25 February 2010

Old communications

Sifting through the old photographs for my Sepia Saturday blog I discovered these old greeting cards, along with various notes and scribbles done by me when I was young. Parents do love to save everything made by their offspring but I never magined they'd still be around so many years later.

First are three glossy postcard style greeting cards which were sent just as they are, without an envelope, a bit like the postcards sent from holiday resorts

Written by me, and including Gordon, the son of people I stayed with in WW2.
I always counted the amount of 'kisses' ... probably needing to prove I could count

and on the back

Next is a card that had to be coloured.
I thought my crayoning skills were pretty good for a youngster.

and inside

According to a note on the back, this is the first Christmas card I ever made
at the age of seven.
I've improved since then!

and inside ... Wot! No kisses?

Now for a couple of notes from me to Dad

A message sent to parents from my wartime evacuation address

For the whole of the war years I was billeted with Mom and Dad's friends, pseudo Aunt Carrie and Uncle Fred ... Dad's best man at his wedding. At the time Dad's woodwork skills were put to good use inside airplanes. With so many men occupied with war, women had to take their place on the work front. Mom was taken on as a bus conductress and I still have the piece of shrapnel that one day fell at her feet as she walked to work.

For the youngsters wartime was more of an adventure than something to fear. Blackouts didn't worry us and the sweeping searchlights seemed spectacular to young kids. Parties in the air raid shelters were fun and defying air raid wardens even more so. Gordon's sister, Diane, was born while I lived there ... a real war baby.

Maybe one day I'll write more about the half-remembered experience of wartime from a child's point of view.

18 February 2010

Burns Night, my version

Eighteen and should know better. According to a well-meaning neighbour, those were the words issued by another well-meaning neighbour. She was referring to the fact that the day before I had sprinted up the road with burning intentions.

The house in which I lived, although spacious and very nice, did not possess luxurious requirements such as bathroom or indoor toilet. But we were better off than the neighbours, WE didn’t have to carry a zinc bath from yard to kitchen and fill it with jugs of hot water. Oh dear me no, OUR zinc bath was pulled down from a cupboard at the side of the kitchen fireplace where a coal fire would burn brightly and throw out enough heat to keep naked bodies warm. And it was equipped with a drainage system. We filled it with a hose from the Ascot water heater and simply pulled the plug to let the water out of the bath. Having a DIY Dad paid off in those days. The only drawback was lack of privacy; it was all very well bathing in a live-in kitchen but imagine how I felt as a growing girl having to climb in and out in front of spectators.

The open fireplace was a positive feature of the kitchen. A fire was lit every day in winter which meant the chimney needed frequent cleaning. The chimney sweep would fill the kitchen with his brushes while the neighbourhood kids waited outside to see the brush emerge from the chimney. Their cheers could be heard inside the house.

Mom would curse every time about the mess. Imagine her joy when the sweep introduced a new method of cleaning chimneys … a vacuum cleaner. All he had to do was suck the soot into his machine and that would be that. Mom was happy and so was the dog … it meant he could get back indoors to warm his body after being banished outside.

One cold Thursday evening in November (Dad was working away and Mom was attending a séance) I made the most of the time alone and decided to wash my hair in the kitchen sink. I was wearing a pale blue cotton seersucker dress with a flared skirt, more for vanity than warmth. In order not to get the dress wet I slipped off the top so that it hung loose from the waist. After placing a towel on the drainer I plunged my head into a bowl of water and proceeded to shampoo. I wouldn’t go back to the inconvenience of those days if you paid me.

When I’d finished I seized the towel and proceeded to dry my hair, moving across to the fireplace for warmth. What I didn’t know was that a piece of cloth had escaped the chimney sweep’s vacuum and decided at that moment to fall onto the fire. The flames shot out and caught the excess skirt material round my waist. And I knew nothing about it until the towel parted and I saw that the front of my skirt was well and truly alight.

Well … what to do?

My Dad must have been psychic because once upon a time he took me on one side and explained what to do in an emergency such as the one I faced.

Roll on the floor to smother the flames
Get his old raincoat from the hook in the hall and wrap it round

Sensible suggestions, only half heard at the time, but they shrieked at me right then. However while my brain was thinking about doing one or the other my body was racing outside, down the side entry, into the road. I found out later that brain and body don’t co-ordinate when in shock. My Dad couldn't have known that.

As I ran screaming into the street, I could see a guy rushing towards me, removing his coat as he ran. What did I do? Why, I ran in the opposite direction, of course. Remember, brain and body don’t go in for rational thinking. Right, so, while the guy is running up the street I’m shooting across the road (to hell with cars) and up the other side until I reached the corner, then I crossed back and headed towards the guy with the coat. He managed to doubt the flames and ruin his coat in the process.

All this time my dog ran beside me, trying to help. His coat was on fire but somehow he managed to brush the flames away, presumably on gates and hedges.

Whenever I’ve told this story people have exclaimed ‘Oooo you shouldn’t have run outside.’

It would be interesting to know what might have happened if I hadn’t! In actual fact I did myself a favour. It was a windy November night, see, and the wind blew the flames back. If it hadn’t my face and full frontal would have copped it. As it was, when I was whipped into hospital, a nurse told me the ends of my ‘wet’ hair were singed. I won’t even try to describe the relief!

Neighbours took charge of the situation: one took me into her house, another called the doctor … who was at the house practically before I was. The doctor gave me an injection which the consultant later said had prevented infection. After seeing sufferers of infection on the Ward I was grateful for that.

The police set about trying to find Mom. Appeals went on local cinema screens, a sort of ‘phone home’ message … to no avail. They had no choice but to wait outside the house for her to come home. She arrived at midnight and got to see me around one o’clock. Good job I was awake!

For three months I underwent skin grafts and a bone graft and still have the scars to prove it. I learned to walk again and how to deal with people who thought the whole thing was funny. One incident comes immediately to mind, when I returned to work a factory worker thought it amusing to hold a flaming cigarette lighter near the hem of my dress. His colleagues dealt with him since I was too busy screaming.

During the time I was away my dog barked at exactly eight o’clock every Thursday night … and they say dogs aren’t intelligent! The noise was so bad neighbours talked about starting a petition. I never found out why they changed their plan but as soon as I got back home the barking stopped.

The previous evening I had listened to a radio programme called ‘Your Life in Their Hands’ and that particular episode concerned a young girl who was severely burned and how fire and ambulance crews dealt with the situation. Her name was Kathy Jackson.

Because I now identified with the girl in the programme I kept repeating to the ambulance team ‘I heard about Kathy Jackson.’ If they knew who I meant they never let on but when I was admitted to the hospital that girl was in the next bed. Of course her real name wasn’t used, instead the producer used the name of the consultant. Jackson was the name of the specialist who performed miracles. He did all my grafts. He would sit on the bed and describe exactly what would happen. I loved him to bits. He did for me what he couldn’t do for some of the others.

Some of the sights I saw in the Burns Unit were so appalling, especially where babies were badly burned, that I felt it should be mandatory for all new parents to visit a Burns Ward. The smell alone would be enough to make them mend their ways.

To my mind one case should have resulted in a prison sentence. One tiny tot, just able to wriggle, was left alone in the house while her parents went out for an evening’s entertainment. The little mite was placed in a deep armchair, right in front of a coal fire. She must have been feeling so hot that she started to fidget ... she fell off the chair, onto the fire.

Bonfire Night occurred while I was in the hospital and I can’t begin to describe the horrific injuries I saw when victims of fire were brought in.

Aren’t people cruel? One lady who was already in when I got there was so badly injured she had to be on a ‘turnover’ bed. Her whole body and face were burned. She had no visitors, but one day her husband turned up to tell her he was getting a divorce. She died not long afterwards. Wouldn’t it have been kind of him to wait?

I learned a valuable lesson through the accident and it had nothing to do with burns. Some people fall and land on their heads…. I was lucky. Whenever I fell I landed on my feet. The good Lord has taken care of me throughout my life by giving me the wisdom to cope.

Now for a bit of humour:

Mom’s brother, an uncle with a real Black Country wit, popped in to visit. Standing at the foot of the bed, he peered over the cage (covered) under which I lay and pronounced ‘By gum, Valerie, you didn’t have to go to those lengths. I might like my women hot, but not burned.’

Then there was my hospital mate, Jacqueline, who blacked out and fell on a newly lit fire and didn’t regain consciousness until the fire was out. Because the nerves had burned through she didn’t even feel ill. Not until she looked into the mirror did she know that her face was severely burned. Cutting her long story short … she underwent numerous ops, some worked, a lot failed. In desperation the surgeons would remove skin for grafting from various parts of her body. The humour here is that the skin that grew steadily and successfully after the op was from … her inner thighs. Thereafter she bragged that when the consultant examined her face he was actually touching every part of her body!

15 February 2010

A Blend of Families (Repeat)

'Why are you cleaning the taps with your toothbrush, Grandma?' The child sat at a pine table, busily pouring water into tiny cups, her small hands awkwardly tilting the plastic jug. She wore an apron covered with bears and pots of honey and one of her blonde ringlets was caught in the strap. Her granny stood at the sink scouring the taps. At least I presume she was scouring the taps, I could only see the top half of her slight frame from where I stood, hidden by a burgeoning wisteria, outside the open leaded window.

'Because it's the only small brush I've got,' Jane Goodman said. 'I've no use for it any more.' She beamed at the youngster and I thought what a shame it was that the smile would soon be wiped clean away. When I was ready, that is. There was no rush. Nothing would be gained by rushing.

'My toothbrush is smaller than yours, Grandma.'
'I know, pet.'
'You can use mine if you want to.'
'S'all right, petal, I can manage with this one.'

Maintaining my position behind the wisteria, I continued to gaze into that comfortable kitchen, relishing the aroma of roasting meat, so inviting to a hungry man. Eleven o'clock and I was ravenous. I moved a low-growing blue raceme from my ear and tried to work out how old the child was.

The Goodman family moved to the village around the time my Sammy was born, twenty-five years ago. He courted Belinda, the child's mother, from fifteen to twenty-three, when that vixen Michelle turned his senseless head. Against my advice he married her - and Belinda bounced into an unsuitable marriage of her own. So the little girl would be three. I looked again at young Bethie. It was like looking at a portrait of Sam when he was a nipper, 'cept he never had no ringlets.

I gazed at the yellow envelope in my hand and wondered how Jane would take the news. Would she rant about Sammy's shortcomings like she did when he was a kid? It was too late for recriminations but I bet she'd have a go. Never did like my lad, she didn't. Leastways, that was the impression I got.

Pushing her blue sleeves up her arms, Jane Goodman walked to the stove and opened the oven door. The meat sizzled louder than ever and the juices ran amok in my mouth. Bethie leaned sideways on her chair and peered around her Gran's back. She licked her lips. Perhaps she hadn't had breakfast, same as me. But Jane wouldn't allow that. For all her faults, she wouldn't neglect her daughter's child. My granddaughter, and I never knew until the letter came from Spain. The envelope burned into my palm. Safe in the knowledge that I couldn't be seen I withdrew the letter and skimmed through Sammy's words, though they should have been imprinted on my brain the amount of times I'd read them.

This may come as a surprise, Dad, but I have linked up with Belinda again. We met by chance last week, though Belinda puts it down to fate. And guess what I've discovered. Young Bethie is my daughter - your granddaughter. You always wanted a granddaughter, didn't you, Dad? I can't describe my joy. Marrying Michelle was an idiot thing to do but it's not too late to make amends. That's why Belinda and I have decided to get wed when I've settled my divorce. You always had a soft spot for her so I know you'll be happy. I'm not so sure about Mrs G. She doesn't know I'm Bethie's father. I wondered if you would break the news and pave the way for us. Just fancy, in a week's time I'll be seeing my daughter. I can't believe it. See you then, Love Sam

So tomorrow they would be home. No longer could I put off apprising Jane Goodman of the facts. I slid the letter into my back pocket and buttoned my coat so as to look respectable, hastily plucking dog hairs from the sleeve. I wished I'd worn my brown jacket instead of the blue which only now struck me as looking the worse for wear. Too long ago I had a wife who took care of things like that. Far above, a lark sang and I gazed upwards for a minute or two, then, taking a deep breath, I left the sanctuary of the wisteria and advanced along the narrow path to the door. Goodness only knew what I was going to say.

The pain in the gut was acute. Nerves probably, but I didn't give in to it. Instead I rapped the door. I heard Jane say, 'Who on earth can that be.' She sounded a touch irritated and so would I be if people came calling when my dinner was waiting. The door opened and the widow stood there, drying her hands on a green towel, her greying hair scraped back off her face. There was a smear of grease on her cheek. Her expression was severe until it registered who was visiting, cap in hand and wincing with cramps.

'Good gracious. Desmond Bowers, as I stand here breathing.' Bethie clutched her Gran's skirt and peeped shyly at me. Seeing those deep blue eyes brought a lump to my throat. She was like Sam but she had Belinda's nose, turned up and cute. Jane relaxed and took Bethie's hand. 'Come in, Desmond. How are you keeping? And Sam ... how is he?' Her voice wavered as she spoke.

I thought, She's as nervous as me.

Jane drew me into her kitchen and closed the door behind me. She indicated a chair. 'Sit down, Desmond. Can I get you something? Bethie and I were about to have dinner. You're quite welcome to join us. As I remember you were partial to a slice or two of roast beef.'

I mulled the offer over but rejected it, stating that I didn't mind coming back when their meal was done.

Jane laughed. 'Don't be silly. I can tell you're dying to sample my Yorkshire pudding.'

'Has the man got a toothbrush, Grandma?'

Jane ruffled Bethie's hair. 'I imagine he's left it at home, petal.' Then she addressed me. 'We wouldn't mind having company. Gets a shade humdrum with just each other to talk to.'

I looked at the topside and the crisp potatoes on the willow-pattern plate. Wisps of steam rose from a dish of buttered sprouts. The smell was pure heaven. I said, 'You might regret the invitation when you hear what I've come to say.'

'I suspect not,' said Jane, 'but we'll worry about that when you've had your fill.'

The matter which had brought me to Jane's door was finally raised when Bethie took her afternoon nap, but to my astonishment it was Jane who raised it. 'So, Belinda and Sam have at last sorted themselves out.'

I was bewildered. 'How did you know?'

She took a yellow envelope from the dresser. 'I received this a week ago. You can read it if you like.'

I declined. It didn't do to read other people's mail. 'Did you know...'

'About Bethie?' Jane lifted a framed photograph of her granddaughter lying in a crib. 'I guessed. Even as a baby she looked like Sam, same features and colouring. I didn't question. I knew the truth would emerge in its own time. I was right,Desmond, and I can't tell you how pleased I am.'

'I always wanted a granddaughter,' I said.

She placed the frame on a small table. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. 'And I wanted a decent son-in-law,' she said. 'A proper family.'

I took her hand in my calloused one. How could I have been so wrong about this woman. We'd got what we dreamed of, her and me. Sam and Belinda too. But Bethie most of all. What a day she'd had if she did but know. Gained a Dad and a Grandad in one fell swoop.' I glanced at the baby picture on the table. The kitchen window was reflected in the glass, framing the tiny face. A frame within a frame. Inside or out the sheets, what the hell. This mite had allied two families, blended them together by the consequence of birth. I looked at Jane Goodman. 'Her family's complete,' I said, 'and so are ours.'

14 February 2010

Grown-up Kids

Kids, mutters Dad

from the depths of his bed

No gratitude these days

Let it be said

When I was a young ’un

with nought but a penny

It was woe betide me

If I cried like a ninny

Come on, said Mom

Let’s not be hasty

The young ’un’s

looking really pasty

Says Dad, see him winking

Under that sheet

My guess is he’s

picking the skin on his feet

I’ve told him, and told him

To leave well alone

He’ll have sore feet for certain

As hard as a stone

Mother said, I think he’s ailing

Aye he’s ailing, right enough

If he don’t soon behave

He’ll get a quick cuff.

The kid, hearing all

Dreams up a plan

He’ll challenge his Dad

To a fight, if he can

A fisticuffs fight

Rowdy and wild

He’ll show the old man

He’s no longer a child

Stop, cried Mother

Laughter subsiding

Thinking her young un’s

In for a hiding

How could she know

The son she had bred

Had the future mapped out

Inside his young head

Father and son

Aimed blows thick and fast

Neither one worried

Who ended up last.

13 February 2010

For Valentine's Day

He showed me total happiness
With the ecstasy of a soft caress
Upon my cheek, so pale and wan,
And I knew my love had just begun

He took me gently by the hand
And led me into wonderland
Where pain and sorrow were unknown
And we never shared a tear or frown

In reckless earnest we embrace
Still enchanted, side by side
Wordless caring, quietly sharing
An eternal love we cannot hide

My Valentine

05 February 2010


Aren't old photographs fascinating? This is my Mom and Dad's wedding picture. Dad was the eldest of six, the last was yet to be born. Look at the outfits worn by granddad and grandma on the left. And don't they look happy? Only the best man had a smile on his face ... perhaps he knew something they didn't. Here's a more modern one, taken when I was a child. The rest of the grandchildren came later. I've added the names for ease of identification.

And here's Mom and Dad on their own, you can tell by the style of photograph that it's an old one

Whatever the character of the photographs, they elicit forgotten memories that are worth savouring. Here are some of mine for your amusement.

My family on my Dad’s side was both musical and artistic. Starting with my grandfather who ‘played piano by ear’ the family members developed their own form of music, playing the piano, dancing or singing. Most were artistic … woodwork, craft-work, art or dramatics. Only now, as I look back, do I recognise the surfeit of talent in the family.

In view of the fact that I was a downtrodden child, with a mother who offered no praise or encouragement and constantly reminded me to know my place, speak when spoken to, and what will neighbours think when they look at you? (referring to my habit of leaving coats undone) I went through life thinking I had neither appeal nor aptitude. Only now do realise I wasn’t too bad at a lot of things, especially craftwork and writing.

My Dad was an artist, too, but although he was good at drawing his imagination and creativity was not with the arts. He was a whiz with wood. By trade a carpenter and joiner, if there was wood to be turned he was your man. He loved to surprise Mom and me, doing things in the home when we were out. New bits and pieces would appear. I particularly remember door handles, big and extraordinary works of art that were the talk of the neighbourhood.

As a child I was the proud possessor of a magnificent fully furnished dolls house, a dolls cradle, pencil cases, 3-tier needlework boxes, and a wonderful desk and stool, tongue and grooved to perfection. When I married he delighted in creating things for my new home, a radio stand that was an exact wooden replica of the bird bath, a cork topped, carved legged card table that was the envy of the family and fought over when he died. I still have the desk.


The youngest sibling, my Uncle Norman, was musical. I don’t recall him ever playing an instrument but he sure could sing. He had a fine voice that reached the rafters in church. From birth he was a sufferer of osteogenesis imperfecta, better known as brittle bone disease. Judging by his stunted growth you would not have expected him to have such a fine singing voice. He sang with a well known choir for years and was a popular member of an amateur dramatics group run by the church drama group. Nearly always the star of the show, people would ask if Norman had a part before they bought tickets. They knew they’d have a good laugh if he was in the show. He died two years ago, but his memory lives on for many folk.


Encouraged by Ann, Norman’s wife, who is acclaimed for her work with oils, Aunt Florence (see above) took up painting. She delighted in transferring images of her garden to paper, with which she taught me everything I needed to know about plant life. However, her special talent was marquetry, producing wonderful pictures from different types of wood veneer.


Three Scottish cousins played in the National Youth Orchestra, but the one who shot to fame was Susan: noted concert pianist, writer, and pride of the family. She was the first girl to enter the music faculty at Kings College, Cambridge, and is to this day a joy to listen to.

My musical career (said with tongue-in-cheek) started when Mom sent me for piano lessons given by an elderly professor of music, at any rate he seemed old to me. I did quite well, gaining two certificates from the Imperial School of Music. The third attempt would have been a doddle if the examiner hadn’t stopped me playing, pointed to a random piece in the sheet music, and ordered me to ‘start again from there….’ That’s when I realised he knew I was playing from memory.


I couldn’t read music … but my memory was fantastic.


The Professor was a dirty old man. He would sit beside his pupils close enough for legs to touch. He liked to squeeze young girls’ thighs as they played.

I was very young and shy and scared of adults, always fearing what they would say. I couldn’t fight him nor could I tell my parents. Mom would just accuse me of lying. My immature brain decided that if I memorised everything I could get away from him faster, hence the discovery of fraud at my music examination.

In those days girls kept that sort of thing to themselves. I guess we were ashamed to admit, actually to put into words that a dirty old man was stroking their thighs. How embarrassing was that?

The stroking didn’t stop at the thigh. I remember my skirt being pulled right up and fingers tugging at the elastic round the knicker leg. I remember making the excuse of wanting the toilet in order to jump off the piano stool and get away from him.

I began to miss lessons, played truant, naively thinking no-one would notice. One day I caught a bus into town, whilst at home the police were organising a search party. Oooo the hiding I got for causing everyone so much worry! None of that ‘are you all right’ rubbish.

But that, as they say, is another story.

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