Sunday, January 25, 2009

Monday 14th February 1944

I managed to carry out all the formalities connected with “reporting sick” last Saturday and eventually saw the MO. He seemed to know all about me (my hospital papers lay on the desk) and didn't seem surprised to see me, either. Nothing, to my great relief, was said about returning to hospital but I'm to see him again on Tuesday. He wrote on the B256 after I'd gone - “Give this NCO a clerical job, please”. He gave me a prescription for bromide of potassium but I didn't take any, it might make me sleep too heavily and then I might miss reveille and be in an awful mess.

However, it was a happy weekend after that. I put shaving and tooth cleaning tackle and a pound of sausages in my pocket and walked out of the barrack gate at midday and just scrambled aboard the 12:19 train at the SR Station. The carriage was packed with soldiers but when I left London Bridge SR Station 20 minutes later, on my way to the underground, I was confronted with a street full of hurrying typists, factory hands, clerks, shop assistants and travellers. This was a lovely feeling – normal people!

I rang April from Fenchurch Street to say all was well and caught a train for Pitsea just a few minutes later. So at last I was in the grey land of Vange and Pitsea again and somehow it seemed more pleasant than at other times. I felt now I had a niche in this district. Violet of course, had not been expecting me, but didn't seem at all surprised when I walked in. April came by bus half an hour later.
It was marvellous and “at home” again to be all sitting around the fire with cups of tea. Nothing much happened, it was just a peaceful weekend which seemed all the sweeter because it had been snatched secretly out of the middle of a period of khaki hell.

April and I came up together by train – she felt obstinate about it, although she would have a heavy suitcase to carry after she left me. A first I felt a bit miserable, as the train bumped London-wards, at the thought of the nearing parting; but I got over that eventually. I left her on the platform at Liverpool Street, hurried to Bank station and waited – and waited – for a train to London Bridge. The minutes slipped by and my “pass”, though alright at a casual glance would not bear close investigation or checking in offices.

To my horror I then discovered an air raid had commenced and there'd be no trains on this bit of the line until all clear sounded! But I was again lucky! Only two of us wanted to go up just then and the other hurried traveller was a girl who also wanted to go to London Bridge. She knew the way to walk there, and took me with her. Guns were booming in the street outside and few people were about but my companion didn't seem perturbed, and said it didn't matter when I asked if she would like to wrap my scarf around her head. (she wore no hat) We groped down a blacked-out street but then the searchlights flashed on and made it quite easy to see.

Buses were still operating. It was a new and interesting experience for me, especially crossing London Bridge itself, with AA shrapnel coming down ping! and plop! I was rather disappointed that no bombs fell at a safe distance where I could see what happened.

We parted near the SR station and I went in (narrowly avoiding an MP who was examining passes) and waited an interminable time for a train. It crawled in, lightless, at last – the 9:10 half an hour late. The “all clear” had sounded when I reached Woolwich and I slipped in safely with a crowd of other men returning from evening leave. Back in the barrack room, I recovered my blankets from the man who'd been hiding them, had a shave and was in bed by 11 o'clock.

Well, it is now about 11:30a.m. I went on parade this morning and was put on fatigues – in charge of 8 men who cleaned out the canteens. We finished about 10:30a.m. and go back for more cleaning and sweeping out at 1:15p.m. It's a “steady” or “cushy” job, they tell me – but very boring in my opinion.

For the next half hour I'll think and write again of the happy days – of the quiet Luttrell Arms in Dunster, or that other inn in Dunster where we sat in the bar and the cider was “fair rough” and we at last heard a Somerset brogue spoken, and talked to the village ancient; or of the bleak, unfriendly village of Timberscombe – we went there because we'd seen it from the hills above, two miles away – where the Lion Inn had a kind and obliging landlord and daughter (aged 7); or of Porlock Weir and the Ship Inn and steep slopes and flowers in woods.

It was warm weather in Somerset, and we both had good appetites and soon there was colour in April's cheeks. I wore civvies all the time, down there. April brought me a mac with her money and her coupons – and some of Violet's too! How unashamed and self-confident one feels when not in khaki! It surprised me.

There were views that grew familiar – the stony beach, the paths on Minehead cliffs – along one of which I'd walked one afternoon in 1937's summer – and the road back from Dunster and the track from Minehead to Grabbits Ridge, where we once saw a woodcutter carrying a tree that would not fall when he first felled it! And near the top of the ridge there was an enticing path that dropped down out of sight into dark, thick trees. Once we went that way, and as we went April told of a true murder mystery. Somewhere in those woods we found a bench and sat down for “elevenses” chocolate.

There was delight – for me – when I was ready first in the bedroom and could sit by the dressing table watching April do her hair and put on powder and don her ornaments. I remember some reddish earrings and a red sort of necklace that went well with a sky-blue jumper. I always enjoyed watching these sacred and mystic rites!

I think there was satisfaction – for April – when she lay in bed all snug and could watch me grimly and laboriously shaving. “You may have the curses of women but you don't have the agony of a daily shave,” I once told her sourly.

There was pleasurable suspense for both of us when we walked on the sands, thinking they were mined; and we laughed at each other's disappointment when we found there'd been no danger whatever!

At last, in the pleasant dusk of our honeymoon, we came back – to Pitsea.
“Be careful here” instructed April as we approached the bungalow, “There's a lot of cobble men around this bit of waste ground!”

April slept with her mother that night – I thought they'd have a lot to gossip about – and I slept in the small room I'd used before. Early in the morning April called, “Are you alright in there?” and I awoke and heard gunfire. Evilly I thought,”I hope it keeps on, then maybe she'll come in to see me!” It did and she did! No reason was given but she wriggled into the small bed with me and we lay listening. The firing grew heavier, then presently four bombs fell. Womp! Womp!!
April dug her nails hard into my back and pleased with this, I almost ignored the following WOMP!! and WOMP!!!

But it was followed by a sort of rush of air and an ominous crack and the sound of things breaking in other parts of the house. Hastily I sat up and shouted, “Are you alright, Violet?” “Yes! I'm here!” she answered, coming in with a rush onto the bedroom floor, then added politely, “I hope you don't mind.” I went back into her bedroom and found part of the ceiling down and the wind whistling in, and dirt everywhere. However it seemed safe from further falls for the time being, so we all got in the same bed eventually, in there.

April got up first, when it grew light, leaving her mother and her husband still dozing in bed, with bits of ceiling all around. When day really came we heard that the damage and casualties caused by those four spare bombs had been pretty bad for one straggling village. “Terori” itself looked quite battle scarred, with a hole in the roof, cracks in some of the walls and the top half of the front of the house nearly all blown in. A skylight had been blown down into the kitchen; the gas was still working but the electric light was off for several hours. It seemed to have been a playful, freakish blast. It had made a hole in the roof of one of the sheds and strewn bars of soap all over the floor. It rather seemed as though we'd had a restless spirit among us, a visitation from the other world!

Thank heavens, the famous “Terori” lavatory was undamaged!

When we left I said (and sincerely) to Violet, “Well Violet, thanks for an awfully nice weekend!” “You can thank Jerry for that,” replied Mrs. Aiken dourly.

The end of our honeymoon came in Town. Mother and Father had a room on the 6th floor of the Cumberland (a colossal hotel near Hyde Park) and we were on the 5th. This hotel has not the friendly atmosphere of the “Feathers”. It's atmosphere is of bigness and aloofness. I hated the crowded lounges and dining rooms – but what a slick, efficient service!

Our bedroom was really like a flat. It had an entrance lobby, off which was a de-luxe bathroom, always warm. And the bedroom could be sat in and had lots of cupboards, and twin beds and a writing desk and a telephone and twin bedside shuttered lights. There were easy chairs there and in the bathroom were many huge bath towels hanging on heated rails.

April and I had a walk in Hyde Park. The weather had grown colder. “Now tell me a long story about some more of your acquaintances,” I said, and April immediately plunged into another of her dramatic narratives. This time it was the son and daughter of the Hacks (of her digs in Romford) about whom the story revolved.

Mrs. Dawson Junior. had been constipated for days. I conveyed this alarming news to Mrs Dawson Senior. and she quite unperturbed, bought some Tablets at the chemist's shop in the hotel foyer. “Are these purgatives?” I enquired grimly and deliberately and my Mother said, “Please! Don't use that word! Just as she has always done each time I've spoken of purgings and purgatives (which is pretty often!) during the last 20 years.

In the evening, April left me for a few minutes and came back with a pleased sort of look. “Have you done it?” I demanded. “Yes!” Subsequently I rang up Mother's room and joyfully told her this; I heard satisfied laughter at the other end of the line.

Late that night I was in the bathroom (we'd been out with Mother and Father) when I heard a clatter of crockery in the entrance hall. Before, I had not wanted anything to drink but now I desired a cup of tea with the craving of a lost desert soldier. To my joy, I found my guess was right. That practical wife of mine had obtained a tray of tea (by pressing a button somewhere) and there it was in the bedroom, waiting – but she would not let me have any until I got into bed! By this time I was counting the hours that remained to us...

We had breakfast in bed, that last morning-but-one. At about 8:30a.m. April suddenly pushed me, whilst whispering urgently, “Quick! Get out! They're coming!” And still half asleep, I leapt into the other bed (as if it mattered) by means of a kind of reflex action, just before a maid and two page boys switched on the lights and entered in stately procession with many trays.

I've already said something about our last morning, in connection with the green gown. On that occasion, having shaved, I went back and re-awoke my somnolent wife with the significant words, “Aren't you going to the hospital today, then, after all?” “Um-huh?” she replied. “I said, has the Committee Meeting been cancelled?” I yelled. “Um? Ooo!” she mumbled. (Later April said she thought I meant I'd rung up and cancelled the whole Committee on her behalf!)

“Hey!” I cried, “It's almost time for your train! Shall you catch it?”
This worked,and a wretched woman reeled into the green gown and then shambled towards the bathroom.

We parted, then, in the chill grey dawn twilight at Liverpool Street – not far from where I last saw her, last night – and then I went back to the Cumberland, where I found my parents just getting up. “Has April gone? How are you, dear?” asked my Mother. “Yes, and as well as can be expected, considering my briefly married life has now drawn to it's close,” I responded gloomily.

Curiously enough my old friend the silver ring is broken! It snapped at the join, during our last evening in Town, whilst we all sat talking in the lounge. Maybe the silver ring knew that it's time was done. It had brought me safely home again and now another ring must take it's place. This weekend I gave the broken ring to April – it must stay in the family! - and she gave me a heavy gold ring which I'm at present wearing on the second finger of my left hand. Eventually I'll get it altered in size; and there is an inscription to go inside, too: “22/1/1944 A – S esto perpetua”.


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