Now I know what the ‘Phone Number’ meant

Now I Know What the ‘Phone Number’ Meant


I was a precocious child. Always asking questions, not giving up until I had, what I deemed to be, a satisfactory answer, or a clip round the ear for being a pain.

I had taught myself to read from around the age of three or four years old by reading the local newspaper (we didn’t have books) and pestering any adult in the vicinity to explain words I couldn’t make out or didn’t know the meanings of.

I soon realised that questions like ‘What does m-u-r-d-e-r- mean? What is a-d-u-l-t-e-r-y?‘ Would be brushed off with harrumphs and ‘Ask your Mam’ or ‘Will you stop asking me questions yer little witch’ – or the inevitable smack round the head.

I started reading second-hand comics for boys (I hated girl’s comics) which showed people still fighting ‘The War’ and killing Germans or spies or showing Native Americans and Africans as stupid and lazy and anyone ‘foreign’ as an enemy.

When I got the chance to watch TV, I saw Sherlock Holmes ‘fighting the Nazi’s’ in black & white and war films every Sunday.

Somewhere in my child’s brain I thought we were still at war.

I wasn’t old enough for school yet, but I had been chosen by default (the only niece old enough) to be a bridesmaid for my auntie’s hastily arranged wedding. She told me it was because I was her favourite redhead. To which I replied ‘but I’m the ONLY redhead!’

It was 1966. She had managed to get a date and time for her wedding that didn’t clash with any World Cup games – but also, not too near the pending birth date (hence the ‘haste’). She was only seventeen herself, but to me she was all grown up and glamorous and ‘hip’.

I had been dragged along to boutiques, hairdressers (from where I obtained my lifelong dislike of hairdressing salons – a burnt scalp will do that to you!). We went to the office where my auntie worked as a comptometer operator. It had a blackboard like school on one wall and smelled of chalk, pots of tea and disappointment. The office girls were nice enough ‘Don’t she look like Shirley Temple?’ they simpered as I was spun around on an office chair.

My auntie then took me to what I vaguely remember as being someone’s parlour room for something called ‘a fitting’. I didn’t know where we were, or what a ‘fitting’ was, but the house was large and had indoor plumbing so I thought they must have been rich.

The room was darkly decorated with ‘serene’ green walls (I can’t remember whether it was wallpaper or just painted – on reflection, it might have been wallpapered as I remember it not ‘echoing’ much when people spoke) and treacle brown painted doors and skirting boards. The swinging sixties hadn’t reached this house as yet.

The parlour had been turned into a sewing room. Lots of rolls of fabric and boxes of buttons and sequins and layers of lace were stacked along the walls of the room on the left.

A huge shiny sewing machine, the colour of a London Hackney cab, stood to attention in one corner and a measuring and cutting table in the middle of the room, which took up most of the floor space. A big heavy lampshade hung from the middle of the room.

There were a couple of stools around a little platform clients stood on whilst being pinned into the seamstress’ creations.

You could tell a lot of needlecraft went on in that space as the air was full of tiny specks of fabric dust which caught the light. The room smelled of mothballs and clean linen, but with a tiny whiff of sweat, late nights and backache.

The room was very cool and I remember goose-bumps coming up on my arms even before I was indignantly disrobed down to my under things to be measured for the bridesmaid dress.

My auntie babbled away nervously to the lady who nodded along as she took the measurements. She was a plump lady with steel grey hair folded into a neat coiffure on the top of her head. She wore a navy blue coveralls over her clothes and very sensible shoes.

I can’t remember what colour her eyes were but I remember they saw right through you and took your measure as well as your dress size in an instant.

My auntie was explaining to this very polite seamstress lady what she wanted and the lady explained very politely back that what she wanted was not within my auntie’s budget – ‘Perhaps madam would care to look over the Crimplene fabrics?’

As I listened to them talk, I came to the realisation that this lady was speaking with a German accent.

I was shocked! Shocked that my auntie had brought me to this obvious den of spies and murderers who wanted to take over our country and enslave us all. My child’s brain whirled. How could she do this? Granddad had fought the Germans! My Dad would go spare when he found out!’

I scowled ever deeper as the conversation went on. Trying to get auntie’s attention without alerting ‘you know who’.

Finally after sulking for what seemed like hours, my auntie got me dressed and was very cross with me.

‘What is the matter with you today?’ and to the lady ‘She really isn’t normally like this, she’s a real sweetie’.

To which I scowled even deeper and muttered to my aunt in that quietly loud way kids whisper

‘That lady’s German – Why are we in a German person’s house? Does my dad know you’ve brought me here?’

The room suddenly went from cool to Arctic. My auntie went an unflattering shade of puce and started profusely apologising as I threw horrible looks at this innocent woman in some pathetic show of defiance.

The lady met my eyes and said softly ‘Such hatred on such a pretty little face’ she shook her head and said to my auntie ‘Don’t worry yourself, she doesn’t understand, she is only a child don’t be too hard on her’.

The lady smiled at me and I begrudgingly flicked a smile back.

As she helped auntie with her coat (who by this time was flapping around like a demented swan trying to get her arm into it), I noticed that the lady’s sleeve of her overall had rolled up and I could see she had what looked like numbers written on her forearm.

I thought to myself, ‘I get told off for writing on myself, but this grown lady has written someone’s phone number on hers? Why?’

My auntie was probably dying of embarrassment by this stage. If she didn’t have problems with her blood pressure before that day, she would now. She grabbed the rest of her stuff and bundled me quickly out of the house.

As we left in a trail of yet more apologies (which I was still at a loss at) the lady stroked my hair and said ‘Please think nothing more of it, I’ll book you in for your next fitting, see you soon, take care little one.’

The door was shut and I was unceremoniously dragged down the street by my auntie with an earful of expletives and threats of bodily violence if I did ‘that’ again. She threw me through a taxi door and sat there next to me totally distraught.

I was really confused and upset. I didn’t know what I had done wrong.

‘What have I done?’ I asked.

‘You were really cheeky and rude to that nice lady. I can’t believe you said she was German!’ She replied

‘But she is!’ I replied.

‘I Know’ shouted my auntie,’ but you don’t go around shouting it at people!’

‘I didn’t shout’ I said ‘I tried to whisper to you but you weren’t listening!’

‘Shut up! I’ve never been so embarrassed, I don’t know if I can go back there’. Obviously thinking her wedding plans were in ruins.

‘Why did the lady have a phone number on her arm?’ I said

‘Oh my God! She said putting her hands over her face ‘You wouldn’t understand if I told you’

‘Yes I would’

‘No you won’t!’

‘Tell me and if I don’t understand, explain it to me’

‘Shut Up! Shut up! I don’t want you to talk anymore!’ she said glancing in the taxi driver’s direction hoping he hadn’t understood the conversation.

I hated it when adults wouldn’t explain things to me, it was the reading all over again.

I was dumped unceremoniously at home and my auntie told my parents what had happened.

My Dad thought it was hilarious, but then he would.

However, when my auntie explained about the ‘phone number’ he didn’t find it funny anymore. He explained to me that we weren’t still at war and told me off for being rude. So now I was even more confused.

Needless to say we did go back. The lady was very nice even though everyone felt awkward (I still didn’t know why). The dresses were beautiful. I looked like a sixties princess

I had forgotten all about it until a few years ago when my sister was reminiscing and reminded me of the time I had been a bridesmaid. After a few minutes, I remembered this poor lady who had suffered my tiny wrath all those years ago.

Then I remembered the ‘phone number’.

That’s when I felt sick.

That’s when I felt wretched.

I realised that the ‘phone number’ had been her prison camp identification tattoo.

She had been held in a camp during the war, come to Britain to start a new life and a new business and had been snarled at by a speck of a kid.

I could have clawed my own heart out.

If I could have gone to see her and apologised I would have. But she was long gone.

I know I was a child and she didn’t hold it against me as she said so at the time, but it must have upset her at some level and I will never lose the feeling of guilt for that.


(c) Kate McClelland

Picture from Pixabay


21 thoughts on “Now I know what the ‘Phone Number’ meant

  1. Oh Kate – what a post – what a memory! You simply must let yourself off the guilt hook – it was a tiny child’s way of being loyal to her country and to her relatives. If anyone deserves to be on it (and no one really does, btw), it’s the grown-ups who couldn’t find the time to answer your questions and encourage your curiosity. It simply wasn’t how children were raised back then (and that “seen and not heard” philosophy is, for the most part, no longer in vogue – thank GOD!).

    I endeavor to believe that once we die all is understood and all is forgiven. It’s time to forgive yourself – right now. Wherever she is, she knows the goodness in your heart – as do all of us who follow your wonderful blog.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks Madelyn for your very kind words. .
      It just sickens my heart that I could have upset this poor lady who had obviously been through so much. I think she did understand, but I can’t help feeling awful about it. I have rationalised in my head, so I feel a bit better about it now, thank you..
      I hate when adults don’t take the time to explain things to kids. Sometimes adults don’t realise what children pick up and what they are sensitive too.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. – or how they put things together when they don’t understand.

        I recall a story about a young boy who was unusually upset about an upcoming family relocation – and became increasingly so when his parents tried to get him excited about new friends, new room, and especially about their upcoming flight.

        Only after his mother saw him in the backyard — sobbing his little heart out as he wildly flapped his arms — did it start to become clear. He thought everyone else knew how to fly and he would be left behind and all alone because he did not. Nobody took the time to explain AIRPLANE!

        Grown-ups REALLY need to take the time to look through young eyes, speak with children, answer their questions (and ask a few to determine how well they understand) — and explain things clearly!
        xx, mgh

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Lucy, thanks very much for your comments. Isn’t it weird? Just shows what kids pick up and how they perceive things going on around them.. Even the comics at the time full of war stories and daring do and kill the Bosh, very ’empirical’. I didn’t like girls comics, I thought they were too soppy. They were all about saving the hockey team’s mascot and winning the sewing contest – yuck! Boys comics were full of adventure and intrigue and saving ‘Blighty’. War films every Sunday (day of peace?) programmes like ‘World at War’ couldn’t get away from it. No wonder we thought we were still at war!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree! And Indiana Jones was battling Nazis also, it just seemed to be part of popular culture to fight ‘the Hun’. When we were young there were still a great many people who remembered the war first hand, so perhaps that had something to do with it.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. My lord…amazing. What a post. OF course you hooked me in re the biz of the aftermath of that war cos it did feel it was still going on in some ways. And actually there was this thing about anyone from Germany. Anyway this is going along with more and more of ‘oh I mind that’ kind of thoughts in my mind, then wham. You are one very talented lady and I hope you WILL share your work more often. I know I say it to you often too but you must.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Shehanne It’s a true story. Thanks so much for that, you’re always very kind about my writing, thank you.
      It’s odd to me, but the posts of mine I have blogged which have had the most responses are for posts that have been the true stories. I thought it would be the other way round! :0)

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks Madelyn. What a heart piercing story about the little boy. You just never know what’s going on in those little noggins. It’s made worse when adults don’t stop to explain properly as their imagination grows like ‘wildfire’ and they can get very distraught over things adults think are ‘little’ things. Thanks again Madelyn x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow – tremendous post. No, you shouldn’t blame yourself for absorbing what television was teaching…propaganda is insidious.

    I always asked “too many questions” when I was a kid, too – and never got satisfactory answers from the adults who were supposedly smarter than I. I still recall coming home from school one day, and asked my parents why the other kids were calling me “the ‘N’ word” – their answer was, “Oh…they’re just ignorant…”

    That answer is never adequate.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Aww thanks very much for your comments, you’re very kind.
    The ‘N’ word is such and appalling word and so destructive. When you are little, it’s so confusing and hurtful. I got called names at school that weren’t very nice – it stays with you. I think sometimes adults think they may be protecting the child if they don’t explain things when asked certain questions, but it just made me feel like they thought I was stupid or they didn’t have time for me. That’s why I used to read encyclopaedias and would teach myself ten words each month which were more than 8 letters long so I could ‘sound’ intelligent. I found adults listened better if a child used big words and knew what they meant Hahahaha!. Thanks again, Kate :0)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mother did that “memorize words” thing too, Kate – 10 for her too – a habit she kept up until her death. She had a *huge* vocabulary – and used it quite specifically (but she was the opposite of anything LIKE a snob, so don’t get the wrong idea about that). Probably where my love of distinctions was born – and why I usually know the meaning of the big words already lol.

      Liked by 1 person

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