Read Dolly's War Online

Authors: Dorothy Scannell

Dolly's War

Dorothy Scannell
Dolly's War
A MEMOIR FROM THE HOME FRONT

On a narrow wooden armchair-bed was lying our hostess. Her nightdress was up round her neck. The organist, on his knees, in the nude, was deep in prayer, his face bent in reverence over his bride's prostrate form.

Ever so slowly the organist raised his horrified eyes to ours. My sister, extremely slow to take in the delicacy of any situation, murmured, half to herself, ‘That's funny, I could have sworn he was clean-shaven.'

Dolly Scannell, the author of East End classic memoir
Mother Knew Best
, has now established her home front, wife to the embattled Chas, and proud keeper of her own house. Life is still full of small but piquant joys, sorrows and bizarre happenstances – like Dolly's need to take her household rubbish back to her mother for fear of her new landlord. Before long she's a mum as well, but then comes the war and her cheerful wit and unquenchable spirit are needed more than ever.

Gas masks, ration books, GI's (over-sexed, etc), a chaotic Jewish wedding, husband Chas in the Army, while Dolly takes on his insurance selling door-to-door, encounters a murderous landlady and spends time evacuated from her beloved London to Wales and Suffolk – before being restored to her beloved and enormous family, her mother still matriach of all. A treasure, recalled and retold by the author at her inimitable best!

‘The author of
Mother Knew Best
in hilarious vein'
Yorkshire Post

‘You have to laugh with Dolly Scannell. Somehow that Cockney flow of funny tales shakes you up into laughter'
Evening Standard

For my dear Chas —
in our fortieth year ‘at war'

 

Chapter 1
A Load of Old Rubbish

‘I haven't patience with you, Dolly,' said my mother. Her patience sorely tried because, visiting her a few weeks after my marriage, I had announced that I was bored, nothing exciting or interesting seemed to be happening. She knew she would have no solution for Dolly's discontent so she issued a statement which was guaranteed to pull me together, once and for all. ‘Has you make your bed so you must lie on it.' She said this in tones of drama. ‘It's
As
you make your bed, Mum, not
H
as.' ‘Yes,' she agreed, ‘Has you make your bed.' My father looked up from his book. ‘Cheer up, Dolly,' he said. ‘The first forty years are the worst, so you've only got thirty-nine years and eleven months to go.'

I decided to bid my parents good-bye, for I was in a restless mood, and Mother, once having made her point, or having thought she had made her point with me, would soon be on the theme of ‘Think of poor... and her lot,' some other unfortunate member of the family whose present plight Mother assumed would make me feel like Lady Rothschild.

I walked along East India Dock Road to Morant Street where my husband's parents lived. Ethel, my mother-in-law, was always understanding. Any trouble of mine she would always insist was ‘that boy's fault', ‘that boy' being my dear husband, Chas. This, of course, made me feel more loving towards him – think what a perfect mother-in-law she was. She, as always, was delighted to see me. I was just in time for supper, sausages and tomatoes. She told me, in her broad Suffolk brogue, of the time she was in service. The Mistress was one day discussing the lower classes, stressing that they were, in her opinion, dirty and unhygienic. This wounded my ma-in-law's pride – ever a fastidious person – and the next morning, before taking up the breakfast sausages she licked each one all over thoroughly and watched, delightedly, while her employers ate them with relish. ‘Don't tell Charlie bor, mor,' she said. ‘He wouldn't like to know I did anything like that.' Then I told her about the aristocratic master, a man with an enormous stomach, who would send for his cook every morning to give her the day's menus as he said it was his only opportunity for intercourse with her. She roared at this although it might have made my mother ‘tut'.

In some strange way, domestic servants employed by people of high birth, considered themselves superior to domestic servants working for employers in trade and the like even though their wages were the same or lower. The wealth and possessions of the employers seemed hardly to have any connection with this domestic class-consciousness.

My mother's employers were not only high born, whereas Ma-in-law's were in trade, but they treated Mother like the ‘lady and gentleman' they were. They addressed her as ‘Leah' and even spoke of her as ‘dear Leah' when mentioning her name through a third person. They
requested
a service from her and did not demand it. Ethel's mistress called her by her surname and then, according to Ethel, pronounced it wrongly purposely to impress on Ethel, her (the mistress's) superiority of class. Ma-in-law's surname was Cadge, but in a loud voice the mistress would call ‘Cage'. She
ordered
things to be done. Ethel did not respect her employer, often engaging in little rebellious acts down in the kitchen to retain her ‘independence'. My mother was proud of her employers. Therefore it went without saying, indeed it was never said, that my mother was more ‘genteel' than Ma-in-law. Ma-in-law retained her Suffolk brogue while my mother had no trace of her Wiltshire tongue or indeed of the cockney style of speech.

Sometimes Chas's younger brother would be home when I visited his mother. I liked that, for he was great fun, a real character. He called his mum, ‘Old Lady' or ‘Missus'. There were, of course, no bathrooms in the little Poplar houses and Philip would stand by the kitchen sink stripped to the waist, but before commencing his ablutions he would don a hat, a straw boater in summer and a bowler-hat in winter. At one time he worked on the grocery counter of a large store. He was especially kind to old ladies and loved to make them laugh. If they were not sure which fish paste to choose he would suggest the latest which had just arrived, ‘Winkle and Whale'. If they wanted something special he would say, ‘Oh, just a moment, madam, I'll go down in my private lift to the basement.' He would then press an invisible push-button on his side of the counter, bend his knees and slowly ‘descend', then after a little while ‘up' he would rise with the required article which had been just under the counter.

‘Coo,' remarked my elegant sister Amy when Mother told her of my less than ecstatic acceptance of married life, ‘I wish I had my first married months over again, I had a fine time.' She would, of course; that went without saying. Her self-contained second-floor flat was, thanks to her adoring husband James, newly decorated, her furniture and equipment the best obtainable. It all looked so new and shining Amy never thought any housework need be done. She would rise after James had left for the office and have a leisurely style breakfast while reading the paper, clad in her honeymoon negligee. Then she would bath and make herself all elegant in one of her honeymoon suits and visit friends, go shopping, have a late lunch, then saunter home to get the evening meal. She was brought up sharply from this life of luxury by the woman in the flat below, a fanatically house-proud creature. She was probably jealous of Amy's way of life and one day stopped her and enquired, ‘Don't you ever do any housework?' Amy said to me, really it hadn't occurred to her, but from then on, to give her her due, she changed her ways.

Although Amy and I were often, as Mother said, ‘at logger-heads' with one another, yet we were never bored in each other's company, which was a compliment to me in one way, for Amy could not bear to be bored and would not suffer fools gladly. She often said she had to be dominant because she was the middle one of the family and therefore the only one without status. Since I was the ninth child out of ten I couldn't think what status I possessed but I envied her the doing of things ‘her way' and was always mystified that the men in her life came back for more, never leaving her, as I felt they would be justified in doing by her treatment of them. James played football for a Millwall team and also the Stepney Templars before they were married. Amy used to watch but was never one hundred per cent pleased by spectatorship.

One Saturday the team travelled to Orpington in Kent for a match. Amy said they played the inmates of a mental-home! She was bored to tears and after the match Jim said, to placate her, ‘Let's take a walk round the lovely Kent countryside.' Amy, knowing this would lead to courtship love-making, was too bored and now too bad-tempered for this, and while Jim was in the dressing-room changing she made her way to the station and returned home to Poplar. Dusk was falling when an agitated James arrived at our house in Grove Villas. He had been searching worriedly for Amy and was nearly frantic. He went up the main steps of the house and knocked. Amy appeared from the basement, and Jim, in his frantic state of mind and the gathering darkness, mistook her for my youngest sister Marjorie. ‘Is Amy home yet, Marjorie?' he enquired. ‘No,' said Amy in Marjorie's voice. ‘Oh, God,' said a nearly crazy Jim, and tore off, much to Amy's satisfaction. I told Mother, who was in the scullery, and I was dispatched immediately after Jim. ‘Poor chap,' said Mother. When they met it was Jim who was profuse with apologies. Small wonder that I envied my Jezebel of a sister.

Life, therefore, could not be peaceful with Amy, and one Christmas through her ‘equality' with men something terrible happened in our house. My mother had been busy all day with the Christmas preparations. She was tired out and Amy was assisting her. I was in the corner of the kitchen, my head stuck in a book. My father was very late home and Mother, having cooked his tea, sirloin steak, had placed it in the oven beside the kitchen fire. Finally a tottery father appeared having celebrated the holy eve with his men friends. He sat down to this dried up looking steak, took one mouthful and throwing it on the fire said, ‘What do you mean, Mother, by offering me tough steak, I could sole my bloody boots with it.'

Mother would probably have poured oil on troubled waters, but Amy, knowing how Mother had worked to the point of exhaustion for us all, said to my father, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Dad, coming home and complaining when Mother has been slaving away for you all day.' Whether it was the word ‘you', whether it was a daughter's criticism, whether in his befuddled mind he couldn't face the fact that what Amy had said was true, I don't know, but he got up from the table and approaching Amy in a menacing manner, he hissed, ‘You cheeky little cat,' at the same time stretching out his hands as though to place them round her neck. Mother all this time was standing by the floured pastry-board smiling gently in an embarrassed way. Amy, now Sarah Bernhardt in her glory, threw up her head and seemed to place her neck into Father's outstretched hands. ‘Go on then,' she said in deep dramatic tones. ‘Murder me, murder me.' My father suddenly lowered his hands and said disgustedly, ‘Pff, you silly little cake.' As he lowered his hands, Amy, reluctant to abandon the dramatic scene, pushed her face forward and my father's thumb caught her eye. Mother now advanced round the table and said, ‘Walter, I am ashamed of you, your own daughter. How can I live with a man like that?' Again my father's befuddled pride rose strong in him. ‘If you wish to go, then go,' he shouted at my mother. She had done it now, the ball was in her court, for the sake of
her
pride she
had
to go (and of course she didn't want to). ‘Come, Marjorie,' she said, and she, Amy and Marjorie swept from the room.

Still paralysed in my chair by the fire I heard the upstairs front door close. My mother and sisters had not glanced at me, no invitation had been forthcoming to join them and I was left with this strange father. I could have gone with them without an invitation I knew, but to do so I would have had to pass my father and I was too frightened to do that. He turned to me and gazing hard at me said, ‘And what do
you
intend to do, Dolly?' Discretion being the better part of valour (I was glad Amy couldn't hear me), I said, ‘I'll stay with you, Dad,' feeling all the time a cowardly hypocrite. My declaration of loyal daughterly love did not seem to make him weep with fatherly tenderness or remorse, or perhaps it was because of my promise to stay that he said, ‘Well, I'm now going out to
drown
myself!' He left by the basement door. Before I could collect my thoughts the door opened again, ‘In drink,' added my father and slammed the door.

I was now alone in the house. There was no one to help me. None of my brothers and sisters was at home. David was at sea as also were Cecil and Charlie. Winifred was in Australia and Agnes, Arthur and Leonard were all married and away. I felt very lonely and very frightened. Suddenly to add to my fears I thought about the oncoming night. Suppose my father did not come back (suddenly I wished that he would), and a burglar broke in. Just as I was torturing myself with awful thoughts the kitchen door began to open slowly. ‘Oh, dear,' I thought, a burglar must have been lying in wait. Perhaps he had followed my tottery father home and heard all that went on. Suddenly round the door came three faces, Mother's, Marjorie's and Amy's. All beaming, except that Amy's eye was very inflamed, all happy again. There was a knock on the door. It was Amy's James. Sarah Bernhardt once more, Amy flung herself into Jim's arms. This unusually warm welcome seemed to please him mightily. ‘Oh, Jim,' she said, ‘my father has tried to murder me,' copious sobs from Amy. Jim, pleased for any excuse to be close to his darling, hugged her tight. Glancing at us three and seeing our happy smiles he knew that all was well really.

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