I met Jody Medland of Penworksmedia at Indie Insights, a meeting on self-publishing, . He self-published his scary thriller The Moors, a gothic tale of murder and child abuse set in present day Cornwall, and his company is about to publish a variety of books by other authors.
Jody liked the first three chapters of my memoir – Woman in a White Coat – so I am busy giving the manuscript a final edit before sending it to him.
I had originally written my memoir starting with my medical career, each chapter having flashbacks to my childhood. However, I decided it would work better if I split my memoir into two. Now, Volume 1 will cover my childhood until I start at medical school, 1931-1953. Volume 2 will take it from there.
What do you think?
Thursday October 8th 1931 was not an auspicious day to be born. The mild sunny weather of September and early October had turned cold and wet. The Great Depression was at its worst, and my father was laid off from his work as a journeyman printer. He tried to get temporary work in the docks, but he was turned away. He had to take work where he could, some of the time as a road sweeper.
My mother said she wept for days after I was born. I wasn’t a boy who would carry on the family name and say Kadesh, the prayer for the dead, at their funerals. Who needed a third daughter?
My sisters, Rebecca age 12 and Hannah age 6, cried when my mother brought me home from the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Underwood Street, off Whitechapel.
I wasn’t the brother they had been looking forward to and I had a nasty rash on my face.
‘She’s called Abigail,’ my father said.
‘It’s a stupid name,’ said Rebecca.
The blotches on my face glowed bright red as I screwed up my face to cry.
‘She’s ugly,’ Hannah said. ‘Take her back.’
* * *
My family was living in a third floor cold-water tenement in Wentworth Dwellings, (The Buildings), named after Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Cleveland, who owned the land in the seventeenth century.
They were situated in what was known as Petticoat Lane, though Petticoat Lane as such hasn’t existed as a thoroughfare for over 160 years. Originally near pig farms and called Hog’s Lane, it was where the Huguenots living in Spitalfields sold their petticoats and lace. In 1846, during a boundary rearrangement, its name was changed by the prudish Victorians to Middlesex Street. Petticoat Lane now refers to the street market. During the week the shops and stalls were mainly in Wentworth Street and Goulston Street, but on Sundays they spread into the surrounding streets.
I discovered many years later that it was in the doorway of No 119 Wentworth Dwellings, two floors above our flat, No 116, that at 2.55am on Sunday September 30th 1888, PC Long found a blood-soaked piece of Catherine Eddowes’ apron. Her murderer, thought to be Jack the Ripper, had left her mutilated body in Mitre Street, some distance away. His reign of terror in the East End of London, killing and disembowelling local prostitutes, ended three years later with the murder of Mary Jane Kelly.
There were six of us living in our small apartment – my parents, my grandmother, my two older sisters and me. We washed, cooked and ate in the kitchen, sitting around the oilcloth-covered table to read, gossip or listen to the wireless.
We had a black coal-fired range for cooking and heating. A set of fire-irons stood in from of it – poker, tongs, shovel and a long-armed toasting fork. In the winter we would toast any bread that had gone stale. I would look into the flames, watching for shapes and patterns.
The porcelain butler sink only had a cold water tap, so water for washing up or shaving was heated a kettle on the range. My father would make up a thick lather in his shaving cup, using a badger-haired brush. I watched fascinated as he removed the thick white foam in long swirling stripes with a cut-throat razor. If he nicked himself, he touched the spot with a caustic stick to stop it bleeding onto his detachable stiff white collar.
In one corner was a mahogany gramophone chest with a turntable gramophone a big curly horn. It had metal needles which my father sharpened from time to time. We had few records. The one we played most was of Caruso singing opera – husky, scratchy and enchanting.
The kitchen door gave on to a small balcony, with a coal bunker on the left and an outside toilet on the right. As the youngest, it was my job to cut our newspapers into squares, thread them onto a length of string and hang them on the lavatory wall for toilet paper.
The parlour, which led off the other end of the kitchen, was used as a bedroom for my grandmother, my two sisters and me. A proper bedroom, with my parents’ twin beds, was beyond that. Until I was five, when my grandmother died, she and I slept in the mahogany double bed that had belonged to my parents, before they changed to more fashionable twin beds. My sisters shared a pull-out sofa.
No hot water, no central heating. In winter we put china hot water bottles in our beds bed to take the chill off. We had painful chilblains on our toes that didn’t go away until the warmer weather came. On the coldest days, Jack Frost decorated the windows in lacy fern-like patterns.
There was a rubbish chute on each floor. You pulled down an iron gate about twelve inches square and tipped in your unwrapped rubbish. It ended up in the basement which was accessed by a door just inside the entrance to each block. The dustmen emptied it once a week but mice as well as feral cats haunted it. When I came home from school, it always was to be greeted by the smell of cat pee and rotting food.