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Where the Air is Clear

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Bert was still on the roof when the sirens started. In the streets far below, Londoners were shouting to one another, honking their car horns, running for cover. He knew that he ought to as well, but an east wind was dancing over the rooftops, chasing itself playfully around chimneys and between his ankles, casting the last sparks of daylight at the dome of Saint Paul's Cathedral.

He knew he ought to grab his charcoals and easel and go, find some cover until the air raid was over. But the cathedral looked so sad and valiant in that deep gold light, even though the black smoke from the last air raid still hung around it like a shroud. It seemed wrong to leave it; some Londoner, someone who loved it ought to keep it company when the Germans started dropping their bombs again.

"Might as well be ol' Bert," he said, trying to measure the length of a column by extending his thumb and squinting at it. "You stay right there, I'll stay right 'ere." He made a line on the paper, studied it a moment. It looked right, he decided, so he lowered his arm.

The sirens kept going, but the rest of the city fell silent as if it were clutching its breath. Bert kept drawing until the smoke snuffed out the daylight. Then he dropped his charcoal into the crumpled paper bag at his feet, tugged the rag from his belt loop and wiped his hands.

"S'all right," he told the paler smudge that he knew to be the cathedral. "Said I wasn't going nowhere, and I'm not. You just sit tight. Them Germans're certainly goin' to a lot of trouble for ol' codgers like us."

The wind rose. It nipped at his ears and fingertips, but still he didn't leave. The Germans started dropping their bombs. Flames blossomed red and gold against the sooty darkness.

An odd feeling came over Bert. As the wind lifted his hair and scarf, it seemed to lift his soul from his body. He knew it hadn't because he could still feel the tar beneath his feet, but at the same time he felt some part of him had been flung up into the night and was hanging there, watching the destruction of the city from a very great and remote height. He wondered if, at some point, his body would join him, but he found himself unable to care greatly.

"It's all right," he said or thought, "I'm sixty. I'm old. I've been a lot, I've done a lot, it's all right."

A building not far from the one where his body stood shuddered. Another was engulfed in a cloud of black smoke.

Bert kept thinking, It's all right, it's all right, even as flames leaped up around him and something knocked his body and soul back together with a force that sent him reeling forward.

I'm going to crash into the easel and ruin my drawing, he thought in a panic.

But he didn't.

"Oh, Bert," said a voice he hadn't heard in thirty years.

He looked at everything except her. He looked at the clear autumn sky, at the blinding white steps of the cathedral, at the pigeons cooing to the bird lady who was seated just a few meters away, at the shops, flats, and offices, and the people going in and out of them. At his own clean shoes and trousers. He glanced briefly at his hands, but though the charcoal had disappeared from under his nails, they were still dry and wrinkled.

He looked again at the perfect blue sky he had drawn just minutes earlier, and knew that somewhere beyond it, things were exploding and people were probably dying. He knew it, but he had trouble believing it.

"Bert," she said again, and he finally turned to her.

He'd half-expected her to look exactly as she had the last time he'd seen her, leaving Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane. It took him a moment to realize that she did look almost exactly the same; only her clothes had changed. And her hair – it waved about her shoulders in the style that was currently popular. It made her look younger somehow, but not softer, not touchable.

"Mary Poppins," he said. "I told you not to stay away too long."

He didn't mean to chide, but a reproachful note crept into his tone and though she continued to smile, he was sure she'd heard it. "'Ow long do we 'ave?" he asked quietly. "Until the drawing gets destroyed, I take it?"

"Yes," said Mary, "or until the bombs stop."

"Don't suppose we could just stay here, even after the all clear? Nah," he said before she opened her mouth, "you've never been one for sticking around."

Mary lowered herself to the steps, and it seemed to Bert that she was taking an awful lot of interest in her square-toed, practical shoes. But it was hard to tell because of the brightness of the marble and the way her dark hair fell against her cheeks.

"Bert," she said at length, "what ever were you doing up there at a time like this?"

"Wanted to finish me drawing," he replied, sitting beside her, just close enough to catch that whiff of wind-through-the-cherry-blossoms that was still so familiar after so many years. "It's one of me better ones."

She gave an exasperated little sigh.

"It's the truth," he said.

"Did you think I'd fly down to save you?"

"Nah," said Bert. "Not after thirty years. All the same…." He stole a look at her. "All the same, be lying if I said you wasn't always on me mind, just a bit, 'specially when the wind's coming from the east and I 'appen to be on a London rooftop. Still… Don't really know what I was thinking, if I was thinking at all." He wanted to ask her how long she'd been watching him, if he was always somehow on her mind too. –But he anticipated a clipped, unsatisfying answer, so he shut his mouth.

For a while they sat there watching the bird lady and her pigeons. Each time a shadow fell, Bert held his breath and clenched his fists because he thought something might be happening to the drawing, but it was always just a cloud passing in front of the sun.

After a time Mary said, "I wish you'd be more careful."

"I wish I'd be more careful, too," replied Bert. "Been wishing it all me life. Someday maybe I'll listen to me better judgment."

"You should listen to me."

"Well, there you go. I do listen. When you're around."

"Bert--"

He shook his head. His better judgment was jumping up and down inside him, waving its arms in the air, urging him to keep quiet, but he said, "I know. Ain't fair of me to talk like that, or to say what I'm about to say. But it could be we're about to die, and the truth is, Mary, you're the only woman I've ever—"

Her hand suddenly on his knocked the last word back down his throat. He swallowed it and it dissolved like sugar.

"I know," Mary said. "That's why."

Why what?, he wondered. Why she never stayed? Why she came to save him? Why she came to save anyone? He wondered, but he knew he'd never ask.

He raised her hand to his lips, kissed the smooth white knuckles. They sat together until the threat was over. Then, still hand in hand, they floated out of the drawing like a pair of kites.

12/22/2007