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Donna’s Men

by Michael E. Lloyd

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Book III: At Home With Robert

Chapter 1: Ups and Downs and In-Betweens

part 1 of 2

My name is Robert Arthur Kerr. I’m seventy-one years of age, and I live at the Primrose Garden Residential Home here in Northgate Hill.

I have a little tale to tell of myself and my family: its ups and downs, its laughter and its tears, and its occasional shocks and nice surprises. But my hands and fingers are weak now, after a lifetime of manual work, and so I’ve asked Mrs Wilkins, who is a well-loved Friend of the Primrose, to do the “writing” for me, and she has very kindly agreed.

‘Donna, would you like to say a few words of your own, straight away?’

‘Yes, Robert, that would be just right — thank you!’

I met Robert on one of my regular visits to Primrose Garden, soon after he moved in about six months ago.

I come here three or four times a week, to sit with individual residents and chat about anything and everything! And occasionally I’m asked to do a small piece of writing for one of them. I think I must have established some sort of reputation for that now, because it wasn’t long before Robert asked me if I would help him with this little story. And of course I said ‘Yes.’ No-one could say ‘No’ to such a lovely man!

The way we’re going to do this is simply by capturing everything Robert and I say here on my little voice recorder machine. Then in the evenings I’ll transcribe that day’s recording (minus all the coughs, I promise!) into a text document on my Nettie. Of course, I’ll make sure that any side comments of mine (like these), and any conversations with Robert which he asks me to retain and include, appear clearly distinct from his story itself.

Donna Wilkins, October 2019.

‘OK, Robert — I’ve confirmed the recorder’s working perfectly, I’m sitting very comfortably, and I’m all ears! So please begin!’

* * *

My paternal grandfather was christened Arthur Kerr — that’s how I got my own middle name — but he was always just Grandpa to us. He was born in Tottenham towards the end of the nineteenth century, and was a jobbing electrician throughout his life. As far as I can tell, he was never out of work from the day he started as an apprentice back in 1909. He’d happened upon a boom trade, of course, but I’m also certain his wages were very low for a long, long time. The wages of desperation.

And he’d already known Nanny for many years — they’d always been in the same class in the little Church School at the end of their street. She was called Prudence, but none of us ever knew her by that name. When she left school she went straight into service as a maid in a posh local household.

So they were sweethearts for a long time, and they finally got married at the end of 1915, in the second year of the Great War. As it happens, that saved Arthur from the imminent call-up of the country’s youngest bachelors, and by the time they extended conscription to include some married men, towards the end of the conflict, his valuable electrician’s skills were too precious to lose. And it was largely a war away from home, so it didn’t affect their own simple lives too dramatically. After the wedding they moved into an old Victorian terraced house in Wood Green, and paid their rent on a weekly basis. I don’t think it was excessive, at that time — maybe there was a certain sort of morality in those days, even among landlords, or maybe it was just what they later came to call a “loss-leader” ...

Of course, Nanny soon stopped earning money and started producing babies instead. Grandpa may or may not have done sufficient financial forward planning for that situation. I’d guess not. But anyway he could never have predicted the sharp rent increases that later began to occur with alarming regularity.

Anne was their first new arrival, in 1917. My father Walter was second on the scene. Then came Charles (but he was always called Charlie), and finally Lillian in 1923. And here’s a chilling thought: I learnt from my father, quite recently, that Grandpa literally never knew from one week to the next whether he could provide enough food to keep those babies alive. But somehow they all survived.

There were three tiny bedrooms in their house, and the boys slept in one and the girls in another. But as time passed, they each soon learnt the unwritten future rule — that such uncomfortable arrangements could be tolerated only while they were children. And in their world, children needed to stop being children very early. As soon as any of them was able to leave home and free up some space, they should do so without question or argument. However, last man (or woman) left standing would be permitted — no, would be obliged — to stay there indefinitely, take on responsibility for the increasing rent, and also inherit both parents for the duration ...

As it turned out, none of them was in a big rush to go anywhere during World War II. But once that was over, things changed very fast. Young Lillian stole a march on the older children at Christmas 1945 by running off with a trapeze artist from a passing circus. Anne got hitched to a local boy in 1946 and moved out, but only to live just round the corner. Pros and cons for her, there! And my father was the next to marry, the very same year — but I’ll tell you all about that in a moment. So Uncle Charlie won the loser’s prize. But he played possum for a long time, until he accepted that sooner or later he would need a woman to help him with the long-term care of his parents. So Auntie Barbara finally joined the Kerr clan in the summer of 1953 ...

‘Robert, may I ask you something before we go any further?’

‘Of course you can, Donna.’

‘Are you quite certain you want to include this level of detail about your family history?’

‘That’s a very fair question. And the answer is definitely “Yes.” Everything I’m going to tell you is a very important part of the whole, extraordinary story. And I promise I’ll do my best to indicate why, as we go along. Hey, have you got something in your eye ...?’

‘No, no — it’s fine, thanks. And I’m sorry I interrupted. I was just ... oh, I was just making sure. I’m afraid that’s simply my nature and my training!’

‘It’s quite all right, Donna. And please do include what we have both just said in your typed transcript. I’m certain that will be very helpful to anyone who might eventually come to read this!’

‘Of course, Robert. Please go on ...’

So although he had always been as poor as the proverbial church mouse, Grandpa Kerr was already the head of a large and reasonably happy family that was destined to become even larger, and hopefully even happier, as the long anticipated post-war good times slowly rolled in.

And as for my mother’s side ...

Well, my father Walter told me all of this, over the years. Mum would never ever talk about it herself. I suppose it’s understandable, considering everything that happened.

She was born Amy Lewis, in 1917. Her father was an import/export manager called Alfred, and her mother was a young shop assistant whose maiden name was Beatrice Preston. They had met and later married in Bristol, when he was a travelling fabrics salesman back in the buoyant Edwardian years before the Great War.

Their income and their family grew steadily, until by 1922 they had five children — Stanley, Harriet, Amy, Richard, and finally Rose — and a nice four-bedroomed house in a village near the south-west edge of the city. The two boys slept in one room, Harriet had the smallest, and Amy and Rose shared the other one.

And over the years that followed, what could have been more promising, despite the depths of the Thirties Depression? But everything changes. Alfred died suddenly — I never learnt the cause — in 1934, at the age of forty-six. Amy was only seventeen. I’ve heard from more than one of my aunts and uncles that she took her father’s death harder than any of the others did. She must have been particularly close to him.

But he hadn’t set up a pension or any other sort of annuity to help Beatrice, and he’d been able to save very little after coping with the constant cost of five children, and the house, and a car for all his business travel, and everything else. The mortgage on the house was paid off by his life insurance, of course, but suddenly the family’s only income was from the three older children’s very ordinary local jobs. Mother had no special skills, and she went straight back out to work in a shop. And the two younger children left school as soon as they could, and began to contribute.

Then came the war, and everything got a lot harder. But Amy, my mother, had fallen in love with an aircraft engineer, name of Jack Norman. They married in 1940, and he left his cheap digs and came to live at the family house, paying whatever he could afford for rent and upkeep. Of course, poor Rose had to move out of Amy’s room at the age of eighteen and start sleeping in the same room as Grandma!

And war fever seems to have gripped almost everyone else that year. Harriet and Richard were already both courting. She married early in 1941 and moved away to London to live with her new husband. But Richard got married too, just six weeks later, and he and his new wife took over Harriet’s room. So poor Rose was still stuck with her mother!

And then the family suffered another tragedy. Jack Norman was killed on Good Friday in a big German bombing raid on the south of Bristol. What he was doing in the city itself, late on a Bank Holiday evening without Amy, I never discovered.

Rose moved back into her grieving sister’s room and did what she could to help and comfort her, but Amy was apparently inconsolable. She had now lost the two most important men in her life in the space of seven years. She quit her job, and just wandered around the house all day and barely communicated with anybody in the evenings.

In 1942, Stanley finally married at the ripe old age of thirty, and his new wife Mary came to live at the house too. And a few months later Richard’s first child was born. That was the start of a trend! By the end of the war there were three little ones in the house, and another on the way, so at the start of 1946 there were no less than eleven souls in residence there! I shouldn’t think either of the married couples had a proper night’s rest for years, with their babies sleeping alongside them in those modest little bedrooms! Something had to give, and Dad told me how Mum had related it to him ...

‘Amy, Rose, we need to sort this problem out once and for all.’

‘What problem, Stan?’

‘Your room, of course. It’s gone on for far too long. We must have a nursery for the children now, to give us all a chance of living normal lives again. Right, Richard?’

‘Right. So frankly, girls, you both need to get on your bikes, find yourselves a man apiece, and move out as quickly as you can.’

‘But after Jack died, I swore I’d never go out on a date again, let alone re-marry and risk all that pain once more. Well, at least while there was still a war on. And once it was over, only if I met someone really special ...’

‘We know all that very well, Amy, and we’ve fully respected it for years and years, despite the effect it’s had on every one of us, day in, day out. But the war ended months ago — remember? And even since then, you’ve hardly been out of the house. So, time’s up now. And you need to start trying harder too, young Rosie.’

‘Oh, Stanley ...’

‘Enough. It’s high time someone took on the man’s job in this house again, and we’re doing it now.’

Proceed to part 2 ...

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

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