Woman In A White Coat: A Memoir by Dr Abby J. Waterman – Excerpt
An earlier version of this chapter, September 1939, was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2016.
Chapter 4: A Country at War
We were tired and hungry, my sister Hannah and I, as we stood waiting in Littleport Village Hall, waiting to be chosen by someone, anyone.
‘Don’t snivel,’ Hannah said. ‘No-one will take us in if they see you crying.’ She pushed my hand away. ‘You’re too old to hold hands Abby, and anyhow your hands are always wet and sticky.’
‘Operation Pied Piper’, the plan for the evacuation of children from areas likely to be bombed, was in place long before World War 2 was declared. People in safe areas with spare bedrooms were urged to take in evacuees. They would be paid 10/6d a week for the first child and 8/6d for each subsequent child. Nearly a million children were evacuated on Friday September 1st, 1939. London railway stations were packed with children and whole trains were commandeered.
Parents had been given a list of clothing to pack. Girls needed 1 spare vest, 1 pair of knickers, 1 petticoat, 1 slip, 1 blouse, 1 cardigan, a coat or Mackintosh, nightwear, a comb, towel, soap, face-cloth, boots or shoes and plimsolls.
Hannah hadn’t yet started at the local grammar school, Central Foundation School for Girls, so she came with me to my school, Jews Free Junior School. She carried the brown cardboard suitcase we shared. Our teachers marched us to Liverpool Street station and onto the train to Littleport. Many mothers and a few fathers came to the station with their children. Hannah and I were alone.
‘You’re old enough to go on your own,’ my mother said. ‘I’ve put a stamped and addressed postcard in your case for you to send me your address as soon as you’re settled.’
I was seven, nearly eight and Hannah was thirteen. She wore her new school uniform and I was in my dark green skirt and jumper and my navy serge coat, the one with the collar that rubbed. Our gas masks in their square brown boxes hung on tapes around our necks and we had identity labels printed with our names and evacuee numbers tied through our buttonholes.
We waited and waited. Maybe no-one wanted to take in two sisters from the East End of London. Then, when we were beginning to dread that no-one would ever choose us, a young couple beckoned us over. The husband, a big man with a bushy red beard, lowered the tail-gate of an open-bed lorry and put in our suitcase.
‘Jump in girls. The farm’s only a couple of miles from here. You can sit on those potato sacks. Don’t mind the straw. It’s this year’s and quite clean.’
We clung to the side of the lorry as he hurtled through the narrow country lanes. Empty fields stretched for miles, right up to the horizon. The harvest had been gathered in, and most of the fields were brown, though the verges were still green. Ripe purple blackberries hung from brambles at the side of the road.
They ushered us in to a large brick-built farmhouse. It was completely surrounded by fields and there were no other houses in sight. Back home in Petticoat Lane, there were tightly packed buildings wherever you looked.
We had a fried egg on toast for tea and at 7.30 they shooed us off to bed in a little attic bedroom. Horses snuffled in a nearby field and there was a herd of cows in the distance. I was scared when I heard an owl hooting. I crept closer to Hannah and pulled the blankets over my head. When dawn came, the birds woke us. It was so noisy and different.
After porridge for breakfast, they took us in their lorry back to the Village Hall. We were to spend the day there with the other evacuees from our school. The farmer and his wife were going off to a wedding.
‘What’s that horrible smell?’ Hannah asked the farmer, as we climbed into the lorry.
‘Don’t you worry your little head, miss. It’s only Fred’s piggeries.’
I hoped no-one would expect us to eat pork. Jews weren’t allowed. We’d been taught that pigs were filthy animals, non-Kosher, traife.
It was Saturday, Shabbat, so we had a short service, lunch and some games. After tea, we were sent back to our billets.
One of the teachers pointed out the way.
‘The farm is straight along that road. They said you can’t miss it.’
We trudged back to the farmhouse and knocked on the door but no-one answered. We went around the back but the back door was locked. We peeped into the kitchen but no-one was there. As the blood-red sunset gave way to night, we cowered in a corner of the porch away from the huge Alsatian that strained at his chain, trying to get at us, snapping and barking. We were terrified, alone in that vast expanse. Finally, the farmer and his wife came home.
‘Sorry we’re late. We forgot all about you.’
They gave us milk and biscuits, and sent us up to bed.
The next day the farmer’s wife said it wouldn’t work.
‘We can’t be baby-sitting you every night. You’re going to have to stay with my mother. She lives in the village and she’ll take you in.’
Once again, we climbed into the back of the lorry. They didn’t talk to us or smile. We never knew their names.
Mrs Hopwood, a tiny white-haired woman, not quite as tall as Hannah, was waiting at the door of her stone cottage. She had bright blue eyes, lots of wrinkles and a big smile.
‘Come in. Come in,’ she said, giving Hannah and me a hug. ‘I’ll show you around. My little cottage is tiny compared with the farmhouse.’
On the ground floor at the front there was a parlour. At the back, there was a kitchen and a pocket-sized garden with an outside toilet at the far end. Butterflies hovered over borders ablaze with colour. The lawn was smooth and bright green. We could smell newly cut grass.
On the first floor, there were two bedrooms. Mrs Hopwood took us into the front bedroom.
‘This will be your room, my dears. I’ve no need for it now that Mr Hopwood has passed away.’
A big brass double bed, a tall mahogany wardrobe and a dressing table crowded the room. A porcelain bowl with a border of roses and a large ewer stood on the dressing table, while a matching chamber pot peeped out from under the bed. The wallpaper was pale pink and decorated with tiny roses. It was all lovely and cosy.
‘We don’t have a bathroom, my dears. I still use my tin bath. We’ll have a big coal fire going in the kitchen, and you’ll be warm as toast. You can leave your things for now. Come on down and we’ll have a bite to eat.’
We had scones still warm from the oven, as much butter as we liked, strawberry jam and strong sweet tea. When we’d eaten all the scones, Mrs Hopwood wiped the crumbs and jam off my face with a damp flannel.
‘There now,’ she said. ‘That’s better, isn’t it?’
She took us over to a large sepia photograph on the wall. There were two rows of children with a man and a woman in the centre.
She pointed to the man with a long white beard.
‘That’s the late Mr Hopwood, God Rest His Soul, with his hand on my shoulder, and there are all the children – had 22 and raised 19. We had to eat in shifts, we did. There was never enough room for us all to sit down at once, save at Christmas, when we all squeezed up.’
I’d never heard of anyone having that many children. The Old Woman who lived in a Shoe, popped into my head.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
She whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
I smiled at my thoughts. Hannah dug me in the ribs.
‘Don’t be rude. What are you laughing at?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘That hurt.’
I couldn’t imagine Mrs Hopwood whipping her children or not giving them any bread.
When it was bedtime, Hannah and I snuggled up underneath the patchwork eiderdown and were soon fast asleep.
The wail of an air raid siren woke us up. We jumped out of bed, found our gas-masks and pulled them on. We were sure we were about to be bombed or gassed. Maybe the Germans had already landed.
Mrs Hopwood came to check that we were OK. She stood in the doorway trying to catch her breath. She was laughing so much that tears ran down her face.
‘You should see yourselves, my lovelies, looking for all the world like a couple of monsters. It’s only a practice. Do take those nasty things off. I’ll tuck you in and you must go straight back to sleep. You’ll want to be up bright and early in the morning.’
Next day was Sunday September 3rd. Mrs Hopwood had the radio on in the kitchen and we listened to Mr Chamberlain’s speech.
‘I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we hear from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’
Mrs Hopwood put her arms around us.
‘I never thought there’d be another war in my lifetime. Our war was the war to end all wars. Those Jerries. They’ll never learn, but we’ll beat them again like we did last time.’
The few weeks we spent with Mrs Hopwood were all sunshine. On Fridays, she gave us the money to go to the fish and chip shop on the corner for cod and chips and a bottle of Tizer. I’d never tasted Tizer before. At home, my father sometimes bought me a glass of the red, slightly sour drink, sarsaparilla, in Petticoat Lane market. It tasted like hot, sweet medicine and was supposed to be good for you. Tizer was quite different – fizzy and very sweet. It dyed your tongue bright orange.
Then it was decided that it wasn’t sensible for the CFS girls billeted in Littleport and other villages to catch the bus into Ely every day. Hannah and I were to move to Ely. We would be billeted with Mr and Mrs Stonemartin and I would go to the local junior school.
Next day a slight man with a small mousey moustache drew up.
‘Have you got them ready?’ he asked Mrs Hopwood with a shy smile.
Hannah and I were both crying as we kissed her goodbye and got into Mr Stonemartin’s small black car. A wire-haired terrier sat on the front passenger seat and we squeezed into the back.
‘Must be nice people, if they have a lovely little dog like that,’ Hannah whispered.
Mr Stonemartin turned around.
‘She’s called Jill. Mrs Stonemartin dotes on her.’
He stopped the car in front of a semi-detached 1930s house, one of a long stretch of similar houses on the outskirts of Ely.
Mrs Stonemartin, a tall thin-faced woman, opened the door. She had a bright red turban tied around her head and wore a patterned wrap-around apron.
‘Welcome girls,’ she said. ‘Take off your shoes in the house, please, and be careful how you walk on our new stair carpet. It was only laid two weeks ago. When you’re going up and down, make sure you walk on the sides to save wear.’
The stair carpet had an all over vivid floral design that clashed with the large chrysanthemums on the wallpaper. The glaring colours made me feel ill.
‘I’ll show you to your bedroom and you can put your things away. Mind you always clear up after yourselves and keep everything tidy. Even our lovely dog, Jill, knows not to make a mess.’
The bedroom had twin beds. I’d never slept on my own. At home, I’d been sleeping in the large double mahogany bed with Hannah after my grandmother died. What if I was scared in the night?
‘Hurry up girls and fold your things nicely. Supper will be ready at six. The bathroom is along the hall. Wash your hands properly before you come down.’
By now I was starving. We’d had some paste sandwiches before we left Mrs Hopwood, but that was hours before.
We sat down at the dining table and Mrs Stonemartin brought in four plates and a dish for the dog. She ladled out some cold lumpy mashed potatoes and served each of us two tinned sardines swimming in oil. The look of them made me feel queasy. Sardines on toast sprinkled with lots of lemon juice was my favourite supper, but my mother always poured off the oil when she opened the tin.
For afters, we had cold tinned rice pudding with a tiny spoonful of jam. I was afraid I might be sick, but I managed to eat it.
We had grown to love Mrs Hopwood. She was the exact opposite of our new billet lady, Mrs Stonemartin, and her cooking had been delicious.
‘It’s seven o’clock. Time for you girls to go to bed. Make sure you brush your teeth and say your prayers before you get into bed. Luckily you have a nice clean carpet to kneel on. I don’t suppose you have that where you come from.’
It wasn’t something Jews did – kneel down to pray – but I prayed that night that we wouldn’t have to stay with the Stonemartins. She was horrible, though Mr Stonemartin tried to be friendly and smiled at us when she wasn’t looking.
Next evening, we had cold lumpy mashed potatoes again, this time with a small slice of pale meat that had a thick rim of fat. I hate fat. Although the Chief Rabbi said Jews were allowed to eat non-Kosher meat in wartime, I left the meat on the side of my plate.
‘Your sister’s eating hers. Why aren’t you?’
‘I’m not allowed to eat meat,’ I said.
‘All the more for the rest of us,’ Mrs Stonemartin said, putting my meat onto her plate.
The next two months were miserable, but when the Stonemartins went away for a weekend they asked their neighbours to have us from Friday night to Sunday night. Mr and Mrs Johnson were completely different from the Stonemartins. As soon as you walked into their half of the semi-detached house you could feel how warm and friendly they were.
We had shepherd’s pie for supper and golden syrup pudding with hot creamy custard for afters. It seemed too rude to ask for seconds, though I would have liked to.
‘Come on girls,’ Mrs Johnson said. ‘Let’s get you a nice warm bath and into pyjamas.’
It snowed heavily that weekend. The four of us threw snowballs and we made a huge snowman. We never had enough snow at home to make one. We wished we could stay with the Johnsons forever but on Sunday night we had to go back.
Then I did something awful. I wrote to my parents about how wonderful it had been staying with the Johnsons, and how horrible Mrs Stonemartin was, and left the letter lying on top of the chest of drawers in our bedroom.
Dear Mummy and Daddy
We had a lovely time with Mr and Mrs Johnson. It snowed and we made an enormous snowman. We gave him two pieces of coal for eyes, a carrot for his nose and two little curved sticks for his lips. He looked cold, so Mr Johnson tied a scarf around his neck and put a pipe in his mouth. We wish we could be billeted with them, but they’re both teachers and they said they wouldn’t be able to take us in permanently. We had to go back to the old sourpuss, Mrs Stonehearted, and her horrid food.
Love to everyone.
When we got home after school Mrs Stonemartin was livid.
‘That’s all the thanks I get, after taking you in, you ungrateful child. Mrs Stonehearted indeed. You can go straight to bed. Don’t even think about supper.’
I didn’t mind. I hated her food and I was glad not to have to eat it.
My father came to see us two weeks before Christmas.
‘Abby, you look like a skeleton. What have you been up to? Aren’t you eating?’
‘Please take me home, Daddy, please. I hate it here. Mrs Stone-martin is horrible. Mr Stonemartin says she likes Jill, her dog, better than him. If he’s sitting in front of the gas fire she makes him move away so that Jill can get warm. He’s got some shrapnel in his leg from the trenches, and it leaks nasty yellow stuff. He needs to change the bandages every few days. Mrs Stonemartin said she can’t bear to see it and he must do it himself. He knows Hannah is going to be a doctor, so he lets her help him. She doesn’t like children. She hates them. Hannah says she only took us in for the money.’
‘You’d better come home, Abby, but you should stay here, Hannah. You need to get on with your schooling, now that you’ve got into grammar school.’
‘I’m not staying if Abby’s going,’ Hannah said. ‘But why can’t she stay? She’s just being stupid about not eating.’
‘You can see the state she’s in. I won’t stop you coming home, if that’s what you want, Hannah, but you know it’s the wrong thing to do.’
On the train back to London I snuggled up to my father. Hannah ignored me and sat staring out of the window.
‘I’m never, ever going to be evacuated again,’ I said.
In the New Year, I went to the temporary junior school at Toynbee Hall. It was the time of the so-called Phony War. The bombing hadn’t started, and children had begun to trickle back to London. Makeshift classes were set up where there were large enough rooms, but there were no grammar school places. Grammar schools were all still evacuated. As Hannah was now fourteen, she left school. My parents sent her to Pitman’s College to learn shorthand and typing. She could become a secretary, like our elder sister, Rebecca. No way could she become a doctor now.
I shivered as I crossed Commercial Road. My hands were like ice. Since I came back from Ely, I couldn’t seem to get warm.
‘It’s because you let yourself get so thin, you silly girl,’ my father said. ‘We’ll have to fatten you up.’
My father left for work at seven in the morning so he couldn’t take me to school on my first day.
‘Now you’ve turned eight you’re old enough to go on your own,’ my mother said when I asked her to take me instead.
I walked up the paved path to Toynbee Hall and pushed as hard as I could, but the door wouldn’t give. I knocked and a large smiling woman opened it.
‘Come on in, girlie,’ she said. ‘Are you for the juniors?’
When I nodded, she rubbed my cold hands in her large warm ones, and took me upstairs to a room full of children. They sat at small wooden tables with separate chairs, not at all like the school desks I was used to.
The teacher standing at the front came over.
‘You must be Abby Waterman. We’ve been expecting you. Say “Hello” to Abby, children.’
Some muttered ‘Hello’, while a boy near the front put his hand over the side of his mouth so the teacher couldn’t see, and poked out his tongue.
‘You can sit in that empty place there,’ the teacher said. She pointed to a table in the middle of the room.
They were doing long multiplication and division which I had learned in Ely. I found the sums quite easy and put my hand up a couple of times with the answers.
When the bell went, I hoped it was break time so I could go to the toilet, but it was Composition.
‘I want you all to write about your last birthday.’
I was in Ely for my birthday and Mrs Stonemartin was especially horrid. My father had sent me a big bar of chocolate – his ration for a month – and Mrs Stonemartin took it away. She said it was bad for children’s teeth. Mr Stonemartin secretly gave me a shilling. He told me to hide it and not to tell. I bought a tiny teddy in the little shop near school and took it with me everywhere. I hid it in the pocket in my knicker leg.
I sat my teddy on the table in front of me and started to write.
‘My last birthday . . .’ I began.
In Ely, you had to wait until the mid-morning break to go to the toilet, but I had no idea whether that would be soon or not. I carried on writing for a bit, but I got really upset thinking about Ely and Mrs Stonemartin and everything. I squeezed my legs together, ever so hard, but it was no use. A warm trickle ran down my leg onto the floor.
‘Please Miss,’ said the boy who’d stuck out his tongue at me. ‘The new girl’s done a wee-wee.’
Everyone turned round to look and some of them giggled. I wanted to disappear.
The teacher put her arm around my shoulders.
‘Don’t worry, my dear. Sally can take you to the nurse. She’ll find you some nice dry underwear. It’s hard – your first day at school.’
The worst thing was going home afterwards. I knew if I told, I’d get a slap for disgracing myself, so I slipped into the girls’ toilet and put my wet knickers back on and stuffed the school knickers into my coat pocket. I’d give them back next day.
When I got home I sat down very carefully so the wet part didn’t soak my skirt. There was a space under our bed, so I spread my knickers over my shoes, and pushed them to the back, well hidden away. They were dry by morning so my mother never found out.
We were playing tag during morning break when some of the big girls came over and started lifting our skirts. I ran away fast as I could, straight into the corner of a brick wall. For a moment, I couldn’t understand what had happened. The other girls in my class gathered round me.
‘Your forehead’s all bloody,’ said Sally, who had taken me to get dry knickers. ‘Better go and see nurse.’
I got out my handkerchief and dabbed at my head.
‘It’s nothing,’ I said.
I didn’t want to make a fuss and get sent home, but all afternoon my head hurt. I was wearing the new brown leather gloves my father had bought me. As I walked home I took off my right glove and held it over my forehead. That way no-one could see the blood and ask me about it.
By the time I climbed up to our tenement on the third floor, I felt sick and dizzy. I just about got in before I was sick. Luckily, I made it as far as the kitchen sink.
‘What have you been up to?’ my mother asked.
I was used to being told off, or even slapped, for falling over. I pulled my hair over the sore place on my forehead.
‘It’s nothing,’ I said, but she lifted my fringe.
‘Been playing rough games again, have you? How many times have I told you to be careful?’
Soon I was sick again and very dizzy indeed. My father had come home by then.
‘You poor wounded soldier,’ he said. ‘We’d better get the doctor.’
Dr Wilson asked me what had happened. I told him we’d been playing tag and I’d tried to get away from the big girls trying to lift my skirt.
‘I’ve told her so many times to be careful. She shouldn’t play with the big girls,’ my mother said.
She didn’t understand. They broke into our games and chased us. She wouldn’t listen.
‘Abby’s got a bit of a concussion,’ Dr Wilson said. ‘Keep her off for a couple of days. If she gets worse call me again.’
I didn’t get worse, and I went back to school two days later. I made up my mind that if I hurt myself I would never tell my mother. It was no use expecting her to kiss it make it better, maybe my father, and maybe Hannah, but never her.
Maybe she wasn’t my real mother. Maybe I was adopted or I was a changeling like in the stories.
|Doberman Elliott Associates
26 November 2017
Dr Abby J. Waterman is an 85-year old retired consultant pathologist who has also been a Harley Street dentist, an entrepreneur (co-owner of Conran-group designed educational toyshops,), the director of a cancer research laboratory, as well as a wife and mother of four children. She and her husband live in London while her children and grandchildren are scattered around the globe. As a pathologist, her favourite books are whodunits, but she is a book-worm and reads books of a wide variety of genres. She always has two or three books on the go. ‘Woman in a White Coat’ was short-listed for the Tony Lothian Biography Prize and the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2016.