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!