There were huge spiders in there and earwigs and loads of cobwebs. There were times we slept under the table, perhaps it was before the shelter was put in…”
by christine tothill
My Nana was very sweet to me, my sort of substitute mother in my mind. I loved my mother but Nana was always there for me. She was the one to cook me bacon and tomatoes, leave cooked sausages on a plate in the larder that I was allowed to take anytime. She always had a bowl of dripping in the larder and I spread it on toast in the evening before I went to bed. I suppose I was about eight at the time, because it is quite clear to me, and also I was at the junior school. But most of my childhood was spent in open-air schools for delicate children. I was a delicate child. I had had asthma since the age of two. I supposedly had my first attack when a cow mooed at me from over a hedge while visiting my aunt. I had never seen a cow before, they told me, and I went straight into an asthma attack and that stayed with me on and off until I was about 20 years of age.
Granddad used to rub my back with Vick while I was propped up on my pillows. In my bedroom there was an electric fire built into the tiles, a sort of fireplace on one wall. It was cold in my bedroom, I can remember that, and Granddad used to pile winter coats on top of my bed. I think I used to drop off to sleep and then wake up again not being able to breathe.
Our family doctor said it was the damp, being near the river. But now, of course, I know it was because Granddad, Nana and my mum used to smoke. It was because of the damp from the river, they sent me to an open-air school. But not until I was about four. There must have been many times of back rubbing and cold nights from two until four years of age.
It wouldn’t have helped my asthma, going down to the air-raid shelter in the garden, a sort of shed buried in the earth, near the fence. It had two bunks, one on either side. Granddad used to take me down when the air-raid siren went and the planes were in the sky and the noise I can remember to this day. He used to sing ‘ twinkle twinkle little star’ and point up to the planes.
Of course my dad wasn’t around. He was in India, a major in the Welsh Fusiliers. Not when I was two anyway. My mum and dad met at a dance hall in Richmond called The Castle Ballroom; it has been knocked down now. They met and were married almost straight away and a week or two after he was sent to India. At some time after I was born they rented a house in Twickenham for a while, not long, and he came home from leave and soon after he said he wanted a divorce. I cannot remember him at all when I was a toddle, no memories of a daddy. The first time I saw him, I can remember I didn’t like him at all. He had a funny smell (whiskey) and a moustache and I was very frightened and had another asthma attack and my mum told him to keep away for a while.
We didn’t just go to the air-raid shelter, we had a cupboard under the stairs and sometimes we went in that, Granddad seemed to know if it would be alright to be there and if not we would traipse down the garden to the shelter. There were huge spiders in there and earwigs and loads of cobwebs. There were times we slept under the table, perhaps it was before the shelter was put in.
My first open-air school was in Lancing and it was a large Victorian house with lots of rooms and huge windows. We used to have to go on walks by the sea which I didn’t like because my legs used to ache and I couldn’t breathe properly. We also had to spend time in the garden with the rabbits, which made me sneeze. I don’t remember anything nice about it nor do I remember the people that looked after us. I don’t remember any other children either. Just the loneliness of having to go to sleep in a big bed which creaked and horrible heavy rough blankets on the bed. It must have been summer as it was quite warm and we had to wear sandals without any socks and my toes used to get sore.
My granddad worked in London in an office. My nana if she could, worked in London also – in a tea room – Lyon’s Corner house. She used to go on the bus and on those days mum used to look after me or I would go next door to Mrs Paige. They used to take turns with me and as I was so sick it was quiet a lot of changing about for my mum. I know she worked in the Civil Service stores in London. Oh we lived in Kingston if I haven’t said. The bus would take you all the way to Hyde Park Corner.
The next open-air school was in Brighton, in a big unusual building by the sea, set back, I believe it was a convent, or perhaps it was then and we were sent in the holiday. I can remember having my hair plaited and it hurt. I can remember listening to the boat race and making rosettes out of pale blue ribbon because I liked Cambridge. We listened to the boat race on a wireless that was screwed on the wall, we had to sit cross-legged on the floor and be quiet. I think Cambridge won that year. I must have been about six.
When I went to normal school it was horrible mainly because I didn’t know many other children and the toilets were outside and I always had trouble. I used to get horrible tummy aches and couldn’t go to the toilet. I dreaded school, also I didn’t learn my tables so tried to hide my face when asked to recite them. The teachers were quite good to me I remember as they knew I was normally out of breath and wheezing. My best friend there was Rosemary Walters and she used to look after me. She lived in a prefab near the borstal.
We had, at home, a black and white cat called Casa and a rabbit. I now know I am allergic to rabbits and can remember my neck itching and my eyes running when I cuddled it. I used to spend long times in the garden in a deck chair while Granddad gardened, these memories must have been on weekends as he would be working normally. They are quite clear – with Nana putting the washing out and nattering to Mrs Paige next door over the garden fence.
The house we lived in was in a Tudor style, a terraced house and it was very modern for the time. Granddad bought it about 1936 for £400.00 or thereabouts, not very much. Before that they lived in Fulham and Battersea. This was the first house they had a bathroom and a separate toilet.
My bedroom was at the back of the house, a quite big room with a single bed in it and a bay window looking out to the back garden, the allotments and most of all the other gardens. Being an only child I loved to watch people in their gardens, some of the people we didn’t talk to, why I don’t know. I had lino on the floor of the bedroom and remember it being very cold to walk on. Nana used to put down towels for me to hop from one to other to save getting my feet cold. We used hot water bottles most nights and then propped up with three pillows I could sleep. I don’t know why it is the winter I remember mostly – perhaps because of the cold and asthma. I had pneumonia in Kingston and went to hospital and also went up to Guys Hospital London to have my tonsils out. That was horrible but I did like the jelly afterwards. We didn’t have a telephone then, but next door did. They used to ring for the doctor to come and see me.
My best toys were a huge dolls house, books, cut out paper dolls and their clothes and painting. I spent hours changing the furniture in the dolls house. Reading or being read to was my favourite thing. Granddad did that most of the time.
In the early evening when I was about five we used to listen to the wireless. It was built into the tiled fireplace and would only work if Granddad half pulled it out and propped it on books. Then he could fiddle with the back. He used to listen to the news all the time and some funny programmes. We used to have our supper in the week on a pullout table and at the weekend on the proper dining room table. I can’t remember going without much, then I wouldn’t know what I was going without most probably. Nana made good meals, lots of Irish stew with neck of lamb, lots of steak pies and liver and bacon. Always meat and two veg. Granddad grew potatoes in the garden and vegetables, I remember green runner beans and broad beans and cabbages. Nana used to mash the cabbage and put butter or marge in it or I wouldn’t eat it.
We didn’t ever have a car. We used to go by bus. The first car I got in was my dad’s when he first took me out – I think I was about four. We went to the river at Hampton Court. I wasn’t a happy girl. Later on when Clare and Sarah were about we used to go there again and it was better, but never easy. They seemed too posh, so my mum said.
When I was born, my mum was staying with Granddad’s sister in Coulsdon as the air-raids were bad over Richmond and Kingston. She stayed there for about a month and I was born in Purley cottage hospital on a Friday night at 02.30 and weighed just 7lbs. She took me back to Coulsdon and about three weeks later her uncle drove us back to Kingston. I was told I was a good baby and gurgled and smiled until I met the cow when I was two.
(illustration: adam kluger)
Christine Tothill lives in Hampshire, England and writes short fiction. Her stories have been published in QWF, Scribble, Bright Light Cafe, Clover Books, Diddledog, Quiction and more. She is working on her novel and also plays the organ, if there is time left over. Many more of Christine’s Smokebox stories can be found here.