Friday, January 30, 2009

Sunday 2nd April 1944

I heard rain pattering when I awoke, just after 8 o'clock. The first rain this year, almost. I slumbered again.

April made the “early tea”; April prepared breakfast and brought it back to bed on a tray; Violet did the “elevenses”, a stimulant of sherry and cake (made by April the day before). I made and prepared nothing, so there must be some arrears of early morning teas etc. for me to make up!

The rain had ceased when April and I left Terori after tea – to cycle to Brentwood, where Aphrodite, at any rate, would remain until my next leave. There was no wind against us but it was still a damply warm day and I felt uncomfortably hot by the time we reached a cafe in Brentwood. This was Ward's Cafe and it was chosen because long ages April wrote me from there and wondered if we'd ever come here together.

That was sentiment; this is practicalness – she paid for the meal, because my funds were running low. And this perhaps is thoughtfulness – she wanted to fetch all our dishes from the counter to our table and maybe this was because she felt I might be rather embarrassed if I stood beside her at the counter whilst she paid the bill.
Whatever the reason, I felt strongly inclined to kiss my wife then and there, as she stood by the counter! However, I mastered the impulse and returned to our table with a plate of bread and butter!

We stayed awhile with Bill and Connie and had some coffee there. Then leaving “Monty” and Aphrodite in the garden, we walked to the railway station.
Romford was reached before we expected, which was just as well. Our parting was rather funny. First April stood up in the carriage and said, “Well, good-bye...” and we kissed. Then she hastily left the train and I hastily left it too, and caught her a few yards across the platform and we kissed again, more thoroughly. Then April disappeared into the crowds on the platform, I returned to my carriage and sat down, and waited for the train to start.

Almost immediately April re-appeared outside the now closed door, laughing. I stuck my head out of the window and said sternly, “Now look after Pixie...” “Oh, I will!” she assured me solemnly. Then the train did start, and finding April's gloved hand in mine, I kissed it quickly. She clung a moment, so that I felt her arm jerk as the train pulled out.

Then we had parted.

Saturday 1st April 1944

April and I have had several happy weekends together; it is difficult to single out one in particular but surely this was one of our happiest?

It could be summarised by a bald list of times, events and places:-

9:30a.m. Aphrodite and I crossed Woolwich Ferry.
12:30p.m. Met April and Monty at Half Way House.
2p.m. All at Terori.
10:45p.m. Bed.

Midnight Clocks moved forward one hour theoretically, and double summer time began.

Sunday 10a.m. Early morning tea.
12:30p.m. Breakfast.
2:30 “Elevenses” of sherry and cake.
3p.m. Got up.
6:20p.m. Left Terori
7:45 – 8:18p.m. Eating at Ward's Cafe, Brentwood.
8:20 – 8:45p.m. Coffee at Connie and Bill's home.
9p.m. Brentwood station.
9:01 Train departed.
9:10p.m. April alighted, at Romford station.
10:10p.m. Train left London Bridge.
10:38p.m. Arrived Woolwich.
Midnight Most of packing done, and in blankets.

After leaving North Woolwich, I cycled through East Ham and Ilford (where I paused for a cheese roll and two cups of tea) to Romford. I'd brought my greatcoat – very unwisely too, for it was a damply warm day and I felt weak with sweating, especially on the arterial road beyond Romford, where a strong head wind was noticeable.

I reached Half Way House at about 12:30p.m. There had been no sign of any barriers or police cordons and here I was, right into the banned zone. April cycled up soon after me – certainly not later than 12:45p.m. - and looked much too glamourous to be riding a bicycle. (Silk stockings too!) Her cheeks were flushed and she was laughing. altogether, she looked anything but frumpish, even on a bicycle!

Her “wifery” commenced very soon. When we'd had a cup of tea she tied my greatcoat on her handlebars whilst I took the rucksack. Very damply, hot and weary, I managed to complete the journey. It wasn't nearly so arduous with such a companion and much of it was along winding by-roads.

Violet and April both looked after me severely (anti-chill precautions!) when we reached Terori. I took off my blouse, two pullovers, shirt and vest and they were hung on the line in the garden. Then I had a good wash (my wife washed my back of course) at the kitchen sink. Afterwards, I wore makeshift garments until the rest had been dried at the fire. April rapidly prepared a savoury hot late lunch.

She really was a wonderful wife this weekend. It seemed very nice, at 4:30p.m. to think that we'd been together for hours, whereas on a normal weekend we'd only just have met.

My razor was broken, so April and I cycled into the village and I bought a new one (for which Violet paid). We called at the Police Station and heard that the ban was not strictly in force yet. Soldiers in uniform and in possession of a pass would be allowed in the district at anytime. Well, my days of “French Leave” will be ended now in any case, as I'm going to Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the far north.

At midnight the time changed to double summer time and became 1a.m. This seemed a sad blow when we realised it. Of all the hours which might have been lost, they had to steal an hour from our weekend, from our night.

Friday 31st March 1944

Not a very satisfactory morning. I got mixed up in some fatuous parade and then the collection of pay took an hour or so. I noted with satisfaction there was an amended credit balance in my book which showed there was still over £20 to be drawn.

In the afternoon however, I swan four lengths at the baths; it was too chilly to stay in any longer. Anyway I'm not so weak as I thought, and felt fitter already from the exercise I've had these last few days.

Well, all I hope is that I am able to get away tomorrow in time to meet April and that I enter the banned zone alright without a pass. My wife's address (Pitsea, Essex) which is entered in my pay book, should be helpful.

Thursday 30th March 1944

I'm not working at the station now, so have nothing to do until I go, unless they try to get me on parades and fatigues. This morning, after breakfast and just before parade, I hurried out of the barracks and had a swim at the baths.

It's nearly dinner-time now. What I shall do this afternoon, I don't quite know.
In the afternoon I cycled – two hours the outward journey, just over an hour the inward trip – for four kisses and a short stroll down a suburban street. Aphrodite and I crossed by the ferry boat to North Woolwich soon after lunch. I felt the usual sense of relief when we were in Essex and clear of the barrack town. Then I cycled steadily down monotonous wide roads across a dreary landscape of factories, slag heaps, gas works and marshes, into an area of serried rows of uniformly designed Council houses.

It was sunny and warm. I halted once for a cup of tea and reached Romford at about 3:30p.m. Following the directions given me by a homesick RAF man in Cairo, in 1941, I easily found Harrow Drive. I'd never seen it in daylight before; it looked a nice road of individualistic houses. I retired to a cafe nearby and had some toast and cakes.

After writing part of a letter to April – and it seemed odd to be writing to her from a cafe within sight of Harrow Drive – I went along to her digs. It was not the same as going to Terori. However, I had a wash there, left Aphrodite in the yard, and after listening to precise instructions from Mr and Mrs Hack walked to the road, about a quarter of a mile distant, where April's bus stopped.

It came almost at once, and a few yards away, I saw my wife alight and walk towards me. Her face did look funny as she saw me and kept on walking! When we met, that was the first kiss and it wasn't an ordinary peck-in-locum-publico kiss either. As we walked back towards No 52, fingers interlocked, arms pressed closely together, I solemnly explained that I had about 10 minutes to spare if I was to get home before lighting up time.

April kept om emitting queer little gurgles and sudden laughs of astonishment. We entered the digs and I said briskly, “Right, the cycle's in the yard...” “Hey! Wait one minute!” cried April, “I want to show you some books!” I followed her up into the green-walled bedroom, so often described in her letters to the Middle East. “I don't see why you shouldn't come up!” she had laughed, standing on the stairs. So I went up, while Mrs Hack, in the hall, looked as if she wasn't quite sure whether such a proceeding was improper or not. The bedroom seemed far more familiar and homely than the rest of the house, perhaps because April's possessions were in evidence in it.

“Have I ever kissed you in the green-walled bedroom?” “No” That was the second and third kiss. The forth kiss was a minute later in the road outside. April kissed the cycle too: “I christen thee Aphrodite!” Then I mounted and she said, “I'll not see you for forty two hours, then – somewhere near the Half Way House, if possible.” “Uh-huh,” I replied and cycled off, then turned my head to shout in tragi-comedy, “Forty two hours of hell!”

As if rider or steed was inspired, we dashed through the streets, lost our way but dashed on and reached the arterial road at 6:25p.m. By 7:15 we were on the north bank of the river. There was no sign of the ferry boat, so eventually I wheeled Aphrodite through the tunnel and at 7:30 garaged her on the other side.

Wednesday 29th March 1944

After two bombardiers and one sergeant had told me I was going away soon, I duly paraded with a dozen other bombardiers at the mirror at 8:15 this morning. We then began waiting to see the MO...

There were two breaks – half an hour for “elevenses” in the morning and an hour for lunch at midday – and we finally saw the MO at 3:30p.m. Having been passed as free from VD and lice etc. we dispersed.

We parade on Saturday morning to be told the times of the trains, and we probably go on Monday morning. So maybe – maybe – there will be one last weekend with April!

I telephoned her tonight from a call box near the ferry, and our conversation lasted 1½ hours. It's very pleasant to think that this record-breaking talk cost nothing! My sixpence just tickled the mechanism and fell out of the money box again.

Tuesday 28th March 1944

Yesterday at the station it was so pleasantly warm that I was able to discard my greatcoat, scarf and gloves. Perhaps because of this, and feeling much more free and un-encumbered, I quite enjoyed the very busy day and was not a bit tired at the end of it.

Today however I was off duty and slipped away, soon after breakfast. This will be one of my final chances to roam at will into Essex, for on April 1st a War Office ban comes into force, prohibiting travel into coastal regions of SE and S England.
Southend, Brentwood, Pitsea and Vange are all in the prohibited zone, but not Romford. Fortunately one is allowed to enter the zone for the purposes of visiting one's wife or mother in law but no doubt, even so, travelling will be more awkward after next Saturday.

Today, however, all was normal. I left Woolwich at 8:15 and reached Liverpool Street at 8:45a.m., having passed through the City by bus. (Why didn't I think of that route before?) Only a few minutes to wait for a train to Southend on Sea. It was cold in the carriage and I wished I had brought my greatcoat – just at first. The East End slums, half hidden by fog gradually melted into foggy fields, damp woods and drab villages, with familiar names: Wickford! Billericay! Hockley! Rayleigh! Rochford!

At the latter station I got out; the fog had cleared just a little. The station master said, in answer to my query, “Oh, no! I'm afraid you can't use the old footpath to Eastwoodbury! There's an RAF aerodrome across it now! It's best to walk by the road. Turn into Eastwoodbury Lane at the roundabout, by the bridge...” “Oh! I can find that way alright, thanks!” I laughed.

So I tucked “Nicholas Nickleby” (now nearly concluded) under my arm and strode smartly through Rochford. Felt quite warm by the time I passed Avro Road and left the last of the dingy houses behind me. Only farms and old cottages ahead, from then onwards. A woman with a shopping bag cycled slowly towards me. As she passed we looked hard at each other. This was Mrs Butler but she had not recognised me except to notice I was a stranger, and I had not recognised her!

Unknowing, therefore, I swung around the corner by the cart shed, saw Powlings House, surrounded by bare trees; the little church with the tiny wooden steeple; Timewell's Stores; the yellow cottages; the bridle path where I used to park the Battered and Ancient Vehicle; and poultry sheds in Fred Butler's field. I turned into Roedean's forlorn garden. What a lovely, secluded little piece of road this had seemed when the trees were all green, when I first found Eastwoodbury on a summer day in 1937. It will be lovely again this summer, too. The thick trees and hedges will hide the barbed wire fences.

Of course Roedean was locked up and deserted. Rather disappointed, I called at a nearby cottage and found Mrs Lee still lived there. After she had recognised me, she told me that Mrs Butler had gone to Rochford for the shopping only a few minutes before. “No wonder she didn't know you!” cried Mrs Lee, “You look so much older! And in khaki, too!” I sat in there about half an hour and heard the gossip which had accumulated for four and a half years. It was surprising how names of people and places grew quickly familiar again.

When I went on my way again, I met Mrs Butler almost at once, coming around the corner by the cart shed. “Hullo Mrs Butler!” I cried cheerily and she nearly fell off her bicycle! “As soon as you spoke, I knew!” she said, “Your voice's the same – but you look much older.” So did she, for that matter; much more changed than Mrs Lee.

The sitting room and wee kitchen of Roedean were just the same as I remembered them; Mrs Butler chattered volubly, just the same. I felt very sad as I remembered the old days and these war years which are wasting away. “How I wish we could turn back the clock seven years!” I said. “We've often said what a shame it was,” Mrs Butler told me, “How you came here at first with just a bicycle and worked and worked. And you were doing nicely when the war came to spoil everything... And you'd got a nice car by then.” “I'd just finished paying for it, yes. However, I'll start all over again, one day!”

Sipping tea, she explained how poor Fred was now working as a batman to an officer. “It's fairly good money and the hours are easy,” she said, “But it broke him when we had to give up the poultry farm... Of course we had to evacuate here and go to Gloucestershire, in 1940 – came home again two years ago... However, like you, we'll start all over again, one day.” Rather pathetically she chatted on, “Of course this has ruined our little plans... we'll never get away from here now, I suppose. But if we can only get back where we were it will be something...”

Her first question, as soon as we entered the house, even before the tea was made, was, “Well, are you married yet?” “Why, yes!” I replied, wilfully misleading her. “Oh! We often wondered, and we've looked in the marriage announcements in the “Southend Standard” sometimes. Fred has often seen Miss Rogers – that is – he's seen her driving an ambulance, but he never had a chance to ask her.”

“Miss Rogers?” I exclaimed, as if surprised, “Oh, I'm not married to her!” “Why, was it broken off?” “Good lord, yes. About the time war broke out. My wife is someone I've known for many years.” “Not an Egyptian lady, surely?” “No! Very English and living in Essex. Although she is half Australian I suppose, actually.” “Well! And when did you get married?” “A few days after I reached home – last January.” “Ah well!” said Mrs Butler, “You're married then, and I hope you'll both be very happy, especially when this awful war is over!”

When I left Roedean, the sun was shining brightly and Mrs Butler pointed out the old path to the main road. “It's still alright; they haven't wired across it...” Once I turned and saw that Roedean was gleaming yellow again and bathed in sunshine and except for the bare trees seemed as it had looked in those past summers.

I sang, crossing that wide field alone, the song I sang as I drove across Libya's green belt alone, in a new Ford lorry:

“Lonely road – Slipping away, Lonely road – I'll come back some day; Lonely rod – by valley and hill, Lonely road – I follow you still...”

I called at the Midland Bank in Southend and saw my statement of account. £81-8-11 to my credit, plus £75 in savings certificates. Then I had a good wash and brush up; and coffee and a welsh rarebit at Garons' Victoria Circus. That left me just nice time to catch the 2:28p.m. train towards Town. It was a warm carriage. I looked through the window and wistfully saw many houses between Southend and Rochford which had been decorated with my Paripan paint, in my territory.

At Brentwood I alighted; it was about 3:30. I rang the hospital and was finally answered by a flat, dry voice which intoned “Clerk's Office.” I recognised it enough to say, “April?”

Before going to the hospital I called on an old customer, Cronin, the builder. There was a prosperous air about the place. Once I could walk straight into a small office where all four Cronins were to be found. Now one goes into an ante-room and taps on a window which is answered by a girl clerk. The Mr Cronin was in view beyond, telephoning. I said I'd wait. Presently, covering the mouthpiece, he leaned forward and called, “What did you want, actually? I may be checking this specification for half an hour.”

“Oh, I couldn't resist the temptation to look in,” I said diffidently, “You see, before the war I used to call here as a traveller...” He stared at me, suddenly beamed, “I know! Mr Dawson, of Paripan! Come inside! I'll soon have finished this call.” I'd forgotten this was not the Army, and that I was still “Mr” Dawson here. Instinctively I'd expected him to snarl, “Right! Wait outside in the street until you're sent for!”

(Oh, that lost civilian self-confidence and self-respect – only temporarily lost, I hope.)

Cronin told me, really, more about the paint trade than I'd heard from Mr Reddall at the office. Prices had not risen too much and they still used plenty of paint for their Government contracts. “We've used quite a bit of your paint while you've been away,” he said, “and last year we even had the genuine Paripan Enamel, for a hospital job... We've often enquired about you, when phoning your office.”
“Yes! And those enquiries reached me, too, in all sorts of queer places – in the desert and in hospital...”

“You see we've moved over onto the sunny side of the road?” he said proudly. “Yes. I went in the old office first.” His last words were, “I hope we'll soon see you calling on us again, in a suit of civvies?” (I hope so, too!)

I've described this day in detail, so far, but I don't think I'll say so much about the few hours with April. I called at the hospital at 4:30 and she was ready to leave almost at once, wearing my old plaid scarf and a tweed jacket. We had tea at Bill Wallis' house in the grounds and I met his wife. Puffing at his pipe he showed me their chickens and gave me three eggs (a sacred gift, these days) which I later gave to April as I cannot very well fry myself eggs at Woolwich.

April bought me a cycle some time ago and a mechanical-minded patient had rejuvenated it. Today, with much ceremony he handed the cycle over to me, with many last instructions. The wheels and the pedals fairly purred with oil.

From a nearby block of wards I heard wild laughter and someone shouting incoherently... Ough! How I wish she did not have to work there! But she must, as long as I am in the Army and we have no home.

At last April and I mounted our “bikes” and rode away together; as we went she proudly pointed out various buildings. Within a few minutes however we were free of the grounds and of the town, and on a country road. My new cycle ran very easily. “Ernie” had certainly made a good job of it.

(I seem to be running into detail, after all!)

I'm afraid I was in a rather wooden mood this evening. I came to Brentwood rather puzzled by the long silence from April, and therefore extremely cautious. I soon realised that the silence was due to delayed posts and what she called “an unfortunate chain of circumstances” but the wooden mood remained. Seeing her in the hospital was perhaps a bad start.

After a few miles, the road became a path that dwindled away beside a marshy pond with draggled reeds. There were woods rising on the other side of the water, and I could hear birds calling there. We sat on a high gate near the pond and I smoked my pipe. The smoke drifted away slowly in the still air. Funnily enough, as I sat there stolidly, yet very conscious of the peace and quietude, I loved my April just as much as I have done when she wears the green gown or lies, in green silk, close in my arms.

But – I couldn't show my affection!

Once, I remember, she laid her hand on my knee and I wanted to cover it with mine; but I did not and after a while her hand went away again.

When we left the gate – it was nearly sunset – April said, “Hey! Do you know you haven't kissed me “Hullo” yet?” “Well, we met in the hospital hall.” “Yes, but you haven't done it since!” “Oh, do you want me to kiss you now?” I asked in a patient, wooden manner. “Heavens, no. It has to be spontaneous!” she replied, and laughed, fortunately.

We rode back slowly through the long English twilight. We'd decided I should take the cycle to Woolwich with me – it would be so handy for slipping down to Pitsea at odd times, we planned guilelessly. April came on the platform with me and we paced up and down until my train came in. I was trying to recall something vital which I had to tell her but I never did. (Was it, “I love you”? Very probably!)

Just before the train went we did kiss – once for “hullo”, once for “goodbye” and once for no special reason. Anyway, the second kiss was not a normal, official one, for then it was her face I kissed as it moved restlessly underneath mine. My last glimpse of April revealed her running up the station steps, head down, as the train went under the bridge.

At Liverpool Street I collected the cycle from the guards van and had a cup of tea at the station buffet, whilst the cycle was guarded by a man whom I later realised to my horror was at least half drunk. My God! He might have sold it whilst I was away! So when I called in the lavatory just afterwards, I carried the cycle down the steps there, with me. As I came back I was amused to see a woman coming down the steps, apparently thinking this was the ladies lavatory. On seeing me she stood at bay for an instant, looking around wildly, then with a cry of “Ooo-er!” she turned and hurried upstairs again. I laughed aloud, thus showing my lack of good breeding.

It was 9:15p.m. by this time and quite dark. I wheeled the bicycle through the City and across London Bridge, finding the way easily with the help of various civil defence people. The cycle and I travelled together in the guards van from London Bridge. I decided to call it “Pegasus” but just then, the train lurched and the front wheel turned gently and caressingly towards me. This seemed such a tender and essentially feminine gesture that I fell in love and decided “it” was a “she” and should be named “Aphrodite.”

We detrained at Woolwich Arsenal, and a friendly collector and foreman both assured me there was no need to find a garage, so I left Aphrodite locked-up in the porters room. “Keep it there as long as you like,” they said, “You're with the RTO and often help us.” I walked back to barracks with hopeful thoughts of pleasant summer rides into Essex...

Everyone was asleep in my barracks room. I switched on the light and – dam me! - there was a letter from April stuffed into my blankets! I sat down and began to read.
The nearest sleeper stirred, opened one eye. “Bom?” “Yes, boy?” “You're to parade by the mirror at 8:15 tomorrow.” “What! Why?” “Goin' away, I think,” and he rolled over and slept again. My plans for the summer rapidly dispersed.

(The mirror is a large looking-glass by the battery office. You are supposed to peer at yourself in there before you go into the town, to see if you are properly dressed...)

A few minutes later someone else awoke and mumbled,”You gotta parade by the mirror tomorrow at 8:15, Bom.” “What for?” “Goin' away soon” “Where to?” “Newcastle, I 'spect, Bom.” And he slept again! Just as I was getting into bed a late-comer arrived. “Have you been told...” he began.

“I have!” I replied!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sunday 26th March 1944

Day “off”.

The streets were full of children and women in uniform this morning. All those things which once we deplored about Germany are slowly becoming established in our British way of life. The next generation will grow up in an atmosphere of danger, death, destruction and insecurity – and, even worse, they will be uniformed, standardised and regimented. Each individual will be dragged down or forced up to the national norm. If this happens it will be a tragical thing.

Great excitement is being fiercely stimulated in Woolwich and all over the country, this week, as the Government wants the people to buy more savings certificates. Captured enemy guns stand in the street; soldiers, women, civilians in uniform and the children are marching. The slogan for the savings campaign is “Salute the Soldier”!

Once, yesterday afternoon, as an MP was delivering skilled but meaningless oratory in the Market Square, he had an interruption and the eyes of the crowd were turned away for a moment. They were looking at a party of 200 soldiers who were being herded towards the station, loaded down with kit bags, packs, tin hats and all the usual military paraphernalia.

“Salute the Soldier!” But no one does!

I must correct those last four words. I don't mean that England's little people ignore the soldier. On the contrary, they salute their soldiers, in countless small ways each day, as I have mentioned in my diary. I mean that no one in authority does.

Today I found Woolwich Public Baths and had a swim – yes, I am still strong enough to swim! I shall try and get a swim regularly whilst I remain here; it helps to make one fit.

Warm, sunny day, this, with patches of green sprouting in back gardens. It was warm enough for everyone to discard their coats, scarves and gloves. Perhaps the winter has gone. All the same I do not feel very happy; on the contrary I feel distinctly lost and lonely. Perhaps this is because I have not heard, by letter or phone, from April since last Tuesday. Usually there are two or three letters each week, and at least one phone conversation. Perhaps also, it is not cheering to realise that, so long as I am in the Army at any rate, April lives on the opposite side of the social fence from me, besides being on the opposite side of the real river Thames.

Saturday 25 March 1944

Yesterday I drew my credits, at least some of the amount outstanding. I've been applying for this back pay ever since January 18th and even now the RA Records is not sure exactly how much stands to my credit. Finally, three estimates arrived, all different, and varying from £60 to £88... Accordingly I received a cheque for £58 yesterday and £2 in cash, with a promise that there might be a little more to come!

I paid in the cheque at the local Midland bank and shall squander the cash during the next week or so. £2 does not spread very far these days.

A long and tiring day at the station. Perhaps it seems more weary because the weather has grown warmer.

Thursday 23rd March 1944

A rather tiring day at the station. One NCO has been put on another duty for a week or so, therefore we two who remain will work one day on, one off, each, from now on.

Telephoned April tonight, to tell her about my trip to Terori, but to my disappointment she was out somewhere. “She'll be out tomorrow, too” added Mrs Hack.

April fell out of bed the other night at the Cumberland! I awoke to find a bit of a weight on my right arm, which was around my wife's neck, and then discovered that only her head and neck remained in bed! The rest of her had slipped on to the floor. I sat up and lugged the sleepy bundle across me and on to the other side of the bed. “You'd better come here, against the wall,” I said. “Umf muff mmm” replied the bundle.

Wednesday 22nd March 1944

Today I acted on impulse; it is sweet to do this, especially when the result is “escape”, as it was on this occasion. I had the whole day off duty and, slipping out of the barracks at 0745 hrs, posted a letter written to April last night. Having done so I obeyed the first idea that occurred to me and set out for Pitsea.

So I hurried through the tunnel under the Thames, to freedom. The barracks is a prison and in a lesser degree so is the military, khaki-teeming town of Woolwich. In the middle of the tunnel I heard someone cry, “Hullo! Where are you going?” Startled for a moment, I was relieved to recognise a soldier from my own barrack room, returning to Woolwich from some nefarious errand or a night at home. After staggering on a few paces I looked back and yelled, “Hullo! And where have you come from?”

I quickly reached Upminster Bridge by the underground railway and found I'd an hour to wait, having just missed the Pitsea bus. That did not matter though; I had no definite appointments to keep and it was a sunny morning. Upminster “Bell” cross roads? Ah! I'd often passed here in the car, looking for builders who might buy paint. And once, long before that, I came here to meet a girl. It was Anne – and now I saw the tea-shop in which I sat waiting, at a table upstairs, by a window.

Memory is a funny thing. I remembered waiting, and that I met Anne, and that the meeting was fairly brief and vaguely unsatisfactory; but why we met, what we said and why in Upminster of all odd places, I had forgotten!

That old tea-shop was closed but I had tea and biscuits in a cafe nearby and read “Nicholas Nickleby.” Like “Our Mutual Friend”, this book grows on one. It has 900 pages and I feel regret that I am already more than half way through. One gets so intimate with Dicken's characters in his lengthy novels that they feel like a family of well-known friends. Thus, the waiting time slipped past easily, and eventually I caught the 9:40 bus and reached Gales Corner at about 10:30a.m.

Violet was still in bed! (last night's raid had kept her in the shelter in the early hours) but she was up and washed and had that small house tidy in an amazingly short space of time. At 12 o'clock we both arrived at the British Restaurant. (I called at a shop on the way to buy a pound of oranges with Vi's ration book and received an extra, un-rationed pound, “for the khaki.”)

Violet seemed genuinely pleased to see me, which finally confirmed my faith in impulses. Sitting beside her there it seemed very similar to the day when I came here with April's suitcase, just after April and I were married. Especially when Mr O'Brian arrived just as he did that historic day and drove us both back to Terori. Just as before too, Violet lit the kitchen fire and made a cup of tea as soon as we got there. I washed a couple of handkerchiefs, Violet put them on the line for a bit, “because the fresh air makes them smell nice” and we finally dried them as we sat by the fire – glowing brightly by this time.

Violet saw me to the bus at 4 o'clock. “Little does she guess that you're here today!” she chuckled gleefully. An unexpected country day, this. The plum tree in Terori's garden was in bud, also the hedges and I saw a tree of pink May-blossom down the road.

“Winter's broken and earth's woken... And the hawthorn hedge put forth it's buds...”

Obeying another careless impulse I left the bus when it reached the main road and entered “The Blue Bird Cafe”. The large fireplace was still there but held no fire. Otherwise the room looked just the same as ever and the same woman appeared from a door beside the counter with the same expression on her face. I ordered an (unwanted) cup of tea and sandwich then said, “You're still here , then!” “Yes, and I remember you, too! You came here years ago with a party of ramblers and later on you came alone or with a young lady, until the war began...”

“Yes, I'm married to that young lady now!” “Oh? You once came in the snow, didn't you? And you were in the Essex Yeomanry – been in Africa?” “Yes. The Regiment is still out there.”

Whilst I munched the sandwich and sipped the tea, she leaned against the door and said, “Yes, we're still here. It's not been the same since we lost our little girl though...”

“Good lord!” I said, “That staircase! I remember your three children going up there to bed one night, peeping over the bannisters! One was a school-boy of 13 or so, the other two were quite small...” “That's right,” she replied in a listless way, “My eldest boy goes into the RAF this year – he's deferred just now, to finish his studies. The second one is at his brother's old school in Grays; but my little girl – she died two years ago.”

I then heard all about the illness and sudden death of the girl, after which I came away to catch a bus for Upminster. “By the way,” I asked, as I opened the door, “Why did you call this place “The Blue Bird”? Or did you?” “We didn't. It was called that before we came, so we let the name stay. Well, it's been nice seeing you. We thought of you once or twice, after we'd heard the Yeomanry had gone away...”

Whilst I waited for the bus, an American “Jeep” and three huge guns crawled by. “Say! This right for Canvey Island?” yelled an officer in the jeep. “Yes!” “American gun-sites this way?” “Yes.” (They probably were; how should I know?) The jeep roared on, followed by three rumbling guns. The first was named, “Pistol Totin' Mama,” the second was “Louisiana Lou;” whilst the third was boldly marked (with reference to a current jazz song) “LAY THIS PISTOL DOWN!”

Uneventful and rapid journey back to Woolwich. Just as I was going to bed, at about 10:30, I discovered a 2oz bar of chocolate in my pocket. Violet had given it to me “for the journey.” Luckily I'd forgotten it, for now I felt hungry and relished it the more.

Ah! The open country is better than the towns and cities!

Morning Mists 1944

“Four thing come not back to man or woman."

Morning Mists, Summer Shower, High Noon 1944

870844 Bdr. Dawson SJ “B” Battery, RA Depot, Woolwich, London SE 18
Later: 165/175 Field Regt. RA, Racecourse Camp, Gosforth, Newcastle on Tyne
Later: SJ Dawson Esq. Terori, Ravenscourt Drive, Vange, Pitsea, Essex
Later: Little Dene, Church Street, Great Burstead, Essex

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th March 1944

... At about 9:30a.m. having obtained no pass and completed no formalities, I got on a bus near the barracks, which took me (slowly but surely) to Oxford Circus. After about half an hours wait at the Cumberland (during which time I had coffee) I secured a double room, 2XA.

Went up there. Everything warm and luxurious just as before. I had a bath and a shave, lunched near Trafalgar Square and met April at Liverpool Street at 3p.m.
“Have you got a cold?” I asked, bending to kiss her. “No!” “Nor have I!”

Supper at Schmidts, Charlotte Street. Rather faded and war-lit. No German food of course and a pathetic notice above the door claimed that Herr Schmidt was a loyal British subject, established since 1906, who employed many ex-servicemen...

After we'd had tea and biscuits served in the bedroom, we read to each other, until the room seemed stuffy and we put the light out and opened the window and black-out curtains. We really did read to each other in the morning though, for breakfast was not served (in bed!) until nearly 10a.m.

At midday we walked through the Park and went in a boat on the Serpentine. It being April's turn for a story, she told me of the film “Jane Eyre” and this lasted all the time we were in the Park.

It was a happy weekend; better than having an official leave with pass. As her train started, April pushed a piece of paper into my hand. “Read that when I've gone.” It was not to say “farewell for ever” - it was a £1 note!

Friday 17th March 1944

Railway Station Comments:-

Being kind and helpful, for which there is plenty of scope at the Station, aids me to be less introspective and worried. There are mothers struggling on the steps with babies in cumbersome prams; small, weak-looking ATS girls staggering under the weight of huge kit bags; there are puffing old men and women; worried soldiers, over-worked ticket collectors, people with mountains of baggage; and of course, dozens of enquiries each day about trains, which I'm now learning to answer accurately.

So many people want helping; being helpful passes the time more quickly than standing about woodenly, like a soldier. and the people one helps are so grateful, they're worth being courteous to. The only travellers I'm not interested in are officers, unless they actually accost me (usually in a haughty way). Officers can afford to pay for a porter to carry their luggage if they must have someone to serve them.

On duty at the station today (7:30a.m. to 10p.m.) but was relieved during the morning for pay parade. For once it was a happy, easy pay parade too. I only had a couple of minutes to wait in each of the three queues before I drew my money. A clerk told me that my credit balance had at last been notified from RA Records at Sidcup.

Handing in of the week's laundry parcel was also an easy job this time. There was no need to queue; I just had to go across to the Postings Office to get permission from a lance bombardier to the effect that it was OK to hand in the laundry parcel. Wonder of wonders, the lance bombardier was in the office indicated and soon gave me the required consent, verbally – it was not even necessary for him to sign a chit. Receiving this permission means I am not expecting to be posted to Newcastle before next Friday! Wonder if I shall go eventually? In any case it is a relief to know definitely that I shall be here next week.

Sergeant Perkins cried jovially, “You'll soon go, Dawson! And then...!!” He fluttered his hands. (Obviously drunk or crazy,I thought) “What are you symbolising, Sergeant? Over the bounding billow?” “No! Oh, no! You'll never go overseas again – never!” “Won't break my heart if I do, though,” I said. “Tell you what will happen to you!” cried the Sergeant, peculiarly elated, “You'll get your ticket! That's what you'll get! Your ticket!!”

“There's nothing I want more, I assure you,” I responded, and came away, still wondering at the cause of the worthy Sergeant's manner. Maybe he is fey.

Last night I heard someone – an educated Scotsman – utter sentiments very similar to my own. “This is a terr-rible place, this depot,” he said, “Men lose their self-respect here and that's sometimes worse than losing life. In action, they increase their self-respect. And if they sur-rvive, as most do, they're all the better for it. But here, in a dump like this, they all become demoralised. A terr-rible thing!”

Thursday 16th March 1944

All day “off.” Odd jobs in the morning, and at midday I went up to Town and met Father at Waterloo. He was passing through London on his way back to duty, after a leave in Devon. After seeing him off at Victoria at 3:35p.m., I felt hungry and went into an ABC cafe (feeling nice and clean for once, as I'd had a bath at Waterloo whilst waiting for the old man).

It was a cafeteria actually. When I reached the cash desk with a substantial first course of various savouries, the girl said, “1/4d please.” I gave her half a crown and received two shillings in change! I looked at her in doubt and she waved me on with a smile. After I'd finished that tray full (with the assistance of “Nicholas Nickleby”) I queued again for cakes and tea, asking a middle aged woman at an adjacent table to keep an eye on my coat and cap. This time I took three cakes and a cup of tea and paid half a crown. My change was a two shilling piece and a sixpence. “Are you in the artillery, too?” I asked “Cash”, seeing now that she wore a gun brooch. “Someone else is!” she replied.

When I returned to my table the middle aged woman nodded, smiled, and walked off. She had been waiting for my return before she went, just in case someone should casr envious eyes upon my coat or cap.

The ordinary people of England are so kind to us, in many little ways like this. The Government treats us like animals and under-pays us; but England's ordinary little people do their best to make up for it, bless them!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wednesday 15th March 1944

Afternoon “off”. My heavy, hob-nailed Army boots, which made walking a slippery and uncomfortable business, were replaced by my “civvie” brown shoes and I went down into Kent and the English countryside.

I “wangled” the trains so that the journey to Gravesend and back cost 1/1d altogether. I got aboard the 1:38p.m. at Woolwich straight into wonderfully warm carriage where four men were excitedly playing cards. About £10 besides odd silver lay in the “kity” in the middle of the overcoat they'd spread across their knees. They talked in loud voices and were all red-faced.

“From London?” I asked during a lull, “Much damage last night?” “Yes, in some parts,” replied my neighbour. “Was there any trouble in Romford?” I asked. “I don't think there was,” bawled a man, throwing down a 10/- note, “And I was on fire-watch near there myself. Your folks live in Romford, mate?” “Yes.” “Ah! Nice place, Romford! Here, want to have a look at my paper?” “Thanks!”

I found the bus stop easily enough when I got into Gravesend High Street. It was beside what vaguely seemed a drapery or gown shop. I caught a Dickens Road bus, as I had done several times, years before. “I haven't paid yet, “ I remarked gloomily when we reached the town boundary. “Getting off here?” asked the conductress. “Yes.” “That's alright then.” “What? Baksheesh?” “Sure.”

At first the old path was clearly defined, running diagonally across the fields but it was not the same now. The aerodrome had grown larger; I saw grey hangers where once was arable land; there were thick fences of rolled barbed wire; fighter planes constantly roared low overhead. However I pushed on over the crest into the valley beyond. The sound of aero engines grew fainter and the path became a cart-track.

“Swings the way still, by hollow and hill...”

A river mist had hung around Gravesend but as I walked on it cleared, the sun shone and I sighted Shorn windmill. It was quite accidental that I should make this pilgrimage today. I might have been packing to go north; I might not have been off duty. Indeed I had planned to come here last Monday but the weather was wet and I felt tired. It is curious I should eventually ramble into Kent today, as April followed this same path, in the same lonely and reminiscent mood, exactly two years ago.

Her diary says: “15th March 1942... It took me some time to find the path at the corner of the T-road but this done, the country spread before me and the air seemed clear and fresh...”

Today, I found the quarry which April that afternoon in 1939 called “the dene holes” and went into the three caves which are the actual “holes”. I lit my pipe and looked around; it was dark, musty and dusty down there. I wondered where it was – in which cave – that April had marked our names. Perhaps I should not have gone in anyway for April's diary (written when there was every chance that we might never meet again) remarks: “I didn't look for the lost handkerchief or our names in the cave, because we said, “We will come back and find them some day”... and who knows – perhaps WE shall.”

Outside the quarry I met a farm worker. He was rather voluble about the way to Shorn, of which I was doubtful. “Straight on down theer, surr,” he declaimed eagerly, “And then up the lane right into the village!”

Perhaps I should not have accepted his anxious directions, for they brought me into the main village, which I'd never seen before. Lost! Strolling disconsolately through the street, met a kind parson (one of the dear, old-fashioned sort of padres) and consulted him. At last I showed him a picture of my April of 1939, sitting on a wall (this was the picture that reached the desert almost as soon as I did and stayed with me there) and he recognised the wall! (not April!)

“Why, I'm sure that's Peartree Lane way,” he said, “There is a footpath to Cobham Woods not far from there.” “I think the path went down by a pub,” I said dubiously. “Was it the See Ho?” “Maybe!” I cried in awakened hope.

Then by an utterly unfamiliar road, I came to a remembered cross-roads (alas! there was an air raid shelter there now) and saw an inn, not far away. Yes! It was the See Ho, where I once had a refreshing pint of beer one hot noontide with – whom? - some men.

Down beyond; across the main road and into beloved Cobham Woods, where I now had a rude surprise. The ugly tin huts of a small searchlight detachment were sprawled athwart the footpath. Soldiers gazed curiously at me. One self-important individual in overalls halted me, demanded my pay book and gazed at it suspiciously.

“Where were you born?” “Grimsby, Lincolnshire,” I replied wearily. “And your number?” “870844! It's there, look.” He cunningly covered the pages with his hand, peered at a few more pages and then said, “What's your number, again?” “870844!” I snarled loudly and fiercely. “Alright” he mumbled and clumped away awkwardly. Another soldier winked at me and commented, “Pretty keen, 'ain't 'e!”

I hurried on into the woods. When I came to the high stile where April once sat (and not until then) I felt a sense of peace and “escape”. Taking off my greatcoat, I sat down and lit my pipe. At last the world had grown quiet. The faint drone of planes was here subdued to an un-disturbing whisper by the louder sounds of grey squirrels rustling among dead leaves close at hand.

Somewhere along this path, I remember a pacifist once said to me, as a plane fired it's machine guns in play and exercise, “Now I suppose you'll roll in ecstasy Stephen!” I've once rolled – but in fear, not ecstasy! - at the sound of a plane's chattering guns; and that was in a little valley between Agedabia and Mersa Beega, just over three years ago. However, now in 1944, I'm far more anti-militaristic than that man ever was! I'm more anti-military than anti-war!

The stile in the woods is the furthest point of “escape” if one turns right, towards Cobham; if one goes straight on, an attractive dark track disappears downhill into thick trees and undergrowth. Cobham is really only on the fringe, just on the fringe, of the escape country – that lovely maze of footpaths through wooded valleys and across hills. At least, I suppose that today one still escapes more as one pushes further into Kent. April and I must go beyond Cobham one day.

April! I turn again to her diary for March 15th 1942. Sitting on this same stile she wrote me a letter which never reached me: “Hullo my dear Stephen John... you could never guess where I am writing this letter from, but I'll tell you – Kent! From the stile where you said... “You look very lovely sitting there”... I've never felt as near to you as I do now – I think your spirit has come home for a little while to keep me company on this – our day. Do you remember lighting your pipe just before we left this stile?...”

Perhaps I'm glad that letter never reached me. It would have made me sad, even though it might be what April in her diary calls “a sad sort of happy gladness.”

“I stopped writing and slowly slung my haversack and continued through the woods. The sun was shining and it was marvellous to feel the leaves crunch and shuffle beneath my feet... How glad I am to have come again... a sad sort of happy gladness...”

Still feeling warm, carrying my soldier's cap in my hand, with my soldier's greatcoat slung neatly across my right shoulder, but with my own khaki scarf wound carelessly around my neck as in olden times, I too left the stile.

Shuffle-shuffle, through dead leaves...

“I had tea at The Leather Bottle, that certainly hadn't changed...”

I also had tea at the “Bottle”, with a glowing fire, brasses and many Dicken's prints on the walls. Two ladies were there, finishing their tea. They were aged about 35-40; they had macintosh coats and wore brogue shoes. I felt a pang of nostalgia at sight of them.

My tea consisted of a boiled egg(!), three rolls, plenty of tea and much jam and butter. The maid asked, had I enough sugar? I had. “This must be THE egg!” I exclaimed.

“You see what a uniform does,” said one of the ladies wistfully. They were typical walkers; we talked of footpaths that had vanished. They described paths which had been closed with barbed-wire, or ploughed over. I told them of the way by which I had come through the woods.

Outside, I waited for a Gravesend bus. “Nice to hear the birds again,” remarked a pipe-smoking countryman, standing beside me. Sure enough, when I listened, the air was full of twittering and song and the dismal caw! - caw! of rooks!

“Have those roofs been damaged by AA fire?” I asked, looking as some picturesque old houses. (As though anxious to hurt myself with reminders of war and ruin!) “No!” said the countryman, to my relief,”A high wind got under and lifted those tiles. Pretty old, those houses, y'know. Don't build like that in these days!” “No, indeed,” I agreed.

Then the bus came and I got on board and ended my afternoon.

April's diary commented: “I wish I knew if there might be a future for you and I, but perhaps I don't, it would be so awful to find there wasn't, but it has been a grand day, rather a rude awakening from my dreams – remember the wedding we planned... crazy weren't we but oh! so very happy – as the ferry bumped against the landing stage, for here my day ends.”

But, thank God, after all, our Day is not yet ended; and we are married. There has been and is and shall be a future for us now.

Tuesday 14th March 1944

So far there is no more news of the move; I've not even had the FFI (medical exam)yet. Will it not occur until next week? Ready for my departure however, a third NCO now shares the shifts at the station, so whilst things continue in their far from perfect state we are each working one day on duty and two off!

Occasionally a murmur of things hateful reaches me when I'm in barracks - (“Where are you going, Bombardier?” “To get my dinner.” “Well, have you got a chittie? You can't go to meals on your own unless you've got a chittie from the office...”

“Bom., the officer says yer've gotta hide one of yer kit bags next time 'e comes inspecting.” “Why?” “Don't know why, but that's what 'e says. Maybe you shouldn't 'ave two kit bags beside yer bed.” “Where do I hide a kit bag then?” “Don't know Bom., but you gotta do it. That's what the officer says.”) - but being at the station or roaming at large in the town nearly all the time, I don't suffer too much these days.

Telephone conversation with my wife tonight. I thought we were talking about 20 minutes but unless there is something wrong with the clocks we were actually on the phone for over 1 ¼ hours! It must be a record, even for us.

Propaganda placard: “Telephone less – for Victory, says the Post Office.”

At the collectors box, I notice that holders of season tickets always look very smug and self-confident. They are never hurried or flustered, like the people with ordinary tickets; they flourish their little green cards with a sort of proud nonchalance as they pass the barrier. Some people ask collectors the most ridiculous questions. For instance, today two men came along and without showing their tickets said, “When's the next train, please?” “If you tell me where you're going or want to go I'll tell you when the train goes there!” replied the collector in desperate patience.

Then there was the soldier who said, “Next train to Ramsgate please?” “Over there,” replied the collector, “11:38 and get in the front part of the train.” The soldier went down to the platform indicated, came back a few minutes later and said, in the same dull tone of voice, “Next train to Ramsgate, please?” The collector again repeated the information. To my horror, the soldier retired doubtfully a few paces, looked around, came up to the unfortunate official a third time and asked stupidly, “Next train to Ramsgate, please?” At this the collector spat out a torrent of angry words and ended by saying, “Over there! 11:38! Get in the front part of the train! And don't you dare come back and ask me again!” The soldier slunk away, crestfallen, and appeared no more.

Air raid tonight. Much AA fire and many planes droning, but nothing fell in this locality. All the same,as usual, many men got out of bed, dressed and went downstairs to the chilly shelters. I dozed off, towards the end of the said raid but was awakened by the panic party returning, clumping in, in heavy boots, talking loudly. I was just about to make some sarcastic complaint when I was sleepily amused to hear someone say, “Look at the bombardier there! 'E 'asn't stirred in 'is bed!” “Never does!” said another voice in tones of awe, “He's got no feelings at all!” Slightly flattered, I remained silent and un-sneering, beneath my pile of blankets!

Sunday 12th March 1944

I went to Hampstead this afternoon, perhaps for the last time before leaving Woolwich. Chiefly I went for a tin of tobacco, but also to see their friendly faces there. The journey cost me only the underground fare from London Bridge to Belsize Park and back, as while collecting tickets at Woolwich, I'd collected a few for myself!

It was nice to be sitting on the floor of the lounge, where Pep. was installed in bed, discussing books and the possibilities of re-incarnation and other existence's besides this one. It was jolly, too, when Pat came in and put a neat little tray of tea on the floor beside one. There are few cups of tea I've enjoyed as much as the two I had then, for I'd fallen asleep in the train and awoken with a foul taste in my mouth.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Saturday 11th March 1944

Violet is good to us! We must put her to a lot of trouble but she never seems to mind. This morning her alarm screamed soon after 6 o'clock; she probably wouldn't have risen before 8 if she'd been alone. She brought us cups of tea and biscuits. When, later, we both dashed into the kitchen for a hasty wash (both pushing around the small sink together!) her bed was gone and no traces remained that the kitchen had been slept in. Porridge was ready too. April bolted hers and I had half mine and then we ran for the bus, leaving our bedroom and the kitchen in an untidy mess.

I like Violet and find this business of having another mother is an enjoyable novelty! Also, I feel that the pleasure will remain long after the sense of novelty has departed.

We caught the 7 o'clock bus at Gale's Corner as we had once before and except that the summer is nearer now and Essex was not wrapped in darkness as it had been then, the journey was reminiscent of that other one we made just before our wedding. It was only reminiscent however. Once again we sat side by side but this time we held hands tightly all the way.

(When you love at 7 o'clock in the morning, both on the way to work, you do love!)

However, I thought several times of that other journey and of that other fantastic visit to Terori; and realised with a sense of surprise and great happiness, how much nearer we've grown towards each other in so few weeks of time. And years ago, in 1939's splendid, fated summer, I once said sadly,”Do you think this is the crest, our zenith?” April was much wiser when she said, “No! Not yet! It has only just begun!”

We parted at Upminster Bridge Station – a last mischievous glimpse of April through the bus windows – and I came by tube to East Ham and caught a bus nicely from there to the Ferry. By 9 o'clock I was in a cafe near the station, having a cup of tea and a roll and butter! What a pity I didn't discover this much better route before!

All was well at the barracks; I had not been missed. Of course I had a curious sensation that the day was not Saturday but Monday. However it was Saturday alright and I was on duty at the station until 9:30p.m. To my greatest relief there was no air raid alarm, so April must have had a good night's sleep.

I felt tired, but the hours at the station did not drag; all sorts of funny things happened. There was a rude old man who shambled up the stairs muttering vulgar remarks; there was an elderly woman, much more rude, who (either drunk or mad) stood a long time in the station entrance and in a loud, contralto voice declaimed most of her sex history and experiences to furtively interested groups of passengers. She spared no details or phrases...

There was a giggling girl whom one of the ticket collectors seemed to like. He obtained her name and address! Once I was amused to see him holding her and kissing her whilst at the same time collecting tickets from a formidable stream of passengers!

There was a girl who waited and waited for her boy friend. (Look, 'ere's the telegram 'e sent me. From the Isle of Wight. Do you fink 'e'll come, Soldier?”) And at last he came and both were joyful and he decided to stay the night.

One girl had a boy friend who did not appear. Un-perturbed she suggested a “date” with me! “What about you, Soldier? Take me to the picchers? You'll be orf duty 'ere, won't you?” “I'm a respectable married man,” I told her sternly. I think she was a decent sort, really, because she then said wistfully, “I were married too – until last year. Married at 17 I was and I got a boy of six. We was so 'appy. And then 'e 'ad to go and get killed.” “Shall you marry again?” I asked. “Yes, sure! But not until the war's over! Until then I just want some nice chaps and a bit of fun. No one'll take 'is place though... 'e was a smasher, 'e was.”

And so in the end, I rather liked this gaudy, merry, giggling girl, although I'd thought her somewhat cheap and nasty at first.

Then – in my half hour “off” for supper – I sat with some of the other bus and tram workers whom I'm gradually getting to know, in the cafe. Damme! I'll be sorry to leave this station. It is a corner of civilian life, and a pretty lively corner at that!

Friday 10th March 1944

My bottle of ink is almost historic. The original contents, made by an excellent Cairo firm, had some shocking Syrian muck added when the bottle was 2/3 empty. When half of the result of this was gone, I added some ink bought in Palestine and some bought in Egypt. The bottle was half full of fluid when I reached England so I added, first some ink I found, and then filled up with Swan. To make at least a colourful mongrel of these blends I added, just now, a little Quink!

On this railway job one quite looks forward to the morning off and afternoon off which occur alternatively. I had Wednesday afternoon off and spent the time having a luscious hot bath at the Soldier's Home and in writing-up this book and answering letters. This afternoon is mine too, and tomorrow morning, unless there's some special parade for men on posting, or a dental parade. I hope to slip off to Pitsea, for an evening with Violet. I've already altered the dates on my last weekend pass and it now reads from the 10th to the 15th, which I shall say is special compassionate leave if I have to display the pass to any inquisitive MP's!

I was relieved early and – having washed and changed into clean uniform and civvie shoes at lunchtime – I was at Woolwich Ferry before 1 o'clock. I had my shaving and tooth-cleaning gear with me, so that I could do my overnight toilet at Terori and needn't hurry back. Also I had a parcel containing two bottles of sauce for Violet, some sweets for April, a spare pair of gym slippers for myself and a spare Army hair brush which might prove useful to anyone.

I had a pleasant feeling of freedom and stolen happiness when the cumbrous Ferry boat slowly drew away from the South side and waddled crab-like across the river – I was free of the bounds of Woolwich garrison. Bus to East Ham station, tube to Barking, where I found there was no train to Pitsea for more than an hour – and that went via Tilbury! However, there was a nice little canteen on the platform, with a glowing fire, and there I had cake and a cup of tea.

Afterwards I rang Brentwood Hospital, as arranged, to tell April that I was safely at Barking and was indeed bound for Pitsea. (This was in case she too could come along for an hour in the evening.) When I got through, thinking that “Mrs Dawson” might puzzle them, I said, “I want to leave a message for Miss Aiken, please...”
“Is that Mr. Dawson?” enquired a voice. “It is.” “Well, Mrs Dawson left a message for you! She's got the afternoon off and has gone herself to Pitsea – she'll arrive there by the 3:25 bus!” “Oh,” I said, dazed, “I'll meet her from the bus then...”

My train arrived about 2:15p.m., crawled through grey marshy villages and drab country and deposited me at Pitsea station long after 3:30, I should think.
Long walk to Terori, accompanied by two small boys with a soldier-complex, one of whom claimed proudly that I was his uncle and one of General Montgomery's men.

“Wish I was old enough to be a soldier,” one said wistfully. “Don't worry son,” I told him cheerfully, “The war will still be on in ten years and you'll be old enough then.”

At Terori I found builders men putting in new walls – there'd been more damage than we at first imagined from that bomb blast – and April had been there nearly an hour and had gone out to telephone the hospital for news of me. I located her in the call box near Gale's Corner. She put down the phone and stood laughing at me. “Have you still got a cold?” I demanded hopefully. “No!” she said to my chagrin, at the same time moving invitingly nearer. “Well, I have!” I cried in despair, “So we can't kiss! Infection!”

My God! What a journey it had been from Woolwich to April! Almost at once it seemed it was time to go back. April had not spoilt her weekend by coming today; I found she had been put on fire-watch for Saturday night – that damned fire-watching duty!
Resolutely, I did not kiss her. Once she stood high on a chair to put a shilling in the gas meter, which appeared to be in the roof somewhere. I stood below and put my arms around her and we laughed and I felt her loveliness in my arms as I lifted her down – but even then I heroically turned my face away, muttering the magic word “infection”.

We decided to catch the 8:50 train, April alighting at Upminster, I at East Ham, to catch the last bus to the Ferry.

Oh! Once my pixilated wife went out into the garden (presumably to the lavatory) and on returning mentioned confidentially, “I saw two ghosts out there.” “Oh, did you?” I responded calmly, not even enquiring what colour or category of ghost they belonged to. And once, whilst I was talking to Violet, the head, shoulders and in fact all of my mad wife down to the waist, suddenly appeared around the door for no particularly obvious reason. It's eyes were blazing and as all of it that I could see was in a horizontal position, I imagine that behind the door were several of the famous cobble men, holding up the legs and feet in a similar position about 3 foot clear of the floor!

We set off for the station together, leaving Violet alone (the builder's men had gone long since) and found ourselves in a semi-dark village of searchlights and many droning planes – ours. We didn't hurry. When near the station, sounds of a far-off chuff-chuff receding towards London, and little knots of people coming from the station, prepared us for the eventual information that our train had departed more than 5 minutes before. Whereupon we laughed, not very perturbed, and I for one rather delighted (after all, I wasn't on duty until 1:30p.m. the next day!) and strolled back towards Terori, arms around each other in the fashion of courting couples rather than married folks.

“There's always a bedroom ready for you at my digs, of course,” remarked April. “What! Not your green-walled bedroom?” I exclaimed in horror. “Oh no! We'd have to flit in the middle of the night! At least, I should, because you'd bump into things and make a noise, not knowing the way between my room and yours.”

“Good Heavens!” I said. “Oh well, you see they don't think we're properly married yet...” “Hasn't it been consummated, so far, in their opinion?” “No, I don't think so! They imagine it's sort of an ideal companionship – platonic – getting to know each other better...” That anyone could think this of our marriage nearly slew me, there and then!

At a call box, April rang up these strange Hacks of Romford, to say she'd missed the train and would go straight to the hospital from here, in the morning. Whilst waiting for the connection she had a lively conversation with the local night exchange operator who eventually, highly intrigued, said he'd come out and see her, but April said he'd better not as he would find some opposition here. “When will the Opposition go away?” asked the operator, and I felt inclined to seize the telephone and reply sternly, “Not until tomorrow morning, old man!”

When we reached Terori and said we had missed the train, Violet seemed quite un-perturbed and went on with her ironing. Afterwards, at high speed, the two of them prepared and cooked a savoury meal and I shaved whilst they both sat and watched me sympathetically.

After the meal (getting terribly late), Violet – apparently not sharing the Hack's views about our legalised platonic friendship – decided to have the small bed for herself in the kitchen, where it was warm. She and I dragged it in; it fell to pieces on the way but we eventually re-assembled it in front of the fire whilst her daughter undressed in a corner of the room – pausing occasionally to give a helping hand.

And so, eventually, April and I lay together snugglesomely, with a few hours of sleep before us. This was stolen happiness indeed! Never mind the infection!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tuesday 7th March 1944

Sure enough, I am leaving Woolwich! Today I had my kit checked, later in the week there'll be a medical inspection and sometime next week a dozen of us, all bombardiers, are being posted to Newcastle-on-Tyne. Meanwhile, I carry on with my job at the station.

Sunday 5th March 1944

Long after midnight, April lying beside me in my arms, suddenly stopped talking. The silence that followed was like a silence between us (I remembered) once before – the night we went to the Ferry Boat Inn, when I ran my car onto the grass at the side of the road and stopped.

April seemed very long as she lay so – much longer than 5 foot 3 inches! and still. I moved my head away across the pillow to see her better. There was a mature sort of look about her shadowy face; outlined against the glow from the fire I could see a curve of cheek bone and an untidy lock of hair standing up above it.

I thought triumphantly, “What I can see now – will remain! This can't vanish in a few years! When she is old, she will still have that curve of high cheek bone and that loose wisp of hair. This part of her beauty cannot vanish!” And I also thought an unusual thought: “NOW I AM HAPPY”

One seldom thinks that; one may remember wistfully, “Ah! Then I was happy,” or one may think hopefully, “Tomorrow I shall be happy”; But happiness usually passes so quickly that the fine moment of it has flown from the future to the past before one can seize and hold it. Now, however, as my wife snuggled against me, I knew and held happiness before it was gone.

Soon afterwards, I leaned across and switched off the fire, so that enough of the kind unknown's shillings-worth should be left to provide us with gas in the morning.

... Hours... “Can you feel my heart beating? Ever so fast...” whispered my comrade, my other self, who surely had never quarrelled with me and never would! “Yes” I whispered. At this moment, from nowhere as it seemed (but actually I believe, from the folds of a tiny handkerchief which had been clutched in the middle of my back for some time) the heavy gold ring slipped on to the third finger of my left hand, to rest there for good.

Est perpetua! Apparently there was something between us then, that ought to last for ever! Before, I had been happy. Now I was also contented.

“What time is it?” “Eight” “When must we be down for breakfast?” “Half-past nine.” “My God, what an unearthly hour!”

At Hampstead in the afternoon, I felt happy, too. It was warm and with April there and some at least of my possessions about me, it seemed like home.

“Was it a standing-up ceremony when the ring was put on?' enquired Pat urgently. “Well...” said April dubiously. “Oh! I thought of you, Pat...” I said evasively. “Say no more!” cried Pat with a wave of the hand.

We made plans. If, with this new job, I was to stay at Woolwich, we'd find a couple of rooms somewhere and April would come and I'd get a sleeping out pass and we'd have some sort of home.

It was queer, when we were at Liverpool Street, standing beside the carriage door and the moment of parting was upon us, I felt no sadness and I don't think April did either. Nor did we feel uneasy as everyone does when parting at railway stations, everything being said and nothing remaining to be done except mumble platitudes and watch the clock. We had lots to say, even when the good-bye was so close that April had to get inside and lean out of the window. “Probably something will happen now,” I said cheerfully, “I'll get sent away or something, now that we're planning for a home.” “Of course! As soon as you see a rift in the dark clouds...”

The train moved. “Feel esto for the last time!” I cried, putting my gloved hand into April's hands. She leaned forward swiftly and felt it – with her lips.

Saturday 4th March 1944

At 1:30p.m., formalities completed and all my kit packed away in stores, I rushed out of barracks armed with a pass, leapt on a train just as it started, sat down in a crowded compartment and read “Nicholas Nickleby” for 20 minutes. Alighted London Bridge, fought my way into the tubes, reached Marble Arch and dashed into the Cumberland. Someone had been enquiring in my name but there were no rooms available.
Slipped across the road into a telephone booth and rang the Pembridge Gardens Hotel. “Yes!” said a voice, when I gave my name, “We have a room for you, and your wife is here now.”

I jumped onto a passing bus and a few minutes later hurried into the Pembridge.
“Room 53, third floor,” said the receptionist, laconically. Room 53! It seemed familiar, especially when I paused outside the door. Yes! We had slept here, shared this room once before. I tapped, went in; April was not in the room but evidence of her nearness was everywhere. The first thing I noticed was the subtle smell of a remembered perfume – Cuir de Russie – and secondly, at the end of all my haste, I realised the utter repose and stillness of this room. I stood quite motionless for a few seconds, hearing no sound except that of my own breathing.

A bottle of perfume on the dressing table; a green vanity bag; a woman's magazine on the bedside table; a familiar pair of bedroom slippers on the floor. I opened the door of the wardrobe cupboard, saw the green dressing gown, and the dark blue hat, coat and gay scarf she wore when we met at Paddington in “white tremendous daybreak.”
I touched the green gown gently. All these were memories.

A few minutes later I had packed my things away, and was running warm water into the wash basin, when the door opened and April came in. “Hullo!” “Hullo. Where have you been?” “To the lavatory,” she replied, with a look of surprise. For once, we met without a kiss. God knows I wanted to kiss her but I felt sort of stiff and frozen inside. “Could you do me a favour?” I asked, “Put these medal ribbons on straight? I seem to have made a mess of it.” “Certainly. Got a needle?” “Yes, There are scissors, too. Now I shall have a wash – try and get rid of some of the filth of Woolwich.” “Why not have a bath? The water's hot”, she said, bending over my khaki blouse. “Yes, maybe I will. And whilst I'm gone, could you do some telephoning? See if you can book a couple of seats for the cinema tonight. Don't mind, do you? It will save time.” “Of course! Any particular cinema?” “Wherever you please – or where you can get seats. It may not be easy.”

Then I went out – and the bath water was hot.

(I've quoted this seemingly unimportant conversation piece so fully because never before (and I hope never again!) have we been so formal and correct towards each other.)

When I returned, somewhat cleaner, April said she had managed to secure two seats for the 7:20 performance at Leicester Square Odeon, where “Phantom of the Opera” has been running only a couple of weeks. Also, my khaki blouse was ready.

“Let's go to Hampstead now,” I said suddenly, “You want to return Liddie's watch and take Pep's gift; I want to collect a pair of pyjamas.” “Alright”

However, there was a better reason in my mind for the journey to Hampstead and that was esto perpetua, waiting to be called for in a shop there! We went there by taxi for quickness – I was lucky to secure one – and walked side by side, not touching, through the narrow street that leads to the Heath. There was a tea shop there, where a notice proclaimed something about food being the foundation of happiness; we went inside and stood waiting for a table.

“Shall I go and collect esto, whilst you wait here?” I suggested discreetly, “It is in a shop only a few paces distant...” “Yes,” said April solemnly. The heavy gold ring was ready; it now fitted my finger and had been suitable engraved. I replaced it in the envelope, returned to the tea shop and gave it to April, wordlessly. She received it also in silence and without looking at it. Weird!

We had tea. There was something toneless and expressionless about our behaviour, although every now and then one of us would make a humorous remark and we'd sometimes smile or laugh. When we were at Pat's however I'm sure they never guessed anything was wrong for by tacit agreement we were both as jolly as usual.
Liddie admired the silver ring – for napkins – (a marriage witness gift for Pepita, who was not in) but Pat refused to look at it – and even covered her eyes because Pepita would be cross with her if she did peep!

As we were leaving, I turned back and said, “Oh, we collected the wedding ring! Can't show you now however – it has to be put on – special ceremony...” “Do you stand up for it?” demanded Pat.

We went town-wards by the underground. The tunnels were packed with sheepish-looking people, settling down for the night with their blankets and pathetic bundles.
“Look at it!” exclaimed April angrily, as we got in the lift, “And the newspapers say London's not afraid of the air raids! London can take it! Well, just look at them!”

“Hush!” I said, “Someone may hear you. Beware of the English Gestapo.”

April had booked two excellent seats – second row, centre balcony – at an astounding price for the “Phantom”. The cost of the two seats was about the same as the cost of a double bedroom and breakfast at our hotel. April paid the former, I the latter.
Parts of the film were macabre, at other times it was colourful and musical. In excerpts from “Amour et Gloire” I astonished to hear “Valse in C sharp minor.”

“Chopin!” I whispered to my operatic partner, “He composed opera, too?” “Oh, yes.”
Everything was gradually becoming unfrozen but we still never touched each other, nor did we hold each others hands as we usually do in our fond, silly but nice fashion in darkened cinemas.

In the cold street – bitter snowflakes falling – we had to stand in a queue outside a Lyons' cafeteria in order to get some supper. Not for long however; something happened and the long queue swiftly disappeared into the huge building. I salute Lyons, for their hotels and cafes! They are un-perturbed by any strain the war can impose upon them. The number of plates one could have on one's tray was limited but it was quite a good supper and pretty cheap too.

However, at last we were both back in Room 53, with the gas fire lit (to our mutual pleasure someone before us had left a good shilling-worth free in the meter) sitting together in the one easy chair. I had washed and dried my gloves and a handkerchief.
“Now I suppose we'd better have that frank talk.” “Yes.” “But give me some kisses first!”

Then we talked and explained, and cleared up the lingering shadows of misunderstanding and arguments. By this time, there didn't seem much to settle really; things had gradually become clearer by letter, by telephone and in the slow hours since we had met in the afternoon.

Eventually I got into bed and April sat alone by the fire in her green gown, reading from her diary. This told of her occasional unhappiness and dread of the Mental Hospital where she unfortunately works and explained why something had seemed wrong at our last two meetings at Pitsea. Something had been wrong, but it wasn't us.

White Dew 1944

“... The wrong of unshapely things
is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew
and sit on a green knoll apart
With the earth and the sky and the water
remade, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms
a rose in the deeps of my heart...”

Friday 3rd March 1944

We had a long, somewhat strained, but satisfactory telephone conversation last night and this afternoon, I had a letter from April written at about the time the telegram was sent.

This weekend (I've put in an application for a pass) we shall meet in Town. (Whether the pass is graciously granted or not!) If in ordinary writing, there would have been only one full stop, and a comma in the text of that telegram, April told me. “Very sincere regrets. All will be well, my love.” I am very glad and I think all will be well now, too.

Last night I saw in Orders: “The Commander Woolwich Garrison directs that the light coloured part of the NCO's chevrons and Good Conduct badges be coloured white. Also: All ranks, whatever duties they are performing, will wear waist belts as well as gaiters during all parade hours.” The only whitening materials available appear to be chalk and “Silvo” metal polish. Both these “run” when exposed to rain... I morosely applied “Silvo” to my greatcoat.

“I can guess the reason for that bit about the stripes,” sneered an NCO, “They'll get all the surplus NCO's whom they've failed to bust down to gunner and march 'em all out into the square when Jerry comes. They'll line up – Jerry will see the row of stripes gleaming – he'll dive down – give 'em a quick burst of fire – and over they'll topple, like skittles! Next morning in the office, they'll just cross the names off the lists for PSO or discharge – see?”

“Joking apart though,” put in a nervous man, “I'll be down into that shelter next time I hear a siren. Jerry's no fool, mates – 'e got that factory down the road last night alright, didn't 'e? It's our turn next.”

“Yes,” croaked another, “'E knows just where the Garrison is. “E'll drop flares again – and then – you see. We're for it.” “Don't be silly,” I said coldly, “This is the last place and we are the last people Jerry would want to destroy. Of course he's no fool, therefore he knows we all hate the Army and that we are the heart and soul of the English Quishing movement.” “That's about right too,” agreed a gloomy “graded” man, “All we want from the ruddy Army is our ticket!”

This midday I had a civilian visitor – Nobby Brown of Ashhurst and Ward 3 at No. 41!
I was on duty at the station when he came, (standing by the barrier, watching the passengers stream by) and laughed when Nobby loomed up, hatless and wearing a navy blue suit and coat.

We had lunch together in a cafe near the station and took a stroll through the streets afterwards. Our conversation was a good deal about the famous characters (including the Ants!) of the Compound where we once dwelt in No. 41, mixed up with grim talks about that shocking asylum near Oxford.

I felt quite inferior to Nobby, seeing him free in civilian clothes and afraid of nobody. I was a fool to ask to remain in the Army! Nobby is going to clean windows for a living, to begin with. He's “in partnership” with “a mate” who will provide the gear and the knowledge and will earn 7d for every 5d of Nobby's.

“Fair enough!” said Nobby, “But I don't suppose I'll stay at it very long. It'll do for the time being, while I have a look round, see.”

My cough is getting worse. Now there is less worry and apprehension inside me, I must cut down my cigarette smoking. Besides, they cost 2/4d for 20! Tobacco, fortunately is mostly free just now as Father has obtained several tins of Royal Navy tobacco for me.

End of Dawn (2) 1944

Thursday 2nd March 1944

Last night's raid was rather noisier than usual, and in the occasional intervals between bomb bangs! and gun cracks! one could hear large numbers of planes droning overhead. Actually I don't think it was any bigger a show than the usual but maybe it seemed worse as it was more localised to this area. This morning at the railway station, everyone was telling personal air raid stories, with vigour and enthusiasm!

2p.m. Off duty now, for the rest of the day. When relieved, I hurried up from the station, went into the barracks, collected washing and writing gear and came out again. As usual, I felt a marvellous sense of relief as soon as I was out of the barrack gates! I'm now in the writing room of the Soldier's Home. After I'd written a couple of letters I hope it will be possible to get a hot bath, as at present I feel filthy – absolutely scruffy. One cannot get a proper wash in barracks as the water is icy cold and hard, also, wearing such an enormous number of clothes does not feel very hygienic.

6p.m. I had to go back to barracks for a bath as they were short of coke for fires in the Home. However there were not many waiting in the barracks bath-house and he water, for once, was steaming hot so I am now tolerably clean, I think.

After all, it was just as well that I returned to the depot, for a telegram had arrived and was lying on my bed. Instinctively I knew it was from April; but she seems now such a stranger to me that I had no idea, as I held the envelope in my hands, whether this was to be good news or bad. Presumably it meant she had received my letter.. in which I mentioned that if she was “not at home” when I telephoned I would quite understand and leave the next move to her...

Would it say in this telegram - “Please don't trouble to telephone tonight,” or in more cold, sarcastic vein, “Letter received. Cancel telephone call as now superfluous”? Or would it be a rather more pleasant message? I had not the slightest idea! And once I thought April was my other half, my twin sister!

After a few moments of thought, I opened and read the telegram.


(If this was written, there would no doubt be a stop after “regrets”. Would there also be a stop after “well”? I hope not.)

“Is it bad news, Bom.?” inquired someone inquisitively. “No,” I said, “Not bad news, thank you. I think it's good news actually.”

So – in about an hour's time I shall phone Romford.

Wednesday 1st March 1944

There was a mild air raid last night; it was the first for several nights.

Went to the dentist's this morning. He was pretty thorough: he stopped and drilled one molar quite enthusiastically and says there are some more to be done, so he'll send for me again. After vainly trying to absorb Dicken's “Nicholas Nickleby” in the waiting room and afterwards – whilst my thoughts kept straying from Mr Squeers and Ralph Nickleby to April's remarks – I sat down and wrote a brief letter to my wife.
I tried no to do so, but if I'd held myself in much longer I should have burst, I think!

Another reason was that I wanted her to have some prior warning of how I felt, before telephoning, as arranged, on Thursday night. Otherwise she might be sitting back comfortably and contentedly, now that she had freed her mind of her angers and be therefore quite unprepared for any reaction from me. I tried to make my letter as short as possible; but it was a bit of a struggle.

Thank heavens, the Army is not worrying me much at this time! Thank heavens too for this job which keeps me on my own and out of barracks most of the day!

The man who is responsible – if anyone in this bloody Army is ever responsible for anything – for many of our small worries and hardships; who makes us be out of bed and parading for breakfast at 6:45; and who makes it so difficult for us to ever get to our homes for a few hours, has an easy time himself. I refer to the Major who commands “B” Battery. He arrives by the 9:33 train each morning and goes home either on the 4:57 or 5:57 afternoon train. One of our most important duties is to be much in evidence whenever the good Major comes or goes and to give him a nice, big salute. He likes being saluted as it is not officially necessary on railway stations.

I'm off duty in an hours time. Let's hope I sleep better tonight than I have since Sunday. Curiously enough, last night I lay awake for hours, worrying and pondering and puzzling and, when I did fall asleep I dreamed a nice, happy dream about April, in which we trusted each other, and she gave me a strange look as she did in St. Stephen's that day...

Tuesday 29th February 1944

Off duty from 1:30p.m. today; the other NCO at the station always relieves me very promptly. I went to barracks, collected my mail, read two letters from April in a cafe and “escaped” to the flicks. When the show was over I had tea in the town and read the letters again.

I don't know whether I feel most shocked, bitter, defeated, angry or disappointed. I've been waiting 40 hours (the suspense has been quite charming) for one of those letters. April told me a letter was on the way which would “hit me between the eyes” when I spoke to her on the telephone last Sunday; also she said, there was a second letter with a “peace offering” of some cakes. This arrived today also; the cakes nearly choke me each time I eat one.

The former letter was not posted until 9:30a.m. yesterday, at Pitsea, so it is small wonder my many calls at the depot post office during the last 36 hours were all quite unproductive until this afternoon. The second letter was only a note, covering the cakes, which it was now stated were not a “peace offering” at all and would have been sent anyway.

My God! All the bitter remarks contained in this much-advertised mysterious letter, have arisen from two causes:- My deep concern for April's safety in air raids and consequent annoyance that she appears to take unnecessary risks, which she latter boasts about. And, the fact that I left my cheque book and Bank papers at Hampstead instead of giving them to her. Nevertheless, I don't blame April or myself entirely for this awful quarrel about nothing. I blame the damned Army, that prevents us being together.

When I was in the Middle East, April's letters were wonderful and a great comfort to me. I've often quoted extracts in this diary so now by way of contrast I will quote parts of this amazing letter, too: “I am afraid there will be one or two items here you may not like very much – however they are perhaps small things but I'm afraid you have yet to learn that it is those small things which I find most irritating... Your own common sense must surely have told you that no ONE person could look after a whole street...”

In air raids, this.

“... our team consists of Mr Hack, and the husband of the lady who should be on, as she went hysterical the other night, poor little soul, and myself.”

Why is it necessary to mention that one member of the team was driven hysterical by the danger?

“... I was somewhat surprised to learn Pep was in charge of your Bank account. The temptation to send you a copy of the Ministry's letter is just too much to be resisted so herewith...”

The neatly typed document which formed the next page of the letter was perhaps the worst part of all – just cheap sarcasm. Purporting to be from the Ministry of Labour and National Service it warned me I had committed a breach of Regulations by my act of dismissing an employee (MY WIFE) from my service without notice. This letter threatened various penalties and added:

“... In order to put this matter right in as far as it is possible to do so, you are hereby ordered to pay the said employee one months money in lieu of notice...”

And I, when I had digested this “joke”, was sorely tempted to send the employee a cheque for £8-6-0. That would be the correct amount surely, as it is my total income for four weeks. This extraordinary letter continued:

“You know you have badly broken the no secrets hid pact”

This jab because I stopped telling April – and all the rest of the family – anymore about my nerves and worries here. This was because I didn't want to become a sort of chronic invalid.

“Also previously you were not over keen on your financial business being known to others, now, I am afraid I have to tell you that I consider it definitely our private affair – and I do not like to know it isn't.”

As if Pepita was examining my papers, which she keeps in a locked desk.

“Also I believe that on the 22nd January 1944 the name of the girl with whom you vowed to share your worldly good and life was April Constance Winifred...”

She seems intoxicated with her command of business phraseology, which should never have been used in a personal letter of this sort. And so – in the summing-up I am considered to have already broken my marriage vows.

What do I do now? Well, I'm trying not to write a letter back. If I did, it would be as scathing as hers has been. I'm also trying not to telephone her before the official date at which I have been told to telephone ie. next Thursday night.

My God! It's pretty awful to have the sacred words of January 22nd hurled so viciously in my teeth only five weeks later! I still do not know whether I feel most shocked, bitter, defeated, angry or disappointed. Having just read this letter for the forth time, I certainly feel a bit physically sick!

Monday 28th February 1944

The situation has improved. Although the officers here have done nothing for me, Sergeant Perkins has done his best. On Saturday he got a job at Woolwich Arsenal Station for me – I'm a sort of guide and advisor for new arrivals, drafts etc. It is cold, monotonous, tiring work (standing or pacing up and down the station platform for hours) but it will save my sanity alright, because there are no rules attached to it, except to be there and be helpful.

No need to worry about parade now, and I'm out of those bloody barracks all the time except for meals, sleeping, or when they want me for something special. There is another bombardier at the station – one Jock Willmott, an easy going sort of man – and we make our own arrangements re hours of duty. One of us has to be there every day, from 7:30a.m. to 10p.m. so we take turns at having an afternoon and the following morning off, relieving each other at 1:30p.m. This is my morning “off” and I'm writing this in a cafe near the station.

I received my pay eventually, last Saturday. We – all the forgotten men – paraded at 10:30a.m. and were paid at 11:30a.m.

Ruddy chilly in the railway station; I immediately caught a cold in the head! In between trains I found interest in studying the people who passed to and fro. Three drafts came, by various trains, and I met about 20 new arrivals (one can tell them by a puzzled air and a kit bag) and directed them, one by one, up the road towards the RA Reception Office. (Poor sods!)

An MP stood beside me for several hours, halting various people for their passes. He was stone-faced and I thought perhaps not human, but after about two hours I saw him slowly turn his head and gaze woodenly after a girl whose figure had apparently pleased him. This proved he was alive after all.

Besides watching the passing show there were ticket collectors to talk with – Oh! it wasn't a bad job, and certainly better than being in barracks doing nothing or on fatigues. Once, in the evening, I sat down on a collector's stool for a rest; but people began offering me tickets and asking about the next train to London Bridge or Gravesend, so I had to get up again!

Work on Sunday morning was much the same. Jock relieved me early – at about 1 o'clock – and I went towards the next train and spent the afternoon in Hampstead. When returning I rang April, at Romford. I emerged from the telephone box feeling considerably less happy than when I entered it; at any rate this spoiled my appetite for supper so that was one shilling saved.

However – it's obvious these snatched telephone conversations and occasional letters are doing more harm than good. They cause dangerous little arguments and misunderstandings. We must see each other.

The bloody Army!

Friday 25th February 1944

Tonight, feeling more miserable than usual I could write pages of despondency. But I must try and hold myself in. I don't tell any of the family how things are, now; why should I inflict my troubles on them? I keep thinking the authorities here make things so awful because they want to break me and make me go crazy. But I must not think of things like that; such thoughts develop into delusions.

I'm not much cheered by the fact that I have started losing things – or else they have been stolen. Two articles most precious to me have gone this week – first one of my two “emergency ration” tins and secondly, an even greater tragedy, the petrol lighter April sent to me at the time of El Alamein or just after. That petrol lighter was one of my treasures. Some other bastard is using it now.

No pay today, although I waited for it until 5:15p.m. Not my fault; someone had forgotten to put my name on the list... I'd been out of barracks all day, working at the RASC Depot, with an RASC private in charge of me. I was a sort of salvage scavenger. My job was loading pieces of cardboard, stinking, filthy rags and dirty old sacks onto lorries. I've got the hell of a cold and my mouth and nose are sore and my head aches.

One bright spot – I recklessly bought supper and a cup of Horlicks at the Soldier's Home and had a hot bath! God! It was heaven to lie in that steaming water and feel warm! And wonderful to be clean again, too!

From tomorrow onwards, first parade will be at 6:30 a.m. and we must wait and be marched to breakfast at about 6:45a.m. Last parade is still at 4:30p.m. It makes a pretty long day. They tighten up the Regulations and at the same time we cannot get so much sleep at nights because of the raids, which are becoming a regular nightly occurrence. I never get out of bed – most people do – but it's impossible to sleep because of the noise, and men talking and going in and out of the room. There is a lot more I could say about Woolwich but I must hold my pen.

But heavens! How helpless I am! There is nothing to be done about it.

Wednesday 23rd February 1944

At midnight last night there was an air raid that lasted an hour; and I knew that this was April's night for fire-watching and that she would be out in the streets.
I wish I had not known.

Things are getting steadily more unbearable and hopelessness and frustration increases. Thank God I've a little extra money left in my wallet, beside my meagre weekly pay. By drawing on my reserve funds I can afford to keep on smoking, nearly all the time; it is a great comfort.

My God, it makes all this much more terrible when I realise that if I were out of the Army – at liberty, free – I could make a home somewhere and have April there, right away from the dangerous area she lives in at present.

Tuesday 22nd February 1944

Today, like yesterday, was pretty ghastly in all respects. This afternoon, snow fell.

The bitter gloom of the day was enlivened by one smiling moment when – on the 4:30p.m. parade – I received a complimentary piece of my own wedding cake from my own mad wife! The cake was neatly packed in the orthodox small box adorned with merry bells, and a polite card inside (with a tiny envelope) stated “With Mr and Mrs Stephen Dawson's Compliments, 22nd February 1944”. In the top, left hand corner of the card was the name “Constance W Aiken” with an arrow spearing through the surname... I had grumbled – at Pitsea last Sunday, when eating a large portion of wedding cake with my tea – that I could not be one of the lucky fifty people who had received a complimentary piece by post with the usual box and card, but of course, I did not expect to be taken seriously!

(“Fifty people?” I remarked at the time, “Anyone I know?” “No, I don't think so,” replied my wife casually!!!)

It is becoming increasingly difficult to leave the barracks because of some new arrangements which have been made re exeunt at the gate. There will be no more slipping out early to the pictures or afternoons in Pitsea or Hampstead; and no more weekends with April unless I can get a pass, which is very difficult.