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Evacuation

written by: Michal Reibenbach

 

June 1944

Mae:

On account of my pregnancy and the server bombing of London, I am evacuated to Middlesbrough in the North. Since I was born in Barnsley, I am more or less back home. I travel up by train with one of the mothers I’d met while having my medical; while another mother joins us when we arrive at the station. The journey is awful; we are unlucky enough to share a carriage with a rather unclean woman. She has five little children, four boys, and one girl, they are covered in sores and the mess they make of the carriage is unimaginable. I get particularly cross when they keep on clutching at my skirt with their grubby hands. In addition, the heat inside the carriage is unbearable.
As we walk from the railway station which is just outside the city walls towards the city gates, we receive a warm welcome. The townspeople are lined up along the streets to greet us, and everyone is so willing to help with the babies and the luggage. Many of the townspeople have been waiting eagerly outside the city gates for hours in anticipation of our arrival and plenty of them will be our hosts. Although they are not so keen to take in families with dirty undisciplined little children, which is understandable. For larger families, there are specially arranged furnished houses in the town. To most of the Londoners, the northern dialect sounds strange, but of course, I happen to feel quite at home here. I’m glad I’ve been sent to Yorkshire when I had to leave London. We are taken to a lovely modern school for a hearty meal, and from there to another school to sleep. In the morning my friend Nola and I get engaged in a conversation with one of the ladies assisting with breakfast. She mentions she believes that one of her friends would agree to take us in. Later she brings this friend along to meet us. She turns out to be a delightful woman and doesn't seem the least bit worried that Nola has two little children, both under the age of two. Therefore we decide we are both going to live with this lady; while our other friend Edna will be living only a few blocks away. The houses in which we are to stay are spotlessly clean and the people seem kind. In fact, we are lucky to have met such pleasant people, rather than having to wait like the rest of the evacuees.
One day Nola and I are terribly foolish. We leave our bags unsupervised over in the school while we are both occupied with the task of washing her babies in the bathroom and someone steals our money. There are so many questionable characters amongst the evacuees it will be impossible to catch the thief. The ‘public assistance’ service refunds me the sum of ten shillings, so I’m not quite penniless!
As soon as the unaccompanied children have been placed, we are able to settle with the billeting officer. I feel quite happy here, and we are only ten miles’ distance from the sea. My landlady even suggests I have the baby at her house through the government scheme. It’s good to know that if the doodle-bugs (flying bombs) continue to be bad, I will be left with a good alternative.
I write letters to my husband and in-laws, whom I think of as, ‘mum and dad’ since my own parents died when I was five years old. I know they will be pleased things have worked out so well. At first, I think if I don’t go out to work - life will seem extremely monotonous, yet there always seems to be odd jobs to do. We are up for breakfast at 8 o’clock each morning. Mr. Ryan has returned to work again after having at one point retired, so that he has to report to work by nine o’clock. He used to be a charted accountant but after having retired, he’s taken on the role of caretaker of the local chapel and Sunday school. Mrs. Ryan has not long been discharged from hospital; she is a diabetic, and unfortunately will not stick to the diet-sheet given her by her doctor. She mixes saccharine into her puddings but then lavishly includes raisins. Even Nola and I are fearful of putting on too much weight, as we are sustained by her enormous meals. So far this month my husband has sent me two letters in which he writes, while he himself feels alright, the living conditions are not all they could be. In France, they are camping out in tents and fallen down trees which will be used to build bridges. He hopes to return to England soon. Since he is fond of sketching, I manage to buy him a pre-war drawing block of Reeves which I resolve to send to him.

July 1944

Every day on the wireless, we follow the news about the bomb attacks on London. I wonder how my in-laws, as well as the people still living in the city, are managing. In the countryside, war seems like an eternity away; here people grumble because they have to queue for food and think it is a great hardship!
At times my husband, Carl sounds depressed, but in his last letter, he sounded pleased after having just received a letter from his parents. I think his depression has to do with the foul weather, and it must indeed be quite miserable for them out there. I’ve started to knit him a sleeveless pullover for Christmas since he had mentioned he wanted one before, and I think it might be a welcome present. Most of my baby’s knitting has been done by now; and I gleaned from the papers that I will soon be able to obtain oranges on my green-book, which is something to look forward to. I feel very well and am told that I looked healthy. The only trouble is that I begin to feel dreadfully weary and will often go to bed early, despite the fact that I am hardly ever expected to wake up before 9.00 am in the morning. I wish the bombing would stop, and I fret about my in-laws still having to sleep in the shelter every night.

August 1944

On the morning of my twentieth birthday, I receive a letter from my in-laws and a parcel from my husband, Carl. In it, he’s sent me a beautiful lace collar and handkerchief, which of course is far too fancy to be used for its intended purpose. I had feared he might forget to wish me a ‘happy birthday’ but he certainly hasn’t! He also says he wishes and hopes to be home in time for Christmas.
By now I can barely recollect what it was like sleeping in the shelter every night. In fact out here in Middlesbrough, no one takes much notice of the black-out. The news that another fourteen bomb bases have been captured is very encouraging, and the turn of events, in general, is beginning to generate a mood of hope and optimism. We certainly don’t feel we can grumble at the progress being made over there across the ocean.

A letter from Carl:

Darling Mae,

Thank you for your letters. I do hope you are happily settled in your billets now. I am also glad to know you liked the presents I sent you, especially since it’s quite tricky to figure out a woman’s wishes. Please be patient if at times you fail to receive a letter from me. It’s been quite rough here lately, and when I return to the camp, I often find myself too tired to begin writing. Having said that, we have nothing to complain about compared to the line troops. The weather here is awful and most things get soaked right through, so we just get undressed and go to bed in our sleeping bags at the end of the day. In addition, it’s very difficult to write in the dark for the wind keeps blowing out the candles. Mostly I can’t help feeling miserable; there’s no rum available and sometimes no letters either. Although tonight we were finally issued with a pot of rum, and I had my first drink of alcohol since the landing. In fact Mae, all the soldiers I’ve spoken to have denied the existence of the reported ‘bottle of beer per week’! It’s kind of you to tell me about my parents; I’m afraid they don’t write very often and they find my scrawl difficult to read. Darling, you really don’t need to worry about me; there is no fighting anywhere near me and, unless somebody hits me over the head or I commit suicide, I shall return to you in the original condition. The parcel you sent me was really very nice but please don’t send me more things unless I ask for them, and definitely no food or cigarettes. That would really be a waste when you should be saving up for our baby. I probably shan’t believe in it until I can behold it in the flesh and blood. Life feels as if it has shrunk to a draining routine of work, sleep and if one is lucky some mail. In the evenings there are so many tasks to carry out, such as eating, washing, and cleaning so that there’s hardly any time left for reading newspapers and magazines. During the lunch break from duty, I wander around the woods and notice how swiftly the ferns cover the trenches and the debris. It all appears unreal, and I can never escape the feeling that it is all a dream. Once I drifted off to the site of the German prisoners’ internment. They looked to me like such bedraggled ravages and I have to admit the sight gave me a sense of pleasure. On the other hand, I found it hard to imagine that those soldiers had been the same ones who had been killing our soldiers earlier on in the war. At times I wish I was going up North with our soldiers. Perhaps I will eventually also move across there, if that is my fate, then I might get away from this god-forsaken place!
Darling, keep happy and tell me what your chosen wishes are.
All my love, I am proud of you and our baby - your husband, Carl.

Mae:

I was glad to receive news that Carl is quite alright; although I am aware he is still ‘under canvas’ and suffering from rotten weather. I wrote to Carl, in response to his letter, that it was poetic justice to witness the Nazi soldiers as prisoners.
It seems that poor old London is fated; suffering severe damage from being bombed extensively by the Luftwaffe.
I myself feel fit; I even attend a prenatal clinic and make sure to drink my orange juice and take the vitamin tablets when I remember. I buy a used pre-war pram which has been well-maintained and I have it reconditioned. Naturally, I wish everything to look right for my first baby, and I even buy a ‘treasure cot’ from a lady whose little girl has grown too big for it.

September and October 1944

Nola and her children have left us and returned back home and I realized that Mrs. Ryan isn’t in a fit state to look after me. She was recently admitted into the hospital where she was treated for her diabetes and now has almost no energy. A parcel arrives from my in-laws with lovely baby-clothes; and increases my impatience to give birth to my baby. I’ve decided to give birth in a maternity home because I feel guilty about the imposition I would cause Mrs. Ryan (especially around Christmas time). My maternity benefit from my ‘approved society’ will pay for the home, evacuees are not asked for more. Carl has also sent me a pair of booties, which were sweet little things lined with white fur around the top. His new unit is moving across France into Belgium. He seems to be much happier and I, in turn, am glad that he has been given this opportunity. I believe that at least in this way he won’t in the future, feel that he was somewhat ‘left out of the action.’

November 1944

I haven't heard from Carl for a week but I suspect that he is probably in transit, and therefore can’t write. I send off his Christmas parcel, which contains the sweater I had knitted for him. It’s difficult for me to imagine what it must be like in London while all those bombs were exploding around you. It must certainly be an extremely nerve-racking experience. I find that I can’t even concentrate on the simple task of knitting, and spend most of my time reading in front of the fire-place or walking. The weather is so dreadful that I’m not tempted to wander outside much. I presume I will be spending the Christmas period at the maternity home. Carl says, ‘The poor baby will never have a proper birthday if it is due so close to Christmas Day’.

December 1944

My baby is born on Christmas Eve of 1944 at the Municipal Maternity Home, Middlesbrough, which is why I have decided to name her Christina. It isn’t a very pleasant experience but when the shock is over my baby is worth it. She weighs a healthy seven pounds but, since I have a slight temperature, I’m not allowed to write letters or take part in anything stressful for the following few days. My landlady Mrs. Ryan comes to visit me on Christmas day, arriving with a lovely Christmas parcel which my parents-in-law have sent me and I am cheered up tremendously. It includes a jewelry set of a pendant and a ring. I am thrilled that my ordeal is over and that I can finally hold my baby in my arms. She has fair hair and blue eyes, and I secretly hope that her eyes don’t change color. I feel quite special when a couple of friends of my in-laws arrive, Claris and Mrs. Wit. Everyone in the home is also most kind to me, while when Mrs. Ryan comes once again with her daughter to see me, they bring me ‘treats’. Carl writes to say he wishes he had asked me to send a direct telegram with the announcement of the birth and continues to talk of returning home on leave soon.
My baby feeds well and I have plenty of milk; though breastfeeding has split my nipples and they feel painful.

January and February 1945

I leave the maternity home and discover the reality of looking after a baby on my own. Firstly, I have to go to the Town Hall to register her birth and collect her birth certificate. As it’s snowing outside, I am compelled to leave her at home; although I am only gone for about an hour, I worry the whole time I am away from her. Christina has lovely big, blue eyes. She loves being bathed, as she adores the water. I’m looking forward to the arrival of the pram-rug that has been promised to me by my in-laws; since it is getting very cold in the North, and I want Christina to have as much warm covering as possible. She gained 9oz in weight whilst I was staying in the home and has now reached a weight of 7lb 10oz. Carl writes that he is well and has returned to the unit which he prefers.
I take Christina for a visit to the doctor. He says that she is a fine baby. She now weighs in at 8lb 9oz. The next morning I receive a most welcome parcel from my in-laws, which contains food as well as booties for Christina. I’m certainly very fit with the amount of food I’m consuming; I shall be getting fat and that will break my heart. Even though we have been virtually snowed in for several days, I do at some point manage to leave the house. I find pushing the pram through the snow outside for about an hour quite a challenge! While I am out and about, I purchase a new black coat for myself. Fortunately, I manage to buy a quality coat for only four pounds since it is one that was used for display. I really need it, for the light one I had bought in the summer is not warm enough to shield me from the bitter North-Eastern winds. To be honest I also don’t wish Carl to find me looking shabby when he does return home on leave. I have received three letters from him during the last week, in which he comes across quite well and as if he enjoys what he is doing. In the evenings I put Christina to sleep by the fire. She has learned how to laugh now, and by that, I mean a proper laugh, not just the little smile sometimes caused by wind. I am so thrilled about it, she also makes little cute noises.

March 1945

Nine months have passed since I arrived in Middlesbrough. I’ve decided the time has come to return home to London. The atmosphere in Mrs. Ryan’s house has turned rather unpleasant. She is so bad-tempered lately and constantly critical and disapproving of me, I think she’ll argue with her own shadow if she could; I don’t blame her for she is worried about her worsening diabetes. Certainly, I don’t envy her. Also, the war is going so well. I know I will manage alright if I send everything on in advance, other than the few essentials I need close at hand for the baby. I ask my mother-in-law if she can possibly meet me at King’s Cross because I’m afraid I might feel rather lost at first.
As I travel by train back to London, I hold Christina lovingly in my arms and think to myself, ‘She’s not so small anymore; in fact, she is a little whopper!’

Michal Reibenbach

Michal Reibenbach

The author is paralyzed as the result of a car accident. She has two boys and six grandchildren. Lives in Jerusalem. The author has had thirty short stories published in on-line publishers and anthologies.
Michal Reibenbach

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