Smoke creeps through the streets, greeting each piece of rubble with a whip and a lick of satisfaction. Sirens accompany the silence that routinely falls upon the city after a night of raids. Calm amidst chaos: an unsettling, yet compatible pairing.
Matya balances between an overturned kitchen sink and a slab of concrete, reaching for the perfect stone to throw for her game of hopscotch. Tracing her left foot against the dust, she challenges herself to a more complex game. Each night of the Blitz adds another square to her game.
“…23, 24,” she says, squeezing her tattered boot in the narrow space to fit the newest addition.
Her friends do not join her. Months prior, without a hint of remorse for missing her eleventh birthday party, Elizabeth and Joan boarded a train to evacuate the city. Now, Matya finds ways to amuse herself within the confines of a war that offers no promise of affectionate companionship.
The days repeat themselves. Matya wakes up in the bunker, tames her short, brown hair, washes her face, kisses Mama on the cheek after devouring whatever resembles breakfast that day, and emerges into the streets of London. Her morning ritual stays the same, no matter the day. After exploring the aftermath of the night before, she begins her trek toward Waterloo, as if she were Napoleon — though she hopes her mission will be more successful.
Past Waterloo Station rests the home of her favorite place; no one understood her fascination with the macabre destination she so often visits. The building stands not as tall as those that surround it. It is only around 2 stories high, and the bricks cracked around the archway. On it, in large, metal letters read the word: NECROPOLIS.
Only one light is on in the ticket booth.
“Hello, Joseph.” She enters the booth and smiles at the only living man within the building.
“Good morning, Matya.” He reaches his hand toward her, which she eagerly takes. Joseph’s dark, unruly curls remind her of Papa. “I’m afraid no one has bought a ticket for the rails today.”
Matya is not surprised; no one buys tickets anymore. If there were more money and a more manageable number of casualties, perhaps the railway would be more lively.
Lively? Your humor is truly suffering from this war, Matya.
Nevertheless, she laughs to herself as she walks to the platform.
Immediately, people surround her. A man sits on the peeling green painted bench, playing a melancholy tune while a couple, the bride still in her wedding gown, spin in so many circles that Matya thinks they’ll fall onto the tracks. She walks in rhythm of their footsteps to the edge of the platform, turning her back to look at all the new people she has the pleasure of meeting today.
Each day is different, but the people normally look and feel the same. They have a slight glow to them, which Matya can only describe like the look of the back of her fingers when she pushes a flashlight deep into her skin. It glows pink and fresh.
Nothing like what a person really looks like when they are dead.
The familiar arched ceiling, covered with tiles and cobwebs bounces the sound of the saxophone back onto the platform. She looks, but she cannot find him.
Where are you, Papa?
But if he is not here, it means there is still hope. Those who are there, though, invite her to dance. The groom extends his hand, but she declines, and dances by herself, twirling in her tattered red dress, pretending Papa stood alongside her, clapping to the beat.
Only once did she touch one of the ghosts, a young boy with his hand outstretched and a large, crooked smile on his face. When their hands met it felt wrong. She felt her heart slow, and her breathing get heavier. She ran home to Mama that day with tears in her eyes.
Matya walks home right before dusk, as she does every evening. Her feet drag and crunch the rubble beneath her feet. She likes the sound. She imagines that’s what it sounds like when Papa marches in the War.
Maybe if I just go further out in the city, I will find him.
But Matya goes home as always, and Mama scolds her for her scraped knees, but laughs and kisses her head as she washes them.
“I don’t understand why you go there, Matya. Why?”
But Matya will not let her mother know that she is waiting for him. She dreads each moment she is in the platform, knowing at any second, Papa could be there. So she looks and waits each day.
Over the next few days, her hopscotch game grows.
“…27, 28.” She huffs, tears covering her eyes, which she scrunches until they are forced to slide down her face and onto the tip of her nose. She licks them off her nose, a trick she often shows new friends that don’t believe she can do it.
“He is not coming home, Matya. You know that. But I need you to come home. Every night I wait here, thinking you won’t come back. We need to be sensible about these things.” Her mother’s cheeks flushed as she said those words. She had paced back and forth, her long, brown curls swishing to the side each time she turned. Matya waited to cry until the hopscotch game.
She stands on the rubble, looking at the spots where her tears turned the dust a dark gray. In a rush of anger, she gets on her scraped knees and crawls down her hopscotch game, pushing dirt, rocks, and a broken toy around.
There is no time for playing anymore. Please, don’t prove her right, Papa.
Matya runs the 13 blocks to Necropolis Station, not stopping once to catch her breath. She throws open the rusted ticket booth door, but Joseph is not there. Thinking, he, too, abandoned the station, Matya walked through the corridor to the platform. An old woman knits on the bench, and three men huddle in a corner playing cards. Others stand, waiting for the train to come. She walks around, smiling as she passes mothers with their newborns. Not breaking her gaze at the curly-haired infant, she bumps into another person, and her breath escapes her lungs in an agonizingly slow wheeze. She breaks the contact, and twirls around, her breath finally returning.
The man smiles at her, but Matya’s eyes fill with tears.
“Hello, Matya! Would you believe it? It’s so nice in here.”
She does not answer, but instead backs out to the corridor and returns home without knowing how she got there. Sobbing, she ran to her mother’s arms.
“Mama…Joseph…he was on the platform!” She tries to slow her breathing, but instead coughs and cries harder at the burn in her chest.
“Well, of course he was, Matya. He works there. Why are you so upset, darling?” Her mother wipes her tears into the sides of her face, wetting her hair where the moisture meets.
She will never understand.
She looks up at her mother, the tears drying in her eyes. She lays on the couch they found deserted in the street, and looks up at the ceiling that used to be the home of her friend Joan before they had to leave, and before Matya’s home no longer existed. Her mother sits, putting Matya’s head in her lap, and hums tunelessly until Matya falls asleep.
She wakes hours later to sounds of her mother preparing dinner, slips out of the house, and walks slowly to the station. She stops, staring at the sign that she sees everyday, but feels no excitement. There is no Joseph to greet as she passes the ticket booth. She runs her hands across the tiled walls of the corridor and stops before the platform. The train departs each day at 3 PM, leaving Matya with no one to talk to, or dance with. She stands in the middle, looking at the tracks. She stays like this for a long time, long past darkness covering the city, long past when the sirens begin blaring through the streets. She yawns, and sits against the wall, falling asleep almost immediately.
“Matya,” a voice says. “Wake up, Matya. It’s time to go, darling.”
Her eyes open slowly as she rubs them, unsticking her eyelids from her bottom lashes. “Papa?”
He smiles at her. He looks different, looks pink and warm and here. His curly hair is greased back against his head, and he wears his military uniform. He smells just as he did when he left: like thyme and the smell of old books in his office. She throws her arms around him, and does not notice that her breath stays the same.
Behind them, she hears crackling and smells thick smoke, the kind that burrows in her lungs and stifles her breathing. The kind she swallowed when her own home was hit by the Blitz.
Around them, dozens of people pace and play and perform, all unaware and unbothered by the fire blazing and tiles broken at their feet. Even Matya does not feel panic at the sight; she takes Papa’s hand and leans against his arm.
“The train is coming early today,” a man with a checkered hat says to them. Papa nods his head in acknowledgement and scratches his temple.
“Looks as if it will be busy today,” he says. He smiles at Matya. “I’m so glad to see you.”
He does not have to raise his voice to be heard over the fire and sirens. In fact, Matya does not even notice them anymore. The man in the checkered hat invites her to dance to the violin that someone begins playing, and she accepts. After a moment, Papa cuts in to dance with her.
As the train pulls up, part of the arched ceiling begins to crumble, falling at Matya’s feet. She does not worry, though, and uses it as a step to kiss Papa’s cheek.
“Would you like the window seat?” Papa asks.
She nods her head as Papa lifts her onto the train and closes the door behind them.