Ursula is on her back in a pool of water. She smells sewage, plaster, brick dust, gas, and explosives around her. She looks up and sees the frame of the window to her apartment; the curtains are now charred rags. She thinks about how Millie had suggested she move in with her in Phillimore gardens. She tries to take her mind off of her current predicament. She remembers looking out the window in her apartment and turning on the radio to a German station (she had been taking German lessons), but unable to understand anything had put a Ma Rainey record on the gramophone—a gift from Izzie, who had left her house in Holland Park and had decamped to California with her new husband.
Even one year into the war, Ursula’s life has drastically changed, as bombs have become a near constant presence. Millie’s offer for Ursula to move in with her becomes ironic. It represents an alternative possibility that is unexplored in this life and which tantalizes her, as Ursula thinks that she might have escaped her current predicament if she had only been somewhere else—even though the bombs are ubiquitous.
Ursula has gotten to know her neighbors over the previous year: Lavinia and Ruth Nesbit, two old, retired spinsters, live on the top floor. The Millers, a large family, live on the bottom floor. Next door to Ursula lives Mrs. Appleyard, a single mother with a baby named Emil, who screams all day and night. They have minimal, polite interaction.
The brutal and pervasive destruction of the war can be seen in the fact that by the end of this chapter, all of the people in the building will have died, displaying the broad scale of the war’s devastation.
Recently Ursula had visited Pamela, who gave birth to another boy, Gerald. Pamela had been terribly bored to be shut up with so many little boys in Finchley, had returned to London briefly before the nightly raids started, but since then had retreated to Fox Corner to avoid the bombs. Harold is now working the front line, and says that every night is hell at the bombsites.
Harold’s short description of the bombsites is later borne out in graphic description by Atkinson, both when Ursula experiences the bombs herself, and when she is the one dealing with its aftermath in a later life. The horrors are thus shown to be “hell” no matter what kind of interaction one has with them.
Ursula is no longer seeing Crighton—the declaration of war had made him guilty, and they had parted ways, even though he was very distraught about it. Ursula had been upset, but she had never been in love with Crighton. She thinks it is a shame, though, that they broke it off—the war made indiscretions easier, as the blackout is the perfect screen for “illicit liaisons.”
Ursula’s thoughts demonstrate how the war disrupts society not only with its violence and poverty, but also how it changes social norms and would allow Ursula to carry on her affair.
Instead, Ursula had begun a relationship with a fellow student from her German class—Ralph. Ralph had fought at Dunkirk (and was shot in the leg, resulting in a permanent limp) and now works in the same building as Ursula. Ralph is sardonic, leftwing, utopian, and nothing like Crighton.
Ursula remains on the path of being a more empowered woman (in contrast with her previous lives), continuing her string of relatively casual relationships men who treat her as equals.
One day when Ursula ran into Maurice at her job, he told her with distaste that it might not look good for her to be courted by a “Red.” He also criticized her for taking German, as though she was getting ready to welcome the enemy. She retorted that he can’t accuse her of being both a communist and a fascist.
Maurice is just as he is when he was younger, completely uninvolved in Ursula’s life except to criticize. While here Ursula brushes off Maurice’s insensitivity, later on in the war his callousness takes its toll on her.
In the present, Ursula looks around the wreckage, and can see that most of the wall between her apartment and Mrs. Appleyard’s has disappeared. She can see a dress of Lavinia Nesbit’s hanging through the shattered beams above her. She wonders if she might end up an old maid—if she could be considered an old maid after she had carried on an affair.
Each time Ursula returns to the present, Atkinson lets on more and more clues into Ursula’s dire situation, as each bomb does an exceptional amount of damage.
The previous day Crighton had sent Ursula a note, asking if she had seen a gold engraved cigarette case that belonged to him. She had found it beneath her bed a few days after he left her. That evening she had done the crossword with Ralph stretched across her lap in the sofa. There was an easy camaraderie and respect between them.
Both of Ursula’s beaus serve as a contrast to Derek: secure in their masculinity, and yet treating her with respect and dignity. While the rigid gender expectations leave Ursula without any joy, being able to control her own life and her own desire allows Ursula to be a lot happier.
Ursula is very fond of Ralph—not in love with him, but finds him very dependable. Sitting on the couch with him, Ursula had commented aloud that if one small thing could have changed in the past—if Hitler had died at birth—things might be completely different. Ralph wonders if Ursula would have killed Hitler as a baby to prevent it from happening. She thinks that she would, if it would save Teddy.
While Ursula’s and Ralph’s discussion is metaphorical here, it gains a lot more weight in subsequent chapters when Ursula does attempt to kill Hitler prior to the start of the war. Perhaps notably, however, Ursula does not kill him as a baby or child, but instead when he has already become a star of the Nazi Party. Perhaps this is Ursula’s own way of seeing whether Hitler himself might be able to avoid his immorality in another version of life.
Teddy had been working on a small farm and wrote poetry, but had applied to the RAF the day after war was declared. He is now in Canada, learning how to fly. Ursula wishes he could stay over there forever.
Ursula’s love for Teddy becomes the motivation to try to kill Hitler in another version of her life, sacrificing herself in the process but hopefully allowing him to live.
Ursula had told Ralph abruptly that the raids would be starting soon, and that he’d better leave. She pushed him out the door with a kiss. She hears the planes whine overhead and then the swish and thump of the bombs falling and exploding. She descends the stairs to the cellar, which the residents used as an air-raid shelter. On the way, she passes Lavinia and Ruth, who say Lavinia has forgotten her knitting and are heading upstairs.
The war has become so expansive for civilians that the raids have essentially become normalized. She, Ralph, and the other residents have a routine they follow. Lavinia has even become so undisturbed by its disasters that she prioritizes her knitting over her safety.
The rest of the residents gather in the Millers’ cellar. A tremendous explosion rocks the cellar and everyone goes quiet. Ursula’s heart thumps, and she thinks of Jimmy, who had recently had a few days’ leave from the army and they had gone drinking in the risqué part of town. She asked him to promise not to die as they groped their way home in the darkness, listening to some other part of London being bombed. He had said he would do his best.
Even when Ursula’s family isn’t physically present, she still depends on them in times of crisis, using them as a means of distraction to take her mind off of the war going on around her.
In the present, Ursula doesn’t know how long she’s been lying in the pool. Mrs. Appleyard, covered in dirt, dust, and blood, claws over to Ursula, asking if she’s seen Emil. Ursula says she hasn’t, and Mrs. Appleyard disappears. Then Ursula notices Lavinia’s dress once again. Except it’s not just her dress. It’s her body, only without her head and her legs. Ursula starts to panic. She thinks about the explosion—how it had felt like the door to “hell suddenly split open” and her insides were being sucked from her body.
For the first time, Ursula starts to experience the visceral violence and damage of the war. In later timelines, she will understand the scale of the death and destruction, but here she sees and experiences the personal, individual toll that the war has—the tragedy of losing a friend, and of a child dying far too young.
A man’s voice (later revealed to be Mr. Emslie) breaks the silence, as he tells Ursula that there are people trying to get her out. She tries to speak but her words are slurred. The man holds her hand, and she is extremely grateful. Snow falls, and she starts to fall asleep. The man tries to hold her hand tighter and keep her awake, but Ursula imagines herself flying off a roof, floating into the blackout. Darkness falls.
Ursula herself experiences death due to war several times. The snow once again conveys the randomness of fate—bombs are dropped all over London every day, and Ursula just happens to be hit this time. She spends many other lives trying to avoid this fate, but the war proves itself to be difficult to escape because it is so all-encompassing.