Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wednesday 22nd March 1944

Today I acted on impulse; it is sweet to do this, especially when the result is “escape”, as it was on this occasion. I had the whole day off duty and, slipping out of the barracks at 0745 hrs, posted a letter written to April last night. Having done so I obeyed the first idea that occurred to me and set out for Pitsea.

So I hurried through the tunnel under the Thames, to freedom. The barracks is a prison and in a lesser degree so is the military, khaki-teeming town of Woolwich. In the middle of the tunnel I heard someone cry, “Hullo! Where are you going?” Startled for a moment, I was relieved to recognise a soldier from my own barrack room, returning to Woolwich from some nefarious errand or a night at home. After staggering on a few paces I looked back and yelled, “Hullo! And where have you come from?”

I quickly reached Upminster Bridge by the underground railway and found I'd an hour to wait, having just missed the Pitsea bus. That did not matter though; I had no definite appointments to keep and it was a sunny morning. Upminster “Bell” cross roads? Ah! I'd often passed here in the car, looking for builders who might buy paint. And once, long before that, I came here to meet a girl. It was Anne – and now I saw the tea-shop in which I sat waiting, at a table upstairs, by a window.

Memory is a funny thing. I remembered waiting, and that I met Anne, and that the meeting was fairly brief and vaguely unsatisfactory; but why we met, what we said and why in Upminster of all odd places, I had forgotten!

That old tea-shop was closed but I had tea and biscuits in a cafe nearby and read “Nicholas Nickleby.” Like “Our Mutual Friend”, this book grows on one. It has 900 pages and I feel regret that I am already more than half way through. One gets so intimate with Dicken's characters in his lengthy novels that they feel like a family of well-known friends. Thus, the waiting time slipped past easily, and eventually I caught the 9:40 bus and reached Gales Corner at about 10:30a.m.

Violet was still in bed! (last night's raid had kept her in the shelter in the early hours) but she was up and washed and had that small house tidy in an amazingly short space of time. At 12 o'clock we both arrived at the British Restaurant. (I called at a shop on the way to buy a pound of oranges with Vi's ration book and received an extra, un-rationed pound, “for the khaki.”)

Violet seemed genuinely pleased to see me, which finally confirmed my faith in impulses. Sitting beside her there it seemed very similar to the day when I came here with April's suitcase, just after April and I were married. Especially when Mr O'Brian arrived just as he did that historic day and drove us both back to Terori. Just as before too, Violet lit the kitchen fire and made a cup of tea as soon as we got there. I washed a couple of handkerchiefs, Violet put them on the line for a bit, “because the fresh air makes them smell nice” and we finally dried them as we sat by the fire – glowing brightly by this time.

Violet saw me to the bus at 4 o'clock. “Little does she guess that you're here today!” she chuckled gleefully. An unexpected country day, this. The plum tree in Terori's garden was in bud, also the hedges and I saw a tree of pink May-blossom down the road.

“Winter's broken and earth's woken... And the hawthorn hedge put forth it's buds...”

Obeying another careless impulse I left the bus when it reached the main road and entered “The Blue Bird Cafe”. The large fireplace was still there but held no fire. Otherwise the room looked just the same as ever and the same woman appeared from a door beside the counter with the same expression on her face. I ordered an (unwanted) cup of tea and sandwich then said, “You're still here , then!” “Yes, and I remember you, too! You came here years ago with a party of ramblers and later on you came alone or with a young lady, until the war began...”

“Yes, I'm married to that young lady now!” “Oh? You once came in the snow, didn't you? And you were in the Essex Yeomanry – been in Africa?” “Yes. The Regiment is still out there.”

Whilst I munched the sandwich and sipped the tea, she leaned against the door and said, “Yes, we're still here. It's not been the same since we lost our little girl though...”

“Good lord!” I said, “That staircase! I remember your three children going up there to bed one night, peeping over the bannisters! One was a school-boy of 13 or so, the other two were quite small...” “That's right,” she replied in a listless way, “My eldest boy goes into the RAF this year – he's deferred just now, to finish his studies. The second one is at his brother's old school in Grays; but my little girl – she died two years ago.”

I then heard all about the illness and sudden death of the girl, after which I came away to catch a bus for Upminster. “By the way,” I asked, as I opened the door, “Why did you call this place “The Blue Bird”? Or did you?” “We didn't. It was called that before we came, so we let the name stay. Well, it's been nice seeing you. We thought of you once or twice, after we'd heard the Yeomanry had gone away...”

Whilst I waited for the bus, an American “Jeep” and three huge guns crawled by. “Say! This right for Canvey Island?” yelled an officer in the jeep. “Yes!” “American gun-sites this way?” “Yes.” (They probably were; how should I know?) The jeep roared on, followed by three rumbling guns. The first was named, “Pistol Totin' Mama,” the second was “Louisiana Lou;” whilst the third was boldly marked (with reference to a current jazz song) “LAY THIS PISTOL DOWN!”

Uneventful and rapid journey back to Woolwich. Just as I was going to bed, at about 10:30, I discovered a 2oz bar of chocolate in my pocket. Violet had given it to me “for the journey.” Luckily I'd forgotten it, for now I felt hungry and relished it the more.

Ah! The open country is better than the towns and cities!

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