At last, I have started the final draft of my story before I make into a book.
The stories of my childhood are only possible because I was ‘the runt of the litter’. This had its advantages; I was never far from my mother and saw everything happening first hand—I soaked it up like a sponge. But there was something that happened before I was old enough to know. My sister Iris gave me the story just before she died about 10 years ago.
Chapter one. April 1934.
Iris takes a sip of her sherry and looks over at me nervously. She hasn’t talked about this for years.
‘You know Alan, it’s always a surprise to me, how much I can remember. You know, the little things that you would normally forget. That morning we were having our breakfast and dad was getting ready to go to work. Deirdre jabbed me with her elbow and nodded towards dad. He had buttoned his shirt up all wrong and now he had one button over, we giggled as he tried to find the missing buttonhole, then we told him his shirt was hanging out—we tease each other all the time in our house. I remember him saying how he was also teased by those rotten devils at work.’
Iris paused as she remembered that day, I sensed a sadness in her voice as she tried to carry on. She was over 90 years old, and the memories were too much for her, she was very tearful, but I managed to get the sad details of what happened.
Today, with what I remember of those childhood years of just listening to the goings on in our house, I can more or less piece together her story. The main details are all here, but some of the story is obviously fictional, but it is how I remember the way our neighbours helped us for years after. I continue my sister’s story as I think she would have told it.
The ‘rotten devils’ are the men in the factory, they imitate his posh way of speaking—his early years of private education have left their mark. The sharp ‘ding-a ling’ of a bicycle bell gives him a start. Outside, are those very devils sitting on their bikes, ready for the three-mile ride to the Airscrew. The sing-song voice of Taffy Rees joins the ‘ding-a ling’ of the bell, his years of singing in a Male Voice Choir in the Welsh valleys have also left their mark
‘Come on Charlie, it’s gettin’ late, we’ll hafta’ get a move on.’
Ethel shakes head.
‘Let them to go Charlie, you’ve got plenty of time before the hooter goes.’
‘Hang on Taffy, I’m nearly ready.’
Without another word she shoves the scarf around his chest deliberately—to show him what she thinks of his reply. The trouble is though, being just a few minutes late, the factory gates would be closed, and he would lose another morning’s wage. He needs to earn some money. Their savings, such as they were, have almost gone, no money, no food.
Deirdre, the eldest child at thirteen is a sensitive girl, she notices her mother’s concern and sees her father still fumbling with his buttons. There’s another shout from outside. A quick kiss for Ethel and a wave to the children. Deirdre gives him a sweet smile as he leaves for work. Her gaze lingers on the closing door—she feels uneasy. Ethel wipes the misty window and watches the bikes disappear around the top of Pyrcroft Road. The sound of their voices fade and are replaced with the chatter of studded boots on the tarmac, other men are hurrying past on their way to work.
The factory hooter is calling the men to work. Ethel turns to look at the clock, Charlie will be there soon but then she feels a shiver as she sees his lunch bag on the dresser. The sandwiches are put on the marble slab in the larder. He will be back at midday; she will see his sheepish grin as he passes the kitchen window, he’s done this before.
St Peters church bell rings, it’s half past eight the four eldest children are quickly dressed, and out through that same front door. The two boys are now making a racket banging their spoons on the plates like drums. The younger one, at just over two, hardly says a word. His was a difficult birth and the only one of the children who had to be born in a hospital. There was a fear his hearing may have been damaged, and this could be why he is so late in everything, only Donald can understand his special language.
The sharp sound of the school bell rings out. It’s nine o’clock already, the children will be filing into school. There’s a softer sound, the mournful sound of the funeral bell. First just a muffled drone then a full tone, probably another ‘flu victim. She pauses, thinking of the poor young boy from just around the corner in Cowley Avenue. Those poor parents, he was their only child—this ‘flu has no conscience. Another shiver, more intense this time, as she thinks how easily it could have been this family. She hesitantly does the sign of the cross—not a thing she has ever done before, both she and Charlie have always been free of any religion, she thinks out aloud.
‘Should I have let Bernard go to school? He so wanted to see his friend’s, but he was still a bit pale, and so was Chrissy, I really should have kept them home’.
These thoughts won’t go away, but Monday is washday, there’s lots to occupy her mind with a family of eight. Water is tipped into the copper, a handful of soda, a quick stir with the wooden copper stick. It’s bleached white with the years of boiling soapy water, as is the heavy pine lid she puts on top. Into the firebox goes ‘The Daily Herald’ and some sticks of wood, but not before the headlines do what headlines are designed to do; they catch her eye. ‘More ‘flu deaths in London’.
Putting a match to the paper she watches the headlines burn away. If only it was as easy to stop this horrible disease. The fire is soon crackling and sparking, just right for some toast on a long fork, the dry wood burns so brightly that it soon scorches the bread. Donald is at the scullery door, his face lit up by the flaming wood, his bright eyes dancing in time with the crackling sparks. He has smelled the toast and is waiting patiently, for a few moments the boys will be happy, having something so nice to eat is one way of keeping them quiet.
Sitting in the armchair Ethel watches the steam and smoke from the copper as it drifts across the scullery, caught by the sun shining through the window. With the fresh smell of sunlight soap, washday is like a new beginning. She gives a deep sigh of relief, at last we are back to normal, now we can get on with everything.
Chapter two, a doctor call’s.