14: DANCING AND PLAYING:
Some time previously I had begged my mother to allow me to learn the violin instead of the piano. And, no doubt hoping to spawn another Menuhin, she had agreed. My mother loved music and when young queued for hours outside the Queen’s Hall, waiting for admittance to a concert. She had also been an enthusiast for opera and sang to us often snatches of arias from various dramatic scenes. At first I go to a studio in the Athenaeum Buildings, a number of studios being provided on the first and second floors, above what had once been the cinema. I know these studios well, for by now Gabrielle Rowley’s ballet class is held in one of them. Nowadays, the shoppers in the supermarket which squats on its space are too deafened by muzak and intent upon consumerist requirements to hear the lingering clash of fencing sticks, straining of muscles at the barre, fluttering hands on piano, cello, violin.....
Later, I go for violin lessons to Mr. Franks, a professional violinist whose two daughters are pupils at the Convent. Winifred, my sister’s age and Mary, two or three years younger. The Franks live on Muswell Hill and so carrying my black wooden violin case for all to see, I walk up Colney Hatch Lane to the Broadway. Past the Express Dairy (now a Swiss Chalet cafe), this an ornamental building with a forecourt, where my mother sometimes takes me out to tea - a plate of cakes, those uneaten returned and not charged for - and for children a glass of milk with a dash of coffee. Past the Ritz cinema, its tenuous hold upon the hill to give way to the present heavy brownstone public house and offices, over the bridge under which lie the railway tracks, out of which will rise a primary school and on to the Franks’ house half-way down the hill. There, in their sitting-room I scrape a bow across a violin which my mother has bought me secondhand. At the Academy, I borrowed a three-quarter size violin on which the finger spacing was marked out by different coloured strips. At Mr. Franks I find my own notes.
Violins in various stages of manufacture hang about the walls of the sitting-room, some plain wood and others on which the varnish is not yet dry. For Mr. Franks, a slightly built man under average height, is also a violin-maker. Carefully, he cuts the wood from a pattern and assembles it piece by piece. Taking special care with placing the sound post which must stand upright within the violin. "Mr. Franks is a socialist" says my mother to me as she bustles about in the scullery. "He’s a Trotskyist. I told him your father and I have no gods." Anti-Stalinism had not led my parents into supporting Trotsky, for they could not forgive him for the annihilation of the mutinous sailors at Kronstadt:
"The fortress......must be seized before ice floes barred the approach. In feverish haste picked regiments and shock troops were dispatched to reinforce the garrison of Petrograd...White sheets over their uniforms, the Bolshevik troops...advanced across the Bay. They were met by hurricane fire from Kronstadt’s bastions. The ice broke under their feet: and wave after wave of white-shrouded attackers collapsed into the glacial Valhalla. The death march went on. From three directions fresh columns stumped and fumbled and slipped and crawled over the glassy surfacae until they too vanished in fire, ice and water. As the successive swarms and lines of attackers drowned, it seemed to the men of Kronstadt that the perverted Bolshevik revolution drowned with them and that the triumph of their own pure, unadulterated revolution was approaching...The bitterness and rage of the attackers mounted accordingly. On 17th March, after a night-long advance in a snowstorm, the Bolsheviks at last succeeded in climbing the walls. When they broke into the fortress, they fell upon its defenders like revengeful furies......." The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921: By Isaac Deutscher.
Mr. Franks takes great pains with me, but I am never to progress very far with the violin, although I long to play vibrato - fingers and wrist shaking on the strings to give the notes an almost broken quality. However, political events are gathering force which will put an end to my violin and ballet lessons.
With regard to ballet lessons, I will record here that it is at Miss Rowley’s ballet class at her home in Woodberry Crescent that for the first time I stand with shoulders back, so that with some surprise I feel my spine and attendant skeleton shifting into its proper place. And this miracle is to continue at an Academy studio to which Miss Rowley moves once her ballet school is under way. Miss Rowley is very English middle-class and her tall slim figure is stiff and unbending. No more than twenty or twenty-one in years, she has no natural rapport with children and yet by dint of sheer energy and determination she works her classes into a knowledge of movements and technique. Each year she produces a show for the public at a church hall where I dance the role of a gnome, or a doll, or a butterfly, or a fairy....Although my greatest triumph is as the god Pan for which I am dressed in an artificial animal skin slung across one shoulder, my legs and feet bare. I dance threateningly and disturbingly among the rest of the ballet class, dressed as nymphs in short silk dresses. But it is my mother who has to point out to me that this role is an honour, for I would have preferred to dance in the same role as my peers.
My mother bustles about to find materials and patterns to dress me for the various roles. I am measured, the fabric is cut and pinned together, I try it on and feel unfamiliar dress material such as American cloth, smooth and shiny on the outside, but rough against my skin., My mother threads her treadle sewing machine - the machine under which I play at pretending that its wheel guides a ship - and the costume is soon sewn together. Sometimes my mother and the other mothers form a sewing party at the home of one of them, while we children play together in the garden.
My mother also encourages my sister and me to sing, teaching us old music-hall songs:
I’m Henry the eighth I am I am....
or - Mother I love you, I will work for two
Don’t let the tears run down your cheek,
I’ll bring my wages to you every week.....
And she loves opera, reminding herself of the days when she queued to go into the opera house, by recounting to us the stories of Aida, Rigoletto and many others: Humming a tune and snatches of the words.
In one of the years before the war, I join other girls from Miss Rowley’s Dancing School for a fortnight’s stay at Joss Bay, Broadstairs. We stay at North Foreland House which I surmise is a private school vacant for the summer. Almost a mansion and with large well-kept grounds. The afternoons we spend on the beach, a sandy cove bordered on one side by the sea and on the other by cliffs. I perch on a rock, holding my penknife firmly in my hand, to carve my initials among the many on the cliff face. I am recording for posterity that I was here and I am me. A magic penknife, for I lose it on this beach and while digging in the sand a few days later, find it again. Every afternoon we walk down an incline to the Bay and every day an ice-cream tricycle waits at its base: STOP ME AND BUY ONE painted on the large fixed ice-box to the front of the handlebars. This year a glut of jelly fish floats in the sea and settles on the shoreline, to form small glutinous mounds. I slip on one of these creatures, my foot sliding from its gummy side and I want to vomit. But I am relieved to have escaped its painful sting and disfiguring scar. The transparent appearance of these marine creatures impress themselves so deeply upon my mind that on returning home, and for some time afterwards, I cannot see a glass bowl, or any glass of a similar shape, without it taking on the appearance of a jellyfish! Scyphozoa or the Plylum Coelenterata.
At the house, I sleep in a room with four other girls, none of them close friends for they are at different schools and for the most part friends are chosen from among schoolmates. I am acquainted with Emily Heath, a year or two older than me, a platinum blonde who wears her shining hair hanging loose on her shoulders. She lives on the Council estate off Tetherdown and Mrs. Heath, while on her way down Wilton Road to the shops, stops to talk to my mother who is in the front garden, or standing at the gate. "Your Emily is a beautiful girl" says my mother, for apart from her fine hair the child has large brown eyes and a well-proportioned straight nose. "When I was carrying her" confides Mrs. Heath "I used to gaze at a very handsome Jew who worked in the shop. I look and looked at him." My mother is ambivalent about this story, for she is contemptuous of Mrs. Heath’s belief in Old Wives Tales, and yet pleased at this indication of pro-semitism. "Does your father like the fascists?" Jean, plump and confident, asks Emily. Jean is the daughter of a local builder who is a member of the British Uniion of Fascists. We are walking in pairs down to Joss Bay. "No he doesn’t!" Emily replies vehemently, and I love her for that. Ballet lessons take place each morning, for which we wear a rose-coloured short silk tunic, split at each side. Pliez, jetez, pointing our toes, positiions of the feet, the arms... For luncheon we change once more for the evening meal. I seem to be whipping my limited number of dresses on and off all day long! Sometimes, if we are being taken out to a theatre or show, a fourth change of dress is made. Previous to the meal, we collect together on the lawn and on passing through the dining-room I am tempted by the bowls set out on the tables of brown pieces sugar. Miss Rowley considering this unbleached sugar preferable to white, for she is intent upon healthy eating. But to me it is sweeter than any sugar I have ever known. Quickly, I grab a spoonful and shove it into my mouth. Almost immediately Miss Rowley appears before me. She is outraged. "Have you been eating the sugar?" she demands. I try to speak through the gooey mess clinging to the roof of my mouth and covering my teeth. I blush, mumble, stammer. She says nothing more, but stands tight-lipped. Sheepishly, I make my way out onto the lawn. A holiday which lacks the anxieties normal to me on being sent away alone from home, for I know that we must all return to Muswell Hill and that I will once again be at 9 Wilton Road.
Apart from ballet, we, at 9 Wilton Road, are interested in Art, which for us is represented by William Roberts, who designed the cover for The New Coterie. William, an upright dour man who in an industrial age sees human kind as extensions to machines, their limbs performing the roles of pulleys and hoists, cantilevers, joints and belts and braces. His men on canvas are faceless and robotic. However, his portrait of my mother as a young woman is in a different style and presents her as ageless, or of an age, so that as the years pass by my father, glancing at the portraait in its frame hanging on the wall, says "She grows more and more like it with every passing day!" In the portrait, my mother’s large, bright blue almond-shaped eyes look away from the viewer, her mouth is ahadowed and her hair a solid fuzz. The cupid bow of her mouth beautifully shaped and in spite of her brooding expression, it seems as if she might smile. Following my mother’s death, my sister, intent upon some of the immortality with which the portrait endowed my mother rubbing off on herself, insisted that my father present it to the Tate Gallery, where it now rests.
The Roberts, William, Sarah and their son John, the last some seven years older than me, live near to Regents Park. Their house is light and airy, containing little furniture; the furnishings and decor in a mode well before its time. On our first visit there my mother sniffs and says "when Sarah visited us her first words int that lilt of hers were ‘Esther, I thought you’d live in a house without curtains!’ It’s her who has no curtains!" My mother and Sarah go back a long way and my mother tells the story of the day it was decided that my grandmother Rachel and Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Kramer (the mother also of the artist Jacob Kramer) should meet on a Saturday. Mrs. Kramer who is Orthodox trudges on foot together with Sarah to this rendezvous in Regents Park, for Jewish law forbids the faithful to travel on vehicles during the Sabbath. At last she arrives and sits herself down on a seat, declaring that she has travelled the permitted number of miles. My grandmother arrives with my mother, the two of them having come from the East End by tram and bus. Entering the park, my mother spies Sarah and her mother a short distance away. Now, as it happens, my grandmother is fashiion conscious, taking much care over her clothes and appearance, her trim figure always neatly dressed and her hair well-groomed. To Mrs. Kramer, clothes are no more than a necessity with which to cover modesty and, to my grandmother, she looks like what we now know as a ‘bag lady’. A dark crumpled dress, the hem escaping from its stitches to hang unevenly, a shawl over her head, shoes scuffed and run-down at the heel... My grandmother takes one look at this woman and immediately sits herself down on a bench, announcing that she too has walked the number of miles permitted. For an hour or more, the two old women sit a short distance from one another while my mother and Sarah run backwards and forwards, from one mother to the other, in an attempt to induce one of the women to walk a few feet to where the other is seated. To no avail. At the end of that time, both women return home without having met. Sarah’s mother on foot, my grandmother by public transport.
Sarah and my mother, at one time went about together and on holiday, even though, as my mother said ‘Sarah had been married since the year dot.’ However, William’s preoccupation with his painting and a spinal injury to John when a baby, which confined him to an Orthopaedic Hospital for some years, left Sarah a free spirit. I spent at least one holiday with my mother and Sarah, in a cottage at Rye Harbour. Of course, I have no recollection of this, but I grow up with the nostalgic story of our stay. And especially of the afternoon when my mother comes out of the cottage to find a snake mounting my pram. I identify with Eve in the Garden of Eden, and wonder why she, like my brave mother, did not hit out at the serpent with a stick and scream blue murder! It would have saved a lot of bother!
William Roberts is a Fellow of the Zoological Society and so passes to my father free permits into the London Zoo to which my mother takes my sister and me quite often. In those days the Zoo was always packed with people and for an elephant or camel ride we had to queue for an hour or more. However, the most memorable visit to the Zoo is a visit I made together with Colleen. We stood for two or three hours in the Reptile House to watch a python in its glassed cage swallow its six monthly meal of a whole dead goat. The mouth of the snake stretching itself elastically over the bulk of the ruminant to draw it into its length in slow motion. Fascinated, we mark out the shape of the goat’s horns and hoofs journeying under the skin of the python’s long body. Until, at last the goat has vanished into the snake’s maw and the reptile lies supine. Sometimes, my father takes my mother and we children out for the day. And I can remember one visit to H.E. Bates and his family in Ashford, Kent. "The house is a converted barn" says my mother. I had seen barns in the countryside, filled by hay and smelling of manure and I could not understand how a barn could be a house in which people lived, for to me, in those days, uses were static. On viewing Bates’ imposing home I found it even more difficult to envisage it as anything other than a house. Bates writes in The Country Cottage Life Book:
The house was finished in a little over six months....a beautiful neat snug place that looked as if it had never been a farm building...where the wind once howled bitterly through the wheels of dung carts and that my books should sit under the beams where birds nested...
In Bates country garden I pick peas, working up one row and down the next as if this were a supermarket which provided food from off the vine. From this visit I am left with no more than an awareness of a table in the open air and chattering adults. I have a clearer recollection of Bates from his visit to my father’s bookshop at 12 Little Newport Street during WW2. Bates, a short man dressed in uniform as Flying Officer X.
Other friends are the Petersons who, for two or three years, take us on an annual outing in their car. In those days a rare method of private travel. Impatiently, I wait in our front room, peering from behind the curtains at the street, starting up at the sound of every vehicle. At last they are here! Mr. Peterson small and quiet, a shadow of his large, lively wife who is auburn-haired and ruddy of face. My parents and we children pile into the back of the car, Mrs. Peterson maintaining a flood of conversatiion as we purr towards our destination. I bathe in the river Thames at Runnymede on a warm sunny day, its banks covered in tall purple Willowherb which grows to the edge of the waterline. On the opposite bank stands King John, his regal robes worn heavily. A gold crown rests lightly upon his head. Defeat and humiliation show upon his facae. On his forehead the mark of Cain. I see King John from the corners of my eyes and hide behind the Willowherb.
The Perersons live in a flat in a block in Gray’s Inn road and following my fortnightly visit to the Edmonds Dental Ckinic, my mother, Oonagh and I call upon Mrs. Peterson, who has obviously forgotten her invitation and nothing is prepared. But she makes us welcome, and ever resourceful, amuses Oonagh and me by offering us sips from a vast array of miniature liquer bottles, soliciting our opinions on each taste. Years later, my mother, remembering the occasion, is to remark wryly that this was an odd way in which to entertain children, but I demurred. I had enjoyed the variety of tastes, receiving each one on my tongue before swallowing, and Mrs. Peterson treating me as if my opinion of her liquer was worthwhile. When the Petersons no longer come to take us on our yearly outing, it is not as a result of threatening war clouds, but because, so my father says "they think we don’t appreciate or enjoy the outings." I am perplexed. What should I have said to assure them of my pleasure? The Petersons are childless and their only niece had been run down and killed by a bicycle: A puzzling end to me for both my parents and myself are cyclists and I regard these machines as familiar objects and as friends. I touch my father’s upright bike, pressing down on its pumped-up tyres and try to envisage the slain niece crushed beneath its light wheels. Had they hoped that Oonagh and I would be substitute nieces, and had we in some way disappointed their hopes?
Of course, we also visit relatives. My grandmother Rachel is not happy visiting our non-kosher household and so we go to her. For even on those few occasions on which she called on my Aunt Becky in New Barnet, she insisted on bringing with her pots and pans and food from her own house. I see her now, a small, neat figure, bright blue eyes and a fuzz of white hair, pots and pans strung together and dangling from her arm as she stops passers-by in East Barnet Village to ask them the way to Netherlands Road. She might be willing to break Sabbath travel laws, but food was a much more emotive subject. And so we call upon my grandmother at her small house in the East End where one day we will sit shiva. While my Bubba speaks to my mother in a mixture of Yiddish and broken English, I open the isolated, unused front room in which stands an unopened piano, a mahogany table, a cloth hiding its high gloss, and four matching stiff-backed chairs with leather seats, lined up against the wall as if waiting to be called. The table and chairs we are to inherit, but the table comes to us without the chenille cloth from which hangs scarlet tassels, for this is claimed by my mother’s Aunt. "She grabbed it from off the table and ran out of the house with it!" wails Becky to my mother. "I tried to keep it for you!"
Bubba calls me to the wooden table in the kitchen where she is ladling lockshen soup into plates. "Eat, eat!" says my Bubba, placing a plate before me on the table. Her lockshen soup is good, thick, with small pieces of chicken and vermicelli floating on its surface. "Your Bubba makes her own vermicelli" my mother tells me proudly "with egg."Before we leave, Bubba bids us wait while she runs to the market to return within a few moments holding two shiny golden toffee apples on sticks, presenting one to me and one to my sister. I am shy with my grandmother for I feel foreign to her and this district of grey mean streets in which nothing grows. Strange clothes, strange smells, strange voices - a world away from the suburb of Muswell Hill.
However, my Aunt Becky and her family live now within our ken and my mother, whose ambivalence towards to her sister, does not extend to her nephew and nieces, frequently takes us over to New Barnet to visit them. Sometimes, of course, they come to us and I can remember Helen, a year older than me, staying with us over Christmas, sharing with Oonagh and me the double bed in our downstairs front room. And on Christmas morning we watch her surprise and pleasure on finding, in a pillow-case tied to the bed-post, a box of chocolates labelled "for Helen". At my Aunt Becky’s house, my sister and I play in the garden with Seema who is my sister’s age, and Helen, making our home in the circular summerhouse. My Aunt Becky sometimes takes advantage of our game of keeping house by presenting us with a box of cutlery to be cleaned! First we must cover each knife, fork and spoon in white Silvo and then vigorously polish. At other times, we run down to the village where relatives to my cousins run a grocery store. Two boys belong to this household, one of them a little older than Helen who is supposed to be in love with him. Seema makes up teasing songs abaout this supposed infatuation and we all annoy Helen by singing them at her. The boys’ mother has been widowed recently and my cousin Woofie, then about sixteen years of age, goes to work for her. Soon she has seduced him and later claims that he has made her pregnant. They marry, a marriage doomed from its start. It takes Woolfie many years to extricate himself from the failure of this relationship and its aftermath. (The child of this union is to emigrate as a young man to Australia and an aftermath in 1998 is a letter from his daughter - a TV Productioin Assistant - to one of my cousins, enquiring about the family and her grandfather. As Woolfie eventually denied paternity, this letter has put the family in a quandary! Such are aftermaths!
Sometimes, my Aunt Mary calls upon us at 9 Wilton Road, squatting her large bulk on one of our narrow chairs. For a time, my Aunt Becky and my Aunt Mary are on friendly terms, visiting one another. And my mother says wryly that they deserve each other! But our most frequent family visitor at 9 Wilton Road is Cecil. My mother tolerates these visits for while it is possible to forecast and trust the likely responses of most of us, the behaviousr and responses of the insane are unpredictable. And my mother was of a generation which equated mental illness with moral turpitude. "He hunches himself up and makes terrible faces" she once told me "and when he’s into madness he eats his food like an animal, picking it up with his hands and pushing it into his mouth!" Uneasily, my mother takes from Cecil the clear soup sent over by my Aunt in a beer bottle. Later she will release the liquid from the bottle and run it down the plughole in the sink. She cuts up the cake made by my Aunt and encourages Cecil to eat as much of it as possible. For her idea of hospitality, inherited from the East, determines that to swallow an enemy’s food is to cement a friendship. Years later, when the breach between my Aunt and my parents is complete, my Aunt is to remind my mother of these donations of soup and cake. "Didn’t I always make him eat that cake before he went home!" rages my mother to Mrs. Dawson. "You know, you saw him eating it! As for the soup!" My mother pulls a face. "It looked more like dishwater - or urine! Anyway" continues my mother "she only sent him over to us while she was busy with a lover. The lover wouldn’t have Cecil around because he was afraid of blackmail!"
Towards the end of WW2, my mother is to work at the Colney Hatch Asylum for three or four years as an orderly, tending the elderly and confused, cleaning up the incontinent and worse. Working within the hospital she develops some sympathy for these patients incarcerated in the Asylum because of the lack of other facilities to care for them:
"They had in mind old folks homes which are so desperately needed today when the proportion of over 65s in the general population has increased so much and among long-stay patients (at the Asylum) has risen to 75%." Write the Commissioners in Lunacy in 1894 - quoted in Psychiatry for the Poor.
Working at the Asylum is not a pleasant occupation for my mother and, what is more, she is shocked by the violence of some of the staff towards patients, especially those inmates who have been abandoned by their families. My mother tells me: "The old lady wept because her husbhad told her he’d had enough of visiting her in such a place and he wouldn’t come again. And, anyway, there was someone else. The next time i saw her the Sister had blacked her eye. So I phoned the husband and said ‘I can’t tell you my name, but I work at the hospital. It’s vital lyou visit your wife this week.’ He did and there was a row about his wife’s injuries, her mouth had swollen up as well..."
This is not the only occasion when my mother calls in a husband, son, daughter to visit an abused patient. However, the above is to take place in the future and, anyway, she is never to work on a male ward among young men suffering from suppressed masculinity and sexuality. Therefore, she is wary of Cecil, for he arrives bringing with him the rhreat of chaos in a disordered world.
Sometimes, we visit my Father at the bookshop and I play with his typewriter, the old Underwood, pushing down one key at a time to make the mark of a letter on a piece of paper. The typewriter which my sister is to donate to the Church Farm Museum, Hendon:
"The typewriter, upon which the typescripts of stories by Bates, Lawrence and Rhys Davies were produced, has been generously donated by Charles Lahr’s daughter, Oonagh, whose own poems were published by Blue Moon Press. The typewriter will be displayed, with a small selection of books by the many writers associated with Lahr, and portraits of Charles and Esther Lahr by Jacob Kramer, at South Friern Library - just around the corner from Lahr’s house......."
On one such visit, my sister and I stand in the bookshop at 68/69 Red Lion Street alone, my parents in the small room used as a storeroom. A man enters and greets us. all at once I feel hands and fingers at the back of my neck, massaging the top of my spine. exploring hands stretch down the back of my dress. He stands between my sister and me, a hand on both of us, sometimes relinquishing one to concentrate both hands upon the other. I squirm, I want this man to take his thrusting hands away from my person, but what can I do? This is an adult and a customer, the word customer being synonymous with family friend. Suddenly, my mother erupts into the shop and the man hurries out into the street. Some time later, my mother tells me that Gay Taylor, about to enter the shop, had seen what was happening and hurrying to the second entrance had warned my parents "Ross Nichols is doing terrible things to the chiildren!" Nichols is a well-known paedophile. In fact, his landlady on one occasion had entered the shop in great agitation to tell my mother "he did something terrible to my son." But, in those days, and sometimes perhaps today, Victorian virtues made both women and abused children into the guilty parties. The child must have tempted the adult man! One time, my mother and I call upon Nichols’ Holborn lodgings to deliver a book he had ordered. We walk up a narrow staircase, the stairs covered in cheap lino into a room filled by heavy furniture. Nichols dressed in a Scoutmasters uniform sits in an armchair, his bare legs spread wide. With a grin he informs us that he is awaiting the visit of a Boy Scout. A good many years later, I read in a national newspaper gossip column a ‘puff’ for a preparatory school for the young sons of top people. The name of the headmaster: Ross Nichols. The rich are not like us!
Inescapably, the years pass by and in 1937, the year previous to the Crisis, and yet at a time when war clouds threaten, I am sent on a holiday to Hastings with orphans from an Automobile Association funded Home named Willoughby, based at Crystal Palace. My mother haas prepared me for this fortnight’s holiday weeks ahead and she has promised me a ten shilling note for pocket money. Ten whole shillings to spend! Twi spoils my anticipation a little when, my feet balanced on a strut, my hands clinging to its edge, I lean over the fence which divides our two gardens to boast of my expected new wealth. Twi had been given ten shillings to spend on holiday and "it hadn’t gone very far" and then, in mitigation, she adds "of course, I did have to buy plimsolls and they cost 2s.6d." Quickly I add up sums in my head. She had only 7s.6d. I would have ten shillings!
The day arrives and my mother and I take the 134 bus to Victoria, past the equestrian statues - military men balancing stiffly on horses made rigid in motion as if turned to stone by a gorgon. Past the grey cenotaph and the mouldering wreaths at its base; past the Houses of Parliament , its flag at half-mast; past St. Margarets; Westminster Abbey; to the station. A sober-clad group of children of mixed sexes and ages, in the care of two women, await us on the platform. These are the inmates of Willoughby and all have lost one or both parents in a car accident. The holiday has been arranged by Arthur Dawson - referred to in letters by James Hanley and in whose house I spent my days while my mother was in hospital to undergo surgery and receive the disfiguring red scar which stretched down her abdomen. Arthur Dawson is a trustee of the orphanage. He had become interested in this charitable work following the death of his twin brother and sister-in-law in a car crash. He and his wife childless, they had adopted their orphaned nephew John, some three or four years older than myself. During the time when I had visited the Dawsons daily, they had expressed an interest in adopting me also, but my mother had refused. These early encounters with this family forgotten, to me Arthur Dawson is no more than a vague figure of a customer in the bookshop. A thickset man of medium height and raspberry coloured nose. Seemingly, Arthur Dawson maintained an interest in me for on hearing of my asthmatic condition and general poor health, he suggested a holiday at the seaside. It may be that to explain my presence to the Willoughly authorities he insinuated that I was to become a future inmate of the Orphanage. Whatever... this is the information imparted to me by the children. "You’re coming to live with us at Willoughby."
I look at these alien beings who haave no place in my life and deny this future they claim for me. But, I am horribly frightened. What if my parents have agreed with Arthur Dawson that I should live at Willoughby! Behind me line up all the places to which I have been despatched from Herne Bay onwards. But strenuously I continue to deny that I have been abandoned by my parents:
"There’s my ballet lessons....."
"You can learn ballet at Willoughby."
"My violin lessons..."
"You can learn music there."
"We go to school."
I become more and more alarmed and my behaviour more and more bizarre. When I can put this threat to the back of my mind the holiday is happy, for I learn to play Pit and other board games. I find an old xylophone which has on it the old scale including the ‘H’. Therefore, when much later I learn that Bach wrote a piece of music using the notes B A C H I feel a proprietal interest. I am able also to go down to the pier and flip pennies onto a side stall to win cheap gifts of tin brooches or chalk ornaments. However, these pleasant occasions become less frequent as I become more distressed. Every day I write to my mother and this thin thread of blue-black ink maintains my only contact with home.
The large house in which we are holidaying is a private Residential Home and across the passage from my bedroom which I share with five other Willoughby girls, is a bedroom for the permanent residents. Fascinated by their predicament and the vacuum of their lives, I visit them on most evenings. Soon they lie in bed waiting for my entrance. And yet their situation exacerbates my fears, for it seems that they will spend their lives within these walls, and perhaps in this very room. They provide me with puzzling information: "My grandma said I’m not my mummy’s little girl" an eight-year-old tells me earnestly. This is an enigma, for surely she must mean that she’s not her father’s little girl? I am aware that of the two parents it is the mother who cannot deny the fruit of her womb: "My grandma pushed me when I was getting off a ship" the child continues and I see a small girl with short brown hair descending the gangplank of the ‘Queen Mary’ - which I have seen on newsreels - followed by an old lady with white hair. The old lady pushes the child who falls into the water....
Perhaps I too have been deserted, abandoned by my parents. I cry and cry until all the older girls gather around the bed on which I am lying, eyes red, face tear-stained and they assure me that it is all a misitake. I am not to go to Willoughby after all. However, the damage has been done. Whom can I trust? A latent paranoia takes hold and a certain amount of grumbling from the older girls about the quality of the food leads me to pick at it. Perhaps it is poisoned? The clear drinking water in my glass on the table, I pour into the vase of flowers for the same reason. I cannot eat or drink this nourishment which is aimed at my destruction.
Arthur Dawson and his wife live in St. Leonards, but I see nothing of them. During this holiday they invite some of the older girls to tea, but not me. Something must be wrong. One of the girls invited is 14-year-old Biddy, brown-eyed and black-haired. A girl who is afraid to open an umbrella in the house lest someone dies as a result. She enumerates for me the number of persons within her family who had died because they had ignored this superstition: Umbra - total shadow. Biddy speaks bitterly of her mother. "She never visits me and only writes sometimes. She doesn’t care about me, so I don’t care about her!" I ask myself "If Arthur Dawson likes this odd girl and invites her to his home, why not me?" He cannot face me! He had wanted to adopt me when I was a baby, now he plans to confine me to his Orphanage! "You’re coming to live at Willoughby!" jeers a small boy. We are walking in a loose crocodile in the park. In a temper, I rush at the boy and push him over. He picks himself up without crying and I watch the blood run down his leg. I feel myself wrapped in the disapproval of the group and determine to return to 9 Wilton Road, come what may. Where is my return ticket to London? I search through the case stowed under my bed and cannot find it, but miracle of miracles, I make the same search a day or two later and there lies the green half ticket! Hastily, I throw my clothes into the case, shut it and lifting it to the balcony opening off the French windows of the bedroom, drop it over the side where it bounces onto the stony driveway. I wish that I could jump or drop after it, but the ground is too far away and so I hurry down the stairs and out of the front door, only to find the suitcase surrounded by a small group of Willoughby children. The eldest girl, a trusty, carries the case back upstairs. "You’ll be going home next week" she tells me, but I do not believe her.
I will not stay here, case or no case, I am determined to leave. I refuse to be incarcerated within Willoughby. My eyes red from weeping, nonchalantly I walk down the drive watched by the curious eyes of children. "I’m going for a walk" I call out as a cover and while I continue to feel their eyes on my back, no one stops me from leaving. Whether I travel by bus, or walk to the station Icannot remember. In those days the places at which I arrive make the impact. All I know now is that I sit on a bench alongside two comfortable looking middle-aged women and await the London train. "Travelling on your own, dear?" asks one of the women. "My Aunt’s meeting me" I lie. She offers me an apple. This is the first of nine or ten apples I am to eat on that day, for everyone in the small Pullman carriage espying a child travelling alone wants to give me something. And all they have are apples.
Unknown to me, my other has planned to take Oonagh to Worthing on the following weekend to spend a week with Beatrice Hastings at her tiny flat, but now a telegram arrives to tell my parents that I have left St. Leonards and am on my way home. This information having been gleaned from enquiries made at the station. "She said she was meeting her Aunt" says one of the two women sitting on the bench and this perfidious untruth is later related to my parents. It is dusk when I arrive at Victoria to hear the noise and bustle of a busy station. "Where’s your Auntie, dear?" asks one of my benefactors. "Over there!" I reply, jumping from the train and running for it. I find the 134 bus and am home within the hour, to find my parents agitatedly waiting for me. Relieved that I am safe and yet angry. My mother scolds, my father sulks. I weep and at last my mother relents. "Would you like an apple?" she asks. That night I am ill with stomach pains and diarrohea for which the plethora of apples takes the blame. Next morning I go around the house searching for minute changes which have taken place during my absence - I examine the Japanese prints hanging on the wall, touch ornaments and the bulbous blue pair of vases on the mantelpiece, find a new cushion cover, run my eyes along the books on the shelves.
"Oonagh and I were going to stay with Beatrice at Worthing" my mother says reproachfully "but I’ve had to write and say we can’t go, her small flat can’t house more than one other person and a child." I hardly hear her for I am home. But Beatrice sends a bitter letter to say that she hopes I will be made to understand the unhappiness my selfishness and thoughtlessness has caused. A lonely woman, she must havea looked forward with great pleasure to my mother’s short stay. My friends are the young Jones who listen to the sorry tale over tea at their flat. "Good for her!" says Maud "if she didn’t like it there, she was right to come home."
Arthur Dawson does not give up on our family, however, for the following year my sister goes on the Willoughby holiday at St. Leonards. On the morning she and my mother are to leave for Victoria Station, our black and white cat gives birth to kittens so that my mother and sister almost miss the train. My mother travels with Oonagh to St. Leonards and the other passengers in the coach hear of how my sister had comforted the cat by talking to her gently while she gave birth. "The passengers were very impressed" says my mother. And, of course, Oonagh returns from St. Leonards triumphant! Everyone had liked her! They had all said how awful I was! This year there had been another fussy, miserable girl staying there and they had all said we were two of a kind! I shrug away these criticisms for while I now feel guilty about my behaviour and will never be able to meet Arthur Dawson without feeling an acute chagrin, I have friends who like me. And this I see as the natural order of things.
In those days I hated to go away from home. I was unaware that soon I would be caught up in economic and political forces over which my family had no control. The family unit to be tossed aside and our lives and aspirations regimented.
On to The Exodus
Get You Back Home