This is the story of my two younger sisters. It is a tale of joy, sadness, and a perfect world, paused, before being restarted.
My first sister, Mleen, was born about two years after me. Mleen (pronounced Meleen) was the compromise name my Mum and Dad finally agreed on, after debating about Melanie and Maureen for a week or two. For many years I thought the name unique, an invention by my Dad, but have in recent years found that there are a few others, scattered around this big wide world, in far away, exotic lands. My earliest memories are of the two of us, sat on the threadbare carpet, playing with a humming spinning top, wooden building blocks, plastic bricks and Matchbox or Dinky cars.
Our Dad, a carpenter, worked long hours on building sites in different parts of London. Our Mum worked long hours at home, doing all the things that Mum’s did in those days. Looking after two small children must have been hard enough, but there were also daily trips to the local shops, green grocer, butcher, baker and fishmonger. There were no supermarkets in our area, although the first few had began to appear elsewhere. Like many people then, we had no fridge, just a cool cupboard, to store milk, butter or meat, nothing would keep for very long.
Mum also washed all our clothes and bed sheets by hand, without even a wringer or mangle to help dry them out. It was the early 1970s before we had a basic washing machine. The highlight of the week was Mum’s baking day, when we could ‘help’ Mum, weigh the ingredients for scones and cakes. We often used our hands to scoop up anything left in the mixing bowl even though it often contained raw egg. At the time it was seen as raw goodness and we suffered no ill effects! As a background to all these activities I can recall the radio playing pop tunes, or us settling down for Listen With Mother, delighted by stories and nursery rhymes.
When evening fell, we waited expectantly for our Dad to arrive home, running excitedly to greet him, as he carried his racing bike up the stairs to our flat. He’d ask about our day, what we had done and where we had been. Mleen excelled in telling stories of our day. Even before she was three years old, she would make up stories – how she’d met a ‘snotty nosed man’ in one of the shops, which would cause Dad to laugh.
Unable to resist that encouragement, she would repeat the tale, saying when she went to the next shop, there he was again, the snotty nosed man! More laughter from Mum, Dad and me, and this would be repeated several times. The expressions of amazement on our Dad’s face became more exaggerated each time and with all the encouragement Mleen became more expressive with her disgust. Happy to be home, Dad would pick us up and carry us around on his shoulders and crawl around on all fours, with us taking turns to ride our ‘horse’.
It often descended into rolling on the floor in fits of laughter, tickling and tired contentment. Mum joined in from time to time, but more often she was cooking our tea, boiling vegetables and baking a scrummy meat pie in the oven! For dessert there was the wonderful aroma and taste of bread and butter pudding, with Birds custard, simple yet delicious!
Later in the evening Dad would relax with one of his pipes, filling it with sweet smelling aromatic tobacco, puffing away, occasionally relighting it. Every so often he would take the Dansette record player into the newly carpeted living room, that we rarely used. The room was only sparsely furnished with an old horsehair sofa and a TV that was often unreliable. Dad would soon fill the room with the melodic sounds of Chopin’s music. Drawn by the sound of tinkling piano music, Mleen would creep up to the living room door. She would peer round the door until Dad saw her and invited her to join him.
He would find a polka on the LP, placing the needle carefully on the right track and they would dance in their socks across the expanse of the golden carpet, spinning and twirling, laughing and giggling, as Dad’s and daughters do! I always watched from the doorway, happy to just observe, but sometimes I was reluctantly dragged in to the fun. Dancing wasn’t so appealing to me! These idyllic days of fun and laughter are just warm memories now, sitting side by side with the darker recollections of the events of the summer of ’67. Life took us on detour down a dark road.
In April, Mum and Dad began to notice that Mleen seemed to tire very easily, asking to sit in the pushchair, rather than walk. Wanting to rest rather than play. My Aunt and grandmother commented that Mleen looked very pale, compared to a few weeks before, suggesting a trip to the doctor. In the next few weeks there were several trips to the doctor, every time Mum was reassured that there was nothing to be concerned about, it was just “the Terrible Twos”, Mleen was just “under the weather”, “she will soon pick up”. Mum felt that the doctor was dismissing her concerns as if she was an over anxious mother.
By May, more strange symptoms appeared, several bruises, large and small, and every day she grew a little more pale, rosy cheeks of a healthy child long gone. Every day had become a struggle for her. One evening, not long after I had gone to bed, I was woken again. It seemed like the middle of the night to me, but it was more like 8-9pm. Mum and Dad quickly helped me get dressed, complaining that the doctor refused to make a home visit.
We walked down familiar streets, strange, creepy and dark, but soon reached the surgery. In later years Mum and Dad often recalled that as soon as we entered the surgery the doctor became quite flustered and immediately phoned for an ambulance. Not wanting to admit he’d refused to make a home visit, he requested the ambulance call to our home. We had to make a hasty return home.
The ambulance, a large cream coloured van, with opaque side windows, arrived outside our home just as we did. After leaving the pushchair indoors and collecting a few items for Mleen, we departed for the hospital in Croydon. I seem to recall Mum, Dad and me sat opposite Mleen, who was lying very quietly on a stretcher, covered with a blanket.
I don’t recall the rest of the events in the hospital that night, just that we had to leave Mleen there. We caught a red Routemaster bus back home, or at least to the end of our road. Once indoors, I quickly fell asleep, but I am sure that Mum and Dad had a restless night, worried about Mleen, wondering what was wrong with her and what the next day would bring.
Continued in part 2