Chapter 4

Goodbye Brenda

My sister Brenda May died at St. Mary's County Hospital Ryde, on 28th December 1941. She died of what was called blood poisoning in those days, or better known as toxaemia in modern times. This was caused by an infection after an innoculation at school against diphtheria, which was given, ironically, to immunize us against a killer disease of the time.

If the infection was caused by the needle, by a tightly fitting long sleeved dress (perhaps not too clean), or by a fall in the school playground soon after the injection , or by any combination of these things, we will never know. Blame was never discussed when she died, though recriminations came later. The shock of her death struck not only our family but also the village of Wootton on the Isle of Wight, her new home as an evacuee. The whole village mourned her death and took me, her brother, to their hearts. I shall always remember the kindness shown to me when my sister died.

I felt uneasy seeing so many grown-up people sobbing and holding on to each other. After all, it was these same people who had told me "big boys don't cry"; now here they were doing just that. But I found it hard to cry, especially in front of others. The pain was on the inside - not like having a splinter in your finger, or a toothache, or falling down , when you only felt physical pain. The grown-ups kept saying, "He doesn't understand," and let me sit quietly in the corner of the room. To fortify themselves they sipped Aunty Annie's Christmas port from small glasses, the uncomfortable silence being broken only by quiet sobbing and the sucking noise of lips on a glass. My mother had understood my sadness and misery when our cat Timmy died, and I was only three years old then, so why wasn't I allowed to "understand" when Brenda died - and why couldn't Mother realise how desolate I felt, facing a future that would again be empty and terrifying without my sister? Sometimes grown-ups are so stupid.

Local newspaper reports of the death of Brenda in 1941 Local newspaper reports of the death of Brenda in 1941

I cried alone, in bed at night and in the garden shed. I cried walking in the fields and in the lanes we used to roam together. I had prayed to Jesus like they told me when she was very ill, but He didn't do anything to help; what's the point of going to Sunday school if He doesn't do anything when you really want help? Perhaps I was wicked and this was my punishment; was it me who had pushed her over in the playground? It might have been my fault she had died. All these thoughts were in my mind for a long time and I felt I would never find the answers.

The last time I saw Brenda was some six weeks before she died, walking with Aunty Annie and holding her hand or gripping her arm as she always did. She was on the way to Dr. Kennedy's evening surgery, her arm in terrible pain and swollen like a balloon. They walked through the winding path to the back gate of the garden, past all the tumbled autumn jumble of a glorious summer's flowers. Brenda looked back once or twice, waving in the way she always did when she was saying good-bye. I didn't bother waving back but shouted after her saying something like, "You're a cissy, it doesn't really hurt, you're only playing up."

With all my heart I wish my last words to her had been kinder. I should have said, "Please come back soon Brenda because I shall miss you terribly. For as long as I can remember you've always been there for me; you have not only been my sister but also my best friend, mother and father, all rolled into one. I always feel safe and secure with you and you're the only person who has never let me down. It was comfortable feeling your hand in mine, even though I snatched it away when others saw me. I depend on you for so many things, so come back soon and I promise never to be spiteful or hurt you - ever again." But small brothers seldom say things like that.

So serious was the infected arm that she was rushed from the Doctor's surgery to the hospital in an ambulance, not even returning home for clothes or toiletries. The last words I had spoken to her rang hollow and stupid and I wanted to tell her I was sorry. But I was never able to; they wouldn't allow children to visit the hospital, it was against the rules. Mother came to see Brenda often, crossing on the ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde. She had to get a special pass because you weren't allowed to travel frequently or unnecessarily during the war. "Is your journey really necessary?" was the slogan posted at every railway station, bus stop and especially at sea-ports.

She sometimes came to Wootton after visiting the hospital and everyone hung on to her every word to learn of Brenda's progress. I wanted Mother to repeat everything - in the vain hope she would say something better the second time. She was not very descriptive, so when she said that there were tubes all over my sister's body to drain off the poison, I imagined all sorts of things, large hoses and pipelines, with great big holes into the body came to my mind. I hated to think what they must be doing to her.

People in the village sent flowers or sweets to the house for her and Mother took them to the hospital. I remember the farmer's wife, Mrs. Burgess, used to send a few eggs along for Brenda, and once when I went to the farmhouse to collect some milk she gave me a jug of real cream for her, with a linen cover over it. The temptation to dip my finger into the jug to taste this unheard-of luxury was too much, but I knew Brenda wouldn't mind. When I thought how bad tempered farmer Burgess was, always waving his knobbly walking stick at us and growling and grumbling when we walked in his hay-field or amongst his cows, (once he caught us trying to lassoo them), I realised how different country people could be if you were distressed or in trouble. A quiet non-intrusive help would come from all directions, unexpectedly and with sincerity. Such was the kindness of farmer Burgess and his wife, and so many other people in the village.

Two of us, usually Big Jean and me, but sometimes Aunty Annie and me, would walk to the corner of the road where the village telephone exchange was located. This was in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who manned and operated the exchange. We would hand over two (old) pennies to whoever was on duty and they would telephone the hospital for us -plugging in an array of jack-plugs and winding a handle to call the hospital exchange. Sometimes, especially if the news of Brenda wasn't so good, they would give me back the two pennies to try and cheer me up.

Brenda had vivid red hair, not auburn or ginger but the colour of a peeled carrot. She had so many freckles that people said they would all join up one day to give her a dark brown face. Other children teased and taunted her, but she wasn't bothered. Her solution was to team up with other red haired children and beat the opposition by outnumbering them. Seldom will an individual take on a group she argued - and together they took on the world. Her best friend Muriel, a ginger-haired hot-tempered maiden, was the natural choice to lead this gang of red-heads. She looked and acted like the chieftan of a Scottish Clan -fearing nobody. Her family, who were all red haired also, could always be relied upon to support the gang if the need arose. Muriel said to me when she heard the news of Brenda's death, "It can't be true, only old people die," and until that moment she had truly believed it.

Because her death was so close to Christmas and the inevitable postal delays, letters of sympathy were arriving at the same time as "Get Well" and Christmas greeting cards. A strange mixture of happiness and heartache therefore fell through the letter boxes of my mother's house, Aunty Annie's house and the hospital. This only added to the sadness of her death. Christmas presents for Brenda also lay forlornly unopened - Mother not knowing what to do with them. Amongst the strange mixture of letters my mother received, and she kept all of them, were letters of an unbelievable nature.

Vitriolic outpourings of "how Brenda was not cared for: how will they ever live with their consciences: it would never have happened but for the authorities, etc." There were other letters of course, which were touching and sincere. But the most poignant letter of them all was from my father to my mother, a letter hidden from everybody because of its contents, which I found by accident years later.

Part of the letter my father sent to my mother, on Brenda's deathPart of the letter my father sent to my mother, on Brenda's death

It proved what I had always known in my heart, that he was alive. Not only that, but he was living no more than half a mile away from our house in Portsmouth, at St. James' hospital. This was where he had been taken in February 1938. His letter was written after he discovered the name of his daughter in the obituary column of the Portsmouth Evening News; he had not even been told. How sad his letter was, reminiscing of his happy days with Brenda, with no recriminations for the dreadful way he had been treated in not being told of her death. He stood amongst a line of trees, in the cemetery at Milton as Brenda's small coffin was lowered into the ground. Well away from the cortege and hidden like some criminal; not allowed the grace to attend his own daughter's funeral. He told me all this when I eventually contacted him again, years later, but he never told me what thoughts went through his tortured mind as he "paid his respects", as he called it, alone by Brenda's grave.

What satisfaction my mother gained by not telling my father can only be guessed. There were things that children were not supposed to know in those days, perhaps dreadful things. But later on in life I was spurred by the contents of his letter, to seek out and meet my father and try to learn the truth. I said previously that sometimes grown-ups are stupid. They can also be very cruel.

Mr. Please - builder, painter and undertaker - of Wootton Bridge, took care of the arrangements for Brenda's funeral. She was taken to Portsmouth to be buried at Milton cemetery, which was close to our house in Eastern Avenue. One wall of Mr. Please's workshop premises in Red Road was on the boundary of our garden. We had often used his storage areas - where he kept sand, chippings, scaffolding boards - as our illegal playground, sometimes peeping through his workshop windows to see what was under construction. Once we saw a coffin, resting on a stand, and although we knew it was only being made we were still frightened by its appearance. Now if I had dared to peep again, I might see my sister's coffin - but I didn't want to look.

The total cost of the funeral arrangements was nine pounds ten shillings, which included the cost of taking her, in her coffin, from Ryde to Portsmouth on the ferry. I did not attend her funeral, which was decided for me, but I didn't mind this because I had seen plenty of burials -it being a morbid fascination of my mother and indeed of Aunty Annie to watch as many funerals as possible. I always had a fear of seeing a person buried, the thought of suffocation when put in a deep hole and covered with earth was more upsetting to me -and probably to most children - than parents think. I also dreaded seeing somebody dead, especially my sister, but this is what people used to do in those days, leave the coffin open to say last goodbyes to their loved ones. I was glad therefore that I wasn't asked to attend my sister's funeral.

Mr. Upward her Sunday school Superintendent, Mrs. Davis her teacher and Aunty Annie all travelled from the Isle of Wight for her funeral. For weeks afterwards Aunty Annie related to everybody she saw all the details of Brenda's funeral. How she had been lifted by the dockside crane to be gently lowered into the hold of the ship and how the crew removed their hats, standing in silence until the coffin rested amongst the mail and clutter of normal cargo. She used to cry every time she told anybody and there was no doubt that Aunty Annie was very fond of my sister, missing dreadfully the helpful, smiling child who went everywhere and did everything with her.

I never had a chance to say "Goodbye" to my sister. My mother scolded me for not writing the correct message on the little card you attach to a wreath. She had told me to write as neatly as possible the words, "Goodnight Brenda - God Bless," followed by lots of kisses, but I wrote what I had always wanted to say to her before she died; "GOODBYE BRENDA". And there were no more little cards to write on, so that was what was attached to her wreath.

Brenda May Osborn, born 15 February 1933, was eight years and ten months old when she died, but to me she will always be my big sister.