Sunday, November 14, 2010

35. West Drayton

We moved to hiring in West Drayton, Middlesex, not far from London Airport. I cannot remember anything about the move from Netheravon. We did not own a car, neither of us could drive, but we must have got there somehow. When a service family moved out of a married quarter the Medical Officer, the Barrack Warden and the Families Officer carried out an inspection. The inventory was checked and everything had to be clean and in good order. It was a real military exercise, trying to dry the last nappy, and wash up the breakfast dishes while, at the same time, stuffing forgotten electric plugs and teddy bears into one’s handbag - all while the inspection party stood at the front door. A hiring, on the other hand, was quite different; those were privately owned furnished houses, leased by Air Ministry for the use of service families, where the husband was working at places where no quarters were available. When those houses were vacated nobody checked the house or the inventory, so one did not know what to expect.

This house was very dirty and neglected; there were brass plates, turned green, with the heads of Roman soldiers moulded into them, hanging in the hall. Pictures with fly-blown glass were attached to the walls with cobwebs, and I suspected the presence of mice. The house smelt dusty, damp and dirty. But, in the “front room” there stood an old upright, out-of-tune piano, and a piano stool in which I found some children’s first grade sheet music. Although I loved piano music, it did not stop me from murdering this piano! I would put the children in the living room to play, in front of a well guarded fire, while I donned fur boots, overcoat and mittens and tried to bash out Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, hour after hour, on the battered old instrument.

Monday to Friday Tom would catch the bus to Uxbridge, then a train to London and another to Holborn and Air Ministry. He left at about 7.00 a.m. and returned at about 7.00 pm so the children rarely saw him, apart from week-ends, and I was free to find some work and make some money. I saw an advertisement inviting housewives to make up to five pounds a week, machining clothes at home. I had a very small Singer junior sewing machine on which I had made clothes for my own children, and I thought that would do, so I replied. The man came to the house bringing with him four separate piles of cut out, poor quality, brown corduroy material, a large cone of cotton and about a mile of elastic. He said he would call back in three days to collect the finished articles, which were to be trousers for small boys.

First of all I studied the task in hand and tried to work out the most efficient way of mass producing this lot. I put the two piles of front pieces together and machined them in long strings of twenty, the same with the two piles of back pieces. The plan was to then put the two strings together and sew one lot of sides together, then the other. Alright in theory, until I discovered that I had machined the backs to the fronts and not the backs to the backs. Don’t even bother to try to work that out, sufficient to say that I was pleased that the cotton thread supplied was of poor quality, and easy to rip apart. Sewing in the elastic was the most difficult part. The end of the story was that, after almost burning out my dear little sewing machine, I earned two pence farthing per pair of trousers! When the man came to collect the finished garments, pressed and all, he brought four more piles of material, elastic and thread with him, and I suggested he leave and take the material with him.

I became friendly with an Irish woman, who lived across the road and had a little girl the same age as Jeni. She agreed to look after Jeni for a few hours a week while I went out and did a bit of charring. There was an advert in the Post Office window for a cleaning lady which I answered and was duly appointed Cleaning Lady Extraordinaire to the wife of a retired Navy Commander. She lived in Iver, Buckinghamshire, a few miles away, so I bought a second hand bicycle. The job was OK; the lady was a bit stuck up but she had a Hoover and a steam iron, so the work was not hard. I did not enjoy the half hour cycle ride in all weathers, but I did like two shillings and sixpence an hour reward. Ten bob for a morning’s work, which amounted to a pound a week or four pounds a month. It would not be long before I had enough to pay my train fare up to Banbury, and lodgings for three days.

And why did I want to go to Banbury, you might ask? Well, I had seen an advertisement placed by Spencer Banbury for agents to market their made-to-measure bras and corsets. There was good money to be made, if one worked hard. If you really want a laugh, look up Spencer Banbury on the Internet, there are 423,600 entries. I had not expected to find them there after fifty years, but there they were, with pictures of corsets more uncomfortable than any chastity belt and more cumbersome. Just remember that I did not become a rep until about 1954/5 so I had no part in measuring women for the earlier instruments of torture. Eventually I had enough money to pay for everything, and Tom must have taken leave to look after the children, while I went up to study the art of measuring. It was great fun. I stayed with a very nice woman who had a beautiful collection of fine bone china cups and saucers, which she used daily. She collected them from any junk shop, none of them matched but they were all so pretty. She provided a lovely supper each evening and put a hot water bottle in my bed at night so I felt very pampered.

Without a car, contacting potential clients was not easy. First I would choose a suitable area, one with detached houses which suggested that the resident earned a good income, and then I walked through it, dropping leaflets at about thirty houses, with a note telling them when I would call back. I hoped for a possible one-in-ten interest, if not an actual sale. A few days later I would go back and call at the houses again to see if the target was interested and, if she was, I would give a presentation then or make an appointment to go back later. Booking appointments was difficult because we did not have a telephone and cell phones were things of science fiction. Spencer Banbury made some beautiful designs, my favourite being the “all-in-one” corselet made of pink satin, over-layed with black lace. The items were quite expensive, but I learnt early on to show the client the cheaper fabrics pushing the pink and black to one side saying “Yes it is pretty, but very expensive”. The more I pushed the cheaper fabrics the more interested the client became in the pink and black. Once the sale was made a deposit was paid and I was very fair, never taking the final amount until the client was perfectly satisfied; much of my work came from referrals.

One of my best clients was a Jewish lady who always insisted on giving me lunch, which would be something heavily laced with garlic! I made sure she was my last visit of the day because I did not want to asphyxiate the next client! Tom always knew when I had been with her because he hated garlic, the mere smell made him nauseous. He used to say that garlic was the best contraceptive on the planet because if I ate it he would never come near me!

The job involved a lot of travelling by underground train, buses, bicycle and on foot, but I made some money - enough to buy Tom a decent suit. His demob suit, the one issued to him when he was demobbed after the war and before he became a ‘regular’, fitted badly and was very shabby. Had we stayed at West Drayton, I might have built a successful business, but just as things were going well for me, Tom was posted to Germany, to NATO Headquarters at Rhindahlen, and it was time to start packing again. We said “goodbye” to Tom and waited for our instructions to move.

It was winter, the time for icy roads and burst water pipes, and the pipes in the house did burst, which meant that I could not light the fire to heat the boiler to get hot water. Air Ministry was unable to contact the owner of the house for permission to have the repairs done, so we could not bathe, other than in a bowl of water in front of the fire in the “front room”. I had been there before! The boiler was still broken when we finally left for Germany a couple of months later.

Both the children caught chicken pox and by the time the instructions came for us to travel to Germany they were covered with chicken pox scabs and we could not travel while they were still infectious, so I was continually bathing their spots with pink calamine lotion, trying to dry them off. They would stand before me naked, and while I dabbed Tommy’s spots with cotton wool wrapped round a corset bone and dipped in the calamine lotion, while he would be dabbing his little sister’s spots, including her nipples! With a little assistance, the last scab dropped off, the RAF movements section was advised, and we were ready for the off.

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