“Mam, Mam, is it true that Kaiser Bill used to live on the Old Kent Road?”
“Peter Miles, you do come up with some stories! Who on earth told you that?”
“Alice Brent. She told me in school today that she used to see him going off every morning on his bike.”
I don’t know why Main thinks this is so funny. She’s• trying not to laugh, I can tell.
“You shouldn’t listen to Alice Brent, Peter. She’s got far too much imagination for a little girl.”
“Little girl? She’s ten, Mam – same age as me.”
“Well she’s talking nonsense. I don’t think the Kaiser has ever even been in England – never mind living on the Old Kent Road. And we don’t want him here either. Now be a good boy and put your school bag away — I need you to go over to Bethnal Green for a few things from the shops.”
It’s not fair — Main’s always sending me to the shops. Why doesn’t she go while I’m in school?
“Mam, can I see that telegram again? The one that came yesterday about Dad?”
“Why, Peter? You already know what it says.”
“I know, but I just like reading it.”
“Oh, all right then, here you are.”
MRS ANN MILES 8 HACKNEY RD SHOREDITCH LONDON STOP PLEASED TO REPORT YOUR HUSBAND PRIVATE SIDNEY MILES FOUND ALIVE AND WELL FOLLOWING LAST OFFENSIVE ON SOMME STOP NOW IN FIELD HOSPITAL AMIENS STOP LETTER FOLLOWING STOP HM WAR OFFICE LONDON END
They don’t half write telegrams in a funny way, don’t they? Stop this and stop that. Main cried when she got it yesterday. I couldn’t understand why, because it was good news. She cried a lot when she got the first one last week which said that Dad was missing.
“Come on, Peter, here’s the shopping list. And mind the traffic it’s busy in the late afternoon.” ”
Do you know what, Mam? There was a lady conductor on the tram today.”
“I know. it’s because of the war. Now here’s the money — two shillings — don’t lose it. Oh, and take this bag of washing into the Chinese laundry, and call at Jarvis the Chemists for a bottle of aspirins.”
“Mam, do I have to go to Jarvis the Chemist? Can’t I go to Boots on the Mile End Road? I don’t like Mr Jarvis.”
“Yes, you’ll have to go to Mr Jarvis, Peter. The shop’s only just past the Windsor Restaurant. Boots is a good way further on — you’d be ages going there. Why don’t you like Mr Jarvis then?”
“Well he’s big and fat and he leans right over the counter when he talks, and he’s got big yellow teeth, and his breath smells funny.”
“You’ve only got to ask him for a bottle of aspirins. You’ll be out of there in a couple of minutes, Peter. Here’s your coat……… go on, there’s a good boy.”
“All right then, Mam. Goodbye.”
* * * * *
Oh here’s that funny man on the street corner with the sandwich boards on his back…what does it say today…
FOR OUR SINS
Jesus couldn’t have died for my sins. I wasn’t even born when he died Besides, I haven’t had that many sins, have I? I did find sixpence once outside Woolworth’s on the Mile End Road and kept it. I know I should have handed it in at the police station, but I went back into Woolworth’s and bought some lead soldiers with it. And last time we had our Sunday dinner at Grandad’s, house, I told Main I’d eaten all my cabbage, when really I’d dropped most of it into Grandad’s• boots under the kitchen table. Grandad wasn’t very pleased when he tried to put his boots back on, though… anyway, I don’t think Jesus died for those sins… oh, here’s Reuben Jacobs… he’s in my class at school…
“Hello, Reuben. Did you read that ‘Magnet’ comic I lent you?”
“Yes. It was funny. I’m not usually allowed to read comic papers, so I had to hide it in my room. My father always buys me the ‘The Junior Jewish Chronicle’.”
“I get the Magnet every week. I’ll keep them for you. Did you like Billy Bunter?”
“Yes. Hey! He stole all those wedding cakes and ate them!”
“I know. I think Mr. Jarvis the chemist looks a bit like Billy Bunter.”
“Oh look, here’s the number eleven omnibus…I’ll have to go…goodbye Peter.”
My dad doesn’t like me being friends with Reuben. My dad hates Jews and says the East End is overrun with them. I think they’re all right — so now dad’s away in the war, I don’t have to be so careful. We’ve got two Jewish girls in our class — Rachel and Rebecca. Sometimes they talk in Yiddish and we don’t know what they’re saying. Rachel doesn’t speak English very well, and I’m always helping her. My friend John says I’m sweet on Rachel, but I don’t care. If my dad ever found out, he’d be very angry.
Oh well, here’s the Chinese laundry —I’ll hand this bag of washing in…I can hear them in the back talking in Chinese…the lady’s coining out but she’s not saying anything.
“My Mam says can you wash all these, please?”
The lady hasn’t answered me. She’s just looking through the washing bag like she’s searching to see if there’s something hidden in it. But there isn’t, of course. Now she’s put a ticket on it with some Chinese writing.
“For Missis Mile?”
“Leddie Fly-day, yes?”
“Er…yes, thank you. Goodbye.”
There isn’t many Chinese people round here. But we’ve got some pictures of them on the blue plates on the shelf in our scullery. I once heard Grandad say that every fourth child born is Chinese, but I think that’s silly – the .Jacobs family have got five children and none of them is Chinese.
Here’s a man putting up one of those recruitment posters on the wall by Mr Jarvis ‘s chemist shop…
I suppose I’ll have to go in…
I can see Mr Jarvis mixing up some medicines in the back of the shop. And he’s talking on the telephone to someone…I don’t think he’s heard me come in. He dresses funny, too. He’s wearing his long black coat and a stiff white shirt collar that stands up and digs into his chin — perhaps that’s why he’s always so bad tempered. And you can see his tie all the way round his collar. And those funny little glasses — they’re clipped onto the end of his nose — like Billy Bunter’s. I don’t know how they stay on…they must pinch…oh, he’s seen me…he’s hanging up the telephone…
“Yes, what can I do for you, little boy?”
Ugh! He’s pushing his big face towards mine. And I’m not a little boy —I’ll be eleven in October…
“Can I have a bottle of aspirins please?”
“You do know, don’t you, that you can’t have pills or tablets without a note from your mother, little boy?”
“No, and I haven’t got a note, and I’m not a little boy, and anyway Mam needs the aspirins right away because she’s had headaches since Dad went away to France, and if she doesn’t get them now, she’ll get worse, and there isn’t time to go back and get a note, so please can I have them now?”
“I shouldn’t give drugs to children without a note, do you see.”
“Well you can ask Doctor Charlton — you can ring him up on that telephone you’ve got in the back of the shop — he’ll tell you…
“All right, all right, I’ll get them for you this time, but don’t come in here for medicines again without a note from your mother, do you hear me?”
“Yes, thank you…
Hear him? I could hear him all right, even when I backed away from his face so far that 1 nearly knocked the baby scales off the little table by the window…
* * * * *
Mr Jarvis has got a son in the top class in our school. He’s the school bully. Sometimes at dinner time, he waits near the chip shop and takes the bags of chips off the younger children. He took Reuben’s once – Mr Jacobs was very angry when he found out. He went round to see Mr Jarvis. Reuben went with him. Reuben said Mr Jarvis was drunk and that his dad couldn’t get any sense out of him. And the flat over the shop was dirty. He said it smelt of wet dogs, even though they haven’t got a dog. Now, one more shop… Powell ‘s the newsagents…
“Hello, Mr Powell…
“Hello, Peter. There’s good news you’ve had, isn’t it? About your dad, I mean. Yes indeed. How’s your mother, boy bach?”
“She’s quite well, thank you. She says have you got the London Evening News and a bottle of Vimto?”
“On the counter the papers are, see, Peter…over by here under the cat (move, Kitty!)…yes, here we are. You’ll have to wait for a minute for the Vimto, mind — in the back of the shop it is. Won’t be long, good boy.”
I like Mr Powell. He’s from Wales, and he plays rugby for the London Welsh. Dad says that even though he’s so big, he can still run like the wind on the field. “Powell full-pelt” they call him…oh dear — I can hear him swearing in the back of the shop…
“Well duw, duw, by bloody hell, none left there is Megan, come here, cariad…”
Now Mrs Powell’s come out. She doesn’t like people swearing.
“Bryn Powell! I’ll thank you to watch your language in front of this child! You’re not on the rugby field now!”
“Sorry, Megan…yes, Peter, forgetting, I was … Come here, Peter – I’ll sit you on the counter.”
Mr Powell picks me up like I don’t weigh anything! I don’t like sitting up high. I don’t feel safe.
“Can you put me down again please, Mr Powell?”
“Only when you tell Mrs Powell here that you never heard me swearing. Otherwise, it’s a penny in the swear box, see, and I haven’t got a penny, so you’ll have to pay it.”
“I don’t think I heard you swear, Mr Powell.”
(I did really.)
“There you are then. That’s a penny you’ve saved me. Now then, let’s lift you down…would you like a bulls-eye?”
“There we are, good boy. Now then…the Vimto…we’ve run out, see, but you’ll be able to get a bottle at Bernstein’s grocery shop opposite.”
“All right then.”
Dad wouldn’t be very pleased if he knew I was going into Bernstein’s shop. I found out that when Mr Bernstein tried to join the Shoreditch Social Club, Dad stopped him —1 heard him telling Mam about it last Christmas. He said he’d had a word with the committee whatever that means. I don’t think that’s fair. Mr Bernstein is Rachel’s father, and Rachel’s nice. Anyway, I’ll have to go in the shop because Mam needs the Vimto…0h, Mrs. Bernstein is here today.
“Hello, my dear. You’re Peter, aren’t you? Rachel has been telling us all about you. My husband, he saw you coming out from the school, and you he wanted to thank for helping her with her English. But the tram it came, and you were on before he got a chance. What can we do for you?”
“A bottle of Vimto please.”
“Here you are, pass your bag here. For safe, in your shopping bag I’ll put it. Broken glass you don’t want, do you?”
“How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing, my dear. Nothing. This time, it’s a gift, we’ll say. Off you go now.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Bernstein. Goodbye.”
I’ll go home through the park. The last time I went through the park, 1 was with Grandad, and we saw the East London Regiment. They were having a parade near the bandstand There was a lot of shouting, and they kept putting their rifles up and down, but they didn’t fire them. Then they all marched off and another soldier stood at the side and kept shouting at them. He seemed very angry, but I don’t know why. No-one was chattering. Grandad said that the man making all the noise was the sergeant major. He kept shouting ‘eyes left!’ and ‘eyes right!’, but there was nothing to look at really – just the bowling green on left, and the children’s’ swings on the right.
* * * * *
Oh, here’s Alice Brent —1 wonder if she’s got any more tall stories…
“Hello, Peter. Been shopping for your Mam, have you?”
“I saw you coming out of Bernstein’s shop. I bet you’ve been to see Rachel. You’re going to cop it if your dad find out.”
“No I haven’t. And anyway, my dad won’t find out. He’s in a field hospital in France. Besides, I think some of the things my dad says about the Jews are silly.”
“My mother says it was the Jews who killed Jesus.”
“Well I thought Jesus was killed by some man from Rome who was a pilot.”
“I don’t know who killed him. Have you got any sweets?”
“No, I had a bulls-eye off Mr. Powell, but he only gave me the one.”
“Bet he gave you more!”
“No he didn’t.”
“Liar, liar! Your bum’s on fire!”
“No he didn’t Alice. Anyway I can’t stand here all day. My Mam needs her aspirins.”
“Mammy’s boy! Mammy’s boy!”
Alice is really silly sometimes. Last week she wrote a rude word on the blackboard when the teacher was out of the room, and when he came back he was very angry. He kept us all in after school till someone owned up, but no-one did, so he had to let us all go. I missed the tram and had to walk home.
Here’s the Windsor Restaurant. My Uncle Charles is Mam’s brother, and he’s quite rich, and he took me and Mam there one night for dinner after dad had gone over to France. He called it dinner, but we always have our dinner at dinner time. Anyway, I still don’t know why the waiter laughed behind his hand I only asked him if I could have some jellied eels. Uncle Charles said ‘surely you’d like something better than that, Peter’. I was just going to say ‘corned beef but he said would I like some roast chicken? By now, I thought I was going red, so I just said ‘yes please’ and Mam said to the waiter just give him the same as mine, but a bit less.’ We had soup to start, and Uncle Charles told me to stop dropping pieces of bread into my bowl. ‘Not done, young man’ he said I felt uncomfortable in the restaurant because I thought everyone was looking at me. And there were so many knives and forks that I didn’t know which ones to use.
Some men on the next table kept lifting up their glasses and laughing. I thought they were laughing at me, but Mam said they weren’t. Then they all lit cigars, and the smell was horrible. Ugh! But by then, we were going. Uncle Charles asked me if 1’d enjoyed being in the restaurant. I said I had, but I hadn’t really.
* * * * *
“Mam! I’m home! I’ve got all the shopping.”
“Good boy, Peter. Pass the bag here. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“What is it, Mam?”
“Well while you were out, the late afternoon post arrived. A letter came about your father. From his commanding officer — don’t worry, he’s all right. Do you want to read it?”
“Here it is.”
THE SOUTHERN COUNTIES ARTILLERY (“B” COY),
From the Commanding Officer. Friday the 28th July 1916.
Dear Mrs. Miles,
Further to the telegram which was sent to you recently, I wish to confirm that your husband Private Sidney Miles No. 425437024 is currently in a field hospital two miles north of Amiens. I understand that he is making good progress, having suffered concussion. The circumstances that lead to his incapacity are as follows.
On Monday the 23rd of July at 1120hrs, Private Miles and two other gunners attempted to storm a German machine gun post. The Germans began shelling and his two comrades were killed. It was assumed at the time that Private Miles had also been killed, but due to a sudden heavy barrage in the area, it was not possible to ascertain this. The regiment was forced to retreat, but two days later the area was retaken by “C” Coy of the Royal Warwick Regiment. During a further attack by the Germans, it was noticed that a British soldier appeared to be lying injured in a shell hole very close to the German machine gun post.
One member of the regiment volunteered to crawl out and bring the injured man in, and despite heavy machine gun fire from the enemy side, this was achieved. The injured man was indeed Private Sidney Miles who had suffered concussion due to shrapnel having severely dented (but not pierced) his helmet. He was otherwise unharmed, despite having lain in the shell hole for over two days.
He is now recovering in the field hospital. We are of the opinion that in addition to the bravery shown by Private Miles in his unsuccessful sortie on the machine gun post, the bravery of his rescuer who ventured out alone under heavy fire was also outstanding. There is no doubt that Private Miles owes his life to the bravery of Private Isaac Rosenberg.
Major Howard Sinclair-Day, Commanding Officer