‘It was them ruddy Japs,’ my mother said.
Johnny Forrest’s dad was slap bang in the middle of the road right outside our house.
‘They were cruel devils, they tortured their prisoners,’ she added.
My Mum said Johnny Forrest’s dad was ‘a nice fella’ but today he was red-faced and raging at the top of his voice. Normally he was softly spoken and polite. Now it was forbidden swear words and little else.
‘That’s how it left poor devils like him’.
There was nobody there as the obvious recipient of his anger and our neighbours were all indoors avoiding their windows.
‘Come away. Somebody will fetch him’.
Usually, though, a comfortable web of activity surrounded our lives at number 100 Purbeck Road. A green double-decker bus, on route to the King’s Statue down on the seafront, grumbled past our house, shuddering with its gear change just before the entrance to The Rec, on the hour, at twenty past and at twenty to.
The road sweeper made sleepy brush strokes along the gutter outside our hedge on hot summer days. From about the age of four, I would rush for my mother’s broom if I heard his metal barrow clanking along the road. I followed behind him as his apprentice providing the finishing touches, to be rewarded with elegant piles of sandy dust, twigs and leaves, lollipop sticks, cigarette packets and matchboxes.
Another regular along Purbeck Road in the years before I went to school, was Mrs Crosby, the afternoon paper lady. Whatever the weather, she wore a headscarf and gabardine coat stained and stiffened by newsprint. Bent in upon herself, with a hooked nose, and hurried, indistinct vocalisations, she wheeled a daily bulk of South Dorset Gazettes in a baby’s pram. I used to frequently ask my mother if I could help Mrs Crosby and was told that I must not make a nuisance of myself. Like a tiresome dog that brings back a stick too quickly, I would be at her side asking for another paper to deliver, making more work than I spared her.
The baker made a perfunctory bread delivery at mid-morning every day and the Co-op grocery boxes arrived each Tuesday. My mother seemed a little ill at ease with the eager banter from the bespectacled, lanky man who brought these provisions, who actually stepped inside the back door to place the heavy cardboard boxes directly onto the top of our kitchen cupboard.
For me, the most exciting of the street-based merchants who trekked across the Shorehaven estate was the fishmonger. His heavy wooden barrow, with swinging pails of fish and sculpted weighing scales with iron weights, creaked along our road in the early morning. His cry, intriguing but also, like Mrs Crosby’s diction, menacing in its indecipherability, would sometimes wake me on summer days. Fresh West Bay mackerel, caught during the night, were announced in a voice growing louder as it approached.
The surprise breakfasts that followed, the meaty aroma imperious about the kitchen, the salty sea still swimming through the fibrous flesh. Like childhood itself, never as immediate again, never so exquisitely recaptured.
There were the less-told tales though, the ones reserved for my times alone with my mother. Her voice would drop to a heavy whisper with breathy emphasis. Her shoulders became hunched as if she had to shake the most distressing words from her lips by means of a rapid, sideways shaking of her head.
‘Those camps, when we saw them on the newsreels at the pictures after the war, I just couldn’t believe it. Belsen. Those wretches, they weren’t human. All skin and bone. Couldn’t walk some of them, had to be carried. Like skeletons. I couldn’t bear to look, couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept seeing them for ages.’
Vivid, all around her for my mother. It was the lived present. The panorama and the spectacle of war, the defiant rhetoric of Winston Churchill. The huge, shared purpose. The horrors, the moments when the restraint slipped. The persistent and recurring memories.
All in the past for me. Before my birth, before my life. It was history, as were cavemen and Romans. I was born at the beginning of a New Age. 1946. The world had been scoured, scorched and cleansed at a terrible cost. Chance had chosen me and my generation to be its most fortunate beneficiaries.