276 Portobello Road
276, Portobello Road, London was the new address. A far cry from Touškov.
Try explaining that to a child. Try and help that child to see the sense of leaving the cherry and apple orchard and the big house built by the German dentist which had hitherto been home. Dad driving off each morning in the saloon to teach languages in Plzeň; Mum putting me in the little seat on the back of her bike and cycling along the Kozolupy road on a mission to see her English friend also married to a Czech and also with a little daughter with whom I could play; of babushka’s culinary skills and Dedu’s vegetable plot; of rooms with billowing curtains and the house redolent with the scent of blossom. Try that!
It was, of course, impossible so therefore never explained. What I did know was that Dad was a very politically astute man and was able to read the writing on the wall. The Russians had no intention of leaving the Czechs to put themselves together again. Oh no, the Czechs were going to have to bend to their dictate. Communism was the name of it.
So, here we were in London. Cold, dreary, bombed, filthy, London.
The rooms Dad had earmarked, via a contact-of-a-contact, had fallen through. The lady had asked if Dad’s accent came from Germany and didn’t like our name, but it was upon learning that he came with two kids that, I think, probably scuppered it. Judging by the notices displayed everywhere in dirty windows, I began to sense a welcome was not in the air. We were newly arrived, befuddled, cold and hungry and one look at us over Dad’s shoulder, little sis wrapped deep inside a huge sheepskin in her funny pushchair and me in rabbit fur and Cossack hat was enough to put them off and hang in there for the ‘single business lady .’ I suppose we looked like trouble. Anyhow, we were foreigners for sure. Whatever the reason we were getting nowhere and in urgent need. Mum and Dad steered the huge push chair, brought from Touškov, into a small mews just off Cambridge Gardens, London W10, which in its heyday, had provided groom accommodation and the stabling for horses (these belonging to the affluent Cambridge Gardens residents). All shabby at this point, of course, like the rest of this landscape, and occupied by the hopelessly poor in the upstairs rooms. Some of these were minus their huge stable doors, their miserable contents spewing out on to the cobbles. In the midst of this, a beautiful young woman popped her head out of a window and called a cheery good morning and asked if she could help. We were obviously looking for something. Her genuine kindness had Dad explaining our sad circumstances. Almost immediately she appeared beside us. She was stunningly beautiful in the way of a Hollywood star of the time, say Ava Gardner; an absolute vision in a red silk kimono with her lush black, shiny hair tumbling about her shoulders. She asked us to stand well clear, turned on her heel and wrenched open a huge door. Inside was a cobbled floor stable. “Until you get yourselves sorted out”, she said adding that the landlord was not around and would never know, so long as we didn’t draw attention to ourselves. A tall order indeed, but my parents gratefully accepted.
That night I remember Dad laying down a poor grey blanket (which I still treasure to this day) and fashioning a couple of makeshift beds with coats and the sheepskin papoose. The lovely lady brought us down some tea and toast and we settled for the night next to the hayrack still full of dried out straw. With a definite smell of the long-gone equine residents in the air we fell asleep too tired to concern ourselves further. This beautiful woman who had actually offered us a stable for shelter, remained forever our friend. She was wonderful to us – always dressed to the nines and often in a fur coat, beautifully made up and scented; she was called ‘A lady of the night’, my parents said, which meant that she was up in the west end a lot, favouring the big hotels, and asleep most of the day. She bought little sis and I wind-up crawling dolls. Our very first ever toy in Portobello road! We were ecstatic. She would allow us to rummage through her handbag and even let us plaster ourselves with her Ponds cream and lipstick. There was always a roll of banknotes inside the bag and she would invariably leave a couple of these tucked behind our clock to be discovered at a later date.
A few days later, our Mum was up from her cobblestone bed and applying red lipstick, a quick comb of her lovely dark hair. A heart-wrenching kiss for us and then gone wobbling over the cobbles in her high heels: she was a skilled shorthand typist and she had found work. It was up to Dad, now, who was left on a mission to find rooms. Unceremoniously, Jana was posted inside her huge sheepskin papoose and plonked into the big pushchair. We were both given a little left-over milk which had a definite tang of horse, and with me in buckskin fur, we set off.
NO BLACKS, NO IRISH, NO NAVIES, NO CHILDREN.
Everywhere Dad stopped there was such a notice, displayed on big pieces of cardboard and shoved in front of dirty curtained, windows. Dad called upon his charm and tried it on a couple of the landladies affording them the full beam of his perfect continental teeth, but once they spied us two all was lost. “What does the writing mean?” I asked. He obliged by reading them out to me. “But we’re none of them” I offered up hopefully. “Yes we are he replied, they just haven’t put us up yet that’s all,” came the reply. I persevered, trying to help I suppose. “Well what are we?” I asked “BLOODY FOREIGNERS!” came back the answer. It was the first time I had heard the term, but it definitely would not be the last. By now little sis was whining for food and no doubt fancying a basin of “Krupicová kaše” a typical Czech comfort food often served to little ones. We lingered outside a bakery until Dad came out with a small loaf. This, with a bottle of milk from a passing milkman, would complete the meal. He tore off some bread and offered it to sis. A wail emitted from her small person and between her anguished sobs she called for a list of dishes no longer on the menu. A woman walking by stopped in her tracks taking in the scene, and came up to us. She spoke in Polish. She had recognised the pushchair as being from the continent and the heartbroken a la carte lament of little sis. Soon she and Dad were in deep conversation when suddenly he hung his head, sat down on a low wall and cried. Seeing him thus, I burst into tears myself sensing the sadness of our situation, but at the same time offering up the huge milk bottle to Jana’s lips. Dad had told her of our dire circumstances and straight away she said she might know of somewhere. He had obviously given her the whole chapter and verse version because she grabbed the push chair and bade us follow her. In no time at all, and literally, just around the corner, we were standing outside a second-hand clothing shop by the name of “Kasmir”. The canopy was down and, on its rails, hung various items of shabby clothing in some state of having previous ownership. The Polish woman disappeared inside and a moment later came out with the owner himself whom she obviously knew. He stood on the pavement looking at us, and, with just the tiniest moment of hesitation, said, “It’s not much, I warn you, and the roof leaks through some bomb damage, but you can have it. It will be half the price because of the leak”.
Dad embraced him and shook his hand profusely, and, by evening a little fire was burning in the grate and some sausages were cooking. This was our new residence, 276, Portobello Road. Oh, what an address to have today! Real hip and right in heart of the happening. The cost today however wouldn’t permit it. Back then, though, after the war it was a different story.