Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sunday 16th January 1944

I was wrong, quite wrong I'm very happy to say, about impending clouds of family domineering. Father came alright but I do believe he only came because he wanted to see me and didn't care to wait until some dubious future date.

However – I'll narrate in due order. I checked my kit this morning and repacked it. Apart from a topee and razor (neither of which ever left no. 41) the only thing missing was my tin hat. The dirty-looking Corporal in the stores – noticeably more polite and less aggressive now that I was leaving – tried to satisfy me with some other spare hat but I would not accept it because I wanted my own – the one I found near Mechili in 1941, which has April's silk handkerchief sewn on the chin-strap. After some trouble and a couple of hours, they found mine among a pile of discarded equipment.

I cleaned my boots and buttons and at 2p.m. went down into the wardmaster's office, feeling warmer than usual with a scarf and pair of gloves I'd taken from my kit.
Sitting near the door was a ruddy-faced officer in a naval overcoat who had two gold braid rings on his shoulders. He looked up quickly as I came in; he had very blue eyes. The old man!

My pass stamped, we hurried down the yard, into the fog, towards the gates. “You haven't changed a bit, Father!” I cried, “Is your hair grey?” “Well, a bit” he said, with an embarrassed laugh. His voice – at first only – seemed changed though. Sort of quavery so that I had a horrible fear that it was an old man's voice. Later it became just the same as usual and I realised this was due to emotion at this meeting, perhaps, and I liked him all the more for that.

I've never liked my Father so much as I did this day. Also for the first time we seemed at ease in each other's company and talked volubly without any of that uneasy restraint we used to feel.
“Why did you come, Father?” I asked him, “You're not going away, are you? Surely...?” “No, I”m not on draft or anything, but I've been wanting to see you for some time, you know.” He gave me a huge tin of naval tobacco. “Here's some of the fragrant weed for you.”

We went into a cafe in Oxford. His hair didn't look grey at all except a bit at the sides and back. On his dark jacket, three 1914-18 ribbons and the 1939-43 star ribbon made a strip of bright colour. I felt proud of my Father and not because of the ribbons.

He had no wish to dominate me, as I soon realised. “I don't wish to influence you in the slightest way,” he said, “But if you do ask my advice you can have it, any time you like.” “I do want it,” I said. “There's plenty of money to be made in business nowadays,” he told me, “Help you to build a home... I think perhaps you're wise to stay in khaki for the present; I agree it's not nice to be discharged on mental grounds. But – later on perhaps – if you don't get a decent job in the Service – we'll try and get you out. Maybe Paripan would apply for your release.” “Yes, a good idea,” I agreed.

We agreed about everything! We went further and re-assured each other on past and gone events too! (“You were right about keeping your car, Stephen...” “... I should have taken your advice in 1939 Father.”)
“Tomorrow I'll met you at Paddington with April, if possible – that's if you don't mind me coming along,” he added diffidently. “No need to worry about hurrying to Woolwich, is there?” “No!” I said, “And I'll leave any kit which is worth scrounging at Hampstead!” “That's right!”

To my delight and relief, he despises and dislikes the Army and it's clumsy, hidebound ways almost as much as I do. He was quite angry about the way I'd been treated, even before I said anything – and angry too with the stupid bureaucracy and the way in which alarming, unnecessary letters and telegrams had been sent to my Mother. He admitted some of the folks had been worried. “I've never worried though. I could see from your letters that you were just the same as ever. Now, all I shall tell them when I get to Hampstead is – if they have been worrying, they'd better stop!”

He talked about the sea and his work; he's still the same old rebel, who hates petty tyranny and swaggering and refuses to cringe sycophant fashion, before his superiors.
Back to the grim hospital yard. He turned back into the fog. After a few seconds I looked around. He was striding away with the same gait he always had. No one else walks the way my Father does. I smiled with pleasure to see that! Just then he turned around to look at me, too!

Tonight I sleep with my khaki beside the bed, ready to put on as soon as I wake. This is the last dreary night, these are the last long hours in a mental hospital. I only hope Bill Lias and Nobby Brown don't have to stay in much longer.

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