Friday, January 23, 2009

Thursday 10th February 1944

My period of freedom is over. Our marriage took place long ago.

Now I am back in the greyly depressing depot at Woolwich. It is very cold and I'm limping painfully in my heavy and uncomfortable new boots. Discomfort. A thousand Regulations; nothing to do and nowhere to go – that is my life at Woolwich. I have just applied for a week-end pass, and to my sardonic amusement my application had to be worded thus:

870844 Bdr. Dawson S
10/2/44

To: OC “B” Battery. RA Depot, Woolwich
Sir;
I respectfully beg to submit this my application for a pass from A/D Saturday 12/2/44 to 2359 hrs. Sunday 13/2/44 for the purpose of proceeding to Pitsea, Essex.
Trusting this meets with your kind approval, I remain
Your obedient servant,
SJ Dawson

And after all that, the pass may not be granted – 'cos the NCO responsible has gone to the dentist!

To sum up my existence here – I arrived on Tuesday afternoon and was detailed to Squad 10 and Room 154. The latter is quite a pleasant room – but only in the evenings, when there is a fire of sorts and music from an amplifier; during the day it is windswept and cheerless.

We sleep on the floor; it is quite warm. The first night I slept on the mattress of a man who had just gone into hospital suffering from venereal disease. In the morning someone told me this and I hastily obtained a new mattress.

Yesterday morning on parade I was given a fantastic job – surely this is not the “suitable occupation” mentioned at the Medical Board? - which is generally considered a “cushy” or “soft” job. Briefly I am NCO i/c Cleaning Table Tops in the mess hall. Eight men do the cleaning. I do nothing except to hang about all day and waste my time. Who would have imagined that any such job existed in war time?

My medical category however is, I now learn, “Unclassified” and this means I eventually appear before a PSO (Personal Selection Officer) who gives me a proper job or my discharge. Well, I hope it's the latter, but I'd like to get my credits out first! I have about £60 in credit, according to this pay office, but this balance, even now, has not been verified by RA Records and cannot be drawn... So, if I can stick it I'll hang on until I see the PSO in a few weeks time.

That's how things drearily remain at the present. All the happiness that has happened in the past fortnight now seems like an unreal, gay dream, enticing, haunting yet gone. Meeting my Mother at Paddington, and Robin on his embarkation leave; going to the Paripan offices at Piccadilly and feeling as though I'd called at my club rather than at my employers offices. Seeing the Vicar of St. Stephens, a saintly, venerable man half blind, telling him “You're the sort of Padre I always wanted for my marriage” - and he telling us two days later in the church, “You are the sort of children I like to marry...”

All these bits of happiness fly past and for a moment I see April and her Mother, arm in arm, coming towards me in Hampstead, near Belsize Park Station. It was not a prearranged meeting, I'd just gone out to see if there was any sign of them. Violet looked quiet and sort of proud. Although she was shorter, she seemed to be protecting her daughter in some way. April wore a brown tweed coat and a brown homburg hat with a feather in it. She looked serene and happy and somehow glowing.
And we were sipping coffee at Pat and Lid's house and it was nearly time to go and I heard April give a sharp cry - “Oh! Now my knees are giving way!”

Then we all went together in the car which Pepita had ordered. It was delightfully informal. When we stopped outside the church I leaned into the back seat and laughed and kissed my April and said, “Well, good-bye Miss Aiken”. She laughed back and said politely, “Oh, good-bye. It's been nice being your fiancee!”

I went in with tall, immaculate Pep. - acting as best man and in charge of the ring which she showed me every now and then. We sat down at the front and waited a few minutes. It was a big, empty church, high candles were burning. I looked back and saw April waiting half way along the aisle with the two mothers. They seemed to tower above her, dwarfing her. Later she told me that they held her firmly by each arm and my Mother said, “Now April! You've got about 30 seconds left, if you want to change your mind!”

Then the Vicar, tall, white haired, pale, ascetic, came out and stood at the top of the steps above us. And April stood beside me and my left hand was holding her right hand, away out of sight between us as we stood close together.

This was my wedding day and hour.
This was our marriage.
This was January 22nd 1944 at 2 o'clock.

There was a second of strange wonder. April was saying, “I, April Constance Winifred – take thee, Stephen John...” when she turned quickly and looked up at me. A look full of wistfullness which made my heart sway over; a deep inscrutable look the meaning of which I could not define, nor perhaps could she herself. Perhaps that quick-happening, slow-ending glance said, “I'm serious about this. I mean it.” Or perhaps it said, “This is new, this has never happened before. No other woman has ever said these words in the same way as I am saying them at this moment.”

Whilst I still dreamed, I found the ring put in my hand by Pepita. Shivering, I took April's hand – and the ring I bought in Cairo slipped neatly onto the third finger.
I didn't think it could happen but it did happen. We were married at last.

In the vestry the Vicar fumbled a little over the registry. “I'm going blind, you know,” he said humbly and apologetically. April said something and laid her hand suddenly on his shoulder like a kiss. Everybody really kissed each other when the documents were completed. I kissed the Vicar too; that seems queer, but I'm not ashamed of it. That I should do so, shows the sort of person this Vicar was.

We were together for two days in Town; we stayed at the Pembridge Gardens Hotel in Notting Hill. On Monday April went back to her hospital but on Wednesday I met her again and after another night in Notting Hill we went to Somerset, to Minehead.

A jumble of tangled memories comes to me. The ordeal of dinner that first evening – neither of us were really hungry but we laughed and ate with determination.
The porter who said he was sorry but they could only supply early morning tea to clients who provided their own tea... “But we've got tea!!” cried April and waved a packet triumphantly, after a rapid search in her suitcase. So we had our early morning pot of tea!

That green gown... She has a dressing gown which looks more like a house gown. It haunts me now; I'll always love that green gown. I've seen it and heard it. I saw it that first time I came into our room and found April squatting by the gas fire, gazing into it. I heard the gown fluttering as April flew, like any bird, down the long passage outside our room in the Plume of Feathers at Minehead.

My last glimpse of the green gown was not wondrous, fairy-like or strange but was essentially humorous. On our last morning, at the unearthly hour of 7:20a.m., I awoke her for the second time (with some difficulty) and eventually she lurched out of bed, huddled into the green gown and staggered, humped-up, towards the bathroom with one eye almost open and face screwed up in sleepy annoyance and bewilderment.

Something else was very funny but unconnected with the green gown. My anxious Mother had given April a small bottle of Halibut Oil Tablets with strict instructions that I must have one after every meal because I needed “building up”. And damn me! My new wife made me take those ruddy tablets regularly! Once, in London, I came up later than her from dinner and found April and the green gown both missing. On the dressing table however I found a scrawled note - and a tablet! The note said, “Gone to bath darling. A” (I've still got it!) The visions flash past...

There was pride – walking down the long passage at the “Feathers” towards the dining room behind my wife; she gliding forward with her arms folded.

There was glory – as we walked together along a high, narrow ridge above the Somerset wooded valleys, where we seemed to be striding aloofly across the very sky.

There was comfort – to lay my head near April's bosom and look upwards, watching her face and the changing shadows racing across it as she talked gaily, rapidly, looking away from me.

There was pleasure – to lie sleepily in bed whilst April read a story to me.
There was ecstasy – when April with her hair blowing, wearing a macintosh, looking as she looked in 1938, slipped down from a rock below the cliffs that tower towards the steep woods near Minehead... Slipped barefoot into my arms and we kissed suddenly although a moment before neither of us had thought of kissing.

There was laughter – when, just before that, I'd delayed taking off my shoes and socks and turned to wave triumphantly and got caught by a quick ripple of water and was well-wetted.

There was craziness – when, climbing a slope in the dark, a bramble caught April's coat and she turned fiercely and screamed, “Put me down!” “Hey!” I cried, “Who's lifting you up?” and she replied, “The cobble men!”

At first when we reached the “Feathers” my mad wife had her hair down and looked about 16. But on the second day she heard two women (residents) discussing someone in hushed voices, and one said, “My dear! She can't be his wife...!” In case this might refer to herself, April changed her hair style, and tied it with pale blue ribbon so that she looked as though she might be 24 and quite possibly someone's wife!

I hardly knew myself in those days, so unserious, unbitter and laughing in heart! All this was ecstasy but I didn't know fully until it was over; the happy moments fled so fast. I didn't smoke much and chiefly my pipe. There were roaring, fine high winds and wonderful places where the air was still. Then there was sweetness and comradeship when I'd stop under pine trees and light my pipe – the smoke drifting bluely upwards – and it would be April's turn to tell a story for the last threee miles home, or perhaps it would be mine.

There was, once, terror and tragedy – when April suddenly gave a single deep sob and in sympathy my eyes went wet too and I cried, “What is it? What is the matter? Tell me!” And she sobbed, “There's nothing to tell you.” And sounded heart-broken...

For hours afterwards I was in a fog and beyond that mist, for all I knew, our marriage lay wrecked in ruins. Curiously enough, it was next day, in quite inconsequent fashion, that I knew everything was going to be all right. When April was telling me in dramatic detail the story of a film she had seen – it was called “Now Voyager” and had no connection, real or psychological, with that dreadful sob - and we strolled high above the town and came to the woods above the cliffs, I gradually saw the mists clear away and there were no ruins there but shining, strong castles...

When the story ended we were sitting on a bench in the woods and I was smoking my pipe. "“Why should I cry for the moon when I have the stars?” she said" concluded April quietly.

Why this story, or this stroll should reassure me so utterly, I don't know. Perhaps it was the way the story was told, or the way we walked.

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