The Machine Gunners
moment by a piece of shrapnel. But in here, I'm safe." It had all the pleasure of standing dry in a doorway, watching the rain make everything else wet. He thought of the steel and earth above him, and felt deliciously safe eating his chips. He nodded at Cousin Gordon's rifle.
    "Pity you didn't bring home something bigger. Then you and me could have had a go at the bombers when they come."
    "No need," said Cousin Gordon, who liked playing the expert. "You can shoot down a bomber with a rifle. We're trained for it. You have to aim a hand's breadth in front of them, to allow for their speed."
    "But bombers fly too high!"
    "Don't you believe it. Most bombers fly at five thousand feet, which is a mile. This thing can kill at a mile." He stroked his rifle.
    "Can the... German guns fire that far?"
    "Yeah, far further. Their Schmeissers can go right through the trunk of a tree."
    "What's a Schmeisser?"
    "Machine gun."
    Chas finished his chips thoughtfully, impaling five on his fork at once and then ramming the lot into his mouth.
    "How often have I got to tell you?" said Mrs. McGill. "Cut them before you put them in your mouth."
    Around ten, the all-clear went. Nothing had happened but two showers of rain, and long before the end, you could hear people standing chatting by their shelter doors.
    "What a waste of time," said Mrs. McGill. "I could have done the ironing. Good night, Gordon. Tell your mother I'll call on Friday."
    "Good night. I'd better get back while it's quiet."
    They heard his boots clink away, and sat waiting for another clink of boots up the path, and the clicking of a pushed bicycle. Dad.
    "Hello, love." Mrs. McGill kissed her grimy husband on the cheek. Chas had never seen his father come through the back door without his mother kissing him on the check. It must taste awfully sooty and oily. How much soot and oil must she have swallowed since she married him!
    "Here's your supper, nice and hot."
    Mr. McGill washed his hands but not his face. That came after eating. First things first. He didn't take his grimy boots off, either. Mrs. McGill always put a copy of the Daily Express under his chair to save the carpet.
    "Nice having the raid over early for once. I could do with a good night's sleep in me own bed."
    "Don't count your chickens. There's still a yellow alert on."
    "But the all-clear went!"
    "That's the end of the red alert. The buggers are still hanging about somewhere. I think I'd better get me uniform on." Mr. McGill, foreman at the gasworks, knew such things.
    "But your tea will be spoiled."
    "Put it back in the oven."
    Mrs. McGill sniffed and picked the Daily Express off the floor. Work boots might never be cleaned, but ARP boots were always spotless and shining. Mr. McGill, immaculate now, beret under shoulder strap, sat down again to eat.
    Next moment, the lights went out. Then the cracks round the drawn blackout curtains lit up with successive streaks of light. Mr. McGill's plate went crash on the floor.
    "Oh those lovely sausages!" screamed his wife.
    "Get down, hinny. Turn your face from the window. It's one of those sneak raiders."
    But it wasn't. Chas, lying face down under the sofa, heard the sound of many engines.
    "Run for it!" They ran down the front passage and pulled open the front door. It was like day outside, there were so many parachute flares falling. You could have seen a pin on the crazy-paving path to the shelter.
    "The insurance policies!" screamed his mother, trying to turn back. His father stopped her bodily, and for a moment his parents wrestled like drunks in the front passage.
    "Run, for God's sake," panted his father.
    The moment Chas set foot on the path outside, the bombs began to scream down. Chas thought his legs had stopped working for good; the black hole of the shelter door seemed to get further away instead of nearer. They said you never heard the bomb that hit you, but how could they know? Only the dead knew that, like the girl who had worked in the greengrocer's.

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