Tragically, Janet died at the age of 25, when my mother was only 18 months old. This was in 1925 and David wasn’t able to look after her alone. His mother and Janet’s father, both widowed, had set up home together (they were brother and sister) and took in the little girl while he was at work – he was an engineer and had to travel to find a job.
My mother remembered her early years as idyllic and adored her grandparents. They were both quite elderly, especially her grandad, and she always said she had quite a Victorian upbringing. Her Grandad used to refer to policemen as Peelers, which was quite outmoded by that time – for anyone younger than I am, I probably need to explain that. Both Bobbies and Peelers used to be nicknames for policemen, both after Sir Robert Peel but whilst you still might hear a reference to ‘bobbies on the beat’, I can’t think anyone has mentioned a peeler in decades, not in normal conversation. Mummy used to quote her grandfather whenever possible “we’ll finish the game of bowls and beat the Spaniards too” was one of his sayings (think Sir Francis Drake) and she used to describe how his blue eyes twinkled when he made a joke.
Her grandmother had, as I said, had the tragedy of losing two of her three sons in the war. My sister did a bit of research a few years ago and discovered that she had actually been with both of them when they died. In one instance, she was able to travel to France to nurse him in hospital, in the other he was brought back to England but died of his injuries. They were both six-footers, whilst the third and surviving son was several inches shorter. An advantage in the trenches? Not much help if you had to go ‘over the top’ I would have said, but he was the lucky one.
She brought the little girl up to be polite and kind. “Never be rude to those who cannot answer back,” was one of her maxims – meaning shop assistants, waiters, servants. And mummy never was and nor am I. She was a very precise lady. Once she went to buy material for a new blouse. The assistant asked what colour was wanted. She drew herself up very straight. “Heliotrope,” she said. My mother never forgot the expression on the poor girl’s face, not having a clue what she meant (purple, darlings. Heliotrope is a flower of a rather dull purple colour, which has the most wonderful evening scent).
There were other memories of those early years. She did remember her mother, just – on a train station platform, suddenly the train let off steam and, frightened, she buried her face in her mother’s coat. It was her earliest memory. Painful ones were when she disturbed a wasps’ nest in the garden and ran screaming to the house, wasps in her hair and stinging her all over. She was terrified of wasps all her life, quite understandably. And once, a piece of gammon had been boiled and the pan of hot water left on the back doorstep. Running in from the garden, she stepped right in it and was badly scalded – though no scar was left, it was a frightening experience.
She received nothing but love and care at home, but maybe it was the knowledge that she was different, that she had no mother, that gave her an insecurity that lasted all her life – although it was well hidden for many years.