My mother Gladys—Glad, as her family called her—was only eleven when the Second World War broke out, and because London was a special target for bombing, she was evacuated along with her entire school to the old market town of St. Albans.
London was only 20 miles away, but it seemed much farther to Mum, and she was terribly homesick. Hers was a large, closeknit family and she had never been away from them. She had never slept alone either, since they were three to a bed at home, with her tucked in the middle between her two elder sisters. As the youngest girl, she was the only one of the six children to be evacuated, since her younger brother Len was too young to leave his mother, her next-elder brother Ted lied about his age and joined the air force, and the other siblings were already grown and working.
During her evacuation Mum was billeted with three different foster families, in situations ranging from abusive to exploitative to more-or-less-tolerable. In one, the family’s biological daughter secretly tormented her, knowing that she could never complain; in another, the foster-mother starved her and spent the government money entertaining the troops; and in a third family—the best of the lot—the foster-mother extended the food budget by filling her up with cheap carbohydrates, until she grew so plump that they began calling her Dumpling as a term of endearment.
This last family had a garden, and even kept chickens. Like many others at the time, they had no indoor toilet, so if nature called during the night, one was obliged to use the outhouse in the back garden. Nature did call one night, and so Mum picked her way gingerly down the back stairs and across the yard, groped for the door, and ducked quickly in.
Accompanied by a raucous squawking, screeching, and beating of wings, a dark figure sprang up from the pot and pushed past her into the night. He was a chicken thief, who had been at work in the coop when he had heard someone approaching and taken cover in the privy along with his haul.
I can’t imagine how Mum screwed up her courage to venture down at night ever again. It occurs to me that this early experience might also account for her lifelong aversion to using strange bathrooms when away from home.