The cleft palate – Mrs Shufflebottom – and a poem

The Blitz
On a warm sunny Sunday
in Middlesex hospital in London
amidst the buzz of bombs
I slipped from my mother’s womb
with blue eyes and a cleft palate
and a smile that it was said
soothed the souls of burned
and bandaged soldiers talking
only with their eyes.

Mother sought lodgings in Wales
near father’s barracks to say
goodbye before his active service.

In forlorn kitchens on grimy stoves
she heated milk while I coughed
and choked as she poured warm waves
of liquid in a tiny spoon down
my wrasping throat.

Poor mother just a girl caught on tenuous
threads of life as we curled up together
our mutual dependency slumbering into
the silence of the night.

I wrote this poem about five years ago and despite publishing it have amended it three times and changed the title)  Maybe this because it was such a crucial event I never seem to be able to get it right and because subsequent speech problems affected my relationship to language for the rest of my life.

But this morning had an ‘Oh my God’  moment. I was flicking through a box of old papers, when out of a file fell a small bundle of papers wrapped in tissue paper and secured with an elastic band, a bundle that I had never seen before.

I unwrapped it carefully. Photographs, a card holder, a  lock of hair in a tiny envelope and a receipt for a Marmet pram.  The pram was to be sent to my mother, care of a Mrs Shufflebottom in Wales.

It was in later life, I think I was about 30,  when my mother told me that I had been born with a cleft palate, in the middle of an air-raid, in Middlesex Hospital in London, and how she had to feed me from birth with a tiny spoon. She went on to say that as I was such a happy baby she was asked if  I could be taken to wards where soldiers were recovering from serious facial injuries. Apparently my smile cheered them up.

It was on one of these visits that a leading plastic surgeon, responsible for re-building the faces of the soldiers, said I had a ‘winning smile’ and promised  to mend my cleft palate if she bought me back again the following year, which she did.

We left the hospital and headed for Wales to find digs, so my mother could say goodbye to my father who was about to be sent abroad on active service.

I remember I had breathing difficulties as a child, spoke with a slight nasal twang well into my teens and had a tendency to miss-pronounce certain words, but no one ever told me why!

I tried to write about my birth for my mother during her life time, but the words just wouldn’t come. So I opted out and gave her a poem called ‘My Garden’ instead.  But the birth story still haunted me,  eventually I wrote  ‘The Winning Smile’ (now called The Blitz)  and more recently I thought about the downside of the speech problems and have a draft of  a poem called ‘Laughing in the line’

Luckily my parents were puppeteers so I was able to opt out of a conventional life and time at school was often distrupted.

Puppetry however became a brilliant ‘mask’ for problems with my speech.  It was much later in life I discovered I was very slightly dyslexic and moderately discalculous.

So strange, that here today,  were some more of the missing pieces of the  jigsaw. The receipt for my pram,  sent  c/o Mrs Shufflebottom in Prestatyn and that my mother who died six years ago, had kept it for the whole of her life.


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