Gillian Ann Karas was born in London. She suffered the war years in many different homes while an evacuee and then in the London area. She was educated at Harrow County Girls’ School. At the age of 20, she travelled to Canada, working and travelling there for 17 months. After another five years at home, she decided to go to New Zealand. On the way, she met her future Czech-Australian husband and, after a few months, she immigrated to Australia and they spent 10 years in the outback mining town of Mt. Isa. The couple adopted two boys.
After Mt. Isa, the family spent a year overseas and returned to the Sunshine Coast, where she has lived ever since. She has always had itchy feet and has never missed an opportunity to travel, having just circumnavigated the world for the fifth time.
The author has been writing since the age of 16 and has published numerous short stories, articles and poems.
By the same author:
Into the Unknown: a Migrant’s Story (as told to the author by her husband). Self published. 2001.
Anything can Happen in South America. Self published. 1998.
This, That … and the Other: An Anthology of 45 Years of Verse Writing. Self published. 1994.
It was a moment in history; Sunday morning, 3rd September, 1939. People gathered round their radios with sober faces. The voice of Neville Chamberlain resounded in living rooms around the nation. We were at war with Germany.
For some time I had drilled my lines of little toy soldiers in readiness for the fight to come. Now it was here and I was excited.
As soon as the broadcast was over, front doors along our street burst open and neighbours spilled out onto the road. Everybody talked at once. We had lived there for four years and scarcely even knew our neighbours. People kept themselves to themselves in urban England in those days.
Eventually the groups broke up and returned to their homes where the men talked about joining up and the women wondered how they would manage without them.
It was not long before the air raid warning sounded. Suddenly my excitement turned to fear. I cannot describe how I felt when I heard that horrible, wailing siren. I just wanted to escape that awful sound.
Air raid sirens had been installed several months earlier, mostly automatic, but one was worked by hand and soon became known as Moaning Minnie.
I was born in London in 1933 and lived in Barnet, Hertfordshire. I was two years old when the family moved to Harrow in Middlesex. It was a large, urban district with suburbs of its own, known chiefly for its famous school on the hill. Winston Churchill was among its many noted pupils. We lived in No. 55, a semi-detached, four bedroom home that we rented. Warrington Road had about sixty houses and they became progressively smaller as you went further down the road. My father was a chiropodist (now known as a podiatrist) and had a surgery in a local shoe shop.
When we moved to Harrow, my grandmother, Eve Dale, moved in to live with us. Nanny was not the easiest of people to live with and my poor mother often found herself trying to keep the peace.
Nanny had been widowed young. Her dentist husband, twelve years older than her, died of a stroke at the age of fifty-two. She was short and stout and had an opinion on everything. A terrible snob, she always knew the best people and wanted only the best when she shopped, in spite of the fact that she lived on a pension. Thoroughly spoilt by her husband, she had never had to do the more menial tasks. My mother had a nanny to look after her and there was always a cook in the household. My mother employed a woman to do the household cleaning, so Nanny had little to do with the house. But she came from a family of excellent needlewomen. She could do the most intricate crochet work, embroidery, knitting and sewing. She made all my clothes for many years. I still have the pillowcases she worked for my pram, with the wide band of bunny rabbits marching round the crocheted border. To me she was a stern and somewhat forbidding figure with black hair, greying at the temples, hazel eyes and a delicate, pale complexion. She was to play a large part in my upbringing and, underneath it all, I knew she loved me dearly.
My father, Simon Sidney Knight – known as Gin, (short for Ginger), married at the age of twenty three. He was a short, skinny man with red hair. He looked so young that he was asked to produce his birth certificate before he could be married. His temper matched his hair but would die down just as quickly as it rose and once it was over, it was over.
My mother, Renee, was two years older, a gentle soul with a loving nature. The older I grew, the greater our friendship developed. She was my best friend.
As an only child, I led a lonely life until I started school. To have someone to play with was such a novelty that, in the first weeks of school, I dragged a new friend all the way home with me to have afternoon tea.
“Does Patricia’s mother know that she is here?” was my mother’s first question.
I reddened. “No, Mummy.”
“Then I’m afraid we must take her home.”
“I told her I couldn’t come,” Patricia said.
In those days we had no telephone. My mother and I walked Patricia home and explained to her mother why she was late.
“Perhaps we could arrange for Patricia to come to tea?” she suggested, and Mrs Griffiths agreed.
The war would soon put a hold on my newfound friendships. Within a couple of weeks, the Germans were aiming bombs at the Kodak factory not far from our home.
Blackouts were strictly policed by the wardens. We hated covering the windows at night and, once ready for bed, would draw back the curtains. This meant that if we had to get up during the night we could not put on a light. We kept torches for that purpose. One night there was a big explosion close by, so my father decided we should go into the cupboard under the stairs. The staircase was usually the strongest part of the house and many bombed out houses were left with only the staircase standing.
This night Mummy jumped out of bed, switched on her torch, and went to fetch Nanny. A strange sight greeted her as she opened the bedroom door. Nanny was down on all fours sweeping her hands across the carpet.
“I can’t find my slippers,” she wailed.
The torch highlighted them and we soon made our way down the stairs. This was the first of many nights spent huddled together in this tiny cupboard.
It was not long before I developed an irritating cough. The doctor said it was caused by nerves and that I must be sent away to the country.
By the end of September hordes of children had been evacuated from London and other industrial cities. The main London railway stations swarmed with hundreds of children, each one wearing over their shoulder the compulsory little box containing a gasmask.
My parents were in a quandary. Where could they send me? Then Daddy spoke to someone who was going down to the little Devonshire village of Dawlish. He and his son were to visit a friend and he asked him if he would be willing to take me to his friend. He agreed and I went with him.
Except for a short spell in hospital the previous year, I had never been away from home. It was hard for me to imagine what my life would be like without Mummy and Daddy in a strange place. But before October was over I, too, was standing on Paddington Station with my gasmask over my shoulder. After a tearful goodbye, Mummy stood on the platform and waved until I saw her disappear
I arrived at the Green household that night, tired and hungry. I was fed and put to bed. Next morning I was eager to explore my new surroundings.
Mrs Green was a widow with two children. Raymond was eight years old and Hilda, thirteen. Hilda went off to secondary school on the school bus each morning. Raymond took me to the village school that he attended. We soon became fast friends and I was delighted to have a readymade playmate on hand. I settled in very happily and began to enjoy life. The droning of planes and the loud bomb explosions were soon forgotten, though I did worry about my family at home.
Dawlish was a pretty seaside village and I had always loved the sea. However, we were not able to swim for fear of mines. Many were washing up on the shores around Britain. Dawlish is famous for its Warren. This is a network of caves cut into the bright orange-red sandstone at the top of the beach. This area made a marvellous playground.
When we weren’t playing there, we enjoyed The Lawns, a beautiful park in the centre of the village. I became part of the gang to which Raymond belonged. He had two rifles that had belonged to his father. He lent me the single barrel. I was thrilled to be allowed to handle a real gun, even if it was never loaded. And when sides were picked I always hoped to be on the side of the Allies taking pot shots at the Jerries. These were happy, carefree days when the real war seemed far away.
In the crisp November air we went into the chestnut woods; a green world save for the rich reddish brown chestnuts lying in their spiky green shells at the base of the trees. Staggering home with bags full of nuts, we spent enjoyable evenings roasting them in the open fire, burning our fingers in our eagerness to peel off their shells.
The winter of 1940 was extremely severe and even Devonshire, known for its mild climate, was covered in a thick layer of snow. On Saturdays I would sometimes be sent to the corner shop to bring home some faggots for dinner. This was a popular dish made from chopped meat, particularly pork offal, mixed with herbs and bread or oats and baked into small rolls. One very icy day I remember gingerly making my way to the shop, tumbling down and sliding on my bottom.
At Christmas my parents came to stay with us. I was so glad to see them. On their first night they decided to visit the village pub. Devonshire cider is world renowned, but the sweet cider bought in a bottle is fairly innocuous. The rough cider goes to the head very quickly. In the warmth and companionship of the little inn they sipped away unconcernedly. When they finally decided to leave, the icy cold air hit them like an axe and it was all they could do to stagger home. They never forgot the real Devonshire cider.
On Christmas morning I opened my presents with the usual excitement. Later in the day I had a funny hat from a cracker
“Where’s me little ’at to?” I inquired. My parents looked at each other and then at Mrs Green. She shook her head.
“No,” she said. “We don’t understand her either.”
The Devonshire accent is very strong and many sentences finish with the word ‘to’. They also tend to add ‘up along’ or ‘down along’ when describing a place. The village school I attended was shared by a school from Acton in London whose students were evacuated there. These children all spoke with a cockney accent. I was quick to pick up accents and collected some of each in my speech. I would chatter away blissfully unaware that neither the Londoners nor the Devonians could understand me. My parents were shocked and decided that something must be done about this. I was unaware that a change might be in the offing.
At the end of January I found out that Mrs Green had sold her house and was moving to a town some distance away in order to obtain a better job. I was very upset but she told me she had persuaded a friend to take me in. I said my tearful goodbyes and moved in with Catherine, who was the local hairdresser, and her mother. They were very kind to me and I was happy with them, but I did miss my games with Raymond.
When the Easter holidays came, Mummy decided I should spend the holiday at home. I said goodbye to my friends, not knowing that I would never see them again.
Mummy told me that, with the help of her aunt, she had been able to have me accepted into the preparatory school of the Coborn School for Girls where her cousin attended. They usually only accepted girls who were resident in London, but as my cousin, Beryl, was already there, they made an exception and admitted me. The school was evacuated to Taunton, a large Somerset town, and the girls were all billeted out. It was to here that I would go at the end of the holidays.
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