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Mabel

 

It’s a test now trying to remember a memory of a memory.

I was born in… guess… not a mile from this spot, 17 Alcroft Road. 1923. There was one other little chick, if you might call it that, still around when my mother died. It might have been part of the cause of her death but I’m not sure.

How we’d run and point at a plane in the sky, not an everyday occurrence. And when they did fly over, one automatically assumed it would drop a bomb on them, on me… me… me.  As if the world was just something on the periphery.

I don’t remember what my mother looked like, I was five when she died. Pneumonia. There was no danglings on the knee and darlings. I had a brother, bless him, one brother, he died last year. What a posh name, Edgar.

No, two brothers. I’ve remembered another one. Leonard. Leonard and Edgar.

And Ralph. Ralph! Rather splendid names. I’m sure I must have had something to do with choosing them. I was an idiot for words. The reason Edgar was called Edgar was because of a famous detective writer. Edgar Wallace stories. I remember those.

I don’t mind being Mabel though I didn’t like it at the beginning. People who were my age all seemed to have the same name. I was called Dudes at school… imagine. It probably meant something horrific.

Ralph was in groups set up to perform plays… in a local church where they… displayed. Where they acted, yes, and being handsome, of course he got all the good parts.

It’s always the lovely people who disappear, that things happen to. As if God doesn’t care.

When my father died lots of people were very kind.  They wrote to me and said things like, “We’ll always remember him,” and, “If ever you need anything just come to us,” rather tear-jerking stuff like that.

I was evacuated to Luton. It was a funny business going on once… the great special… a forgetful moment. In the billet in Luton… my landlady… a very ordinary-looking lady. Older than expected.

We were quite biggish schoolgirls in the playground when the rumour went round. We were given a letter to take home, it said “Would you like to be evacuated?” All the rumours went round, the girls were going to Australia or South Africa… somewhere sunny, everything but the crown jewels. The truth is we were going to Luton. Huts in Luton! We didn’t know how low that was in people’s estimations.

Where are all my books? I had more than one hundred books, Steinbeck, Harper Lee. And children’s literature, Grimm’s Fairy Tales… it’s such a super title, Grimm’s as in grim. Very dangerous books, knives and blood, and we think we’re badly treated today? And Hans Anderson’s Fairy TalesAlice in Wonderland… Bluebeard – he frightened me to death. I think those books teach children something about death, that’s it’s all bound up with life.

When I was a teacher I used to love reading books to the children. I’d gather them all round in the last lesson on a Friday.  I got my love of books from my sister, did I say I had a sister? A family reading fairy stories while my poor mum was wasting away. Such sadness. Mother got pneumonia, cold and coughs. TB was the frightful one, the thing one mustn’t get.

Days were full. There was always somebody else to discover, we discovered each other, and got flats… like this. It seems to me now that this room was part of my flat. Maybe it still is, under all the paintwork and so forth.

As startling daylight broke, we looked up and there was no roof on this house any more.

I had a boyfriend back then, he wasn’t a soldier he was a… if you didn’t go to the war you had to do something else in that line… any boyfriends I had were the ones that stayed at home. They took me out places. When the war ended… I was… something like… in my twenties for centuries… can’t pin it. Although I was playing the part of the Virgin Mary, I was nothing of the kind. It makes me laugh now, too late I’ve said it! I told one person and suddenly all the world knew. Today it’s not such a crime-worthy thing. I had a chap who was¼ he took me out places. I was voracious with the soldiers, I gobbled them all up, voracious! Oh, what a funny word to use.
 
At school we had to learn great lumps of Churchill but I loved Anthony Eden. I thought he was a splendid chap, a very good-looking boy back then. I was cross with Churchill, didn’t like him at all.

I went to work for a man called Mr Love but I didn’t love him. I used to write poetry. I was always in love with words.

Ralph was a pilot. He was so handsome. He was killed in a direct crash with a Messerschmitt. His body was badly burned. For some reason we had a funeral with an open coffin. I remember there were just parts under a cloth. It seems odd now, to show that to a child. He was in a bomber, lining up the cross-hairs. None of these people working here would even know there had been a war.

We all loved Ralph, as I keep reiterating. It was rather exceptional for a small child to go to a funeral. The hearse drew up outside and neighbours came running from the nearest homes with bunches of flowers and wreaths and things to add to the sadness of the day.

I was very patriotic. I don’t know where I was getting that. I wouldn’t hear a word against anything English. Scots and Irish weren’t really in it. It’s a false image you carry with you, you vaguely knew at the back of your mind that it’s a false image but you went along with it. A lot of it was actually made up… propaganda. What a lovely word. I remember one night in the air raid shelter they were all singing and they tried to be terribly patriotic… and when they looked up they could see the stars. No roof to help them in any way. Patriotism wouldn’t have done them any good.

A lot of things I remember and they remember and are remembered from various goings on, well they aren’t as it was. I’m not sure it’s right that I saw my brother in his coffin but I remember it. It’s something of history. There’s quite a chunk of it missing now. I’m sure the children here don’t believe it. Everyone lies.

It doesn’t even seem very likely that we were real people back then. The English. No one can beat us, nothing to fear. No bombs will drop on us. They are great stories but they are just stories, some of them. A certain amount of truth. Real enough.

People who indulged in pretend bomb dropping… the government… no sorry it’s gone. What’s the name of… the name? It’s like you pull a lever and it’s gone. This will come back… it’s important to say.

I remember how the bombing sounded worse at night.

Luton got bombed by accident… because they’re on an outer periphery of London… they… it was… because the car industry… and so… there is something here that wants to be said but I can’t get to it. Oh yes… the Germans wanted to bomb the factories… they… let’s get this right… this is so frustrating. I have to write everything down because I know I’ll forget… very upsetting. Luton got… painted to represent something else… camouflage, that’s it! To bomb it from the air would be difficult. They painted the factories to look like army material, grey and brown and wiggly shapes.

I was between 16 and 18 when the war started. I think I belonged to a sort of Peace for Everybody campaign at one time. I did unpaid work… to do with the fire service… we would sit out on the roof of the factories in Luton… we’d be running round with bags and buckets of sand… we all had uniforms… I’d forgotten this. Navy blue uniforms with silvery bits… epaulets.  It was a bit like a brownie uniform dyed blue. I think we worked one night in six… all night. Women and men were involved. We all felt we were terribly brave but we weren’t brave at all. We used to hug each other and hide in doorways.
 

My husband was a sailor. Mr Fisher, like the sea. I met him playing table tennis. He had a square collar, all the things sailors had back then, very funny. I don’t think I liked him too much when I met him. In fact I thought he was rubbish. I wanted a proper Englishman and he had something to do with Australia. He wasn’t a soldier he was a sailor, must have been kicked out of the army. His family went to Australia or came from Australia. He didn’t read books and I think I treated him as someone who couldn’t read books, and that wasn’t true at all. I’m not sure you could say that I ever fell in love. He was fairly good-looking and persistent, you could bear it. More persistent than good looking. Come to think of it, not even very persistent.

When I climb out of this hole I sometimes think I see my husband’s ghost on a morning. It seems to me that my husband’s voice tells me to get up and have a cup of tea.

If you had a car you were king of the world. My husband had a car!
You see that lady, the plump one… the black lady? I think she’s taking over the rather strict teacher convention that we’re all naughty, naughty schoolgirls… yes… that lady… the one I was with… she has the same talent as I do in that she can’t retain information for very long without forgetting lumps of it… it’s very frustrating for me but it must be awful for them… and sometimes a couple of them… the very old lady sitting there who wanted me to stay beside her… they… sorry I’ve lost trace of what I was saying… oh yes… she’s a good lady too… she can’t control her temper… it doesn’t effect me that way… I’m very docile… it isn’t such a bad thing.


What was I saying? Today’s education needs brushing up a bit, in terms of looking after people and so on. Unfortunately that lady I was speaking of, she screams… argh! It seems incredible to me that they should have taken on people here who can’t remember what they’re doing and people who speak different languages, and put them together! There’s enough difficulty remembering and getting by without having people speaking a different language to yourself. And they in turn are doing the same thing. Hard going really for both. It was not a good idea whoever thought that one up.

The other people of course are amazed at the lassitude… if that’s the word. I don’t care if it’s not, I won’t even remember saying it in two seconds.

I’ve read so many notices, particularly on the walls. Notices which are then withdrawn, unfortunately. However, today, this day, Christmas Day, I was woken up early and given a tray of sardine sandwiches or something like that… and¼ What was it I was saying? Oh yes the fire warden was probably a conscientious objector… which meant that from his point of view the war was a bad thing… and so… he’d run from street to street looking for people who failed. He’d be shouting, “Put out that light!”

I’ve lost the trail again. Was I telling you that I used to write poetry? I can remember it roughly, nothing to write home about. A rather violent sort of poetry.