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.

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