It's still raining so you start doing things you have wanted to do for some time. One of my intentions was at last to put a story to paper which has been going around in my head for some time.
It takes place in the East End of London where I grew up, the main action being from 1944 to the year 2000. The story is fiction and has no connection to people either living or passed on, although I took a few ideas from my childhood and memories that my grandparents and parents had passed on to me. As I wanted an illustration I found one on the net showing the beach at the Tower of London. It did exist and I remember as a kid going their with my mum and aunt and cousins. It was our sort of "day out to the sea side". The beach was artificial, the sand was deposited by the local government. Whether the Thames was clean enough to swim in I don't know, but my cousins and I survived. It seems strange now looking back, but we actually played and swam within the site of the Tower Bridge. In the story I have written I could imagine that Suzanna and her son Fred may have visited this beach at week-ends.
The Life of Suzanna Deschamps and the cats
Suzanna Deschamps knew that there was something in the air. Actually she always seemed to know when something was going to happen. It was as if something somewhere was sending signals that she was receiving. She had never forgotten the day when her husband Fred was called up into the army. It was the second world war and he was sent to Italy. She did not want to let him go, she wanted him to stay at home. She was 3 months pregnant, but knew somehow that Fred would never see his child.
“I have to go Suzi” said Fred “it’s my duty. I won’t be on my own, all the men of my age in the neighbourhood will be going.”
“I can’t help it Fred, I just have a funny feeling that I won’t see you again” was the answer.
“Suzi please don’t worry, I can look after myself and if anything happens I will get word to you.”
Suzanna hugged Fred goodbye with tears in her eyes knowing that it would be the last hug she would ever give Fred.
Fred did get “word” to Suzanna through the British Army. Killed in action was the news she received four months after he had left. She had her father to comfort her over her loss, who lived in the same house on the ground floor. The three brothers were stationed in the 8th army in El Alamein but somehow Suzanna knew they would come home when the war was over.
Suzanna had grown up in the East End of London. Fred Deschamps was the son of one of the neighbours and they had met at school. Fred had always been attracted to the slim girl in his class with the wonderful blue eyes and black hair and Suzanna knew that Fred would be the man she would one day marry. Although Fred had a strange name for an East London cockney, he was a Huguenot descendent and proud of it. Suzanna’s mother died giving birth to her 12 year younger brother, and being the only woman in the household she took on the task of bringing up her brothers and looking after her father. For this reason she could not marry Fred until she was 30 years old.
They lived in a small square of attached houses. There was just one through road to separate their square from a second square. The houses were typical of the East End at the time, outside toilet, no bath and no hot water. Not that they did not take a bath. She remembered well the Friday evenings when a metal bath was filled with boiling water and one brother after the other had his weekly cleansing ritual. Her father usually spent Friday evening in the local ‘pub and had his bath on Tuesday evening. Monday was reserved for the washing. Water was boiled in a large container on the cooking range which was heated by a coal fire underneath and the dirty linen was put into it to be washed.
She was proud that all her brothers managed to do well at the local school and all had regular work before the war broke out. All three brothers worked at the local docks, following in her father’s footsteps. The docks were always a so-called closed shop and if a man could get into the docks as a regular worker, then he was lucky.
Suzanna did not have a lot of time to herself, as apart from looking after the family, she was also working at the Woolwich Arsenal helping her country in the manufacture of arms and munitions for the war. At the back of the small house in the East End of London, they had a small garden where she liked to grow some flowers, although during the war half was taken over with the shelter which was the sleeping quarters during the air raids, when the nearby docks were being bombed. She and her father were both thankful in the morning when the house was still in one piece and had not been bombed.
A few houses were hit in the East End and many people died. In those days nearly every family had a cat to ward off the mice which were a plague at that time. Many cats were left homeless through the air raids and Suzanna always put a plate of food out for them in the evening. She would search for food remainders that were left over from the markets or from other people’s tables, or would scrape a few pennies together and buy some offal that the local butcher could not sell, cook it, mince it and put it out for the cats. She had a feeling that the cats were suffering as much as the people in this war and as she could not defend her country as a woman, she decided to do what she could on the home front. There was something else. She somehow felt how the cats were suffering without their owners and home and wanted to help them. One cat particularly interested Suzanna. It was a slim shorthaired light brown cat with wonderful almond eyes. It seemed that this cat was the leader, but often used to rub her head on Suzanna’s hand. Suzanna had been once or twice to the British museum and seen the Egyptian collection. She remembered the cat statues that the ancient Egyptians had made and they reminded her of this slim brown cat.
At the age of 34 Suzanna gave birth to a healthy baby boy two weeks before the war came to an end. She called him Fred, after his father. Fred grew up healthy and his uncles, who were also married by this time, helped to replace the father he never knew. They had all found dwellings near the small square where they had grown up, his eldest uncle Jack was even living only a few doors away. He had returned from the 8th army bearing a few medals for bravery (as Suzanna knew he would) and was a bit of the hero of the street. Suzanna’s father was a dock worker and when the boys came back from the army, they also went back to the docks to work.
Suzanna now had more room in the house where she had grown up. Her father lived in the 3 rooms downstairs and she had the 3 rooms on the top floor. Fred junior had his own room and was now going to the local school. Suzanna was still feeding the stray cats and would often have a “talk” with them, although she of course never got an answer. They just looked at her with their big green eyes and blinked.
Fred was quite an intelligent boy and made his way well in the school. So well, that he had qualified for the grammar school. Suzanna had found work as a shop assistant. She was earning enough for her and Fred to live on, but grammar school meant that money would have to be found to cover the expenses of the uniform Fred would need, as well as other extras. That evening she made tea for her father and son and put some food out for the cats as usual. She went to bed, although had some trouble falling asleep as it seemed that the cats in the neighbourhood were really making a lot of noise.
The next morning she woke up as usual, made Fred his breakfast and got ready for work. When Fred came home from school that day, he had a letter from his school for his mother.
“Dear Mrs. Deschamps
We would like to inform that due to a flood in the warehouse storing the uniforms for your son’s future grammar school, we have the opportunity to be able to sell the uniforms in question at half price. Please find enclosed a list of the various articles with sizes and mark the items that may be of interest.
We can assure you that the goods in question are in perfect condition and have only water damage which can easily be removed.
Awaiting your further news
The grammar school directors”
This was the solution to the financial worries that Suzanna had. She, of course, wrote straight away and sent in her list of items she would need for Fred. She eventually received the clothing she had ordered and found them to be in more or less perfect condition. The few stains were easily removed under Suzanna’s capable hands.
As newspapers were not something that regularly entered the Deschamps household Suzanna missed an interesting article which had appeared on that day.
“Flooding in warehouse containing school uniforms ready for the new term.
The firemen and police were called to a warehouse in the East End of London containing a complete new delivery of school uniforms. Six inches of water covered the floor. The police found evidence that the damage had been caused through the breakage of a rubber water pipe connection in the room concerned. It seemed that the rubber had been severed by a cutting instrument, although there was no trace of such an instrument in the warehouse. Passers by noticed some 20 cats all running from the warehouse in the evening, their fur dripping water along the ground as they ran, some time before the firemen and police were called.”
Now Fred could start his new term at the grammar school in his school uniform. Luckily the school was not far from where he lived and although he could take a bus, he preferred to walk in the morning. He had so much to thank his mother for, as he knew it was not so easy without a father in the house and he did not want to burden her with more expense. The walk was only twenty minutes and he found that the school children living nearby that came with the bus often arrived later because of the traffic jams.
Time passed by, although Suzanna was getting older she was content to have such a good son and family. Fred had done well at school and decided that he would like to become a school teacher himself. Suzanna was proud that she would have a school teacher in the family, although something told her that this would also have a negative side to it. Fred went to a teacher training college and passed his exams, being qualified as a primary school teacher. Eventually Fred moved out and found himself a flat nearer to the school where he was teaching in North London. Suzanna felt a bit lonely after he had gone, but he would call on his mum usually for Sunday dinner.
Although Fred was happy in his new job as a teacher, he was still young and wanted to make something out of his life. It was at this time that Australia was looking for young people to help to build their nation. There was a programme to help people in England to come to Australia. The fare on the ship was very reasonable and when they arrived they would have help from the Australian nation to find a job and teachers were needed. This was exactly what Fred was looking for, but was a bit worried about telling his mum about it. He had already collected the documents from the Australian authorities and was on his way home from work wondering how to tell Suzanna. On Sunday morning he got ready to go to his mother for lunch as usual and decided it was now or never. As he got off the bus near his mother’s house, he felt something rub against his leg. He looked down and saw a blue eyed kitten, probably not older than 3 weeks. He had learnt a lot about cats from his mother and would often help her as a boy to feed the local homeless cat population. He had no idea where this kitten came from but it started purring and following Fred up to his mother’s door.
He knocked on the door and his mother opened. She saw the kitten at Fred’s feet
“What have you got there, Fred? He is so sweet.”
"He followed me from the bus stop, I havn’t a clue where he came from” answered Fred.
"Well, you had better come in Fred, and bring your kitten with you. He cannot be more than a few weeks old”
Fred and the kitten came in. By this time Suzanna was not cooking offal for the cats anymore, but always had a tin of cat meat at home so gave the kitten a portion. The kitten blinked twice and ate the meat. He then went over to a bowl of water Suzanna had put down for it and drank.
Then Fred knew he would have to talk to his mum.
“Mum, I have been meaning to tell you something for some time”
“Fred, you are going away”
“How do you know mum?”
“I suppose it is the way I always seem to know things. Even this little kitten seems to want to tell me that. Although I am now going to be completely alone, he has been sent to look after me.”
Then Fred told his mother about the plans he had to go to Australia as a teacher, although he was worried about the way his mother might react.
Suzanna was silent for a time, trying to put her thoughts together, but then gave her answer.
“Fred, it has not been easy for me to take on the responsibility of bringing up a son without a father, but you have been such a good boy to your mother and together we have gone through so many problems, that I am definitely not going to stand in the way for you to make a better life. Go with my blessing and make your way in this world. Although this little kitten is not a replacement for my son, it’s some sort of sign and I believe more than a coincidence that you brought this kitten with you today of all days.”
In a way Fred was relieved for his mother’s understanding, but he had mixed feelings when he went home that evening. He would not be just round the corner, but a few thousand miles away. When his mother got up in the morning, he would be going to bed and her Winter would be his Summer. He made no empty promises to his mother about coming to see her again one day, as he just did not know whether he could keep this promise.
After Fred had left Suzanna, the kitten jumped on her lap and started purring and licking her hand, as if to say don’t worry, I will now look after you. Of course, what Suzanna did not know was that this kitten was the son of one of the cats she looked after, not just one of the cats, but the alpha cat, the one all the others followed and took their instructions from. It was the kitten’s mother that had organised the warehouse raid. The kitten’s mother had many children and she knew that her kitten would be in good hands.
When Suzanna went to bed that night, she tossed and turned and could not sleep. When she eventually got to sleep she had a dream. She and Fred were eating Sunday lunch but they were not alone. Fred had brought his wife to dinner and his baby girl who was playing with Suzanna’s cat. The next morning Suzanna awoke and just wished that the dream would one day come true, but knew that it would not be in her life time.
The day came for Fred’s departure to Australia. His ship was to sail from Tilbury, but he told his mother not to accompany him to the ship and he spent his last Sunday dinner in London with his mother. Suzanna had made a small parcel for Fred with some old family photos. She wanted Fred to have them as she knew one day he would have a family of his own and Fred could show them to his children. Fred had brought his camera with him and took some photographs of his mother and Merlin which was the name Suzanna had given to the kitten which had grown into a stately black long-furred cat. On the way from the bus stop to his mother’s house he had also taken some photos. He wanted a memory of the area where he grew up.
Two days later Fred was on the ship winding its way along the Thames estuary with the next port of call being the Canary Islands. Such names were foreign to Fred’s ears. He had never set his foot out of England. He soon got used to life on the ship. The passengers did not have their own cabins as for the price of five English pounds this was not included. People travelling on their own had to share their cabins, but as everyone had the same target, to start a new life in Australia, this was no problem for the immigrants.
One morning Fred made his way to the breakfast room which was fairly crowded. He found an empty seat next to a girl about his own age. Fred thought this was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. He soon found out that her name was Jennifer, and that she was also a primary school teacher who came from South London. Her parents had both been killed in an accident and she had been brought up by her grandmother who had died some months before, so as she had no ties in England, she also decided to try her luck in Australia.
The journey took six weeks across the sea and eventually the Australian coast was reached. During the voyage Fred and Jennifer had got to know each other and had fallen in love. They were married on board the ship a week before the Australian destination was reached and were now ready to start their life in Australia together. After reaching land, they were asked a lot of questions and had to fill out a lot of forms, but they were eventually told that the schools in Alice Springs needed teachers and they would be welcome to start their life in Australia in this town.
Suzanna had received many letters from her son from various ports of call telling her about the woman that had stepped into his life and of their wedding on board the ship. Then one day she received the letter which read as follows:
After the long journey to Australia and our arrival Jennifer and I have now accepted a job as school teachers in the town of Alice Springs. We thought about it – a town like Sydney or Melbourne would have been more like the sort of thing we were used to, but decided that together we would start our new life in completely different surroundings and there is nothing here to compare to the East End of London.
We are in the middle of Australia surrounded by desert, although the town is quite modern. The school where we teach is very nice and many of the children have also only been in Australia for a few years, their parents also being immigrants or pommies as we are called by the Australian population. Some are aborigines, the children of the original natives of Australia. It is all very different to London, but Jennifer and I are very happy. We have a small house but will have to look around for something a bit bigger with an extra bedroom. Mum you are going to become a grandmother.”
Suzanna was so happy. Even if she did not have the chance to see her son and his family, she knew in her heart and mind that he was happy and satisfied.
The years passed and Fred and his wife had a daughter Christine. They sent photos to Suzanna and she framed them and put them on her mantelpiece in the living room. Suzanna now had grey hair and was in her mid 80’s. It was almost the turn of the century. Merlin still lived with her and was one of the happiest cats in the street. Strangely Merlin was now around 45 years old, but Suzanna never thought about it. Merlin had been with her since her son left and life without Merlin was just not imaginable. Now and again he would go out on his own but he always came back to Suzanna and curled up at her feet or on her chair for a purring session. Suzanna and her cat were well known to the neighbours. When she went out, Merlin was often seen walking behind her or waiting for her return on the door step. Merlin was free, but Suzanna knew that he would never leave her.
London was also changing. Old buildings were being demolished to make room for new. The East End of London was near to the city of London, and the young office chiefs in the City were moving into parts of East London, particularly the dock areas which had now been modernised. These changes eventually came to Suzanna’s street. A letter was sent from the local council to all the inhabitants that the street would be closed down and demolished within a year and that everyone would have help to find a new house, in greater London. Suzanna was very unhappy, after growing up and living in her house for over 80 years, she would have to live somewhere where she knew no-one and Merlin would also have to go somewhere else.
Gradually the neighbours that Suzanna had known all her life, children that were now married with their own families, had left the street. The only house that still had curtains on its windows was Suzanna’s house. One evening Merlin looked into the eyes of Suzanna and for the first time spoke to Suzanna. Since Fred left, Suzanna always had the feeling that Merlin understood her when she would pass a few comments to him and now Merlin spoke.
"Suzanna it is time for both of us to go. My life with you has been the happiest life that a cat can imagine. My mother told me to stay with you and make sure that no harm would come to you. She was always grateful for the way you looked after the cats when no-one wanted us any more. I have now been too long in this world, but I will stay with you until we both take our last breaths.”
Suzanna looked into Merlin’s eyes and gave him a smile. She was thankful for the life she had led with Merlin.
The next morning there was a knock on Suzanna’s door, but no-one opened the door. It was the removal men come to collect her furniture and to take Suzanna to a senior citizen’s home. They knew that an old lady lived in the house and had ignored their letters to find another home. As the door remained closed, the police were called and broke the door down. They found Suzanna with Merlin in a chair in the living room together.They had both closed their eyes forever on the world, but both seemed so happy and peaceful together.
The cats living in the area where Suzanna lived were a bit special. For various reasons they no longer had any owners and had to fend for themselves. These cats were very lucky, not only did they have Suzanna who did what she could for them, but their leader was an attractive female cat called Cleo. She had very long legs, pointed ears and short brown fur with black spots. Cleo lived in the local museum. The museum was known for its collection of Victorian clothing and toys and she just loved the smell of the exhibits. She actually lived in the cellar where the coal was kept. It was warm in the Winter and in Summer there was a park next door where she could lay in the sun.
Cleo’s mother was proud of her daughter. It was custom in this cat family that the first girl was to be called Cleo and the first boy Tut. Cleo was the first born of her mother followed by brother Tut. When Cleo asked her mother why this was, her mother said not to ask too many questions, but our ancestors came from a land far away and were respected members of the community. They were even worshipped. Cleo felt this herself, as she often heard the humans speaking and understood their words. She also told Cleo that they were a very special line of cats and had the gift of becoming very old for a cat. Even the partners the cats found would be infected with this gift and a long happy life with the same partner was granted.
As Cleo got older she met a cat in the park next door. A stately black cat with long fur, who was known as Sailor. This came from the fact that he was born on a ship and came on land in the docks of London. Eventually Sailor was left to himself and found his way to the park next to the museum. Sailor often told Cleo stories about living on a ship and of other countries and Cleo just loved listening.
Eventually Sailor moved into the cellar of the museum and Cleo and Sailor had their first children. They were quite a mixed bunch. Short legs, long legs, different types of fur colours and lengths, but they were a happy cat family. Then the second world war started and the cats got very frightened. Many lost their homes and Cleo allowed them to stay where she was living. Food was scarce and the cats had to take what they could find. Cleo realised that there was one place in the East End where there was always food in the evening, naturally the food that Suzanna always got ready for them. She watched Suzanna from a distance and listened to her talking to the cats and understood. She tried to talk to Suzanna, but could not as although Suzanna understood, she was a human and just did not believe it possible.
It was one evening when Cleo listened to Suzanna’s thoughts and realised the financial problems she was having because she needed money to buy her son the school uniform. Cleo sent out the message in the cat world and soon got an answer where the uniforms were stored. She then had a brilliant idea and called twenty cats to her with the sharpest teeth. The cats were ready to help as Suzanna had helped them over the years and the rest is known.
What about Merlin – well he was a very special cat. Merlin was the last cat that Cleo and Sailor had together. They were both getting on in years, but when Merlin was born he was the only survivor of 5 kittens and Cleo knew he would have to have a good home as Cleo’s years were running out and Sailor was not the youngest any more. Cleo heard that Fred was leaving and she liked Fred, as he would often come and talk to the cats with his mother. She decided that Suzanna would be the best mother that Merlin could have. She also knew that Merlin was a special cat inheriting her special gift of long life. Although he looked like his father, his way of thinking was completely Cleo’s family. It was Cleo that took Merlin onto the street when Fred was coming from the bus stop and she disappeared behind a tree to see what would happen. After Fred took Merlin to Suzanna Cleo knew that her job on earth was done and she and Sailor were never seen again.
Ten years later Christine Deschamps arrived at London Airport from Sydney in Australia. She had quite a journey behind her. First of all she flew from Alice Springs to Sydney and then the long flight from Australia to London. Her dream had come true. She had always wanted to visit the town of her ancestors. Christine had also become a teacher and was visiting London for six months on an exchange programme. She had been able to take over the flat where her exchange partner lived and the exchange was now on her way to Alice Springs in Australia.
Before Christine left Australia her father made sure that she had the photos with her that his mother had given him when he left England for the last time. Fred had been back only once to England when his mother had died. He came on his own and organised her funeral and insisted that Merlin was to be buried with her. This was actually not allowed, but for money anything can be done and one of the grave diggers was very obliging in this respect. Fred had often had thoughts about how his mother and cat had both ceased to live at the same time, but then he often wondered about his mother and the cats.
Fred had given instructions to Christine how to find the street where he and his mother lived and Christine knew her father would be happy if she paid a visit. She settled down quite well in London and soon got to know her way around. One Sunday after being already in London for a month, she decided to go to the East End and visit her father’s family street. She followed the instructions her father had given her and asked some people the way. This proved to be difficult as most of the people were not natives of the East End, and came from other countries, being immigrants themselves. Even the street names were now written in three languages and Christine was glad to see that one of the languages was English. What she found was a small park with a few trees and a bench to rest on beneath one of the trees. It was Autumn and the park looked very nice, the colourful leaves on the trees which were already forming piles on the ground. She found it difficult to imagine that only a few years ago over 50 houses stood in two rows, one either side of the square where she was sitting.
She felt sad and would so much have liked to have met her grandmother. Suddenly she felt something warm on her leg and when she looked down there was a black cat rubbing its head on her leg. Christine had experience with cats. Where she lived they were often falling prey to the dingos that roamed in wild herds and she was always taking in kittens that were left without their mother. She gave the cat a stroke under his chin and he started purring and jumped up on the bench and lay down next to her. A ray of sunshine cut through the trees opposite to the bench where Christine was sitting with the cat.
“You are a pretty cat” said Christine “where do you come from?”
Christine was surprised as she had not seen the cat coming. Suddenly she heard someone calling
“Where are you hiding, you little rascal” and then Christine saw a little old lady with wonderful blue eyes and grey hair searching. Her eyes fell on the seat where Christine was sitting.
“There you are, kitty, I have been searching for you everywhere. Always hiding and playing tricks. It looks like you have found someone to cuddle up to.”
The lady came up to Christine and took the cat in her arms. The cat seemed to be quite happy and then the lady sat down next to Christine.
“Thank you for looking after my kitty, he is always wandering off.”
Christine answered that it was no problem as it was such a lovely cat.
“You are not from here” asked the lady “and your English sounds a bit different”
“No” answered Christine “although my family came from London, I grew up in Australia”.
“I heard that is a lovely country, plenty of open space and fresh air. What brings you to the east end of London?” the lady asked.
“Actually I wanted to visit the street where my dad grew up with his family, but it seems to have disappeared, and the park where we are sitting has replaced it.”
“Oh yes” continued the lady “a lot of things have changed in this area, some for the best, but others not so much. People used to talk to each other, neighbours would help each other. You didn’t have to lock your doors and didn’t have to be frightened that things would get stolen. I suppose something good is that everyone has their own bathroom with hot running water. In my younger days we had to fill up a metal bath in the kitchen to have a good wash.”
“My dad told me about that – perhaps you might have known him. He left many years ago but his mother was Suzanna Deschamps and his name was Fred.”
It seemed to Suzanna that the old lady’s face had a quiet smile on it and she looked at Christine.
“Are you Christine?” she asked
“Yes, how do you know my name”
“I know a lot” she answered “and now I have to go. Come Merlin, we have to go back to where we came from.”
Merlin stretched himself and licked Christine’s hand as if to say I like you.
“Just a minute” Christine said “I would like to ask you a few questions. Did you say your cat’s name was Merlin”
“Yes dear, but I really have to go now”
“But please tell me your name before you go”
“Oh, how absent minded I get these days” The old lady gave a mischievous laugh and took Christine’s hand in hers.
“I think you know who I am Christine” she said and gave Christine a loving hug. She then walked off with Merlin the cat. Christine wanted to follow her, but there was a strong wind that suddenly blew stirring the fallen leaves up on the ground to such an extent that Christine could no longer see where the lady was going. When the wind calmed down the lady and the cat were gone.
Five months later Christine returned to her father and mother in Australia. She did not tell her parents about the meeting she had in the street where her father’s house once stood, but she knew why.