A life – This is the tenth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs
I had left the convent and started the state high school at the same time that an army quarter became available at Catterick Camp, where my father’s cavalry regiment was stationed. Not only was it a place where thousands of young men trained and soldiered, it was also home to generations of children like myself, who grew up with the names of old battles in our ears. Catterick was divided into smaller camps, each one like a small town, and each with its own name, Cambrai, Kemmel, Somme, Ypres. My father’s regiment occupied Menin Lines. The roads were named after Generals. We lived in Haig Road, next door to French Road, and then Rawlinson Road. Long before I knew anything about the First World War, I knew all the names and places.
We children also knew the regiments our fathers belonged to, and took as much pride in them as though we were serving in them ourselves, indulging in the same military snobberies that our parents did. Those of us with fathers in cavalry regiments felt infinitely superior to the rest. We acknowledged girls with fathers in infantry regiments, but felt only pity for children with parents in corps, so that Caroline, who lived in the largest house in the street because her father was a brigadier, was somewhat patronised by we children, because her father was ‘only’ in the Royal Signals.
As I walked home from school, and passed each army quarter I would amuse myself by chanting under my breath the names of the historic regiments that each inhabitant belonged to… 17/21st Lancers, Royal Signals, 15/19th Hussars, Royal Army Service Corps, 12th Lancers, Fifth Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, (Captain Oates of the Antarctic’s regiment), and the 14/20th Kings Hussars.
My father had given me all Wellington’s Peninsula campaigns to read, including Captain Titus Oates’ favourite reading in the Antarctic -Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars – so I was well up on the history of many of these old regiments. Conan Doyle’s tales about Sir Nigel and the White Company in medieval France, combined with Joan Grant’s books on Egypt and re-incarnation, The Three Musketeers’, The Scarlet Pimpernel’, ‘I Claudius’ and lots of John Buchan were also part of my eclectic reading list.
Rare excursions to the cinema were so exciting. I was allowed to see ‘Hamlet’, ‘Henry V, and ‘Oliver Twist’, and it was considered that ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ was also suitably educational. The moment when they killed the ponies – rather sanitised, in hindsight – is preserved in amber in my memory. Forget the men, it was the ponies I cried for.
Like everyone else, my father had his own batman, who, like everyone else’s batman, did lots of domestic chores like cleaning the silver, fetching coal, chopping wood, and even vacuuming, when he’d finished polishing brass buttons and chain mail, leather Sam Browne, shoes, long, leather Wellington boots and silver spurs.
Maloney was a tall gawky Irishman, with buck teeth and a drinking problem. I knew this because when he arrived at eight in the morning, I would smell it on his breath when I sneaked out to the scullery where he was polishing shoes, to ask him the time. The bus went at eight twenty- five, and there was just time to walk the mile from the bus-stop the other end to get to school for nine o’clock.
My parents had trouble getting up every morning, and though I was expected to cook breakfast for them at the weekends, my stepmother became angry if I started to cook the breakfast during the week, as this implied criticism of her. From seven- thirty every day of my life I hovered in the kitchen in an agony of suspense, as the minutes ticked by, getting to the point where I would miss the bus. As long as she arrived in the kitchen by ten past eight there was just time to gobble the food, grab my coat and satchel and run.
I prepared as much of the breakfast as I could, to make it a lightning cooking operation when my stepmother appeared, but too often I bolted down the bacon, egg, tomato, and fried bread so I felt sick as I ran to the main road for the bus. I begged just to have toast for breakfast, but my stepmother was adamant that we should all have a “good breakfast”.
I don’t know how much good it would have done, eaten at that level of tension. At the other end at school, there was disgrace, and punishment for being late, as if children had any control over their comings and goings. There were also the embarrassing interviews with the headmistress over why I wasn’t wearing school uniform… I walked around in a blue tweed skirt when everyone else was kitted out by their proud parents in the navy school uniform. When I finally got mine it had to last for the next three years through five inches of growth and two more schools, both with brown uniforms, not navy blue, and I darned the seat until the repairs were breaking away from the worn, shiny fabric.
This was a humiliating experience for a suppressed fashionista who overheard sotto voce remarks from clever classmates about genteel poverty, and whose siblings at private schools were immaculately equipped. I only had thin white cotton socks even in winter, and my feet were so frozen in the north country cold that I was in real pain while they thawed out at school. The excruciating chilblains which covered my legs and fingers were partly from this I suppose, and partly from magnesium deficiency, probably the result of the level of tension I lived at.
Maloney, the batman, was terrified of my parents too, and he would silently show me his watch as the minutes ticked by. Whenever he went home to Ireland on leave, he couldn’t face coming back, and would go absent without leave until the Military Police found him in some Irish pub, and returned him, and he would then serve his time in “the glasshouse”, as my parents called it, though I never knew why.
And then, he would re- appear one morning, looking sheepish. I always missed him, as well as his watch, when he went on leave. During the holidays, there was a different sort of tension, both in the morning and after lunch before my father went back to his office. Every officer carried a swagger stick in those days, and my father was always mislaying his. If I was around I was expected to look for it, and find it. The dreaded cry would go up: “I’ve lost my stick”, and I’d fly into frenzied action, not always successfully.
The children who lived around us fell into two, very distinctive groups just after the war, those who were afraid of their parents and those who weren’t. The lucky ones had fathers who had bonded with them again when the war was over – these fathers had usually been in non-combatant corps. Others had fathers like mine who had fought bloody battles for six years, and who now spent just as many years recovering from the war, went on having nightmares regularly, drank heavily to deaden the pain, and often treated their children like the soldiers in their command. They’d be treated for post- traumatic stress disorder in these more enlightened days.
Many of us had post-war brothers and sisters who had displaced us. I recognised, even then, the faint air of anxiety in the mothers of several of my friends who were torn between alcoholic husbands- sometimes violent- their first pre-war child, and the new baby.
Like me, the older child would be shunted out to Sunday School, and sent to do the weekly shopping. Like me, the older child would have chores in the house to do, while the other group were out playing. We tended to play with the children in our own group. It was hard to explain to children who had tolerant or reasonable parents why we couldn’t do such and such, or why we were so terrified if we were late home, or tore a dress, or lost a hair ribbon.
In those days, I never came by elastic bands to hold the ribbons on my plaits. I don’t even know if they were available, or whether my stepmother had decided they were an unnecessary extravagance when we were hard-up. Whatever the reason, my hair ribbons were always slipping off my plaits, and I spent hours re-tracing my foot-steps, looking for a crushed bow on the pavement. The children with parents like ours understood instantly when we went into panic over some trivial incident or couldn’t invite them home.
We all wordlessly envied the other group, whose individuals we sometimes described as being “spoiled”. Children like William, for example, whose mother doted on him, and Priscilla and Jane whose parents never minded if they brought us home, Caroline, an only child whose mother encouraged her to invite me to tea and to play. I was allowed to have her back for tea once, and it was so stiff with us all trying to behave like a relaxed, happy family that I never tried again.
Melanie and her brother had horsy, hunting parents, and whereas Melanie didn’t mind riding, her seven-year old brother Conrad was permanently in disgrace because he was terrified, and often vomited before his riding lesson. This didn’t save him. Their mother spent most of her time hunting and judging hunter trials. Their father became an MFH (Master of the Fox Hounds) when he retired from the regiment. I saw Melanie’s wedding photo in Tatler at fashionable St Margaret’s, Westminster, years later. Her eyes were now ice-cold blue like her mother’s, her face a frozen mask.
Moira was such a wreck at eight years old, that my stepmother recognised it, and told me to be kind to her because she had a hard time. She never defined what the hard time was, though I knew. The awful thing about it was that none of us children could stand Moira because she personified how we felt at our very worst. And she was like it all the time. Her mother was tall and elegant, with a beaky nose and long red painted nails, and was like a vulture pecking incessantly at the truly wretched child. Today we’d call it emotional abuse, and it’s still the easiest form of sadism to inflict on a child without being discovered.
I myself seemed to spend a lot of time in disgrace, which meant being banished up to my bedroom, until given permission to come down. This sometimes meant all day, and missed meals. It was often freezing in winter. I identified deeply with David Copperfield sitting up in his room, terrified of Mr and Miss Murdstone downstairs. Sometimes I wasn’t told when it was okay to come out of banishment and if I came out too soon, I wasn’t penitent and if I came out too late, I was sulking.
My misdemeanours were trivial, like the problem with my hair. Every Saturday, after it was washed, I had to towel it dry. This meant I was left with a headful of tangles looking like Medusa. The bakelite combs of those days were brittle and broke easily, and time and again, a tooth would snap. And time and again I was in disgrace for this.
Another time I was confronted with an old French exercise book my stepmother had found while I was at school. On the last blank page, having no other drawing paper, I had spent a happy Saturday afternoon drawing an oak tree in the field next door. She insisted I must have done it during a French lesson, and when I asked her why she didn’t believe me, she said if I had done it legitimately, I couldn’t have resisted boastfully showing it to them. At this I knew I was beaten. When I cried for hours in my room, I would try to console myself by promising myself that one day I would write about it.
It was now that I became a ward of court. If it was a bad time for me, in hindsight I realise it was also bad for my parents. With their money draining away on court cases, in which my father had obstinately refused to concede that I should see the mother I never mentioned (of course not, I thought she was a taboo subject, and that no-one knew where she was), he took refuge from that and everything else, in heavy drinking.
This was an easy thing to do in good company in a rich cavalry regiment after the war. But this left my stepmother short of companionship as well as money in the snobbish society of the regiment. I was at the end of this chain of despair. I knew my stepmother was depressed when she came down to breakfast wearing powder, but no lipstick. She was particularly depressed when she wore a brown and fawn checked, swagger jacket which didn’t suit her, and no lipstick. The tip of her nose used to turn pink when she was angry. I carefully watched for all these signs.
Christmas parties were a feature of childhood social life in this group. I used to feel sick when I woke in the morning, and knew the day of the party had arrived. We would arrive and be taken upstairs to divest ourselves of our coats. I had long since grown out of my lovely blue coat with velvet collar, and was down to a navy gaberdine school mac. Each little girl would surreptitiously size up each newcomer as she stripped off and revealed her party finery. The fashion was for velvet dresses, and ballet shoes while all I had was a summer dress, and indoor shoes, a deprivation hard to forget even as we played party games and danced to the gramophone.
One of the best games was called Kim’s Game. A tray laden with small objects would be laid in front of us, and then after a few minutes, taken away, and we had to remember everything, and write a list. I nearly always won this game. We played charades too, and the game ‘Murder in the Dark’, and, best of all. Sir Roger de Coverley, danced just before the party ended, with the nannies and other parents come to collect their children, clapping from the side.
Then, out into the dark and the cold, to walk home alone, the ordeal over until the next one…back home to wake to the faint sounds of reveille drifting across the sports fields from the regimental barracks, and hearing the haunting strains of the last post as I waited for sleep at night.
To be continued – next – The pleasures of London
Food for threadbare gourmets
After sampling a Dutch neighbour’s gingerbread, I felt I had to rise to the occasion when she came to tea with me. I used a favourite and easy friand recipe. In a bowl place one and a half cups of ground almonds, and the same of sifted icing sugar, half a cup of flour, and combine. Add six lightly beaten egg whites, stir together, then stir in 100 gms of unsalted melted butter and a tablespoon of grated lemon zest.
Spoon into a greased muffin tin and bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the oven at160c. The friands should be springy to touch, and moist in the centre. Dust with icing sugar and devour!!! This amount makes twelve.
Food for thought
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too was a gift…
from The Uses of Sorrow by Mary Oliver