The Kindness of Kasmir
There were rooms on the top floor – a big sitting room which ran the width of the high, terraced building, two Victorian sash windows, a cast iron fireplace and one small bedroom behind. Various bits of old furniture were dotted here and there but, very importantly, a couple of beaten up comfy leather armchairs. In addition to this and on a tiny landing, was a little corner sink with a single, cold tap perched high above and a two-ringed stove with a small oven. The staircase dropped steeply down to a sub landing with a huge sash window that opened onto a flat roof. It was here dad tied a washing line from the wall of the house to the massive chimney pot in order to save mum the trip downstairs and through the Kasmirs’ kitchen to the yard, and it was here I climbed out on day and hid behind those huge chimney stacks playing hide and seek with my mum, a sheer drop down to the basement on the side I was hiding. Poor mum trying to coax my back in a wheedling tone and then giving me a wallop for it.
Down some further stairs was another landing where there were a further two rooms and a lavatory. This was where a Mr. and Mrs. Brogg lived. The lavatory was shared by us upstairs, but Mr. Brogg would exercise his human rights by rendering the person on the throne into sudden darkness by switching the light off when one was locked inside, which terrified us kids. He said he owned the bulb and paid for the electricity on his landing, so we were unable to fight for our ‘human rights.’ Finally, my sis and I refusing to go down in darkness, we took to using a chamber pot on our landing and getting dad to do the honours of emptying it.
Down some further stairs was a passage which lead to a front door straight onto the street one way, and the Kasmir accommodation, the other way. One door from the shop’s backroom opened onto this passage. Here a very old lady sat working tirelessly on a sewing machine surrounded by tins of buttons and buckles, rolls of bias binding, collar stiffeners, strips of popper studs hooks and eyes and cottons; cottons of every colour imaginable and towers of empty reels posted on a long stick. Here I would thread several needles for her every day so she could get to work, since she had very poor eyesight. I always thought that this lady was Mr. Kasmir’s Babushka but am not sure about that. A general miasma of old clothing hung in the air joined by the smell of a burning iron used for pressing. One must realize, of course, that this was not the sort of second-hand clothing shop we are used to this day and age, in the form of charity or retro shops – donations made by the likes of those who have either grown out of or more likely, grown tired of some article of clothing, and usually, donated in pretty good shape. Oh no, this clothing was garnered from people who had nothing, who were selling anything they could to get money. New clothing, just after the war, was still only to be bought on coupons and it took ages to collect enough to purchase an article like a coat or suit. The fashion industry was the last thing on most people’s mind, a home and food being the vital requisites. Any garment which had been grown out of was handed down to a smaller child for at least another round. Adult clothing was only ever got rid of when a person was in dire need of money and then not before all the buttons had been removed to be used at a later date. Likewise, belts, buckles and laces from shoes. I very soon got it into my head that it was the clothing stripped from dead bodies, so dark, musty and old-fashioned, there were, and so well worn. However, Mr. Kasmir would work his magic and immediately set about cleaning any clothing when it came into the shop. Washing, steaming, pressing, sewing on buttons, adding belts and buckles etc., with the effect that they looked much improved. I adored being part of this repatriation process, offering advice on what looked best with what, and going through the button box trying to match up at least two buttons in harmony and
perhaps suggesting the diamanté buckle for some unworthy frock in an effort to pep it up a little bit. Talk about over guiding the Lilly. They were kind people, though, and never shooed me off or sent me back to my quarters until I was ready to leave. In the corner of this room was a small gas ring and here the kettle would immediately go on for tea if a customer lingered for a chat. A big corner sash window looked out onto a high-walled, small yard; the very yard where my dad would put a bench and where the marks are visible to this day along the brick wall, albeit smartly painted brilliant white now.
They were tolerant enough even to allow us free range over their passageway, into their kitchen, down into the cellar and out into the yard, never chastising or forbidding, always relaxed and easy when really we must have been a nuisance. Dad tried in return to do any odd jobs about the premises. A broken window, a leaky pipe and a blocked drain. He had many attempts at the leaking roof above our heads but in this he failed since the damage caused by the bomb in Cambridge Gardens had made a sort of concave on the flat part which could not be straightened. They would sometimes sit together, dad and Mr. Kasmir, to remonstrate about the old countries and the foods they yearned for. Mr. Kasmir had escaped the persecution of the Polgroms in the Ukraine post-revolution and had fled to Britain with his father and sister. They had worked hard to make a life for themselves and had built up a good, stylish, little second-hand clothing shop. The prewar clothing was pretty, feminine and more available, affording it the luxury of being displayed in the window. There would even be some kind of tasteful window arrangement pairing frocks with hat, bag and shoes; a suit with waistcoat and evening scarf.
Not the case now, however… just what seemed to me to be heaps of old dead man stuff.
Dad and Mr. Kasmir could both play the violin and often an old fiddle was brought out and some tunes were played. Dad was allowed dad to put up a big work bench in the small yard and here he would do repairs and mend the shoes of everyone in the building sometimes repairing an old pair of shoes for display in the front of the shop. A row of iron shoe trees of various sizes were screwed to the bench. The worn shoe would fit over its equivalent size and be stripped of its sole. A new piece of leather would then be glued down and clamped. This would be finished off with a sharp knife cut around the edge to neaten the whole effect. However, in his attempts at longevity and durability of shoe life, dad would put on extra thick pieces of leather, thereby giving the effect of added inches, to the wearer. On a pair of hobnailed boots this might have been quite the thing but on our little girl shoes it looked ridiculous and somehow gave the article an orthopedic quality. They seemed to weigh a ton and made dancing, acrobats or plain walking clumsy. We hated these ‘clod hoppers’, but since new shoes of, course, were out of the question, we had to lump them.
Such was the way of life now.
It could not be more different to the life I had hitherto experienced and deep down I was desperately unhappy. I yearned for Babushka’s kitchen where I was constantly being tempted and encouraged even to eat something delicious, or play with the rabbits, gather wild strawberries, go mushrooming with deda, swim in the river, run through the snow, loved and feted by everyone. Now mum was at work every day in an office and dad worked nights in a dairy (from which he procured vast amounts of milk for the ground, middle and top floor families) so that now the reek of sour milk seem to be pervade the atmosphere of the building. Worst of all my poor mums attempts at cooking were catastrophic, especially to dad. Gone were the delicate soups made with proper stock and in their place came a saucepan thick with grey lentils and old vegetables. Butter was almost nonexistent and waxy margarines took its place. Meat was stringy and had to be nigh-on murdered to extract any flavour, gravy was Bisto and water. Noodles couldn’t be bought, and mum would have to make them; rolling out the egg dough until paper thin then drying it out on a large cushion covered with a tea towel in front of our smoking fire. This, when hard, would be folded over and over again and sliced thinly to make the noodle shape. Potatoes and greens would be plain boiled. Never sautéed in buttery onions. A bit of bacon or cheese or perhaps a hearty chop was just not to be had. Others were eating things like offal and lights (lungs) and brains which mum just could not bring herself to cook, even though she had a Czech recipe, since it required the addition of copious amounts of cream. No goose fat or good beef dripping to use either, just lumps of white lard. Now and again, however, there would be some shin beef for a goulash if one could procure some paprika that is. Rice was just for a milk pudding sweetened with the tiniest bit of sugar. Corned beef was quite luxurious and spam, it’s poorer sister would be sloppily fried with some chips. On special occasions like Christmas, or Easter, or Names Day, dad was often seen with his head in his hands and weeping. On asking him once what was the matter, he answered with a tear-stained face, “Oh for a bit of my mum’s plaited loaf”. That loaf being the ceremonial fruit bread, glossy with brushed egg and a huge dough plait on running down its spine. This to be eaten plain or with lashings of butter. My poor mum would attempt to make this. Great tension would be palpable in the air as we knew it usually ended up with her crying as she stared at the rock-hard mound which was nothing like it should be. She just couldn’t get the yeast to prove. I think the flat was much too cold for that, or perhaps because the oven would not heat properly.
Witnessing and being part of their misery, little sis and I knew it was better not to add to it, so we did not show our feelings or complain to our parents and this unhappiness was never spoken of.
Even at that young age, I sensed the acute struggle they were experiencing and loved them too much to add to their burden. All the same, somehow, it never seemed to cross their minds that Jana and I were suffering too. Once I tried to voice my feelings to dad and his reply was “Yes, my dear girl, this is life now. We will never fit in, only get used to it. The trouble is, we are square pegs in a round hole.” I was befuddled by his explanation but what I did know was that it was an acutely, uncomfortable fit.