My war brought loss of a different kind, not the loss of a death, but the loss of division no less formidable in its onslaught.
My early life was warmth, innocent and lazy, hazy days when one was dressed in white ankle socks and cotton dresses for the Good Friday march and sitting on a pink granite pavement watching the sun and shadows make the gravel shine like wee little blinking stars.
My world existed on the pink pavement outside my house where ‘my world’ held peace, fantasy and anticipation, awaiting Mr McMurdo’s horse and cart to come down our street. He brought fresh garden vegetables to sell and always gave me a few of my very favourite pea pods or a shiny scarlet tomato. How I loved the sound of the pods coming open with a loud clear crack. A sign of their freshness or the mustiness of the tomato as my teeth split open the taut red skin.
Next would come ‘Cleggy’s’ clanking milk cart. Glistening with copper milk measures all in a row like dancing dollies. Shiny bells labelled PINT, HALF PINT or ‘QWERT’ as my wayward tongue could only pronounce it, no matter how I placed my tongue or lips. I always paid particular attention to these dancing bells, because if I spotted that Cleggy hadn’t got them in their right order or their shininess wasn’t pure, then I was given a short ride on ‘Giddup’ the horse. Of course being very ‘astute’ I always found something, for also at the end of the ride (if he wasn’t in a grump) he’d give me a tiny ladle of thick warm cream to drink. Comforting my mouth and tum for yonks, yonks and yonks (a very grown up word I heard my brother use). The highlight of the waiting days came with Friday. That was my day of days. My sunshine before the storm, my heaven before the hearth. The afternoon that ended the week.
I was allowed (being watched by a brother or sister) to run up East George Street where I lived, to wait on the corner of Hudson Street and George Street to see the Co-op Society horses coming back to their yard, their homecoming parade. It was the most wonderful of all sights. The steady clip-clop of hooves, with an occasional whiney, built an excitement within my chest so bad that I felt it would split open. Then they appeared – magnificent, awesome beasts that looked to me as though they were stepping out of the clouds, their shining dark eyes looking into mine. I have no words to explain that feeling of animal – human communication, except power and strength and beauteousness. There they filed, dressed up in all their finery. Ribbon entwined in tails and manes, leather waxed to glisten, brasses polished to rival the sun and stars. Strutting with animal pride and dignity and knowingness beyond my childhood comprehension. It took me several years to realise how weary they, and of course their handlers, must have been. Yet they never showed weariness nor did their heads hang low. Even now, in my 70th year, I can feel the excitement to my soul when I recollect the special day or see a great horse.
When the parade ended we’d race back to No 12 for freshly baked bread (particularly oven-bottom cake), jam (homemade) and scones (pronounced ‘on’ not ‘oh’) or seedy cake. Strangely, I don’t recall my mam as any other than with her strong arm beating batter or pounding a bowl of bread, which she did every day, not just for her family of 11 but for others on hard times. Or driving a sewing machine across miles and miles of material so that Dad’s girls looked like ‘princesses’.
Friday had its downside. After tea came ‘head check’. Then it was ‘skin scrub’. We were plonked in one end of the bath, soaked, soaped and rinsed by Dad, if he was home from ‘the cutter’. Dad was a Tyne Pilot and was often away from home for days as he waited ‘on turn’ to bring ships into the River Tyne safely. We then plodged to the other end of the bath where tide marks and ears were dealt with, lifted out and abraded dry by Mam. A conveyor belt of love and hygiene. Finally, we waddled out through the scullery to rummage for nighties or jamas. Being second youngest mine never seemed to match or fit. It didn’t really matter to me because it was time to sit in front of the fire hearth to wait for our Horlicks, milk or Bournvita followed by a story. Then (and this is the worst bit), came the dreaded ‘opening medicine’, Syrup of Figs. I always put up a fight until my nose was nipped and in the obnoxious brew went, bruising my night time happiness. Mind you, there was always a sweetie under the pillow for first into bed.
One day I woke to a flurry of activity that was different to the normal morning flurry. The iron was skating across clothes. Clothes were being sorted and deposited into a number of brown suitcases. My mind bounced into joy. Hooray, we’re going on holiday. Usually to Auntie Elsie’s at Haydon Bridge. I was oblivious in my excitement. I don’t remember getting to the bus station. I did notice my mam was crying with happiness or so my young mind thought. Then it happened! My sisters and brothers were all given a lovely square, brown cardboard box to wear. Strung criss-crosswise over their brand new homemade coats, to which was pinned a light brown parcel tag. Just like the one old Paddington Bear wore. I shook with excitement waiting for mine. There is a small blank in my memory. I do recall scary sounds of crying, screaming and jostling. Lots of bodies in movement like the walking trees of nightmares. The jostling carried me toward a huge bus, which looked as high as houses in the sky.
My sister got on the steps of the bus and I stepped on with her, but a pair of hands grabbed me back. I became a ‘rope’ in a tug of war. Peg cried, “My little sister has to come with me” and my other sister Rene cried, “No she can’t go, she must stay with me”. Their tears were washing down their cheeks faster than rain on a window pane. Their pain was on their faces, mine was in my arms and my chest. I don’t remember more until the bus moved from my sight. I stared, rigid, into the jostling space where it had been with some part of my innards hurting me speechless. In that moment I learnt about grief, loss and its solitary affect.
My war brought loss of a different kind, not the loss of a death, but the loss of division no less formidable in its onslaught. Five of my siblings were lost to me in one fell swoop swallowed up in the evacuation process. When they returned, they came back to me as strangers. They had changed. They were different. I couldn’t understand this at all. My strangeness was confusing to me and them. That one step onto the big bus changed my young life forever. Changed it just as drastically as the small brown envelope marked ‘ON HIS MAJESTY’S SERVICE’ changed my parents’ and many others when it plopped through the letter box on to the coir door mats in vogue at the time.
My naive grief awarded me a lifelong distress every time someone close had to go away and my inner war would begin again. Panics assail me, but I deal with my war aftermath with more wisdom and power now I’m all grown up. Memory now is mostly visual. Bomb craters, sirens, homes there one moment and gone the next, stirrup pumps, ARP helmets, air raid wardens, blackout curtains and beams of light criss-crossing the sky. Memories go on and on just like war with its incumbent pain and fear.
But enough is enough! I’m now off to ‘Inniseso’s’ shop on Borough Road, for a hot blackcurrant, then to Thompson’s Red Stamp Store on Saville Street for a penny pot of peanut butter, finished off by a cone of ice cream at Tomaseli’s on Charlotte Street. Then I’ll stand and sniff the coffee smells at Williamson Hogg the chemist and listen to the overhead cash tubes as they whirr along the wires toward the head cashiers raised office in Barry Nobles veg emporium in Bedford Street – memories, memories.