Thursday, 29 December 2011

Early days

We know now how a child can be affected in the womb by the
emotional state of the mother.  My mother knew she could never return to her home
country.  She wrote to my father, who replied asking her not tell anybody, as it
would ruin his career!  Was I affected by all the stress my mother must have gone
through at this time?  My mother told me I was a happy baby, always laughing and

        My earliest memories are of light:  of sunlight on tall white buildings;  of light
glinting on the sea, winking and beckoning to me;  of white breakers rolling onto
the shore.  There was a feeling of spaciousness:  wide streets, squares, many trees,
and always the sea as my mother wheeled me in my pram along the Promenade des
Anglais.  I have always revelled in sunlight, and still do.

       I remember lying in bed with my mother.  Early morning sunlight fills the
room.  We are playing a game with pistachio nuts.  We crack open the nuts, and the
first one to find a double nut cries ‘Pistache’.  I win the game, of course, and my
mother buys me a tiny, celluloid doll from the Prisunic.  We are staying in a small

       A little later on we moved to a “pension”, a boarding house, in the suburbs of
Nice.  The house was large and ivy covered, with green shutters on the windows.
Our room was on the ground floor;  it had large French windows through which I
could walk right out into the garden.  Every morning the shaggy old sheepdog,
Toto, would scratch at the door.  I would run and let him in, open the French
windows and he would race out onto the lawn, where the elderly English ladies
took their afternoon tea.  One of these ladies, a Miss Crawford, was always very
kind to me.  I must have been about two years old.

       The “pension” was owned by an Englishwoman.  Her husband was in a mental
asylum and she had a lover, a White Russian colonel called Dimitri.  After the
Russian Revolution in 1917 many refugees fled to France.  The intelligentsia went
to Paris and others found their way down to Nice.  Some were obscure and
penniless, some belonged to the nobility who could no longer live in Russia under
the Communist regime.  They all had to make a living, and many of them found jobs as
waiters and taxi drivers.

       Harriet Welch, our landlady, welcomed the Russian émigrés to the house.
She was a plump woman, warm and friendly.  They would visit the house and
congregate in her back room, where they would sit and chat, drink tea and play
cards.  Many of them were without their families, and so I was spoilt and petted by

       Two of them gave a party for me in their flat on the 6th December, which is
celebrated in Russia as the feast of St Nicolas.  I remember the Christmas tree,
sparkling with baubles and little candles on the branches.  There was a big star on
the top, and presents underneath, small boxes of candies and other delights.

       My mother had made me a pretty smocked dress and curled my hair
with little rags.  I was the only child there.  The men pulled me up onto their shoulders
and the women bent down to kiss me.  I could smell their perfume, sweet and musky.
I received a beautiful china doll.  She had dark, curly hair and china blue eyes with dark
lashes which opened and shut, but she had no clothes.

       By the end of the evening I was fast asleep and my mother carried me home.

       One morning I saw one of the Russians I liked best sitting on the stairs in the
'pension':  he was a big man with thick, black hair and a walrus moustache. He
was sobbing, and tears were running down his face.  I snuggled up to him.  I felt his
moustache tickling my face.  I started crying with him in sympathy.

       My mother gently led me away.  “He’s had bad news from home.”

       I have one more memory from the 'pension'.  There was an old Greek lady
living on the top floor.  She was blind and one of my little jobs was to take her to
the lavatory.  In these days of 'health and safety' this may seem unlikely, but
remember we are in France, and living with a number of eccentric people.
Unfortunately, I would then run off and leave her there, and my mother
would scold me.   Some time later she told me that this old lady had a direct
connection to the poet Byron, her uncle having been the doctor in whose arms
Byron had died.

       Dimitri, Harriet’s lover, had a very erect bearing and he had a habit of clicking
his heels on almost every occasion.  One evening - intent on visiting her - he opened
Miss Crawford’s door by mistake.  He had nothing on.  Miss Crawford, on seeing
him started to scream.  Clicking his heels smartly, he bowed his way out backwards.
She left the following day.

       We also moved shortly afterwards.  One of my mother’s acquaintances had told her
about a very cheap ‘pension’, run by Catholic nuns, in a tiny fishing village in
northern Brittany, St Jacut-de-la-Mer.  I was about 3 years old at the time.  I
remember little of the move.  It was to be the first of many.


  1. Daphne this is really fascinating stuff. Are you hoping to publish this as a book????

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Gillian. Yes, that is my intention eventually, if I can complete it.