1950’s Britain may seem a distant era, a post-war time where ordinary people were getting to grips with a new world after the years of fear and rationing, when men and boys were away and women stepped into the breech in so many ways, agriculture and farming, industry, drivers and transport… In the early 1950’s there was still rationing but life gradually settled to a different normal.
Though this time may seem distant and different from our world, there are aspects of life then which are the same as now, or have become the same today. After the war there were so many displaced people DPs as they were known, and today we have many displaced people living and working here, trying to start new lives. Accommodation is a problem for many people; young people live at home with parents and relatives, people of all ages are in unsuitable rented accommodation, families live in a couple of rooms sometimes with shared facilities… and this was the same after the war.
In my mother’s family, my grandparents lived in a rented house – granddad served in both World Wars; my mum and dad (Dad served from 1939-1946) lived in a small flat (having lived in a single rented room when they first married in 1949) One of mum’s sisters who had been in the army from 1942-45 lived in a bedsit, the other sister and husband (who served on the Russian convoys) lived in a council house, and Mum’s brother (in the RAF from 1934-1947) was living in a residential hotel.
In my 1950’s novel, the main character Mike, lives in a bedsit, and I have used my aunty’s bedsit as a model – even down to the green curtains and a landlady called Mrs Brewer! In my story Mike is going to find Jenny, a young woman whose friend has gone missing. Jenny has a room in an old Edwardian villa on te outskirts of town:
Jenny’s room was in one of the huge villas on the way out of town; in Easthope’s hay day this would have been a family home with servants, and a coach in the coach house and horses in the stable. Now the drive was full of weeds and scraps of rubbish, the bricks in the front wall were broken and chipped, and the front garden which once might have been an elegant display of the owner’s wealth and standing. Now it was a tangle of briars and nettles and sheets of rusting metal.
Mike couldn’t help but think of where he lived in Station Road; Mrs brewer’s house was of a similar age, but despite her gentile poverty it was neat in appearance, and Mr Perkins swept the front paved area. Mrs Brewer and her elderly maid might be somewhat defeated by the housekeeping, but they did their best.
But this place, this menacing house…
He knocked and then knocked again, with no response. It was unlocked and he went into a dingy but large hall. There were several bikes parked against one wall and an old and very battered perambulator. It smelt… the place smelt… of wet rot, fish, boiled to death cabbage, and the underlying whiff of lavatory… Did Jenny really live here? Good grief, poor girl…
He knocked on the green paint of the door on his left. There was a muffle shout of ‘Go away! Fuck off and go away! Oh well, that was clear… the other three doors had no response either although there seemed to be a parrot in one, or an eccentric , shouting hello Peter! You’re a pretty boy!
The stair carpet was Filthy and the soles of Mike shoes stuck and unstuck as he climbed to the first floor. He was in virtual darkness; there was a window on the landing but it was covered by heavy baize cloth.
A very thin woman opened the first door he knocked on; her face was gaunt, her eyes large and glazed.
He asked if she knew Jenny, and when she replied he saw she had few teeth, and no she didn’t know Jenny.
“Can I help you sir, is there anything I can do for you, anything? Anything at all?”
Good heavens! No certainly not, but Mike replied kindly, that no, there was nothing she could do. She asked if he was sure and repeated that she would do anything, anything, for him…
He said goodbye and even though he hadn’t knocked on any other doors he went quickly up the stairs; the carpet was slightly less sticky.
There were four more rooms, plus a lavatory and bathroom – he only knew this because the doors were wide open… but he didn’t look too closely… One thing about Mrs Brewer’s place old Doris did keep the bathrooms and lavatories clean, and the other lodgers were impeccable in their habits.
The rooms here he deduced would be smaller as these were directly under the roof – a skylight, grimy and splashed with bird droppings gave little illumination onto the small landing.
Without much hope of success, and gloomily wondering why he was doing this, he knocked on the first of the doors. He heard sounds inside and then a key turned and it opened a fraction.
A pale woman, thin, gaunt almost, looked out anxiously. Mike took off his hat and stepped back so he wouldn’t seem too threatening, not that he was a threatening type and the insults from the New Inn drifted back shrimp, pen-pusher…
He asked for Jenny but the woman looked blankly.
“Jenny?” he repeated clearly.
“No, not, niet,” she almost whispered.
“Вы знаете Jenny?” Mike asked and the woman’s face lost its anxious look. No, she replied in Russian, I don’t know Jenny, is Jenny a man or a woman?
A little face appeared at her knees, and then another, and he could hear the sound of other children’s voices.
Mike thanked her, and then she asked, anxious again, if he would tell the landlord she had children here? No children, no children were allowed, she said.
“Of course not… and what children, I don’t see any children!”
She smiled and suddenly he could see that once she would have been beautiful. She held out her hand to shake his. He didn’t usually keep money lose in his pocket, but for some reason, when he had bought half a dozen eggs, he hadn’t put the change away. He’d paid with a pound note, and the silver, coppers and ten bob note was still in his pocket.
He pressed it into her thin hand. Buy something for the children, he said, для детей, and before she could say anything, the tears tumbling down her cheeks, he turned and rushed down the stairs, down the next flight and out of the door into the fresh air…
© Lois Elsden
If you see any errors or mistakes in what I have written, I would be so grateful for a message so I can correct them!!