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Sunday, October 31, 2010

24. I join the WAAF - Training

I do not know how the information came my way, but the WAAF was recruiting young women into the ranks. Between June 1945 and the end of 1946 over 100,000 girls were demobbed; they wanted to be released so that they could return to their husbands or marry boyfriends or just return to civilian life. I wonder what happened to all those uniforms! Even in peacetime admin work had to be done, and the WAAF were paid a much lower rate than the men for doing the same job so, as usual, females provided cheap labour. It was not a comfortable way of living, in fact by 1950 there were only 517 members of the WAAF left! But conditions had to improve and today there are even women pilots in the service, and I imagine the pay is equal.

The recruiting officer interviewed me and, on seeing my American Red Cross Uniform and hearing my phoney southern accent asked me, “Will your country allow you to join the WAAF?” Having explained that I was English, she next asked why I wanted to join up. So I said “To tell you the honest truth, I need three square meals a day and somewhere to sleep.” Well, the war was over so I could hardly give patriotism as my reason. My nomadic life and frequent changes of job, plus early school leaving, made supplying referees difficult. The Club Director would give me a reference when I left, but I was still employed there. I did have Mrs Evan’s school leaving letter written almost five years before and goodness knows how many addresses previously. But, I suppose, most of the girls applying to join up at this time were pieces of flotsam and jetsam, cut loose when the war ended. None of the new recruits I met came from happy homes or had successful careers with a solid social background. After replying honestly to all her questions, and after a medical to see that my heart was beating and that I had no nasty diseases, I was accepted. Because I was under 21, my father’s permission was required, and this he gave, reluctantly. He certainly had no better way of life to offer me.

Father had been fired from the off-licence (bottle store) and, as they had lived in a flat above the premises, they were homeless again. Housing was at a premium, so Father decided to build a bungalow and while they waited for it to be finished Mother, Father and Maureen were staying with Aunt Doris in her small bungalow in Thundersley, together with her three very horrible little boys. I travelled down to see them all before reporting for duty and stayed for a couple of days, so we were again sleeping four to a bedroom and when Uncle Albert returned from the Far East the following day, there were five in their bedroom, which must have been very frustrating, even for the puritanical Albert. I returned to Earls Court to await my instructions from the RAF which, when they arrived, contained a travel warrant and instructions for catching the train to Wilmslow.

While awaiting the train a few of us were interviewed by the Press, and that was my first experience of misreporting in the newspapers. Having told the reporter that I had previously worked for the American Red Cross he asked me “Would you like to serve overseas?” “Yes, of course” I replied. “I suppose you would like to go to America?” was his next question. “Yes, I would, but there are no WAAF postings there”. The report in the paper stated that I hoped to go to America so that I could catch up with all my American service friends! Pictures were taken of us boarding the train; Mother’s only comment was that I had a button missing from my coat, and Father said something about brains missing from my head as well.

The WAAF training camp at Wilmslow looked like the concentration camps I had seen on the news. Rows and rows of bare, uninviting wooden huts, standing on clinker bases. We reported to reception where we were issued with blankets, sheets, pillows and pillow cases for our beds, an enamel mug and a knife, fork and spoon, hereafter referred to as eating irons. We were greeted at our allocated hut by the Corporal in charge who read from her list of names alphabetically, and allocated a bed and locker to each of us. I was dying for a pee but there was no toilet in the hut, the bathrooms and toilets, hereafter referred to as the ablution block, were at the end of the line of huts. In the service one does not wash, one performs ones ablutions. The Corporal demonstrated the correct way to make our beds using the three ‘biscuits’, which were placed end to end to form an excuse for a mattress, and how to tuck in the sheets and blankets using hospital corners. We were also shown how to fold the bedding in the morning because, apart from Sunday mornings, bedding was stripped and stacked before going to breakfast.
Step one: Blankets to be folded lengthwise to the same width as a biscuit, blanket folds facing outwards, edges folded inwards, and placed across the width of the bed.
Step two: Stack in the middle of the folded blankets the three “biscuits”.
Step three: Fold sheets to the same square size as a "biscuit", with folds as per blankets.
Step four: Fold blankets, one by one, over the three biscuits with open ends at the top to form a perfect block resembling a square, Bassets liquorice allsorts.
Step five: Push stack to the head of the bed and place the pillow squarely on top. With luck you should now have a perfect bedding square that will pass the morning hut inspection carried out by the duty officer and the corporal i.c. of the hut.

That little bit of instruction over, we picked up our mugs and eating irons and marched... well, straggled because marching lessons had not yet begun, over to the dining hall. We were given a very unappetising meal, after which we left the dining hall, past a metal tub filled with boiling water in which we washed our cutlery. Doing this without scalding oneself was tricky especially if there was a bit of jam stuck to the handle of the knife, on the rare occasions that there was jam. Picking up my irons became such a habit that later on when I was eating at home or in a restaurant, I would absentmindedly get up from the table and walk off with the cutlery!

Back in the hut, hereafter referred to as ‘The Billet’, some enterprising recruit had tried to light a fire in the huge black stove which stood in the middle of the room. With very little wood and hardly any coal, her efforts were not rewarded, so we unpacked our little suitcases and crawled into the cold, uncomfortable beds under an inadequate number of blankets. Regulations stipulated that at least one window in the hut must be open at all times so, in November with no heating and only three blankets, we were very cold. We laid our coats on top of the blankets, put on our stockings and cardigans and curled up into shivering little pre natal position balls. And, thus ended the first day, and more than one young recruit cried herself to sleep, but I was not one of them.

They had a delightful way of waking us up in the morning. The night orderly would burst into the hut at 6.00 a.m. turning on all the lights, banging something metal that sounded like a dustbin lid, while shouting “Everybody up!” After a while we learned to dress while still asleep and slept in our underclothes. With a kit allocation of three pairs of knickers, (one on, one at the laundry and one spare) we wore our knickers for a week, night and day. In the morning it was still dark as we walked to the ablution block, which housed a row of concrete sinks with pipes and taps running above them, and just about managed to wash the tips of our hands and the tips of our noses. I challenge anyone, other than tough little boys from English public schools, to strip wash in November in an unheated brick wash house with a concrete floor. We were allowed one bath a week, allocated by roster, and how I longed to wallow in a deep, hot bath.

To begin our first day as raw recruits we made up our bed squares, as instructed, ate a stodgy breakfast and then reported to the stores for our uniforms. Two skirts, five inches below the knee, no matter how near the knees were to the ankles; two jackets, with brass buttons and buckles which would need frequent cleaning with metal polish; one hat; one overcoat; one pair of gloves; three shirts; six shirt collars with collar studs and bones; three pairs of knickers; three vests;three pairs of thick, air force blue cotton stockings, three pairs of blue and white striped flannel pyjamas (in which we looked like a fugitives from a chain gang); three towels; two pairs of shoes; one pair of plimsolls; one button holder for cleaning buttons; one kit bag. And an item which filled me with joy, one packet of sanitary towels. What a luxury, I even remember the make, ‘Southalls’. Until then I had mainly used strips of old sheeting, held up with a wide elastic band, which had to be washed and reused. These proper disposable jobs were worth joining up for, and we were issued with a packet every month! The knickers/bloomers were called “passion killers” because they were air force blue silk knit and would have fitted most really big grandmothers. Each item had to be marked with name and service number (Lawley - 2170968) and laundry was collected once a week.

There were frequent Kit Inspections where, on a blanket spread out over the bare bed springs, everything had to be laid out in a specified order so that the duty officer and duty sergeant could check and count each item. One item missing and the loser would be charged to appear before the Flight Officer for just punishment. Many a single stocking was stuffed up with paper to make it look like a pair!

There were eighteen of us in the billet, all from different backgrounds and pretty well all there because we had either been unhappy at home, had lost our jobs or were lost souls with nowhere else to go. The girl in the next bed was a strikingly beautiful girl called Mary who just had to get away from home, no reason given. She had been a trainee at an Elizabeth Arden salon in the West End, and from what she told me about the discipline and rules there, the Air Force would be a picnic. We became very close during the eight weeks of training and I remember her every morning, when I try to copy her method for getting up. She would lie in her bed and say “I will get up, I will get up – one, two, three.” And on the count of three she would jump out of bed. The only difference is that nowadays I do not jump very often, and never very high. It is strange that I think of that girl every morning of my life, while she has long since forgotten me, or may even be dead by now.

There were rosters for everything. The two hardest tasks were finding, hereafter referred to as ‘scrounging’, fuel for the hut boiler and wood for burning S.T.s which had to be collected from the ablution block daily and burned in a specific place. Nothing, but nothing is harder to burn than a bucket full of them! At one time, due to being posted and also moving huts, I was on burning duty for three months! Tampax were not yet invented and later it was said that you could not use them if you were still a virgin!

I soon got into the routine of marching (which I enjoyed very much), kitchen duty, IQ tests, weekly medical examinations, trips to the NAFFI for a cuppa tea and a wad (anything edible that could be smacked between two slices of bread), and having absolutely no privacy. And the endless polishing, polishing, polishing, shoes, buttons, floors and lavatories. We were always cold and always hungry, but I was happy. It was all a big challenge and there was nothing I would not try to do better than everyone else. I was marker on the parade ground, top of my course, and was even asked if I would like to be considered for a commission. I said yes, but when they discovered that I had left school at fourteen they realised that I did not have the necessary education required, so that was that. My lack of education has cost me many opportunities. The course finished in January and we received our postings. Mine was to Records Office, Gloucester, which was not so much a posting as a sentence. Word was that anyone sent there never escaped.

Friday, October 29, 2010

23. More about Rainbow Corner and the war ends.

But, back to Rainbow Corner. Most of the soldiers visiting the Club were just passing through London on their way to Europe. One day three boys from Brooklyn, wearing their infantry uniform and boots, arrived at the information desk where I was on duty. They begged me to spend the following day with them, to show them around London, and I agreed. We rode on open deck buses, drove round in taxis, played idiotic games in Regents Park and laughed a lot. The next day they had to travel by troop train to the coast, where they would embark for Normandy. Please would I go with them? I explained that I could not travel in a troop train. Well, would I travel down on an earlier train? They just wanted me to be there to see them off. What could I say? I went ahead, met their train, watched them depart in a convoy and felt terribly sad.

In 2009 I visited the American Forces cemetery in Normandy, and gazed at the thousands of crosses, row upon row, and wondered how many of those boys had passed through Rainbow Corner and if I had danced or dined with any of them. How many black and white soldiers were buried, side by side, something that would not have happened back home, and I especially thought about the three Boys from Brooklyn who had been so reluctant to wave me goodbye.

There was one particular Corporal stationed nearby called Johnny Byers and we saw each other whenever he was in London. Sometimes he would visit my family. Maureen had quite a crush on him and mother liked him too and was very thrilled when Mrs. Byers sent her a beautiful lace table cloth. We were great friends, but he was 'off limits' because he was engaged to a girl back home. Before joining the army he had worked in “summer stock” which was some sort of repertory theatre and he was determined to become an actor so we enjoyed many visits to the theatre together. After he returned to America he wrote to say that his engagement was broken and would I marry him. I said yes, and the paper work was going through for me to follow him as a GI bride-to-be. He was really nice, but although we were friends for a long time, I don’t think I was truly in love with him because as soon as I met Tom no one else in the world mattered.

One person who was particular kind to me at Rainbow Corner was Lady Charles Cavendish, previously known as Adele Astair the dancing sister of Fred. She was loud, brash, down to earth, and great fun. One day I paged her on the intercom, in my most upper class voice, “Paging Lady Charles Cavendish, paging Lady Charles Cavendish”. She came rushing to the desk asking “Who the hell is paging Lady Charles Cavendish I’m Adele for Christ Sake.” She wore a solid gold charm bracelet, full of charms, which must have weighed five pounds, there were so many charms it was impossible to see each one. I adored her and when Fred Astair visited the club she introduced me to him. He was exactly like his movie image, kind and charming with that same big, natural grin.

Burgess Meredith came to the club to make a propaganda movie about the Yanks in London. Part of it was being filmed in the dance hall, Glen Miller’s band was there and Beatrice Lilly who sang “There are Fairies At The Bottom Of Our Garden!” about fifty times before the cameras got the take right. I think she was supposed to represent the type of entertainment the boys were getting in London, although why the Yanks would be interested in having fairies at the bottom of the garden I cannot imagine! Quite the reverse I would have thought. I was quite pretty and one of the crew took me over to Mr. Meredith and suggested I play one of the bit parts in the film. He gave me one very brief look and said “No. She is not photogenic.” How true. Apart from the picture the young Major took I have never taken a good picture in my life and avoid being photographed whenever possible, so I could never have been a movie star, other than a comedic one.

The British troops were very jealous of the Yanks. The Yanks were overpaid, oversexed and over here! No one would have believed that I emerged from their company intact, although there were some heated sessions in telephone boxes! But although it was touch and go, literally, with some very near misses, I was terrified of getting pregnant. The Yanks were well supplied with condoms but the thought of “going all the way” terrified me. Mother firmly believed that I was a virgin when I joined the WAAF because I had been examined by a doctor who, according to mother, wrote that I was virgo intacto or however you spell it. “After all,” as she said to my father “if she had not been a virgin they would not have accepted her into the Air Force!.” Did she think we won the war with the help of a handful of virgins?

Some of the Americans stationed in London occupied flats and after one evening at the Coconut Grove Night Club, where I am sure my soft drinks had been laced with brandy, I was offered a bed for the night in the flat occupied by my escort and some friends. I was shown into a single room with a single bed. Sleep had barely overtaken me when I felt someone trying to get in beside me, so I leapt out, ran to the nearest door and dashed through it. It happened to be the door of the wardrobe, and as I listened to my drunken escort plunging through the flat, cursing and looking for me, I accepted that I would be spending the night among greatcoats and army boots.

I was very naive even at eighteen. I vaguely knew that a female made a seed and a male seed met up with it and made a baby. What I did not know was that there were millions of the little beggars in every shoot. All my mother ever said on the subject was “For heaven’s sake don’t get pregnant. Your father will kill you!” Movie censors ruled that if a scene involved a man and a woman being on a bed together the man must keep one foot firmly on the floor. Since then I have seen some pretty hectic sex on TV - even with both feet on the floor.

June 1945 and the war in Europe was over. Selfishly, because the war with Japan was not over and many military personnel and civilians were still dying in the East, we celebrated. At last we would be able to sleep at night, there would be no more air raids, and we could discard the hated cardboard gas mask boxes. I went out into the streets on my own and joined the jubilant crowds. I was among the thousands who gathered in front of Buckingham Palace, and when The Royal Family came out on to the balcony I cheered through my tears until my throat was dry. Strangers kissed and hugged one another, and many did more than that in the empty doorways and in the parks. The buses stopped running at 11.00 pm and a policeman stopped a car going towards Earls Court to see if the driver could take me home. The driver agreed, failing to say that he was on his way to Chatham to take a sailor back to his ship before he became AWOL (absent without leave). So, on the morning after VE Day I was having breakfast in Chatham and walking on the beach. It was a night of madness. As predicted in my under the stairs poem, “the lights came on and cheers resounded”. Soon all the Yanks would go home and Rainbow Corner would close down.

My carefree life of fun and excitement collapsed around me like a pack of cards. Barbara was offered a passage back to Canada and would leave shortly, and I could not pay the rent for the room on my own. No job, no home that I would willingly return to, and nowhere to go. When would the next door open for me? Where would it lead to?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

22. Doodle Bugs and a Proposal.

The Director of the club offered me a full time job and, as working for the Red Cross came under the ‘reserved occupation’ category, I took it so that I would not then be directed to work elsewhere. It seemed like a good idea, but the job I was given was very depressing. It involved typing lists containing hundreds of names of enlisted men who had borrowed from Red Cross funds when they were on leave in London and had run out of money. The loan would later be retrieved through the relevant Unit Paymaster. But the money would never be recovered from the men on my lists because they had all been killed in action, and their debts cancelled.

Early in June 1944, I was working away in the office with Margot, the other typist, when I heard a loud, strange pop-popping noise that I had never heard before, followed by an ominous silence. I shouted to Margot to get under her desk as I ducked under mine. After a few seconds there was a terrifying explosion very near us; all the office windows were blown inwards and, had we not been under our desks, we would have been cut to shreds. The explosion had been caused by a V1 bomber, a Doodle Bug. We were shocked but unharmed and each of us reacted differently. Margo cried and was helpless with fright while I got a dustpan and brush and started clearing up the broken glass - obviously a nervous reaction; the shock hit me the following day when I could not stop shaking. It was the closest to death I had ever been. Like the sound of the air raid sirens, the threatening pop-popping noise of the doodle bugs and the terrifying silence that preceded the explosion, is something I will never forget.

A doodle bug was the origin of the cruise missile, a flying bomb, one of the earliest rockets. For five months these deadly things dropped at the rate of one hundred a day on the south of England, 9,521 in total, stopping only when the rocket launch bases aimed at London were located and destroyed. A further 2,448 were then launched from other bases against ports in Belgium, until the last base was destroyed in October. Over 22,892 people were killed, mostly civilians. These bombs were very sophisticated, with wings and bodies, not like an ordinary rocket, and the cost of manufacturing almost 12,000 must have been enormous. Some of them were deflected by very brave fighter pilots who would intercept them, tip the wings of the rocket with the wing of their own plane, sending it into the sea.

Besides working in the office I also assisted in the club itself, dispensing Coca-Cola and fresh doughnuts from a doughnut making machine. The American doughnut was unlike the English doughnut in that it was made with much lighter dough, had a hole in the middle and was without jam. The cola syrup came from America in huge barrels which were stored under a staircase. On one occasion the barrel tap was not turned off properly and a sticky wave of syrup flowed into the club before it was discovered. What a mess.

The Americans were so different from the few, serious English boys I had known, they seemed to be so full of fun and knew how to compliment a girl and make her feel like a million dollars. They smelled nice too, and it was the first time I had come across after-shave and cologne; until then I had only been aware of mother’s 4711 cologne. Of course, they could get anything they wanted from the PX shops, America looked after their troops much better than the British looked after theirs, but America was a wealthy country whereas England was pretty impoverished by then. About twice a week a band would arrive to play in the club and we would jitterbug like mad and go really wild.

With free theatre tickets available for the troops and limited charges in restaurants, I was taken to shows and out to dinner a lot, which was as well because then I could eat a decent meal from time to time. One of my favorite places was the Hong Kong in Shaftsbury Avenue and in 1947 I took my husband, Tom, there for his first taste of Chinese food. Even then there was still a price restriction and one could only order a maximum of 4/6d, so we ordered the set menu, ate, paid the bill, then walked round the block before going back and ordering again. This time we went to the upstairs level and as we were both in uniform, we got away with it. I've always enjoyed Chinese food, and I still cook a jolly good Stir Fry, which is a favorite with my friends.

I was first taken to the Hong Kong for lunch in 1944, by a young Major in the Air Photographic Squadron who was a brilliant photographer and cartoonist. In fact, he took some very nice pictures of me. The restaurant was packed and we were asked if we would mind sharing a table; so we joined a very nice woman, who was wearing the uniform of the Canadian Red Cross, and an older, quite attractive man. I cannot remember what we talked about, but it was a very enjoyable meal.

About a week later I received a telephone call from a man whose name I did not recognize, Victor Raymond van den Eindon. Who? He explained that he was the man with whom my friend and I had shared a table at the Hong Kong and would I please have lunch with him. Rather reluctantly I agreed; there were no such things as free lunches but I was curious to know how he had managed to find me. Well, it turned out that he was in the Belgian resistance with access to various intelligence departments, had remembered my name and traced me through the American Embassy. How about that? Sounded like a tall story. But I was in for some more surprises. During lunch I sensed his interest in me and one of my defenses in any possibly tricky situation was to mention my age. “I’m eighteen!” I said. His face dropped. “Oh, dear,” he said “I am thirty eight.” “What does that matter?” I asked. The reply left me speechless, “Because, young lady, I have asked you to lunch with me for the soul purpose of asking you to marry me.” His English was perfect, his manners impeccable, he played the violin like an angel (he had studied at the Conservatoire in Buenos Aires), and in a few short weeks I was completely infatuated. I honestly don’t know why.

We were invited to spend the week-end in the country with friends of his, separate rooms of course, and when I asked him how he was going to introduce me he said, “As the future Mrs. Van den Einden, I hope!” I was so young; his friends must have thought he was mad and, in spite of them making me very welcome, I felt gauche and ill at ease. The husband owned a factory where they made barrage balloons, and he had been parachuted into Belgium several times on various missions. His wife was very beautiful and sent the family’s laundry to Harrods in a hamper every week to be washed! I did not know people did that sort of thing, especially in wartime, but that is how the other half lived. They had two lovely young daughters and I spent most of the time with them. I still cannot understand why Vic wanted to marry me.

Because mother could not come up to London to see me, I had to visit her which I did, sometimes staying overnight. Father really wanted to be reconciled, so I took Victor home to meet my parents. Father agreed to our becoming engaged, (sapphire ring with diamond shoulders) providing there was no hanky panky before the wedding!

Sometimes Victor and I would eat at the L’Institute Belge, where I ate horse for the first time, and it was very nice. During the war we probably all ate horse unknowingly. I seemed to spend many hours waiting for him because his work was now intense. The Normandy landings were being organised and he was involved in lots of secret stuff.

And then the war was over. Victor and his secretary and her husband were being measured for uniforms representing some organization, and were very excited about going back home to Belgium. And that was that! I was just dropped. Not a word of goodbye, nothing. I wondered why he had bothered with me in the first place, it certainly was not for sex, he already had a mistress in Bath, although he did not go there after we were engaged. But, it was heartbreak time in chunks for me, which I richly deserved because I had broken a few of them myself. It was pay back time.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

21. Freedom is heady stuff!

My friend let me sleep on her sofa for a couple of nights, by which time the mother of one of the girls in the office had agreed that I could stay with them, using her son’s bedroom room as he was away fighting somewhere. That lasted for a little while, until Barbara, a Canadian girl working at the club and married to a chap in the RAF, asked me if I would like to share a bed-sitter with her in Earl’s Court. The house where I was staying was outside London and the train fares were costly; moving to Earls Court would be much more convenient for both work and play. Also, I wanted more freedom than staying at my friend’s house allowed, so I agreed. The rent was thirty two shillings a week between us for one small room which was furnished with a double bed, dirty old sheets and blankets, stinking curtains, a table, two dining chairs and a gas ring on the floor in the corner next to a greedy gas meter. The husband of the woman who owned the house was in the army somewhere and she was fostering about six babies and toddlers – poor little mites. She was a dragon, at least I thought so, but looking after six babies must have been very hard work.

Barbara’s marriage was an on-off affair, and one night I came home to find her husband sleeping on my side of the bed! Like, move over Buster, I am coming in. I don’t think the landlady knew what was going on or she would have chucked us out. Barbara had omitted to tell me that she was an epileptic and so when she had a fit one night I was frightened out of my wits. I did not know that I should have put a pencil between her teeth, and so I just stood there, helpless, while she jerked around and foamed at the mouth. I thought she was about to die. Today it would be easy enough to pick up a phone and call for an ambulance, but in wartime London it wasn’t that easy. She recovered from the fit and, thankfully, never had another while I was around.

Considering there were so many babies in the house, it was surprising that there was never any hot water in the taps. I cannot remember how many months we stayed there, but it was the longest time in my life that I went without a bath. We would boil a kettle on the gas ring, take it through to the bathroom and have a quick “up, down and over” before the water got cold. No roll on anti pong, no talcum powder, and very little soap. The Police and Government Officials did not go around checking every house at bath time, but legally we were not allowed more than six inches of bath water and, as coal was rationed, most boilers were only lit once a week. I don’t remember how we washed and dried our clothes and hair, but it was not the cleanest time of my life. And as for eating? Some food was available at the club, where I ate far too many doughnuts for my own good, but sometimes I would be taken out for a meal or, when we could get them, we would heat up a can of beans on the gas ring.

For some time I had been attending dances at the American Red Cross Club, Rainbow Corner once or twice a week. We were called ‘hostesses’ not the ten cents a dance type, just partners for the men on leave who did not have a girl to dance with, and although I was a poor dancer, I loved the music and the fun. The rules were very strict; we were not allowed to leave with, or date, any of the men we met at the dance. In theory that is! The security clearance required to be a hostess had been very intensive.

A band composed of black, soldier musicians performed at the Club one night and they were absolutely fabulous. Everyone went wild. Then, one evening some time later we were dancing and I sensed a terrible, tense atmosphere in the ballroom, something I cannot describe and gradually couples stopped dancing. The black soldiers had returned to the Club, not to play music but to dance. Black servicemen had their own clubs, but there were not many black girls in London in 1944 so I don’t know who they danced with. How they gained entry to the Rainbow Corner and began dancing with the girls I don’t know, but the white soldiers were outraged and the intruders had to leave. Black and white soldiers could fight and die together, but they did not socialise.

Monday, October 25, 2010

20 Out in the cold hard world.

We were well into the war by 1943, and the underground stations after six in the evening were a pathetic sight. Londoners in their thousands carried their blankets, gas masks and few worldly treasures down underground where they would spend the night, never knowing whether or not their homes would still be standing in the morning. The platforms were cold and draughty and stank of body odor and urine. I felt so sorry for the children who had to be restrained so that they would not trip and fall onto the live tracks. Commuters had to step over the sleeping bodies to get into the trains.
The effects of the war came quite quickly. First there were the blackouts, then food shortages and the rationing of clothes and household goods. Everything manufactured had the “Utility” label. Meals in restaurants were limited to half a crown, no matter if you dined at the Ritz or Lyons Corner House, one learned daily to adjust. It is absolutely amazing that, although a besieged Island, no one in England starved while, later, in Germany, France, Holland and Russia etc. some people searched the fields all day in the hope of finding a potato. But we had rationing and we survived, we were never sick; in fact it is said that the nation was healthier then than ever before, or since.

The underground trains did not always run on time and one evening, after going to a dance, I missed the last train home. Foolishly, the next day I did not think to phone my parents to tell them I was alright (we were not allowed to use the office phones), not thinking that they would be worried in case I had been killed in an air raid. When I returned home the following evening all hell broke loose. Father was having a brainstorm and I was the centre of his rage, which I deserved for causing them a sleepless night and anxious day, although they could have rung the office to see if I was alright. Father chased me round the house, threatening to kill me, and I knew I had to stop him somehow. I looked round for something with which to hit him and saw that I had to choose between a heavy cut glass vase and a little pottery jug. In a split second I realized that if I hit him with the heavy vase I could kill him, so I grabbed the pottery jug which I smashed over his head - it barely slowed him down. Mother, Maureen and I fled to my bedroom where we pushed the wardrobe across the door. As we stood there, shaking and gasping for breath, Mother said “You know Cynth, I was very fond of that little jug!”.

When the worst of his rage seemed to have subsided, we emerged from the barricaded room only to find father standing there, with a small suitcase which he instructed me to fill and “get the hell out!” There wasn’t much to fill it with - a change of underwear, some old shoes and a dress or two, but fortunately it was summer and fairly warm. So, at nine p.m. with a suitcase, half a crown in my pocket and nowhere to go, I left home. I was seventeen years old. Somehow I found the telephone number of a woman I had worked with at Columbia Pictures, so I called her from a phone box and she agreed to put me up for a couple of days.

I must have looked a sight, sitting in the underground train on my way back to London. Tears were running down my face, which was none too clean. Two sailors sitting opposite kept looking at me and followed me when I reached my station. Going up the escalator the locks on the wretched case burst open, and the pathetic contents went cascading down the moving stairs with the sailors scrambling to pick them up. I was mortified. I don’t remember where my friend lived, or how I got there.

The following morning Father phoned me at the office, crying and full or remorse, asking me to go back home, I said no and Mother was desolate. I felt guilty at leaving Mother and Maureen alone but I simply wanted to get away. Somehow I would survive, although I had no idea how.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

19. Dramas and liquor stores.

It was shortly after one of our 'run away from home, come back again' episodes, when things seemed to be quieter at home, that I went into mother’s bedroom to say goodbye before going to work. She looked dead, lying propped up against some pillows, I shook her and shouted at her but she did not answer. In a panic and not thinking about the telephone, or knowing how to dial for an ambulance, I rushed outside and ran up and down some streets where I thought I had seen a doctor’s brass plate. I found one and banged on the door. “Please come quickly” I sobbed “My mummy is dead.” The doctor followed me home, and then shut me out of the bedroom from where I later heard weeping. An ambulance was called and mother was taken away on a stretcher, barely alive. I was relieved and terrified in turns.

Back in the bedroom there seemed to be blood all over her side of the bed, great clots of it; in her slippers on the carpet, in the bed. It was the result of another self inflicted abortion and I did not know how to begin cleaning it up. Meanwhile downstairs, little Maureen, frightened and alone, was crying. Later Father came home and was crying too, saying “What have I done, what have I done?” I was angry and fed up with him, and told  him that I had Maureen to look after and a mess to clear up and he had better pull himself together and shut up. He took Maureen out for a walk. I filled the bath with cold water and threw the sheets into it. Then I got a broomstick from the broom cupboard and, sort of hiding behind the bathroom door and trying not to look, I pushed the clots down the bath drain. I don’t remember how I cleaned up the slippers and carpet, but it was all rather horrid. At that time abortions of any kind were illegal and thousands of desperate women took desperate steps to cause terminations. I think mother used quinine. The doctor told her that every time she did that to herself she shortened her life by six years. She had at least six abortions yet still  lived to be ninety eight!

Mother was in hospital for a while with septicemia; I stayed home to look after Maureen and later, Mother as well, so I lost yet another job. One result from this experience was that I vowed I would never, never have an abortion - self inflicted or otherwise - and thank God, I never had to.

I had to admire the way father always managed to keep a roof over our heads. The training as a publican failed but then he got the next worst possible job for him, he became the manager of an off license – bottle store - in Edmonton. I don’t know how it was possible to make booze in wartime but I suppose it was considered necessary for moral. The big advantage to having a liquor store was that people would exchange anything for a bottle of liquor, so we never seemed to be short of anything. Among the customers were a husband and wife who owned a sweet shop and, strange as it may seem, neither knew that the other was an alcoholic! I used to deliver bottles to them secretly and individually, and I wondered how they hid the bottles from each other. During that time we got extra sweets and other stuff that was rationed, but we always joined any queue we saw outside a shop and bought whatever was at the end of it. Father got some dreadful Algerian wine from somewhere; we poured it all into buckets, added sugar and some brandy, rebottled and labeled it as fortified port and sold it at a large profit.

There were two kinds of family air raid shelters, the Anderson shelter, which was built in the garden underground, and the Morrison shelter which was used inside the house. The Morrison was a large cage with a heavy metal top supported by a frame held up with six metal legs. The sides were covered in with wire with an opening to crawl through. Father installed one in, of all places, the bottle storeroom. Had a falling bomb failed to kill us the millions of fragments of glass that would have shot through the wire mesh would have done so. I refused to sleep there, preferring to take my chances upstairs in bed.

At this time I was working for Columbia Pictures as an invoice clerk. When cinemas hired movies the manager was sent a package of “stills” which were glamorous black and white photographs of the stars appearing in the movie, and one or two pictures of the scenes, and these are what I invoiced. How I longed to be in pictures! I copied the hairstyles of Rita Hayworth and Claudette Colbert as best I could. In one desperate attempt to look like a film star, I had all my lovely long, auburn hair cut off to half an inch all over just like Ingrid Bergman, who I had seen in “For Whom The Bells Tolls”. My father was not angry, but surprisingly sad. He said “A woman’s crowning glory is her hair”. Fortunately it soon grew back and I was able to make a coronet of plaited hair like Olivier de Haviland in “Gone With the Wind”. In the small cinema at the offices in Wardour Steet, we were invited to watch previews of unreleased movies, and to write our opinions on special forms, so I saw all the lovely Rita Hayworth movies. Then we were shown a short demo film of Frank Sinatra singing “That Old Black Magic”, backed by ten white grand pianos which stood on different levels in the background. We were told that this young man was causing a big stir in Hollywood and that girls were fainting and throwing themselves under his car to get attention. I wrote on my crit form that throwing oneself under a car was just stupid and that he was too thin. Like, what did I know? On my last visit to London in 2008, Jules walked me round Soho and we found the Columbia Pictures building where I had worked; the original entrance door was still the same. She took a photo of it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

18. I want to be an actress

We left the nice house in Cheam and moved to Ruislip where we shared a house with Uncle Bill, Father’s other brother, his wife, Mary, and their two children, David and Pamela, who had been bombed out of their flat in London. Here, I had another of life’s weird experiences. I had to share a bedroom with father, mother and Maureen. Late one night I was woken by a strange noise coming from my parents’ bed, a sort of gasping and sighing, and then silence. I could not understand what was happening, but mother did not seem to be crying and so she must be alright. Most fourteen year olds today would have known exactly what was going on, but I just kept very quiet, and was a bit scared. Then we moved to a rather nice flat, also in Ruislip, where I had my own room again.

There was no mention of my going to another school and so I started working, as a very inept office girl, for the Grand Union Canal Company, which had moved out of London to Offices at the Ruislip Lido. I wanted to learn typing, but the girls in the typing pool would not let me near their machines and, when I finally did have my own typewriter, I understood why. The typewriters then were heavy manual things and if the keys were jammed, or bent, they would not work properly; typists in those days were really skilled, fast and accurate. I earned fifteen shillings a week. Five shillings went to my mother for my keep, five shillings for bus fares and five shillings for pocket money. The first thing I saved up for was a navy blue dress with white polka dots on it that was displayed in a local shop window. It cost fifteen shillings.

I don’t know if I was sacked or if I got a better paid job, but after a while I worked in the same aircraft factory as my father and we traveled to work together. Every morning when we arrived at the underground station, I would stand in the queue at the tobacconist kiosk to get a ration of five woodbines for father. It was a very cold, dark and foggy winter, there were no smokeless zones then. We went to work in the dark and traveled home in the dark. Torches were allowed in the streets, if one could get batteries, and in the thick fog people would walk in front of cars shining torches so that drivers could see the way.

My desire to be an actress was still strong and I read in a newspaper that a movie company was looking for a new face to star in a movie to be called “Thursday’s Child”. I went to London for an interview and the casting director, who was most enthusiastic about casting me, phoned for the director to come up from Elstree to see me right away. The director, the casting director and the agent all agreed that I was not old enough to play the lead but could be either the lead’s sister, or her best friend according to whoever they chose for the lead, colouring etc. I was so excited I could hardly get on with my job. At sixteen I was going to be a film star. I heard nothing for a few weeks and then read that Sally Ann Howes (daughter of Bobby Howes) had been chosen for the lead. I immediately phoned the agent and asked him which part I would be playing. After an ominous pause he said they were already in production and that they had forgotten about me. Well, that’s show business for you, but the disappointment was almost unbearable.

I bought a copy of “The Stage” newspaper which contained advertisements for theatrical agencies, vacancies, auditions and forthcoming shows. I walked into the office of a theatrical agent, I think his name was Marlow, and hanging on the wall behind his desk was a huge picture of my grandfather’s troupe! After I had identified them all, Mr. Marlow told me that his father had managed the troupe for years and, on the strength of that, got me a small part in an all girl play about models in a dress shop; the name escapes me, but it was booked for the Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green. I had only a couple of lines to say, one of which, on being teased that I would black my boyfriend’s boots for him, was “I’d black anything for Dickey!” which was supposed to raise a laugh. My mother came to see the play but was unable to hear my lines because I spoke too quietly. Although Mr. Marlow pinched my bottom back stage he did not offer me any further work. The most memorable thing about that experience - not having my bottom pinched, but being in the play - was that after the show, Richard Attenborough and his then fiancĂ©e, Sylvia, came back stage and he kissed me, along with all the other girls. They were all ex ‘RADA, DARLING’, and after “Dickey Darling” had left , there was some discussion about how much he had improved and settled down since becoming engaged. The fact that they are still together proves that they were certainly suited. We had to supply our own clothes for the show and, once again, my sister, Jane, came to my rescue, lending me two pairs of cami-knickers that she had made by hand, and a beautiful blue taffeta evening dress, with a sort of bustle at the back. I cannot remember who had given it to her but it was supposed to have worn in a show by Evelyn Laye.

The chances I took answering advertisements in the Stage really amaze me now. One supposed agent wanted to audition me at some studio. I met him in a deserted “studio” where he looked me over and told me that my left shoulder sloped; it still does. Then he asked me to return in a few days time and to bring with me a selection of chiffon scarves! Return I did not!

Another advertisement announced that The Richmond Theatre was auditioning actresses for their new Repertory Company. In the interview waiting room sat several aspiring young actresses and RADA students, seriously reading Shakespeare and silently rehearsing audition pieces. My hands were empty; I was quite unprepared and inexperienced and so I was surprised and delighted when I was chosen. A contract was prepared and I was engaged as a member of the repertory company to start on, or about, 16th August, note the “or about” bit. The pay was thirty two shillings a week, just a little more that the train fare to and from Ruislip to Richmond.

At the time, father, mother and Maureen were staying in a pub where father was to be trained as a manager by the present landlord; it was a trade father should have stayed well away from. So I was left in the flat to fend for myself. What joy! Every day was filled with excitement. I was to be the assistant to the stage manager, although I knew absolutely nothing about stage managing; in fact I had never even been backstage before. The distinctive smell of the front of house and the auditorium is nothing compared to the mixture of smells backstage. Dust and must mixed with the smell of size, canvas, paint, wood and mouse droppings. Drafts coming from everywhere, ropes lying around waiting to trip one up and tables full of props which must never be touched or disturbed, except by the assistant to the stage manager. The dressing rooms smelled of old carpet, grease paint and sweat encrusted costumes. Brightly lit mirrors screwed to flaking painted walls over long shelves served as dressing tables, on which the actors placed their makeup, wigs and special props. I had a plenty to learn.

Actors are not like ordinary folk. Ordinary folk have no desire to learn lines, strut around a stage pretending to be someone else, to be out of work more often than in it, to face rejection, disappointment and despair. But, to walk out onto a stage and into the footlights; to project one's energy into the audience and feel their energy coming back, recharging ones batteries; knowing that you hold their attention in the palm of your hand is an indescribable feeling. And, as the curtain comes down, the applause and the praise makes one feel like a child, so happy to have pleased everyone. In other creative art forms the artist can judge for himself whether or not the work is good, but on stage the artist cannot see himself and must rely on other people’s opinions. The greatest compliment I ever received came from a producer whose opinion I respected, albeit he was an amateur, was “The stage lights up when you make your entrance!” WOW!!

During my few weeks at the Richmond they staged “Lilac Time”, a musical in which Richard Tauber had once starred, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “The Wind and the Rain” and one other I forget. I ran after the actors and loved them all, except for the old Irish actress Maire O’Neil who would call me and ask me to “Fetch me a drink, me darling”, which meant a gin and tonic from the pub next door. She never paid me and as I was surviving on fried tomatoes on toast and Worcester apples I really could not afford to pay for the old soak’s drinks. The pub next door was called “The Web” and the stage hands spent a great deal of time in there. During one performance of "The Wind and The Rain", a scene ended with the actor packing his suit case. I was busy sorting out the props for the next performance, when suddenly the actor, who had been alone on the stage packing his suitcase and, as it turned out, unpacking and repacking it, dashed off the stage and hissed at me “Pull down the bloody curtain!” I had not noticed that the stage manager had gone next door for a pint and left me alone and in charge. I pulled down the heavy curtain with difficulty and was not charmed when I was the one reprimanded for the missed cue.

During “Arsenic and Old Lace” one of the old ladies walked down the stairway carrying a candle in a candle holder, which was lit by a battery-powered little bulb as lighted wax candles were considered too dangerous. Well, the flex must have come loose because the candle fell out of its holder and the old lady walked down the stairs with the flaming candle swinging on the flex below the holder, which caused laughter during what was supposed to be a dramatic piece! Again I was reprimanded for not checking the equipment. Of course there are thousands of such stories in the theatre, but to me it was all very exciting and I was learning so much.

“Lilac Time” was a rather tatty show. With all able bodied young men called up and most young women directed to war work, the cast was somewhat on the old side and the supposedly “lovely young girls” were rather fat and elderly to say the least. I think the chap who took the Richard Tauber part had been exempted because of his bow legs.

After “The Wind and the Rain”, I was told to return all the props to the suppliers. These were a wind machine - a very large thin sheet of metal that was bent backwards and forwards; the rain machine - a large gravel-filled drum that made a raining sound when turned with a handle and a large number of books, wigs and other props. The only way to transport them was by taxi, so I called one, loaded the stuff in, gave the driver the first address and I sat back nervously watching the meter ticking over. The boss had not given me any money; I did not have much in my purse; I had to get back to the theatre after the deliveries and then back home to Ruislip, and there was no money there! The meter reached my limit and I had to tell the driver to stop. The taxi was unloaded and the stuff put in a bombed out doorway somewhere near Leicester Square, and there I stood, me and the stuff. What to do? Nothing, if not resourceful, I walked and carried as much as I could to each supplier a piece at as time, all over London, the wind machine being the most difficult. I returned to the theatre and asked the manager for the taxi fare and was more than a little put out when he reprimanded me for taking a taxi in the first place! How the heck was I supposed to move the stuff?

The next show advertised was a circus which actually included an elephant, and I wondered if the “boards” would support that much weight. It was now September and there was no sign of the repertory company starting, so I asked the manager when this would begin as my contract stated 16th August. “Ah, you did not read it correctly. The contract says on OR ABOUT” he said. Cleaning up after actors and buying gin for old lushes was bad enough, but I drew the line at cleaning up after elephants, so I left. And as I needed to eat and support myself, that was the end of my foray into the world of professional actors. But, oh the excitement of calling “Beginners please!” and the anxiety with which we looked through a slit in the curtains to see if there was a good audience. The sound of the curtain going up! In later years I put my acting talents to good use in various amateur dramatic societies, but the excitement was never quite the same.

17 Adjusting to war.

The day following the declaration of war, my mother sent me to the shops to buy a pound of Tate and Lyle sugar. The grocer handed me a different brand name but I insisted that my mother wanted Tate and Lyle, to which he replied “Don’t you know there is a war on? Soon you will be lucky to get any sugar at all!” Since the time mother had given me tuppence with which to buy a tin of sardines on my way home from school, for father’s supper no less, and I had brought home a packet of strawberry jelly, shopping instructions were always very clear. I accepted the sugar unwillingly, hoping that I would not be scolded.

We bought chocolate which was supposed to be for air raid safety rations; and every time the air raid siren went off, I grabbed a bar of chocolate and retreated with mother and Maureen into the cupboard in the kitchen, which backed under the staircase, that being considered to be the safest part of the house. On Sunday mornings father would go to the local pub, which did not close until 2.00 p.m. and we kids would be hungry for our dinner.  Mother would say “Go to the gate and see if your father is coming.” and we would run backwards and forwards until we saw him staggering down the road. One day he brought home a bird cage with two canaries in it, one for me and one for Maureen, there was really only one bird in the cage, but we dared not tell him so. Another Sunday he brought mother a box of her favorite Black Magic chocolates, but she was so cross with him that she threw them on top of the kitchen cupboard, out of reach. However, when the sirens went off a ladder was brought in and I had to climb up and retrieve the box; and they were really big chocolates, not the miserable little things they put in the boxes today. And whatever happened to the marzipan ones?

Father bought sheets of brown paper, cut them into strips, made buckets of flour paste and stuck the paper all over the windows because that was supposed to stop the glass from shattering when the bombs fell. I slept in the little cupboard under the stairs, making a nest of pillows and blankets. Since the gas meter was also there, and I could smell gas, I don’t suppose it was really that safe or healthy, but the arrangement inspired a poem worthy of any poet laureate.
“As I am turned from out my bed, because of Nazis overhead,
"I lie beneath the creaking stairs, and worry over worldly cares.
"The price of eggs is going up, and tea is rationed now, per cup.
"No eggs our chickens ever lay, I’m sure that they will never pay.
"And so I think and hope and pray that peace will come again some day.
"Then lights will glare, and cheers resound, and in my bed I’ll sleep, so sound.”
Well, it wasn’t bad for a thirteen year old!

We did have two beautiful white leghorn chickens named Moll and Doll. They ran free round the garden and laid eggs, infrequently, wherever they fancied; this meant that we had to search the garden for them. When we moved to another house in Ruislip, Moll was stolen and Doll died, we thought of a broken heart. Although we were short of food, we could not possibly eat her, so father buried the poor bird in the garden. As my story progresses you will see that I have never had much luck with animals, from Alsatians to goldfish, they always caused me heartache.

Mother made curtains of heavy black-out material so that the patrolling air raid wardens would not shout “Put that light out!” We were supplied with horrid black gas masks in cardboard boxes, which we had to carry at all times hung over our shoulders with a piece of string. The masks smelt of rubber and at school we had regular gas mask drills which we did not take very seriously, especially when we found that, by blowing out very hard, we could make rude raspberry noises come out of the sides of the masks! We did not realize the real danger of gas warfare and, thank goodness, it was never used.

The Government did a wonderful job very quickly, issuing everyone with Identity Books and Food Ration Books. Clothes were rationed but grown ups who had a good stock of clothes continued to dress well, growing children were the worst off, but as we only ever had a dress for best, two school uniforms and a dress for playing in we did not feel deprived. Hems were let down and seams let out, but shoes were the biggest problem because we could not stop our feet from growing. The summer of 1940 was extremely hot and as I walked to school my rubber soled sandals stuck to the tarmac and bits came off.

At the cinema we saw newsreels of places in Europe which had been bombed, with German troops goose-stepping all over the place and ugly, frightening army tanks driving through streets where people were being dragged from buildings with shattered windows. The pictures were blurred and flickered, which made everything look sinister, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Because we lived outside London we were not evacuated, the saddest sight in the war was the pictures of the little children, gas masks over their shoulders, cardboard name cards round their necks, waving goodbye to their mothers at railway stations. Some of the children went to kind people in the country, and overseas, and had a good life, others were not so lucky; many of them never saw their mothers or their homes again. Anderson shelters were built with great speed at the bottom of people’s gardens; I think they were invented by someone called Mr. Anderson. On the school sports field enough shelters were built to house all the children and teachers, and we were herded into them as soon as the awful wailing, warning siren blew. The sound filled one with fear, and it is one I will never forget. The “all clear” was one, long unbroken sound which was greeted with great relief. To keep us occupied we were set the task of painting and decorating the inside of our class shelter. My class chose to make our shelter an underwater scene and I painted a mermaid. The choice was an apt one because the shelter was dark, cold and damp with water underfoot in the winter.

The sound of an air raid siren was usually followed by the vibrating boom of anti aircraft guns shooting at enemy planes. Sometimes we heard bombs falling or aircraft crashing, but the nearest target was an aircraft factory at Croydon, a few miles away. War was declared when I was just thirteen and because we spent so much time in the shelters, I reckon that was the end of my education. Fourteen was the legal school leaving age, and that is when I left and started work as a very inefficient office girl. But that comes later.

Because father’s zithers were imported from Germany, he no longer had stock to sell. He was too old to be called up so he was directed to essential work in an aircraft factory. He was also at one time a special constable, and stopped a runaway horse on Putney Bridge but, the story goes, instead of being commended for bravery he was fired for leaving his beat. Then he was a milkman for a while, and I remember him pulling a sleigh piled high with milk crates along the pavements when the road was too icy to use the van. He would also travel up to Frascatti’s restaurant in London and wait at tables just for tips, and tips meant three penny pieces, which must have been pretty difficult for a proud man.

Although father's sense of humour was sometimes warped, he had a great sense of fun. Standing on the underground platform he would throw a penny on the ground just to watch how people would look round, supposedly not looking round, to see where the coin had fallen and wondering how they could pick it up unseen. However, he had a fiery temper which ensured that he never stayed long in any job. Meanwhile, mother went to London at night, to a theatre, to sell programs and to serve trays of tea during the interval. The pay was two shillings and sixpence a night, which just covered her train fare, and tips were very small; she used to bring home programs that had been left behind after the show. The programs were all sealed with a gold label on which was printed “do not accept this program if the seal is broken”. Mother became an expert at very carefully sticking together the torn seal, because that meant another sixpence she could put in her pocket.  One night she was a few minutes late and the witch of a supervisor said mother was too late and sent her home without any money, so she had paid the train fare for nothing.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

15 & 16 North Cheam School

It was at North Cheam School that I discovered my love of acting. As children we had put on plays, as kids do, in order to con a couple of pennies 'entrance fee' from our parents and friends. Jane and I would to sing “Danny Boy”, “My Old Man Said Follow the Van” and "Little Grey Home in the West". We once nearly set fire to our bedroom with a dramatisation of the nursery rhyme “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle stick.” The candle was lit but Jack did not jump quite high enough. But, at school acting was serious stuff and the English teacher, Miss Sweet, thought so much of my ability that she insisted I play Kate Hardcastle in “She Stoops to Conquer”, although it was the sixth form end of year play and I was only thirteen and in the 5th form. One line gave me trouble, but once learned never forgotten. Kate Hardcastle says to her father “I trust Sir, that you have ever found that I considered your commands as my pride, for my duty as yet has been inclination”. One day I must re-read the script.

I was also to be Alice in "Alice Through the Looking Glass", and so I dragged a very big old picture frame out of the cupboard under the stairs to use as the mirror. Unfortunately, there was a large piece of broken glass still in the frame and it dropped out and went right through my foot. As I pulled the glass out, the blood shot up like a fountain. My poor mother nearly died on the spot.

Another thing I remember from school is the third of a pint bottle of milk we had every morning for a half penny; the very poor children did not have to pay. There was about an inch of thick cream on the top of the milk which, in the winter, would be frozen and difficult to push the straw through. I enjoyed singing and was in the school choir and one day, after war had been declared, I was in the school hall rehearsing “The merry, merry pipes of Pan” for the school concert, when the doors burst open and one of the teachers, followed by her class of children, came bursting in on their way to the air raid shelters. They thought they had heard a siren! Which reminds me of a poem my father wrote about me:

“Cynthia Lawley, sometimes you appal me.
"Your high pitch screech out of heaven’s reach.
"A Peter Pan without a doubt,
"I bet you’ll marry some dumb lout”.

Which about equals my under-the-stairs poem written during the war, which you will have the dubious pleasure of reading later.

One small incident shows that I have always been resourceful. The Geography teacher asked me to go down to the staff room to fetch the globe. I hate to admit that I don’t understand anything properly, so when in doubt I improvise. I looked round the staffroom, muttering to myself, “Globe, globe, globe.” I couldn’t see anything that looked like a globe. So I pulled out a chair, lifted in up onto the table and removed the light bulb from the overhanging electric light. The teacher looked somewhat surprised when I handed it to her, and no doubt she got a few laughs in retelling the incident later in the staff room.

I have only passed two exams in my life, Royal Society of Arts English Grade I at school, and Pitman’s typing stage one when I was forty six. Well, some of us are just late learners! Academically challenged, one might say. But when I left Cheam Central School, never again to enter the education system, the Head Teacher, Mrs. Evans wrote – dated 15.11.1940

“Miss Cynthia Lawley of 174 Churchill Road, Cheam, was admitted to this school on 8.3.37 and is leaving today owing to removal. She has proved herself to be a highly intelligent scholar of excellent character. English is a very good subject and has reached stage I standard, Royal Society of Arts. All subjects reach a good average level. We have always found her a vivacious scholar, who is keen to do well and who enjoys school life and work. Her manner is courteous, pleasant and obliging, and she shows a keen dramatic sense, and has acted in school plays, proving much ability. Her election as Form Prefect proves that she has won the respect and affection of staff and scholars. We shall be sorry to lose her, but consider she will always give good service and will always endeavour to progress.”

How about that then? Apart from birth and marriage certificates this is the only document I have ever kept. Programmes recording plays I have performed in, love letters, records of travels, I have kept nothing else. Of course I have endeavoured to progress, I have had to move with the times and I've learned how to use a computer - they have not yet invented a ball point pen with an in-built grammar and spell check. And if you think all this is being written by a ghost writer, you are wrong. I suspect my son or daughter will check the punctuation, but the rest is all my own work.

My sister, Jane, had decided that she wanted to be a Norland Nanny, but father said, quite wisely, that she had better work with children first to see if she liked the little blighters before he considered sending her on a nursing course. So off she went to a posh residence in Windsor ,where she was second nursery maid in the house of some very rich people. The day she left mother cried a great deal, burying her face in the roller towel that hung down the back door of the kitchen. It was heartbreaking to see her. After a few weeks of scrubbing floors, washing nappies, doing all the dirty work and being beaten by the little darlings with wooden spoons, Jane ran away, somehow getting from Windsor to Cheam, losing one of her shoes on the way. Norland was never mentioned again.

Instead, Jane became an apprentice at Peter Robinson's in Oxford Street, where she spent weeks just sitting in a stock room sewing labels on garments. Being an apprentice was a serious business in those days. When the bombing started mother would not allow Jane to work in London, and so she became a drapery apprentice at a big department store called Shinner's in Sutton, and lived in their hostel. That was where she met Anthony Bulling, the son of a drapery shop owner in Bury St. Edmunds, who was being trained to take over the family business. They became engaged, but as soon as they were old enough to sign up, Tony left Shinner's to join the Fleet Air Arm and Jane left to join the Army.

So, now we come to that Sunday in September 1939 when everyone was waiting by the radio to hear what Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, had to say. I was in the garden with Maureen, who was playing on a little swing that hung from the veranda, and although only a child of thirteen, I could sense that something very strange was happening because everywhere was so quiet. No cars drove by the house. No sounds of the ritual Sunday lawn mowing; even the birds seemed to be listening. I heard the fatal words declaring “and consequently this country is now at war with Germany.” I had no idea what that meant exactly, but I somehow knew that nothing would ever be the same again.

Monday, October 18, 2010

14. The Carver family

Shirley and Margaret Carver lived at the top of our road and they had a brother called Ivor, who did chemical experiments in the garden shed; I thought him very interesting. Mrs. Carver was a kind, gentle lady who loved her natural, rambling garden and spent very little time cleaning house because, I realised later, she was sick. Mr. Carver was a nice man, very keen on classical music and opera; in fact I heard classical music for the first time in their house. He was taking Shirley and Margaret to Covent Garden Opera House to see Carmen and said he would take me as well, but the ticket would cost two shillings and sixpence. I desperately wanted to go but when I asked my father for the money he said that if I wanted to see Carmen just look at him because he was a car man. If he had explained that he just did not have half a crown to spare I might have accepted the disappointment better, but he just made a joke out of it and that really hurt.

Then, Mrs. Carver was taken to hospital and I was in their house when Mr. Carver telephoned to tell the girls that their mother had just died! She was not much over forty. Shirley was only twelve and just collapsed on the stairs, crying, both the girls were hysterical. I thought it a terrible way to break such awful news to them, but their father wanted them to go to fetch an aunt, who did not have a telephone. They were both distraught and crying as I walked with them to the aunt’s house and when she saw them crying so desperately she told them not to worry, that their mummy would be alright. The girls were unable to speak, so I had to tell her that Mrs. Carver had died. As soon as we reached their house in Churchill Road I ran all the way home just to make sure that my mummy was still safe.

Shirley, Margaret and I stayed friends for a while longer but one day we had a disagreement over something and, as I walked away, they shouted after me “Cynthia Lawley, with a drunken father!” I wonder if they ever realised how much that hurt, especially as there were two of them and I was alone. I felt as if it was my fault that father was that way.

But I am also guilty of being unkind. We are all probably ashamed of some things that we have done in our lives, especially those things that have caused pain to others. There was a girl in our class who was “coloured”. Mixed marriages were very rare in 1938 and, apart from at the cinema and in books, I had never seen a black person. This little girl was not black, just extra brown because her mother was white and her father was Indian. Her name was Lila. Where we had heard the expression, or what prompted Joan and me to say it I do not know, but when Lila wanted to play with us we said, in unison, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”, and turned our backs on her. We had no TV, hardly listened to the radio and did not read the papers, so where could that idea of racial discrimination have come from? And in such parrot fashion! How I wish I could take back those words.

And talking about parrots, grandmother kept one in a cage, a large bad tempered thing. No wonder he was bad tempered! Imagine living in a cage with hardly enough space for him to turn round, let alone spread his wings. Polly had water, a cuttle fish shell on which to sharpen his beak, a hanging bell for when he wanted attention and a feeding tray of bird seed and monkey nuts. And here is another confession; I used to steal his monkey nuts, but they were not the best quality and did not taste very nice. How I hate seeing any creature caged!

The bird cage did not smell very nice, and nor did the damp flannel in the kitchen which, with a big dollop of red carbolic soap, was dragged across my face and hands. Fortunately, I never had to bathe in the tin bath at my grandmother’s house, even though I did stay overnight once of twice. I slept on a sofa in the lounge, and on the wall hung a picture of my father’s sister, Madeline the carving knife thrower, whose eyes stared out of the picture at me all night. I covered my head with blankets to get away from that stare. When my grandfather died, Jane was taken into the dining room to see him in his coffin. Lucky for me I was not offered that opportunity! Two memories of my grandfather stay with me. On a Saturday evening he would sit by the fire with a dish full of big, scarlet runner beans and cut them paper thin ready for lunch on Sunday. Then, on the rare occasions when he and Grandmother came to visit us, Grandfather would come into my room and leave me some money at the side of my bed, sometimes two pence and sometimes three pence. When I awoke I would look at the money and if it were only two pence I would go back to sleep, hoping that when I awoke the second time it would have miraculously turned into three pence. It never worked. Sadly, other than that memory, I have no photographs, objects or remembrances of them.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

13. School Days

Apart from geography and arithmetic, I really enjoyed school, there was so much to learn and so many things to do. I remember taking a shoe box to school and we were taught how to measure things by turning the box into a room. We had to work out how much carpeting was needed, and how much material to buy for curtains; it was like playing dolls houses, but it was good practical stuff. The one thing I hated was the needlework class where we had to make an apron to wear for the cookery classes which we would be taking the following term. The aprons were pleated and every pleat had to be measured accurately and marked with pins and, when all that had been approved, the stitching was done by hand! But I loved the cooking part of the domestic science class. We made jam tarts, baked apples in pastry, steamed puddings and, at the end of the year, Christmas cake. From somewhere I had found a little waist-up china model of an old fashioned lady wearing a bonnet, and so I decorated my cake as a crinoline skirt, with the china lady positioned on the top.

Mother had few friends, people did not want to get involved with our family problems, but Ernest and Grace Cook, with whom I had stayed while Maureen was being born, seemed to be around for a few years. Grace would come for the afternoon bringing mother a quarter pound of sweets, not the cheap two pence a quarter sort, but the good toffees that cost four pence a quarter. One afternoon, during one of her visits, we were eating the toffees while mother was in the kitchen making tea; I glanced up from my book and saw that Aunty Grace had removed her dentures and was licking toffee off them! Yugh! Uncle Ernest would call to collect Grace after he had finished work, and mother would give him a boiled egg with bread and butter, which he enjoyed. His dentures also caused problems and he would have to get the egg spoon into his mouth quickly before the top set dropped down to meet the bottom set! Top set, bottom set and spoon made a clicking sound as they met over the egg. It was most disconcerting. I remember all this with the greatest sympathy as I sit here with one tooth in my mouth and the rest in a glass in the bathroom!

For my birthday, dear Aunt Grace gave me a pair of silk knit, pink bloomers with elastic round the waist and legs. We did not exactly wear thongs in those days, but these were a bit extreme!

My special friend at school was Joan Gates who had long pigtails and a very strict mother. On rare occasions I would be invited to tea at her house, but that was quite formal and I had to be on my very best behaviour. Mothers seemed to be terrified of getting a dirty foot mark on their polished floor or, even worse, on the carpet. Kids did not run in and out of their friend’s houses then, and they would not dare to help themselves to cool drink or food from the pantry. Everything interested me, and I was described as “highly strung” or a flibberdedigit, which sounds like a sort of word my mother might have made up. I remember her saying to me one day, “For goodness sake, take your skipping rope outside and skip and skip and skip until you are tired”. Skipping was fun, and I worked hard to see how many times I could swing the rope over my body while my feet were still in the air.

Friday, October 15, 2010

12. We move to Cheam

I do wonder about the after life. If there is only oblivion then it will not matter because I will be oblivious to the fact! On the other hand, if it is all angels, fluffy clouds, loving and shining lights I will get awfully bored after the first couple of hundred years. Perhaps that is the reason people choose to be reincarnated, they are simply bored with everything being so nice.

I could never kill anything just for pleasure and I had never held a rifle until one day, in recent years, a friend who was shooting an air rifle at the starlings in his garden challenged me. Never dreaming that I could hit anything, I aimed and fired at a bird; it shivered and lay down dead. I was really upset. When I find a huge rain spider, a river crab or cricket in the house I will trap it under a basin and then take it outside.

There were two daughters in the house where we were staying in Brighton, Christine and Renee, who were about our age. Jane and Renee spent their time on Brighton Pier, which was almost deserted at that time of year, and they would go round all the slot machines, pulling the handles and, sometimes, finding a few pennies. That was when Jane started smoking because she and Renee would get five Woodbines for two pence and smoke them under the pier, but I was more interested in sweets than smoke. At the end of the pier serious fishermen with fancy rods, floats and stuff would sit all day long waiting hopefully for a bite, so I decided to try my hand at fishing too. I had a piece of string with a bent pin on the end and one of the fishermen, with his splendid fishing rod, gave me a little piece of bait, he was probably amused by me. Well, I sat patiently and suddenly there was a tugging on my string so I hauled it up and there, wriggling on the end, was a little dab! I could not bear to unhook it so the fishermen did if for me, and I was really proud that I had caught a fish and they had not. I took it home and mother cooked it for me. With the skin, bones and fins removed there was probably about a teaspoonful of flesh to eat. Poor little fish!

I have no idea how father managed it, but we left the Markham’s house and moved to a nice rented semi detached house, 174 Churchill Road, North Cheam, Surrey, and I attended North Cheam School. On and off during the years, father had been a commercial traveller, selling everything from printed stationery to Ratex, a highly lethal rat poison which he stored in our garage, so he was away “on the road” a great deal. He also sold zithers to people in country districts. These instruments were like harps, imported from Germany, but solid and played on a table. He would sell on deposit and then call every week for the two shillings or so instalment. When I was twelve he decided that I should go up to London, to the warehouse, to collect two of those harps which were, incidentally, very heavy. The journey entailed getting on a bus at the top of the hill, travelling to the underground station and, after making enquiries there, boarding a train to the City. Once there, I wondered around with a piece of paper in my hand on which was written the address of the warehouse. In those days policemen patrolled the streets on foot, and we had been taught that if ever we were lost or in trouble we had to ask a policeman for help. Well, I was lost sure enough, so I found a policeman who showed some surprise at a twelve year old walking round the City of London looking for a warehouse that stocked zithers! The end of the story was that I arrived back home, very tired and with arms aching from carrying the two instruments. When mother found out where I had been she hit the roof and another row started, but I was very pleased with myself for completing the task.

Maureen was still only a baby when we moved to Cheam, she was very premature and sickly and mother was so busy looking after her, cleaning the house and trying to make ends meet that she seemed to have little time for me, so I suppose I suffered the middle child syndrome. But in spite of being unhappy, and exhausted, Mother would spend hours brushing my hair round her left index finger to make ringlets.

On Saturday mornings I would push the empty baby pram up the hill to the little row of shops to do the weeks shopping. The grocer would serve me over the counter with the items on my list -  there were no trolleys to push around and fill up with junk food, sweets, biscuits and cool drinks, those things were for birthday parties and special occasions only. “Half a pound of bacon, short back, lean No.5, half a pound of margarine and half a pound of butter, please", I would read out, very importantly.  Bacon was cut fresh on the slicing machine, No.5 being the thickness required, 'short back lean' being the cut.  The butter was cut off a huge slab and, somehow, the grocer always managed to cut off the exact amount in one piece. On Saturday nights, just before closing time, the greengrocer would let me have a bag of 'specs' for two pence -  fruit that was marked and would not keep until the shop opened again on Monday. What a bag! There would be grapefruits for breakfast, bananas to cut up and cover with custard for dinner, very slightly bruised apples and sometimes a pomegranate which we would cut in half and, using a big pin, pick out the sweet red seeds.  In Woolworths biscuits were sold loose from big tins and we could buy the broken ones left at the bottom of the tins for two pence a pound.

At the end of the row of shops were the cinema and the pub.  There was great excitement when Jesse Matthews, and her husband Sonny Hale, made personal appearances to promote one of Jesse's movies in which she sang a song to the unseen man in the flat above hers, "I hear him overhead, on the ceiling, near my bed". Jane and I entered a talent competition at the cinema, there used to be entertainments during the intervals.  I sang "Little Curley Hair in a highchair, what's your orders for today?  Little Curley Hair in a highchair, I'll do anything you say. etc. etc."  I did not win and I seem to remember I was reluctant to leave the stage.  Jane sang a song about "sunshine" which I may remember later.  She did not win either!  I should have known then that my theatrical career was doomed to failure.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

11. Broke again and Maureen is born

As I said before, I cannot remember anything about the school at Worcester Park, but I do remember coming home one day, with my ruler, pencil etc., ready to take with me to a place where I was to sit some exams the next day, only to be told that we were moving and I could not go. The exams were for a scholarship to a good school and I was very disappointed. What I was not told was that Father had again lost every penny and that my mother, at thirty five, was pregnant. This was mother’s ninth pregnancy since my birth, the rest she had terminated; one of the terminations had been so late that she was able to see that she had been carrying twin boys. This latest pregnancy was supposed to be a happy one because father was trying to behave, but that was before he went bankrupt. Nearly all our furniture was sold and we found ourselves in a flat over an empty shop by the railway station.

I was sent to spend a few days with Grace and Ernest Cook, they were a very kind childless couple. On their dining room table they had a large bowl, filled with soil, made into a Chinese garden. There was a small oval mirror in the middle, which represented a pond, with a little china bridge over it. At each end of the bridge stood a small Chinese figure, one of a man and the other a woman, and I was fascinated by her lovely dress and their funny hairstyles. There were tiny plants representing trees, I don’t know if they were real or not, but I loved anything that was very small.

While I was staying there Maureen was born prematurely and was not expected to live; she was placed in my doll’s pram wrapped in cotton wool, and bathed in olive oil. The night of her birth father had one of his “brain storms”, as mother called them, and smashed up what little furniture there was in the bedroom, while Jane tried to protect mother and the baby. On my return home I found this tiny, tiny baby in my dolls pram, which was quite a surprise! By some miracle Mo survived, but I think there were many times in later years when she wished she had not!

It was February and extremely cold, and we had no gas or electricity. Jane tried to cook food for us on the fire in the living room, using wooden boxes we had found for fuel. At night we kept our clothes in the bed with us to keep them warm and dressed under the covers in the morning. And then I found a way of getting into the empty shop below us, and I would ‘dance’ round and round, singing, and playing imaginary games.

After a few weeks we left the flat and went to stay in Brighton, with some weird people father knew. They had quite a large house and Jane and I shared a bed in a room downstairs. One night I wet the bed and we sat up for hours trying to get the bedding dried in front of the gas fire. I was not happy. The new baby had replaced me as the youngest child and Mother seemed to have no time for me – of course she was far from well, we were homeless and she had other things to worry about, but I did not know or understand all this so I decided to run away. Heaven knew where to. I sneaked into the kitchen, made some marmalade sandwiches and set off along the beach. It was March, cold and windy and so, once the marmalade sandwiches were eaten, I returned to the house only to find that nobody had missed me! During my childhood I seemed to wander off quite a lot without being missed.

Mr. and Mrs. Markham, the people we stayed with, were spiritualists and so was father, so he probably met them at a spiritualist meeting at the Aeolian Hall in London. Spiritualism had only recently been “unbanned” as a religion, and Father was very engrossed in it. The subject of the next world and those who have “passed over” has always interested me, and mediums like John Edwards are fascinating, but I find that coping with this life in this world is all I can manage right now. Having said that, after my husband Tom died I did experience one strange happening. I was sleeping in his room when, in the middle of the night, the television turned itself on and a football match was being broadcast; Tom was a great supporter of Arsenal soccer club and hated Manchester United. I awoke, sat up in bed, turned on the bedside light, looked at the clock and said “Oh, darling! Not football at two o’clock in the morning!” I turned off the television and the bedside light and went back to sleep. I definitely was not dreaming, but I was not at all frightened and almost laughed at him.

Another strange thing happened after my mother died. Mother was once told that the souls of all the babies she had aborted were waiting for her “on the other side” and that she would find them when she passed over. My mother loved children, her own most of all, and would never harm a child. Well, I had this vision of mother wearing a lovely long dress, sitting on a chair surrounded by six small children who were all wearing the sort of clothes I knew she would have chosen for them. The little boys wore sailor suits and hats and the little girls were wearing pretty dresses, like those worn by Alice in Wonderland, and their long hair had been brushed into ringlets and tied back with ribbons. The strange part of this vision was that mother was singing to them, a song called “Butterflies in the Rain”, which she had sung to us as children and which I had long forgotten.

“When the rain come scattering helter, skelter, and the butterflies are caught out in the rain, leafy hollyhocks will whisper 'Come and shelter, until the rainbow shines again'.  In the heart of every rose a haven, from the pitter, patter, pitter pat refrain. There’s protection from the showers, in the sympathetic flowers, for the butterflies in the rain”.

Then it continues with something about “Sleepy head, get out of bed etc.” Now, how many of you have ever heard that song before? Well, my grand-daughter, Juliea, found it on the internet by just typing in “Butterflies in the Rain”. Shown there, is a short piano version of the music, with raindrops playing the notes, or there is a longer version played by Jack Payne and sung by a male vocalist. Having heard her sing the song,  the words are now etched on my brain.

Then another day, as I was driving the car, I had a vision in my head of mother dancing in the sky wearing a Ginger Rogers style of dress. When I told Maureen about it she said that she had seen the same vision at the same time. That was really strange, but we gained some comfort from thinking that she was happy at last, dancing and playing with her children.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

10. Uncle Tom and a disastrous holiday .

Uncle Tom, my father’s brother, came to visit us from South Africa with his wife, Mavis, and baby, Derek. I watched my little cousin being bathed and although I was almost ten years old I had never before seen a naked baby boy and thought the male appendage very strange. Over forty years later this baby boy, who had grown up and moved to America, came to visit us all in Bulawayo. What a dish! He had all the women in the family wide eyed. But, I thought, I was the only one there who had seen his equipment, albeit in miniature. He had the Lawley charm and good looks, but he did not stay long enough for us to make any in-depth assessment.
Uncle Tom was very good looking, apart from a crooked, scarred nose and a cut on his cheek. I asked mother what had happened to his nose and she told me that one day Madeleine, his sister, in a rage had thrown a carving knife at him which caught him across his face. Bill, father’s other brother, was a very mild man who had been a Warrant Officer in the Indian Army. He sniffed a lot and smoked and had married a girl called Mary, who also smoked and ate pigs’ trotters with her fingers. She died of leukaemia. Anyway, while Tom and Mavis were there, Jane and I were sent to spend two weeks with a woman living in the country who “took in children”, supposedly to give them a fun packed holiday. Jane was thirteen and I was ten and we hated the place. There were other girls and boys there, plus the woman’s own children, I don’t remember how many. The boys just wanted to play cowboys and Indians, to tie us to trees and whoop round us brandishing spears. I had experienced all the brandishing and whooping that I needed, and this was not my idea of a fun holiday.

The woman in charge arranged tests for us. For instance, I was made to sit alone in a room, on a chair pulled up to a table, on which was placed a square of chocolate, and I was told I must not touch it. After a very long time, the woman came back and I was allowed to eat the untouched piece of confectionery, and I blame that incident on my becoming a chocoholic; if I see chocolate, I have to eat it. Then we were each told a word before going to bed; we were not allowed to write it down, and it had to be remembered in the morning. I was terrified that I would not remember and get into trouble, so I cheated by writing the word on the neck of my doll; the head was on an elastic band so the end of the neck could not be seen. Somehow the woman found out and I was disgraced for cheating. Far from being a happy holiday, every day seemed to be one more trial or test. On Sunday mornings we woke to find a bag of sweets and a comic magazine on our beds, no doubt put there to keep us quiet while the master and mistress had a lie in. My comic of choice was “Film Fun”. I loved the antics of Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.

The grounds of the house were quite large. We ate baby carrots pulled straight from the ground, picked tiny yellow tomatoes from the greenhouse and big, sweet juicy ripe, yellow gooseberries. We went on a picnic and I was dumped in the river and made to swim. We fished for tadpoles and played hide and seek, and I hid in the boot of a car with a 12 year old boy who told me he had been waiting all his life to find a girl like me! It had been three years since my affair with the freckled faced boy at the Kingston by-pass, so it was nice to know that I had not lost my fatal attraction. No, it was not all bad, but we missed Mother and wanted to go home.

Mother, Father, Uncle Tom and Aunt Mavis and the baby came to collect us at the end of the two long weeks and we were so relieved to see them. We were also very pleased to see that Father and Mother seemed happy together. After a short conversation with the woman of the house they announced, to our horror, that as we were having such a lovely time, they had agreed that we could stay another week! Only now do I wonder if they intended to take us home with them because there would not have been room in the car for seven of us and our luggage. As the car drove away we burst into tears. Years later mother said that she wished she had known we did not want to stay because it had been a struggle, finding the money for the extra week. Oh the miseries caused by the failure to communicate.

I liked Uncle Tom, he smoked a pipe and let me sit on his knee. I wanted to hide in his cabin trunk and go back to South Africa with him.  Later he sent me cigarette cards on which were printed pictures of South African flowers, and I thought the Proteas were magnificent.  When I had my own little patch of garden in Cheam, I planted African marigolds and ice plants. That was the only time I ever saw, or had contact with, my Uncle Tom.

9 Childhood at Raynes Park

I once asked mother why she hadn’t left father in the early days. She told me that she had left after an incident when Jane was a baby and crying, as babies do, and father had picked Jane up and held her head under the running cold water tap in the kitchen to make her stop crying. Mother ran away, found a foster mother for Jane and, with a broken heart at leaving her precious baby, went away with a touring musical comedy show, that being the only way she could earn money. Of course father found out where Jane was, took her away and let mother know that if she did not return to him she would never see her baby again. Mother was frantic, not knowing who was caring for the baby, and returned to father who made more promises of better behaviour.

One night I came downstairs and found my mother lying on the kitchen floor, sobbing, with her head on a cushion in the gas oven. Would she have killed herself if I had not found her? Could she really have been so unhappy that she would have left her two little girls to an unknown fate? She must have been in the very depths of despair. I often hear criticism about the misuse of the Welfare State in England, but our lives would have been very different if Mother could have been assisted.

It is a pity that all these bad times are coming to the surface as I write my story, because I did have some happy times. Children could run pretty free in the thirties, although I was always a bit wary after the raincoat episode. There were some woods, and a playground with swings, near our house and Jane and I were playing there one day when this old man, well to me he looked old, offered us an acid drop from a paper bag. We politely took one each, but as soon as his back was turned we threw them away because, after the man with the puppy incident, my mother had drummed into me “Never take sweets from anyone, and never talk to strangers!” We played on the swings, did cartwheels, handstands and back bends, and when other children appeared we spoke to each other in gobbledygook, pretending we were from another country! We competed to see how far we could walk across the fast running little stream, before the water came up, over and into our Wellington Boots, even though I knew I would get into trouble for getting my boots wet. We looked in awe at deadly nightshade, because we had been told that it was poisonous and could kill. We experimented with stinging nettles and dock leaves, which were supposed to take the sting out but never did. I loved blue bells, wild violets, the lambs’ tails that hung from the trees in spring, the hazel nuts and the blackberries. Wandering through the woods and riding our bikes over the bumpy paths was so exciting. I loved my bicycle and I used to clean it until the wheels and spokes shone, and I also had to learn how to mend punctures. One day some rotten neighbour reported to mummy that she had seen me riding down the hill with my arms outstretched, not holding on to the handlebars. Of course I was scolded and warned about riding recklessly, but what did they expect? I came from a family of flipping trick cyclists, for goodness sake! But I did not say so because we were never, ever rude to our parents.

Mother was very ill with rheumatic fever and nearly died. Doctor Rose, who knew the family background, said we should move away from Raynes Park and all the dreadful things that had happened there, and try to have a fresh start. So when I was nine we moved to a nice little bungalow in Worcester Park, and to new schools.