God knows how many times the old bedstead I slept in, as a child, was handed down. It was a 1940s double bed with a wooden headboard with slatted vertical boards and had three carved holes in the shape of hearts over the pillows. Likewise the foo boards. It was iron framed with a lattice of crossed wire forming the mattress support. I’m speculating that the dip in the middle was probably caused by more than my jumping up and down on my bed. I used to hang my NHS wire framed glasses between the two lower heart shaped openings before slipping off to sleep. One night, when I was about six or seven years old I was plagued with the most awful itching on my lower leg. Later it become even worse when both my thighs itched horribly. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep, but I slept really badly. Next day I told Mum about the itching and she asked me to show her where I’d been scratching. She was worried when my legs showed a number of bite spots in the form of triangles over both my calves and thighs. Dad was summoned and I was told they were bed bugs. And they had to be got rid of promptly. I worried that I might have my legs cut off (well I wasn’t to know how serious the matter was). That day mum acquired DDT (Dichlorodiphlorine Itrichlorethane) My bed was stripped of all its blankets and sheets and she meticulously pulled back the ribbed stitching on all sides so that the white powder could be shaken into the crevices. I hadn’t a clue what was happening but that afternoon, after Dad came back from work the iron beadstead was disassembled and put in the back garden. I was flabbergasted to watch Dad go over every inch of the iron angle irons with a lighted candle very slowly and with great diligence. Whilst doing this he explained, bed bugs live on blood! The itching I had experienced was the physical reaction to the bites as the bugs got fat and gorged with my blood. Luckily, the day was not raining or windy and as he put the candle over the frame every so often was the sound of a soft ‘pop’ when the bugs exploded.
I thought that was the end of the matter, but Mum had other ideas. Every piece of soft furnishing was given the DDT treatment, every pillowcase, mats and spare blankets were dusted and every speck of dirt of dark object was treated as if it might be a bug. Over the course of time the bites did fall away but always Mum was ever ready to battle the infestations.
Of course, that wasn’t the only infestation our old house harboured – mice, the occasional beetle, not to mention clothes moths were largely ignored, but head lice were picked on. Especially when the school’s “nitty-nora nurse” inspected our hair. Evening after evening, Mum would sit all three of us boys down by the fireplace and trawl through our hair with the most horrible pink small toothed comb, followed by hair washes with some evil concoction that she had bought from the local chemist.
I remember becoming quite paranoid. One night I heard a knocking noise behind our lathe and plaster bedroom walls. Both my brothers told me to ignore the clicks – Mum would go berserk and Dad would have to break all the internal walls down! I decided, not to raise the issue with Mum or Dad was it just another mouse, of the dreaded sounding ‘death watch beetle?’ A name that convinced me that it would pop out of the wall one night, look for me and next day I would be ‘brown bread’ (dead).
Silly now, but that is how slum living in the forties was for our family as well as it was for thousands of others.