Thursday, November 18, 2010

39. Sutton Coldfield

The hiring allocated to us at Sutton Coldfield was similar to the one in West Drayton, the difference being that, in this house, there definitely were mice under the stairs. Tom did not live at home, he was 'detached' as opposed to being stationed, but he tried to come home every alternate weekend. I don’t know where he was, but that might have been the time he was stationed at Fylingdales on the North Yorkshire Moors. He certainly served there at some time, because he talked about the sheep that used to huddle for warmth against the wall under his bedroom window in winter, and from then on he was reluctant to eat lamb. He said he could not eat his friends!

Tommy and Jeni liked their new school much better than the awful place at Harden. Tommy joined the cubs and Jeni started to learn ballet and, apart from missing their daddy, as did I, they settled down quite well. A rented television was installed by a funny little man who kept coming back to see if it was working alright! After the children were in bed, I would sit in a chair with my back to the wall, watching the programmes, and stayed there, long after the television had closed for the night and that round ball of white light had left the screen. I just hated going up those dark stairs to bed. Sometimes I would lift Jeni out of her bed and take her into mine for company.

At week-ends Tom would bring home a suitcase full of dirty washing for me to do, and I cooked his favourite foods. As a luxury, a telephone was installed so that at least we could talk to each other during the week which was lovely, except that hearing his voice made me miss him even more. Tom had the only known complete collection of Provost Parade magazines, going back to our first hand printed copy, and he had decided to donate them all to the RAF Police Museum. The collection covered over nine year’s publications. As usual, I packed his suitcase with all the nice clean laundry, plus the magazines and walked with him to the bus stop. On leaving the bus at the railway station he found that his suitcase had been stolen. I would have loved to see the thief’s reaction on finding all the Police Magazines in the case; and I resented the fact that the case was full of clean laundry, most of it (expensive) uniform shirts. But, joking aside, apart from the cost of replacing all the clothes, the loss of the magazines was very sad, and Tom was extremely upset.

Living in the house next door to us was a darling, childless couple in their seventies, Dan and Dolly Smith. Dolly once confessed to me that on her wedding night she was so frightened at the prospect of being ‘married’ that Dan had promised her that she could still be “the same as she was then a year from now, or longer if that was what she wanted.” She did not say if the marriage was ever consummated but, although they were a very devoted couple, they had no children. Dan was a string and rope salesman whose sales had been greatly diminished by the invention of Sellotape. They had a profound effect on our lives because in their garage stood a 1938 Austin Cambridge that Dan had bought a few weeks before the outbreak of war and, because of petrol rationing, had put it up on blocks and never driven it since then. The leather upholstery, walnut dashboard and chromium fenders had been polished regularly and all were in pristine condition.

Although neither Tom nor I could drive, I fell in love with that car. The driving instructors at the Police School had dismissed Tom as being “psychologically unfit to drive” because he was too nervous. Driving lessons were expensive and since we were unlikely ever to own a car there seemed no point in me taking them, so neither of us had a driving licence.

I cannot remember how long we were at Sutton Coldfield before Tom was posted to the high security, V-Bomber station at Finningley, just outside Doncaster. Previously we had been stationed at Police Schools or Headquarters, so this was the first and only time we lived on an operational station full of crazy air crew types, and it was a whole new ball game, as they say. I was very interested to see on the Internet that RAF Finningley is now the Robin Hood Airport, but in 1959 it was an airfield for Vulcan bombers, targeted quite frequently by 'Ban the Bomb protesters'. The Vulcan was designed to carry nuclear bombs and it did not look like a conventional aeroplane with wings, these planes looked more like flying sting rays, and the jet engines made a terrible noise when warming up and taking off. Their crash rate was quite awesome, not especially at Finningley, but world wide.

As officer responsible for station security, Tom was required to live on the station and be on duty 24/7 and, as such, he was entitled to an “ex-officio” married quarter. There were two quarters vacant, one was a Wing Commander’s quarter with about five bedrooms, huge receptions rooms, and servants’ quarters, while the other was a converted billet, just a bit larger than the one we had at Pershore, brown linoleum and all. Tom reasoned that it would take all his pay just to heat the Wing Commanders quarter, and take me every waking moment to keep it clean, so he opted for the converted wooden hut and a gang of men was detailed to clean it up. And it was very comfortable. We bought our first, very small, refrigerator, and my first washing machine, a Thor top loader, and both were paid for in cash. No hire purchase for me, ever.

The children attended the school on camp and unfortunately Mrs. Kitchen, the headmistress, was one of the worst witches I have ever met. Teachers working with her told me that they were so distressed at the way she treated the children that the staff never stayed very long. Tommy could not stand her, he has always been outraged by cruelty and injustice of any kind, so one day he stood up to her and she hit him so hard that he had marks all over his back. I have never seen Tom so angry. We called in the Medical Officer as witness to the beating and Tom went down to the school and almost thumped the woman. We never hit the children, we never needed to, one harsh word from Tom and we all burst out laughing! We wanted to have the woman charged with assault but were persuaded against it because Tommy was about to move to a grammar boarding school, and a court case might have been detrimental to him. When I think of all the other children she probably abused I regret we did not take her to court, I only hope that some other parent did. She was a witch I could not even begin to tame.

We really needed a motor car because Doncaster was a good distance away and the buses passed infrequently. We decided to write to Dan and ask, very tactfully, if he would sell us his car, pointing out that if the garage were empty they could rent it out. Dan had by now retired on a very small pension, and could not afford to run a car, and the money from renting out the garage would be useful. He agreed and the asking price was fifty pounds. Sgt. Cresswell, one of Tom’s drivers, and I travelled to Sutton Coldfield to collect the car. We had not considered that, as the car had been standing for about twenty years the rubber piping might be perished, and it had not occurred to us to have the car serviced before collection. The engine had not been turned over since 1939!

For some reason I had a packet of Jelly Babies in my bag and, on the long drive back, it became quite a routine for the car to stop, because of a blockage in the petrol pipe, Sgt. Cresswell would suck the pipe clear, I would stuff jelly babies into his mouth to take away the awful taste, and on we travelled. We arrived back at camp and it just remained for me to learn to drive 'Goldilocks', as the children decided to call her. Sgt. Cresswell was determined that Tom would drive, pass his test and get his driving licence before I did. It was a matter of honour that his “guvner” could do it. So, the race was on. Tom did pass his test, helped no doubt by the fact that it was arranged to take place in Doncaster on early closing day, and I passed mine on the second try. I failed the first time because my instructor had taught me how to do a hill start facing UP a hill but not facing DOWN one, so when asked to do a hill start going down I just took off the handbrake and freewheeled! The examiner also instructed me to come to an emergency halt when he tapped the dash board. Safety belts were not fitted to cars in 1960 and when he tapped the dash board I braked so hard and so quickly that the poor man nearly shot through the windscreen. I passed second time. Strange as it may seem, our driving licences were dropped through the letter box on the same day.

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