Rosemary Dinnage

In 1943, victory for the Allies being in sight, I was in Princeton, after three and a half years in Canada as a wartime evacuee, waiting for a passage home on a safe neutral ship. My temporary host was principal of the Institute of Advanced Study; he and his wife lived in one of those 19th-century clapboard houses that are the pride of American suburbia. Down at the end of the straight path to the Institute buildings, Einstein could often be seen shuffling gently about, distinguished by his wearing of sandals with no socks and, of course, by the wild white hair. The socklessness seemed to amaze Americans, though one might think that socks underneath hot-weather sandals took away their point. I wore very clean white socks, for I was a bobby-soxer, a Frank Sinatra fan who brought his very earliest records back to England in my trunk unchipped, to my family’s derision. (Would that I had them now! He was never so good again.)

It was the traditional long hot summer, and my hostess worried that she didn’t have entertainment or young companions to offer. No matter. She got me a chameleon (they really do change colour), and in the living-room there was one whole wall of American detective stories. I read them all, at an average rate of one and a half per day. I was in suspension.

News of a passage would be given with only 24 hours’ notice of embarkation. My hostess had already taken me to New York to buy me a sloppy joe sweater, a teddybear coat (sorry, but that’s what they were called) and a pair of saddle shoes – almost the first clothes I had had for a long time that were not from refugee parcels. I didn’t see New York again until 1978, but it would appear in my dreams from time to time, always as a place of generosity and pleasure. This was especially connected with the magic of the Automat café, or Horn and Hardart, where dishes were ranged in transparent compartments and could be obtained by putting in dimes and nickels. (Why did the Automats disappear? Devaluation of metal coins, perhaps.) Meanwhile my foster family in Canada had sent my trunk down to the States. We went on waiting for news.

My host was a Quaker, my hostess a Christian Scientist; I went on alternate Sundays to Meeting House and to the Church of Christ Scientist (a curious image, Jesus in the laboratory with halo and microscope). I preferred Meeting House, where people were called ‘thee’ and there was a lot of silence. Christian Science meant reading out a passage from the Bible, and then its translation, into less comprehensible words, by the mysterious Mrs Eddy.

Freud says we forget the bad and emphasise (or fabricate) the good. My personal research indicates that we (a) remember everything shaming or embarrassing and (b) forget the crucial moments of every occasion. (Like the censored letters that arrived from England in those days, a puzzlingly huge hole cut out between ‘Vice Chancellor’s garden party’ and ‘two ounces extra’. So far from Freud’s concept.) So the actual summons to embark the next day on a Portuguese ship to Lisbon has been cut, and memory checks in again at the docks in Philadelphia. These very special memory glimpses can be treasured and burnished up like old silver over the years: the scintilla of light on black depths, the slap of water against wood as we searched quay after quay, the spelling-out, eventually, of letters on the bow of a ship – Thalassa.

The next memory is of outrageously horrible smells. I shared a cabin with three other teenage evacuees trying to get back to England; it was placed precisely between the lavatories and the galley. Smells of stale oil and burned potato mingled with faecal overkill from the flooded toilets. The upper berth on the corridor side of the cabin was especially to be avoided because things crawled in through the ventilator and onto the blankets. By things I don’t mean just large seagoing beetles; these were crab-sized. Whiskered, too, I think.

Thalassa, sea-maiden, ocean-goer, long since – I suppose – smashed thriftily up in a nautical knacker’s yard, after so many years crossing the wine-dark Atlantic. She was probably already old, exhausted by taking cargoes and people between the Old World and the New.

Then one day, suddenly, we anchored, and a mass, a rout of Portuguese airmen began to board the ship. We were at Terceira, third of Portugal’s Azores islands and not much more than halfway between the States and Lisbon. These islands are curiously unvisited by tourists, though I believe Princess Diana holidayed there. We rootless and rather dazed girls, glad to be away from geography lessons, were not so much interested in the islands as in the dark-eyed young men that now overran the ship. There seemed to be no accommodation for them; they bedded down in every corner of every deck. From below closed portholes, romantic serenades floated up.

The islands, I now realise, were of great interest to both the Allies and the Axis powers as military bases. As early as 1941 there had been discussions about them, impetuous Americans being dissuaded from invading by the more diplomatic British. Salazar, Portugal’s dictator for so long, was treading a tightrope during these years of neutrality. During the Spanish Civil War he had naturally inclined towards Franco, and took in a flood of Spanish refugees. Perhaps he had inclined towards Hitler earlier in the war; or perhaps the centuries-old alliance between Portugal and England did stand for something. He had a Nazi invasion through Spain to fear, as well as Bolsheviks in the east. By 1943, in any case, the Allies were the team to back, and it all got very friendly. The oddest thing I found in tracing this period was that, during it, a delegation of Oxford dons went out to Coimbra to bestow an honorary degree on Salazar. What was that about? Softening him up?

While I was waiting through that Princeton summer, Azores negotiations must have been fast and furious. Access was at first granted just in principle; I like Churchill’s comment on that, in a private communication: ‘The great thing is to worm our way in and then, without raising any principles, swell ourselves out.’

And so they did, swelled themselves like billy-o. Terceira became a base for both the Portuguese and American Air Forces. From autumn 1943, Atlantic convoys would be safer from the U-boats and could follow a better route than the dangerous one on which we evacuee children were sent out, some to their deaths.

Why the handsome airmen were sent on to Estoril (a resort near Lisbon), as the English passengers were, I don’t know. Certainly they were there: I have a photo of two of them sitting by a sea-front palm tree. On board Thalassa we had danced with them in the evenings, using French as a common language. Because I wore my trousers rolled up in 1940s fashion, I was called ‘la pêcheuse’ (not, sadly, ‘la péheuse’, if there is such a word). In Estoril they taught us Portuguese songs and folk dances. When later I was teaching myself Italian, I was convinced it was pronounced as Portuguese.

I didn’t go back to Estoril until fifty years later. It didn’t occur to me to do so. Then, after a holiday with friends in the Minho of northern Portugal, I went to Lisbon on my own for a couple of days and took a little electric train out to Estoril. Under prickly pines in the small park, I mooned around and read In Memoriam. Things were in place just as I remembered: the Parque Hotel (where I stayed) on one side, the Palacio Hotel on the other, the casino in between. This was no overdeveloped Torremolinos but a stately and long-established resort for rich Lisbonians. The Rough Guide to Portugal describes it as pretentious, studded with grandiose expatriate villas (Spanish? German?). No haven for backpackers, certainly; but in 1943 a haven for just about everybody from both sides in the war – refugees, politicians, gamblers, aristos. It was two months before this that Rose Macaulay had visited Lisbon for the Spectator (a result, no doubt, of our new, cuddly relationship with the Azores-owners). At a cosmopolitan dinner party, she wrote, the Portuguese host would tell the servants: ‘The English are coming; we must put away Adolf and Benito. And some of the French, so we won’t have the old Maréchal. But Francisco can stay: I have no Spanish tonight.’

There must have been spies in Estoril, but how to know? I think, too, there must have been officers in German uniform among the crowds that went to the casino every night. How much better a story if I could remember them! As it is, I remember dusty sand, a performing monkey, schoolgirl talks laced with panic about meeting our families again, and a fellow guest pouring olive oil (for cleaning ears, surely?) all over his plate like gravy.

So the airmen who charmed us on board ship were, I imagine, being brought back to make room for Allied installations; the hitch that kept us English passengers waiting in luxury in Estoril for several weeks must have been to do with the final negotiations that led to Allied forces landing on Terceira in October. (Could there have been haggling, as in: ‘Not another week, unless we can bring the English passengers back’; ‘Only if we keep the north shore’?) In any case, the autumn sun, the dusty beach, the faded luxury of the Parque were a kind of nervous heaven, time ticking by too fast and yet resisted: perhaps we would rather drift on here than meet the culture shock of wartime Britain, and our half-remembered families?

Marian had been, uneasily, with her Jewish relatives in Brooklyn and was going back to Willesden, a place I hadn’t heard of; Betty and Audrey were returning to Birmingham. Betty, almost old enough to get into the Army, was being seriously courted by one of the airmen. While we looked out across the sea one day, she said: ‘I wonder if we’ll all ever meet again.’ I could only freeze; I have never been able to talk about partings or reunions. We knew we were going to miss one another. (We didn’t meet again, but for a while exchanged letters about the strange experience of England.)

Now for the rabbit. Somebody said they were selling baby rabbits on the beach at Cascais, the next village. I bought one and named him Antonio Pinto. This must have been just before we were flown back: I couldn’t have kept him long at the hotel. The usual crucial memory lapse now obliterates the time between getting news of a flight home, and sitting on the floor of an unheated, seatless troop-carrier with blacked-out windows. We had taken off, I think, from the River Tagus: it was a flyingboat. In the pocket of my teddy-bear coat was Antonio Pinto. He was extremely good company: kept one of my hands warm, went silently through Customs, and didn’t pee in my pocket. We refuelled in Ireland, then – CUT – were arriving at a blacked-out London railway station.

Blackout. It seems to have seeped into every crack in my memories of the time. In the voyage out to Canada in 1940 the ship was, of course, totally darkened, but neutral Thalassa had blazed with lights on the return voyage. The station was totally dark, but somehow my father came across me, Antonio Pinto in my pocket; as he hugged me, it was the only time I noticed the trace of Australian in his voice. A friend of mine, coming back later, told me she burst into tears when she saw a decrepit old man searching for her. My father took us to a restaurant – for something like five and sixpence you could have a meal without coupons – and suggested that, while we ate, I should leave Pinto in the ladies’ cloakroom. A stately attendant there put him in a drawer with a leaf of lettuce.

CUT – and I am in Oxford, in my own home, being welcomed. Emma the deaf cook has been run over in the blackout and two housemaids have gone into the Forces. Antonio Pinto is put into a stone-floored lobby for the night, with a tray and some more lettuce. The next day my mother tells me that, sadly, he must have knocked a cushion on top of himself in the night and suffocated. I make no accusations, do I? Perhaps I even half-believed it. But the thought of my rabbit, so brave and trusty, dying so far from home, hurts me more than ever.