The word was out. It infiltrated through the very air. The war was over. I heard the words but they didn't sink in. Was I really able to go from day to day without the fear of being killed? I guess I was a little numb. Strangely I was going to miss the war. We all were. On May 8, we celebrated VE Day. It was a huge party all over Britain. Tolworth was no exception. It went on throughout the night. The pubs stayed open. Food was scarce as rationing was tight but people somehow found stuff to eat, drink, and be merry. The relief wives and sweethearts and the men and women in uniform must have felt was unimaginable to an eight year old going on nine. The adult community went berserk.
Then the realization soaked in that many of the intense daily duties that had occupied everyone for so long were no longer necessary. I could walk to school without fear. So, I took a small notebook and pencil down to the roundabout and stationed myself near the Odeon Cinema on Ewell Road. Then, I proceeded to record the registration numbers of every London County Council double-decker bus that stopped there. It was some sort of self-important fantasy gesture. I was surely diligent. I took the book home daily and received approval from the adults. So, I assumed that what I was doing had to be useful in some way.
My mother was gone up to London frequently and I suppose my duties as "bus inspector' occupied me and prevented me from "having a cow" over her absences. I never knew what she was about and she never shared it with me. Still, I have managed to piece together over the years a plausible scenario of what went on with the secret Sybil Allan.
Keith Kimber, my father had been supporting my mother and I. I assume any support for her ended with her marriage to Jim Allan. Jim, my stepfather had no family in Canada. So Mummy hatched a plot. She wanted Jim to transfer to the British Army and remain in England as a career soldier. The Kimber family would continue to support me. She continued to tell me that Keith who she referred to as her husband had been mustard gassed in the First World War and had died from the long term effects of this shortly after my birth and that was the reason we lived with Frank and Annie. Keith was not dead and they were never married. But being a respectable widow with a child was important to her. Sybil's efforts to cover the truth and fabricate a "respectable" background occupied her throughout her life. It made her a very defensive and angry soul.
Britain was virtually bankrupt and had no place for Canadian servicemen in the British military. Jim's options were clear. He would be shifted to the Pacific Theatre if the Japanese did not surrender or he would be sent back to Canada and discharged. Fortunately for everyone, after absorbing the firebombing of Tokyo and two atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese packed it in. That August the war finally came to an end. The end came when I was across the bypass in a field learning to stook corn (wheat). Things were changing rapidly. Jim was slated to go home. Sybil and I were to follow as his dependents.
Mysteriously, Sybil came into a considerable amount of money. It was most likely my birthright, a lump sum paid by the Kimbers for my support and education once I got to Canada. Sybil and Jim quickly discovered that British funds were frozen. The money could not leave the British Isles. So the decision was made to squander it and we did. Every week we, including Annie and Frank went to the greyhound races in Wimbledon and blew a wad betting on the dogs. On the way home by train we got off at Surbiton and ate in restaurants. Menus were sparse and expensive. I always had Welsh Rabbit (rarebit) melted cheese on toast. Then Jim, Sybil and I went on a holiday to Brighton. When we arrived there was no room to be had. Jim went scouting and found accommodation. Mummy was shocked. Our rooms were in a Kosher house in a Jewish neighbourhood. The smell of food was everywhere. Still, Mummy was uncomfortable being there. Anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in most of Britain. Most people would not rent rooms from Jews that is why Jim found a vacancy. He was a brute but not a racist. In Brighton we lived with a Jewish family, friendly loving people who fed us wonderful food. We went to the Cinema where I saw "Incendiary Blonde" starring Betty Hutton and I walked back to our rooms quietly singing. " It had to be you! Wonderful you!" It was then I discovered that Jim was leaving for Canada as soon as we returned to Hook Rise. He was to be discharged in a place called Victoria, British Columbia. When he sent for us,we were going there to live. The idea frightened me. I would be leaving everything I knew far behind. I was going to Canada.
Shortly after Jim left, I woke up in the night. Something was going on in my grandparent's bedroom. The muffled sounds were foreboding. I knew something was terribly wrong. Still, I knew better than to interfere with the adults out of my own curiosity. So I waited. Finally, my mother came and told me that Granny Fiddler had died of a heart attack. I had seen death devastation and horror throughout the war. But this was different. I wasn't just a spectator. This was my granny. She was gone. For the first time I faced mortality. Believe it or not in spite of the war I had reached the age of nine believing that I could live forever if I wanted to. After all, didn't fairy tales end with "and they lived happily ever after!"
My grandmother's death caused me to ask my mother a question. "We all don't have to die, do we?" Sybil, as gently as she could informed me of my mortality. I cried that night for Granny Fiddler who was gone forever and for myself. Life would never be the same.
Annie was cremated and her ashes were left at Putney Vale. Frank was devastated. How many alpha males fall to pieces when the woman they have dominated, abused and used for so long is no longer there. I believe, Frank loved his wife dearly. The loss consumed him. Too late, he finally realized it was her strength that glued the family together and it was her sacrifice that provided his comfort.
Suddenly, we needed to move, to leave 48 Hook. I learned that I was really going to Canada at school where I became the centre of attention because my impending emigration. My mother informed the school before she informed me. She feared I would rebel over the change and I did. Everything that I knew was in England. I was nine and one of my female classmates liked me. There was a pleasant stirring. Obviously, I couldn't take her with me. To me Canada was like a setting for a Hollywood western. I did not know what to expect.
When our travel plans were confirmed by the Canadian military. Our departure times were several months in the future. The family was leaving 48 Hook because Frank was going to live with Wally and Pat and of course Art and Val. The Gay family down the street agreed to accommodate Mummy and I until we left. Michael Gay was probably my only friend. As the Spring of 1946 began to roll around, Michael and I helped his Dad build a new fence. I got myself covered in creosote and felt very self-important. Sybil provided me with more money than I had ever seen in one place to buy a parting gift for Mike. She, apparently, still had money to burn before leaving. I took the bus to Kingston-on-Thames and bought a number of Hornby clockwork trains, many bits and pieces. Here were all the things I desired and never got and I was giving them all to a friend along with my cherished shrapnel collection. Instead, I had a new passport done in London. It was an important document.
Nearby, an operational Lancaster was opened to the public and I got to crawl all over it I got to pretend I was every member of the crew. Still, there was something different about this plane. It was empty not the least bit like the ones that had left every evening to bomb. There were no men, no crew, no purpose, already it was gone and would not come back. It was one of the planes I loved and now it was useless. Wartime life was over for me and everyone else.
I did not have much but most of that could not go to Canada. We were also separated from our pets, 3 cats, Churchill, Eisenhower and Timeshenko and a black cocker spaniel named Smokey. Frank took his Pekingese, Pixie, Sybil with him. The Spring of '46 was a sad uncertain time for me. May came. We were packed. We said goodbyes to family. We said goodbye to the Gays. Then, Sybil and I got on a train in Tolworth and went to Waterloo Station in London. We registered in a hostel and Sybil took me for a last tour of London as bombed out as much of it was. I was frightened and sad and kept asking her to reassure me that we would soon be back in England. Well, I would not return for 46 years and I have seen none of my family with the exception of Frank to this date. Sybil was the only one to stay in touch by letter. She, however, never set foot in England again. So, my apprehension about our leaving was well founded.
The next morning Sybil and I were labeled as were many more women and children. The children were younger than me. Some were just babies. Most everyone did not know anyone. We were herded on to buses that took us to Waterloo station where we boarded a special train. All of the activity was supervised and managed by men and women in uniform with Canada on their shoulders. We weren't, but we surely felt like refugees. I was deathly afraid of losing sight of my mother. If I lost her her would I do? I would cry and carry on if I lost sight of her! The train took us to Southhampton where we were to board the Queen Mary. We got off the train and were shepherded up a gang plank into an opening in the side of what appeared to be a giant gray metal wall. Inside we discovered we were actually on the Queen Mary. We were finally shown to a cabin that we were to share with 3 other women and their children. It was crowded. We soon realized that the ship was still outfitted as a troop ship and we were the troops. The Mary carried just over 2000 passengers as a liner. As a troop ship she carried much more. As we left Southhampton she carried about 2000 American war brides and their offspring and nearly 1000 Canadian war brides and their children. Mummy and I were part of the Canadian contingent.
That evening as we sailed out into the English Channel and headed for Lands End. We received a treat, food! Food was hard to get in Britain. Everyone was strictly rationed. I was considered malnourished when I was examined in London so was Sybil. Well we went down to this great dining hall with wonderful smells. Food was everywhere. The Mary had been provisioned in New York and the Canadian and American wives and children discovered the could have anything they wanted and as much as they could eat. It was amazing! In front of me was more food than I had ever seen. I set out to eat it all. There was no Frank to rule the table. Engorged, my mother and I went to sleep. When I awoke, I did not feel well. Mummy was green. She was sick both literally and figuratively. We had passed Lands End and were out in the Atlantic. The Mary was huge and we were located high up. The Mary didn't pitch and toss bow to stern. She rolled. Because of her size she rolled very slowly but she rolled. All that good food on so many stomachs that had been mostly empty for years on a rolling ship.
I was seasick in the morning but surprisingly that was it for me. Sybil, however, was bed-ridden for the entire voyage. The stewards introduced her to a remedy to settle her stomach that saved her life, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, all we could drink for free. She lived off it. I had my share because I liked it. We had never seen it before. I had had Ginger Beer occasionally at the Toby Jug in Tolworth and loved it. Children weren't barred from pubs in England. Well,the war wasn't all bad, the Yanks brought us Coca Cola and the Canadian Red Cross followed with Canada Dry.
With Sybil in bed I became more independent. I went to the dining room on the second night. The food didn't smell as good this time. and surprisingly to me the place was virtually empty. It never really filled again for any meal for the entire voyage. I bumped into some other kids. They asked if I was Canadian or American. so, I was directed to the Canadian Red Cross where you could get face cloths and soap and toothpaste and other stuff for free. Then other "Canadian'" kids directed me to the American Red Cross. Well they had stuff. Pop and candy, cookies chocolate bars, games, toys: a cornucopia of wonderful stuff much of which wasn't good for you, It to was all free for the taking. I just stood there and looked. Then, a little cockney boy who was going to Saskatchewan told we could help ourselves. I said, "I'm a Canadian. That's not for us." He proceeded to line up and then he told the American Red Cross lady he was American. He helped himself. I crossed the ethical border. I became an American. In fact, by the third day there wasn't a Canadian child on board. Greed struck and I and many others pillaged the American Red Cross.
Life on the ocean was different. I rather enjoyed my new found quasi-independence, After all Mummy was confined to her bed and I knew exactly where to find her at all times. So, I roamed. I took walks around the enclosed sun deck usually alone. I was and always have been a solitary observer, alone with my thoughts. The first observation I made was that compared to the Atlantic ocean the Queen Mary was a tiny floating toy. We were surrounded by water, nothing but water as far as the eye could see. No land was anywhere to be glimpsed. Then a storm came. It's true what they say about Atlantic storms. All hell broke loose. To her credit the Mary seemed to shrug it off, continuing on her way and continuing to roll. From my perspective though, we appeared to be in imminent danger of disappearing completely, never to be seen again. I certainly wasn't alone in that opinion. From the enclosed sun deck, the water was no longer all around us. It towered over us everywhere. There was no horizon in any direction. Coupled with the idea that we had apparently dropped into a bottomless hole in the ocean, was the howling wind, zero visibility, and the crashing of water against the hull. But the Mary soldiered on. The steady sound of her engines gave comfort to everyone. This lasted until the crew called a lifeboat drill. We all had to go to our muster stations and don lifejackets. There were no exceptions for the sick. Mummy had to join me. Everyone was there. If there is a hell, I thought. Here it is! I believe the Mary spoke to me then. "Nonsense!" she said "This is nothing! I do it all the time." From that point forward I had many interesting conversations with the ship as she took the Atlantic in her stride. This ship had a soul. She still had it when next I boarded her in 1980 at Long Beach California. I choose to believe she was able to recognize me then in spite of the passage of time.