A Shaggy Dog Tale
It is my pleasure to introduce this shaggy dog tale by Kate Griffin author of Kitty Peck & the Music Hall Murders as the second of our three Ghost Stories of Old London written specially for the season by Spitalfields Life Contributing Writers – Rosie Dastgir’s story completes the trio tomorrow.
First things first: my grandfather Michael Kelly was always known as Timo. His six children and all of his eighteen grandchildren called him that too. I have a vague recollection of sitting on his knee once while he slurped tea from a saucer (he liked to do that as it made it cool down more quickly) and him asking me why I didn’t call him grandpa. Quite reasonably I replied that grandpa clearly wasn’t his name, so why should I call him anything different.
The matter ended there.
As a very small child I spent a lot of time with Timo. I was ‘quite a handful’ according to my mum and I think it was something of a relief for her to drop me off at her parents’ house in deepest Islington while she took the occasional break.
Fortunately, I could do no wrong as far as Timo was concerned. As the first child of his beloved first daughter (my mum arrived after four sons), I was always assured of a special place in the family tree and my appearance occurred at around the same time Timo officially retired so he had plenty of time on his hands to keep me entertained.
On good days we went out and about, sometimes riding London buses for miles just for the thrill of sitting in the front seat on the top deck. On grey days we sat in the basement kitchen together in front of an old-fashioned range. On these occasions, Timo would roll his own cigarettes (allowing me to pretend smoke my own curl of Rizla paper), sip tea from a saucer and tell me a story.
He had a vast repository of tales – some from his childhood in the East End, some from his days as a soldier in the Great War, some from the docks where he worked and some about the characters he met ‘up west’ when he was doing one of his other mysterious jobs. The concept of portfolio working is nothing new. For all the time I knew him – and I wish there had been more – Timo was always nipping off ‘to see a man about a dog’.
And that brings me to this story – a shaggy-dog tale for Christmas and my favourite of all the yarns that Timo used to spin.
“Do you want to hear the story about a ghost and the bravest girl in London?” he’d say.
And, of course, I did – because that girl was my mum.
* * * *
Saturday, May 10th 1941, was famously the worst night of the London Blitz. Less famously it was also my mum’s sixth birthday. It came at the end of a week of ferocious raids, according to Timo, and although they’d tried to make the day a special occasion, they all wondered what the night would bring.
By 10pm that evening all the younger Kellys and my Nan were bedded down together in the Anderson shelter dug out behind the chicken coop at the end of the garden. Timo went back into the house to ‘check on’ with a few last things. (That actually meant a final smoke and a furtive pint of Guinness, his favourite tipple.)
My grandparents’ house was in a street off New North Road and down towards the City. Including the attic rooms and the basement, it was a five-storey Georgian affair with a delicate fanlight over the front door, a gracious hallway and tall elegant windows. These days it would probably be worth a small fortune, admired for its ‘wonderful’ original features and ‘patina’ of age. But back in 1941 thousands of Londoners lived in gloomy brown houses packed with gloomy brown furniture that were just like it. For them, what we might regard as period charm was actually the inconvenience of impecunity.
No one spoke about the ghost at number 72, although everyone knew the house seemed to have an extra occupant. Things would go missing and appear days later in the most unlikely places. Sometimes mysterious sounds would be heard from a room overhead when everyone knew that there was no one up there. However, the Kellys were a live-and-let-live (or perhaps that should be a live-and-let-die?) sort of family and if there was a ghost they certainly weren’t going to start poking into its business.
So, when Timo stood in the little-used ‘best’ room on the first floor that ominous May evening and stared out at the deserted street before pulling down the black-out blinds, he wasn’t surprised to hear a noise behind him.
He didn’t even turn round. Instead he rolled himself another cigarette, lit it and had a quiet smoke. As he stood there ‘contemplating’ he felt something brush against his leg. He looked down, expecting to see Trouncer the family boxer dog (named after the warship on which the eldest of the Kelly boys was currently serving), but there was nothing there.
Odd, he thought, returning to his roll-up. Then the feeling came again – something was tugging at his trouser turn-ups, just above the ankle. In fact, it pulled so hard that he almost lost his footing. He turned around now and saw that the door to the hall was wide open. He was sure he’d shut it behind him. My Nan didn’t know precisely where he kept his Guinness and he liked to keep it that way.
Timo stubbed out his roll-up. It was time to go back to the shelter. Somehow the thought of being tucked up with the rest of the family, four foot down in that damp fox hole behind the chicken coop didn’t seem quite so bad now.
He stepped out of the ‘best’ room and took the first set of stairs down to the hallway at street level. There was a door in the back sitting room on this floor leading to steps to the garden. Timo headed down the passage towards the back room, but was stopped in his tracks by something that brushed against his leg. Then the tugging came again, this time it was insistent.
It was dark now and he was definitely rattled. Every step he took towards the back room made the peculiar sensation stronger. He told me it felt as if something didn’t want him to go there.
“Right!” he thought. “If you won’t let me out this way, I’ll use the other door.”
Down in the basement there was a second way out to the garden. Just before the kitchen there was a steep flight of stone steps that led to a little-used door leading out to a small yard behind the outside privy.
He turned and went down the hall pausing at the top of the winding set of stairs to the basement.
Nothing happened. Whatever it was, it didn’t mind him being here. He took the first flight and stopped again. Now there was something – a gentle nudging at his calves. It wanted him to go down, he was certain of it. Was that a good thing?
He didn’t have time to consider the question. The sudden wail of the air-raid sirens prompted him to cross the little landing and turn right to the stone steps leading out to the yard, and to the rest of the family in the garden shelter.
Something white moved down there, a little body was huddled against the door.
Timo flew down those ten stone steps and gathered my mum into his arms. A gash ran from her split top lip and up across her left cheek. She was bleeding profusely over her nightgown.
“Sorry, Timo,” she whispered, rubbing blood and tears from her face. “It was the game. I was practising while everyone was asleep, but I fell.”
He knew immediately what ‘game’ she meant.
Despite being warned not to, the younger Kelly boys (my uncles) insisted on challenging each other to take part in a potentially lethal jumping contest on the stone steps leading to the yard door. The winner was the person who dared to jump from the highest stair.
My tom-boy mum desperately wanted to beat her older brothers. Seizing the opportunity, she had sneaked out of the Anderson shelter and into the house to perfect her jumping skills while they were all asleep. But in the dark she had misjudged the leap and crashed against the door, ripping her face on the hooked metal latch.
The tear across her face was raw and deep. There was blood everywhere.
They went up to the kitchen and Timo tried to stop the flow with rags, but it kept coming. My mum obviously needed stitches and he was worried about concussion too. As he stood there beside the sink dabbing uselessly at her face the drone of the first bomber planes thrummed overhead.
It was at this point that my Nan appeared. She’d woken in the shelter and, finding both Timo and my mum missing, had gone in search of them. She burst into tears when she saw the state of my mum’s face, but that was nothing compared to the howling that came next when Timo bundled his daughter into her school coat and said the only thing to do was to get her to a hospital.
* * * *
And so it was that on the worst night of the London Blitz, Timo and my mum walked together through the bombarded streets to The Royal Northern Hospital at Holloway. Fires burned in the east and all around them they could hear the steady crumping thud of the bombs that changed the face of the capital for ever.
Timo had to carry my mum part of the way. “But she never cried and she never once said she was frightened. She was the bravest little girl in London,” he told me. (I always loved that part of the story).
He, on the other hand, was terrified. And so was the doctor at the hospital – a young, softly spoken Polish refugee. He agreed immediately that Timo had done the right thing, but as he carefully staunched the blood and repaired my mum’s torn face the sound of constant bombing rocked the hospital walls and made the implements on his metal tray clatter about. In fact, the doctor’s hands shook so much as he sewed twenty-five stitches into my mum’s lip and cheek that he kept apologising for his ‘poor workmanship’.
As he finished the task, the first of the real casualties of that night began to arrive. Timo and my mum were taken to a nearby shelter and they spent the rest of a sleepless night there while the streets of London – the East End in particular – became an inferno.
When they finally walked home the next morning through eerily deserted and sometimes devastated streets, Timo was silent, desperately willing the rest of his family to be safe and alive. My mum was quiet too, until they turned the corner into their gloriously untouched road.
Then she squeezed his hand and spoke in a muffled voice because of the stitches in her lip. “I hope the dog is safe too?”
“What dog?” he asked, confused.
“The little one that came with us from home last night. He followed us all the way. Didn’t you see him, Timo?”
Dog Portrait courtesy of Libby Hall Collection at the Bishopsgate Institute