This poem is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.My English Childhood
I was writing my doll's name on the back of her neck
when Mummy caught fire - a noisy distraction.
She was wearing a loose blue flowered smock
(an old maternity smock, I now deduce,
from her pregnancy with my sister four years earlier,
being used as an overall, not to waste it);
the hem flapped over the hearth she was sweeping,
and caught on a live coal from last night's fire.
I tore myself away from writing `Margaret'
to save her life. `Lie down, Mummy!' I said,
and helped to smother her flames in the hearthrug.
So much is memory. The rest was praise:
What a good girl, how sensible, how calm!
But `how well-taught' is what they should have said.
She saved her own life, really. She'd made sure
we knew fire travels upwards, and needs air.
After all, this was the `phoney war' -
she was waiting for all of England to catch fire.
My First Letter
Dear Mammy [Auntie's spelling, I suspect:
a Leicestershire phonetic transcription
from my still slightly New Zealand accent,
soon to be lost]. We sat on the platform
three times last Sunday. We did like it.
We go to school. We like to go to school.
That's all, apart from half a page of kisses
and a rather fine drawing on the other side.
What was it we liked, then, exactly?
Sunday School? Did sitting on the platform
make us important? We certainly liked school -
or I did; Marilyn was not so keen,
but she was only four. And we liked the farm,
and our new Auntie and Uncle, and Betty and Jean.
We liked Mummy, too - and Daddy, of course -
but they weren't there. You can't have everything.
What happened to that snapshot of my mother
in her grey Ambulance Service overcoat
and a tin hat, her gas-mask hanging
from a diagonal strap across her chest?
It wasn't flattering. She may have burnt it,
out of vanity. Too late: I can still see it.
All she ever told us about that year
was the tale of how they parked over a time-bomb -
unscathed, of course; a big joke, afterwards.
But the picture grows clearer by the minute:
the double row of buttons; the pockets;
the collar; her determined chin.
Off Duty at the Depot
There stands my father in ARP overalls
with his arm around a plump blonde lady.
They are both holding tennis racquets;
their heads are tilted towards each other.
Who took the photo? Some colleague of theirs,
no doubt - you can see the depot behind them.
Not my mother. But `Auntie Joan'
ripened into a friend of the family.
Later, when I was eleven or so,
she came with presents for Christmas. Mine
was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
I found it totally seductive.
A Rose Tree
When we went to live at Top Lodge
my mother gave me a rose tree.
She didn't have to pay for it -
it was growing there already,
tall and old, by the gravel drive
where we used to ride our scooters.
No one else was allowed to pick
the huge pale blooms that smelt like jam.
It was mine all through that summer.
In October we moved again.
But even never seeing it
couldn't stop it from being mine:
one of those eternal presents.
At the new house I had a duck.
On the bus, you added up the numbers
on your ticket: if they came to 21
that meant you were going to get a sweetheart.
But if you walked to school, you might be able
to add to your collection of coloured glass:
rubies and sapphires; bits of saints and martyrs.
The first banana I'd seen for years
was at school assembly, tenderly swaddled
in cotton wool. Someone's father
had brought it home on leave with him.
The raffle tickets were 6d each,
for the Red Cross. I forget who won it.
The next was sliced and drowning in custard -
`Auntie' Lena's way of stretching it.
Sacrilege. But then this was a woman
whose husband left his clothes by a river
to get away. (A dozen years later
he popped up alive, and she took him back).
Not that I knew all this at the time;
but even before the banana, you could
tell by her corsets she had no taste.
Just before we left the farm by the brickworks
Peter Jackson smashed my clay tea set,
thus ensuring that I'd remember him for ever.
Each lumpy cup, saucer, jug, plate or bowl
I'd fashioned out of the beige-blue squelchiness
had taken days to bake hard in the sun.
No time to make more; our holiday was over.
My mother, coming to collect us, said:
`It will all be the same in a hundred years.'
I quoted it back at her after the first fifty -
still unconsoled. But now, too late to tell her,
I give in. So it will, Mother. Clay crumbles.
The Mill Stream
And what was the happiest day I remember?
It was when we went to the Mill Stream -
my sister and I and the Morris kids.
We wore our bathing-suits under our dresses
(subterfuge), crossed the live railway lines
(forbidden), and tramped through bluebell woods.
There was a bridge with green and brown shadows
to lurk among in the long afternoon.
Chest high in the stream, with pointy water-snails
as escorts, I could hardly believe my luck.
Happiness is chemical. Sunshine and water
trigger it. (And I couldn't even swim.)
Marilyn was frightened of snakes, mostly -
quite convinced a boa-constrictor lurked
under the eiderdown, or perhaps just
a nest of adders. I was full of scorn:
even real snakes didn't bother me -
and how could they have got into her bed?
My own nightmares (fewer - I was older)
were about ghosts: doors couldn't keep those out.
Oddly enough, being in bed with Mummy -
that outgrown childhood remedy - did the trick.
It also worked for pythons in the blankets.
So when we all slept in the table shelter
nobody woke up screaming. After all,
being scared of bombs was just for grown-ups.
The way they told it to us at the time,
If he hadn't swapped his day off with a friend
to come home for his birthday, he'd have been killed.
But the friend, unlike our father, was not a driver,
and therefore hadn't run to where the cars were
when he heard the siren, and was thus not killed.
So that was all right, or not so bad - until
you thought about it, which they hoped we wouldn't:
somebody had to run and start the cars.
The way he told his parents, two weeks later:
`Times have been quite exciting. Fortunately
I still have my lucky star and am safe and sound.
Our depot, however, was completely demolished,
which explains why this letter is not typed...
I have lost both my cars but they will be covered
by war damage insurance...' Typewriter? Cars?
No word of people? - Not while it's still going on.
But on the day after his next birthday,
June 1945, one sentence:
`Just a year ago today I was helping
to dig my friends from the débris of the depot.'
So who was killed? They're in the Kentish Times
(`FLYING BOMBS HIT SOUTHERN ENGLAND.
First-Aid and Rescue Service Depot Destroyed'):
Mrs W. Symes; Miss L. Hancock;
Mr B. Hopwell; Mr E. Ingram;
Mr Norman White; and a messenger named Smith.
`When are we going back to Woodside Way?'
No answer; or `Not just yet; we'll have to see.'
We couldn't make them grasp how much it mattered:
a quarter or so of our lives in one place -
and one with actual woods at the end of the road
to make free with, and friends living nearby.
It was as if a few Doodlebug raids
had jolted them into forgetting the word `home'.
We'd moved to Scalford, Corsham, Chippenham, Frant,
and finally (a name from the past) Sidcup -
five changes of school in less than a year -
before they confessed: we had a new home now.
Woodside Way went on without us. Our friends
had other friends. New people lived in our house.
Surely they could at least have taken us back -
one little outing by train - to say goodbye
to the Morrises, and Edna and Diana
and the others, and the house itself, and the woods,
and the field beside them, ploughed for victory
each year, and Middle Bush, where the owl roosted?
Had we become suddenly posh, then, living
in this enormous house in Hatherley Road
with three storeys, rambling cellars, outbuildings,
and a garden that was an orchard as well?
Not quite. There were also Mr and Mrs Ash,
and Miss Miller, and Mr and Mrs Curtiss
and Mr Ferris - all at the same time -
and others now and then to be squeezed in.
We never knew where we'd be sleeping next:
upstairs at the back, downstairs at the front,
or al fresco in the coach house or stables
(roofed, it's true, but each of them short of a wall).
One winter our parents took to the cellar.
It was the kind of thing New Zealanders did -
unlike the Burtonshaws across the road;
nobody else lived in their house but them.
My sister and I were fond of Miss Miller
(a teacher), and the Curtisses were friendly.
They invited us to tea; we had shrimps
for the first time, and played with the baby.
Mr Ferris, who was a friend of theirs,
had a thin moustache, and looked like a spiv.
One evening he and Mr Curtiss fell out
and tumbled down the stairs in a violent clinch.
I didn't see the gun they were grappling over -
my mother screamed at me to stay in my room -
but I heard the police arrive. (Poor Marilyn
was asleep, and missed it all.) No one was shot.
Mr Curtiss's thumb was broken. Mr Ferris
crawled on the floor to search for his gold tooth.
A bit of an anti-climax. Still, it was all
quite fun. I hope the Burtonshaws were jealous.
After queueing sixteen hours for tickets
he brought us to the land beyond the war.
In Donegal he came in with a newspaper.
`They've split the atom!' And then he explained.
When VJ Day happened we were in Dublin.
Our landlady gave us some kindly advice:
`Best not to wear red, white and blue rosettes -
they might get torn off, and your lapels with them.'
Even so, when we went to the pictures -
`The Commandos Strike at Dawn' - and the camp guards
hoisted the swastika, we still couldn't quite
believe our ears when the audience cheered.
It was not sensible to write my name
by dragging my feet through the ankle-deep snow
on the playing-field - it clotted in my shoes
and short white socks. Think of the chilblains!
But I was thirteen, and sensible only
intermittently; and this famous winter -
arctic, rattling with icicles - was my last
in England; and I didn't want to leave.
On the SS Arawa
Torn away from England at thirteen,
like Juliet from Romeo, I dreamed
a plane swooped on the deck to whisk me back.
No chance. I had to look for distractions.
I read the entire Bible at a gallop
in five weeks (skipping the minor prophets).
I learned to swim. I wrote a comic play,
and we put it on (tickets a penny).
I found an actual Romeo, a steward,
to moon over. One night the other kids
persuaded him to kiss me, while they giggled:
not ideal, but something for my diary.
That was the kind of stuff it flourished on,
together with our exotic ports of call -
Curaçao, with bananas galore
and Dutch currency; polyglot Panama.
The doll I made for Marilyn from a pair
of pink knickers featured; and our quarrels.
I didn't mention (though I still remember)
what songs the crew's accordion used to play
on the afterdeck, those tropical evenings;
or the green-black sea and the tempting rail;
or how, in spite of Louis's Italian eyes,
my dreams were still of Surrey, Wiltshire, Sidcup.
My diary of our holiday in Ireland
is full of references to being sick.
It also describes a series of breakfasts:
eggs, bacon, fried bread, brown bread with real butter -
more grease in one meal than our weekly ration.
You'd think I might have made the connection.
`Legs like pea-sticks,' the aunties complained,
welcoming us home from austerity
with bulging tea-trolleys of cream sponges.
`We'll fatten you up.' Cream, butter, cheese:
New Zealand's dairy industry set to -
and failed. Fat legs were not my destiny.
What they should have taken back to New Zealand
was the oval walnut dining-table
picked up for almost nothing during the Blitz
when antiques were no one's priority:
the smoothest, most colourfully-grained,
prettiest slab of wood we ever ate off.
Once or twice, when the Doodlebugs came,
we even slept with our heads under it,
before our Morrison shelter was delivered.
But no; they took the piano instead.
It was her choice (although the table had been
hers too: her lucky find, her gleeful purchase;
he was far too busy to go shopping,
and only home on leave one night a week).
Was she trying to say she was the person
who, for a couple of years during a lull,
had a plate beside her door with letters on it
(LTCL, LRSM, etc),
and not just a furnisher of tables?
But New Zealand was full of pianos.
Back from the War
A bit over the top, I thought, the lectern
my grandfather presented to the church
(St John's, Drury - proud of its bullet-holes
from what we could still then call the Maori Wars):
`A thank-offering from Mr and Mrs S. Adcock
for the safe return of their son... and family...'
After all, we hadn't been to the front.
A few air raids, and none that struck home, were all.
Bad enough when Grandpa, standing beside me
in the pew, decided to sing falsetto.
Now here I was, implicitly included
(`and family') in his embarrassing monument.
Well, I grew up. And it's gone now, the lectern -
replaced by a brass eagle, though the plaque survives.
A pity; I'd have liked another look at it.
I rather suspect the dear man made it himself.
This poem is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.