A DIFFERENT WAR
I must have been about 21. I was having a holiday with a friend who lived in the country – that very innocent buttercups and daisies countryside we don’t see now – when we heard on the radio that Germany had invaded Poland… Was it the radio? Perhaps we still called it the wireless then…
I said at once, age 21, “I must return to London!” I must have thought I was vitally necessary to the country’s security. No-one laughed. Respectfully they helped me pack my little case, and all of them came to wave me off at the tiny country station.
In London for two days we switched the wireless on and off. On Sunday morning the announcement came – we were at war. Immediately, like all my friends zooming in from different streets, I caught a bus to Trafalgar Square. And as I got there the first air raid siren sounded. What a noise! It must surely have been invented by an enemy, that unearthly wailing that turned your limbs to water before a bomb had been dropped. We stared at each other. No-one knew what to do. Should we what? –joke? – do something? But what? We kicked our heels for a few minutes nervously, then disconsolately went home. The day had been ruined for us.
After some months, the war was on properly. By then, I was living in a flat with two boys. It was over a knocking-shop, though I didn’t know this when I took it. As far as I’d known, it was over one of those patriotic Irish clubs – I mean patriotic from the Republican viewpoint – that were dotted all over Edgware Road at that time.
There was no lighting in the streets. And every window was blacked out – you daren’t show a chink of light from a window because of the German bombers that would come over every night.
What came over to me was all these burly Irish chaps, pounding and kicking on the door in the pitch-dark, shouting “Where are the women? Bring out the women!” I was generally on my own in the evenings, the boys working nights, one on the railway, the other in a precision engineering factory, and I could only hope the lock would hold. In addition, they used our area – an area, in London, is a little enclosed space outside your flat where you can put a dustbin or a couple of flower-pots or a baby’s pram – they used it as their loo: and as they were pissed out of their minds, they used it a lot.
We had policemen on the beat in those days, specially in that area, dozens of them, so I asked the one in our mews would he please do something about all this. He listened to me politely, I will say that, every time I spoke to him; so I couldn’t understand why nothing ever changed. I was young and naive; I did ‘t realise till later that he was getting a regular hand-out from the club. Dropsy, we used to call it then.
It got so disgusting that I decided I was going to move. And anyway, one of the boys and I had decided to get married. The problem then arose, what to do about the flat. Actually, it was only my problem. I was a woman, a girl, and all problems were my problems.
The flat was in my name. This was partly because it had been my idea to take the flat, and the appeal for two people to share it with me. But more solid than that, I was the only one with a bank account.
It was a very tiny bank account. My father had been alarmed at the smallness of my earnings as a young writer. (Because of the war, paper had become very scarce – we got most of it from Japan – and all the rather arty left-wing magazines I wrote short stories for were closing down, and the established newspapers I did occasional features for cut down their feature pages.) Ignoring my outrage, my father had put some money in the bank for me. So, since it demanded a bank reference, I signed the contract. The contract stipulated that I you handed the tenancy over to anyone else, and they didn’t pay the rent that you had done, that you had to make it up.
It was quite easy, in those times, to find someone to take it over. We quickly found an Irish trio, one boy and two girls. The trouble was they wouldn’t be able to pay as much as we were paying.
Our landlord was the Prudential. At that time the Prudential was the metaphor for the hatchet-faced Big Business tycoon who stamps with his foot on the face of the worker. Even mildly left-wing cartoonists drew a “Man from the Prudential” as the epitome of brutal evil capitalism, top-hat on, crunching the blood-spurting body of the honest worker into the ground. So how was I, exactly five foot tall and rather young, to deal with the Man from the Pru?
I made an appointment. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say. I was shown into this room with a huge desk – so it seemed to me – and a large man sitting behind it. I assumed an air of deep responsibility, and tentatively said that of course nothing would please me more than to make up the rent, but unfortunately it seemed possible I would not be able to , and I would not give him a promise that I knew I might not be able to fulfill, because that was not fair to him. I was prepared to burble on, when to my utter amazement he leaned forward, put his hand on mine, and said “That is just like my mother.”
I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Dazed, I continued on the same lines. And at intervals the large man nodded, pressed my hand and said “Yes, my mother would have said that”, or
“Just like my mother.”
Eventually my inspiration petered out, and I came to a halt. I was in a dream, in a trance. A brief silence, and then the man said, tenderly, “So what would you like me to do? Tell me what would be best for you.”
You need to remember what The Man from the Pru truly meant for us in those days. This was bizarre. I seemed to be floating several feet above the ground. I said in a slightly trembling voice “I would really like us to agree that I will make up the rent when I myself feel able to do so…that this will be my own decision… and that since only I will know when I feel able, no-one will bother me about it. I do have a lot of things on my mind…” He pressed my hand, and murmured, “Just like my mother”. As I went through the door, I went into a sort of spasm, yanking myself from dream into reality, and said “Perhaps you would put that in writing?” He said “Of course.”
When I got back to the flat, the boys wanted to know what had happened. I said to them, “You’re not going to believe this”, and told them.
First post next morning I was waiting inside the front door, and the letter actually arrived. It really came. I kept it for years. Otherwise I’d have thought I’d dreamt it. I think I still have it now, in a box full of birth certificates, and my will….
Some time later, a furious letter arrived from the Prudential, telling me I was liable for a very large sum of money, and making various threats… a very nasty letter, entirely in line with the cartoonists. I wrote them a most sweet reply, drawing their attention to the letter to me from Mr So-and-So with whom I had had a meeting, and reproaching them or their inexplicable discourtesy. If they would look in their files, I said, they would realise they had simply not understood.
I never heard any more from them. I often thought about that man, though, and wondered if he had been serving out his last few days under notice, or something, and was happy to create havoc. I couldn’t think of any other explanation. It was a mystery.
I married, and the two of us moved up to Parliament Hill Fields. Parliament Hill, which is at one end of Hampstead Heath, and is the highest, or the next to highest, spot in London. Up above us, in the sky, the British and the German planes were slogging it out together. And on top of the hill, in their own personal deck-chairs, languidly gazing upwards, the well-to-do middleclass of England were cheering occasionally, but coolly of course, clapping occasionally but coolly, and commenting on the play. It was all in the best British style. Flak was falling all around like hail-stones. Occasionally a burning plane fell out of the sky. But nobody moved on top of Parliament Hill, except to say “Good show!”
I used to trudge down the road to Kentish Town to do the shopping – I was by then 7 months pregnant – dodging the flak, and occasionally sheltering under a tree till things got quieter.
We were living in a large, beautiful Victorian terraced house, of which each floor was let as a flat. No-one had a front door of their own; but it meant the house hadn’t been chopped about, and the rooms still had their right and beautiful proportions. Below us lived a nurse. Above us, there was someone else, I can’t remember who, because he was only occasionally there; this was common during the war – people went off to escape the bombing – but it was awkward if the place had a direct hit, and you didn’t know how many people to dig for. Below the nurse, in the semi-basement, lived a young, rather haughty couple, who had become air-raid wardens – which is to say, they were responsible for our safety. In their flat, was the strongest room in the house, the original wine cellar, a small room, pantry size, made entirely of solid stone.
As the bombing grew worse, I asked the young couple if they would allow anyone in the house, when there was a very bad raid on, to shelter in their cellar, as an emergency. They were hostile. Institutionalised safety was one thing; this was too personal. I went round to the estate agent, who was responsible for the house, and put the situation to him. Eventually, because I was determined, the couple, guardians of our safety, most reluctantly signed an agreement saying other tenants of the house could shelter in the little wine-cellar in an emergency, and that they would leave it unlocked for that purpose.
On a certain raw night in November, I was lying awake in bed, listening to the bombs falling. They had been falling all round us for some time – they were aimed at the main railway lines, St Pancras, Kings Cross, Euston – but on that particular night they were falling so often and so close that the bed itself was shaking with the force of my trembling, and rocked loudly on the floor. Afterwards I tried to work out whether it was my trembling that shook the bed, or the bombing that shook the bed and the bed was shaking me; it seemed to be the first. I was seven and a half months pregnant; perhaps you shake more when you have another life inside you. My husband was sleeping like a log. He could, literally, sleep standing up, he escaped from fear that way.
I woke him up. I begged him to come to the surface shelter just over the road (surface shelters protected you from blast – nothing more). But he wouldn’t come; he wanted to escape into sleep again.
A bomb crashed so close to us it seemed to have fallen off the bedside table. It shook him awake again, instantly. Now he really registered what was happening.
We both got out of bed. Neither of us had a stitch on. We grabbed our raincoats. I forced my bare feet into lace-up shoes, laces trailing. No question of going over the road, now. We made for the door and the stairs. My husband put his hand on the door knob of the basement flat, to turn it. It was locked. They’d locked it.
Bombs were exploding all around us, buildings crumpling down. (It was many years after that before I could go under a bridge when a train passed over it without freezing to the spot. People would stare at me. “What’s the matter?” It reproduced the same sound, a building falling).
He put his shoulder to the door, and stood back a few feet to take a run at it, and in those one or two seconds I said – and I still blush to think of the ridiculousness of it – “You’ll repair it in the morning, won’t you?” – then he crashed into the door, we fell down the stairs, fell into the wine cellar, slammed the door shut, my husband fell straight down on the stone floor and in an instant was asleep again. And the bomb fell.
I was down on the floor with my back against the wall, and I watched a crack run horizontally round the walls, first fast, then slower…slower… and stop; the walls held. But as the bomb fell – in fact, it was a landmine; it had caught in the trolleybus wires outside the house, and the blast had blown down the whole terrace – as it fell, the door of the tiny cellar blew in and fell on my husband’s face. He woke with a scream, flailing his arms wildly, thinking the roof had fallen on him. I pulled it off him, and we both scrambled to our feet and began to climb out.
We were now in a crater. Somehow we managed to drag ourselves out, slithering through the dust and rubble – into a brilliant light, so brilliant on that pitch-dark night, that the shock was as great as from the bombing, bewildering. And in this brilliance, a Nazi plane was circling round and round us, very low, the pilot watching us as we pulled ourselves out. Only a few days before, a Nazi pilot had circled low over a school playground, machine-gunning the children. There was nothing we could do, but in the dull apathy that shock brings with it, continued to haul ourselves out of the debris, not caring whether he shot at us or not.
He didn’t. He circled round and round, watching, so low that I felt he could have reached out a hand and pushed me back in the hole. And at last he flew off.
The brilliant light came from a solid wall of fire. The bomb had set the whole gas main alight. It was such an assault on my sight that I instinctively walked away from it into the blackness. My husband was shouting to me to follow him – he sounded very far away – and I realised I had to go as near as I could to the wall of fire, follow it along as far as it went, then go round it, on to the other side of the road (which was the heath) and back, to the surface shelter.
Inside the shelter sat the people with their deck-chairs. They had brought them down from the top of Parliament Hill, and installed themselves here. It was bizarre. It was obvious that we had nothing on under those thin raincoats. Harry’s legs and feet were bare, my bare feet were pushed into unlaced shoes. We were covered in dust and rubble and mud. And I was nearly eight months pregnant. We were interlopers. It was a bit like certain teachers in certain staff-rooms.
Everyone held tight to their deck-chair, and looked at me stonily. One woman held tight, also, to an empty chair next to her. “Can I sit there?” I asked. “No”, she said. “It’s mine.”
For that whole icy night I walked up and down in two inches of freezing water – there was a narrow ledge running round the inside of the shelter, a few inches wide, at a sharp right angle to the wall, but in my condition and shape it was impossible for me to rest on that – while that woman held tightly on to the empty chair.
When dawn came, and the All Clear went, we walked down the hill, to Kentish Town. Always, after the night raids, there would be little gatherings of people at street corners, mostly elderly men, exchanging news of who had been hit that night, what houses had come down, up-to-date news flashes. As we shuffled down the road in a straggling procession of refugees – I don’t know why refugees always walk down the centre of the road, not on the pavement – a man looked up from a street corner group, saw us, and shouted “Wait!” It was [a friend] Ernst, a German anti-Nazi refugee.
In fact, we didn’t wait, we were shuffling on, dully, uncomprehendingly, but he rushed back down the side-road, into his own house, and came running back 3with a pair of his shoes, and threw them after us. They clattered on the road just in front of us. We stopped. I think perhaps we wouldn’t have stopped if they had fallen behind us, we were moving so mechanically. My husband bent down, and put them on. Then we trudged on to Kentish Town.
The buses were just starting, to take people to early morning shift. We had no home now, and we had decided we would take the bus to Harry’s parents. The driver didn’t ask any fare.
You were eligible for an emergency grant if you were bombed out. I think it was thirty pounds. That was to buy clothing. A special office had been set up in each district to dole this out, run by the PAC – a government agency with a reputation much like the Prudential had then; in peacetime they dealt with people who had exhausted unemployment benefit and sick benefit and were regarded as derelicts.
My mother-in-law was a very large woman, taller than me, and broad-backed, and her clothes were not going to be much use to me, even though I was so pregnant. I borrowed her cotton wrap-around pinny that didn’t provide any warmth, but covered my bare body under my raincoat, a cardigan that flapped as loosely on me as if I were a child playing at ghosts, (I had to turn the sleeves over and over to get my hands out), and a pair of slippers that were warmer on my bare feet than my shoes and would stay on as long as I didn’t lift my feet off the ground.
I shuffled through the streets to the PAC office, and said we’d been bombed out, and I’d come to claim the emergency grant. The man looked me up and down, and just shook his head. I stared at him. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, without any emotion at all, “You can’t have it.” “What do you mean, I can’t have it? It’s for people who’ve been bombed out. To buy clothes with.” He said, “You’ve got clothes.”
I cried out – I was on the edge of tears – “But I had to get clothes to come to this office! I couldn’t walk through the streets near-naked! You can see these don’t belong to me! This pinafore – this cardigan – these shoes – anyone can see these aren’t mine!” He said impassively, “You’ve got clothes.” I said, “I borrowed them!” He said, “If you can borrow them, you’ve got clothes.” I turned around to the queue that stretched behind me. “You can go home, the lot of you! You won’t get a penny out of this bastard!”
A while later, there was a scandal over the way the emergency scheme was being administered, and it was taken out of the hands of the PAC and given to another organisation.
While I was trying to get our emergency grant, Harry and his brother had gone round to the bomb-site to see if they could drag anything out of the debris. They dug out three things. Our large coffee table, a heavy walnut-veneer one that I’d got at an auction for about ten bob. (I furnished our homes completely from auctions. They were very good in those days. Ordinary people went to them, not hordes of dealers, and you got excellent furniture and sheets and dinner services for very little, from huge mansions that were being cleared.) And they dug out my violin. And they dug out our radiogram, a wedding present that we had asked my father to buy for us. R.G.D.’s were craftsman-made, and if you cared about music, Mozart or Louis Armstrong, they were a joy and a pride to own.
It had taken them a long time to get them out of the rubble, and by then it was pelting with rain. They got a tarpaulin, and covered them over.
That night we went to the tube station. The people of London had no real shelters except the tube stations, which were deep in the ground, but the government had refused to keep them open; they were locked all night. People banged on the heavy metal gates, rattling them, shouting; but they stayed locked. Finally, a short time before we were bombed out, there had been a riot oustide Warren Street station after the siren had gone.. was it Warren Street? It might have been Goodge Street… and the army was called to drive the crowd back. But the people were so enraged that in the end the government had to give permission for the gates to be opened, and everyone surged in.
After that, Londoners took possession of the tube stations every night. At about teatime, when the children had come home from school, front doors opened again, and the families set off, with their blankets, their thermos flasks and sandwiches, dolls and teddies, for their second home, their own patch staked out on the tube station platform. The men came straight from work to the patch on the platform, and joined them there.
Harry’s parents were going to the tube shelter, so we went with them. It was my first time in a tube shelter. The air was fetid. Hundreds of people spread out on the stone ground… I thought I’d sooner be killed above ground, in air I could breathe. I went back to their flat.
When the All Clear went the next morning, Harry and his brother went off to borrow a barrow to collect our coffee-table, my violin, and our radiogram. Someone had stolen the violin. Not a Nazi. One of our own people.
We still had the coffee table and the radiogram. (They had both been blown right through the very solid wall, across the next very large room, and brought up against the next wall. And they had been rescued and soaked with rain. But when, weeks later, we plugged in the RGD it played. Craftsman-made. And the coffee-table, after being given many different surfaces, is the table in my living-room today.)
The maternity hospital had been destroyed the same night our flat had been destroyed. I had to find somewhere to have the baby. My father found a large house in Surrey to rent, and we moved down there. It was a beautiful house, in a beautiful garden, with apple trees and plum trees, and it stood on a hill in beautiful countryside. The houses around were beautiful too. And in the evening as the squadrons of bombers roared over punctually on their way to London, the people used to stand in their beautiful gardens frenziedly waving them on, and practically shouting up at them, “Don’t drop them here! Go on! Drop them on London!”
They wouldn’t serve me in the shops. They said, “Coming here from London to steal our rations…” (Incidentally, shops were supplied with food according to the number of rations books lodged with them, as ours were, so it didn’t even make any logical sense.) They treated me, because we’d been bombed out, as if I were the carrier of some plague, who endangered them.
There was a small council estate near us, and the tenants were having a rent-strike. I’d read about it in the local paper, and I went round to help them – I had a lot of sympathy with them. They called the police. They said anyone could see from the clothes I wore I was a foreigner, and likely a spy.
My clothes were London clothes. I’d bought them from two shops that I always used then, Gallerie Lafayette and Fenwicks; they were very pretty cotton frocks, and three cost three and eleven pence each – that’s less than a fifth of a pound, as it was then. One cost five and eleven pence – slightly more than a quarter of a pound – and my really posh one cost seven and eleven – something over a third of a pound. But where we lived now, the people wore much dingier clothes. They told me to get back to my own country.
The Chief Constable arrived on our doorstep to question me quite soon after I got back. He was very embarrassed, and said he hoped I wouldn’t hold this against him; he himself didn’t think I was a spy, but he had no option; he’d been sent for.
My only friend in the whole place was a young woman who had a boy of four, and more recently a baby by a Canadian Air Force pilot – the Canadians were billeted in the town – and was living in the knowledge that one day her husband would come back from the front and beat her up. Every evening – the men were working nights; I was looking after three men, four when my brother was on leave – I would put the baby in the pram, and walk through the freezing blacked-out streets to a Council estate on the other side of town, and spend the evening with her, someone warm, vital and laughing.
But that wasn’t enough. We went back to London. All in all, we preferred the bombs.
We found another un-self-contained flat, and acquired from an auction a very solid oak refectory table. Apart from being most beautiful and rugged, it was very useful for the baby – now a toddler – and me, and the young woman upstairs and her toddler, to sit under in the daytime while the bombs were falling. We had our meals under it, rapidly sneaking to the stove on all fours when we had to. We played with the children under it, put them down for their daytime rest under it, chatted under it.
Then cracks began to appear in the ceiling. I found a decorator, an elderly Chinese man called Mr Lee, who came and stood on the rectory table and expertly plastered the ceiling. It looked magnificent, like snow in the early morning, before even the birds had come and planted their little arrow-feet all over it. Mr Lee stood on the table in immaculate white overalls, his hands on his hips, his head thrown back, almost visibly vibrating with pride like a cat purring. Then someone went out of the house and slammed the front door. And the ceiling fell down on Mr Lee. “Ah, terrabung! Terrabung! he shouted. We used the word for a long time afterwards. But it had stayed up through all the bombing…. I should never have interfered with it.
A friend of ours at the front sent back a buddy to stay with us. He was American so he couldn’t spend his leave back home. He was black. Even in London, there weren’t many black people around. We were very pleased to have him, a good friend’s friend. I laid on a supper fit for a king.
At the time, England had received from America with stirring emotional fanfares consignments of something called Spam – which stood for spiced ham. It was in a tin, and we shoppers with our miserable rood rations took it with trembling hands – when we could get it.
I took our precious tin out of the cupboard. I sliced up the whole tinful, and cooked it in a batter I made from the one egg we had got in a very fortunate month on the baby’s special ration book. I had the idea that he would be very homesick, and American food would make him happy.
I heaped it on his plate. He looked at it, and began to laugh. “Why are you laughing?” I said. “What’s funny?” he said – and he could scarcely speak for laughter, though he obviously didn’t want to hurt my feelings – he said “They can’t get anyone in America to eat this stuff. They’ve got masses of it on their hands, so they’ve decided to get rid of it on you people.” And he collapsed in gurgles.
The flat we lived in then – we were again in a flat in a large house but not the house where the ceiling fell down – we were constantly moving – was opposite the Free Austrian Nursery School. The Free German movement and the Free Austrian Movement were both centred in Hampstead. Their members were anti-Nazi refugees. Many of them painters, sculptors, doctors, or psychologists.
The Free Austrian Nursery School was staffed by people who were foremost in the child psychology and nursery school movement in Vienna and Berlin, and they were loving as well as intellectual. We weren’t Austrian or German, but the nursery school was open to anyone and it was just over the road, so our daughter Jenny went to it, and very soon was talking with a delightful Viennese accent, and everyone thought she was a refugee.
About that time, I started, with a friend, Betty, a Home Factory in Betty’s front room. We sub-contracted ourselves to the Admiralty, and started to assemble radio sets, with a crowd of local women we gathered together. We ran a shift in the morning of women with babies, and another shift in the afternoon of older women. The way it turned out – as things often turn out in England, though perhaps not quite so much as they did then – was that the morning shift with the babies was working class people, and the afternoon one was solidly middle-class and very disapproving of the morning shift. Betty took the morning shift; I took the afternoon.
They were older than me, and were all women who had married men considerably older than themselves, the men for housekeepers, the women for financial security. They none of them had children; they had cats.
These cats had face cloths that hung in the hall by the front door on pretty little hooks, so that the cat’s paws could be wiped when it came in. The cats governed how many radio sets we could make for the Admiralty to send to our troops.
One day we had an urgent official telegram, asking us to step up production. I read it to my shift, and suggested everyone worked another half-hour. They looked at me reproachfully. Their cats would never allow it. Their cats knew exactly the time they came home, and would be upset if they were late. “But this telegram!” I said. They shook their heads. The cats wouldn’t understand.
Children had green ration books – as against buff-coloured ones for adults – and on a green ration book you were entitled to a small amount of liver, if it was ever available, so that the small children didn’t get anaemic. I never, I mean never – managed to get any liver for Jenny. But these women fed their cats on liver. They would talk to each other as the shift went on, about how much they had got the previous day, and how they’d cooked it this time, so that their cat didn’t find it boring, and how long they’d had to queue, and what they’d slipped the nice butcher – five shillings or a packet of cigarettes. “How can you take it for your cats, when I can’t get it for my baby! And my baby has a green ration book!” “Oh but cats can’t understand about the war” they told me reproachfully. “But my baby doesn’t understand either!” I shouted.
One afternoon I arrived on the shift in despair. I had been reading the news, listening to it, all morning: the Siege of Stalingrad. Thousands of people were dying. The papers had horrific headlines, horrific pictures. When I arrived on the shift, the women were talking about “bodies lying everywhere”, “Bodies in the streets”… I said, “You’re talking about Stalingrad…” “Stalingrad?” they said in surprise. They had obviously never heard the name. “It’s cat flu.”
They used to sit there, that comfortable afternoon shift, and talk about Hitler. They admired him. “We should have some of those gas chambers here”, they would say. I used to feel sick when it was my time to go to take that shift. I had to force myself to turn up. One day I burst out at them, “How can you talk like that in front of me when you known I’m Jewish!” They looked at me with wondering eyes. “But we don’t mean you, Leila.”
As the war went on, I became pregnant again. I decided I would get a job on the local paper. The editor was much older than me, and a lay preacher. We got on fine. The only misunderstanding we had was occasionally when I tramped up and down the corridors, lustily singing “O come all ye faithfull”, because I was fond of the tune, and I felt energetic singing was needed at the time; but he, being a lay preacher, thought I was near conversion.
We ran the paper between us, with the help of a German anti-Nazi refugee writer who turned up once a week to help with the proof-reading. If the editor wasn’t there, I ran it myself.
The War Ministry used to send us addresses of local parents whose sons had been killed. The most despairing job I had was to go and interview them.
At that time we had two new bombs dropping on us, the V1 and the V2. The V2 came so fast that you never saw or heard it before you were killed. But the V1 was the opposite – slow, lumbering, huge and very visible, like a crumpled zeppelin or a ghostly hippopotamus; and it seemed to follow you through the streets, eerily, like the moon seemed to follow you at night when you were a child. You kept looking behind you apprehensively to see if it was still there, and when its engine stopped you dived into a doorway because that’s when it went off. It wasn’t going through the streets and dodging those bombs that made me sick inside; it was what would face me when I got to the house.
On a particular day, I was coming back from a small dark house I have still not forgotten, and won’t forget, from a man whose eyes were swollen slits and his face streaked with tears and snot, who talked incessantly, his arms jerking out now and then to seize the photograph of his son, which stood on the chest of drawers, and to grab my collar to pull me till my face almost touched the one in the photograph, talking and crying all the time, but stopping with a violent suddenness now and then to say with grotesque politeness “Would you like a cup of tea?” – not waiting for the remembered convention to be answered but instantly crying again.
I came back through the bomb-haunted streets to the newspaper office. The editor was there. He was looking at a copy of the London Evening Standard. His body was very tense. I said “What’s happened?” He didn’t answer. I edged round him, and looked at the front page. We had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
We simply stared at each other. We were so appalled we could neither of us speak. Then at last I said out loud, “My God, what have we done!”
Soon after this I left the paper, and my second baby was born. Within three weeks, I was very ill. I’d been very ill after my first baby, and had then been a guinea pig for M and B 693, which was the laboratory drug worked out before penicillin, and in fact now I was going to be a guinea pig for penicillin, but I didn’t know that yet.
I was carried into the ambulance, with the baby in my arms, leaving in the flat the home help we had had to engage suddenly and whom I had thought at the time, fleetingly, didn’t look like a home help – but I was in a high fever, and the thought fell out of my mind again. Harry came with me in the ambulance; Jenny was at nursery school.
That hospital was magnificent. I’d been in many hospitals, but never had I known that standard of care, and never have I met it since. I was in a public ward, but I had a staff nurse by day, and a staff nurse by night, who looked after me with not only wide-ranging skill and tirelessness, but with love.
The Sister cherished her ward with compassion and a deep responsibility. The ward telephone was near my bed, and I heard her telephoning over and over again, more and more distressed, saying “No! No! I won’t allow it! No-one will get the right care! You can’t do this! We won’t be able to look after them properly.” And I knew some line was about to be broken. Men came and took out the long table, covered with vases of flowers, that stood in the centre of the ward, and they moved in another row of beds all down the middle, till the beds were almost touching each other; and the Sister stood behind a screen with pressed lips and cried.
Unfortunately the house doctor was drunk all the time. They kept phoning down for him to come and see me, fitfully stirring me into consciousness, but he never came. That’s why I almost died. He was sacked afterwards.
When I left the hospital at last, three months later, I found that no sooner had the ambulance departed from our flat with me and the baby and Harry in it, than our home help called in the other two members of her gang and stripped the flat bare. No-one had told me because I was on the danger list…And Jenny’s puppy had been run over in front of her eyes when it ran to say hello to her when she came out of nursery school, that same day.
Well, the war ended. Even when it officially ended, we weren’t finished with it. We were living in one of the old villages of London, close to where we’d been bombed out, and we used the little corner-shop, so small that only two people at a time could get inside, and the rest waited in a queue on the steps or round along the wall, clutching wickerwork baskets with ration books inside, chatting about the children, who all went to the same primary school. One day I got back from the shop and found someone had nicked our ration books from my basket. I went round to the police station. The station sergeant was surprised, impatient, maybe even contemptuous, to see tears in my eyes. He misinterpreted it. “What are you worrying for?” he growled. “You’ll get substitute ones.” I said, “In that little shop! We all know one another!” I knew it was unreasonable even then. Deserters have to have ration books to live; and luckily they have mothers, wives, lovers, to steal them for them.
You know, sometimes I’m in a theatre and I become aware I’m seeing a different play from the rest of the audience. And hearing what people say about the war, how they remember how kind everyone was, and how it always brings out the best in everybody, and it was our finest hour…I think I must have been living in a different world, side by side with everyone else.
How can that be? Because these people know.
I wasn’t the only person refused the emergency allowance after being bombed out. There were so many, there was eventually a scandal. I wasn’t the only one that gang, or other gangs, robbed – there were so many gangs the police said it wasn’t worth trying to find them. Nor the only one whose few surviving possessions, dragged out of a bomb crater, were looted. And the women who said, “Let’s have some of those gas ovens here,” weren’t the only fascists in England during the war, talking easily and openly, with wondering eyes if you objected.
Yes, I remember a few good people. I remember those nurses, with their skill, compassion and integrity – but governments have treated them with contempt ever since. I remember Ernst, the German refugee – who didn’t worry about never seeing his shoes again, who gave freely because he already knew what it was to lose everything.
But what about the others – the many others? Why does everyone push the vile memories away?
Is it because if they allowed themselves to remember them, to feel how it really was, they could never bear war?
But why should we bear it?
Why should we?
Leila Berg – Copyright