Thursday, January 22, 2009

Monday 17th January 1944

(How the time races past, now! Yet only a few days ago the hours were crawling along like years. It is past midnight as I write and the date is Friday 21st. Why then, tomorrow is my wedding day!)

... I dragged my kit out, piled it on the platform. As I threw down the last bundle I looked up. April was standing just two paces away, smiling at me. She wore a blue coat and blue sailor's cap. At the throat she wore a gay-coloured scarf. Her hair, light and long and fluffy, seemed to have sun shining through it, although there was no sunshine and a twilight fog hung over London. I had not known before how lovely was her hair...

A few moments later I realised that a porter was trying to get by me to close the door and that there were crowds of people pushing past. I can't remember what either of us said before or just after that. I only know I did not say any of the things I'd intended to say!

“Where's Father?” I asked presently. April glanced around. “I don't know. He must have slipped away somewhere; he was here just now.” (How like him to “slip away somewhere” at that moment!) He soon appeared, put us in a queue for taxis, said he must be going now, and left us.

We talked, as we waited, in matter-of-fact fashion. Every now and then we edged forward towards the head of the queue. I watched, watched April's face - seeing the wonderful hair, straight nose, rounded white throat, high cheekbones, flushed cheeks. Such a dear, remembered mobile face. The elusive expressions flickered swiftly across, never still. Even the colour of her restless eyes seemed to change.

Yes, remembered face – but as Brooke said of Memlaus and Helen: “He had not remembered that she was so fair...” Oh! I too had forgotten! So this was April.

The taxi took us to Hampstead. How strange to sit beside a lovely, loved lady again; I was almost afraid to touch her.

Pat and Liddy, looking unaltered by four years of war and air raids. Pepita, grown into a sophisticated young lady. And home, because of them. I unpacked all the surplus kit and equipment that I was keeping – including the steel-torn old pack – and most of my personal stuff.

Then some hours later, I set out for Woolwich, still heavily loaded. April went with me as far as Charing Cross. I left her at the barrier and hurried onto the platform. The train was nearly ready to go, but a few seconds later she came and stood beside me. The ticket collector had said to her, “Has he just come back? Then go on the platform with him. Never mind the ticket!”

There were three soldiers in the carriage. They eyed my tattered coat and sand-coloured tin hat. “Goin' to Woolwich, mate?” I asked the nearest man, easily falling into Army life again. “Yeh, th' Artillery Depot.” “Show me the way when we get there, will y'? Never been before.” “Sure, we'll show you.”

The Depot. Big buildings, streets, a huge parade square. The particulars of my arrival were swiftly recorded in half a dozen different departments. I felt happy enough as I went through the usual performances connected with a new arrival. Hadn't I kissed April an hour ago? Two hours ago... three...

Towards the end of my journey around the now inky-black barracks I drew four blankets and a palliasse. “Any chance of food tonight old man?” I asked the storekeeper. “Yes! Try the Free Supper Bar. Know where that is?” “Well, no.” “Call back here then, if you like. I'll take you up.” “OK” I said thankfully.

My kind guide was 38 or so, but looked older. He had a quiet, almost fatherly manner. “Come on, eat some more” he urged me, as I pushed my plate away. “To tell the truth I can't!” I confessed. “I've just seen my girl again, after more than 4 years – I feel too excited to eat.” “She waited four years?” “Yes.”

This seemed to make him thoughtful. Presently he said his name was Cogliollo and what about coming back to his place for a smoke? I liked this quiet man and was very glad to return with him. We smoked and talked idly beside a coke stove in his stores. I got the clue to his interest in me when he said,”I usually sit here of a night. Woolwich town isn't the place for married men – filthy...” “Prostitutes?” “That's it.”

I told him where I'd come from. He was concerned in a kindly, placid way. “Don't let this place worry you. I'm always here. If you get worried, you come and see me.”

My billet for the night was Shelter 68, a large, bleak, stone-clad apartment, once a stable. The men in there seemed depressed. “It's awful, this place. Bullshit. You just come here and drift along – guards, useless fatigues to fill in the time... You might be alright though. Bombardiers and Sergeants seem to run this place. You'll find yourself running around with a note-book detailing people for the fatigues...”

This seemed ominous but I didn't bother. I'd felt dazed ever since reaching London – in a sort of pleasant, dream-like stupor – but now I was beginning to realise it was all True.. I was in normal life again and tomorrow I'd be in London, doing as I wished – on leave.

It was very cold, but I piled my coat on top of the blankets and eventually fell asleep.

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