Today's Reading

"I cannot say what I really felt or indeed what I feel now," Miss Middleton wrote. She experienced premonitions, in one form or another, throughout her life. She compared the feeling to knowing the answer in a spelling test. Names and numbers would appear to her. "I am drawn to these events by what appears to be a blaze of light," she wrote. "An electric light bulb." When Miss Middleton was eleven, she felt an irresistible urge to contact her piano teacher, a young German man, who had recently been hospitalized for nerve trouble. After cajoling her parents to call him, she found out that he had poisoned himself in his apartment. "It was probable that fate would have intervened and his moment of death was there," she reasoned. "But I could not rid myself of the thought that if I had managed to contact him he would have returned for supper and any problems could have been discussed." Miss Middleton was an only child and she sensed a world that was particularly responsive and legible to her. "Everything happened just as I knew it would," she wrote to a cousin. Her mother asked her to stop saying what would happen next.

Miss Middleton considered her childhood to be the happiest time of her life. She liked to reminisce about the "large house of twelve rooms" where she had lived, and how her father "had been offered a position" in America. The truth was much more modest. Annie and Henry, her father, were English. Henry came from a prosperous family which owned a furniture-making business and thirty properties across Islington and Hackney, in north London. Annie was one of five children from Liverpool. They met in Paris, not long before the First World War, and sailed to America on a ship named the Bohemia in something of a scandal. (Annie left behind an infant son in France.) In Boston, where Miss Middleton was born in 1914, Henry worked on the north docks as a machinist at a canned goods store that was known for its deviled ham. The family lived in Dorchester, on the edge of the city. Guided by Annie, Miss Middleton took piano, dance and elocution lessons. She had a Russian ballet teacher and went to a progressive high school, where she learned dress design and how to fix cars and radios. She had a friend, Gloria Gilbert, who made it to Hollywood, where she became known as "The Human Top," for her spins. But Henry's work dried up. In 1933, the family sailed back across the Atlantic, pursued by debts.

The return to England was humiliating. Carlton Terrace was a street of furriers, paper cutters and carpenters, a quiet, suburban realm quite apart from Paris, Hollywood and the rest of the Middleton family. At the age of fifty, Henry found work as a lathe operator. Less became possible. Miss Middleton auditioned at Sadler's Wells but could not afford the necessary tuition. When the Second World War began, she was working as a dance teacher at Prince's Dance Hall, a mile and a half away across north London, in Palmers Green. She took piano lessons by candlelight from an elderly organist named Mr. E. A. Crusha, whose windows had been blown out during an air raid.

On a Saturday night in March 1941, Miss Middleton was preparing to go out for the first time since the start of the Blitz the previous autumn. There was a St. Patrick's Day celebration at Prince's Dance Hall. The place would be crowded with people that she knew. The air raid sirens had sounded and there was the rumble of bombs falling, but Miss Middleton was determined to go. She was just about to leave the house when a friend stopped by. They discussed whether it was safe to head out, and Miss Middleton decided that they would.

It was only after setting off that Miss Middleton experienced what she later described as "a most strange sensation." She took her friend's arm and they returned home, where they sat and played cards with Annie. While they were playing, at 8:45 p.m., a German bomber was hit by antiaircraft fire and jettisoned its payload of high explosive over Palmers Green. Prince's was filled with dancers. A sixteen-year-old girl named Wyn was sitting with her friends, watching couples turn in front of her, when she felt a great rush of wind as the side of the building came off. "You don't hear anything. That was when the bomb dropped," she told the BBC in an interview. "Everything went dark." A sailor called out, telling people to stand against the walls. Wyn was pulled from the rubble. The casualties from the dance were laid out on the pavement outside. Only two people had been killed. Outside the hall, however, on Green Lanes, an electric trolley bus had been caught in the heart of the explosions. A firefighter, George Walton, arrived within moments and boarded the bus, which had been on its way to Southgate Town Hall. Forty-three passengers, quite dead, were sitting, standing and reading their newspapers, waiting for their stop.

* * *

It was not unusual, during the Blitz, to believe that your life had been saved, or altered, by a premonition. The shattered streetscapes and possibility of death made the city an uncanny place, in which it was not necessarily easy to delineate what was real and what only existed in people's minds. During almost nightly bombing raids, Londoners sought sense, and solace, where they could find it. A fire watcher, whose job it was to look out for falling bombs and put out small fires, noticed that whenever he cleaned his rubber boots, a bad night seemed to follow. So he left them dirty.
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