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Bookstories 22: Peter Butler’s “A Piece of Shrapnel”

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Not a lot happened in our suburban street in Kent, about 8 miles east of London, in the early days of World War II. We kids played as usual. The street was clear as the few domestic cars were garaged for the duration. The bomb put an end to what was dubbed ‘The Phoney War’. It landed in the autumn of 1940 at the end of our garden. The blast went in the opposite direction, destroying three houses, killing three residents. My brother and I were sheltered below-stairs. My mother was in another room when the blast blew in windows, curtains, one door. That was the extent of our direct damage.

I recall wandering out to the garden, the shell of the house opposite, spotted a piece of shiny metal the size of a dime. Shrapnel. My mother ordered me not too touch it. It was dangerous. I chose to ignore her, put it in my pocket. I decided it was a lucky omen, had kept us alive. My father, 20 miles away, was a balloon operator at Biggin Hill aerodrome, at the heart of the Battle of Britain. He was given emergency leave, to arrange such repairs to the house as were possible.

A few months on we evacuated for the rest of the war to a small Surrey village. The war seemed far away, as was my father who had joined the Burma campaign. It was where, just before D-Day, I encountered my first Americans, who introduced my to chewing gum.There were bonfires in the village square both after the landings and on Victory in Europe Day, by which time my father had been invalided back to the UK. Each of these three incidents inspired ultimately a separate haibun (included in the ‘A Piece of Shrapnel’ collection).

When we went back to our original home, much activity was centered around the local Church, which had escaped the bombing. We choirboys were regimented by Miss O’Cleary, a no-nonsense lady with a metal frame on one leg. Alan was a paraplegic with a constant smile. I learned from my father that the man from his regiment who lost an arm had died. The one who kept swallowing his teeth was jailed. The pitch where we played soccer is a housing estate. 

That piece of shrapnel? I hid it for years, much of the time in an old sock. One day, when I had reached junior school, my mother took my school jacket to the dry cleaners. I never saw the shrapnel again. But I still think about it.

A Piece of Shrapnel                                  

This is the blind bend where our goalie nearly got run over during kick-about. A rare car those days. And the house opposite where a dog got killed. The bomb aimer missed the chimney, left the rubble sloping like a broken coat hanger. We hopscotched in brick dust. I pocketed a forbidden piece of shrapnel.

a strange quietness
the ambulance            
parked in the street

It‘s where a man came back from Dunkirk without his writing arm, another swallowed his teeth to dodge call-up, Alan the Cripple gave everyone a lop-sided grin and his mother never looked anyone in the eye. It‘s where we listened for Miss O’Cleary, with her Bible and tin leg, clattering the corner to straighten our surplices.

This morning, I pause at the lights, cross to our old home with its peeling frames and fussy borders, avoid three idling by an empty car, hand some change to a man with a tie, skirt the corner past a take-away to the pitch where our goalie lost his touch due to hard drink and weak ventricles, still fingering the piece of shrapnel, grown smooth and friendlier through the years.

at the war memorial
freshly sprayed   
jude x ron


—Peter Butler

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