Sunday, January 25, 2009

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.


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