Tag Archives: childhood

Bombs and a baby

 Valerie6.jpg
 A Life – Part two

We are familie-e-e-e-ee

I was staying with my grandmother when I was three. She must have had her hands full, looking after me, nursing her sister Jessie who was dying from kidney disease in the big bedroom, and coping with her maverick younger son, who was staying with her before embarking for the Western desert, to join the maverick Long Range Desert Group – a match made in heaven!

My uncle, who was unmarried, childless, and in his early twenties, spoiled me the way everyone did since I was the eldest of only two grandchildren. So now he said he would take me with him when he went to say his last goodbyes to the other side of the family. It would be an opportunity for me to meet my great-grandmother for the first time too.

We crossed London by double decker bus, and arrived at a house filled, it seemed to me, with lots of old people in dreary black and dark clothes. I was made to kiss all these tall elderly people towering over me (they were probably not more than forty!) and then we sat down to tea round a big oval table laden with cake-stands on the lace table-cloth.

The grownups got on with their conversation, and my great-grandmother, a fearsome little lady, grey and wizened, but sharp as a button, leaned down from the head of the table with a plate of small cakes, and offered me one. I reached out to take one, then drew back, realising they had currants in them. “No thank you,” I said politely.

“Why don’t you want one?” My ancient relative asked sharply.

“I don’t like currants,” I replied.

“You’ll have one,” she snapped, “I made them myself.”

So I took one obediently, and sat quietly picking out the currants so I could eat the cake parts, while the conversation flowed around me.

Suddenly a stick landed hard on my knuckles, and I cried out in pain. My great-grandmother was leaning down the tea table and had hit me with her walking stick. I pushed back my chair, slid off it, and fled into the kitchen where I buried my head in some-one’s lap (a maid?) who was sitting there, and cried my heart out. Before long, my uncle came in and I was hustled out of the house in disgrace.

When we caught the bus, with my uncle still be-rating me for my naughtiness, I was so upset, I jumped off the open double decker, and rolled into the road. I wasn’t hurt, but everyone on the bus seemed to be very angry with my poor uncle for upsetting a little girl so much that she did something so drastic to get away from him!

Back at my grandmother’s, the poor young man related the whole sorry saga to my disbelieving grandparent. “But she’s always so good”, she kept repeating as he tried to get her to understand how unfortunate the afternoon had been. My grandmother just cuddled me, and he was miffed.

Later she came to stay with us in Dorset, and I repaid her kindness by flinging myself into her lap to give her a hug, and knocking her spectacles off her nose, and smashing them. It was difficult to get anything repaired with everyone concentrated on the war effort, but she returned a few months later, and stepped down from the train smiling, wearing her repaired specs. I leapt rapturously into her arms, and knocked them off again. They lay shattered on the station paving. And she forgave me again.

When I stayed with her in London, while my brother was born back in Dorset, she taught me proverbs and rhymes and skipping games. I learned to skip down in the disused cobbled stable-yard, happily singing and chanting these traditional rhymes to myself. But I hurried inside from the garden in the dusk, fearful that Germans might be hiding behind the laurel bushes.

They might get me if I strayed too far from the big Edwardian house in which she had a flat, and I never lingered near the head- stones and graves for dead dogs, because there were so many places where the Germans might be hiding. When she visited her friends and took me with her, I overheard their conversations about where the bombs had been falling and realised that the world was a very dangerous place.

I was just four when my father came to stay before returning to North Africa after being commissioned. But then he and my mother had a row, and he packed his suitcase and strode out of the door. My mother stood weeping in the doorway, watching him go, and then she sent me after him. I ran down the lane, and he stopped, put down his suitcase, kissed me, and came home. But then it happened all over again, and this time when my mother stood in the doorway weeping, and sent me after him, he was angry, and sent me back crying.

I stood in the door with my mother and watched him go back to the war, and my heart was like a stone. I cried because he hadn’t loved me enough to come back, and I cried because I had failed my mother. There were other memories. The songs my mother sang me. She loved singing. She sang ‘Cherry ripe’, and ‘ Where the bee sucks, there suck I, and ‘One fine day’, from Madame Butterfly as lullabies…

Nine months after my father had disappeared back to the war, my baby brother was born, and we moved to a red brick villa on the outskirts of Weymouth. She used to sing the words of a pop-song then: ” You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…” It was many years before I heard those songs again, and nearly fifty years before I could bear to hear ‘you are my sunshine.’ My mother disappeared a little over a year after we moved to Weymouth. The skies had often seemed grey before she left.

After the baby was born she seemed to have lost interest in us. She had always been somewhat erratic even to a small watching child, but now she would read a book at meal-times so we couldn’t talk to her. She was often out, and we would be so hungry with no food in the house, and I felt so despairing, that I used to look for comfort at a picture in a hymnbook my grandmother had given me. It was a painting of Jesus floating on a cloud, and underneath were the words from a hymn: ‘There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky’.

I learned to mash Farley’s rusks with milk to feed the baby, and can remember when we had been away for the weekend with our mother, rushing in to rescue the abandoned baby in his cot, change his nappy, and make scrambled egg for the starving child. When I stood on a chair at the ironing board to iron our school uniform for the expensive private school we attended, she laughed, and said, “you’re my little slave, aren’t you – but don’t tell anyone I said that”.

The worst times were at night. If I woke I would creep along to her bedroom and very quietly open the door to see if she was there. If she was, she smacked me hard, but I didn’t mind, because she was home. If she was out, when the air raid siren screamed, I had to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air raid shelter. One night as we lay on a mattress in the shelter, my nose began to bleed heavily. I couldn’t stop it, and finally must have slipped into unconsciousness, because the next thing I knew, I was wrapped in a blanket, with my mother holding me and fire blazing in the hearth.

The worst night of all was when I lay awake for hours frozen with fear, hearing planes flying over endlessly, and certain that this was Hitler come to get us. It was only recently that I realised that this was the night of D-Day, when people all over the South of England were standing outside in their night clothes watching this great armada flying to the invasion. It was round about this time that my mother disappeared, and my grandmother left her home and friends to come and care for us – a six- year- old, a five-year- old and a traumatised fourteen- month-old baby. The next few years were the good ones.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

Having read a blog about not wasting food I felt challenged… I don’t think I do, but to be on the safe side, I used up left-overs today. I had a good serving of cooked rice, so decided to make kedgeree. Did my normal thing now of cooking the onion in the microwave before adding it to the frying pan, sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of curry powder, half a teasp each of cumin, coriander and turmeric, plenty of garlic and let them cook with the onion for a few minutes.

Having soaked half a cup of frozen peas and sultanas in boiling water, I added them to the mix to absorb the curry flavours, and then stirred in the cold cooked long grain rice. I had no smoked salmon left after making blinis endlessly for all the celebrations we’ve been attending, so opened a tin of shrimps, and stirred them in. Tasting it, I added some more curry powder, and salt. I didn’t have any fresh parsley to chop, but with a chopped hard- boiled egg each, it was a good lunch.

Food for thought

Intuition, not intellect, is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself. Albert Einstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under cookery/recipes, family, history, life and death, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

A is for Dictionary

100_0360There was a framed photograph of me as a toddler on the wall, which just showed my head, with a mop of dark hair, dark eyes, and my neck fading away into nothing. When I was between two and three years old I used to gaze up at it and study it, and wonder when my arms and legs and the rest of me grew.

We lived in a tiny cottage on a farm in deepest Dorset countryside, far away from the bombs. I stood in the soft summer night and watched overloaded hay-wains swaying and creaking down the narrow lane past our cottage, pulled by huge, tired dray horses. Stray wisps of hay were straggled horizontally as the load brushed against the high hawthorn and hazel hedgerows. I could smell the fragrance of the hay, the warm sweet smell of the horses, the honeysuckle in the hedge and the scent of yellow gorse flowers.

On our way to the village shop we passed over an ancient stone bridge. I used to push my head between the balusters encrusted with lichen to watch the emerald green weed rippling in the clear water, until I realised my mother was far ahead with the push chair and I rushed panic-stricken after her. I dreaded going into the shop. Hanging from the ceiling was a flypaper covered in buzzing, screaming, struggling, dying flies. I felt frantic to get away from the noise and carnage.

In those halcyon days before I was four, our mother sang us to sleep in her beautiful voice with lullabies like: ‘Where the bee sucks there suck I, in a cowslip’s bell I lie, there I couch while owls do cry, and on a bat’s back I do fly,’ ‘One fine day,’ from Madame Butterfly, was another, and ‘Cherry ripe, cherry ripe’. The words, even to a small child, were as beautiful as the music.

In the same room as the picture of me sans arms and legs, was an enormous book. It got smaller as I got older.  It was so thick and heavy I couldn’t lift it back then, but it was irresistible. It was covered in maroon coloured morocco, and had fascinating black thumbnail places at the side, and in the front coloured pages with patches of colour, green and blue, and pink (the British Empire I learned later!) These pages I also discovered later, were called maps, and I learned too, that the book was Webster’s Dictionary.

The A’s came straight after the maps, and there-in lay my downfall. I played for hours with this book, and inevitably, since the A’s came after the maps, they got a lot of wear. The pages became torn and dog-eared, wrinkled so as to be un-readable, crumpled, dirty, and scribbled on. Some pages of A’s disappeared altogether.

When my father came back from the war when I was nearly nine and re-claimed his dictionary along with his children, the dictionary became a source of anguish to us all. We were living at Belsen, and grim post-war Germany had no diversions like TV, cinema, or all the other entertainments we take for granted now. So everyone did the crossword, either from the Times or The Daily Telegraph, as it was called back then.

I think there must have been a sweepstake at the officers’ mess, because there was always great competition to get it finished first. If ever phone calls came from the mess – which was actually the Duke of Hanover’s palace – asking my parents – we lived in the Beast of Belsen’s former home  – to quiz me about Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows, that would set my stepmother off on a frenzied hunt for a previously unrecognised clue.

Then the agony began when my somewhat unknown father wanted to look up a word beginning with ‘A’. He’d pick up the now shrunken dictionary, and start leafing bitterly through those tattered first pages as I watched anxiously. Finally he’d give up in disgust, with the exclamation: “Bloody kids!” and I’d slink guiltily away. He never normally swore, so it seemed all the worse. As the years went by, he said it every time, and as I got older, I finally realised it was a joke, and was able to stop flinching.

I still can’t resist dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopaedias and the like. My step grandfather used to give the family a copy of wonderful Whitaker’s Almanack every year at Christmas, and even now if I see an old copy in a second hand book-shop I’ll buy it… and read up about the scientific discoveries for that year, symptoms of every disease, orders of precedence in the English peerage, major architectural triumphs for that year, politics in outer Mongolia and what the stars have to say – astronomy, not astrology – amongst other pieces of useless but fascinating information.

 Sadly, we gave away the thirty well loved and well travelled volumes of Encyclopaedia Brittanica last year to a boy’s school which needed some reference books. With all the glories of Google at our disposal, we never opened those heavy volumes with tiny print any more. I even bought my own thick copy of Webster’s years ago, but we never even use that now – the Concise Oxford is easier to handle, as well as Google.

All this came back to me as I tried to piece together a talk I’ve been asked to give about books to a local retired professionals club. I’ve dodged them for years, but have no more excuses left to fob them off with. So now I have to settle down to the hard work of talking, instead of the fun of writing – especially about books! How shall I start – “The A’s have it – dabbling in a dictionary – or what to give a three year old to read?”

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Gallivanta asked me what pink pudding is…since I gave this recipe over a year ago, I’ll repeat it now for others who’ve missed out on a real treat! I found it over forty years ago in an old Vogue Living, and it’s been a favourite ever since. All you need if half a pint of cream, the same amount of plain or strawberry/ raspberry yogurt, and a tin of boysenberries or raspberries.

Drain the juice from the berries. I don’t use frozen, as they get watery and spoil the dish. Whip the cream until thick, fold the yogurt and fruit in, add caster sugar to taste, and chill in the fridge. You can melt some marshmallows in some of the fruit juice to make a firmer pudding, but we like all natural ingredients. Serve in a big glass dish with a rose in the middle or in individual glass dishes with a tiny hearts-ease flower to pretty it. Good shortbread is nice served with it.

Food for Thought

If souls were compared to moving vehicles, an unforgiving soul could be seen as a dump truck with tin cans dragging off the backside. Clatter, clatter, clang, clang!! If you listen you can hear them coming.               from ‘Love Without End. Jesus Speaks’, by Glenda Green

 

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