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Gladys

 

Walking through… always walking... always on the march… I’m a well ‘left-righter’. My poor legs have gone right through the war… twice they did. I’m going to surprise you now… 1914 I was born… worst luck… only a matter of ounces.

I used to like chasing up the staircase… eight of us… four brothers and four sisters, Jack, Burt, Danny, Mary and myself. I was the youngest at the time. The first murder hut was 91… they kept turning that number round all the time. It was my uncle’s house, he was subletting… he was an old gabber… he never had a good word for us kids… he was a window cleaner and whatever else he could get. He chucked us all out… but then we got back in again… he was a beast. The bottle was his way of window cleaning. All children were the same to him. He thought he’d got us out but we got back.

We lived with the nobs down Neal Street… near the market… shout the voice out for half a pound of tomatoes. Dad was an engineer… then he got the air force job. He wouldn’t let us put his uniform picture up on the wall. Come on, I told him he won’t see that blooming fight anymore.

My very eldest brother, he was being brought back in from Dunkirk, to paddle in with all the army and the navy. My mum woke me up, she said, “Come on, your husband’s at war.” She said he’s fighting… fighting with four little guns… and they couldn’t really get rid because it was getting too over… too over-flown.

But don’t upset yourself… it’s hard for me to remember half the things that happened. I was on the train going to Lea Bridge in Leytonstone and my brother Jack was home on a long weekend. He said, “Do you fancy a ride?” and I said, “Well you’ve got to save my life, I’m coming with you.” He laughed… he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll go off together, key for key.”

Then it all came down. Full pelt it comes out now, all of a sudden with this that and the other... I’m trying to remember the in between… I can’t think of what could have happened.                                   When the sound ceased and goes down with no steam behind it, it works its way forward still. I got caught on the Lea Bridge Road that day. Jack was home on leave for a fortnight. He said, “Shall we go up and see Tom in the hospital?” I didn’t want to go. We were just crossing over Lea Bridge, we always liked to sit upstairs on the bus, and all of a sudden the whistle went and the conductor called out, “Lea Bridge Station.” Just then the bus was all blown to bits and cut me up, trapped. Some bombs used to come down with a long cord on the back of them. I saw them.

When my eldest brother had to go back and fight we had problems with him… skins and that… bad skin… he was so fed up with going backwards and forwards to his club that he said to my dad, I’m not going back to fight… I’m not going back. He knew nothing my brother… Dad said he’d spoken to so and so… he said he’d keep an eye on him, “Look after my son, take care of him.” He came back but he had spots and all that on his skin… he dwindled away with fear and that was before they even took him as a bloody prisoner of war… that was Jack… it’s a sadness now that’s sadder if it’s gone from my head. These kids they all had knapsacks and everything… take them all and hold them up… their broken bicycles are all behind us.

St Martin’s in command… in connection with the… oh dear…                         …St Martin’s in the Fields Church… they used to have their baskets of blood out front. My sister looked in their books with a red pen… line by line… a big book of all the lists… the families in the area… and he wasn’t there. My eldest brother didn’t come back… he got killed on what I call the cotton traipse… took them all marching right through another part of the German area. They had no shoes on. When they fell they wouldn’t be bothered with them. They used to tear up the reports. All the men took off their dirty clothes… great long lines of old boots and their underclothes and hats and left them in a pile. They all gave up their boots and shoes and my broken baby was under there in all the rubbish. I looked in the books… the big bible of all the names and he wasn’t there.

I’m not proud… I met my husband in the pub… he stood behind me then… a handsome man and put down two drinks, one and one. He was an engineer… got a good stretch of medals. I’ve only just found the ribbons and the photographs of my dad in his uniform. He went on the tugboats to Dunkirk. And that Dunkirk… the earth garden… I don’t want to see any more of that. They worked hard, the boys, but they didn’t get anything out of it… he’d only gone off for a weekend holiday… that’s what he told me… and then he was back in England.

V.E. day I went up to Whitehall… Jim came home from HMS Ajax… “Bravo Ajax!” They enjoyed them all with the march through the city of London… six row crowds! All along the board to Whitehall, “Bravo Ajax!” “Bravo Ajax!” In come the first batch… I was working the telephone exchange in Drury Lane. They halted him. “Stop!” I hear this bloke calling out, “Where are you, Glad? Where’s your baby?” All of a sudden the army band starts up… my little boy is sitting up the front… bang, bang, bang… knocking it on the drum… all the way to Whitechapel. “Bravo Ajax!”

My friend was a telephone operator, she used to lean out and say, “Alright Glad, what you doing down there? Where’s your baby?” They all used to go mad about my baby. She said, “Don’t move. Keep in a line and we’ll work our way down to you. We’ll find the baby.”

When it came down for the vessels to be blown up and all the people to come off the trains... one chap came up to me from the club, he said, “Where’s the baby?  Do you know where they’ve taken him?” He was a very good chap… he looked in all the books. This is the chap that worked at the telephone exchange… he said he’d not go home until we find the baby.

My eldest brother found was at Dunkirk… and they couldn’t identify him as a man or is it not… wouldn’t pass it as him. They’d written out a great big picture in the papers for us to go and concentrate with it… to see if it was my brother… well we all said it was Jack, “It’s Jack, Jack, it’s Jack.” I walked all the hospitals looking at the books of names. My old man’s gone now I expect... they’ll be coming to put me in their books… their book’s in order now. It doesn’t take long to be falling down dead again.

My brother, they marched him all round the streets… they took him to the country where there was a big row of German, not German, Polish airmen ready to make the move for the place where they were putting our lot. So they had to try to move off quick as possible to Dunkirk. They got him tied in nets on the beach. The men weren’t happy at all. I keep going over to see my brother, all day, every day… and they kept telling me he’s alright… he still thinks he’s marching with the others… he lost all his property and papers… we couldn’t find a thing about it until someone sent a little note through the door. It said they’ve found Jack but they can’t get anyone to get in and see him. My sister went over there on her own… he just had a little scrap of land to be buried down in. She said, I’d sooner he was dead than suffer more like he suffered… hurt badly. He left a daughter four years old… and another boy was two years old… the youngest baby… pretty cheated not to be defeated.

Just last week the Colonel said she was going to have a look in the books again… to sit quietly on her own… she said, “Do you mind?” I said, “He’s your brother, same as he’s my brother.”

Let’s make it quiet again… I need to think… some of it is mixed up… one brother came back… one brother died. It all comes back to me now, all halted to attention on our little part of the station. These are the achievements we’ve made… all different nationalities. All the heads popping up in the water… calling out, “Where’s Jack Wood, is he still there? Where’s the baby?” My eldest brother was at Dunkirk… they got over as many as they could. When you listen to my brother he’d say, I’m alive so don’t be moaning. He comes and goes again… goes back now and gets killed. I know it now, yes, if it weren’t for Jack Wood we wouldn’t be here.