Chapter 3, Escape to the Country
Soon after the euphoria of D-Day, my family was having a difficult time. Dad was still away in the RAF – an older volunteer compared with the fly boys, so the chaps called him Grandpa. He worked as an airfield controller, a pretty tough job. My Mum was a delicate flower, in poor health and had been cosseted tenderly by Dad ever since the time he came in and found her scrubbing the floor while weeping into the bucket. She was not up to coping with life at the best of times, and the early 1940’s could hardly be so described.
We’d somehow survived the Blitz intact – just a few of the quaint diamond paned windows blasted and some interesting maps to be made out of the cracks in the ceiling. There had been quite a lull in the bombing which had probably caused the fear to recede. But then seemingly out of the blue, the V1s started. Flying bombs, buzz bombs or doodlebugs they called them. Ghastly things. The bangs were bigger than the bombs we had grown used to, the damage greater, the casualties more numerous because the whole caboodle consisted of explosive with an engine. A clanking drone announced the passing of one of the pilotless aircraft overhead. If the noise stopped everyone held their breath and waited for annihilation. The cessation of noise meant that the thing had run out of fuel and was falling out of the sky with its load of explosive Hell. Then, if we were lucky, came the bang – a very big bang – which meant that someone else was getting it and not us. That sounds incredibly callous now, but truly, I remember people saying that at the time. We’d got used to ordinary bombs and could handle that fear. But these new monsters were like a science fiction fantasy, something we had no way of coping with. Soon after that an even worse ‘Secret Weapon’ arrived to terrify us – V2’s, rocket-propelled bombs that arrived without warning. The much-vaunted Blitz spirit seemed to crumble. Dogged putting up with it was replaced with anger.
That, as far as Mum was concerned, was more than flesh and blood could stand.
After a couple of nights with me waking in Mum’s bed screaming blue murder, Mum had had enough. Soon the three of us were on a slow train to Suffolk to stay with my Great Aunt Hilda and Uncle Bim for the duration.
This exodus was fraught with anxiety for us girls. Hadn’t Dad insisted that we must look after our mother? Everyone thought her incapable of managing such a journey. Had she enough money for the tickets? Sylvia would find out about trains while I was to stand in the queue. There were no seats to be had on the train, which was packed with servicemen, so Mum was persuaded to sit on the huge suitcase which the porter had carried for us for sixpence.
The journey was interminable – no reason was ever given for the lengthy stops between stations. After a while I, who had not previously travelled on a train, asked plaintively why all the stations were called ‘Ghent-lee-men.’ A cheery airman bent from his considerable height to explain that all the station names had been removed so that spies or invaders wouldn’t know where they were. ‘But won’t the engine driver be lost as well?’ I asked. ‘Why are they called Ghent…’
‘That’s enough dear.’ Mum whispered something in my ear and I was suffused with scarlet embarrassment.
At last the train drew into Newmarket station and Uncle Bim of the kind face and crinkly greying hair was there helping them lift down the heavy case, which was left with the stationmaster to be brought to the house later on a horse-drawn cart.
We were delighted to find ourselves walking down a pretty country lane and to see the brick and flint schoolhouse ahead. Aunty Hilda (known at that time as Tante for no known reason, as she was certainly not French) was on the doorstep, arms out ready to sweep us all into one big hug. Tempting smells wafted from the big country kitchen which was to be home until it was safe for us to return to London.
There followed a period during which the war receded somewhat. Freed from fear of flying bombs, and living what could have been termed an idyllic country life, we started to breathe again.
When we arrived in Newmarket it was the Summer Holidays, and our discovery of the split personality of kindly, funny Uncle Bim versus stern, cross Headmaster Mister Bimson, Sir was delayed for a while.
We settled in happily, exploring the school and the paddock where the chickens lived. They were so much wilder than our docile suburban-London hens. It was our job to collect the eggs and feed the chickens – mostly on scraps and potato peelings boiled-up on a roaring, smelly and terrifying primus in the outhouse. It was always called that, though I remember it as a kind of conservatory, rather posh. I dropped one of the eggs that I was carrying in my skirt, and in my guilt at what I saw as a criminal waste of food, I tried to shoosh the glutinous yellow mess down the drain. Of course I was found out – they always knew how many eggs there should be, and in any case the yellow on my shoes gave me away. Ever since then, I have never been cross when things are broken. My response is always that no-one breaks stuff on purpose.
The hens were always escaping and having to be chased all over Newmarket Heath. On one such hen hunt Sylvia failed to notice a camouflaged cess pit and fell in, to her and our horror. She was hosed down in the school yard! Rebecca – Tante’s bull terrier – liked the smell though. Why do dogs like to roll in stinky stuff? Uncle Bim trained Rebecca to respond to the word ‘cats’ which was a bit unkind of him. On hearing the dreaded word she would scrabble with all four paws on the polished lino and slide at full speed towards wherever the word came from. Once it was from the window – Uncle Bim’s mistake! He had to mend it.
The schoolhouse was quaint and pretty, with a very up-market bathroom. The loo could only be approached through Tante’s bedroom like an early en-suite? It was one of those double-bowl blue and white china jobs, with a Windsor Castle decoration inside and out and a real chain with a Windsor Castled knob on the end. A bit of a contrast with the obligatory torn-up newspaper toilet paper threaded on a string! It was raised on a dais with a two-hole wooden bench seat across, separated from the main part of the bathroom by dark panelled double doors. And then there was the huge roll top bath on lion feet, way behind the times or ahead of the times, depending on where you were coming from. From our art deco modern semi, Mum thought it was very old-fashioned, but from 2010, roll top baths are the ‘in’ thing – fashions in décor come round in cycles. It took an awful lot of hot water to reach even the regulation four inches. That may not seem a lot nowadays, but even King George VI had a line drawn at that level in the bathroom (was there only one?) at Buckingham Palace, so as not to waste fuel. Another problem was that the water got cold incredibly quickly in that unheated bathroom. The only heating in the house was from one of those temperamental squat grey-speckled Ideal boilers in the kitchen plus a fire in the sitting room at weekends. And it seemed to us like a mini ice-age when the winter came.
Promoted from the under-the-stairs cupboard or beneath the grand piano, my sister and I shared a high wooden double bed with about a ton of blankets over us. We still squabbled and kicked, of course and maternal retribution was frequent, specially when I somehow managed to dislocate Sylv’s wrist! I can’t think how I managed to do that, as I was tiny and she was a very solid and much bigger girl, known as Podge at school. Then she went down with Mumps. There was nowhere else for me to sleep, and the grownups thought it would be a good idea if I caught it too, and got it over with. They were probably confused about the male Mumpish infertility effect. Weedy little thing that I was, I managed to avoid the mumps, but later caught a mini dose of diphtheria instead. Not so funny, as I missed Christmas.
By this time the Americans had arrived in huge numbers in the Suffolk aerodromes and Sylvia and I used to hang on the post and rail fence between the paddock and Newmarket Heath, in the hope of saying ‘Got any gum, chum?’ Yes, we really did say that to any passing American. A more generous group of men you couldn’t wish for, and our cheek was usually rewarded.
Although there was no racing during the war, the racehorses were still very much part of the Newmarket scene, and we loved to hear them clattering off down the lane morning and evening, probably 30 or so beautiful horses out for exercise. They would disappear into the early mist across the heath like phantoms, emerging again an hour later.
Another Newmarket constant in summer was Sunday cricket. Uncle Bim was a flamboyant batsman, drawing enthusiastic applause from the scattered deckchairs full of wives and mothers. Sylvia and I were dragooned into helping get the tea, making sandwiches and steering well clear of yet another stinky spitting primus stove. That cricket ground always seemed to be in sunshine then.
Some momentous landmarks of those early days: my 7th birthday when my favourite present was a first aid kit in an old biscuit tin from Aunty Win and a cuddly kangaroo in a dress and apron which I insisted be called ‘Piggy’. I lost my first tooth by the expedient of a piece of string tied round the door handle. When the door was opened with a jerk the tooth, which had been comforting to wiggle for weeks, was out. I seem to remember sixpence in compensation found under my pillow next day. The going rate nowadays seems to be £1. I learned to swim properly in Newmarket open-air baths that holiday, or so I thought. In fact it was a sort of doggy paddle with one toe seeking the bottom every two or three strokes.
Soon it was time to start getting the school ready for the autumn term. It was enormous fun sweeping the Hall with damp tea-leaves to collect the dirt. We scattered them all over the floor and by some alchemy they collected the dirt. Without the tea-leaves the dirt just went somewhere else as we swept and then settled again elsewhere. The Hall was a huge vaulted room with tall windows too high to look out from, like a church. It was divided into two rooms with sliding partitions to make two classrooms after Assembly each morning when the desks were dragged into rows.
It was not so much fun finding the other side of Uncle Bim. It was not until I was much older that I understood why he was always so severe with us at school. As his great-nieces and living in his house, there was no way he wanted to be accused of favouritism, but need he have gone quite so far in the other direction?
At six, I was still in the infants, and not allowed to do joined-up-writing, as the other children had not yet learned how to do it. This was a frightful affront to my dignity. I don’t think my handwriting ever recovered from this early rebuff. In the ‘big’ class, my sister was queen of the roost at nearly 10, and was required to play the piano for Assembly – always the same hymn: Onward Christian Soldiers, a hymn that I have hated ever since. Sylvia was no pianist, her instrument being the vile din. I was considered too young and flighty for the honour, though I was naturally sought, cajoled and bribed whenever she needed an accompanist for her vile din practice!
We were invited to a party at the US base at Christmas. I’m told it was a splendid affair with real food, sweets and presents for all. Unfortunately, that was just one of the times I chose to be really ill, and everyone else went off leaving me sobbing into my pillow. They did bring me back a present, though, a beautiful tiny china doll with eyes that opened and shut. That was where my lifelong sewing habit started: making minute clothes for that doll, called Ruby. I would also knit strange garments for her, but those were never so successful.
That Christmas we were given the most wonderful present: Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia – a present for the family which did lead to squabbles when we both wanted the one with the lives of the Greek heroes in it, or Æsop’s fables. The eight volumes were beautiful, simulated leather-bound, with a plain white paper dust jacket on each – just as well, considering our fights over them. I have a reminiscent frisson when I think of the time I inadvertently trod on one of the books and left an identifiable footprint on the white paper. My punishment was cruel: I was banned from touching them for what seemed like an interminable period. Nowadays, whenever I am watching Mastermind or University challenge, I have Arthur Mee to thank for my irritating habit of shouting out the answers! Many’s the childhood illness that was made bearable by those books. I don’t know how Mum came by them: during the War even paper was in short supply, and newspapers were strictly rationed to a single four-page broadsheet spread.
New friends had a fascinating Suffolk burr in their speech. At least it fascinated us, but Mum was always on at us, trying to eliminate our copycat habits. Trewsiz instead of trousers is the only one I can remember. A near neighbour was a Doctor Bernardo’s home for orphan boys who came to our school. They were distinguishable by their pudding-basin haircuts and serviceable grey flannel suits, and in retrospect I realise that we were very cruel. We called them the Banana Boys.
Tante Hilda was a fantastic cook. She would make a lovely cake-y biscuit that we called Oojah, or if we were in formal mood, Jemima Oojimaflip. It was years before I discovered that it was really called flapjack. A favourite pudding was called American Ice – though it was nothing to do with ice. It was a kind of curdled milk jelly, if that doesn’t sound too revolting.
I’ve said that the war seemed to recede while we were in Newmarket, but there was one enormous drama when a bomb fell on the Heath – safely away from all habitation, leaving a huge crater but no damage whatsoever. The local people were shocked and frightened. They had not experienced – as we had – the nightly raids for months at a time.
Our peaceful interlude was not to last. Towards the end of January 1945, Mum had a telephone call from one of our London neighbours. The ceilings were down again and all the windows blown in, as the result of a V2 rocket attack, so the house was not secure from squatters. Throughout our stay in Suffolk Mum had been worried that it would be requisitioned by the authorities. With so many people made homeless by the bombing, any empty house was fair game, and people could be installed without the owner’s permission. So far we had escaped that imposition, largely thanks to the efforts of good friends and neighbours. But now the time had come to go home, clear up the mess and try and get some repairs done. Materials were in extremely short supply, under strict control and most of the labour force was on active service, but somehow Mum managed to find an elderly odd job man who patched things up as best he could.
So that was the end of the rural idyll. It seemed to me that we had been there for years, but in fact, it was only eight months. Ideas of time are very distorted when you are young. The weather was the worst anyone could remember. It was freezing cold though the deep coating of snow was rock hard, so not even any good for snowballs or making snowmen. When we finally arrived home after a long and tedious journey, the house was naturally damp not just from being unoccupied and unheated for so long, but from the drifted snow which had come in by the broken windows. To add to the misery, power cuts and “dim-outs” were frequent, and coal for the fire in very short supply.
It took a while to clear up the house. On trying to tidy the bureau I uncovered a mystery. In a drawer, I came across a largish cardboard box full of fountain pens. No-one had ever seen any of them before. Fountain pens were expensive then and one only would be the norm. Here were about thirty pens of good quality. Who on earth could have put them in our bureau, and why? Had someone been secretly living in our house while we were away? The affair worried Mum a lot, but we never did find out.
I remember a miserable time before life got back to what passed for normal in wartime. We were constantly cold, had burning itching chilblains on fingers and toes, coughs and colds. It seemed that we were always ‘ill in bed’ and ‘under the doctor’ to use the current expressions. We went back to the Convent when we were recovered, trudging down the middle of the road to the bus – the pavements were deep in drifted snow, and we used to walk in the ruts left by the milkman’s horse and cart and the occasional lorry. My legs were still very short and I had a real struggle when it came to surmounting the piles of snow. In one of his letters, Dad exhorted me to be careful not to catch my bottom in the ruts.
…to be continued