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Us's & Co. Brothers in Arms

 Brothers in Arms

 
            In spring of nineteen forty four, Fred came home on leave, after completing his initial army training.  Just like Joe and Charlie, he had sprung up pretty quickly only more so.  He must have been about six foot two and he seemed to have filled out too.  Fred came in, and shook hands with dad and me, my head barely touching his shoulders.  He asked me if I had received his letter and apologised again, then added, but you know you were also a little b*****d.  During his leave, he went round to see my sister Lily at Stoke Newington and my mother at Dalston.  I didn't know until after the war that he had a girlfriend that he saw quite a lot of during his leave.  I noticed how good looking he was now standing there still very upright, and looking very fit after his army training.
 
If ever I had to give nicknames to my sister and three brothers, they would be, Understanding Lil, Sentimental Chas, Determined Joe and Proud Fred.  That would suit them nicely.  I would sometimes at a quiet moment, think about all four.  There was Lily, she was tall and good looking, just like mum.  Then there were three giants in uniform all good looking.  Then there was a little squirt like me still stuck in the bloody mud.  I wondered if I was ever going to grow, being short just like dad was becoming an obsession.  I mentioned this to Fred, I said "Do you think that I am ever going to grow Fred?”  He replied, "Charlie, Joe and me were all late starters, we were all short at your age.”  He said "Don't worry, your turn will come.”  He said that when he was my age, he was no taller than me and he was thinner than me.  Yet when he when he went for his army medical he even passed A1.  He told me "Carry on with your exercises, go for long walks like I used to, don't get a bus to work, walk and don't start smoking.”  Well after that little lecture I felt a lot more confident about growing.
 
One morning at Toddlers during his first week’s leave.  I was working on a setting machine, when Bert Overland called me into his office.  Bert was not a very tall bloke, he had jet black, combed back hair and a black moustache.  He could be friendly but seemed as though he couldn't let himself go, as he was very officious.  He was facing me, half in and half out of his office door.  He stood there in his immaculate white starched coat, Bert would always be ready to change into another white coat, the moment that the one he was wearing showed any signs of being soiled and I had nicknamed him immaculate Bert.  When I got into the office, Fred was standing there.  He had gone into the office unnoticed by me.  Fred had called in, as was quite usual for anyone to do.  When an old employee came on leave from the forces, it wasn’t unusual to see a young soldier, or airman, come up to see the foreman and their old work mates. Bert asked me whether I had any intentions of leaving Toddler’s.  I told him no as I was quite happy.  Why?  I asked him.  He said "Well if you carry on as you have done, you might end up earning the same money as your brother was getting. “  So it seemed to me, that Fred was probably getting more than the going rate. Anyway Bert said "I am putting an extra two and six in your wage packet starting on Friday.”  I often wonder whether Freddie had said anything to Bert to induce this.
 
I used to be friendly with a youngster called Len.  Len and myself would go to the pictures about once a week.  Len couldn't read or write and to help him out, I would often read aloud the names of the stars that would be appearing in the film.  This I found would save him any form of embarrassment.  Now that there was only dad and me living at home, I used to get very lonesome indoors.  In any event I used to get a bit scared of being on my own in the evening.  In the hall-way there was a door which led down some wooden stairs into the cellar.  That door would always be bolted shut as we never used the cellar.  The two cellar door's that faced the yard would never shut properly, so really that bolted door was the only thing that kept our place secure.  The barred windows would not have served much of a deterrent, after all the front room window upstairs had no bars up at it and had no window lock, so anybody that wanted to break in, had easy access.  Nearly all our time at home was spent in a room we called a kitchen.  it comprised of a table and three chairs under the barred window, an old butler sink in the corner, a gas stove, and an old fashioned kitchen range with a very high mantelpiece.  Even to this day, I have the occasional dream about that kitchen it was so bloody depressing.  At one time we tried to use the fire if it was very cold, but because of the bombing, the chimney stack must have got damaged, and the place would fill with smoke, if we attempted to light it.  So our only form of heating in the winter would be the old gas stove.  You can bet your life that I was always out as much as possible.  Dad was in his late sixties and very old fashioned and quite content with the basic things in life, not that we could afford any luxuries, in any event.  In other words there was no woman around to keep the place homely, so the place was a hovel.  I never let anybody in for that reason, my friend Len had never passed our front door, whenever he called round for me, I would go straight out.  He mentioned this to me a few times but I would put him off.  He hadn't even seen my dad.  In a way I felt ashamed but the way I felt is difficult to explain.  Lens place was always full of his family and was nicely furnished but my place was always empty and dingy.  What a funny chap I must have been to have been so self conscious and to place so much importance on it.  What put the tin-can on it was on one occasion, dad stopped me in the street one night as we were coming out of the gym.  Afterwards Len asked "Was that your granddad?”  I never answered him.
 
Directly next door to our place to the right, was a small shop that sold kiddies wear.  It was run by the Frankenstien(sic) family, although sometime during the war I noticed that the name above the shop was changed from Frankenstien to Franks.  Like us, they lived behind, and above their shop.  You could set your watch by them.  Every night at half past six, the Frankenstiens would be pushing a pram with all their valuables in it together with their two kids to a concrete communal air raid shelter, just around the corner, in old Bethnal Green Road, just under the railway arch.  Next door to their shop was a pub, called the Red Deer.  This pub although small, was generally full at lunch time.  Bethnal Green Town Hall was directly opposite, which incidentally was adjacent to the museum cinema.  The customers would be from there having their lunch-time drink.  It was for that very reason that dad would usually have his afternoon pint a little further along the road, at the Dundee Arms.  He would say that he didn't like being pushed and shoved.  Between the two pubs on the same side of the road was a cafe, a hairdressers, a tobacconist, a newsagents, Godwin's pie and mash shop, two other little shops and then a fruit shop, owned by an Italian family, they would also sell some sweets and chocolate.  One day while I was in there getting my weekly ration of milk chocolate, I noticed that he had some South African grapes on show, because they were a rarity they were priced a pound per pound.  Out of curiosity, I asked him to confirm the price.  The shopkeeper said "Yes, but they are very hard to come by, too expensive for you," he told me.  When I really thought about it that would have been two days wages to me, talk about daylight robbery.  Being alien, I remember that he used to have to report, to the police station every so often.
 
Fred had gone back to his unit, expecting to take part in D Day which had been on everyone's lips for a time now.  A common sight going past our front door was tanks, armoured vehicles, Bren Gun Carriers and the like, Army Lorries, Scout Cars etc, escorted by the Army Motor Cyclist, all on the move along Cambridge Heath Road.  This would go on for hours on end, day after day.  The invasion of Europe was going to happen, everyone knew that, but where or when?  We were certain at that point, that we were going to win the war.  There were less and less air-raids and confidence was spreading everywhere.  There was less and less gunfire too.  The gunfire that we used to hear a lot of up till recently, came from the anti-aircraft guns that were situated just up the road in Victoria Park.  Many a night in the earlier part of the war, when the bombing was more frequent, Len and myself would often go up to the Salmon and Ball.  Opposite the Salmon and Ball public house was the Barmy Park.  There was a searchlight in the park.  Whenever the air-raid warning sounded, the search light would immediately come on.  We would watch the search light pick out enemy planes.  When it did, you would always hear the anti­-aircraft guns open up from Victoria Park.  Later on, as time went by, the Barmy Park was used as an Italian prisoner of war camp.  It wasn't unusual to see them walking about outside the camp.  They would be wearing British Army uniforms, distinguished only by a black square, sewn on the back of their tunics.
 
Dad received a letter from Charlie, he was now in Italy, that's where all the action was going to be, and everybody knew that.  Thank goodness Charlie was still ok.  Inside the letter was a head and shoulder's photograph of him, wearing his army peak cap and a broad smile across his face.  I since realised that it was for dad’s benefit, Charlie knew only too well how dad must be feeling now.  He had written "To my dear old dad, Charlie" right across the photo.  He was no doubt trying to assure dad that things out there were ok with him.  Next an air mail from Fred.  He was in Italy too, it didn't seem as though he'd been in the army five minutes, and already he was abroad, that means that they are all in Italy.  Just to remind us that the war was still on, as if we needed reminding, we had our first taste of the VI (Doodle bug).  It was in the June 1944, ironically the thirteenth.  For those who don't know, they were flying bombs sent over by the Germans to bomb London indiscriminately and cause havoc.  They would come over day and night.  We would hear the doodle bug above by the sound of its single engine, we would wait for the engine to cut out, when it did, there would be a deathly silence as the bomb began its descent.  Usually lasting about eight seconds and then the explosion as the bomb detonated.  Unlike the old air-raids, when we would hear the drone of enemy aircraft engines.  This time it was a distinctive sound of a single engine.  We would try to judge more or less as to where it would drop, gauged by where it was when the engine cut out.
 
Around about eleven o'clock one morning Bert Overland came over to me and said "You live in Cambridge Heath Road don't you?”  I said "Yes."  “Then he said you had better get off home as a doodle bug's gone off somewhere near Cambridge Heath Road.”  Like a flash, I was out of the door, a 653 trolley bus just came along as I turned into Mare Street.  I jumped on that, it stopped at the bus stop opposite to our place and within a couple of minutes I was crossing the road to go indoors.  To my left, towards the Salmon and Ball, I could see a bit of commotion up near the Dundee Arms.  In no time at all I was indoors but dad wasn't there.  I looked at the clock on the mantle shelf, it had just gone twelve.  I thought that I had better get down to where all the excitement was.  As I got outside Len Garret, the chemist, was just outside.  I said have you seen my Dad Len?  He said no but there's a bomb just dropped behind the Dundee Arms, your Dad might have gone up there for his afternoon pint, Len knew Dad’s habits by now.  Within minutes I was there, the doodle bug had dropped at the rear by the side of the railway lines apparently.  The air-raid wardens were just beginning to seal it all off.  I asked a warden whether anybody was killed or hurt.  He said that they were still not sure but a few people had been carried out and taken to Bethnal Green Hospital just up the road at least, that is what he thought.
 
On the way to the hospital I had to go past our place, then I thought it may be possible that Dad had gone into the Red Deer, next door, on an off chance.  I called into the chemist and asked Len if he would check for me as I was still underage.  After Len had checked, he came out of the pub and told me that a customer in the pub, had seen some people being carried out of the Dundee Arms earlier on and thought that he had recognised one of them as my Dad. I went into the front entrance to the hospital which was just on the right hand side of Cambridge Heath Road, about a hundred yards from where we lived.  After making enquiries at the reception, telling them that I was a relation, they confirmed that Dad was admitted.  The ward was easy to find, it was on the ground floor, first bed on the left, near the ward door.  I could see that Dad’s head was heavily bandaged.  He was either unconscious or asleep, so I had no choice, but to sit there, hoping that he would open his eyes.  A nurse came in and asked me who I was, being satisfied with that, she told me that Dad had received two gashes to his head and that he had to have twenty-five stitches.
 
After a while he opened his eyes, although Dad was an old man, he was as tough as old boots, apart from looking a bit grey faced, I was heartened by the fact that he still had his chirpiness.  He began to tell me that he was told that he would be going to near where Fred was stationed.  I asked him what he meant, so he said "Fred was stationed at Brentwood wasn't he?”  Well that's where there taking me, some hospital at Brentwood.  I thought at first that his mind was wandering. I later found out that he was right, and that he would be going sometime that day.  Dad was a suspicious old sod, he told me that he didn't want people prying into his affairs (as if he had any).  Not to let them know any of our business, by telling them that you are the only one at home.  "What I want you to do" he said, "is to go round to Lily's place and ask her if you can have your grub there and give her some housekeeping, if she needs it.  Don't leave our place empty as I don't want that b*****d going through our things.”  The b*****d he referred to was the chemist, goodness knows why him, I wouldn't have minded if we had any things for people to go through.
 
Well I was pleased, at least his brain was still working.  On the bedside table was a bottle of pink medicine, he said is there a bucket or something handy, I asked him why, he then said, see if there's a pee pot under the bed.  I had a look under the bed, so I said yes.  He said pour that pink stuff out into the pot and put it back under the bed.  Pop next door to the Arabian Arms and tell them that your Jack Keyte's boy and that I am in hospital, ask them to fill the bottle up with old and mild.  I said I can't do that, it’s your medicine the nurse will find out.  "Sod the nurses and all their bleeding neighbours.”  He said, it’s only coloured water after all.  A bottle of old and mild will do me more good than that muck.  It must be remembered that Dad was one of the old school, therefore he was very old fashioned.  Most medicines that were prescribed in those days, came up in a half pint bottle, in varied colours, depending on the complaint.  He reckoned that all corner doctors were quacks and that all they did all day, was dish out coloured water.  He had no time for wimps or whining people and would say, if you want anything done properly, then do it your bloody self. "Take the money out of that bag boy and hurry up before they come round again."
 
I did as he said and went round to the Arabian Arms on the corner of Bishops Way.  Being as I was only sixteen I wasn't allowed to buy beer, so I had to wait for somebody to come along.  I asked a couple of people passing by but they ignored me, Christ knows what they must have thought.  I daren't go back empty handed, so I decided to wait until somebody was about to go in.  Eventually I stopped a man who was about to enter but knowing he wouldn't know Jack Keyte, I just asked him if he would ask the publican to fill the bottle up with old and mild.  He didn't really know what I was mumbling about, so he opened the pub door and shouted to the publican "See to this boy will you.”  The publican spoke to me through the open door.  I said, Jack Keyte is in hospital next door and he told me to tell you that I'm his son, and that he wants you to fill this up with old and mild.  I noticed that there were a few smiles in the pub, so the publican said what's wrong with your Dad son?  I told him that Dad had just been injured and that he used to use this pub.  The publican said that I've never heard of Jack Keyte, any way he filled the bottle up with old and mild but wouldn't take any money.  He then said, tell him I wish him better and tell your dad that he can come in and pay me when he gets out.  By then I was as red as a beetroot.  Anyway, all's well that ends well.  When I got back into the ward Dad was almost asleep, he took a couple of swigs out of the bottle, I sat there for a while until he finished the bottle.  I had only just shaken hands with him when he nodded off.  I left the hospital feeling at a loss, remember I was barely sixteen years of age. I wanted to tell Mum and Lily about Dad, but I didn't know where they lived.  I had the couple of shillings that Dad had given me, and that was all, maybe I would be able to borrow five shilling from Len Garrett until Friday, to tide me over.  Also I wasn't looking forward to staying on my own.
 
That night after I got home I opened Dad’s old tobacco tin which he kept in the kitchen drawer.  He used to keep things in there that he valued, little personal things like, army souvenirs, chevrons medals, etc.  I was hoping to find my sister Lily's address in there as I knew that Dad had written to her recently.  Dad had a sentimental side to him, which would sometimes reveal itself.  For example, in the tin he also kept some poppies, which he had no doubt bought years earlier.  He would take them out of the tin for us kids, every November the eleventh, which of course is Remembrance Day.  He would often leave his poppy in his buttonhole, for practically the whole of the following year, it was his mark of respect for the dead.  If ever you saw an old photograph of Dad, it wouldn't be unusual to see him with a poppy in his buttonhole.  It was one of Dads funnyocities, as he would call it.
 
When I didn't find Lily's address, I wasn't too worried, as by then I had decided not to go.  I was concerned about getting to work on time in the mornings.  Later on in the day, Len Garrett asked me about dad and how I was going to cope.  I told him, that I might go to my sister’s for dinners, as I wasn't looking for any sympathy from him.  I also told him that I was staying home at nights.  Remembering what dad had asked me.  I wasn't looking forward to staying on my own though.  At least it was pretty light until late in the evenings after all I was only sleeping there.  What with the little extra cash I would have, I would probably go to the pictures most evenings.  I decided that I would have my dinner at a little cafe near Toddlers.  Dad had already given me strict instruction, to buy some potatoes, carrots and onions, to make a stew, he said it was easy to make and would be good for me.  But I decided against that, as that is all dad and I lived on usually, so I decided that this was a good time to give it a break.  In the evenings, I would go home, get washed and get out.  One night to the gym and as I had a little extra cash for a while I would probably be able to go to the pictures a few times.  As the evenings were still fairly light, I would be able to go for long walks as Freddie had suggested.  I met mum as usual on the Monday evening.  I told her what had happened to dad, I also told her that I didn't have my sister Lily's address.  After giving it to me I told her that I had since decided against going to Lily's, as I didn't know when dad would be coming back home and didn't want him to come back to an empty house.  I also said that I wanted to get to work on time in the mornings.  She then suggested that I stay with her and told me that you just can't stay in that place on your own, but I declined.
 
 
All Stan’s three brothers are all in the army and his dad is hurt by a doodle bug blast.  The good news is that they are all caring for each other, his sister Lily is living not too far away and he regularly meets up with his mum.
 
Although there’s sign that the war is being won, there’s bad news on the way as we learn in chapter 7: http://bit.ly/2zlzyKV
 
 
Growing up in London during the 1950s I well remember my Uncle Stan for his hilarious stories of the East-End and the characters he lived and worked with. Following his death in 1998, Aunt Jean gave me a copy of ‘Us’s & Co’ his account of growing up during the 1930s and his talent, for telling a story, had transferred to the written word. Along with his daughters, Donna and Cheryl, we agree that his memories will be of interest beyond our family.

Eric Baker

One among his nephews and nieces.

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