Before leaving for school, Oonagh always grabs a book from off the library shelves and shoves it down her knickers until we are out of the village. Then she walks along reading while I jump backwards and forwards over ditches, look for berries among the brambles, explore side lanes and greet passers-by. By the time we have covered a mile, or two, I begin to worry about being late for school. Oonagh, head in book, is by now dragging along several yards behind me and I call out to her "I’m not waiting for you!" I am hoping that she will put away her book and catch up with me, but usually she makes no sign of hearing my threat. And so I plod along purposefully, reducing the distance between home and school and lengthening it between my sister and myself. At last the Convent grounds come into view and I heave a sigh of relief, at the same time wondering how long it will be before Oonagh puts in an appearance. When, sudenly, a car draws up and out hops Oonagh. She has hitch-hiked. This becomes a regular occurrence and soon I see myself as a fool to trudge along so virtuously while Oonagh has the best of both worlds, and so I join her in flagging down cars. Or if she has trailed some way behind me and ‘caught’ a car, she asks the driver to stop and pick me up. We see no danger in this for the war is another country in which the government requests drivers to make the best use of their transport. But, I do remember one young man on leave from the RAF, warning us solemnly to be careful from whom we accepted lifts. At this, I am returned to my mother’s country in another time, another placae, to hear her warning against strange men in cars.
One of our favourite lifts is in Captain Ponsonby’s wagon drawn by a sturdy brown horse. Sometimes the wagon is driven by Captain Ponsonby himself, and at other times by his son, either one of them stopping for us. Captain Ponsonby, a thin, wiry man with a nice smile generally makes a few pleasant remarks. The Ponsonbys are a County family, but there is no side with him. His son, in his late teens or early twenties, resembling his father in appearance, is wrapped within hemself for he is still adapting to becoming an adult and a man. This makes him shy and silent with us. I approve of both of these Ponsonbys for they work as farmers and dress for the fields. Very different to the other members of the family, for two of the Ponsonby daughters are at school at St. Clothilde’s. Winifred Ponsonby, my sister’s age, is a small, thin, sharp-faced quick moving, argumentative, aggressive child. June Ponsonby, a year or two older than me, is the exact opposite of Winifred for she is heavy of build, bumbling, slow moving. Her only claim to beauty is her bright blonde hair which frames a heavy plain facae, and to me it seems that such hair is wasted upon her. A Ponsonby cousin, Elgiva, the same age as Winifred, is also at the Convent for she is residing with the Ponsonbys for the duration of the war. Round-faced, pig-tailed and good-natured, she tells me proudly "We’re half American." Both her own father and Captain Ponsonby had married American women. I have heard of the ‘impoverished’ aristocracy marrying American heiresses and wonder whether this is the case here. We come across the Ponsonby children whenever, after school, we have failed to stop a car and so walk past the Ponsonby estate. Winifred, Elgiva and Wilfred, Winifred’s younger brother, or maybe twin, for he is so exactly like her in appearance and character, linger outside the high gates to their home and play in a small alcove. Oonagh and I stop for a moment to hear Winifred giving forth on one matter or another, or arguing with her brother. Elgiva standing quietly by, smiling. I can remember little about June, apart from her appearance, except that she was much given to emitting small screams when at play with the girls of St. Clothilde’s, but this squealing was a general phenomena at the Convent. Recreation passing as a number of shrieks.
On first gaining admittaance to the Convent, Mrs. Shillan had nursed dreams of us being invited home for tea by a County family. An occasion which would lead to her introduction into such society. In this she was to be disappointed. "You don’t seem to have made any friends at the Convent" she remarks ruefully. "I thought the girls would be more friendly." Mrs. Shillan had phoned Mrs. Ponsonby to offer jars of jam made by Cook, only to be rebuffed. I wondered whether the situation might have been different if Mrs. Shillan had speculated to accumulate and bought Oonagh and me the various parts of the expensive St. Clothilde’s uniform which made up the whole! However, I doubt it, for in that type of society one is either in, or out! It is not that the girls or nuns are obviously unfriendly, they merely sense that we come from an alien world and are not part of their scene. In fact, the Reverend Mother, an elderly nun, must have been concerned about us for on one occasion when I am walking with my class through a wide corridor, she stops and looks at me worriedly, to say "this child doesn’t smile enough!" On another occasion, she stops both Oonagh and me on our way out of school to warn us not to become infected by the Shillans’ protestantism. But to me the Convent, and its surroundings, could have been a stage or studio set in which I move around amidst the characters; the nuns in their habits and the pupils dressed in cambridge blue smocks and exhibiting a rosette of the same colour, pinned to one shoulder. The blue rosette is an important prop. An ex-pupil who had remained in London and now attended another school, says her lines. She is visiting for the day and sits at our table for lunch. "All the old girls wore their rosettes on St. Clothilde’s feast day. It caused quite a stir at school" she says. Sister Mary Raymond smiles benignly and on cue.
"We always wonder if she can hear thunder" speaks another girl, referring to her younger sister of eight years who is profoundly deaf as a result of meningitis. In the best Hollywood tradition, a storm rages outside and I look across at the afflicted child who is sitting with the younger children at another table. She turns her head this way and that, her eyes swivelling to scan all about her as if to determine the exact position of the universe and her place within it. When she speaks, for this she has been taught to do, her words come over to me as a series of disconnected odd sounds, each one divorced from the one before.
Towards the end of the term a new girl of about my own age arrives, as boarder at the Convent. She also has no school uniform, but wears that of a previous school, a white-collared navy dress. With large dark eyes and black wavy shoulder-length hair, she is strikingly attractive, but spoiled by a sulky expression and aggressive body language. Sensing that Oonagh and I do not belong in this place, she regards both of us with disdain, pushing past us, her eyes flicking over our clothes. Until, one day after school as I make my way down the stairs to the exit, she calls after me. I turn in surprise and she proffers a few coppers. "I want you to buy me some sweets and bring them to school tomorrow" she says, looking at me as if she is doing me a favour. I refuse, for this is against Convent rules. "I’ll give you twopence for yourself" she promises. "I don’t want your twopence" I retort proudly and to show the sincerity of my refusal to be bribed, agree to purchase for her the sweets without pecuniary reward. Once in Filkins, I buy the sweets in Mr. Gibbs’ shop and on the following day thrust them at the unpleasant girl. And here the plot thickens.
On arriving home that evening, I am hauled up before Mrs. Shillan in the drawing-room, where she sits po-faced, tapping the fingers of one hand on the arm of the settee. The sweets have been discovered by one of the nuns and the miserable girl has blamed me for bringing them in for her. The Reverend Mother has phoned Mrs. Shillan to complain of my evil behaviour. In defending myself, I reveal too much about the kindness shown by Mr. Gibbs and immediately Mrs. Shillan accused me of being mercenary - I am exploiting the shopkeeper by being pleasant to him merely for extra sweets! I am horrified that she should think this of me, and dejected when on my next visit to the sweet shop Mr. Gibbs serves Oonagh and me in silence. Tacitly, I understand that Mrs. Shillan has ‘warned him off’. What she has said to him I do not know, but our former happy relationship is ruined and to the end of our stay not resumed. No happy ending here.
To my surprise, towards the end of term I am given the part of ‘Death’ in the school play. It may well be that this was Reverend Mother’s way of cheering me up. However, to me it was a play within a play! As if I were a Pirandello character. The play, adapted from a Hans Andersen fairy tale entitled ‘The Nightingale’ is about a Chinese Emperor who values a jewelled mechanical bird above the plain brown nightingale. On his deathbed, however, with no one present to wind up the mechanical bird, it is the brown nightingale which sings the Emperor back into life. Death itself relinquishing his claim on the Emperor in exchange for the nightingale’s song:
"The poor Emperor could scarcely breathe; It appeared to him as though something were sitting on his chest; he opened his eyes and saw it was Death, who had put on the Emperor’s crown and held with one hand the gold scimitar, with the other the splendid Imperial banner, whilst from under the folds of the thick velvet hangings, the strangest looking heads were seen peering forth; some with an expression absolutely hideous, and others with an extremely gentle and lovely aspect; they were the bad and good deeds of the Emperor which were now all fixing their eyes upon him, whilst Death sat on his heart....."
I am minus the crown, the gold scimitar or the splendid Imperial banner, and certainly lack the thick velvet hangings. Instead I must dress in a long black robe and monk’s cowl. Assiduously, I set myself to learn the script, for this is not merely rote learning, but has an end in view. The part begins ‘I am Death’, but unfortunately, the rhythm of the words are the same as a quote learned over many years from the catechism:
Thou art Peter,
And upon this rock I will build my church;
And the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against
it..... Matthew 16 18-19
which means that I have to fight against combining the two speeches. As it happens, I can never truly get into the part, for although I am word perfect, the speech comes out of my lips woodenly and drops with a dull thud on the stage. "I hope the little ones aren’t frightened by the black figure" I hear a sister whisper to another as I pass by. "She doesn’t act well enough for that" says the other disparagingly, and in a stage whisper. She hadn’t told me anything I didn’t know already! But, on one occasion, the school watching, I provide an interesting, if unexpected performance. In this non-purpose built school, the stage is formed by putting together a number of tables and covering them with a heavy cloth. Unfortunately, a gap has been left between two of the tables. Of course, I walk straight into it as I exit stage left, and suddenly, with much clatter, the greater part of me falls down the hole, and I drag with me the stage covering! No one at the Convent reproaches me for this fiasco, and later in the privacy of my bedroom, I chuckle at the scene of myself dressed so sombrely and yet disappearing as if I were a pantomime Dame shooting through a trap-door!
The school term having come to an end, we are left with much leisure-time on our hands. Therefore, possibly influenced by the prayers said at the Convent for the dead and dying, decide to do something for the dead. The dying being outside our scope. Several times a week Oonagh and I spend an hour or two in weeding the cemetery, crawling round very old graves whom no one visits, because no one is left to do so. We institute also a weekly ritual whereby we place at the foot of the village war memorial a jar of water and wildflowers plucked from the hedgerows. I carry the jam jar carefully, taking care not to spill the water and Oonagh clutches the blue, purple, white flowers in a procession of two, down through the village. On arriving at the memorial, I take from her the flowers, put them in the jar and then end over solemnly to stand the whole on the step. After that we read through the names on the memorial until they become those of old friends. Maybe this was our way of remaining in contact with the war, for at the Shillans we saw no newspapers and heard no radio. The last news I had of the war was the fall of France and the withdrawal from Dunkirk. This at a time when I was leaving 9 Wilton Road to go to Filkins. The retreat of the British forces joined up with my hurried removal, and so I felt at one with the soldiers, many of them wounded, waiting on the beach for rescue.
At about this time, Mrs. Shillan decides to evict Oonagh and me from the two comfortabaly carpeted bedrooms which we occupy and spend some time in vacuum cleaning each Saturday morning. We are exiled to an attic, our beds set alongside one another. This, I am convinced, is a demotion, for the attics are the domain of the servants and it may well be that we took over the maid Dorothy’s room, for she has by now quitted the Shillans’ service. The attic is bare apart from two beds, a locker by each, an old-fashioned wardrobe and muddy brown floor covering. Beside the wardrobe and each side of the window hang shiny dark blackout curtaining. The adjoining attic, the door always open, is unused, but a double bed stands at its centre. A bed with iron bed-rests at head and foot. A narrow winding staircase leads from this adjoining attic to the floor below, while on the other side of our attic a corridor separates us from further attics, in one of which Cook and her husband sleep. The wide main staircase is also on this side. Oonagh and I now lie with our heads under a sloping ceiling and on awakening in the morning, if I sit up without thinking, I give myself a bang on the head. On the locker beside my bed I place a photograph of my father’s face, taken by Douglas Glass, a well-known photographer. In this photo, my father’s head is turned slightly to one side, pipe in mouth (an indication that it was taken before 1938 for following that year’s Budget increase in tobacco tax, my father renounced smoking for ever!) In the photo he sports a small moustache and a few hairs above his chin pass for a beard. Deep lines run each side of his mouth, but his most prevalent feature is a long, straight nose, which seems to jut out of the picture. Good humoured eyes, black hair receding slightly and combed back, and a Schlap Ohr. My father’s shirt is open at the neck and also a little of his dark coat can be seen. Cook, a short, squat woman in late middle-age, looks in on us and I show her the photo. She takes it from me to examine my father’s face closely, concluding at last "he’s a very handsome man, your father!" When, some months later, I repeat Cook’s remark to my mother, she says, with some asperity, "servant girls always fall for him!" But I am pleased with Cook’s praise, for I see it as spilling over myself.
In spite of my demotiion, I find some pleasure in these attics. It seems that we are a long way above the main house and, therefore, the more private. We think up games to play and rig up two empty cocoa tins at both ends of a long piece of string as a telephone. Together with Oonagh, I pass one end outside the window to be pulled into the window of the adjoining attic. It is while I am involved in this that I see scratched into the slate of the short sloping roof at window-sill level, several names:
Names from the war memorial! I am excited. Why are these names recorded at The Vicarage in this unofficial manner? I could have dreamed up all kinds of stories, but the most obvious was that the six men had been servants at what was now The Vicarage before the First World War and had slept in these very attics! "Just think of it!" I say in awe to Oonagh, almost feeling the shadowy presence of men as they were in death, and yet dressed in khaki, their legs wound by puttees. "They once stood here, where we are standing now!" This discovery makes our weekly ritual at the war memorial even more compelling.
Of course, if any house should have been haunted, it was The Vicarage, for its walls had watched over the dying and the dead for many centuries. Therefore, it was no surprise to awake one night to the sound of footsteps in the adjoining attic. I am fearful and will not risk calling attentiion to myself by sitting up, or calling out. Instead, I lie and listen to the footsteps as they go on and on and on, as if someone were walking round and round, or up and down, until at last they come to an end and the springs of the double bed give a loud shriek. The bedclothes tucked firmly under my chin, I peer, straining my eyes into the darkness, but see nothing except blackness. Then I hear the sound of shaking and flapping and my eyes are drawn to the window of the next-door attic. where I see the blackout curtain moving backwards and forwards as if possessed. I tense, clutching the bed-clothes ever more tightly around me and at last the curtain stills itself. Then with a shock, I see that the black outline of the curtain no longer ends at the window-sill, but now continues to the floor. I lie without moving, desperately wanting to put out a hand into the night to feel for the torch on my bedside locker. And yet afraid of what my hand might meet in the darkness. Oonagh makes no sound but intuitively I know she too is awake and watching. At last I fall asleep, watching that long, black image and awake to brightness and seeming normality. The adjoining attic with its sparse furnishings and dull decor betraying nothing of the terrors of the night. Oonagh has also seen the ghost, she too unable to make a sound, has watched in fear the black cowled shape. We shiver with apprehension and all that day follow one another about the house as if stuck together by glue. For several days, neither one of us will enter the attic without the other.
I ask the Shillans if the house is haunted and even waylay the Vicar outside the gates to put to him the same question. But the Shillans laugh in the superior way of adults who, imagining that children are playing a game, do not take such questions seriously. While the Vicar gazes at the two of us in perplexity and pats each of us on the head. After that, I take my torch into bed with me, determining upon finding the courage to shine it should the glost return. But as the days and nights pass without incident, our terror subsides and the attic becomes once more no more than a barely furnished space, exorcised by our fast diminishing fears.
The Shillans go away for a few days, leaving Oonagh and me in the care of Cook who feeds us, but otherwise happily leaves us to our own devices. We are sitting in the library, able to read openly for more than our allotted fifteen minutes, when a knock sounds on the front door. I run to answer it and on pulling it back, find Lawrence Jones standing on the doorstep, his hair redder than ever, his smile just as wide. I throw myself into his arms and invite him into the house. Having questioned him as to where he is going and how he happens to be in Filkins, Oonagh and I take him to view the grand piano in the drawing-room. This because we know that Jones is a musician and we want him to feel at home. I have never heard this piano played, but it is unlocked, Jones sits himself down on the stool and charms music from the white and black notes, music which sounds throughout the old house, making the walls and floors sing and the furnishings dance.
Jones is cycling to Whiteways, north-east of Stroud. Whiteways being a village founded in 1898 by a Tolstoyan group of Anarchists who built their own houses, for the most part wooden shacks. The land was held in common and the inhabitants supported a few small workshops. Gillian Darley writes in Villages of Vision "Long after the Chartist land colonies had faded from public view, one practical attempt was made to set up a community based on a similar brand of self-sufficiency supported by home-based industry."
Jones would like to stay in Filkins overnight and asks if we know of any place he can pitch his tent. Proudly, Oonagh and I escort him to Mr. Pryor who offers Jones the field at the side of his house. Mr. Pryor smiling at Oonagh and me and speaking in a friendly manner to our friend from London. Next morning we watch Jones until he, his bicycle and the pack on his back, are out of sight. Later in the day, the Shillans return to be informed immediately that we had invited a strange man into the house, and what was worse, he had gone into the drawing-room to play the piano! "How dare he!" rails Mrs. Shillan. She is in a fury. Her face red, her limbs twitching. "A stranger in my house, playing my piano! The man is obviously ill-bred, ill-mannered." I try to explain. "He’s our friend, our parents’ friend, they asked him to call on us......" "He should have written for permission" Mrs. Shillan says grimly. "And come only when I and Mr. Shillan are home." I want to weep, not on my own account, but for Jones who had come out of his way to do us a kindness and whose character is being scathingly denigrated by Mrs. Shillan.
Although the grand piano in the drawing-room is no more than a piece of furniture, Mrs. Shillan has some interest in music. For one morning, from the confines of the drawing-room comes a loud rhythmic sobbing. I peer through the French windows from the garden side and spy Mrs. Shillan on a low armless chair, dressed in white blouse and bloomers. Across her knees she flexes a large saw with one hand, while in the other she holds a violin bow. She sees me peering through and window and beckons me into the room. There I listen to the loud crying of ‘The Blue Danube’. Later, she tells Oonagh and me that Mr. Shillan had seen a busker playing the saw, and going up to him had asked whether she would be willing to give his wife lessons. The next day the busker came to the house to be greeted benevolently, if patronisingly, by Mrs. Shillan, who is proud of this example of Shillan democracy. The busker had brought with him a saw and after humming and ha’ing, asked Mr. Shillan if he would object to his wife playing dressed in bloomers. This because a skirt impaired movement. "Mr. Shillan and I are both broad-minded" says Mrs. Shillan "and the man was married, so I didn’t make a fuss about it. I took off myskirt and sat in my knickers." She gives a little smirk. In my mind’s eye I can see the shabby busker secretly laughing at having reduced this well-heeled middle-class woman to her knickers. And in Mrs. Shillan, I sensed that to appear in her underwear before this strange, rough man, gave an added spice to the lessons!
Mr. Shillan’s granddauaghter Jean comes to stay, the daughter of his older son now an Officer in the Navy. A bouncy, lively girl of about my age and very interested in sex. She asks Oonagh and me whether we have ever seen a man’s ‘thing’ and tells us a story about a couple doing ‘it’ while standing up in a cinema. A story which puzzles me, for I, in my innocence, think ‘sleeping together’ necessitates lying down! "I wish Jean were at a nice school like St. Clothilde’s" I hear Mrs. Shillan say to her husband "they send her to such odd schools!" But, although the Shillans might disapprove of her upbringing, she was family, to be preferred, and believed before Oonagh and me. For while at The Vicarage Jean, sorting through a cupboard in the library, comes across a pile of bakelite records in their sleeves. She takes one out to examine it and, of course, drops it, the black, shiny record snapping into two halves. Guiltily, she returns both halves to the sleeve and says to me "don’t tell anyone, will you!" The broken record she puts to the bottom of the pile. A week or two following Jean’s departure, Mrs. Shillan tackles me about the broken record. "If it were an accident" she says, trying to sound reasonable, her voice controlled, "I know it can’t be helped. But it was deceitful to put it back in the sleeve and hide it in the cupboard!" She looks down at me from a great height, waiting for my apology. At last I say "it wasn’t me who broke it. Jean broke it." Mrs. Shillan does not believe me. Jean was a Shillan and Shillans did not do such things and, anyway, why hadn’t I said anything about it before now?" "She asked me not to" I retort. Mrs. Shillan would have noe of it. "Jean wouldn’t be so deceitful" she says flatly and there is no way I can convince her otherwise. Some years later I read in the newspapers that Mr. Shillan’s second son, Philip, was arrested in a tube statioin in London for travelling up the escalator and on the way pinching women’s bottoms. Remembering this incident of the record, I was delighted that a Shillan had been caught out!
Gwenda Coy arrives as an evacuee in answer to one of Mrs. Shillan’s advertisements and with three children in the house she needs to employ a governess. and so Miss Moss, a tall, thin, plain middle-aged woman now becomes part of our household. I can remember nothing almost of the lessons she gave us, apart from one story I wrote as an English composition. This was about the Severn flooding and families having to run for their lives to escape drowning. I had never been to the West Country at that time, nor seen the Severn, but both Miss Moss and Mrs. Shillan admitted the story read well and Mrs. Shillan promised to type it. Of course, she never got around to it, in spite of Gwenda’s reproaches, for although several years younger than me, we were friends. Another story, which I wrote to please myself resulted from watching Mr. Shillan cutting the grass with a motor mower. a powerful machine which he appeared to have difficulty in controlling. I envisiioned it getting away from him to run amok in the grounds, out of The Vicarage gates and scything its way through the village. I show this story to no one, but a few days later Mrs. Shillan remarks, half-teasingly, "so a fat old man can’t control a mower!" Embarrassed, I murmur an inaudible reply. At the time I assume that I must have left the story open to view. Now I am sure that Mrs. Shillan regularly examined our sparse belongings, letters and writings. This because Oonagh and I were dubbed ‘police evacuees’. A fact which I, chilled by excitement on first hearing the term applied to me, recorded in my notebook in a code of dots and dashes which I had invented and used with Colleen. Perhaps the Shillans had been instructed by the authorities to maintain constant surveillance in order to ensure that Oonagh and I were not collecting or passing military information to Hitler - or Stalin!
As the eldest child at The Vicarage, I am expected to set an example to Oonagh and Gwenda, but I am not certain what type of example is required by the Shillans. However, I must have got it right at least once, for Mrs. Shillan added a 3d piece to my pocket money for that week. She says, handing me the coin "because this week you have been so good and helpful to Oonagh and, especially, Gwenda." I rack my brains to discover how my behaviour had differed during that week in comparison with all the weeks that went before and after, but for the life of me could find no answer! In those days I found the Shillans’ antagonism towards me puzzling for in my own eyes I never did anything really bad - like stealing, or lying - well, perhaps the occasional white lie. I had soon learned to hold my tongue when opinions were expressed with which I disagreed, or if the Shillan activities amused me, but the expressions on my face gave me away. Rather like Bud Flanagan, of the Crazy Gang, who when in the army was charged by his Sergeant with ‘dumb insolence and insubordination’. the Sergeant accusing him of "linsulting me with his eyes." And yet, of course, the Shillans had a legitimate complaint against my roof climbing. It is possible that the Yew Tree had whetted my appetite for this, for I scale the side of the house to perch on the gently sloping stone roof. And what is worse, I encourage the other two children to do the same. From the top of the roof I can see the world. I am a mountaineer, a climber of cliffs. Therefore, we slide down the inclines with no thought of displaced tiles or broken limbs. Miss Moss calling out to us ineffectually, to come down, to be careful, but we take no notice of her. How many times we climb these roofs I cannot now remember, but at last Mrs. Shillan catches us and all hell is let loose! It is then that I sneak on poor Miss Moss. To me, in those days, adults were adults and held power. Theoretically, I understood that some were more powerful than others - the exploited and the exploiters- but I did not understand fully that in the hands of the employer, the employee is put into the position of a child.
"Would you like to join your mother on the Isle of Man?" Mrs. Shillan asks me. We are in the grounds. The Shillans sitting in wicker chairs while Oonagh and I chase about in a game of our own. Mrs. Shillan has called me over to put this question. I am taken aback. The question has come as a shock. I do not know what to say. "I don’t know" I stutter "I don’t know what it’s like over there!" To me this reply appears straight-forward and only common sense, but Mrs. Shillan reddens, her eyes giving out sparks. She has taken my answer to mean that I might be worse off on the Isle of Man. Once again I have proved my ingratitude and confirmed her view of me as mercenary. But, no plans are made for my removal to the Isle of Man and a week or two later Mrs. Shillan calls me to her in the drawing-room. "Sit down" she says, patting the space beside her on the settee. Gingerly, I accept her invitation. She looks at me half smiling and says "you haven’t done too well at school, have you? I think you should go into a domestic science course when you’re fourteen." She explains that I would leave school to work in the kitchen of a College or other Institution which trained girls in domestic ‘science’. I am outraged, but say nothing because I am lost for words. There is no point in trying to explain myself to this woman. Later, I fume to Oonagh "she wants to put me into domestic service!" For the following few days I stamp about The Vicarage grounds and even consider going to the Isle of Man. It is difficult for me to know now why I was so opposed to going there. Certainly, a few years later I am to regret a missed opportunity to learn German. But, I guess that at the time it stuck in my craw to be dubbed an ‘alien’.
Fortunately, I do not have to agonise for long, for suddenly out of the blue a letter arrives from Twi, to whom I have written regularly: "Your mother and father are home and I have been round to see your lmother today. She looks very well and brown....." In amazement, I take the letter to Mrs. Shillan who, of course, has already read it. "Isn’t she a naughty girl!" she says "I’m sure it’s not true!" But I know Twi, she would not pull that sort of practical joke. Believing and yet disbelieving, I continue to ponder the conundrum until a telegram arrives:
BOTH HOME LETTER FOLLOWING
While I have been fretting and fuming, my parents, reunited on the boat, have been making the crossing from the Isle of Man to the mainland. As the boat rocks to and fro, once again my father remembers his first journey over the sea to England, the coastline obscured by a yellow fog. For my mother, the journey evokes folk memories of the flight made by her people from Poland, persecutiion and pograms. Both of them mourn those drowned on the Arandora Star. My parents have been released as a result of Fenner Brockway taking up their case and questions being asked in the House of Commons. On the inside pocket of his jacket my father nurses a piece of Army issue notepaper, on which his twenty-two fellow prisoners in House No. 8, Onchan, have written their names and addresses. On the other side of this paper is a poem by Dr. Willy Salomon in praise of my father. This my daughter Esther has translated from the German, and I have put into verse in English, maintaining the intention of the original:
Herewith upon my honour I testify
That should a cook to bake or boil for fry,
Be wanted then Charles Lahr is your man
For he can magic soup from out the pan,
To feed the many from a pot so little,
Did he add to it his piss, or was it spittle?
And did he mix ingredients with bare feet
Treading and splashing until the soup’s complete?
But as he will not tell us what he did
The secret of his recipes remain hid.
Whoever will employ this marvellous guy,
W ill discover to his pleasure by and by,
That cooking is not his only gift,
For his wind music brings with it a whiff
That makes you block your nose and close your ears.
Additionally Eine Kleine Nacht Musik blares,
With snores of a singing sawing sound
Which shakes and wakes the neighbourhood around.
And so I swear there are these reasons three,
And I say again in all sincerity,
For anyone who will Charles employ,
His attributes will give perpetuall joy!
At the news of my parents’ release I am jubilant and even more so when in the following week Mr. Shillan, who is driving to London on business, takes Oonagh and me with him. As I enter home territory, and see the familiar landmarks and at last Wilton Road, I want to put out my arms to embrace houses, streets and people, all mine! Mr. Shillan sets us down outside No. 9 and, having said our good-byes, Oonagh and I hurry through the back entrance to find my mother busying herself in the scullery. I am home, home, home! I go from room to room touching furniture, books, ornaments, stroking them with my hands as if I am marking my territory. But there are depredations, for both my Aunt Mary and the Rowleys have been busy in our absence. The two weeks or so before sending for us have been spent by my parents in fighting for the return of their household goods.
On to Blitzkrieg
Get You Back Home