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May's tough island days conquered by love

By Toby Neal | Telford | News | Published:

The story of May Grainger's early life in Jamaica reads a bit like the script for a Hollywood movie.

And that might happen, as May has written an autobiography which her publishers have sent off to Hollywood to see if the movie-makers are interested.

She and husband Tony, from Trench in Telford, are waiting to hear back.

Teenage May went from one tough job to another, the hardships and tribulations seemingly getting worse every time. At one point she was so hungry that she ate the dogs' food - it was actually porridge that her employer insisted she made up for her dogs.

At another place a man attempted to rape her.

The knight in shining armour of the story is her husband, who she met and fell in love with while he was stationed with the British Army in Jamaica. They will celebrate their 56th wedding anniversary on October 21, having married at the Salvation Army's Bramwell Booth Memorial Hall in Kingston, Jamaica.

The Salvation Army is a running thread throughout May's life. Tony was a Catholic and became a Salvationist a few weeks after they wed. They are in the Salvation Army at Oakengates and both play tenor horn in the band.

"There are three people in this marriage, the Lord and us two. I will maintain to the day I die that He looks after me. Maybe those days when I was suffering was to strengthen me, but I didn't know it then," says May, who is a very young-looking 78.

Her book is called "Montego May" and, while it is a factual account of May's growing from a small girl to womanhood in Jamaica, she appears in it as Lilly May, and the names of the other principals are also changed, the result of nervous American publishers being worried about identifying real-life people because of some of the things described. Even Tony's name is altered - he appears as Michael, his second name.

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The couple have a boy and two girls, and the book's origins are as something written for their children.

"Children here are so spoilt. I wanted our children to realise what I had to go through to be where I am today. Things don't grow on trees. I put all of what happened to me on paper and then put it away."

However, through the cajoling of friends, who said she should write a book, her story has now been published. Montego May costs £6.80, which includes postage, and is available direct from the couple on 01952 400027.

She was born Mavis Kerr on December 14, 1938. May has no photos of her childhood, as they were all lost in a hurricane.

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Her mother Prunella died of a brain tumour when she was very young - she does remember her, but it saddens her that she cannot recall her voice - and, with an absent father, she was brought up by her mother's brother, Ivan Kerr. The family home was five miles from Montego Bay.

On leaving school, as a young teenager she had a number of jobs in which she was worked hard for little pay, and in one case virtually starved.

That was while she was doing household duties for a woman in Kingston, which included making up porridge, complete with milk and sugar, for her dogs. She was warned that if there was no skin on it when she returned home, she would know May had taken some herself.

"One day I was so hungry I took a spoonful. I felt so ashamed. I thought God is watching me, even though Man is not seeing what I do.

"I was always hungry. I just drank water. People tell me I have such good skin - I say it must have been that."

Her escape came when a secretary sympathetic to her plight altered a genuine telegram from her uncle so that it read: "Please come home, I'm very ill."

She was coming up to 17 and in another similar job in which her duties including cooking, ironing, cleaning, and washing, when she was attacked by the male householder - a widely respected man - as she mopped the floor. He tripped her and forced her to the bed and tried to rape her.

"I was fighting him and pushed him and forced him off me. I was wishing he died there and then."

May said: "I kept thinking that I must have done something wrong in my life to suffer for so long. Everywhere I went was a disaster. I had never done anything wrong to anyone. I went to church at night, sat there and listened. I found solace there."

There followed five and a half years when she was a house mother at the Salvation Army School for the Blind and Visually Handicapped Children, about a mile out of Kingston. Things were rather better, but she was still the victim of petty jealousy.

Then fate intervened. Tony Grainger was a bandsman in the Royal Hampshire Regiment which was stationed in Jamaica for two and a half years. He went with a pal to do some voluntary work painting a dormitory at the school.

May recalls their first meeting: "The first thing he said was 'You are a pretty girl.' That made me feel really scary, as my uncle was always saying that soldiers and sailors were only after one thing."

Yet Tony had made a big initial impression.

"When I went to church and sat down, believe me, I will not lie to you, I didn't hear a thing the minister said. I was thinking of him."

She had never felt like that before. But she didn't see Tony again for weeks.

"They were abroad on hurricane relief work, but I didn't know that until he came back. He didn't know how I felt about him. I was constantly thinking, please Lord, take this feeling away from me. I don't know this man - I just love him, and don't know him."

However, on his return he asked one of the officers at the school if he could take her out. The answer was no, on the grounds that staff would take the mickey.

May upbraided Tony.

"I said if you want to ask me out, you ask me. You don't have to go through somebody else. I'm an adult."

So he did.

"We've been married, 56 years. I think everything I've been through, he has made up for it for me."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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