This is the second part of the story of my two sisters, for the first part click here.
In the morning, following the worrying and bewildering events of the night before, I woke to find Mum and Dad already busy getting ready to go out. I was quickly washed, fed and dressed. We left home to catch a bus to Croydon and the Mayday Hospital.
When we arrived at the hospital, it all looked so different to the night before. In daylight things didn’t seem so scary. We began searching to find where they had hidden Mleen. After walking along many endless corridors, we finally arrived at the single room where she was lying, tucked up in bed. We whispered so as not to wake her, as she appeared to be asleep.
Just as I began to wonder why she was connected to a tube and a drip, Mum & Dad decided that it would be best if I waited outside the room. At that moment a doctor arrived to speak to them and I was led to a play area. I found a large wooden steam engine that I could climb into. I was delighted to find that it had pedals and steering. I was soon busy exploring the hospital corridors.
After wandering a little too far from the waiting area, I was told by a passing doctor to go back. As we reached the last curve in the corridor before the waiting area, I could hear Mum and Dad asking someone else if they had seen me. When I came into view they were clearly pleased to have found me. Perhaps their happiness at finding me masked the serious news that they had just been given. I remained totally unaware at that moment that anything had changed – in fact our lives were about to enter the most difficult time our family had ever known.
Mleen remained in hospital for another few days, but she returned home before the end of the week. Life returned to some sort of routine, but Mleen remained tired and pale. We made many trips to a local clinic, the doctor’s surgery and one more visit to the hospital in Croydon.
Several years later, when I could understand more, I was told what the doctors had explained to Mum and Dad. Mleen was diagnosed as having a fairly rare and fast developing form of Leukaemia. In 1967 only a small number of children with any form of leukaemia were given experimental treatment and around 90% of them did not survive more than a few weeks. Mleen was not offered any treatment apart from emergency transfusions to stabilise her condition, when first admitted to hospital.
My grandmother, visited more often, to help my Mum. My other grandmother, my father’s mother, who I could not recall meeting before, came to visit, traveling all the way from Birmingham. During her visit we all went to the seaside for the day, it was a long journey by bus and train to Eastbourne. The photo at the top of this story was taken on the beach that day. Mleen was wearing a new dress and bright red sandals. It is still a treasured photo. Although it was an exciting and fun day out, everyone seemed very tired and quiet by the time we were travelling home.
Less than a week after that lovely seaside trip, Nanny came to stay overnight, something that had never happened before. Dad set up a camp bed for me in the living room, as Nanny was going to be sleeping in my bed. It was just a couple of cushions on the floor with a sheet and blanket, I didn’t need anything more as it was the first week of August and a typically warm night.
I vaguely recall my Dad sitting with me for a little while, probably to reassure me, as I had never slept in a room on my own before. I can remember that the hall light was left on when I went to sleep and the door slightly open. It felt very strange. I didn’t complain, but I certainly didn’t understand why I was there on my own.
The next morning I woke early, probably about 6am. It was already the beginning of a bright summer day. I thought I had heard someone call me from the bedroom, but the flat seemed quiet, with just the sound of birds singing in the trees outside. After a short while I began to walk through to the hall and kitchen, when Dad came from the bedroom and gently guided me back to the living room.
We sat down and he did his best to explain that Mleen had gone away and wouldn’t be coming back. His voiced sounded strange, and he stopped speaking every so often and hugged me a lot. I don’t think I really understood what he was saying and it was some time before I really appreciated that she had died. I had not known anyone else who died.
The following few days a flurry of visitors arrived, relatives came from all over the country to pay their respects. On the day of the funeral, just before we left the flat, all the men assembled around the tiny coffin in the living room. We all walked a mile or so to the local Beckenham cemetery, where the hearse waited for us with flowers and the coffin. Afterwards there was a big gathering when everyone seemed to want to give me presents and make a fuss of me. I didn’t mind the presents, but I didn’t really want to be the centre of attention. Mleen had always been the one who took that burden from me.
In the weeks after the funeral life moved fairly fast and in September I started school. I suppose that kept me busy. Dad had his work as a carpenter, which took him away from the flat most days. Mum was on her own in the flat in those weeks and months and in recent years I have wondered how she managed. The only highlight of that dark winter that I recall, is Dad building my first snowman, recounted in an earlier story. For Mum & Dad there was an even more important highlight that winter, a new baby was on the way!
The first I knew about that was when Mum was noticeably pregnant, so probably in December, and as spring approached, preparations were made for the new arrival. One night I was moved to the temporary bed on the living room floor again, and I woke in the early morning to hear the faint chatter of voices from the bedroom.
As I went to investigate I was met by Dad and asked to stay in the living room, where he brought me a drink and a biscuit. The next thing I knew I was being dressed and taken down to the garden to play on my own for a while. A rather stern midwife insisted that she check on mother and baby, despite the night before leaving a newly qualified but inexperienced midwife, to handle the birth alone. Once the stony faced woman left I was allowed back indoors, where I was shown my new sister for the first time.
I cannot say that I recall much of that event, as I was probably thinking that she wasn’t a real sister, as she didn’t walk, talk, laugh and play! She just slept, or cried – no fun at all! I am fairly sure that a few months on my own had turned me into a selfish little brat. I am not certain I was as delighted as Mum and Dad about the new member of the family. I quite liked the choice of name, Suzannah, and this time Mum and Dad were in agreement.
It was a few years before I really began to play with this much younger child, and the almost 6 year age difference did cause a few upsets over the years, when our interests were poles apart. I did began to appreciate her once she could join in some games with me and my friends. It helped if the friends had younger sisters too!
Unfortunately, I also found a bit fun in teasing her, for which I was always scolded. As an 8 year old boy, it seemed such fun to make a jumping rubber spider leap across the bed towards my wide eyed little sister until she screamed in fright. Mum and Dad didn’t trust me with that spider after that and I never saw it again! I soon got over that foolish stage and I began to discover a role as her protector and defender from any idiots who picked on her at school. Over her first years at school I chased quite a few of those bullies all the way home, screaming for the protection of their mothers!
By the time we left London and lived in the small towns of rural Hertfordshire, I began to find a lot of fun in having a young companion to play with, even if she sometimes didn’t have as much interest in cars, trains and model planes as me! I used to enjoy the challenge of putting together the plastic poles of the Wendy House, lifting the bright yellow and red cover over the frame. Playing in the Wendy House though was strictly for girls, well most of the time anyway!
If some of you are beginning to think that something about the last paragraph sounded a little familiar, the photo below may help clarify things. If you follow suzywordmuser you may recognise the house in the background and the garden. She may be minus her Wendy House, but she most definitely isn’t lost!
suzywordmuser and growltigger – 40 years ago!