Thursday, November 11, 2010

33. Flight from Egypt

The Oranje finally anchored, with fog horns blowing, and about an hour later we were taken out to her on lighters. The passengers were leaning over the deck railings watching this sorry band of refugees climbing up the side of the ship on rope ladders, and being pulled into the cargo hold by crew members. My babies were handed to me and we went up on deck where we were allocated a cabin on E deck, five stories below, quite a long way to climb with two little ones, and not a good way to start a six months period of rest.

Although we were expected on board, no effort had been made to prepare a meal for us. There were sandwiches and tea. We were regarded with disdain by the stewards, stewardesses and those passengers already on board. There were no toys for sale in the shop, and we learned later that the night before the ship stopped to pick us up, there had been a big party for the children and all the toys had been given away. This was such a pity because, apart from Tommy's indispensible teddy bear, our children’s toys had been left behind.

There was a nursery on the top deck where children were supposed to be looked after by the stewardesses while the parents were in the dining room, but the nursery girls had established good relations with the passengers already on board, and their gratuities at the end of the trip were assured. They did not expect to get anything from our motley lot, so our children were ignored. The next day I left Jeni in the nursery in her pram while I took Tommy to the children’s lunch; when I went to collect her, two little girls had taken her out of the pram and were playing with her on the floor like a doll. She was three weeks old. Another time I had left Tommy in the nursery while I went down to E deck to feed Jeni. There was a knocking at the cabin door and when I opened it, there stood little Tommy who had been let out of the nursery and had found his way from the top deck down to E Deck and to our cabin. Heaven knows how he did it.

The sea was very choppy and many people were sea sick but when I complained to one of the stewardesses that the toilets were dirty I was told that I must remember there were a lot of dirty people on board now! Jeni got sick and kept vomiting so I took her to the ships surgery, but the doctor was at a party and when he eventually came to the cabin he was obviously drunk, and his advice to me was to keep forcing milk down the baby until she kept it down. I was incensed. When I saw him the following day in the surgery, he did have the grace to apologise but, by then, I was feeling more than a little fragile. Meal times were difficult. Jeni fed at 0600 hrs. Tommy and I went to breakfast at 0800 hrs. Jeni fed at 1000 hrs. Lunch for Tommy and me at 1230 hrs. Jeni fed at 1400 hrs. Tommy ate children’s tea at 1630 hrs. Jeni fed at 1800 hrs. Tommy went to bed at 1830hrs. My dinner was at 1930 hrs. Jeni fed at 2200 hrs. I seemed to be walking up and down stairs all day, and I did not want to let my babies out of my sight.

When we docked at Southampton, the ‘press’ swarmed aboard. One wife, who had enjoyed the trip with the crew so much that they almost had to unscrew her from the deck, was sitting on a settee with her two large sons looking terribly forlorn. The boys had large pieces of cardboard strung round their necks upon which was written their names, and this picture appeared on the front pages of the Sunday newspapers! Remembering the misreporting in the press when I enlisted, I told the reporter that I had been neither raped nor robbed, so to go and find someone more interesting to interview.

The RTO, the branch of the services which arranges travel for service personnel, were, as usual, superbly organised. In accordance with information recorded during the voyage, travel warrants were ready for us when we disembarked.

I will never forget the train ride from Southampton to London. It was mid October, and the sun was shining through the trees which were shedding their orange, yellow and gold leaves along the railway track. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen and, as the train steamed into London, I wondered – what now?

Fifty years later I read in the memoirs that Tom had written, as his contribution to the history of the RAF Police, that he had been given a choice of posting in 1949. He could have gone to Germany, a nice civilised place to take a baby, Singapore, which was considered a very good posting, or that hell hole Egypt. He wrote that he had chosen Egypt because so many of his mates were serving there! It had never entered his mind that it was something we should discuss. So many years had passed since then, but the knowledge that he had chosen to take us there made me angrier than I could have imagined.

While we were in Egypt my father had bought Maviswood, 34 Manor Road, Westcliffe on Sea, a large bed and breakfast boarding house, I think father had the idea that Maviswood would be both home and business and would support him in his retirement. In fact it was a treadmill for mother and only supported father’s drinking and gambling.

On the ground floor there was a kitchen, large family living room, small shop which sold mainly sweets, cigarettes, drinks and seaside stuff, a tea room and a very large lounge. The cupboard under the stairs had been turned into an office of sorts, that is to say there was a telephone in there where, after closing the door, father could phone his bookie. Upstairs were bedrooms and bathrooms but, almost sixty years on, I really cannot remember how many. There was no garden, just a car park for maybe six cars? The house faced the railway station; there were shops alongside and the beach at the end of the road. If you look up Maviswood on the Internet you will see that it is now a rest home for the elderly. It certainly was no rest home in October 1951! With the help of a “mornings cleaner”, mother was trying to run the whole show. Father was experiencing terrible pains in his legs, caused by poor circulation - the price of chain smoking for years - and did little apart from serving in the shop from time to time. He had a natural leaning towards dishonesty and had a trick of sticking a small magnet under the scale when he weighed out sweets so that he could make a toffee or two.

Tommy was a darling little boy and my mother adored him. Jeni just slept and Father was taken with her because, when she was awake and he whistled, she would smile. But it was not easy, being there, although Mother did everything she could to make life pleasant. Tired still from the jaundice, from having a baby, from the uncomfortable boat trip, helping with Maviswood and worrying about Tom, I was on a slippery slope. One afternoon I went upstairs to see if Tommy had woken from his afternoon nap and all I could see was red. He had found my lipstick and, without the aid of a mirror, had covered every bit of his face with red lipstick. There was red on the eiderdown, on his hands, everywhere, red. I grabbed the child and the lipstick, rushed downstairs, threw the empty lipstick holder on the fire and just lost it! I screamed at the bewildered little lad and at the world in general. Two pregnancies without family support, two births without friends around, or flowers, baby showers, and all the happiness and excitement usually associated with a new arrival, a serious illness and no home of my own, it was all more than I could handle.

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