It’s the gas masks that stick in my mind. They smelt horrible when they were strapped to your face. Made you want to be sick. Warm, floppy rubber. I’d had an operation for adenoids two years before. The doctor stuck a gauze mask over my face and poured some chemical-smelling stuff over it to put me to sleep. I was frightened and they held me down.
Now, as the man in the blue uniform held the gas mask over my face and played around with the straps, I had the same feelings, so I gave him a kick. He jumped back and swore and Mum was so busy apologizing to him she wasn’t bothered about how I felt.
We were in the Edmund Road Drill Hall in Sheffield. A large dirty-looking building that smelt of sweat, leather, cardboard and damp. The windows, those which weren’t broken, were covered in soot and the only outside you could see was just grey. We’d gone down after tea because everyone had to go. Mum said it was because there might be air raids and there could be bombs and some of the bombs could be filled with gas. The Prime Minister said we had to be ready in case. Mum didn’t think it would happen and we went because you would be fined if you didn’t. So I wasn’t bothered.
When we got there it was filled with other people. The men hadn’t come because they had got their gas masks at work. There were a lot of kids screaming. There were a lot of women huddled in groups gossiping and shouting at their screaming kids. They weren’t our type of people. Many of them wore headscarves and raggedy-looking coats and many of their kids had snotty noses and no shoes.
Maureen, our nursemaid who was holding my younger brother Paddy slapped me on the ear.
“Say sorry to the man. He was only trying to ‘elp you, stop you chokin’. Go on ...”
“Yes ...” Mum said in that funny voice she used on the ‘phone before she knew who she was talking to. Fishing around in her purse she took out a coin and handed it to the warden.
“He’s a naughty boy, Mister Warden. Have a pint of beer on me. He’s sorry.”
“He don’t look that way to me,” the warden said, pocketing the offering frowning, “not sorry at all. I’ve got me job to do yer know.”
“Just talk to him,” Mum encouraged, “get him to understand.”
He went down on one knee and waved the mask in front of my face.
“Stop your lungs bursting. ‘orrible. Drowned in blood, choking to death.”
“Oh ... I don’t ...”
“Look, Missus Murphy, they’re watching you know, these people here. They know Doctor Murphy’s lad. Expect better of ‘im. Yes, they’re watching. Make my job a lot easier if ‘e can behive ‘imself. So let’s get on with it before they all bugger off home.”
Maureen, aware our status on the road was under scrutiny grabbed my hair, pulled my head back and thrust her little brown bottle of smelling salts under my nose.
“Sniff that. Go on, take a deep breath then. That’s what gas will do to yer,” she snapped as I squirmed yelling as the biting fumes shot up my nose. “It’ll be worse than that with ‘Itlers gas. ‘Ave you screaming your ‘ed off, pukin’ blood.”
“It will,” the warden said, seizing eagerly on her contribution, “lungs burstin’. ‘Orrible ...”
Mum gave a little sob and patted my shoulder.
“Do what the man says, please.”
Mum was always using “please” to get me to do things but since Paddy had arrived I’d enjoyed ignoring her. I hated Paddy and hated her for having him so I was being awkward. Maureen grabbed my arm, swung me round and took the stopper out of the little brown bottle.
“Want some more of this?”
“That’s horrible. Stop being horrible. It burns my nose.”
I tried to wriggle free but it was no good. Maureen’s eyes glared into mine. I knew when she looked at me like that it was no good fighting.
“Can I have some money for sweets, Mum?”
The battle was lost but I was determined to retreat with honour.
I turned to the warden and lifted my head. He slipped the mask over my face and snapped the straps over the back of my head. Grasping the black tin sticking out from the front, the ‘pig snout’ they called it, he wiggled everything in place and surveyed his handiwork.
“See, that doesn’t hurt, does it!”
Then the eye holes misted over and everything went dim. I pulled the thing off.
“I can’t see!”
“Oh my God! This is a finicky one, ain’t ‘e just?”
He looked at Mum and received another pint of beer. A handkerchief was wiped over the condensation and the mask replaced. This time it wasn’t so bad. In fact it felt good. And I had threepence.
My dad was a doctor and his practice was in the middle of one of Sheffield’s slums near where we were in the Drill Hall. It wasn’t a very nice place. It was near Bramall Lane where Sheffield United played. Every Saturday there was roaring from the spectators that came over our house like waves. This got Dad fed up because after dinner he liked his forty winks, as he called it, before he went off to Wortley Golf Club.
We never played with the children on the streets around our house. Mum came from the other side of Sheffield. Her father was a forge manager and he was rich so she didn’t think the boys and girls around us were suitable. We used to play with the Cockayne children; they had a large store in the middle of Sheffield, or with the children of other doctors, most of whom had come across from Ireland with Dad.
We were “Doctor Murphy’s children” and when we went onto the street, which wasn’t very often as we had a car, the others would stop playing and just look at us. I knew that they knew we were better than them so we ignored them. Once a boy came up our drive with an ice-cream and offered me a lick. No one was looking so I took the cone off him and stuck it in his face. Afterwards I felt a bit sorry but never told anyone.
“See!” the warden said, spinning me round, addressing the crowd around us. “Doctor Murphy’s son has done it. Now you just get on with it too.”
He signalled to the wardens who had come out of the room at the back to start handing the boxes of masks round.
Paddy couldn’t have a mask on his face because he was too small. I wondered if it meant he would choke while we looked at him from inside our masks. Then opening a big cardboard box the warden pulled out a Mickey Mouse. It was a large, floppy, black rubber thing to which large black ears and a red nose had been stuck on. Mum walked into the middle of the floor and handed a bewildered-looking Paddy to the warden who, smart as they come, unzipped the bag, lowered Paddy into its gloomy interior, zipped it up again and invited everyone to gape at his puce face behind the stitched-on celluloid screen.
Then he started pumping a metal handle that ran to a tube that seemed to enter Mickey Mouse through his bottom. The bag swelled like a balloon. For a moment I thought it was going to float to the ceiling. Mum looked worried again and clutched at Maureen.
“Is he alright?
“Right as ninepence, Missus Murphy,” the warden said to Mum and the audience bending over a very bloated Mickey. “‘E’s alright, it’s like ‘e’s in the belly of a whale!”
There was no reaction to his well-practised joke so he shrugged and unzipped the bag. A gust of air rushed out and Paddy was returned to Maureen’s arms in silence. I don’t think many of them were Bible readers.
“Would you believe it, Missus Murphy,” Maureen said examining her charge minutely, “‘e’s all right. I think ‘e enjoyed it!”
Next, Mum, Maureen, my brother Michael and sister Jean were quickly attended to as the assembly murmured appreciatively. Then we were done.
“My husband, of course, is too busy to come here.”
“Oh yes! We understand, Missus Murphy. We will visit him at the surgery. We must look after our doctor mustn’t we! Need him around to look after us lot,” he said smiling tightly. “Never fear. We will be up to fit him tomorrow.”
The masks came in a cardboard box with a cord attached so we slung them over our shoulder and left the hall in triumph. Hitler could do his worst. We were ready for him. But after a few days the boxes lost their novelty. The string cut into your hand and if you fought with them the box split and the mask would drop onto the road. Then they became common. Everyone had one so the best people bought bright canvas holders that you could slip your box into. Mum thought they were a good idea because they would let people know we were different.
Then we got bored with showing how different we were. When we all went for a walk a few days later, me, Michael, Jean, Maureen and Paddy in the pram we left them behind. Jean didn’t and she was cross. As we were walking down Charlotte Road a policeman with a big moustache came across the road and put his hand up.
“And where’s your gas masks? This girl’s got ‘ers,” he said looking at Jean. “Why haven’t the rest of you?”
“Gas masks?” Maureen gaped. “The er ... war hasn’t started, has it?”
Mister policeman took a step back.
“Not started!” he said looking up to the sky and then at us again. “Do you think Mister ‘Itler is going to send you a letter saying ‘e’s on ‘is way and that you’d better get ‘ome and get your gas masks? Do you?”
“Well ...” Maureen’s bravado dissolved “ ... I didn’t think ...”
“Didn’t think?” Incredulity strengthened and heightened his voice. “Didn’t think?”
He looked round at some urchins who had gathered listening, open-mouthed.
“Bodies, little bodies, all over the street, sick and choking with gas and you didn’t think?” He affected a very deep breath and rolled his eyes. “Get home. Get home now. And don’t let me ever, see you out here without your gas masks.”
We stood rigid with fear as he took out a little book and wrote our names down starting with Maureen’s. Then he slipped the notebook back into his breast pocket and sauntered off. Jean wanted to cry because we’d got into trouble and she had said not to leave them behind. Maureen took out her smelling salts and sniffed so deeply her head shot back and her eyes watered. She glared after the departing figure.
“Oos ee think ee is,” she said, swinging the pram round. “I’ll show ‘im, I will.”
But she never showed anyone. Her fury had abated by the time we reached home and raising the matter with Mum would only mean another application of smelling salts and more tears so she left us in the nursery and retired to her bedroom.
Then there were the sirens. Everyone had been warned about them. The Evening Star was enjoying itself with big, black headlines blaring out from the news stands. It would happen at six o’clock, just as the news came on the Home Service. We weren’t to worry. It was a practice, a pretend.
Pretend or not it was frightening. I’d once watched a dog dying at the bottom of our drive. A van hit it and crushed its back end. For hours it lay there making a horrible whining noise until a policeman shot it. The sirens reminded me of that dog, only the whining noise was stronger and seemed to get inside me, as if that dog was in my tummy. I started trembling. Jean did as well and started to cry. I didn’t. Then she wet herself and Maureen had to fetch dry knickers for her and by the time she’d done that the sirens had stopped.
I didn’t sleep very well that night. I was all tense waiting for the sirens. When it happened again a few days later I was so frightened I jumped out of bed and raced across the landing to Mum’s room. But I went so fast I couldn’t stop at the door and went straight down the stairs and lay like a hedgehog moaning on the hall floor. No bones were broken Dad said. He lifted me back to bed and just as he tucked me in, the ‘all clear’ sounded. They were going to Manchester he reassured me.
After that, “going to Manchester” became the stock phrase. Dad took out an atlas and drew a line from Germany to Manchester. The line crossed Sheffield. Manchester seemed a very bad place to live.
Uncle Bill visited us at the end of August just before war broke out. He turned up at our front door all posh-looking in his RAF officer’s uniform. The wings on his chest confirmed he was a pilot. He had moved to the Volunteer Reserve a few years before so he could work in Canada as an engineer and come back if war started. Now he was back, ready.
He brought Michael, Jean and me moccasin sandals covered in lots of little coloured beads. Indians made them, he said. Mum was happy to see him. They were very close and when she realised he was back because he was going to war she cried.
He didn’t seem to mind. I think he was looking forward to it. He was very handsome, tall with dark wavy hair and a kind smile. Maureen got all funny when he was around and kept finding reasons to come into the lounge to ask silly questions. Mum said she was a flighty bit and needed watching.
A few weeks earlier Dad had swept into the garage late one night and in his headlights seen Maureen being pushed against the back wall by a Guardsman in a red tunic with black trousers. He was from Glossop Road barracks but when Dad saw him his trousers were down. Nobody told me anything. The shouting woke me up and I looked out of my bedroom window. The car lights were still on and I saw Dad chasing the guardsman out of our backyard, hitting him on the head with his umbrella. Maureen was crying and Mum was in her dressing gown shouting at her.
The following morning Mum told me she had gone home to see her mother. When she came back a few days later nobody said anything about what had happened. I asked Mum about it and she told me Maureen had been taken sick and the soldier was trying to help her. She never explained why his trousers were down and when I asked, Jean glared at me so I shut up.
A few days later, when I got up for a wee during the night I heard some whispering in Maureen’s room. Uncle Bill, who was visiting us, came out in his pyjamas. As his trousers weren’t off I knew Maureen wasn’t sick. Seeing me on the landing he whispered he was just getting a glass of water from Maureen, so I went back to bed. The funny thing was he didn’t have a glass in his hand. The next morning I told Mum she should put a glass and some water in Uncle Bill’s bedroom but she just looked at me funny and sent me out to play.
The following Sunday we went with Maureen to see her mother, Mrs. Wilson. She was an old lady of about fifty who lived in a back-to-back house in Heeley. There was only one room downstairs with a little kitchen at the back. Mrs. Wilson worked in a sweet factory so she always had lots of liquorish allsorts and Jean used to sit eating them until her face was all smeared black.
Mr. Wilson was dead but there was a hut in the garden he had fitted out with a model railway which ran on tracks around a bench. Michael and I were allowed there while Maureen and her mother talked and Jean stuffed herself with sweets.
Usually we went to see Mrs. Wilson on Saturdays but as we went along Bramall Lane we would meet crowds of men going to the United ground and some of them would talk to Maureen. Sometimes they would talk a lot and this would make us late. I told Mum and she said we could go on Sundays instead. Maureen called me a little snitch but I don’t know why.
On the first Sunday of the new arrangement we set off after early Mass. Mum was snapping at everyone. Dad said he wasn’t going golfing and he and Michael stayed in the lounge listening to the wireless. It was a long way to Mrs. Wilson’s house but as the weather was nice we didn’t mind the walking. Maureen said how quiet it was and then suddenly it wasn’t quiet any more. There was a car engine roaring and a squeaking of brakes and Mum pulled up to the pavement.
“Quickly ... get in the car ... war’s started.”
She seemed terrified. Jumping out she took Paddy out of his pram, pushed him into Jean’s arms and herded Jean and me onto the back seat.
“What about the pram, Missus Murphy?”
“Oh ... you’ll have to bring it home.”
She revved the engine, swung round and left Maureen and the pram on the pavement.
“What about Maureen? Will the Germans bomb her?” Jean whined.
“Goodness, no. It’s Sunday.”
“They don’t bomb people on a Sunday. It would be a mortal sin,” Mum said. She was getting exasperated.
“Well,” Jean persisted, “bombing people is a mortal sin, so can it be a worse mortal sin on a Sunday?”
“Shut up!” Mum snapped, then she slowed down. A policeman had stepped off the pavement with his hand up.
“War’s started missus. Where are you going?”
“I’m taking the children to their uncle’s house at Sandygate.”
The policeman’s eyes searched the car’s interior.
“With no gas masks?” he said pulling his notebook from his pocket. “It’s an offence you know. And what about these children? Yours, are they?”
“They had their gas masks,” Mum said almost weeping, “I left them in the pram.”
“I don’t see no pram, missus.”
“I left it with their nanny.”
“Nanny?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “And where is this lady?”
“Mummy just dumped her ... left her to be bombed,” Jean said sulkily.
“And where might this be?”
“... by the bridge ... all on her own ...”
“She’s not far from her mother’s,” Mum said glowering at Jean. “I was going to pick her up later.”
“And leave your kids without their gas masks?”
“All right,” Mum said grinding the gears and her teeth. “I’ll go back now.”
“I think you should. At once.”
Tipping his helmet the policeman walked into the middle of the road ready to stop any traffic that might come along while Mum swung round.
Maureen had reached her mum’s by the time we got to Heeley. As we walked in, Jean said we were sorry for leaving her. Mum said there was no need to apologise. Mrs. Wilson said there certainly was. Maureen said they were looking for girls for the munitions factory and that she would be going there where she would get some respect. Mrs. Wilson said her son would wheel the pram back when he got back from fishing but it would cost half-a-crown. He would bring Maureen’s case back with him.
Mum paid over the money. I piled the gas masks into the car. Jean kissed Maureen who had tears in her eyes and said goodbye. I said goodbye but didn’t kiss her. Mum said nothing and off we went.
Michael, Jean and I stayed at Uncle David’s that night. Uncle David had two steel works and was rich. Auntie Grace had a sewing machine company and she was rich. They had no children and when we visited they always looked at us funny, as if we were about to blow up. They lived in a big house on the edge of the moors and however rich they were the Germans wouldn’t be flying over Sandygate to bomb one house, so Mum said we would be safe there.
The floors of Gartmore, which is what it was called, were all polished. There were no carpets at all. It was a gloomy place, like a church. Auntie Grace was waiting for us in the porch when we arrived. She had a smile on as if she didn’t mean it. Uncle David was very hearty but I don’t think he meant it either.
After putting our stuff into our bedrooms we went down to tea. Jean was unhappy because she wanted to sleep with us and Auntie Grace said little girls didn’t sleep in boys’ rooms. Jean said she did at home and she wasn’t little, she was grown-up. And why shouldn’t grown-up girls sleep in boys’ rooms? Auntie Grace’s lips tightened and her voice became like my teacher’s when no one could spell ‘beautiful’ or other big words.
Auntie started then stopped to take us down to the dining room where the table was piled up with plates of bread and honey and lemonade. I cleared my plate in less than five minutes and as Jean wasn’t eating much I leaned over and took some of hers too.
I had never tasted honey. We never had it at home so I didn’t know I had an allergy to it. Just as I was finishing I felt a queasiness running up from my tummy and before I could do anything about it, a gush of sick shot out of my mouth all over the lace table cloth.
For a moment there was silence as I looked at the creamy liquid in little pools around the glasses of lemonade and on the floor. Jean, always very proper, let out a scream and jumping off her chair stood crying. Michael, overcome with laughing, fell off his chair and rolled around on the floor. Then Jean cried even more and ran out of the room and up the stairs shouting “I hate you. You’re horrible.”
Uncle David and Auntie Grace said nothing but just sat there looking as if they’d been hit on the head with a cricket bat.
We were too far away from Sheffield to hear the sirens but Mum in the centre of things rang up in the middle of the night to tell Uncle David they had gone off. He dragged us out of bed and down the stairs and bundled us under the arch of the staircase. Auntie Grace brought some rugs and we sat there snoozing ‘til daylight was showing through the coloured glass in the front door. Mum forgot to ring when the ‘all clear’ went off.
After breakfast she turned up at Gartmore to take us for a walk around the Botanical Gardens. She gave us some money for ice-cream, dropped us at the entrance and tootled off.
She was always ‘tootling off’ to do things, which meant Cole Brothers where she would sit having coffee with friends. This time, she told us, she was making some arrangements. We were going to stay with Dad’s family in Ireland to get away from the bombs. She didn’t know how long we would be away but she would be happy knowing we were safe. Jean and I thought this was great. Michael, being the eldest, was less happy and told Mum she was just getting rid of us.
As we walked round the gardens, Jean was sad, Michael was angry and I looked at the squirrels. I wanted to be off and was already a bit fed up waiting around. Jean then went off into Fairy Land as usual and Michael forgot about the ice-creams and when Mum returned he also forgot to give her the money back.