Thursday, November 18, 2010

50. Wildenrath

Wildenrath was a much smaller station than Rheindahlen, our previous German posting, but more friendly and family orientated. Our married quarter was just like the one we had occupied in Rheindahlen, but this one had a huge cellar which was cold and windowless. It housed a boiler, for washing clothes, and was meant to house a washing machine, packing cases and spiders, but Tommy claimed it as his sanctuary.

School, I sensed, was a problem. In my opinion, the teachers in overseas service schools were not the old fashioned, dedicated kind. Like the rest of us, they were transients, and after the excellent school at Bangor, where Tommy respected the masters, he could not settle. Both Jeni and Tommy were highly intelligent and quick to spot mediocrity. Tommy fell foul of the Padre who was unable to discuss, rationally, questions Tommy asked him. As my son began his journey into rebellion, I berated myself for leaving Ireland.
It will seem that Jeni is hardly ever mentioned in my recollections. This is simply because she was so like her father, quietly tucked away somewhere with a book, doing her homework, getting good marks at school, keeping her troubles to herself, and seemingly in control of her life. She was stunningly beautiful and I loved making clothes for her and just watching her grow. It never crossed my mind that anyone could hurt her, or cause her unhappiness, she was our princess who would marry someone wonderful and live happily ever after! Nothing bad could ever happen to my Jeni, because Tom and I would always keep her safe. At least that’s what we thought.

There was an RAF Hospital at Wegberg, a couple of miles away, and there I worked for the Registrar, a very unpleasant young doctor who had begun his medical studies while a prisoner of war. He was short, big headed, stubborn and lacking in compassion. After a few months I transferred to the orderly room at Wildenrath doing boring work, but in better company. I needed a car to get to work and back and, as Tom had a very beautiful blue and white German Taunus, I needed something cheap and economical. Hey Presto! The Pink Blancmange entered my life, so called because she looked as if she had been turned out of a jelly mould. The make escapes me, but she was smaller than a Fiat 500, was like a funfair bumper car with a sun roof, and it could turn on a sixpence. The windows were so low down that people talked to me through the roof. She had two doors, no boot, and space enough at the back for two garden gnomes. She required double declutching. Amazing as it may seem, Tom managed to fold his six foot two inches length into her and when she was hit by a Mercedes at an intersection, while Tom was driving her I might add, the damage to the Merc was thousands of German Marks, while the Pink Blancmange was hardly touched.

The drama society was of a very high standard and although we did not have a beautiful theatre like the one at Rheindahlen, the venue available was adequate and, more importantly, we had good directors. I went along to audition for a role originally played by Joan Greenwood but, although I put on high heels and my most seductive voice, I did not get the part. However, I had made an impression, although not one I had tried to create, because a director came up to me after the auditions were finished and asked me if I would play the Athene Seyler part in “A Breath of Spring”. If you remember Athene Seyler, you will understand how I felt. If you don’t remember Athene then picture Margaret Rutherford, and if you don’t remember her then picture someone very large and extremely unattractive!

But it was at Wildenrath that I reached the peak of my amateur dramatic career. Under a brilliant director I played June Buckeridge in “The Killing of Sister George”. It must have been a pretty good performance because my son confided to his sister that he was afraid their mother was a closet lesbian! In later years, in Bulawayo, I played Mrs. Mercy, another character in the same play, and was surprised when several people asked me why I had not been cast as June Buckeridge (Sister George)? It seemed churlish to say that it was probably because the woman who did play that part was married to the director, but to show how unsuited she was for the role, there were certain lines that she was not comfortable speaking and so they were left out of the script. They were the lines about George keeping some hairs she had found in Childy’s hairbrush in the bathroom and they required the actress to drop her hard butch voice, and become genuinely sentimental, and the actress could not do it. Never mind, I enjoyed being Mrs. Mercy.

Producing plays was a new and very challenging experience for me and I discovered that Jeni was a very talented actress, although she did not enjoy being directed by me because I was a hard task master. I remembered the time when she about five and I had found her standing on a chair, looking at herself in the dressing table mirror, making sad faces until she actually cried. I asked her what was the matter and she said “I don’t know, but I am so unhappy!” She had also acted so well in a school play that I did not immediately recognise her when she made her entrance, as a screaming harridan. It was quite a performance, for someone usually so reserved and quiet.

The children were maturing fast. It was while Jeni was baby sitting for a young aircrew pilot and his wife that she was introduced to gin and smoking. Had I known I would have locked her in her room for a very long time, but I did not know and she has never been able to kick the habit. The smoking I mean, not the gin. Jeni was also becoming more aware of boys and we were somewhat amused one evening when we were driving her, and her escort, to some function, and could see in the rear view mirror that she was trying, accidentally on purpose, to hold hands with the young man and getting nowhere. She did not know, although we knew, that he was gay. Meanwhile Tommy became very involved with a pop group he had put together, was out playing gigs and had also fallen in love. My children were getting into bad habits and bad company and I wished, fervently, that we had stayed in Ireland. This time I had definitely gone through the wrong door.

Tommy and school parted company, and he desperately wanted to go back to England to be near the girl he loved, the pretty little blond daughter of an Army Major who had just finished his time in Germany. He was so unhappy that I could see he could either leave with our help and blessing, or he would leave and try to survive alone. The break had to be consensual and without anger or bitterness, and so Tom arranged accommodation for Tommy in a YMCA in London. One very sad day I drove him to the ferry, suitcase in his hand, guitar strapped across his back and money hidden in his shoes. Like his mother, he was out on his own at seventeen; tears blinded me as I drove away from the dock. We heard from him from time to time, he became involved with a band, made money cleaning restaurant kitchens at night, and sometimes sleeping rough. He had also made some money by painting miniature pictures, on little rounds of cardboard with pins secured to the back, making them into brooches. The pictures illustrated lines from Beetles songs and he made them to order. They were brilliantly done, and I still have two. What he never did was ask for help!

We received an urgent call from a hospital Registrar to advise us that Tommy was in hospital, needed emergency surgery and, because he was under twenty one, they needed our permission to operate. By the time I reached the hospital the surgery had been successfully completed and his sweetheart was at his side. I do not remember where I lodged, but I stayed in London for a few days and before leaving, gave Tommy a photograph of Tom and me to remind him that we loved him, and an envelope containing some money. I told him that he could do whatever he liked with the money, but that we would be very happy if he would spend it on a ticket back to Germany to stay for a while at least. A few days later he was back with us, suitcase in his hand and guitar over his shoulder, nothing in his shoe, bloodied but certainly not beaten. He soon found a job which, as usual, he did extremely well, collected his old band back together and started playing "gigs" at service clubs in the area.  And us?  Well, we were on the move again.

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