Thursday, November 18, 2010

40. On being a lady.

There were many things I had to learn about being the wife of an officer, and one was the custom of “calling”. One “called” on the Commanding Officer’s wife on the afternoon she set aside for receiving new arrivals and, on leaving, three calling cards had to be left on the silver salver on the table by the front door, one for the CO, one for the wife and one, I supposed, for the file. Although wives only lived round the corner, the ‘caller’ had to wear a hat and gloves to make this visit. I put the three cards in one of my gloves so that I would not forget to leave them. The Commanding Officer was Group Captain Haige and Mrs. Haige was his charming lady wife. We had tea and I chatted away, probably too much, too fast, and for too long as I tend to do when nervous, and I left. Walking to the gate I put my gloves back on and only then found the cards. Horrors! I crouched down by the fence and edged my way back to the front door where I popped the cards through the letter box hoping that the batman (the batman, not Batman) would find them and put them on the silver salver for me.

It was the custom for the CO’s wife to return one’s call within two weeks, so for two weeks I sat every afternoon, washed and dressed and ready to receive, tea try set with biscuits, but the lady did not call. I wondered if I had offended her in some way, but apparently she had been away.

Tom was to have a few days leave – that in itself was a miracle – and we decided to visit his family in Pembrokeshire, and as this was before the motorways through to Wales were built, we had to drive over the Brecon Beacons. Goldilock’s perished wiring worried me so I thought I would rewire her. Of course ,I am not an electrician, but why would that stop me? I bought as much wire as I thought necessary, got under the car and was stripping the wiring when I noticed two very smart high heeled shoes, filled with two elegantly clad stockinged legs standing beside where I was lying. It was Mrs. Haige returning my call. I crawled from under the car, covered in grease, dirt and embarrassment, and we went inside for tea! In my experience, the sure way to bring a visitor to my door is to be thoroughly dishevelled at three o’clock in the afternoon. We had a very pleasant time and she offered to bring me a really beautiful coat for Jeni that her daughter had outgrown. I was delighted and gladly paid the price of thirty two shillings.

The car wiring finished, we packed the suit cases and picnic stuff for the journey to Wales. We set off, full of excitement. Goldilocks was running nicely when the heavens opened and down came the rain in sheets. The windscreen wipers would not work, so we stopped to check them and found that the lights were not working either and we were about to begin a long night haul over the Brecon Beacons. We stopped at a garage and bought all the bicycle lamps and lamp batteries in stock and tied them wherever possible round the car. Just after sunset we came up behind a big lorry and kept behind him all through the night. Not only did he provide protection from oncoming traffic, he also gave some shelter from the rain. Dawn found us exhausted physically and emotionally. We stopped for breakfast, facing downhill to assist take off, and then drove into Milford Haven, it was now Sunday and the garage was closed, but we had made it.

On Monday the mechanic said that my wiring had been done pretty well, considering, and only one connection had been incorrect, and so we were able to drive around Pembrokeshire, enjoying the beautiful coast line before the oil companies built their refineries and ruined it. On the journey back to Doncaster the electrics were working well, however we did seem to be getting quite a lot of fumes in the car and, despite the sleet and snow now falling, we had to drive with the windows open.

We had an agreement with Sgt. Cresswell that, in exchange for keeping Goldilocks serviced, he and his family could take her on leave and for shopping trips. He was about to go on leave a few days after our return, so he came to pick up the car for a check over, only to return it a short while later, saying in apologetic terms that not only would he not take her on leave, he would not drive her as far as the NAAFI! All the time we were driving back from Milford Haven, petrol had been dripping on the exhaust pipe, hence the fumes. We could have exploded! When we left Finningley, Tom gave Goldilocks to Sgt. Cresswell. I wonder what ever happened to her.

Tommy was an extremely good scholar and highly intelligent and we worried about his future education. He was now eleven years old and had already attended five schools and so, after much soul searching, we thought that it would be best for him to continue his education settled in one school, which meant being a boarder. He deliberately, I think, sabotaged his interview for a scholarship to the Blue Coat School because he did not want to wear the silly clothes, but he gained entrance to Ripon Grammar School which had an excellent academic record, and offered boarding facilities, giving preference to the sons of service men. We would have to supply his uniform but, while we were overseas, the RAF would pay his tuition fees and also pay for one holiday air flight a year.

My heart was very heavy as I left him there, and had I known how desperately unhappy he was to be I would never have done so. When he came home for holidays he would spend most of the time in his room, drawing or reading and just enjoying his privacy. Once when we drove him back to school he asked us to park at the end of the road because he had told the boys that his father had an Austin Cambridge, but not the year it was made! Today that car would be a classic.

Giving my first dinner party was a bit nerve racking, but it had to be done. Although crockery was supplied on the inventory there were not enough plates for the party, and so I borrowed a dozen extra from the mess. Unlike most people, we had not yet acquired nice stuff of our own. The food I prepared has long been forgotten, but I will never forget my embarrassment when I noticed a hesitance on the part of my guests to put the food onto their plates. I had not thought to check the plates from the mess to see if they were clean, and they were all thick with dust! The top one had been alright and I had not checked the rest. And these were people I did not know and was trying to impress! It was not my first catastrophe, and it would not be my last.

Tom would say that my ‘top of the list blunder’ was the time when he took me to my first Officers’ Mess ball. Of course I did not possess a ball gown so I bought several yards of taffeta coat lining at 2s 6d a yard and made one. We walked over to the Mess and were received at the bottom of the steps at the entrance by Wing Commander Grant. “Now, remember that name,” said Tom, “He is the PMC”. So we walked up the steps where I am to be introduced to the Officer Commanding and his wife, muttering under my breath “Wing Commander Grant, Grant, Grant” At the top of the steps Tom introduced me to Group Captain Haige and Mrs. Haige. I nervously shook hands and said “Good evening Group Captain, good evening Mrs. Grant”. At my side I felt Tom turn grey. He knew, but I did not, that Mrs. Haige was having an affair with Wing Commander Grant, a divorce was in the offing and, shortly afterwards, she did become Mrs. Grant. Not a good beginning. Well, Grant and Haige, two whiskeys can be confusing.

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