Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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.

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