This a blatant love story which first appeared at White Shadow, and received a warm response from many visitors to the site. I've revisited it and made some changes, extended it and tweaked it to change the emphasis.
I make no apologies for laying things on a little thickly in places. This is a consequence of recent times when my mood has been rather low. Having said that, I have tried to give it a "feel good" flavour.
I wanted to explore two ideas. Firstly the amazing way that a scent or flavour can transport you back many years to a different place such as that whiff of perfume that reminds you of your primary school teacher or a previous girl friend.
The second idea is what constitutes a hero – bravery? courage? moral purity? I believe that any one of us has the capability to do something heroic.
"Grandpa, why do you have so many herbs in your house and garden?" Petra asks me one afternoon while we sit on the balcony enjoying the warm South African sun.
Petra is a gorgeous young lady of 20 with long black hair, deep green eyes, and a petite figure.
"It's because he likes the scent, silly," Jacqui, her younger sister interrupted.
At 16, Jacqui is a smaller facsimile of her sister. Apart from their mother and aunt, these girls are the lights of my life. Both girls are staying with me for two month's holiday.
"Haven't your mother or aunt ever told you about your grandmother?" I asked.
"Only a little," Petra replied in her soft, dusky voice. "Mum said that she was a very special lady. She taught us how to make Grandma's special lotion."
"Really?" I was both surprised and delighted, "and do you use it?"
"Yes," they replied almost in unison.
"It's miles better than any perfume you can buy." Jacqui add. "All my friends are dead jealous because they can't get any."
"It has this strange habit of smelling different depend on your mood. It always makes me feel good when I use it. Anyone selling it would make a fortune." Petra says.
"Maybe there's a little business opportunity there," I smile at Petra.
"I think you might be right," she replies with immediate comprehension.
She is a very smart girl, my Petra.
I take a breath, steeling myself.
"If you want, I'll tell you about your Grandmother."
The girls nod in agreement, and I begin…
"Come on Henry, its time to get up."
I heard mum's voice coming up the stairs. It was dark and cold and it was with reluctance that I climbed out of my warm bed. Houses didn't have the luxury of central heating in the years after the second war and the bedroom I shared with my brother was freezing. I pulled the curtains open but couldn't see anything out of the window because of the heavy layer of ice on the glass. I hated the winter - the long, dark nights were so depressing. Once in later life I had accumulated enough cash, I moved to warmer latitudes where winter was nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
After the initial euphoria of winning the war, life had slipped into a tedium of austerity and hard work trying to get the country back to normal. London, where I lived, still bore the scars of the blitz and even 3 years after the peace many houses awaited demolition. Don't believe the rubbish told by most older people about those days. You know the sort of stuff…
"You kids today don't know you're born. When I were a lad life was tough, we had nothing like the kids today, but we thrived on it. It made me the man I am today."
Life was tough. Everything was rationed, there were no real luxuries. And I tell you now, apart from the love of my family and my friends, I hated it all. There was no pleasure in the struggle after the war. Anyway, enough ranting, I suppose should tell you a little about myself.
My name is Henry Jenkins. At the tender age of 16 I lived with my parents in the east end of London in a small terraced house. Our community was pretty small - there were just fifty houses in the 100 yard length of our street. Everyone pretty well knew everyone else. There were five of us in the family, Simon my older brother, Joan my young sister and, of course, mum and dad. Simon worked in an engineering company and Joan was still at school. I was also still at school and was hoping to become an engineer. Simon had already arranged some part time work where he worked and I hoped to work there full time in a year or so.
Dad was a postman. He had served in the infantry during the war and had copped a "blighty wound" in the leg at Dunkerque. After six months recuperating he had continued to "do his bit" by serving as an air raid warden. He was a fabulous dad – always a source of good sensible advice, we spent many happy days fishing on the river Lea in Essex. Although he had no real education, dad had read widely and had great understanding of history and philosophy. A quiet man, he would puff gently on his pipe as he contemplated the water.
He rarely spoke about the war. He once told me that the war was an "unfortunate necessity". He had no time for the blokes who spent their time in the pub bragging about what they did in the war. During those quiet days on the river bank dad gave me more profound insights into the world and humanity than any of the highly qualified people who taught me or who I have subsequently met. Not bad for a postman
Mum was equally pivotal in my life. She worked part time cleaning at the local hospital but spent most of her time looking after the family. From her I learned honesty, humility and tolerance of others. When I look back and compare myself with others I realise how lucky I was to have such steadfast role models in my parents.
Simon was a brother and a good mate. Although he had his own circle of friends, he always had time for me. We shared a room and he often found time to give me brotherly advice. Simon was going out with a cute little blonde who worked in the typing pool at the engineering works. Apparently she shagged like a rabbit and Simon was thoroughly enjoying the experience. What was better was that he shared the sexual expertise he gained with me.
"Never forget Henry, a girl needs time and attention - never rush her. If you kiss her take it steady, don't try shoving your tongue down her throat at the first chance you get. Tease 'em a little and you'll soon get what you want. Don't rush to shove your hand up their skirt or blouse. The goods aren't going to disappear and the girls don't appreciate it if all you want is a quick grope." He once told me. "And never, never forget to use a johnnie."
We didn't have the AIDs plague in those days but you could still catch the clap or get a bird up the spout. Simon always had a supply of johnnies in a drawer in our bedroom and he was happy for me to use them should I get the chance.
Joan was a bit of a pest – a typical 10 year old sister. She lived in her own little world and rarely bothered me.
I had a couple of particularly good friends. Derek lived next door. He was a painfully thin guy with ginger hair. I sometimes thought that if the wind blew hard he would get blown away. The problem with Derek was that he had a tendency to act without engaging his brain first. This frequently got him into trouble but it also meant that life was usually exciting. Derek had a little sister. Sophie, who was only 7 years old, had come as a late surprise to Derek's parents.
Pete, who lived a few doors away, was a true philosopher. A guy of great intellect who had a knack of immediately seeing the core of any problem.
There really wasn't that much for kids of our age to do in those days. Football was an important part of our lives and we would go to Upton Park to see West Ham play. We could usually only afford to go the home matches but we saw all the post war star players.
There was nowhere to go in the evenings so we decided to get our own. Progress had been slow on the demolition of bomb damaged houses and buildings in our street and we took advantage of it. We scavenged a large amount of wood and built ourselves a large hut with a porch on a piece of wasteland. We liberated a cast iron fire, some couches and chairs from damaged buildings and established a club house. We would meet there regularly in the evenings. We would drink fizzy pop or beer (if we could afford it), smoke Woodbine cigarettes and talk about football or our sexual conquests. Pete grandly christened the gathering as the 'philosophical society'. Maybe not a particularly exciting way of passing time by today's standards but options for youngsters in those days were limited.
I knew that mum would have a fire going downstairs so I washed and dressed quickly.
As I entered the kitchen mum was putting out breakfast. Some items were still being rationed at the time and food was normally not very exciting. Her cooking was pretty good and she made the best of what was available.
I had to eat quickly as I was late for school and rushed out the door just in time to see Derek walking slowly past.
"Thank god it's Friday," he muttered. He had had a particularly fraught week at school. "Are we meeting tonight?"
It being a Friday the philosophical society would generally meet to discuss what we would do at the weekend.
"Yeah, I'll bring some scoff." I replied.
We walked on in silence until we reached school.
After school the three of us gathered at the hut. I brought a quantity of sandwiches, Derek provided some bottles of light ale and Pete brought the fags and some chocolate.
As we settled down in front of the fire we felt warm and at ease with the world.
"What about Atkins joining the Arsenal?" Pete, the consummate football fan asked.
"The bloke's a waste of time," Derek replied, "couldn't catch a cold let alone the ball."
"I suppose you think that Stapleton is a better goalie…" Pete retorted.
The philosophical society had got off to their usual topic of debate except that evening we were suddenly interrupted by a tap on the door and the door opening. In walked Shirley Davis.
Every school or street had it's sad case, someone who had the world stacked against them. Shirley was ours. A thin waif-like girl who although our age looked a couple of years younger. She came from a poor family. Her father was a drunk who was handy with his fists and loved to use them regularly on Shirley and her mother. He had been wounded in the war and had lost a leg. The pain of this coupled with a limitless capacity for self pity had led him to the bottle. This spent most of the income the family received from his invalid pension. As is usually the case, Shirley had no friends.
The lack of money meant that Shirley always wore worn out clothes.
"C…can I come in and get warm?" she asked.
At first we were a little outraged – after all this was a select male only club.
We then saw that Shirley was shivering. She had no coat on, just a thin skirt and worn woollen sweater. She had no socks on her feet and her legs looked blue. Certainly not suitable clothing for a cold winter.
"Sure, come and sit down," I replied.
She sat down gratefully and warmed her hands by the fire. Our thread of conversation had been broken we sat in an uncomfortable silence.
After a while Shirley noticed our supply of food and drink.
"Could I please have a sandwich?" she asked.
I could see that Derek was about to make some unkind reply when Shirley stood up.
"I can pay if you want," she added pulling up her skirt and sweater exposing her naked chest and crotch. This stopped us in our tracks. For a split second we stared at her small breasts and panties.
We liked to brag amongst ourselves about our sexual conquests but the reality was that none of us had seen a girl in the nude. Derek had once found some black and white photographs in his cousin Fred's room. His cousin was in the navy and had got them in Marseilles. The photos showed naked women in various positions and one showed a guy with a huge cock getting head.
My eyes were transfixed by Shirley's white panties – the way they pulled tightly into her crotch allowing her dark pubic hair to show.
With a shock I realised I was staring. I then saw the tears and look of embarrassed anguish in her eyes.
We looked away feeling like shits. We had been so engrossed in gazing at Shirley's charms that we hadn't noticed the price she was paying. Pete got up and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Cover yourself up, there's no need for that. Eat as much as you like," he said kindly.
Shirley sat back down in silence but with a look of gratitude which spoke volumes.
"When did you last eat?" I asked.
"I had some bread this morning," she replied.
I was appalled. What sort of father beat the shit out of his family, deprived them of food and sent his child out without a coat or warm clothes. Shirley was busy eating and enjoying a beer so I made a sign to the guys to leave the hut. Once outside I told them what was on my mind.
"Listen, Shirley needs help and her old man won't give it. I reckon its down to us to do something about it. What do you say."
For once Derek was silent. Pete nodded in his slow, contemplative way.
"Why not, but she won't want charity."
I had an idea.
"We can make her a member of the philosophical society and invite her to join us for our evening meetings. She can then join in our meals. I'll see if mum has any old coats. At least it will mean she gets fed, is warm and has some friends."
A female member of the group – a radical idea! Why not! Both my two colleagues grinned in agreement.
We went back into the hut and I put my proposition to Shirley. I watched tears squeeze from her eyes and track down her not too clean cheeks.
She sat in silence for a couple of minutes before finally standing. With astonishing solemnity she approached each of us, shook us by the hand, gave a kiss and said thankyou. She then sat down with a grin on her face.
"I think this deserves another beer," Pete announced and four bottles were opened and drunk with relish.
As we sat enjoying the warmth of friendship I couldn't help but worry. Had Shirley offered her body to anyone before and had they, unlike us, accepted the offer?
Inviting Shirley to our circle proved to be beneficial all round. We were able to keep an eye on her and make sure that she had some comfort and friendship. We couldn't stop her old man beating her up but we could provide comfort to her cuts and bruises. Pete became Shirley's main defender – he had taken to her in a big way and it was clear that the feeling was mutual. You might ask why we didn't report matters to the police but the reality was that in those days the question of home violence was not seen as being a problem by the police. Provided he didn't murder anyone, a man was seen as being master in his own home.
Shirley gave us a lot in return. None of us had spoken to Shirley before and we didn't really know her. Once she came out of her shell we discovered that Shirley had a sharp and intelligent mind and that she was gifted with an incisive sense of humour. It made us realise how limited we guys had been in our scope of conversation. With Shirley present each meeting of the society proved to be an hilarious and revealing experience.
A couple of months later dad came home from work with a an uncharacteristically worried look on his face. He handed mum air-mail letter. As she read I could see a look of concern cross her face.
"Oh, how awful," she finally sighed. "Jack, we must help." Simon, Joan and I looked on in confusion.
"Are you going to let us in on the secret?" Simon asked.
"This will effect us all so you had better hear about it." Dad began.
I knew that dad's family on his mother's side came from Poland. He had been out there before the war but hadn't been in touch with his family for 15 years. The letter was from his cousin. It transpired that part of the family lived in a small village roughly 50 miles from Warsaw. A local Gestapo officer had been killed by a bomb put in his car by partisans and in retribution the whole village had been rounded up and shot. All of our family had been murdered except for my cousin twice removed, a thirteen year old girl. She had been shot twice in the body but had been covered by other bodies so that she avoided being given the coup de grace by the officer in charge of the firing squad. She had managed to escape when it got dark and was found by partisans.
She survived her wounds, but only just, and spent six months recovering. Now that the war was over, she had no-one to look after her and her future in Poland looked bleak. The letter asked if my father would be prepared to offer her a home in England. Doing some quick mental arithmetic I reckoned she would be the same age as me.
Dad was no fool and had contacted one or two government offices before deciding. It transpired that the government were prepared to help foreign relatives of British citizens who wished to emigrate. Assistance was available in terms of extra rations and paid support.
"I would like to help her if you all agree," Dad asked.
"Where would she sleep?" Joan asked.
"I'm afraid you would have to share," Mum replied.
Joan gave an exaggerated grimace of disapproval. She particularly liked the fact that she didn't have to share her bedroom.
"But she does need our help and I'm sure she'll be good fun," Mum gave a winning smile.
Joan nodded in acquiescence, when it came down to it she knew what was right.
I didn't see any real difficulties. With both mum, dad and Simon working we lived comfortably within the post-war restrictions. The extra grant would help.
And so it was agreed and Dad wrote a letter in reply.
I found the whole affair very upsetting. We were aware that a lot of disgraceful things were done during the war but we had no conception of the atrocities described in the letter.
Everything went quiet for the next few weeks and we all forgot about the matter until a second letter arrived.
"She's arriving next Saturday," Dad announced. "She's coming on an RAF flight coming into an airfield near Luton."
One of Dad's mates at work owned a car and offered to take him to the airfield to collect the girl.
We all spent the week full of excited expectation. The girl's story and obvious bravery had captured my imagination and I looked forward to meeting her. Dad left early on the Saturday and mum and Joan spent the morning getting the bedroom ready. The room was quite small and the only easy way of fitting the two girls in was to replace the single bed with a double.
"You girls will have to share a bed, I'm afraid," Mum told Joan. Joan pretended to mind but we knew that she was looking forward to sharing. For my part, I had the job of doing last minute shopping tasks.
Mum had been working hard over the previous couple of weeks. She had scoured the local clothes shops to get together suitable new clothes for the girl. Although rationing was in force, it was surprising what a little persuasion could do to get extra things. All the shop owners knew Mum and liked her. When they heard about our guest they all wanted to help. Soon she had a good collection of underwear, skirts, dresses and sweaters. She also managed to find a good quality overcoat and two pairs of shoes.
The day seemed to drag until finally a small black Ford car pulled up at the house. Dad got out of the car and helped our guest to the house. We were shocked at the sight of the girl. Her face was so pale as to appear almost white. She had long black hair which fell across her face. She wore a plain brown skirt and a faded blue woollen sweater. Her body was thin although her breasts looked full under her tight sweater.
She paused at the door, looked up, gave a wan smile and said "hello" in strongly accented English.