Chapter Thirty, The Boffin.

  One boy at school was a bit of a boffin and was very keen on facts and figures. He seemed to know more than any other boy about what was going on anywhere that you could name, and some places that you couldn’t even say. His father was in the Merchant Navy and when he came home, he would tell his boy what was happening in other parts of the world. 

  Everyone in the country listened to the same news on the wireless, but he knew far more than we were aware of. I suppose if your father was in and out of the ports, he would have a lot to talk about, I wonder how much of this should have been secret though. We were being told ‘Careless talk costs lives’. He told us never to repeat any of it, but this is what he was doing all the time.

One of his stories was more like one of my ‘fanciable’ tales that my Mum complained of. He said that up in the north of the country the Germans had dropped bags of white powder, and people were told to keep clear of them in case they were some sort of chemical. We never heard anything like that on the wireless, except for some silver paper ribbons that were being dropped. We were told these were to confuse our searchlights and anti-aircraft gunners, which was more believable. 

Another one of his stories was even stranger. A German magnetic mine had exploded on the Yorkshire coast, and it had caused a field of potatoes to be attracted out of the ground and down to the sea more than a hundred yards away. This sort of story was quite common, and some people really believed them. We were told that most were completely untrue.

I think he knew more than the grown-ups, he kept it all written down in a book, he said the first bomb to fall in Surrey was in June but did no damage, it just made a crater in a ploughed field. His pride and joy though, was a leaflet that the Germans were dropping, he kept it in an envelope because he said it was very rare and that he should not really have kept it.

The leaflets had to be collected by the Air Raid Wardens before they could be read by the civilians. They were German propaganda, telling the British people to listen to reason and surrender before they were all bombed out. He said that he kept the leaflet in a plain envelope because if a policeman found out that he had one, he would get into a lot of trouble.

On the other hand, he told us the fire wardens sold them as souvenirs, but he said they were allowed to do this as they used the money to pay for treats for London children. These leaflets, that are asking for the British to surrender ended up buying sweets for lots of children who would have some toffees to chew! This is a story I want to believe, but I still wonder.

Chapter Twenty-nine, Skin.

I have to smile at one story that I do remember from the juniors, at the time of course it was serious—I always seemed to be at odds with the teachers, especially when they asked one of those questions that needs no response. At first, I was very keen, and would give, what I thought was a perfectly proper answer. What did they expect? Kids only understand proper questions. These days, it would be said that I had some sort of a syndrome, but back then I was told to stand in the corner for being silly.

On this day it looks as if I am in big trouble, I have been given a letter addressed to Mrs. Weguelin. I reluctantly pass it over to mum; she looks at the letter for a few moments turning it over and over. I think she is hoping it is addressed to someone else. Finally, fixing me with an unblinking stare, the letter is opened. I step away out of reach of the tea towel that my mother always wears over her shoulder like a weapon. She can make the damp tea towel crack like a whip when the moment takes her, you know all about it if it catches your leg. She takes a deep sigh, saying.

“You haven’t got nits again, have you Alan? I have only just got rid of the last lot, I’m going to have to cut all your hair off, it’s the only way”

Mrs. Salmon is in our kitchen having a cup of tea—her large body fills the armchair to overflowing—she really is a very big lady. I may have avoided the danger of the whip cracking tea towel. But now, before I can dodge her outstretched hand, like a spider waiting for a fly Mrs. Salmon pulls me onto her lap. Out comes the fine-tooth comb and she is ready to begin her search and destroy. This is something of a hobby for Mrs. Salmon, she is an expert. I think there is always a fine-tooth comb in her apron pocket, someone always has nits in our family and probably so do most of our neighbours. Even if we were all completely nit free, she would still have a little look. Before the comb can get to work though, Mum reads out the letter, it is not from ‘The Nit Nurse’, but from Miss Slaughter.

I watch the drama unfolding from the vantage point of Mrs. Salmons lap, I don’t understand what the letter says, I have never heard such words before. There is a silence as the two friends look at each other, Mrs. Salmon closes one eye as if to concentrate her mind. I have noticed that she does this a lot—I’ve tried it myself, but it makes no difference, I still never know the answer to anything. She is now almost closing both eyes, this is something new, I am really getting worried, it must be very serious.

“What the bloody hell is dumb insolence”? Mrs Salmon asks this very slowly as if it is something that even she has never heard of before.

Mum continues to read the letter, then she looks at me as if the letter says I have done something terrible, I am in the hollow of Mrs. Salmon’s lap, I get ready to make my escape, but I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder, I am trapped in the web like a fly. 

“The headmistress is saying you are disruptive in class and are not taking the lessons seriously, she says you keep asking inappropriate questions or giving silly answers. What is this all about Alan”? 

Now mum is also looking through narrow eyes, I quickly slide off Mrs. Salmon’s lap into the safety of the scullery, I start to explain but my stutter comes back, finally I blurt it out.

“It was not fault, Laury Zubiena told me to say it”.

I felt a bit of a traitor blaming Laury, but it was perfectly true, they were his exact words, he has helped me lots of times. Laury is one of boys who knows things and can always be relied upon to come up with some sort of an answer.

“What did that Laury tell you to say that was so bad Alan, that they have sent me this letter”?

“”Our new teacher, was pointing to all the parts of the human body on a chart, and she asked me what they were for”

I could tell by the look in my Mums eyes that she was afraid of the answer that I gave to the teacher, because she was holding her breath and her head was cocked on one side— she often looks at me like this and it is a sure sign of big trouble.

They are both looking at me now waiting for an explanation, but I am so nervous it just won’t come, until once again I blurt it out.

“The teacher said that our skin is the largest organ in our body, and she asked what it was for. Nobody put their hand up to answer and she just kept looking at me, and then Laurie whispered, ‘It’s to keep the blood in’, so that’s what I said”.

As soon as I managed to tell them what I had said, I thought Mrs Salmon was having a turn, her whole body started to wobble, then they both started giggling and leaning on each other.

I couldn’t think what was so funny, I think Laury was right, what else could our skin be for? If we had no skin the blood would go all other the place, wouldn’t it?

 I’m beginning to think that I really don’t fit in at school.

Chapter Twenty-eight, Bread and Cheese

How easy it is to remember a few minutes of a time before I started school, but at school there were large gaps of memory, a barren place where nothing seems to have taken root. Such as when I was in Stepgate’s Juniors. I can only remember two of the Junior school teachers, Miss Slaughter and Miss Williams. Both teachers brought to my attention another use for the yellow wooden ruler. They were both rather fond of rapping the knuckles of a talkative child. It didn’t hurt, but the slap of the flat ruler made you think it did. Miss Williams soon realised this and would use the edge of the ruler on occasion, that though, really smarted.

Miss Slaughter, being the head mistress would deal out any punishment in front of the morning assembly, mostly for ‘tardy’ children—a word that I had never heard of before but one to which I would become very familiar. Miss Slaughter preferred a very thin whippy cane, once again it was the swish of the cane through the air that made you wince, it really didn’t hurt at all. I think she knew this and that was why she chose the thin cane, she probably never wanted to hurt a child, but it was the accepted punishment for ‘tardiness’.

It is just over a mile to school, Eastworth Road went on for ever. Walking to school was agonising for me, not because I was in any agony, but it was just the thought of another day of being made to look a bit backward. I would hang back and let the other kids hurry past watching them jump up to look over the high convent fence for a glimpse of the big clock in the grounds. It was like a herd of leaping Antelope that we might see on the pictures.

 Although Eastworth Road was long, it had something that I liked, bread and cheese. This may come as a surprise to some people, perhaps I had better explain.

The Hawthorn hedge along the field of the Handicraft School was always trimmed very neatly. I think the boys from the home, who were mostly orphans, would practice hedge trimming as one of their trades. They did all sorts of trade training like this, boot repairs, carpentry, anything to prepare them for a proper trade when they left school. In lots of ways, they had an advantage over an ordinary boy like me—although they would never think so. For when they left school, they could start work straight away doing a skilled job and earning a real wage. Whereas a child like me would usually start off as a tea boy.

The regular trimming of the Hawthorn hedge encouraged bright green, fresh leaves. We kids called them ‘bread and cheese’ because that’s what they tasted like. In the winter, some children would even eat the red and orange berries, but they tasted like wood, I left them for the birds.

Another attraction for me and a good reason to dwell for a few minutes, was the horse that was always patiently waiting to be stroked by the passing children. He stood in the corner of the Handicraft’s field next to Keith Cartey’s house. From there I could easily look over the Convent fence to see the time without the need to jump—one advantage of being tall. I would wait until the big hand was near the top and then stroll around the corner and over the bridge. I never quite timed it right though, and I can hear the bell with still a distance to go. Sometimes I would meet Johnny Jones, he lives in a caravan on the Fairground. He is not fond of school either and we both know very well that we will probably hear the swish of Miss Slaughter’s whippy cane again. Of course, this only happened a couple of times, but the fame of having the stick in front of all the school was the only time that we were famous—at least in our eyes it was something worth remembering. We talked about it afterwards as if we were almost boasting how little it hurt. Miss Slaughter would be quite upset if she knew of the effect her skinny cane had on the two of us.

After school I sometimes went back with Johnny to his home, he lived in a real caravan, beautifully painted as all the caravans on the site were. Everything was so clean, with lots of ornaments and polished copper pots. There was one large silver water jug, in which Johnny had to fetch water from Mr. Boxall’s shop at the top of the road. He carried this in a little trolly that was painted in the same colours as the rest of the fairground, all red and gold. One advantage of knowing Johnny was a free ride now and again in the large fun fair that would visit the fairground once or twice a year. I really liked his Mum, she had big gold earrings and dark eyes—just like a Gypsy that I see in pictures, although I would never say that. She was very kind to me, but I never met his dad, he never seemed to be about.

Chapter Twenty-six, The Balaclava.

 It is surprising, that the memory, which is so good at reminding us of something best forgotten, can also hide something that should be a delight to remember.

  I have such a memory.

My friend, Roger Field, in a comment he posted about our school days, mentioned the cardboard milk-tops from Stanford’s Farm. Children who could not collect fag cards, because there was no one who smoked cigarettes in their family, would collect these round cardboard milk tops, using them in the same way as fag cards.

There seemed to be a special time for something like fag cards or marbles when one kid would bring something like a pack of fag cards to school, and it would start what would be called a craze. It swept the playground as if by magic, one child would show off his new plaything, a kite or a bag of marbles and we all wanted one—I suspect now, that all the local shops had a grapevine and would stock up with these things on a regular basis, just waiting for the flood of kids. The shops may also have planted a few freebies among the kids to start the flood. 

In the winter someone would start wearing a balaclava, but for some reason I was never so lucky to have one. Norman Jefferies, a boy who lived at the town end of Abbey Road, came to school wearing the most magnificent ‘Balaclava’. He looked like a Norman Knight, a craze had started, everybody wanted a balaclava.

  I asked my mum, if I could have one, she said, Deirdre, my sister who was good at knitting would make one for me, but I wanted it now, not after the winters gone. 

Mrs. Salmon, who was sitting in our kitchen at the time—I sometimes think that lives in our kitchen—came up with a quick fix, she said.

   “Alan, why don’t you just pull your jersey over your head and just look through the neck”?

Although, I had my misgivings about this, I did as she suggested. mum then put a piece of string around the neck to make it fit snugly.

   Today, the memory of that afternoon, that has been hidden for the last eighty years, came agonisingly back in the greatest detail. Thank you, Roger, what a friend you are.

The sight of my mother and Mrs. Salmon, going into convulsions of laughter, as I posed in my new ‘Balaclava’, was a good thing to forget for all these years.

  I knew, in my heart, it was not the style I wanted to take to school, but I don’t think they should have laughed for quite so long.

Looking back at that time I am so pleased they both had such a good laugh, after all there wasn’t much to smile about during the war.

Talking about children’s crazes brings to mind the most popular one, marbles, it would come up every few months. The marbles came in several sizes and colours, a large red one would be the most valuable and was probably made in fewer numbers deliberately to create this scarcity value. Children have always put fairness, or treating someone fairly, as most important, you often hear them shout, ‘That’s not fair’ or such as that. Children with a fair complexion or fair hair were thought to be lucky.

 My school friend, David Ralph, who lived opposite Pound Pond, was such a boy, he was fair skinned and had blond hair, we all liked David—and he was also amazingly good at marbles.

In school, owning marbles was like having money, it was currency, you could ‘swap’ them for anything, fag cards and milk tops, and even sweets. On this day his pockets were heavy with marbles, he had beaten everyone, and now he had run out of boys to play with, and they had all drifted away. Kids have an easy remedy for this, it is called ‘scrambles’, our David shouted ‘scrambles’ and threw his marbles in the air. The playground was soon a heaving mass of boys and girls gathering as many marbles as they could, soon the games were in full flow again.

He was only eight, but he already knew, that to children, sharing was better than simply keeping.

Now we see people who have so much wealth that they cannot possibly spend it in their lifetime or hundreds of lifetimes. The same people think that taxes are for ordinary people and hoard their money away on some island, our David could teach them what life is all about.

I think most people would like to be a winner, but it is just not possible, that’s life as they say, but there was a time when I did think my turn had come to be just that. A Champion!

Every Autumn, the conker trees in Stanford’s Farm gave us another playground challenge. To have a conker on a string that could break six other conkers would be called a sixer, and so on. The conker trees in Mr Stanford’s farm were pretty good, if you could throw a big stick high enough you could have a nice big conker. It would last quite a few conker tournaments.

One boy came into the playground with a special conker, and it was shattering even the biggest challenger. It was said he used to soak it in vinegar to make it harder, but this maybe just a rumour put about by his victims. He also had a conker tree in his garden so would be able to pick the best of them, but this year I was confident that I would be the one to beat him.

 There was a rather spindly tree in the car park of ‘The Carpenters Arms’, It never produced a single conker, until one year I found a lovely unopened conker beneath it, I opened it and there was the darkest, shiniest  conker that I had ever seen, I looked up and the tree was completely devoid of any more conkers, it seemed as if this poor tree had used all its energy to produce at least one super conker. My friend David Mawford, who lived opposite the Carpenters—and he should know this. Told me that the reason the tree had never given any conkers before, was because the men would come out of the pub and have a Pee against the tree every night.  Without putting too fine a point on this, it is sufficient to say that this poor spindly conker tree used this —shall we say ‘vinegary’ substance to enhance the single conker that it had ever produced—and I had it on the end of my piece of string.

I couldn’t wait to start swinging my conker in the playground—if you pardon the expression. I was beating everyone and was attracting quite a crowd when I was challenged by the boy with his twenty-fiver conker, it was jet black and even the string was thick. We had more strikes than any other conker in the playground.

 He had found his match, my conker was hardly marked but his was looking very sad, the bell went, and we all had to go into the school, we would have to finish the fight in the dinner hour.

We met in the playground at dinner time, but he was almost in tears, he had tried to thread a new piece of string though his conker and it had split in two.

The worst part of this story though, is that I could not say that I had broken his conker, and therefore could add his twenty-five to my seven making it a record breaking thirty-twoer and be the undisputed champion of the year.

  That’s life as they say, some you lose and some you nearly win.

Chapter Twenty-five, Fred and David.

It was during the month that we were evacuated to my Gran’s house, that Fred, my stepfather, was taken ill, he thought it was the dust from the bombing.

“I will feel a bit better when I can just clear my throat”.

But it didn’t get any better, an X-ray showed that he had TB, we were all tested and fortunately were clear of the disease. Fred was told he had to start treatment at Milford Hospital, at first just for more X-Rays and then staying there for a week or more.

A month later, Doctor Ward, came around see us. He was quite short and round, dressed in pin striped trousers and a black jacket. I don’t think I have ever seen such a posh man, I couldn’t take my eyes off him, his hair looked like it was glued on there was not a hair out of place. He speaks very gently as if he talking to a child.

“Sit down, Ethel, I need to tell you something, now don’t worry, it’s just something that we have to do”.

“Is it about Fred”?

“No, it’s not about Fred, he is in a safe place”.

He asked Don to go for Mrs Salmon and for me to put the kettle on. As we waited for Mrs. Salmon to arrive, I noticed he kept sniffing as if he was trying to smell what was cooking—but there was nothing cooking, I think our house always had a smell like that. I followed his eyes as he looked around the room—after the bomb damage repairs, even I could see it already looked a bit of a jumble

I saw him rest his hand on the table—a Morrison shelter—his fingers were very pink with shiny nails, he quickly removed his hand when he felt the sticky surface. The table is covered with ‘lino’—usually this was a floor covering, but we had it as a long-lasting tablecloth—it can get a bit tacky after a while.

Mum was looking more and more worried, but he still didn’t say anything else, he just kept looking around, waiting for Mrs. Salmon. He glanced up to the hissing, broken gas mantle—we had electric light, but mum preferred the gas lighting, then the fly encrusted fly paper hanging next to gas light, caught his eye. Flies were able to land and take off at will—all the sticky bits were already occupied.

The kettle had hardly boiled, when Mrs. Salmon heaved through the front door, her face as red as a rosy apple—Rosy by name and Rosy by nature, as Mum would say. I winced as I watched her sit in our old armchair, it was pretty well worn out and very low, she always fell into it rather than sitting on it.

“Now then, what’s all the fuss about, is it the baby”?

Doctor Ward straightened up saying “No, the baby is doing well, it’s little David, we need to talk about, he is under weight, and we need to build him up. This means he must go to a home for a while where he will have the best treatment and a special diet to make him strong again. I will arrange for an ambulance to take you to the sanatorium tomorrow, if that is convenient for you Ethel”?

For once Mrs Salmon was speechless, we had all thought it was something to do with Fred or little Sylvia.

“Thank God for that, I thought it was something serious, there you are Effie, there’s nothing to worry about, he will be home before you know it”

The Doctor went the kitchen sink to wash his hands, then seemed to change his mind. He didn’t drink his tea either, he said. “Good afternoon ladies” and left, he seemed to be in a hurry.

Mum looked relieved, both of them smiling, they drank their tea and Mrs. Salmon read the tea leaves in Mum’s cup.

“Look Effie, now that’s what I call a good luck sign, everything is going to be alright”.

They were both smiling with relief, but the relief would be short lived—David was away for years. The hospital that he stayed in was miles away, in Essex, and it would be very difficult to visit. It must have been very hard for him to be away from all of us, Mum could only see him every three months. David was in a sanatorium for children with TB.

It would be at least three years before he came home—a completely changed boy. He had no lessons while he was away and couldn’t read or write. This made it very hard for Mum to manage him. For a few months he really was a wild child! I saw him rip up a shirt that he didn’t like, and one day he broke a model plane that I was making to a hundred pieces.

Chapter Twenty-four, Back home.

We have now been back home in Pyrcroft Road for a few days, our house smells of paint, I have never seen it so clean and tidy. The council workmen had done a very good job. Even the blackout curtains and the strips of paper on the glass windows have been replaced. It’s a bit bare though, with no pictures on the wall, even the big one of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ has gone—there is a family story that one of our ancestors was there on that day, but I think it is just one of those myths that families have. Another one of these stories that I am suspicious of, was that he also finished the ‘Unfinished Symphony. It makes you think if any of it is true.

The big looking glass has gone, broken into smithereens, now just a little jagged piece propped up on a shelf. The dresser has nothing much on it apart from the alarm clock and that looks a bit sorry for itself, it sort of leans over so you have to look at it with your head tilted otherwise you will get the time wrong. 

It is early for me to be up and dressed, Iris and Bernard have already left for work, Mum, and my brother Don are still fast asleep under the Morrison shelter, sadly the bomb caused Mum to have a breakdown, and she is still very unwell. Our evacuee, Mrs. O’Keefe is in the kitchen, they stayed in our house while all the repairs were being carried out—Londoner’s; they are so tough! She is very short and stocky, my brother Bernard, says all Londoner’s are like that because of all the smoky air, I think it’s because she causes most of the smoke herself, she lights one fag after another.

And talking of smoke, it’s Monday, most people’s washday. I can smell all the coppers in our road being lit, wood smoke hangs in the still air outside and now drifts into our kitchen, soon our copper will be lit, and our smoke will slowly drift into someone else’s kitchen. It will be just like London! Mrs. O’Keefe comes in with a big pile of washing—she never stops talking.

“Let’s put some music on, shall we? I like some music while I work”.

She laughs, thinking she has made a little joke, ‘Music while you work’, is a popular programme on the wireless—I suppose it is quite funny. The wireless is an ‘Ultra’ it’s very clear, I can hear every little sound, probably because it has no cover, Dad was going to put it into a nice cabinet, but now it just sits on its base, I love watching the valves glowing, it’s like magic, I wonder how anyone thought of such a thing, there were no books then to tell you how to make one, and you can’t see radio waves or what-ever they call them.

I hear the old alarm clock, it is starting to whirr, as if it is gathering itself ready to ring the bell, but there is no bell to ring, the poor old clock has never been the same since the bomb, then it just gives up, I sometimes think that the wireless and the old clock are living things!

“Alan, there goes the Lagonda hooter, it’s eight o’clock already, but just look at your mum’s old clock, no bell, no glass and it’s always wrong, no one ever knows what the time is”.

The Lagonda factory is in Staines, about four miles away, the hooter should sound like the ‘all clear’, a continuous note, but it sounds more like the air raid warning, rising, and falling. My brother Don, said we should call Mrs O’Keefe, Mrs ‘O’, I think it’s a bit rude, but she doesn’t seem to mind, so that’s what I do now.

‘Well, Mrs ‘O’, it’s a wonder it works at all, after being blown out of the window with the rest of the stuff on the dresser’”

“Anyway, it’s easy to tell the time, all you have to remember, is that mum puts the clock ten minutes fast at the nine o’clock news every night, because that’s how much it loses every day. Do you want me to tell you how to work it out?” 

She looks over her thick glasses with a tired look, I think she knows what’s coming.

“No, I don’t, and to tell you the truth Alan, I haven’t got the time to, I must get this washing done otherwise it will never dry”.

“When I get the copper going, we’ll have some toast, shall we? there’s no butter though, only dripping”.

I start to explain how to work it out, but I think I have lost her.

“Jesus wept it’s no wonder every-one’s late in this house, if they have to do that all the time”.

I begin to tell her that it’s not a problem for them as they always leave twenty minutes early just in case. There are times when you start to say something and then wish you hadn’t, but you can’t stop yourself. This was such a time!

Mrs. ’O’ sighs, she leans forward resting her hands on to the table, she’s now looking very weary, I think she has lost the will to live!

“Ducky, if you carry on this, I will be as mad as the rest of you, wouldn’t it be better if they just bought a new clock, they can’t be that expensive”.

“Do you know, Alan, I really think I would be safer back in London than in this crazy house”.

The Lagonda hooter fades away, its quiet at last, just the sound of the crackling wood in the copper and the bubbling washing, I like the smell of washday it’s one of my favourites.

“Thank god that bloody hooters stopped, now I can listen to the wireless, it’s got such a lovely tone, it’s a shame your dad couldn’t finish the cabinet. Perhaps one day, Bernard might be able to do it, when he’s got time”.

“Bugger, now the bloody things fading, just when I was listening to that Anne Shelton. Now that is something you can do for me Alan, just take the accumulator down to Mr. Hyde, it only costs tuppence to charge it up again, the poor man, he’s got such a bad habit, jerks his head all over the place, maybe it’s all that electric stuff he deals with”.

The alarm clock is not the only thing that is not working very well, since the bomb I’ve got a twitch, a sort of a wink. Yesterday, I heard Mrs Salmon, and Mum talking about a boy at school who had something called St Vitus Dance, he can’t keep still. Then I heard them talking about me and my ‘habit’—until then, I never knew what a habit was let alone that I had one.

Mrs Salmon said. “He will soon grow out of it, it’s just the shock of the bomb”.

Mrs Salmon isn’t always right though, she was the one who said mum would be alright. Since I heard all this, I have been looking in the mirror every few minutes, all I could see was a funny sort of wink in one eye. I need to look in the glass to see if it is getting worse, but that means passing Mrs ’O’. As I walk towards her, I watch her eyes to see if she notices anything, she just smiles as I push past, but in the looking glass I can see the twitch, it’s getting worse!

“Alan! Just be careful in the scullery, the copper is very hot, it’ll scorch your trousers, then you’ll smell just like that dirty old army coat you’re so fond of”.

“Don says, army buttons must never be polished, shiny buttons make’s a target for sniper’s, I wonder what regiment he was in, and why it smells all burnt and where do you think the soldier is now”?

Mrs. ‘O’ looked over her shoulder at me for what seemed a very long time, her hands still in the sink, but then she turned away without saying anything, just slowly shaking her head.

“Just look at you, come away from that looking glass, pulling all those faces, one day you will end up like that poor Mr. Hyde”.

“If you want something to do, work out what the time is…………you’re the only bugger that can”.

She laughs so much at her joke, that her fag fell into the copper.

“Oh, Bugger! Bugger! Bugger! Now look what you have made me do”.

I think that if you took all the swear words out of her conversation, she would have very little to say. 

I walk back into the kitchen, Mrs. ‘O’ has said nothing about my winky eye. I think she is too upset about losing her fag!

“Here’s your toast, it’s a bit burnt, and that’s because of all your chatter”.

I creep back under the dresser, pulling my old army coat up round my neck, and eat my toast. You can’t beat toast and dripping on a chilly morning. I am lying still, and just listening, I can hear so much now, Mrs Wades chickens cackling and the pigs grunting, I could never have heard them before the bomb. I would have thought a bomb landing so close would make you as deaf as a post, but it’s the opposite.

My winky eye only comes back when I am stressed—this has caused all sorts of misunderstandings!!  My hearing is back as before. Mum gets better and we all soon get back to normal—or as normal as you can be in a war. We never thought the war would come so close to us, as it did that night.

Amazingly the dramatic events of these last few weeks did not really affect me, although I had been a witness to what a single bomb falling on a sleeping village could do, I was still an optimist. This was obviously something I had inherited from my mother, despite all the trauma she has had to endure in her forty odd years, she would always say.

“Never mind, something will always turn up”………. It didn’t always though.

Chapter Twenty-three, Refugees.

Grannie’s house was very old, she and grand dad had lived there for years, it stood next to a little stream, and we had to cross a rickety old bridge into her back garden. It was so nice to see My Gran—I have never seen her before.

She didn’t look very pleased to see us though, and for a moment I thought she wasn’t going to let us in, she just stood in the doorway looking surprised, of course she didn’t know that we had been bombed out, but then, how could she? It had only happened a few hours ago, and no one had a telephone.

Once indoors it was very different, everyone was crying—and hugging! Something our family never did—Chertsey people are not known for that sort of thing! granddad got a big surprise when he came back from the shop’s. This was also the first time I had ever seen him. I had never been to Addlestone, a close family we were not!

The next-door neighbour came around to hear our story—he had a wooden leg, a real one, like a Pirate would have, I couldn’t help looking at it, so shiny he must have polished it every day. Mum was still very tearful, and Gran was trying to find a way to cheer her up, and what she said was just the job, she knew that mum liked to have a bet on the horses.

“If you want to put a bet on, Ethel, Mr Seward is our bookies runner”.

For the first time since the bomb, mum started laughing, granny looked at her as if she was having a breakdown and gave her another hug. Mr Seward started laughing too, and patted his wooden leg, saying.

“They all think it’s funny down the Bookies as well, me a runner with a peg-leg”.

I liked Mr Seward, he would come round every day, and tell us about his time in the last war and how he lost his leg in France. Although I can’t remember very much else about living there, one thing that stands out was that the front of the house was next to a fish and chip shop—no more having to go all the way up to Mrs Hughes every Saturday morning! but the chips were nowhere near as nice as Mrs Hughes—she never peeled the potatoes, so they always had some nice crispy bits on them.

I was the only one who was shaken up, I was still a little deaf, but when my hearing came back a few days later I could hear a pin drop, everything was so much louder than before. The house was old, and everything creaked, the floorboard’s, the doors, and even the window frames. My sense of smell was also much keener, there was a funny smell, a bit like fresh bread, but that turned out be from the Co-op bakery a few yards away in Victory Road, after a while I didn’t even notice it.

Another thing I do remember, was that there were lots of mice in the house, probably the bakery again. They lived under a large shed at the bottom of the garden, the shed was full of sports gear including a punch bag hanging from the ceiling.

My Grandfather was a school sports trainer for ‘The Gordon boys Home’ in Chobham. He made us do exercises every day, I think he was disappointed that we weren’t very fit or sporty. Two of my uncles were footballers, and played for Walton and Hersham, a big football club locally. My uncle Ron was an athlete but was away in the Army somewhere. We Stayed with our gran for a few weeks until our house was mended, I was sad to leave my grannie but wanted to see my mates again.

Chapter Twenty-two, Near Miss.

Am I dreaming about the newsreel that I had seen earlier in the Picture Palace? Everything is rattling as if a giant is shaking the house. From under the dresser, I can see the kitchen light swinging about like a conker on a piece of string, and strips of the blackout curtains flapping like the washing on the line. There’s a bright flaring light coming through the front window, and bits of glass hanging down on the white tape that I had helped mum to stick on the windows, to stop the glass from flying about.

We have been bombed out, the blast must have gone through our house like a whirlwind, taking everything with it including most of the ceiling. Through the thick dust I can see someone silhouetted against the light of the window they are reaching down under the dresser and pulling the old army coat off me, it is covered with glass and lumps of plaster and bricks from the front wall. It’s my mother, she is saying something, but I can’t hear anything except a loud ringing noise.

As she pulls me out from under the dresser, my head hits the woodwork there is blood everywhere. She drags me into the scullery at the back of the house, there is no time to put any coats or shoes on, she just wants to get us out of the house as quickly as we can.

Mrs O’Keefe and Dennis, our evacuees, are already in the back garden, they had run downstairs from their bedroom and out through the front door—or where the front door had been, it has been blown off its hinges and is wedged up the stairs. Bernard is carrying the baby, and Chris has grabbed Donald from under the shelter, we cut across the bottom of our garden into Mrs Phillips, then round to Mrs Salmons house at the top of Cowley Avenue.

As we come out of Mrs Phillips’ gate, people from the bottom of the road are running past—some still in their night clothes—to see if they can help, there are already some people standing under the big Oak tree on the island in Pyrcroft Road.

Mr Mill’s, the Air Raid Warden is there, his white shirt is red with blood, and he is limping, but is still in charge and keeps everyone back to the bottom of Lasswade Road. I look up the road past our house, it is all lit up, the road is full of rubble, and some big branches from the tree that is outside Eddie Hatchwell’s, are hanging down almost to the ground. There is a lot smoke, and a strong smell of burning, the flames show up the white faces of the people who are looking on from near Mrs Cooling’s house at the other end of the road beyond the burning homes. 

The poor people who lived in the houses that are now just a pile of bricks and window frames had no chance, but already their neighbours are scrambling over the rubble, to see if they can help anyone. My heart sinks, I didn’t think it would be like this, even at just eight years old I know that nothing could live in such a burning heap, but a lady is found she is carried out by a man, her hair is soaking wet and hanging down, she is very still, the man lays her down on the pavement next to Mr. Dabneys house, a coat is put under her head, then, she moves her hand up to her hair as if she going to brush it, some ladies rush over to her with another coat, I think she might be alright, then she starts screaming for her baby who is still in the house. 

Men and women are pulling the doors and stairs away looking for anyone else, especially for this poor woman’s child. 

I was never told if anyone died until very much later when some boys did tell me that a little baby had died and two other people, it was said they were London evacuees, it is all so unfair.

On the other side of the road, Danny Parker’s house has all the beds and furniture hanging out, the front wall of the house has been cut off as if by a knife. Kenny Edwards, who lives near to the Parker’s, is with his Mum. The first thought he and my brother Don have is to start looking for shrapnel, they find a large chunk stuck in the tree, it has a number stamped on it . Kenny says that will makes it very collectable. It is so far into the trunk, that they can’t move it. If it had hit someone, Kenny says it would have gone right through them, I believed him.

All our neighbours are here now, some holding each other, and others, like my Mum were just crying and crying, there is nothing that can be done for our poor friends up the road.  The fire engines arrive, and we are told to move away, just as another huge flare of flame shoots up, they say it is the gas main, even I can hear the roar of it above the ringing in my ears.

People are just standing around, not knowing what to do, we all go down Cowley Avenue and stay with our friends till morning. Mrs Phillips, a St John’s Ambulance nurse, puts a plaster on my forehead, although it has already stopped bleeding.

The next morning the council men came to check the damage, they put planks over our front windows and refit the front door and said it would be alright for us to live in the back of the house. Bernard, Iris and Chris moved back in, as did Mrs O’Keefe and Dennis. Some neighbours were not allowed to go back into their houses, not even to collect anything, their homes were so badly damaged they were told the buildings would be likely to fall.

Mum decided to go and stay with our Gran’s, with me and Don till the house was properly put back together, Granny lived in Addlestone about three miles away.

For the life of me I can’t remember much about that day, except that I still had a very large plaster on my head and of the long walk to my Grans house. The worst bit of the journey was helping Mum and my brother, to push the heavy pram with little Sylvia in it and lots of clothes piled on top, over the railway bridge at Hatch Farm. Luckily, Mum knew the area, and we used a little cinder path that ran from the top of the bridge along the railway track to Addlestone Station, right next to Gran’s house. We looked like the refugees that we saw on the newsreel fleeing the Germans, in a way that is what we were.                   

Chapter Twenty-one. Our Bomb.

  

Sitting in the cramped cockpit of a bomber are two young German airmen, specially chosen to fly a Dornier. This is one of the fastest of the German bombers. They are flying low to avoid our Radar, and then to deliver a surprise attack. On the horizon, the pilot sees the same red sky over London. He can’t help thinking of all the terrified people there. He had been on an earlier raid over London, and saw how incendiary bombs, falling like leaves in Autumn, would burn anything they touched. He looks away—to stop thinking these bad thoughts, his target for tonight is shiny railway lines.

The Dornier, ‘Flying pencil’ was the perfect aircraft for this sort of mission, its slim fuselage making it hard for anti-aircraft shells to hit. Three bombers had left France, with the same intention to cause havoc and fear on unsuspecting towns and villages. They had separated over the English coast; a lone plane is hard to see at night.

For maximum speed they are carrying just two high explosive bombs, they also need to be accurate. They are both leaning forward in the cockpit, straining their eyes to see through the low clouds. They are looking for those brightly shining railway lines.

The fires raging in the distance are lighting up the sky making it hard for them to see anything on the ground. The pilot flies as low as he dares, over some tall trees, and there, beneath him he sees the rails shining like a target waiting to be hit. He follows the lines until they pass through the trees and fields and then he sees the rows of houses and a railway station, a perfect target.

 He releases the two heavy bombs, the Dornier soars into the night like a big bird, the crew are shouting wildly and clapping their hands.

On the ground below not far away, our neighbour Mr Mills, the local Air Raid Warden, will soon finish his patrol and hand over to his relief. He turns the corner near Johnson’s wood yard into Chilsey Green. There are no houses on his right, just Stanford’s farm, and on the left, a row of old cottages. My friend Barbara Walden lives there, and next to her is Mrs Brooks house, her husband is away in the army. Mr Mills knows everyone in his patrol sector, and probably most of the people in Chertsey.

He was a fit young soldier in the First World War, now he is a bit tubby, and too old for active service. Never-the-less here he is, once again in a uniform; the blue boiler suit of the ARP, he even has an army helmet. There is no mistaking the pride he feels in doing his bit for the war effort, swinging his arms as if he was still a young soldier. No one would dare to show the slightest chink of light to aid the enemy planes on his patch.

In the distance— just twenty miles away—he too can see that same crimson glow of the fires in London. He has been told that incendiary bombs are now the choice of the German air-force. People seem more fearful of these than the big bombs, they fall in such great numbers and cover a larger area. Now it seems as if all of London is burning.

He remembers as a young soldier in France, seeing the same deadly glow in the sky, and thinking then, of all the people unable to escape. He quickens his stride as if to shake off these thoughts. After all, it’s been another quiet night, mild with just a light breeze, enough of a breeze to make the leaves of the tall Aspen trees rustle as he passes the Lasswade House orchard. The rustle of the leaves almost masks the sound of an aircraft’s engines. No reason for alarm though, it is something that happens about this time most nights, one of the Beaufighter’s about to land at Chobham aerodrome, less than two miles away.

But as the aircraft flies very low, the sound is not of a Beaufighter’s quiet radial engines, but the dreaded droning noise of a German bomber, flying just above the Conker trees in Stanford’s Farm, instinctively he starts to run then stopping for a moment to listen, the noise of the bomber’s engines change as it flies away, it is all too sudden to warn anyone, not even time for an air raid siren. He hears the engine noise quicken and then fade into the night he knows this means the plane has released its load of bombs.

First, he sees the houses just ahead of him in Pyrcroft Road light up as if by daylight, in the next instant comes the incredible noise of the explosion, followed by the blast. He can’t stand, he’s tumbled like a bale of straw in a gale, along with branches of trees and all manner of things caught up in the violent storm sweeping up the road. Clinging on to the railings of the bridge over Dummies stream, at the bottom of Mrs Ballard’s house, all he can see is a cloud of dust rolling toward him lit up by the flames behind and the sound of falling brickwork. Then the terrible screaming and the shouts of people, some trapped, some injured and some terrified by what must seem like the end of the world—for some poor people it would be just that.

The bomber crew cheer and stamp their feet as the Dornier wheels away, their mission accomplished, another blow for The Fatherland—but not quite the success they thought it was, the railway was untouched.

Chapter Twenty, Picture Palace.

  

    The war was to us kids was just like the film show that we saw every Saturday morning. Although several bombs had fallen in the local fields, no-one was hurt. Shrapnel hunting in the fields was as exciting as any of the films.

    My first moment of fear, was not the sight of London burning, but it was the fear in my mother’s eyes, as we watched, from the safety of our back garden, the crimson glow of the blitz, just twenty miles away, it was like a rainbow, filling half the sky but with only two colours, red and orange.

I am an eight-year- old boy full of dreams and ideas that only a child can fill his mind with. The Playhouse picture palace, in Guildford Street, had been my main view of the outside world.

      Films were rated as ‘U’ or an ‘A’. Children were able to watch a ‘U’ film without an adult, ‘A’ films needed an adult to take a child in.  The films were shown twice a day, the main film was followed by the newsreel, and then by the ‘little’ film, without a pause.

      For the cost of one ticket, you could take your seat at any time during the film, this meant you had to stay after the film had finished, to see the beginning of it. There was always a queue outside waiting for someone to come out, maybe halfway through the film.  

       Sometimes ‘Pathe Gazette’ would show ‘news from the front’—we always seem to be winning the war. With clapping and shouts from the packed picture house, it was uplifting for anyone present, but some of the older audience, remembering an earlier war, must have had their doubts, having heard it all before.  

      The Saturday morning picture club for children, was my favourite, there we could see films of a perfect world—perfect at least for the children of rural Chertsey. Cowboys, Tom Mix and Gene Autrey, on their wonderful Palomino horses were the heroes, always with perfectly ironed shirts and clean white cowboy hats, even their boots, bedecked with gemstones, were sparkling and shiny no matter how dusty the land was. 

        The baddies, on the other hand rode dirty brown horses, wore scruffy clothes, and of course had dusty black hats, even the spurs on their worn-out boots made a menacing jangle. A baddie appearing on the screen would be met with shouts and hissing from a couple of hundred children, it was deafening.

     The drama of Saturday morning pictures was not confined to the screen. Although it only cost tuppence to get in, some of us had no money, so by lifting the bar on the fire escape door at the back of the building, one paying child could let in a few of his mates.

       The manager, dressed in his full red uniform, with gold braided shoulder epaulettes and what my brother called ‘scrambled egg’ on the brim of his hat, would walk down the aisle with a torch, looking at a house full of children, but with less than half the tickets sold.

      The kids who had sneaked in the back door, had one eye on the picture and the other on the torch, ready to turn away from the beady eye of the manager. It was a sign of the times that he allowed this to happen week after week. 

                I think if he had his way all the children would get in free.

This evening, I have been taken to the pictures by my sister and her boyfriend. The film was a bit dull, but the Pathe News was very graphic, it showed people fleeing their towns and villages that were being bombed and burnt to the ground. They were not soldier’s but ordinary people and children. Afterwards, as the picture-goers are walking home, hardly a word is spoken, those towns could just as easily have been Chertsey, with the same shops and churches, and with our people running away from the tanks and bombs.

At Bell Corner, people were standing and looking down Eastworth Road. Above Miss Stotts clothing shop, once again there was the brightest sky ever a shimmering arc of orange and red, almost like an enormous sun setting on the skyline, tonight, it seemed to be pulsating. It wasn’t just down Eastworth Road though, once again London has been bombed. It’s the third night in a row that the sky has been so red, it won’t stop burning until there is nothing left to burn.

I can’t help thinking of those poor people in London, not knowing where to run. The only bombs that have fallen in our area did hardly any damage. Once home, I couldn’t wait to hide under the dresser, this is where I like to sleep in my makeshift bed—we have a Morrison shelter, where the others sleep, but Sylvia, our new baby is very noisy, and I only go under the shelter when the siren goes.

I feel safe under the old Army overcoat that I use as a blanket, it’s my favourite souvenir, I don’t know where it came from, but we use anything to keep us warm at night, no wonder we call them bedclothes because that is what they were, somebody else’s clothes.  I snuggle down into it—there is always a faint smell of burning from it, as if it has been too near to the fire. Everything in London must smell like this, I try to think of something else—it’s very hard to do.

We are lucky living in a town like Chertsey, there is nothing here of any importance, nothing for the Germans to waste their bombs on. At least that’s what Mrs. Salmon always says.

“The only thing that they would bomb would be Chertsey bridge or the railways, but they are not main the targets, it would be somewhere like the Tank Factory over in Chobham that are more important”.

It turns out that Mrs Salmon is right in one way, the Germans would target railways, but they do have another trick up their sleeve—hit and run raids on any small town— a town such as Chertsey, this is what Fred says anyway.