Just a Boy From Bristol

JUST A BOY FROM BRISTOL

Chapter One
Through the eyes of a child

 On the 3rd September 1939 a war started that would change the course of history. It also denied millions of children across the world the opportunity for a normal, happy childhood. I know, because I was one of them.
My father had re-enlisted in the Royal Navy as soon as the storm clouds of war had started to gather over Europe. He left my mother to bring up two young children alone, in poverty, and in what was a scary, changing world. 
My mother was an incredibly beautiful young woman, but she was emotionally fragile. She was a wild, scatty, free spirited, capricious butterfly, who was constantly fluttering around, unable to settle. In many ways she was totally unsuited to the task in hand, but she was a mother, and she did what mothers do best. She cared for me; she did it well, and I will be eternally grateful to her. Mum, I thank you for teaching me how to live and how to love. I thank you for the journey, and I thank you for the many wonderful memories.
My father Joe
I was only two when my father went off to war. I was far too young to have any memories of him. All that I had was a small, crumpled photograph, which showed him as a young man wearing football kit. He had scribbled a message on the back.

I won't be long, don't worry, because I will be lucky.       
Joe
xxx

That photograph lived behind the clock, on the mantle shelf of whichever house we were living in for the duration of the war. Whenever the going got too tough, Mum would take it down and read the message aloud to me.

My earliest memories are of the spring of 1940. I was still a few months short of my third birthday, but I was a precocious child, and the memories are very clear. We were living like three rats, in a tiny basement flat in Badminton Road, St Paul's. The house was on the junction of Ashley Road, Lower Ashley Road and Sussex Place. I shared the double bed with my mother. My baby sister Mary slept in her pushchair, under the window in the cramped living room area. I envied Mary's ability to sleep. It would stand her in good stead when the bombers flew over Bristol.
The fighting hadn't reached Bristol yet, but the effects of war had. The strict rationing meant a shortage of food, and in our case, there was always a shortage of money. There were frequent trips to the pawn shop, and there were ration books, black outs at night, gas masks, and air raid drills. Despite all  this, life carried on as normal. Rumours would spread like wildfire when shops had food supplies, and housewives would gossip away as they formed long queues outside the shops.  .

My best, and my only friend, was Mrs Grant who lived across the road. Mrs Grant was a formidable looking Irish woman. She was short, sturdy and permanently wore a pinafore and a hairnet, which covered an army of rather vicious looking metal curlers. She may have been a woman, but she had whiskers, warts and muscles. I had already decided if and when the Germans ever invaded Badminton Road, I would hide behind her. Those curlers would be more than a match for anything the Germans could throw at us.

Mrs Grant and I had a symbiotic relationship. She would ply me with biscuits, cake and sausage sandwiches; I would answer her many questions and supply her with information about my mother. The questions would come at me thick and fast.
"Where was your mother going yesterday afternoon?" "Where did you last live?" "Do you remember your father?"
There was nothing major I could really tell her, because I didn't know anything, but I valued those extra rations, and I would fabricate stories about my mother's movements, her past life and her intentions. It all seemed to work rather well, and I lived in an idyllic world where I could have both a full stomach and a clear conscience.

The highlight of my week was a Sunday morning when the Salvation Army band came a 'calling. They would stop at the top of the road and belt out a couple of big, brassy numbers. It was my first taste of live music, and its appeal has never left me. I was fascinated by the instruments and the musicians, and in particular, the big bass drum and the drummer. It was a big drum, and he was a large man with a florid complexion and a bushy black moustache. For the final leg of the journey back to the Citadel, I would march alongside him, my left index finger across my upper lip to simulate his moustache, my cheeks puffed out to simulate his size. With my free right hand, I would air drum like a maniac. Boom! Boom! Boom!

When the show was finally over, I would trudge slowly home. It seems inconceivable in this day and age, but there I was, yet to reach the age of three, and I was already walking around St Paul's all alone and unattended. I knew no fear though, the area bounded by the triangle of Brigstocke Road, Ashley Road and City Road was my manor, my hood, and I would strut around those streets like a miniature boss.

It was around about this time I learnt my first harsh lesson in life. I learnt that nothing good lasts for ever. It was a warm April afternoon, and Mum, Mary, the pushchair and I headed down to St James Churchyard. This is now the site of the Primark store, but was then a triangular, concrete surfaced park. There was a weighbridge, a few scattered benches and, it seemed, something like a million pigeons. I would wander amongst the birds like a young St Francis of Assisi, scattering stale bread crumbs for them. They were very tame, and it gave me a great sense of power.




 On this particular day I had run out of bread crumbs and turned to Mum for reinforcements. To my shock, she was talking to a stranger. He was a tall, thin man, with very white teeth. Apart from a white collarless shirt, he was dressed entirely in brown. Shiny brown shoes, three piece  suit, and a trilby hat, which was perched at a jaunty angle on the back of his head. A mop of thick, black curly hair was protruding from the front. He was reaching forward to light a cigarette for my mother. It was the first time I had ever seen her smoke. His hand was cupped across the cigarette protecting the flame of his lighter from the breeze. His long fingers were touching her cheek. I sensed trouble, I didn't like this stranger, and I have always trusted my instincts.
They sat smoking and talking for some time. There was a lot of laughter and Mum was giggling like a young girl. I had never heard her laugh like that before. Then, Mr 'Brown' was on his way. He waved and said "Goodbye Michael." as he left, heading along the Horsefair towards Milk Street. I ignored him and didn't reply.
"His name is Tom." explained my mother when I questioned her. "He just wanted a chat."

That night was a cold one, and I was curled up in front of the coal fire with Mum. She was trying to teach me to read, but I wasn't in the mood. Tommy Handley and ITMA were on the radio. I didn't understand a word of it, but loved to guffaw along with the studio audience. Looking back, I loved the combination of the coal fire, the flickering gaslights and the radio. It was very intimate and atmospheric, and the memories evoke very special feelings.
Suddenly, there was a tap on the front door.
"I'll go." Mum was quick off the mark, but I was quicker.
 This could be the German invasion, and I needed to get Mrs Grant first.
I got to the door just before my mother.
"Hello Michael."
 I blinked into the darkness. I knew the voice, and then I recognised him. It was Mr 'Brown' from the park
.
He was Irish; he spoke like Mrs Grant, and looked and sounded very much like Father Doyle. Father Doyle was the Catholic priest who called round to see us on a regular basis. I didn't like Father Doyle, and I didn't like Mr 'Brown' either. He smelt of beer, he chain smoked, and he growled at my mother when she couldn't supply him with an ash tray.
I turned up the volume on the radio as Mum and Mr 'Brown' held a series of whispered conversations. I was irritated that his unexpected visit had caused me to miss the ending of ITMA, and now he was interfering with my enjoyment of Paul Temple. Paul Temple was one of my favourite programmes, and I was engrossed in the current episode. Paul and his wife, Steve, were close to solving yet another crime.
'By Timothy, look at this, Steve.'
 I loved the way that Paul Temple spoke, and the way that he always solved the crime. I had already decided that I would be a detective when I grew up, and I would say 'By Timothy.' I wondered briefly if my father spoke like Paul Temple.

"I'll be after popping out to get some cigarettes. I won't be long." He was gone, but, true to his word, he wasn't away for long.

"Tom will be staying with us for a couple of days."  My mother broke the news as soon as the front door closed behind him. She looked nervous." Then, he will be going back to Ireland."

 She started to make up a bed on the sofa, using coats and cushions. I watched with a trace of smug satisfaction. I figured that Mr 'Brown' was now being treated like some kind of second class citizen. I couldn't have been more wrong. He had the bed, and I had the sofa.

I've had better night's sleep than I had on the sofa that night. I was restless; uncomfortable and cold. I missed the warmth and the comfort of my mother's body. I was full of anger and resentment.

We were all up early the following morning, apart from him. Mum seemed to sense my anger, and lifted me on to her knee. She looked me straight in the eyes, shaking me gently to get my attention.
"Listen, this is very important." She shook me again, and then raised the index finger of her right hand to her lips.
"Shh! You mustn't say a word to anyone about anything." She glanced nervously over her shoulder in the direction of the bedroom. "Tom is a deserter from the Army." She shook me again. "If they find him, they will kill him." She ran her hand across her throat. Then she repeated the words slowly and clearly, "They will kill him, Do you understand?"
I nodded. I sort of understood. I knew that silence was important. Their secret would be safe with me; wild horses wouldn't drag it from me.

I toddled across to see Mrs Grant for breakfast. She had a slice of cake waiting for me, a very large slice. She hooked up her substantial bosom and stood, arms folded and legs slightly apart, watching me eat. She suddenly moved closer, and went straight in for the kill.
"Did I see a man go into your house last night?"
I almost choked on my cake. Paul Temple had nothing on Mrs Grant. I hadn't been expecting this. I prepared myself to tell a lie, but Mrs Grant gave me no time to think. She went straight for the jugular.
"You wouldn't lie to me Michael would you? You're a good Catholic boy."
I chewed stoically, desperately playing for time, but Mrs Grant was now wearing the look of a gambler who knows her sole remaining card is the ace of trumps.
She lowered her face until our noses were almost touching.
"And I saw you open the door Michael."
There was nowhere to run to, no place to hide. At the age of two years and eleven months I was forced into making the first big decision of my life. I decided that Mrs Grant was a friend, and a friend who had to be trusted. I raised my right index finger to my lips, and lowered my voice to a whisper.
"Shhh! You mustn't say anything to anyone.  Tom is a deserter from the Army, and if they catch him, they will kill him." I ran my hand along my throat.
Mrs Grant seemed quite impressed. She staggered backwards before collapsing into her armchair. She sat, breathing heavily and gazing into space, before signalling me to leave. I walked home slowly, basking in the warm glow of a job well done.

It was dark when the two Army Jeeps screeched to a halt outside the house. Eight soldiers, each wearing the distinctive red caps of the Military Police, clattered down the steps to our front door. They pushed my mother aside, and burst into the flat. Within seconds, they were dragging Mr 'Brown' down the stone corridor, helping him on his way with some firm blows from their truncheons.  He was wearing a vest and long johns. He was begging for mercy and my mother was on her knees in the hallway crying.
The last soldier was carrying Mr 'Brown's' clothes. He stopped, turned to my mother, and spat at her.
"You fucking whore!!" He spat again.
I threw myself at him and tried to punch him, but he held me at bay with a firm hand on my head.

I ran outside to watch them drive away. Mrs Grant and several other neighbours were talking amongst themselves. Mrs Grant moved away and beckoned me to join her, but I had this strange feeling. I knew deep down inside my friend, Mrs Grant, had betrayed me. I turned my back on her, and walked away. I knew that I was walking away from a friendship, and I was walking away from a supply of sausage sandwiches and cake, but I also knew it had to be done.

Mum cried for hours. She was still whimpering when the brick came crashing through the window. She stopped crying. Quietly and quickly she dressed me, piled our bedding on top of Mary, who was sleeping in the pushchair, and off we went into the black of the night. I was clutching the clock and my father's photo in one hand, and clinging on to Mum's coat with the other. I was exhausted and having tantrums long before we got to the top of Stokes Croft, and I baulked completely when asked to climb Ninetree Hill. A passing stranger scooped me up and carried me. I fell asleep in his arms, still clinging on to the clock and my father's photo. When I woke up, I was in a new double bed, cuddling up to my mother, and we were living in a nice top floor flat in Kingsdown Parade.

 I learnt a lot that day, and I think I started the painful process of growing up.

Chapter Two

One thing that I have discovered about going back in time, is that memory is an unreliable and shallow friend. There are no complete years, months, weeks, days or even hours. There are just a collection of scattered, random moments, which then fall into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to form a complete coherent picture. So it was with the few precious months we were to spend in Kingsdown Parade.

We had moved on, we were in a better place, and things were looking up. Everything about Kingsdown was an improvement on what had gone before. Our rooms in St Paul's had been small, damp, cramped, poorly lit and untidy. We now had space, light, decent furniture, and rooms with a view. We had also made that sudden and unexpected move from Badminton Road at a magical time. We had moved at that very special moment when Mother Nature works her annual miracle, and transforms spring into summer. Overnight, or so it seemed, the grey, relentless drizzle had turned into sunshine, and the empty boughs on the trees were bursting with blossom and colour. My life was, briefly, to follow a similar course.


Kingsdown Parade. We were roughly half way down, in this picture

"Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels." Father Doyle strode up and down the room, shouting, and waving his arms in the air.  Mum fidgeted with her handkerchief, and I watched and listened, wide eyed and open mouthed. This was better and scarier stuff than any of the ghost stories that my mother used to tell me as we huddled around the coal fire in the half light of Badminton Road.

It hadn't taken the Catholic priest very long to track us down for his weekly visit. My mother was keeping a promise that she had made to my father before he had gone away to war. She'd promised him that my sister and I would be brought up in the Catholic faith, and that she would convert to Catholicism herself
.
"For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink."
He paused, smiled, and then sat next to my mother on the sofa. She looked edgy and uncomfortable.

I studied the priest closely. He really did bear an uncanny resemblance to Mr 'Brown', but I was beginning to warm to him. He certainly knew how to tell a good story.
"Whose sins thou shalt forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins thou shalt retain, they are retained." He was speaking quietly now, almost in a whisper. He placed his hand upon my mother's knee. She quickly slid down the sofa to the far end, and then stood up rapidly as he followed her. She picked me up and held me in front of her like a human shield.
"That's all the time we can spare. Thank you Father Doyle, that was all very helpful." She opened the door. "I look forward to next week."
Father Doyle hesitated, made the Sign of the Cross, mumbled something under his breath, and then made his exit. I decided when I grew up; I might become a Catholic priest, and travel around Bristol by night, telling stories to mothers and their children.

I liked my new home, and I liked our new landlady. Mrs Woodruff was a tall, very thin lady, with greying hair, which was swept back, and then knotted in a single, shoulder length plait. This was always secured with a bright yellow ribbon. She had irregular and slightly protruding teeth, but she had a wonderfully serene smile, and she spoke with a soft gentle voice.
"Don't stare at Mrs Woodruff." My mother would rebuke me. "It's rude to stare."
I couldn't help myself. Mrs Woodruff had two very distinctive features. Although she wasn't old, she had a remarkably wrinkled, pale face. It always reminded me of a white prune.
"Thirty-something, and already looking like a granny." said my mother.
Mrs Woodruff also had enormous feet.

Her daughter, Peggy, was a miniature mirror image of her mother, without the wrinkles and the grey hair. Peggy had fair hair, and her plait was always secured by a blue ribbon. She was about twelve, and like most girls of her age, she had a strong maternal instinct, and liked playing with dolls. I think she viewed me as her own personal plaything. She would wake, wash, dress and feed me, and then we would play together. I didn't mind at all, because it made life easier and it brought extra rations and lots of sweets.

I celebrated my third birthday in that house on May 19th 1940. We held a party, and everyone sang 'Happy Birthday'. Mrs Woodruff baked me a sponge, which was sprinkled with cocoa powder and sugar. Peggy gave me my first ever present. It was a used tennis ball. She took me into the garden to play, and introduced me to football. She gave me my first coaching lesson. I lacked co-ordination and I wasn't very good, but it was a lesson that sowed the seeds of a love affair with the 'beautiful game' that has lasted me for a lifetime.

 What we didn't know as we laughed and played happily on that sunny, summer afternoon, was that  the war in Europe was inexorably and relentlessly drawing closer to England and Bristol. In London, Winston Churchill was chairing a meeting to request a flotilla of boats to evacuate our troops from Dunkirk. The German army was on the brink of an overwhelming victory in France, and my father was on board HMS Khartoum, sailing proudly and boldly from Plymouth, heading for Gibraltar, and then Alexandria to do duty in the Red Sea.

The only thing that prevented Kingsdown from getting a five star rating from me was the lack of a Salvation Army band.  I was missing my Sunday morning march badly, but the proximity of Parker's Bakery was more than ample compensation. Sliced bread had yet to find its way to England, and there were strict regulations in force which prohibited the sale of bread on the day of baking. The reasoning of our war time Coalition Government was that hot bread was difficult to slice, and consumers would therefore eat larger portions. Fortunately the regulations didn't apply to us as my mother had a 'special relationship' with one of the Bakery workers,  Peggy and I would wait patiently outside  the loading bay, and at a pre arranged time, the door would swing open; money would change hands, and we had a freshly baked loaf. In the space of a couple of weeks, football and freshly baked bread had secured a place in my young life.

Nothing good lasts for ever. I was about to learn the same lesson for the second time. It was June 24th, and the day had started well. My mother had gone out the previous night, and Peggy had baby sat. I had proudly introduced her to my radio, the Home Service, and to Paul Temple and his wife, Steve. She was clearly impressed, and we had started off the day with a game of 'Paul Temple' in the garden. We then moved upstairs, and Peggy suggested a game of 'Doctors and Nurses.' To my astonishment she undressed, and lay naked on the bed. Oh for the innocence of childhood. I had eyes only for her enormous feet. I felt I was about to receive a lesson on the female anatomy. A lesson that would have stood me in good stead as I moved forward into adulthood  The game was unfortunately interrupted by a piercing scream from downstairs. Peggy quickly slipped on her knickers and dress, took my hand and we rushed down.

The telegraph boy was standing awkwardly in the doorway. He was shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. My mother was on her knees clutching a piece of paper. She screamed again and wailed, "What am I going to do? What am I going to do for money?"
Mrs Woodruff took control. She spoke quietly to the boy at the door.
"There will be no tip." She ushered him away and closing the door in his face, took the piece of paper from my mother's hand and read aloud.  'Petty Officer Joseph Leo Kelly DK951937, missing in action, presumed killed.' She lifted me up, pressed my face to hers with a firm hand, and whispered in my ear.
"It's your father Michael. He's dead."



Chapter three

In war time, the arrival of a telegram invariably means bad news. Bad news always travels fast, and it wasn't long before the first callers arrived to offer their condolences and pay their respects. There was a lot of sobbing, kissing and hugging. I felt nothing: I was just numb and silent. Mrs Woodruff suggested to Peggy that she took me out for a while, and armed with her sweet coupons and a two shilling piece, she led me up the road to Mrs Tuck's shop in Cotham Road South. That shop was a treasure trove of sweets. Shelf after shelf, all filled with jar upon jar of multi coloured goodies. I selected my favourites; the Sherbet Lemons.

"His father died today." Mrs Tuck was meticulously weighing the sweets as Peggy made her dramatic announcement.
 "He died in the war." She added as she received no response from Mrs Tuck.
Mrs Tuck grunted, and then rather grudgingly slipped an extra sweet into the bag.
"Thank you Mrs Tuck." Peggy flashed her toothy smile, and then she took my hand. We laughed and chatted as we sauntered slowly down to Cotham Park.

There are the occasional days in your life which are sprinkled with magic. Special days you will always remember above all others. This was one such a day. It had started badly with the arrival of the telegram, but it was looking up. We sat on the grass, with the sun on our faces, and we sucked and crunched upon our Sherbet Lemons. We laughed aloud and pulled faces as the tart sourness of the sherbet exploded in our mouths. We held a competition to decide who could pull the funniest face. Peggy was the judge and I won every single game. We then played football and I beat her for the very first time.

After the game, I lay back, exhausted. I recall closing my eyes, and listening to the sound of the silence. I heard the humming and buzzing of the insects, the singing of the birds, and the distant sound of children at play. For what was probably the first time in my young life, I felt at peace with the world, and I fell asleep.


It was late afternoon when we arrived home. I felt a vague sense of guilt. I had been happy on a day that should have made me sad, but at the age of three, guilt is a fleeting emotion. The day suddenly got even better, and my life turned full circle.  We had left with the house in mourning; we arrived home to a different and happier place. There was a full scale party happening, and music was playing from Mrs Woodruff's gramophone. A bottle of port was being shared with half a dozen neighbours. I stood in the doorway and saw Mrs Woodruff's thin legs and enormous feet rushing towards me. For the second time that day she lifted me up, held me close, and whispered in my ear.
"It's your father Michael. He's alive."
The same Telegraph Boy had called again, but this time the telegram had contained better news.
'Lucky' Joe Kelly had survived the sinking of HMS Khartoum, which was now sitting on the bed of the Red Sea. He was safely on board HMS Kandahar, and was bound for Aden.
"He will be downing an ice cold beer or two." Mum was smiling once more.

It was summertime, and every day seemed to bring sunshine. We feasted on fresh bread from Parker's, and fish and chips from Smith's shop at the far end of the road. Peggy and I played non-stop. We played 'Paul Temple', football, and 'Doctors and Nurses'. I was happy, I was sleeping well, and I had nightly dreams about Sherbet Lemons and Peggy's feet, but nothing good lasts for ever.
It would have been early August. I was lying on my stomach supported by my elbows, with my head cupped in my hands. I was listening to ITMA.
"Can I do you now sir?" warbled Mrs Mopp, the cleaning lady. The studio audience greeted her appearance, and the catch phrase with prolonged applause.
"Ah, there you are my little camp follower." retorted Tommy Handley. The audience roared with laughter, and I joined in although I couldn't see the joke.
I turned around to see if my mother was laughing, and my heart stood still. She was standing in the open doorway, watching me. The pushchair was fully loaded, with the bedding piled high on top of my sleeping sister. Mum was silhouetted against the soft light from the hallway, and she looked like a film star. She was wearing a bottle green coat, with black fur trimming on the collar and the cuffs. The coat was pinched in at the waist showing off her figure, and her rich auburn hair cascaded over her shoulders. I thought for a brief moment that I saw a tear in her emerald green eyes, but I must have been mistaken, for she swallowed hard, cleared her throat and smiled.
"We're moving." She mouthed the words silently.


Mum could get up quite a head of steam with that pushchair, and I struggled to keep up with her as we raced along Kingsdown Parade. This time, I was clutching the clock, my photo, and my tennis ball. I was annoyed that I hadn't seen this coming. I hadn't noticed any warning signs. My inner 'Paul Temple' had switched off, taken his eye off the ball. He had grown soft and complacent with overindulgence on freshly baked bread, fish and chips, football, naked girls and Sherbet Lemons.
I felt like the Grand Old Duke of York. I had marched up to the top of the hill, and now I was marching back down again. We sped down Horfield Road and St Michael's Hill. We stormed up Perry Road and Park Row. We swept across Queens Road, and down Jacob's Well Road.
We stopped, eventually, in Hotwell Road, and Mum lit a cigarette in a doorway. It was a warm summer night. The moon reflected on the river. I suddenly realised I hadn't said goodbye to Peggy, and started to cry, just as my mother knocked on the door. It was only four months since the Mr 'Brown' incident; I wasn't quite ready for another new life





 Chapter four
.



I liked our new house. We looked down on to the river, and HMS Flying Fox was berthed right under our living room window. Our new landlord was Mr Lloyd. He was a big man with an even bigger voice. He had thick white hair, swept back, without a parting, and bushy white eyebrows. His wife, Meryl, also had white hair and even bushier eyebrows, but she was quieter than Mr Lloyd.
"She's 'Chapel', he's 'spit and sawdust'", said Mum.

There were two other families in the house, the Edwards, and the Williams, but Mr Lloyd was in charge. He was one of the many 'Little Hitlers' that we spawned during the war years.
"He's a noisy bleeder; a natural leader." My mother had a way with words.
"He's Welsh, probably from Newport." She added, as if by way of explanation. I would, in time, understand the venom that I detected in her voice when she spoke those words.

 Although not a member of any official organisation, Mr Lloyd dressed in a navy blue siren suit, similar to the ones worn by Winston Churchill, and wore a metal helmet with a strap around his chin. A large silver whistle was secured around his neck by a white ribbon.
Mr Lloyd held numerous air raid drills, to which we were summoned by a shrill blast of his whistle. We would line up in front of the  Anderson Air Raid Shelter in the tiny back garden.
"We approach the shelter in a calm and orderly fashion." I had learnt the lecture off by heart and would mouth the words behind his back.
"There is one sacred and unbreakable rule." his voice rose to a lilting crescendo. "Women and children first." He bowed, and extended his left hand, palm upwards in the direction of the shelter.
"Mrs Kelly and child." He waved Mum, who was carrying my sister, towards the entrance, with an exaggerated sweep of his right hand.
"Master Kelly." I had the same treatment, and then I was followed by the three wives.
"Mr Edwards, Mr Williams and I will be engaged on other more important duties; like fire-fighting and rescues."
I didn't like it in the Anderson Shelter. It was damp, dark and smelly, but fortunately we never remained in there for any long period of time.

I did enjoy having male company in the house and having three male role models. I followed Mr Lloyd around everywhere. He allowed me to join the three of them around the kitchen table for morning tea. I would drink, like them, from a large, chipped enamel mug. Like them, I would wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I even tried to belch like them, but I couldn't master the belch. My vocabulary was growing, however. Mr Lloyd was the first man I knew in my life, who suffered from Tourette's syndrome. He was incapable of completing a sentence without including a string of expletives.
"Jerry won't come over by here," he would say. "We are bristling with bloody barrage balloons and bloody guns." Then, in very explicit detail he would describe Jerry's potential fate. We would all listen, nod, slurp our tea, wipe our mouths with the back of our hands, and the other three would belch.

We were getting sporadic air raids now, and the sirens would frequently wail their alarms.
On September 25th the siren sounded for the 151st time. Many of the warnings had been false alarms and by now people were beginning to ignore the sirens. This time, however, the warning was real. 168 bombs were dropped in 45 seconds. The target was the Bristol Aeroplane Works at Filton in the north of the city. Ninety one people working at the factory were killed. Another 69 people living in the area were also killed. Nine hundred houses were damaged. There was no anti-aircraft fire or fighter aircraft to cover the factory.
Two days later, on September 27th, the Luftwaffe tried another raid on the Bristol Aeroplane Works. This time a squadron of RAF Hurricane fighter planes were there to meet them. After a ‘dog fight’ over the city, which brought many people out of their houses to watch, the German planes flew away without reaching their target.

When the sirens sounded at 6.22 pm on Sunday November 24th, it was the 338th alert of the war. Mr Lloyd blew his whistle, and we straggled out into the garden. We came reluctantly, and complainingly, but without fear. It had been a typical lazy, November Sunday. There had been bread and jam for tea, with real butter instead of margarine. That was our Sunday treat.
"We approach the shelter in a calm and orderly manner." Mr Lloyd rubbed his hands in anticipation as he started his usual speech.
"There is one sacred, unbreakable rule..." His voiced tailed away. Suddenly, the air was heavy with the drone of German bombers. The searchlights frantically scanned the skies, the anti-aircraft guns clattered into action.
I stood fascinated but I knew what was coming. Mr Lloyd had told us so many times and made it so clear at the breakfast table.
Jerry won't come over by here. We are bristling with bloody barrage balloons and bloody guns. Jerry knows we will just blow the f.....s out of the f.....g sky.
Within moments, everything had changed. One minute there was darkness, the next, the city was illuminated by the falling parachute flares.
I waited for Jerry to come falling out of the skies. Instead, the first high explosive bomb fell.
"Fuck me!" Mr Lloyd stood, transfixed to the spot.
Two more bombs fell in quick succession.
"Don't just stand there, get in the bloody shelter." Mrs Lloyd took control.

I don't know what happened to the 'One sacred, unbreakable rule', the 'Women and children first', but the next thing I saw was Mr Lloyd disappearing into the shelter. He was quickly followed by Mr Williams and Mr Edwards. The three wives then dived in, Mrs Lloyd was last. She only just fitted through the narrow opening. She left me with a mental picture of skirts, petticoats, stockings, suspenders, knickers and cellulite. The door snapped shut.
Another bomb fell. My mother gave a miniature scream, and jumped like a startled rabbit.
"Get in the house under the bloody stairs." Mr Lloyd's muffled voice shouted. He was back in charge.

I only wish that my vocabulary was wide enough to adequately describe the terror of that night, as we sat in total darkness, and it rained bombs on Bristol. My sister slept, and my mother drew her knees up to her chest, covered her ears with her hands and rocked slowly backwards and forwards. She started singing; quietly at first, but growing louder as the bombing increased in intensity. She sang the same song over and over again. She sang for six hours. She sang her favourite song of the moment.

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away

I'll always love you and make you happy
If you will only say the same
But if you leave me and love another
You'll regret it all some day:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away

You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between
But now you've left me and love another;
You have shattered all of my dreams:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away

I closed my eyes, and tried to block out the sound of the bombs. Eventually, I found a way. I took myself back in time to Ashley Road. I was marching again with the Salvation Army Band. I was struggling to stay in step, but the big, fat bass drummer was looking down at me, smiling and winking. He nodded approvingly as together we beat our drums in perfect unison. We beat them very loudly and perfectly in time with each exploding bomb.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
 We marched and played until the final bombs had fallen, and the 'Raiders passed' siren sounded.
We crawled out of the cupboard in the early hours of the morning. Mr Lloyd and his clan were drinking tea, and eating toast in the kitchen.
"You were the fucking lucky ones. It was fucking hell in that shelter." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and belched.
I decided that when I grew up, I would become a German pilot, and I would drop bombs on Mr Lloyd every night.







Chapter Five

135 German bombers, flying in perfect formation, had crossed the channel that night to deliver their deadly cargo of bombs on the city. Our much vaunted defences had proved to be wholly inadequate, and for six hours, virtually unopposed, the planes spewed their incendiary and high explosive bombs into the heart of the city. 10,000 homes were damaged, factories, churches and shops destroyed. 207 killed, 187 seriously injured, 703 slightly injured.  Much of our architectural heritage had vanished overnight. Bristol had been damaged beyond repair, and would never be the same again.

"Jerry won't be coming over by here anymore." Mr Lloyd had returned from his 'fact finding' visit to the city centre. He was still wearing his navy blue tunic and steel helmet.
I waited for the usual stream of expletives, and he didn't disappoint.
 "There's fuck all left to bomb; it's all fucking gone." He chuckled to himself. His arrogance and self-confidence seemed to have returned.
 "That's unless you want to shop at the fucking Co-op in Castle Street. That's still standing."



Co-op store Castle Street. Last store standing

We were sitting around the kitchen table, and we all chuckled along with him. We slurped our hot, sweet tea from our chipped enamel mugs, wiped our mouths with the backs of our hands, and I managed to produce my maiden belch. It all felt good; I now considered myself a man.

"So if that's how Jerry wants to play it lads, let's show him what we can do. All's fair in love and war." Mr Lloyd stretched his arms in the air, and yawned. "It's every man for himself now boyos. I'm off; I'm going to catch up on some sleep."

The maiden belch had put a spring back into my step, and I had a little swagger as I went upstairs to join Mum. I told her what Mr Lloyd had said about his 'fact finding' visit.
"I need to pop out myself." she said quietly. "Can you look after Mary?"
Mary was almost two now, and was beginning to take an interest in life. She was crawling, and almost speaking. I even tried to have a chat with her about the war, but she didn't appear to understand me. When Mum returned, she was upbeat, cheerful, and very excited.
"We've got a place in the tunnel." she proudly announced. "We will be safe now."
She was wearing her 'Hedy Lamaar' face.
Whenever she was pleased or excited, Mum wore, what I called, her 'Hedy Lamaar' face.

Hedy Lamaar
Hedy Lamaar was a famous film star in the 1940s, and my mother bore a remarkable resemblance to her. Almost on a daily basis, completely random strangers would comment on it. Mum would always pretend to be disinterested, but as soon as we got home, out would come the mirror, and she would study her reflection for ages, and from all angles. She was, by her own admission, both vain and very insecure. As she studied her image, her nostrils would flare, and her lips would tighten .The flared nostrils and the tight lipped smile produced her 'Hedy Lamaar' look.
 I would wait patiently for the inevitable question.
"Do I really look like Hedy Lamaar?"
I would nod and smile back. I didn't have a clue really, but I knew it made her happy, and I liked it when Mum was happy.



"Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." Father Doyle was at it again. He stood there beating his chest with his right fist, and telling us another story. Not only could he tell a good story, but he could tell them in different languages.
"It's Latin." Mum explained. "All Roman Catholics speak Latin."
Mum and I were kneeling on the bare floorboards, and the priest was blessing us, and teaching us how to pray. Our hands were folded together, and our heads were bowed. Our eyes should have been closed, but I was cheating, and peeping out of the corner of my right eye.
Father Doyle sprinkled us with water. It wasn't ordinary water; it was holy water.
"In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti." I saw Father Doyle place his hand on my mother's head. He moved closer and Mum edged away from him. She then stood up quickly, and dragged me to my feet at the same time.
"I must prepare Michael for the tunnel now. Thank you Father."


Father Doyle was bent almost double as he shuffled away and out of the room. I heard him grumbling under his breath as he clumped off down the stairs.

Despite Mr Lloyd's assertions that 'Jerry' wouldn't be back, Mum was taking no chances.
'We have a place in the tunnel. We will be safe now.'
'The tunnel', was a 525 feet stretch that ran under Bridge Valley Road. It was part of the defunct Port and Pier Railway. Our 'place' was deep in the bowels of the Avon Gorge, at the rear of the tunnel. When we arrived on that first night, there were thousands clamouring to get in. The man on the door was very friendly, and waved us through with a smile, a nod, and a wink. As we entered, he patted my mother on her bum. I thought she might have been angry, but she smiled, and her nostrils flared. I decided that the man must have told her that she looked like Hedy Lamaar.


Inside, that tunnel was not a very pleasant place. It was dark, damp and very, very smelly. An official report into the tunnel stated: ' it deserved full marks for possessing everything that a shelter should not possess'.
The smell started as soon as you entered and became progressively worse as you made your way along. It was the first time I had witnessed our class structure in operation. The better off had their positions nearest the entrance, the middle classes were halfway up, and we peasants were at the back, where the stench was almost unbearable.
Another official report stated:
 'A little over half way along, there is another brick wall. Beyond this the walls are whitewashed and bunks four across have been built. The poorest and dirtiest people of them all are using this end. The children are four to a bunk. Lighting is by candles and oil lamps. There is a brick wall with sackcloth; on the other side are closets labelled M and W. The closets are never empty for more than 30 seconds at a time; they serve over a thousand people. There is a stinking tang of chlorine.'

The German bombers came back in force on the night of December 2. The raid started at 16 minutes past 6 and lasted until 11 o'clock. 156 people killed, 149 seriously injured and 121 slightly injured. Redfield, Cotham, Redland, St Michael's Hill, Welsh Back, Nelson Street, Portland Square, St Paul's, Bridewell and Wills' No. 1 factory were among the damaged areas. We heard the bombing, but only as dull, distant thuds. The Portway tunnel may have been a hell hole, but to our little 'poor and dirty' family, it was paradise.

We trudged home at midnight. I was sneezing, coughing and wheezing. Mary was sleeping, and Mum had a steely glint in her green eyes.

"They won't get us whilst we are in there Michael. We will be as safe as houses." She stooped and kissed me on my head.
"Mr Lloyd can stick his Anderson shelter where the sun doesn't shine."

We never got much sleep in the tunnel during the blitz,  and this enabled me to get very close to my mother. We would lie in the bed together at every available opportunity, and she would tell me stories about her childhood. Stories about her early life in Long Ashton, the tiny village just outside Bristol. How she had been the youngest of 10 children, and had enjoyed an idyllic childhood until her mother, and two of her favourite brothers had died of Tuberculosis.
"I could never go through that again." She sobbed as she described their deaths. She had left home and gone into service at Ashton Court Mansion.
"I did well." she said proudly. "I was 'Silver Service'.
She told me about her love affair with Fred Mears, the head gardener at the Estate, and how Fred owned a motor cycle and side car. Fred would take her to Weston super Mare at every opportunity. They would lie in the sand dunes, and they made love as the sun set over the Channel. She sobbed again as she told me how she had become pregnant. Fred had vowed undying love and support, until just a few weeks later when he fled, on what Mum described as 'the fastest motorbike in the west'. He was heading for home.
"He was Welsh, from Newport," Mum chuckled. "just like Mr Lloyd."
The baby, Ivan, had been placed into care. Mum didn't know what had happened to him, or where he was.

We lived like cavemen for the duration of the Bristol blitz, spending more time in the tunnel than in our own home. The winter of 1940/1 was bitterly cold, and the bombers returned again and again. I watched my mother, suffering from a lack of sleep, counting her pennies, struggling to feed us, and to keep us warm. I was suffering from repeated colds and coughs. Mary was still sleeping soundly, but we were close to breaking point, and on the night of April 11th, we finally cracked. It was the night of the 'Good Friday raid'.


Chapter Six


The raid on March 16 had been the worst so far. 257 killed and 391 injured, as the German bombers dropped 800 high-explosive and several thousand incendiary bombs on the city. The bombing started at around 8.30 p.m., and lasted until 4.12 a.m. Whitehall, Eastville and Fishponds bore the brunt of the first phase, and Easton, St Paul's and Kingsdown were also badly affected.


March 20th, 1941:
Mum was mumbling and grumbling as she rubbed the Wintergreen ointment on my bare chest.
"For God's sake Michael," she snapped, "it's one bloody thing after another."
I couldn't see that it was my fault, but I sort of understood her. It really did feel as if every brand new day brought with it a fresh problem. One after another for which my mother had to find a solution.
Today, it was my health that was the cause for concern. I had always been a chesty child, and already had two bouts of pneumonia chalked up on my medical records. Now, all those hours in that damp, dark, cold tunnel had taken their toll, and I was a wheezing, sneezing wreck. I was struggling to breathe, and running a high temperature. I badly needed a doctor, but this was 1941, and the National Health Service was still a distant dream. A doctor's visit cost money; real money, and as Mum would frequently point out, ' Money didn't live in our house.'

Mum's engagement ring, with its sparkling blue and white stones, had bailed us out of several crises already. In truth, it had probably spent more time in the pawn shop than out of it, but her wedding ring had always remained firmly glued to her finger. Now, she sat looking pensively out of the window, staring across the river, lost in thought. She twisted and turned the ring, first one way, and then the other. Finally, with a deep sigh and a sad face, it came off. She kissed it, wrapped it in newspaper, and away it went to Mr Keeler's pawn shop.

As it turned out, she could have spared herself all the anxiety and the trauma, because the doctor, when he finally arrived, took one look at our room and at me, and then waved away all of Mum's offers of payment.
He was a tall, somewhat bulky man, with thick, dark, wavy hair, a purple nose and a face like a benevolent bloodhound. It was a nice face though, with laughing eyes, a kind smile and a soft, gentle voice. He was wearing a pale blue, open necked shirt, and a light grey jacket, with dark blue leather patches on each elbow. Mum had always taught me that you could tell a man's position in society, by the number of pens that he carried in his breast pocket. The doctor's pocket was simply bristling with pens, pencils and gold and silver instruments. I decided that in terms of importance, he was right up there with King George, Winston Churchill, Mr Hitler, Mr Lloyd and the man named Ted, who wore a white coat, and ran the pig's trotter and chitterlings shop, which was tucked away behind the Hippodrome, in Denmark Street.

The doctor opened up his shiny black bag and peeled on a pair of surgical gloves. He whistled tunelessly through his teeth as he took my temperature and checked my pulse, and then fell silent, listening intently, as he poked me with the cold stethoscope. Satisfied, he took a large, red leather bound book from the bag, and scribbled his notes. I noticed that he was using red ink.
"Pneumonia, Mrs Kelly," he spoke without looking up or interrupting the writing. "but I think that you knew that already."
He expertly placed a piece of blotting paper inside the book, closed it and looked up.
"That makes three attacks now. That is far too many for young lungs to cope with. The child needs rest, warmth, and above all else..." he hesitated and sighed. "Keep away from that confounded tunnel. Another night in there could kill him."

We all get times in our lives, sadly infrequent, when we just get lucky. I guess that this was our turn; it was our time.
The German bombers stayed away for night, after night, after night. I was allowed to heal in my own time, in my own bed, and in my own home.

April 9th, 1941:
It was almost Easter, and I was fully recovered. Mum told me about Easter biscuits. She told me about their texture, their taste, the spices, the currants and the sugar. She made a circle using the middle fingers and thumbs of both hands to demonstrate their size. I almost passed out with excitement when she promised to get some for Good Friday.
It came as quite a shock when the sirens wailed their warning just before 10pm. I leaped out of bed, not sure what was going to happen.
Another night in there could kill him.
I had remembered the doctor's words, and I suspect that Mum had as well.
 She walked calmly to the window, peeped through the blackout curtains, and signalled me to return to bed.
"No tunnel tonight," she smiled, "it's only a small raid."
She took my father's photo from behind the clock on the shelf, and we all cuddled up in bed together.
Mum was in the middle, with a pillow supporting her back as she sat with her knees tucked up. I lay with my head on her shoulder, and my arm around her waist. Mary was asleep, as usual, contentedly sucking her thumb. Mum had never spoken much about Dad, but now, with the photo just visible in the light of the flickering candle, she told me the story about him. She told me how they had met at the foot of the Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill. How they had made me, and then married.
"He is a good man." she smiled to herself, "Unless he has the drink in him." she added in a whisper.
We lay in silence for a short while, and then she told me a very sad story.
She told me how, long before he had known Mum, my father had met, fallen in love with, and then married a young girl in Weymouth. Her name was Lilian. They had a child, a boy named Dennis. Lilian had died shortly after childbirth.
 Mum didn't speak for a while, and when she started talking again, she was wearing her 'crying' voice.
"Your father loved her more than he will ever love me." she whispered sadly. "But you and Mary are the happy ending." she tousled my hair. "He worships the pair of you."
The sporadic bombing tailed away. We cuddled up and fell asleep. I had a dream about Easter biscuits.
April 10th 1941: I rose early in the morning; awoken by the sound of Mr Lloyd's booming voice and the clanking of the mugs in the kitchen below. I had missed the interaction with the men of the house during my illness, and I now crept downstairs to join them. I was worried that Mr Lloyd might have forgotten me, but my fears were groundless. He greeted me like an old friend.
"Look what the fucking wind has blown in." he banged his mug down on the table. "It's fucking Lazarus!!"
They all burst out laughing, and I joined in, although I didn't understand the joke.
Mr Loyd then made me my 'usual', a half mug of hot, sweet, very milky tea, and I sat down in my chair.
We all sat slurping and burping, all waiting for Mr Lloyd's report on the previous night's bombing. We didn't have to wait long.
"Avonmouth copped a packet." he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, "and we copped three big bastards in Broadmead, and Newfoundland Road." He made the sign of the cross, just like Father Doyle did. I copied him, like Father Doyle had taught me. They all laughed, but I didn't join in.
 "Pragnall's Paints in Broadmead, St Clements Church and Purnell's Vinegar factory in Newfoundland Rd. All gone. It just goes to show. If one of those big bastards has got your name on it, you're a goner."
Mr Lloyd stretched and yawned. "All's fair in love and war; it's every man for himself."
 I knew that the breakfast meeting was over, and trudged back upstairs to remind Mum about the Easter biscuits.

April 11th 1941
 It was Good Friday, and Mum went shopping. She came back with some Easter biscuits. We could only afford two, so Mum and Mary had to share one. The biscuit was delicious, and it was my lucky day, because Mum wasn't very hungry, and she gave me most of her half.

Father Doyle called in the afternoon. Mum told me to act as if I were still ill. She sat at the top of the bed with me, and told Father Doyle he should keep his distance, as what I had was very infectious. He stood by the door and told us a story about Easter.
He told us about the Last Supper and Judas Iscariot. He told us about Pontius Pilate and Barabbas, and then he told us about Jesus Christ. How he was forced to wear a crown of thorns, and how he carried the heavy cross up the hill of Mount Calvary. He told us how Jesus was crucified and died. It was a cracking story and I was right into it. I was waiting anxiously for the happy ending, and I was quite disappointed when Mum interrupted to tell Father Doyle that it was time for him to leave. He threw some holy water at me from the bottom of the bed, shouted 'Dominus vobiscum', and made a hasty exit down the wooden stairs.

Back then, when our city was under nightly siege from the German bombers, I would always go to bed fully clothed, apart from my boots, which sat by the side of the bed. That way, we were always ready for a quick getaway. I often wondered if my mother ever slept. She always seemed to be there at the ready when the sirens sounded. She roused me from a deep sleep at just before nine o'clock that night. We sat and listened to Alvar Lidell reading the nine o'clock news. Yet again, there was no good news. Our armies were in retreat, our shipping sunk, and our cities bombed. I waited in vain for my father to get a mention, but once again, he didn't.
"I don't know why we bother to listen."  Mum looked glum. She took off my shirt, lifted my vest and started to rub the Wintergreen on my chest. I was still half asleep and not really listening as she chatted away.
Just before ten o'clock, the sirens sounded for the 538th time since war had been declared. This time, it was the real thing. The guns were barking away, the searchlights were scanning the skies like demented fire flies, and the dreaded drone of the bombers filled the air. Mum sat on the bottom of the bed, with her head in her hands. She started to cry as she rocked back and forth.
"I don't know what to do" she said helplessly.
I was listening to the voices in my head. They were doing battle. It was Mr Lloyd versus the Doctor
Another night in there could kill him.
 if one of those big bastards has got your name on it, you're a goner.
 it's every man for himself.
I knew what to do.
Mr Lloyd won the day; I jumped off the bed, and sprinted out of the house. I was heading for the sanctuary of my tunnel. I heard Mum's frantic voice calling me. Slowly, it faded into the distance, as I ran bare footed and bare chested down Hotwell Road.




.
 
Chapter Seven

Mr Lloyd had been adamant. There was no chance of 'Jerry' coming to call on Good Friday. 'Stands to bloody reason.' he said. 'Jerry' didn't come over at Christmas, so he won't be over for bloody Easter.' Yet again, Mr Lloyd was wrong.


It was quite a long haul from where we lived in Hotwell Road to the tunnel on the Portway. I had made the journey on many occasions with my mother, but never in the middle of a major air raid. I had always walked slowly; lagging behind Mum; usually dragging my heels, and insisting on numerous pit stops along the way. That Good Friday night was very different. By the time I had set out on my panic fuelled dash to safety, the raid was in full swing. The first wave of enemy bombers had avoided the customary frenzied, but wholly ineffective gun fire, and the first bombs had been delivered. Amongst the early casualties were the buildings housing the Cheltenham Road Library, and the neighbouring Colston's Girls' School.
I was still only three, and my running style was, to say the least, lacking in coordination. My arms and legs had minds of their own, and flapped wildly in different directions, but I had no intention of hanging around, and the one hundred and fifty three |German bombers flying overhead in perfect formation added both strength and resolve to my young limbs. Furthermore, the knowledge that any one of the planes could also be carrying the 'big bastard with my name written on it', gave wings to my heels. That night, I ran every single step of the way, and to my eternal shame, I ran with neither a backward glance, nor a second thought for the safety and welfare of the mother and sister whom I had left behind.

The man on the door of the tunnel looked quite startled as I burst past him, and splashed my barefooted path through the puddles. I was heading towards my bunk at the very far end of the tunnel. A queue was already forming for the smelly toilet block behind my bunk, and the crowd gave me a good natured round of applause as I arrived.

I knew Mr Brookes would be waiting; he always was. He was sitting, as usual, on his bunk. He was peering anxiously into the gloom, and looking out for Mum. Mr Brookes slept on the lower bunk, which was directly underneath me. He was a good looking man, with dark hair, a black moustache, and a shiny white, sparkling smile. He bore a striking resemblance to Clark Gable, the famous film star, but he had a high pitched squeaky voice. He sounded just like Donald Duck, and to make matters worse, he was afflicted with a very bad stutter.

 I liked Mr Brookes. He always made me laugh, and he always made Mum smile. He was one of those people who constantly told her she looked like Hedy Lamaar. More importantly, he always had a large bag of toffees in his pocket, and I loved toffees. I loved them more than anything in the world, apart from Easter biscuits, or maybe fish and chips, and maybe pig's trotters.

"Where's your m-m-m-m-mother?" enquired Mr Brookes as he clasped his hands together and gave me a leg up to the upper bunk.
His stutter always seemed to be far worse whenever Mum was involved.
I waved vaguely in the direction of the entrance. I never dared to speak with Mr Brookes myself. On the one occasion I had, I found myself mimicking his stutter, so I restricted myself to sign language only.

We didn't have long to wait. Mum wasn't far behind me, and she soon came splashing through the puddles herself. She was carrying Mary in one arm, and my shirt, a pullover, my boots, a pair of socks and a dry blanket in the other. Her face was a mixture of relief and anger. I knew that look well, and experience told me the anger would prevail. I prepared myself for a smack. It never arrived, because Mr Brookes stood between us with his arms outstretched.
"L-L-Leave it be, M-M-M-Mrs Kelly. He's only a y-y-young child. We are fighting the b-b-b-b-bloody Germans, not each other."
Mum let it be, and Mr Brookes gave me a toffee. Mum dressed me, and tucked me in for the night.

I always tried to sleep, but sleep was hard to come by in the tunnel. The canvas in my bunk was damp and rotting, there were more holes than canvas, and I was basically lying on the rubber webbing, and could clearly see Mr Brookes in his bunk below me. There was a constant buzz of nervous conversations. The toilet queue shuffled in, and back out again. Mothers scolded their children, and the children cried. Men drank beer, played cards, and argued, with the arguments becoming louder as the drinking increased. The little, old, white haired man who lounged in his brightly coloured deck chair would, from time to time, squeeze a tune from his accordion, and Mr Brookes would squeak and stutter away, as he chatted nonstop with my mother.
Mum sat, always looking extremely uncomfortable, in a wooden dining chair, cradling Mary in her arms. Mr Brookes alternated between sitting and lying on his bunk.
The only light in the tunnel came from the handful of oil lamps and candles people had brought with them. These provided an eerie, yellowish half-light, and created strange, flickering shadows on the brick walls. Water ran down the walls, and dripped constantly from the curved roof.

The early bombing that night didn't sound too heavy, and appeared to be far away. We felt in no immediate danger, and it came as no surprise when the all clear sounded before midnight. Mum rapidly prepared us for our homeward journey. I could clearly hear the disappointment in Mr Brookes' squeak as he said his goodbyes, and gave me another toffee. We lingered on the way out, and Mum had a chat, and shared a cigarette with the man on the door. I was glad that did, because within minutes, and before we had left, the sirens wailed the alarm again. The Luftwaffe had regrouped and they were back for another go. This time it felt and sounded as if they meant business. The bombs sounded closer. It felt as if we were the target, and we were uneasy..

Somehow, I managed to get to sleep, but it was a troubled sleep, and a troubled sleep meant troubled dreams. I dreamt that I was helping Jesus Christ carry his cross up the slopes of Mount Calvary. Jesus was wearing his crown of thorns, and the blood was streaming down his face. The cross was over his shoulders, and I was doing my best to lift it from the base. It was too heavy for me, and I wasn't much of a help, but I struggled on, doing my best. Mr Lloyd was with us, and he was waving his fists, and swearing at the Roman soldiers. Father Doyle was beating his chest and shouting 'Pax vobiscum.' I suddenly realised I was bursting for a pee. There was a low stone wall to our left, and I asked Jesus for permission to go behind it to relieve myself. He nodded agreement, and as he nodded, the blood on his face splattered on to mine. I went behind the wall, and emptied what was a very full bladder. When I came back, the road was empty. Everyone had gone. It started to rain heavily, and I raised my face to the skies. The rain washed away the blood of Christ, and I heard shouting. I woke up just as another drip from the ceiling of the tunnel landed on my face. 
I realised I had been dreaming, and then I realised I had wet myself; I had wet my bunk, and I had wet Mr Brookes. He was on his feet now, a look of disgust on his face as he shouted at Mum whilst he wiped himself down with the backs of his fingers.
"He's just a child." said Mum defensively.
"He's b-b-b-bloody three." Squeaked Mr Brookes loudly in reply.
I needed to put him straight. I leant over the side of my bunk and looked him in the eyes.
"I'm not b-b-b-bloody three." I yelled. I'm nearly f-f-f-four."
There was a stunned silence, and then slowly, everyone started to laugh. Mr Brookes joined in and the old man in the deck chair squeezed his accordion, and played a tune. Everyone joined in and sang along with a rousing chorus of K-K-K-Katie, b-b-beautiful Katie,
You're the only g-g-g-girl that I adore.
I felt a warm glow of satisfaction. It felt as if I had just told my first adult joke.

The 'all clear' sounded at four thirty and as everyone else settled down to sleep, we prepared to make our way home. Mum had a brief chat with the man on the door, and then we set off.
 I will never forget the walk home that night. It's just as if some great artist had painted a canvas, and placed it inside my head. The moon smiled down at its reflection on the river, and we had what was almost the perfect silence. It was broken only by the sound of our footsteps. Mum was wearing the same green coat, with the black fur trim; the same coat she had worn when we'd made our journey from Kingsdown to Hotwells all those months earlier. Mary, who was dressed all in pink, was leaning over Mum's left shoulder She was oblivious to everything, and was chuckling and chatting away to the white woollen doll which Mum had knitted for her. I was waddling along in the rear; lagging behind with my trousers wet, cold and clammy against my thighs. My socks were down around my ankles, and the early morning breeze was whipping cold against my bare legs. All I wanted was some sleep and some food.
We turned the final bend into our bit of Hotwell Road, and walked into an inferno. Anchor Road was burning from one end to the other. Jacob's Wells Road was badly damaged, and there was a massive fire on College Green as the big shop that Mum loved so much became a pile of smouldering embers, and a memory The sky over Brandon Hill was blood red, Park Row was on fire again. 

A neighbour came running down the road, threw her arms around my mother, and whispered something in her ear. The pair of them sobbed together, rocking in each others arms for several minutes. Every window in our house, together with most of the doors had disappeared. We spent the night in a strange bed, in a strange house. When I woke up, it was late afternoon, and Mum was dressed, ready and waiting.
"We're moving." She whispered. This time I didn't argue.This time I didn't mind.
She'd already rescued the clock, Dad's photo and my tennis ball, and we set off down the road. We were heading off to another adventure. Mary was leaning over Mum's shoulder again, still playing with her doll, still chuckling and chatting. Mum expertly steered the push chair with her spare hand.
"A new life and a better life."  Mum smiled and strode off at speed again. "We're going to Long Ashton; we're going home."
I asked to see Mr Lloyd. I wanted to say goodbye. but my request started Mum crying again. She explained that he was still in town, doing a 'fact find'. I wanted to believe her, but I had seen the hole in the garden where the Anderson shelter had once stood, and I was worried.
I slowly fell behind, but I wasn't dragging my heels. In fact, there a hint of a swagger in my step. I'd just realised that it was Saturday, and on a Saturday we always had cheese and chips for supper. That was one of my most favourite things in the whole world.
What I wanted now, was for Mum to stop crying.




Chapter eight.

Jacob and Long Ashton

 

We didn't know it as we set out on our journey to Long Ashton, but that Good Friday raid was to be the last of the major raids carried out over Bristol. The German Luftwaffe next turned their attentions to Belfast, London, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Sunderland and then to the East, and the Russian front. There would be a few more sporadic, but damaging raids on our city, but the siege of Bristol was all but over.

I didn't know what lay ahead of us as we marched off down Hotwell Road on that spring afternoon back in April 1941. Mum had spoken about a new and a better life, and what Mum promised, she usually delivered. I was feeling quite excited about the prospect of living in the country, but I wasn't looking forward to the journey. Mum had warned me it was a long walk to Long Ashton, and had told me to conserve my energy. I was doing just that, and walking with exaggerated slowness as I followed her and the pushchair down the road. We had only  travelled but a few hundred yards, and I was already beginning to fall behind. Mum stopped as we approached Ambra Vale, and beckoned for me to catch up. She was in the middle of lecturing me when I spotted him. He was sitting on a wall on the corner; just smiling, smoking and watching us. It felt almost as if he had been waiting for us. It was the man from the door at the tunnel.

He gave Mum a cigarette, and they smoked, chatted and laughed for quite some time. I heard him telling Mum that Mr Churchill had visited Bristol earlier that day, and he described how the crowd had booed the great man. He also told her that the Council were going to close the tunnel. I was engrossed, and fascinated.  He was better at ‘fact finding’ than Mr Lloyd had been. I heard Mum call him Jacob. Now I knew his name.

 He had even worse news to tell us. A single bomb had destroyed St Philips Bridge and the electrical supply for the Tramway Service.

“There will be no more trams until the war is over.” He looked quite sad, and I felt very sad. I always enjoyed riding on the trams.

He inhaled deeply, and then threw down his cigarette end. With a deep sigh he looked closely at his watch.

“We’d better get moving. It’s getting late.”

He reached down, placed his hands underneath my armpits and lifted me up to face level. He was very strong. I felt quite safe as he held me aloft and looked me directly in the eyes

“If I carry you on my shoulders, will you promise not to wee on me?” He looked deadly serious, and I nodded gravely in reply, but then he smiled, tousled my hair, and  laughed very loudly.

“I’m only joking Michael.” He laughed again, and this time I joined in , because I understood grown up jokes now.

He lifted me on to his shoulders, hooking a strong restraining arm behind my back. He made a clicking noise with his tongue on the roof of his mouth.

“Come on then cowboy, ride me.” He skipped for a couple of paces, and then stopped.

I tried to make the clicking noise, but I couldn’t manage it. He put me down again, and gave me a quick riding lesson. He taught me how to use the collar of his dark blue overcoat as a pair of reins, and taught me some ‘basic commands.’ We had to make several stops along the way, for him to have a cigarette. but I walked, trotted, cantered and galloped him all the way into Long Ashton.

It was quite dark when we finally arrived at our destination. I could just pick out a tiny knot of people in the middle of the road. They were standing at the bottom of what turned out to be Providence Lane. They were clapping, cheering and waving. I felt like some homecoming hero.

Jacob put me down quickly but gently.

“I’m out of here.” He kissed the tips of the fingertips of his right hand, and placed them tenderly on my mother’s cheek. “Stay lucky and stay lovely.”
He melted away into the night. I would never see him again, but for just a few brief hours I had experienced what life with a father would be like. I'd enjoyed it.



My mother had promised us a new and a better life, and this was precisely what she delivered. She and Mary were staying with Aunty Elsie and Uncle Joe. They had a neat, but small house at the very bottom of the lane. I was staying with Mrs Sherbourne and her daughter Margaret, who lived directly opposite. They had a very large house with big rooms and a huge garden. Mrs Sherbourne was a stout lady with a very red face and grey hair. Her daughter was aged about fourteen, and she was a big girl with a very red face and brown hair. I liked them, and they were both very kind to me. Mrs Sherbourne described me as a ‘rough diamond’, but promised ‘to polish me up until I was the finished article’. She then taught me to say grace before meals, and to always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’; not to snatch for the toast, but to wait until it was offered to me; to eat with a knife and fork instead of my fingers, and she told me that ‘Fucking Jerry’ and ‘The big bastard with my name written on it’, were not acceptable topics for the dinner table. After just a few weeks she gave me a hug and a big kiss, before declaring me to be a perfect gentleman. I couldn’t have been happier.


Long Ashton was a magical place, with never ending stretches of open green fields, beautiful woods, babbling brooks, songbirds, cows, rabbits and seemingly continuous sunshine. There were also wasps, stinging nettles and cow pats, but these were only minor irritants. I spent many long, happy hours with Mum. She showed me the house where she had been born and raised with her family. She took me to the school where she had learnt to read, write and recite Longfellow’s Hiawatha from beginning to end She took me to the fields where she had played with her sisters, and she showed me the big house on the hill where she had been a servant. She spoke with great affection about Lady Smyth, but she was sad again as she told me once more about the long, slow deaths of her mother and her bothers from Tuberculosis. She sat on the grass and cried, as I tried to comfort her.



Nothing good lasts for ever. One day, as the nights grew colder and the trees began to change colour, I woke up and I was ill again. This time I was very ill. I was drifting in and out of consciousness. The same doctor called, wearing the same jacket, with the same pocketful of pens. He really was important; this time he arrived in his own ambulance. I can remember the sea of anxious faces around the bed as the doctor examined me. Mrs Sherbourne comforted Mum as they carried me to the ambulance. We rumbled into Bristol, bound for Tower Hill Clinic, which I recognised because I had been there for x Rays when I had been ill before. Tower Hill stood like a Palace in the midst of the desert of flattened bombed building sites in Castle Street and Counterslip. I had my x Rays, and then we rumbled back to Long Ashton.

The doctor leapt out of the ambulance as soon as we arrived. Mum was already standing there, waiting. The door was half open and I watched as the doctor put his hands on her shoulders, looked her in the eyes and spoke to her. Mum was wearing a brave face, with a firm mouth, but she had worried eyes. I heard the doctor say the words 'shadows on the lungs.' As the doctor spoke, Mum's face, and her firm mouth crumpled like a rubber mask against a flame and she screamed, and then started to cry. She cried silently, sobbing with her head buried in the doctor’s chest, and then he led her slowly back into the house.

The ambulance driver appeared at the open door. He was a tall, thin man, with a yellow face and matching teeth. He removed the cigarette end from the corner of his mouth, and picked a stray piece of tobacco from his tongue. He then coughed and spat.

“Who’s a lucky boy?” he wheezed. “I’m taking you to the seaside.”
I fell asleep.




Chapter Nine

In sickness and in health

 

It came as no surprise when Mum announced that we might be moving back to Bristol. I had already seen all the warning signs. She was restless, and had been disappearing into town on a regular basis.

"I’m looking for work," was her explanation "and sorting out a school for Michael."

I knew that the beautiful butterfly was preparing to flutter her wings, and we were about to fly off again. Although Mum had spent her childhood in Long Ashton, she had grown accustomed to big city living. She was missing the daily hustle and bustle. She wanted, and needed, the excitement of the shops, the rattle of the traffic and the clamour of the crowds. More importantly there were no pawn shops in Long Ashton to help out with the weekly budget, and there were not enough men telling her that she looked like Hedy Lamaar.

She broke the news to me as we were making our way into Bristol on the bus. We were going for a picnic on Brandon Hill.

"it’s a  special treat for a special little boy." I didn't know what I had done to merit this, but I certainly wasn't going to argue. I liked being special, I liked treats, and I liked Brandon Hill.

"Summer is almost over, but Brandon Hill will be nice at this time of year. It will do both of us a bit of good."

She told me the bombing had all but finished; that Mr Hitler had now sent his planes to Russia; that Father Doyle had kindly sorted me out a place at St Mary on the Quay Infant school, and that she had found us a lovely house in Kingsdown.

We made our way up to the base of the Cabot Tower. I knew that Mum would be telling me some stories; there was something about Brandon Hill that always set her off. I didn't mind, because Mum was a good story teller, and it wasn't long before she started.

"This is the very spot where I met your father for the first time". She smiled and chuckled. "He was very shy."

I listened as she told me about my father, and his first marriage. She told me, once again, about her childhood in Long Ashton, and how she had lost her mother and her two favourite brothers to TB. I heard the story about her work at Ashton Court, about the gardener, and how her baby Ivan had been 'put up for adoption.' 

"You have two brothers out there somewhere Michael. Maybe one day you can all meet up and be like real brothers."

I was interested, but I was more interested now in the picnic. The food was all neatly wrapped up in newspaper to keep the germs and the dirt out.

 

We made our way down the crazy paved pathway; past the fish pond with the giant goldfish darting around, and then we found a bench with a nice view across Bristol. We sat and ate in contented silence. It was only bread and jam, but it was strawberry jam, and strawberry jam was my favourite.

We wandered around until Mum found a gentle slope where she tried to teach me to roly-poly. I wasn't very good at it, and by the time I eventually managed to make my way from the top to the bottom I had a fit of the giggles. Mum, took advantage, pinned me down, and blew raspberries on my neck until I was helpless with hysterical laughter and begging for mercy.

It was a nice day, one of those special days that will always stay in your memory.

But that had been several days ago, and now I was slowly waking up in a strange bed, in an unfamiliar darkened room. I could see candles flickering, and I could just pick out some vague shapes. I could hear the sound of women’s voices. They were whispering and giggling in that special way that women do. I thought for a moment I was back in the tunnel, but then I remembered the doctor, the ambulance and Tower Hill Clinic. I felt a haunted chill run down my spine, and I started to cry. I called out for Mum. One of the vague shapes and one of the candles came speeding towards me. I recognised the uniform. It was a nurse, and she was young, blonde and lovely. She looked and sounded like an angel.

“Hush now Michael, you’ll wake everyone.” She held a finger up to her lips. “You’ve not been well, but we’re going to make you better. I am Nurse Pamela and you are in Weston super Mare Sanatorium.”

She gently lifted my head, whilst at the same time expertly plumping up my pillow with her free hand.

“Here drink this.” She raised a glass to my lips. It was orange juice; I loved orange juice. “Now get some sleep, I will wake you up when it’s time for breakfast.”




When I woke up it was light, and I could clearly see my surroundings. Nurse Pamela was by my side, smiling and watching me closely. I was in a long, narrow room with a line of beds on either wall. I was quite taken aback by the whiteness of the sheets and the pillows. On each of the pillows lay an equally white face. Some of the boys were jumping out of bed and making a dash for the wash basins which were along the walls at each end of the room. I made a move to get up, but Nurse Pamela placed a restraining arm across my chest.

“You are on full rest, young man.” She pointed to the boys at the basins who were now splashing water on their faces. “Your turn will come soon enough.”

I wasn’t even allowed to sit up for breakfast. Nurse Pamela fed me, and I didn’t mind a bit, because I was given the finest breakfast of my life. I will never forget that first meal. I had a large bowl of porridge with milk and sugar. This was followed by two rashers of bacon and a whole piece of fried bread, two rounds of toast with real butter, and two pieces of bread and butter with jam. It wasn’t strawberry jam, but I wasn’t complaining.

The food was so good. I can remember there were always lots of cold meats with plenty of boiled potatoes, cabbage and butter. I had only ever known war time rationing, and could only dream of food like this.  In fact, by the end of the first week, I had quite fallen in love with Nurse Pamela, and with Weston super Mare Sanatorium.

By the end of the second week I was on ‘two pillows’, but I was still not allowed to sit up. Everyone was ‘on’ something. Full rest, half rest, sitting up, one pillow, two pillows, walk to dining rooms. There was a list as long as your arm. I slowly got the hang of things. I don’t know how long I was in that place. The days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months. I stopped looking up expectantly when the doors swung open. I no longer waited for my mother’s friendly, familiar face to appear. At first I cried myself to sleep at night, and then I decided Mum had abandoned me in the same way she had abandoned Ivan. I willed myself to forget, and to hate her. I waited patiently for the day I would be adopted

.I was on ‘full exercise’ now. This entailed two long walks every day. We were wrapped up against the elements, and marched the entire length of Weston super Mare beach. We walked two abreast, in silence, and with a nurse at each end of the line. The nurses shepherded us away from any casual bystanders.  Old faces would disappear overnight, and new ones would spring up from nowhere. I was an old hand now, I was like an old lag in prison. I knew all the routines, and all the little tricks. I knew which faces would fall for a sweet smile, and which hearts were cold and unyielding.

It came as a bolt from the blue when Nurse Pamela told me I was better, and my mother was coming to collect me. I suddenly realised I didn’t want to leave. The nurses had become my mother now, and the hospital had become my home. There were tears, tantrums and stamping of feet, but eventually I was dressed and led outside. I genuinely didn’t recognise the beautiful woman who was waiting across the road. She had deep auburn hair and green eyes. She was carrying a shopping bag, and a young girl was standing by her side. The young girl had two plaits which were secured by pink ribbon. She was nervously playing with the hem of her pink and white, candy striped dress, as she was bit her lower lip, swayed her shoulders from side to side, and studied me from lowered eyes.

I was clinging like a limpet to Nurse Pamela’s thigh. The stranger with the auburn hair smiled, reached out and beckoned me to come to her. I knew that smile, but I clung even more tightly to the nurse’s leg, and backed away.

“Oh my God!” The woman held her hand to her mouth. I remembered Mum used to say that and hold her hand to her mouth just like that. I was weakening now.

 “I thought you’d like a bag of fish and chips.” My resolve weakened further.

The stranger started to cry as she rummaged around in her shopping bag, and then she produced an old tennis ball, and a small crumpled photo of a young man wearing football kit. I didn’t need to look; I knew there was a message scribbled on the back, and I knew exactly what it read. I fell into Mum’s arms.

Whenever we had moved on to better things, Mum had always said ‘Don’t look back. The future is right in front of us, so that’s where we look.’ I didn’t look back as we marched off down the promenade, and I didn’t lag behind either.

“Slow down, there’s no hurry.”

There was; I wanted to claim my prize. I wanted my bag of fish and chips.

There were a number of unanswered questions arising from my time in the hospital. It was many years later before I asked Mum about it. I was in my thirties, and she was in her fifties. She had kept the secret well. In 1941, her son had been taken to hospital, having been diagnosed with TB. Her biggest nightmare had become a reality. I had been in hospital for eight months. I asked her why she hadn’t visited me.

“You were in isolation. I visited you every week, but I couldn’t come in. Instead, I stood in the shadows, just out of view, and I watched you walking. I walked with you back and forth and I was holding your hand for every step of the way.”






Chapter Ten



The longest mile


It only takes a second for your world to turn upside down, but it takes a lot longer to rebuild it. The Sanatorium at Weston super Mare had become my home; it was my comfort zone. Now I was struggling in a strange new world, with two people I could barely remember. The fish and chips had been great, but as we boarded the bus to return to Bristol I was feeling lost and insecure. I should have been excited and happy, but I was sad and somewhat fearful.

The journey home felt never ending. Mary curled up on Mum's lap and fell asleep, the bus rumbled on and on and on, and Mum was chatting non stop. I think she sensed that some of my memories had faded, and she started telling me stories. They were only little stories, but they slowly and surely filled in most of the gaps that had developed in my memory.

She soon had my full attention, and I noticed a few of the other passengers were leaning forward and listening intently. She spoke about our time at Badminton Road. We all chuckled as she described how I had marched with the Salvation Army Band on Sunday mornings. We all smiled as she talked about those sun filled days in St James' Churchyard, where I used to feed the birds with the bread crumbs. She even revived a bad memory. The memory of the day when I had stolen an apple from the Greengrocer's display in Gloucester Road. We had reached the bottom of Stokes Croft before I  produced it from my pocket, and Mum had then marched me all the way back to return it and apologise.
"Having a thief in the family would break my heart."
She didn't mention Mr 'Brown' or Mrs Grant, but then again, she didn't need to, because I had very clear memories of them both, along with my memories of the Military Police..

She spoke fondly about our days at Kingsdown Parade. She recalled how Peggy and I ran down the road juggling the freshly baked loaves of bread. They were blisteringly hot and we struggled to hold on to them.

She fell silent for a while, and then revealed that Mr Lloyd and his family had been buried alive on the night of the Good Friday raid. She rapidly added that they had been rescued, and were all alive and well. She placed her free hand around my shoulders and pulled me closer as she spoke about the blitz, and those long, frightening hours in the tunnel. For one terrible moment I feared that the other passengers on the bus were about to hear about the night when I had wet both the bunk and Mr Brookes, but Mum didn't let me down.

She touched briefly on Long Ashton, raising her voice to announce that I had been in hospital with a bout of pneumonia. The lady in an adjoining seat promptly gave me a sweet. Mum didn't mention Jacob, but again, she didn't need to. I had clear memories of him teaching me to ride on his back, and of him kissing his fingertips before placing them tenderly on Mum's cheek.

By the time we arrived in Bristol, all my memories were safely stored back inside my head, and most of the people on the bus knew my life story.

As a very small child I had often struggled to sleep, and Mum would sing me a lullaby. One of my favourites was a song called the longest mile is the last mile home. I had never quite understood the meaning of the words in the past, but now, as we trudged wearily up Lower Maudlin Street and past the Bristol Royal Infirmary, those words made sense. It felt as if we had been walking for ever.
"We're almost there. You are going to love it Michael." We were staring up Marlborough Hill.
I felt as if we were looking up the side of a mountain.
"Onwards and upwards." We started walking again.
What neither of us knew as we headed for our final destination was that Mum was taking me to a place where I would spend the happiest days of my life.

Halsbury Road was a neat little, cobblestoned cul-de-sac situate about three parts of the way up the hill, on the left hand side. There were twelve houses; six on either side of the road. The houses were tall, slender, red bricked buildings which rose elegantly into the Kingsdown skies. They were four storeys high, with two rooms on each level. There were even two front doors. There was one on the ground floor, and another on the first floor. This latter door was reached by way of climbing an imposing, external grey slated staircase. The metal railings had been removed for the 'war effort', and Mum was quick to ban me from using the stairs.

Up until now, we'd spent the whole of our life living in a couple of tiny rooms and an even smaller kitchen. I never did discover how my mother managed to gain control of a complete house, and I was too tired to ask any questions that night. Mum made up a fire, and I curled up in the armchair, and fell asleep.

You always hurt the one you love,
the one you shouldn't hurt at all,
you always break the kindest heart
with a hasty word you cant recall.

Mum was on her hands and knees polishing the red flagstone floor in the hallway of our new house. She was singing at the top of her voice as she polished. She had her back to me, and was completely unaware of my presence. I liked it when Mum was singing. I sat on the bottom stair as I watched and listened.

So if I broke your heart last night
it's because I love you most of all.

She finished polishing with a flourish of the duster, and finished singing with a big note. She stood up, yawned and stretched.
"Please Lord give me strength."
She turned and jumped, startled as she saw me sitting there. "Look at you, half naked and just out of hospital with pneumonia." She took my hand and led me into the living room.
"Look at me." She was studying herself closely in the mirror. "Now we have a house, I have to become a housewife."
She knelt in front of me, looking me in the eyes. "And, until your father gets home, you will have to be the man of the house."
I liked the sound of that, because Mum had always told me that the 'man of the house'  had the biggest portions of food.
My clothes were all hanging from the back of a chair in front of the roaring fire. She dressed me quickly; it was just like old times. I stood there, looking around and taking in my new surroundings. The same old clock was on the mantle shelf, with Dad's photo tucked away behind it.

Mum was scrubbing away behind my ears with the piece of roughened towel, some spit and the tiniest piece of soap. She was complaining about the soap being rationed. We were off to St Mary on the Quay Infant School. I needed to be registered, and I needed to look my best. Father Doyle would be there waiting for us, and we were running late. We were soon running even later. We had barely passed the Bristol Royal Infirmary when the jeep pulled up alongside us. Bristol had changed a lot whilst I had been away. Amongst other things the drab, grey streets had changed. Overnight, or so it seemed, those streets had changed into a more glamorous version of Hollywood in Technicolour. There were American soldiers everywhere. Brash, confident, handsome young men, all wearing smart uniforms, and looking and sounding like film stars. The young soldier who vaulted out of the jeep was one of them. He was tall and slim, with a gleaming white smile. He clicked his heels, and saluted us. I saluted back, and he burst out laughing as he removed his cap and stood in front of us.
"Good morning ma'am. We would like to give your young brother a packet of gum. I hope you don't mind." He tossed me a packet of chewing gum, and Mum nervously started to explain that I wasn't her brother. She had only just started speaking when they both started laughing, and  then they moved away up the road. They stood smoking, laughing and talking for several minutes. I was struggling with the packaging on the chewing gum, and one of the other American soldiers jumped from the jeep and helped me out.

"His name was Buddy...what a lovely name."  We were hurrying up Perry Road now. Mum was wearing that look on her face; the Hedy Lamarr look. The look  that always spelled trouble.
 "He thought I was your sister... Do I really look that young?"
I didn't reply. I could smell trouble.

We were late, and Father Doyle was looking less than pleased when we walked in. He was waiting with three Nuns, Sisters Philomena, Josephine and Geraldine. They ran the Infant School and they were all very nice, but I liked Sister Josephine the best. She put me on her lap whilst Mum spoke with the others. She had a book, and we did some reading. Sister Josephine pursed her lips and nodded at Mum.
"He's good, you've done very well."

Mum took me in to the pawn shop on the way home, and I met Mr Keeler for the first time. She introduced me to him and he called me 'young man.' He wasn't at all what I had been expecting. He was a very small man. He wore spectacles, had very white hair, and spoke with a very quiet voice. More importantly he only had a single pen in his breast pocket, but he had plenty of money. He studied Mum's engagement ring closely, through a tiny eye piece, and then smiled, nodded and gave her a silver coin and a ticket.
Mum was happy. "That's supper sorted."


It was like old times. I lay in front of the fire listening to ITMA. I joined in the applause from the studio audience as the great man was introduced.
"All hand to muster; blunt razors to plaster; the Wren shook her head when I asked her." Tommy Handley rattled out the lines.
The audience roared with laughter, and I joined in, but my laughter was half hearted. I was just a little bit annoyed. I didn't understand the joke, and I had convinced myself that I had mastered adult humour.
 It was a good night though.We had cheese and chips for supper and life was good.
 
 
 


Chapter Eleven

 

We will have roses in the summer

 


 


I was five now and feeling quite grown up. I was fully ready for my new role as the ‘man of the house’. Mum told me that I had missed a birthday whilst I had been in hospital, and she gave me a belated present. It was something I had long been nagging her for; a pen knife. The handle was in mother of pearl, and there were two blades. I was pleased with my knife, and with my birthday bread pudding that Mum had made for me. I felt somewhat guilty about drawing Mum’s attention to the porridge, egg, bacon, sausage, fried bread and toast breakfasts that Nurse Pamela used to give me in the Sanatorium.  Mum quietly and patiently tried to explain ‘rationing’ to me, and how it worked. I still didn’t fully understand it, but she told me we were only allowed one egg per person per week, and two rashers of bacon per person per fortnight.



"We just have to take the rough with the smooth, and be grateful for small mercies." Mum had a saying for everything, and it always made sense.



There was a further advantage to being the ‘man of the house’. I was given first choice of whichever room I wanted for my bedroom. I felt like an explorer as I poked and prodded my way around the house. I inspected every nook, cranny and corner of every single room. When I finally announced my decision Mum was horrified. I had selected the one room in the house that was not in good order. To be honest, it was in a very poor condition. The pink flowered wall paper and the plaster were both peeling away from the walls, and three large buckets were strategically placed in one corner of the room to collect the rainwater which was dripping constantly from the leaking roof.  Mum did her best to persuade me to change my mind, but all to no avail. It was the view from the window of that fourth floor room that had made my mind up; it was quite breath-taking. Living up there I felt like a young millionaire in a pent house, and when I looked out of that window I felt like a young prince surveying my future kingdom. On a fine clear day I could see the whole of East Bristol


Mum said the other side of the road was the ‘posh side’. This was because the houses had a coat of paint on the doors, and flowers and shrubs in the tiny, but neat front gardens. I never forgot Mum’s words and for the remainder of my days in the street, I always looked up to Mr and Mrs Knight, Mr and Mrs Miller and Mrs Annie Cole. I regarded them as my superiors. If I had worn a cap, I would have doffed it to them.
“When your father comes home we will have paint on the doors and the windows, and we will have flowers in the garden.” Mum was on her hands and knees as she spoke. She was cutting the grass in our front garden with a pair of nail scissors. “We will have roses in the summer and bluebells in the spring.”


I didn’t have the pen knife for long. It was confiscated within a few weeks. Firstly, I cut my mouth trying to open the blade with my teeth, and the Doctor at the Bristol Royal Infirmary had a stern face and a serious voice as he told Mum I was too young to have such a toy. Mum issued me with a final warning when we got home. Just a few days later she arrived back from the shops to find a terrified Mary standing with her arms outstretched, and her back to the door, whilst I hurled the knife at her. I was attempting to emulate the knife throwing act we had recently seen at the cinema. The knife disappeared into Mum’s handbag and I never saw it again.


“Got any gum chum?” I was standing, with Mary, in the entrance to the Hippodrome. We were sheltering from a heavy shower. School had finished early and there was some time to kill before Mum arrived to pick us up. We had made our way down to the Tramway Centre. I had already made a promise to myself that I would never ask any American soldiers for chewing gum, but I was bored, and hungry. I could feel myself weakening, and right on cue the two soldiers came wandering by. Only a few nights earlier I had heard a man on the radio describing American soldiers as being ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here.’  He didn’t seem to like them very much, and whilst I didn’t wholly understand his views, I had found myself disliking them as well.The two soldiers to whom I had addressed my request stopped and stared at me.
“Got any gum chum?” I was demanding now, growing in confidence.


The shorter and plumper one of the two took a packet of chewing gum from his pocket, and dangled it invitingly under my nose. “That all depends.” He leant forward, waving the gum temptingly.  He pointed at Mary. “Have you got an older sister?”
“Or even an attractive mother?” The other soldier joined in.

Overpaid, oversexed and over here. I felt quite proud of myself as I turned and walked slowly away. I never asked another soldier for chewing gum again.



 



Mum had three jobs. She had a cleaning job at a lady’s house in Archfield Road, Cotham, and two others, both in Park Row. The first involved cleaning in the Jewish Synagogue; the other was directly across the road from there, where she washed dishes in a restaurant.

“It’s either that or we take in lodgers.” She said the words sadly, but I nodded approvingly. I didn’t want any strangers coming into my castle.

It all worked out quite nicely. Mum would start the day by taking us to school, and then cleaning the Synagogue. The Synagogue was massive and I was very proud that my mother was cleaning the entire building.  She would then head off up Horfield Road for the second cleaning job in Cotham. The restaurant where Mum washed the dishes was almost next to the school, so it was all very easy for her.

Our next door neighbour was Mrs Norris. She was a tall, thin lady with very long, very black hair and not many teeth. She always wore a loose fitting, blue flowered dress and always had a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. Whenever she spoke, she coughed. Mrs Norris didn’t have any jobs, but she did have lodgers. The current lodgers were Nancy and Ken. They were Welsh so I presumed they were from Newport. I liked Aunty Nancy, but Mum wasn’t ‘too sure’ about her. Mum also said that Uncle Ken was a ‘spiv’. I suspected that Mum didn’t like Aunty Nancy because she was very pretty, and she had long shiny brown hair, and a big smile. I liked her because she gave me sweets.  Uncle Ken had ginger hair, a small ginger moustache and he rode a motor bike. He made tiny toy windmills, which had coloured pieces of plastic attached to thin pieces of wood.  Mum said he drove his motor bike to the seaside every day and sold the ‘rubbish’ to children.


 I was happy  to be at St Mary on the Quay school. My mother told me that my father had attended that very school as a young boy, and she had promised him that I would follow in his footsteps. I was in the Infants, and Mary was at the Nursery. Sister Josephine was very kind and taught me reading , writing and arithmetic. I liked the reading and writing, but I didn’t enjoy the arithmetic.I didn’t enjoy playtimes either. In addition to being the Nursery and the Infants school, St Mary’s was also the ‘big girls’ school. The playground was always a sea of screaming, shouting, chanting girls. They were all skipping, hopping and arguing as they bounced and threw balls against the walls. None of them ever played football, and I would drift off to the bottom of the yard, lean over the wall, and watch the big boys in Trenchard Street playing football in the playground below.

A boy called ‘Moggy’ was my hero. He was a short boy with dark hair. He may have been short in stature but in terms of footballing ability he was huge. He wore cut down wellington boots, which must have been an enormous disadvantage, but he had complete control of that tiny tennis ball. I studied him closely and noted how he always drifted away from the heaving mass of boys chasing the ball around the yard. When the ball finally squirted loose from the scrimmage, Moggy was always there with time and space to wrap his instep around the ball and deliver it accurately to his chosen destination. I dreamt of going to the ‘big boys’ school and being on the same side as Moggy.


As the afternoons wore on, I would grow tired, and Sister Josephine would cradle me in her arms and sing to me. She always sang the same lullaby. She sang softly and gently, as she rocked me until I fell asleep.


My Mother sang a song to me


In tones so sweet and low;


Just a simple little ditty,
In her good old Irish way,
And I'd give the world to hear her sing
That song of hers today.
Toora-loora-looral, Toora-loo-ra-li,

Toora-loora-looral, Hush now don't you cry!
Toora-loora-looral, Toora-loora-li,

Toora-loora-looral, That's an Irish lullaby


When I woke up it was usually time to go home. Mary and I would sit on the steps outside of the school, as we waited  for Mum to finish her final job of the day. Mum was always on time, but one day she was late. We waited and waited until eventually, I told Mary to stay where she was whilst I went off to investigate. I went outside and looked up the road. I saw her straight away. She was standing outside of the Red Lodge. She was laughing and joking with an American soldier. He looked familiar; I recognised him as the soldier who had vaulted from the jeep to speak to us all those weeks earlier. The one who had scribbled a note on the packet of cigarettes. I struggled to remember his name.
His name was Buddy…what a lovely name.
He was lighting a cigarette for her. His hand was cupped across the cigarette protecting the flame of his lighter from the breeze. His long fingers were touching her cheek.
I recalled that day in St James Churchyard. I was watching Mum and Mr ‘Brown’ once again. The alarm bells started to ring, but I just turned away, and returned to sit back down next to Mary.
“She’s on her way.”
Mary continued playing with her little knitted doll, and she didn’t reply. I think she still hadn’t quite forgiven me for the knife throwing episode.










 


 



 Chapter Twelve





 




Trouble doesn’t travel up a hill




 




 




I had already learnt that nothing good lasts for ever, and that the world was a constantly changing place, and now I was learning that life was a fascinating mixture of good times and bad times; a delicately balanced cocktail of laughter and tears.

I asked Mum about the meeting with Buddy. She laughed it off and described it as  ‘pure chance’. She said that he was often in that area, and they frequently bumped in to one another.

We had settled in very nicely at Halsbury Road. Mum had been quick to point out to us that everything we needed was right there on our doorstep. Mr Keeler’s pawn shop was at the bottom of the hill, the Bristol Co-operative Grocery stores were at the top of the hill, and right next door to that building was Smith’s Fish and Chip shop. Parker’s Bakery was only a short walk along Kingsdown Parade, and there were even two sweet shops within easy walking distance. Mrs Moore’s shop was the closest of the two at the top of Alfred Hill, but I had never forgotten the extra sherbet lemon that Mrs Tuck had slipped into the bag on that day when Mum had received the telegram from the Admiralty. Increasingly more in hope than expectation, I usually ended up in Mrs Tuck’s shop, but my loyalty was never rewarded again.


It was summer time now, and we were on holiday from school. The sun seemed to shine down on us all day and every day. I had risen early that morning. It was so early that I witnessed my first ever sunrise. I stood at the window and watched wide eyed with amazement as that ball of fire lit up the skies as it came into view over the hills of Purdown. I then took my tennis ball out on to the hill for more football practice. I had long since discovered that the more I practiced, the better I got. My practice drill was simplicity itself. I hurled the ball up the hill and watched with a mixture of excitement, fear and apprehension as it came bouncing back down at me, gathering pace, as it spat and reared off the cobblestones. If I missed it, I was faced with a chase down that steep hill. Sometimes, the chase would take me all the way down to the bottom, and would often then take me across Marlborough Street and all the way down Whitson Street to where the buses now exit from the Coach Station. There were many back to back misses, but I had persevered. Those chases and long trudges back up the hill were great incentives to improve, and I had now reached a point where I seldom missed. I had improved to the point where I could now occasionally wrap my instep around the ball and volley it back from whence it came. Moggy, without even knowing it, had taught me well. I was ready now to join his team.

Mum was taking Mary to work with her, and I elected to stay at home. I’d taken a few sheets and blankets down to Mr Keeler’s shop on the previous day, and we therefore had some money, but we were still without food, and Mum sat studying our ration books. She sat in silence, rubbing her chin and looking worried. She grimaced, groaned and then broke the news to me. We had somehow managed to use up our weekly quota. We weren’t entitled to any further rations until the following week. Mum scribbled out a shopping list on a piece of scrap paper, wrapped it around Mr Keeler’s two shilling piece, and dispatched me off to the Co-op.

“You must see Mr Morris; nobody else will do”. She handed me one of the ration books, and repeated the instructions, slowly and clearly.

I liked going to the Co-op.  There was sawdust on the highly polished floors, and over the top of each counter was a fascinating gadget, where the counter assistant would put your money and a ticket into one half of a cup. This was then attached to the other half of the cup that was suspended on a wire line. The line ran the full length of the shop from the counter to a small office which was raised to a higher level. A lady cashier sat in the office.  After attaching the cup to the wire the assistant would pull down on a handle and the cup would shoot along the wire to the cashier. She would then write in a book before returning the cup, together with any change and a ticket. There were several of these wire gadgets operated from each counter by assistants serving different customers.
I waited in the long queue with a lot of ladies who were waiting to see Mr Morris. He was clearly a very popular man. He was short and stocky, with a fat face, an even fatter stomach and slicked back, well-oiled hair. He always wore a sparklingly clean white coat, and there were pens and pencils galore bursting out of his breast pocket. I think he might have been Welsh, but I wasn’t certain about that. I stood and waited patiently until it was my turn.
“Good morning Master Kelly.” Mr Morris started whistling as he unwrapped and read Mum’s note. He fell silent as he quickly studied the ration book, and then took a glance around over his shoulders. He whipped a short stubby pencil from his pocket, licked the end, and quickly waved it over the page as if he were drawing a line across the book.
“How’s your mother?” He expertly pulled the piece of wire across a slab of butter, and then followed suit on a piece of cheese. He wrapped up the two small portions in greaseproof paper.
“Mum is well.” I mumbled nervously. I was now in a hurry to get out of the shop. I was fully expecting the police to arrive and arrest me at any minute.
“Make sure you give her my love,” The overhead container whizzed its way towards the cashier’s office. “And make sure to tell her I haven’t seen her around lately.” The container thudded back into its place above the counter. Mr Morris unscrewed the half, removed my change, and handed it to me. He smiled, nodded and started whistling again as he returned my ration book, and handed me the small white paper bag that contained the food.
He was rubbing his hands together again and smiling as he greeted the next lady in the queue. “Hello my love. I haven’t seen you around lately.”
I hung around and watched closely as she nervously handed her ration book to him. He glanced equally nervously over his shoulders, took the pencil from his pocket, and licked it before pretending to cross off the relevant section in the book. I ran home quickly. I didn’t want to be around when the policeman came.
Despite everything, I quite liked Mr Morris. His food was very good; he whistled some good tunes, and he always had a big smile on his face.
There was only the one problem with life at Halsbury Road, but it was a big problem. It was the very same old problem that had followed me around Bristol. There were no other children in the road. There was no one to play with, apart from the two older girls who lived in number 7. The elder of the two, Pamela, bore a striking resemblance to Peggy Woodruff. She was tall and slender, and like Peggy, she also had very large feet. She was also very kind to me, but I fell out of favour on the day I invited her to play ‘doctors and nurses’. She ran off indoors, before returning to tell me she was no longer allowed to play with me. Her mother gave me a long and very funny look when she next saw me in the street.
I had already asked Mum’s permission to go further afield in pursuit of friendships. She hesitated before giving her approval. And the approval when it came was conditional.
“Trouble doesn’t travel up a hill. If you go anywhere, you go that way.” She pointed up the hill in the direction of Kingsdown Parade.
And so it was that on that sunny morning in August 1942, I set off in search of friendship and adventure. . There were many bombed building sites at the top of the hill, but I was particularly interested in one of them. Directly at the top of the hill, on the other side of the road was a large brick wall which bounded the back garden of what had been a big house in Montague Place. The house itself was opposite the Headquarters of the Royal Gloucester Hussars Regiment. Both of the buildings had been destroyed in the blitz.
There was a big green door in the centre of that brick wall, which would tantalisingly open for just a few inches; not quite far enough to allow even a child of my age and size to enter. On that day the road was deserted; there was no one around, so I gently applied some pressure with my shoulder.  Suddenly there was a slight movement. It was not a lot, but suddenly there was space, just sufficient space for me to be able to squeeze my way in. I found myself in a world where I was completely alone. I was in a magical, special place where there were no prying eyes, no one to shatter the peace, no one to interrupt your thoughts. It was a wonderful place, and it was mine, and mine alone. There were several large piles of bricks and debris, but there was still beauty everywhere. There were flowers of many different types and colours, shrubs and ornamental grasses; an empty fish pond and some ornate wrought iron garden furniture.
I ventured rather nervously into the house itself, but I didn’t linger inside for long. The staircase was all but totally destroyed, and the floorboards were almost non-existent. The entire house felt as if it were on the verge of total collapse. I returned to the garden and sat on an old wooden bench in the shade of a bent and withered tree. The bench was set against a wall which ran for the entire length of the garden A bush which was bursting with a red berried fruit dominated the remainder of the wall. Mum had lectured me long and often about the dangers of eating strange berries, so I only had five or six of them, even though they were delicious.
I felt at peace with the world, but it didn’t last for long. Panic suddenly set in, as I recalled Mum’s dramatic descriptions of the perils of eating strange berries. I remembered how she had told me about the pains, the sickness and the long drawn out agonies of the inevitable death. I picked several more berries and rushed home with them.
 Mum and Mary were home from the cleaning, and were now preparing to go to the shops. I showed Mum the berries, but I didn’t mention that I had eaten some. Mum immediately put one into her mouth, and then stood still, with her eyes closed, moaning gently as she slowly chewed it.
“Michael, they’re raspberries. Where did you find them?”
I pointed up the hill, “Bombed building site.” I waited for my punishment; instead mum dashed off and returned with an empty shoe box. “Pick as many as you can. We will have some for tea, and I will make jam with the rest.”
Mum and Mary went down the hill, heading for the shops, and I marched back up the hill to complete my raspberry picking. All was well in Halsbury Road, I just needed some friends.





Chapter Thirteen


 


A fool and his biscuits


 


 


I picked away solidly for about an hour. By the time I’d finished, both the shoe box and my stomach were very full. I rested on my bench and made some plans. Father Doyle would be calling in later, and Mum was going to ask him if I could join the choir. She was also going to ask him if I could move to the ‘big boy’s school’ next term. Sister Josephine had told her my reading and writing were ’coming along nicely’.


I was just making my way out of the garden when I noticed it. The sun was reflecting from an object in the pile of debris I had disturbed when I had opened the green gate. I pulled away at the loose earth and removed a brick or two. I’d struck gold; I had uncovered a tin of biscuits. The label was still intact, but the lid was buckled, damaged by the weight of the debris. I tried hard, but I couldn’t remove it. I wasn't unduly worried, my day was getting better and better.  We now had both raspberries and biscuits for tea.


Mum and Mary weren’t back from the shops, and the key wasn’t in its usual place in the coal house, so I climbed up the forbidden outside stairs and waited.


I let the afternoon sun beat down on my head, and i drifted off to sleep.


“What have you got there?”  It was Aunty Nancy, standing over me.


“Raspberries.”  I pushed the shoe box a little further away from her. I liked Aunty Nancy, but that box was emptying at an alarming rate. I had developed a taste for raspberries.


“Not those…the tin.” She pointed to my biscuits.


“Biscuits, but I can’t open the lid.”


“Give them here.” Aunty Nancy leant across the wall and took the tin from my hands.


She opened the lid straight away. I stood up and we both stared at the contents. I experienced the bitter taste of disappointment. The blood drained from Aunty Nancy’s face. There were no biscuits. The tin was full of bank notes. There were green notes, brown notes and white ones. All in neat bundles, secured with paper clips. As a child in a house where the largest unit currency was normally a half crown coin, the notes meant little to me. I would have gladly swopped them for biscuits.
“Where did you find this?” She could barely speak.
“Bombed building site.” I waved my arm in the direction of Kingsdown Parade.
She was breathing heavily now. “Has your mother seen this?” I shook my head slowly.
“Then she never must. It would break her heart to know that her son was a thief. This is stealing, and that makes you a thief Michael. You could go to prison.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I had heard on the radio that prisoners were fed on bread and water. I had a big problem.
Aunty Nancy had a solution for it. “Listen closely Michael. Ken and I will take this to Bridewell in the morning. We will say that we found it in the street. We won’t mention your name, and you won't get into any trouble, but you mustn’t under any circumstances mention it to your mother.”
She took the tin into the house, returned and gave me a sweet. “Remember…not a word. If it’s claimed, there could well be a reward.”
I didn’t say a word to Mum when she got back from the shops. We had raspberries for tea. Mum poured some milk over them, sprinkled them with sugar, and then made some jam with the remainder. I went to bed that night and dreamt about ‘rewards’. I pictured Mum’s smiling face as I handed her the two shilling piece.
I didn’t see Aunty Nancy or Uncle Ken for several weeks, and slowly my dream of a reward faded away. It was then that Mum dropped the bombshell. We were sharing a portion of fish and chips. There were only two chips remaining, and they were both on the end of Mum’s fork. I was hoping they were going to find their way on to my plate. Mum looked as if she had something on her mind, she was miles away.  
“I always knew they had money.”  She waved her fork in the direction of next door, and then swallowed the chips. It wasn’t my day. “That Ken and Nancy, from next door” She continued, “He came home today in a new car. They’ve bought a house in Cornwall. They’ve moved out, they’re gone.”
I never told Mum about that biscuit tin, I’ve never told anyone… until now.




Chapter Fourteen


 


The world was younger than today


 


 


“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.


Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”


Father Doyle was in full flow as he stood before us and roared out the Eight Beatitudes.  Mum, Mary and I were scattered around the room, we were all kneeling, with our hands clasped together in prayer. Mum was slightly behind the priest, and she was being naughty. She was peeping at me with one eye open, and pulling faces. I wanted to giggle, but Father Doyle was staring straight at me, and I somehow managed to keep a straight face. 


“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.


Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.


Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.” Mum pretended to look at her watch. I knew she wasn’t wearing it, because I had taken it to Mr Keeler’s that very day.


“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.


Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.”


 Father Doyle was done now; he stopped shouting at us, and made the sign of the cross. We, all three, copied him. I was impressed that Father Doyle knew all those beatitudes off by heart. He didn’t have to read any of them.


 Mum stood up, thanked him, and offered him a cup of tea. He said ‘Yes please’, and asked for ‘no sugar’. He was a very strange man; the only man I had ever known who didn’t take sugar. He didn’t smoke either, and Mum told me that Catholic priests never got married. I wondered who cooked their meals, washed their clothes and washed and dried their dishes. I wondered who cleaned and polished their floors, and who sang them their lullabies? There had been a time in my short life when I had harboured ambitions to become a Catholic priest, but I was slowly changing my mind.


Father Doyle had, however brought good news with him. I had been accepted into the choir, and from now on I would be attending the junior school in Trenchard Street. I was very pleased and excited about that, because I would now be playing football with my hero, Moggy.


 I had been preparing myself for joining the choir. I had been regularly attending Mass on Sunday mornings, and I had learnt a lot of Latin. I also now knew exactly when to sit, stand or kneel, and when to shout ‘Amen’. I made sure that I always sat behind Rosie Tedesco at the back of the church. She was Italian, and she had an amazing voice. Her voice was even better than Mum’s, and she sang very, very loudly. This enabled me to sing at the top of my voice, secure in the knowledge that no one would hear me if I made a mistake.


Father Doyle explained to us that I would be paid one shilling for my services. This would be paid at the end of each year, and would be dependent on my attending both Mass and choir practice on a regular basis.


 


After Father Doyle had left, Mum taught Mary some reading and writing whilst I listened to the radio. At nine o’clock we all fell silent as we sat together and listened to Alvar Lidell reading the Nine O’clock News.


I felt a moment of panic as Alvar told us about a disastrous convoy mission to Malta. The convoy had been decimated by U Boats and HMS Eagle, one of our biggest boats had been sunk. Only a handful of merchant ships had made it through.


“He will be alright; we would have heard something by now.” Mum must have read my thoughts.


Alvar also told us that General Bernard Montgomery had been appointed commander of British Eighth Army in North Africa; he added that Mr Churchill was anxious to see more offensive action on the part of the British.

 The Luftwaffe was bombing Stalingrad. I felt sorry for the Russians and hoped they had a good tunnel to hide in. I wondered whether they had someone like Jacob on the door.

“I think the tide is about to turn. We will be OK now that we have the Americans on board.” Mum spoke up; I stared at her, and she blushed. Mary had already told me that she and Mum had been speaking to an American soldier when they had last gone shopping.

Mary went off to bed, and Mum taught me some naughty poems. I particularly remember how we both laughed loudly as she taught me there was a young lady from Ealing, and there was a young lady from Hitchen.

I went to bed shortly after, and I had nice dreams. I dreamt I was in church and I was singing Ave Maria with Rosie Tedesco. The dream got even better when Father Doyle gave me a one shilling piece.

 

It was all change in Halsbury Road. Mrs Barnes moved in to number 1, which had been empty. She was a blonde lady. She had a young baby, but no husband.

“She keeps herself to herself.” Mum had tried and failed to make friends with her.

Next door in number 12, Nancy and Ken were replaced by Skippy and Eileen. Skippy wasn’t the man’s real name, but a nickname that Mum had given him. Skippy had a very bad limp, hence the nickname, and Mum said he was a ‘dirty old man.’ I didn’t think he was that old, but Eileen was very young. Skippy had black hair, he was short and thin, and he had a face like a weasel. I liked him; he always smiled at me, and always either spoke or nodded, as he limped past me. Eileen rarely showed her face outside of the door.

“At best, she’s barely out of school.” I overheard Mum whispering over the fence to Mrs Norris.

Their bedroom was next to mine, and they certainly made a lot of noise in bed, as did Mr Ball in number 10. Mr Ball seemed to spend all day smoking, and all night coughing.  What with the rain water constantly dripping into the buckets, Mr Ball coughing, and Skippy and Eileen screaming, grunting and moaning, my sleep was suffering. I told Mum, and she promised to speak to Mrs Norris about it. Before she could, the policemen came and took Skippy away. Later that morning a man and lady called to pick up Eileen.

“Her parents I presume,” said Mum.

I asked Mum about the policemen, because I hadn’t realised you could get into trouble for making a noise in bed.

She just laughed, but didn’t explain anything.

Skippy and Eileen were replaced by Mr and Mrs Muldowney. They were Irish; it seemed to me that every other person in Bristol was Irish, Welsh or Italian.

 

“Knock ee in Kell.” Moggy delivered an inch perfect cross and I scored another goal. I loved it at big school, and I loved it when Moggy called me Kell.  He came running across to me with a big grin on his face, winked and shook my hand. “I’ll create em; you score em.”

 Mr Stirrup rang the bell and it was time to start lessons.

My teacher was Miss Lynch. I loved, feared and respected her in equal proportions. She was also Irish, and she was a short, sturdily built lady with frizzy black hair, and she wore horn rimmed spectacles. She always dressed in thick woollen jumpers and long tweed skirts that between them ensured that her body was never on view.  She could freeze my soul with a single scathing glance, or melt my heart with a smile. She taught me well, and it wasn’t long before I was copying her flowing copperplate handwriting, and reading Charles Dickens novels’.

 

Choir practice was on Wednesday nights, and Mr Fiando always played the organ, he was Italian, and he played well.. I will never forget the magic of those choir practices, and the sound of the music from the organ and all those voices echoing around the empty church. After the practice, I would wander across the Tramway Centre to College Green. The Centre would be coming to life now; the girls were coming out to play, and the American soldiers were waiting for them.

College Green was the home of live music and dancing. I would find a quiet corner, and lie with my head cradled in my hands, waiting for the action. The bandstand was at the far end, roughly where City Hall now is. The musicians were all American soldiers and they would straggle in, and set up their music stands. After removing the instruments from their cases, they would just stand there playing random notes, whilst laughing and joking amongst themselves.

The crowd would be building now, women and young girls in the main, with American soldiers mingling amongst them. The conductor would always be the last to arrive, looking brisk and business-like, and the band would fall silent.

The baton tapped on the top of his music stand. “One, two – One, two, three, four” The music started; it was always ‘In the Mood’, the amazing Glenn Miller tune, which I had heard on the radio. The sound of the trumpets and the saxophones echoed around the Green. I watched in wonder, as within seconds, the grass was swarming with dancing girls. They were jitter bugging, legs and underwear all on show. The American soldiers moved in and within minutes, most of the dancers had new partners. I used to stay and watch for about an hour. I liked the music, and had to admit that I preferred it to my first musical love, the Salvation Army band. The drummer wasn’t as good though, and he didn’t have a big black, bushy moustache.


 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Out with the old and in with the new

 

I told mum about the American Army Band, and she wasn’t at all happy that I had gone to College Green alone. She didn’t often smack me, but that night she did. We made friends quickly though; she chased me around the room and gave me the raspberry kisses on my neck, and then made me my very own musical instrument. It was only a comb with some thin tissue paper wrapped around it, but she showed me how to play it, and it made a noise like a real instrument.  I took it straight up to my room and played it for hours. I shouted “One, two –One, two, three, four” and I played ‘In the mood’ I played it over and over again. I played it until blowing that comb made my lips tingle, and it made my nose itch. I had more fun playing that comb and paper than I was getting from singing in the choir. I was the smallest and the youngest choir boy by far, and always seemed to get shuffled to the back of every queue. When Mr. Fiando asked for volunteers for soloist spots, I raised my hand, and pushed myself forward, but I wasn’t asked to sing. I decided to leave, but I wasn’t going before Christmas.

Mum was right about the tide turning in the war. Alvar Lidell brought us good news at last as he read the nine o’clock that night. The second Battle of El Alamein had ended, and the German forces under Erwin Rommel had been forced to retreat during the night.

All the convoys had reached Malta from Alexandria; Alvar said that an official announcement had been made proclaiming that the island had been "relieved of its siege". I wondered how many German ships and submarines my father had sunk.

I sat munching on a piece of bread and raspberry jam as I listened to Mr. Churchill giving one of his rousing speeches.

"Now this is not the end.

It is not even the beginning of the end.

But it is, perhaps,

the end of the beginning."

It all sounded very complicated, and I couldn’t quite understand it, but it was certainly rousing. Mum said he was a bloody Tory, and that Dad didn’t like him. I didn’t care what Dad thought, I liked Mr. Churchill; he was winning the war for us now.

 

 It was Christmas and I completed my final choir duties. I badly wanted my shilling piece, and once I had it I intended to just walk away. I wouldn’t say anything to anyone, I just wouldn’t go back. I would return instead to my old place, which was seated behind Rosie Tedesco. I would sit and bellow out my version of Ave Maria, and shout ‘Amen’ loudly at the appropriate time. I accepted my shilling from Father Doyle, but sadly, that shilling piece wasn’t to last for very long.

“Easy come, Easy go,” Mum used to say, and so it was with my shilling piece.

 I had been nagging Mum for ages to buy me some marbles. I used to stand and watch the boys playing marbles in the playground at school. It all looked very simple, and I knew I would be good at it. All I needed were some marbles to give me a start. Mum kept promising me she would buy some, but she never delivered. There was a bigger boy in the choir, named Leonard. He had a big bag, which was full of marbles. We had, several times, discussed the possibility of my buying some of them, and as we trooped out of the church that night, with my shilling piece burning a hole in my pocket, he offered me a dozen for six pence. I bought them, and he then challenged me to a game. I accepted the challenge, and we started our duel in the gathering gloom outside of the church. We played in the cobblestoned gutter, and my dozen marbles didn’t take long to find their way back into his bag. There was more to the game than I had imagined. Leonard was very kind and offered me another dozen, I gave him my last six pence, and the second dozen rapidly went the same way.

It was a sadder, but wiser young boy who trudged slowly up Zed Alley that night. I normally took those steps two or three at a time, but that night it was a long, slow climb. I think the Devil must have been out to play that night, because as I reached the top of the steps, a man with curly ginger hair stepped out of the darkness and asked me if I wanted to earn a shilling. Mum had trained me for such a moment. I stared straight at him, and then shouted very loudly “Do you think I was born yesterday?” He ran off one way, and I ran the other. I ran all the way home.

 I told Mum that I hadn’t been paid for being in the choir. I didn’t like lying, and I felt guilty, I was beginning to build up a long list of sins ahead of my first confession, and I had been forced to accept that I didn’t have what it took to become a saint. I decided I would become a footballer instead..

“Don’t worry about it; I will speak to Father Doyle.”  Mum smiled, but I was no longer smiling.

I was worried now, and five minutes later, I made a full confession. Mum smacked me, I cried, and Mum cuddled me up and then taught me another naughty poem. It was called; there was a young lady from Lancs.

Christmas came and went, and it was becoming very cold. With our coal fire blazing, it was much warmer than it had been in the tunnel. Mum bought me a lot of marbles, and she bought Mary a new doll. We had a chicken for Christmas dinner. I had never tasted chicken before. It was even nicer than a pig’s trotter. The last of the home made raspberry jam had been eaten It was now one of my favourite things in the world. I did return to the bombed out house at the top of the hill, but the raspberries had all gone. Mum explained the seasons of the year to me. I was tempted to tell her about the biscuit tin and the money but I decided against it. I didn’t fancy living on bread and water.

 

 Mum was going out to a party with Mrs. Reilly, who lived down the hill. A lady on the radio had asked all British women to ‘make do and mend’. Mum had been without stockings and make up for ages. The lady on the radio had told us how to deal with these problem. Mum listened, and then painted her legs with watered down gravy browning, and asked me to draw some lines down the back of them with her eye brow pencil.

“It will look as if I am wearing stockings.” She said

 I wasn’t very good at drawing the straight lines, and in the end, Mum had to do it herself. We all had a good laugh as she had to get into some very strange positions to do it. She ended up lying on the floor with a mirror in one hand, and the pencil in the other, but the end result was very good.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t rain” Mum and Mrs. Reilly were giggling as they left the house; they both had gravy browning on their legs..

Mrs. Reilly’s husband was away somewhere, he was in the Army. She had two older children, Patsy and David, and Mum asked me if Mary and I would prefer to stay with them for the night. I pointed out to Mum that I was the ‘man of the house’ and I was perfectly capable of looking after my sister. As soon as Mum had gone, I packed Mary off to bed, piled some coal onto the fire, and curled up in the armchair to listen to the radio. I had a new favourite character in ITMA. His name was Colonel Humphrey Chinstrap, and his catchphrase was, “I don’t mind if I do, sir.” He was very clever with it and would suddenly appear with the catchphrase whenever anything drink related was mentioned. I sat, listening intently, determined to guess when it was coming.

“Come along boys, hurry up” Tommy Handley was belting out the instructions, “Chop, chop, at the double.”

“Did you mention a double? I don’t mind if I do, sir.” I joined in the laughter and the applause from the Studio audience, as Colonel Chinstrap arrived, but I was slightly annoyed, I hadn’t spotted the catchphrase coming again.

There was more good news from Alvar Lidell at nine o’clock.

In the Battle of the Barents Sea, we had won a strategic victory, leading Hitler to largely abandon the use of surface raiders in favour of U boats, Rommel was trapped in Tunisia, the Germans were encircled at Stalingrad, and the Japanese appear ready to abandon Guadalcanal.

 “As the year comes to an end, things are looking bright for the Allies.”  Alvar ended his news broadcast.

I hadn’t realised another year was coming to an end. That meant it would be 1943, and I was nearly six. I knelt in front of the fire and prayed that the war would finish shortly; that my father would return home, and that it wouldn’t rain on Mum’s gravy browned legs.

I must have fallen asleep and I didn’t wake up when Mum got home. She must have carried me up to bed. When I came down in the morning, she hadn’t risen yet. I noticed there were two unopened packets of American chewing gum on the shelf, and an opened packet of nylon stockings on the table.

 

 

 



Chapter 16


 


Puppies, pirates and parrots


 


Friday 1st January 1943 was a cold and grey day. I took my tennis ball out onto the hill, but the cobblestones were icy and treacherous. It wasn’t long before I took a tumble and the ball sped off down the hill. I was an angry young boy that day, with a chip on both shoulders, but I chased after the ball and eventually retrieved it. As I plodded my way back up the slope I slowly calmed down. I was trying hard to understand just why I was so annoyed about the stockings. Part of me felt that I should have been pleased for Mum, but I wasn’t; it somehow just didn’t quite feel right. I decided not to mention the nylons. Instead, I would express my disapproval by refusing all offers of any chewing gum.


Mum and Mary were both up by the time I returned to the house. Our living room was tiny, compact and sparsely furnished. There was a small table in the bay window, on which my beloved radio and a couple of vases stood; a larger gate leg dining table was positioned against the wall, and there were four matching dining chairs. The solitary armchair took pride of place in front of the fire. It had two wide wooden arms, and brown leather upholstery, which had a multitude of rips and tears from which tufts of the horse hair stuffing was protruding. It had seen better days, but this was my chair; it was just one of the many perks of being the ‘man of the house’.


Mary was sitting quietly at the dining table. She was in the process of opening the fourth strip from the first pack of American chewing gum, whilst Mum stood behind her brushing, combing and plaiting her hair. My sister was four now, and had grown into a lovely young girl. She had long dark hair, piercing indigo blue eyes and a shy but ready smile; she was very, very beautiful. She also had a sweet, generous and friendly nature, and was always willing to give me her last toffee or the last chip remaining on her fork. She made friends easily and often, and was forever either sleeping over with, or entertaining one of them at our house.  She had a wonderfully simplistic and uncomplicated life style. She would sleep, wake, eat, drink, play and smile. She was forever happy, and the only time I could recall her crying was on the occasion when I had bullied her into being the unwilling partner in my failed knife throwing act. As I entered the room, Mary was just opening the final strip of chewing gum from the first packet. I had to make a decision and I moved smartly to slip the remaining packet into my pocket. I wasn’t best pleased with my lack of any will power, but a long day lay ahead, and hunger would never be far away.


Mum explained about New Year and the various customs associated with it. She then taught us the words and the tune of Auld Lang Syne. We then stood together, crossed our arms, held hands and danced in a circle, in front of the fire, as Mum sang the song at the top of her voice.


“Today is New Year day, and now, we will have to make our New Year resolutions.  I am the oldest, so I will go first.”  Mum hesitated but only briefly. “I’m going to cut down on my smoking, and Mary will give me more help with the housework.” She turned towards me. “It’s Michael’s turn now.” She looked at me expectantly, but got no response. She smiled and ruffled my hair. I think she knew I liked it when she did that. “Michael will run the errands without complaint, and will stop telling lies.”


I didn’t argue with her, because I actually enjoyed running the errands. Marlborough Hill was no longer my enemy, but had become more like an old friend. I ran everywhere, and I always counted aloud as I ran. I had a string of personal records. I had a record for every single journey I made. It was 24 to Mr Smith’s fish and chip shop: 26 to The Co-operative Grocery store: 39 to the Off Licence in Alfred Place and 78 to Parker’s Bakery. I had a new, secret hero, and his name was Sydney Wooderson. He was a famous pre-war British middle distance athlete, and holder of three world records. I had read a lot about Wooderson, and I’d watched him running on the grainy images of the Pathe newsreels at the News Theatre in Peter Street. I knew that only injury had deprived him of success at the infamous Berlin Olympics in 1936.


I’d sat in the cinema, enthralled, as I watched the slightly built, bespectacled, balding man turn from an ugly duckling to a graceful swan whenever he donned the running vest of Great Britain. I had already decided that when I grew up, I would become an athlete, and become a world record holder.


The kitchen was the largest room in our house. There was a vast expanse of red flag stoned floor, two gas cookers and a large built in Welsh Dresser, which had lots of shelves. Mum said the second cooker would ‘come in handy’, if we were ever forced to take in lodgers. I stood at the huge white stone sink as Mum scrubbed my face and neck with the rough piece of towelling.


I had taken Dad’s photograph from behind the clock and read his scribbled message on the back. I didn’t need Mum to read it out to me now; I was able to read it myself. I looked Mum directly in the eyes. “Do you still love Dad?”


“Of course I do.” She replied without hesitation, but she wore a puzzled frown.


I made a face, placed the photograph on top of the opened packet of nylon stockings, and went upstairs to my room. Mum blushed and looked anxious.


Mum didn’t go out that night, and we sat in front of the fire together and I listened to the radio, whilst Mum read a magazine.

“Here comes Jerry.” Tommy Handley was at it again. “Just look at the size of that tank; it’s a large one.”

“Did you say a large one?” Colonel Humphrey Chinstrap appeared to loud applause. “I don’t mind if I do, Sir” The studio audience clapped and cheered, and I sat back in my armchair with a contented smile. I had beaten Colonel Chinstrap to it. I had seen it coming, and I’d managed to shout out the phrase before the Colonel had delivered his line.

“Well done.” Said Mum, and she ruffled my hair for the second time that day.

Alvar Lidell brought us more good news at nine o’clock. “The Soviet Union announced that 22 German divisions in Stalingrad had been encircled by the Red Army and that 175,000 of the enemy had been killed and 137,650 captured.

“We’re winning at last.” Mum put down her magazine. She was smiling now.

“Will Dad be coming home soon?”

“Time for bed.” Said Mum, but she had stopped smiling.

I slowly climbed the 39 stairs to my bedroom. I had a feeling that 1943 was going to be a good year.

 

Mr Ball was still coughing his way through the night, and the raindrops were still dripping into the buckets, but Mr and Mrs Muldowney were far less noisy than Skippy and Eileen had been. In fact, there were frequent lengthy periods when I didn’t hear them at all. I told Mum, but she just laughed aloud. “We must feel sorry for poor Mr Muldowney then.” She chuckled. “You must remind me to tell Mrs Reilly that story.”

I was still slipping out under cover of darkness to visit Park Street and College Green despite warnings from Mum to keep away from the area. Mum said that there had been trouble between the black and the white American soldiers. I didn’t tell her that I had seen her and Mrs Reilly walking down Park Street together. Mum was wearing her black fur coat, although she had told me that women who wore fur coats were probably not wearing any knickers.

I would often run home in the dark, and sometimes, when I was feeling particularly brave, I would run home via Johnny Ball Lane. Johnny Ball Lane was a very scary place, and more often than not there would be American soldiers in the lane. They would be cuddling up to their sweethearts. They would usually shout at me as I ran past them in the darkness, but I never stopped, or looked back until I had reached the safety of Upper Maudlin Street.

I was going to Mass on a cold Sunday morning in February, and I was walking slowly down Johnny Ball Lane when I found it. The crisp ten shilling note came fluttering out of a doorway and landed at my feet. I decided it was a miracle, and I skipped Mass, and bought two comics from Mr Gormley’s shop at the bottom of Horfield Road instead. I kept a single six pence coin, and gave the rest of the money to Mum.

The following day we headed down to Milk Street. Mum was flushed with excitement as we rummaged around in Madame Bessel’s second hand clothes shop. Mum bought a pair of high heeled shoes for herself and a nice red coat for Mary. I had been nagging her for a navy blue raincoat for ages, and Madame Bessel produced one. I heard her telling Mum that apart from a couple of cigarette burns; it was “As good as new.” The coat was several sizes too large for me, but Mum explained that “I would soon grow into it.” I wore it home, and I wore it with pride.

We stopped off at Mr Eager’s pet shop. It was packed with assorted birds and animals and  I asked Mum if I could have a puppy for my next birthday present.

“We’ll see.” She said, but I knew that usually meant NO.

“Can I have a parrot instead then?” I was reading a book called Treasure Island, and Long John Silver, the pirate in the book, had a parrot. Mr Eager had several parrots in his shop, and I knew that Mum still had money left over from the ten shilling note.

Mum didn’t reply, but I saw her whispering with Mr Eager before we headed off for home.

I went to bed that night and dreamt of raincoats, pirates, puppies and parrots. Mr Ball was coughing badly, the raindrops were dripping and Mr and Mrs Muldowney chose that night to be extremely noisy. As I drifted off to sleep and my dreams, I made a mental note to tell Mum about Mr and Mrs Muldowney. She would need to tell Mrs Reilly about it. I had always known that 1943 was going to be a good year, and it had started well.



 

Chapter 17


 


Pieces of Eight.


 


The idea of owning a parrot gradually took root in my imagination, and it slowly became more attractive than the prospect of owning a puppy. I read, and then re-read Treasure Island, until I really fancied the idea of having a parrot named Captain Flint perched on my shoulder whilst it chattered pirate phrases like “Pieces of eight,” or “Stand by to go about.” I memorised the words of Long John Silver as he described his parrot. 'Now that bird,' Silver would say, 'is, may be, two hundred years old, Hawkins- they live forever mostly, and if anybody's seen more wickedness it must be the devil himself. She's sailed with England- the great Cap'n England, the pirate. She's been at Madagascar, and at Malabar, and Surinam, and Providence, and Portobello ... She was at the boarding of the Viceroy of the Indies out of Goa, she was, and to look at her you would think she was a babby.’


I took to wandering down to Milk Street at every available opportunity. I loitered around Mr Eager’s shop and I studied the various birds which were available. Eventually, I made my choice. The chosen parrot was grey, and had huge wings and an even bigger beak. Having made my selection, I started to drop hints to my mother as my birthday grew closer, and slowly, ever so slowly, she started to weaken.


 


It was just after Easter when I had the appointment at Tower Hill Clinic for an x ray examination. Mum stressed to everyone who was prepared to listen, that it was purely a routine check-up following my ‘pneumonia’ illness. Mum was due to pick me up from school, but she was late, and Miss Lynch kindly stayed on to look after me until Mum arrived. We had a nice little chat about Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. This was the book that we were studying at school, and Miss Lynch was keen to talk about Miss Peggoty and her relationship with David Copperfield. I loved Miss Lynch with her soft and gentle Irish dialect, and I hung on to every word she spoke to me.


“Your mother has done a splendid job with your reading and your writing,” She studied me closely, and I could feel a question coming. “Has she ever taught you any poetry?”


I nodded without giving too much thought to the question


“Would you recite some of it for me please?”


The panic started slowly. It started initially in my knees, but quickly travelled straight to my brain which immediately ceased to function normally. The problem was that There was a young lady from Ealing, There was a young lady from Hitchen and There was a young lady from Lancs., were the only poems  Mum had ever taught me, and I was well aware that they were all unsuitable examples of poems for me to recite to Miss Lynch. Then, just as all seemed lost, from somewhere in the deepest recesses of my memory came inspiration. I remembered those magical nights when we were living at Long Ashton. Those dark nights when Mary and I would sit cross legged in front of a roaring coal fire whilst Mum told us the stories about her school days. I recalled the look of pride on Mum's face as she performed her party piece and recited every single verse of the Song of Hiawatha.  I didn’t know every single verse, but I was able to remember just a few lines. I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up a picture of the scene. Suddenly I could see it all very clearly. I could see Mum standing there, and just as she had done on that far off night, I held my hands together as if in prayer, took a deep breath and started to recite the poem.


“The song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water,

Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

Dark behind it rose the forest, rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,

Rose the firs with cones upon them; bright before it beat the water,

Beat the clear and sunny water, beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.”

That was as much as I could remember, but it was enough. I opened my eyes and Miss Lynch had tears in her eyes. She took a handkerchief from the sleeve of her jumper and dabbed away the tears.

“I knew it; I just knew it,” She was smiling now. “What a wonderful, educated and cultured lady your mother must be.”

She rummaged around in her desk and pulled out a small book. It was bound in blue leather, with a gold inscription on the front. She held it out in front of her.

“A book is the fount of all knowledge, Michael, and this little book is the source that feeds the fount. I want you to have it; I want you to use it, and I want you to use it wisely. It will open many doors for you.” She placed the book in my hand. “It’s a dictionary, and inside you will find every word in the English language you will ever need.”

When Mum eventually arrived we were very late, and Mum couldn’t stay to chat, although Miss Lynch wanted to. I showed Mum my new dictionary, and told her what Miss Lynch had said.

“I’ve never been called ‘educated and cultured’ before. Thanks for the warning. That’s a lot to live up to.” Mum appeared to be in a good mood, so I didn’t tell her how close I had been to reciting There was a young lady from Ealing.

It was quite a rush getting to Tower Hill, but we made it and the Doctor came back with good news.

“All the old lesions have gone, and no sign of any new ones.”

We headed home down Carey’s Lane, turned off along Ellbroad Street and celebrated the good news by buying a portion of fish and chips, and a portion of faggots and chips from Mr Di Stefano’s shop. I had the faggots and they were delicious. I made a mental note to add ‘faggots’ to my list of favourite things in the whole wide world.

We didn’t have a care in the world that night as Mum held my hand and we strolled home together. I made sure that we went home along Milk Street, and as we passed Walt Eager’s shop, I told her about Long John Silver and his parrot Captain Flint.

“Pieces of Eight,” I squawked as we looked at the birds in the window. Mum ruffled my hair, and I knew that I would be getting Captain Flint for my birthday present.

 

It didn’t take me long to realise I had made a mistake. Captain Flint didn’t appear to like me, and he certainly wasn’t going to talk for me. I spent hours with him. I spent entire days, and long, lonely weeks. Night after night, I sat with him repeating the phrase “Pieces of Eight,” Captain Flint sat on his perch staring straight at me with those beady eyes, but he remained silent.

“I don’t think he likes me,” I was hoping against hope that Mum might return him, or maybe swap him for a puppy, but she was unsympathetic. “He won’t talk for me.”

“Let me try,” Mum was keen to take over, and she had to give up after a while. She had no more success than I had.

 

“Oremus,” Father Doyle stood in front of the fire and opened up his arms. “Let us pray.”

“Amen” Said Mum, who had confided in me that whenever she didn’t know a response in Latin, she would just say ‘Amen.’

We all prayed together, but we were rushing through it. Mum was going out with Mrs Reilly, I wanted to read my new dictionary and any one of the many books I had now acquired, and Mary was anxious to get to bed.

We were all on our knees praying, but I was conscious that Captain Flint was standing on his perch studying me closely.

“In nomine Patris, et Filii…” Father Doyle was in the middle of making his sign of the cross when Mum interrupted him.

“Amen.” She blurted the word out. It was the right word, but at the wrong time.

“You are too early Mrs Kelly.” Father Doyle scowled at Mum, before starting again. “In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”  He said, before nodding encouragingly in Mum’s direction.

“Amen.” said Mum, and this time Father Doyle nodded approvingly.

“There was a young lady from Ealing,” said the parrot. He spoke the words with absolute clarity and in a voice that unquestionably belonged to my mother.

The room fell silent. Father Doyle, looked shocked and stared open mouthed at Mum. Mum stared open mouthed at the parrot, and the parrot fixed me with a steely, unblinking gaze. It was at that moment that I realised, without any element of doubt, that the parrot didn’t like me. In turn, I realised that I didn’t like the parrot.

“I’m sorry Father Doyle, he’s a new pet, and we certainly haven’t taught him anything,” said Mum rather lamely.

“Dominus vobiscum,” Father Doyle had regained his composure.

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” replied Mum and I wanted to applaud her for knowing that.

“She could piddle all over the ceiling,” said the parrot in an even more accurate representation of Mum’s voice.

Mum leapt up and covered the cage with a blanket. The parrot fell silent, and I felt a sense of relief, because I knew the next three lines.

“That is a most inappropriate pet with young children in the house,” I heard Father Doyle rebuking Mum as she led him to the front door.”

Captain Flint returned to Mr Eager’s shop the following day. Mum was unable to get a refund, but she came home with a puppy. He was a chubby little chap. He was white apart from a black spot over his right eye, and a shiny black nose. I called him ‘Beppo’ after a clown in one of the comics I was reading. It was love at first sight.

 


 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

Long summer days

 

I firmly believe that we start the painful process of growing up when we reach the age of reason, and that we reach the age of reason as soon as we develop a conscience. Unfortunately, with a conscience comes guilt, and guilt is one of the most powerful and destructive of our emotions.  I experienced guilt for the very first time on that sunny day in late June 1943. Mum had been very grumpy all morning, and she went on and on and on about the parrot. She was moaning about the money she had spent on it, and groaning about the embarrassment it had caused her with Father Doyle. She told me that I had to learn the difference between needing and wanting. Suddenly, completely out of the blue, I was swamped with guilt as my brain accepted that I had bullied and manipulated Mum into that expensive and wasted purchase. I suppose at that stage I should have apologized, but my short temper took me in a different direction and I went on the attack. I shouted at her about her nights out with Mrs. Reilly, and I challenged her about talking to the American soldiers. Initially she looked shocked and was silent, but then she fell into the most awful rage; screamed at me, took me by the shoulders and shook me.

“How dare you, you little monster.” She threw me onto the bed and smacked my thighs with the back of her hair brush. This was always her punishment of choice when I’d pushed her too far,

 But as was usual when we fought, we ended up crying in each other’s arms, with Mum showering my neck with her raspberry kisses, and with both of us saying ‘sorry’.

I lay in her arms with my head on her shoulder and her face was against mine. She was crying, and not for the first time, I tasted the salt of her tears.

“I wish you were older Michael, and maybe then you would understand.” She sighed and pulled me even closer. “I’d only known your father for a short time when this bloody war started, and he’s now been away for another four years. I’m not even sure I would recognize him if he walked through the door.” She fell into a thoughtful silence before she continued. “I’m tired Michael; tired of lying in bed every night and worrying about you and Mary; tired of waiting every day for the telegram boy to knock on the door with his bad news about your father; tired of worrying where the next penny and the next meals are coming from; and I’m tired of being alone. Surely you don’t begrudge me some adult company with a little happiness, however shallow and fleeting it may be. I’m growing old, I’m growing old fast, and I’m growing old alone. Please don’t judge me until you are much older.”

I didn’t answer, because I didn’t really understand, but the lack of understanding didn’t stop me from feeling guilty again.

 

 

“I’m taking that bloody parrot back today.” Mum was sitting on her bed with both feet in a bowl of warm soapy water. She was wearing a pale blue petticoat, and I could clearly see her underwear beneath it. She had hoisted the petticoat up above her knees and had covered her thighs with a large white towel which she had folded across her lap. She reached down and cupping her hands together, scooped the water on to her legs, before scrubbing them vigorously with a small piece of grey pumice stone.  The scrubbing continued for some time before she was satisfied, and then she stood up, and carefully dried her legs with the towel. She ran her hands up and down each leg, softly caressing the pink, shiny skin, and then nodded in self approval.

 “As smooth as a baby’s bum,” she declared with a smile as she rummaged around in the top drawer of the dressing table. She produced a pair of nylon stockings and I watched in fascinated silence as she carefully placed a foot into each stocking, and then slowly and lovingly eased and smoothed her legs into them.

Throughout all this, Mary had been sitting quietly at the dressing table, staring into the mirror whilst pretending to apply make up to her face. Mum now lifted her from the stool and placed her on the bed alongside me.  

“I doubt that I will get any money back, but I will give it a good go.” Mum leant forward, her nose almost touching the mirror and studied her reflection intently. She frowned, pursed her lips and placed both hands on her cheeks, and pulled gently at the skin around her eyes.

“Am I looking older?” It was more of an observation than a question so I didn’t bother to reply, and I decided not to mention the solitary strand of grey hair I had noticed at the back of her head.

She was ready to prepare her face now. Make up had been in short supply in those early years of the war. ‘Make do and mend,’ the man on the radio was constantly telling us and Mum did just that. Shortages and rationing meant that she had to use crushed beetroot juice to add colouring to her lips, and she made do with a small piece of burnt cork for her eyes, but times had changed, and things were different now that the Yanks were in town. The beetroot juice and the burnt cork still sat on the dressing table, but had been joined by lipsticks, face powder, a pink powder puff, mascara, eye shadow and a large cut glass bottle of perfume. There was a pink rubber ball attached to the perfume bottle, which when squeezed, produced a powerful spray of the sweet smelling perfume.

Mum pouted her lips and expertly painted on the bright red lipstick; already, she was beginning to look like a film star. She rolled her lips together and ran the tip of her middle finger over her teeth. She was almost done now. All that remained was a quick session with the powder puff.

 “No point in messing around with my eyes,” she joked, “Mr. Eager never looks that high.”

It didn’t take her long to select a dress. Her choice was the shot silk tight fitting one, and as she pirouetted in front of the mirror, I marveled at the way the dress changed colour from blue to pink, and then to purple. Mum tugged at the dress around her breast and her bottom until she was happy with the look.

“I’m ready for battle.” She smiled and I felt sorry for Mr. Eager, because I knew that Mum usually won her battles.

 

I felt another pang of guilt as I watched Mum struggling down the hill. The parrot’s cage was enormous, and she was unable to get a decent grip on it. From beneath the red blanket I could hear the muffled squawks of protest from Captain Flint, but I felt no sympathy for him. Mum had said. ‘We’ve given him his golden chances, and he’s let them pass him by’. I felt the same way.

 I needn’t have worried about Mum and the cage. She was less than halfway down the hill when Mr. Jones appeared from his front garden. He and Mum exchanged a few words and then Mr. Jones took the cage from her and they marched off down Whitson Street together. When Mum needed a knight in shining armour, one always seemed to appear.

 

It was several hours before she returned and I spotted her huffing and puffing her way back up the hill. The parrot’s cage was gone, but she was cradling something in her arms. At first I thought she was bringing a baby home. She actually was, but as she drew closer I could see it was a baby dog. I ran down the hill to meet them.

Mum took the puppy from under her coat and thrust him into my arms. “There you are. You wanted a bloody dog, so there you go; now you have one. He’s your responsibility; yours to look after…Happy Birthday.”

I clutched the tiny dog to my chest. He was trembling and I could feel his heart fluttering against my shirt. I lowered my face and placed my cheek against his head.  The puppy looked up, startled, studied me closely for several seconds, and then gently started to lick my face. Like all the good love stories, it started with a kiss.

My new puppy was tiny, chubby, and was snow white, apart from a black spot around his right eye. I named him Beppo, which was the same name as a clown who featured in a comic I was currently reading. We both had a lot to learn, but we learnt quickly, and we learnt from one another. I taught him to climb the thirty nine stairs which led from the hallway to our bedroom, and he, eventually, taught himself to come back down. Most importantly, he taught me how to love unconditionally. I had previously spent much of my life scrounging as much food as I could from other peoples’ plates. Now I found myself feeding another living being from my own plate. What was more, I was enjoying doing it. Hour by hour, day by day, the boy and his dog had grown closer until they had become as one.

The weeks slipped by and we were soon enjoying the long, sun filled days of the school summer holidays. Back in those days, a dog would roam free, wearing neither leash nor collar, and Beppo used to join me wherever I went.  Mum was invariably taking Mary to work with her, and we were left to fend for ourselves. We wandered happily around Bristol exploring the highways and byways, the parks and the many bombed building sites. Life was one long adventure, but summer was fading and the holiday was drawing to an end.

Mum had left me with a long list of chores, and I got the first one out of the way quickly, but it didn’t go well. I left Beppo at home and made the walk of shame down to Mr. Keeler’s pawn shop. All we had left to pawn were some sheets and blankets, and I carried them in two bundles, one under each arm. Mum had made it clear that we needed two shillings and sixpence from Mr. Keeler, but after closely examining the bedding with his eye piece, he gave me just two shillings. I didn’t argue and trudged back up the hill feeling totally inadequate.

Beppo waddled up the hill with me for our second task. With the two shilling piece safely tucked away in my pocket, I carried the ration book and a note from Mum to Mr. Morris. I knew there were no coupons left in the book, but I no longer worried about that aspect, I had done it on many occasions now, and knew the score. Mum’s note requested two ounces of margarine and a similar quantity of cheese. Beppo settled down outside and I joined the usual queue of women at Mr. Morris’s position. He was his usual bubbly self, whistling his happy tunes, and smiling and joking with the ladies, but he turned serious as I came to the head of the queue. He read Mum’s note, and rubbed his chin in a thoughtful silence. He leant forward, beckoned me towards him and then spoke to me in a quiet voice.

“Tell your mother,” His voice dropped to a whisper, “Tell her that stocks are low. I can only do favours for regular customers, and I haven’t seen her for ages. Have you got that?” I nodded and he took his thin piece of wire and sliced off the tiniest of slivers from the giant slabs of cheese and margarine. My two shilling piece and the order shot across the overhead wire to the cashier and then came shooting back. Mr. Morris handed me my change, the receipt and the food. He tapped his nose,

Regular” he repeated.

Beppo and I headed for home, but we were hungry, and I was about to demolish the scant rations when I had a brainwave. We had much more change than I had expected, so we set off back up the hill. Our destination was Mr. Smith’s chip shop and our prize was a large bag of chips. Beppo sat in the doorway in his usual way, his head on one side, and his eyes fixed on Mr. Smith, but Mr. Smith didn’t throw him the usual spare chips. Instead, we had a bonus. Mr. Smith handed me a present for the dog; he gave Beppo his very own bag of chips.

We headed across the road and squeezed through the green door into our secret garden. The grass was waist high now, but we muscled our way through it to reach the garden bench. The raspberries and the gooseberries were long gone, but the pair of blackbirds who had been feasting on them were still there. We sat munching away on our chips as I told Beppo some stories. I told him about the blitz and the tunnel. I told him about the various people who had flittered in and out of my life. I told him about Mr. Brown, Mr. Lloyd, Jacob, I had got as far as Nurse Pamela when I realized that Beppo was asleep. I carried him home and he was still asleep when Mum and Mary came in. Mum was fine about the money and the food. I told her what Mr. Morris had said. She made a face. “Dirty old bugger. I would rather starve.”

The holiday was almost over; it was almost time to return to school. I was worried how Beppo would cope with it. Mum tried to reassure me that everything would be alright, but I still worried.

I was right to be worried, because Beppo fretted when I returned to school. He stood on the corner whining as I left in the morning, and would be in the same spot waiting for me when I returned in the afternoon. As soon as I appeared he would come charging down the hill to greet me.

I missed him as much as he missed me, but we always made up for it in the evenings, especially when Mum went out with Mrs. Reilly. With the aid of the dictionary that Miss Lynch had given me, I was reading constantly, and I would curl up in my armchair, alternately reading or listening to the radio. Beppo was always there on my lap, snuggled up and snoring contentedly. 

I was reading three books around that time. A book about Sydney Wooderson, my favourite athlete; ‘Anchors Away’, a book about Lieutenant Ian Fairbairn, a dashing Royal Navy Officer who was sinking lots of German submarines in the North Atlantic, and ‘Goddard of the Yard’, a detective book about Inspector Donald Goddard. I felt very guilty about Goddard, because, after all these years, he had usurped Paul Temple as my favourite detective. Goddard,’ a tall, bluff spoken man from Barnsley’, was a completely different personality than Temple. He didn’t say ‘By Timothy’, when he came across a clue, he always whispered ‘Ay oop lad’.In the latest chapter I had read, Goddard had described good detective work as being 80% observation, 5% deduction and 15% luck. I knew I had to do more observations.

It was November, and Mum said it was five months since she had brought the dog home. He wasn’t waiting on the corner when I came home from school. Mum was beside herself with worry.

“I was hoping he was with you.”

 I searched high and low. I knocked on every door, I searched the secret garden in the dark, asked Mr. Smith, but nobody had seen him. I found him the following morning. He was curled up asleep in the coal house, his head in the upturned saucer, only he wasn’t asleep, he was dead. Mum said the saucer had been full of rat poison. I didn’t cry. I just felt sad and empty. Mum said we would give him a good Catholic send off. She dug a hole in the back garden, and I knelt on the damp grass with Mary by my side. Our heads were bowed and our hands were clasped together.

“Oremus,” said Mum, “Let us pray.” and we prayed. Mum then told us a story about a little boy who had rescued a puppy and brought love and happiness into his life. The puppy was in heaven now, but wanted to say thank you to the little boy. He wanted the boy to be happy with his memories. 

I dreamt of Beppo that night. He was sitting in the doorway of Mr. Smith’s shop. His head was on one side and he was gazing intently at Mr. Smith who threw him a chip.

I woke up and fumbled around on my blanket, seeking his wet nose. I didn’t find it of course. Like all the greatest love stories it had started with a kiss, but ended with a broken heart.













CHAPTER NINETEEN


 


 


Friends, football and family.


 


Mum told me that time mended everything, and that included broken hearts. “Believe me, Michael, I’m speaking from experience, I know,” she said, and she was wearing a very sad face. I did believe her implicitly, because Mum was almost always right, and sure enough, by the time another Christmas had come and gone, my own broken heart had healed.


Christmas in 1943 was very good; the best I could remember. We made our own Christmas trimmings that year. We cut up some little pieces of coloured paper and Mum made some glue using flour and water. We spent hours pasting the pieces of paper together, and then Mum stood on a chair to hang them around the room. She was wobbling rather precariously on that chair, and she made me cling on to her ankles to prevent her from falling. We laughed until our stomachs ached. It had been a long time since we had laughed like that and it felt good.


I don’t know from where or how she had obtained it, but Mum produced a large tin of Spam. We ate it all along with some fried potatoes, and after we had eaten a huge meal we sang some Christmas carols. We normally had just a few nuts and some oranges in our Christmas stockings, but that year we had real presents. Mum had bought Mary two knitting needles, and together Mum and I had unravelled two old woollen cardigans. I stood with my arms in the air whilst Mum wound the wool around my thumbs, before winding it back off again and making it into four large balls. Mary was delighted with her present, and so was I with mine. Mum had bought me a brand new toy Tommy gun from the Milliners shop at the top of Sussex Place. It was painted red, and had a bright yellow handle on one side. When I turned the handle quickly, a cog travelled across a piece of metal and created a rattling noise that sounded just like a real gun. All I needed now were some friends to play ‘soldiers’ with.


‘No man is an island; no man can stand alone.’ This was a line from the book ‘Anchors Aweigh’ which I was currently reading. I loved the sound of that line, but I didn’t fully understand what it meant. I asked Mum for help, and she explained it to me. She told me how from time to time all of us encountered problems in our lives. She then made clear why dealing with those problems was so much easier if we had a friend to stand by our side and help us. I reflected on all this as I lay in bed that night. I understood now why Mum had Mrs. Reilly to help her, and why my sister, Mary, was developing an ever increasing circle of friends. I was forced to accept that I had nobody to turn to, and  I knew right away that I had to do something about it. I resolved there and then that I would now find a friend.


The following morning I rose early and set off in search of friendship. I took my new gun with me as I had a hunch that it could be a passport to popularity. Trouble doesn’t travel up a hill. I decided to ignore Mum’s warning, and headed off down the hill. It was just as if fate was guiding my footsteps, because I’d travelled no further than fifty yards when I came across a group of five boys. They were playing, and they were playing ‘soldiers’. I stood and studied the two rival armies. On my left was Ronny Pascoe. Ronny was on his stomach, crawling through the undergrowth of his front garden. From time to time, he paused and fired a volley of imaginary shots from a make belief rifle.  The two boys crawling behind him were complete strangers and Ronny was very much in control. With a wave of his hand, he signalled his troops to advance and they obeyed. I felt as if I was at the cinema watching a film.

Across the road, at the far end of Cleveland Road, I could just see the Carnavale brothers, Peter and Dennis. They were crouching behind a wall at the front of their house, occasionally popping their heads over the parapet to fire an imaginary machine gun at the enemy. Something deep inside  told me that this was my moment; my time to impress. I casually stepped forward and aimed my gun in the direction of the Carnavale brothers. Turning the handle of my Tommy gun at speed I fired at them for what felt like an eternity. I stopped and waited for a reaction. The Carnavale brothers stayed behind the safety of their wall, but Ronny and his army came marching out to greet me.

I knew Ronny only vaguely, we had never actually spoken. My mother often used to stop and speak with Aggie, Ronny’s mother, whenever we passed each other on the hill, but Ronny and I always kept our distance, eying each other with caution. Now we were alone and face to face. Ronny was a big boy, with a large round face, a severe fringe and a permanently runny nose. I also suffered from a runny nose, but Ronny’s nose was in a different league to mine. I studied him now, and watched the thick stream of bright yellow snot sliding down towards his upper lip. He sniffed loudly, and he sniffed just in time. If I had been expecting any gratitude, it wasn’t forthcoming. “What do you think you are doing?” He snapped. “And what’s that?” He snatched my gun from my grasp, and studied it closely. His troops shuffled forward menacingly and took their place by his side. I realised I had chosen the wrong side, and I was in trouble. I began to feel uncomfortable, and I stole a glance along the road towards the Carnavale brothers, but no help was forthcoming from them. They remained firmly entrenched behind their wall, and I didn’t blame them. 

Ronny sniffed, and once again his timing was impeccable. “That’s not a proper gun.” He maintained eye contact as he cold bloodedly smashed my beloved gun against his front garden wall. My gun splintered into several pieces, and the all-important strip of metal became detached and clanked forlornly into the gutter. Ronny moved closer still, and his troops moved with him. I didn’t back off, but I prepared myself to flee.

“You are now my prisoner,” He sniffed again; “I will have to torture you now, and then probably kill you later.”  I decided that now was the right time to back off, and now was also the right time to flee; I decided not to hang around and I ran off down the hill at full speed and without looking back. My first venture into friendship had failed miserably.

 

I didn’t slow down until I had almost reached Eugene Street. Then I stopped dead in my tracks as I heard I heard that most magical of sounds; the sound of happy children at play. I turned the corner and my heart skipped a beat. There they were, right in front of me. At the far end of the road I could see about a dozen young girls of roughly my age. They were hopping, skipping, jumping, playing ball with one another and chanting.

“Plainsy, clapsy, round the world and backsy,” chanted the tall, slender girl with pig tails as she multitasked with a tennis ball against the wall. She was throwing it, catching it, whilst at the same time twirling and chanting

“One, two, three, my mother caught a flea; she put it in the teapot and made a cup of tea. The flea jumped out, my mother gave a shout and in came daddy with his shirt hanging out. ” chanted the tiny, olive skinned girl with black ringlets and large brass hooped ear rings.

But the girls at play were not uppermost in my thoughts. The bulk of the street was taken up by a large group of boys who were engaged in a fast, furious and frantic game of football. It was a good game as well, and looked to be of a high standard. The tennis ball was pinging around off the cobblestones, the concrete pavements and the brick walls at lightning speed. There was passing, dribbling, shooting, ferocious tackling, a lot of shouting and quite a lot of swearing. I desperately wanted to play; I wanted a piece of this action.

I stood behind the goalmouth at the Marlborough Hill end. The goalmouth was defined by a tree and a large brick pillar. The goalkeeper looked and sounded as if he was the ‘Boss’. He was snarling and barking out orders and instructions to all and sundry. He was a stocky lad with a barrel chest and a shock of thick brown hair. He looked the part, and was even wearing a green crew necked jumper and a pair of woollen gloves, that was the trademark uniform of the professional pre-war goalkeepers whose photos I had seen on the backs of the cigarette cards which were all the rage back then.

I moved in closer, hoping for an invitation to join in, but no invitation was forthcoming so I just watched whilst fielding and retrieving a few stray shots that flew wide of their marks. The ‘boss’ and the fresh faced, blonde boy with slightly protruding teeth were bickering and arguing like an old married couple.

“Don’t fart about with it back there John. Just get your foot through it and clear it.” Snapped the ‘Boss’ as another shot had just missed its target.

“That was your ball Pat; you should have come for it.” John clearly wasn’t frightened to fight his corner.

“Our John’s right,” A smaller, younger mirror image of the blonde boy spoke up.

“Keep out of this Frank,” John waved his finger at the younger boy. “I can sort it out myself, thank you.”

“Freddy: Your dinner is getting cold.” The loud cry came from an upstairs window of the block of flats. I could see the dark haired lady leaning out of the window.

Freddy turned out to be the chubby lad in grossly oversized wellington boots, who had not been playing any real part in the game so far. He shrugged his shoulders apologetically to the ‘Boss’ and headed rapidly and enthusiastically towards his food.

“That’s all we bloody needed,” said the ‘Boss’, and then he paused, slowly turned and stared at me. “Do you want a game?”

Did I want a game? Did I want a game? I almost passed out with excitement as I nodded my response.

“What’s your name?” The ‘Boss’ asked me with a smile.

“Mike,” I nervously stepped on to the playing area.

The boss cupped his hands around his mouth. “We’ve got Mike,” he bellowed, and turned to face me. “We’re three- two down. Get up front and sort it out.”

It didn’t take long to sort it out. A big boy wearing long, brown gabardine trousers quickly scored an equaliser, and then came my big chance. A long throw out from the ‘Boss’ took a wicked bounce off of the cobblestones. It was the precise situation which all my practice on the hill had prepared me for. In a flash, I was through on goal, but the ball ran away from me and the goalkeeper raced off his line to challenge me. From the corner of my eye I saw two other defenders converging on me. I was about to become the meat in a painful sandwich, but I closed my eyes and just got my toe to the ball a split second before the three defenders hit me. I was in a lot of pain as I lay there and watched in what felt like slow motion as the ball trickled over the line.  My teammates rushed to congratulate me, and the ‘Boss’ grabbed the ball and stuffed into his pocket. He then placed his index finger and thumb into his mouth and let out a piercing whistle.

“That’s it; full time, we won four–three.” He waved away the protests from the opposition, tapping an imaginary watch on his wrist. “It is full time,” he insisted and waved them away. Slowly they all dispersed in their various grumbling little groups. He really was the ‘Boss’.

Johnny, Frank and the ‘Boss’ sat on the pavement with their backs to the brick wall, staring out across the wasteland of bricks and rubble that was the other side of Eugene Street in 1943. The ‘Boss’ beckoned me to join them. I did with pounding heart. For the first time in my life I felt a part of something special. I was no longer an island.

The ‘Boss’ eventually broke the silence. “Good goal Mike.” Johnny and Frank nodded and added their muttered congratulations. The ‘Boss’ stood up and stretched. “Where do you live?”

I waved vaguely in the direction of Marlborough Hill. “Up the hill.”

“What’s your second name?”

“Kelly,” I replied. I was trying hard to sound casual.

“Fuck me,” the ‘Boss’ suddenly looked as if he had seen a ghost. “Are you Joe Kelly’s boy?” I nodded. The ‘boss’ shook his head in obvious astonishment. “I’m Pat, your bloody cousin…I’m Frank’s boy; Frank is Joe’s brother,” he continued as I remained silent. I didn’t know what to say. Mum had never told me any of this. I didn’t know that I had a cousin or an Uncle.

My newly found cousin extended his hand and shook mine warmly. “Have you been to see Granny Kelly yet?” he continued. I shook my head, it was news to me that I had a Granny.

 “Come on down again tomorrow and I’ll take you over to see her. She’s always talking about you.”

I said goodbye to my new friends and ran home in a daze.
I had wings on my heels as I ran back up the hill that day. I couldn’t wait to tell Mum about my adventure. In one foul swoop I had discovered football, friends and family.







 
CHAPTER TWENTY

 

 Granny Kelly

 

It took a lot to render my mother speechless, but I managed to achieve it on that cold, grey afternoon in late December 1943. Mum was relaxed and in high spirits when I first arrived home. She was upstairs in her bedroom; sitting at the dressing table, and preparing herself for another night out with Mrs. Reilly. She looked almost ready. The nylon stockings were on, her make-up looked complete, and her hair was shining from what had clearly been a good brushing. She was sitting there, fully dressed and quietly sipping a cup of tea.

She was only listening with half an ear as I started to blurt out my story of the day’s adventure, but she quickly looked up and took notice when I  mentioned  Paddy, Uncle Frank and Granny Kelly.

“Hold on; hold on; slow down,” she placed her hands in the air; palms facing towards me and signalled for me to calm down. “Now start again,” she said, “and take your time. “I took a deep breath and started all over. Now, she was paying full attention. She was hanging on to my every word, and when I’d finished, she fell silent, and she sat staring into space. She was looking worried, anxious and thoughtful.

I wondered for a moment what I had done wrong, and I stood waiting for a reaction or an explanation. Eventually she spoke. “Are you saying that you really intend to visit Granny Kelly?”

It felt like a bit of a silly question, but I answered it. “Yes, I’m going tomorrow. Paddy’s taking me over to meet her. He said she’s always talking about me.”

Mum didn’t reply immediately. She took a cigarette from the packet on the dressing table, lit it, and took a couple of deep puffs. She then blew two magnificent smoke rings, and we both studied them closely as they rose into the air and swirled around the room. We watched them until they slowly disintegrated and disappeared. I was so desperate to grow up and blow smoke rings like my mother did. She was very, very good at it.

 “I want you to promise me just one thing, Michael,” I was paying attention now, because Mum was speaking in her serious voice. “Just promise me you will be careful what you say to her. I would prefer that you didn’t mention my nights out with Mrs. Reilly. Do you understand? That old witch has never, ever liked me, and I don’t want to give her any ammunition.”

 ‘That old witch’  I had a brief mental image of Granny Kelly flying through the night on a broomstick, and for just a moment I had second thoughts about my visit, but then I pictured Paddy’s face. He would be upset if I failed to show and I wasn’t going to disappoint my cousin, Paddy. He was the ‘Boss’.  I promised Mum I would be careful, and not let her down. After all, I now considered myself to be a bit of an expert on the interrogation techniques used by women, and I was confident I could always stay one step ahead of them.  Granny Kelly wouldn’t be getting any information from me.

 

“Happy New Year,” said Mum as she set off for her night out with Mrs. Reilly. “I’ve put some coal on the fire, and there’s bread and jam in the larder. Look after Mary, and don’t stay up too late. Be a good boy, I’ll see you in the morning.”

I couldn’t believe that it was New Year again. It seemed like only yesterday when Mum had gone out with the gravy browning on her legs; when I had sat and listened to Alvar Lidell telling how the Germans were encircled at Stalingrad, and how Rommel was trapped in Tunisia. That following day we had all sat down together and made our New Year resolutions. I was sad when I realised that those resolutions, despite the good intentions, hadn’t changed a thing. I was still telling lots of lies, and Mum hadn’t cut back on her smoking at all. If anything, she was smoking more. I wondered whether life would always be like that; whether it would always be just one long sequence of broken promises and dreams. I turned on the radio and chose a book to read. It was a toss-up between Goddard of the Yard, Anchors Aweigh, and Sydney Wooderson. Tonight, it was Inspector Goddard’s turn. “Ay oop lad,” I whispered as I opened the book at Chapter Ten. Goddard was close to solving yet another crime, and it was all down to ‘observation’. I knew that I needed to do some observations.

I read for a few hours, and then listened to the Nine o’clock News on the radio. It felt as if we were winning the war at long last, but Mr. Lidell said it was ‘far from over’, but he then gave us some good news. The German battleship Scharnhorst had been sunk off North Cape (in the Arctic) by an array of British cruisers and destroyer torpedoes. American Marines had landed on Cape Gloucester; and In Burma, Chinese troops had achieved some success against the Japanese.

1944 had arrived by the time I finally dragged myself upstairs to bed. Mum still wasn’t home, the rainwater was dripping into the buckets; Mr. Ball was still coughing, and I was still missing Beppo. but I had a feeling that 1944 was going to be a good year, and in a few hours’ time I would be playing football with my new found friends, and I would be meeting my Granny for the first time.

 

The boys were waiting for me when I turned the corner, and there was a readymade place waiting for me in the team.

“We’ve got our Mike.” Paddy shouted as soon as I appeared around the corner.. The ‘our’ was important, it made me feel a part of the gang. I managed to score again and we won the game comfortably, but I was more excited about meeting Granny Kelly. 

“She just lives up here,” said Paddy as he led me up Montague Hill, “Number5 Duke Street.”  I didn’t know what to expect, although I was expecting an inquisition. The front door was ajar when we arrived at 5 Duke Street and Paddy marched into the hallway. I stood back and hesitated, waiting behind him. “Come on,” he waved me on, and I detected just a touch of annoyance in his voice. The door to Granny’s front room was also open, and this time, Paddy hesitated. He knocked gently on the door and waited.

“Alright Gran?” He enquired, but there was no reply. He shrugged his shoulders, made a face, and then peeped around the door. “It’s only our Mike, Gran. I’ve brought him down to see you.” Still there was no reply and Paddy turned to face me. “She’s praying. If I was you, I’d Just go on in and wait on the sofa.” He placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “You’ll be alright,” he said reassuringly “I’ll see you later,” and then he was gone.

I tiptoed into the room. My Granny was sitting in a rocking chair, gently swaying back and forth. She was holding a rosary in her hands, and she was praying silently as she rocked. Her eyes were closed and her gnarled old fingers were racing around the beads as she silently whispered her prayers to Jesus. I stood and studied her. My Granny wasn’t a witch after all. In fact, she was very much a proper granny. She had soft, shining, snow white hair, which was swept back and styled into a bun. The bun was then secured by a large and ornate mother of pearl hair comb. She was dressed entirely in black, apart from a white lace shawl which was draped across her shoulders.

I stood still and silent, not quite sure what to do next, but I felt Granny was aware of my presence and after a minute or so, she stopped praying. She didn’t open her eyes, but she pointed towards the tiny sofa. “Sit yourself down, Michael, and I’ll be with you shortly. I just have one more decade of the rosary to complete.”

I sat on the sofa and studied Granny and her room. It was a tiny room and sparsely furnished. There was just the rocking chair in the centre of the room, the sofa in the bay window recess, and a small dining table. There was an odd musty smell about the place, which was almost, but not quite, masked by the smell of the two scented candles which were burning in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary in the far corner of the room. The walls were full of pictures of Jesus and his crucifixion, and of his sacred heart. There was just a solitary photograph of a non-religious nature. It depicted a young man wearing a multi coloured shirt, a riding cap and breeches. He was carrying a whip and was sitting astride a huge chestnut horse.

I was watching Granny’s lips as she rattled through the final sequence of the decade. She prayed aloud for the finale. “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

She slowly made the sign of the cross, opened her eyes and studied me.

“Come here, Michael,” She said eventually and motioned me to join her. She placed her hands on my head, and then gently ran her fingers over my face She stroked my forehead, my cheeks, my nose and finally my lips and mouth. I could see tears running down her cheeks. “Oh Joe,” she sobbed, “Oh Joe, Joe; to think I ever doubted he was yours.”  She took a handkerchief from her sleeve, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “I suppose you are hungry.”

I nodded, but she was already out of her chair and heading for the kitchen. I noticed her swollen legs and I wondered how she had managed to pour them into the tiny pair of slippers she was wearing. I stood up, crossed the room and studied the photo of the young man and his horse. The man looked very much like my father. There was some writing on the bottom of the photo. It read ‘ Jonjo O’Kelly, The Curragh, 1875’. I made a note to look up The Curragh in my dictionary when I got home.

“That’s your Grandfather;” I jumped, I hadn’t heard Granny return, “that photo was taken at the Curragh, just before he came over to England. The Curragh is the most famous race course in Ireland.” She handed me a plate containing four sausage sandwiches and a large slice of fruit cake.” I knew right there and then that I was going to love Granny Kelly.

The sausage sandwiches were good, but I wasn’t able to relax. Mum had warned me to expect an inquisition, and I knew I needed to concentrate. I ate in silence and allowed Granny to do the talking. “He was a good man, your Grandfather,” she smiled, “unless he had the drink in him.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s the curse of the male Kelly line. Drink, and that little bit of skin between their legs has been the downfall of each and every one of them. I hope you don’t go the same way, Michael.’

I grunted in reply. I had learnt a long time ago, that when the female inquisition started, a grunt was the safest means of communication. It had to be a very special grunt, one that sounded nothing like either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. In the face of constant vague grunting I’d found that the inquisition usually faded away.

I’m not really sure whether Granny was questioning me or not that day back in 1944. She spoke in strange, incomplete sentences and I couldn’t work out exactly what she was after. I happily let her chat away whilst I  carried on chewing and grunting, and then it was time to go. She gave me a long, very slobbery kiss, and I could feel her whiskers rubbing against my face, but i didn't mind, because  she pressed a three penny piece into my palm as she kissed me goodbye, and everything felt good.

“Make sure you come again, and don’t leave it too long.”

With my belly full of sausage sandwiches and cake, and with the coin burning a hole in my pocket, there was little doubt that I would return. Anyway, apart from the food and the money, she was also my Granny, and I loved her.

 




 

Chapter Twenty One


 


 


Don’t muff it Sonny.


 


Looking back across the years, I think that 1944 probably brought me a greater happiness than any other period of my life. Not only had I discovered the joys of close friendship and the love of even more family members, but I was also enjoying every single moment of my time at school. My beloved teacher, Miss Lynch, had brought her very own special brand of magic to my school chores. Every day she brought me another adventure; a new book or another new word.  I had, quite simply, not only fallen in love with reading and writing, but also with the fulsome praise that Miss Lynch constantly lavished on me for my efforts. I thoroughly enjoyed all that praise, even though it always resulted in Leonard Mills kicking me under the desk, and calling me ‘teacher’s fucking pet’. 

Mr. Barnidge, or ‘Jasper’ as he was called by the boys, was the Headmaster of St Mary on the Quay, Roman Catholic Boy’s School. He was a big man in every sense of the word. He was tall and powerfully built, with a low, gruff voice, a big purple nose, huge feet and massive hands. Grasped in those massive hands, he always held the ultimate symbol of his power; his thick brown cane. As far as I could tell, Mr Barnidge didn’t teach any particular subject. He just cruised silently around the school. He moved quietly through the playground, the corridors and the classrooms, imposing law, order and discipline as he went. He could silence a group of rowdy pupils with just a single withering glance from fifty paces away, and for the naughtier pupils there was always the cane. Canings were frequent and always very public. They were almost a ritual, a ceremony, and I had already witnessed many in the short time I had attended the school.

I was about to witness another caning on that Monday morning in early February 1944, but this time it was slightly different. This time it was my hand that the cane was about to descend on, and my face on which the pain would be etched. My crime had been not only skipping Holy Mass on the Sunday morning, but I had compounded matters by trying to lie my way out of it when confronted by Mr. Barnidge. It wasn’t the first time I’d skipped Mass, but up until now I had been able to avoid detection. My early religious fervour was starting to cool, as I had reluctantly accepted that my ambition to become a Saint was not going to be fulfilled. I told too many lies, and I knew I couldn’t stop.

As I stood in front of Mr. Barnidge with my hand extended, my thoughts turned to Wilf Copping, the famous ‘hard man’ of pre-war English football. I’d read a lot about Mr. Copping and his famous sayings. Copping was known as a hard and strong player; his most famous quote was "the first man in a tackle never gets hurt".  He also said “Never let them see that it hurts”. I pictured Mr. Copping’s face and braced myself. I was ready to face the cane.

“Don’t muff it Sonny”, growled ‘Jasper’. This was his standard prelude to the beating. “Don’t muff it, “he repeated, and down came the cane. Just before it landed, I saw Miss Lynch wince and turn away, and then I saw Leonard Mills grinning like a Cheshire Cat. I didn’t let Leonard see how much that blow had hurt me, but I never missed Mass again during the remainder of my time at the school. I did, however, continue to tell a few little lies.

The Eugene Street gang sat wide eyed and attentive, listening intently, as I told my story about the caning. I did exaggerate it slightly, and they were very impressed. I felt that my story about the punishment had elevated me to almost celebrity status within the gang. The boys had all welcomed me in with open arms anyway, and I was already on first name terms with all of them, but I could now clearly see respect in their eyes. We played football in the street whenever it was possible, and the standard was getting higher by the week. There were more and more people watching us play now. They hung from the windows of the blocks of flats and shouted encouragement and criticism. Two men from the Bristol Royal Infirmary Boiler Room joined the spectators. They stood directly behind the goalmouth, dressed in their oily white overalls. They drank tea from chipped enamel mugs and smoked their cigarettes as they watched. They did a lot of loud shouting, and as they sounded as if they knew what they were talking about, we took notice of them. Very soon the air was full of high pitched young voices screaming ‘Man on’, ‘Get bloody rid of it’, and ‘Keeper’s ball. I knew that I was getting stronger and faster, because I had cut my personal best time for the run from home to Mr. Smith’s Fish and Chip shop, from 24 to 21. It was a big improvement and I wished that Sydney Wooderson had known about it. He would have been proud of me.

Although we had nothing; we had everything; because we had each other and this was perfectly illustrated on Saturdays. Saturday was our favourite day of the week. We met up early and headed off to the News Theatre for the weekly ‘Tuppenny Rush’. We were like four little old men as we trudged off in our hobnailed boots and torn and tattered short trousers. It was always the same route; down Whitson Street, across the Haymarket and up past the bomb damaged shops in Union Street. The News Theatre stood almost in solitary splendour, alongside the ruins of St Peter’s Church. We stood in the queue and chatted away about football, the war, school and food, or rather the lack of it. We each had a handful of pennies clinking in our pockets and we felt like little millionaires. We were always early, and always grabbed the best seats. For an hour or so we forgot our troubles and lost ourselves in that magic silver screen. We stamped our feet in time with the rousing music as we clapped and cheered the Cowboys to their inevitable victory over the Indians. I never let on to anyone, but in truth, I was secretly cheering for the Indians. We cheered as the Newsreel showed British victories in battles on land, at sea and in the air, and we roared with laughter at the antics of the Three Stooges.

When it was over, we would pool what remained of our pennies and we headed off for home. Usually, the conversation centred on the Three Stooges. We all disliked Moe who was the dominant one, the leader, and we all felt sorry for Larry and Curly who were the constant butt of Moe’s bullying.  We always spent what remained of our money on either an ice cream from Mrs. Ricci’s shop at the bottom of Montague Street, or in Joe Stafford’s Fish and Chip shop, which was further up on the corner of Dighton Street. After that it was non-stop football until darkness, hunger or fatigue, or sometimes all three set in. They were good days; happy, carefree days.

 

Mum wanted to know the ins and outs of everything when I arrived home from my first visit to Granny Kelly’s house. I gave her a word by word account of our conversation and she appeared to be satisfied. She roared with laughter when I told her I couldn’t understand what Granny had been talking about.

“She talks in proverbs and sayings,” she explained “and always only says the half of it.” She took a piece of paper and started scribbling. “Here,” she smiled, “Study this.”

Mum had written down a list of proverbs and sayings, together with explanations. I studied the page until I was word perfect. I was now ready for another visit to Granny Kelly, and ready for another inquisition.

Granny rocked slowly in her chair and studied me closely. “What have you been up to?” she enquired eventually.

“Playing football and reading.” There was nothing sinister in that question, and I sat back and relaxed.

“Like father,” said Granny.

Like son, said the voice in my head. I liked that, and felt a wave of pride sweep over me.

Granny padded out to the kitchen, and I waited patiently for the food to arrive. She didn’t disappoint. “The way to a man’s heart,” she said as she placed the plate of sandwiches and the slice of cake on my lap.

Is through his stomach, said the voice inside my head, and I found myself nodding approvingly. Granny was good; she knew what she was talking about.

Granny fell silent as I munched my way happily through the sausage sandwiches and the cake, but I didn’t relax. Through the silence, I could almost hear her brain ticking over. I knew that an inquisition was just around the corner, and I didn’t have to wait long.

“How’s that Madge?” The alarm bells started to ring; now I knew I needed to concentrate.

“Mum’s fine,” I paused, “she’s very busy; working hard.”

“I bet she is,” Granny almost whispered the words under her breath, but I heard them. “Whilst the cat’s away,” she added in her normal voice.

The mice will play said the voice inside my head.

“Is she still seeing that Maggie Reilly?” Granny was warming to her task now. Again, I wondered how Granny contrived to know so much without carrying out any observations. I decided she must have an informant. Inspector Goddard had an informant. Nick the Greek gave him lots of information and all for the price of just a couple of pints in the Green Man.

There was no point in trying to lie about Mrs. Reilly, because Granny clearly knew the truth. “Yes,” I replied.

“Birds of a feather,” said Granny.

Flock together said the voice inside my head and I remained silent, because that fact couldn’t be denied.

“Have you heard from your father?” said Granny.

“Not for six months and several days,” I replied in an instant. I was able to be that precise because I’d overheard Mum giving Mrs Reilly this very piece of information only the previous week

I hope he’s having a good time,” said Granny. “What’s good for the goose.”

Is good for the gander, said the voice inside my head. I wanted the inquisition to finish now, and I rose to my feet. “Mum’s giving up one of her jobs in order to spend more time with us,” Mum had requested that I gave Granny this bit of information.

Granny sniffed derisively. “Fine words,”

The voice in my head remained silent and I felt a vague sense of annoyance. Granny always seemed to end our conversations with a saying I didn’t know. I tried, but failed not to make a face as Granny gave me that whiskery, slobbery goodbye kiss, but I took the three penny piece and placed it in my coat pocket.

The night was growing cold as I made my way home along Eugene Street, and I was grateful for my navy blue raincoat. It was still far too big for me, and Madame Bessell had clearly lied when she said I would grow into it, but it did keep me warm and dry.

Lieutenant Fairbairn had been wearing his blue raincoat in the chapter of the book which I had read earlier that evening. He had dined out on Caviar, Lobster and Champagne. I had looked up all three in my dictionary, and didn’t like the sound of any of them. I had actually felt sorry for Fairbairn that he had never sampled the joys of Granny Kelly’s sausage sandwiches. Just as Lieutenant Fairbairn had done, I patted my stomach and murmured “A repast fit for a King,” and just as Fairbairn had also done, I turned up the collar of my raincoat to a jaunty angle, tied a casual knot in my belt, and sauntered slowly into the night.





Chapter Twenty Two

 

 Goddard and Wooderson.

 

 

I stepped back into the shadows and the darkness as the doors of the King David Hotel swung open.  The tall red headed man who always left on the dot of nine o’clock stood, wedged in the entrance with his arms outstretched, holding both doors open. There were the usual good natured shouts from inside, requesting that he closed the doors, but I knew that he would remain in that position for a full three or four minutes. The majority of the regulars at the King David Hotel were creatures of habit, and the man with red hair was no exception. He stood in the open doorway, puffing out his cheeks and blowing, as he adjusted to the outside temperature and prepared himself for another unsteady journey home. The evening had turned cold and I could clearly see his breath as it hit the night air.

The King David Hotel was on the corner at the bottom of St Michael’s Hill. It formed the junction with Upper Maudlin Street and Perry Road, and it was the perfect spot for me to carry out my observations. I was becoming good at the observations; Inspector Goddard had taught me well, and he would have been proud of me. I took a few paces into the road, and craned my neck. I now had a clear view into the bar.

“Ay oop lad,” I whispered. All the regulars were in there.

The two men who looked like brothers were sitting at their usual table in the far corner. They could even have been twins. They had similar prominent bone structures, and they had identical bulbous noses and thick rubbery lips. Each of them also had the same little patch of greasy, black curly hair, which sat like a tiny island in the middle of a sea of baldness.

As was always the case, the younger, taller man was doing all the talking. I could see his rubbery lips going nineteen to the dozen as he spat out his monologue. He was like the conductor of an orchestra. His voice was his music, and his long bony index finger was his baton as it stabbed the air, accentuating every syllable of every word he uttered.

The older brother appeared to have long since given up any hope of joining in the conversation. He just sat there quietly, nodding in agreement. He paused, from time to time, to drink some of his beer, before returning to the nodding, and he always nodded in perfect time with the jabbing finger.

On an adjoining table sat the man I called ‘Lord Haw- Haw’. I was convinced he was a German spy. He was a tall, thin, older man, with swept back silver hair, and he wore a pair of rimless spectacles which perched on the very end of his pointed nose. He was always immaculately dressed, and tonight was no exception. He was wearing a dark blue, three piece suit, with a white shirt, and a dark blue tie, which was secured with a gold tie pin. His dark blue overcoat was neatly folded and placed on a chair by his side. He was sipping an amber coloured liquid from a small glass, and after each sip he would pull a face, before taking a long swig from his pint of beer.

‘Lord Haw-Haw’ was another creature of habit, and as was his custom, he was reading the Daily Express. At least, he was purporting to read the Daily Express. I could see quite clearly that he was, in fact, peering around the edge of the newspaper. The true object of his attention was the woman seated on the high stool at the far end of the bar. She was wearing a white dress with a striking red and green floral pattern, and a matching pair of green strapped high heeled shoes. She was seated cross legged, right over left, and the bottom of her dress had ridden up exposing an almost indecent amount of stockinged thigh. She appeared to be lost in her own thoughts as she sat, staring into space and holding a small glass containing  something red in her left hand, and a cigarette in the other. She was idly tapping the cigarette into a large glass ash tray, which was on the bar. The green strapped high heeled shoe on her right foot was hanging loose, and it was flapping rather precariously as she tapped her foot in perfect time with the tapping cigarette. I decided that she had a song going on inside her head.

Her companion was a shorter woman with a shock of shiny, black curly hair. She was wearing a bottle green, two piece suit and a white shirt. The suit was probably a size too small for her and this had the unfortunate effect of converting a few of her curves into rather unflattering tiny rolls of fat. Despite this she was extremely beautiful, and had a loud infectious laugh. She leant across and whispered something into the seated woman’s ear. They both burst out laughing, but the joke must have caught the other woman either mid puff of her cigarette, or mid swig of her drink, because she began to cough, splutter and choke. She waved her hands helplessly in the air, and her friend quickly took the glass from her hand. A tall American soldier appeared from nowhere, and with a slow shake of his head and a smile, he took the cigarette from her other hand and stubbed it out in the ash tray. He was wearing a leather jacket with three stripes on his sleeve. He then produced an immaculate white handkerchief and tidied up the debris from the spluttering, the coughing and the snorting. He dabbed gently around her mouth, then across her lap and finally around her cleavage. For one moment I thought ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ was going to explode, and then the doors closed, and the red haired man began his unsteady journey up St Michael’s Hill.

I shivered involuntarily and realised I had grown cold, hungry and tired; it had been a long day. I had contemplated wearing my raincoat, but one further challenge lay ahead of me, and that coat would have been an impediment. I looked around self-consciously and then adopted the classic middle distance athlete’s starting position. I leant forward slightly with my left leg slightly bent and stretched in front of me; my right leg was also bent, but trailed behind. My arms were ready to start pumping.  I was now Sydney Wooderson; I had a new record in my sights.

On your marks: get set: go. I heard the sound of the starting pistol in my head, and I set off at a very steady pace. I knew from painful experience that a steady pace was essential if I were to stand any chance of success. I’d made this run between the King David Hotel and my home in Halsbury Road on dozens of occasions, and my record of 453 had proven stubbornly difficult to beat. I’d been trying for a period of over three months.

28- 29- 30. I trotted past the King David and then past Mr. Gotsell’s Butcher’s shop, with its striking, vivid blue tiled shop front.  The Eglington Arm’s came next. Mr Warriner would be behind the bar, pulling the pints. and would shortly be calling ‘Last orders please, Ladies and Gentlemen.’

64-65-66. Johnny Ball Lane was over to my right, and Terrell Street coming up on my left. I prayed that nobody would come staggering out of the White Hart as I passed the entrance.  I could see Mr. Munday in his fish and chip shop on the opposite corner. He was still wearing his white jacket and hat as he cleaned his gleaming silver frying range. He was wringing out his damp cloth in his bowl of warm water.  I’d been in there earlier and spent the three penny piece that Granny had given me. I’d bought a large bag of chips and some scrumps.

 

96-97-98. My hobnailed boots clattered against the cobblestones, creating a steady, rhythmic, almost hypnotic beat like that of a galloping horse.  The freshly painted yellow sign above the entrance to Mrs. Latus’s tobacconist shop was creaking and groaning as it swung gently in the soft evening breeze. The sign read ‘Capstan Full Strength’, and Paddy had said that Capstan Full Strength cigarettes could ‘blow your head off’, and ‘only real men and sailors smoked them’.

134-135-136. The Headquarters’ of the Church Lad’s Brigade and the Prince Alfred pub on the corner of Lower Maudlin Street were now in view, and Alfred Hill Steps appeared on my left. The gentle downhill slope of Upper Maudlin Street gave way to the gentle uphill slope of Marlborough Street.

176-177-178. I now had the Bristol Royal Infirmary on either side of me. I was still going strong.

199-200-201. I passed Mr. Keeler’s pawn shop and I was almost exactly on schedule.

 Wooderson swings into the straight. The ‘straight’, was in fact the imposing 1:4 gradient of Marlborough Hill, and momentarily I was in trouble as the slope took its toll. My chin dropped onto my chest and my whole body slumped forward, but I gritted my teeth, shortened my stride and quickened the pace. Almost immediately, I regained the rhythm.

240-241-242. I was passing Eugene Street Flats now and I noticed a light was flickering in the window of Number 2.  Johnny and Frankie lived there. I wondered if they were still up and listening to the radio.

297-298-299. Alfred Place and Mrs. King’s corner shop on my left and Blenheim Square to my right. The Hynam family lived at the far end of Blenheim Square. I wondered whether Valerie and Nita were safely tucked up in bed.

346-347-348. My race was almost run. I passed Cleveland Road to my left and Aggie Pascoe’s house to my right. My throat was burning and my heart was thumping fit to burst. I tried to conjure up an image of Jack Lovelock, the New Zealand athlete who had been Wooderson’s nemesis in pre-war athletic events. I had watched that famous race on the BritishPathe Newsreel. It was the race when my hero had stormed away from Lovelock in the home straight.

389-390-391. Now was the moment; I had reached Marlborough Hill Place; it was time for the final sprint.

Wooderson produces his world famous sprint finish. My legs had already turned to jelly, but I threw back my head and willed myself to complete the final fifty yards.  I collapsed at the finishing line, which was the red brick wall of number 12, Mrs. Hayward’s house.

  424. I’d not just beaten, but I’d smashed my record, and deep inside I somehow knew it would never be bettered again. I lay on the pavement in an exhausted panting heap, and as I slowly recovered, I stared out into the absolute darkness that was black- out Bristol. From time to time a glimmer of light would briefly penetrate the darkness. It was probably a light from some unknown car, driven by a complete stranger in some remote street in East Bristol. The light would always disappear very quickly.

 Put that bloody light out. Said the voice inside my head. That was the cry that used to echo around our streets, when Bristol had been a city was under siege. It was the warning call from the brave ARP wardens who were out there on patrol. I smiled to myself as I recalled how Mum would leap to her feet whenever we heard that shout. How she would race across the room, and tug away nervously at the curtains; just in case ours was the offending window.   The blitz was all a distant memory now, but it was a memory that hadn’t faded. We all still lived in fear. Fear of once again waking in the night to the sound of the wailing air raid sirens and the throbbing drone of the German planes flying overhead. We were all still very conscious of the black-out.

Our house was in complete darkness as I wandered up the garden path and took the front door key from its home beneath the brick on the coalhouse floor. I opened the front door, replaced the key beneath the brick and slid the bolt home. It was important that I always remembered to slide the bolt. The last and only time I’d forgotten had been the night before Beppo had disappeared and died. I still felt guilty and knew that I always would.

I removed my boots, threw some coals on the smouldering embers of the fire, lit a candle and climbed the stairs to my bedroom. There were thirty nine stairs from bottom to top, and twenty nine of them contained squeaky floor boards. This wasn’t a problem; I knew the position of each of those floor boards, and I could complete a squeak free climb with my eyes closed. I stopped off on the first floor to say goodnight to Mary. She was fast asleep; her dark curls spread out over the white pillow. Her thumb was in her mouth, and she was sucking contentedly as she dreamed her dreams. I kissed the tips of my fingers and placed them on her cheek, just as Jacob had done to Mum all those years earlier. She stirred, but she didn’t wake and I crept quietly away.

The landing outside of Mum’s bedroom was a minefield of squeaking floorboards, but I quickly and easily found my way through them and reached my own room without mishap. I removed the buff coloured exercise book and pencil from their hiding place, beneath my mattress, and by the light of the flickering candle, I made up the notes of my observations.  I was very pleased with the night’s work and I snuggled up to my hot water bottle; I was ready for sleep and some pleasant dreams.

I was just dozing off when I heard the voices. I went to the window and looked down. They were just turning the corner. Mum had given up completely on the green strapped high heeled shoes. She was carrying both of them now in her left hand. She was wearing the leather jacket with the three stripes on the arm. Buddy was walking immediately behind her, lovingly holding her elbows in the palms of his hands; gently guiding her as she tiptoed nervously across the cobblestones in her stockinged feet. Mrs. Reilly was walking behind, arm in arm with Lucas. She was still chattering and giggling. Mum turned to her, raised a cautionary finger to her lips and pointed up in the direction of my room. I heard the key turn in the door and then I heard clunk of coins as they fell into the empty electricity meter. I heard Buddy’s voice and then they all laughed. I placed the pillow over my head and tried to sleep. Just before I dropped off, I wondered to myself what Dad would say when he came home from the war, and I showed him my observations.

 

 





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 





 

 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 














                                             


Comments

  1. please feel free to comment

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    1. Brilliant, can't wait for the next chapter. Thank you for allowing me to see the preview.

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    2. From Bristol to Canada i lived Knowle ,but i remember the war years so vividly. Did your father return?

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  2. Excellent read. You have a skill with the written word :) Very interesting content and I can't wait for the next chapter - don't leave me hanging too long!!! :)

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  3. Two chapters of delightful reading, each with a cliffhanger for an ending.

    Excellent stuff, Mike!

    I'm looking forward to the next chapter.

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  4. I'm wondering did you always know you could write like that or is the 'commercial insurance broker' really a front for long-time author?

    The first chapters of your life makes me realise how I & probably much of my generation have not had it bad. That said you are probably able to value the life you do have more & for that I am envious ...

    KEEP THEM COMING!!!


    Clare

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    1. Thank you for those kind words Clare. it was always my ambition to write a book when I retired. Still not retired, so running out of time. Thanks for reading.

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  5. Really enjoying your story. Thank you for sharing. Particularly fascinated by your mother. Looking forward to reading more.

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  6. Philippa Aldrich6 January 2014 at 11:51

    Enjoying this story immensely. Please keep going!

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  7. Fascinating, well worth reading.

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  8. Looking forward to the next chapter Mike, i am so happy that i found this story...

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  9. Thank you so much for writing this

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  10. Amazing read thankyou for sharing it i am looking forward to the next chapter

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  11. How interesting, thank you for sharing with us. My grandparents,along with my Dad and his sister lived in City Road around the same time (1936) as yourself, When my Dad married my Mum they moved to Stile Lane and then onto Old Park which is where most of my brothers and myself were born. We all attended St Michaels on the Mount Without Church, as we take a walk around St Michaels quite often, it brought back memories. Thank You

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    1. Thanks, is there a Phil Davidson in you brood? he was a st Michaels boy and friendly with John Sherman.

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  12. Great read Mike i was visualizing the places you were mentioning don't leave it to long for the next chapter. I have posted the link on my facebook so my Family/Freinds can have a read.

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  13. Very engaging story, thank you for recounting your memories. You are very skilled and I feel as though I am accompanying you and your family around Bristol, sharing your journey. Well done!!

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  14. Thank You so much for this, looking forward to more?, these personal recollections are the best. My Father wrote a book about his life and I treasure it now he is gone. I know all the places you mention.

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  15. I love this. You're a brilliant story teller, maybe you get that from your mother. So looking forward to the next chapter. X

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  16. Wow that was a great read. I felt like I was with you every step of the way. Thankyou.

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  17. Chapter 9, fabulous. More soon please.

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  18. A Bristolian living in Canada I recall those war years as if it were yesterday.Are you writing more?

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  19. Just read all nine chapters straight through. Michael. Enjoyed it so much and can't wait for more. Regards, Josie ( T & N Group)

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  20. Top drawer!! Mike can't wait to read your school years.

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  21. What an excellent read! You have a real knack of telling a yarn that draws the reader in, making you feel you are there with you and your family! I'm really looking forward to the next chapters with anticipation. Hope it's not too long before I see the pen knife making an appearance. :-)

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  22. Just caught up reading the first 10 chapters. Looking forward to chapter 11 tonight. Page turner - love it.

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  23. Thoroughly enjoyed it, as usual.

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  24. Carol Drozd Kirk17 August 2014 at 14:38

    fantastic writing and thoroughly enjoying every word - my lived at 10 Duke St from about 1928 until she married my father, an American soldier, in 1946 - she then came to the U.S.A. with him - I'll bet my mother knew your grandmother - my mother passed away a couple of months ago and therefore I cannot ask her about your grandmother - what a small world! - thanks for sharing your life with us

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  25. I love your story!(^_^) please keep on writing! I am so looking forward to the new chapters! I enjoyed them so much! I love tracking the streets in your story! So happy I recognized King David Hotel! Thank you for sharing your story with us!

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  26. Due to family matters I was unable to continue reading each update so started from the beginning, and I Never read a book twice, loved it as usual. You bring my childhood to life which I thought was rose tinted but it wasnt; as you say we had nothing but everything, what a fantastic way of describing it.

    I travelled on dad's crossbar of his bike as he cycled to Bolloms up the hill, little did I know that on second marriage I would meet and marry a St Michaels boy born and bred and we could talk and remember so much of what you describe and often walk around St Michaels Hill noticing the changes!
    Thank you Michael for such an enjoyable read, we walk every step with you, great pen work
    Regards Lynne Westcott

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  27. Hi Mike; my name's Eugene Byrne and I edit the Bristol Times local history/nostalgia section of the Post. When you get the chance can you drop me a mail at Eugene.Byrne@b-nm.co.uk Cheers!

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