Domestic struggles

It was during this time of great preparation that we all had a very bad shock. Joe went out to the library one Saturday evening and John was attending a party at scouts, and Paul and myself were at home with the girls, who had just gone up to bed, when a policeman called at the door to tell us that Joe had met with an accident and had been taken to Whipps Cross Hospital.

He advised me to telephone the hospital and when I got through they told me no more than that he was to be admitted to the wards and to call as soon as possible. I went home and told Paul and, putting him in charge of the girls, I set off for the hospital.

When I get there, Joe was lying in a reception room in casualty, he looked pale and one ear seemed to be bleeding profusely and there was blood on his nose which had evidently been bleeding and had now stopped. He spoke to me and told me that he had fallen off a bus and complained of his shoulder being hurt. I fully expected that they would do something to stop his ear bleeding and let him return home with me.

The sister called me into the office and began to speak in a very serious manner; she told me that he had received a very bad blow on the head and it was not at all certain that he would live through the night. I was very badly shocked and felt the strength go out of my legs and was glad to sink down on to a nearby chair. She said that they were going to take him down to a ward now and I should go out to him and smile and not on any account to let him know that I was worried. She handed me some visiting cards which she told me would admit me or any member of the family by day or by night while he was so dangerously ill. She might just as well have handed me a bomb to put in my pocket, I felt so reluctant to rise and go to him. She came round and patted me on the shoulder and told me to have courage and to pray hard and I would find a way to cope with this terrible blow that had befallen us. I went out and they had Joe on a trolley going down to the ward and I went with him holding a small vessel to his ear to catch the blood that was still running from his ear.

They put him into a bed and I went in to see him before going home. He lay very still but still able to speak to me. I phoned several times during the night and although Paul was quite young, he insisted on coming to the phone box with me every time that I went. I went back to the hospital at daylight but I only looked in at him, he was lying very still and the nurse said that he had been given a sedative and would be like that for some time.

We went to the hospital for the normal visiting hours on the Sunday afternoon and Joe’s sister came with me to see the doctor who was in charge of Joe’s case, and the ward sister. They told us that, as a result of the X-ray they had taken, they now knew that Joe had hurt himself very seriously and had a compound fracture of the skull and there was some damage in the region of the brain.

There was no treatment really beyond rest and quiet and all depended on how still and quiet he could lie and the surgeon said that he would only operate if it became urgently necessary. Mary talked to him about surgeons she knew and asked to be informed immediately if an operation was to be performed and the doctor said he would let her know at once.

It was very strange that throughout all this time I had never felt that Joe would die but at the same time was terribly worried that my instinct would prove wrong; all the while the war was on and he was away, I had always felt that if he was injured or killed I would immediately know that something was wrong before I knew through the usual sources and I felt that I would somehow have known if the end was near, but I had felt from the second day that he would be spared to us. Although the visiting cards we had were to admit anyone at any time, the doctor said that it was wisest that no one but ourselves came to see Joe and that even we were not to talk to him very much and he was not to be told of any home worries, he was to be told only what he asked about and we were to try not to make him have to think. He told Joe himself this, too, and we are sure that it was because he followed these instructions carefully that he made such a good recovery.

We visited regularly and, although Joe was never given a pillow or allowed to sit up, we could see that there was a steady improvement and after five weeks he was allowed home. He was pretty shaky for a few days but he pottered about at home and soon regained his strength and soon the only thing noticeably different about him was that he had gone quite grey during his spell in the hospital.

We were both very fed up with the house; and we decided to think of how we could improve the situation. One course open to us was to see if we could purchase the house we were in at sitting tenant price and then make some improvements in it; the other course was to buy another house which already had a bathroom and larger rooms than those we had at present.

We were getting really desperate for room; the boys were so big and with every term that passed it seemed they collected more possessions. There were model aircraft which hung from the ceiling of their room by nylon threads, cricket gear generally thrown on the floor for want of a better place, footballs and the odd football bladder awaiting repair. Leather thongs for the footballs hung on the drawer handles, rugger boots and then for the better weather there were their frogmen’s flipper feet and goggles, which always seemed too awkward to keep in drawers, and books. Books were there, too, in every shape and size: fat books and thin books, paper backs and poetry books all had their place on every shelf and in every corner, ready to be picked up for the odd half hour, for the boys were both avid readers.


The daily tussle

The girls, too, were collecting at the most alarming rate; dolls in their case: Two dolls’ prams and a very large and dilapidated dolls’ house, which had to be refurbished every now and again, the odd teasets and cooker equipment for toy kitchens, building bricks and a whole conglomeration of oddments, such as bats and balls and a whole trunkful of clothes for the never tired of game of dressing up.

This was all very well, but it became gradually impossible to keep the house reasonably tidy. When folks called, it was a job to find a chair that could be quickly cleared for the visitors to sit down.

Then came the day that decided us that we must take immediate action; it was the day Bill Smith called. Bill was an army pal of Joe’s and we had not heard from him apart from the odd Christmas card since war days, and he chose to call on a foggy Sunday evening about six o’clock. It had been a dreadful day and the children had been cooped up all day long. We had played with them and read to them until we were both tired and it was nearing the children’s bedtime. I got the bath ready and it took a very short time to have them all in and out of the tub and then, beautifully clean, into their night clothes and headed off up the stairs to bed.

At last they were all tucked up and I was coming down the stairs to join Joe in the great clearing-up operation when I heard the knock on the door and standing on the doorstep in the dour gloom of a foggy Sunday evening stood Bill with his very smart wife and ten year old son.

To say we were glad to see them would be an outright lie, for we had economised that day in coal by not lighting the fire in the sitting room and the only warm room was the very untidy kitchen. However, we soon lit the other fire and sat down to chat and when things got going a little I left them to it and went quickly round having a tidy up and made a nice cup of tea.

It was a pity we were caught out like this because they were really very nice people and at almost any other time would have been more than welcome. The boy went upstairs and found our two boys in their room and it was not long before there were sounds of a great battle going on upstairs with all five shrieking and laughing. We turned a deaf ear to all this and decided that there was very little harm they could do for they were all sounding as though they had never enjoyed themselves so much before.

I brought in the tea and we four grown-ups sat and talked for a while and then they decided that it was time they moved on for they had a train to catch. They called their boy to come down and get his coat on and we all got a terrible shock, when he appeared, for his beautiful Sunday suit was covered all over with feathers and fluff.

He tried to explain it away, “We had a pillow fight and one of the pillows burst all over me.” It certainly looked like it. His mother was upset and not a little angry so we set to, brushing and shaking his clothes. Of course, this not being our day at all, the hoover was out of action and there was no help from that source. By the time we had brushed him down, we all had bits of fluff and feathers adhering to us.


Playtime in the snow

Our troubles were not yet over; before leaving, they all needed to spend a penny. Mrs. Smith went first, followed by the boy and then Bill went out.

We had a shilling in the slot meter for electricity at this time. We had applied to change it over to quarterly payments, but there was a long waiting list for meters and our turn had not come yet. Of course, this was the moment when the shilling ran out; our last shilling, too. There was a frantic dash for a candle and a great panic to find my purse or one of Joe’s pockets which might hold a shilling.

No luck; every other kind of coin but a shilling. Meanwhile, poor Bill was in the closet outside, and he had been pitched into sudden darkness. He waited a moment to see if the light went on but of course it did no such thing and, thinking that it was a faulty bulb, he put up his hand to try the bulb and must have touched a live wire for we heard a sudden yell from him.

His wife had meanwhile found a shilling which we thankfully borrowed and Joe rushed it to the meter to restore the light and our sanity. Joe let a more than bewildered Bill out of the toilet and it did not take them very long to bid us goodbye. I’m afraid we have never seen them since for we did not somehow think that they would think kindly of an invitation so we have never bothered to issue one.

The lack of a bathroom and indoor toilet was the thing that worried us most, for in the mornings, everyone needed to wash in the sink and there was a good deal of washing up that had to be done, too, in the one sink for, with six of us for breakfast, there were lots of dishes. We had half the scullery partitioned off to make a private place for bathing but that did not cut out the need for queuing at the sink for things like tooth cleaning and hair washing and other jobs requiring running water.

Besides this, all the water had to be carried into the bathroom in order to fill the gas copper kept in there for the purpose of heating the water for the tub. The tub had to be carried in; it was kept hanging on the wall outside the back door and it was the boys’ job to carry it in whenever anyone required a bath. I don’t know if you have heard the sound of a big tin bath being carried in by two mischievous boys; it always sounded to me like, “The Brohans are having a bath, boom, boom, boom”, and I always imagined the neighbours as saying, “Oh, the Brohans had another bath today,” and it was very apparent to everyone how often or how little we bathed.

So we decided that we would see a couple of estate agents. We carefully explained that we needed a fair sized house with a garden and we were given the keys of several houses to view. My mother decided that if we could get one with one extra room to our requirements she would like to come and live with us, but in her own bedsitting room where she could cook and clean and keep house for herself. With this in mind, we arranged to look at even larger houses than we first had in mind.

When we saw these big houses they really appalled us for, although we knew it would be wonderful to have such large rooms and so many of them, Joe and I began to have nightmares when we thought the rest of our lives would have to be spent standing on a step ladder with either a roll of wallpaper or a paintbrush in our hands, for the decor of all the houses we saw left much to be desired. Every one needed not only decorating, but structural repairs of an urgent nature.

One particular house in Wallwood Road held our attention for several weeks. We had the keys several times from the agent and we had all been to look at it together and separately. The decision had to be made and to this end we made a corporate viewing to get everyone’s reaction. We trooped around the big empty rooms and the children laid claim to the particular rooms they fancied would best suit them.

Joe and myself were apportioned the biggest bedroom I had ever seen in my whole life; it had no less than four windows and took up the whole front upper portion of the house. The floor area was simply enormous and I think was the deciding factor which brought us to our senses.

Nevertheless, we went into each room systematically and took note of its proportions and thought what use it could be put in order to serve our best interests. We measured windows and floors all over the house but when we came to measure the passages, they were so long that we laughingly said that as they were so long, the boys could use them as cricket pitches and left it at that.

After going all round for the forty-fifth time we went down to the cellar and as we had never been right to the extreme ends of this cold dungeon before, we were surprised to hear running water and after tracing the sound thought it looked surprisingly like a spring. Joe immediately went outside to see if he could find anything to account for it and happened to see the man who lived next door working in his garden. Joe asked him if he could throw any light on what appeared to be a natural spring in the cellar of the house we were seriously thinking of buying.

To Joe’s surprise the man said, “Yes, that’s right. It is a natural spring; we all have them in the cellars of these houses and they do tend to make the house a bit damp and cold. The springs flow directly into the underground Fillebrook.”

We closed the house after this shock and went home, sent the children out to play and made our final decision in about two minutes flat; stay put for a while.

We looked at other houses afterwards, but we had really had our fill and we both knew in our hearts that it would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire to tie ourselves down to a big mortgage repayment when our daily requirements were growing daily more expensive.

We made enquiries of our landlord about the possibility of purchasing the house we were living in and after a few weeks he told us that the owner was willing to sell and the purchase price was £400. Joe felt sure that he could make it into a suitable house for our quickly growing family and so we entered into negotiations and after a few months of anxiety and loss of sleep, because of a crafty solicitor that we had the ill luck to entrust with the conveyancing of the house, we became the proud owners of a semi-detached cottage with a very long garden.