As you see us here we are
Peggy, Connie and Pearl are sitting together at the dining room table. The visit begins with me reading notes from an earlier conversation.
DC. “I used to go to Covent Garden market every morning… I used to go sitting on the back of the horse and cart… sitting on the back… swinging my legs… I used to like that… I had to sit outside and mind the horse.”
Peggy. That’s great… everything… swinging my legs off the back… I didn’t dream it then? How did you find out?
DC. You told me last week and I wrote it down. I didn’t want to forget it.
Peggy. We’re your eyes to remember.
Connie. Your trusted people now.
DC. What should we call it?
Connie. Then and Now… As You See Us.
Peggy. And here we are! So it’s all true… every word just like a real book. As You See Us Here We Are. I was a little girl… I had all my ways. 1915 I was born, so how old am I? I’ve got to count up… forty something, the same as my mum. She was lovely… yeah… all mums are. She was a big fat lady… very big… very fat… a real Aunt Polly. Mum died… blimey that was years ago… a long time… I don’t get to know a lot of things in here… I think my mum died… someone put me in here to convalesce.
Connie. We’re together now. Are we talking about the war?
DC. Whatever you like.
Pearl. I’ve lost my brain now… I’m on an unbalanced feeling. I can’t remember what I was saying. I went off on a thought. I can visualise the street… a wide street with my grandparents near Camden Town. Somebody was talking about Camden Town? Did I tell you about my grandmother in Camden? The time I broke my grandmother’s glass eye? I remember when I was very small I’d been left on my own… I was sort of searching round the place opening the drawers in her bedroom and there was a glass eye. I didn’t even know she had one. I was… I can’t really place it… somehow I dropped it or closed the drawer on it, anyway, I broke it… She told me she put her eye out with a big old hatpin.
Peggy. Did she just say my mum died… had died? You don’t get to hear nothing… hardly nothing. Did my dad die? I’m still here. I don’t seem to see my family as much as I’d like… I think they’re busy all the time. My brother Harry ran away… I think he ran away… him and his mates they all done it together… one day he’d gone… all the boys had gone.
My dad had a whatsit? A shop… you know… normal… veg and everything… greengrocers… toys at Christmas… it was lovely… a real old fashioned greengrocer… fish shop next door… a baker’s right opposite… not rich… normal… enough to get by… corner of Real Street… do you know Real Street?
Carer. I know it. It’s round the corner. I was born there.
Peggy. One of my brothers worked in there… my Harry ran the shop when he was still a kid… Bob… the elderly one… May… I was the youngest one… too much bleeding trouble… a little squirt… so they bunged me in here to convalesce… it all turned out lovely.
It’s all long gone now… my dad’s gone… they’ve closed the shop… Nesham’s … N… E… S… H… A… M... Nesham’s … get it right… on the corner of Latchford Street… near the crescent… my people bunged me in here… out the way. I had two brothers that died… I was the only one left… one was a soldier… Harry in uniform… I was a kid… I don’t remember much. All the boys went away.
DC. Where did you go to work?
Peggy. I worked at Black Cat…
DC. What’s that? A pub?
Connie. Black Cat was a cat… a sort of monument… a cat.
DC. I don’t know it.
Peggy. Queens Crescent
Connie. Two black cats on a big plinth. As far as I remember… I never went when I was able to. I think somebody told me. I never saw it.
Peggy. Yeah… I was a dunce… there’s a big school there… that’s where I went to school… Athlone Street… used to be Latchford Street… they used to call it the ‘Lousy Latch’… it was a rough one… with a pub on the corner… my dad ran it… a long time ago… that time.
I’ve had a nice life. Two brothers… my Harry… two sisters May and Nell… she was lovely my Nell… she used to mind me a lot of times…when I grew up I used to mind her children as well… I lived with her… I wanted to… she had children and I liked kids. Out of all my lot Nell was the best. My mum didn’t want much to do with me.
I had to sit outside and mind the horse… my dad’s not here anymore, he died… I had a brother Harry that died in the war… I’ve still got my mum… dad’s gone now… a good while ago.
I got married early… my husband lived over the road… John… his family ran the bakers shop… more or less… I used to play out in the road with my sister… my Nell… and her kids… I used to mind them… all the family kids. Then I started living with my sister so I didn’t have to keep coming in and out. I was only a kid.
Connie. An only child! I was an only child... born in… now that’s a good question… let me think about that… my mother was… now that’s another good question… we’ll come back to it… and then I came here… and that’s my life story. Some of it seems to go blank so I might have missed a bit… I forget… it doesn’t matter… to hell with it! I think it’s because I’m getting old… I’m ninety something so I’m old, old, old.
I don’t remember too much about early on. I used to be good for dancing and to cut a long and interesting story short… I done two and a half years on the stage… acrobatics, the lot… I had a red pleated dress… black ankle straps… red knickers… a red hat… tap shoes… all made by hand. I can even remember the dance steps. There were two or three teams cocking their legs up, then we’d come over the back… After the war I went into pantomime and that was my lot… my glittering stage career. It’s brilliant to remember all this. We used to sing...
Hello children… be on… I think, oh… it’s a long time ago…
Come to our little show
We are great kids you know
Laughter and… laughter…
Bring your birdie along
You’re a… birdie… I think it was birdie.
Peggy. Very good… you’ve got a good memory.
Connie. Tapping our toes so very smartly
Don’t be a… high or something, something
All the kiddies are here
That’s how we came on… everyone was in a red pleated dress… it’s a good song… music and laughter.
DC. The tune is the same as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
Connie. It’s a small world. Well I was twelve when it started…
Bring your girlie along
Tapping our toes very smartly
Opening chorus to finale
Dry your tears and don’t be blue
We are here to say to you
Kiddies are on parade
I was twelve, so how long is it since I’ve sung that? I wonder how many of the girls are alive now? I’ve forgotten a few words but I know… Tapping our toes so very smartly… you had to be dead on time… on the beat… absolutely dead… twenty girls... probably all dead now. I think it’s still locked in me. It’s still there, the memory… locked in. I’ve still got all my marbles. I can count backwards from 10, yes, yes… maybe from 20… 20, 19, 18, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.
I was evacuated down to Lincolnshire… you used to have to have a medical every three months to see that everybody was alright… being young they could take you on… so there was always something going on… in and out… in and out… “Is your evacuee coming with us?” That’s what they used to say… “Yes please”… I was a Draper but they called me ‘their evacuee’.
Peggy. I remember that name, Draper.
Connie. We might have known each other… did you do the dancing?
Connie. This is a little bit like when you’re clearing things out and you find something and… I didn’t know I had that there… I didn’t know I’d lost it until I just found it… because you do things and you say I’ll see to that another day… and then you don’t miss it and it’s gone forever.
A lot of Mum’s side were theatrical people. They used to have the old barrel organs down on the Walworth Road. When they retired they sent my grandmother all the costumes they’d worn and she used to cut them all down and make clothes for me to go to school in. My grandmother was an angel... short and dumpy... a proper Victorian. She had one glass eye but she was very clever with the needle in her machine. She used to cut all the stage clothes down to make them fit us. I might have gone to school in Charlie Chaplin’s old stage clothes.
I remember seeing the first planes coming over. I thought it was funny… I’d never seen a plane before then all of a sudden there was hundreds. When it was bad we used to go down the Underground. At times I almost enjoyed it… you’d have refreshments… people would come round for a song. One of the stations even had a grand piano down on the platform. It wasn’t so bad down there. You might as well stay the night because two hours later you’d be back on the platform... you settled in to it… once it got past the first hurt, you had to let it go.
We had a shelter at home but my aunt wouldn’t use it… she practically lived in the Underground… sitting on the floor… she was scared out of her life… I think she died of a heart attack. She hardly went home even when they weren’t bombing… we’d take her sandwiches… and she had a heart condition to boot. It must have practically formed from this fear of going home. We’d encourage each other, “Come with us, you’ll be fine,” we’d have a song… but I wasn’t brave, no way… I was frightened. Once or twice you’d get a crunch close by and a wave goes along the platform and it used to make me wonder. You’d get the quiet times and then all of a sudden you’d hear a different drone to the ordinary planes… and the air above you would get squeezed tight... and you could smell it… just like the floor of garages.
Somewhere here there’s a big jagged piece of shrapnel I picked up that day… where it is now I don’t know. Someone must have taken it. You could pick it up and how can I say it? It could kill you or it could be like chocolate… a war prize... hot shrapnel, grey and wobbly.
One night they were bombing bad… that was at the start of it. We ran down to the Underground. I thought the roof was coming down. The children were all screaming and holding on to their mothers. A chap went round with a guitar. We did the show for them down on the tube platform… high kicks and everything with the bombs and the guns thumping away in the background... you didn’t think about the crackle… it was a bit rough… crunch, crunch. Sometimes it would be so quiet and all of a sudden you’d hear a big crump and think who’s got that? That’s when the platform used to… well… like a wave goes along and you felt your feet lift in the air and then it would be gone. We used to sing on the platforms… yeah… the opening song… we’d all be in the wings and we might come on in two lines… I could still go on the stage if I didn’t have the arthritis… kicking our legs up at the same time… beautiful… all in red… patent black shoes… dresses pleated by hand. I think I was 12 or 14. That’s when I went right into the troop… and then the Church Army… they used to like me to sing… so I used to sing on the station platform… you’d hear a crump and the ground would go like that… like a wave… this is the honest truth… a wave came along the platform and lifted me up. I wasn’t hurt but it just lifted me up. They’d cheer.
Hello… children on parade
Come to our little show
We are great kids you know
Laughter and melody… ha… ha… ha.
Bring your girlie along
Bring your troubles…
No, that’s not right. I’ve forgotten that bit…
Dry your tears and don’t be blue
All the kids are… something… you
Peggy. You go, girl. Isn’t she good?
Connie. One of my aunts was terrified… if the warning went she wouldn’t move.
Peggy. I was there.
Connie. Do you remember me dancing? I’d be there… all in red with my legs up in the air… frightening but good… you hear them coming down.
Peggy. I was there.
Connie. In lousy Latchford Street… we used to say it ain’t half dirty up that way… I thought it was rotten.
DC. [To Peggy] Your family owned the greengrocers.
Peggy and Connie. That’s right.
Connie. We sold vegetables… fruit? I’ve forgotten. Fruit trees. I was there… I remember.
Peggy. I remember it. A bakers on the corner.
DC. You married the baker’s son.
Peggy. That’s it! John… you get fresh bread. John Woodward. You forget some of it.
Connie. We all stuck together… if someone was frightened you’d all gather round and say, “Don’t be frightened it’s over now.” I don’t think it’s even begun yet. We had a house had to be… not demolished… it had a big crack from the bombs… all the windows out… all blacked out.
Peggy. I don’t remember. There’s a lot I don’t remember now.
Connie. I’ll remember it for you. We’re talking and we’re happy… just the same... that’s how it was. Sing a song. Help each other. All of a sudden it would go bang… no warnings given… down it comes… rush for your bundles and a wave lifts you up.
Connie. It’s good that they’ve left some of the marks from the bombs… you can still see the marks from the bullets on some of the walls… I’m glad they did that or you wouldn’t know what’s really happening… it’s our history.
Pearl. I wish I could remember it. My husband put me in here… I had no choice. When I first came here I was a bit sad for a few days but now I feel human again… the staff are lovely but Nelson, he’s not well… I think he’s got a big problem on his shoulders… and can I tell you one of the worst things that’s just happened… my husband decided to move all the books on my bookshelf… I came in one day and he’d thrown away my address book with all my friends and the people I knew, everything… he threw it away and since then I haven’t been in contact with half the people I know… I’m losing their names and it’s just awful to me. He said he’d given it to the Charity Shop so I rushed up there but they’d already sold it. It was my life and now it’s all gone. I was just thinking this morning that I’d like to call my school friends and now I don’t know their names.
Connie. I’m Connie Rose… like two flowers… all the names.
Peggy picks up a small crumpled photograph of a horse and cart outside the family shop. She points out the shadowy figure of a young girl with her back to the camera amongst a crowd of children.
Peggy. This is my mum’s shop… see the kids out the front… here I am… look at me, I’m nosey… I’m looking round at my mum… Dad’s not there... these are all my sisters.
DC. Can you tell me which is which?
Peggy. Which one’s a witch! None of them are witches. This is my sister May… that’s me there, look at me, I’m nosey… looking round the corner… that’s Lil… sister Flo… brother Bob… sister Lil again but older… these are all the kids from Latchford Street… it’s Harry holding the horse… he joined the cavalry. He loved that horse… he was older… all these names! I’m the youngest of us… yeah… I was only little… ordinary.
Connie. I can see it from your face. I went to work in a deaf school doing lip service with my fingers.
Peggy. I used to go to the market with my dad… it’s nice to think about… to see again… that’s all how it was… these are all my friends… the kids from Latchford Street.
Pearl. All my friends have been thrown away.
Peggy. Why would anyone buy a second-hand address book?
Connie. They’ve just come out of school… they’ve come round to see the horse…
Peggy. This is great… Bob, Flo, Lil, my mum… and my two cousins.
Connie. When you said Lil, that’s my mum’s name. Your mum was a big lady.
Peggy. Big Fat Lizzy… that’s her name. That’s years-ago time. May worked in the shop.
Connie. I’ve got a sister called May.
Peggy. I looked in my place and everywhere I went I see this photograph… all my sisters… 1915… Harry loved that horse… this old nag… he used to sit outside my dad’s shop on the step… he’s got a pipe… and this is Johnny with the blond hair… one of my sister’s kids… he used to sit for hours on the stair.
Nelson walks in and sits down.
Connie. We’re talking about the wartime. I suppose it’s never written about… you’d sort of know there was a raid coming before the sirens… the wireless went off… just went down… same as now.
Nelson. Always at night… there’s me holier than thou listening to the Ovalteenies and the wireless would cut out…
Connie. We are the Ovalteenies little girls and boys… we are here to amuse you… then the tube used to go off. We might be doing something and then there’s nobody there.
Nelson. My dad thought it was the raid at Dunkirk… the radio was off for a hell of a time… maybe it was interfering with radar.
Peggy. [To me] Are you younger than me? Did we know each other when we were kids? We knew each other didn’t we? He knows everything about me.
Nelson. There’s a really, really funny feeling that you’ve got somebody looking after you… I’ve had that so many times… once with the rocket at Woodford… once with… somewhere in Ilford… there was one bomb should have killed me but I wasn’t where I was supposed to be… I was locked up behind a door. I’ve had a lot of strange experiences recently and I just can’t believe it… I’d say how did I get here? Now I think I’ve got a good memory… I’m not boozing… and I find myself in places and not know how I got there… years back it started. I can remember setting off and arriving and nothing in between… even when I was driving the taxi.
Pearl. Is it like someone’s protecting you? I do believe in God... I sometimes feel a pressure upon me to behave in a certain way. I have old nightmares now... they come at me rather sharply in the bed.
Connie. Who says it wasn’t a ghost?
Nelson. There was an accident in Malta… evidently this elderly woman was thieving food from the Germans and my wife used to swear to me that a taxi drove over her neck and she wasn’t hurt, she was protected.
Connie. You can’t explain that. It’s frightening… but not bad… it just makes you think how we survived… all those people didn’t and we came through.
Nelson. Like them three people on the Hood… the ship… why did they get away when it was sunk? They had to go under before they went up… and there’s this grave in Cornwall that has fresh flowers every day and no one knows where they come from… it’s been going on for years… a ghost story… Dartmoor… she got pregnant to the Lord of the Manor and she jumped off the tower and killed herself and now there are fresh flowers on her grave every day and nobody knows where they come from.
Peggy. The flower shop.
Connie. You can’t explain it… they say a fright’s good for you.
Nelson. I thought there was someone looking out for me when that rocket went off and hit my lorry. Being in the wrong vehicle saved me. The other time I was going to Ilford to deliver crisps. We were in Ilford high street when the rocket went off about two hundred yards away… I didn’t see it... not to come down… that’s too fast… just the bang.
Pearl. It’s amazing what happens when something like a war happens... the way it changes things for everyone... it seems to change everybody’s life... and different things start to happen to them than wouldn’t have happened normally and you can’t forget them.
Several weeks later Peggy was sitting by herself in the kitchen. During a short conversation over a cup of tea she mentioned that Black Cat was a cigarette manufacturer.