Sunday, 8 May 2016

May 8th 1945 - VE Day.

"Everything will be better when the war is over."
If I heard Mum say those words once, I heard her say them a hundred times. They were her constant rallying cry, which helped our little family through some of the darkest days of World War 11.
"Everything will be better when the war is over."
I heard her shout the words loudly and nervously as we sheltered in the cupboard under the stairs and the first German bombs exploded around us.
I heard her whisper them quietly as she kissed my head whilst she rubbed the Wintergreen ointment on to my troubled chest.
I heard her speak them reassuringly as she knelt at my feet and applied the Zam-Buk to the chilblains on my toes.
"Everything will be better when the war is over."

It was the spring of 1945 and I was preparing to celebrate my eighth birthday. 8 was a big number and I felt grown up, and thought I knew it all. It was then that the Russian troops marched across the border into Germany. Everything happened in a flash. Adolf Hitler committed suicide amidst the ruins of Berlin, the German High Command surrendered to the Allied Generals at Rheims, and the brutal and bloody war in Europe was finally over.

Oh how we celebrated. We all piled into town to hear the declaration of Peace at the Council House in Corn Street and then the parties started. The men drank beer until they were either staggering or falling over. The women sipped port or sherry, and then raised their skirts above their knees and sang and danced like chorus girls in a Hollywood musical. We kids just ate. We sat on wobbly chairs at rickety old tables on the cobblestones and devoured mountains of food, the like of which we had never seen before. There were plates of bread and jam, bread and spam and cakes. There was dish after dish of jelly, blancmange, trifle and custard. I ate until I was sick, and then I started again.

But, nothing good lasts forever, and soon they were folding up and putting away the chairs and trestle tables. Down came the flags, bunting and banners, and life returned to the dull grey of normality.

"This is your victory." said Mr Churchill on the wireless. "It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best."

"There are tough times ahead," said a different voice, "but soon, together, we will enjoy the fruits of victory." I quite liked the sound of the 'fruits of victory," and I sat back and waited.

"Everything will be better now," said Mum, who now had a spring in her step and a smile on her face.


Sunday, 4 October 2015

My first meeting with 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.


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Bristol Blitz - The Good Friday raid

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.

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 not quite four, 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 she 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 all edgy and 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.