Sarah's Story


Valerie Byron

© Copyright 2020 by Valerie Byron   

Photo of Sarah.

This non-fiction account by my late mother, Sarah Byron,  was dictated to me.  It tells the story of her life and sexual awakening in the early 1900’s and her meeting, marriage and divorce with my father.

Now that I am in the twilight of my years, I look back upon my youth with the eyes of experience and understanding.  But back in those early days in London, the natural experiences of life were traumatic to the young and sensitive girl I was then.  Today, sex is loudly advertised everywhere one looks – television, movies, books – and is accepted as the norm.  In the early 1900’s we were unsophisticated and uneducated in the matters of the heart. There were only two men in my life – my husband, Lawrence, and the love of my life, Alan.  This is the story of my first love . . . 
I was born on August 7, 1911, the sixth of seven children, living with my parents in London’s East End – an area called ‘Whitechapel.’  My parents struggled to provide adequate housing and food for their seven offspring, born between 1900 and 1912.  These were the times of revolution in Russia, with the exodus of persecuted Jews to the ghettos of London and America.
My parents opened a kosher restaurant in the East End of London, catering to the immigrant community.  We lived in rooms upstairs, although my nursery was located in a corner of the restaurant dining room, where successions of faces and forms, murmuring in a dozen or more foreign tongues, would bend over my pram to admire the beautiful blonde child that I was.
I can recall almost every phase of my childhood.  A dreamer, I fantasized about each fairy tale character I read about.  I was a princess stolen from my real parents’ palace and left on the doorstep of these working class peasants.  No indeed, these were not my real parents or family. . . I was royalty!  Later, I dreamed of the Knights of the Round Table, who were going to rescue me from my fate.  I was ‘Joseph,’ scorned by his brothers, my own dreams scoffed at.’
I remember an incident that helped shape my attitude towards sex at a very early age.  I couldn’t have been more than six years old when a customer in the restaurant started taking me with him to his work.  Nate was a thin, weasel faced “barrow boy” – a man who sold fruit in the famous Petticoat Lane, just two blocks away.  I would sit by his side as he sold the seasonal fruit from his pushcart, watching the colorful crowd as they milled around the various stalls.  I often wonder now how my parents allowed me to be away from home all those hours.
One day, rain driving the peddlers off the streets, Nate took me along to the nearby stables where he kept his barrow.  He started to tell me the story of Adam and Eve and somehow I felt uneasily threatened at what he was implying.  Sickened, yet rooted in fearful fascination, he invited me to hold his ‘thing’ – which I associated with what my older brothers used for urinating into the white ceramic chamber pots which were stowed under their beds.
Mercifully, I was saved by the entry of another young man, Jack, a customer in our restaurant who used the same stables for his wares.  I’m sure he knew at once what was happening.  He said little, except to murmur “Come along, Sadie, your mother has been asking for you.”
I was filled with fright and shame.  Jack bent down to face me at my level.  He spoke gently.  “Your mother was worried about you.  She didn’t know where you were, and asked me to bring you home.”
Oh, Jack, I’m so glad you found me,” I responded with relief.  I could not bring myself to speak about that moment, feeling such fear and guilt.  Nate had bid a hasty retreat, leaving me alone with my savior.
Perhaps you shouldn’t go with anyone again without asking your mother or father first,” he advised. 
From that moment on I avoided Nate, although it seemed to me he gave me a knowing smirk each time he came in for a meal.  The guilt stayed with me for many years but fortunately he was called up into the Army soon after, so I didn’t have to face him or fear an encounter again.
While I left school at fifteen, I took on my share of work in the restaurant.  We had added a modernized unit in the front section, installing an American-style soda fountain and ice cream parlor, which were popular with the younger set.  It would be used as a meeting place after the movies, night school classes or before returning home from dances.  My girlfriends belonged to social clubs, one of which was founded by the local grammar school boys who had graduated to university, but wanted a place to meet up for reunions.  They extended the meeting room to their girlfriends, and we had a place for recreation, including a gymnasium and facilities for discussions, debates and weekly dances.
My girlfriends would have parties in their homes. On evenings when their parents would be out until midnight, they would practice the Charleston, blues, black bottom and tango.  Inevitably, there would be the game of “Postman’s Knock,” with much giggling and post mortems by the girls afterwards.
I could rarely participate as I had to work in the ice cream parlor at nights, our busiest times.  Sometimes I was able to sneak out, leaving my older brother to cope alone.  He was very good natured, up to a point.  I could not take too much advantage and, in any case, my ingrained fear of bodily contact deterred me.  I did not really want to indulge in indiscriminate embraces, much preferring discussions with the boys about their work and their ambitions in life.  Most were from poor, immigrant families but had high goals, aiming to graduate from university to become teachers, lawyers or doctors.
One young man, not of our crowd, would frequent our ice cream parlor in the evenings.  He would sometimes engage me in conversation, and tell me about the glamorous dance clubs popular in the West End of London.  He asked me if I had ever been to a tea dance at the Kit Kat Club, and of course I had heard of it.  My sisters, ten and eleven years my senior, were dance crazy, as were most of the post-war youth.  They had spoken of those exclusive clubs, which were far removed from our venue.
He spoke of the soft lights, the music, the dancers in their filmy gowns, and the graceful, gliding, whirling figures on the dance floor.  My imagination took flight at the very idea of it, never dreaming that I would ever be invited to such a magical place.  He asked whether I would like to see these places with him, but I hesitated.  I had no grown-up clothes!  I had never been out on a date with a man, just my girlfriends, to local dances put on by our schoolboy club members.
My friends coaxed me to accept an invitation to go to a movie showing in the West End, and when I protested that I had no suitable outfit, they inspected my sister’s extensive wardrobe to find something I could wear.
They conspired to keep watch as I slipped out the back door of the restaurant to meet this ‘sophisticated’ admirer, Ted.  I had told him I would have to go straight home after the movie, not giving the real reason, which was that I had to be back before my sisters returned from their offices in the City, and found that I had borrowed their clothes.
Feeling like Cinderella, my heart pounding fast, Ted and I boarded the bus at the end of my street, bound for Piccadilly Circus.  I really can’t recall much of the ride, but before I knew it we were entering the cinema and finding our seats.  In moments, his arm went around my waist and my body went rigid with fear as his fingers strayed towards my tiny, budding breasts.  I could hardly breathe and just stared rigidly at the screen, having no idea what the movie was about, just conscious of his hands on my body.  He held my left hand and, after awhile, I felt something warm and moist placed in it.  Looking down, I saw it was that awful ‘thing’. 
All the horror and guilt I had suppressed for so long engulfed me.  I thought I was going to faint.  What sort of girl did he think I was?  Had I encouraged him in any way?  Jerking his penis out of my hand in disgust, I leapt from my seat and rushed out of the dark cinema, sobbing.  I was filled with anguish.  Why did he have to do this?  I had liked him so much.  Now I could never speak to him again.
There were footsteps hurrying after me, and he stepped to my side.  It was starting to rain and he had my umbrella.
Whatever is the matter?”  He seemed genuinely bewildered at my distress.
I could barely speak – my voice trembled.  “Please give me my umbrella, and go away!”
He started to protest, and I turned on him fiercely, unable to look at his face.  “If you don’t give me my umbrella, and if you don’t go away, I’ll call a policeman.”
Still he persisted in asking me what was wrong.  I was desperate.  “If you don’t leave me this instant, I’ll tell my brother.  He’ll kill you!”
This worked.  He handed me the umbrella and I stumbled away to find a bus, hurrying back home and shaking with uncontrollable trembling.  I slipped up the stairs of the private side entrance to our living quarters above the restaurant, took off my borrowed finery, and paced my bedroom in small circles.  When my sisters came into our shared bedroom they were concerned at my state of shock.  I couldn’t confide in them, of course.  I told them merely that I felt ill.
When my friends came to see me the following day, I told them about my awful experience.  They were suitably sympathetic but we never referred to it again.  I withdrew into myself.
Soon after, I started to show the effects of the shock and trauma I had endured.  I could not lift food to my mouth, dropped utensils, missed my footing and balance, and could not control a facial tic.
My mother took me to our family doctor who dosed me with an evil tasting iron medicine.  Of course I could not explain what had really happened.  Finally, we went to attend the out-patient clinic at the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases.  I had “chorea” a form of St. Vitas Dance.  The young doctor at the clinic must have had some idea that I was hiding something and wanted to admit me as an in-patient so he could question me without my mother being present.  But the sight of other patients frightened me even more and I refused to agree.  Bed rest, absolute quiet and a change of scenery were prescribed and I was sent off to the seaside.
After a month spent in the balmy, pine-wooded city of Bournemouth, in the south of England, with parents of a girlfriend, I started to regain my equilibrium and all the symptoms vanished.  I felt that Sylvia, my sixteen year old friend, who had a reputation as a flirt, did more to free me of guilt than any psychiatrist.  With her calm, prosaic reception of my story, she fully understood how disappointed I was to find the first young man I trusted had such poor judgment, and was so insensitive to my feelings.
On my return home, I looked well, rosy cheeked and restored mentally and physically.  I noticed a new member of the club who joined our crowd after the dances as we gathered for light suppers and ice cream sodas in the soda fountain section of our restaurant.
I heard the boys discussing the new ‘dark horse’ – Lawrence.  He was elected secretary as he had many ideas for improving the finances and activities of the club.  He was reputed to be a loner, made no friends, nor did he mingle with the others on the dance floor.  He did not attempt to engage any of the girls in conversation, but did join them in trips to my restaurant.  With all the teasing and flirting that I would witness, I was intrigued by this silent, withdrawn young man with the brilliant, azure blue eyes.
Later, my best friend, Ada, a vivacious and outgoing young woman, asked me how well I knew Lawrence.  I responded that he had encountered me one day as I was leaving the restaurant to go to a movie, and had asked to join me.  I told her that I had gone on an occasional walk with him after the restaurant had closed at night, and we had become friends.  She asked me if he had kissed me and, when I showed amazement at her question, she said “I have a reason.”
She proceeded to tell me of an incident at her home.  He had accepted an invitation to learn to dance, and while he was with her, friends dropped by.   The evening ended with games, “Postman’s Knock” being one of them.
She was aware that Lawrence had looked uncomfortable, and had excused himself, leaving early.  One of the girls had confided to Ada that she felt he was strange.  When he had gone outside the room, supposedly to kiss her, he had said “I don’t suppose you really want me to kiss you, do you?”  What could she say to that?
Ada said she asked him on the next occasion what had he meant?  Did he dislike the girl?  Why did he ask such a question?  He told her that he felt a kiss was an intimate pledge and should not be given indiscriminately.  That he could not kiss a stranger, for whom he felt no affection.
Of course that increased my interest in him, and I secretly felt him to be a challenge.  I had felt safe with him.  We had talked of “ships and shoes and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings.”  He explained the stars, the planets, the galaxies, the meaning of light years, philosophy, his passion for mathematics and chess.  He made science seem fascinating, full of mystery and romance.  I admired him, and his mind and philosophy.  He had principles and a reverence for pure love.  Despite the suspicious distrust manifested by the members of the club, he and I became accepted as ‘pledged’.
He had four years of college before him, but we were young and we accepted each other as partners for life.  When he graduated from University in 1932, the Depression was even worse for him.  Building was at a standstill and there were no jobs available.
I finally prevailed upon my parents to use their influence with a cousin who was a financier, promoting new inventions, and Lawrence was offered a job as a technician – the product was a photo process imitating inlaid wood.  We were then able to marry, on a salary of five pounds a week.  My family was unhappy with my choice as my new husband had no endearing qualities.  He would not acknowledge a greeting, or engage in any conversation with members of my family.  A poor start for a marriage!
After a year, and the birth of our son, Alan, in 1934, Lawrence quit the job, saying he was tired of being used, and his work was not compensated as promised.  There was no unemployment compensation and we had no savings.  We could not pay the rent.
My brother had started a lighting and electrical accessories business in the north of England, and needed a manager to take charge of the sales while he traveled to solicit orders.
When we moved to Manchester, we were offered an apartment in the house my brother had bought.  It was a solid, roomy, three-story building.  My brother, Morrie, and his new wife Rose, occupied the first floor and we were to take the ground floor.  My parents, who had lost the restaurant for non-payment of taxes, were to occupy the top floor.
Although Lawrence proved to be of great help and value to my brother’s business, we really had no chance in our marriage.  The propinquity of family, lack of privacy and my increasing feeling of inadequacy ate at the fabric of our marriage.
Where was the wonder, the romance, the beauty and joy of union between two bodies?” I secretly mourned.  Yet, knowing no other experience, I had no measure of comparison, except books.  I thought this was how it really was with married people, and had to accept it.  The ritual was unchanging – perhaps once or twice a month he showed a desire for me, but without any foreplay or display of tenderness.  When he was satisfied, he turned away to sleep.
In the years that followed, we were able to move to our new, beautiful home in a pretty neighborhood, among compatible neighbors, and I was reasonably happy.  My life was dedicated to making my husband’s life comfortable, my home attractive, and his acceptance of the new friends we made.
It was when first I questioned his integrity that he became vulnerable to the first temptations he encountered by the scheming, unprincipled, greedy young woman, Barbara.  She had been introduced to Lawrence by my friend and neighbor, Bonnie, whose husband had become Lawrence’s partner in the war time arms factory he acquired.  He began an affair with Barbara during my pregnancy with our daughter in early 1942, ten years after our marriage.  By the time Valerie was born on July 4, 1942, Barbara was pregnant and demanding he leave me.
I knew something was wrong by his demeanor.  When he was home, he would pace the floors, refusing to speak, putting up an invisible wall.  At the first opportunity, he would be out the door, sometimes not return for days.  I begged him to tell me the truth, telling him I loved him and wanted our marriage to work.  His eyes were distant, although he often cried, telling me that when he was with “her” he would think of me…..but when he was with me, he longed for her.
It was then that my disillusionment was complete.  My idol had feet of clay.  I had endowed him all the qualities of idealism trusting that he would be sensitive to my needs, physically and emotionally.  He had taken all the love, adoration and admiration I had in me to give – and was unable to give selflessly in return.
I had been starved, disappointed, yet had refused to acknowledge this, even to myself.  Afraid to talk about my feelings of inadequacy in our sexual relationship, for fear of being indelicate or carnal, I suppressed my frustrations, chiding myself.  He left a few weeks after the birth of Valerie, leaving me with two young children and no way to support ourselves.
In the years following our parting, I would rationalize to myself, when loneliness or despair engulfed me.  Suppose it were possible for him to return?  Did I really want to resume an unfulfilled life?  The memory of the betrayal would always be there, so did I really want to endure again the pain of that constant cancer eating at my heart?  Albeit now excised, there were still the scars which constantly ached, and an empty space to remind me.
For a long time I refused to meet eligible men my friends tried to introduce.  I shrank from them in disgust.  My friends were hurt and impatient.  “Why don’t you at least try?  You may grow to like them”
But I knew better.  This would not happen, especially when at first meeting no spark was lit.  And so it was that I resigned myself to a life alone, bringing up my children as best I could, without the prospect of love.  I would not put myself through that kind of pain again, I vowed, and I would not burden my children with another man who would not treasure them.
Despite my adamant conviction that love was not meant for me, my life was about to change in a way I never imagined.  On a train ride to London, some three years later, I met a man who stirred my imagination, and whom I recognized with a sense of déjà vu.  With every hour I spent with him, a bond was forged that would link us forever.  No matter what the outcome, for better or worse, I would work out my destiny with my one true love.

To be continued. . . Click here to read "THE MAN ON THE TRAIN" by Sarah Byron, Valerie's mother. 

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