Friday, November 12, 2010

34. Netheravon

Two months later Tom came home, he could have come earlier but he had been ill. All I can remember of his leave was that he went to an auction with my father, I don’t know why, and came home with an old fashioned leather hat box for which he had paid half a crown. What the heck for? Apart from his forage cap which, when it was not on his head, packed flat anyway, we did not possess a hat between us. I thought the world had gone mad, and me with it. That half crown would have replaced the lipstick Tommy had ruined. Tom worked in the shop a bit, but since he ate most of the Kunzel cakes in stock and always gave the kids an extra toffee or boiled sweet, I think he ran it at a loss. Little Tommy was so happy to see his daddy, and sobbed his little heart out when he went away again. And he did not cry alone!

Tom was posted to the RAF Police Training School at Netheravon and the children and I stayed on at Maviswood. There was an acute housing shortage in England in 1951; every service family wanted a married quarter, but those were allocated on a points system, Tom applied straight away. Because Tom has not been in the Air Force that long, and we had only two children, we were way down on the list and vacancies only arose as men were posted away. One night, after a particularly bad day with Father, I telephoned Tom at the mess and said I did not care if we lived in a tent in the middle of a field, I just had to get away.

Tom managed to find two rooms to rent in an old cottage in the village of Netheravon, about two miles away from the camp which was situated at the top of a very steep hill. Walking up the hill was hard work, pushing a pram up there was even harder, but riding a bicycle was impossible. Riding down was dead easy, providing the bike had good brakes, so it was pretty hard on Tom who, until we arrived, had only ridden on the flat ground from the office to the Sergeants’ Mess and back.

The cottage belonged to an old witch called, believe it or not, Mrs. Dear. She was mean and horrible with hair dyed a brilliant red. She could have taught the witch in “The Wizard of Oz” a trick or two, and she had Rules. I had to clean and polish the wooden staircase and the hallway every morning. I must not speak to the other residents (a young girl with a baby who lived upstairs and was dreadfully lonely), I was not to run any electrical appliances off the electric light bulb socket and the children must not make a noise. When she later heard, via the milkman I am sure, that we were looking for other accommodation, she said that, if I did not stop looking, she would give us immediate notice. Her cottage was attached to five other cottages and there was no running water or mains sewerage.

The living room downstairs had an open fire, a folding table, two dining chairs, one armchair and a sideboard on which stood our radio which was run on a wet battery, a heavy thing that tended to run out as one was listening to something interesting. My kitchen was down the hallway, a small corner where a wooden bench was fixed to the wall. On this stood an old enamel washing up basin which had so many pot menders in it there was hardly any smooth area at all. Pot menders were used to fill in the holes made by rust, and consisted of washers inside and outside the bowl, held together with a nut and bolt which, in theory, stopped water from leaking onto the floor. In practice the basin still leaked and the bolts took the skin off my hands. There was a primus stove for cooking and heating water.

Outside the front door was a pump, with a big, heavy handle that had to be heaved up and down in order to draw water. To wash the children and the clothes, I pumped water into a bucket, boiled it on the primus stove, used it and then took the dirty water outside and poured it down the drain. I bathed once a week on the evening that Tom spent with the Buffs (the Royal and Ancient Order of Buffalos – the poor man’s Free Masons or an excuse for a night out with the boys!) Bathing was quite an exercise. Pump water, carry it inside and heat in saucepan on Primus, pour hot water into zinc bath and repeat until there was enough water in the bath in which to sit, hopefully before it got cold again. I hoped the kids upstairs would not cry or need me while all this was going on. When Tom returned home he would help me carry the bath of dirty water outside and pour it away. January came and sometimes I would forget to bring water inside before bedtime and, in the morning, the pump would be frozen up and we would be without water until it thawed. The four of us shared one small bedroom, we had a double bed, Jeni slept in a cot and Tommy on a little camp bed.

The toilets, four wooden huts with benches, out of which circles had been cut and buckets placed under, were situated behind the row of cottages at the end of the cottage vegetable plots, and we shared our bucket with at least one other family. The buckets were emptied every two weeks by the Council and one might only go there for serious defecating. Residents urinated in a potty or bucket which was then poured down the drain. The potty was kept in the bedroom, and it was sometimes difficult first thing in the morning, arranging which one of us could use it first, Tom being a very modest man who did not care to pee in front of his wife and children. Fortunately, in those days my bladder was stronger than it is today. A new family moved in and, not knowing the finer rules for disposing of their bodily fluids, had the toilet shed flooded out in less than a week. Leaving the children in the house alone while I “went to the bucket” was difficult, and my time at the cottage was one of extreme, painful constipation. Tom somehow managed to contain himself until he arrived at camp in the mornings, which at times must have been difficult, bearing in mind the long way he had to push his bike before getting to the mess. He was also able to bathe there. There was nowhere for Tommy to play and I longed for spring.

The living room table matched the floor in that it had odd bits of linoleum tacked on to the top. I have a passion for wood, and found the linoleum offensive, so I prised it off and stripped the wood, removing the dirt and glue. Next I dyed the bare, clean wood with brown shoe polish, and finished it off with furniture polish. The wood was natural yew and Mrs. Dear was delighted with the restoration. I could write a book on “Witches I have known and how to soften them up”.

Tom did find us other accommodation in the village of Figheldean, on the other side of the hill from the camp. Making the move was hard work. I packed the pram with the children and as much stuff as possible, pushed it up the hill through the camp and down the other side of the hill to Figheldean; I would guess a walk of about five miles. Since we had abandoned most of our stuff in Egypt, there was not that much to take. The little cottage was sweet, there were still only two rooms but there was electricity, running water and an indoor toilet and such happy vibes. It was spring, the sun was shining and I was happy. My six months period of ‘rest’ was over! On my final trip over the hill, I met Tom who told me that we had been allocated a married quarter and could move in immediately! I opted to stay in the cottage over the Easter holiday to have a rest before carting everything back up the hill.

RAF Netheravon is the oldest operational air base in England and was in use before World War One. The married quarters were very, very old. Ours had one bedroom, a narrow staircase leading into a tiny living room in which there stood a black leaded coal stove which heated the water and on which I cooked. This black beast was set in an alcove and had to be lit every day, summer and winter. Across the top of the alcove was a metal trap door behind which all the soot collected and which I regularly cleared. I vividly remember the Sunday morning when the chimney caught fire and the camp fire brigade was called to extinguish it. I took the children outside to safety but by the time I finally managed to wake Tom up the brigade had been and gone. Until then the statement that “the house could be on fire and Tom would never wake”, had only been a joke.

In the kitchen was a deep granite sink, big enough to bathe the children in, while the head of the bath was under the draining board, the whole bath being covered with a wooden lid which doubled as the kitchen table, cum working surface. Exposing the open bath was quite an exercise, but how I wallowed in that lovely, hot water. Next to the bath was the door to the toilet. The back door led into a small yard and a coal shed in which I chopped wood and broke up coal. Outside the yard were communal washing lines. Like all married quarters it was furnished with everything from curtains to basic crockery which were all inventoried. Dark brown linoleum covered all the floors with a couple of loose rugs on which the children played. It would be ours for as long as Tom was stationed there. The front door opened on to a road that ran through the camp, but there was very little traffic going by so Tommy could safely play there.

This was the first time I had lived in close proximity to other service wives but because of my “posh” speaking voice I was regarded with suspicion and had difficulty making friends. Fortunately my next door neighbour was nice and we used to do our ironing together, one Tuesday in her house, the next in mine. With a nice cup of tea and a chat the chore was finished quite painlessly.

Tom now became full time editor of Provost Parade, the magazine I had instigated in 1947, and later I joined the camp drama group under the leadership of Sqn.Ldr. Smokey Player. At Staverton I had performed in ‘White Cargo”, “The Monkey’s Paw” and Terrance Rattigan’s comedy, “French Without Tears”, and at Netheravon, “Worm’s Eye View” and Smokey Player’s production of a comedy/farce with lots of vicars and bishops running around, in which I played Miss Skillon, the village spinster who gets very drunk and tries to seduce the vicar. It was all great fun. Smokey Player and Pete Derby taught me a lot about acting.

Although Tom was now a Flight Sergeant, my marriage allowance, plus his ration money, was barely a living wage and housekeeping was difficult. On Tuesdays I walked down to the village post office to collect my RAF allotment and the eight shillings a week Government allowance we were awarded for the second child. One Saturday a month Tom would look after the children while I caught the bus from the camp into Salisbury Market. In between, I shopped at the NAAFI shop nearby. It was the afternoon ritual to get the kids tidied up, push the pram to the shop, buy the half pound of sausages or whatever for lunch next day and go home. I doubt that anybody on camp owned a fridge, the milkman and the baker called daily and once a week the fish monger, the butcher and the greengrocer came to the door. Top of my wish list was a hand wringer for the clothes, a Ewbank carpet sweeper and an egg whisk. In winter the washing would be hung outside; hand wrung, and come back in frozen solid, to be dried in the kitchen on a ceiling pulley airer which was lowered on a rope. In the summer, when drying was easier, I started doing washing for a school teacher, whose boy friend used to arrive in his posh car to collect and deliver. I was only making a few shillings a week but Tom was mortified when he found out so I had to stop doing it. I joined a catalogue club, paying in two shillings a week, and when it was my turn to buy something I chose a Prestige hand whisk which, 58 years later, is still working, long after a parade of electrical mixers have gone to the electrical graveyard.

Tommy had just turned five and was nicely settled in the infants’ school in Figheldean, when Tom was posted to Air Ministry in London.

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