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Catherine

 

It seemed to come for me for no reason… I remember that very well. The sun was shining… it was a lovely morning… he opened one of the trial things where you press a button and everything happens… and it wouldn’t happen… he put it in my hand and it automatically started… he was never sure of me again. I can still see it… and hear it like mad… in a nice way now. There were children playing in the streets… I was there… I saw it land… I saw it go off and I saw it come down… it just floated slowly down… a silver box came down… it was really done by the Hitler people… they did it because they thought it was a marvellous invention… it wasn’t really… it was just to kill people. The only people who were not scared were the children because they didn’t know what it was… you could hear the noise of the engine… it wasn’t the noise to fear it was what was in the noise… children aren’t that daft. I think I told you about the life balloon… they blew the balloon over… the Germans. 

The Germans told everybody that this is the last measure… they put me in a… what do you call it? It looked like a bath… that was the whole point… of all the things it was a pram… they put me in a pram… a new pram with a wonderful big canopy… do you know that was the first thing that caught fire… while I was in it… I can see it in my mind… everybody shouting and screaming… nobody made a movement to help… this is an important thing… I was there… I saw it… I can’t even tell you where I was. It wasn’t a balloon it was a rocket… I think of it as a balloon because I was small. We heard them… we must have done because we stood in the street… we heard them. I wonder why it is I can remember these things?

I’m wondering now if I’m the only person who remembers that incident. Nobody complained… they complained about everything else they could… even a halfpenny for an extra bit of toast… sometimes when they get a piece of bread they cut it up into 8 or 16 pieces… everyone got a little bit of bread… you couldn’t say they didn’t get bread… it’s extraordinary what they say and what they read… it’s not how it was.

I used to be running about picking up little bits of bread for people and they’d give me a halfpenny or something… we had nothing… people don’t believe it either… you couldn’t get food. First you had to have the bread to make the toast… and coal… running up and down the hill… my brothers and sisters… looking for coal.

Everybody used to look after everybody else… we never knew that half of them stole from each other… there was a lot of fiddling… people shouting at each other and screaming… “The little shit”… life’s very awkward you know? The things you remember and the things you don’t remember… bombing morning noon and night… we couldn’t sleep… you could go out and pick up a bomb in your hand… houses left like little bits of coal.

I’m glad we left Germany… they had that awful rough way of telling you to move on… stars and people to pull you down… I didn’t go back until years later for the anniversary… I learnt a lot… the Germans said I was taking their bread… unbelievable! I thought they’d all gone mad. They gave me a silver umbrella… I don’t know why I was given it… somebody must have liked me… but who liked Jews? They were thrown out from everywhere… for no reason at all… and mostly such nice people… they all started crying… so we all cried together… it was very difficult. When somebody gave me a piece of bread… and it was a big piece… I broke it up and offered it round to a lot of people… all well dressed. They said thank you before they went… what could I have done?

I remember my grandmother… my mother’s mother… she was so good looking… fantastically aged… but born so perfectly… I remember her vaguely… I picture an old lady… always smiling… always shouting at us children in her own language… that was Yiddish… I used to speak Yiddish perfectly… I could speak Yiddish better than English at times. My grandmother came from Russia with my father… but somewhere she lost track of him… I never thought to ask him how… she was all on her own… he was left alone a starving boy and she was left alone a starving woman.

My father had gone out with a chopping knife… he said later that he had only meant to lean on it… I’m not so sure. All the big boys came running and stood around him screaming and shouting. His mother couldn’t help… she couldn’t speak a word of English… so I had an aunt who spoke no other language and an uncle who spoke no other language. My mother could. They all settled in the East End… not in the same house… my mother didn’t like all the people… that’s true… you might go into a shop to buy tea and they’d want to buy bagels.

And my lovely parents… both good-looking… my mother’s face was a beautiful face… and my father had another face… a stronger face. They both came from Russia… running away from those dreadful, dreadful people… worse than Hitler… like Hitler only worse… Sally?

Stalin?

Stalin… yes… Sally we used to call him. We didn’t really know what people were talking about… we had no idea what they were talking about… until we actually saw them hitting people… for no reason except it was their… their worship. Instead of worshipping the Almighty or anyone else you might like to think of they worshipped hating people… terrible thing is when you look back on it is what on earth did these poor people have to do with it?

My family came from Russia… my father and mother were married when they came over here… married to people that they knew very well… no distinction amongst people… there couldn’t be a distinction. What really tipped it off was me… they still tried to murder me… the Hitler people… with a huge umbrella. It was their new invention… and it was only me that it came for... for no reason. I don’t remember that.

My family settled in the East End of London… such a lot of them did… nobody else would take them… this Hitler person dribbled out all sorts of terrible things about them… they were too harassed and too miserable to do anything… especially when it worked out that eventually I was going to be murdered… by this new umbrella or something it was. I was drowning three times an hour back then… looking back it was the most important thing I ever did… I can’t forget it… that the wind and the rain always settled on me… but when it comes to agony… the Germans thought they had something special… why they did it nobody ever knows until this day.

I lived in the East End of London… in Stepney… I can’t even tell you exactly where… I must have known it at some time… Jubilee Road? Yes… a shortish ride…. Jubilee Road… Jubilee-ve me?

My father managed to get a job as a tailor… needle and thread. I remember his hands working up and down. He worked hard… very hard… he knew what he was doing… it must have been his career in Russia but I decided to ask him on a day he wasn’t very well… all I got was ‘leave me alone’ or ‘stop shouting’ or something. You don’t know what kids catch when they’re at school… this, that and the other… he became a tailor and a very good one I might say… I’m not telling you he was good, I’m repeating what people said about him. You couldn’t go far wrong being a tailor… we all tried to help him… working together… but how could we when one would have a little child’s pants to sew and the other a tall lady’s dress?

He was always frightened of me showing myself… I think it was this new tangle of Hitler… everybody was terrified… everybody from every country that ever came here was terrified. I wanted to dance on the stage and my parents almost went green with agony… a few girls like me thought they’d give it a go… but he thought worse… so I had to stop. I just thought they looked so pretty and I looked so poor.

I remember my schooldays… The teachers would always give me the books first… hundreds of books… my father was so proud… it made him feel British. He said to the teacher, “This is the most wonderful thing… in a miserable garret you’ve got an important child.” He had no idea what a garret was. It wasn’t just that he wanted to be British, he just wanted to be in with the people who were in, so it would make more room for his own children… so they wouldn’t be killed. It’s still with me now, that school… always opposite me. They sort of… they didn’t boast you… they didn’t scream at you… “Be this nice thing to be”.

They gave me a little machine box with my face on it… we were supposed to carry it with us… I turned mine upside down… I didn’t want to wear it… it was easier when I was left… I had to be left at some time… mainly for a piece of bread… terrible times… you couldn’t hold on to your bread… but to find out that London was without bread because of a strike… and they said it was the Jews… me and my mother and father that was taking away their bread. My parents especially suffered because they didn’t know what to do with the children… it was a bit more serious than laughing. I often ask myself how did my parents manage? But they just didn’t… we didn’t starve… the bread may have been stale but we didn’t starve… they used to wet the bread to make it soft… pat it with your hands.

So we shared… my brothers and sisters… William… Sadie… Catherine… Wednesday… Thursday… don’t know that one… this one was Selfridges or something… 2… 4… 6… about 8… I can’t guarantee every one…. seven or eight. I was the third or forth child. I always wanted to be someone special… I wanted to go on the stage… it wasn’t because of me it was because they looked so pretty and I looked so poor… I thought I might have been a dancer… I always regretted not trying… as it turned out I opened a tobacconist with my father… I used to put the tobacco in the little bags… I didn’t mix it… it was too expensive… and my mother got a job making buttonholes… she made them beautifully too.

Imagine me walking all the way back from the King’s Road with another little girl… even in the dark… I can’t understand it… nobody hurt her… nobody touched her… nobody even shouted… it was just the fact that we were there… frightened of anybody strange… it was ingrained in us… we didn’t know… we didn’t have trees and lamps but we had an appliance… a thing you could put in to make light… so you could see where you were going... so no one would carry off the two children… always concerned for children… and food. 

Nothing really changes… people are the same generation to generation… and now look at me standing in this empty shop trying to look back on the things inside me… you think you’re remembering all these things but they just won’t stick in the head.

I know that later I stood on Speakers’ Corner one day… yes, I did… and it was raining… my mother was only worried I would catch a cold… she didn’t understand what I was talking about… I got all the people together… and all the bread that I had… and I cut them up small so I had a piece of bread for everybody… I thought that would be a good idea… in Hyde Park there were people who were rich and respectable… lots of money but they would not give a child a piece of bread… I saw it… I wanted them to see it… I could never understand it… the Chelsea people were terrible… separately they were nice people but they were afraid… I mean look at me… they wanted to take the bath out of the cold water where they put me to rest… for no reason at all… they wanted me to lie in that bath until the end… until I die… that was in the West End… such treachery… you wouldn’t believe it now, would you?

I didn’t ever want any children… I thought they would all have been crying for bread… then there would be another strike and they would start calling me a bloody Jew again… it carries on. The first man made out he was a marvellous man… that dirty old man was a marvellous man… charging everybody a pound… and people bought. I commented on it in no uncertain way in Yiddish and in German… he was forced to take it down… people who went to Georgetown starving and all the rest of it… I made him… she made him kneel down on her news and say I apologise for the rubbish I wrote… that person was worse than Hitler.

What I never understood is every person has got something different about them… what is so terrible to me is… say they’ve got green teeth… say they look different, why is it that people think it makes them ignorant? It’s a dreadful thing, ignorance… it’s not changed… even those windows… I remember them but they’re not the same now… I always seemed to find the person lurking round here… it’s such a lovely word 'lurking'.

I once thought I might try to write but that sister of mine… the one who thought I was mad for writing my comments… she didn’t know a thing… I carried on writing… I wrote the book anyway… I wrote the book… this book I’m speaking in peculiar English because I can’t speak very well… I didn’t want people to correct me, it wouldn’t have been mine then. In the East End there were lots of people and lots of stories and this one, Ancient Mysteries, is mine… you picked me to be first and said, “Sit still for a minute.” When the government… no… the people, ordered it… all the flies and fleas came out of the boxes we opened… I grew up in all that dust… all the birds… the bees… the humming bees… all the people wishing. My father was nervous… he didn’t know what would become of it… who he could trust apart from his children… he heard the people whispering, whispering, whispering… he thought Catherine’s too young to tell the story and William doesn’t know he’s born… it didn’t bother me… but growing up was good… I can’t really say about my childhood… say you have this book with a lot of memories in… in one of those books you might find the story next year. It would be my book… it is mine isn’t it? 'Catherine and her Story'… that’s enough.