Artie Baybrock was born three weeks premature on the concrete floor of a public bomb shelter. As incendiaries engulfed the city’s churches, as flames turned surplices to black tissue and melted chalices gilded worn tiles, Artie arrived – purple, bloodied, cat cry drowned by the city’s moans.
Artie survived the night, though his mother died just as the all clear sounded. Lucky Artie, you might think, though during a childhood with Sour Aunt Gertie and her cane, he didn’t.
Decades later on his 72nd birthday, Artie was alone as usual. He had been a lifelong bachelor, no children, few friends left above ground. He hobbled to the charity shop to treat himself to a new jacket, the old one too worn and stained, or so his carer said.
As he left the shop, new purchase drooping from coat hanger shoulders, he slipped his hand into the pocket, felt a bump in silky the lining. He pulled out something round and smooth – a watch, golden as a melted chalice.
On the back an inscription:
For Artie, from his loving Mother x
That night Artie died in his bed, safe in the knowledge that he was the luckiest man who ever lived.
The original draft of this was longer, the opening based around the deadliest night of the Bristol Blitz – 24th November 1940 – when Bristol lost so many of its landmarks (including the beautiful Dutch House and several churches). Two hundred people died that night, 187 seriously injured.
The effects of those raids surround you in the modern city – in the gutted churches that still stand as memorials to the dead; in many of the city’s parks and open spaces (one of which is at the bottom of our road) where houses were cleared by incendiaries, never to be rebuilt. To read some personal stories, visit here.