23: LIFE SAVING:
On a Saturday morning, after we have finished our chores, Sister Agatha turns us out with instructions to take a walk in the fresh air and not to return until dinner-time. No matter whether the day brings sunshine, rain or snow. While we might protest silently at the beginning of these enforced walks, once under way, we enjoy them. On the outskirts of the Garden City there is a park, or perhaps grounds, and I can remember climbing over the gates, the snow on the ground, to pick up sweet chestnuts fallen from the trees. We walk on another day along the top of a high grassy embankment. Margaret Mongan takes a false step and rolls down its length into the road. Edna Smith clambers after her to comfort the wailing Margaret. We pick watercress from a shallow brook and then throw it away because someone says it can give us typhoid if not treated. Shuddering, we wash our hands in the brook water, shaking them dry.
I convince myself that we girls at the Hostel are becoming welded into a family and as my ties with Colleen weaken, I spend time with my ‘foster-sisters’. Sometimes, after school, we form a Hostel netball team, playing on the Handside pitch, the team cutting across age. We offer to play all-comers and I fancy myself as a ‘shooter’ for I am too short to play in any other position. I practice shooting the ball into the net, balancing the ball on the hand of one outstretched arm, or copying those girls who raise the ball with two hands, shooting upwards to watch it fall into and down through the net. I have some success, but even here the taller girls hold the advantage. Not that games interest me, but in the schoolgirl books, the heroine always becomes the most popular girl in the school because after a hard struggle she wins the game for the school, whether it be netball, cricket, lacrosse or hockey.
With Colleen and other girls from my form, I spend time in the Welwyn garden City Stores, an emporium in which many evacuees hide to get out of the cold. The manager’s five-year-old daughter, Gillian, lives with us at the Hostel for her mother is ill. I seem to remember that the Manager was a Catholic convert and wanted his daughter to be brought up in the Faith. Gillian is a small thin child with lively brown eyes and short brown hair. I wonder how she must feel knowing that her parents live within walking distance, and yet she cannot go to them. In the Stores, its wares spread out before and around us like an Eastern bazaar, we walk carefully to avoid knocking down and breaking centre displays of glass and china. I can recall moving too closely to a balanced glass jar and hearing it fall to the floor with a crash! Fortunately, I was not asked to pay for it. Sometimes, I make a purchase in the Stores and I have before me a paper-backed booklet, with maroon cover, of Shelley’s poems. I bought this and also a John Drinkwater. Both of them in a basket placed in the centre aisle and offered for sixpence each. The frontispiece of the Shelley declares ‘Sheila Lahr July 31st 1941’. Shelley at that time is my favourite poet and one of my old notebooks dated 18 January states ‘Poetry Book: poems by Sheila Lahr (two by Shelley)! This respect for Shelley, however, does not prevent me from writing parodies. I write in place of Shelley’s ‘Good Night’:
Good night? Oh! no,
The hour is ill
Which keeps us in the shelter at night....
And in parodying his ‘A Dirge’ write:
Siren that moanest loud,
Too ugly for song,
The Junker in the cloud,
Groans the night long....
One of my own poems which I write in a fit of adolescent excitement and while sitting at my bedroom window looking out on a moonlit night, is dated 2 March, 1942:
Dance all the night, dance and write
By the misty shine of the pale moonlight
I feel mad, gay, I could rush out in the night
By the misty shine of the pale moonlight.
Another being have I become,
A gipsy now, a harum scarum,
My sense and soberness have taken flight
And left me alone in the pale moonlight.
Pamela Davidson and I make up a nonsense poem, never written down, but committed to memory:
And so he faced the ‘angman
With an awful ‘acking cough
He sat down at the piano
And he played Rachmaninoff.
He gazed round at his children
For he knew that he was done
And he gathered them around him
Yes, every blessed one.
He called them all together
From his lips came forth a sigh
"I wish I knew if my horse came in"
he said "before I die!"
The last line of this poem is inspired by news from home. Twi’s gaunt, cadaverous, distant father has died in hospital from cancer. He was a betting man and my mother has reported that Mrs. Carson had said that his last mumbled words were "I wonder what came in at the 3.30."
I begin upon stories which I am never to finish. I co-opt Pamela and Dinkie to write a book entitled ‘The Flying Island - Britain’s Secret Weapon’. Each of us androgynously taking on the name of a man. I am Kit Derrick, Pamela is Jim Masters and Dinkie is Michael Carter. The title page stating that the book is ‘edited by Sheelagh Lahr’ and dedicated to my co-writers together with the rest of the ‘Servite Hostel, Welwyn garden City who took an interest in the writing of the black book - as it was called’. I have covered thirty-five pages in this exercise book with its black shiny cover, my writings sprawling from page to page and the story showing the influence of H.G. Wells.
In those days of youth when energy seemed to be boundless, I flung myself into many activities and with so many girls at the Hostel we were able to play a variety of games. Sometimes, when Margaret is in bed, for our bedtimes are staggered according to age, I creep into the room with a pack of extra-sensory cards and either she, or I, shut our eyes tight to envisage a pattern upon one of the cards - a triangle, a square, a circle...the other concentrating on picking up on this mind pattern and draw from the pack the right card.
By this time, Oonagh has left the Garden City and returned to 9 Wilton Road. She has walked into my classroom between lessons, passing me by without a glance. Instead, she has deliberately crossed to the other side of the room where Colleen sits and said "I’m going home, home to Muswell Hill!" "Oonagh, Oonagh!" I call out after her as she crosses the classroom again, back to the door. She has snubbed me, exposed me to ridicule. She ignores me and exits from the room. During the break, I grumble to Colleen about this, and Colleen, flattered at Oonagh’s favour says "there must be some reason for it. You’re not kind to her." Mea culpa!
Pamela and I begin to hitch-hike during the holidays, or on a Saturday or Sunday. We stroll down Valley Road which runs between the back gardens of Attimore Close and the golf course, listening for the sound of approaching vehicles. We prefer to thumb down a lorry, for in a private car there is always the possibility of an over-zealous responsible woman who will question us too closely. The lorry drivers - some of whom are unshaven and covered in grease - are bluff and hearty, apparently believing our stories of being called to a dying Aunt, or a distressed mother, for we travel as sisters. Not that we look alike. She is some inches taller than me, long face, fresh complexion, electric blue eyes, black curly hair parted in the middle and falling to her shoulders. All her movements are quick and sudden, the toss of her head, the way she walks, even her speech is a kind of staccato. Her drill slip too short, the pleats lost and the back shiny. She seems to be discarding her uniform as if it is an old skin. Pam;ela has no sister, she is an only child and loves her parents wildly. They are separated and she sees them rarely, so she stores up in her mind every moment spent with either one of them. All the time, in and out of school, she conjures up their presence in words. I can remember meeting Pamela’s mother twice. This is some time later when I have left the Convent and arranged to meet Pamela at the night-club her mother ran in the West End. The mother is a small, dark plump woman whose straight brown hair is parted in the middle and pulled back ballet fashion. We stand in the room in which there is a bar and several tables. One or two men sitting on bar stools. Pamela’s mother greets me and says "you haven’t changed a bit!" This doesn’t please me, for I think of myself as ‘grown-up’ and am wearing lipstick, rouge and mascara! A year or two later I am to see both parents at Pamela’s wedding when she is eighteen, to an American Officer. The wedding taking place in a Greek Orthodox Chapel in Kensington, for Pamela has always claimed that the family are White Russians. A phrase not clear to me at the time. The bearded Patriarch places a golden crown on Pamela’s head as a finishing touch to her long white dress. Her groom in his uniform of beige-green coat and light beige trousers, also crowned. Downstairs, her father, a small grey man, mutters agitatedly "It won’t last, it won’t last." Pamela keeps in touch with me, but I throw away her friendship because, intent upon saving the world, I become involved in socialist politics. I reject the microcosm for the macrocosm. a decision which I regret often when I become old enough to understand that neither is totally exclusive.
At Welwyn Garden City, Pamela and I hitch-hike together to all the towns of Hertfordshire, on one occasion going as far as my home-ground, Barnet. I hanker to fly the short distance to 9 Wilton Road, but if my mother were at home she would demand my method of transport. We give this hitch-hiking a code name: ‘Messerschmitting’. Why, I do not know, perhaps we like the sound of the name. Certainly, we know it is a German fighter plane. ‘Messerschmitt’ named for its designer and manufacturer, Willi Messerschmitt 1898-1978. Held prisoner at the end of the war, first by the British and then by the US until it was decided by an Augsburg Court that the 44,186 planes he had built between 1939 and 1945 had been produced against his will. This decision meaning that Willi survived to work in the 1970s on the airbus and the Tornado, a fighter, for NATO. Pamela and I know nothing about Willi, nor do we care. We enjoy saying casually at the Hostel during dinner, "we’ve been Messerschmitting today’ and leave the girls at the tables to guess what we mean. My plate piled high with the swede which other girls will not eat, the platter swimming in brown gravy, for in my excitement I have forgotten to day "when" quickly enough to answer to Mary’s demand while pouring the liquid from out of a jug to "say when."
We must not let Fletch hear of our adventures, for it was she who had put an end to our scrumping apples. Two or three of us would bike to a village and raid the orchards, climbing the fence, grabbing from low-lying branches three or four apples, scramble over the fence to stow our booty in our saddle-bags and pedal quickly to make good our escape. This was not stealing, it was warfare and the apples tasted all the sweeter. Fletch knows nothing of this until I decide to extend the operation into the garden next door to the Hostel. I creep through a hole in the hedge, crawl over the grass towards the apple tree at its centre, freeze for a moment to allay any suspicion from the house of movement, move forward to capture my prize and quickly return home, thrilling at my own daring and skill. I am Leslie Charteris’ Saint, or The Thin Man, or a Commando. Somehow or other, Fletch finds out about this activity and calling my accomplice, Margaret, and me together in one of the bedrooms, makes us swear on the Bible that we will never, ever again steal an apple. If we do so, God to strike us blind. As he did for St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Blindness! While at the Garden City I am prescribed spectacles, ones with round lens and ugly wire frames for I am short-sighted and my sight is already impaired. But to be completely blind, to live in the blackness of a closed room! horror of horrors! Willingly, I take the oath and have never stolen an apple from that day to this!
Valerie Dundon arrives at the Hostel. A fresh-faced, freckled square-built girl, straight brown hair and blue eyes. She is my age, but has been placed in the form above, the Fourth Form. But it is me she chooses as a friend, vying with Pamela for my company and I cannot believe that I am so much in demand, so popular! Valerie, whose heart has not loosened itself from her life before the Convent and the Garden City, pours out to me her recent experience of being evacuated to the West country with a local Paddington school. I am a good listener, because in merely listening I need not reveal anything of myself. "My best friend was Betty and we were like twins, we never went anywhere without the other. One day I went up the road on my own and a man in a garden wanted to know if Betty was ill because he’d never seen us apart..." An argument had brought this relationship to an end, but Valerie continues to remember it with nostalgia. While with her previous school, she had attended the Methodist Chapel and, she told me "I wanted to be a Methodist." Fletch, on hearing this, bridles, for Valerie is a Catholic and has an Irish father, although he does not appear to live with the family. A matter on which Valerie is reticent and in my usual way I ask no questions. I am to spend several weekends staying with Valerie, her mother and sister in the ground-floor flat in a large house in Artesian Road, Queensway. The hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan Paddington streets I find exciting. On my first night, sleeping on a couch in the front room, I listen to people passing by and then sweet voices singing part of a religious song, soon laughter and the sound of running feet. Some twenty-five years later when I, a mature student at a Teachers’ Training College, have been sent out for the day on a project, I break the journey at Queensway underground station and walk to Artesian Road. For a time I stand and gaze at the old house where Valerie once lived, hoping against hope that somehow or other she would materialise before me. I stand there for some minutes, before shaking off a longing for the past, I make my way back to the station.
While at the Hostel, during the summer holidays, we go swimming at an open-air swimming pool, its water captured from the River Lea. on a warm day the baths are crowded with children both in and out of the water, a constant melee of bare limbs, threshing bodies and bobbing heads. On one such day I luxuriate in the sunshine, for I am always a fair weather swimmer and spend more time out of the water than in. But, I have promised myself that I will learn to dive, firstly from a sitting position at the edge of the pool, and later from a standing position. This ambition nourished by my dislike of jumping feet first into the water and feeling myself sink down, down, down, perhaps never to surface. It seems to me that in diving I will have a greater control over the process of hitting the water and that my face will hardly be engulfed at all. Sitting on the edge of the pool, my arms and hands raised above my head, I lean forward, poised to make the plunge, when I hear a voice calling me urgently. "Sheila! Sheila!" I turn to see Barbara Harris, a girl in the class below me at school. She runs towards me over the floor, her bare feet slapping the tiles, her brown eyes wide, her curly dark hair escaping from a rubber cap. "It’s Pamela Bloomfield!" she blurts out. "She’s in her cubicle asleep, and she’s making moaning noises." I run with her to view Pamela B. and find her half sitting, half lying on the floor, the wooden wall of the cubicle partly supporting her back. Her went, blonde hair hangs in spikes about her head. There is none of the usual pugnacity in this face, she is almost a stranger. Her mouth droops laxly. I shake her and call her name, but the only response is the lolling sideways of her head and an animal-like grunt. Barbara H. and I run for the baths attendant, a tall young man, sharp to exercise control over his domain if the children step out of line. He carries Pamela to the tiled floor at the side of the baths, lies her face downwards and begins upon artificial respiration. He turns her over, desperately calls her name, pats her face, instructs me to massage her legs, sends me for water... We are surrounded by gaping children as if this is an exhibition provided for their benefit, and I am centre stage. Suddenly, it dawns on me that for the first time in my life I am being treated as a responsible person - and I revel in the role.
At last Pamela stands up and the young man commands her to walk, "take a few steps, turn and return to me..." She responds as if she were an automaton, her face blank, her limbs stiff. The man’s voice reaches her to trigger off a response not of her own volition. At last, satisfied with Pamela’s progress, the man instructs me to take her home and so Barbara and I, Pamela between us, each take an arm to urge her forward. She walks stiffly and then begins to lag, so that we are pulling at her. She stumbles, her legs buckling and it seems that she will sink to the ground. When that happens, Barbara gleefully steps in front of Pamela to slap her face and shout "stand up, keep walking!" Pamela rubs her eyes with her hand. We make slow progress and we are only half-way to Pamela’s billet when her ‘lady’ appears in front of us, for she has been alerted by someone running on ahead to the house. The woman is distraught and calls to Pamela, who even in her half conscious state, recognises a caring voice. She runs to the woman and throws her arms about her, sinking her face into the lady’s shoulder. For a moment, I envy Pamela a billet ‘lady’ whom she can love, but then I remember that Pamela’s mother lives also in the Garden City and she and Pamela are always at loggerheads. A day or two later, when Pamela is in hospital, we are told that her illness was a form of sunstroke and that the doctors were of the opinion that her life had been saved only because she had not been allowed to slip into deep unconsciousness.
My involvement in the saving of Pamela reported at school, the nuns and teachers can hardly believe that I have been so useful. "Was it you who helped Pamela Bloomfield?" asks Miss Tynan, the math’s teacher, at the start of a lesson. She speaks softly and I can hardly hear her and so walk towards her to catch her words. "Yes it was!" shout all my classmates. The teacher looks at me in wonder. However, I cannot luxuriate in the role of heroine for long, for one morning I am called out of my class by Mother Prioress and one of the Sisters. We stand in the corridor while they gaze at me worriedly. A telegram has been received from the Standard Cable Works insisting that I be taken to a doctor and examined for signs of Scarlet Fever. I had been home to 9 Wilton Road for the weekend returning that morning by an early green line bus. "When you were at home did your sister or anybody else you came into contact with have Scarlet Fever?" "I don’t think so" I reply. "Take her to Dr. Miall-Smith" Mother Prioress instructs the nun, holding the telegram and looking at me in annoyance. Later, my mother tells me that seeing me off to Welwyn Garden City made her late for work and therefore called to account. In desperation, she makes the excuse that she had noticed spots on my back. She was worried that I might be starting upon an infectious childhood ailment. This throws the Management into consternation for the spreading of germs in war-time is an offence.
Dr. Miall-Smith examines the spots on my back - a rash which is always with me, no doubt due to one allergy or another. "I don’t know what it is" I hear the doctor say. She pulls down my vest. "We’ll send her in for observation." Of course, the doctor is used to girls from the Hostel developing one infectious illness or the other. Because the Hostel is seriously overcrowded, we undergo a continual stream of infections - measles, chicken pox, Scarlet Fever....even scabies when the children affected are taken into Wellhouse Hospital, a few of us cycling to Barnet to ask after them from a surprised nurse who answers the front door to our knock. Not only do we suffer from infections at the Hostel, but also from head parasites - nits, fleas and lice, Sister Agatha referring to them all as ‘fleas’. Every other week she examines the heads of all of us and washes the hair of those afflicted in paraffin or a mild acid solution. My mother, aware of these risks from her own childhood, has presented both Oonagh and me with dust combs and so whenever I can snatch an unobserved moment, I push and pull the comb through my hair, leaning my head over paper spread out on a chest of drawers. I congratulate myself that up until now, I have escaped all the illnesses and Sister Agatha had found ‘fleas’ in my hair once only and this shortly before my admittance to Sisters hospital, St. Albans, a fever hospital.
"Your hair’s growing brown underneath" says a nurse. She is combing and washing out of my hair parasites missed by Sister Agatha. The nurse imagines that auburn is my natural colour. She does not know that Sister Agatha has washed it in an acid solution and turned my dark brown hair auburn. I do not disabuse her and remember my wish to resemble Colleen, but this does not seem so important now and, anyway, there is no way my hair will grow down to my middle back to form two fat plaits. For a few days, I am put into a side ward on my own, but then the Nursing Sister decides to put me in the main ward. "If she hasn’t got it now, she’ll catch it" she says indifferently to a nurse. She speaks over my head as if the matter does not concern me. While in this isolated ward, I have written a complaining letter to my mother, on 8 November 1941:
"Dear Mum, I am in the fever hospital and I haven’t got scarlet fever. I want to go home. I don’t like being stuck here day after day, nobody knows what my spots are. I am alone in a room. please send half a dozen stamps and envelopes and paper immediately. I am frightened to come home now, lest I have a sore and you call it leprosy and send me to a lepers island. Yours Sheila. PS Sister Agatha’s just sent me an orange and a jar of jam."
I guess that was good of Sister Agatha for at one discovered infection, all the children at the Hostel were forced to undergo an examination, this disrupting the usual routine.
Now I am placed in a ward in which set out against the two long walls and opposite each other, are some fourteen beds. Not all of them occupied. The morning begins early with Matron visiting the ward, her straight-backed uniformed figure standing by each bed to note its tidiness: has it been made properly: are the covers crumpled... The children are not allowed to move until her visit has ended. Then both patients and nurses can relax.
Boredom is my main enemy, for I am not ill and there is no natural outlet for my energy. Opposite me is a thin ten-year-old girl named Maureen. Calling across the ward, she tells me that she is from the National Children’s Home, but she lives with foster-parents. She has a thin, narrow face and straight light brown hair, its texture straw-like. "They come from the Home every year to weigh me" she says self-importantly. "They want to know if my foster-mother’s giving me enough to eat." I see her standing on the scales while a male anonymous figure adjusts the weights. The foster-mother, a figure in dress and apron, hovers anxiously in the background awaiting a verdict. Maureen is a lively, argumentative girl and one day I find myself running across the ward, my hand raised ready to strike her. I cannot remember what she has said to me, but I am very angry. But I have forgotten the glass window at the end of the ward, behind which the nurses and Sisters sit. "Sheila!" a shocked voice calls and the Staff Nurse appears. I retreat in confusion, mumbling almost to myself my grievance and only half listening to the nurse’s sharp words. I know that I am in the wrong in attempting to assault an orphan.
Sister Agatha sends me a small booklet of the Stations of the Cross depicted in black and white woodcuts. Every day I gaze at each picture in turn and try to think myself into Christ’s suffering - bearing the heavy cross, falling under its weight - the crown of thorns digging deep into my head.
A secular activity is in teaching eight-year-old Verna handwriting which she calls ‘big girls’ writing, for at school she writes script. A round-faced child, straight brown hair and a long fringe, she progresses under my tuition and it keeps us both busy and interested.
Oonagh sends me two cushion covers to be embroidered, the pattern on each a regimental badge marked out in blue lines. One for the Royal Army Service Corps and the other for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. I don’t remember the badges in detail, but I can recall working in chain-stitch and back stitch around a vast number of laurel leaves. "Are people in your family in those regiments?" a nurse asks me. "No" I admit and add "my sister sent them." "She probably has friends in them" remarks the nurse wisely. She is seeing me as having an older sister and I forbear to tell her that my sister is twelve-years-old. That there is neither rhyme nor reason for her sending cushion covers with these particular designs.
My main problem at the fever hospital is hunger., ‘Feed a cold, starve a fever’ says an old Wives Tale, which is all very well if one has a fever, but I do not. Therefore, the light diet provided does not satisfy my appetite. In face, I begin to almost hallucinate on seeing a nurse carrying a tray, scalpel basins becoming pots of jam, the scalpel itself a knife with which to cut bread, cloths become serviettes... I write to my mother to ask that she bring me food for I am starving. And my letter frightens her, for since the day of my birth, my mother has been intent upon nourishing me, agonising over refused food, crying over my inadequate appetite. Her life has been marked out by soups, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, gravies, pies, poultry, milk, cream....
She arrives at Sisters’ Hospital with a small suitcase packed with sandwiches, fruit and plain cake, which she hands in at the desk, for there is no visiting at a fever hospital. The attache case and its contents are brought to me, but the Sister is angry. How dare I say I am hungry! how dare I say I am not being fed! I have given my mother a journey for nothing and made her look foolish. Thereafter, I understand that it is not for me to decide the workings of my body or mind, they are under the control of others.
The ward is being decorated in preparation for Christmas and we sit in our beds making paper-chains. My month of internment will be up in the first weeks of December, but glad of an occupation, I stick together the ends of the utility strips of coloured paper, taking one round the other to form a chain.
The day of my release arrives and I say goodbye to Verna, to Maureen and to a little blonde girl who should also be going home. Instead, she has developed a high fever and a very sore throat. She lies in bed barely conscious and it is whispered that she will be given a tracheotomy. I see the sharp knife entering her slender neck to make a gaping wound, a wound which trembles in and out, in and out, like a slight breath or pulse.
I am taken to a hut where my school uniform is returned to me. There I must wait until my mother arrives, for I must not come into contact again with the hospital infections. Parallel to the Scarlet Fever ward is a low-lying pre-fabricated building in which are incarcerated the diphtheria patients. I can hardly bear to look at it, for diphtheria is a killer disease, but I take swift glances and then look away quickly, never to see any sign of life. Perhaps everyone within the sprawling hut is dead.
Sitting isolated in the isolation hut I become bored and go out into the grounds. The day is bright, not at all cold, and I explore until I find a low wire fence separating me from the street. I am challenged for it says to me "make a bid for freedom - if you dare!" I pull myself over the fence and walk towards the town, a spring in my step at entering the world. of course, I know that I must eventually return to the hospital, but in the meantime I am enjoying my liberty. However, as luck would have it, Matron driving a van sweeps around the corner, almost in my path. Our eyes meet and she stops the van to call out of the window "what do you think you’re doing! Where do you think you’re going!" Sitting in the back of the van, I am returned to the hospital and isolation hut in disgrace. My mother comes for me the next morning, having changed her shift at the factory to the afternoon. Of course, Sister informs her that I had tried to run away. My mother says to me reproachfully. "you know I was coming for you. I wouldn’t have left you at the hospital!" I give no explanation. Instead, I smile happily for I am returning for the holidays to 9 Wilton Road.
On to On Tap
Get You Back Home