20191006 001048 9 minutes
Child’s WWII, ‘Flu in 1942, Memories, Boarding School, Governess school, Dream.
She was very sick.
They moved her bed into Mummy’s and Daddy’s room, across the foot of the big bed where Mummy lay in the darkened room, too sick to do anything. Since the beginning of the war, when Nanny had joined the Red Cross, Mummy had been Brenda’s only contact with their previous life. Michael, her big brother, had been sent off to boarding school after his eighth birthday, but the school evacuated to the West of England, and now Daddy stayed up in London during the week, in the bombing.
With Mummy not able to take care of the day-to-day running of the family, Brenda had been completely adrift. Now she had become sick too and didn’t care about anything. It frightened Brenda to be moved into Mummy’s sickroom, out of the familiarity of her own bedroom, her private space, with all her treasured touch-stones, the room that had been her world from her earliest memories, when it started as the nursery while they still lived in London. Then a bomb hit the house, the whole of which was moved, brick by brick, to be rebuilt in the country.
It was only the flu, but this time the really bad one. Before penicillin changed medicine, stronger strains of flu could be life threatening, and everyone took it very seriously. After all, Grandpa had died of the Spanish flu after the first war. Brenda didn’t want to eat, talk, or move. She just wanted to sleep.
Sometimes a shadowy figure moved noiselessly round the room, whispering to Mummy, or trying to get one or other of them to eat. Neither showed any interest. They only wanted sleep and darkness. Cuddling down into the warm bed, with the fire in the fireplace, watching the pictures from the shadows of the flames on the wall when she opened her eyes, gave her as much stimulation as she could handle. The fire may sound romantic, but during the war, with everything in short supply, it helped provide a little warmth in the room. Flu occurs during the raw cold weather of winter.
Sleep. Wonderful sleep…
Then, one day, when it seemed evident that life would continue and the curtains had been drawn back to let a little light in, they hauled her out of her cozy bed and helped her into the bathroom for a nice warm bath. The steam from the water had taken the chill off the room. The bath couldn’t be very deep – they could only have three inches of water, because of the coal shortage. After the bath, they had arranged the pillows so she could sit up in bed and read or watch the fire. And, of course, sleep.
This time Brenda slept fitfully, more disjointed, with periods of dozing and periods of being half aware of her surroundings.
She heard voices, but did not understand the conversation, or know who was talking – adults discussing things that had no meaning for a small child. Voices in the next room that seemed as if they had been filtered before they reached her, as if they came from far away, a feeling she would remember sometimes, later in life and would return to that room. People talking as if through a filter, or sleep, or maybe in another language, without her understanding the words, and yet – what were they talking about?
She became lulled into a false sense of security. Brenda and Mummy both got better and life resumed a normal routine. But when her mother became sick again in June, Brenda understood she would only want to sleep. This time they didn’t let Brenda see her. Doctors came, and then after three weeks Daddy took Mummy up to London for the day, on the unheated train, to see another doctor.
A couple of nights later Brenda had the nightmare she would remember the rest of her life. She dreamt a huge fire engulfed the house, with enormous flames all around her and getting closer. Standing alone by the window of her bedroom on the second floor she could see German soldiers with drawn bayonets facing upwards surrounding the house, waiting for her to jump. Mummy and Daddy stood behind the soldiers. She woke up screaming.
Mummy lay in the next room, unable to get out of bed, and Daddy, a volunteer in the Home Guard when he stayed home from London, was on patrol that evening. Hearing the screaming as he came into the house, he raced upstairs. What a thing to do to a father: wife sick (multiple sclerosis), war raging through Europe, bombing in London, and on top of it all, a little daughter having nightmares and screaming her lungs out.
A housekeeper came to help, but Brenda saw her as usurping Mummy’s role. Eventually Brenda was allowed very short visits in the big bedroom, but could not be noisy or upset her mother. The housekeeper could not take Brenda to school and cope with Mummy alone. It was decided Brenda could not continue to stay at home during the week. She would have to share the governess of friends who needed at least eight pupils to prevent Miss Jones from being called up for national service. The friends lived only in the next village, but even that proved too far away for Brenda to attend daily. She weekly boarded with the family and their young daughter, and just come home on weekends.
This was a period which Brenda would remember with great affection. Jean and Brenda both needed a really tough early education so they could get into their respective schools the following year. Miss Jones had already proven herself with Jean’s brothers who had passed the entrance exams to their boarding school with no problems. Brenda and Jean spent an idyllic year roaming the garden, fields, farmyard and haylofts close to the main house – and learning to ride. There were few rules after school and even the homework excited their inquisitive young minds. Miss Jones never needed a rolling pin to enforce compliance in this environment. She encouraged inquisitiveness. Despite the war, the sun shone and the children were allowed to be children.
They had a rigorous schooling schedule. Brenda and Jean followed the routine of a fellow student who was being prepared for his all-important entrance exam for one of the country’s top boys’ prep schools. They would not allow him to fail. At 8 years old the course of his life would largely be decided. So Jean and Brenda had to pace him, like the pacer in the training of a race horse, in his efforts to pass the entrance exam.
This exceptional training allowed both Jean and Brenda easily to pass the entrance exams to their respective schools. Brenda’s would be her home-from-home for 9 months a year for the next ten years. The school didn’t take girls under 10 years old. Brenda had her 9th birthday just before school started, but her academic level allowed her to pass with such high marks that the school accepted her. It placed a very high emphasis on academics. She was the baby of the school for a year, and her peers never forgave her for it.