Isabella Mary King was born on 24th December, 1919 into abject poverty near Kings Cross, London. She had club feet and was the eldest of three. Her father had fought in the trenches during World War I and contracted tuberculosis, returning home and sadly infecting his wife. In a wealthier family, her mother would have been sent abroad to cleaner air and maybe would have lived longer, but Belle’s mother died when she was young. Belle’s few memories of her mother were of being made to promise to take care of George and Doris, her younger brother and sister; waving to her mother through the window of the hospital; and watching her funeral cortege take her coffin away. Belle didn’t even have a photo of her mother until about five years ago.
Her Granny King was determined that the children wouldn’t be split up and they all moved in with her. She taught them strong values, values that would last to the end of Belle’s days. Despite the handicap of needing special shoes and walking with sticks, her grandmother told her she was as capable as the next. Her father remarried, and Belle was introduced to her stepmother after the wedding with the words ‘This is your new mother’. It wasn’t an easy relationship for any of them, with half-siblings being born, and Belle’s father eventually dying during the Second World War.
A tour of London with Belle was always interesting. She would point out the site where her relatives had been killed by a direct hit from a German bomb – ‘poor lambs’. She talked of how St Pancras Hospital used to be the workhouse and how she remembered the shame for families who had no choice but to go in there. She told me that the genders were segregated with the younger children staying with their mothers, and she would watch as families were separated. Years later, in 2007, after a stroke, she was horrified to be admitted to St Pancras Hospital. In her head, she was in the workhouse, the building her Granny King had worked so hard to keep them from. She used to watch the ‘posh ladies and gentlemen’ arrive at the St Pancras Hotel in their carriages (later in their cars) and dreamt of going in there and seeing ‘what all the fuss was about’.
Belle became a very able secretary. She was very proud of her shorthand and typing skills, and specialised as a legal secretary. She worked for various people in different firms until eventually she worked in the office of the Treasury Solicitor. All these years on, she could still remember conversations, cases and titbits from that time, and she was still amazed that someone ‘from my background’ could have ended up with such a prestigious job.
Belle married Jack Johanson when she was 45, but she was widowed by the time we met in 1993. I never really knew what Jack did, but I know that it was something to do with woodwork. Jack and Belle were two of the original occupants of Mary Green, one of the council tower blocks on the St John’s Wood borders. They were on the 19th (top) floor, and she used to jokingly refer to her home as her St John’s Wood penthouse. The views were certainly stunning, and she enjoyed pointing out the buildings that had appeared since she first moved in. Belle was a Londoner through and through. She loved her native city, and enjoyed visiting new attractions, organising trips to visit Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern. She was vastly amused by the Wobbly Bridge (Millennium Bridge) and used to wonder at how many millions had to be spent to correct ‘something that the Romans knew, you know’. And, at the last count, I believe she had been on the London Eye 8 times – she never tired of those views.
After retirement, Belle stayed busy, being an active member of the tenants’ association, St Mary’s Church (where she joined the PCC), and attending many activities at the Abbey Community Centre. I met her at the church, after the service, when we all gathered in the then church hall. As I became more involved in the church, I used to go on outings with the Friendship Group and would push one of the wheelchairs, usually Belle or Ivy, and they both became friends to me. I used to drive them in whichever Land Rover we had at the time, and it really breaks the ice when you have to push someone upwards so that they can get in!
Belle and I talked about everything and nothing, and at difficult times in my life she would listen, perhaps make a comment, then lean forward, pat my hand and say ‘It’ll be all right, Duck’. Happily, she was always right. We enjoyed each other’s company, and for two people who could talk for Britain, we listened and learned a lot. We discussed such elevated subjects as the future of the Anglican Church; same-sex marriage; UK politics; and the changing shades of Britain. Belle, of course, remembered the Windrush arriving in Britain after the War, and could judge the varying problems around the world by the nationalities who were being housed by the council in Mary Green.
After the refurbishment of Windsor Castle, Belle, Joan (her closest friend) and I went to look around the castle, and surprisingly, to me, it was Belle who knew the best pub for lunch. For a non-drinker, she always knew where to go, and I didn’t learn this for a while. After Joan had to go into a home, I used to make a point of visiting Belle more often, not because I’m a wonderful, selfless person, but because I really liked seeing her. It was rare to find her on her own though. Belle had a wide group of friends and family who visited her regularly. She was a skilled needlewoman and used to host classes in her flat – samples of her work were framed and on the wall.
Belle was mugged more than anyone else I’ve met. I suspect that muggers saw the cane and club feet, and saw an easy target. The last time, she was attacked and brought to the floor in the lift lobby of her building. She fought and fought, holding on tight to her handbag, but then looked at her mugger. She realised the boy was about 12, and stopped struggling. When I asked why, she said that realised that his life was over already and he was so young. She gave him her bag, he ran off, and she managed to get up.
One of her cousins decided to give away her money before she died and gave Belle a sum with the instructions to ‘spend it on herself’. We talked about this a great deal. Belle found it very hard to spend such a sum on herself, but her cousin had said that she wanted to know how Belle spent it, so she had to comply. Eventually Belle confided that she had always wanted an Aquascutum raincoat, so would I mind going to Regent Street with her? I have to admit that it went against every fibre of her being to spend so much on a raincoat, but she was very mindful of her cousin’s instruction. She loved trying on the different coats, eventually choosing one that needed an alteration which could be done in a couple of hours. So we went to a pub she knew for lunch (of course) and laughed and talked as always. She had also said that she wanted to buy a new gold chain for a locket that Jack had given to her, but on several occasions when I mentioned sorting that out she always had a good excuse for not doing it. I suspect she gave some of the money away, and I know that she paid for her funeral in full using that money. She felt quite pleased that she had done something useful but yet complied with her cousin’s wishes. I sometimes wonder how long it took her to think of that – something that ultimately helped her family, but was technically for her? Still she wore that coat with joy, and it saddened me as she was losing weight in the past two or three years that the coat was falling off her.
When we moved to New York City, I knew that it was very unlikely that she would still be around when we moved back to London. I made Fr Andrew promise to keep me up to date with regard to her health, and saw her almost every time I went back. We tried to Skype but it wasn’t very successful even though Andrew tried to sort it out for her. Sometimes I would call but she didn’t hear very well. We had started a tradition of seeing her on Christmas Eve, and celebrating her birthday together. For Christmas 2011, when she was still relatively mobile, Andrew, Hallie and I took her to a restaurant in the St Pancras Hotel. It had been renovated and she was thrilled to finally see what was inside. It was a delight to see her face as we walked in. She even allowed herself to be sung to as the waiter brought her a birthday dessert, but sometimes she was still that little girl who wasn’t sure that she should be in such places.
Belle’s health started to deteriorate after a stroke at the end of 2006. She was supposed to have been on a train to Birmingham to visit her sister, but never arrived. Poor Fr Andrew had to get in to her flat where he found her lying on the bathroom floor, where she’d been for 24 hours. She had kept her spirits up by singing hymns, even though she couldn’t move. Her recovery from that stroke was not fast enough for her. When gently reminded that she was no longer 21, she became quite grumpy with me, and called me a ‘cheeky cat’. I had to stifle my laughter because she really was most put out with me. Her brother, George, died before I met her, and her sister, Doris, died in about 2010. Belle worried that she hadn’t kept her promise to her mother, that she was still alive but George and Doris weren’t. I said that since they had both reached more than the average age, I thought she really had kept her promise, but I’m not sure Belle was convinced..
I last saw her on her 95th birthday, Christmas Eve 2014. She was definitely looking frailer but her brain and wit were as entertaining as ever. In the past year, every time I’ve seen her, I’ve said a particular goodbye to her in my head, thinking that it might be the last time, and this was no different. Belle always told me that she loved me, and that she missed me. I knew from Fr Andrew that her health had worsened after Christmas, but I had still hoped that I’d see her at Easter. However, Belle died on 5th March. She had had a massive stroke nine days before and was given the Last Rites almost immediately. Tough as she was, she lived on till the 5th, dying very peacefully while holding her sister, Margaret’s, hand.
Since then, I’ve thought of Belle a lot and what I learned from her and how grateful I am to have known her. Because of the intent of this blog, I’ve also been trying to think of a fitting recipe to honour Belle, but when I think of food and Belle, I think of roast dinners; Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (because that was what she always took to the Friendship Group for the raffle); and tinned vegetables (because ‘they’re easier, Duck, when you’re on your own’). Belle loved and cooked traditional British food, using up leftovers and never wasting anything. Growing up in poverty and living through the war created a mentality that we will never understand. She enjoyed baking and made a marvellous bread pudding, but that recipe is in London. So I am just going to tell you how I roast a side of salmon. I always try to cook a light meal on Christmas Eve, but something special, and I know I cooked this for Belle for one of her birthday dinners. She had rarely had fresh salmon and we discussed how salmon had been very expensive till relatively recently, but the advent of fish farming had made it available to everyone. 95 years old – fish farming was undoubtedly the least of the changes she saw in her lifetime. I’m not sure any recipe is a fitting tribute to Belle, but there has to be a tribute. Thank you, Belle, for listening to me and telling me it would be alright. It was. And it is.
- Side of fresh salmon with skin on – remove any bones
- multi-coloured peppercorns
Pre-heat the oven to its hottest setting.
Line a roasting pan with foil. Place the salmon on the foil, skin side down.
Grind pepper all over – make it look pretty.
Put in the oven. Turn the oven off after 5 mins and leave the salmon in for another 10 mins. Remove.