Gas Masks

Clem had to go and get his gas mask early, on his way to the office, but the rest of them went at half-past one, hoping that the lunch hour would be less crowded. It may have been: but even so there was a longish queue. They were quite a large party -- Mrs. Miniver and Nannie; Judy and Toby; Mrs. Adie, the Scots cook, lean as a winter aspen, and Gladys, the new house-parlourmaid : a pretty girl, with complicated hair. Six of them -- or seven if you counted Toby's Teddy bear, which seldom left his side, and certainly not if there were any treats about. For to children, even more than to grown-ups (and this is at once a consolation and a danger), any excitement really counts as a treat, even if it is a painful excitement like breaking your arm, or a horrible excitement like seeing a car smash, or a terrifying excitement like playing hide-and-seek in the shrubbery at dusk. Mrs. Miniver herself had been nearly grown-up in August 1914, but she remembered vividly how her younger sister had exclaimed with shining eyes, "I say! I'm in a war!"

But she clung to the belief that this time, at any rate, children of Vin's and Judy’s age had been told beforehand what it was all about, had heard both sides, and had discussed it themselves with a touching and astonishing maturity. If the worst came to the worst (it was funny how one still shied away from saying, "If there's a war, " and fell back on euphemisms) -- if the worst came to the worst, these children would at least know that we were fighting against an idea, and not against a nation. Whereas the last generation had been told to run and play in the garden, had been shut out from the grown-ups worded conclaves: and then quite suddenly had all been plunged into an orgy of licensed lunacy, of boycotting Grimm and Struwwelpeter, of looking askance at their cousins' old Fräulein, and of feeling towards Dachshund puppies the uneasy tenderness of a devout churchwoman dandling her daughter's love-child. But this time those lunacies -- or rather, the outlook which bred them -- must not be allowed to come into being. To guard against that was the most important of all the forms of war work which she and other women would have to do: there are no tangible gas masks to defend us in wartime against its slow, yellow, drifting corruption of the mind.

The queue wormed itself on a little. They moved out of the bright, noisy street into the sunless corridors of the Town Hall. But at least there were benches to sit on. Judy produced pencils and paper (she was a far-sighted child) and began playing Consequences with Toby. By the time they edged up to the end of the corridor Mr. Chamberlain had met Shirley Temple in a Tube lift and Herr Hitler was closeted with Minnie Mouse in an even smaller rendezvous.

When they got into the Town Hall itself they stopped playing. Less than half an hour later they came out again into the sunlit street: but Mrs. Miniver felt afterwards that during that half-hour she had said good-bye to something. To the last shreds which lingered in her, perhaps, of the old, false, traditional conception of glory. She carried away with her, as well as a litter of black rubber pigs, a series of detached impressions, like shots in a quick-cut film. Her own right hand with a pen in it, filling up six yellow cards in pleasurable block capitals; Mrs. Adie sitting up as straight as a ramrod under the fitter's hands, betraying no signs of the apprehension which Mrs. Miniver knew she must be feeling about her false fringe; Gladys's rueful giggle as her elaborate coiffure came out partially wrecked from the ordeal; the look of sudden realization in Judy’s eyes just before her face was covered up; the back of Toby's neck, the valley deeper than usual because his muscles were taut with distaste (he had a horror of rubber in any form); a very small child bursting into a wail of dismay on catching sight of its mother disguised in a black snout; the mother's muffled reassurances -- "it's on'y Mum, duck. Look -- it's just a mask, like at Guy Fawkes, see?" (Mea mater mala sus est. Absurdly, she remembered the Latin catch Vin had told her, which can mean either "My mother is a bad pig" or "Run, mother, the pig is eating the apples.")

Finally, in another room, there were the masks themselves, stacked close, covering the floor like a growth of black fungus. They took what had been ordered for them -- four medium size, two small -- and filed out into the street.

It was for this, thought Mrs. Miniver as they walked towards the car, that one had boiled the milk for their bottles, and washed their hands before lunch, and not let them cat with a spoon which had been dropped on the floor.

Toby said suddenly, with a chuckle, "We ought to have got one for Teddy." It would have been almost more bearable if he had said it seriously. But just as they were getting into the car a fat woman went past, with a fatter husband.

"You did look a fright," she said. "I 'ad to laugh."

One had to laugh.


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