Jul 2005 Journal

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When the war was over

After the nomadic existence of the war years - evacuation to escape from the Blitz and, later, the flying bombs - marriage put me in touch with new experiences and lifestyles. At this time, the war had not long been over. London was like a weary old lady, grey and battered and with many destroyed houses like missing teeth in the middle of terraces. There was still food rationing but at least my husband and I were able to settle in one place, a small top-floor flat in Islington. We couldn't afford to furnish it properly on his salary as assistant to a local general practitioner, but this didn't bother us too much.

From this vantage point I was able to observe the world of the senior doctor's establishment. He lived down the road from us in a splendid Georgian house in five floors. The top two floors were occupied by an elderly widow and the manageress of the local dairy respectively. The rest was the doctor's domain. At the bottom of the garden was a small brick building - the surgery. A conduit running along the garden wall allowed the clamour of the bells from the surgery to be reproduced in the house.

To serve this household, which included the doctor's wife and two grown-up children, seemed to require a veritable army. There was Minnie, a gaunt woman whose role was to clean the surgery. This she did selectively, choosing for her special attention the brass plate and the miniature scales used to weigh drugs for private patients. The cobwebs between the bottles of tincts and mists were beneath her notice.

In the house reigned Jeanie, the housekeeper. She had a strong Scots accent and suffered from a deaf husband. Her duties were general and included some cleaning and cooking. Alongside her was Nursie, the children's nurse now redundant as to her original function but who helped with answering the phone and other duties.

Once a fortnight came Florrie, the seamstress. Her job was to turn sheets sides to middle, repair old curtains and generally do any sewing that was required by different members of the family. This she did on an ancient Singer hand machine. The springtime brought Nobby, the gardener, to prune the roses and plant cabbages in the vegetable patch near the surgery.

Another regular attender was Mrs Jones, the baker who supplied the household with bread and cakes, and Cohen, the greengrocer who did likewise for fruit and vegetables. Harmer the butcher delivered meat once a week. How strictly he kept to the rationing was not clear but he discharged his produce into a safe which was next to the basement door and to which he had the key.

Down the road was Hutch, the garage-owner, a lugubrious man in brown overalls who serviced the family's cars, including an ancient Morris Minor named Christabelle which needed double declutching and got stuck in the tramlines at Highbury Corner. As the doctor's assistant, my husband was allowed to use this contraption on his visits to patients before he could afford to buy his own car. This was particularly necessary on Saturday afternoon when the senior partner and his wife went to watch Arsenal play and practise - nothing was allowed to interfere with this important activity.

What happened to this constellation when the doctor retired I have no idea, but it was something of an education for me to watch it in its heyday.
Martha Blend

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