Category Archives: life and death

Strong Spirit – Bright Beautiful and Beloved

Image result for capitaine bougainville

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I first saw Philippa as I stood in line at the chemist. Like me she was waiting for a prescription for her son. Unlike me, her four- year- old son was sitting in a push chair, obviously unable to walk, while around her, enfolding her exquisite Pre-Raphaelite beauty was a miasma of pain.

A few weeks later, I discovered at a parent teacher meeting that this unforgettable young woman was my son’s new teacher. As I worried about him, she told me fiercely that children from single homes were no more disadvantaged than children from two parent homes, which were often more dysfunctional than single parent homes.

A few weeks later when she was passing my gate, pushing her four- year- old spina bifida son, Mua, and her younger son Tane, walking beside her, I rushed out and asked her to come in for a cup of coffee. We became the closest of friends, and I marvelled at her amazing courage, tenacity and intelligence. She had married a Fijian-Indian, and gone to live in a Fijian village where life became unbearable with the birth of her handicapped son who everyone rejected. One fearsome night, as a tempest raged and floods rose, she seized the opportunity amid the fear and confusion, and fled taking both children, and returned to New Zealand.

On her first Sunday back with her parents, her father insisted that she go to church, knowing she had rejected their Catholic faith. She had the choice – church or banishment. Her integrity and courage intact, she left her home, rather than compromise herself.

Life with two pre-schoolers, one a toddler, the other suffering all the worst aspects of his birth defect,  needing constant operations, and having no financial support was an un-ending struggle. She could only cope by going back to teaching, putting her elder son in a home for other handicapped children during the week, and taking her toddler to play centre every day.

She loved coming to see me in what she called ‘my blue room’ and said how the life we’d made for ourselves  gave her courage that she could have a good life too. Every time she was depressed I’d raid my wardrobe to cheer her up with an exotic garment. She looked amazing in the orange quilted Chinese tunic I gave her to wear to parties, but which she wore with black trousers to school, and also the turquoise satin embroidered Indian robe which must have cheered up the staff room no end! Driving to school, I’d see a beautiful figure walking down the road in jodpurs or hot-pants and crane to see the front of this fascinating person, and it would be Philippa.

She agreed to me writing a story about the life she led, with no support or understanding from the community, in which even a bus driver bellowed at her when she was slow climbing onto the bus, carrying the inert body of one child on one hip, and the toddler on her other hip. He yelled at her: “It’s not my fault he’s handicapped.” So she never went on a bus again.

There were the hours spent waiting in hospital waiting rooms for surgeons to see her for another patch up operation on her child – “He thinks because he plays the harpsichord and drugs my child into a vegative state to numb his pain that he‘s doing something wonderful for humanity,” she raged bitterly.

I wrote about the misery of carrying her heavy child as she toiled up the steep staircase of the condemned house where she’d managed to find cheap lodgings – and even made it look like a home, with pretty bits of glass and pottery and coloured fabrics draped across the windows and beds. Amazingly, Philippa had borrowed a friend’s clarinet, and managed every now and then to get a lesson. This was her life-line, and she doggedly worked away at the instrument.

The effect of the newspaper story was magic. A charity sprang into action, helped her find a good ground floor lodging, and carpeted it, so her son wasn’t dragging himself around on a bare floor. They bought a washing machine and dryer for her, to cope with her son’s incontinence, and the play centre stopped charging fees for her toddler son’s attendance. Between her headmaster, her doctor and I, we were able to cobble together a living allowance for her based on a sick benefit, so she could rescue her son from the crippled children’s home which he hated, and give up teaching as her health was giving out.

From now on I also had a friend who would always have my children on their sick days or during holidays, which had always been my greatest anxiety. The four children all became close, and my two would go with Philippa to help her with Mua at his swimming therapy. Philippa now became accomplished on a clarinet which she bought on hire purchase, and began teaching at schools, to earn some extra money.

And then she met a handsome French sea captain, who was as good as he was kind. He adored Mua, and took the whole family off to Sydney where he was based on land for a year. Philippa attended the Conservatorium of Music, and Jean took the children skiing, having secretly taught Mua to balance on his calipers to surprise his mother. Jean bought a state of the art wheel chair for him and the only car big enough then to accommodate the wheel chair. When they returned to Auckland the following year, Philippa was pregnant and even more beautiful. But I was terribly concerned. I wondered if she was going to die in child birth. I felt there was some awful fate awaiting her.

I was right. When the baby was a few months old, the family embarked on what Philippa had decided would be their last sea trip across the Pacific with Jean before settling into their house and children’s schools. It was their last trip. After a happy evening in the company of musician friends who came on board and made music with Philippa, who played the expensive new clarinet Jean had bought for her – his ship, the Capitaine Bougainville – sailed for the Islands.

A few hours later a vicious storm blew up, and in the pounding seas further up the coast of NZ, a tool fell off the bulkhead in the engine room, and cut the fuel pipe, feeding the engine. The engine caught fire, and there was no way of putting it out. The life boats were lashed onto the roof of the engine room, and Jean had to make a decision to wait on the burning ship to be rescued, or  leave the flames and escape in the lifeboats before they were destroyed in the fire.

His Mayday message was never received, so he had to take the dreadful decision to launch into the mountainous seas. A sailor took each one of the children, but each time the life boat capsized, another child was lost. After three hours Philippa died of exposure and exhaustion and slipped from Jean’s grasp as his feet touched sand.  He was tossed and tumbled in the surf, vomiting salt water before collapsing on the sand. He told me he had to resist turning back into the sea to end his life then, rather than face the years without Philippa. But forcing himself to get to his feet, he ran to the nearest house where he found a holidaying family at breakfast and raised the alarm.

A few survivors made it to shore, but twelve sailors as well as my friend and her children were drowned. A few days later, Mua’s little body was washed up, and we drove the five hours up to Whangarei for his funeral and for his mother, brother and baby sister Jasmine. Jean then travelled to the islands visiting the families of all his sailors who had drowned. In the months that followed, Jean often came to stay with us at our new home in the country where we now lived with my new husband. His pain was terrible.

Eventually he returned to his home in Brittany, and captained a cross channel ferry to England. He married again and returned to this country a few years ago to be present at the ceremony marking the monument being erected on the beach, in memory of those who had been lost. He wrote a long poem straight after the tragedy which he sent to my children… he wrote of saying goodbye to my bright beautiful beloved friend before she stepped over the gun-wale to reach the bucking life-boat below: ’Your smile and your serenity, Your only luggage for eternity’…

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

 I didn’t get the food back home quick enough and found the frozen peas were too soggy to go into the deep freeze. Chagrined, I couldn’t bear to waste them, so made a quick and easy pea soup with a chopped onion zapped in the microwave and added to a generous helping of chicken stock.

When the stock was boiling I tipped in most of the peas and cooked them until the peas were soft but still bright green. After being whizzed smooth in the blender, I added cream… and the soup ended up being sipped for lunch, and the other half ended up in the deep freeze anyway!

Food for thought

“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

 

 

 

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Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, human potential, life and death, love, music, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Life and loss, love and death

Image result for south  bay hk

Deepwater Bay

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to writing my normal blogs

Ensconced in Deepwater Bay, life now took on the tone and routines that shaped our lives until the final disintegration of our marriage. My husband would go off to University every day and return home in time for dinner. After dinner he would take off back to Victoria – to the officers mess, he would say, to see Henry or Richard or whoever… I assumed for some time that he was bonding with the other people on his course, in spite of having spent all day with them.

Later he would say there was a party or a get together. And later still, when the whole saga had ended, friends would tell me that I had no idea of how many girl- friends there had been – “You didn’t know the half of it”….

I tried everything, and one night I remember in despair taking the car before he did and driving round to beautiful South Bay, an empty semi- circle of still water, ringed with flame trees, and where I watched the flaming sunset. The beauty was so moving, I felt I must share it with him, and drove back home, and persuaded him to come back to South Bay with me. He did, and then took the car and drove off- somewhat delayed – to whatever rendezvous he had in town.

Two things helped me through this time. I had found a wonderful amah, Ah Ping, a shy eighteen- year- old girl with very little English, and a lovely nature. She adored the children, and we had a little competition at bath-time over which of us was going to enjoy bathing the youngest, still very much a baby. She learned to speak English with my accent and tone, so that people thought it was me when she answered the phone. She helped to maintain the happy atmosphere for the children and they  loved her.

The other thing that sustained me, was my first foray into writing. I studied the woman’s pages of the South China Morning Post, the main English speaking newspaper in Hong Kong, and realised that the one element missing was cookery.

Cheekily I offered my services to the woman’s editor, a childless and fashionable young woman, Jane, the same age as me. Feeling plain and boring by now, I somehow managed to keep my end up with her at my interview and got the go ahead to write a cookery column on Fridays. I had no qualifications for this of course, apart from an abiding love of food, but I managed to make it sound as though I knew what I was talking about.

After six weeks, I was offered another bite of the cherry, when Jane suggested I write a story to fill Thursday’s page – she wanted something about bringing up children, and now she had as it were, a captive mother, I filled the bill. This was meat and drink to me and writing about children and parenting became one of my areas of expertise and was something I only stopped doing fifty years later at seventy- seven.

My husband’s social life was costing us, and debts had begun to pile up, so the money I now earned was important to me, as I knew I could always feed the children with it. I could also afford to visit the famous alleys, and find cheap lengths of gorgeous fabric, which I sewed by hand, making glamorous new summer dresses. I had new friends, and was making a life, but I still felt miserable and longed to be loved. I tried to fill the emptiness by playing Bob Dylan and the Beatles and they left me feeling even more alone and bereft. I also started having blinding migraines which took five days out of life every time they struck.

One evening my husband came home and said we’d been invited to a party at the naval base on the commander’s ship. I put on a red dress from my pre-marriage party days and set off, feeling like I always did these days, in-adequate and plain.

At the gangplank we were warmly greeted by a man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair. His wife was a ravishing blonde ex-ballet dancer with huge brown eyes, beautiful features, and a pile of hair pinned up,   so long that when it fell to her ankles when we were dancing, she looked like Rapunzel. Her chic little black dress showed off her ballet dancer’s figure to perfection. I was in awe of both these glamorous people.

Later we went back to their house where we all sat down at the dining table for an impromptu dinner. Our host sat me at his right hand and talked to me as though I was actually interesting. I felt such gratitude for his kindness. We continued to meet at parties as our friends were old childhood friends of them both. At each occasion he sought me out, raising his glass to me across many crowded rooms before making his way through the throng to us.

And then one night as he handed me out of his car after a party, he squeezed my hand. The next party we went to was at a French officer’s house. He and his wife were a gentle couple, and we played silly childish games, since we were a mixture of French and English couples with few of us speaking each other’s language, so conversation was difficult.

During one game if a player won some sort of forfeit, they placed a cushion in front of the person of their choice and knelt and gave them a kiss. My naval friend placed his cushion in front of me when it was his turn, and I said to myself if he does it again, I will know that he meant it. And he did. The next two months were a dizzy time of love and longing set against the back drop of riots and curfews and water rationing and our move into army quarters in Repulse Bay, where we became neighbours. Neither of us ever said a word but were drawn to each other at every meeting.

At the same time, I was fascinated by his ravishing wife, and couldn’t believe that he could care for me, when he had such a spell-binding partner, who I knew he’d loved since they were children. I could see that she was scatter-brained and sometimes strangely childish, but still found her beauty entrancing.

The night before they left to return to England we all met for one last time. As we danced he told me he loved me. I said I thought it might have been a sailor’s girl in every port, and he reproached me. He told me that his fey, feckless wife was a millstone round his neck, and that we both had “to make a go of it”.

They flew out the next day, and I went into a sort of collapse. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a few weeks, and somehow struggled on into the grey winter like a zombie. The migraines ambushed me more and more often. I felt too fragile and depressed to write to my father.

My husband now asked me not to leave him alone with the husband of a woman I’d thought was my best friend because he feared being beaten up. The husband had discovered that my husband and his wife had been having an affair. I felt shocked and betrayed by my friend, but then, I found my husband was having another affair with another colleague’s wife, and I stopped caring.

After Christmas Jane, the woman’s editor offered me a fulltime job, and I began in January. A few weeks later, I woke up one morning, looked out at the sea, watched the fishing boats streaming back after their night’s fishing, and felt different. It was as though a huge grey cloud had lifted from me, and my first thought was – now I can write to my father. Because I was still trying to juggle my job and the children, and learning the ropes at work, I put it off until I had a moment to sit down and enjoy communicating again.

A few nights later I dreamt that one of my father’s good friends who was in Hong Kong, was sitting on my bed with its beautiful blue and green patterned Venetian bedspread, with his arms around me, comforting me. When I awoke in the morning I inwardly castigated myself that I was so desperate that I was dreaming about my father’s friends!

That night, as I slept, I heard the phone go, and my husband answer it. I heard him say: “Thank you, I’ll tell her.” When he walked into the bedroom I sat up in bed, and cried out, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Your father’s dead.” he said. The War Office had rung.

I immediately rang my father’s friend Ian, and unwittingly destroyed a dinner party. Ian came straight round, and as he sat on the bed and put his arms around me, my dream came back to me.

It felt as though the bedrock of my life had been ripped from beneath me. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though I knew it happened to everyone.  But he was only fifty- four. My siblings who were scattered around the globe on various rocks – Gibraltar, St Helena, Aden gathered, but I was too far away. No-one contacted me. I never heard from my stepmother again for nearly forty years when she was in her late eighties. My father-in-law wrote and told me about my father’s funeral, and now I was alone.

I had leant Pat Hangen my copy of Towers of Trebizond in which was a poem I felt I needed. As soon as day broke after the phone call, I rang and asked her to return it. The poem was like a lifeline back to sanity. Every time I was overwhelmed with grief, I read it again and it brought me back to a place where I could still stand being alive. It was John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that nature wrought.

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

The rhythm of these lines helped somehow, while the words of the gurus did not. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” Joseph Campbell once said, and: ‘we can choose to live in joy’. But had he ever  experienced the sorrows of life, in his long, happy,  childless relationship (with none of the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood) and his sheltered affluent university life-style? Words like his seemed to mock.

In my world, enduring the sorrows of life, it took weeks to move beyond the pain of grief and despair, and my husband lost patience with me. Then both children developed bad cases of measles. It took the spots ten days to come out for my son, and with his high temperature I feared he’d develop encephalitis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My daughter developed bronchitis and was very sick at the end of her bout of measles.

One night, as I lay by her side in bed anxiously watching her, my husband came to the bed room door. I’d been so pre-occupied with the children’s sickness, that I hadn’t really noticed that his party round had been even more frenetic that usual. He stood in the doorway, looking dreamy and dazed, and said to me, “I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry.”

I replied coldly, “Well, you’re still married to me.” But inside, I felt a surge of relief. We must be on the home straight! We were. I even stopped having my debilitating migraines. I began saving my earnings for when I would need then.

Now too, my job became really interesting. I began interviewing all the interesting people who came to Hong King. They included charming, handsome Dr Seuss, a man of goodness and integrity. Writer Iris Murdoch was a challenge, and I wish I could do it again now that I know more about life. But then I was so naive that I wondered how such a plain woman could have found a husband! John Bailey, the husband who later betrayed her when she had Altzheimers, was vague and donnish when I met him. Robert Helpman, the great ballet dancer was a joy, gentle, charming, and kind.

Barbara Cartland, so exuberant and full of life at seventy- four (honey and vitamins she told me) took me to her bosom- literally – when I mentioned one of my closest friends who was her son’s best friend. When Raine, Lady Dartmouth, her daughter, came to Hong Kong a few months later, she was just as friendly and charming, seeking me out with all eyes on her as she walked across the dining room to greet me while I was lunching in the Eagles Nest of the Hilton. She was radiantly beautiful, tall and elegant, with big china blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion like the Queen’s. It was hard to see her as the wicked stepmother of Princess Diana in the years that followed.

I don’t think I was very good at writing interviews, but I did uncover a talent for writing columns which blossomed when I moved to another country. I also discovered that journalism could be a powerful force for good when a woman rang me one day and asked to see me at my home. She gave me what she said was a false name.

I opened the front door to a tall, fair-haired sweet-faced woman with great poise and dignity. She wanted to talk to me about setting up Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the family support group in Hong Kong. I ended up attending meetings of both, and then writing several stories. Both groups took off, and today, the woman, who became one of my closest friends, tells me there are at least seventeen groups now flourishing in the territory, three of them for Europeans.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m still on my what to do with lettuce and greens jag and have adapted this recipe for lettuce soup from my old copy of the one and only Mrs Beaton. I use four spring onions if I have them and soften them with a couple of thinly sliced onions, a chopped garlic clove and a finely chopped carrot. When this is soft I pour in three cups of heated chicken stock. The lettuce then goes in, torn into small pieces, and a cup and a half of frozen peas, salt and pepper. Cook for eight to ten minutes and remove from heat while the soup is still bright green. Whizz in the blender until smooth. One of my oldest friends combs the hedgerows in the Forest of Dean for edible wild plants, and she would add leaves like nettles to this soup. I am not so brave…

Food for thought

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice… by poet Pablo Neruda

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The Land between the Rock and the Hard Place

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Am too technically incompetent to reduce the size of this outrageously large picture

A Life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

I loved my time in the army. I made friends I still have today. I could afford holidays with them in Provence, and Majorca when it was still empty and unknown. I had beautiful clothes. I had a social life that swung between visiting married friends at weekends, to parties with dashing cavalry officers and staying with their titled parents, to holidays on my own roaming the beloved dales and the moors of Swaledale, or riding across Exmoor and Lorna Doone country on my best friend’s horses with her family.

My army career blossomed, I received promotions very early and was given responsibility far beyond my rank and years, being promoted to captain when I was twenty- two. My last dream job was lecturing all over England and Wales armed with a car and a driver, which also meant staying in the best hotels and in my spare time exploring cathedral towns and remote villages in glorious country-side.

It all came crashing down one day at home on leave. A letter arrived for me from my step-grandfather. I thought it might be a suggestion to meet for lunch as we sometimes did. But it was a deeply underlined request to come to his flat secretly one evening – and tell no-one – in capital letters.

My stepmother saw her father’s hand-writing and insisted on reading it. She hit the roof and accused me of having a fully- fledged affair with him. Her dislike for me – we could only be in each other’s company for short periods before her hostility began to manifest – now crystallised into loathing, and she blamed me for leading him on, and aiming to get my hands on his money – a gold digger she called me.

I left home feeling I could never return, and when my father, who had never taken the episode seriously, began secretly coming to see me I felt that I must be causing trouble between him and my stepmother. I felt the only way out of the impasse was to get married and make a home of my own, and then it would be natural that I wouldn’t be coming home.

With that intention I soon met someone, convinced myself that I loved him, and we became engaged. The engagement survived the freezing legendary winter of ‘62/63, driving around in his unheated MG in a sheepskin coat, and I was grateful too, that this was the year woolly tights were invented.

My engagement ring somehow symbolised the future. I had just wanted an in-expensive antique ring, but my future mother- in- law apparently deemed this unsuitable. She invited me to tea, and as we finished our cherry cake, a knock on the door produced the local jeweller with a tray of conventional rings with no price tags. I was mortified, but chose the ring I disliked least, feigning delight, and knowing that she was paying for it, not my fiancée.

Trying to be like all my friends and pretending that I had a normal loving home like everyone else – it had always felt so shameful not to be loved – I organised a traditional wedding and paid for it…from the engagement notices in the Times and Telegraph and printed invitations, to the flowers and church, the wedding cake and reception, the cars and the white satin dress. During this time, I had returned home, and paid my stepmother an in-ordinate sum for the privilege of sleeping on the sofa, since my step-grandmother now lived in my bedroom.

My new husband had grandiose ideas, so we were booked into the Savoy Hotel for the first night of our honeymoon, before travelling first class to Cornwall, where after a night in another expensive hotel we caught a plane to the Scilly Isles for two weeks in another expensive hotel.

Our first night in the Scilly Isles life came crashing down again.                                             My husband asked me for a cheque to pay for the honeymoon, pay off all his debts, and his overdraft at the bank. “I promised the bank manager I’d pay it with your money as soon as we were married”, he told me. (I’ve sometimes wondered what the bank manager must have thought of this promise)

The amount swallowed nearly all my savings after the expense of the wedding. It felt as though a prison cell door had just banged shut behind me. I wept and rolled around on the bed in agony. My husband simply couldn’t understand why I was so upset. He simply couldn’t see why it felt like a betrayal. And I was right to fear the future. This was only the first of many betrayals awaiting me.

Somehow, I put the misery to one side, and tried to make the best of things. Just as well, as within a couple of weeks I was felled with morning sickness. Only it wasn’t morning sickness. It was all day sickness. I carried a saucepan around with me, in the house and in the car. In 1963, two years after thalidomide had been withdrawn, the doctor was not going to give me anything to help, he just said it would pass, so I tried every folk remedy from raw carrots to ginger biscuits!

I also got hopelessly behind with things like the washing! Being something of a dandy, my husband owned fifty- two shirts, and one hot June day we came to the end of them. They were all piled into the dirty linen basket. With a handful of other young married couples, we had gathered in someone’s army quarter to pass round The News of The World and read the latest instalment of the Profumo scandal.

My husband was down to his last shirt – so old it had no sleeves, but he’d hidden this deficiency with a tweed sports jacket. Everyone ribbed him mercilessly until he ruefully took off the jacket – with an apologetic glance in my direction – revealing the humiliating shirt and my in-adequacy!

It was worse when we were visiting his mother at Christmas. She was a perfectionist who ruled her family with an iron hand, but not with that velvet glove. She found her precious son was wearing summer pyjamas in winter. She was mystified – I gave him lots of warm viyella pyjamas – she kept saying until I confessed they were all stuffed in the dirty linen basket… but pregnancy was no excuse for not looking after her son properly!

Towards the end of November, sitting on the sofa, feeling ill as usual, and waiting for my husband to come home, he arrived through the door in some haste at twenty-past seven. He hurried to the radio and turned it on saying President Kennedy had been shot. As I was pooh-poohing any truth in it, citing De Gaulle’s escape from 140 bullets the year before, the Archers – the long running farming serial –  was interrupted.

An announcer told us that President Kennedy had just died. Like everyone else, we were stunned – it seemed unbelievable. The life and light of a leader who personified hope for the world just snuffed out. The inspiration of our generation gone, with no warning. Only grief and disbelief left to us.

Two days later we were at dinner in Winchester with my oldest school friend from Malaya. Her husband turned on the television to watch the news. As we watched, still shaken and shocked from the assassination, we saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, there under our very eyes as we watched – at that very moment in time. That, too, seemed unbelievable. The whole world seemed to rock.

Lack of money beset us from the start of the marriage, as my new husband was a year too young to receive ration allowance, which started when officers were twenty-five. The idea was to discourage early marriage so young officers were keener to go out and be killed fighting than if they had a wife and family!

With all my savings gone, in the last few weeks of pregnancy we were so skint, that I gave my husband the only good piece of jewellery I had ever bought for myself – an amethyst ring – to go and sell to raise some money. Predictably we didn’t get very much… just enough to buy food for that weekend.

We had moved house, from a posting in Wiltshire to an army quarter in Essex, in the last month of pregnancy, and I had managed to get a bed in a London teaching hospital. Still vomiting to the last, I weighed a stone less the day after the birth. To the envy of the other mothers, my clothes were hanging off me after the baby was born – unscathed by her mother’s ordeal- bouncing, bonny and over seven and a half pounds.

I had never gone back to the unhelpful doctor, so had missed out on pre-natal information, and had no idea what birth was actually about, my best information being from’ Gone with the Wind’ and Melanie hanging onto a knotted towel so as not to groan.

No knotted towel, but gritted teeth meant that I heard the nurse in the labour ward tell my husband he might as well go home since I was asleep. So he did, even though I raised my head and said I was awake! When the baby was born later that night, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life when she was placed in my arms already sucking her thumb.

That beautiful moment was somewhat marred some hours later when a trainee African doctor from Khartoum who hardly spoke any English, and didn’t seem to have heard of anaesthetics, marched in, ignored my protests and sewed me up with nothing to dull the pain.

When that was over, I was handed a telegram which had just reached the hospital. The words simply said: “Gone to Cyprus”. My husband’s regiment had been sent – as the last men standing – to douse the flames of civil war in Cyprus. The month before in January, after  Zanzibar had exploded, the armies of Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya had  mutinied over pay and conditions, and each government had asked Britain to send troops to help. It felt as though half Africa was in a state of insurrection with British troops flying everywhere.

My husband’s regiment was on standby for the next emergency, and it had arrived- Greeks and Turks at each other’s throats in Cyprus. The Daily Express wrote that “25,000 Turks have already been forced to leave their homes”, and the Guardian reported a massacre of Turkish-Cypriots at Limassol on 16 February 1964, the day my daughter was born.

It’s hard to explain how vulnerable I felt – psychologically I needed someone to care for me while I cared for the new baby, while we were suddenly much worse off financially with me in one place, and him in another. I hardly knew the house we had just moved to, and I was terrified of my new born baby, not having any idea how to care for her.

I left hospital after a week and went to stay with my in-laws for two weeks. Then my father drove me back to the army quarter I’d briefly lived in. Painters had come in while I was away, and the house was cold, damp and depressing with white paint spots over everything, including my bright new, stainless steel, wedding present pop-up toaster. The painters had obviously not bothered to use drop cloths. All my neighbours –  other army wives – had packed up and gone home to their families, so I was high and dry and alone.

I couldn’t drive the car parked in the garage, had no phone, and had to walk pram and baby through the cold foggy February weather to the village shop two miles away, to get shillings to feed the gas meter for heating. I was frightened and depressed. And the baby had colic. She cried for most of the day and night while I paced up and down with her in my arms, before collapsing with a fierce migraine when she was six weeks old.

So now, like the other wives, I packed up too and went to stay with my in-laws in London for a few weeks before taking the train to Manorbier at the furthest tip of Wales, where my best friend from our army days now lived. Her baby was a year older, and the weeks spent here were full of joyful jokes, as though we were still carefree and unmarried. Her friendly husband watched us in tolerant amusement. We still hark back in our letters to the fun we had then, and I turned my life around in that time. My daughter thrived and I got my courage back again.

When I returned to the house in Essex, I had enough energy now to tackle the over grown lawn, mowing three square feet with a push lawn mower every night after the baby was in bed, until I completed it. I began walking the pram into town a couple of miles away and attending the baby clinic every week for weighing and measuring, until they said I only needed to bring the baby every two weeks. It never occurred to me to tell them that this was the only time I saw anyone to talk to.

And now a few old friends came to stay, and one or two families trickled back into neighbouring army quarters.  I stopped fearing that my husband would be shot by Greeks or Turks. His regiment had now become part of the UN peacekeeping force, patrolling the Green Line.

After six months he returned and I was rather taken aback to find a cache of new clothes made by a local tailor in his luggage, and also to discover that he had learned to swim, thanks to the friendship of a girl from the Foreign Office. He hadn’t mentioned either of these things in his in-articulate weekly letters, but I pushed my surprise to the back of my mind.  The second day he was back, I realised as we sat in the sunshine in the garden, that I was bored, and supposed that this was one of the inevitable stages of marriage.

To be continued…

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m not really a meat eater, especially when it comes to beef. So cooking one of Himself’s favourite things – spaghetti Bolognaise  – is always a bit of a chore. But I’ve just discovered the answer for me – in the Daily Mail of all places. Only three ingredients needed, and the whole thing can bubble away while I beef up the Bolognaise! I halved the amount, so used one tin of tomatoes, the recommended onion, and three tablespoons of butter. For four people, double the ingredients, apart from the onion. Don’t chop the onion, just peel and cut in half. Put everything in a saucepan and let it all bubble gently for forty -five minutes, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, fish out the onion. The resulting rich smooth tomato sauce over pasta and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan is food for the gods. Who needs beef?

 Food for thought

‘Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.’ Stella Adler – actress and acting teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A heroine, an eccentric, a Muslim attack and a paradise

Image result for la times muslim sultans torchlight birthday parade

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The last holidays were spent in Kota Bahru, where my father had been exiled after another stoush with another commanding officer. In his game of snakes and ladders with his career, he was heading towards the top of the ladder again, when he landed on a snake, picked an unnecessary and unreasonable point of principle with the colonel, and slithered down the board again, missing out on a medal, ending up with a mere mention in dispatches and a posting as far away from the regiment as possible.

Kota Bahru, up on the east coast near what was then the Siamese border, was idyllic, with long, unspoiled beaches edged with casuarina trees, and gaily -painted fishermen’s boats lined up beneath them. The men wore piratical- looking turbans in bright oranges and reds and blues, and the women’s clothes were richly- coloured unlike the drab, brown batiks of the sarongs on the rest of the Malayan peninsula. Thanks to a mixed Siamese/ Malay heritage, the women here were famed for their beauty, combining the voluptuousness of the Malay with the sculptured bone structure of what are known as Thais now.

We lived in a pink stucco house near the mouth of the river, some way out of the town, and not far from the airfield which had seen hard fighting when the Japanese landed. The house looked across at a peaceful little kampong beneath the trees. Great clumps of purple water hyacinth often drifted slowly down river, and we watched the bronzed, brown bodies of children jumping and playing in the water. Early in the morning, or at dusk, the girls would stand and discreetly bathe beneath their sarongs, and their grandfather sat and fished all day, a still, meditative figure across the water.

The house still bore the machine gun holes from twelve years before when the Japanese had made their sudden appearance from the sea at dawn in December 1941. The hub of the community we were now part of, was the Kelantan Club, where Europeans gathered to meet each other. They were a mix of the local judge and policemen, diplomats and doctors, nurses and rubber planters, and representatives of various historic far eastern trading houses.

The rubber planters had mostly lived here since before the war, and were in many ways, thirtyish Somerset Maugham characters. They had all been interned together at Changi Camp in Singapore during the war, and those who had survived were a close -knit band of brothers.

There was Ted Kurtain, famous for swearing, whose waterfall and rock pool was a favourite picnic spot for the favoured few, including us. His closest friend was a dignified quiet man, Hugh Jackson, who had had a Thai mistress for nineteen years before the Japanese came. She waited for him during the war years he spent in Changi, and they were re-united when he came back to his rubber plantation.

Deaf to the misgivings of his well- connected English family, he sent his mistress to a Swiss finishing school, and then married her. On visits to his spacious bungalow, filled with books and English china and antiques, she entertained us as though it was an English country house party. She was beautiful, dignified, her grooming immaculate, and exquisitely dressed.

Alf, one of the two eccentric local police chiefs, had a head as bald as Yul Brynner’s, and underneath his intimidating exterior was a gentle, kind and lonely man. When his mandatory leaves came around every three years, he took a boat to Aden where he disembarked and bought a flock of goats. These he would drive north up the Arabian Peninsula, using the goats as food and currency, and when he reached Port Said took a boat to Liverpool.

Here he would spend a fortnight with his sister before returning to his post in the East. The other police chief was a much younger Englishman who had converted to the Muslim faith and kept his distance from we alcoholic and godless infidels!

As well as the Kelantan Club, the other meeting place was the Palm Court Hotel, a complete contrast to the old wooden club house with its planter’s chairs and rattan furniture. Palm Court was all concrete and tiles and chrome, and run by Mammy, a giant White Russian lady in late middle age. She wore ankle length caftans before they had been invented, had frizzy, short hair and thick pebble spectacles. But behind her facade of jolliness, I noticed loneliness and sadness.

When writing a blog, I pieced together the remarkable story of this unusual woman. Luba Ruperti was a White Russian born in 1896. She fled with her parents from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 via Shanghai to the safety of British Singapore, after her sister had been killed by a revolutionary mob.

In those years before the war, Luba would have felt safe in this seemingly impregnable British colony. She married a Russian rotter, who bankrupted them both and left her. Then after their grim appearance in Kelantan, the Japanese reached Singapore, and in that mayhem of murder and bombings, killing of patients in hospital beds, raping of nurses, and killing of all Chinese, somehow Luba got to the dock and managed to board SS Kuala. It was overloaded with five hundred or so other women, children and babies, including a number of Australian and New Zealand nurses.

The next day the Japanese sank the ship, setting it on fire and mothers threw their children overboard trying to get them into the rafts below. As women and children struggled in the sea, wounded, bleeding, drowning, trying to hold onto rafts and floating debris, the Japanese machine-gunned them in the water.

Those who survived terrible thirst, hunger, horrendous wounds, madness and burning sun to make it to shore, were machine gunned in the water and as they staggered over rocks and up the beach into the shelter of the trees. They had reached Pom Pong Island which had no food, and only a tiny source of fresh water, after three hours in the sea. “My fat be blessed for that!” Luba told a reporter after the war.

A few days later the SS Tandjong Pinang arrived at Pom Pong Island from Sumatra to rescue the small band of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty survivors from the original five hundred. Hardly had they embarked than the Japanese were back, and sank this ship too. Luba was one of only handful of survivors of this second disaster.

The few the Japanese captured on shore ended up suffering and usually dying in the terrible conditions of internment. Luba got away, and somehow ended up in India, via Ceylon, where she made her living cooking for thousands of U.S. troops in Delhi, before returning to Singapore after the war.

While in India, in February 1943, Luba gave her great gift to all those who had died, suffered or survived. She had compiled a long list of the names of the people who had boarded the SS Kuala at Singapore and who had survived to board the SS Tandjong Pindang. In the chaos and panic during the bombing of the docks in Singapore as frantic passengers tried to board the ship, no records had been taken.

No-one knew who had boarded, escaped, drowned or survived. Families would never have known if their loved ones were still alive in some corner of the world. Luba must have started compiling her lists during their terrible ordeal on Pom Pong island, as there was no way otherwise that she could have known so comprehensively who was there.

It was an act not just of heroism in those hellish days, but of responsibility and altruism in conditions when it could very well have been everyone for himself. Her act of witnessing and recording rescued both the dead and the living from oblivion, telling their story – a story that no one else was able to share with the world for another three years when the war ended, when a pitifully small handful of survivors could then tell of their sufferings.

In an archival story I found a reference to her being back in Singapore by 1958, and by the mid-1960’s nearing seventy, she was: “utterly dependent for her living by making and selling exquisite dolls dressed in the costumes of old Russia, complete with tiny earrings, bracelets and rings on the dolly fingers,” according to quotes from a story in the Singapore Straits Times. The same archival entry comments that: “she appears at this stage of her life to have been still the exuberant woman who had lived through so much fear, chaos and loss without losing her innate spirit”.

This feisty open-hearted woman… who never seemed to be defeated by the perils and tragedies of her extraordinary odyssey from Czarist Russia to post- Colonial Malaya, via Shanghai, Singapore, Indonesia, India and back to Singapore, surviving death, abandonment and poverty, loneliness, bombings, torpedoed ships and dangerous journeys was the person most people thought was a joke.

But in spite of Mammy’s joyful welcome at the Palm Court, most people preferred the relaxed, slightly ramshackle atmosphere of the Kelantan Club. Everyone turned up for the weekly cinema show on Friday when an old black and white film was shown on an ancient and not very efficient projector.

On Saturday nights, we enjoyed Scottish dancing, and there was a full complement of balls to mark every possible occasion. At Christmas I was asked to paint two huge festive murals on the walls, with red-coated Father Christmas, reindeers, sleighs, snow and the rest.

The most enjoyable part of this creative endeavour was at lunchtime when all the chaps would drop by to chat and share a fresh lime with me… to be the only unmarried female under forty in a town crammed with young men was a fate worth enjoying! None of these nice young men ever crossed the line with a naive and ignorant seventeen- year -old schoolgirl and they treated me with respect and consideration.

By contrast, one evening we left our peaceful riverside to go into Kota Bahru and watch the colourful Sultan’s Birthday Torchlight procession. My small fair- haired brother sat on my father’s shoulders so he could see. When we’d finished watching we turned to go back to the car, and as we pushed our way through the tight throng of mostly Malay men I felt a slight ripple as though they were converging on us. With my brother high on my father’s shoulders acting as a beacon, they pressed up against us as we struggled along in single file, my father, I think, unaware of what was happening behind him. My stepmother clung to him and behind her, I clutched her hand tightly.

I became the focus of this angry hostile crowd. They had hands and knowing fingers so hard I felt I was being punched as they prodded, pinched and poked me, finding soft places that no-one had ever found before. I was terrified and humiliated at the same time. When we got to the car and out of the melee I was too shocked and shamed to mention this ordeal to my parents.

It was only fifty years later, yarning with my brother, that I talked for the first time of what had felt like a shocking and unprovoked attack by angry hostile Muslims… was it my sex, my race or my religion which provoked it – or all three?

One memorable day the British Resident invited us to join him and General Bourne to sail out to the deserted Perhentian Islands. Thousands of brilliantly coloured and richly patterned tiny tropical fish swirled through the clear turquoise waters, so clear that thirty feet deep looked like three. A solitary fisherman climbed a coconut palm for us to drink the ice- cold coconut milk in the heart of the great green globe. No other soul was there. It seemed like the most beautiful place on earth, untouched, unspoiled, a pristine, perfect paradise.

Yet now, it’s impossible to find a photo of the islands which doesn’t have hotels and boats and people and jumbled sand from footsteps on every silver beach. Shortly after this idyll, we returned to Penang and the Runnymede, which felt like home, before setting sail for England in a Blue Funnel ship, where we enjoyed utter luxury once more.

I look at old photos of that time and the memories return so vividly – my stepmother wearing a purple linen dress which looked wonderful with her black hair and pale skin, sitting in a rattan chair chatting to charming Tungku Abdul Rahman, the ‘father’ of Merdeka. They both held the inevitable cigarette between their fingers, he with his de rigueur glass of orange juice for a Muslim in the other hand, the orange juice fortified, my stepmother told me with a laugh, with a big slug of whisky.

There’s my father, hot, tired and unkempt, squatting on a beer box in the jungle stripped to the waist, about to eat his bread and cheese and drink his beer, the food he had dropped into the jungle instead of army rations… nearby butterflies hovered over the sweaty socks he’d just taken off, savouring the delicious pheromones.

And my small half- brother and I, me standing to attention in a new dress I was so thrilled with, at a parade on the padang at Kota Bahru, and he, sitting cross-legged at my feet, looking puzzled, not sure what he was supposed to be doing.

Penang is like most thriving eastern cities these days… as busy, crowded, built up and polluted as any western city – no longer the elegant peaceful place I once knew. Yet back then as we sailed away from Penang, and it faded into the misty blue distance my heart hurt so much that I couldn’t bear to say good-bye to all that beauty, and I promised myself I would return. But I never have.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

Re-cycling is one of my favourite hobbies, whether it’s re-cycling from the rubbish tip or leftovers from the fridge. In this case, I had a cup of leek and potato soup left over from the day before. Waste not, want not – I checked out a pea soup recipe, and found that leeks were one of the  ingredients.

I also had a big cup of steamed cauliflower in the fridge, so tipping it into the soup, I added a good gob of garlic from a jar, a couple of cups of good chicken stock, salt and pepper, and when hot, two cups of frozen peas. When the peas were cooked in a few minutes, I whizzed it all smooth in the stick blender, and hey presto, we enjoyed a delicious pea soup that took only five minutes or so to cook.

I love croutons that always cheer up a soup, but didn’t have any good sour dough bread for them, only soft white sliced sandwich bread bought for sandwiches. I simply cut a slice into four and fried the pieces in olive oil. Sprinkled with salt, they were better than croutons, crunchy and satisfying.

Food for thought

Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life…

Elizabeth Goudge , writer

 

 

 

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Guns and exams, ancient peoples and bandits

https://i1.wp.com/www.slimschoolmalaya.com/cliffphillipsphotos/convoywaits.jpg

A life – an0ther instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The first eclipse I ever watched was at school in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya. School was on a plateau surrounded by tea plantations and hill farms, and we had a clear view. They were dangerous times, the hundred and twenty children who attended the school were transported from all over the Malayan Peninsula in the greatest secrecy so that ‘the bandits’ wouldn’t ambush us. ( ‘Bandits’ were Communist Chinese guerrilla/freedom fighters who wanted to take over the country). We never knew the date of the beginning of term or the beginning of the holidays until the last minute.

When I lived in a remote jungle station in the middle of Pahang, I travelled in a convoy especially convened for me. The army sat me in an open jeep (stupid in hindsight) with my officer escort, in the middle of a long convoy of armoured cars escorting me to Kuala Lumpur. Here I stayed the night, before joining everyone else on the school train to Ipoh. We were then taken to Tapah, the staging post at the foot of the Cameron Highlands, where we gathered from all over the country.

After lunch at Tapah we were all packed into what were known as ‘coffins’ for the forty- mile drive. The coffins were armoured boxes on wheels with a few narrow slits about a foot wide, which could be opened when it was supposed to be safe. There were low, narrow wooden benches to sit on, and a dozen of us would crouch on them, sweltering in the tropical heat, locked up in these metal cages with nothing to eat or drink. Between each coffin in the convoy was an armoured car, and overhead a plane patrolled back and forth, until one term it crashed, so the authorities decided that one danger outweighed the other and didn’t replace it.

Halfway up the 600 or so hairpin bends of the mountain road, the convoy stopped for us to crouch behind clumps of pampas grass on the side of the road to have a pee. Since we were ringed with soldiers with their rifles cocked, ready to spring into action when the bandits fell on us, I could never muster much enthusiasm for this so -called break. I was never sure that I would actually be in private for the occasion. We’d finally reach our destination after dark, having travelled for two days. When my family moved to Kota Bahru up on the East Coast, the journey took even longer, beginning with the flight to Kuaka Lumpur in an Auster light plane via Bangkok, where I caught a connecting flight.

The bandits had a more sinister effect on our lives than anyone realised. It was only after I left, that the authorities discovered that our cook, Mr Su, Mrs Su, his wife. Ah Yu his son, and his two minions Wong and How, were feeding the bandits our food. Every term we were weighed at the beginning and end, and I would always have lost half a stone. I nearly died of hunger, I felt so ravenous all the time. But the food we were given was inedible. I realise now that everything was mixed with water or oil, to stretch it, so that the bulk of the rations could be sent to the bandits who invisibly surrounded us m the deep jungle.

Some children managed on this diet, but those of us who were accustomed to good food couldn’t stomach what was served. Mr Su and his team were several times given an in-depth cooking course, and while the team of instructors were there, we feasted like kings. But as soon as they left, we were back to watered down baked beans, butter that tasted like lard, grey- black potatoes, thin watery jam and stale bread. I used to hang around the staff room after break and afternoon tea, in the hope that the teachers had left some of their dainty sandwiches. A quick dive in before Wong or How came to clear the table, and the raging hunger might be momentarily cheated. But not for long.

Every night a platoon of soldiers arrived to guard us, and the thud of their boots as they patrolled past our dormitories in the moonlight punctuated our sleep. In retrospect, our food guaranteed our safety much more effectively than their guns.

One of the few privileges of being a senior girl was that one could get permission to go for a run before breakfast. Our route went around the golf course overlooked by the Cameron Highlands Hotel. My best friend and I did this, not because we had the slightest interest in athletics, but because on our return we could ask for an extra piece of toast to keep us going till breakfast.

Early one morning while dawn was still breaking we were stopped in our tracks in the cold mist. From out of a thicket a single file of  very small people emerged from the trees, like no others we had ever seen. We were riveted to the ground with fear. We didn’t know whether if they saw us there, they would raise their blow-pipes and dispatch us with their poisoned darts. There were half a dozen lean, long-legged, warriors leading the tribe carrying their long blow-pipes, the women and stick-like old people following, bearing large loads, while the children kept up in the middle of the group.

They moved swiftly and silently, practically naked. Unlike the known indigenous Sakai tribes, this tiny handful of people were a much older race, the Senoi, a tribe of Orang Asli, and were long-limbed, delicately made, almost pygmy people. We had heard of them by repute, but they were rarely seen back then. Looking neither to right or left, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and we were released from our spell of fear and amazement. And I think we forgot about them after we’d eaten our hot toast back at school.

Thanks to a wonderful music master, music was one of the passions that lightened our days, and we sang to Gilbert and Sullivan, listened with delight to Dvorak and Greig, marvelled over Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, swooned to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, danced to Scottish reels, waltzed to popular songs and sang in the school choir. When the music master acquired a copy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Toscanini, we senior girls were invited to listen to the sacred record. It was a Sunday afternoon and we sat shyly and solemnly in the staff-room and were overwhelmed by it.

And when the music master found the art master thundering out the last movement on the piano in the assembly hall, a great feud erupted between them which lasted the whole term, the art master seeing no reason for not extemporising on the piano, and the music master condemning him for bowdlerising and cheapening Beethoven’s masterpiece. It seemed to matter terribly. Those who liked the art master were on his side. Those who didn’t like him were for the music master.

This was in 1954. Music was hard to come by then, and so far more significant than it is today. And we made our own. Some nights during the holidays we sat outside our house by the river at Kota Bahru, when a group of chaps used to come, and all the generations sat and sang to someone’s flute – songs like ‘The foggy, foggy dew’, ‘On top of Old Smoky’. Lots of Burl Ives.

We didn’t sing well, we just enjoyed singing. Where we sat under the stars by the river, the Japanese had passed in their motor boats at dawn, twelve years before, on the morning they invaded Malaya at the same time that they bombed Pearl Harbour. The line of bullet holes from their machine guns was still there in the pink stucco walls, testimony to their random brutality.

Guns also punctuated my exams. Artillery had been positioned on a ridge across the valley from school, and when the guns aimed into the jungle, the thunder of their firing was followed by the terrible crashing of trees, cries of birds and endless echoes around the mountains. It was a continuous and thunderous bombardment which totally destroyed concentration or peace of mind. This went on for weeks.

The firing began again during my A level exams, which lasted for  three hours. When the overwhelming noise began, the head master came quietly into the exam room where I scribbled alone with an invigilator, the only one taking English A levels. He took my paper, noted the time when the firing began, and came back to log the time when the thunder of the barrage ceased several hours later. I always hoped these unusual entries would cause the examiners to deal leniently with me… and maybe they did as I was pleased with my marks.

Living in the remote places that we did, my parents didn’t often manage to get up to the Cameron Highlands Hotel, though they, like everyone else so soon after the war, were tickled by the address book, with its historic page dated ‘January 1942’ and inscribed with what felt like an arrogant flourish: “Nippon”.

There were no further entries until 1945, when British troops re-took the hotel, and triumphantly defaced the next page with the scrawl -” Nip-off”.

My father had now transferred to a Malayan regiment, which like the Gurkhas, was staffed by English officers and NCO’s. So we left Penang and all moved to a clearing in the jungle in Pahang, which was called Mentekab. It’s a thriving town now, but then, it was just lines of barracks, officers and sergeants messes and families quarters.

My father quickly achieved the highest “kill” of bandits, being extremely good at jungle warfare, in spite of having spent the war in tanks. One day, we were shopping at the local Chinese grocery store in Temerloh, Tek Seng’s, the only source of food in the middle of the Pahang jungle. My father was spending the normal six- week spell in the jungle, so we were surprised when he arrived at speed, and with company – a Chinese man in tattered clothes.

He practically lifted the man into the back of our car and told my mother to run back into the shop, as quickly as possible and get a box of oranges. When she returned, he peeled one, and fed segments to the wilting man in the back seat, put the rest of the oranges on the seat beside him, telling him with hand signals to eat them, and then drove off. I had to follow in the army vehicle.

The wilting man turned out to be a Chinese bandit, and the policy of starving bandits out of the jungle was working so well in this particular area, that this one was half dead and suffering from starvation and scurvy. Hence the oranges. With hospital treatment he eventually recovered and went to a rehabilitation camp. Here he recanted his Communist beliefs and then joined the army.  Seven years later, my father was in his office at Whitehall in London, when a Chinese soldier asked to see him. It was the bandit. He was now serving in the Royal Signals in Gibraltar and had got leave to come and present my father with a wrist watch as a thank you for saving his life. We wondered later how he had managed to track down my father.

Gallivanta sent me the link to this photo of the convoys up to school with the coffins and armoured cars

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Invited for lunch with a group of neighbours, I volunteered to bring pudding. Carrying food is always a challenge, so I decided on a tart which couldn’t spill or spoil. So pear and almond tart it was. This is my quick fix on it short cuts and all. I used some quality bought short crust pastry for a base. Spread a layer of plum jam on this cooked base. Drain a tin of pears, and when about to use, pat them as dry as possible with kitchen paper, and slice horizontally, keeping the shape of each pear half.

Cream 6 ounces of butter and seven good tablespoons of sugar together, then stir in an egg. When smooth, add a teaspoon each of vanilla and almond essence, then an ounce of SR flour, and eight ounces of ground almonds. Mix well and spoon this mixture into the pastry case, and gently arrange the pear halves in the almond mixture – don’t press them down or they disappear during baking. Bake for 55 minutes in a moderate oven or until cooked. Good hot, cold, or warm with cream.

Food for thought

 “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Lao Tzu, reputed author of the Tao Te Ching

 

 

 

 

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Ducal splendour and daily deprivation

On my tenth birthday -wearing my pearlsInline image 1

A life – This is the eighth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs)

There was a legend that there were no birds in Belsen, that they had fled this dreadful place. That I don’t remember, but I do remember the strange energy, a sense of shifting sands, and unknown menace. The Germans seemed hostile (understandably), and refugees from East Germany trudging past were distant, pre-occupied with despair.

And as well as the British Army, there were also posse’s of Yugoslav soldiers in navy-blue greatcoats, armed with rifles, who constantly patrolled the place, guarding it, though I never discovered what they were guarding it from or why they were there. They had a reputation for being dangerous and unpredictable, and every now and then, one would shoot himself or a comrade.

And our succession of German maids left constantly, Helena after stealing tea, Elsa taking nylon stockings, Hilde our meagre meat ration, and finally Hannah who left to get married;  Kuntz, the big taciturn batman, suddenly disappeared in a rush of joy, when he had word that his wife who he had thought was dead, had surfaced in Berlin.

Behind our house was a pine forest, rich in bilberries, where the local Germans would come in autumn to pick this source of food in a starving land, and beyond that, a mile down the road, was the DP’s camp. Displaced Persons were the survivors of Belsen, still waiting for passports or permission to make their way back home across the bomb- blasted continent to find their scattered families.

One fine summer’s day they torched the pine forest, and our homes were in danger until the fire was checked. The DP’s had set the forest on fire as a desperate gesture to show their frustration and get some action from post -war authorities. I don’t think it made the slightest difference to their plight.

The Allied authorities were dealing with twenty million people trying to get back to homes and families after the war. Many had no homes, families or countries to go to. The problem grew under our eyes, as refugees, another two million in the next four years, fled from Eastern Europe and the Soviets. They came straggling down Hoppenstadt Strasse carrying bulging bundles wrapped in blankets on the end of sticks hoisted over their shoulders like pictures of Dick Whittington.

Unlike him they were not seeking streets paved with gold, but something more precious – freedom. Sometimes they were found sleeping or sheltering in our empty garages, or taking desperately needed clothes from the washing line, and were hurried on or arrested by the implacable Military Police.

The currency was changed from the cardboard money we knew, to the new currency, the Deutschemark. This triggered the months of tension, which even we children were conscious of, when Russia began the process of harassing and then blocking all traffic in and out of Berlin, by road or river. This finally culminated in the historic Berlin Airlift to save the citizens of West Berlin.

Stalin‘s intention was to starve and freeze the Berliners into submission and oust the Allies. He failed, thanks to the extraordinary air-lift when planes flew in and out of Berlin every four minutes bringing in food and fuel for over two million Berliners, and World War Three was averted.

The conquerors shared the hardships of ravaged Europe. Our meagre rations were delivered once a fortnight in a cardboard box. I remember my stepmother looking at a small pile of cucumbers, our vegetables for the next two weeks, and asking in despair what we could do with cucumbers for a fortnight. We only ever had revolting, evaporated, tinned milk to drink for there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.

Every night for two hours from six till eight the electricity was switched off to save power, and we sat in the darkness playing games like twenty questions to while away the pitch- black hours. There were no candles. Our puppy seized the darkness as an opportunity to chew the rubbers/erasers my father used for the crossword.

The Daily Telegraph crossword was one of the most popular diversions in the regiment, and I achieved minor fame and popularity in the officers mess then. Whoever wrote the crosswords had a penchant for using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ for clues, and a phone call would come from the mess for me. This would then put my parents on to the clue if they hadn’t already. In retrospect, I think there must have been a daily sweepstake for first past the post, judging by the competition to get the thing finished.

The officers mess was the Duke of Hanover’s palace, a little way out of Belsen, and splendid it was. (What had he made of the concentration camp on his doorstep?) We went there occasionally for drinks before lunch on Sundays, and for the children’s Christmas Party, when we played musical chairs in the ballroom under the shining chandeliers, slipping and sliding on the marble floor while little gilt chairs were subtracted from the circle. Then, when the party ended, like nearly every other party of my childhood, we danced Sir Roger de Coverley, with all the parents standing round clapping in time to the music.

Some weekends, we drove out to the Duke’s hunting lodge in the middle of a pine forest, where deer darted out onto the road, and wild boar lurked. This gemutlich little pile was now the officers club, run by a friendly middle-aged German couple. Had they always been the stewards of this place, I wondered later? Did they transfer their loyalties to their new employers in the interim, and hold the place in trust until the Duke regained his ancestral homes – if indeed he did?

Anyway, their speciality were delicious, lavishly sugared doughnuts, stuffed with butter icing. The glory of these doughnuts in a life of total gastronomic deprivation and war-time rations was utterly memorable (Did the Duke enjoy them too, before and after us?) My parents managed to get some of these dough-nuts for my tenth birthday.

It was the first birthday I had ever spent with my father, who went off to war when I was ten -months- old and my mother was pregnant with my sister. The previous year when I was nine, we were still in Yorkshire while he was battling his way to Belsen. He seemed more excited than I. The night before, when I went into the garden to say good-night to them, sitting in wicker chairs with their gin and tonics, I was allowed to stay up beyond seven o’clock, so my father could give me my birthday presents.

He was too excited to wait until morning. He gave me a string of pearls and a black fountain pen with a gold clip and nib. When the next birthday came, it was different, for he and my stepmother had a baby son, and my sister and I were rather a chore by then.

My stepmother had learned German and French at school, and rather fancied herself as a linguist. So she seized this opportunity to try to turn us into cosmopolitans too. Thanks to the puppy we’d become friendly with the local German vet from Bergen village five miles away. His twenty year old  daughter Suzanne became our German teacher, and she came every Sunday afternoon to teach us nouns and verbs and the endless der, die, and das, to be sorted through and applied to each noun.

She left us with piles of homework to do, and extraordinary medieval -looking text books with print that looked like something straight off Caxton’s press. The print was extra black, and the S’s and F’s and W’s and V’s expressly designed to trick baffled and ignorant nine and ten- year- olds.

She also told us how lucky we were, because her younger sister Hildegarde and brother Carljurgen had no paper and pencil at school, just broken, leftover stubs, and had to write in the margins of printed books when they wrote answers and essays. I didn’t always feel lucky. Her father, Herr Muller, called regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents as friends – or at any rate, their gin bottle.

In return for the generous helpings of gin he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother a specimen of the many extraordinary varieties of exotic orchids which he grew. I thought they were awful, not like flowers at all, but fantastically petalled and bearded and contorted in strange fluorescent pinks and acid greens and sharp yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing, in a strange old- fashioned Prussian ritual.

After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English becoming more broken with the quantity of gin consumed – we were invited to his house in Bergen to meet his wife. We had tea on exquisite Meissen china, but because they could get sugar at the time, but no flour, we had no cakes or biscuits, but dipped sour apples from the garden into the sugar, as a substitute for cake. The grownups managed with a cup of tea.

The vet’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed enthusiastically over the beautiful porcelain, she told me that they’d hidden it with all their other treasures in a hole under the cellar, so the invaders wouldn’t loot them. Even as a child I thought this was rather tactless. Invaders? Was she talking about us?

She also reminisced about the awfulness of the war to my parents, she and her daughter Suzanne, our teacher, describing the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort indignantly: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”

Since I didn’t understand what she was talking about it stuck in my mind, but some years later, I realised she was referring to the trains of the condemned heading for Belsen. In her book “The Children’s House of Belsen,” Hetty Verolme describes the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as her train pulled in from Holland. They then, eleven hundred young and old, sick and exhausted, hungry and thirsty, straggled the fifteen  miles or so to Belsen on foot and apparently unobserved by the local population, who denied all knowledge of the camp when the British authorities discovered it and questioned them.

But the friendship limped on. One summer’s day, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, the one with long fair plaits, and wearing a dirndl skirt and long, white, lace socks, the other, just as fair haired and blue-eyed, wearing leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart, rumbling and swaying down narrow farm tracks between fields of blazing blue and purple lupins shimmering with tiny butterflies in the sunshine. Carljurgen let me hold the reins. He avoided that other field, where there were miles and miles of burnt -out German tanks my parents had shown us one dank winter’s day.

My father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. The army stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer- not, of course, using his military rank now – but known merely as Herr Freiser. He took great pains with me, never guessing that I was terrified of the huge jumps he put me over. Fear runs along the reins, I would remember from reading Black Beauty, and hope I was bluffing the huge, far -too- big military horse I rode regularly. A big brushwood jump was one thing, but the fence on the wall was too much, and I came off every time, never knowing what had happened until it was all over.

Herr Freiser’s blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach her husband was training. But I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady. They lived in the groom’s quarters by the stables, and were lucky to have a job and a home in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so.

Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their Prussian schloss, was piled right up to the ceiling in one room, while they lived in the other. Herr Freiser seemed as frightened of her as I was. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes.

To be continued –  back to England

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having eaten a lot of curry in hot climates like tropical Malaya and humid Hongkong, it seems quite normal to me to eat it in our hot humid summer days at the moment. Curry Tiffin on Sunday in the Officers Mess was a hallowed ritual, and I used to love the choice of beef, lamb or chicken curry, gently simmering in large casseroles on the long polished table. These days, since I shattered my leg, and am less interested in standing for hours over a hot stove, I’m always looking for short cuts and now use some quick ingredients I’ve shunned in the past.

So I used both ready-made chopped garlic from a jar and also ginger for this old recipe, and it worked like a treat. I mostly do vegetarian curries these days… chop an onion and a couple of tomatoes, and in a blender whizz them to a paste with two cups of water, a dessert spoonful of prepared garlic, half a dessert spoon of ginger, several dessert spoons of tomato paste, a dessert spoon of curry powder, a good sprinkling of turmeric and half a teaspoon of stevia powder, or brown sugar.

Tip half this mixture into a pan with half a cup of cream, and let it boil and reduce while five or six chopped mushrooms are gently frying in butter or olive oil.

Combine the two when the curry mixture has thickened, and add some ginger marmalade to soften the sharpness if necessary. Hard boil an egg and chop it over the curry. This amount serves one greedy person, and I ate it with chopped steamed cauliflower instead of rice. (I try to avoid rice since I read that it contains two to three times the amount of carbohydrate than bread. I would also eat this mix with lentils)

The other half of the curry sauce I freeze for another time, when I would curry cauliflower and peas instead of mushrooms, or even some chicken.

Food for thought

Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior, but nobody is equal either. People are simply unique, incomparable. You are you, I am I.                                                                         Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh  Indian guru

Some facts about post-war Bergen-Belsen for those who may be interested…

Adults didn’t tell us much back then… so I’ve done a lot of research to try to understand what was going on around me then. First of all, I discovered, Belsen became the holding place for DP’s from many other camps, who were unable to return to their homes behind the Iron Curtain. The facilities were the best, since they were accommodated in a Panzer training depot next door to the camp, and we all know that Hitler’s military got the best!

But many DP’s were not only depressed and traumatised but hostile to all authority after their experiences, and not all refugees were upright, honest pillars of the community – there was riff-raff as well. They were very difficult for the British to deal with – who were also tired and traumatised after six years of war, and their own social problems like returning to families who hadn’t seen them for six years.

The Jewish leader in the camp, Josef Rosensaft, a charismatic Belsen survivor, would only communicate with the frustrated British in Yiddish, even though he was a perfectly fluent English- speaker. He agitated for everyone to go to Palestine, as it then was, instead of trying to find other countries. (The Americans were still only taking in tiny numbers of refugees or displaced persons) And the British were constrained by the Mandate, (a responsibility given them after World War 1) and were not allowed to let unlimited refugees into Palestine.

The Arabs – rightly as it turns out -were concerned about their place in their own country. After the Balfour declaration, a quota of Jews had trickled in, but this didn’t bother them, when it was two thousand a year. Come Hitler, numbers jumped to 60,000 the first year and continued to rise, until the Arabs were fearful they would be outnumbered (they were right to be fearful). The British were caught in the middle of this.

Also, Europe was in chaos at the time, and the British Zone had very little farming land, so food was a real problem for the British authorities, both in England and in their zone of Germany. Labour Prime Minister Attlee considered at one stage reducing the ration for the English to 1700 calories a day, they were so up against it, with paying off the huge loans to the Americans for Lend lease – which they finally paid with all the interest in 2006.

This was also the time of the changing of the currency and the Berlin Airlift. At the same time the Black Market was a nightmare for the authorities, and it was discovered that Belsen was the biggest hub of the Black Market. British Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, chief of “displaced persons” operations for UNRRA, recorded in his memoir that :‘under Zionist auspices there had been organized at Belsen a vast illegitimate trading organization with worldwide ramifications and dealing in a wide range of goods, principally precious metals and stones. A money market dealt with a wide range of currencies.’

The British wanted to go in and search the place, and stamp it out. But Josef Rosensaft held them off for nine months, stalling over the idea of German police or British soldiers trespassing on their hallowed refuge after all they’d been through with the Nazis. By the time the British got into the camp, the evidence had been hidden or destroyed. All these events built up real hostility and dislike, which is why, I suppose, so many people, unable to distinguish between the ‘goodies and the baddies’, became unsympathetic to the D.P.s.

Ninety-six young English medical students volunteered to help the doctors and nurses coping with the disaster they had found in 1945. In the two months following, 14,000 more people died, too far gone from disease and starvation to save. Many could literally no longer stomach food, and many solutions were tried. Apart from the trials of Kramer, his infamous women guards/tormentors, and a dozen or so other guards from Auschwitz as well as Belsen, by the British, no-one else was ever held to account by the Germans for the deaths of more than 50,000 people.

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Footprints of the Nazis

Image result for hanover in world war two
Post-war Hanover

A life – This is the seventh instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs)

Postwar Europe was a unforgettable monument to Hitler’s destructive genius. The train which was supposed to take us to Hanover got lost in the chaos that still existed in Europe in 1947. We took a wrong loop of the track and traversed areas of Northern Germany, reaching Hamburg before turning back.

We arrived at Hanover eight hours late, having rattled uncertainly through endless suburbs of ruined cities, nothing but mountains of broken bricks, and half houses still standing, looking like the half of a doll’s house where you can re-arrange the furniture. In these grotesque rooms, pictures were askew on walls, and cupboard doors hung open, chairs still sat round marooned dining tables and empty fireplaces waited to be lit by ghosts.

I was awed into silence by these gross and hellish scenes. But at nine, I couldn’t even begin to guess the human tragedies, the broken lives, the blasted families, and never realised that maimed and starving people were actually trying to live in these apocalyptic holes and hills of smashed bricks and rubble. At the station where we stopped to disgorge some of the people crushed into the crammed carriages, thin white – faced children banged on the windows begging for food, and scrabbled at the side of the tracks looking for odd lumps of coal.

We were seated in the restaurant car, eating the first white bread that we had ever seen, quite unlike our war- time rations, but the thrill of this exciting new food was dulled by the pale dust- smeared faces outside the window.

Finally, Hanover at midnight. The station was the usual bedlam, the engine hissing and roaring, people calling and shouting and waving, and the lighting so poor that it took longer than usual for everyone to sort themselves out and find each other. When everyone had trickled off and the train had pulled away again, my stepmother and sister and I were still waiting on the platform.

My father was nowhere in sight. What felt like a very long time later, loaded down with our luggage, we found our way to the Ahtee-o, which I later learned meant RTO, or Railway Transport Office. We didn’t seem to be particularly welcome at that time of the night, but something had to be done with us.

The telephone lines through to Belsen to contact my father were simply the military ones, and though Belsen was only about twenty miles away, it seemed to be a very difficult operation to find him. Every conversation was filled with a hail of military terms and abbreviations which flew back and forth like a secret code. Through bleary, sleep-filled eyes I watched the impatient RTO sergeant trying to raise a distant Orderly Officer, who had to get through to the Officers Mess to find my sleeping and delinquent father.

Halfway through, my sister wanted to use the loo. This caused consternation. The nearest ladies was miles away in another part of the station. But we three females set off. The next shock was ready to rise up and hit us. I had assumed that all the people I had seen at the station were in the process of going or coming – to catch a train or leave one. Now we discovered that they had all settled down for the night again, thousands and thousands of people sleeping on every available bit of floor- draped up and down stairs, propped up against walls where there was no room to stretch out.

We had to step over all these sleeping bodies, avoid their belongings and move half a dozen people out of the public lavatory in order to use it. The ragged, hungry refugees did not seem very happy to be woken by three well- dressed English females in the middle of the night. It certainly wasn’t a comfort stop for us. My stepmother seemed to be as anxious and insecure as I felt. And then there was the long drag back to what seemed now, like the comfort and familiarity of the RTO.

Finally, at three o clock, unable to raise my father, it was decided that we should be taken to spend the rest of the night in a transit camp – another unfamiliar military term. Once again, we braved the sleeping, homeless hordes, and emerged at the front door of the station to climb into a waiting jeep. As we walked down the steps, I looked out towards the city, and there through the black ruined outline of a broken church window, the moon shone in a clear pale sky.

We were awakened next morning by the embarrassed arrival of my father, who had given up waiting for the train to arrive the previous afternoon, since no-one knew what had happened to it. I knew my stepmother felt that he had let us down, and I thought so too. He took us to our new home where my sister and I had to feel out a whole lot of new rules. Not only was my new parents’ honeymoon over, but so was ours.

When we had lived in Yorkshire my stepmother had worn very fashionable clothes, to my old- fashioned eyes, which I knew my grandmother would have thought were ” very fast”. But my stepmother would wear these wonderful clothes to breakfast, and when she heard a favourite tune on the wireless, she would jump up and waltz round the room with my father, humming and laughing and even kissing him. My sister and I hardly knew where to look during this extraordinary adult behaviour, but now, that was all over. No more smart grey trousers, no more incredibly high -heeled, navy suede court shoes, which I hoped she would leave to me in her will. Just the same boring old skirts and flowered tops day after day. No-one told us that these were maternity clothes.

On the 11 February, 1948 our stepmother was not at the breakfast table. While the maid served breakfast, our father told us she had gone into hospital in the night. When we asked why, he said he didn’t know. At school we felt both scared and important. At play-time everyone discussed it, with guesses as to what the matter might be. They ranged from appendicitis to her death bed.

Finally, someone said: ” She was getting a bit fat. D ‘you think she’s going to have a baby?” “She wasn’t getting fat”, I replied indignantly. “And anyway, they’d have told us if they were going to have a baby.” Back home for lunch, our father was sitting at the dining table waiting for us. He was smiling broadly. “You’ve got a baby brother,” he said.

By then, we knew the right way to behave, so we both exclaimed with excitement. But underneath I felt a little pain in my chest. I never examined it, but I knew that it was because they hadn’t wanted to share it with us. After that we seemed to be two groups in the family. My sister and I who were there because there was nowhere else to be, and my father, stepmother, and the baby, who I adored. Them and us. We had bread and jam at afternoon tea. “They” had biscuits or cake.

And now life took on a darker tone… We slept on one side of the house, my parents at the other end. Every night they would march into the bedroom to say good night. If we had been good, it was okay, and it was usually okay for me as I was chronically law-abiding.

But my sister was always in ‘trouble’, and every night after the post mortem she was spanked. Then the two tall adults who seemed to tower over us, marched out again, leaving my sister to cry herself to sleep. To my eternal shame I didn’t cross across to her bed to comfort her, but lay wretchedly curled up in my own bed trying not to hear her sobs.

After my best friend was murdered by her father, who shot the whole family one night, I was moved to a small bedroom near my parents. I was the first person at the scene, I had knocked repeatedly on the door to collect Mary for our early morning riding lessons, but there was no answer. By the time I got to school later, the door had been broken down and the heart-rending scene discovered.

I suppose my parents thought I might need some support, but I never talked to them about it, as I was worried that Mary and her brother had gone to hell, and used to send myself to sleep praying that they had gone to heaven instead. Since my parents didn’t believe in God there was no point in talking to them about it. It’s only now as I write that I realise how it must have been for my eight -year- old sister left alone to cope on her own at the other side of the house when I was moved.

We lived in the only residential street in the concentration camp, known as Hoppenstadt Strasse with notices each end in German and English – Langsam fahren kinder – Drive slowly children.

The houses we lived in had been the homes of the German prison guards during the war. Now, one side of the street was reserved for officers’ families, and we each had one floor of the houses, which meant that we had two flats which had been roughly connected to make a roomy home. Our home, I learned many years later from my stepmother, had had the distinction of having housed Josef Kramer, the notorious commandant of the camp, known as the Beast of Belsen. It never felt like a happy home.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Having a long car journey to and fro from a very sad funeral, leaving at 5am, I couldn’t face eating bready sandwiches for breakfast -on- the -run during the dash to be there by 10am, so the day before, I made something from my recipe book, called Jenny’s zucchini slice, to eat instead.

Grate three good sized zucchini/courgettes. In a large bowl, beat five eggs, and add three chopped slices of bacon, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of self- raising flour, half a cup of oil, and an onion (did my usual, and pre-cooked it in the micro wave), the grated zucchini, salt and pepper. Stir everything together and spread in a shallow, greased baking tin. The mix should be about an inch and a half deep. Bake in a moderate oven for roughly three quarters of an hour, or until a knife slides out clean. It’s delicious hot or cold, eaten with salad for a meal, or cut into slices to eat on a journey like ours.

 Food for thought

 “I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how I view my life.”            Paul Coelho

 

 

 

 

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