Wednesday, November 17, 2010

37. About Tom

Tom once said “You have put me on a pedestal and I cannot stay there.” How true that was. He was tall, dark, and incredibly handsome, although quite unaware of his good looks. His eyes were blue and gentle, his humour subtle and inoffensive and his beautiful speaking voice could melt ice. Everybody liked him, especially the girls, but he seemed ill at ease around females. As soon as I saw him, all previous boyfriends were immediately forgotten, this was the man I wanted to be with for ever and ever and even after that. I knew he would never hurt me or our children. I would never have to say “Here comes you father. Better get out of the way!”

Getting him to notice me, let alone take me out, was not easy, but I finally persuaded him to take me to the cinema. I tried to hold his hand in the cinema but that did not work, for some reason he did not like holding hands, even when he was dying he pushed my hand away.

You have read earlier how we got married, but I have not told you about the time he took me to Wales to meet his family. His mother had died shortly after we met, but his father, grandmother, grandfather, brother George, half brother Jock and his wife Doreen, Aunty Fanny and Aunty Winny were living in Hakin. There were also some cousins around. I write about Milford Haven all the time, but actually the family lived in Hakin, just across the docks from Milford. Tom had already met my parents and Maureen, but was not happy about taking me to his home and I wondered why. He finally said to me, “I don’t know what you will make of my home. You will probably think it is a slum.” I could not picture this clever, highly intelligent man coming from a slum. True, he did not hold his knife and fork the way I had been taught to, he bit his finger nails and liked a pint, but that did not suggest someone from the slums. I knew his father was a fisherman and that he came from a fishing village, but I had lived in some pretty awful places myself from time to time.

After Tom’s mother died, Tom’s father had moved in with his old parents, so when we arrived in Milford we went to that house first, where I was greeted with some suspicion. The haste of the marriage had been unseemly, and I suspect sly looks were cast at my stomach which, incidentally, remained flat for almost two more years. I must have appeared fairly sophisticated, a “Town Girl” who talked posh, and not a quiet little Welsh lass, and so I was not one of them. But they tried to make me welcome and Tom’s gran was a dear lady whom I, and later the children, came to love very much. We were to sleep in Tom’s old home and so, after a good Welsh tea comprising lots and lots of lovely, freshly caught fish cooked to perfection, we said our goodbyes and walked round the corner to a row of three storied fishermen’s cottages.

The houses were well over a hundred years old. The front door opened into the hall of the ground floor, where a blind man sat making baskets for the fishermen, plastic baskets did not exist then. The basket maker and his wife had known Tom since he was born and they were like family.

At the top of the staircase a door led into a hall off which were a bedroom, living room and kitchen. In the kitchen a cold water tap protruded from the outside wall, beneath which a large enamel basin sat on a bare wooden table. Next to the table was an open lavatory with an overhead cistern, down which slops and bathwater was poured. Yes, I suppose having a toilet in the kitchen was rather slummy and certainly would not be allowed today, although in modern houses I have seen downstairs toilets only separated from the kitchen by a sliding door. Hanging on the wall was a large zinc bath.

Upstairs there were three more bedrooms. This was the age of the chamber pot, and during the one and only time Tom’s father stayed with us he used one at night. The task of emptying it was delegated to Tom! There must have been an outside toilet as well, but I did not see it. At times there had been six or seven people staying the house, so ablutions combined with cooking must have been difficult.

Doreen, Jock’s wife, had lived in that house for some years while Jock was away in the army. Her father had owned a bakery in Plymouth where they had a lovely home. Like me, she did not visit Hakin until after she was married and so the sight of her new home must have come as a shock to her. Doreen told me that Tom’s mother was the sweetest, most gentle woman, who had a very hard and unhappy life. She had been a penniless widow with a nine year old son, Jock, when, probably out of desperation, she married Tom’s father, by whom she had Tom and George. Whenever I felt sorry for myself, during our bad housing times, I would think of my late mother-in-law and be grateful for what I had. Her name was Edith and I wish I had known her. But, here I must say that the Winters were a very respectable family; there was no crime in being poor. The only rich people in Milford Haven were the farmers and the trawler owners.

Between leaving Grammar School and going into the RAF, Tom worked as a fish buyer on the Milford fish markets, and there he earned good money. And boy, did he spend it! He was mad about music, Bing Crosby was his idol and he bought every record Crosby had ever made. He admired all the well known tenors, could not stand sopranos, but he never sang, not even in the bath.

Tom’s father was a fisherman, a very dangerous occupation, especially during the war. Factory fishing ships had not yet stripped the seas of fish, and the men went out in small trawlers in dreadful weather, working eight hours on shift, and four hours off. They were away for two, sometimes three, weeks at a time depending on how the fish were running, and during that time they never washed or took off their clothes. Except for war time, the pay was barely a living wage and there were no Social Services or free medical treatment in those days. The few days on shore between trips the men spent bathing, sleeping, enjoying their marital rights and drinking. In fact that was what the men did, worked and drank as much as they could afford. They did not chop wood, carry a bucket of coal upstairs or help the women in any way, nor did they have much to do with the raising of the children. Nursing and cuddling babies was certainly not acceptable.

So, that was Tom’s home background and role model, and that is how he expected married life to be, more or less. I once asked Tom if he had ever carried a bucket of coal or water up the stairs for his mother, or if he had ever chopped any fire wood for her and he looked quite blank, the thought that he should have had never occurred to him, which was very strange, considering what a kind man he was. One icy cold day at Netheravon I left the empty coal bucket on the back doorstep for Tom to fill when he came home, reasoning that he would already be warmly wrapped up in his overcoat. He just stepped over it! Many years after we were married, when the children had left home, he would help me by drying the dishes, but he drew the kitchen curtains first so that no-one could see him!

In spite of this background Tom was very, very clever and he should have gone to a university, but the war, and probably lack of money, put an end to his education. His English was perfect, his memory incredible and he could answer any question I put to him. His sense of right and wrong, legally and philosophically was impeccable and I respected his opinions unreservedly. He was faithful, loyal and completely trustworthy. But, his upbringing had taught him that women coped on their own, that boys were boys and should stick together and that it was not 'done' to show one’s feelings. Demonstrations of affection caused him extreme embarrassment, and that was my loss. However, he showed his love for us in many, many ways. He tried my patience just as I must have tried his, but my love for him never faded, and until he was too ill to walk any more, my tummy still turned over when he walked towards me. I was as proud to be called Mrs.Winter as I had been ashamed of being called Cynthia Lawley.

When the time came for Tom to be demobbed he was adamant that he did not want to return to Hakin. Fate seemed to decree that he remain in the Royal Air Force, and as he had remustered to RAF Police at the end of the war, and had now reached the rank of Flight Sergeant, he wanted to stay in the Service, and I agreed. Little did I know what was in store for us.

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