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Bombsites & Lollipops
My 1950s East End Childhood
By Jacky Hyams
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Jacky Hyams
All rights reserved.
The Vicar's Baby
December 22, 1944
Molly could just about manage to move her feet across the sheet until she came across what she'd been hoping for: a hot-water bottle. But the stone bed-warmer was cold now. They'd given her scratchy woollen socks to wear; yet her feet were still freezing. The nurse, the one who'd been quite nice to her until the unbearable pain really started to kick in, was nowhere to be seen. Somewhere in the background, Molly could hear the sounds of babies crying. And despite the big fire still burning in the grate at the far end of the enormous room with its tall windows and high ceilings – had it been a ballroom at some point in its history? she had wondered vaguely when she arrived – all Molly could think now was, 'It's so cold in here. How can they let us lie here freezing like this?'
'Get your sister to bring you a blanket,' came a voice from the next bed. Molly couldn't remember the girl's name, though they'd been quite chatty in the morning, just before Molly actually went into labour. 'She can't come ... my mum's really bad,' was all Molly could manage; and only then, once she'd spoken the words, did it all start to sink in: the rushed farewell, hugging her frail and emaciated mum, Bella, back in the Leeds house they'd been evacuated to; the lonely taxi ride in the blackout along the narrow meandering road to the outskirts of Tadcaster until they finally reached the maternity home, a 700 -year-old castle with ancient grey stone walls. The castle had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Health to be used as a safe haven for expectant mums when World War II broke out.
Then the last twenty-four hours came rushing back: the increasingly scary labour pains that took over her whole being without warning, until there was nothing else in the world but Molly screaming and shouting, hearing nothing but 'push, push, push, mum' for what seemed like forever until, finally, the words she'd always secretly known she'd hear one day, 'You've got a little girl, Mrs Hyams, a lovely little girl ...'
It was all over. She had her little girl! Ginger, of course, wanted a boy, someone to teach football and take to the pub. 'I want us to call him Jack, after Dad,' he'd written confidently from India in his last letter. 'Well, it'll have to be Jacqueline,' thought Molly, struggling to ignore her frozen feet and the soreness and pain all over her body. 'Thank God, there'll be no going down the pub with Ginger and Jack.'
All of a sudden, a flurry of activity on the ward. Three nurses march in across the vast expanse of wooden floor, holding the tightly wrapped newborns for their mothers. It had been busy here last night, three babies born within hours of each other. A starched, trim figure stops at Molly's bed, a nurse she's never seen before, holding the tiny, precious bundle aloft. 'Here you are, Mrs Hyams. Come on, sit up and say hello to your baby,' a voice says briskly.
Slowly, Molly manages to ease herself up. The soreness is awful. But the desire to hold her longed for little girl close for the first time is more powerful. Reaching out, still shaky, she just about manages to get the tiny bundle into her arms. And the exhausted new mum looks down lovingly for the first time into the screwed up, tiny red face of the sleeping infant ...
'THAT'S NOT MY BABY!' screams Molly.
'YOU'VE GIVEN ME SOMEONE ELSE'S BABY!'
At first, the nurse won't have any of it. The new mums are not always easy. Hardly surprising with most of the men God knows where and the war still going on. But these women are lucky to go through the ordeal of childbirth in a maternity ward with doctors around – other women have no choice: childbirth frequently happens at home, with help from a local midwife.
'Mrs Hyams.' she soothes. 'This IS your baby.'
But, just to reassure herself, she checks the tiny tag on the baby's foot. Then, without another word, she snatches the tiny bundle from the distraught Molly's arms, and rushes off with it down the length of the vast, chilly room.
Minutes later, she is back at my mother's bedside with the bundle, accompanied by the stern figure of Matron.
'Sorry, Mrs Hyams, it seems there was a bit of a mistake,' explains Matron, dryly, not quite managing to conceal her anger at the mix-up. There will definitely be hell to pay behind the scenes later on.
'Look, Mrs Hyams, here's your little girl now ...,' she coos as a relieved, bewildered but nonetheless delighted Molly finally gets to see and cuddle me for the very first time.
Later on, Molly found out what had really happened from the woman in the next bed. A new nurse had been taken on not long before I was born that day in late December. Somehow, in a fit of nerves or sheer panic, she'd mixed up the newborn baby tags. I had been labelled with the surname of the local vicar, and Baby Vicar, in turn, had been labelled 'Hyams'. The vicar's child was a boy, so the mistake would surely have been spotted even without my mother's instinctive reaction. Had the vicar's child been a girl, however, it's quite possible that Molly would have innocently gone back to Leeds with the wrong baby.
And so I came into the world as a near miss, almost a vicar's child by a hair's breadth. A mistake by a nervous young girl could have led to a very different fate, growing up in a chilly northern parsonage, my early life ruled by the diktat of the Church, rather than an East London Jewish kid growing up in a squalid building abutting a bombsite with doting parents who lived for the moment, without too much thought for the future. Or of God, come to that.
So there it is, my arrival in a medieval castle, cast into a chilly world where chaos and confusion reigned. The castle, so ancient it is mentioned in the Doomsday Book, is now an upmarket luxury hotel, reputed to be haunted. And guests have been known to report hearing a baby cry long into the night. Even when there were no babies around at the time ...CHAPTER 2
Like millions of other families, our lives were mired in chaos and uncertainty in the months just before the war ended. We too had our share of bad news as we struggled through the early months of 1945 in our temporary lodgings in Roxholme Grove, Leeds.
In an upstairs bedroom, my grandmother, Bella, lay dying from breast cancer. Molly, helped by her sisters Sarah and Rita, did her best for their mum, helping wash and get her to the toilet, trying hard to tempt her to eat. Outwardly, they acted as if this was a temporary situation – and that she would gradually recover. But everyone knew in their hearts it was hopeless. A doctor had made it clear they could expect the worst.
'Nothing to be done,' he told them bluntly. 'Just try to make sure she eats and drinks whatever she can.' Back then, there was no option of an NHS hospital bed for a sixty-seven-year -old with a terminal illness; indeed, there was no National Health Service, no morphine to dull the pain, no Macmillan cancer nurses; just another war-weary family struggling to cope with a world turned upside down.
Tears slowly trickled down Bella's pale, shrunken face the day Molly came home from the castle with her precious bundle. She'd been quite brave up till then, despite the terrible pain. But she broke down when she saw me for the first time.
'I'll never see her grow up,' she sobbed, while my grandfather, Oliver, hovered at her bedside, unsure of his place in a sickroom.
Still fit and dapper in his seventies, Oliver coped with his wife's distress by leaving the room. In fact, he left the house as often as was decently possible. Ignoring the harsh northern winter, smartly dressed in his pinstripe suit and big overcoat, he went out for long walks most days. He had been a good provider for his family of eight children, working long hours as a tailor and cutter to the fine ladies who shopped in the big London department stores in the early 1900s. Even in the thirties, when times became more difficult, he'd managed to keep working. As a husband, however, he fell short: his daughters knew all too well that their parents' marriage had been an unhappy liaison, arranged by their respective Jewish families just months before the pair had fled the Russian pogroms (the anti-Jewish violence that swept across Russia in the late 1800s) to settle in England.
In St Petersburg, Bella, eighteen, had fallen in love with a neighbour, a handsome young Russian boy. But he wasn't Jewish. So her parents had promptly married her off to Oliver, who was.
Already in the late stages of pregnancy when the couple boarded the boat for the long journey to England, Bella and Oliver's first child, Jane, was born prematurely on the boat – and remained stateless throughout her life. Bella had struggled to adjust to their new life in London as pregnancy had followed pregnancy for the better part of fifteen years. Later in life, she'd confided to her daughters that Oliver's relentless, constant desire for sex, regardless of her own needs or feelings, had made the marriage close to a living hell for her.
Married to a man she couldn't love, worn down by his incessant physical demands, she poured all her love and affection into her offspring, spoiling the four older boys rotten – the traditional Russian way – while leaving the girls to help with all the hard work around the home. Except for Molly, that was, the baby of the family, who was almost as spoilt and indulged as the boys.
Now, with their mother's life ebbing away upstairs, Bella's three youngest daughters sat huddled in front of the fire in the living room of their lodgings in the draughty Leeds house, dreading the worst and apprehensive about the future, while I lay sleeping in my tiny cot in the girls' shared bedroom.
Rita, the oldest of the trio at 32, had already been married twice. Her first somewhat reckless marriage, to a Russian Communist called Georgy, had ended in divorce. Her second husband, Hans, an academic, had died unexpectedly from a brain tumour. Undaunted by her misfortune, she was the most restless and adventurous of the girls.
'I've had a letter from Hans's parents in Kenya,' she told her sisters, in an attempt to break the gloom.
'They want me to go and see them when the war's over,' she confided.
'I've always wanted to see Africa, so this is my big chance.'
'You can't start making plans about something like that now,' snapped Sarah bitterly. 'You mother's dying – or hadn't you noticed?'
Molly peered at her older sister. 'What's got into Sarah?' she wondered. But by the look on Sarah's face, she figured it was best to keep quiet. The outburst was completely out of character. Normally, Sarah was quiet, shy, even withdrawn. She kept herself to herself. Molly couldn't ever remember her sister shouting or snapping like this at anyone.
'You're acting as if the war's going to be over any minute!' Sarah said loudly, her face starting to redden with anger.
'No one's really sure what's going to happen. My friend Vera in London says the Germans are still dropping those horrible V2 bombs all over the place and some people are saying the Allies are stuck in Italy. Why can't you think a bit about what's going on around you, you stupid woman!'
Rita shrugged. Unruffled by Sarah's retort, she dipped into her handbag and took out a powder compact, clicking it open to check her make-up.
'You're right, Sis,' sighed Molly, getting up to go upstairs to peek into my cot, wondering what the hell was wrong with Sarah but anxious to leave the room before things got too heated. 'They keep telling us it'll be over soon but we're all in the dark really. God knows when Ginger will be coming back from India.'
My dad, Ginger, had been serving in the Royal Army Pay Corps, stationed in Foots Cray, near Sidcup in Kent, ever since the call-up, not long before he and my mum had married in the spring of 1940 after a courtship of over four years. They'd met in a youth club in Clapton, East London, where both their families lived at the time. But after his unexpected posting overseas in April 1944, when Molly discovered she was expecting me, she and her family chose to move to the comparative safety of Leeds, rather than continuing to risk facing the chaos of the London bombings.
Not exactly the patriotic type, Ginger had originally toyed with the idea of deserting – 20,000 men who couldn't face the idea of being in the armed forces did just that – but Molly, normally easy-going, had put her foot down when he'd suggested it.
'I'm not going to be a deserter's wife, Ging,' she'd said with typical good sense. 'You can't go on the run like that. It's not fair on me.'
And so my dad reluctantly did his duty. An eye injury as a child meant he wasn't deemed fit for combat so he remained in a Pay Corps clerical desk job in Foots Cray throughout nearly four years of war. He'd been working alongside his father Jack in the family business in the East End just before war broke out. Jack was a commission agent (a polite word for bookmaker) so my dad, technically a commission agent's clerk, was accustomed to a desk job. But the sudden posting overseas with the Pay Corps, destination unknown – until his first letters had started to arrive from faraway India – had been an unexpected separation. They'd hoped to see out the war together in London.
But while Molly shared with millions the all-too-common uncertainty of a loved one thousands of miles away, what no one knew that cold January night was that Sarah was quietly nursing a tragic secret, one she couldn't bring herself to reveal to anyone.
Just a week before, there'd been an unexpected knock at the front door in the early afternoon. Apart from her bedridden mother, no one else was at home. Rita was at the shops and Oliver had gone for one of his long walks; Molly had taken me to briefly visit a friend living in separate lodgings in a nearby street.
Sarah stared at the man on the doorstep. He'd arrived by bike; he looked terribly young. He had a telegram in his gloved hand.
'Are you Mrs Lang?' he said, his voice low, hating his job, the war, the winter.
'Yes I am,' said Sarah, the fear and dread already rising in her, wanting to slam the door shut in the young man's face and run away for ever.
Sarah knew exactly what this meant. You heard about it often enough. Sometimes you dreamed that it was happening to you.
But like the polite, self-contained woman she was, she took the envelope, thanked the man politely, closed the front door and walked slowly into the kitchen to read its contents. At first, she just stared at the words in the telegram. Then she reread it over again. But she didn't cry. She just heated up some water in the kettle, lit the gas and made herself a cup of tea. Later, she tore the hated piece of paper into a hundred tiny pieces. It would be months before she let herself weep. And then, of course, she couldn't stop.
Sarah was thirty, with a career in the Civil Service. The very opposite of my mum who was pretty, lively and flirtatious, Sarah was studious, serious and quite prim; by then, no one had really expected her to marry. Yet until the telegram arrived, she'd been a married woman for six months. She had met Anton, an Austrian Jewish refugee who'd enlisted in the Pioneer Corps, at a dance in London. In typical wartime fashion, there'd been a rushed courtship and a proposal just before he was due to be posted overseas.
'But what if you don't come back?' asked Sarah when they discussed it all.
'Don't worry, I'll come back,' he said confidently. 'The war will be over soon, anyway.'
After their register office wedding, Anton was posted overseas, somewhere in Europe. They'd managed just one weekend together in London as man and wife. Now he was dead. Killed by a devastating V2 rocket attack on a packed Antwerp cinema, while on brief leave visiting his brother in Belgium. 567 people died in that attack on the Rex in Antwerp, the highest single death toll from one rocket attack during the war in Europe. It happened just four days before I was born in the castle.
Sarah kept her sad secret through that miserable Leeds winter of 1945. Only after Bella's funeral in April, weeks before VE Day in May signalled the official end of the war, did she blurt out the truth to her family.
'I just couldn't bring myself to talk about it what with mum lying there in such pain and you with the baby,' she told Molly.
Excerpted from Bombsites & Lollipops by Jacky Hyams. Copyright © 2011 Jacky Hyams. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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