Sunday, 16 February 2014

Memories Are Made Of This

arly memories are like those old photographs we all have in a battered album or a box at the back of a cupboard. There are gaps in our lives, too, similar to those left by missing photographs. The hazy recollections I have of my early like are like that, faded, none too clear and all of them connected with the Second World War.

We lived in Horwich, a small mill town six miles from Bolton in Lancashire and I was only a baby when my father went away to the War.  My very earliest memory, and I must have been very young at the time, is of lying on my mother’s chest, my cheeks burning hot, and seeing the moon through the window casting its full light into the shadows of the bedroom. Mum must have pulled the curtains open to see to me by the light of the moon rather than put the light on because of the blackout.

Another memory which comes vividly to mind is of Mum and me running through a blacked-out Manchester at the beginning of an air raid. Who could forget the bloodcurdling wail that struck fear into the hearts of everyone or the same sound of the ‘all clear’ which always sounded much lighter, less fearsome? A further click of my mind’s eye shutter and we were on the train to Bolton on our way back home, seeing in the black night outside, fires leaping and flaring from buildings that were being bombed. I must have only been about two then for, besides the main blitz of Manchester in 1940, there were a few other isolated raids, one of which was on Salford, which the train would have passed through, in April 1941.

Christina, my sister, was born in November 1942. Tragically, the only memory I have is seeing her fighting for breath, chubby little arms and legs flailing, as she lay in the cot, brought down to the front room of the terraced house where we were then living. From then on, the images mercifully fade. I remember a sense of confusion, of shouting, someone wearing a uniform plunging my strangely still sister alternately into a steaming tin bath then into an icy cold one in a barbaric attempt to revive her. Then, stillness, quietness, broken only by muffled crying, a darkened front room through which we had to tiptoe with eyes averted from the still form in the cot. At the age of 13 months, Christina had died from broncho-pneumonia. Antibiotics weren’t available then.

The next snapshot image that comes to mind is of my mother and me walking hand in hand down the street. Mum was crying, tears rolling down her cheeks, and she was wearing a black coat. I had the strong impression that we were leaving and this may well have been true because we spent the rest of the war in Blackpool, which is a confusion of jumbled memories. Mum was working as a live-in housekeeper for an ear, nose and throat specialist. He had two noisy and lively children who made my life a misery. To have to suddenly share my life with other children, older, more precocious, more outgoing than myself was a numbing experience. They taunted me daily, ensuring I got the blame for things they had done, like the time they emptied a chamber pot from a bedroom window and saying it was me.

There was the experience of a new school too. I’d first started school in Horwich where I’d decided fairly quickly that I’d had enough and came home early. It’s a good job it hadn’t been far away because Mum had paddled my legs all the way back to school and I never played truant again. The only thing I really remember about the new school was a big turreted clock tower over the doorway and the hard benches we were made to sit on, hands on head to keep us all in order.

Dad hadn’t, up till that time, played much of a part in my life as he’d been away for much of the War. Then, suddenly, Dad came home, carrying a cardboard suitcase containing his demob suit and stayed. For me, it was a vague sense that life as I had known it was going to change. Mum told me, many years later, that they, in common with many couples, struggled with their marriage after so long apart.

We were moving a long way away, it seemed, to Devon where my parents had obtained a job, Mum as a cook-housekeeper, Dad as chauffeur-gardener. I wish I had clearer memories of Ivybridge but as I started being ill almost immediately with yellow jaundice, all the memories I have are hazed with illness. Quite early on, I remember standing by my father as he tended a flower bed, smelling the rich earthy smell of leaves that had been mulched in some time previously.

The house, I recall, was large and rambling and because of the danger of flooding from the river which ran through the town, only the upper floors could be used. The river itself was nearly my downfall as it was also a mill race. Playing hide and seek one day with the children from the house, I fell down the embankment. Fortunately, I landed on a ledge but my playmates, not knowing this, raced up to the house to tell my parents. They, thinking the worst, ran back to the river bank expecting me to have been swept along by the mill race into the cavernous gloom below the mill. Arriving there, they found me climbing back up to the higher bank.

Many of life’s necessities, let alone luxuries, were scarce after war and Dad, thinking to please me, went into nearby Plymouth to buy a second-hand doll’s house for me for Christmas. It was so big he couldn’t take it on the bus and had to walk all the way home with it. It hurt him deeply that Christmas because I played more with a torch given to me by the people of the house than I did with the doll-s house. Poor Dad, I don’t think he ever quite forgave me for that.

More another time ...