My mother’s earliest memory was of being in a perambulator with her younger brother, Jack, and being pushed round Battersea Park by her eldest sister, Kate, who had brought her up, her mother having died when she was very young. Jack was connected with another early memory. On Sundays straight after Sunday school the brother and sister had to go and pay their respects to their aunts, Faith, Hope, and Charity, who were unmarried and lived together. All three dressed in black, with buttons right up to the throat, but although they looked very severe, they always treated their little visitors kindly. After they had made their little bobs to each of the aunts in turn, a rather formal conversation would ensue, and Florence and Jack would each be given a glass of lemonade. As soon as they were out of the house, the two children would scamper down the street, laughing and shouting, glad that the constraints of the visit were over. My mother never spoke about her schooldays, but she did tell me how she used to help her Hungarian grandfather in his grocery shop in Vauxhall Bridge Road. Though he had lived in England for much of his life, her grandfather’s command of English was far from perfect, and my mother had picked up from him a few words of Hungarian. The shop being situated in a working-class district, many of its customers were quite poor. Mothers would send their children to buy a ha’p’orth of pickles and she remembered giving them the pickles in a paper cone. Her father was a clarinettist and had been in the army. She was his youngest daughter, and very much his favourite. He used to call her his little fairy, she once told my sister and me, and from the way she said it, it was clear she had been very fond of her father. He had once taken her with him when he had a professional engagement in France. The Channel crossing may very well have been a rough one for my mother more than once spoke of her fear of the sea. ‘You won’t catch me going on the water’, she would say. After their father’s death the brothers and sisters would gather on Saturday night at the family home, where some of them still lived, for a fish supper. George, the eldest brother, would preside, asking each of them in turn, ‘Haddock or kipper?’
At the time of her father’s death the young Florence Ketskemety may already have been living not in Fulham, where she grew up, but in Merton, with her sister Kate and Kate’s husband, Dan. He was a tall, well-built Irishman with a loud voice and a crude sense of humour. At parties he would put three fingers up the chimney into the soot, then make three black stripes on the sleeves of the girls’ white silk blouses, despite their protests. He called this ‘making them sergeants’. He was also not above trying to take liberties with his young sister-in-law. Once he went so far that she threatened to tell Kate if he persisted. ‘He was not a nice man’, she commented many years later when telling me about the incident. After leaving school, Florrie, as she was called, worked in a laundry. ‘That’s why I’ve got strong arms’, she once told me years later, not without a touch of pride. She also practised regularly with the India clubs, and was fond of playing diabolo. My father once told me and my sister, Joan, that when our mother was a girl she could throw the ‘devil’ up in the air in one street and then run round the block and catch it as it came down in the next street. Joan and I were then both quite young and could not always tell if our father was serious or pulling our leg.
When Florrie was sixteen the First World War began, and it was not long before she left the laundry to work as a waitress in the restaurant of the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street, where her elder brother Bert was manager of the catering department. At the time waitresses were a novelty, but the waiters having all joined up, their places had to be filled up somehow. One day Florrie had a terrifying experience. She still lived with Kate and Dan in Merton, and was on her way home from work when she became aware of the silver shape of a Zeppelin high in the air above her, going in the same direction as herself. On coming to a crossroads she turned left and the Zeppelin too turned left. Convinced that the silver monster was following her, she took to her heels and ran all the way home. Nearly seven hundred Londoners were killed by bombs dropped from Zeppelins, and nearly two thousand were seriously injured, so Florrie had good reason to be frightened. Florrie’s elder brother Tom was in the army as was her younger brother Jack. Tom was better suited to military life than his more sensitive brother and it was not long before Jack deserted, taking refuge in the family home in Fulham. Looking out of the window one day, Tom saw in the street below two policemen who were looking for Jack and called out to them, ‘Come and get the bugger! He’s here!’ His sisters shrieked and did their best to drag Tom away from the window. What happened next I never learned. What I did learn, years later, was that Tom had died as a prisoner-of-war in Silesia and that after the war Jack had suffered a nervous breakdown.
As a young woman, my mother naturally had interests outside the family and her workplace. She once told me that there was a young man whose eye she seemed to have caught. He was in the army and was a regular visitor at Kate and Dan’s place, where he used to entertain them all by playing on the piano. This was the family piano on which all the brothers and sisters had practised and which had passed into Kate’s keeping on the death of their father. I remember that piano very well, for from Kate it had eventually passed to my mother, and I remember her playing on it occasionally when I was quite small as I sat on the floor near her feet. Besides working as a waitress, the young Florrie was an active member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). A photo in my possession shows her wearing her VAD uniform. It was probably taken in a studio for she stands with her right hand resting lightly on the back of a chair and her right foot slightly advanced. She wears a trench coat belted at the waist, together with dark stockings and sensible shoes. The face beneath the dark beret is rather thin with a big nose, and she looks straight ahead. The impression I get as I look at the photo is of a young woman of some strength of character. Part of her work as a member of the VAD consisted in visiting wounded soldiers who were convalescing. One of the hospitals within her area was St Benedict’s in Tooting, and it was there that she met my father, who was recovering from shrapnel wounds to his right arm. Neither of them ever spoke of their first meeting, or of their courtship, but a day came when the young Florence Ketskemety could display on the third finger of her left hand a diamond ring.