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)
“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
Olga, 23 Chilworth Street, London
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
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