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In Pursuit of the Past

Jean Hendy-Harris

Copyright 2018 Jean Hendy-Harris

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Other titles

Chalk Pits and Cherry Stones

Eight Ten to Charing Cross

In Disgrace with Fortune

Non-fiction: memoir, 1950s London, poverty, family life

An assembly of reminiscences to mark the life

of my brother Bernard John Hendy

who died in April 2016  


The Best and the Worst of Brothers

More than Just Skeletons

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Pride in Progeny

An Unanticipated Tea Party

When A Tiger Ate an Usherette Called Iris

Adjusting What the Doctor Ordered

A Navigation of Northfleet High Street

Getting To Know the Neighbours

Among Our Souvenirs

The Sad Passing of Playing With Fire

Black Hands & Smoky Tea

Food, Glorious Food of the Forties & Fifties

One of Them There Aphrodites

The House By The Station

Long Gone Pub Sounds

Remembering to Hate the Greeks

The Better People of Darnley Road

Walking Back From Gravesend.

One or Two Canine Capers

What We Read Then

The Silver Lurex Jacket

The Vacuum Cleaner

A Constant Approach To Matrimony

The Blissful Burgeoning of Bathrooms

The Houses of Robinia Avenue

The Robin Hood of Wrotham Hill

Family Facts & Fantasies

First and Last Loves

About the Author

The Best and the Worst of Brothers

The last time our immediate family could be found together was in Edinburgh in early June 2016, all five of us to attend a memorial service for my brother. His death had come without warning, out of the blue two months previously, whilst holidaying in Africa. It was said to have been the result of a sudden heart attack, the details of which we hoped soon to become acquainted with, but nothing was certain.

And so we stood, a little group thrown unexpectedly together in the foyer of a hotel in the Grassmarket, the historic centre of the magnificent Scottish city. Each of us now slightly discomfited by the abruptness of our assembly, searching for an innocuous topic on which to make initial casual comment and quickly seizing upon that which was the focus of our meeting, the death of Bernard John Hendy.

My own thoughts were on his birth in 1947, two months before my seventh birthday, when I would so very much have preferred to have had a sister. Then on his baptism that had caused such discord between my parents because at my mother’s insistence it had not taken place in the Catholic Church on The Hill but at alien and Anglican St Mark’s at Rosherville. Then as if this wasn’t bad enough for my devout father, the last minute change of name. My new brother was supposed to be Bernard Joseph but because my mother harboured an aversion to certain names, she deftly substituted John at the very last second of the eleventh hour in a manner so unexpected that even the vicar, holding the infant above the baptismal font, looked startled. In exactly the same way she had seven years previously ensured that I became Jean rather than Bernadette. But now our family group did not speak of matters concerning the beginnings of life such as births and baptisms but of matters concerning the end.

A sudden death is hard to comprehend. An ending that comes out of the blue so disquieting that family, left emotionally stranded, find the circumstances almost impossible to internalise. So it had been with my brother who had so very recently enumerated to me the struggles he was having with his life and, fired with enthusiasm and inspired by an important new passion, the major changes he was intending to make. I listened, as an older sister is wont to do, and then being disturbed by the story, failed to give him the support he asked for. He told me that all he wanted was somebody to be on his side and I hesitated and shrugged because we both knew that somebody should be me. But I sent support scurrying in a different direction, feeling virtuous not because I wholly disapproved of all the preposterous plans that he proposed but because of the ripples of chaos he might create. The conversation had taken place a disturbingly short time ago and now we stood in the tall, forbidding Grassmarket building debating the impending memorial service to mark his death, a commemoration that had taken rather too long to organise. My prime emotion on that Edinburgh afternoon was a slowly evolving anger and I wondered if it would completely overwhelm me before I fully understood why I had abandoned him when he most needed me.

Now, he and I had simply run out of time for the accommodation of the plans we had made together. The book about our childhood would never now be written. No time was left for recording of reminiscences and ruminating on the past because as he once pointed out to me himself, memories aside, all that remained of our shared past were incidental box Brownie photographs, little black and white snaps taken in back gardens and on bomb sites.

I was supermarket shopping when he died. At an ungodly hour on account of an adjustment in the summer-winter clock I hovered over frozen peas and spinach, deliberated on their individual merits and compared prices. In the very last seconds of his earthly life I was very possibly queuing at the check-out counter, impatiently behind the Indian corner-dairy owners who always shop at hours unearthly despite summer-winter time variations. The news that his life had ended came an hour or so later by email from his son and left me in total disbelief because how could it possibly be that someone so charming and charismatic should simply vanish into the ether? We were brought up as Roman Catholics so surely his existence must not simply end just like that? After all, he was once an altar boy so didn’t that count for something?

He and I had been raised in abject poverty, the kind of miserable and wretched neediness that doesn’t exist anymore except in the underclasses of developing countries. We inhabited a world that makes Coronation Street look decidedly middle class. With the death of our father at the unseemly age of forty-one the privation and distress went to an entirely new level as our poorly-educated and well-meaning mother went on to do the best she could for us under very difficult circumstances. We lived in an area of largely industrialised Thameside where we were surrounded by the Decent Poor. We featured at the very bottom of the social heap because there were hints of Diddicai or Pikey family roots and the Decent Poor looked down on us. I can’t say I blame them – when the neighbours were beginning to think about installing inside toilets with attached shower facilities, we were still hauling in the zinc bath from its place on the outside wall every Saturday night for the weekly bath. Bernard was convinced he was unpopular with other boys’ families because he smelled bad and very possibly he was correct.

With our father safely and permanently absent I became his bullying older sister who had both loved him dearly and yet had wished him harm from the day of his first intrusion into my life. Left in charge of him whilst our mother worked cleaning other people’s houses, I compelled him to eat slugs, chew marbles, beg in the street for pennies for a non-existent charity, and dress up as a girl called Wendy in a pink crepe-paper fairy costume I made specifically for the purpose. At the same time if any other child dared to criticize him I was ferocious in my defence and this merciless aggression on his behalf continued into his early teens when I once famously attacked three of his classmates who had unwisely risked upsetting him, sending the horrified trio bolting for cover. If necessary I would have killed for him.

He was a quiet and pensive small boy, unusually biddable so that it was generally impossible to know what he was really thinking. By the time he was four years old he had developed a fascination with and an impressively growing knowledge of backyard and hedgerow ornithology. The conversations he enjoyed most were those involving the conduct and actions of sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and finches. He told me that somewhat surprisingly it was our mother, and to some extent our grandmother who had inculcated this emergent interest that increased a thousand-fold over years until it became an all-consuming passion. By the time he was a young adult he had turned most of his attention to birds of prey, the magnificence of which regularly moved him to tears. It was this passion for bird life that from time to time dictated that I should also become involved, albeit unwillingly, and detailed to care for those rescued whilst he, accompanied by wife and small child, headed North to check on the well-being of others. And so I found myself nervously in charge of barn owls needing to be fed live mice and on one occasion a kestrel demanding a diet of voles and baby rabbits that I must somehow procure.

At the same time and perhaps oddly, Bernard had a chequered and volatile early life, frequent brushes with The Law and a tendency to stray far from the truth. He was a husband and father by the time he was eighteen and there were times when he could have done much better in both those roles, a fact of which he was painfully aware. During our last meeting he had impressed upon me, not for the first time, that he bitterly regretted being a far from ideal father during the earliest years of his only child’s life. And now he desperately wanted to make up for those inadequacies with both love and with money and ensure that his now adult son would never be in need as he and I had been just one short generation previously.

We shared the same compulsion as we grew older. An uncontrollable urge that developed out of our joint inability to accept the reality of a vastly underprivileged start in life. It took the form of one invented substitute family after another, each more implausible than the last. This habit probably got my brother into more tight spots than it got me. Somehow I managed to see warning lights and extricate myself from trouble long before he did.

Bernard’s second wife became for thirty years probably the most stable influence in his life. With her he was rapidly able to progress some of his dreams and become the person he really wanted to be. It was in some degree due to luck but also to her hard work and diligence that they together made a great deal of money and his long obsession with the Scottish Highlands was realised when he bought a Victorian mansion at Cape Wrath and turned it into a family home complete with enough power-showered bathrooms to utterly astound our former neighbours. His proximity to Britain’s largest bird of prey, the Golden Eagle, was also of course a constant source of elation to him.

The marriage was a successful one for many years, perhaps because for Bernard it rapidly became based upon anxiety. A very tight ship was being run and there seemed no opportunity for the infidelities that had permeated his first marriage. He wisely adhered closely to the new rules and on this basis the marital bonds remained intact for a long time but not of course for all time and when the ties began to loosen our maternal grandmother would have undoubtedly noted that the proverbial apple had not fallen far from the tree.

He was immensely gratified to have become rich although money changed his basic personality very little. It was true he could now buy whatever he wished – and he did so, but essentially he remained the same. Without money he had always been unerringly generous and with money he simply became more so. And despite the unexpected hitches that often plague the lives of the newly rich he remained the captivating and magnetic individual he had always been, who could entertain with stories, many of which were quite untrue, for hour upon hour. He was always the best and the worst of brothers and at all times the brother who could not be entirely trusted because what he said might be true and equally well might not. He definitely knew I dearly loved him but he died without knowing how enormously proud of him I was, simply because I failed to tell him this. Later of course I wished I had voiced the details of my pride in his extraordinary knowledge, his unfailing kindness and humanity, and the way in which he could draw people to him so that their greatest wish was to gain his friendship.

Essentially life is short and when Death reaches out the separation and the silence seem so complete that we can never make too much of the ties and relationships we have with the living. With that sentiment in mind, this book is a somewhat fragmented memoir of our lives as we grew up together in the 1940s and 50s. It is perhaps the book we were planning to write together.

More than Just Skeletons

One way and another Bernard had over the years done a great deal of research into the roots and background of both our mother’s family, the Constants and our father’s, the Hendys. In the first place his interest had been primarily in the latter as he tried to edge a little closer to the man who had so abruptly disappeared from his life that never-to-be-forgotten Christmastime when he was four years old. I had initially found this determination to uncover and verify facts rather less absorbing than he did and shuddered a little when he revealed one distasteful episode after another in the lives of our antecedents.

With enormous determination and effort he managed to trace The Hendy Family back into the eighteenth century but of course his greatest interest was in those members who came immediately before us. He was impatient to discover the reasons behind our father’s disturbed childhood, spent variously in the Workhouse and finally in the Children’s Homes of Chatham. There had always been a great deal of secrecy around our paternal grandmother, Kate, and as children we learned not to ask too many questions about her. When I discussed her with my Waterdales cousins I was told she had ended up in prison for beating some of her children to death. I wondered how many and was glad that our father had not been one of them. My cousin Connie said that it was her opinion that he had hidden in a cupboard or the khazi or perhaps even climbed a tall tree so she couldn’t get at him. Our mother remained tight-lipped on the subject and said the matter didn’t concern me and anyway not to use that word khazi because it wasn’t very nice.

Bernard discovered that there had been a complete absence of murders and instead an addiction to alcohol, theft and fighting in the streets. This behaviour resulted in a number of prison sentences and committals to Oakwood Hospital better known as Barming Heath Mental Asylum. Kate was once called The Most Neglectful Mother in Chatham. This title was awarded her on November 16th, 1913 shortly before she was sent down for the fifth time. Her two youngest children, baby Elizabeth Mary and four-year-old Bernard Joseph, our father, were then temporarily removed to the Chatham Workhouse and from there into the care of local Children’s Homes. Her six older children were distributed among Hendy relatives dotted in and around the towns and villages of North Kent.

Our mother was enduringly critical of the Hendy Family, holding them collectively responsible for what she saw as my father’s unnecessarily disrupted and unhappy childhood. She simply could not understand why the two youngest children were cast aside so ruthlessly. She even pointed the finger at his oldest sister, all of fifteen years old, whom she felt certain could have Pulled Her Finger Out and taken care of her younger siblings. After all, the young Constants had all taken care of each other hadn’t they? And the drunkenness and deprivation that abounded in Maxim Road, Crayford at the time was no secret. Blood was thicker than water she thought or it should have been.

The lack of concern for the two youngest children did seem curious but later, in the light of more persistent research when it transpired that they had not been Hendys at all but the progeny of a male who stubbornly remained unknown to us, the reasoning became clearer. Bernard was dejected and said that for years he had believed he was a Hendy and now it appeared obvious this was not so it left him with a strange and disconnected feeling. When I stopped to give that statement some consideration I found I felt similarly because the familial ties with the Hendys of Waterdales, those with whom I had shared so much of my early childhood, were looser than I had believed them to be. Perhaps that explained the hatred I had always felt for cousin George, two years my senior, seething resentment that had eventually resulted in me pushing him out of an apple tree resulting in what I was later told was an injured spleen. My brother readily agreed that there had not been overly much feeling of Belonging to those Hendys that we had known. It was at that stage that he gladly turned his attention resolutely to research of the Constants of Crayford.

The Constants immediately emerged as a dysfunctional and disreputable lot but we knew that anyhow having lived cheek by jowl with them for so many years but Bernard’s investigations revealed that their overall status in their early years was lower than either of us might have expected. Most major family events, including our mother’s birth into a hop bin, appeared to have occurred in the open air, which my brother now assured me was a definite indication of low social rank. Most of her siblings were either conceived or brought forth amid cereal crops or long grass and our grandfather expired among wet fish. Our mother was invariably vague when asked questions about the family origins and this indefinite attitude to enquiry seemed to be a characteristic that was inherited and over which she had little control. Perhaps it had originated in Ireland, in County Galway and was brought into England by our Great Grandmother whose firstborn, our Grandmother Margaret, usually referred to as Old Nan, continued the tradition of ambiguity and thus the seeds of the erosion of fact became well and truly sown.

Old Nan’s marriage to Edgar Constant in the very first years of the twentieth century produced between thirteen and twenty-one children. True to form she was unclear with regard to the actual number and when questioned became distracted. When we tried to count them with the help of our many cousins we could only get to eleven or twelve even counting those who died as infants and so we came to the conclusion that there had possibly been a total of twenty-one pregnancies. What was clear, however, was that there was a great preponderance of girls and so we ended up with many aunts and only one uncle.

Our mother’s upbringing rapidly conditioned her to the application of deceit as an essential tool of survival particularly where officialdom was concerned. Because casual agricultural work, especially hop picking, so preoccupied our grandmother it was impossible for the required registration of the births of her children within the six week time limit imposed at the time. As a consequence most of them had their birthdays adjusted and ended up with two or even three dates. One child failed to be registered at all and the demise of another at the age of eleven months resulted in the embarrassment of the death being registered prior to the birth.

The birth of our Uncle Edgar must have taken place at a completely inconvenient time as he was never actually registered at all and was forced to become a family secret and later a complete nonentity. In the eyes of both the State and the Law he simply did not exist. For the entire duration of his life Edgar was denied both the benefits and the protections of the welfare state. He was never required to attend school for instance which he felt gave him an enormous head start in the field of employment. And although he never enjoyed the blessings of Social Security or the NHS he claimed that not being called upon to participate in World War Two was a huge plus for which he remained eternally grateful. Thus, while others of his generation were giving their all in the struggle against National Socialism the youthful and energetic Edgar devoted himself both to the black market on the Home Front and to the comfort of the womenfolk of his fighting peers.

Our mother, Nellie, was the family’s second born and followed her sister Margaret into a world of uncomplicated agricultural routine and they were soon joined by a new sibling each year. A number of the children died at birth or from childhood illnesses before their fifth birthday and two were inadvertently smothered when their drunken mother rolled over them whilst sleeping. Despite the attrition there were still a large number left to clothe and feed and life was not easy. The Constants had to earn a living and the harvesting of vegetables, fruit and hops was a lifeline for them. All else was secondary and certainly nothing as trivial as the registration of the birth of a child was allowed to get in the way of it. Owning no clock or calendar and being completely illiterate must have further hindered Old Nan and possibly there also existed a degree of genuine confusion. She conformed to a routine dictated by seasons and weather and most of all to the absolute necessity of earning money.

In general the Constants were a wild and unruly bunch, uncontaminated by the honesty and integrity of conventional society. Edgar their father showed a certain amount of entrepreneurial spirit and eventually worked his way up to becoming a prosperous wet fish merchant and haulier, and then worked his way all the way down again. It was rumoured that both alcohol and a touching faith in his fellow man combined to ruin him. Because of the family’s long history of practised deceit it is hard to know the truth of the matter but it is certainly agreed that his ability to apply himself was not at fault. In the early days of the business, when the Depression was at its height, he would walk from Crayford to Billingsgate, arriving at first light to buy fish. He would then push an old pram full of fish back to Crayford where it was hawked around the new Council Estates. His enterprise was rewarded when the pram became a barrow, then a cart and later several carts and a lorry. He was a man who displayed undoubted potential.

On the other hand our grandmother was quite a different character. An alcoholic all her life she would from time to time claim teetotalism and even maintained this on her death bed despite the evidence of empty bottles beneath it. Unlike Edgar drink made her spiteful and vindictive. She lied to get money for alcohol, lied to explain the effects it brought upon herself and the family finances and lied to avoid accepting responsibility for her actions. When cornered she would place the blame upon others, even her own children, and she was more than capable of framing others and bullying her daughters with threats and violence into supporting her various deceits.

Nevertheless, despite her fierce temper tantrums and her frightening excesses, her children appeared to adore her and her misuse of them served only to fire their competition for her love and affection. She utilised their love to her own ends, expertly setting one against the other to protect herself introducing them all into the use of deception on a grand scale – against their father, their neighbours and each other until it became first nature to them all. Under her guidance they became schooled and practised in the art of obfuscation, honing their abilities to cloud any issue with a veritable shoal of red herrings until they were each a match for anyone in any situation. Within this situation our mother survived and thrived and rose to dominance. That we never enticed her to confirm precise details of the family history when we asked was merely a measure of our own naïve expectations

In his ongoing pursuit of truth my brother came across a disturbing number of predecessors with names like Boswell, Lee and Mayhew and whose professions were described as Horse Dealer, throwing some light at least upon the occasional finger pointing and whispers that we both well recalled from the past. And alongside he also discovered relatives any one of us could be proud of and as unlike Grandmothers Margaret Constant and Kate Hendy as it was possible to be. One such was Nelson James Constant who joined the Royal Artillery and served in India then in the Tower of London upon his return to England where his son, another Nelson James, was baptised in the Tower Chapel. Nelson James Constant lived a long life and became a Chelsea Pensioner, a distinction only bestowed upon those with exemplary records. He was buried with full military honours in Dartford proving to us both that the closet of family history contained more than just skeletons.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Like all children growing up immediately after World War Two, Christmas was for us less a time for being showered with expensive toys and more a time for church-going, early evening carol singing under lamp posts and partaking in seasonal treats such as mince pies, tangerines and candied pineapple. Despite the lack of material things, once the celebration of Guy Fawkes was over in early November, the entire child community of Northfleet turned with determination to the celebration of Christmas, greatly anticipating the apex of excitement that was soon to be theirs.

At St. Botolph’s School on The Hill each year we were by mid-November deep in rehearsals for the Christmas Concert to which friends and parents were invited, and by the first week of December lessons were halted for thirty minutes each afternoon to allow us to make the two minute journey into the fourteenth century Church next door for Carol Practice. We always sang the same pieces at the end of year service - Once in Royal David’s City, The First Noel, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem and how easily the verses slip into memory even now.

The Christmas Concert I remember most vividly was the occasion when Betty Haddon sang Alice Blue Gown, Pearl Banfield and I dressed as Crinoline Ladies in crepe-paper costumes to dance a waltz and a contingent of the noisiest boys marched across the makeshift stage maintaining that there was A State Of War On The Nursery Floor whilst banging drums contrived from old biscuit tins. The excitement was intense. Then, quite suddenly school was finished and it was home to new Council Houses with fires in tiled surrounds for the luckiest among us and back to the tiny workmen’s cottages where the heating was pre-Victorian for the rest of us.

Strangely we did not seem to notice how poor we were at Christmas, theoretically the time when it should have been most obvious, so powerful was the anticipated thrill of the impending celebration. On Christmas Eve the Salvation Army Band toured the streets for the final time and we donned coats and scarves and stood under the lamp on the corner of Springhead Road to listen before being ushered indoors once more for mince pies with cocoa for the children and a tot of cherry brandy for the grown-ups. Later my father would take me to Midnight Mass at the Roman Catholic Church where I happily shunted off my term-time Anglicanism and once again became a devout Catholic child both fascinated by the high drama of the Mass but bored at the same time because it went on far too long. He in his overcoat, demob suit and white silk scarf intent upon appraising any woman under fifty attending alone, was always in a good mood whilst maintaining an air of studied piety. My brother was considered too young to accompany us. Later he told me that he wished he had been included.

At this time of year both the Parish Priest, Father O’Connor, and a clutch of black-clad nuns would make a particular fuss of me and tell me I was a good child, hoping to lure me back to the school in Springhead Road where my brother was enrolled and would attend just as soon as he was four years old. On one occasion I was given Rosary Beads, ebony and silver that I kept for years. At the end of the mass there was generally a little Yuletide conversation between the attending parishioners during which my father was able to chat with the piano teacher from the top of Springhead Road and both the Murphy sisters who ran the Brownie pack next to the Library, hands nonchalantly in the pockets of his overcoat and laughing too loudly at their jokes. Once or twice I noted that he looked handsome and for a moment or two was proud of him.

Of course all children woke at dawn next day feverishly excited at the thought of what Father Christmas just might have brought with him and we were never let down because he always did bring something. One year it was a red plastic dolls’ tea set from a stall at Gravesend Market, and another an exciting pile of second hand books including Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl Annuals. Breakfast on Christmas Day always began with mugs of sweet tea, laced with whiskey even for the children though I have absolutely no idea how and when this particular tradition began. Nevertheless I have followed it myself in the intervening years and have been oddly cheered to find that my own children do likewise though spread widely throughout the world.

There followed a range of festive snacks including the essential candied fruit, nuts and tangerines all so fundamentally part of Christmas that to this day the slightest hint of a tangerine or satsuma aroma instantly flings me back over decades to the late nineteen-forties. Christmas Dinner was served fashionably late, certainly not before two in the afternoon and was generally one of our own hens, mashed and roast potatoes, sprouts and brown salty gravy followed by home-made Christmas Pudding and a white cornflour sauce heavily sweetened. My parents drank beer with this repast and my brother and I were deliriously excited to be given lemonade, exactly as if we were in the children’s room at a local pub. We stayed up late and listened to the radio and on Boxing Day we went visiting either to Crayford to my mother’s family or to Waterdales to my father’s. Either way it was something I looked forward to because among my many cousins there was sure to be one who had been given a second-hand bike or even a passed-on china doll as Connie-on-my-father’s-side was, one eventful year.

These largely happy Christmases were to change dramatically in 1951 and the years thereafter because that was the year our father died quite suddenly and inconveniently on the twelfth of December just a day or two after an afternoon of festive shopping in Gravesend. It was also the year when quality toys began to reappear in shops and there was to be a Meccano Set for my four-year-old brother which my father was looking forward to Helping Him With and an Art Compendium for me. These were absolute facts because he had been saving most judiciously since Guy Fawkes in order to ensure that an order could be safely placed with Father Christmas. Bernard did not quite appreciate what a Meccano Set actually was but the fact that his father was going to be fully involved in playing with it alongside him made him dizzy with excitement.

Despite the obvious drama that inexorably accompanies sudden death, for some reason we were not actually told although at eleven and a half years old I was aware that a momentous event had taken place. Quite unusually our father had visited the doctor in the days before his death. He was clearly unwell and his face had become far too yellow to be completely normal. At only four, Bernard was naturally less aware of these details and as time passed became even less cognizant of what had actually happened and the time sequence involved. Our missing father became a subject we did not discuss, most especially because at some stage I had been told that my brother was too little to really absorb such a critical happening. My mother was fearful as to how he would Take It. It then became as though he had never been and it was to be years before we mentioned his name one to another. Bernard was in his fifties when he told me of the concentrated research he had undertaken in order to try to find out just a little about Bernard Joseph Hendy, the father who seemed simply to evaporate one Christmastime along with the first insubstantial snowfall of the year. He had so very few real memories he said and he urged me to share my own with him. And so I was persuaded to return to a time I had tried very hard to forget and a sadness that was imprinted upon my heart.

It had been very early on a Tuesday morning when our mother ran to the corner shop as soon as they opened because therein was the nearest telephone. I hovered in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom and studied my father feeling strangely anxious although he and I had failed to establish a close relationship since he came back from the war after an absence of more than five years. I would have been more than content for him to once again become the father who lived only in the photograph beside the wireless and to whom I blew perfunctory kisses on my way to bed. Now I felt uneasy as I noted the over-yellowness of his skin against the white pillow-slip, newly changed for the hopefully impending visit of the doctor. He opened too-yellow eyes momentarily and made some inconsequential comment about me not being late for school and that was the last time I saw him, those words concerning school were the last he was to speak to me. Two days later he would die in Gravesend Hospital and whilst he did so my brother and I were left at home in the care of our teenage cousin Margaret who gave us peppermints and played Ludo with us and allowed Bernard to cheat so that he won every game.

The day before his death, making tea for an aunt and a neighbour, my mother had appeared oddly self- assured, almost jaunty, setting milk and sugar on the kitchen table, counting out cups and making comment that Bern had been relieved to get into that hospital, really glad he’d not decided to simply Sleep It Off, whatever it was that was draining his strength, turning him yellow. Twice he’d said to her – ‘It was the right decision to come here Nell!’ And to think she’d been feeling uncomfortable about the doctor dropping them off there in his car. Driven them himself he had. It was good of him. Children were allowed to visit on Sundays. She was going to take the kids in, well Jean at least. Listening to this exchange I was reassured and hopeful he would be well again in time to slaughter the Christmas Dinner hen. The killing was anything but pleasant but I was looking forward to helping with the plucking even though the feathers hovering about us in the scullery made me sneeze and cough.

The day he died was a Thursday but for some reason neither my brother nor I had been sent to school although both of us would have been happy to go. Bernard because it was his very first term at St Joseph’s in Springhead Road and it was still a relatively novel experience. At playtime each day he would stand by the playground fence that adjoined the Old Green bomb site because sometimes if he was on two-to-ten shifts his father would walk over and talk to him through the fence and once he gave him a toffee. But that had been when he was still a New Boy of course, a reward for not crying. I would have willingly gone to school because of all the excitement of the end of year Concert festivities. This year I was to be an angel in a white crepe-paper costume that my mother had yet to make. I hoped my father’s ill-timed illness would not get in the way of the costume making. Last year I had been Mary, mother of Baby Jesus in a Real Pageant and sat beneath the Lychgate of St Botolph’s Church with my doll Susan being the baby. I had been specially chosen by the Bishop himself who said I had the face of an angel and although Old Nan said the evening was cold enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey I hadn’t noticed because my excitement was great.

During that afternoon of the many Ludo games in which Bernard was allowed to cheat, as shadows began to fall over the Old Green I clearly remember the taxi that brought the hospital visitors back from Gravesend, a black vehicle seeming oddly sinister in the half-light that spilled out its passengers onto the edge of the bomb site. My mother with bent head and weeping was supported between two aunts and barely able to walk down the garden path. It was clear that some unexpected or unwelcome event had taken place. Perhaps my father was no longer happy to be at the hospital and demanding to be allowed to return home.

Once inside, the aunts whispered a lot, fed my mother a white tablet and put her upstairs to bed where she continued to cry but more softly. Aunt Mag mouthed to Margaret a stage whisper to the effect that my father had Now Gone and Bernard overheard and wondered where he might have gone to. He asked me so I took him into the scullery and told him he would be back in a week or two but by then good sense was beginning to tell me that of course that wasn’t so. Margaret cried almost as much as my mother and that was because she had loved my father very much, in fact much more than I had. For a while I went upstairs and lay alongside my mother and asked for reassurance that now he was in the hospital my father would get well again even though I knew that was not so. Through her tears she told me that of course he was going to get well again and I began to feel tightly knotted anger at the dishonesty.

I was embarrassed to go downstairs again because of the whisperings of truth that were not being extended to me but once my mother was sleeping I did so and by then it was completely dark. Margaret and I were sent out to fetch fish and chips for tea as a treat and once he heard this Bernard began to smile because he loved chips but I knew I was too angry to eat any. On the way I asked Margaret if my father was going to get well again and she began to cry all over again and told me that of course he would. I hated her then. My anger and resentment continued to grow over the following days when a funeral at which neither my brother nor I were present, must have taken place.

There followed the strangely embarrassing situation of neighbours calling in giving gifts to my brother and myself, boxes of scented handkerchiefs, Mickey Mouse Soap and chocolates. None of this felt quite right and people were speaking far too quietly. A parent dying at Christmastime is distressing for everyone and the guidelines for how to best deal with it are sparse so little wonder that our mother dealt with the situation badly. Both Bernard and I went on to deal equally badly with each Christmas that followed, not only into our young adulthood but also into advancing age, each of us feeling the sharp pangs of remembered childhood misery as the festive seasons approached even though memory of that first pain was now almost completely lost . We strove to hide the uncomfortable memories under excessive and extravagant celebration and to a large extent we each succeeded. My mother managed less well and although every Christmas that followed featured half a bottle of cherry brandy to accompany the mince pies and a small bottle of whiskey for the early morning tea, they were by and large melancholy affairs. The Christmases I later structured in New Zealand, however, were Victorian in their magnificence and quite out of kilter with what was locally acceptable and left each of my three children with just a little longing for a more customary barbecue on the beach.

It was to be years before I would become aware that there had been a post-mortem on our father that revealed the condition that caused his death was acute hepatitis which in itself may or may not have been the result of an illness he had during the war, amoebic dysentery. This was the illness that had led to him needing an extended convalescence on a farm in Tunisia where he had become extremely popular with the family and where Little Andre, who may or may not have been our half -brother, was born. It was also many decades before I began to think about the significance of the two officials who visited our home at some stage following all the drama. Men in grey suits and raincoats who questioned my mother and took a great interest in the Anderson Shelter and the chemicals that had been used to clean and refurbish my father’s motor bike. They gave particular attention to the bottles of Carbon Tetrachloride and took a number of things away with them and forgot to tell my mother they were sorry for her loss.

Later the motor bike was sold but because it was largely in pieces the fortunate and enthusiastic buyer didn’t pay much. Nevertheless my mother was glad to see the back of it because she’d never felt safe on it or indeed its predecessor, the Ariel. The Ariel had been sold in 1949 and proudly replaced by the red and silver Harley-Davidson. The bike had been, of course, my father’s pride and joy and stood in pride of place very close to my young brother who was also his pride and joy. Sadly, he was never able to get as much pleasure out of me, his overly critical and suspicious daughter who never quite forgave him for returning from World War Two in the first place to disrupt the uneventful but contented life my mother and I shared together. Even so his abrupt departure from our lives five years later left an emotional cavity that my mother found difficult to fill and although I had found his presence at times challenging, I began to find his absence even more so. My first emotion, however, when finally discovering that he was not ever coming back again, was one of relief and I fervently hoped that we would be able to return to that wartime life when it seemed to me we had no problems whatsoever.

It would be true to say that when he shuffled off his mortal coil so precipitously that year when I was eleven and Bernard was four, Bernard Joseph Hendy deftly changed forever the way his children viewed the Festive Season, forcing us into a regular appraisal and examination of indeterminate Ghosts of Christmas Past every twelve months without fail.

Pride in Progeny

It might have been the candid confession regarding the depth of his childhood despair over various aspects of his upbringing that caused first Bernard and then me to finally cast aside mistrust of each other and replace it with intense filial affection. It happened quite suddenly.

I was six and three quarters when he was born and from the moment of his entrance into the grimy Northfleet community I resented him with an astonishing level of bitterness. Those were the days when older female siblings were routinely placed in charge of the newest family members and it was clear that our family was not going to differ in this respect. By the time I had reached my seventh birthday I was Baby Minder in Chief, regularly directed to walking and pram rocking duties after school. Many of the older sisters around me seemed to enjoy the responsibility of these duties and in fact if you didn’t have your own resident infant it was quite acceptable to borrow one from a neighbour. The most desirable were females dressed in pink especially those with cutting edge names like Cheryl-Anne or Sharon-Louise, names that might even be embroidered onto the huge fleecy pram pillows.

My father was delighted with his son and could love him in a way that he clearly found difficult with me. He was eager for him to grow bigger and stronger so that he could introduce him to all those things I found abhorrent such as funfairs and football matches and long walks on the Thameside marshes. It was this very marshland where as he grew older Bernard was to spend day after day in happy observation of Oystercatchers and Brent Geese and where he was to excitedly report to me just after his eleventh birthday that he had noticed Spotted Redshanks feeding with the Greenshanks. But then none of this was of the slightest interest to me because I was totally engrossed in the excitement of being a shorthand typist in the Music Industry. But in the summer of 1947 when Bernard was just a few months old my father’s undisguised anticipation of the future father-son relationship filled me with a strange unease and perhaps it was then that I first began to nurture the idea of swapping our baby for a more acceptable sibling.

Brenda Stewart’s mother had given birth to a baby a mere day or two after we took delivery of Bernard but hers was a girl called Judy. How I envied Brenda. If we had to have a baby at all then why couldn’t it be a girl? In fact Brenda and I discussed this very situation fairly regularly as she was now detailed on similar after school pram duties to me. She even elaborated on the matter of her family’s desire for a male child saying they were going to call him Richard if he had eventuated as hoped. I recall thinking idly that if fate bestowed our Bernard upon them it probably wouldn’t be too much of an upheaval for him to have his name changed, Richard being a nice enough name and overall the loss of him wouldn’t be the end of the world because we would still be able to see him from time to time.

I can’t recall with any clarity when I first proposed the baby swap idea but within a day or two I do know that Brenda had enthusiastically agreed and the two sleeping infants were duly switched. I took the slumbering Judy home with me feeling satisfied and only a little bit nervous. Several hours passed before a furious Mrs Stewart turned up at our door angrily demanding the return of her Judy and darkly advising my shocked mother that there was something not quite right about me because I was certainly Old Enough to Know Better! When my father returned from work I was soundly thrashed for this misdemeanour, the first of many such beatings concerning wrongs done to my brother after which I would bear the bruises for a fortnight. I was also sent to bed at six pm without any tea for a week which I considered most unfair. I thought then, and even now, that the beating itself should have been punishment enough. However, it seemed unwise to attempt to debate this at the time and in those days harsh reprisals often followed quite minor misdeeds, so I lay in bed plotting revenge whilst other children played outside in the street and as it grew dark were called home one by one to their tea time jam sandwiches.

Bernard of course had been far too young for the day When He Was Swapped to have any effect upon his psyche although in more recent years he waxed lyrical and lengthily upon the distress caused when I did things like sabotaging the flight path of his yellow plastic helicopter. Being responsible for his arm being detached from its socket when he was two did not please him either. The latter was an event I only barely recall but one that hugely impacted upon him, presumably because it had been very painful.

On the surface he had not seemed to be a troublesome boy but he was one who became ever more delinquent with the passing years and most of his juvenile misdemeanours he managed to either get away with completely or somehow or other shift the blame from himself onto others. By the time he was nine years old he was a seasoned and accomplished liar and the impressive catalogue of his juvenile offending was later to astonish me.

It was to be years before I would uncover the truths of these transgressions, the various acts of thievery and violence and manipulation of the goodwill of both his circle of friends and family members. It was these latter lapses of accepted norms of behaviour that shocked me most; the stealing at the age of twelve of our mother’s entire Christmas savings, carefully hidden in an old glove box at the top of her wardrobe and added to week by week, money accumulated in order that she could provide festive treats for him. The spur of the moment theft of two five pound notes from a visiting uncle’s wallet trustingly left in the pocket of the jacket that Bernard helpfully hung on the pegs at the bottom of the stairs. The casual sale of my entire record collection to a second hand dealer in Gravesend, LPs and 78s I had optimistically purchased in the hope I would one day be in a position to afford the record player that should go with them. With the execution of these acts he deftly proved himself to be worthy of acceptance into any Diddicai family.

Somehow or other our mother managed to cover up a great deal of his behaviour, made excuses for him, extracted promises that it would never occur again and even explained the missing record collection by maintaining she had put it in an upstairs cupboard so it would be safe. However she failed miserably when he ran off with the week’s takings from a local butcher’s shop only two weeks after she had found him the job. He had no desire for a career in butchery it appeared but in any event this was a more serious incident that involved violence upon the unfortunate envoy on his way to the bank and eventually resulted in a court appearance. Before that took place, however, Bernard had arrived distressed and distraught on my doorstep in West London in search of protection. He had already purchased a tent and a pair of binoculars and thought he might hitchhike to Scotland and spend the rest of his life in search of Golden Eagles. He was just fifteen years old.

It has to be admitted that neither of us were the kind of progeny a parent could easily be proud of although had she lived long enough I think our mother would have eventually taken pride in Bernard. She would undoubtedly have been pleased by the fact that finally he became the kind of father that he had longed to have himself. She would have been astounded by his wealth and she would have been gratified by the depth of his love and concern for others. She would have more than willingly joined the constant Family Reunions he became fond of organising at Cape Wrath Lodge and taken her place as the Grand Matriarch, wearing her best dress and the crystal beads poor Fred, a long deceased fiancé, had bought for her. She would have taken great pleasure in the way others admired her now more-than-socially-acceptable son and how long and loud they laughed at his jokes and his stories. But she might also have felt more than a twinge of concern for the streak of gullibility that remained present to the end of his life, making it possible for him to, quite surprisingly, find himself among the deceived rather than the deceivers. It was astonishing how those closest to him could most effortlessly seem to betray him.

An Unanticipated Tea Party

During the time when we were being given the attention and unexpected treats that people extend to suddenly bereaved children, we were invited to tea by my father’s foreman from the Cement Works who had a family of two slightly hysterical girls called Brenda and Sylvia, and two foster sons called Kevin and David. They were what my mother called Good People and attended a Methodist Chapel regularly. We were excited and more than a little anxious. Being invited out to tea was not something we were accustomed to. Dressed in our best clothes, we walked the two miles from York Road and almost into Gravesend via Perry Street and I had to hold Bernard’s hand all the way and remind him that he had to Behave. It was a bitterly cold January day but there was a cheerful fire in the foreman’s living/dining room which was impressively quite separate from their kitchen. Theirs was an upper-working-class terraced house with a little front garden and a narrow entrance hall which at the time I considered to be luxury living. Just imagine coming home to a house with an entrance hall and thus not having to walk directly from the street into the front room! Furthermore I later discovered this lavish residence also had an inside toilet in a real bathroom where little pink fluffy towels were available if you happened to want to wash your hands. As I was not in the habit of washing my hands after visiting the toilet, no-one in our extended family thinking it was necessary, I did not use them but instead tried to imagine the indulgence of never having to don coat and scarf before traipsing forth into the backyard on winter nights.

There was a freshly ironed blue and white cloth on the table and it was set for six – the two excitable girls, their young foster brothers and we two. A plate of bread and butter was in the centre and beside it a little dish of strawberry jam with a spoon, another plate of assorted biscuits and pieces of homemade gingerbread and in the very middle of the table, in pride of place, six chocolate tea cakes wrapped in silver paper. I knew at once what they were because I had often longingly examined them in their tempting red and white boxes in Trokes’ corner shop, and at the Co-op. My mother never bought them because they were, she said, much too pricey but occasionally opted instead for a more substantial Lyons Individual Fruit Pie which could be cut into sizeable portions, feed three and still be considered a Treat.

We sat at the table more than a little ill at ease because of our excitement. It was just like being in a Noel Streatfield story. Bernard was offered bread and butter with jam which he unhesitatingly turned down in favour of gingerbread and biscuits. I had read enough about this particular social situation to know we were meant to begin with the bread and butter option and so, glaring at him just a little, I did so, working my way methodically towards the gingerbread and biscuits and hoping to be seen as a role model. Bernard was asked if he would like another piece of gingerbread which he refused. Would he perhaps like a chocolate tea cake the hovering foreman’s wife asked? He nodded enthusiastically and could scarcely get the silver paper off fast enough, then looked at the dainty morsel as if he could not believe his good fortune before beginning to slowly nibble around the edges. The rest of us began a stilted afternoon tea conversation about the latest Enid Blyton book that Brenda was reading, all the while taking glances at the miscreant in our midst. I was torn between fury towards my brother for letting me down on the very first occasion in my life I was invited out to tea, and anger at myself for not warning him in advance about the importance of social etiquette. Of all this my brother remained blissfully unaware.

One of the boys pointed out that it wasn’t fair to get a chocolate tea cake without eating any bread and butter. He was quelled by a fierce look from his foster mother and in the interim Bernard’s progress around the edges of the teacake had become rapid and he was already licking odd bits of chocolate from his fingers. ‘That was very nice’, he remarked conversationally and shook his head when offered biscuits or more gingerbread. Meanwhile even whilst engaging in conversation, all the host children except Kevin had demolished the required amount of bread and biscuits and were tucking into their own chocolate tea cake. I joined them. One solitary silver wrapped cake remained in the middle of the table, now eyed anxiously by Kevin. The host mother urged him to hurry up and began to take off her pinny and folding it, cheerfully asking if her two guests would like something more. I shook my head. Bernard was now sitting on both his hands, his cheeks slightly red, a smear of chocolate on his chin. He paused for an agonising two or three seconds and then to my extreme horror said loudly, nodding towards the centre of the table – ‘I’d like that tea cake please’.

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