9: IN TROUBLE:
Meanwhile, back at 9 Wilton Road my mother hurries each day to the bookshop in Red Lion Street. No longer do Oliver Cromwell, Henry IRETON AND john Bradshaw follow at a distance, conversing and traversing a path now lost. Instead their decapitated bodies hang from a gibbet in the Square while my mother walks quickly by, her face averted. And as she half runs, she feels the presence of the condemned on their way to Tyburn struggling vainly to free limbs bound to hurdles which take them inexorably down the concreted-over banks of the lost river Bourne.
I knownothing of how my mother coped from day to day to earn our keep. Her knowledge of the book business was almost as good as myu father’s and her business sense rather better, but on opening the shop door on that first morning she feels as if this task is insuperable. In Corruption of a Poet, Kenneth Hopkins writes:
"The shop was about ten feet by twelve, and the front wall was all window.....As the window was lined floor to ceiling with books, and had also a screen at the back, practically no light penetrated...The walls were lined with books, and in the middle was a gas radiator over which a rickety arrangement of shelves supported, precariously, a great pile of periodicals, books, pamphlets, a typewriter, string, about two thirds of a loaf, several pipes and various oddments of India rubber, cheese, carbon paper..."
That morning there are no customers, but she shrugs off her misery by tidying the heaps, moving them from one pile to another. She then sets about examining the shelves, endeavouring to memorise the whereabouts of the stock. A difficult task for if my father had any system of classification he kept it to himself. "Hello!" says a man’s voice behind her. "I didn’t expect to see you open." She stiffens. Here is someone who knows the dreadful family secret. She returns to confront a respectably dressed man in dark suit and hat. "Where’s Charlie?" "He’s ill" my mother mumbles. "Sorry about that. So you’ve taken charge. No wonder you’re open so early, he’s never here before eleven thirty and quite often not until the afternoon.
This puzzles my mother, for my father has left the house before eight o’clock each morning, having first brought my sister and I the juice of a squeezed out orange. Here is a mystery and she worries over it all day and the next and the next, for the remarks concerning my father’s short business hours continue throughout the succeeding days. Of course, she knows it was necessary for my father to shut the shop while he searched for books ordered, cycling round other secondhand bookshops, or the Farringdon Road Book Masrket, but surely this had not taken up every morning of the working week? She determines upon finding an answer and at last she drags out of friends, acquaintances and customers the reluctant admission that my father spent much time in the pub, both morning and evening, and she also finds out about Phyllis Marshall, who is ever after called ‘the fat woman’ by my mother. With regard to ‘the fat woman’, in 1990 my sister tells me a story which I must have heard previously and then put away in the folded recesses of my memory. My sister says:
"My mother is home alone with a small child and a baby, the time dragging by, almost standing still, as she wipes over the scullery floor, sweeps the kitchen and undertakes the hundred and one tasks necessary for the care of a family. If Sheila and the baby sleep for an hour or two this afternoon she can live vicariously in a book, a few pages of which she snatches at each day. Suddenly, she hears a key in the door. My father? She glances at the clock. If so, he is before his time. She opens the kitchen door to look up into the hallway and sees him moving slowly towards her, behind him a large dark-haired woman.
"My mother calls out "Is anything wrong?" In her voice is the beginnings of panic. My father doesn’t look at her, but walks into the kitchen, forcing her to retreat, the fat woman following and pushing past my mother. ‘You can go’ my father says truculently to my mother, refusing to meet her eyes. "Phyllis will take care of the children.’ My mother looks at my father’s stubborn face and shaded eyes. She examines the large woman. ‘Another earth mother’ she says to herself.
"’And then Mum was very clever’ says my sister. My mother speaks calmly and with an effort shrugs her shoulders. ‘I’d better show you where everything is kept’ and she exhibits the nappies to be washed, the sink, the bottles to be boiled and the milk to be prepared, my special toddler diet, the floor cloth, the broom, the dustpan and brush, the gas copper, the saucepans, the larder, the vegette in which lie vegetables to be peeled and cooked, the beds to be made....until ‘the fat woman’ takes fright and runs out of the house calling out that Charlie had made a mistake and she can’t stay."
How that left my parents I do not know, but they survived somehow, pushing the incident away to be remembered only on odd occasions, my father more successful in this than my mother.
My sister makes no effort to forget. She has brooded on the matter for more than sixty years, this story related to her by my mother growing in her concern as one year piles on another. Desperate to discover the secret of ‘the fat woman’ shortly before my father’s death in 1971 she has spent her days in diligently searching my father’s mail, both past and present. At last she is rewarded with a carefully folded yellowing letter in his trouser pocket and as she touches the creased paper a thrill of anticipation runs up her finger-tips, into her hand, up her arm, across her heart to culminate who knows where? It is a letter, affectionate, even loving, signed ‘Phyllis’. My sister has struck oil.
By now my father is confined to one room, surrounded by newspapers, books and letters going back half a century, dusty heaps littering the room, yellow mouldering paper, fading ink. His legs ulcerated, his energy failing. "Would you like Phyllis Marshall to visit you?" my sister asks him. "Who? I don’t know what you mean" my father growls, looking away and ducking his head. "Phyllis Marshall" my sister says, implacable, almost spelling it out. "You’re both old and don’t have much time left. She could come over to visit and talk about the past. Cheer you up." "I don’t know what you’re talking about" my father says. "I found a letter from her in your trouser pocket" my sister says patiently. "I’ve had no letters" my father insists doggedly. My sister can go no further with my father, but she will not leave the matter alone. She must track down ‘the fat woman’ to her lair. To tell her of my father’s condition and the little time left to both of them.
The address written at the head of the letter is in Russell Square, and so my sister checks the telephone book to ascertain that ‘the fat woman’ still lives there. Thus armed, she then dials the number. "Yes?" replies a cautious voice. My sister announces herself and the connection is immediately broken. She phones again and again with the same result until P. Masrshall’s phone registers a permanently engaged number. It, and she, off the hook. My sister rethinks the matter. If the mountain won’t come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain. She takes the ‘bus to Tottenham Court Road and walks through side streets to Russell Square. The flat in which Phyllis Marshall lives is in a block and at its entrance my sister is faced by an interphone. She presses the buzzer. "Yes?" asks a cautious voice. My sister announces herself and adds quickly "I only want to see you for a moment to speak about my father." There is no reply. She pushes and pulls at the entrance door, but it will not budge. She presses the tradesmen’s and other buzzers to the flats, with no result. She is locked out. What can she do? She goes to see Rhys Davies who lives close-by and he operates his buzzer on her behalf. She walks up the stairs to his flat where he is waiting by the open front door. She stands in the hallway. "I only want to speak to Phyllis Marshall" my sister explains. "To invite her to visit my father now that they’re both so old and don’t have much time left. Rhys, himself old and frail, promises to se what can be done. He is puzzled. Why has Oonagh called upon him? Why, after all these years, should she want Phyllis to visit 9 Wilton Road? My sister returns home and waits and waits, but Phyllis never arrives and my father dies leaving my sister frustrated and unresolved.
To my mother, the knowledge that up to the time of his imprisonment my father had continued the liaison with ‘the fat woman’ makes her very bitter. Especially so when she begins to realise that he has been oiling the relationship with money - small sums to be sure, but in times of hardship an additional commitment has taken the very food from out of her children’s mouths. She knows now why they were always so desperately short of money, for not only was my father paying towards Phyllis’ support, but dribbling money away on drink. Often he had arrived home late smelling of beer, to meet my mother’s aggrieved look. Her mouth drooping, her eyes accusing. Old-fashioned. He feels her unspoken censure and mumbles, his expression sulky. "I stopped on the way home for only one pint. I saw a customer and he paid for it." Or sometimes, but no too often, "A good customer asked me to have a drink with him while he wrote out a big order." "What big order" my mother asks, but she never gets to the end of this story.
Of course, my sister and I know that my father likes a drink for each week on our way home from Alexandra Palace, he disappears through the doors of each pub on the route, leaving us to wait for him on the step. Occasionally, he reappears for a moment to thrust at each of us in turn his beer glass so that we can sip a little of the brown liquid. Then once more he vanishes through the swing doors. This becomes our usual routine until a neighbour living opposite one of the pubs, complains to the police that each Sunday she witnesses the corruption of young souls from demon drink. After that none of the pubs will serve my father. I wonder what all the fuss is about for I don’t even like the bitter taste of the stuff and sup it only to please my father whom, I know, has offered it so as to reassure his children that they are not forgotten.
How long my father would have borne this walk from the Palace each Sunday without sustenance I do not know, for his conviction intervened and later he was to say that imprisonment saved him from alcoholism. Although, to the end of his life he enjoyed a glass of beer, never again was he to drink excessively. Instead, he would go into a pub, buy one pint only and putting the glass to his lips, perform the act of swallowing quickly without once removing the glass from his lips. All eyes upon him while the brown beer vanished down his gullet.
My mother might have been able to hide my father’s drinking and love affair from her mother and sister, but she could not, and did not attempt to hide my father’s arrest. Instead, in her distress she runs to my grandmother who putting aside all dissatisfaction with my mother’s life-style, rushes to sustain her hurt child. In the short story about the court case in Something Short and Sweet Bates describes my grandmother as ‘a dusky Jewess with sausage hands and a mouth wracked by the immemorial pain of the race.’ Not a picture I recognise, for my grandmother was fair, blue-eyed and slight of build and, if her mouth was ‘wracked’ at the time, it was in misery for and sympathy with my mother.
My mother might not have to worry about her mother’s reactions, but those of Becky are to be dreaded. However, as it happens, at this time my Aunt has troubles of her own so that she barely notices those of the Lahr family. The nineteen year old Florrie is pregnant and unmarried. ‘In trouble’ as the vernacular put it. "She’s in trouble...trouble...trouble..." the word becoming synonymous for me, when a child, with pregnancy outside marriage. Now this ‘trouble’ has become personified for me in the thickening form of my cousin Florrie, for she has ‘loved unwisely and too well’. She has met a suave older man, several years her senior, in fact, probably old enough to be her father and she has believed his professions of love, his plans for their future together, his intention to open a business with her as a partner.... Now he, Raymond, tells the gullible girl that he is married, and makes use of the male get-out "How do I know it’s my child you’re carrying?"
I had met Raymond shortly at a time when Florrie had brought him to 9 Wilton Road to parade him before my mother as her intended. Her sits in a wooden armchair to the side of my mother’s pride and joy, the Ideal Boiler. His crumpled face grins at us wolfishly. Florrie, a plump girl whose straight brown hair is twisted into curl, her pale face marked by the excrescences of acne, sits at the table watching him anxiously, hanging onto his every word. When Raymond, with Florrie trailing after him, have left the house, my mother says firmly "He’s a white slave trader." My mother knows about such things for East End girls have taken in this knowledge with their mother’s milk, have breathed it in with the air of the streets. Have whispered bed-time stories which tell of how many an immigrant girl arriving alone at the docks, confused and unable to communicate, has been trapped into a life of shame. Girls walked a tightrope between poorly paid exploitive wearisome work regarded as respectable, and a life in the gutter. As women hurry through the streets, a white slaver takes shape on every street corner, waiting to lure, or abduct, them away from family and friends. For, as William Fishman writes in East End 1888 (pubd. Duckworth 1988):
"Here (in England) young men were employed to pick up lonely girls embarking at the dockside and inveigle them to a place of refuge which soon revealed itself as a brothel. Within the ghetto the single girl, living alone provided a permanent challenge to the seducer-cum-procurer."
Even Sylvia Pankhurst and Nora Smyth are caught up in this panic on 3 January while walking to Hackney through Victoria Park. Sylvia is liable for arrest and imprisonment under the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act 1913 (known as Cat and Mouse Act). They keep a sharp look out for police and when they are confronted by plain clothes detectives turn to run, but at that moment, from all four corners of the park a crowd comes hurrying. Word had gone around that ‘white slave traffickers’ are at their nefarious work. The crowd shout and threaten the men, getting between them and the two suffragettes, to push the men away. Until, to the crowd’s delight, a uniformed Constable arrives. "Go with him, my dears" the crowd calls. "You’ll be safe with him." And so Sylvia is seized and taken to Holloway prison. (From Women’s History Walk: Tower Hamlets Local History Library No. LP4350 015 29.7.79).
However, it is beside the point as to whether, or not, Raymond is a white slave trafficker, what is more to the point is that Florrie is pregnant and he doesn’t want to know about it. Weeping, she comes to my mother. She has told her own mother, my Aunt Becky, but both of them are frightened of Gussie’s reaction. "He won’t let me stay at home. He’ll throw me out!" Florrie cries. "I can’t have this baby." This at a time when many an unmarried mother was certified as ‘morally defective’ and confined to a lunatic asylum for life, or sent to a colony for the feeble minded. Her child taken away at birth to be lost in the labyrinths of institutions. But my mother will not see this child harshly ejected from the womb while yet an amoeba - the victim of castor oil, slippery elm, Bols gin, a knitting needle or concoction from a sympathetic chemist, to bleed into the white bath and be swirled down the plughole, glug, glug, glug, into the seething sewers. Instead, she makes Florrie a promise that if her father turns her out she can stay with us at 9 Wilton Road, where she sits asround for most of the day growing bigger and mourning her lost love and listening to the wireless playing that year’s top of the pops ‘Smoke gets in your eyes...’:
I asked him how I knew
That our love was true....
My sister and I, boarding at the Convent, see Florrie only on a Sunday, my sister sharing her bed for the night. Perhaps in frustration at this enforced proximity with a comparative stranger, or in a dream, one morning early my sister kicks out at her bed-mate, hitting her in the belly. Florrie gives a loud cry and my mother, entering the room at that moment, hurries to her side "What’s the matter" What’s wrong!" she asks, alarmed. Florrie sniffs, sitting up in bed and nursing her swollen stomach. "She kicked me!" she complains. My mother, exasperated by the daily toil of her life and a myriad of worries, turns on my sister who by now is sitting on the edge of the bed, sleepy and confused. "You kicked Florrie!" she accuses. "You could have killed her baby!" My sister says nothing, but for the rest of her life never puts herself into the position of responsibility for the survival of a foetus.
It is during these months of Florrie’s confinement that my Aunt Becky and her family decide to move to Barnet - a bus ride away from Muswell Hill - for they must escape from neighbours who know of their daughter’s disgrace. My Aunt is the mainspring in this move for Gussie’s first reaction is against it. He feels safe in these East End streets which he haas come to know. Here he lives among Jewish people, many from his own shetl and has their recognition and respect. He works as a presser and has seen no need to learn to read and write, therefore the unfamiliar remains a perpetual threat. He knows of no Jewish community in Barnet and his experiences in Poland havae given him no trust in gentiles. However, at last he gives way and so he, my Aunt, and their family move away from Stepney’s long history of refuge for those seeking shelter from oppression, the Hugenots who weaved their silk in the 17th century, the Irish escaping the potato famine and the Jews freeing themselves from pogroms.
The child born, my mother has to convince Gussie that he must provide a home for Florrie and her infant and so she calls him over to Wilton Road where Florrie sits in an armchair in our living-room, her baby in her arms. "There is your grandchild" my mother says, pointing at the baby, Florrie looking away and not meeting her father’s eyes. My mother continues, throwing her arms wide, her voice rising "Do you want to turn your own daughter and your grandchild out on the streets?" No, Gussie doesn’t want that, and so he picks up the bag which my mother has packed in preparation, and Florrie, clasping her bundle to her bosom, follows her father home to Barnet on the 134 bus. There, where the family is unknown, the baby can be brought up as a late child born to my Aunt.
These troubles and her dependence upon my mother’s support has meant that, in my mother’s presence at least, my Aunt holds guard over her tongue and does not express the censorious thoughts passing through her mind with regard to my father, or the attendance of my sister and me at a Convent.
On the other side of the family, my Aunt Mary also has her troubles and just at a time when she had expected her life to improve, or at least be straightforward. For my Aunt had at last managed to provide a home for her boys by taking out a mortgage on a leasehold property at 3 Leathwaite Road, Battersea and it was to this address that in their early ‘teens Cecil and Ted return from the Paris orphanage referred to by their mother euphemistically as a boarding-school. Most of the house my Aunt lets out as furnished rooms so as to provide the family with an income, while she and the boys live in the basement. And it is from here that Cecil is to stagger through his days, control continually slipping from his grasp, while my Aunt, in love and bitterness, does her best to guide and contain his every movement. Foster mothers, an English Catholic Orphanage and the Paris Orphelinat have disciplined away Cecil’s identity and he does not know who he is.
"Cecil was so clever" says an old nun from the English Orphanage. With a younger nun she has attended my Aunt’s funeral and now my husband and I are taking them back to their Convent. "We had to stop him reading and asking questions. We thought he’d have a brainstorm if he learned too much - made his brain work too hard."
Ted exorcises the pain of the Orphelinat by writing about his and Cecil’s days there, in a short story published by the Henry Thornton School Magazine, The Thorntonian, in the summer of 1932, for at the time he is a pupil at this Grammar School:
"Immediately the two offenders made to jump out of bed, but to their surprise, the usher stopped them from doing so. The latter began to gesticulate and speak hurriedly. The brothers just looked at him guiltily, unable to understand. As they were still unused to the abrupt manner and quick speaking of the French, they imagined that they had committed a grave offence. Then Monsieur Rose, exasperated, made another boy get back to bed with his trousers on and, making sure that Edward and John were watching, he made him take his trousers off under the sheets, let them drop to the floor, pick them up again, and put them on again under the sheets. Then, and only then, did he allow the boy to alight from the bed. Having understood, the English boys got up in the required way. Such modesty astonished them...."
Ted describes the dormitory as ‘poverty-stricken’, the corridor ‘dilapidated’, the stairs ‘rickety’, the plaster-work ‘cracked and broken in several places’:
"The most remarkable feature of this repulsive sleeping room was a metal trough over which water-taps were suspended from a horizontal pipe and which stretched from one end of the room to the other. This was the dormitory’s wash-basin. In rows on both sides of it were small beds."
Ted soon realises that on their first visit to the school with their mother a week before, they had been shown only that part of the building reserved for the sick - visited regularly by the doctor - and inhabited by ‘Messieurs les Professeurs’. This because the Directeur, "a sly and unscrupulous man" thought only of the fees received for the boys’ keep. Ted continues his story:
"I want mummy," he would keep repeating between sobs. Edward feeling miserable himself kept quiet. He placed the paper on the desk and began to write. His letter was cheerful from end to end. He told his mother untruthfully that they were quite happy, that the food was nice, their guardians good to them...Just as he finished writing John began to cry out between his sobs: ‘I’ll tell her everything, the nasty rooms, the sloppy food, you wait! She’ll have to take us away from here!’ ‘Please don’t," Edward pleaded. ‘Mother’s far away and worse off than us. It’ll only make her sadder. She can’t do anything for us, being so far away. The boys will make friends with us....’"
John, of course, is Cecil and soon the waters from his eyes flow into the river of his body and he awakes each morning in a soaking wet bed, so that each day he is forced to wash through bed sheets in cold water at the metal trough. Cecil runs away from school and on each occasion is found sitting on the doorstep of a Frenchman appointed by my Aunt to be the boys’ Guardian. And he is returned to the school in disgrace.
I have a photograph of Cecil and Ted taken at this time. They stand in front of a gateway, leaning against a wide stone post. Cecil holds his right hand to his heart. They are dressed in navy blue uniform, the coat adorned by gold buttons. They wear long trousers, black shoes, collar and tie. Cecil’s peak cap seems to be too large for his round face, Ted holds his cap in his hand to reveal well-combed dark hair, an oval face, a set mouth and a high brow. Ted looks boldly upon the world. Cecil’s eyes are veiled. Both boys have the Lahr protruding ears, ‘Schlapp Ohren’ my father called them. Now the boys have been at home for some five years and my Aunt Mary has on one occasion called together with Cecil at the Convent on a Saturday while we are boarding.
We are in the Assembly Hall and I am kneeling on a table, gazing with longing out of the window, to look over the gravelled triangle, searching past the lime trees, straining to see the pavements outside the narrow gate. Around me older girls, chatting desultorily. suddenly, the gate opens and two figures appear, one following the other. The first, a large woman dressed in loose flowing garments, a pork pie hat, hair falling untidily to her shoulders. Behind her a stooped boy dressed in a dark suit, the trouser legs flapping around his ankles. He is carrying a heavy bag. My mind whirrs round and into gear to encompass a life outside the Convent and I recognise my Aunt Mary and Cecil. With mixed feelings I watch their progress across the drive and round to the side of the house where I know that my Aunt will ring the front doorbell.
"Look at that couple of tramps!" says one of the older girls scathingly. "I wonder what they want!" The girls giggle together and I creep away from the table to sit on a bench, curled into myself to hide.
Soon a nun appears to call my sister and me to the parlour, a room of plush settees, stiff-backed chairs and a large dining-room table. A place where visitors are entertained. My sister and I stand hovering at the door which we have opened timidly once Reverend Mother has called out ‘entrez’. My Aunt and Cecil sit at a table on which two square boxes lie. We go into the room and stand to the side of the table. My Aunt is talking to Reverend Mother, Cecil gazes moodily at the floor and does not greet us. Perhaps the Convent reminds him of the Paris Orphanage school, or maybe his voices have told him that one day in the future I would call him untidy:
"Why did you say my room was always untidy?" he grumbles. "You could have said that it was only like that on that particular day."
I had been a witness for the defence at his trial at the Old Bailey. The police had produced a photograph of Cecil’s room piled high with books and papers as if he were preparing for a bonfire. This is after my Aunt’s death at the age of almost eighty years. "Was his room always like that?" ask the Counsel for the Defence. "Yes" I reply truthfully "I have never seen it any differently." Cecil in the dock cringes. I have returned him to the institutions of his childhood when the worst crime was to be accused of untidiness. He is never able to understand that I have saved him from a possible life sentence for arson, following a localised accidental fire in his room.
My Aunt takes the cardboard boxes from the table and presents one to me and one to Oonagh. They contain dolls’ bakelite tea-sets, blue for me and red for Oonagh. I feel grateful and at the same time guilty for I resent the appearance of these relatives in my life. Cecil must accompany his mother on her visit to Oonagh and me at the Convent, for she dare not let him out of her sight. Ted at this time is a waiter. "All that education" my mother remarks my mother "and she lets him leave school to become a waiter!" My mother has forgotten that Ted’s father was a waiter. Later Ted is to thrust away his father’s inheritance to become a Merchant Seaman. While Ted waits, Cecil walks tortuously in a strange land through a maze, a confusion.
Ted, who even as a boy in his photo looks outward, determines to work towards changing a society which forces mothers for financial reasons to give up their children to the uncaring and demeans the mass of the population into a nothingness. He joins the Communist Party and spends his weekends standing on street corners to sell the Daily Worker. "He’s exchanged the Pope for Stalin" growls my father. The Lahr family is Evangelisch, but my Aunt Masry is a Catholic convert. My father can understand the need for my sister’s and my conversion, but cannot understand that of his sister. And so while Ted who is not to live long in this world, works for its salvation, Cecil is caught up by the spirits and demons of the next. Perhaps even then he saw himself in middle-age painting out in red or green all the signs in Battersea reading ‘Way Out - in care parks, supermarkets, church entrances...But this is to be many years later, and for now he searches for a way through, walking between darkness and light, the depths and the heights, celibacy and the sinful call of the flesh, between a sense of anomie and a yearning to belong, between alienation and conciliation, timidity and assertiveness, amity and enmity, aggression and pacifism, between life and death. And at last his path leads him to the lunatic asylum, Colney Hatch at Friern Barnet - to become in 1973 Friern Hospital, and to be closed down by the 1990s when plans are made for the development of its grounds by storehouses, supermarkets and housing.
"Colney Hatch Asylum was opened in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, as Europe’s largest and most modern Institution. ‘Here society’s impossibles, victims of the double misfortune of lunacy and pauperism, found asylum whatever the disease that made them so...’" Doctors Hunter and Macalpine write in Psychiatry for the Poor (27).
The admissions register for 1851 includes among the reasons for Lunacy ‘Socialism and Extreme Arrogance’. The doctors write also that nurses and attendants worked a ninety hour week, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. "after which they were allowed out till 10 p.m. except when on call ‘for the reserve’". Nurses who were late on duty were fined and should it happen more than twice in a twelve-month were dismissed and a nurse found negligent in allowing the escape of a patient had to pay the expense of ‘recapture’. It is no wonder that the doctors add "a few Attendants have been guilty of roughly using the patients, 90% of whom, some 2,000 in the 1920s and 1930s lived in locked wards and for fresh air air were confined to ward gardens. The asylum paralysed by sheer weight of numbers of patients and the financial stringencies of the recession...."
My Aunt takes my sister and me to visit Cecil in the Asylum for we are staying with her for a week or two during the Easter holidays so as to leave my mother free to work at the bookshop all day without worry. We ride on the bus past Wilton Road and I reach out my hand to touch my own home, but the bus speeds away too quickly: down to the North Circular Road, past the sewerage farm, the smell of which permeates the district and which the residents tell each other is ‘healthy’, on past the high Asylum wall, to the Orange Tree. We sit at a table in a long ward, Cecil opposite us and my Aunt places before him gifts of food, a cake, some fruit, a pot of jam. Around us shuffle aimlessly, or walk purposefully from wall to wall, male inmates, some muttering, others calling across the ward to unseen protagonists or antagonists. A boy, not much older than me, dressed in his own clothes of shorts, shirt, pullover, appears from a cubicle to call out excitedly "I’m going home!"
Cecil sits slumped over the table, shutting himself away from the ward which has been presented to him as his world. Perhaps his voices tell him that this is the first of many such incarcerations for the future holds Tooting Bec, Springfields and a short time on remand in Brixton prison. I visit him in this last place to find a large waiting room, the floor of which is pitted with cigarette burns, the walls are filthy and the visitors, most of whom are young women holding crying children, in despair wait to be called. Decorating this scene of misery and hung high on the dirty wall is a reproduction of Constable’s ‘Haywain’.
While with my Aunt and sister visiting Cecil at the Asylum, I fail to see my mother working around the wards, for she will work here as an orderly after the Second World War. Nor do I see my Great Aunt Railer, my grandmother Rachel’s sister, confined to the Asylum in old age because she has grown old and difficult. And it is in this Asylum that she will die. This Great Aunt who had lived through the 1905 revolution in Poland, having left an orthodox Jewish home to live with an anarchist. A lover shot down by the forces of law and order during the revolution and whom she found among the dead. Her sisters settled in England brought her over where, for ever after, she was given the reputation of ‘not being quite right in the head. For she espoused atheism and the necessity for the abolition of government. "I can’t offer you a cup of tea" she says worriedly when I visit her on one occasion with my mother "but take one of the blankets." She speaks in Yiddish and my mother translates. We are sitting in a long ward beside her narrow bed and my Great Aunt is obviously concerned that she is not in a position to offer us hospitality.
At last, we bid good-bye to Cecil who has paid my sister and me no attention, his thoughts all being upon his own predicament and his claims upon his mother, and once again we board the bus. Now we pass Wilton Road from the opposite direction and again I stretch out my hands to hold the house, but my grip slips and we travel on to Battersea. My eyes following the roads I know so well until we are in strange and unknown territory.
And so we are caught up in time. A time marked out by John Harrison also of Holborn and a resident of Red Lion Square, whose gravestone in a Hampstead Churchyard states ‘worked without instruction on a time-keeper for fifty years and died in 1770 aged 83’. Time having caught up with him.
Time, time, time - a time in which my father, his daughters and his nephew are all separately institutionalised.
On to Holiday Task
Get You Back Home