Stories

Old Lil

By 14th May 2009No Comments

‘You wantin’ the Peckham bus love? You just missed it! Well, you know what they say dear: when you don’t want a bus, they come in threes!’ But I’m sure another one’ll be along in a minute. Why don’t you sit here dearie? What’s ya name pet?’ Christina? Nice name, ‘ow dja do? Oh, you’ve been to visit your sister, ‘av ya? So you don’t live round ‘ere then? Me? Why I’ve lived in Peckham for nigh on 75 years!’ Well… I did live in Wales for a bit; back during the war, but then I come back to London in ‘45, 5 years after the Great Blitz, an’ when the Pettles family didn’t want me no more’.

Who were the Pettles? Aaah now that’s a story, my love! No no, I don’t mind talking about it dear; to be ‘onest, I don’t often get to chat much nowadays, an’ I quite like to ‘ave a natter. ‘swhy I come ‘ere, to this bus stop! Well its’ warm, an’ I like to watch the peoples, y’know? But my, the locals ‘av changed so much since I was a girl! Gosh all the colours a’ the rainbow now! But who were the Pettles, you say! Say… you sure got the time to stop an’ chat pet? Oh, I can see you’se a good girl pet! Well then; let me tell ya the story of old Lil!

Well, I guess me story starts back in 1939….My my! Thing was, I never been what you would call a ‘looker’ see? Not even when I was little. Always ‘ad these big sticky out ears see? Dint matter ‘ow I wore me ‘air… Mr and Mrs Pettles musta realised there weren’t no ‘ope of me gettin’ married an’ takin’ on the business after they was gone, so they didn’t want me ‘anging around, see? Nah, they weren’t me family, Christina, they was the people I was evacuated to live wiv.’

By Gawd, I remember the day I left London so very clearly! Me mam took me to school as usual, that day: I was 12 year’ old. She gave me a kiss at the School gates an’ told me she loved me. Well, I remember wipin’ me mam’s kiss off me cheek as it was slobbery an’ wet! Corr dear! Hoo woulda thought that years’ later, I would yearn for another kiss on me cheek like that! Anyway, I remember running into school that day wiv me packed lunch box, an’ me gas mask round me neck, an’ noticin’ that oddly all the children were all lined up in classes in the playground. I scoured the faces before I recognised me friend Rosie, who was crying her little ‘eart out as a teacher tied a paper label round her neck.’

‘Wassamatter Rose?’ I asked her.

‘We’re all leaving, Lily,’ she said. ‘They’re sending us away on account of the war.’

‘The War?’ Me mam ‘ad never said a word to me about leavin. I remember me ‘eart fillin wiv dread, an’ me legs turnin’ to lead.

‘Don’t be dense, Lil, you know – what yer mam an’ dad ‘ave been talkin’ ‘bout these past few months,’ she sniffled.

‘It then clicked. I remembered me dad, standing at the radio by the mantelpiece every night, me dad in his vest an’ trousers, puffing away like mad on ‘is pipe; me mam hushin’ an’ shooin’ me an’ me brother Bertie into the kitchen for our tea, an’ closin’ the door behind us. I never ‘eard what they were sayin’ but we could smell somethin’ bad was in the air. We weren’t sure what this ‘War’ that was comin’ was, but it made our mam and dad scared and we both felt it too. Where there used to be smiles an’ laughter in our ‘ouse, now there was ‘ushed whispers an’ solemn faces. ‘War’ was coming, an’ then it turned out they was sending all us kids out into the countryside up an’ down the country to keep us safe.’ Ha! Safe they called it! Bloomin’ well almost died a death a boredom I did! Place called Clydach was where they sent me – it took me 3 years before I could pronounce it right!’

‘Oooh ey pet, listen to me goin’ on and look – ain’t that your bus love? Don’t you let me keep you!’ You’ll get the next one? You sure? Well then if you got a few more minutes to spare Christina, why then you can call me Lil, Old Lil they call me nowadays’. Did I say that already? So now, where was I? Oh yes….

So they sent me to Clydach an’ I never saw me family again. Never knew what really happened to ’em. Never saw Rosie again either, little carrot-topped Rosie wiv a tag round her neck, like a leg of ‘oney roasted ‘am. Last I saw of Bertie was his freckly face, grinning an’ chattin’ wiv his pals at the train station, before we was herded on to the train. I shouted to ‘im to behave ‘imself an’ ‘e turned to me wiv a big grin, an’ I remember making out as clear as day the word ‘adventure’ on ‘is lips. I’ve often wondered if ‘e got his adventures. I ‘ope so.’

‘What was it like in Wales, you say? ‘Oribble! I remember it bein cold an’ wet most a the time, not that I got much spare time to explore like. An’ the locals could never understand me – ‘Lil Cockney Lil’ they called me! For the first few years in, when I wasn’t gutting fish an’ cleaning up muck for Mr Pettles in his fishmongers, I spent every spare minute at the train station. I would sit an’ wait, listening for the sound of the train, the woo-woo, an’ the sight of the steam above the green hills in the distance. I knew the time table by heart; 10:05; 12:05; 4:05; 6:05, every day bar Sundays. In the autumn, I would sit cross-legged on a bench below an acorn tree on the platform an’ I would collect the acorns that fell from above, an’ I would spend ‘ours, throwin’ them on to the tracks, tryin’ to reach the other side, an’ always falling short. I told meself that if I could reach the other side, then me parents still loved me, and would come an’ get me.

I sat for hours, countin’ the minutes an’ waitin’, countin’ an’ waitin’. Sometimes, in the Spring months, I would attempt to count the lambs an’ the sheep in the field afar. I’d never seen sheep or any other animals apart from dogs an’ cats till I came to Clydach. Oooh I remember, I would get so frightened that they would come chargin’ at me, over the railway lines and eat me to death! I ‘ad visions, I did. I could see it all. An’ the news gettin’ back to London, I could see the headlines – ‘Lil gobbled up by sheep in Wales’!

Them trains always came on time, regular as clockwork, but me mam ‘an dad never appeared to save me from them sheep. I watched the locals’ sons’ an’ husbands come home from the war, shades of human beings they were; silent, wretched, an’ grey. I would sit under the acorn tree an’ watch the reunions; the tears, an’ sometimes the laughter; the kisses, but I was never part of it.

Aaah don’t you feel sorry for me pet! Time passed quick enough, as its’ wont’ to do. Life was ‘ard but I always had food an’ clean clothes. Not like some a’ them ragged dollyannas I would see runnin’ about town. But then nobody ‘ad much in them days. There weren’t no washin’ machines an’ fridge freezers! An’ there weren’t not much schoolin’ neiver! I worked every day from 4am to 7am in the shop wiv Mr Pettles. They let me go to school in the mornings till I reached 13, then they said I was more use to them in the fishmongers, ‘oh no, school would a-been wasted on me’, they said.

In the evenings after supper I would help Mrs Pettles clean the house- ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness,’ she was often fond of saying. Borin’ old cow, she was!

‘Well you can probably imagine that I got outta there as fast as I could, ‘specially after I finally got news of me family. One day that haggety old Billeting Officer, Mrs Hargreaves, from the town ‘all came by at the end of the day as we was out the back of the shop packin’ away the fish that ‘adn’t been sold that day into ice boxes. I remember ‘earing the door bell tinkle as she came in. Mr an’ Mrs Pettles went out front an’ I could hear ‘em whisperin’. I knew instantly it was about me. Oh, I can still remember me excitement, oh my! I actually thought this was the moment I’d been waitin’ for; that Ma an’ Pa had come for me! I couldn’t wait to tell ‘em all to stick it! I was goin ‘ome! Back to London, back to the grime, an’ the cobblestones, an’ bread an’ drippin’ an’ people that talked like me! I even missed me old school! Oh me belly tingled alright!

I remember wipin’ me blood-stained, fish-scaled hands on me apron an’ straightenin’ up, ready, flattenin’ me ‘air. Ready I was. Ready to go ‘ome.

‘Mr Pettles called me into the front of the shop an’ flat as you like said; ‘Sorry Lil, your folks have been caught in the bombin’ in London – they’re dead. The Government says you gotta stay here wiv us till you’re 18. That’s just the way it is.’

Them people, them Welsh people wiv their funny accents, an’ their sheep, an’ their fish, blood all over their ‘ands, they all stood there an’ just stared at me uncomfortably for about 30 seconds. I remember them shuffling their feet and lookin’ at one another, not knowing what else to say to the little girl who ‘ad just lost ‘er whole family. Then that sour-faced Mrs Hargreaves turned an’ left. Mr an’ Mrs Pettles, strangers to me, as ever, they went out back to finish packin’ away. I was left standin’ there in the shop front, alone. No consoling, no tears, nothin’. I remember standin’ a while in front of the shop window, lookin’ through the backwards gold etchin’ on the glass that read from the outside: ‘Pettles Fishmongers’. Across the way was an ancient stone church which we all ‘ad to attend on Sundays. I remember thinkin’ of all the time I’d wasted on prayin’. Then I went out the back an’ carried on helpin’ Mr Pettles to rebox the fish.’

‘What did I do then? Why, after work that afternoon, I went to the station an’ sat on me bench as usual. But I had nothin’ to wait for now, so I ‘ad to start plannin’ me future! I remember wonderin what would become of me, but one fing was for certain, I would’nt be ‘angin’ around Clydach till I were 18! One of the local boys ‘ad been hidin’ behind a bush and he suddenly he started chuckin’ acorns at me, as they were wont’ to do on occasion. The cheeky bugger edged closer an’ when ‘ee saw me cryin’, ‘ee came an’ sat down next to me. Then ‘ee asked to see up me skirt! I don’t know what came over me but up went me skirt, knickers to the breeze, ‘an I let ‘im ‘cop a feel too! ‘Weren’t expectin’ that, was he? Come to think of it, neither was I….made me feel better tho’, for a while…

‘It got to be quite a regular show I put on down behind the bushes at the station. During, I didn’t feel so alone, y’know? Ha! I thought they were me friends. ‘Go on Cockney Lil’, they’d say, ‘we love ya!’ ‘We’re your friends Cockney Lil!’ But they wouldn’t give me the time a day in town. An pretty soon I realised that Mr & Mrs Pettles didn’t want me ‘anging around; there was less an’ less for me to do and ‘used goods’ an’ ‘sinful’ I’d ‘eard whispers of in the church on a Sunday. ‘ow I wish I’d made ‘em pay for it, the cheeky buggers! They all cast me aside like the rotten fish Mr Pettles threw out of a Sunday.’

‘What did I do? Well there was nothin’ for it pet, I ‘ad to come back ‘ere, to me ‘ome, to London! I was 15 by then. I got the hell outta there as fast as me legs could carry me! When I told Mr and Mrs Pettles that I wanted to go ‘ome I could feel relief fill the air around us. Mr Pettles even gave me £2! Mrs Pettles baked some fish for me an’ gave me a copy of the bible. On me way to the station I chucked the bible in the bin, an’ ate the fish while I waited for train. I remember sitting on that train as it rolled out of the station, me back to the village, watching the rolling green hills an’ cobblestone streets of Wales disappear behind me as the train picked up speed, until there was a blur of green, an’ I remember feeling suddenly frightened and alone. Not free as I thought I would feel, and not the aloneness I felt when I was in Clydach. I felt hollow and cut off. Like I didn’t belong nowhere. Like I didn’t know me own name. As that train rattled on, gettin’ closer an’ closer to London, it felt as though I was speeding towards a big black hole. I ‘ad nowhere to go, no one to go to, an’ nothing but the clothes on me back an’ £2 in me pocket, an’ the smell a’ fishblood in me nostrils.

I’d heard the radio broadcasts in the shop, an’ occasionally I’d caught snippets of people’s conversations, so I knew that London had been bombed out an’ flattened in the Great Blitz, as they called it, but I didn’t know what to expect to see. I remember catchin’ the 36 bus to Peckham from the station, an sitting up top mesmerized by the sight a’ what them Jerrys’ ‘ad done to Peckham.

‘What was it like? Well my love, the shock almost knocked me sparky! Peckham had indeed been flattened. Churches, ‘ospitals, ‘istorical buildings an’ the homes of ordinary people ‘ad been destroyed. I ‘ad come ‘ome to a scene of great desolation. I remember wanderin’ round looking for me old ‘ome, school or any part of town I could recollect. There were no street signs as they’d taken them down to confuse the Jerrys’, an’ Peckham was unrecognisable. Whole quarters in Southwark an’ Bermondsey ‘ad been destroyed in the Great Blitz of 1940, the year me mam an’ dad died.

That first night I slept at the station, along wiv 10 or so other homeless. A man tried to ‘av his way wiv me during the night, but a lady ‘elped me fight ‘im off. It was awful. We both ‘ad to run away as the bloke called us ‘thieves’, an’ people came running. I had no idea what I was goin’ to do; I spent the night and the next day wanderin’, the streets, amidst the noise an’ dust, tryin’ to find somewhere I could feel safe.

‘An people looked different; dusty, dirty ‘an hollow. Kids scuttled round the streets like giant filthy rats over the debris an’ building sites and bombed out ‘ouses. I wandered for days, sleeping any safe place I could find, in doorways, under the arches, even in the street one night. Wivin’ a few weeks of livin’ this way, I met another lady in a similar predicament who was searching for the local ‘Spike’, they called it. When we arrived there, there were no spaces left an’ they only accepted an ‘andful of women each night, an’ even then you could only stay one day a month! What was the bleedin’ use of that? We went to a café, an’ I bought this lady some bread an’ dripping an’ a cup of tea wiv me last pennies, an’ she told me of an house where a lady could ‘exchange’ personal services for a room an’ board, an’ small amount of money each week. Well, I didn’t hesitate! I had been giving it away for free in Clydach, I thought, so I might as well be paid for it now!

‘You still ere, my love? Still listening, ey?’ Cor those days ‘ave long gone. Life got better after that, We both moved in to Lady Mary’s house. I worked ‘ard at what I did – I even enjoyed it a bit, y’know! Some a’ them GI’s weren’t bad sorts! I certainly did my bit for the war! I travelled round London a bit too, worked in a few factories, but I always found meself back on me back in Peckham- well its ‘ome, ain’t it! No, I never ‘ad a family me love, could never bring meself to y’know? It was too ‘ard losin’ ‘em the first time around. Oh look, ere’s your bus love, go on, on you get! So long love! I’m always ‘ere pet, yep you can visit Old Lil anytime, you like pet!

‘Oh look ‘oo it is! ‘ello Terry, ‘avent seen you in a while, you just missed the 36 pet!’ I’m alright, me lovely, just been talkin’ to a lovely young lady! No, I don’t need ‘elpin back thanks Tel, I made it this far, I’m hardy, me! I’m Old Lil! ‘ere Tel, did I ever tell you about when I took them Jerrys on, on me own? Just me an’ me ‘igh ‘eels…..‘

Louisa Bello

Author Louisa Bello

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