10: HOLIDAY TASK
That year my sister and I spend the long summer school holiday of eight weeks at what was known as ‘a children’s hotel’ at Haslemere, Surrey. As it happens, we were sent to the same Home during the summer holidays of the following year, for although my father wasw now at home, we remained boarders at the Convent while my parents sorted out their lives. For me, these two breaks at the Home run into one so that it is impossible for me to separate the incidents into their chronological order.
I recall waiting with my sister in the dining-hall of the Convent for my mother to collect us both and take us to this place in Haslemere and I view it with dread. In fact, I would have preferred to go to Bognor Regis with two of the nuns and the boarders, such as Joan Batchelor, unable to go home for the holiday. For the devil one already knows is said to be preferable to the devil yet to be met. My fear originating from a similar ‘children’s hotel’ to which I had been sent two or three years previously. My mother at the time intent upon building up my health by sea air, having taken me to a Home at Whitstable. From the Home, a large house, we are directed to the beach to find The Matron and a party of chiildren sitting on the stones and so we walk along the hard, concrete promenade to look down upon the pebbles until we spy two large women and a small group of supine children, each child forming a separate island. "Hurry!" my mother bids me, herself descending, legs, body and lastly head disappearing. I hasten to catch up with her and follow her along the strand. "I don’t want to stay here" I whine, for hasn’t she promised me that if I don’t like the look of the place, or the people, she will not make me stay. "I don’t like them" I moan. My mother takes no notice of me, she is not listening. I hang back as my mother greets the women in charge, one of them rising to meet her, then my mother beckons me. Hoping against hope that these sorry children and their keepers will prove to be a mirage, I walk up to my mother. She pushes me forward and a woman takes my by the hand. My mother walks away, turning once to wave. I watch her out of sight. "I don’t want to stay here" I whimper. But she has gone.
Cold stone floors, washing in cold water in a stained butler sink, queuing each morning at a hatch for two slices of bread and paste to take to the beach. I am hungry, hungry, hungry. My mother visits and I complain that I don’t have enough to eat. She speaks to one of the Attendants, but then tells me that here I have tea at dinner-time and dinner at tea-time, no more than a substitution of melas. I am making a fuss about nothing. I feel betrayed, unsatisfied, hungry.
This Whitstable is very different to the Whitstable I come to know and love as an adult while staying with Maude Ehrenstein, wife of Carl and sister-in-law of the poet Albert, who discovered Kafka. And yet when, at this sea-side place, I borrow from Maude’s shelves and read Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, once more the place takes on for me a macabre, unreal aspect. Whitstable is no more than a film-set, the houses and shops tacky frontages, the shop signs borrowed, the people in the street transient actors and extras. All is outward show. Top show.
The Home at Haslemere is an old rambling house set at the top of a hill in extensive grounds. A long steep driveway closed in on each side by dense shrubs and trees, leads to and from the village. A village foreign to the chilren at the Home. The driveway winds up to a large lawn on which during the summer we spend our days. Dressed only in a swimming costume I burn and it seems that I am crawling out of my peeling skin. There are many children on this lawn, the majority of whom are permanent residents. "I came for a holiday when I was little" a teenage girl tells me "and my mother died while I was here, so Mrs. Lee said I could stay." I hear the girl’s words and I am sick with apprehension. Could my mother die while I am no longer at home to keep a guardian eye upon her? Am I never to leave this place?
Mrs. Lee, a large, middle-aged woman wearing a floral dress is called ‘Mother’ and each morning after breakfast at refectory tables arranged in a line in a long dining-room, she holds Assembly in a large hall. We children, some two or three hundred, line the walls in a semi-circle while at the end of the room Mrs. Lee presides over prayers. This is the only time we see her officially, although I often pass by her empty office and, if the door is open, leavae on the desk a leteter to my mother begging her to come and fetch me home, lhoping kagainst hope that it will be posted.
I go out onto the lawn where an Attendant holds on reins made from webbinga mentally handicapped boy of about eight years old. His eyes are wild as he strains against the restraint, he screws up his faacae, makes strange noises, throws out his arms, drums his feet. Sometimes he slips the reins, or the attendant loosens her hold, and in sudden joy the boy runs pell mell down the long incline of the driveway. At this all the children leave their games and whooping and shouting with excitement, together with the attendant, chase after the boy, the stony ground crunching under our feet, our eyes on the manic running of our quarry who must be captured before he reaches the village. At last he is taken and confined. I am at the Home when this boy’s parents visit, bringing with them a younger son, a three-year-old. The parents, smartly dressed, softly spoken, have with them a pedal car into which the younger boy climbs. The older son, unrestrained for the present, grabs hold of the back of the car roughly to push it forward. At once the parents become alarmed, their faces and arms jerking in agitation until an attendant grabs hold of the afflicted child and he is once more put under restraint.
A small blind boy with curly black hair feels his way about the house and grounds and I watch him from a distance.
Those children who live at this Home receive their schooling within it and a day or two following my arrival a girl comes up to me where I stand on the grass and grabs my arm. "School’s started, you’ve got to come to the schoolroom" she says bossily. I argue "I’m here on holiday,m my school’s broken up!" The girl confers with an older girl and it is agreed that I am not at the Home for schooling. Later on, when I learn that classes have been discontinued for the past six months during the absence of the teacher, an old lady, I almost regret having been so precipitate, for surely I would havae been top of the class!
If my sister and I wander away from the lawn into areas of bushes and pampas grass, sooner or later we are sure to be trapped by grinning twelve or thirteen years old boys who demand that we take off our bathing costumes and let them "have a look". We refuse and run away from their side of the bush, shouting insults at them once we are in sight of the populated lawn.
My mother comes to visit, bringing with her treats, fruit, cakes and sweets. We sit on the grassy lawn for a picnic while around us children play, leaving us to our family grouping, except for one little girl named Helen who joins us, sitting cross-legged alongside me on the grass. My mother reluctantly includes the girl in the share-out of goodies for she cannot bring herself to send the child away. On the following Sunday Helen’s parents visit, but no such kindness is extended to me and I feel cheated.
I become attached to a little girl of about my own age, named Kathleen. She has rounded face and limbs, is friendly and talkative. Everybody’s favourite. I follow her everywhere and she kindly lets me play with her. Then, suddenly, she announces that she is going on a fortnight’s holiday with her parents. She is happy and excited, but I am desolate. I cry bitterly and to comfort me she gives me a rubber doll to keep for her until she returns:
My mother told me, if I were goody
That she would buy me
a rubber dolly.............
I carry the doll about with me as a badge of Kathleen’s favour, but one day in the grounds a group of boys approach and before I can run away a grinning youth grabs the doll and pulls off one of its legs, slinging the doll at me, but throwing the leg to make a wide arc and fall into the undergrowth where it is lost. What am I to tell my friend? At night, in the long dormitory in which Kathleen’s bed is empty, I agonise over her return.
At last Kathleen arrives in a flurry of excitement, other girls gathering to greet her, to examine the toys and presents with which she has returned. I wait on the outside of the circle until at last I screw up courage and approach timorously, holding out the damaged doll. I say haltingly "a boy pulled her leg off." She looks at the doll without interest and seems hardly to know me. Sadly I understand that she has forgotten we are friends.
Once I am hope again, and some time later, I am happy to hear from my mother that this Home was closing down and moving in much reduced form to Regent’s Park, for surely I would not be sent there for a holiday. My mother adds that she suspects Mrs. Lee’s motives in keeping the older girls, and she hints at ‘white slave trading’.
"Your father’s been in prison" calls out Ena Macfarlane from her first floor bedroom window, to me standing outside in the street. She is a pupil at the Convent and lives almost opposite to us in Wilton Road, but while proximity dictates that we play together, we are not friends. Today we have quarrelled. Wilfully misunderstanding her I pretend that she is referring to my father’s internment and shout back "only because he was German. He was interned." My father has been home for some months and yet not home. He has suffered a ‘sea change’, a change in emphasis which makes him creep out of the house to go about his daily business. His newspapers, for he reads several every day and carries two or three with him wherever he goes, have to be purchased by us, or bought farther afield, as he refuses to enter the newsagents, Torrys, at the tope of Wilton Road. He is certain that the shop assistants spend their days in searching the newspapers for local gossip and know of his conviction.
"Dear Charles (write James Hanley) Glad to hear you are settled at Red Lion Street again and that Hitlerland is far off. Well I must say I admired your letter for not many people who have been in prison can escape pitying themselves. Yes, I admire your courage."
Once again, my sister and I are day-girls at the Convent, no longer boarders, but the fact of my father’s imprisonment kcontinues to make waves.
We visit the Foreman family at Camden Town where we are invited to sit down to tea. At the table are Bill Foreman, whom my parents refer to as ‘the gas man’ because he is a meter reader, Lydia, his wife, a lugubrious Russian woman some years older than her husband, and Audrey, their daughter, a blonde, ringletted child a little younger than myself. The grown-ups are talking and somehow the subject of porridge enters into the conversation. Prison porridge is mentioned and my sister pipes up "My Dad had that!" Absolute silence. Embarrassment, for if the Foreman family know of my father’s sentence, it is unofficially. "Don’t be silly!" I snap "that was shen he was in hospital!" Everyone relaxes and my parents are delighted with my quick wits. My father speaks little of prison, but he closely monitors each postman who walks by with a mailbag thrown over his shoulder. My father dogs his footsteps, peering at the stitches in the sack’s seams for he sews with his left hand (although he had been taught to write with his right hand at school) - lefthandedness regarded at that time as ‘sinister’. "My stitches go in the opposite direction to everyone else’s" he explains "and I will always recognise my own work."
"It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!...........
Work - work - work!
From every weary chime,
Work - work - work -
As prisoners work for crime." (28)
In time, however, the family settles into a kind of normalcy and my mother stays home within the four walls of 9 Wilton Road where I know always where to find her.
That year my mother takes my sister and me on two holidays, one to Leigh-on-Sea where we lodge for a week with a Mrs. Thomas, and a second to East Chaldon, Dorset, near to the homes of T.F. Powys and Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland.. My mother has fond memories of East Chaldon for before my sister and I were born , she and my father, attracated by the writers living in the vicinity, had spent much time there and my mother had also holidayed in Dorset with Sarah Roberts, on one occsiion staying in T.E. Lawrence’s cottage near Bovington while he was away. My father claimed T.E. Lawrence, the uncrowned King of Arabia, as a friend and my mother insisted always that on the day on which Lawrence was killed on his motor-bike my father had been invited to Dorset. "If he had gone" she says "Lawrence wouldn’t havae been killed." Sarah and my mother were able to relax in Lawrence’s cottage, the interior faded, a strip of coconut matting in an unswept hall-way, a room in which all four walls held bookshelves with books closely packed from floor to ceiling. A garden grown half-wild into which my mother and Sarah pulled two old, shabby armchairs, for my mother to sit and read while Sarah lie back to feel the sun on her face, a sun which warmed and shone upon the whitewashed exterior of the cottage.
With regard to East Chaldon, this is described by Wendy Mulford in This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: Life and Letters and Politics 1930-1951 (Pubd. Pandora 1988) as "a tiny village, its cottages grouped around the green: at one end lies the pub, at the other the church, and in the middle the village store and post office. The writers and intellectuals who stayed there made up a fairly right-knit group of which Theodore Powys was the pivot."
On this holiday, we stay with my mother in a large bleak house named ‘The Hut’ which during term-time houses a progressive school. Stone floors, bare boards, sparse furnishings, no cooking facilities - or perhaps both gas and electric had been disconnected. To cook we use a small primus stove in which must be inserted two large white flat tablets, the embossed lettering of which warns NOT TO BE HANDLED BY CHILDREN. My hands behind my back, I examine them with my eyes, a thrill of fear running me through. What would happen should I touch them? Would I immediately drop down dead? Or would I sicken and fade away by degrees? How old must I be before I develkop the invulnerability of an adult? Water we draw from a pump at the back of the house, pulling the handle down, up, down and watching the cool water gush into a clean bucket. For lighting we havae an oil lamp which shines out upon the table as if we own our own special moon. My mother does find a box of candles, but refuses to usse them because, she says, a candle could fall over and start a fire. i love this pioneer living for to me it spells romance and, anyway, the spartan conditions inside ‘The Hut’ are nothing to me against the field outside in which wild flowers grow, and the stream over which is a rickety wooden bridge where we can play that we are crossing into an exotic foreign land.
Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland call upon us, one very tall, cropped hair and dressed as a man in a smart suit, collar and tie. I can hardly believe my mother when she tells me that this is a woman. At that time for me ‘clothes maketh the man!’ The other a shorter woman with pretty dark hair. As it happens, until fairly recently I had assumed that themale dresser was Sylvia and the obvious woman, Valentine, which says something about the unconscious brainwashing I had undergone over the years which made me believe that male clothing indicated the greater achievement! While Sylvia and Valentine are being entertained in the house by my mother, my sister and I outside in the field, set up on a card-table a stall of wild flowers placed in jam jars and paste pots:
"It fell betwen her and the dirty brown face of a woman who was selling mimosa and who, scenting a foreigner, hurried forward, her earthy face peering behind the soft golden plumes. On Sophia’s skin at the same moment fell the powdering snow and the soft tickle of the mimosa blossom. The shaken pollen made her sneeze, the touch of this cold and this soft falling together sent a thrill through her flesh..." writes Sylvia Townsend Warner in Summer Will Show (re-published Virago Press 1987).
At last Sylvia and Valentine emerge from the house, walking together as if one person. "Would you like to buy some flowers?" I ask, from behind my temporary stall, and keeping a sharp look-out for my mother who disapproves of such entrepeneurship. The two women look at one another and the small dark one smiles. She passes a sixpence to the tall woman who hands it to me and I present both women with small posies of wild flowers.
"There was once a little girl" T.F. Powys says to me. We- my mother, sister and I - are walking along a country lane with Theodore and his wife Violet who is wheeling their adopted fair-haired infant daughter Susan in a push-chair. "And each time she looked in the mirror she grew uglier." I recognise this as a Convent-type moralising agaainst vanity. "Why? I ask myself "should looking in the mirror make anyone ugly?" I am angry at this white-bearded Patriarch who is ‘getting at me’.
"He read the lessons in Chaldon Church on Sundays, in a deep booming voice...Sylvia...attended church on her first visit to the village...for which occasion Theodore searched for an appropriate passage in the Scriptures, about a young lady coming down from London, musing ‘perhaps I may find you in the Apocrypha’" writes Wendy Mulford.
"The house is in a terrible mess" Violet says to my mother who is visiting the Powys house, Beth-Car, which Wendy Mulford calls "an ungainly red-brick villa", but we’ve got the baby and that’s all that matters." Susan is the daughter of the woman the Powys son, Francis, is to marry and the self-styled claimant to the throne of Poland, Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk, son of a New Zealand milkman. Potocki walked the streets of London dressed in a red cloak which we were always sure he made from a curtain, over a tunic on which glittered a ‘gold’ medallion. He wore also open sandals. His dark, straight hair falling over his shoulders. He, Potocki, was publisher of the Right Review which propagated his own monarcho-fascistic views. Having abandoned a wife and daughter in New Zealand, when Susan’s mother announced her pregnancy, he ended their relationship. Potocki comes into the bookshop at the time of the accession of George V1 in 1936 and browses among books looming on all sides and above him, until he turns to address my parents with a panegyric upon the Royal Family. My republican parents are embarrassed, uncomfortable. They know that this man is baiting them, but do not want to argue with him. He turns to me. Do I like the little Princesses? "I like the princesses in fairy tales better" I say seriously, for I have been disappointed in photos in the press and on film of Margaret Rose and Elizabeth dressed in pedestrian clothing and wearing their brown hair short. "In fairy tales princesses have long fair hair and beautiful dresses" I explain, and my parents are delighted.
During the Second World War, Potocki appears overnight in a battle-dress of dark green trousers and jacket resembling a soldier’s uniform. On his head, hair now cut short, he wears a black beret. Suddenly, the impressive appearance betowed upon him by the eccentricity of his long garments and long hair vanishes, and he now appears as small, middle-aged and insignificant. No wonder, that on returning to New Zealand some years after the war, he assumes once again the cloak, tunic and long hair. In his home country, he continues to predsent himself as a poet, for while visiting New Zealand in 1993 my daughter, Addie, reads in the local newspaper of a newly published book of poems by Count Potocki, now in his eighties.
In London, pre-war, Potocki had been chargd with obscenity following his submission of a poem to a publisher. The publisher had taken this poem to the police and although it was never published, Potocki was tried and convicted. My father who was against all censorship, had befriended Potocki at this time and my mother bailed Potocki out previous to the trial. Later, she was to say that this was because she wanted the anti-semitic Potocki to be beholden to a Jew. She assumed, of course, that he was capable of gratitude.
Towards the end of the Second World War Potocki comes into the bookshop my father had set up at 12 Little Newport Street. I am sitting typing in a room upstairs and Jack Carney, a journalist, is sorting through books when Potocki appears. "Did you see the picture of Susan in the newspaper?" he asks Carney. A photo of the half-grown Susan had appeared in a newspaper article about T.F. Powys. "I asked (he names a journalist) to get me an original copy and he refused." Potocki’s lower lip drops. "Don’t you think that’s mean?" he whines "After all, they do say she’s my daughter." Later, when Susan is an adult, I hear that Potocki, whose means of support were obscure, but who was reputed to have benefited from various Wills, has made contaact with Susan who, apparently, welcomed the advances of this long absent putative father.
However, to return to the text. We meet two other writers who are on holiday in Dorset. Gay Taylor whose short stories have been published by my father in The New Coterie and Malachi Whittaker, the better-known writer of the two women. Malachi has with her an adopted son, two years of age. Within the last few years, Malachi’s short stories have been read on Radio 4, but Gay, author of a novel entitled No Goodness in the Worm and a number of shosrt stories, is now forgotten as a writer. And yet her own story could be written as a block-banger-buster! Gay, whom I remember as a slim woman with fairish shoulder-length straight hair and green eyes, had married a wealthy man much older than herself. Suffering from premature ejaculatiion, or perhaps quirky in his sexual tastes, he agrees that Gay can havae affairs provided he, her husband, whom I shall call Clifford, first vets such a lover. This works well until Gay falls in love in the writer A.E. Coppard. She becomes pregnant and is preparing to leave her husband for Coppard when both men disown her. The child is aborted. A sorry, wiser, Gay has to pick up the pieces of her life. Not long afterwards Clifford dies, leaving Gay a small income, but the bulk of his wealth to his relatives. Bitterness enters into Gay’s soul and if only she could have drawn it into her heart and consciousness, to escape through her fingers as words, this might have resulted in her writings living forever. As it was, Gay lives out her drama from day to day, drifting in and out of love affairs and never, during the timne we knew her, giving, nor expecting, too much.
I cannot forget Gay, for a constant memorial to her stands in my bedroom. This is a limed oak chest of drawers, darkened by the years. This chest was left with my mother at the beginning of the war when Gay moved out of London and for many years afterwards my mother worriedly expected Gay to descend upon us to reclaim this now necessary piece of furniture. But we were never to hear from her again.
At East Chaldon, my mother, sister and I walk through the village, blackberrying, dodging out of the way of a line of mooing cows being herded along the road, the last cow flicking her tail into Oonagh’s eyes, so that she cries and my mother must comfort her. Teenage girls pass by and one turns to look at my mother. My mother approaches her hesistantly until the girl makes it clear that she remembers my mother as having stayed at The Red Lion some years before. The girl is the older daughter of the Inn Keeper. "It’s your curly hair I remembered" the girl explains to my mother who is delighted at being recognised. We go into the Red Lion for a light lunch, to be greeted by the inn-keeper and his wife, and my mother invites the younger daughter of the family, a girl of about my age, to The Hut. There we spend the afternoon dressing up in my mother’s clothes, smearing on lipstick, and for a few short hours we are ladies. We are film-stars.
Most of the time we eat out, sometimes at the Inn, but more often than not at The Sailor’s Return, a kcafe, in which there is reputed to be secret smugglers’ passaages leading from the coast:
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the parson,
Baccy for the Clerk:
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by. (29)
However, one morning my mother decides to cook on the primus stove and, in spite of all her precautions, it catches fire. Whoosh! Red and orange flames shoot up into the air, out towards the confining walls, up towards the ceiling. My mother sees her half-sister Flora together with her dead chiildren in the flames, and shouts to my sister and me to run outside. Pale with fear my sister and I hurry into the field, screaming in unison. Screaming, screaming, screaming, fearful that my mother will be devoured by the fire and I will never see her again. Screaming, screaming, screaming so that we are heard for miles around. By T.F. Powys, by Sylvia Townsend Warner and by Valentine Ackland. At last my mother puts out the fire and the primus stove is pushed to one side, not to be used again by us.
My mother takes us to Weymouth, where I am fascinated by the white sand, running it through my fingers, making patterns which are too dry to stay in place. My mother is tense. She murmurs that we are to meet someone my father knows, a customer at the shop, and soon a shifty-eyed little man dressed in black approaches us and hands to my mother an envelope. These are our rail tickets to return home. My father has sent us down to Dorset on day tickets, cheaper than a monthly, and now we must return in the same way. My mother is worried and unhappy with this ruse.
Before taking our leave of The Hut, my mother writes a letter of apology to the proprietor, one of my father’s customers, and pins it above a crayoned picture with which my sister has brightened up the bare walls. She has drawn directly onto the wall a picture of a lady dressed in florid mauve triangular skirt and with much yellow hair. Her red mouth a red half crescent of laughter, her eyes and nose shiny black. Around this she has drwn a tick brown line to represent a picture-frame. My mother pins her letter of contrition under the picture and murmurs "after all, this is a progressive school!"
Lugging suitcases we travel by bus to the station and this is where the holliday goes horribly wrong. For when we arrive on the platform with our large cases, an Official calls us out of the line of those waiting to board the train, insisting that our luggage must be weighed. The ticket for a day visitor allowing a certain weight of luggage only. My mother agitatedly tells my sister and me to stay in line and asks those adults nearest to keep an eye on us. Then she runs madly, her small frame almost bent double, to disappear into an office. As she disappears, my sister and I surrounded by tall strangers, begin to cry. "Your mummy will be back soon" those nearest assure us kindly. I do not believe them. I know that I will be taken onto the train which will speed away with me. Widening, widening, ever widening, the distance between me and my mother. I will never find my mother again. The line is moving slowly, but inexorably into the train and I am stiff with anxiety, until my mother appears at my side, lugging our cases. I am ecstatic with relief, but she is crying bitterly at this humiliation. She has paid for excess weight, but must have feared discovery and prosecution. My mother cries all the way to London, her head held down as the tears flow and my sister and I, jerked out of our own distress and happy to be with her once again, spend the journey in trying to cheer her up by siinging songs, making funny faces. Asking her to be happy again. So that later she tells us that the other passengers of whom we, locked in our own personal drama were oblivious, said that we were "good children".
On to Escape
Get You Back Home