“The Only 'Iacinf in All the World”

It was April, and wisps from the lilac draperies of springtime had found their way into the streets of London - the twisted strange and yet familiar streets of London. For they were familiar, even though changed, familiar with the nostalgia of long association; like old friends who come back from the wars with scars on their bodies and faces.

Above, the sky was bright with the intangible freshness of an April morning, and speckled with patches of deep blue heaven. The huge white clouds dipped low today, and it seemed as if they were a flock of snowy pigeons, that peered down at the broken houses and scattered heaps of masonry, and then flew on whispering sorrowfully among themselves.

Orchard Walk, one of the most mis-named of London's back streets, had received its share of the city's sorrow during the previous months, and a permanent smell of dust and disintegration pervaded the narrow street. Most of the tiny houses had been blasted, mounds of debris and splintered wood littered the pavements, and here and there, as one looked along, were ugly suggestive gaps.

The houses in Orchard Walk did not boast gardens, either back or front, the nearest approach being a small patch of railing-encircled concrete in the front and a scarcely larger patch at the back, which was dwarfed to an even smaller insignificance by the ragged chimneys and walls of the closely huddled houses.

Outside No. 10 was a group of children, the inevitable group of children. Some of the larger ones were playing hopscotch on roughly chalked squares, while two little girls, of about the grave-eyed age of five or six, were sitting on the kerb; both were hugging dolls of indistinguishable countenance, and both were in earnest conversation. “An' me muvver ses we c'n go dahn the shelter ev'n if there ain't no raid, 'cos they 'ave a party every night.” A couple of jerseyed boys were scuffling in the pitted road over the ownership of a particularly magnificent alley, while another, his head stuck through the handles of a pram, was talking baby talk to a rather bored looking baby, who actually seemed far more interested in the swift movements of the clouds overhead, and on which it had its eyes firmly fixed.

A boy and a girl, of about 9 years old, were standing gazing in silent admiration at the window-sill of No. 10. Not exactly at the window-sill itself, but at something which stood upon it. There it was, in a chipped brown pot, a tall beautifully formed and almost fully-grown hyacinth, of a delicate pale blue colouring that reminded one of forget-me-nots.

The pride of ownership shone in the little boy's eyes, “Ain't it a whopper, Lil?” he said. Lil nodded and shut her eyes. “An' don' it smell nice, Jimmy?”, she breathed. “Like when we went ter the Sunday School outin' at Eppin' Forist an' picked them bluebells. He laughed. “Yerse, an' you fell in the water an' got all yer fings wet”. Their faces grew wistful in reminiscence and for a while neither of them spoke. “It don' seem no time since it were a dirty little brahn fing”, Jimmy said at last. “I'm narf glad I din' frow it away like I nearly did.” “I di'n b'lieve Miss Masters when she sed it would git inter a flah.”. Miss Masters was their Sunday School teacher and the bulb had been a tiny gift of encouragement to attend Sunday School regularly, but when handed to Jimmy it had terribly disappointed him. “Wot wos the use of a shriv'ly little fing like that?”. “She called it a 'Iacinf”, he had grunted when self-consciously exhibiting it to the other children, and then, to redeem his self-respect in their eyes, had observed that it was “a silly sort've name and a silly sort've prize” if you asked him.

However, Lil, who lived upstairs in his house, had persuaded him to keep it “Jester see”, and between them they had managed to get enough mould to plant it in, by the somewhat original expedient of going round and asking all the neighbours “Please kin we 'ave jester little bit've earf aht ve yer aspedistrer pot ter plant somefing in?” Mrs. Robinson, on learning that they hadn't a pot, had produced the quaint cracked receptacle which now stood on the window sill. They had watered it assiduously, Jimmy and Lil, and trembled each night as they crouched in the tube shelter and heard talk about the bombs crashing down outside, lest the 'iacinf should be bombed before it grew to a flower. And hadn't there been excitement when the first tip of a shiny fat shoot came bursting through. After that Jimmy insisted on putting it under his bed for safety each night before going down the shelter with the rest of his family.

“There ain't bin many flahs this year” remarked Jimmy with an air of knowledge. “Mrs. Parrot ses it's the only 'iacinf she's seen, an she goes aht ter the country ter see 'er daughter.” He grew excited as a bright thought struck him. “Lil, I bet it's the only 'iacinf in Lunden, and if there ain't none in the country p'r'aps it's the only one in En'land, an' I fink…” Lil interrupted him with a shriek and clap of' her hands. “'Ere, I read in a book that 'iacinfs are En'lish flahs, an' if they're En'lish they ain't forrin, so p'r'aps there ain't anuvver one at all; p'r'aps it's th' only 'Iacinf in all th' world!” This sudden revelation left them both speechless, and then, “Th' only 'iacinf in all th' world” they both shouted, “Th' only 'iacinf in all th' world”, and taking hands danced round together, deliriously happy, and both singing at the top of their voices “Th' only 'iacinf in all th' world.” The hopscotch children look up disinterestedly, “Wot's th' matter wiv them?” asked one. Another paused in the middle of a hop, with one leg up, and pulled a face, “Barmy” he shouted over to them derisively, then contemptuously resumed his hopping in and out of the little chalk squares. But the two by the window didn't hear him. They wouldn't have heard had the whole street turned out to shout at them; they just danced round with clasped hands … “Th' only 'iacinf in all th' world.”

Raiding had dwindled to intermittent attacks lately, but the menace that hovered over London was still very real, and that evening the bombers came. They came while the streets were still warm from the spring sunbeams and while Jimmy and his family were still having tea, taking the inhabitants of the tiny street unawares. Bombs were dropped and the anti-aircraft guns began hurling lead skywards long before the warning sounded, and Jimmy and his brothers and sisters, together with Lil and her widowed mother, were rushed down the tube shelter in the space of a few breathless minutes. Only when they were settled in their accustomed places among the multitude of jostling people seeking refuge did Jimmy think of his hyacinth, then there was an agonised little shout from him. “Mum, I've left me 'iacinf on the winder sill; it'll git bombed won't it, me ‘iacinf'll git bombed.” His mother looked at him half sympathetically yet a little sternly. “Sorry, Jim' she said “But yer carn't go back fer it nah, an' there's a lot worse ter worry abaht than yore 'iacinf. Yew be a good boy an' fergit it, an' watch the intertainment.” But Jimmy was sick at heart and watched the singing and dancing that followed with unseeing eyes and constricted throat, half crying and muttering to himself under his breath.

He began thinking about when ‘it' had been a bulb, and that reminded him of Miss Masters, and that, in turn, brought his thoughts to Sunday School. He had never been very bad at Sunday School; he'd nearly always been early - which was largely due, of course, to the fact that his mother ‘chased him' so as to get him there in time (but he hurriedly dropped that particular thought even as it came to him, and concentrated on effect rather than cause!). Yes, he'd nearly always been early and he didn't fight in the class like Sid Baker did. But he couldn't honestly say he'd paid a lot of attention to what had been said, yet some things stuck out in his mind, and he remembered the story he had liked about making the man walk. He'd always been interested in miracle stories; had even tried to make a cat talk to him once, but without success, and so his interest had somewhat waned.

Suddenly it came to him, he knew what he'd do... very self-consciously he shut his eyes, then opened them again to see if anybody was looking at him. No, they were all too intent on watching the girl in pink who was singing and playing the accordian, so he shut his eyes again and, feverishly clasping his hands together, thrust them under the blanket that covered him. “Please,God” he whispered “Please God, make it so them bombs won't come on me 'iacinf, 'cos there ain't anuvver one, it's th' only 'iacinf in all th' world; make it so the bombs won't come on me 'yasin'f.”

Jimmy did not sleep much, but then nor did anybody else, for it was a terrible night. One couldn't hear the noise down there, but overhead it was as though some monster was on the prowl, spitting, snarling, roaring and rending the deserted streets to pieces. From time to time wardens and policeman slipped in and out, trying to minimise the ferocity of the raid, but even they were shocked and shaken.

In the morning people with wan smudged faces came out of the shelter into the mist of a wet drizzle, and Jimmy, strung up between expectation and despair was one of the first to reach the street. Leaving his family to extricate themselves from the crowd he darted off home in a frenzy of uncertainty. He heard the words “Orchard Walk” as he ran. There'd been a bomb there, near the end... Jimmy's house was at the end. His heart was somewhere up in his throat... drawn yet repelled he must see... the only 'iacinf in all the world...

As he neared Orchard Walk the damage grew worse. His feet ran on, and he couldn't have stopped even if he'd wanted to. Then there was Orchard Walk ahead, the air was thick with the smell he had learned to associate with air raids, and damp clots of dust and mortar struck his face. As he turned the corner his eyes were confused by heaps of bricks, and looking along at the crumpled houses his mind was for a moment diverted by a wave of thankfulness for the fact that Orchard Walk retired to the tube shelter at night.

And then, something delicately blue caught his eye, something that shone radiantly through the rain; he stumbled forward, there were holes in the road, and a bomb crater almost on his doorstep; but the house was standing, a little rickety may be, but still standing, and there, there on the window sill, unscathed, seeming even lovelier than ever, and yielding its indescribable fragrance to the morning, as if offering up an incense of thanksgiving, was “the only 'iacinf in all the world”.