The wires sparked and sawed in tensile friction, as the keys still attached to the taught pitched lengths of garrotting material provided snatches of mocking tinkling and chiming on the smoke scored breeze.
The attack’s aftermath had left the remaining telegraph wires supported by tilted and splintered, though still gallantly upright poles.
The wires were draped unceremoniously with the remnants of the piano shop that had previously occupied the far end of the same road.
Daliesque in its melted and confused effect, the innards from the Chappell & Co.upright piano were left dangling over the wires by the last series of detonations from the previous night’s Luftwaffe bombing raid.
A humming accompanied the higher registers of this strung up and strangled key change with a haunting and muted echo of history’s consequence. Strangely, the source of this baseline came not from the nearby short circuiting electrical substation, but the melodious throat of Sid Hager, who was musing to himself on just how the water had managed to escape from the front yard’s pond while leaving the fish behind.
Waste not, want not. We could always fry ‘em up for dinner, he thought.
Sid was nothing if not practical – in both nature and by need. A tailor by trade from London’s East End, he was used to figuratively and literally cutting corners during at a time of such privation. Not that the quality of his work suffered for lack of materials, as he was a consummate mender of the moment and improvised like a virtuoso.
Even on the outskirts of London, they did not escape the barrage hurled at them nightly by the Germans from across the Channel.
Dagenham and Romford had seemed isolated enough at the outbreak of the Blitz and yet, with each sounding of the air raid siren, the damage done was a reminder that its citizens were not nearly far enough removed from the epicentre of the destruction and carnage to escape a spiteful smack in the face to their emblematic stoicism.
Westbourne Rd. displayed its own collection of bomb damaged buildings and craters which made the street in parts almost impassable to traffic.
Fortunately, as far as Sid could see, those houses struck and half destroyed by recent raids were mercifully vacant thanks to evacuation proving too persuasive for their inhabitants.
The Hagers had remained steadfast in their determination not to leave, unless conditions became unendurable or the local authorities refused to continue to permit Sid’s role as borough councillor to act as a self-indulgent bulwark to civil safety.
Besides, Westbourne Rd. was long and the eastern end occupied by the Hagers had escaped relatively unscathed.
This was as near a miss as they had so far experienced.
Sid smoothed his officiously groomed moustache with his left thumb and forefinger and wondered if it were now too close.
“Two hundred feet shy or 12 miles, take yer pick son.”
This was addressed over Sid’s shoulder to his youngest son Stan, who he had sensed standing behind him without so much as a cleared throat for attention.
Stan had emerged from the Anderson shelter in the front yard, having finished his cleaning and sorting duties following their night of enforced intimacy.
“We were lucky aright, dad”, Stan observed as he came to stand next to his father.
Sid was a short man of 42 years and already Stan at 13 was a head greater in height.
“Mum has taken Mary in to change her. I’ve finished cleaning up the shelter too”, he declared triumphantly, duty accomplished.
“Should hope to too, Stan. This is a time when we cannot afford to shirk our responsibilities.
Go and fetch us a cuppa, like a good lad.”
“Already done dad”, Stan informed his father almost boastfully.
“I put the kettle on to boil first thing before I tidied up.”
Sid had failed to notice the tin mug his son held cradled in both his hands and which he then respectfully proffered his father.
“I think that ol’ Hager sixth sense is starting to make itself felt for you boy.”
This was almost like praise coming from Sid, who was not necessarily forthcoming with encouraging comments, undisguised as criticism.
“Sorry about the milk, but mum says we’re out of it until we get a new ration book.”
“Black and strong will do me just fine. I’ll have a word to the dairy man.”
“Do you think it’s time to leave, dad? Should Mary and I go to stay with the cousins in Essex?”
“It’s early days yet. I think the war has a long way to go and things will get a lot worse. There’s time enough and as long as there is a single Birch tree still standing this end of the road on the square, life will endure.”
It sounded like Sid had taken heart from Mr. Churchill’s latest wireless address.
“But what will we do about the fish?”
Sid took a mouthful of tea and slowly removed his gaze from the fizzing overhead wires. So great was the blast from the nearest detonation that the shockwaves had knocked over the electricity poles like dominoes, with the resultant shorting of the power supply causing brief intermittent surges and sparks, before the deadening smoke joined the crisp early morning spring air.
A few windows of the Hager home had also been blown out.
“The fish are the least of our worries. I’m surprised they didn’t leave sooner, what with hardly anything decent left to feed ‘em.”
Pestered for an explanation, Sid tried patiently to explain what had happened to the water in the small pond atop the dug-in Anderson shelter.
“Well, it’s kind of a like a big vacuum I suppose - the air that’s blown out when the bomb explodes is sucked back in to the blast, taking the water with it.”
He paused. “Not sure, really. Ask Mr. Casey when school goes back.”
“What will we do with the fish?”
“Why, eat ‘em of course”, Sid Hager pronounced as if it were the only solution.
“What about the pond?”
“That will give mum another flower bed to fill. We’ll just need a few barrows full from the Square and she can start planting.”
Before Stan could even fully form the first word about to emerge from his partially open mouth, his father reminded him of his community status:
“Remember, I am on council and I act in community interests. Besides, it would make mum happy.”
That was all it took.
The previous night had not really been all that cramped, as eldest son Nigel,21, was stationed with the 5th Anti-Aircraft Division at Reading, while eldest sister Alma,18, was not always home as she worked night shifts as a nurse at one of the evacuation centres on the outskirts of London.
So, it was only Sid and his wife Hilda with Stan and little 18 month old Mary who had to make do at night when they sought refuge in the garden’s centrepiece.
The Anderson shelter was something to behold.
It had become the feature of the Hager’s street frontage since being issued and then put in place some six months earlier.
Now in the early spring, the adornments created by Hilda were coming in to their own.
Not that the road or their end of it had lacked for decoration or practical use of space before self-preservation had become a nightly routine.
Only that now it had become a thing of pride and a way to thumb your nose at the crouts by turning the shelter into an expression of horticultural defiance.
The Hagers had done alright for themselves since Sid and Hilda were married and had lived in Bethnal Green, in the heart of the East End.
Twenty two years later and the family of six had come a long way – further than Sid had once imagined.
As a young man of twenty in 1919, Sid had been a struggling tailor trying to continue a family business after the brutalizing years of the First World War.
With his father presumed dead on the Western Front sometime in late 1917, Sid had conspicuously avoided service, or serious scrutiny over the issue, until after this family tragedy.
It would seem that some kind of official benevolence had decreed that a father as young as his had been should be the only representative of a family fraught with the grim inevitability that was service on the front lines.
This had remained a mystery for years and was still something not freely discussed by certain sections of the extended family.
Spared his chance at glory until late in the war, Sid had joined the ranks of the Non-Combatant Corps by decision of the recruitment tribunal that was appointed to hear cases of conscientious objection.
This was not one such case, as it was ruled that exemptions were enforced on non-conscientious grounds where it was a case of hardship for key workers in family businesses.
With their father serving until presumed dead and mother a victim of consumption at the outbreak of hostilities, Sid’s remaining family of two sisters and a brother, all younger than him, had been his saving grace.
His conscience had remained true, his thoughts often turning to his father’s unavoidable fate of a generation, and he stayed with the family whose future depended on him.
And so the small family business of tailoring tradition continued and thrived, thanks to circumstantial intervention - or the precise execution of stitching an embroidered entity into place. Some would have said without a choice, but a truer, secure sense of identity had been forged, nevertheless.
And never had such galvanized steel been better forged and submerged to a cause.
From the road you would not be have been able to tell that the 2 foot tall sloping mound in the middle of the moderately spaced frontage was anything more than a hump-backed irregularity in the local terrain.
Either that or the residents at number fourteen had a strange predilection for putting goldfish up on a pedestal.
Other than little Mary, Hilda’s pride and joy was the creation she had cultivated atop the shelter.
The shelter was big enough to accommodate six people, being 6 ft high, 4 ft wide and 6 ft long.
The ability to provide protection from anything other than a direct hit was based partially on the principle that the shelter was buried 4 ft deep in the ground and then covered with soil above the reinforced roof.
The shored earth banks could then be planted with vegetables and flowers.
In this case the self-appointed matriarchal designer had opted to relocate the existing pond and turned it into the fixture’s crowning glory.
Thanks to his own representation on the borough council, Sid could have ‘fixed’ it so the family did not incur the cost of the shelter; but the £7 fee seemed a trifle to a household that earned a tad more than £300 a year.
In the scheme of things, Sid did not want to be labelled an opportunist (he was a part of the local ARP - Air Raid Precautions - network, after all); and paying it would avoid the wrath of neighbours who would be guaranteed to hear all about such shameless goings on.
More importantly, he was a patriot and considered it his Christian duty to contribute to the war effort – since he was just on the outer, as it were, of desirable service age and had been rendered ‘unfit’ for national service ever since a nasty run in with a rusty old Jones model sewing machine (his left hand and trigger finger never quite the same again).
Before all soap brands were abolished by British government decree, in favour of a generic bubble-cake approach that reassured bystanders of a shared fragrance (in covering any tell-tale whiff of panic), folks were unified under the same ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ banner, whose beam shot straight back into the face of grimy adversity.
Cold water ablutions were the hallmark of hardy men, with the hot water reserved for the ladies and babies of the house, while the inherited skill at darning and patching made repairing clothing a cinch for the Hagers.
In addition to keeping up appearances by presenting the family as well turned-out and scrubbed up as prevailing conditions would allow, the focal point of the garden-billed sanctuary made the perfect excuse for ‘best planted’ competitions among the close-knit community.
And it wasn’t just floral tributes and vegetable matter that made a statement. The shelter over the road at No. 15 had a blackboard affixed to the rear of the mound facing out towards the thoroughfare.
Weather permitting, the chalked inscription would announce a novel motto or esprit de corps advice in the tone of a jocular advertisement, such as the current rendering: Don’t trust Jerry-built. Brits make it better, or Jerry-cum-mumble, Johnny-cum-lately, Brits do it better to trounce and humble stately.
The Hagers had managed one better.
Using left over bricks from the rebuilt outhouse, they had assembled a toothy Smile; each alternating red brick painted in black from paint used for blackout purposes and erected to abut the rear of the mound facing the road (as with the majority of shelters, at least along Westbourne Road, the shelter was positioned so its entrance faced the nearest door to the main house, making for a swift and direct passage to safety).
Cemented in place and bordered by sand bags below and to each side, the ‘grin’, as it became known locally, had added beneath it the final touch of a measuring tape secured by two screws and stretched between either side of the fancy brickwork.
This might have seemed a wry contravention of the established myth and touted national policy to maintain a stiff upper lip, but the Hagers, or rather Sid as patriarch and keeper of the piebald stile, believed that the first line of defence was a smile, however forced or furnished by necessity.
A blithe wide smile of gritted teeth, to bear any estimation of ardour.
Just as the Anderson shelter’s main and abiding principle was to absorb a great deal of energy from blast and ground shock (the curved top plates incidentally having lent a faux aspirational quality to the whole), the people themselves had developed different ways of dealing with shock.
Except for the shelter’s ribald smile, this seemed to be Hilda’s domain.
Sid provided the masculine means and jaunty imprint of exterior provision, but his wife oversaw the fitting out of the shelter’s interior.
Comfort varied considerably depending on how cramped numbers made it or the extent to which the family agreed to make it a home-away-from-home.
Even with little luxuries kept stocked in readiness, such as extra blankets, potpourri, hoarded jars of homemade pickle and preserve, corked pitchers of cordial, biscuits and canned ‘bully beef’ (foodstuffs being stored under the bunks), the overwhelming sense of dread, of being buried alive, was never far away.
Ventilation was an issue, regardless of soap quality and nominated bath day, and the candles often proved tricky to keep lit in the competition for fresh air. Insisted upon by Hilda and carried out by Sid, a crystal radio was set up so spirits could be raised by bursts of the musical standards of the day, instead of the ack-ack guns taking aim at the bombers, or so the occupants could be kept informed of any news.
If reception proved unreliable on this device under the steel and earth, a lead was rigged up from the wireless inside the house (so long as it remained standing) and fed out and down to the small makeshift amplifier in the shelter. All the while stature remained an especial consideration for Hilda.
With the two older children doing their bit away from home, Sid, Hilda, Stan and Mary could have expected a little more room to move for themselves.
The stayed and stolid Victorian terrace seemed roomy enough, especially as Stan no longer had to share his room with Nigel (who himself thought that it was he who was being generous and good enough to share the space with his younger brother).
Unlike the old gaffe back in Bethnal Green, or before that, before they were a family, and Sid had called Whitechapel home, Westbourne Rd. provided more space both inside and out. The fact that they had a small yard beyond the frontage, between the house and road, symbolised a measure of progress and offered an unspoken buffer zone to quaint notions of socialised obligation
to accept one’s lot. Success was incremental.
The high ceilings inside created the impression of concerns or dreams elevated above mere, every day dining table conversation; with this in itself being the one pressing and abiding preoccupation, if not distraught distraction, of the interminable days and nights of wartime existence.
At the outbreak of the war Sid had joked that “you could park a Zeppelin Inside”, the ceilings had seemed so airy.
Stan had delighted at the idea, but had to content himself with a Union Jack decorated box-kite he had received for Christmas (only to lose it in the Square’s tangle of bare branches on Boxing Day, so impatient had he been to wait for a trip to broader pastures like a real park or even the country-side).
The shelter was a different story.
At 5 ft. 10'', Sid had nothing to worry about and was able to step down the four steps and through the shelter door without so much as a ‘by your leave’.
Stan had barely to bow his long adolescent neck to gain entry past the rough and splintered sentry of the wooden door frame.
It was mother for whom the too narrow and insufficiently lofty doorway was proving an insufferable obstacle.
Little Mary was invariably safe in Hilda’s hefty arms, cradled close to her ample bosom.
The supposed swift and direct passage to safety had proven problematic from the outset.
Hilda was a big woman, standing head and shoulders above Sid.
Being broad in the beam added to her imposing presence and reputation. Despite her penchant for the voluminous dresses (that seemed to combine an apron and sail - for this was how she appeared to move), designed by her and inflicted upon Sid to make in his spare time, she wore the pants in the family.
However, when ‘Wailing Winnie’, as the air-raid sirens were affectionately
dubbed, sounded the alarm, her position was oddly reversed.
For it was then that she came to rely on the men of the house to man-handle the situation.
“I am ARP Warden, after all”, contested Sid who was in his element as organiser and overseer; in spite of his new burdensome role being delegated by his sizeable wife.
As with everything of the day, routine was drilled home to become an unthinking response to a series of cues – visual and aural signals to choreograph the orderly dash to cover.
The Hagers had not resorted to the shelter until the previous autumn, but had quickly put in place the necessary practice to ensure no last minute hitches.
Hilda could not conceal her less than satisfactory appraisal of the situation.
“You might be ARP Warden and all, but you will not get me on that thing. Might I remind you I am a midwife and I am meant to attend and administer to the prone, not be prone myself.”
“You are right dear”, Sid consoled and cajoled.
“But, you must appreciate that this is a unique set of circumstances. The shelters were not designed with stately figures such as yourself in mind.”
“Very diplomatic, Sid. You are not in council now.”
“Dad’s right mum”, chimed in Stan, as the family stood outside surveying the improbable turn of events.
The ‘thing’ to which mum referred was as odd an assemblage as never before seen in either hospital or tailor’s backroom.
At the shelter’s entrance was a combination of collapsible canvas stretcher, hessian sack and barge pole length oar.
“You’ll be over my knee on the receiving end of a wooden spoon if that oar comes anywhere near splitting my difference.”
Dad and Stan were visibly straining to conceal their mirth at mum’s expense and even Mary somehow divined the slapstick quality of the scenario, chortling and cooing to herself as she sat atop Stan’s shoulders.
It might not have seemed a very efficient method of delivery, as it were, but after much persuading and reassurance, Hilda relented and the evacuation practice had begun.
The idea was that the apparatus was left at the ready outside the front door and grabbed for use as the family left the house for the shelter. It was meant to work as a kind of slide and shovel technique, with the stretcher angled down the steps and the hessian sack placed on top. Mum just had to sit on the sack and receive Mary from Stan and she was in position. Stan was then to help dad with the pole and together lever and push mum down into the shelter.
Once mum and baby were inside, dad and Stan were to drop the pole and withdraw the stretcher to make good their own descent and secure the door.
They had run through this drill repeatedly until, with an exacting determination seldom witnessed off the field of actual battle, the house could be successfully evacuated in less than two minutes.
Mary thought it all a great lark, which made an otherwise bleak task easier, and would often ask Stan to take her for a ride into the ‘safe place’, as they referred to the shelter for her benefit.
“Safe place, safe place, safe place”, she would chant, to be placated by Stan who would pick her up and dance outside to whizz around with her in his arms, until she squealed with such frightened delight that she forgot about escaping any unimaginable danger.
The next obstacle was how to get mum out.
This was not as easy as it first appeared. The initial reluctance on her part to slide into the shelter on the sack and stretcher, with a pole prodding her through like a baker’s spatula, was nothing compared to the utter refusal to listen any further to dad’s idea about using a harness to “extract her”, as he delicately put it.
It was actually an old draught horse’s harness dad had come by, thanks sadly to a local tinker who had to send his nag to the knackery. Dad had somehow got it for a more than fair price.
Mum was horrified at the prospect of being “saddled”, and would not even allow dad to try it on her for a fitting.
“It’s not even the whole bleedin’ harness Hilda”, dad announced by way of attempting to appease her insurmountable pride.
“I will not put my head through that, it’s like a noose.”
“We won’t be pulling you out by the neck, though mum”, Stan had offered.
“I draw the line, Sid, I draw the line.”
More than words, it was a combination of the look and stance that made dad wither like a neglected geranium down the side path.
Arms akimbo and legs spread and firmly planted ready for any challenge, Hilda furrowed her considerable brow and stared over the top of her steamed up spectacles.
“Well, there is another idea.” Stan was quick to take responsibility for this one.
“We could do away with the shoulder straps and all, and keep just the mid-section, the belt.”
“Go on son”, Sid encouraged, to deflect any further scrutiny from his stern wife.
“Mum just need wear the belt and we can attach the rope left over from the Crenshaw’s tug-o-war last week. I picked up what was left in the Square when no one was looking and put it in Mocka’s cart.”
Mocka was the local rag ‘n bone man who had taken a shine to Stan over the years.
“It’ll be just like hauling up the mainsail, when our boat comes in. Isn’t that right luv?”
Sid had moved to stand beside his wife and put an arm round her broad shoulder.
“You do float, you know.”
Hilda took a breath and sighed volubly.
“Any jokes about dirigibles and you stay out here permanently Sidney Hager.”
Sid and Stan exchanged quick looks of concern that such a gag was now out in the open. They needed something to cling to, after all.
“I think it’s time for a cup o’ char”, Sid pronounced and led the way back inside.
In winter the shelter had not been the kind of place you wanted to remain longer than the real threat demanded.
It was a problem of the bone numbing damp and inadequate drainage.
After heavy rain the family was forced to endure several inches of water about their feet and galoshes were the order of the day.
The drainage pump dad had installed wasn’t up to the task.
The extra bedding never seemed dry and everyone had a constant sniffle.
The pattern of the night alerts meant that hours were whiled away trying to stay warm and chipper, waiting for raids that frequently never came.
Those that did materialise reduced the agony by getting the actual terror out of the way and allowed folks to go back to their beds once the all clear was given.
Not that sleep came easily once the bombing stopped.
Awoken by nightmares of skies red with falling fire and the sound of thunder reverberating through his skull, Stan would shake to and lie staring and listening to the darkness, his heart keeping time with this thoughts – or was it the other way around?
Mary slept soundly next to her mother in a cot and only cried when teething interrupted her memory of being afraid of something else.
Hilda slept like a battle hardened queen possessed of fatigue, disguised as sage indifference.
One eye open.
For former slum dwellers still making good by dint of hard work and sacrifice, Westbourne Rd. provided a comparative quality of life in the face of death once only dreamt of, but which occasionally inflicted Sid with pangs of self-fulfilling guilt; unworthiness, qualms of perfection that caused an unease more intense than any insomnia, and which had begun to rub off on the others a little more each day.
Yet another quality of life that had not changed them, only confirming them in their beliefs and vague attribution of escape.
The all too distant summer itself seemed like a fanciful notion, and promised to appease citizens labouring under the misconception that clear, bright horizons could only have existed in the past.
Silverwater Correctional Centre is part of the NSW network of state correctional facilities.
It is a minimum security institution for males and is situated 21 kilometres to the west of Sydney.
Opened in 1970, the facility is still relatively new – being only nine years old in the scheme of the modern penal system when compared to Long Bay Jail, which has been in existence since the First World War.
It would be unrecognisable to Jeremy Bentham who devised the design for the panopticon prison in the late eighteenth century.
Reforming criminals has come a long way since Australia was colonised as a terra nullius holding pen for what was then considered exported convict labour.
Now an integral part of the Crown in right of the Commonwealth of Australia, punishment and rehabilitation go sympathetically hand in glove.
A new approach, a fresh chance, time over…
This is the land John Macarthur favoured for his Merino sheep and what better sanctuary for our society’s new breed of offenders, so willing to be put right?
(An extract from a promotional pamphlet published by the Department of Corrective Services NSW.)
You wouldn’t think it was a prison when you first turn up.
More like a farm.
There’s an Edwardian house at the main gate and this certainly belies what lies beyond.
You’re right by the Parramatta River, here; although there’s nothing really silver about the water that almost bubbles when the mercury soars above 100 ゜F in the shade during the summer months. Not really my kind of weather.
The country out this way apparently used to be all pastures. Not that long ago, when you consider the brief history of this nation.
It’s not as green as the $2 note would have you believe by way of homage to the early settlers.
They tell me that the old Parramatta Jail was doing a brisk trade as early as 1842.
Not really sure why I’m here and not there.
Something to do with the security grades of the inmates, I suppose.
Not sure what the dress code is like for them either.
It’s the height of summer here and just about every inmate is wearing the favoured national brands of Stubbies shorts, Chesty Bonds T-shirts (or singlets for those who want to show off their tattoos) and the flimsy footwear known as thongs.
Seems just about right in this infernal heat.
The Ashes series still looks like a proper competition. I hope it’s not too hot for Brearley’s boys, come the 6th at the S.C.G.
I like the look of young Botham. A versatile No. 6 with bat and ball, it would seem.
A promising numerical omen in that, I hope.
The Aussies look depleted thanks to this new and improved limited overs cricket business, complete with colourful uniforms and play under lights at night.
More’s our luck.
I can reassure you I have not been marked by any of the inked on blue-green, suntanned stamp of a prisoner’s billet, just yet. Although, I have acquired a permanent stain to my fingers due to the work I have been doing to keep busy and afford to pay for the little luxuries like cigarettes, etc. More about that later.
I could explain more about why I am here, but that’ll have to wait until the next letter.
Trust all is well with you. Thank you for taking the time to write.
Looking forward to some more news.
I hope this is a very Happy New Year for you.
All my love, Stan.
It had become customary that every Sunday night after dinner a select group of inmates from D-Division would gather in the common room to watch TV.
Those who were interested in remembering or pretending to remember.
Those who wanted a break from the tedious predictability of existence on the inside; out of their cell whenever the opportunity presented itself.
This Fabulous Century provided an hour’s reprieve.
This particular week’s episode was looking back at World War II and the Battle of Britain.
As the strains of the program’s theme, ‘As time Goes By’, spilled forth from the new colour Rank Arena set, Stan was transported back through blank episodes of his own past, flashes and snatches of a life still being played out, out of reach of clear recall, but visible to anyone who looked at him then and there.
Once lulled by the tune, his personal voyage would continue disembodied, like the reasonable and reassuring voice of the show’s narrator, Peter Luck.
As luck would have it, the rest of the usual contingent was about as absorbed as Stan and they seldom disturbed his reverie.
A volley of questions and please explains were fired Stan’s way as the show unfolded.
This was a permissible interruption normally reserved for the English classes conducted by Stan since the Scottish CAE teacher was sacked after only a couple of months for being under the influence.
(They were having trouble understanding him anyway.)
Stan’s diction was measured and mellifluous, as clear an accent one could expect from a pom who was well travelled and had lived in Australia for the past decade or so.
A blend had occurred.
“Did you see the planes, Mr. Stanji?” enquired Davinder who sat forward in his chair looking for clues.
“You were there, after all.”
“Shush!” came the response from the back row of chairs arranged around the TV set.
Davinder turned on his silencer and fixed him with his big brown eyes.
“This is not the library and I will not be told to be quiet when simply seeking knowledge.”
His target was the Pole, Miroslaw.
“No, this is not the library, like you say. We’re trying to watch the TV. So, please keep the questions for later, if you do not mind.”
Stan raised a conciliatory hand.
“Miro is right, Davinder. I’m sorry, but we’ll have to wait until later. Why don’t you ask me in class?”
“Yes. Forgive my interruption Mr. Stanji.”
Stan turned to Miro and nodded.
Miro raised his chin in acknowledgement.
The show continued question free.
Then it was time to return to cells before lights out, which always came too soon.
Back in his cell, Stan lay in bed and closed his eyes, humming the tune to ‘As Time Goes By.’
The words played on the inside of his eyelids like some jumpy cinematic projector, neither in Black & White nor Technicolor – just an expression of thought linked and looped in cursive script, caught in the neutral shadows cast by the mind’s internal reading lamp:
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.
It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
The ESL class was as an eclectic a mix of ethnic origins as you might expect to find in a country whose modern history was made up by peoples from around the world.
Diversity was a new word entering the national lexicon.
With Silverwater acting as a remand centre as well as a facility for serving a convicted prison term, the turnover of inmates was colourful, to say the least.
It was a combination of looking for a distraction and making the most of the chance to improve their English that led the eleven class members to enrol.
There was Lebanese Joe, Pacific Islander Theo, Aboriginal Gary, Nigerian Nathaniel, South American Fernando, Chinese Xiaobo, Indian Davinder, Turkish Atilla, Polish Miroslaw, Croat Goran, and, the most recent addition to the group, Vietnamese Dan.
At their head was Stan, provisional English as a Second Language teacher appointed indefinitely in the aftermath of the state appointed Scot’s departure.
Funnily enough, it was Stan’s relationship with the prison’s Warden, a Scotsman who had actually worked at Scotland Yard in the years after Stan had served on the force, that had helped Stan secure his position as default teacher in addition to that of prison librarian.
All reffos in their own way.
Each with a story to tell.
Thanks to the Fraser Government’s initiatives to resettle Vietnamese ‘boat people’, federal funding had been made available for English language lessons through community based agencies – even extending to the prison system as a means of rehabilitation for offenders of ‘foreign extraction.’
These were chaotic years in Australia.
Years that had seen great social change, political upheaval that removed any last vestiges of a young country’s innocence.
Thanks to the Whitlam Government, ousted in the constitutional crisis of 1975, the last planks of the White Australia Policy for immigration built up over seventy years were effectively dismantled by 1973.
The first ‘boat people’ had arrived in 1976.
The TV News coverage of the day was fresh from its rebirth by fire after the heady years of the Indochinese conflict during the 1960’s, when Australia went all the way with LBJ.
The nightly news now featured stories about the boats turning up on beaches in the middle of the night.
Boats crammed to bursting with men, women and children who had fled their country seeking asylum from the new regime’s brutal reprisals.
All for acting as suspected accomplices in the Yank’s war against Communism.
And who would have thought they could lose?
One amazing survival story of the time is that of the boat called Tu Do that reached Darwin in 1976.
A small wooden fishing boat whose name means ‘Freedom.’
It was built on the island of Phu Quac to avoid suspicion, away from prying eyes.
Its escape gave renewed hope to the 39 passengers who travelled more than 6,000 nautical miles using a map from a school atlas and a simple old compass.
And this after even returning for a child left behind.
These were the desperate lengths to which people with nothing left to lose except their lives would go to reach salvation.
By the end of 1979, over 2,000 boat people had made the perilous voyage.
By June of this same year, significant numbers were arriving largely as a result of the Communist government’s policy of expelling ‘ethnic’ Chinese.
Australia’s official policy was not to detain any in camps and none were issued with anything like a temporary protection visa.
The debate was now about alternative repatriation versus an amnesty and resettlement for the new arrivals.
A ministerial threat of deportation was meant to pacify and sound tough in the face of any growing scepticism.
And still they came.
Dan had arrived in the first wave of sanctioned arrivals, in contrast to the discouraged boat people.
Australian immigration officials were accepting most refugees remaining in camps in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia; those with relatives in Australia or with useful skills and who could speak English were selected, as well as students and diplomats.
Dan’s story was not so unusual.
So far he had really only opened up to Stan.
He really wasn’t sure how he came to end up in Sydney, let alone a jail in his new home.
He wasn’t alone on this score.
The processing seemed vague, as did he about certain circumstances.
The resettlement had probably been expedited in the confusion of such a monumental human experiment.
Dan was twenty and his family had been of means, or at least had connections to get them out, via the normal immigration process four years earlier.
Unfortunately this chance could not prevent him from mixing with the ‘wrong crowd’ once he landed.
He had become involved with a local western suburb’s Vietnamese gang whose claimed turf in a pool hall conflicted with that of an Aussie gang.
The results were brawling, acts of violence and vandalism, stealing and peddling stolen goods.
Some of the young men were getting involved with drugs.
Dan was sentenced to six months after being arrested for involvement in these activities.
Police and immigration gave him the choice of deportation or serving time in minimum security, with a view to rehabilitation, a second chance and reentering the community.
He wisely opted for the latter.
His English was not bad, as he had learnt from Americans the family knew in Saigon while he was growing up.
Still, sometimes when it suited him he pretended not to speak so well.
Gary was the self-appointed agent provocateur of the language group.
He could not resist having a dig at someone, especially the new kid on the block.
While on washing up detail he found himself with Lebo Joe and Dan.
“I bet Dan’s hung long, Joe.”
Dan ignored the comment and continued to scrape the leftovers into the bins.
All he could think was this was such a waste of perfectly good food.
Joe was no older than his late twenties and still referred to his mates in equal terms of youthful exuberance.
“Leave the kid alone Gary. He does his job and proves he is no better than us.”
“It seems all new fellas these days is looked after better than my mob.”
“What do you do here, anyways? You are Aussie who speaks English.”
“Tell that to my government, brother.”
The guard overseeing work detail stepped over to have a word.
“Righto, keep the chatter to a minimum. You wanna finish in time to watch your TV show, don’t yer?”
“Yes, boss”, Gary chimed in on cue.
“Righto, back to work, then.”
The guard walked back over to his post and Gary caught Dan looking at him suspiciously, almost on edge.
Dan had been told about the ‘Abos’, but had never really had any contact.
A wink and a blustered smile from Gary was all it took to put him at cautionary ease.
In 1973 under Whitlam, all migrants became eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence.
Six years later and Stan found himself a legal citizen and in legal custody.
Teaching English and loaning out books from the prison’s previously neglected library stock.
The day’s class had just begun.
The library now doubled as a makeshift classroom.
It was a tight squeeze, but better than nothing.
The Scot had insisted on using the canteen when outside meal times.
The cavern-like acoustics and echo, not to mention the scrape and squeak of chairs and official issue Dunlop Volleys on linoleum, made it even more difficult to hear the man.
The library was carpeted and felt strangely safe, however, unfamiliar.
It was a place where stories could be told.
Everyone in the class had a story to tell.
However, things invariably came back round to Stan and his adventures.
Or, that’s how his pupils thought of his experiences.
Not a raconteur by disposition, Stan could nevertheless talk enough to hold his own and often verged on the garrulous if given a chance.
He also had charm.
Maybe too much for his own good.
And a way with words that allowed him to paint anew his own vivid recollections, as if re-inventing them.
Stitching together time and space.
The last episode of This Fabulous Century had sparked interest in the war years and the class had more questions.
Stan encouraged them to ask him about anything, trusting that conversation would prove as effective as straight instruction.
Not that he didn’t correct them when it warranted, but with tact and an easy to understand explanation without making them feel like dunderheads, ‘done dirt cheap.’
“And the fires, Mr. Stanji, what were they like?”
It was Davinder again; the most curious of the class.
Stan paused before answering.
“It can be rather hypnotic.”
“Excuse please, but what does this word mean?”
It was Davinder yet again.
“Like what the snake charmer does to the Cobra to make him sleepy and dance to the music he plays on his pipe.”
“Please be writing it on the white board Mr. Stanji.”
As always, Stan obliged these requests.
He was usually one step ahead of his pupils anyway and would know just what vocabulary they might find hard.
Dictionaries were free to hand, but the class liked Stan to explain.
They also liked to see his examples of cursive writing which he would place next to the printed text on the board.
“Go on Sir”, requested Xiaobo from China.
“When there is that much destruction right in front of you, it is hard not to look at it.
It is everywhere you look.”
Miro couldn’t help himself: “Those bloody (a good new Aussie expression he had been using) Nazis. What did we ever do for them to want to kill so many?
My family had great loss too, Stan; just like you English.”
“I know Miro, I know. Our nations fought bravely together for the same cause. It was very noble courage.”
Before anyone could ask, Stan was in front of the white board with a meaning.
Very high or excellent character – a person can be noble; what a person does can be noble.
“Sometimes what a person does speaks more about their very high character than what they say.”
“You were saying about the fire, Mr. Stanji.”
“Yes, the fire.
It could melt metal it was so hot. There were fire storms with great burning winds because of special bombs dropped and because the buildings were so close together. This was in the middle of the city.”
“Go on, Sir, please go on.”
Xiaobo was eager to learn about how other people suffered.
“Have you ever seen a river burn?”
There was silence.
“Well, they can. One night the Germans dropped bombs on factories where sugar and alcohol was made. It was gin, I think…”
“Your majesty likes to drink the gin, yes?”
It was the Croat, Goran.
“Yes, very true, Goran. She does. But, we would say Her Majesty, not mine.”
Goran smiled broadly, he was so pleased with his knowledge of other countries and their figures of state. The correction made hardly any impact, he was so chuffed with his input.
“It was the River Lea at a place called Three Mills, where we made lots of things for our country to use and to trade or sell to other countries. Although at the time we needed most of it for ourselves or the men and women fighting.
This was a different fire because of the colour. All the alcohol leaked out into the river and caused the fire to burn blue.”
A momentary silence ensued.
And then: “I have seen drinks like this.”
It was Fernando, the quiet one.
Stan was intrigued.
“Yes, very really. True. It is a car. A flaming Lamborghini.”
There was much laughter at this.
“Well, I never…”
“As if you’d ever drive one, ABBA man.”
Gary was on the prowl again and ready with an easy quip.
“My name, my song.”
Gary was edging out of his chair.
“THAT IS ENOUGH.”
Stan rarely raised his voice, but when he did it was effective in these situations.
Authority figures and volume meant something, even if born of negative reinforcement.
“OK, that’s enough name calling. We are men, not children.
I like the sound of your drink Fernando. I look forward to trying it one day.”
Mention of the future and release was enough to subdue the students.
And the overall mood.
Classes were meant to run for 60 minutes, but sometime went under the allotted time and often over.
The Warden turned a blind eye to this and reinforced this with his guards.
That concluded the day’s lesson.
That night in his cell, Stan was more than usually reflective.
It wasn’t just the walls closing in on him.
The cell was about 60 square feet or 6 X 10 feet in size.
Almost roomy for one man.
This was not common – some inmates shared in cells with bunks.
Stan had a single bunk, a small cupboard for minimum possessions, a school desk with chair and a toilet with basin. Showers were communal.
The door was not barred, as such, except for the square viewing hatch which could be slid aside for security reasons.
There was no window, which was a kind of blessing.
The torment of only having a single rectangle of sky to look at when confined would have been too much.
The exercise yard wasn’t much better – it was the enclosed former day room and only had a sky light. Prisoners were allowed ‘outside’ three times a week to use the sports oval that was really an old paddock.
Even though he could ask to be reassigned to garden duty instead of the library to get more fresh air, Stan opted to stay with the safety of books.
He didn’t have much of a green thumb and it involved much more manual labour.
When Stan had been confined to bed with Rheumatic Fever as a ten year old, just before the war, he only had his bedroom window to divert his dreams and stimulate his imagination.
Apart from the books he relied on – his Boys Own Paper, Biggles and Kipling -
he would listen to children playing cricket in the street and imagine his own dashing innings.
From where he lay propped up on his mound of pillows, he was just able to make out the Square further down Westbourne Rd.
Some days he would see a blind man (Sid had said as much) being led about the Square by another man on the end of a leather strap.
From where he was they looked equal and both might have been blind, as they seemed to hesitate and walk abreast, leading each other, becoming one.
That’s how Stan felt – on the verge of being reunited; that he had virtually led himself round in circles…
If the Hagers had been a cocktail invented by some history buff cum genealogically inspired bar haunting mixologist, the resulting concoction would in parts be thus: a base of sticky spirituous ectoplasm, or bathtub gin, depending on what was on hand, followed by a couple of goodly jiggers of Viking and Ashkenazi Jewish blood (courtesy of the Norse occupation of the British Iles and 1066 Norman conquest), a defiantly distinctive residue of salt lining the rim of and slowly being absorbed into inheritance’s glass bottomed vessel, smearing to swear in their claim to some status as original boat people, and Whitechapel based adaptation. Added to this a generous dash of bitters and garnished with a slice of orange and cherries on a surgical-like skewer, alternating with green pate filled olives. A bit of a bastard really – not sure whether to present itself as sweet or sour, trendily obscure, already outdated or simply a slur on the tradition of tending the family owned institution, which could so easily have been a public house or distillery cum apothecary that plied homeopathic cure-alls.
“Have you had your cod liver oil today Stan?”
Sid was standing at the back door smoking a Woodbine.
“Aren’t I too old for that now dad?” responded Stan coming out through the kitchen.
“Never too old for what ails you.”
Or homespun philosophy for that matter, he thought.
“I don’t have rickets dad. That’s Mary we should be worried about. The Rheumatic Fever was my ticket to health. And a daily dose of Virol, just like Dr. Thomas said.”
“Spoken like a young man with the makings of a gentlemanly bedside manner.”
“Alma’s the nurse.”
“True enough. But you must think about the future, son.”
“We need to win the war first though dad.”
“We will son, we will. If the sound of our artillery last night was anything to go by. Has mum taken Mary to see Auntie Ruby?”
“She left about ten minutes ago. She didn’t know where you’d got to. Thought you were hiding in the shelter.”
“She can talk, hiding under the stairs like that, only for us to come home and tell her it had been thunder and not a raid. Makes you wonder why she didn’t think about there being no warning siren.”
“Well, we weren’t here and it was the middle of the afternoon.”
“True enough, son.”
“So, where were you? Mum was none too happy when she left.”
“Oh, me, I was through the back fence and down the lane talking to old Warren.
Strange that I didn’t h hear her call.”
“Oh, well. ‘Ere, ‘ave one of these. Don’t let your mum know though.”
Sid offered Stan one of his Woodbines.
“How did you know?” he asked, and automatically accepted the cigarette.
Without a word Sid took another Woodbine for himself and lit it. He exhaled the blue tinged smoke through his nostrils with the fag limp between his lips and knowingly tapped the right side of his big nose with a finger.
Stan knew not to ask any more daft questions and accepted the still burning match Sid held out to light his son’s fag.
Stan inhaled without a protesting cough and it was obvious he’d had practice.
“And I thought the Scouts were sposed to teach you something practical.”
Stan failed to pick up on the sarcasm.
Stan felt awkward and his father could sense his unease with the unusual situation of such unnatural, clumsy camaraderie.
“What doesn’t kill yer, will make yer stronger. Hitler couldn’t have reckoned on that one coming back to bite him in the seat of his pants.”
Stan laughed appropriately on cue without fully understanding his father.
“Here’s a tip: don’t let it linger long on the tongue, son. I’m going down the pub to meet the other local ARPS. Won’t be too long, as I ‘ave to get back and change before council meets.”
With this explanation, Sid Hager dropped his fag end under his shoe and ground it into the concrete path before turning on his heels and heading back in through the kitchen to fetch his coat.
Stan continued to smoke and heard the front door slam 30 seconds later.
As brothers and sisters went, Stan and Mary were remarkably close and shared a unique affinity thanks to the equally unique circumstances of a World War and threatened invasion.
In spite of the nearly eleven year’s difference in age, they had become virtually inseparable – due largely to school being suspended and mum having been in and out of hospital with various ailments of the unspoken female variety or ‘women’s troubles’.
With dad either off at council or ARP meetings, this effectively left Stan home to look after Mary. She could have gone to stay with the cousins, but mum had made no bones about this being an unacceptable option just right then.
Auntie Ruby lived much closer than the Essex cousins, but she had her own worries and mum didn’t want to burden her sister any more than necessary. It was Ruby who managed, through mysterious connections of her own, to come by the occasional sack of fruit or veg, which, although almost beyond salvaging for decay, went some way to supplementing their diet, in the form of ‘bubble and squeak’ – but then you didn’t have to like cabbage to enjoy it in this incarnation. She also managed to come by the seeds and seedlings mum had been using to plant in the front yard.
The family would come back downstairs, after surviving another night in the shelter and grabbing a couple of lucky hours kip in their own beds, to find the sack left outside the front door.
Mum smiled but dad would emit a gruff humph and make a show of quickly dragging the sack out of sight, lest the neighbours suspected favours of a type he could not control.
Stan and Mary thrilled at the sight of the sacks, as Ruby would always include a treat for the children – either a Christmas decoration or a spinning top or doll she had knitted from off-cuts (she too was handy with needle and thread).
One of the best times was when Ruby had left a sack containing oranges!
The children could barely recall the last time they had seen what by then had become such an exotic food.
The war meant that such items were seldom able to be successfully shipped to Britain, so great was the threat from the U-boats patrolling the Atlantic and Channel.
The Hagers got only one orange each for mum, dad and the two youngest.
Ruby figured the eldest and enlisted could scrounge for themselves, as they were probably better looked after than the civilian folk at home.
Mum and dad always gave their oranges to Stan and Mary who were cock-a-hoop over the sweet tangy goodness of the juice, which they allowed to run down their forearms as they sucked on slices cut by mum.
Once the quarters had all been sucked dry, a new game began of singing silly, half-articulate and muffled songs through the quarter of rind left in the mouth to cover the teeth, like a sun-kissed smile.
Stan had even taught Mary to sing ‘Oranges and Lemons’:
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement's.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin's.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
She would squeal with delight when it came to the last line and Stan would make as if to lose his own by pulling his jumper up over his head.
At last account all the churches named in the rhyme had still been standing, although Saint Dunstan’s had sustained enough damage to temporarily silence its bells at Stepney.
Mary could not know how modern history was having its way with the inspiration of something as innocent as a nursery rhyme; yet this is what she would call for Stan to sing when they went down into the shelter at night during another raid. There were times when he could barely be heard above the clamour of ack-ack and drone of aircraft overhead, but it was enough for Mary to see his lips mouth the words by candlelight, to feel the magic they shared and look to her big brother for distraction.
Not that Mary was incapable of providing her own distraction for Stan.
Not yet out of nappies, the chore of changing his sister’s soiled loin clothes often fell to him.
Mum had shown him what to do and he blithely went about the business as if it was another customary part to his war effort, insubstantial as it was.
“The changing of the blargh”, as Stan referred to this undertaking, bad enough in its own peculiar odours and details, paled when it came time to wash the cloth nappies.
There was the old copper out in the lean-to laundry, but Stan, ever resourceful, decided there was a better way. Besides, he couldn’t stand the smell of carbolic soap!
Why take them to the copper only to have to remove them again to hang on the line?, he had pondered one morning after another successful changing.
Why not simply leave them in one place?
Stan thought it a eureka moment and went about trying to prove this gem of an idea. With Mary watching from the back door, where Stan had told her to wait, he had hung the offending articles on the line and unwound the short hose, which he turned on as far as the water pressure would allow.
This was enough to cause the faecal matter to separate from the fabric and become air born – spraying over the nearby fence and safely in the other direction to that of Stan and Mary.
Not quite safely enough for poor Mrs. Hargraves next door.
First was heard the admonishment to “turn the bleedin’ water off”, before a head appeared to look over the fence.
Stan was not quick enough and coincided his last spay with its appearance.
His aim could not have been better if he had been a fighter pilot with a Messerschmitt in his sights.
Suffice to say Mrs. Hargraves thought his aim, let alone method of washing the nappies, was less than impeccable.
With newly acquired birthmark over where her third eye should ostensibly have been, she was quick to retrieve her hanky from beneath the plastic sleeve protectors she wore while about the housework, and remove such an offence against her standing in the street. “You wait ‘til your mother comes home, Stanley Hager! You have not heard the last of this. Put that hose down immediately.”
Stan did as he was told and ran to grab Mary.
They ducked inside and closed the door to spill over themselves on the kitchen floor in a heap of muted shuddering hilarity and dread.
Then the laughing fit came on.
“Did you see her face, Mary?”
Mary could only respond with a move Stan had taught her – smacking her palm against her forehead when they did something wrong; although in this case it was spot on.
“Right between the eyes”, Stan acknowledged, smacking himself on the forehead with his palm.
Mary opened her mouth but not a sound came out.
She pointed to Stan and mouthed again.
The laughter had suddenly subsided.
“What is it Mary?”
Mary found voice enough and was able to make the corresponding sound of a full-blown raspberry.
Stan realised the significance of this infantile expression and looked at his hand to see the unmistakable stain of that morning’s bob-a-job.
Not that he was getting any extra pocket money for these excursions into the nightmare territory of surrogate parenting.
The carbolic soap had come in handy that time round after all.
(Some smells offended him more than others. Another one was the treacle coloured solution dad put down the gully traps to keep the pipes clear – it might have been a fennel derivative, but still smelled unnatural and harsh).
As much as mum and dad were able to see the funny side of the incident, they were quick to have Stan dress in his best unstained clothes and pay Mrs. Hargraves a prearranged visit to apologise.
Order was soon restored to neighbourly relations and an alternative method was agreed on for Stan to remedy the washing conundrum: he would take the nappies next door for Mrs. Hargraves to wash, but only once he had soaked them in a bucket of soapy carbolic soda. Not to mention tip the sludge down the lav rather than hose it about the backyards of Westbourne Rd.
The Wainwright cousins had come to the city from Essex when the worst of the blitzkrieg had seemed to have ended and families were seeking some normality of connections. Considering the divisions of loyalty in the extended family, this was an abnormal turn of events – the countryside had previously been the lure to tempt the city kids into the sphere of influence that was maintained by Hilda’s other sisters, Norma and Dot.
The family rift that had developed during the lives of the sisters’ parents had been handed down to the daughters in the form of subtle indoctrination about not marrying into a name not sufficiently in keeping with approved heritage.
Such unspoken snubbing was in turn inculcated by degree into the next generation, the children of the blitz.
They had no real conception of why relations should be so stiff and merely functional, serving only to allow channels of communication to remain open for the sake of reputation.
The slighting was never to be made a public spectacle.
This was understood by the adults.
The supposed skeletons in the Hager’s cupboard promoted a Wainwright sense of superiority (or was it apprehension of an all out fallout), and was at odds with the London branch of the family having ‘made good’ in the eyes of all who looked their way as upstanding members of the community.
Was it simply rivalry and jealousy at their improved lot without the family help that would have had the Hagers beholden to such generosity?
Only Hilda retained the ability to ensure that they remained deserving of an apparent, yet aberrant pity reserved for the children’s sake.
Sid refused to let such petty grievances destroy his family pride and ignored past attempts to humiliate him.
This came at a cost to his sense of perspective.
It was in no small part thanks to sister Ruby that a truce could be made for a cousin reunion not had since before the war.
Had she been hoodwinked – was it out of a perverted satisfaction to see how hard the city cousins were doing it that Norma and Dot consented to a visit by James, 15 and Christina, 13.
As the Wainwright sisters of Essex were not to venture from their seclusion, Ruby was to act as chaperone.
The children understood it as a chance to show off.
But first came spoiling at the hands of the Hager elders.
Ruby was the conduit for treats such as outings to the cinema and more than normal pocket money to splurge on Fry’s Five Boys chocolate bars, boiled sweets (with ration token, of course) and freshly mixed Rosehip Syrup (on Ministry of Food advice) when any outside playtime was up, and the cousins would march inside to see what she next had in store.
She seemed to live with the Hagers during this time but would only appear when on call to manage the troops, as she called her nieces and nephews.
Where she would have stayed is anyone’s guess – especially if an air raid forced the family into the shelter; with Alma and Nigel away, there was just room enough for James and Christina as well.
The pause in the bombing campaign was short-lived.
The air raid sirens had sounded during a matinee screening of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and yet, after only a brief interruption by an attendant ARP warden and the cinema manager (who appeared to be privy to some ‘outside’ information), the movie was allowed to continue – with the soundtrack turned up to block out any further false alarms: ‘Give a little Whistle’ proved a hit with both the children and adults alike.
Not all alarms had been bogus.
There was the tragic news of the Bethnal Green tube disaster.
This time a retaliatory bombing had been expected after an RAF raid on Berlin the night before.
The siren had sounded at 8:15pm and there had followed the customary well-ordered stream of war weary civilians into the shelter.
Sid was reading from the morning’s paper over breakfast.
“Seems like the local ack-ack battery opened up sooner than expected and the explosions caused a panic before the crowds had time to get down the stairs.”
“That’s enough Sid.”
“Says here 172 people died…”
Hilda was in no mood to be undermined.
Sid looked up from the paper and stared right back at her.
“Well, it’s fact, and not hearing ‘bout it won’t change the outcome.”
Hilda gave no verbal response, only continued the stare over her thick spectacles.
Stan, James and Christina sat in silence at the kitchen table, dumbstruck by what they were hearing and observing at such close quarters.
Stan knew better than to query what he had just heard and when James began to struggle with forming an utterance, he delivered a swift kick under the table to get the message across: say something at you own peril.
Hilda was holding the cudgel she used to stir the copper and Stan knew its persuasive power.
She would not be disinclined to tapping out her own version of Morse code to the effect that the discussion had been terminated.
Sid shook and folded the paper, placed it to one side and took a sip from his tea. “Excellent brew this morning, luv.”
Hilda merely placed the cudgel to one side and heaved a sigh.
“Right, if you children have finished I suggest you make the most of the morning and get out in the sun while it lasts.”
Their version of show and tell would then continue.
Christina contented herself with playing with Mary when allowed, although when in Stan’s company she could not help but act coquettishly beyond her years.
Stan did not object to a bit of flattery for something he thought he deserved, but his cousin’s attentions were proving a double edged sword.
For one, her attempts to impress him beggared belief (“Don’t tell me I look like Cary Grant, when I know it’s Curly from the Three Stooges who makes you go all ‘Woo-woo-woo’.”) and two, these overstatements of credulity only egged on James to tease him about it.
They had come of mental sparring age.
Veiled references and taunts about the quality of each family’s station only served to confirm Stan in behaving as his father would, and he brushed them off like coal dust, even if they did go beyond goodnatured bantering.
“You are a klutz if you think you can become a doctor like Uncle Sid wants.
You are bound to be a dresser to the likes of me; someone who is destined for greatness thanks to my father’s pedigree.”
“And what breed of dog would that be, James?”
“Pure, of course.”
Stan couldn’t help himself and proceeded to imitate Curly doing one of his best barking impressions, while watching Christina out of the corner of his field of vision.
She only played more determinedly with Mary, who was being dandled on her knees.
Strangest yet had been James’ reference to a physical difference between Stan and Sid.
This made Christina take Mary back inside out of earshot.
“My mother tells our father that you didn’t have the operation.”
Stan raised a single quizzical eyebrow.
“You know, down there.”
James pointed to Stan’s groin.
Stan looked down at his pants.
“You mean the pleats?”
James tossed his head back and snorted derisively.
“I mean your willie, yer wet welly.”
Stan blushed at mention of his genitals, even if couched in such catchy music hall drivel.
“You never seen your dad’s todger, have you?”
Stan had to admit to himself that he had never feasted his eyes on his father’s old fella.
Sid was a modest and circumspect man and was only ever coyishly flashy about his seamless skills as a tailor, when you could tell he was proud of a new suit.
Toileting was not something the men shared and Stan had yet to venture in to the Gents WC down at the Rose and Garter when he couldn’t avail himself of a cubicle to avoid any teenage embarrassment in the presence of his father’s associates, let alone his own old man.
Wanting to distance themselves even further from the house, Stan and James headed off down the road to the Westbourne Square for some anatomical enlightenment.
James was a patient illustrator of the matter and once the issue of defining the suspect foreskin was resolved, Stan was still none the wiser as to why he should have one but his father be bereft of his.
James proved decidedly evasive when it came to the whys of the matter, feeling that the wherefores were more his concern; besides, all he had to do was let the cat out of the bag (to play with the pigeons, he thought) and the rest would take care of itself.
It had been mum who had accompanied Stan to the upperelementary talk about the facts of life, delivered at school by the Anglican priest and district school nurse, because dad had been too busy on important council business.
He had tried to talk about the basics once with Stan but had abandoned this when the question of the virgin birth had arisen and Sid had become flustered.
So, it was to mum that Stan went with his questions.
He somehow got it in mind that his dad’s loss of foreskin had been the result of an accident similar to the one with the sewing machine that had probably saved his life. When Stan put it to her, Hilda abruptly changed the subject – saying by way of vague explanation that, as he was now a young man himself more than he had been when Father McIntyre had delivered the instructional evening, it was better he ask his father – and that everyone could play their part in the war effort no matter what accidents had befallen them.
When Stan challenged his father on being so different from each other, Sid only rebuked his son for being so insolent as to have his hands in his pockets when addressing his father. Any supposed double standard was even more boldly invoked as this was the stance Sid himself had adopted when Stan confronted him – hands in his own pockets, jangling the change he habitually let accumulate there to act as distraction to anything he did not want to deal with; it was a well-practiced shilling and pence diversionary tactic shored up out of nerves as much as from the need to impress with the sound of hard currency.
Rather than the answer he had hoped for, Stan was told to mind his manners and that “idle hands make the devil’s work.”
“Oh, and the Wainwrights have no business talking about something they know nought about. I’d tell James to mind his.”
Coincidentally, the cousins were then soon sent packing back to Essex and Stan was for all intents and purposes grounded to domestic quarter chores, which proved no real change from the normal drudgery he had to endure.
The first waves of German attacks had been in the relatively predictable form of massive bombing raids struck at the heart of British industry and civilian morale.
The nation had somehow come through this ordeal with more grit and get up and go than at the outset – the poms had become survivors.
As the tide of fortune turned against the Nazi powers occupying Europe, and with losses to both aircraft and men reaching unsustainable figures, Hitler and his cohorts conceived of how to abuse a recently developed technology in a vindictive bid to further harry and wear down the British populace.
The next wave came with a difference.
It was the generation of rocket power – the V1 and later V2 flying bombs, or ‘doodlebugs’ as they came to be known.
Strange how a device designed to maim and kill could acquire such endearingly childlike terms of affection – or was it a way to lessen the grotesque nature of reality?
These were unpiloted long range rockets launched from Calais or Holland that could deliver a tonne of high explosive the former blitzkrieg had now become a terror campaign. Along with the new ‘buzz bombs’, the incendiary bombing of London continued apace.
Attacks had become indiscriminate, as a sure sign of increasing desperation on the part of the Germans.
Vengeance rather than brutal acts of persuasion.
Day or night, the buzz and threat of inferno hung heavy in the minds of the civilians under siege, shattering any previous complaisance as to when next expect the worst.
The leaden, overcast skies had already been loaned out to provide the setting for an aerial warfare on a scale the world had never seen.
Space was occupied by patrolling aircraft, search lights, flak from antiaircraft cannon and the barrage balloons tethered from metal cables in the hope of bringing down low flying attack craft.
But with any new form of madness came another way of rallying to the cause and coping as best as the circumstances would allow.
On the ground, life transformed went on predictably, so long as a war of prolonged attrition could be ordained as necessary to strengthen the resolve to win.
Major sporting competitions may well have been cancelled, but this didn’t put a stop to the competitive streak possessing the British Bulldog youth of the day.
A new local sport had grown up among those lads eager to prove themselves heroic in each other’s eyes.
Or simply daft in the eyes of their elders.
Easy, though inescapably futile enough, to warn the kids about how to listen out for when the drone of a V1 rocket’s jet engine cut out just before impact.
This was the announcement of imminent death and carnage.
Terrorstricken citizens could only pray for the instant they had to escape by miracle or luck – no use running when a flying bomb had you in its dumb blind sights.
Your number was up.
A V1 had left a sizeable crater in Westbourne Square, resulting in yet more smashed and hastily repaired windows and damaged roofing tiles at No. 14, and worse destruction closer to the blast site itself.
Consensus was that as with a high proportion of the rockets, it had fallen short of its mark.
This was not as reassuring as one might have hoped.
Targets were now willynilly.
Not so easy to foresee how teenage boys would turn the grim prospect of being burnt out of house and home into a game.
Peter Heslop had temporarily returned from his time spent evacuated – ironically rather close to the Wainwrights – and was thrilled to see his school mate Stan again.
Operation Pied Piper had seen Pete and his mum Irene relocated when the back of their terrace in Stepney had been blown out one night.
Thankfully on that occasion Mr. Heslop had insisted that they seek refuge in the nearby tube station while repairs were being carried out on their own shelter. A doctor, Mr. Heslop had since been seconded to one of the major repatriation centres in Wiltshire.
On this day Irene had accompanied Hilda to the local hospital where they were to visit the maternity ward and lend a hand as volunteers.
Sid was called to appear at the town hall to attend a special council meeting, seeking further government assistance for fire-fighting infrastructure. The two boys were instructed to stay round the house at Westbourne Rd, near the relative safety of the shelter.
Ruby had again materialised to stay and look after Mary.
The boys were left to their own imaginative devices.
First, to make up for lost seasons with a spot of French cricket beneath the hastily cleared clothes line and scoring practice in the lane with Peter’s soccer ball.
Then, abandon their posts out of Ruby’s sight to scurry off down along the back lane to have a smoke and swap cards.
“I haven’t been able to smoke since we left London. Mum is too smart and always catches me out. I wouldn’t dare disobey her when things are so tough.”
“You can relax now, Pete. Just comb some naphthalene flakes or camphor powder through yer hair and she’ll be none the wiser. It’ll put her off the scent. I’ve got both on hand, but you need to use your own comb.”
“As if I’d use yours.”
Stan produced a small tobacco tin that contained what looked like Brylcreem in one half and a small sachet of white cornflakes in the other compartment.
“As a Scout I do like to be prepared.”
Both lads snickered and took short puffs on their woodies.
A quick game of TwentyOne played for matches – there being more of these than smokes, with only one pack of the unfiltered between them and only ten in a pack – was followed by a look at the old cigarette card collection Peter had brought with him wrapped in waxed paper and held fast by a thick elastic band.
Production of these had recently stopped due to paper rationing, but their collectible value had become a thing of sentimental beauty for those who loved the pictures of cricketers, footballers, ships and wild animals from exotic regions of the world.
There had even been introduced an early series on ‘Air Raid Precautions’.
These cards instructed smoker and none smoker alike about air raid wardens, shelters, gas masks and even how to use a stirrup pump and buckets of sand to put out incendiary bombs.
“I bet you these will be worth a fortune after the war”, predicted Stan confidently.
“They’re already worth more than anything else to me. I am a collector.”
Stan raised an eyebrow in question of such an arch sense of selfregard.
“And what will you do when you’re 21 and you are married and need the money to support your wife and a kid?” posited Stan.
“What do you think? I’ll work of course.”
They broke off discussion momentarily while all the playing cards were put back into Stan’s patched coat pocket and the picture cards carefully rewrapped and returned to Pete’s, which was reinforced with card saved from a shirt box.
Stan offered Pete another smoke, but it was declined.
“Bit hard on the throat, but thanks all the same.”
“Only several more years to go then” declared Stan.
“Don’t look too hard into the future, it’s bad for your eyes.”
Stan blinked repeatedly and then pulled a crosseyed face, blowing smoke as he did so.
“Hey, I’m serious. You can’t tell what will happen.”
“Well, I’m not about to join up if that’s what you mean.”
“The war’s not over yet.”
“Well, let’s meet in 1950 at the Ritz Hotel and you can tell me all about your adventures, PeteyPete.”
“Vingtetun, it is then, Flimflam Stan”, pronounced Peter with a mock half-hearted Nazi salute, before he pretended to hoik a good gob of phlegm disdainfully away to one side.
“Hey, now who’s talking? Leave it out, Mr. Smarty Pants. Just coz you know a word or two, doesn’t mean you can impress me with a Sieg Heil in schoolboy French. I know my numbers by heart – just name your game…”
The boys had been so self-absorbed in their reverie of revisited childhood and predicted maturity that they had lost all track of time.
It was still relatively early – not even 5o’clock.
“Let’s up the stakes then shall we”, provoked Peter as he stirred in restless anticipation of not letting their good form grind to a premature halt.
Now quite uncomfortable after sitting for so long on the cold cobblestones with their backs up against a damp iron and rotting wooden fence, the impetus to move had grabbed them and they began to stretch and straighten limbs before getting up.
No sooner had they made to move than they heard the explosion.
No warning, like they’d been told.
The slowly fading afternoon light was eerily not as dull as usually expected, despite the heavy clouds, as the fire in the sky shone out like some infernal beacon of looming doom.
It was close, very close – just a few houses down the road beyond No. 14, in the direction of the now cratered and recreation cleared Square.
The boys jumped to their feet and stared back down the lane and up over the fence and roof lines to see the flaming stars, descending like an evil glitter sprinkled from the Devil’s own warped hand basket, upended over the houses’ gutters.
Stan and Peter ran in the direction of their laneway gate and looked up to see Ruby calling to them from the back door with Mary in her arms.
“Boys, the shelter, quick get to the shelter before another hits.”
The boys ran through the house with Ruby and Mary straight out the front door to the shelter.
Another explosion rent the air.
With aunt and little sister out of harm’s way, they looked back up over the houses to see the oddly wavering metallic shapes formed in silhouette against the sky’s grim countenance.
Without the usual warnings from the air raid sirens or the thrumming of engines high above as accompaniment, incendiary devices were detonating almost directly overhead, releasing debris of burning hot shrapnel. The eighteen inch long baby bombs, or stick bombs, contained magnesium, phosphorous or petroleum that was beginning to shower surrounding buildings with embers, sparks and liquid fire.
With a quick look of recognition in his friend’s set features, Stan shouted into the shelter to stay put and remain calm. They would be right back.
With that he secured the reinforced door and spun round to grab Peter by the shoulder.
“You thinking what I am?”
Peter nodded vigorously and picked up the tin bucket next to the shelter steps.
“What’s that for Pete?”
“Our treasures, of course.”
With that he removed his cigarette cards, motioned for Stan to do the same with his playing cards, Woodbines and matches winnings and placed them all in the bucket, which he then expertly upended like a magician back down next to the steps. He placed his soccer ball on top for good measured luck.
“And leave our coats on for protection”, shouted Stan as they made for the front of the house again.
Fleet of foot, as if fleeing the scene of a crime, not racing to meet hell halfway, they bolted down the hallway and out the back door, upending kitchen chairs as they went.
The back of the house had a flat lower roof that extended from over the kitchen and out to the laundry at the side.
Stan motioned for Peter to help him upright the old wooden extendable ladder that lay on its side under the overhanging protective eaves.
They propped the ladder up against the lower lean-to section of the house’s rear and made ready to go up.
“I’ll go up first and you follow. Once we’re both up, we’ll haul the ladder up after us”, explained Stan, “and use it to get over the next section.”
“Righto skipper”, affirmed Peter in mock recognition of established rank.
Once both up on the lower flat section, the boys pulled the ladder up after themselves and rested before quickly considering the next move.
Above them access to the second storey was blocked by the water tank that fed the kitchen and laundry when the mains were interrupted.
Beyond this the roof was pitched, but not so you could not walk at an angle over the tiles directly from back to front.
Looking up they could see cinders and hot debris falling onto the roof and into the gutters and all about the eaves.
They knew what this could mean for the house and so had to enact what had previously only been conceptual, but no less compulsive, speed and care combined.
As with all larger than life, yet all too real situations requiring action almost as a prompt or trigger to thought, their movements and the surrounding hail of incendiary material took on the appearance in their own eyes of slow motion choreography – a shadow play in perverse reverse. Trance-like.
Once up and over the water tank and onto the roof proper, Stan and Peter worked in unison without needing to speak.
Stan had grabbed a trowel he’d spotted in an empty plant pot just outside the back door and slipped it into the inside pocket of his coat.
Peter had reacted in a similar fashion and acquired a dust brush left to dry on the kitchen’s window ledge – he’d experienced a flash of purpose, envisioning himself as swashbuckling Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, complete with dagger clenched between his capped movie star teeth, climbing the Sheriff’s castle wall to rescue Maid Marion. Just as fast as this vision had appeared it vanished as he realised the brush handle was too large to fit in his mouth and had to be put between the belt and waistband of his trousers, in the fashion of a sword.
The still forming idea was that they could use the implements to scoop out and brush off the fiery threat to house and home.
If only they’d had one of Sid’s measuring tapes, for, as they made to take their first scoop of what could have passed for some fiendish joker’s deranged red cherry Bombe Alaska or inexcusably melting hot ice cream birthday surprise, complete with booby trapped sparklers, the trowel proved too wide to get into the guttering space.
The brush was adequate to the purpose, but its target was easy enough to kick off the roof tiles, which was the soon resorted to technique as the bristles began to smoke. The gutters proved to be the problem.
“Nothing for it Pete, we need to use our mitts”, instructed Stan.
If only they’d spotted gardening gloves in their hurry to save the house from a sly and scheming threat more nefarious than the obvious and overwrought bombs you knew to expect, heralded as they were by at least the drone of planes searching for their target’s coordinates, before releasing their cargo bay’s load and turning for home.
“Roll your shirt sleeves down over your palms”, shouted Stan in a clear and level voice beyond his years of merely dreaming of commanding decisiveness.
Peter was quick to cotton on and undid his cuffs, crunching up the fabric between his fingers.
This was to be a test of withstanding the pain inflicted by the hot coals, some of which were big as molten golf balls.
The trick was to be really quick in the execution of plucking and swiping them out of the gutter to discard them onto the garden or side path below.
The late afternoon light had dimmed again and the shrapnel began to pulsate with a greater hold on the encroaching evening.
“Stay in sight of each other Pete. We’ll work our way round together and make sure we don’t miss anything.”
The spots where debris had lodged in the gutter were discernible for the cigarette-like plume given off or, the closer you got, the glow.
No more doodle bugs or incendiary bombs had appeared in the skies and still no sirens wailed to warn of any further attack.
The boys were bizarrely enjoying this burst of responsibility atop the family home.
With each new piece of metal or burning shard discovered, the cry of “hot rock” went up and it was all four hands to the task.
Their confidence grew as it soon became apparent that they were in control of the situation. More than could be said for No. 8, where no one had been home at the time of the attack to mount a defence so fire had taken hold at the front of the house and smoke billowed from under the roof.
The chance for a bit of a lark was too persuasive for the two boyhood friends who loved nothing better than a chance at one-upmanship, whether on the soccer and cricket pitch or on the roof of a house that threatened to burn down.
The competition was this: who could pick up the hottest piece of shrapnel?
Or failing that, not catch it when thrown to him and juggle it – this incurred a ‘bonus’ of again immediately being on the receiving end of a lobbed shard and swatting it off the roof in an action reminiscent of a pull shot by Len Hutton, a famous English opening batsmen of the pre-war years. If seen from adjoining rooftops Stan and Peter would have looked like they were performing a dance or taking part in a strange ritual - of becoming men in a fire worshipping tribe of ghosts from a mysterious world discovered by the East India Company.
As it was, from immediately below all anyone could make out was a couple of bobbing heads, shouts of “hot rock” and a trail of smouldering bits and pieces off-loaded onto terra firma.
It was from below that the unmistakably firm yet indulgent voice of Ruby rose up to scold the ears of the two devil-may-care, self-appointed rescue workers, clad in only flannel trousers and tweedy sports coats.
“What the Dickens are you doing up there? Get down this instant.”
Mary was stood beside Ruby holding her auntie’s hand, while with her free other podgy little paw she pointed up to where Stan’s smiling face appeared over the guttering.
“Saved place, saved place”, she declared, only to be shushed by Ruby.
“What are we doing up here? I thought I told you to stay in the shelter until we gave you the all clear.”
“I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but wait ‘til you get down and I’ll give you what’s for.”
This was basically Ruby’s way of saying that she was scared out of her wits and loved the boys like they were her own, and to get down at once so she could hug the living air out of them.
By this stage there was the sound of the approaching fire brigades’ bells alerting everyone to what they already knew.
At least it’s No. 8, Stan took guilty pleasure in thinking as he and Peter made their now less than hasty descent.
The boys were both treated for comparatively minor burns to their hands as well as the effects of inhaling magnesium vapours.
In the eyes of Sid and Hilda, this latest display of not following the rules was further evidence of Stan’s behaviour taking on more erratic or unpredictable tendencies.
They couldn’t blame Peter.
After some deliberation over the next couple of days, the decision was made that it would be best for Stan to have some R&R away from London and the perfect opportunity presented itself with the chance to accompany Peter to spend some time with his father in Wiltshire.
The boys were over the moon at this unexpected chance to spend even more time together.
Hilda made sure Stan had clean handkerchiefs for the stay and Stan promised Mary he’d bring back a surprise.
“And we’ll have no more climbing about the roof tops like a chimney sweep”, were Sid’s words of farewell as Stan left to catch the train to Wiltshire.