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U3A Writing: Telling Tales

...Our house received three of the bombs but, as my grandfather refused to use the Anderson shelter, preferring to die in his own bed, he was on site and able to put the fires out...

Sheila Dennis tells some family tales.

The night that the corner house, a furniture depository, got hit, during a spate of incendiary bomb attacks, is still a colourful and vivid memory. The whole building was a ball of fire and the noise - a vast roar, punctuated with loud crackles and pops. Our house received three of the bombs but, as my grandfather refused to use the Anderson shelter, preferring to die in his own bed, he was on site and able to put the fires out.

Mum came from 'the Valleys' and Dad was a true London cockney. Grandpa had taken his family to London during the depression and, at the start of the war, he organised the rental of a large suburban house. My uncle, soon to become a soldier, and an aunt lived in the lower part of the house with my grandparents. My parents and I lived in the top floor with lovely views as far as Greenwich.

Dad worked in Woolwich, at the Royal Arsenal, welding bomb cases. Mum's wartime contribution was making screws, nuts and bolts. They were both 'fire-watchers' at night.

Most children were evacuated but, after a family 'conference', it was decided that I should stay with the family, so Nanna looked after me and Mum looked after my education. I was reading well at six and books of all kinds have always been a great joy.

Dad told tales of the corner shop, where he'd been sent, with a cup, to get a 'ha'p'orth' of jam or a 'penn'orth' of sugar. How he had climbed out of his bedroom window and slide down the scullery roof to play with his mates whilst Grandma, a widow, was at work. One night, she caught him, so she nailed up his bedroom window and, each night before she left for work, she would take away his clothes and lock his bedroom door. She did not like my given name so I was called 'Baby' and later, until her death when I was twelve, I was 'Duck'. I loved her visits to us but, far more exciting were our visits to her in the East End, where I would meet aunts, uncles and cousins too.

Mum's tales were of summer, fields and hills; miners coming off shift singing, eager for the tin bath in front of the kitchen fire; of walking to school on the tops of hedges when the snow was deep; of Eisteddfodau at which she did well, singing. Her first job was with a minister and his wife, 'living in' to look after their young son. How I hated John Michael! He would not have 'said that', 'done that' or 'behaved that badly'. Mum would sing the Welsh songs and she encouraged my knowledge of music. After the war, she became a professional singer, a contralto, giving recitals, performing oratorios and operas. Little wonder that my first job was at 'His Master's Voice', in Oxford Street, selling records. In those days, we were all highly trained and had to specialise in each section, passing an exam before being allowed to move on to the next section. It was here that I met my husband.

Eight years ago, my lovely daughter gave us a grandson and I'm so lucky that we are able to share most of his school holiday time together, here. Some of my tales to him include how I saw the very first 'Doodlebug' from my bedroom window. With the noise it made and the flames coming from the back, it looked like a plane in trouble. I tell him of the time when I was picking blackberries in the garden and two German planes flew over. They were so low that I could see the pilot's eyes behind his goggles. I waved as they passed, just as the siren sounded. I feel lucky to be alive, as they went over a school at Hither Green, not that far away, and machine-gunned the children in the playground. James cannot imagine food rationing, particularly sweets. I usually had 'Crunchy' bars because, being lightweight, one got two for one coupon. The first banana I can remember was in 1946 and I savoured each tiny bite to make it last.

I moved to Caldicot on 31st October 1985, and feel that I have come home. Such kind and friendly people here with beautiful countryside just a few minutes away. Nothing on earth could persuade me to return to 'the Smoke' - except for flying visits.

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