh?’

‘My family was in the crush.’

Dunne waited.

‘I was adopted after the accident.’

The magistrate didn’t flinch. He merely blinked twice, then smoothed his legs with his palms from his hips to his knees. ‘That’s very interesting,’ he said softly. ‘I thought the name was familiar. Did the family keep a grocery?’

‘Yes, for a time. My mum did after my dad left.’

‘Ada Barber.’

‘That’s right. You remember her?’

‘Where is she now?’

‘She died a few years ago, I’m afraid.’

‘And Tilly?’

Paul was impressed. ‘She lives in Islington.’

Dunne held his breath, then exhaled loudly. He stood up and switched off the television.

‘Ada adopted one of the orphans,’ he said, facing away from Paul. ‘Why?’ He turned around quickly. ‘Do you know?’

‘I think our families were friends.’ Paul didn’t understand the way Dunne was staring at him. His revelation not having gone over the way he expected, he wasn’t sure where they were now. ‘My understanding is that there was a terrible sense of communal guilt in the area after the accident.’

‘Do you know anything about your birth parents?’

‘No. My mother said the orphanage kept very spotty records during the war. She had no love for the matron, apparently.’

Dunne looked down. ‘Your parents said I knew the crowd wasn’t guilty. Did Ada say that?’

‘Yes.’

‘What’s the opposite of guilty?’ Dunne asked.

‘Innocent?’ Under Dunne’s scrutiny, Paul couldn’t suppress the question mark.

‘Well, they weren’t that, either.’

 

The Report, which is Jessica Francis Kane’s debut novel, is published in the US  by Graywolf Press, and in the UK by Portobello Books.

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