Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wednesday 12th August 1942

“What part of England do you come from, mate?” “Oh, so and so” “Do you? Why I've got a cousin there! Do you know 'im? Jackson?” “Not Jackson the butcher, in South Street, is it?” “Yes! Bugger me! Fancy you knowing our Jim! Know 'im well?”
“No but we get our meat there, see? Got two kids, 'ain't 'e? My nipper went to the same school – in River Road.” “Well, don't that beat it? Fancy us meeting!” “Yeah, it's a small world!”

Ad infinitum.

The above is a quite imaginary conversation, but it's typical of many one hears. For every day, we weary exiles talk of home; and by the law of averages, it's only natural one often meets someone whose path crossed yours years ago, or who at least knows of someone else whose path once went near to yours.

Having lived in so many parts of England I'm able to discuss a variety of places but not with the same depth as the typical Englishman who has lived nearly his whole life in one district, and therefore knows that one district thoroughly. Yesterday I talked about Lincoln with a man from Waddington (the Stonebow, Dunston Pillar, Sudbrooke, West Common, Brayford, Steep Hill...)

And at night, lying in bed, I was talking to a Buckinghamshire man who lived near Jack Chenery, (Penn, Beaconsfield, Burnham Beeches, High Wycombe... Fingest, Christmas Common...) until my companion fell asleep and dreamt nostalgic, haunting dreams as he told me next morning. And no wonder, as he'd come from such a lovely district! Today though, I sat, during lunch, opposite a man named Cowell, who said he came from Canvey Island. After the usual talk of places, I said, “D'you know South Benfleet Post Office? I used to know a girl there.” “Not Doris Brooks?” “Yes, but I always called her Rio.” “Yes! I used to take her out! Do I know her!” “Proper night-club queen.” “Rather! Good Lord” ““Peek-a-boo”” “Did she say that to you, too? I say, were you keen on her? She's not your girl, I mean...?” “Oh no,” I said (A bit caddish, this Cowell.) “Proper whore. But a damn good sport.” “Heaven help the man she marries!” “She is married. Last year...” “Really?”

Cowell then told me some stories of Rio which would have made my hair curl if I'd ever had any illusions about her. “Your reputation was gone if you were seen with her, man! But she was a good sort all the same,” he ended. (Definitely uneducated new rich!) Which I thought a fitting summary of Rio Brooks! - not the part in the brackets, that refers to the queer-hawk Cowell!

Some of his subsequent Island chatter really shook me though. I recalled how I once nearly joined the Canvey “Terriers” - a Coast Defence battery. “Do you know where they went?” demanded Cowell. “No...” “Iceland! For about two years!” (I'd always wanted to go to mysterious Iceland! And that's where I'd have gone if I'd signed on that night...) “Still there?” I asked bitterly. “No. They've come home.” “What! To Canvey?” “No, they're in Brentwood.” “BRENTWOOD!”

I felt still and spent and slain.

It might have been the dim, fascinating, weird Iceland. And then Brentwood. I'd be married by now, surely. There would have been no Western Desert. Oh, the bitterness of might-have-beens!


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