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Mum and Dad were very pleased to have the new baby and it helped to comfort them because within the previous eighteen months they had lost both of my brothers, Barry, the eldest child, and Michael, who came after me, to the then common killer disease, typhoid.

When Mum came home from the hospital some days later, she sat on the verandah one afternoon and began to eat some nuts. She gave me some and I ate most of them, but I was having difficulty in breaking into an almond, which was still firmly encased in its shell.

I wandered around and into a spare bathroom at the back of the house, which Dad used to use as a tool-room and storage space for his motor-cycle. There were no tools which seemed to be suitable for nut-opening, but in a shoe-box on the floor was a bunch of straw and some petrol-soaked waste-cotton. Above the box, hanging on the wall, were Dad’s grease-laden working overalls. I put the nut into the straw and somehow reckoned that a good roasting in fire would open the nut for me. With that idea in mind, I got a box of matches, struck one and flung it into the box. Whoosh! The straw instantaneously went up in flames, set the overalls on fire and panic set in.

I shouted and Mum came in with a look of horror on her face. She screamed. The bearer rushed in and, seeing the flames, grabbed a bucket of water and doused them. No problem. Other than for the burnt overalls, blackened walls and water all over the place, everything seemed OK.

Then Mum said to me, “I’m not going to say anything now, but just you wait until your father comes home.” It nearly always fell to Dad to discipline us. But Dad came home, heard the story and only gently chastised me.

It was only years later that Mum told us that when Barry had been caught playing with a box of matches, Dad had taken a match-stick, struck it and placed it under Barry’s fingers to let him feel the heat and to warn him that matches were dangerous. When, in later years, Mum recounted that story she told us that Dad had “deliberately burned the poor child’s fingers”, but I think all of us knew that that could not have been true and that the “burning” was more a figment of Mum’s imagination which had become more and more a traumatic and terrible dream as the years went by. It was hardly to be wondered at then that Dad, no doubt remembering Barry, had had tears in his eyes when Mum told him how I had “nearly set fire to the house.”


Kathy used to tell Phil and me stories about fairies and goblins. It’s funny how this need to hear stories is so common to humanity. Only a few years ago, in about 1972, we were being shown around Singapore by my brother Sean’s wife, Linda. They were stationed there at the time and had got to know a lot about the place. We went to the Chinese quarter one night and there were crowds of Chinese people, virtually all adults, seated around a single fellow who was talking to them in very intimate, low tones and waving his hands around emphasizing some point or the other. His audience listened intently. I wondered if there was some incitement to riot or revolt being engineered. No. He was merely telling them stories. — With a more ancient society than ours, even today engrossed in hearing stories narrated, is it any wonder that we in the west also have this human need to listen to stories being told or, to see plays enacted or to look at television and movies so much?


One of Kathy’s stories was about some fairies who lived at the base of a tree in the garden of our house in Mhow.

“In the middle of the night, when you two young ones are asleep, I look out of the bedroom window and watch the fairies dancing and singing”, she announced in a superior fashion.

For several nights, I tried to keep awake looking out of the window and wondering if I too might see them, but they never appeared. However, one morning Kathy said that all the fairies had been murdered by bad goblins and, to prove it she showed us their gossamer fairy-wings near the base of the tree and their blood all over the roots. Phil and I were dumbfounded. “How could the goblins have been so cruel?”, we asked each other and Phil started to cry.

It was only months later that we realised that the wings had been shed by flying ants and the blood was only the red resinous gum which had oozed out of the tree.


Kathy, Phil and I used to play “tag” and chase each other around the garden shouting and generally making a rumpus. One day I was chasing Kathy, – Phil was so young and tiny that she was too easy to catch and we tended to ignore her, – and while still running, she looked back to see how close I was to catching her. Then, at full pelt, she turned to look forward again. She forgot it was there, and ran straight into the barbed-wire fence which surrounded the garden. One of the barbs caught her just above the eye on the eye-lid and it started to bleed profusely, filling the whole eye with blood. I was beside myself with worry in case Kathy lost her eye – sure as heck, I’d get blamed and probably walloped, to say nothing of the fact that I might even have been tied to the stake and burned alive ! – but Mum didn’t chastise me. She cleaned up the wound and it stopped bleeding. I think Kathy has the scar to this day.

Kathy was not the only one who bled while in Mhow. Guess who else? You’re right; it was I. Mum and Dad frequently had guests over for morning coffee or afternoon tea. On this particular occasion the adult ladies, who had come over to “view” the new baby, were taking coffee in the sitting room. Kathy and Phil were standing in the group with the ladies, and I was supposed to be having a nap. But I felt ignored and alone and went and stood at the door of the sitting room.

One of the ladies noticed me and said, “Oh, there’s Patrick. How are you?” In a contemptuous way and with a sneer on my lips, I blew her a “raspberry”, dashed out of the room into my bedroom and leapt onto my bed. The ladies laughed politely, though with some degree of embarassment for the display of rudeness, and carried on chatting.

I returned and repeated the ill-mannered raspberry performance, went dashing into my bedroom again and once more leapt onto my bed laughing. I liked this, especially since it also seemed to amuse our guests who laughed each time I repeated it. But on, maybe the fifth or sixth occasion, when I went to leap onto the bed, I slipped on the small bedside mat beside it, missed the bed, and went crashing down on the floor with my head striking the iron frame of the bedstead.

For a second I was stunned, but suddenly, realising that my head was pouring blood from a one-inch gash I had sustained. I let out an almighty shriek and started crying.

Mum put Mary down and came into the bedroom. She picked me up and called the bearer, always faithfully hovering around in the background, to get some water and a sponge. After cleaning up the wound and applying pressure to it, it stopped bleeding. However, it would “need a couple of stitches”, she said. I was terrified.

I was rushed to the hospital while Dad was sent for from the office. He got to the hospital just as the doctor was about to start stitching.

“Now, this is not going to hurt you, son”, said Dad, as I quaked and struggled in his arms at the sight of the suture-needle, curved and menacing. “The doctor is going to put some ice on your forehead and you will feel it very cold. There is not going to be any pain.”

The doctor bathed the cut with iodine, which should have stung like heck, but didn’t — I had quite clearly believed Dad to the point of self-hypnosis and, even though it might have stung, I believed that it was cold and painless. Two or three stitches were inserted and, with my head neatly bandaged, we went home. Tissue-stitching techniques were not very good in those days and so I have the scar to this day.


Dad, Mum and Phil — note Dad’s bent shin.

Taken in Jodhpur — circa 1934

Now that I think of it, Mum had a large and vicious-looking scar on her leg. In fact, a piece of her shin-bone was sliced away in the accident which happened when she was a girl of about five or so. She told the story of how she had wanted to show off her father’s ceremonial sword to a guest at their home. The sword was kept on top of a tall wardrobe, and Mum had stood on a stool to reach it. She took it down and unsheathed it, but before she could get off the stool she overbalanced and fell, dropping the sword against her shin. She was rushed to the local village hospital and the wound was stitched with wire and horse-hair. She had a huge, ugly scar ever after that.


Dad had a warped shin. He had broken his leg playing football, but had been rushed to the hospital right away and had it set. Unfortunately, Dad told us and always swore it was the truth, that the surgeon was “as pissed as a fart” during the operation and incompetently set the bone with a very distinct kink in it. The surgeon had later said that he would break and re-set the mess, but Dad never let him have another “go” at it and lived with the bent shin for the rest of his life.


When we were due to leave Mhow we spent about three days in a guest house which was almost continuously rented by the army for families in transit. The owner was a kindly lady who used to help me with my “soldier [1] ” toasts and boiled egg. She would hold the toast in her left hand and do the buttering with her right. Her left index-finger fascinated me because she held it in a straight and stiff manner pointing upwards and, I believed she had something wrong with it. I could not help but try to take a sly look at it whenever I saw her — we had always been taught never to stare at people, especially if they were afflicted in some way or the other — but I could never get a clear look and, consequently, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

Did she have a false finger or maybe even a whole false hand? Kids can be so innocently inquisitive. When, many years later, I used to make “soldiers” for my two sons, I noticed that it was quite normal to hold the finger like that even though the degree of stiffness might have varied!


When next posted and leaving Mhow, Dad set off ahead of us to go by road. He had acquired a two-seater Clyno, I think it was, or an old Morris, with a “dickie” seat in the back. Before he left, he took us for a ride in it and then took some snaps.

When he had left, I began to look around the grounds of the guest-house and was fascinated by a four-foot length of railway line which hung from the roof of the verandah of one of the out-houses. It was used as a bell, such as you might see in an old-fashioned western movie for calling the cowboys to meals. But behind it, and much more interesting to me, was a bee-hive with lots of activity. I studied the bees for a while and then disgusted with their lack of more interesting activity, pushed the bell hard against the hive. It broke and I was immediately surrounded by a swarm of the loathsome, angry little blighters. At the time I thought they were wasps, but they could not have been because of the strange-looking damage they did to me. I don’t know how many times I was stung, but they went for my right ear and gave it a right old “bashing”. It came up like a cauliflower- or broccoli-segment, loads of little pimple-like processes, and hurt for several hours. I rarely investigate bee-hives now, and though I am not afraid of them, I tend to stay out of their way.


Dad’s CO in Mhow was a certain, Colonel Stubbs. He had a daughter about the same age as Kathy and so it became customary that the three of them would to go out to picnics and for swims. Kathy became an accomplished swimmer and so, years later in Karachi, after the war broke out she was able to take up her swimming again.

Dad’s CO was now a certain Col. Dore. He had lost his only son who was a student at Eton College — there had been an accident, but I never quite discovered what it had been — and could not now bear to have boys around him because of the sadness of the memory. He started taking Kathy out to a place called Sandspit where the Imperial Airways flying boats used to land and spend a night or two before proceeding to Australia.

I was a “duffy” swimmer in those days and, consequently was unable to accompany them when they swam out and around the flying boats. Instead, I used to play on the beach and in the shallow water and amuse myself looking at a peculiar species of fish which came out of the water, flipped around on the beach for a few seconds as though they had lost their bearings, and then got back into the sea.


Talking about fish coming out of the sea, I must also interrupt to tell you of my memories of Mah, Mum’s birthplace (February 19th. 1900), where we used to walk along the beach each day with Chaplay, granny’s house-girl. I must have been about three years old. One day, it started to rain heavily and fish, small sardine-like creatures, started falling from the heavens. I managed to pick up a few, but they were flipping all over the place and, unable to cope with the slippery little sods, I let them go.

Whenever I have recounted that story, people smile and say “pull the other one”, or something equally dismissive. However, I know now that the experience had been real, because in that part of the world there are often giant water-spouts, a sort of tornado, which bodily lift fish out of the sea and eventually precipitate them to earth mixed with the rain. Besides, on a recent visit to Mah, I checked this out with Cousin Malcolm who lives there and he said that it was quite a common occurrence. Sardinas de cielo.


Mah was one of several “colonies” within the sub-continent of India. There were Portuguese, French and other European colonies which harked back to the days when traders set them up and did their buying and selling from them. Goa is probably the best-known of them and one of only a handful which remain to this day. Some of the colonies had been very savagely fought over by the colonial powers, but finally, these powers had settled into some sort of acceptably peaceable arrangement and lived alongside each other without too much turmoil. However, such colonies gradually lost their individual identities to the extent that it was difficult to be absolutely certain which European country had had most influence. Mah was one such, being regarded as mainly French but with overtones of Portugal, which had been the original foreign power, and its language.

When Mum was born, her father was the Consul-General, Judge-Superior, and Mayor of the town. He lived in a house constructed for him by the French government and would, himself, have been described as the senior French citizen of the town. Their language in the home was French. Indeed, Mum had no contact whatsoever, with the English language until she left school at the age of about 15.

Then, as seems to have been the custom, Mum was sent away to what she always described as an “orphanage”, but which was more likely a “boarding-convent”, similar to St. Mary of the Angels to which Kathy, Phil and Mary went in later years. The French had little or no history of sending their children away to “boarding school”, hence Mum’s description. There she continued with further studies until, eventually, registering at the General Hospital in Madras where she completed her medical nursing training. Her father died when he was in his mid-seventies — Mum would have been about ten or eleven years old at the time — and her mother died in 1935. Mum used to visit her mother in Mah quite often, especially when, in the early days of their marriage, Dad had been posted to stations in the south of India.

None of us kids could remember anything of Mah because we had been so young when we were last there. Kathy and Mum did visit the place in 1947 for about a week. But for the rest of us, Mah was really only the name of Mum’s birthplace.


Mah River estuary


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[1] Long thin slices of toast for dipping into a boiled egg.


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