Sunday, February 01, 2009

Saturday 15th April 1944

At lunch time a letter came from April, enclosing a large sheet of blotting paper and some purging tablets which are rumoured to be tabloid dynamite. I don't really want purging but I have a small spot upon my buttocks, of which my grim and sadistic wife is aware. Hence the ruthless enclosure!

She is better I know, because this letter began thus:

“My dearest darling Husband, if you were here I would cry all over you – oh dear, I am a silly soppy sort of bugger for you to have as a wife..!” Perhaps that isn't a cheerful sort of opening, but it made me happy because it lacked the evident note of dull depression which I'd observed in earlier letters. Yes, she is much better.

I read this for the second time on the way into Newcastle on the tram. I'd obtained a 36 hour pass – these are still available for local leave – and had intended to sleep at the YMCA hostel. My chief reason for the weekend out of camp was that I wanted to do some writing.

Newcastle was again terribly crowded. I booked a room or rather a bed or bunk at the hostel and gloomily heard that one could not be admitted until after 9p.m., that smoking was not allowed in the dormitories, that latest time for calling was at 7:30a.m. and that my bed was no. 80. I resigned myself to an uncomfortable and disappointing weekend but had not taken into consideration the famous northern hospitality, which does exist, after all!

A lady worker at the YMCA hearing I didn't seem very enthusiastic about the hostel said, “Well, would you like to come home with me?” “But wouldn't your folks mind? Surely, it's a bit sudden...” “Oh that's alright. We're always glad to do all we can. There's no spare bedroom; if you can manage on the sofa...” “Well, thanks! As a matter of fact I want to do a bit of writing.” “You'll find a nice quiet room at the flat! Well, come back in an hour's time and I'll take you along.”

This seemed delightfully casual. I looked forward with pleasure to an evening in a home, among friendly faces. Once my anticipation would have taken the form of thinking this an interesting adventure and where would it lead me? I suppose I must have grown up and become a respectable married man to whom only one lady could ever be attractive. I eyed my proposed hostess cautiously and decided she was about my own age and a decent homely soul.

Well! At 6p.m. she duly took me along to her home – a flat in the quiet suburb of Jesmond. Walking through the empty streets I got a different conception of Newcastle and was glad I hadn't been left quite misled by the intolerable central parts of the city. During the evening, my opinion of the “Geordies” or Northumbrians went up too! They are easy-going people, downright in manner, yet not too blunt as I'd feared; they are extremely kind and hospitable and that queer sing-song dialect becomes quite pleasant with usage.

I'm taking this family to be typical of Newcastle and they should be, for they've always lived there. Mrs Overs is very proud of her ailments and they all mother her. She has a son (Jimmie) aged 45, who works in a shipyard, a daughter (Minnie or Jean) who is a wartime telephone exchange operator and aged 41, and the youngest daughter, Nora, aged 31, works in a Board of Trade coal department office.

Mrs Overs has a formidable row of medicine bottles, and interested, I began smelling the contents. Actually I wondered what she was taking for her “nervous heart” and was intrigued to smell cod liver oil, iron, and bromide in three of the bottles. My interest pleased the old lady greatly (I saw a glitter of excitement in her eye when I began opening an sniffing the bottles!) and she insisted on my tasting some of the noxious contents as well. I think I was an accepted member of the family circle from that moment!

They were very good to me however. Although I could see they wanted to talk they left me severely alone in the kitchen until my writing was done, quite late at night. Then they all flocked in and talked volubly. Having a soldier about the place seemed quite a novelty to them! They're the sort of casual people who don't mind if you wander out of the bathroom with shaving lather all over your face, to say something you'd suddenly thought of; I sat on the kitchen floor whilst they were cooking and presently received a tureen of potatoes, and a gesture indicated they were to be taken to the table; they're the sort of people who yet, in some ways, treat a humble stranger as if he is an important guest; it was almost embarrassingly difficult to avoid being given the largest portion of food at meal times despite the fact that their ration arrangements don't seem so good here as in London area.

It was past midnight when I went to bed; I slept well on the long sofa.


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