Seen & unseen

That will be the Draconid meteor shower tonight, not poorly aimed Russian cruise missiles, streaking through the skies; so named because they seem to fall out of the constellation Draco. From the Latin for “dragon,” incidentally; as, too, the family name of Vlad the Impaler, but with the mediaeval diminutive; hence Dracula, “little dragon.” Trust me, these are important things to know.

Every year our planet passes, for a couple of days in early October, through this gravel debris of the comet Giacobini-Zinner and, weather permitting, we get a fine show. If we hit a dense patch, we might see dozens of bright meteors every minute, as we did twice in the last century. There was a nice spike in 1998, as I recall.

I could do with a little astronomical entertainment at the moment. The city glare mostly cancels the spectacle; on top of which we have rainclouds assembling over the Greater Parkdale Area. … Aheu. …

Really, we should turn the lights off sometimes. And should the sky cover and the winds howl, gather by the hearth with the books and the knitting.

An old lady — a neighbour of mine when I lived in London, years ago — recalled the Blitz from 1940. It was so beautiful, she said. Her most vivid memory was of standing on a balcony as hundreds, it seemed thousands, of German planes passed over. Bombers, most of them.

She had lost her fear because of the great beauty. First the city itself, in its stillness, with all the lights blacked out, etched in moonlight. The house was on a rise, she could see so much of it, like a vast abandoned stage set. But then, the drone of fate, with its metal hail approaching.

And now this stage set was illumined by incendiary bombs — their white glowings as they came down, their yellow flashes, and the rings of fire from the buildings they’d ignited. And the barrage balloons, shining bright and pink, in the clouds of pink smoke from artillery and flares. And the aircraft themselves, glowing pink, in their remorseless parade — giving the illusion they were close enough to touch. And through it all, here and there, an opening in this shroud, and a star twinkling; an old familiar star.

Seventy-five years ago; three generations. Here, you can mark them off with a ruler: 1965, 1990, 2015. And soon, not one living to remember. …

And the noise of the explosions, and the grinding of the aeroplane propellers, as if they were churning through the sea; the lady heard all this. Heard the sirens, the sirens, the sirens; heard the “all clear.” And everywhere the shouts of firemen, and of the working-class heroes in the cratered streets, dousing the flames with dirt and sand.

“It was so beautiful.”

From September to May, it was like this almost every night, and often in the daytime. It became a routine: “Oh bother, it’s the Luftwaffe again.” Fear was in the air, but compressed under boredom, and sometimes in the heat of it the fear went away. “How long can they keep this up?” Perhaps, forever.

One night, an odd thing happened. A row of old tenements came flopping down like cards, but one plumbing column remained standing. There was a man sitting on the toilet at the top, with his trousers at his knees. It was ludicrously comic. In the middle of all this pain and death, people saw him and chuckled. Somehow, eventually, he slithered down the pipes, leaping into arms as the column tilted over. Made a joke of it, the man did, when he saw his wife alive; said he was thinking about complaining to the landlord.

And people were emerging everywhere from the rubble — bloody and hurt, though patient and good-willed. Others digging, frenetically for the most part. Only names on their lips, but tears in their eyes; expecting to find corpses. “The bricklayer sounds,” the crunch of plaster, the creak of joists. But no screaming, with so much work to do. Ears being used as stethoscopes.

“We were all trying to be British,” the lady said. “One mustn’t get it started. One mustn’t be the first to wail.”

Bodies coming up from the ground; people suddenly standing. It was the end of the world, and she was watching the resurrections.