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 <—-St Giles Cottage Hospital

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 
Dear Diary  

Oh, damn and blast, I failed my first year preliminary exam.  Knew I would.  There was so much I didn’t understand, but, Sister Tutor says I can sit the exam again, but if I fail the second time, that’s it, finished.  Goodbye Olga.  Moores failed too, but she doesn’t care as much as I do. 

Watch out, men about:   After a nursing lecture by Sister Tutor, she kept us all behind to give us another one about soldiers and men in uniform.

“A lot of women are being assaulted and worse, by airmen and soldiers from overseas” she told us.              “Care should be taken at all times because, these men have thrown away all sense of propriety because they are away from their home, in a country where no-one knows them and are taking advantage of women and the blackout,  to behave how they like without fear of retribution”

 Moores said she’d never heard anything so ridiculous.  All the overseas men she’d met were charming and treated her with respect.

“They’re a darn sight more polite than any Englishman I’ve been out with. Of course, sometimes there are rotten apples in a barrel” she said.

“But to give the impression that all airmen and soldiers from overseas do bad things and take advantage of women is wrong”.

 Moores was really quite angry with Sister Tutor. 

After the lecture Ethel and I were on night duty together on the men’s surgical ward and she asked me if I’d heard about Sara Donahue. 

 “Yes, isn’t it sad.  When is she coming back?” I asked Ethel.

Sara is in our group but she had to leave suddenly and go home because a close relative died. 

“It’s not true about the relative dying, Olga.  She left because she failed her three monthly medical.  We think she had gonorrhoea”.

“Oh,” I said.  I’d never heard of that so I asked Ethel what gonorrhoea was.

“It’s a sexually transmitted disease” said a young male patient, who had been listening to our conversation.

 “Couldn’t put it better myself” said Ethel. 

I didn’t know what a sexually transmitted disease was, but I wasn’t going to ask because I had a feeling I would look stupid.  After all I am a nurse.  When we’re on night duty and the air raids sound, we have to pull all the beds into the centre of the ward and put each patient’s gas mask on their bed.  We’ve been issued with helmets which have to be worn when the bombs start dropping.  The first time I put mine on I thought, thank God, the tots can’t see me.  They’d never stop laughing, as a matter of fact neither could I.  It was so big I had to keep pushing it back so I could see where I was going. I looked ridiculous in it. 

Ethel and I were sitting at the big table in the middle of the ward writing up our reports and whenever we leaned forward to say something to each other, our helmets would bang together.  After a couple of times we started to laugh and then when we laughing so much we leaned back in our chairs and our helmets fell off crashing to the floor and made a terrible din and woke all the patients up. 

There’s still a routine on night duty, but it’s not so hectic.  By nine thirty the bed quilts must be folded in four and placed at the foot of the bed, thermometers in mugs, equipment trays fully laid up, false teeth deposited in mugs on lockers and all lights turned off except the green shaded one on the table in the middle of the ward.   

While some men snore, others light up cigarettes, not taking the slightest notice of us when we tell them they are not allowed to smoke in bed. 

But we do have time to write up our lecture notes and revise.  By the end of night duty, when I get to my room I’m too tired to undress and fall asleep across my bed clutching my books.

 

Horrible news:   There’s a wireless in the student nurses’ sitting room where we all gather round and listen to the news to hear how the war is going.  Before the war it was a games room but there doesn’t seem to be time to play games now, although we do sometimes play music on the gramophone. 

I was listening to the radio when Moores came in.  Before she had said a word I could see by her face that something was wrong.  But I wasn’t prepared for what she told me. 

As she sat down beside me she took my hand.

 “Olga, Joanne is dead.  The rest centre in Morley College was bombed last Tuesday evening and it seems that Joanne was visiting someone there.  Some people were rescued but most of them, including Joanne, were trapped inside.  By the time they pulled her out, she was dead.”

 “No, it’s not possible”.  

She had told me she was on night duty all week.

“Joanne changed shifts with another nurse, Olga.  Joanne was off duty.  I’m sorry”.  Then she repeated it.

“Joanne’s dead” . 

Alone in my room, I kept repeating the phrase “Joanne is dead” as if it would help me take in the terrible news.  The thought that I would never see Joanne’s face again gave me the most awful feeling I have ever had, worse than all the bombings and scares that I had experienced these last few months.  My world has changed.  I feel helpless – as if an invisible wall that once surrounded and supported me has gone and without it I feel disconnected from everyone and everything around me, tiny and insignificant. 

I’m so lonely.

Next day: I went mechanically through my duties until the last one when I was removing the flowers and potted plants from the ward and putting them in the bathroom for the night.  I remembered Joanne telling me how she loved doing this job at Paddington General because it turned the bathroom into an exotic florist, rich with perfume and vibrant colour.

 “For a few minutes Olga,” she said ”I’m back home in Jamaica”.  That night I cried bitterly for the loss of the best friend I’ve ever had. 

 ********

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

These days I spend most nights listening to the wireless for news of the war in Europe. It is so frustrating that I know more about what is going on there than how my daughter and sister are managing in London. It is months since I have heard from either of them and I feel helpless because there is nothing to do except pray. 

We now know Germany is bombing London relentlessly and the loss of life and injuries, as well as the devastation to the city, is enormous.    I read in the Gleaner of how people have to go to use the underground tube stations to shelter from the bombs.  They often sleep there all night and then have go off to work the next morning trying to avoid unexploded bombs or fractured gas mains.   How dangerous it all sounds.

I wonder if Olga has to do this too. 

 <—-St Giles Cottage Hospital

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<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

Life goes on:   A strange thing happened this morning, a gentleman called out.

 “Nurse”

It took a few moments before I realized he meant me.  It was a bit of a shock, but a very pleasant one. 

Sister Tutor says even in wartime there has to be a routine in hospital.  The day always starts the same with Sister re-arranging the flowers and potted plants which had been taken out of the ward the night before and put in the sluice room because Matron says they give off poisonous carbon monoxide during the night.  It’s a hospital superstition, too, that no lilies are allowed in the wards because they’re considered to be unlucky and you never have red and white flowers in the same vase either because that means death.

 I have to clean each marble-topped locker next to the patient’s bed and wipe out the fruit bowl that stands on it.   Then the beds are pulled away from the wall for a maid to sweep the floor and which Matron likes highly polished, which is fine if you are wearing rubber sole shoes, but for the patients wearing slippers it can be a difficult.

 I was helping an old man to the toilet yesterday morning and he was fairly steady on his feet to start with, but suddenly he slipped, lost his balance and ended up on his bottom and me with him.   The other patients had a good laugh at our expense and I thought it was funny too, but Sister Tutor was furious with me.

Everything and everyone has to be neat and tidy ready for Matron’s mid morning inspection.  The staff, including the doctors, have to line up in a row and woe betide us if the ward isn’t up to Matron’s standard.  She expects us to know all the patient’s names and their medical condition.

When war was first declared I was frightened, especially because normal every day things changed.  The cinema and theatres closed, and that upset me, because I’m crazy about films and I used to go every week with Joanne, but now we have to find other forms of entertainment.

 Moores discovered a pub near the hospital and she and some of the other student nurses go there quite a bit, but I don’t drink, so I haven’t been there yet.    Moores and I are working on the same ward at the moment, which is fun, and when we’re doing beds together we get the chance to talk and I hear all about what happened  in the pub the night before.

This morning we were changing the bottom sheet of a bed, with the patient still in it, and Moores was telling me about this Canadian soldier who said he can get her some French champagne and silk stockings.  Each time we moved the patient he broke a little wind and at first we ignored him and carried on chatting, but then he did it again and we started to laugh and couldn’t stop and what’s more neither could the patient, which made him break wind louder and more often and then all the other patients joined in and they didn’t even know what they were laughing about. 

But it was a wonderful moment especially as there was no one around to tell us off.   You need little moments like that because it helps to take away the tension and worry for a little bit, and it’s amazing how much better you feel afterwards.  

Moores is such fun, you know, she says to me

 “Olga, eat life or life eats you”. 

So I’ve decided to have some fun and go out with her tonight, but I won’t tell Joanne because she thinks Moores is a bad influence on me.  Joanne says the first year examination is not easy and I should be studying hard for it. 

 

 The Rose Public House:   I’ve never been inside a public house before but, apart from being very smoky, it was really quite nice.  Moores always finds someone to talk to but I was happy to sit quietly drinking my ginger beer.  For the first time since the war started I felt safe there, perhaps, because it’s used by soldiers and watching people enjoy themselves, laughing and having a good time, makes you forget about how worried you are about the war and exams.

I never go out on my own at night because it’s so dark with all the street lights turned off, but at least the lamp posts are painted white so we don’t bump into them and the edges of the pavements have been painted white too.   Moores, Ethel and I each carry a little torch which we have to shine downwards onto the pavement.  But we had a nasty shock on the way home from a night out.

We were passing a doorway when Ethel let out a  scream.  We looked up and there was a woman’s face lit up in the doorway.  She had a little torch pinned to her coat so that the light shone on her face and she was wearing a fox fur around her neck.   The  fox’s eyes were glinting in the light, its tiny teeth bared in a snarl and it had little paws and a bushy tail that hung loose.   I’m not surprised Ethel screamed, it was a frightening sight.  Moores said the woman was a prostitute waiting for clients.   Moores knows about everything, you know.

 

We’re being blitzed:   It has been difficult for me to write because we have been so busy in the hospital and to be truthful I haven’t felt like it. 

Everything has changed.  

Germany’s planes have been dropping bombs on London day and night and the devastation is awful.  Hundreds of people have been killed, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands are without homes.  The bombing raids can last for hours without any let up.  But, most of all I dread it when the Germans bomb at night, which they do frequently. Every part of London is being bombed including here in Camberwell. 

A landmine exploded nearby and several homes were blown up, many of  the casualties were brought here.  There seem to be fires burning somewhere in London day and night.  Other cities are being bombed as well but the Germans certainly seem determined to destroy London. 

I start to shake when I hear the air raid siren sound and even when the all clear is given I’m too frightened to go out.  I’ve been keeping away from Moores and Ethel, using study as an excuse to stay in, because I don’t want them to think I’m a coward, but I’m ashamed of myself too, because the people who are homeless and have lost everything still have their fighting spirit and say they won’t be beaten by Germany.   

Joanne came to see me at St Giles during a break between bombings and made me go for a long walk with her.  I felt much better afterwards, especially, when she told me that she was afraid too.

“Olga, we must do our job and put our trust in God” she said. 

We talked about our families and wondered if they knew how bad things were here in London.  The letters Joanne receives are heavily censored too and so we think the ones we write home are as well.  It’s heartbreaking; I’m desperate to receive news from Mammie and the family and when I do get a letter, line after line has been crossed out with black ink so I’m left with hardly anything to read.  And you feel as if someone is spying on you.  The censors know more about what’s going on with my family than I do.

Joanne says “We should be grateful, at least they open the letters carefully and don’t tear them.” 

  Any day now Joanne’s waiting to hear if she’s passed her final exam so that when the war’s over she can fulfil her dream and go back to Jamaica a qualified nurse.

“And, if you study hard Olga, so will you”

“Who knows, maybe we can work together in Jamaica”. she said

 I’ll tell you something Dear Diary, I struck gold when she sat down beside me that day in Regents Park. 

 

<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

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Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

War:    Moores and I were in Oxford Street, when the air raid siren went, shopping for a new dress for her date that night with an army officer.  We’d just reached John Lewis when it sounded and we knew it meant we were going to be bombed by the Germans. Suddenly people started running like mad in all directions including us.  Terrified we hopped onto a bus without even knowing where it was going just to get off the street. 

By the time we got back to the hospital we had learnt it been a false alarm, but our relief didn’t last long because we were told that Britain was finally at war with Germany.  There’d been lots of talk about war before but I wouldn’t listen.

 I don’t want to go home, I want to stay and become a nurse, but I made a promise to Sydney and Mammie so, sooner or later Olga, you’re going to have to leave.  Moores and Ethel say I should go; at least I’ll be safe in Jamaica.  I told them I was frightened of being bombed, but I don’t want to return home not having achieved anything after spending six months in England, especially as it has cost my brother a lot of money.  

A few days later, great big silver barrage balloons hanging from cables were seen in the sky all over London.  They were to stop the German bombs from hitting their targets in the city.  I thought they looked like big silver elephants.  One of our first jobs when we started our training was to put black material over the windows so that at night time no light from the hospital wards could escape and the Germans wouldn’t be able to see London from the air and drop their bombs.  

We have all been given a gas mask and Sister Tutor demonstrated how to put it on.  You have to thrust your chin forward pulling the black rubber over the face and up over the forehead leaving your eyes peering out from the two holes.  There’re horrible smelly things and I tore mine off, I couldn’t breathe with it on. 

Then we had to fill out a form so the Government could issue everyone with an identity card.

And now ration books have appeared, although nurses don’t have them because we eat at the hospital. Ethel’s family are poor and she says ration books are a wonderful thing because food is distributed evenly and, poor families like hers, get the same as rich ones like Moores. 

But some days I’d be so hungry my mind would start thinking about the food markets back home where you can buy lovely meals very cheaply.  I find I’m dreaming of gungo peas soup with large pieces of yam and salt beef, vegetables and lovely dumplings or salt-fish and ackee or chicken with rice and peas and yam with half a boiled plantain.   And in the end I just feel hungrier than ever.  Now I’ve developed a taste for sugar sandwiches.

 

Dear Diary

Unhappy news:   War doesn’t make any difference to Sister Tutor; she’s still very strict and only has to raise an eyebrow to show her disapproval about something I’ve done or haven’t done. 

This morning I broke a thermometer and have to pay 6d out of my wages to replace it.   I’m not thinking about the war, all I can think about is passing the exam at the end of the three months.

 Moores, Ethel and I test each other whenever we have time and if I get really stuck on something, Joanne helps me.    Matron wants to see me.  I can’t think what I’ve done wrong.

 

Later:  I couldn’t stop shaking waiting outside Matron’s office.  When I entered she told me to sit down and I knew it was bad news.  She never tells nurses to sit down, we always have to stand to attention as if we’re on parade like soldiers in the army.

 “I have some bad news for you Olga” she said in such a kindly voice it barely sounded like her.

 “I’m afraid you cannot go home to Jamaica.  Because of the war the Government has banned all non essential travel out of Britain which means you will have to stay until the war ends”

I suddenly  burst into tears.

 “It’s not so bad really, is it Olga, think how proud your family be will when you do return home as a fully qualified nurse” she said. 

Then she sat down beside me and put her arm round my shoulders and I cried even more.  I was crying so much partly because Matron was being so kind and calling me Olga, instead of Browney, but also because, although I wanted to stay and finish my training, now I had no choice in the matter, I had to stay and suddenly I had such an urge to see Mammie and my sisters. 

“I’m sure the war won’t last long and in the meantime we need you here”. 

“Yes Matron, thank you Matron,” I sobbed.

 I was still crying as I reached the door to leave and she called out to me.

“Wait, I nearly forgot”.  She was holding a sheet of paper in her hand and there was a little smile on her face.

 “Congratulations, Browney, you passed your first exam”.

 

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

 At last, I have been able to talk to Olga on the telephone, not that I could hear very much because the line was poor and crackly and we only had three minutes.   The tots and Birdie all managed to say hello and tell her they loved her.  At least now I know she’s well and safe, but her place is here at home. 

I should have insisted that Sydney brought her back. Lucy was right all along when she said Hitler couldn’t be trusted and had invaded Poland.   It’s all very well for people to say that the war between Britain and Germany won’t last long, but how do they know, it could go on longer than the first war.  No one knows for sure except God. 

There are reports that people are starving in England.  Could this be true.  Olga starving?  The Daily Gleaner says that the predicted bombing hasn’t happened and many who evacuated London when war was declared are returning to their homes. So maybe things will not be as bad as everyone first thought.     

Olga says she hasn’t seen Martha for weeks.  Why, I wonder?  What has been happening between those two?  Now I have something else to worry about.  There was no mention of anything wrong between them in Olga’s last letter.  There wasn’t much of anything really because there was so little to read since most of it had been censored with heavy black ink. 

But she has passed an exam we are all very proud of her.  I went down to the meat market for the first time for years, just to tell Henry.  Olga’s status seems to have gone up a lot already as far as the younger girls are concerned and she has certainly impressed the rest of the family with her resolve to come home a fully qualified nurse.  As Birdie says “beats working in a bicycle shop”.

It sounds as if Olga has become very fond of her friend Joanne. 

Do you know what I think?  I think the hand of God was at work there.  He sent Joanne to look after Olga.  But even so, we will still continue to pray for Olga’s safety.

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 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939           Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —>

 

(Olga’s Diary Continued) 

Dear Diary

 St Giles Hospital:  I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  Not too long ago I was spending my mornings sitting on a park bench in Regent’s Park feeling sorry for myself and now I’m standing in a line with other student nurses listening to Sister.   

“These are the rules for student nurses and I expect you to commit them to memory” barked Sister as she handed each new student nurse a rule sheet. 

A stout, straight talking woman from Yorkshire with grey hair and voice that only seemed to have one volume, loud. 

“It is my pleasure to guide you through your nursing training until you become fully qualified nurses” Sister Tutor was referring to us by our surnames and when someone asked why, she said that’s how it is in hospital.

“We don’t use Christian names, only surnames”.

Honestly, I don’t like the idea of someone calling me Browney.

RULES FOR NURSES

  • walk at all times, only run in case of fire
  • stand when a senior member of staff enters
  • always open the door for the doctor
  • never overtake a senior member of staff on the stairs
  • no make up on duty 
  • hair not to reach your collar
  • nails must be short 
  • black stockings only when on duty and no ladders in them
  • low heel shoes
  • on duty by 7.00 am
  • in bed by 10.30 pm

 I felt uncomfortable and awkward in my student nurse’s uniform, my black frizzy hair poking out at different angles under a heavily starched white cap which needs four hair grips to hold it in place.  My grey dress had a little white collar which fastened tightly round my neck and was nearly choking me and over the dress I wore a starched white apron with a wide belt around my waist.  I didn’t like the feel of the thick black stockings on my skin and the thick black rubber soled shoes felt like lead weights on the end of my feet.

There are nine other student nurses in my group but Alison Moores, Ethel Richards and me are friends already.   I don’t really know why because we are so different.  

For a start Moores is aristocracy from top to bottom; she talks beautifully and I think she sounds very posh, she’s tall, with dark hair, which used to be long before Matron told her she would have to cut it before she started her training.  Moores has a perfect peaches and cream complexion, is very confident, elegant, and looks more like a film star than a student nurse.  Her parents are rich and they make some kind of cold cream for women and sold in jars by the thousands.   They sent her into nursing because they said she comes from a privileged background and should give something back to society.  Ethel asked her why she wasn’t doing her training at one of the big teaching hospitals and Moores said she had thought about it but preferred to be amongst real people in a smaller hospital. 

Ethel is from the East End of London, only 5 ft tall with, lovely twinkling green eyes that always seem to be smiling, a round face framed with red curly hair and a cockney accent which I don’t understand sometimes and when she smiles she shows off a set of perfectly even white teeth. Sometimes she reminds me of Vivie because she’s not frightened of any form of authority, neither Sister Tutor nor Matron.  Ethel says it’s because she grew up with five brothers and because she’s the only girl in the family she always had to fight for what she wanted.

And then there’s me.  One day I asked Moores how she had described me to her parents and she smiled as she said:

“Slim, not very tall, brown skin, not particularly pretty, short frizzy black hair which she wears with either a blue or yellow ribbon, slightly bushy eyebrows above huge brown eyes that seem to be in a permanent state of astonishment at everything she sees or hears, a beautiful smile and a soft voice that fits like a glove with her gentle manner”.  

Isn’t that a lovely description?   

It’s funny Moores comes from a very rich family and she’s not stuck up or anything.   I’m the only coloured person in the whole of the hospital, as far as I know, and people do stare at me sometimes.  Moores tells me not to worry about it. 

“They stare at you because you’re a novelty Olga, that’s all”. 

Ethel says she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and neither should I, but sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable.   

 

  Letter to Mammie, Kingston, Jamaica
from Olga, Student Nurses Home, St Giles Hospital, Camberwell, London

Dearest Mammie

The weeks fly by, such a lot to do and learn. We are on duty from 7.00 in the morning until 7 in the evening with only a coffee and lunch break.   Please don’t worry about me because I am happy, tired but happy, and I have made friends with two other student nurses.

So far I have learnt about hygiene, how to take a temperature, how to stack linen, how to put a bandage on a patient and how a treatment tray should be laid up.  Once a week we spend a morning on the ward and one of my jobs is to feed the patients. 

Oh Mammie, I love it so much, the patients are so grateful when you do something for them. Sister Tutor praised my bed making the other day, you see Mammie it’s important to make beds properly with the sheet corners turned in and the open ends of the pillow slips mustn’t face the door into the ward – the sewn end must face the door. 

The top sheets are folded over the counterpanes and have to be the same width and the fold has to be sixteen inches.  I find the best way to check is to measure from my fingertips to my elbow.

Matron is fierce and Sister Tutor stern and doesn’t smile at all.  I find it difficult to remember things so now I carry a note book around with me and write down as much as I can, especially the things I don’t understand.  When I meet Joanne she explains the things to me that I’ve been too frightened to ask Sister Tutor to repeat in case she thinks I’m stupid. 

Lectures are nearly always when we’re off duty and in one of our first lessons I met Henry who scared the life out of me.  Henry’s a skeleton that hangs from the ceiling in the lecture room and we have to memorise the names of each bone in his body.   Sometimes when I look at all those bones I think of Aggie Burns.  If she could see Henry, I bet she’d love to get her hands on his bones for her Obeah man.

I got into trouble the other day as I was preparing the patients’ tea and I was holding the loaf of bread against my chest while I was trying to slice it with a knife and Sister Tutor was furious with me.

“Don’t you have any common sense and realize how dangerous it is to try and cut bread like that”. 

And then she showed me how to cut it on the table.  I told her I’d never cut bread before because either Aggie Burns or Cassie did it.   Sister Tutor said nothing but gave me a very funny look.   I’m not lonely any more Mammie because I have three good friends now and that’s all I need.  

Your loving daughter,  Olga

 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939       Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —> 

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<—A Change of Plan for Olga                     Sydney Comes to London 1939 —>

My Great Aunt Martha was the oldest and not at all like her sisters, Becky and Lucy, either in temperament or looks. She was a short, stout woman with a badly pockmarked face – apparently the result of chicken pox. Every now and again nature produces an offspring that bears little resemblance to either its parents or siblings, well by all accounts, that was Martha Ross.  My mother, Olga,  told that in the early part of the 1930s Aunt Martha worked as a seamstress at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.  Mum told me many times, she didn’t like her Aunt Martha.

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

The wicked witch:  Aunt Martha (AM) being horrible. Very bad tempered.  There are two versions of her, the English version in Paddington (the true one) and the Jamaican version, when she’s with Mammie in Kingston  (the false one). She still says I’m eating too much and I have to eat less even though I’ve given her nearly all of my money and I don’t think I have enough to last until Sydney comes.   

She says I have to pay my way so I must clean the flat and do her washing and ironing.  Now she’s treating me like a servant. 

“You might as well wash and iron Mr Kitchen’s clothes the same time you do mine” she said.

“I’ll do your chores, because I have the time, but I’m not doing his and if you insist then I’ll write to Mammie and Sydney and tell them what you’re asking me to do” I threatened.   

 “There’s no need for that, Olga, just do mine”.  

Good job done, Olga, a small  victory and very nice it feels too. Mr Kitchen is AM’s latest “gentleman friend” and the pair of them go out drinking nearly every night.  They always come home drunk and Mr Kitchen usually stays overnight (in AM’s bedroom!) and I hear him creeping out of the front door early in the morning.  Mammie and Sydney would be shocked if they knew. 

AM says they’re engaged to be married, but I don’t think Mr Kitchen knows that. 

Wonder what the neighbours think? 

AM is cruel when she’s been drinking.  Told me that I would never get a husband.

 “No man would find someone as plain and boring as you, Olga, attractive. Where were you when God was handing out the looks”. She’s not a very nice person, you know. I know I’m not as pretty as my sisters, but Mammie says I have other qualities which are more important than looks. 

Should have said to her “where were you when God was handing out the looks”.  But that would have been unkind too and, anyway, after hearing her give Mr Kitchen a good few slaps with the frying pan the other evening, I stay in my room now when she’s been drinking. 

AM had chicken pox when she was a child and to stop her picking at the sores on her face her parents bandaged her hands.  But AM still managed to pick them and as a result her face is badly pockmarked.  She was teased a lot at school by the other children because of it and Aunt Lucy says that contributed to AM’s “effortless transition from bad tempered child to a cantankerous, mean spirited woman”.  Had to look up in the dictionary what cantankerous meant and Aunt Lucy’s got it dead right.  AM’s bad tempered and unreasonable.

To keep out of her way I spend a lot of time wandering around London and one day I was walking along Baker Street when this car hooted and when I turned round to see who it was, it was Roy McKenzie from Jamaica.   I couldn’t believe it, in fact, I didn’t even know he was in London

I immediately remembered that day when I was hanging from a tree by my knickers and felt embarrassed when we said hello, even though Aunt Lucy and Mammie had got me down from the tree before he saw me. 

 “Olga, look at you, you look good, how nice to see you”.  He seemed really pleased to see me,

He told me to hop in the car and he took me for a lovely drive around London.  He asked me what I was doing in London and how long I was staying.  I told him about the dance school and what I’d been doing since I arrived and he told me he ran a gambling and drinking club in London called the Frivolity.  He knew I had a good singing voice and asked me to come down and sing at his club now and again.  Because I had no money I was tempted.  Maybe I’ll pop down one evening I thought to myself, it might be fun.

I asked him if he thought there was going to be a war with Germany and he said he hoped not because it could be bad for his business.

He stopped the car round the corner from Chilworth Street and wrote down the address of the Frivolty on a piece of paper and handed it to me. 

He asked me how things were going with Aunt Martha and I just shrugged my shoulders.  He took out his wallet, which, by the way, was full of money, and took out one of the notes in it.

“Here, take this, but don’t tell Aunt Martha you’ve got it or she’ll talk you into giving it to her and, definitely, don’t tell her that you’ve seen me.  I’ve seen her operating in the Den of Iniquity and I don’t want her in my club.”  I looked in my hand and there was a lovely big white £5 note.  I hugged him.  I told him Sydney would be over soon and would repay him.  

“Remember, Olga, anytime you want to earn some money singing, you know where I am now”. And then he was gone.   I had such a lovely afternoon with Roy, but most of all it was comforting to know there was someone who would help me if I needed it.

 <—A Change of Plan for Olga                       Sydney Comes to London 1939 —>

 

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 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place            A Change of Plan for Olga—->

 

Family Tree

My mother, Olga Browney, arrived in London from Kingston, Jamaica on 1st April 1939 intending to stay only a few months. The plan was that Olga would stay with her Aunt Martha in Paddington. Although in the months before there had been talk of a war between England and Germany, Olga’s mother, Becky, believed that war had been averted, thanks to the Munich Agreement. This was a Pact made between Adolph Hitler and the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain whereby Hitler had promised Chamberlain that he would not make any more territorial demands into Europe and so Chamberlain believed that war between the two countries had been averted.

 

Olga’s Diary (continued)

Dear Diary

            “How did you get here?” Aunt Martha asked me incredulously.

She was still in bed even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  If it had been Birdie standing at the bottom of her bed instead of me, the reply would have said something smart like “I just flew in on Aggie Burns broomstick”, but I just said lamely,

“I thought you were expecting me”. 

“Jesus Christ, what day is it”?

“April 1st” I said, shocked by her blaspheming. 

And then she started laughing “Trust you to arrive on April Fool’s Day, Olga”.

I didn’t answer not understanding what she meant, but, I knew she wasn’t paying me a compliment. I was hungry, cold, tired and this was not the welcome I had been expecting.

For a start Aunt Martha should have met me when the S.S. Jamaica Progress docked this morning in London.  The Progress is a cargo boat carrying fruit, mainly bananas, and the Royal Mail, but also has room for a few passengers.  On this trip there were 12 of us including me and, of course, my chaperone, Mrs Brodie, a friend of the family, who was going to England for a holiday and whom Sydney had asked to keep an eye on me during the trip. 

Did he think I might fall overboard?  

Anyway, it never occurred to me that Aunt Martha wouldn’t be there and I was very grateful that Mrs Brodie waited with me a for a while, but eventually she said she had to leave.  With a confidence I certainly wasn’t feeling I assured her I would be fine on my own.   Just in case Aunt Martha didn’t arrive Mrs. Brodie showed me where there was a taxi rank and, checking I had enough money to pay for it, kissed me goodbye and went on her way.   Sitting in the waiting room I felt very homesick.

After waiting for her for nearly three hours I decided to take a taxi to Aunt Martha’s home, 23 Chilworth Street, Paddington.   I knew she lived on the third floor of a block of flats because last time she was in Kingston she told us at dinner one evening how Londoners were not very friendly.  Aunt Martha likes a drink and one day she was in a pub when a lady sitting a few feet away from her became ill.  Aunt Martha offered to take her back to her home and discovered that the woman lived in the flat beneath her in Chilworth Street

As I struggled up the three flights of concrete steps to Aunt Martha’s flat with two heavy suitcases I thought, Londoners are not only unfriendly, they’re unreliable too.

 

Letter to Mammie, Mission House, Kingston 

from

Olga, 23 Chilworth Street, London

 

Dearest  Mammie

I couldn’t sleep last night.  When I closed my eyes I saw us all on Kingston docks crying.  It was hard saying goodbye, wasn’t it, and Mammie you looked so worried.  Fancy Pops coming down as well.  It was nice you were both there.  I don’t remember ever seeing you together before. And wasn’t Sydney thoughtful and kind making sure I had everything I needed. He told me to be sure to ask Aunt Martha if I need anything and he said he’d be coming to London in two or three months, so I would see him them.

Including me and Mrs Brodie, there were only twelve passengers on the boat, two widow ladies, myself and another single young lady and two married couples, three single men, two were students and the third single man was an engineer.  We all got on very well together and made up our own entertainment in the evening with little concerts which we all took part in.  I was persuaded to sing a few times and got a very nice round of applause each time.  The engineer performed some magic tricks, which sometimes went wrong, but we pretended we hadn’t noticed or else we played card games like gin rummy or canasta while the older people played bridge.  

 As a matter of fact Mammie, I was invited to sit at the Captain’s table four times during the journey; it’s a great honour, you know and I felt very important.  The crossing seemed to go quickly and it was very good until we got close to England and then it rained a lot and the sea was a bit rough.

Aunt Martha has a nice little two bedroom flat and, guess what, I have my own bedroom but you probably know that. 

On my first morning here, Aunt Martha brought me breakfast in bed and later on took me to Lyons Corner House which is huge and there are restaurants on four levels.    On the ground floor level is the food hall where you can buy different things like ham and cheese, pastries and specially made chocolates, wines, tea and, guess what, coffee and fruit from, guess where? ……Jamaica! 

And on the floors above are more restaurants with an orchestra playing in each one.  Aunt Martha and I went to the tearoom and she ordered afternoon tea which arrived on delicate china plates with some scones, dainty sandwiches and little cakes.  I only had a little bit to eat because I thought it was good manners not to eat all the food in front of us.  But I was wrong, I should have eaten more, because AM finished the whole lot.

All the waitresses wore black and white uniforms, Ruby, and AM says their called Nippies, when I asked her why ,she said “because they nip in and out of the tables quickly”.  Isn’t that funny?  I thought they looked so smart in their uniforms and said to AM that I might change my mind about going to Madame Verschaka’s School of Dance and become a Nippie for a few months. 

“I don’t think so dear,” AM said. 

“To come all this way from Jamaica and end up as a waitress doesn’t seem such a good idea to me”

  Well, at least it’s work, I thought to myself but didn’t say anything.  With so many out of work back home I bet lots of people would love a job like that.  When the bill came, Aunt Martha said,

“Oh, that’s a bit expensive, but never mind Olga, you’re worth it”.  Wasn’t that nice? 

The weather has been horrible, cold and wet.  One day smog covered the whole of London all day and you could barely see in front of your hand and bus conductors were walking in front of their buses to guide them.  I missed Jamaica a lot that day.  Aunt Martha says its smoke that comes from factory chimneys and buses.  There are signs that Londoners are preparing for war.  There are air raid shelters being built and sticky tape is stuck across windows to prevent people being cut by flying glass and splinters when the bombs come.  Aunt Martha says it’s difficult to know what to think because one minute the war’s on and the next it’s off. 

My favourite place, Mammie, is Regent’s Park Zoo.  There are all sorts of animals there, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, snakes, beautiful big birds and sweet little birds.   Even before I get to the zoo I can hear the lions roaring and the monkeys whooping.  I feed the monkeys but you’re not allowed to feed the wilder animals, so I watch the zoo keepers feed the elephants, lions and bears. 

And I’ve discovered a beautiful Catholic church called St James’ in Spanish Place, not far from Aunt Martha but, do you know what, I don’t think she goes to church quite so much in London as she does in Jamaica. 

I say my prayers every night Mammie and go to mass on Sundays at St James’ .  It doesn’t feel the same as the Holy Trinity Cathedral, but I still like it a lot.  

I miss you all.  Please write soon.

                                Your loving daughter and sister            Signed Olga

 

 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live        A Change of Plan for Olga – London 1939—->

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<—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live                  London 1939 —->

I couldn’t help but be amused when I discovered this Christmas card that my Uncle Sydney used to send to his customers in Jamaica.  It depicts snow – in Jamaica!!

  

Jamaican Christmas Card with Snow! 

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Family Tree

 

Dear Diary

Christmas Eve:   Ruby, Dolly, Pearl and me went to midnight mass at the Holy Trinity Cathedral.  Mammie never forces us to go to church and we can choose whether we want to.  I always want to go, I like the feeling of peace when I’m in Church.  The Cathedral  bells always start ringing half an hour before midnight and as they died away the Holy Trinity Choir sang “Adeste Fideles”. 

Father Butler preached the sermon and talked about the true meaning and spirit of Christmas and that it was a season of love and we should love one another and live happily and peacefully together.  Father Butler knows my family well and I’m sure he wrote that sermon just for the Browney family.  It certainly felt like it.  

Christmas is a special time in Jamaica and we celebrate it in a big way.  I love it, there is always so much happening and it’s one of the few times, apart from family crisis, a wedding or a funeral, when my family is together.

 

Christmas Day:   Today is such a beautiful day, warm with a little breeze and Mammie is sitting in her favourite rocking chair on the back veranda, pretending she’s dozing, but I know she is watching to make sure Cassie and me lay the dining table properly for Christmas lunch. 

We nearly always eat in the garden and Cassie and I are laying the huge mahogany table that’s been moved from the dining room onto the lawn and has been in the family as long as I can remember.  Mammie had it specially made years ago and told the craftsman it had to be big enough to hold at least twenty people because she was going to have lots of children. 

Cassie and I have done a good job with the table, even if I say so myself.  At each end there is a large bowl of fruit overflowing with mangoes, oranges, figs, papaw, bananas, star apples, dates, pineapple, naseberry and tamarind.   Down the centre we’ve put sprays of green maiden hair fern with white Christmas blossoms and lots of deep crimson roses.  Each place setting has been laid up with a crystal wine glass and Mammie’s best silver cutlery, a Xmas cracker and a crisp white folded linen serviette in the shape of a water lily and placed in the middle of each setting.  As an extra touch I’ve put a few tiny silver dishes of sweets, raisins and nuts on the table. 

We have a real feast on Christmas Day, lots of different things to choose from.   Rice and peas, cod fish and ackee, which grows in pods on a large tree, as well as the usual Christmas lunch of roast turkey, roasted plantain, sweet potatoes, calalue, cassada and yams.   For pudding we’ll be having boiled Jamaica plum pudding with wine sauce as well and mince pies.  Oh, I do love my food.  Mammie says my eyes are bigger than my belly.  I have a big scar on my upper arm where Dolly threw hot porridge at me one morning at breakfast.

I remember when I was little the family were sitting down to breakfast one morning, and we normally had porridge, and there was a sideboard where the porridge was laid out in dishes.   I usually examined them all to see which was the biggest one.  Dolly was standing beside me and I picked up the biggest one and she picked up hers and she threw it at me and said

“Here you take this too” and the porridge hit me on my right upper arm. 

I’ve still got the burn mark all these years later.   Mammie was furious with Dolly and she got smacked and Mammie took me to the bathroom and put bicarbonate of soda on it.  It stung like anything.  I cried a little bit because it hurt and then Mammie took me back down to breakfast.

After that we got ready for school and Mammie gave us a coconut cake.   She made them every day for us.  I can see Dolly, Ruby and myself, three little tots, going off to school, crying and hugging each other all the way.  We made friends quickly and never kept malice.   We were always together and did everything together, went to school together, played together, when we were very little we even slept in the same bed together.  

Mammie is lovely, you know, we only have to say we have a headache and she’ll cuddle you.

Next to the chairs which have been stacked ready to be placed around the Christmas table is a big wicker basket which will soon be full of Christmas presents. 

We have a custom at Christmas where we put everyone’s name in a hat and then you pick a name from the hat and have to buy a present for that person, costing no more than 1/-.  It takes a lot of imagination sometimes to find the right present for the right person. 

 

John Canoe:   In the distance I can hear the music from the John Canoe celebrations which we’ll all go and join up with after lunch.  John Canoe parades date back to slavery when Christmas was the only extended holiday the slaves had and it was a very special holiday for them. 

Some people say John Canoe was a great African chief and loved so much by his people that in his honour a festival is held every year.  Men wear “John Canoe faces”, which are masks worn by the performers.  

One performer will wear a sort of house on his head, some wear a cow’s head, one or two of them wear the head of a horse, some of the men dress in women’s clothes and all are dancing in the streets accompanied by drums, tambourines, banjos, flutes or homemade musical instruments and there is lots of noise and dancing in the streets. 

The Devil carries a pitchfork and wears a cowbell attached to his backside.  On his head is a cardboard cylinder which rests on a flat square piece of cardboard and his entire costume is black.  He pokes people with his pitchfork and frightens, not only children, but grown ups as well, me included sometimes.

Another performer plays Belly Woman, a pregnant lady who makes her belly move in time to the music.  She is very funny and another character,

Pitchy-Patchy, has the most colourful costume of all, with layered strips of brightly coloured cloth.  He is very energetic doing handstands and cartwheels all the time. In the evening most of us will go to Winchester Park which will be just one mass of people, young and old, rich and poor, all determined to have a good time.

At the entrance to the park last year was a thirty foot Christmas tree brilliantly lit and flooded with coloured lights from a gigantic searchlight and there were different booths, some designed to look like English cottages, and others had comic cartoons painted on them.  In each booth there are usually games of chance and lots of ways of winning prizes.

There is always a special exhibition in the flower booth where the floral creations of school children are on display and when the Browney children were small, it was our custom to display our floral designs there.  It’s one of my favourite booths and Maurice has told me that his floral design is on display this year.  Dear Maurice, I can’t wait to see it.

 But the booth I’ll head for first is the one with the fortune teller.  I’m off to England soon, so I must find out what’s in store for me.

 

Telegram from Rebecca Browney, Kingston, Jamaica to

Martha Ross, Paddington, England

 Olga sailing on S.S Jamaica Progress arriving London 1st April 1939.  Please meet her.  Becky.

 

 Dear Diary

 On my way:    On a crystal clear morning, the S.S Jamaica Progress steams slowly out of Kingston Harbour into the blue waters of the Caribbean, past small fishing boats, with the fringe of the coconut palms that front the Blue Mountains, gradually disappearing from view.

 She passes Port Royal and what remains of the buccaneer city that an earthquake sank beneath the ocean hundreds of years ago.  Overhead, in a cloudless blue sky, three long-tailed humming birds, so vivid in colour, sweep across the sky in unison and the sight of them takes my breath away. 

An omen, perhaps, a sign of good luck, Olga?

<—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live               London 1939 —->

 

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