The War, Sunday School and Mrs Jilliver's Ample Bosom
It's the 1940's; the blackout, the bombs, the barrage balloons, the sirens. The midnight race down the garden to the Anderson Shelter. And the seeds are sown for a different kind of fallout in the years to come...
We live in City Road in Sheffield, a tall Victorian terrace house, the once white stone now black, with the years of smoke from the steel mills. The front garden is steep, and many steps lead up to the front door, (however did Mum get the pram up and down all those steps?) but we always use the long, narrow, echoing passage that leads to a small yard and the back door. To the right of the yard is our lavvy; it has a large wooden seat - big enough to accommodate two small bottoms in an emergency! A long chain hangs down from a tank of water, and I have to climb up onto the seat to reach it, when I pull it I have to jump down quick and get out of the way, other wise the water that flushes the toilet splashes over the top of the tank and showers me with cold water! Its walls are whitewashed on the inside, and neat squares of paper hang from a string. (Toilet rolls? What are toilet rolls??)
We have a small plot leading off from the yard towards a high wall, well, it's high to me, anyway! I've often skinned my knees in an attempt to climb high enough to look over into the brickyard, and the hills beyond. Dad has dug over a small patch in the hope of growing a few vegetables, there's a black smouldering mound where all the rubbish is burned, I found a pair of shoes that had belonged to one of my sisters, on the mound, waiting to be incinerated, but I saved them! I love shoes, I do - none get past me! Our house has a large kitchen, there's a big wooden table in the middle, which we hide under when the bombs are dropping and we haven't had time to get to the Anderson Shelter. Mum is very careful about keeping the blackout curtains in place, not a chink of light must show through to give away our position to the enemy! There's a big balloon over our house - it almost touches the chimney, it reminds me of an elephant without any legs and it frightens me so much I try not to look up at it, but I know it's there - and I wish it would go away! I cling fearfully to my Mum when I hear the awful wail of the sirens (I can hear them still), and wait... there always seems to be a long, long silence - just before the bombs drop...
There is devastation everywhere, but somehow we get used to it, I'm too young to understand the significance of it. "Mrs. so and so's got hit last night..." friends, neighbours - some homeless, some lost forever. I can't remember when the sirens finally stopped, when the 'balloon' went away - I should, but fortunately our memories protect us, and we only remember the good bits...
Mum dresses we three girls all alike, which means that I seem to be wearing the same dress for years and years, as my sister's dresses are passed down to me, I don't mind too much as Mum always chooses really nice clothes for us. I love clothes, and even when I grow out of them I want to keep them. I had this lovely blue coat with velvet collar and cuffs and a matching hat - like a postman's, when it became too small, Mum wanted to sell it, and I was very upset, I didn't like the idea of another girl wearing my favourite coat, a man came to buy the hat and coat for his daughter, I very sulkily agreed but I wanted to keep the hat! But Mum knew how to make me let go of it, she told me to go and look in the bottom of her wardrobe... and there I found a brand new pair of brown lace up shoes, not as pretty as my black patent ankle straps - but I loved shoes, and squeaky new shoes were even better! By the time I got back downstairs the man had gone and so had the coat - and the hat!
When we go to Sunday school, we wear our best clothes and we each have a straw bonnet trimmed with silk flowers, tying under our chin with matching silk ribbon - I am looking forward to being able to wear Mavis's and Barbara's hats when they grow out of them, because I think theirs are much prettier than mine. (I look back and wonder how on earth Mum managed to clothe us so well, as we were not at all well off). We walk down to the church hand in hand, and passers by look at us and say "amah, don't they look sweet?" Sweet? I'm not sweet - I'm a little horror!!
It was at this church that, watched by proud and misty-eyed parents, all the girls and boys dressed as angels, adorned in their mother's net curtains, paraded peacock-like, around the hall. I flaunted my curtains like the best of them, but on catching my mother's eye, was reminded that they had to go back up at the window afterwards - undamaged!
At five years old, Mavis is diagnosed as having a hole in her heart, and at seven or eight years old she has to see specialists in London to see what can be done. During this time me'n Barbara are sent to Fulwood Cottage Homes to be looked after, but there was one occasion when all three of us went there. It was only quite recently, when discussing our family history, that this point came up, me'n Babs were often sent away when Mum and Dad had to take Mavis to the Hammersmith Hospital in London, but why would all three of us go? Maurice would have been about eleven years old then, so perhaps he could remember. No perhaps about it, the phenomenal memory came into play - I was two years old at this time, and, it turns out, Mum had given birth to another girl.
I have fragmented memories of climbing upstairs on hands and knees, ostensibly to see my Mum who I knew was upstairs in bed, a neighbour sat on a chair just inside the bedroom door, I could see Mum in bed and there was the wicker washing basket on the bed beside her, which I thought was a bit odd. To my annoyance, the neighbour tried to stop me but Mum said to let me in, I climbed up on to the bed beside her and the scene then fades from my memory, the scenario had never held any particular significance until Maurice told me about this new baby, and then everything clicked into place.
I was seventeen before I learned of this younger sister, from Mavis, but when I asked Mum about it, at first she said it wasn't true, but eventually said, yes, there had been another baby girl, but she had died at a few weeks old, and that was that, Mum refused to say another word about it. But during my talks with my brothers, I broached the subject of my younger sister - Maurice said he'd no idea I knew about her, and that he didn't know what happened to her, he thought she'd been 'given away'. My heart began to pound at this revelation - was it possible that I had another sister out there somewhere? But Raymond shattered this intriguing news by stating quite categorically that the baby had died. He remembered the occasion quite clearly, he said, when both he and Maurice where ordered out of the house without any explanation, out of curiosity, Raymond peeked through the window and saw a small coffin on the table, he said there was no doubt that the baby had died. Never the less, until I can unearth a death certificate for my kid sister, I'd like to think that she might still be out there somewhere!
So this was why the three of us had been sent to Fulwood Cottage Homes, after the birth - and whatever followed, Mum needed a rest, so we were sent away for a while. I have only happy memories of these occasions, but Barbara's memories are not quite so jolly - "Why were we always being sent away?" she asked me sadly. Perhaps it was being the youngest that made me so bolshie, or maybe I was just born that way! But even at two years old I was perfectly capable of dressing myself, and was most put out when the staff at the Home insisted on trying to do it for me. I complained loudly when, on arrival, we had our own clothes taken away and we were dressed in clothes belonging to the Home. I can still see myself - standing on the bed, full of indignation that someone was actually dressing me! We couldn't even wear our own shoes, but somehow that didn't bother me quite so much... But mainly, I remember only sunshine and riding on the milk trolley around the cobbled yards, sandwiched between the tall milk churns, the milk ladled out with a jug-like container with a long handle which was dipped into the churn, the milk then poured into large blue and white pottery jugs.
Mum had a friend called Mrs Jilliver who lived in Middlewood Road, where Mum and Dad had first set up home. Me'n Babs were sent to see Mrs Jilliver - a buxom lady with a large bosom and a goitre neck - and keep her company for a while, she loved feeding us on great doorsteps of bread and dripping, I didn't mind this too much, providing there was plenty of that tasty black stuff from the bottom of the bowl, spread over the rather tasteless white dripping. Watching Mrs Jilliver cutting the bread was a rather disconcerting sight, as she grasped the loaf to her ample bosom and with a large knife, cutting towards her body, hacked off large chunks of bread, I was almost afraid to look, but somehow, she always seemed to know when to stop. When I'd eaten my fill, I was ready to go, but Babs would shush me whenever I asked plaintively "Is it time to go yet?" - social graces were yet to be learned!