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