My Mum screamed when she raised the hinged pinewood lid up from the bath to lean it back against the kitchen wall. There was a rat in the bath, but it didn’t move. It was dead. I don’t know why, but even now, so many years later, that simple scene from my childhood remains a vivid and enduring image for me.
At that time, the worst of the Blitz was over – or so it was thought – and we’d returned to London to live in rooms high up on the third floor of a terrace house in Notting Hill. The terrace was similar in design to that shown in the above photo, except the front door was sheltered by a large porch that was supported by two impressive columns. And there were exactly five steps leading down from the porch to the street.
I’ve had a look at the house as it is now on Google Street View. Nothing much has changed over the past 70 years, except for the outside paintwork that I remember as a dull flaking grey but is now a smart white, and today there are far prettier curtains and modern blinds in the windows. It looks positively cheerful and upmarket now. All the same, I’m glad I’m not there anymore. Too many bad memories, I suppose, like waking up and crying because of “Bobbies”. That was my name for the doodlebugs.
But I digress. It wasn’t the flaky paintwork, the blackout curtains or the war that made the house such a depressing place. It was the ogress, our landlady at the time, who was far more frightening. She was very much older than my young Mum, and shorter, and quite bent with a dowager’s hump that made her turn her head sideways to look at people. Her hair was unkempt, grey and straggly, and she always wore a black woollen shawl that was thrown over her shoulders and tied into a fierce double knot at the front.
She lived alone in the basement flat, but spent most of her days sat in a spindly wooden chair just outside the main front door on the porchway. This enabled her to monitor the comings and goings of all her tenants and their visitors. There was no alternative route for the tenants – we all had to use the porchway, and that’s where the weekly rents in advance were paid.
The landlady wasn’t nice. She’d bare her teeth and snarl at me when my Mum wasn’t looking, and there was one time when I was sure she deliberately tried to trip me up with her walking cane.
One day, my Mum gave the landlady her money in the rent book, just like every week. But the landlady gave the rent book back unsigned. My Mum didn’t notice until we were all the way up to the top of the house, and she rushed back downstairs. I followed, but by the time I’d navigated our three flights of narrow stairs down to the front door, both my Mum and the landlady were arguing.
The landlady was getting up up from her chair just as I arrived and the worst happened. I tripped over the front door threshold, which sent me stumbling onto the porch and into the back of the chair, knocking it forward so that the seat hit the landlady behind her knees. That’s when the landlady fell all the way down the steps, cracking her head on the side railings and again on the pavement below. And the chair followed, careering down the steps to land on top of her.
Mum was kneeling next to the landlady, trying to use the shawl to stem the blood flowing from the landlady’s head, and was shouting for help as I picked up the landlady’s purse. As more and more people arrived, I gave the purse to my friend Miffy for safe-keeping.
We never saw the landlady again. It was several weeks later, just before Christmas and just after the landlady’s son had given all the tenants formal notice to leave, that my Mum received a small and anonymous parcel through the post. It contained the huge sum of fifty-five pounds, eleven shillings and three pence.
I’m sure I recognised Miffy’s handwriting on the outside of the parcel. And I should have mentioned, if I haven’t before, that Miffy (that is his nickname – from his initials MIF) lived with me and my Mum at the time.
He was My Imaginary Friend then, just as he is today.
2 years ago