The night sky over Coventry, a congregation of ancient cloisters set deep like the most prized jewel in the heart of the English Midlands, thundered with the roar of an approaching horde of neo-barbarian Nazi Germans. Unheralded, unannounced thanks to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s decision, the engines of the fleet of the Luftwaffe bomber planes met utterly no opposition from the RAF as they flew in strict formations to drop their incendiary bombs on the sleeping victim below.
At first the citizenry, those who had not yet gone to sleep, heard the planes and thought little of it-—thinking that it was some squadron of their beloved RAF on some vital mission in defense of the homeland. But there began the hell-bursts of blinding concussions, fiery flashes, flames, smoke, cascading walls, destruction and death. In the first moments of the full-scale attack,, nobody below could understand what was happening. They had received no warning. Could the enemy have flown so far into England without being apprehended? With radar it could not have happened, yet here was death raining from the sky from an invisible enemy.
Defenseless, bewildered, injured, and dying, the city reeled in shock and terror as the seemingly endless avalanche of death cascaded down the houses, hospitals, schools, shops, churches, and the cathedral.
Raised during the Middle Ages, the cathedral was the pride of Coventry—a magnificent tribute to the faith and genius of generations of anonymous artisans. Hundreds of bombs fell, lighting up whole districts with raging fires. People perished in the thousands, children in flames running into the street only to be met by a crowd of people who were also burning to death as they ran trying to escape the firestorm.
The medieval heart of Coventry perished-—most of its people murdered in their beds and nurseries. After the Luftwaffe discharged its last bomb and the mighty fleet veered away toward the southeast coast, the ruins burned for hours, the smoke mounting to heaven along with the sickening stench of human flesh that might have come from a crematorium
For minutes the silence after the Nazis’ departure was almost as deafening as their thunderous presence. Then here and there a human cry went up, joined by hundreds, then thousands of others in the dark. In the midst of the flames the perishing cried with intense pain and terror for help—and no help could possibly reach them in time.
Coughing and spitting out dust and grit that poured onto her face from the pile of debris that had nearly emtombed her, she reached the surface. Since up to the disaster she had orginally worn only in a house dress, it did not last long. It had been ripped up and her slippers were gone too, so she needed to clothe herself properly before she set out to find help.
Searching, she found some items. A ragged coat and mismatched shoes, with a nightgown under her coat and a man’s sweater to keep herself warm, she struggled away to reach her place of employment. Her whole body shook but she managed to calm herself enough to continue on.
Trying first one street and then another, she got hopelessly lost, for the streets no longer resembled anything she had known since childhood. The landmarks and street signs were all gone. Instead the roadbeds were heaped with masonry and smoking timbers. Climbing and crawling, she moved doggedly in the direction she felt was the right one.
Firemen, nurses and doctors, soldiers passed her without a glance for a single woman in working class clothes and ragged, dust-choked hair, with more important things on their minds as they sought out the sources of screams, wails and shouts for help amidst the devastation.
Smashed windows showed all the contents of once elegant shops stocked with Worcester porcelains, with others such as florists, confectioners, and bakeries broken down so greatly that everything they contained was blown into the streets and mixed with the mountains of rubble in bizarre combinations. The woman paused and picked up something.
It was a quality collector’s doll with a bisque head, but the body was charred black, and the the legs were gone.
Was this it? She wondered. It couldn’t be!
She gazed up through the drifting clouds of smoke at the gaping hole where there should have been the doors of the cathedral. It was entirely blown away, with only bars of iron bent at odd angles to show where the doors must had stood.
Stumbling over rubble, she climbed up the broad steps. When she reached the dooryard she found several men whispering and peering in as if viewing something unspeakable.
What could make them act so oddly? She wondered. Curiosity overcame even her thoughts of safety, and she went forward.
She knew in a moment why they behaved so oddly as she joined them. Looking through into the sanctuary she saw a mountain of rubble, smoking with still burning timbers.
She struck almost breathless.
Where was the church? What she saw was indescribable.
She pushed past the men and entered, her feet on the ancient stone pavements she had scrubbed for years.
A man reached out to catch her arm.
“Best go no further, Madam!” he said. “Those old walls could drop on you any moment, with the next wind. Madam, where be you going? Madam—”
She didn’t hear a word, as she moved in a few feet, stopped by the rubble. She looked around, then upwards. Pews, stained glass, choir rail carvings, roof—all gone! In the distance she could just make out the top of the great stone altar poking up above the rubble.
Her heart seemed to die within her. All her woes-—the deaths of her daughter, husband, and numerous neighbors and friends (all trapped and crushed, their bodies beyond reach in the debris)-—she saw it combined in the scene spread before her in God’s house.
She tried to reach the altar, though it was out of instinct and no reason for doing so in her conscious mind. If only she might touch it, she was feeling, that horrible black thing welling up in her like a great wave, threatening to engulf her soul, might be swept away from her!
Determined, with a kind of madness, she reached the altar, though it was a very dangerous place to be. The remaining walls might crumble and fall down on her at any moment. The spire reaching several hundred feet upwards, still standing, might collapse and kill them all.
Her arms reached out over the bricks and smoking timbers all mixed together and her groping fingers finally touched the altar. But she received nothing she had hoped to feel-—some tiny but real shred of assurance, some particle of comfort from touching the holy altar. The black wave, poised to sweep away her soul, towered above her, and there was no hope for her whatsoever. Britain, and all her people, were lost! Finished! The destruction of the cathedral told her even God had forsaken Britannica! What hope then was there?
But she must have moved her foot, for she felt it strike something sharp that moved beneath it, and she nearly slipped. She bent down feeling for the object, and grasped a metallic something. It was warm to her touch, and then she realized it was a nail—forged by blacksmiths six centuries past in medieval times, for it was very long and hammered to a point, and looked nothing like manufactured nails. As she took another step she felt another such object. She fished around and soon found another nail amidst the many scattered from the collapsed roof.
Wondering what to do with them, she stood before the altar. Then she saw for the first time what was missing.
Another moment passed and an inspiration came to her slowly. Might she do it? She yanked a shoelace from her husband’s shoe and tied it round the two crossed nails. This the charwoman placed on the altar.
The moment she let go of it, the mountain-high dark wave swept past without breaking on her. She felt it go, and an enormous sense of peace took its place. Now the tears could come. How strange! She thought. Tears rained from her eyes like metallic pellets or hail, hard and bitter at first, then gradually softening to single large drops that clung to her eyes and cheeks like gummy chews.
“Father, forgive ‘em!” she cried silently. “They don’t know what they’re do’in’ to us! They don’t e’en knowen us! That is God's'own truth!”
Blinded with tears, she could not move away for some time. Pulling up her smudged dress she wiped her face as best she could.
When she again reached the entrance, more spectators had come to view the destroyed cathedral.
“'Tis a pity! A priceless, priceless treasure of 14th century art and architecture-—all lost to the irrational barbarism of war!” Mr. Cyril Arbogast, a cultured gentleman employed by the British Museum in London, lamented. “We shall never be able to restore it as it was! Never, I say! No doubt a cinema and green grocery, modern shops and flats will take its place! That is, if there still is a Britain in this world to come! If only that naughty, naughty little fellow over there had really meant it when he signed our foreign secretary's treaty after we so generously handed him the Sudentenland of Czechoslovakia!”
The charwoman did not hear his comments. Both eardrums had been damaged by the concussions of the exploding shells-—and all she could hear was a continual loud ringing most of the time. Yet her crooked, smudged face was lit by a strange smile, that made the cultured gentlemen and several others look twice at her as she passed.
“Who was that?” a cabby asked the museum staff director. “And what was that bloody smile on ‘her face?—like a cat with a canary, I swear!”
“Why, I saw the little baggage go in, she was poking round in the building, and must have fingered something valuable,” another man with some sort of job with the Bank of England and a gift for petty embezzlement commented with indignant tones. “We really should call a bobbie to question her and give her a good frisk, as the Americans say. It’s our Christian duty to stop looters desecrating these sacred shrines.”
But as they spoke the charwoman was gone, vanished like a ghost into the wreckage in the street below.
Meanwhile, dressed and ready to receive breakfast, the prime minister reached into the red portfolio for the report on Coventry he knew would be there. Even with a fortifying brandy, the news of fatalities and damage was worse, much worse than he had feared. Indeed, it was unspeakable—a whole population nearly wiped off the map. A firestorm that melted the flesh of human bodies thousands of yards distant? He dropped the paper, unable to finish it. Bulling up silently from his chair he went to the window, standing at it with the curtains still drawn for the night blackout, his hands tightly clenched behind him.
“At least we prevented the Nazis from finding out our clever chaps at Bletchley House cracked their bloody Enigma code!” he thought, miserably. “Think how many lives it saved in sum, with the sacrificial, patriotic loss of theirs.”
So he thought, yet why was he finding so precious little cheer? What could be wrong with the strategy he had devised, which necessitated he let a few thousands perish without a chance to escape in order to save quite possibly millions? He hadn’t liked doing it, but what other choice had he? Why, old Coventry and its poky, little china shops could be rebuilt in splendid, new fashion after the war—“
“Sir?” someone on staff gently called to the great savior of Great Britain.
Forgetting the laws of momentum, the master of expedience spun around so quickly he nearly kept turning.