Friday, December 31, 2010

74. Italian holiday

The journey from Milford Haven back to Milton Keynes was uneventful. I now realised that the length of time I had planned to be away from South Africa was too long and I did not know how to keep myself occupied. A chilly October morning is not the safest time to gaze into the window of Thomas Cook Travel, especially with a couple of weeks to kill before returning home. Visions of beautiful bodies on golden beaches throwing oversized beach balls to one another teased my eyes. I missed the African sunshine which creates a type of warmth that goes right through to the marrow of ones bones.

Tom, Jeni and I had spent a disastrous camping holiday in Italy long ago. Disastrous because, many years later, Tom developed a nasty “thing” on his nose which the medics could not identify. At first it was treated as a rodent (gnawing) ulcer which was removed by plastic surgery, but still the problem persisted until half his face was disfigured. After much questioning about where in the world he had served and travelled, it was discovered that the very camping site we had used, just a ferry ride from Venice, was the tail end of the region inhabited by a particularly nasty parasite. This insect infects humans and animals, and many men infected while serving in these specific areas during the war had died as a result. In fact there are 60 000 known deaths recorded annually. Tom had been bitten and the infection had lain dormant for years. Gruesome it was, and the treatment required was so drastic that it nearly killed him. The disease is called Leichmaniasis, after Dr.Leichman who had isolated it, and a great deal of information is available about it on the Internet

During this same holiday Jeni and I had visited Rome and the Vatican City, Tom preferring to laze back on the camping site being bitten by parasites. The extreme wealth of the Catholic Church has always bothered me. Visiting a little church in Tenerife once I saw, under a glass dome, a small statue of the Madonna. Diamond rings hung from her fingers, strings of pearls were draped around her neck and gold watches lay at her feet. She looked highly embarrassed and very uncomfortable. The glass, the statue and the jewels were dull and dirty. A bent little old woman in worn black clothes came and made the customary bob towards the altar, then paid for a candle and knelt to pray, her feet were bare. My instinct was to smash the glass dome, sell the jewellery and get the poor old lady to a chiropractor and buy her some decent shoes.

I don’t think it is possible to count the wealth contained within The Vatican. The thousands of unread books behind locked glass doors must contain all the wisdom in the world and they should be translated and published for all to read and not locked away. The ceiling of the Sistine chapel had not yet been restored when we were there, but even so its beauty was dazzling. The treasures in the Vatican must be preserved for all time as works of art; it is the cost of the pomp that bothers me. It is so far removed from Christ and his example of simplicity. It is the above the theatrical extravaganza I associate with the Coronation, the Trooping of the Colour and the opening of parliament. Jeni’s bottom was pinched in the Vatican. It was the venue, not the assault that surprised her. Florence was cleaning up after disastrous floods when we visited one church. A priest walking up and down rattling a box for donations reminded me of a Father Christmas standing outside a departmental store in New York in December. Of course I will give a donation, magnificent historical buildings cost a lot to maintain, but I will give it discreetly, and on my way out, not to some portly priest rattling a box under my nose.

But all that had happened many years ago and was forgotten, and the girl on the poster did not look as if she had been bitten by anything more lethal than the bronzed Adonis waiting to catch the ball. She was having a lovely time; the sun was shining, so why not give Italy another chance.

The travel clerk assured me that the Don Pedro on the island of Ischia was very popular. The brochure was printed in English; there were beautiful views with dinner, bed and breakfast offered at a reasonable, all inclusive rate. What I have found in my travels is that the most expensive, essential item is bottled drinking water, especially in hotels where there is no other source of supply. At my grandson’s wedding I drank only water, thinking to keep the bar costs down, only to find that the most expensive item on the final account was bottled water, and I bet a pound to a penny that much of the water charged for came out of the tap. Every hotel should have its own water filter system and water should be free. But, to return to Italy.

The Italians had organised a general strike to commence at 0900 hrs on the day of our scheduled arrival in Naples, the Pilot wished to arrive before the airport closed and so the flight was brought forward by two hours and we boarded at 0400 – repeat 0400 hrs. I don’t think I have been up and awake that early since the children were weaned. Breakfast was served at 0500 hrs. Unlike other nauseating airline breakfasts, this one was extremely good. At 0500 hrs. most self respecting stomachs would be daunted by the sight of vegetarian sausage, omelette, potato, tomato and savoury sauce, brown roll with butter and marmalade, blueberry muffin, peach melba yoghurt and coffee, but my stomach is not easily daunted. It works on the theory that there is no such thing as bad food, only badly cooked food. Oh! I forgot the orange juice. Fortunately the weather was clear and there was no turbulence!

We landed gently and afterwards, with immigration and customs all behind me, I was surprised to see all the other jolly holiday makers from the plane, getting on to one coach, leaving me behind. Did they know something I did not? Apparently so. After a while a Charlie Chaplain look-a-like greeted me with “Signor Winter?” I nodded. “You will please to come with me?” So I was the only passenger going to the Don Pedro. I wonder where all those other folk were going. Charlie stowed my case in the back of the minicab while I climbed into the front. As we drove off, I enquired where the slot for my seat belt was located. Taking both hands off the steering wheel and waving them in the air he said, “Ah, do not worry, in Italy it does not matter.” It might not have mattered to the Italians but it mattered to me. I clung to the dashboard and my seat and almost to the driver. His only concern was to get me to the docks and the ferry boat before 0900 hrs. My only concern was to arrive there alive. Although it seemed that all the drivers were madmen they were in fact very skilful, because as Charlie told me “Here there are no rules!” No rules indeed, only very loud motor horns. One would expect every car to look like entrants in a stock car race, after the race has been completed, but they were surprisingly dent free.

There were two types of ferry boats, the upmarket Hydrofoil which reached Ischia in fifty minutes, and the rusty old tub waiting for me which takes the best part of two hours and has no below deck seating. The clock struck nine as the ferry pulled out of the harbour and away from the General Strike. The coastline was quite lovely and we passed lots of pretty islands and a huge American aircraft carrier. The sea was choppy, the wind fierce and very cold and the deck was like a roller coaster. Mercifully, my 0500hrs breakfast stayed firmly anchored. The most interesting passenger was a big black scruffy canine who fought a valiant battle to stay upright on the rolling deck, capitulated and anchored himself behind wooden bench. People commute between Ischia and Naples daily and the ferries run as frequently as a No.14 bus. There was a snack bar on board and I made the mistake of ordering an Espresso coffee, which turned out to be about 100 mls of black sludge in the bottom of the smallest paper cup I have ever seen. Why did I think that Espresso was drinkable with frothy stuff on top? Well, we learn something every day.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

73. Milford Haven

The journey to Milford Haven should have been pretty straightforward. Tommy (my son) was to meet me in Milford Haven where we would be joined by the few remaining members of Tom’s family for the scattering of Tom’s ashes. At Bristol the train indicator showed that the next train due was for Milford Haven and, sure enough, it stopped at the platform and in the driver’s front window was a board marked “Milford Haven”.

There were the usual announcements made by someone whose adenoids had been forcibly removed, so that his voice would be suitable for making inaudible announcements through poor loudspeakers, but as everyone was pushing and shoving and climbing over me and my luggage, I just dragged myself aboard. Half an hour later the ticket inspector checking tickets looked at mine and said “You shouldn’t be on this train. This train is going to Manchester”. “But the board on the front showed Milford Haven” I replied, once my jaw had resumed its usual position. “I can’t help that. Didn’t you hear my announcement? You should have listened; it was for your benefit.” I was beginning to feel like part of a comic double act. “Yes, I did hear some sort of garbled message, but I did not take any notice since the board ------What shall I do now?” “Well, you’ll have to get off at Abergaveny, go back to Bristol and start again from there.” Since only two carriages had been uncoupled at Bristol, and since there was the possibility that one or more of the passengers in those carriages might have been hard of hearing, I thought it might not have been too much for the conductor to have gone through the two carriages before leaving Bristol to check the tickets.
There must have been some radio communication between trains because an oncoming train and this train made an unscheduled stop so that I could transfer back to Bristol. The Ticket Inspector must have regretted his abruptness with an old lady because he picked up my case and hurried with it over the bridge and checked that I was alright before rushing back over the bridge to his own train. The new train was packed with university students on their way to Bristol University. There was not an inch of space for my suitcase in the luggage area and no one, but no one, tried to assist me. Finally I asked a very large student occupying two seats and oblivious to the world outside his walkman, to please move over so that I could sit down. A carriage full of uncouth youth. The youth responsible for our future. Oh, I am so lucky to be in my eighties!

When Tommy had made reservations for us via the Internet to stay at The Kings Arms, he had no idea that this was situated at the end of Point Street, where Tom was born and lived until he left to join the RAF. Nor did he know that this was where his father had drunk his first pint, and the many more that followed it. Trawler men would gather at The Kings Arms to talk about catches and life in general, after spending weeks at sea. The life of a fisherman was extremely hard and the wages meagre, especially if the weather and the catch had been bad and the bonus poor. Before the Japanese and other factory ships plundered the seas, the trawlers would go out for up to three weeks at a time, the men spending eight hours on deck, four hours sleeping, never changing their clothes, with barely time to eat. I used to wonder why Tom’s father sat at the table with his forearms wrapped around his plate of food. Then I realised that it was the habit at sea, to stop the plate from slipping away as the ship rolled. Between trips all the men wanted to do was bathe, drink and sleep with their wives.

Life for the women was also very hard, there was barely enough money to feed the children and kit them out for school. Fortunately there was always plenty of free fish to eat, in fact at one time there were no fish shops in Milford, and frozen fish was unknown. Wages were much higher during the war, but then so were the risks. Superstition decreed that the wives never washed bed linen, or clothes on the day the men went back to the sea, because it was thought that they were washing all trace of the men away and they might not return.

It is not surprising that Tom had no idea how to be a domesticated husband and father; he never had a role model to follow. I never knew Tom’s mother, she died shortly after we met, but I am told that she was a very kind, gentle woman but, strangely, Tom never spoke of her. I always had the feeling that he found talking about the family difficult, he and his father were in no way close.

The row of fishermen’s cottages where Tom was born, and the little corner store, had been demolished some years before, and nothing had been built in the space. It felt strange, standing on the flattened rubble that had once been his home; along the back wall could be seen the remains of the old fireplaces. This was the place to which Tom had brought me as a bride fifty six years ago. Milford Haven was now a depressed area, the once busy fish market had gone, the trawlers had gone and the life had gone out of the docks. There was now little fresh fish available, the housewives had to buy frozen packets in the supermarket. Believe me, it tastes nothing like the fish that came fresh off the trawlers.

Tom’s cousin, John, had written to me suggesting that Tom’s ashes be scattered around Milford Docks where Tom and his friends had played as boys. This was a lovely idea, but what I did not know was that John had arranged for the pilot of the new Coast Guard launch to take us out to sea. I had hoped to do the “scattering” on the 8th of October, our 56th Wedding Anniversary, but the launch could only take us out on the 6th. Nor did I know that another of Tom’s cousins, Adrian, and his wife would drive all the way from Swansea for the occasion. They had not been to Milford for fifty years, and had to return immediately afterwards, so I was very moved by their presence. Tom’s half brother, Jock and his wife Doreen were not fit enough to board the launch but they were driven to the landing stage where they could see us leave and return. Jock has asked if he might hold the box containing Tom’s ashes so that he could say a quiet prayer over them before we left. He was very sad because he had loved his two younger half brothers dearly and both had now died. To cheer him up I had brought for him a bottle of Glenfiddich malt whisky, Tom’s brand of choice, and I had wrapped this in teddy bear gift wrap with a little card on which I had written “To Jock from Tom. Have a drink and smile”. Meanwhile, Doreen was sitting in the back of the car wondering why Tom ashes were wrapped in teddy bear gift wrap but, knowing how Tom loved teddy bears, thought it was a quirk on my part. Not until Tommy handed her the undertakers unwrapped wooden box did she realise that Jock was saying his prayers over a box of whisky. Tom would have been pleased that Jock had got his priorities right!

The new launch was state of the art, full of complicated technical equipment - radar, radios,etc - and with comfortable seating above and below for about twenty people, so they were equipped for quite a large rescue operation. The pilot eased her away from the dock and we headed out towards the heads. The sea was choppy and the sky overcast. There were ten passengers, everyone was talking about Tom and the mischief the cousins had got up to in the old days, and what had happened to them all in the years between, and the atmosphere was quite light hearted. The pilot asked me if there was any particular place I wanted to stop and I told him I just wanted somewhere far enough out so that the ashes would not be washed ashore. He manoeuvred the launch into the wind and cut the engines. Someone asked if I would like them to say a prayer, and I said that anyone who wished to say a silent prayer might do so. My own private, unspoken words remained in my head. Someone had brought flowers, carnations and chrysanthemums, and as I shook Tom’s ashes into the sea the flowers were thrown in one by one. It was a quiet sad moment. Jeni had been with me when Tom died and now Tommy had travelled from Germany and was standing beside me. I felt very blessed. No Funeral, No Flowers, No Fuss. Sorry, darling, but this was for us!

John had said that he would like to have a notice put in the local paper about Tom, and this is what they printed.
“MILFORD MAN’S DYING WISH GRANTED. A Milford Man’s dying wish was fulfilled on Sunday 6th October when his ashes were scattered in Milford harbour. Tom Winter was originally from Hakin, but after joining the RAF during the war, he emigrated to South Africa. He died in South Africa recently but his last wish was for his ashes to be scattered near his childhood home in the harbour. His wife travelled the thousands of miles from South Africa by cargo boat, and his son came from Germany for the ceremony. The family would like to thank the Port Authority for taking the family out on tugs to the heads where the ashes were scattered.”
It was a good story but, once again, never believe what you read in the press. Tom did not emigrate to South Africa after the war; he served in the Air Force for over thirty years. Travelling on a cargo boat, not a container ship, sounds as if I had to work my passage because I could not afford the air fare (perhaps they thought I did a bit of stoking) and as far as his dying wishes were concerned, the ashes could have stayed at the crematorium, or gone into the garden to make compost. But it was a good story.

Tommy and I stayed on for a further week and it felt quite strange being with him, because sometimes I felt that I was with Tom, although they do not look very much alike. But Tommy is big and very huggable, like Tom was in his younger days. It was a very precious week, full of memories of the holidays we had spent in Milford when we were all young. Jock and Doreen both died shortly afterwards, and so the ties with beautiful Pembrokeshire are now broken.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

72. Getting lost in Milton Keynes

I could write a book just about getting lost. One afternoon in Milton Keynes I decided to go for a little walk around the houses to look for the Post Office which I knew was quite near. I spied a lady walking her dog and asked her if she could direct me there and she said that she was going that way, so I joined her. At the post office we parted company, but not before my new found friend had pointed vaguely towards a short cut home! FATAL! “Go down past that hedge until you come to the main road, and then turn left. I don’t know the way well, but it should take you back to the roundabout where we met”. I wanted to cling on to her pleading “Don’t leave me!” but she was gone.
If you have ever been to Milton Keynes you will know that it comprises hundreds of small ‘villages’ all exactly the same and all running into each other. Between every six or so villages a lake is thrown in with a few ducks. All very pretty if you are driving through in a comfortable car, not so pretty if you are hobbling along on sore feet, and I was wearing sandals, not walking shoes. After an hour or so I saw a man cleaning his car and asked if he could direct me. He looked at his road map, pointed in several directions while making the not very comforting remark that “It’s a long way from here.” A South African man would have said “Hop into the car, I’ll take you.” But this was England and maybe people were suspicious and unwilling to jump into people’s cars.

I kept on walking while the blisters that had formed under the soles of my feet burst and were squishing around in my sandals. I was lost in a deserted jungle of bricks and tarmac. The sound of cars drew me to the motorway where I could see, in the distance, a large shopping centre and a petrol station. Walking now on tiptoes, I defied death by crossing the motor way at a point where no sane pedestrian would venture, and finally reached the petrol station. A young lady kindly telephoned for a taxi which was supposed to arrive in ten minutes. Ninety per cent of the taxies in Milton Keynes were driven by Asians and, half an hour later; a turbaned, bearded man drove in to pick me up. After the incident in Germany when I got lost in the cemetery, I never go out without some form of identification and the address where I am staying, so I handed the driver a card on which was printed Helen’s address. Surprise, surprise! We were only two streets away! I looked at the clock and saw that I had been walking for almost three hours.

And then, as promised, I returned to the Cotswolds. The Patient, I now realised, was a serious tippler, starting on the gin at around 10.00 hrs and all things considered, I cannot say that I blamed her. She could also be extremely rude and impatient with the staff, though not with me. My first job was to share out the linen, much of which had been ruined through being starched, folded and ironed flat. Over time this causes the threads on the folded edges to dry out and break, so much of the hand embroidered, fine Irish linen was useless. Not many people know that starched linen should be hand folded, not ironed. Many of the pure wool blankets had provided holiday homes for numerous moths and were also spoiled.

It took three days to sort and divide the library; The Husband had many rare and valuable books inherited from his first wife; lucky man, to have married two rich women. I helped out in the kitchen, kept The Patient amused and generally made myself useful and kept the butter flowing; plenty was needed because the atmosphere was tense. Unfortunately, one evening The Patient was extremely rude to Maureen in my presence, the rebuke was undeserved and uncalled for and I was very embarrassed. Maureen left the room and I followed as soon as was politely possible. She came to my room later and asked me to make some excuse to leave in the morning, two days before my visit was due to end, so that she could walk out at a minutes notice if she deemed it necessary. So, after breakfast I went into The Patient’s room to say my goodbyes. She apologised for her behaviour the previous night, but I said the apology was due to Maureen not to me. She then asked the nurse to bring a packet she had prepared for me. It was a very large, very expensive bottle of perfume.

Maureen asked The Husband to replace her as soon as possible, and said that she would be leaving at the end of October, when the move was completed, regardless. He then became kindness itself, told her to write herself a glowing reference, said that she could use the car to attend any interviews if necessary and even paid for her to consult a physiotherapist because lifting the patient had caused a great deal of damage to her back. They must have realised that they had treated her very badly, wrecking both her back and her spirit. I think the final insult was that they replaced her with a black Zimbabwean nurse aid, a lazy lump whom they had previously dismissed for stealing, at a higher salary than Maureen had been receiving! There just isn’t any justice.

Maureen stayed with the Patient until they had moved house before sending an S.O.S.. Helen had just returned from a business trip to Spain, and had driven from Heathrow to Milton Keynes, when the call came, but she got back into her car and drove out to rescue Maureen and all her belongings, including a new mattress. A large car can be very useful sometimes! I cannot remember how long Maureen stayed with Helen, but I think it was well over a year before she found her own place.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

71. Scotland

Do you remember my writing about Denis Read, the man Tom enlisted with at Lords Cricket Ground in 1942? They were being trained as Air Crew in Canada during the war and I think a good time was had by all there. Stories of unlimited ice cream and apple juice, girls and beer, never told to me by Tom, were later related by Denis. After the war they had served together in the Provost Branch, both eventually becoming Commissioned Officers. Denis had a beautiful speaking voice and used to give the commentary for the RAF Police Dog Display at the Annual Royal Tattoos at Earls Court. After Tom died, Denis was very solicitous with his telephone calls from Scotland and when I told him that I would be in England he invited me to stay with him for a few days.

Denis had been widowed twice, both wives dying of cancer. I had accepted the invitation with slight trepidation because we had not met in fifteen years and I wondered what we would have in common and what we would talk about. I had joked that we might not recognise each other and that he had better wear a yellow rose and carry a copy of the Times. The plane landed at Edinburgh Airport and there he was, complete with yellow rose and a copy of the Times held rather pointedly in front of him, like a courier with a board. I would have known him anywhere. I was the one who needed the label! We laughed as we greeted each other with a slight hug that was just once removed from a handshake. He was shorter than I remembered but the smile and the voice were unchanged.

Broughton on Bigger, where Denis lived, was a great deal further from the airport than he had led me to believe and we drove past miles and miles of magnificent scenery. Hundreds of sheep - some dyed with vivid red, yellow and blue - grazed lazily in the fields. This was colour coding with a vengeance, and the sheep were visible even against the hills which were covered in bright, purple heather. Unfortunately, the heather was too far away to pick even a small bunch, but the sun shone down to bless us all. This was John Buchan country where his mother was born and where he spent much of his life. We later visited a church in a village near where Denis lived which had been converted into a centre devoted to John Buchan, the man who became Lord Tweedsmere, Governor of Canada. Many photographs were displayed there, certificates, testimonials, medals and books. He was far more than just the author of “The Forty Nine Steps”.

Denis was a charming host and his bungalow, set at the bottom of a steep slope, was cosy. I worried about the dangers of that slope in winter, when the path to the front door would be covered in ice. The bathroom was functional with something I envied, a heat controlled geyser which served the shower. I was reminded of the lovely reply made by a very attractive elderly widow when asked why she had never remarried. “My, dear” she replied, “There have been many men with whom I would be happy to share my bed, but never my bathroom!” I agree. Bathrooms and kitchens should never be shared, unless the man is holding a drying up cloth.

That evening Denis took me to a delightful restaurant where the ceiling was supported by 17th Century smoke blackened wooden beams. “The Bakery”, as it was called, was heavy with history and atmosphere which was reflected in the menu. Rabbit was available. Now I had three memories of rabbit, other than Beatrix Potter’s endearing little creatures; the first memory was of the huge, Australian rabbits I used to buy in Egypt, the second of the night before our wedding when Tom and I went rabbit shooting with the Wing Commander and the third, not quite so funny, was the time when the wife of a farm labourer I knew came to the house in Netheravon and handed me a present. It was a very dead rabbit, complete with head and ears and eyes, and it had not occurred to her that I would be unable to skin the animal. But, money was short and this was food, and I amazed myself by skinning it, mostly with my eyes closed, and making a very fine stew. Even after that gory experience, I still enjoyed rabbit; much preferred the texture to that of chicken. I cannot understand why rabbit is so expensive when it is so easy to grow.

The following day, Denis drove us to a very unusual theatre in Pitlochry, a two hundred mile round trip away, and a journey only an ardent thespian and generous host would tackle. The theatre is not located in a town but in beautiful park-like grounds with a river running through it where, in the season, salmon swim upstream to spawn and die. There was a salmon catching farm there and we watched the salmon swimming through the running water. Considering we were in Scotland, the weather was perfect. Unfortunately the only matinee programme being performed during my short stay was an Agatha Christie play “The Hollow”, which was entertaining but not memorable. After the show we walked along the river looking for leaping fish bravely trying to swim upstream, but did not see any. We went back to the theatre tea room which was empty by now apart from one lone actor. I thanked him for an enjoyable performance, actors like that, and we got talking. When he learned that I came from South Africa he asked me if I knew Sandra Prinsloo. Well I had seen her on the small screen, she was a fine actress, but I did not know her personally. He said that she had worked with the company while she was visiting her mother in Scotland, and he thought she would not be returning to South Africa. Certainly, I have not seen her on our television screens since that time

Broughton was a tiny village which one could drive through in thirty seconds at thirty miles an hour. The Post Office opened for a couple of hours in the morning, and doubled as the petrol station. The gardens were full of birds and the air was so clear and clean one could actually smell it. The most striking feature in the village was “Tom’s Garden”, where the owner spends almost all the daylight hours. I would guess it covers about four acres. The first thing we saw from the garden picket fence was the huge flower clock, actually set at the correct time. Standing on a tree stump by the little gate was a tin charity collection box into which visitors were invited to drop a donation. Behind a dusty window, in front of a dirty net curtain, hung a piece of cardboard on which was written the amount of money that had been collected over the years, and the charities to which it had been given. The unchained collecting box was an indication of the character of the village, and the villagers. When the horticulturists from Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town were visiting the Chelsea Flower show, they made a special journey to Scotland to see Tom’s Garden. Tom also grew vegetables and I was delighted when he asked the old lady who was with us, “Aye, Dorothy, would you no like to pick a wee boiling of beans?”

In the evenings Denis and I sat by the fire, talking about old times, old plays, old RAF Police buddies and his favourite topics, his much loved first wife and his adored little dog who had died recently, and about whom Denis was compiling an album of his life in pictures. Some times Denis just dozed. Towards the end of the visit Denis suggested that, should I ever decide to return to live in England, we might consider sharing a house; strictly platonic of course, and for one moment I thought it might be a good idea, but the moment passed! On Saturday we bade each other a fond farewell after promising that I would return the following year. I was very sad to leave Scotland, the peace, beauty and tranquillity of the land and the people had cleansed my soul and lightened my heart. The departure of the plane was delayed for an hour, so I consoled myself with the biggest double scoop of the most heavenly chocolate ice cream that I have ever tasted, and all was right with the world again.

Friday, December 24, 2010

70 The Cotswolds

As we drove home I looked at my little Helen-Melon, my blued-eyed, fair-haired, baby girl and wondered how, barely thirty, she had become this beautiful, sophisticated, successful young woman holding an executive position with Daimler Chrysler!

I spent two days with her before she drove me over to the Cotswolds to stay with my sister, Maureen. It was a four hour round trip, which I thought was pretty valiant of Helen after a hard days work. And what was Maureen doing in the Cotswolds? Well, I must explain at this point that after George, Maureen’s second husband, had died in Stellenbosch, she had moved from South Africa to the U.K. to work as a carer or companion. She found employment as a housekeeper, secretary, companion and chauffer to a very wealthy woman, hereinafter called The Patient, who lived in the Cotswolds. Also employed in the house was a cook, a one day a week cleaner (totally inadequate), a part time gardener, a doggie walker and a fulltime, live-in nurse. So, properly run and with everyone doing their work conscientiously, it should have been a very nice post. The house was a beautiful 17th century mansion in a village in the Cotswold, set in massive grounds with a tennis court and overlooking farm land as far as the eye could see. There were at least eight bedrooms, servants’ quarters and goodness knows how many other rooms. The property was larger than that of the Marquis of Reading. The problem was that the day after Maureen moved in, The Husband moved out to go and live with his girlfriend in an adjoining village. So, now there was no-one at the top and, as the new girl in the house, Maureen could not start issuing orders.

On hearing that Maureen’s sister was visiting from South Africa, The Patient had very kindly invited me to stay with them. My guest bedroom had a magnificent view and a huge en-suite bathroom. The Emperor size bed was fitted with hand embroidered pure Irish linen sheets and virgin wool blankets, covered overall with a silk eiderdown. There were priceless ornaments and pictures everywhere. For the first two mornings Maureen brought me a cup of tea, followed by a breakfast tray laid with the very best china. This could not be allowed to continue because Maureen was working very long hours and looked utterly exhausted.

It was clear that Maureen had been “conned”, or mislead to say the least, because she neither worked the hours agreed, nor did she perform only the duties specified. Sometimes she would be the only person on duty and had to attend to all The Patient’s needs, including lifting this very large, dead weight woman on and off the commode. I noticed that the commode would always be required as soon as the cook, a strapping healthy country woman, had gone off duty. The live-in nurse worked from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., was allowed two days off per week and any other time she could sneak out to join her friends in the local. Maureen worked from 7.00 a.m. (letting the dogs out) until The Patient went to bed after 9.00 p.m. When The Patient visited friends for lunch, Maureen had to push her to the car in a wheelchair, get her on board, fold up and lift the wheelchair into the boot, and repeat the procedure three more times. Sometimes she would be offered a sandwich in the hostess’s kitchen while she waited for the lunch party and the game of bridge to finish.

Maureen did not know that the house had already been sold, to a very famous person – my lips are sealed – and another property had been purchased for The Patient to live in, also in the Cotswolds. Moving would be a mammoth task. The Husband would want everything he could get, household stuff would have to be divided, pictures and valuable furniture would be auctioned, while The Patient sat immobile in her chair. In spite of all this, I was made to feel very welcome and I spent a great deal of time talking to her and she seemed to enjoy my company. I helped sort out and pack some of her books ready for the move, but there would still be the massive library for me to deal with when I returned, for I had promised to do so after a visit I had planned to Scotland.

The Husband was most extraordinary. Mr. Charming, in artificial chunks, and the cook and cleaner positively swooned when he was around. Although he had officially moved out, he still called almost daily, sometimes eating lunch with The Patient and buying her cheap bottles of wine, while taking the best from the cellar away with him. One lunchtime The Patient fancied a particular vintage wine, so Maureen was told where to find this bottle, and was then instructed to soak the label off the bottle so that it would not be seen in the refrigerator. Considering the money in the family belonged to The Patient and the wine was paid for by her, this subterfuge seemed silly. The Husband would often bring friends to play tennis and would tell Maureen that there was to be no washing on the line when they arrived! The washing line was about half a mile away from the tennis court!

We went to see the house into which they would be moving in October. It was awful. Instead of the magnificent views The Patient had enjoyed for years, her new living room and bedroom overlooked a wooden fence. The small, long garden could not be seen from the house, the windows were small, the house dark and there was hardly any wardrobe space. The Patient had cupboards and drawers full of clothes, some even from the time when she was presented at court, and Italian handbags and shoes by the dozen. Just before the move a skip was delivered and all those beautiful things were dumped. How I wished I could wear size 4 shoes. The room alloted to Maureen was miserable. The house was a series of converted cow sheds with no architectural design or character whatever, one can convert anything in the Cotswolds and it will sell for millions. The single garage was situated some way from the house, and the driveways were covered in gravel, over which it would be very difficult to push a wheelchair containing a very heavy weight. An added irritation was the fact that The Patient wanted to keep the cook, who lived at least a half hour drive away, and Maureen would be expected to collect and return her six days a week, including her own day off, an extra two hours driving a day, winter and summer, down country roads. The work load was getting heavier all the time. Not only was Maureen doing the shopping, banking, driving, packing and cooking on cook’s days off, she was doing administrative work for the household as well.

Probably because much of the furniture, paintings etc., were going to be auctioned at Christies, The Patient wanted to check her jewellery against the insurers’ inventory. There was a large folder containing coloured pictures of all the valuables in the house, including the jewellery, so Maureen brought the jewels down from the safe to be checked. The diamonds, and there were many of them, did not sparkle at all, probably because they had not been worn for years and needed cleaning. There were brooches, ear rings, bracelets and pendants like I have never seen, not even in a jeweller’s window, and the Insurance value was astronomical. It seemed to me there were pieces missing; we could not match everything up with the catalogue. After about an hour, The Patient became tired of playing diamonds so we packed them all away in the safe. There was not one piece I coveted. I considered myself to be richer by far that this sick, rich, abandoned woman who had little control over her life or happiness in it.

It requires a certain kind of attitude to work for people of The Patient’s social standing and wealth. While not being over familiar, one must accept they are paying the piper and, although The Patient insisted that we be on first name terms, I was on my best behaviour. I can wear many hats, perhaps that was due to my acting experience. Maureen, on the other hand, is quite incapable of insincerity and finds it very difficult to show respect for people she dislikes. She disliked The Patient and The Husband, with good reason. The staff took advantage of The Patient, lazing around and eating any delicacies that friends brought her. I would have thought that cleaning out the deep freeze was the responsibility of the cook but, when I found I could barely open the door, I decided to defrost it. I was reminded of the deep freeze at the B & B in Hampstead. Almost everything had to be thrown away, including a whole fresh salmon. I cannot imagine how that place got cleared out prior to the move. Given three strong workers, and the authority, Maureen and I could have done it, but they must have left a load of rubbish behind. I would like to ask Maureen about the move, but she has closed the door on that part of her life and does not want to talk about it.

After four days in the Cotswolds, I said goodbye to the Patient with the promise that I would return after my trip to Scotland. Helen collected me and drove me to Luton Airport, from whence I would fly to Edinburgh. Why to Edinburgh? Read on.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

69. The Container Ship

Helen was to be married in England in August and I wanted to attend the nuptials. Several people said to me “You should travel on a container ship, we did and it was such fun. Blah blah blah”. My previous voyages on ocean liners had been dismal experiences, but I was prepared to give sea travel another go. I was fed up with flying cattle steerage on British and South African Airways. The Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals would not allow a pig to travel in as little space the airlines allow their passengers. I booked a passage on the SS Winterberg, hoping that the name was a good omen, Winter being my surname. I did not take much luggage since I would be returning by air.   

The driver who collected me from my house had not done his homework and had no idea where the docks were located. He first drove us to the Victoria and Alfred (yes, Alfred not Albert) Waterfront which we circumnavigated several times, stopping frequently to ask anyone who looked remotely intelligent, where the Winterberg was moored. For those of you who not familiar with Cape Town, The Victoria and Alfred is a pleasure / tourist area from whence, on a fine day, one can take a trip out to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC were imprisoned for many years. This unhappy island was, in the past, used to isolate people, criminals and lepers. Now the prison has become a museum and, apart from curators, the only inhabitants are approximately 25 000 rabbits. Perhaps it should be renamed “Bunny Island”

Eventually I suggested that it might easier to locate the docks, rather than a specific vessel, which, it turned out, were miles away near Cape Town’s industrial area. My instructions were to be at the dock security boom by 1500 hrs. where I would be met by the shipping company’s representative. It was 1530 hrs. with no representative in sight and I was afraid the ship might have sailed without me. Silly me! Ships do not run on time like buses or trains, they sail at the whim of the tide and, as it happened, the ship did not leave until lunch time the following day. My driver was only too happy to offload me at the boom, leaving the guard and me alone on the deserted docks. The guard waved his arms in the air and a minibus appeared, carrying six passengers and little room for me and my luggage but, with much passing of luggage over heads and shuffling around, we all squeezed in and were whisked across the docks to the ship. The other people on the bus were not fellow passengers but the mother and relatives of one of the Winterberg crew members on a visit.

As there was still nobody around to greet me I left my suitcase, looking small and vulnerable, beside the ships hulk and followed the family up the gangway and into the engine room. The memories of our flight from Egypt that filled my head did not bode well for the trip. Three tin-hatted men, wearing oily overalls, regarded me curiously, and one of them escorted me through the deafeningly noisy engine room into a very uninviting lift, and showed me which button to press. I hoped my luggage would be safe and that the nice mother would find her son. Stepping out of the lift I looked around for signs of life but everywhere was deserted. It was like being on a ghost ship. Then a tall very good looking coloured man appeared, great big wraparound smile exposing perfect teeth, and extended a large fist while saying “I am the Purser. Call me Stan.” My luggage also appeared and then Stan ushered me through several doors and up several flights of stairs until we reached my cabin where he demonstrated, in great detail, the way to work the electric kettle. I told him that I was electric kettle literate, but he looked doubtful.

The cabin was spacious, two single beds, settee, table, desk, chair, wardrobes, chest of drawers, and a video player which was to be my main companion. A small bar fridge contained a carton of fresh milk and on the table were a bowl of fruit, tea, coffee and a box of biscuits. Ever tried opening a carton of milk with a tea spoon? Thank goodness I had remembered my little Swiss knife set.

Tentatively I opened the cabin door, and peered down the corridor like a burglar casing the joint, and noted that outside the other cabin doors shoes stood in pairs, unfilled. The two pairs at the door next to mine were of the small variety. From the little brochure on the desk I saw that dinner would not be served until 1900 hrs, and so I made a cup of tea and devoured the top layer of biscuits. After unpacking, I ventured out on deck. Everywhere was deserted. The swimming pool, a square uninviting tank, had a large notice displayed informing passengers that swimming was not allowed at night and passengers must not swim alone. Since I only swim in the dark, and definitely alone, I could repack my swimming costume. Ah! I saw two humans who introduced themselves as Bernard and Valerie Manners, Yorkshire folk now living in Spain. Bernard had previously worked in Port Elizabeth for ten years, and they had boarded the ship in Port Elizabeth after visiting old friends. They told me that other passengers had boarded earlier on the run and had gone ashore to explore the Mother City.

The view from the top deck was stunning and there, after a forewarning scream or two, I met five more passengers, Gary and Katie Thomas and their three sons, Russell aged 13, Martin aged 6 and five year old Steven. They were all highly intelligent but Steven had a terrible temper and screamed a lot; just the type of kid I’d like to be alone with for twenty four hours!

Katie and Gary came from Surrey, she made curtains for a living and he was a tiler by trade, although he looked more like a Grammar School teacher. Every year they took the children on an educational holiday. They had been together for twenty years, since they were teenagers, but have never got round to getting married, echoes of “The Darling Buds of May”, they appeared to be good parents and I liked them a lot.

At dinner I met the last of the passengers, Lynda and Guy who lived in Mexico. He was a big, loud mega rich Texan and Lynda was only fifty but looked sixty; I blamed that on the Texas sunshine, cigarettes and booze. They also were not married, at least not to each other. The Captain and ships officers did not dine with the passengers when the ship was in dock and they were all working.

Russell behaved well at table although he looked thoroughly miserable, which may be due to the fact that he was left in charge of his two small brothers a lot, was now bored with the cruise and wanted to get back home to his mates. The TWO attacked their food savagely, stabbing the dinner rolls to death with toothpicks and growling over the meal like two starving dogs. I was amazed at how much mess two small boys could make without actually eating anything. I prayed that once we were at sea and the Captain joined us at table, the children would dine early and alone! The food was good.

Sitting at the bar after dinner, while the TWO raced around the lounge, leaping on and off the furniture, I struck up a conversation with the Texan and Lynda. She talked a bit about “Karma” and “Out of Body Experiences” so I thought we might have some interesting areas of discussion. Lynda told me that I would meet a very nice man, much younger than I. and that I must not push him away because of the difference in our ages but to go for it! Lynda, I am still waiting! Amazing how much clairvoyance can be found at the bottom of a bottle of vodka.

Alone on the top deck I watched in amazement the incredible organisation and coordination required to unload and load a ship. The loading must obviously coordinate with the unloading. It was all fascinating but it had been a long day so I retired to bed. We were due to sail at about midnight and I wanted to watch the ship leaving port, so I was up and down all night looking out of the porthole. Nothing moved. We eventually departed the following day and I missed the departure because we were all at lunch and did not feel the ship move.

Breakfast was the usual gastronomic battle field. The TWO liked an excessive amount of sugar with their cereal which worked out at a ratio of 50% sugar in the cereal bowl and 50% on the table cloth. They pointed slices of crispy bacon at each other while shouting “bang, bang”. I noted that their end of the table had been covered with a plastic cloth, no doubt at the request of the sailors in charge of the laundry. Katie and Barry missed breakfast and poor Russell was again in charge, but he had no disciplinary skills.
We were warned that there would be lifeboat drill at 11.00 hrs. and that we must be in our cabins at that time. Stan came and showed me how to put on my life jacket, and as my cabin accommodated two passengers and there was only one lifejacket I wondered if they worked on a 50% survivor rate. I had already inspected the lifeboats and been surprised to see how few passengers they would hold. The boats seemed quite small; the benches had round circles painted on them with numbers on each seat. I stopped eating immediately, fat people would definitely be thrown overboard and two of the numbered spaces at each end were only large enough to take amputees, supposing they could climb the ladder to get into the boat that is.

We all trooped up on deck and, to add a little realism to the exercise, I had grabbed my blanket shawl and put the seven pieces of fruit from my fruit bowl into a plastic bag, and we waited for ages until we were allocated our places. One of the officers asked if I had any valuables in the plastic bag; I told him that I had my priorities right and that the bag contained food. Then the crew emerged from the boiler room, one VERY fat black man (he would go overboard for a start) and a very pretty, slim blonde girl who would obviously be saved. There were now about forty people present and I made a mental note to bring my Swiss knife with me next time because the fruit would need to be cut into very small pieces.

Stan, the purser, who seemed to think that this old Granny was his personal responsibility, asked the little blonde who was on the bridge? She told him that it was the Captain. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? Isn’t he supposed to go down with the ship? Then Stan asked me what I had in the bag. I showed him. He looked at me in surprise and said “We aren’t actually going, you know”. I swear I heard Tom saying “funny woman!’ one of his favourite sayings - not funny-haha, funny-weird. We were dismissed without ever putting a foot into a boat.

Passengers were requested to remove their shoes before entering the cabins; this was to protect the cabin carpeting from the oil picked up on deck and carried below on the soles of their shoes. So that explained all the pairs of shoes I had seen outside the cabin doors in the corridor. At the time I had thought it unlikely that little boys would put their tackies out to be polished! It was something of a balancing act, trying to undo laces and remove shoes on a rocking ship. Sitting down to do it was easier, but getting up again proved to be something of a challenge.

Quinton was our cabin steward and barman and also helped out in the dining room. He was the happiest young man I have ever met, his bright blue eyes were always smiling and it was a joy to see him. The other dining room stewards were Clint and Edward, one fat, one thin, and there were two cooks and a galley hand who cooked for the passengers and crew. During a tour of the gleaming stainless steel kitchens I learned that the crew ate the same fare as the passengers and when I complimented them all on the cleanliness of the kitchen the chief cook said “It is more than my life is worth to have a case of food poisoning on board”, so I felt nice and safe. Puddings were not exciting, but the cheeses were lovely and, on the nights that the Captain dined with us, a magnificent stilton was served, so ripe it had to be restrained.

For my friends who thought that this would be a romantic cruise, I can assure you that Cupid was no sailor, and so I stopped wearing make-up and just became everyone’s granny, including the Captain’s.

Sometimes I walked around the lower deck, four times round was a mile, but one could not take a brisk walk because there were obstacles everywhere. Steel and electrical cables and iron hoists had to be stepped over carefully. The noise was awful because, apart from the engine and generators, one was walking under the overhang of part of the tower stack of containers. Things creaked! Some of the empty containers must have had large metal balls in them, because as the ship rolled so did the balls, from one side of the container to the other. The ship was a mass of creaking, grinding, throbbing noise and I was pleased to reach the end – sorry, the bow. Here, away from the containers I was standing, arms outstretched, doing my Kate Winslet Titanic impression, when I heard a voice yell, “Wet Paint” I leapt on to the nearest capstan and saw that I was marooned in the middle of a sea of green paint. How was I to know? There were no signs around saying “Wet Paint”. I tip toed across the only unpainted strip and remembered my mother saying “Wherever you go dear, you will always leave your mark.” I don’t think she meant across the deck of the Winterberg! Back in my cabin I noticed that cups and saucers had slid off the table onto the floor and that the cupboard doors and drawers had swung open. One loose drawer opened and closed with the roll of the ship and the curtain across the shower door traversed its runner at the same rate. Quite fascinating.

Heavy rain kept everyone inside for two days, followed by extremely cold and windy weather. There were plenty of videos and books in the library and everyone seemed to be shut in their cabins viewing or reading. In the library I found a corset ripping, historical romance written by the daughter of the widow Mary from MacDonald Gardens. I looked at the photograph of the author and thought, “It was your mother who, indirectly, is responsible for me being where I am today!” There were enough tables and chairs in the lounge to seat at least sixteen, and other tables where passengers could make jig saw puzzles, or play board games but, apart from meal times and sundowners, the place was always deserted. It is my loss that I do not enjoy sitting at a bar at night after dinner, but alcohol does not agree with me and I am uncomfortable in a room full of people. I felt well and truly “widowed” and not very merry about it.

The day we docked at Las Palmas for a few hours, I went ashore urgently to buy a pair of eyebrow tweezers because mine had been left at home. I am a strange person, I can carry around twenty pounds of surplus body weight without caring too much, but a hair on my upper lip drives me insane. Do I hear “funny woman” again? Also I needed to cash some traveller’s cheques so that I could hand out gratuities at the end of the voyage, so I disembarked. The Bank was beautiful, not a security guard in sight, no security doors and everyone looked so civilised, in a Spanish sort of way. I wandered round the streets for a while and then found quite by chance, because the building had only one entrance and no windows, the most incredible department store. The ground floor, easily the size of an aircraft hanger, was devoted entirely to jewellery, watches and cosmetics, all lit so extravagantly that one was almost blinded. There were seven floors in all, kitchenware, electrical equipment and toys, everything one could think of. I finally located a pair of modest eyebrow tweezers, some chocolate and a banana split. I sat in the tearoom playing “spot the Brit”. Incredible how easy it was. I watched two women and would swear, even though I could not hear them speak, that they were from Yorkshire.

Back in the street, taxis were plentiful and, within two minutes of holding my arm up, a taxi stopped. The Purser had given each of us a slip of paper with something written on it in Spanish which we were told to hand to any taxi driver we might hail. I trusted that the card informed the driver where the ship was docked and did not instruct him to take me to the nearest house of ill repute. The man drove like maniac, they all did, and driving on the right hand side of the road made it seem worse. We arrived back in the harbour and I rushed to my cabin and began a plucking session.

Our next stop was Le Havre, a small, quiet dock with very little traffic. A bus came alongside from the duty free shop but I did not board it as I had enough luggage to worry about. We left Le Havre and reached Rotterdam the following day. And I think Rotterdam was the highlight of the trip for me. We had docked in the early hours of the morning and the cranes were already working when I awoke. From the top deck everything going on at ground level looked totally chaotic, but after I had studied the comings and goings for a while I realised how incredibly organised and interlocked it all was. The whole process of unloading and loading was so skilfully done that I could only explain it with sketches and demonstrations. Gary said he was disappointed to miss the docking and would like to see the departure, which was scheduled for about twelve o’clock. I said I would keep watch and call him when the tugs arrived to tow us away. I spent the entire night, hypnotised by the organisation of it all. Every four hours the dock shut down, all the cranes and ‘horses’ parked along the fence surrounding the loading area and everyone went off. The first time it happened I thought a lightening strike had been called, but it was only for a twenty minute break. It was then I realised that all the transport and equipment was controlled by human beings, before it looked as if the whole place was run by robots.

By 0500 hrs it was obvious that the ship was not ready to depart and so I went below to get some sleep. We finally left at midday. Sailing out of Rotterdam was a great experience; it took two hours to reach the open sea. We sailed past hundreds of dreary acres of plastic tunnels inside which tomatoes, cucumbers and maybe strawberries grew. We reached Tilbury the following night and I disembarked at 0930 hrs next morning with many hugs from Stan and lots of waves from the crew, they had done us proud! Farewells to the other passengers were friendly and polite, with no promises to write. There had been nobody there that I would wish to meet again.

A taxi took me to the Seamen’s Mission which, contrary to the name, was quite a grand place, and there I awaited the arrival of my granddaughter, Helen. Tilbury is a long way from Milton Keynes where Helen lived, worked and had been attending meetings all morning. She looked absolutely ravishing and was driving a huge Chrysler Voyager which seated seven comfortably, and my luggage was lost in the boot. The drive home was luxurious indeed. Helen first surprised me with the news that the wedding was off. The whole relationship was off! My journey had not been necessary after all! Of course I had brought that small wooden box, with its precious contents - Tom's ashes - destined for Milford Haven, with me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

68. Goodbye my love

At five o’clock on the afternoon of 21st August 2001 Tom was obviously in great pain and in some distress. An Angel appeared from Hospice, I cannot remember who called her, and she attached a morphine patch to Tom’s chest. He got back into bed, closed his eyes, never to open them again. But he talked a lot, mostly about the Royal Air Force, and kept moving his hands in a restless manner. I wondered if I might hear some loving words of farewell. “I love you darling” or maybe “Thank you for looking after me so well” something like I had seen in the movies. But no!

Tom hoarded things. He never threw anything away, not a piece of string nor a piece of paper. His desk would be covered with newspapers and the only time I could get any of them cleared would be when Sister Lynn was coming to bathe him, and I would shame him into reducing the stack. So I should not have been surprised when his last words to me were “No, Biddy!” “No what, darling?” I asked him. “No, that is this week’s Sunday Times!” To the very end he was protecting his newspaper.

Jeni was there when, at midnight, Tom’s heart sounded its last beat. I cannot describe the relief I felt as all the years of pain died with him. I wept, but realised that right now there were things to be done. Jeni went to make the necessary phone calls, Maureen drove over from Stellenbosch. Sister White arrived and, with the help of another nurse, bathed him. Then I helped them dress him in his favourite pyjamas made of a teddy imprinted warm fabric that Helen had given him for Christmas. His feet were very cold so I covered them with a pair of warm woollen bed socks that Maureen had knitted for him and, because he always had a handkerchief in his jacket pocket, I tucked into his pocket a handkerchief with a teddy bear embroidered on the corner that Juliea had given him. Tom loved teddy bears and had a large collection, ranging from a big Harrods Millennium Bear down to two tiny bears dressed as a doctor and a nurse. The undertakers would soon arrive and the nurse said she thought it would be better for me to go and sit in the lounge and not see the departure. So I kissed him farewell, wished him a safe journey and, sitting on the settee holding Jeni’s hand, listened to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto so that we would not hear the “noises off”. Maureen would not leave Tom; she had loved him very much, and awaited the arrival of “the wagon”. How blessed I was to have been able to care for him to the very end and that he was not alone with strangers.

Long before Tom died he had written down everything I would need to do after his death, who had to be notified, addresses, etc., etc., which, in the event was most helpful. On one page in this book, in large letters, was written “NO FUNERAL, NO FLOWERS, NO FUSS.” And that was the nature of the man; he never wanted to be a bother to anyone and was acutely embarrassed by displays of emotion

The following day Juliea joined us, so there were four women who loved him dearly, laughing about the things he would do and say, turning out the drawers of his desk, reading some of his funny poems and remembering him with so much love. No Funeral, No Flowers, No Fuss. People thought it strange that there was no funeral, not even a memorial service, but none of the friends who really knew him could be there so there was no point. My greatest hope was that, like a poem he once wrote, he was up there with his old mates enjoying a draft or two.

Later my dear friend, Jenny, painted a lovely portrait of Tom’s three favourite teddy bears, having a Teddy Bears’ Picnic and that is his tombstone. It is not something to lay flowers on once a year in a cold, windy cemetery, I see it every day, and it makes me smile. The picture will eventually go to Travis, the little great grandson he never saw.

People think I am quite awful, grieving widows in particular, when I say that every good wife deserves a few years of widowhood! But, I was only seventy five when Tom died, and the women in my family tend to live to a great age, most almost reaching a century, so I had better get a life.

I sold the flat at Cap D'or, it was much too big for me, and bought a cosy two bedroom unit at Somerset Oaks where the people were very friendly, and there was a nice social club. The new flat needed gutting and refitting, and so while all that was being taken care of I went on holiday.

Monday, December 20, 2010

67. Mother moves out.

We had been living in the house facing the petrol station for about a year, when mother announced that she was moving into a block of one roomed flats designed for the elderly. Her reason being, that if she moved out we would be free to do whatever we wanted to do, without having to consider her. We could sell the big house and buy something smaller. There were resident nurses in the flats, a dining room and a bus that took the old folk into town to do their shopping. So she moved into Vonke House where she was lonely and isolated because the majority of residents were Afrikaans speaking and rather reserved. Mother, on the other hand, was full of life, very friendly and loved by all who knew her, but for some reason she did not fit in. In fact, one of the people in the dining room complained that she laughed too much! She was smart and pretty and would never admit to her age. In fact Juliea and I were visiting mother; we were in the lift when it was necessary for her to introduce us to someone. She quickly introduced me as her daughter and Jules as her granddaughter, not wanted anyone to think that she was old enough to be this young woman’s Great Grandmother!

Yes, we did decide to move again, at least I did. We did not need a house with a granny flat and the property was not very secure, from a burglar point of view. I found a beautiful top floor flat in Cap ‘Dor a luxurious block with an elevator and wonderful views. There was a very large master bedroom, with an en suite bathroom; the bedroom was big enough to take an executive size desk for Tom and his television, and it had a lovely view. In fact it was that room which persuaded me to buy the property. Except for George Avenue, the flat was superior to anything we had lived in before, and Tom’s room was so different from his dark, cold little room in MacDonald Gardens where I am sure he would not have survived another winter. In fact, his health improved so much that he served as Chairman of Trustees on the Body Corporate for some time. Mother often spent the weekend with us and we had plenty of visitors; I was involved with a couple of Committees and Clubs and life was pretty good.

There were some interesting people living in the building, those living in the pent house units were very wealthy, but one man in particular caused both amusement and concern. I will call him Charles. He was a large man, in every way. At eighty his passion and sex drive would have made a rabbit blush. His collection of limited edition, French books of erotica were extremely valuable, if not to my taste. He was attracted to me, and used to buy me gifts, which was somewhat embarrassing. He had lived in France for a while and, after a visit there, brought me back a very expensive gold chain necklace from Monte Carlo which I was loath to accept. But he had a temper and once when I refused a box of chocolates, he threw the box across the room! I did not want the necklace to go that route. He and Tom were on friendly terms and, as Tom never went out, he had no objections to Charles escorting me to the theatre, or even out to lunch. Unfortunately Charles thought that, because Tom had been ill for so many years, I would be grateful to have a relationship with him. But he was so wrong! He was a highly educated and intelligent man and I enjoyed talking to him, but that was all.

I once visited Charles in hospital where he was wired up to machines, had a catheter inserted and a saline drip in place. I bent over to kiss him on the forehead and he tried to pull me into bed with him. I was laughing so much as I left the ward that people stared at me. Another time he came to my front door wearing bright red lipstick, obviously expecting some sort of reaction, so I told him the colour did not suit him. Later I found the tester lipstick, which he must have stolen from a cosmetic counter, on his dining room table. This man had been a brilliant engineer who had constructed the sewerage tunnel that ran right under Johannesburg and had been decorated for work done for UNESCO. Sadly, he was a very heavy drinker and there would often be three or four glasses of wine standing around the flat so that there was always one to hand.

The worst episode happened late one night when Charles phoned me, asking for help because some demons were after him. Tom was not happy about my going to the flat alone, he was unable to move far, and I said I could handle the situation. I knocked on the front door which Charles opened wearing only a short vest and brandishing a very dangerous African weapon that looked like a cross between a saber and a hatchet. He was probably having a fit of the DTs. He said he had got out of bed to answer the telephone in the living room and that these “creatures” were all along the hallway floor and he could not get back to his bedroom. I said I did not think the hatchet would be much protection against devils and demons, but I pretended to shoo them out of the way, helped him back into bed, made him a cup of tea and left him, taking the hatchet with me. Next morning he could remember nothing about it.

Then I thought I had upset him because he said he did not want to see me, and kept himself hidden away for a couple of weeks, saying he was unwell. When I did finally see him his face looked like something hanging in a butchers shop. He had undergone surgery for a complete face lift because he was going on a cruise - supposedly to find a wife! The surgeon who performed the operation should have been struck off for allowing this vulnerable old man to undergo such drastic surgery. His face recovered fairly well and shortly afterwards he entered into a short lived, disastrous marriage; -------- but that is a story in itself. He changed from a generous, good looking lady-killer into a pathetic, lonely old man who died about a year later. His two lovely daughters were very concerned and loyal but I don’t think his two sons, both very well known in their professions, had much respect for him.

Mother was staying with us for a few days when I took her a cup of tea. She was lying there, wearing her little frilly night cap which held her curlers in place, and said the words I always dreaded hearing, they were “I’ve been thinking!” Whenever mother had been lying in bed “thinking”, I knew that she had some project in mind and there was work in store for me to do, but on this particular morning she exceeded my worst fears. She had been thinking about giving up her little flat and moving into a frail care home in town so that she could walk to the shops. I went to inspect the home and could see only very, very frail old people sitting round the walls, gazing into space. The rooms had no locks, residents used communal bathrooms and toilets and there was no privacy. I begged her not to go there, she would lose her independence, she would not be able to cook the little meals she liked etc. etc. but her mind was made up. Considerable expense was incurred by all our moves, and I knew Gordon’s Removal Company’s telephone number by heart.

My sister, Maureen was now living in Stellenbosch and so, with her help, new carpeting was laid, TV shelf and TV installed in her new room, we made her as comfortable as possible, sat back and waited. We did not have long to wait. We told her she would hate it and she did. Within three weeks mother decided she wanted to return to her beloved Rhodesia, and so, when she was past ninety she flew back there, leaving me to store and sort out her stuff for shipment later. She did not have the resident’s permit now required, nor anywhere to live, but Jane would sort all that out she said, and Jane did. I only saw her once more, shortly before she died aged ninety eight, brave, feisty and smiling to the end. What a girl!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

66. Back in the sunshine

Tom was safely deposited with Beryl and Mac in Kensington, the furniture dispatched and, against all odds, mother’s Residents Permit arrived in the nick of time. So, I bade the English gloom farewell and headed for Johannesburg where I met up with mother.

Tony had bought me a new end of year, red Opel Rebel for R14 000.00. The boot was a bit small for a folded wheel chair but, as it happened, Tom refused to use the wheelchair ever again. We packed the car and mother got in, eager to begin the longest outing of her life! Tony guided us out to the Cape Town road and waved goodbye. About an hour later we came across a diversion, just my luck. We followed the arrows and, about an hour later, saw Vereeniging on our left, which was odd because it had been on our left coming out of Johannesburg. Hundreds of miles of deserted road lay before and behind us and, as usual, I did not have a road map. Then I saw a car approaching and waved like mad. At that speed it took about half a mile to stop, but I ran towards it. No, we were not headed for Cape Town; we were headed for Johannesburg, the opposite direction. I turned the car round and an hour later we were back at the diversion. Two hours of wasted time and petrol. It was not a good start.

Driving long distances in the heat, on long empty roads through the desert is very soporific and I had great difficulty staying awake. We would stop and I would try to have a doze, but as soon as we pulled off the road I would be wide awake again. It was most distressing, and dangerous. The figures for accidents caused by drivers falling sleep at the wheel must be very high. We reached Bloemfontein by nightfall and I was anxious to find somewhere to stop over for the night, but all the turnoffs, bright lights and traffic rushing by were confusing. A hotel was signposted, so we turned off the main road and followed the sign, but the hotel was at least five miles from the main road, and when we finally arrived the dining room was closed, and we were so hungry! We left at dawn and drove in haste to the first eatery we could find! By the afternoon of the second day, Somerset West finally came into view, and mother was delighted by what she saw. I drove round and round and managed to find the house but I did not have the keys, so we were unable to go inside. One thing I saw disturbed me. I had asked George to get his builder friend to erect a light car port for me but, between them, they had decided to start building a full garage – without Municipality planning approval. Approval was subsequently refused because the end wall was too near the boundary fence, and I was later told the partially built structure had to be demolished. The problem was solved when the owner of the adjacent property signed an agreement that he was not opposed to the garage encroaching on the boundary line. Wheew!

We moved into our new house in 1987 and, taking into account the above items 1 to 15, the garage fiasco, and mother’s fussing to get her rooms altered and redecorated first, it was no wonder that Black Dog was laughing his head off while sitting firmly on my shoulder. I was exhausted, irritable and to my shame, not as kind to mother as I should have been, and there were times when she must have regretted her decision to live with us. Unfortunately she could not see that I was having a break down.

Mother and I used to walk round the area, looking at houses and there was one we quite liked, actually I was just agreeing with her to make conversation. It was not nearly as pretty as the one we were living in, but mother liked it because she could see that the little flat on the side had its own front door. I was in hospital recovering from an operation on my shoulder when mother visited me, bursting with the news that the house we liked was for sale. Tom had been to see it and approved; we could have first option. Had I said anything about wanting to move? Hoping that mother would be happier with her own front door, we agreed to buy it. Blame the decision on the anesthetic. We had only moved in a couple of months when the little petrol pump station in front of us became a full scale BP petrol and service station covered over with a high roof that completely blocked our view of the sea. A small convenience store was added, a video shop and a food takeaway outlet. The food would be eaten by people sitting on the little piece of ground that separated us, and litter would be scattered all around. There were several problems with the house, including rising damp and a sagging roof.

My migraines were getting worse and if I got out of bed in the morning without a headache it was like a holiday. One morning Tom came upon me crying, he put his arms round me and I told him that I could not go on any longer, feeling the way I did. Living was not worth the effort and I was at the bottom of the bucket. We had been married almost fifty years and he had never realized that I had a problem!

Patty Duke was one of my favorite actresses and so when I saw her biography in the library, I borrowed it. The book had been written in conjunction with her psychiatrist and some angel must have put my hand on it. Patty had written about her battle with depression, and I could have been reading about myself. I went to see my doctor, who was a very sympathetic man, and told him that I had known for years that there was something wrong with me, something so awful that it filled me with self hatred. Although I did not drink, I could see my father in myself which had caused me, at one time, to turn all the mirrors to the wall. Now that I had read Patty Duke’s book, I thought perhaps I was not such a horrible person, just a sick one. He referred me to a psychiatrist who asked me questions while he placed ticks in little boxes on a piece of paper. After a while he put his pen down and said, “If by the end of these questions I had ticked 12 squares I would have known that you were in trouble. I have already ticked 15 squares and we have not yet finished the questions. You do have a serious problem”. “Can you help me?” I pleaded. “Yes, I think I can”.

It is a shame that the drug “Prozac” has become an object of humor and derision, because it saved my sanity, if not my life. Three weeks after seeing the psychiatrist I went for a check up. “How are you feeling?” the doctor asked. I replied, “I feel like I think normal people feel.” And that was how I felt for the first time in my adult life – normal. The effort of trying to cover up the condition had been exhausting, now I felt I could start to be myself. That was eighteen years ago, and I have never had a headache, let alone a migraine, since. The Black Dog is dead, long live his mistress!

Friday, December 17, 2010

65. Unexpected visitors

Alice and George McGrath had moved from Bulawayo to South Africa and we had not heard from them for some time, so we were surprised when they telephoned to say that they were in England and would like to visit us for a few days. You may remember that George had used his car to drive Jenny to her wedding. I enjoyed having guests because life was pretty dull, so I happy to see them.

George was a dapper little man, who had piloted Sunderlands during the war. After being demobbed in 1946, and much to his embarrassment, he was spotted by a talent scout and offered work with a modeling agency. Because he had nothing else to do, he decided to go along for the laughs but it became a very lucrative career. He traveled around the world modeling for Norman Hartnell and other famous designers, and also featured in many advertisements for whiskey or any product that required a good looking man wearing a bowler hat, carrying a walking stick and resembling David Niven. Only recently I came across a knitting pattern on which George was modeling the pullover. He also acted in the movies, once with Sammy Davis Jnr. and featured as Elgar in a BBC documentary. George was one of the men who had surprised me with his unsolicited “advances” and who, years later after both Tom and Alice had died, confessed his dream that if we were both widowed would “get together”. Sorry George, no chance!

Alice was quite the opposite of George, very large, very loud, very outspoken, and very unattractive. A mismatched couple, brought together at the age of sixteen by an overly energetic fumble behind the school bicycle shed. They had three more fumbles making two sons and two daughters, but it was not a marriage made in heaven. Alice was a business woman at heart and resented George paying agents fees for his work, so she started her own, very successful, theatrical agency in London. Not only did she collect her agent’s percentage from George’s fees, she was also able to keep tabs on him because he was very attractive and had an eye for the girls.

Now, there they were on the doorstep. As soon as Alice stepped through the front door she said “What on earth are you doing in a cold damp, place like this? It will be the death of Tom!” Well, the house was cold and damp because there was no central heating and no open fireplace, but we were very glad to have it thank you very much! “Why on earth don’t you come back to Africa?” I explained as politely as possible that: -
1. I had a very sick husband who needed constant medical attention.
2. We had no money to buy a house in Africa.
3. We did not have resident’s permits and were unlikely to get them.
4. We would have no medical cover in Africa.
5. We would lose all the allowances we were at present receiving plus the care received at Halton, where Tom was having a course of gold injections which seemed to be helping his arthritis.
Also, there was mother to consider.

The idea of returning to Africa, albeit it to South Africa and not Rhodesia was tempting. We would be nearer Jeni, although Tom could not live in Johannesburg because of the altitude, but the whole idea was impractical and could not be done. Oh, again, those fatal words. We enjoyed their stay, then they said “Goodbye!” and they returned to sunny Somerset West in the Western Cape.

On their return George sent us cuttings from the local newspaper, advertisements from Estate Agents, which suggested we could buy a decent house for the Rand equivalent of fourteen thousand pounds, or less. One morning I stood looking through the window at the Union Flag hanging limply in the mist, and thought about Mary in her bed sitter in Southend. I made a cup of tea, sat down, reached for pen and paper and wrote to South Africa House. I stated our position honestly and asked if, under these circumstances, we might possibly be considered as residents. I did not mention that we had a daughter living in Johannesburg, not wishing her to be responsible for us in any way. Within a week an envelope full of application forms arrived, but the more I thought about moving again, the more ridiculous the whole idea became. Tom was confined to bed and most days I was feeding, shaving and bathing him. He could barely walk and only went out in a wheelchair. On the other hand, an endowment policy had paid out and, with three years savings added, we had about twenty thousand pounds in the bank. Tom’s RAF pension was reasonable, the exchange rate would be in our favor, the cost of living in South Africa was lower and our old age pensions would be due in a couple of years. If a door opens, at least just peek behind it.

Tom had a small desk in his bedroom and I left the application forms on it without comment. Although not a word had been said, a week later I noticed that the forms had been completed! On Tom’s next “good” day we had our chests X-rayed and the result, plus completed forms plus photocopies of just about every document I could find, were sent to South Africa House. Six weeks later our permits arrived with instructions that we must take up residence within three months. I wrote that we had planned on visiting South Africa first, to look at property etc., and would probably not be ready to move for six months. They replied to the effect that once issued, a permit could not be issued again, and suggested that if we take up residence while we were on holiday, we could then come and go as we pleased. A month later we flew to Johannesburg to stay with Jeni and Tony before going down to Somerset West to stay with George and Alice. We almost took off without Tom because I had left him in the care of a ground hostess as an assisted passenger. All the other passengers had boarded, the engines were turning over and still no Tom. Then I heard someone knocking on the window of the emergency exit and there he was, sitting on top of a platform waiting to come in and all we could see was his face. It was the funniest sight. The hostess opened the emergency door and let him in, to the cheers of the passengers!

Because Tom’s breathing had not been affected too much by the high altitude on our previous visits to Johannesburg, we had no reason to think he would have a problem now. But the emphysema had progressed and the lack of oxygen not only affected his breathing, it also seemed to affect his brain; he was terribly ill and I was terribly frightened. The doctor told me to get Tom down to sea level as quickly as possible which we did, with great difficulty. Meanwhile, Tony had taken our passports to be endorsed with the resident’s stamp, so when Tom recovered I told him that he was now a South African resident. We were met at Cape Town airport by George and Alice and as we neared Somerset West, and I saw the mountains to my left and the sea to my right, I said “That is where I want to live.” I was reminded of Ireland and Cyprus, two places where I had been very happy.

The McGrath’s house was big and old with high ceilings and wood floors. George said to me “You can stay as long as you please. A couple of weeks if you like”. A couple of weeks, in which to find a house and organize a new life? These were the people who had persuaded us to travel all this way and we had rather counted on a slightly longer stay. I did not realize it at the time, but Alice had the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which accounted for her strange behavior. Actually, a week was too long for Tom. Alice had a breathing problem and, quite understandably, would not allow smoking in the house, so Tom was living in a disused servant’s en-suit bedroom in the garden. The advantages were that he could smoke in there and I could keep him supplied with whiskey. The disadvantage was that the place had just been liberally fumigated and the residual fumes were causing him great discomfort.

Within days I had found the house I wanted. It looked like an old English cottage, with three bedrooms, large dining room, huge lounge, two bathrooms, small kitchen and a couple of rooms at the end, with an exit to the garden, which would suit mother very well. I was sure she would want to join us, and the price, a snip at the equivalent of fourteen thousand pounds. In England we could hardly have built a garage for that! Tom definitely felt better in the warm sunshine. He said, “If that is what you want, buy it.” As I said before, he always trusted my judgment on the big issues, so we began the complicated negotiations.

At this time mother was visiting my sisters in Bulawayo. Yes, she said, she would love to come and live with us in the Cape. We discussed the details and it was agreed that, as I would be packing up immediately upon our return home in a week’s time, there was no point in her returning to England. I would pack her belongings and ship her stuff over with ours. As for her residents permit, well I would sort that out too, all I had to do was go down to her house in Thundersley and try to find all the necessary documents. Jeni would be her sponsor and guarantor. “You will never get it all sorted out in time,” they said. Just watch me.

I worked out the logistics: -
1. Tom and I would return to the UK while mother stayed on in Bulawayo.
2. I would go down to Thundersley, break the news to my aunts that mother would not be returning (that was very hard) and pack all her stuff.
3. Find her papers and apply for her Residents permit.
4. Book the movers to pick up Mother’s furniture and boxes from Thundersley before arriving at Leavesden to do likewise for us.
5. Take Tom to stay with Beryl and Mac.
6. Ask Tony to buy me a car (he could get me one cheaper through the trade).
7. Arrange mother’s flight from Bulawayo to Johannesburg.
8. Sell our car.
9. Fly Heath Row to Johannesburg.
10. Drive down to Cape Town from Johannesburg with mother, a two day trip.
12. Mother and I to stay with George and Alice until the furniture arrived.
13. Take over the house and sort out the legality of it all.
14. Take delivery of furniture and settle in.
15. Meet Tom at Cape Town Airport.
All quite simple, really!

The most difficult part of the project was getting the money transferred for the purchase of the house and finding father’s Death Certificate for mother’s resident’s permit application. I had written to the DHSS asking if I could buy the wheelchair, as Tom was leaving the country. They replied that I could keep the chair without charge, but I must understand that they would no longer be responsible for its maintenance. I thought that was so sweet. I had intended asking them to send me, on a regular basis, a can of air for the tyres, but no matter!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

64. Watford, and lost in a graveyard

All the moving around had been exhausting for Tom, but I think he was pleased to be back in England. One huge advantage to living in Hertfordshire was that we were only about 45 minutes from RAF Hospital, Halton where Tom could get all the medical treatment he needed, free of charge. I was also familiar with Watford from when we had lived in Bushey Heath. It looked like the ideal location, we could afford the rent and the tenure was secure.

It was disappointing to find that the other residents were not very sociable. All the men were disabled to some extent, and I thought that would make for a close community, but we were back in England and everyone was shut in for the winter. Bob, a retired Major, and his wife Rose lived next door and they were friendly. I used to play Tile Rummy with Bob, but he did not like being beaten and became morose when he lost. Rose was a very sweet person who needed a great deal of gin in order to make living with Bob bearable, and many were the bottles I smuggled in to her, reminding me of the time I used to make secret deliveries to the owners of the sweet shop in Edmonton during the war.

Thundersley was near enough to visit mother for the day, but the M5 was being built and there were many hold ups and diversions. I visited mother at least once a month and, as there was a good coach service, she often came to stay with us for a few days. It was while we were out walking in the snow, during one of these visits, that she said, “I am so cold! I really don’t want to leave my bones in this cold country.”

After six months we were re-established as UK residents and became eligible for various Social Security benefits, Unemployability Allowance, Mobility Allowance and I received a Carer’s allowance, which struck me as strange that I should be paid for looking after my own husband! But as Tom had been paying income tax on his pension all the years we were away, and continued to pay his Social Security contributions, I felt we had some entitlement. He was also given a wheel chair, nothing fancy but the wheels went round. So we settled down and Stan and Rachael, who were now living in Kew, sometimes came to stay at weekends, as did Beryl and Mac. Denis Read visited whenever he was in the area. A big advantage to being in England was that Tommy visited us. Apart from a couple of stop-over visits on our way to and from England, I had not seen him for fourteen years. On his first visit I met him at Watford station. He emerged with long hair hanging below his shoulders, a big floppy hat on his head and little John Lennon glasses on his nose. My first reaction was, “dear God, did I really give birth to that”, but I hugged him and said not a word. I should have known he was just winding me up and as soon as we arrived home he removed the hat, and the wig came off with it!

And mentioning stop-over visits reminds me of a funny story. We were visiting Tommy in Germany, just for a couple of days, and had booked into a small hotel. The night of our arrival, the couple in the next room were having a blazing row that seemed to go on all through the night; it was all in German so I had no idea what it was all about. However, in the morning they were making up with much enthusiasm, squeaking bed springs and gasps of delight – I think. I was tempted to bang on their door and shout “FIRE”, but I did not know the word in German. I went down to breakfast and as Tom was not well enough to go out I decided to go for a walk on my own. It was Sunday, and the Germans take Sunday very seriously, they dress in black and visit their dead. Flower sellers sit at the entrance to the cemeteries doing very good business. I find cemeteries fascinating and I came across one not far away, so I decided to walk round it and that was when I saw a little chapel so I went to look inside. But it was not a Chapel, it was a circular viewing room and enclosed behind glass were the coffins of those soon to be buried, with notices saying who they were and the time of burial. Two women were looking through one of the windows and talking in hushed voices. I went over to look and there, sitting up in the open coffin, a book in her hands and little metal spectacles on her nose was a very small, very dead old lady. Details of the burial were on the window. The viewers spoke in German so I could not understand what they were saying but I guessed it was something to the effect that “Dear Gertrude always did like a good read”.

Then came the frightening part of the day. I had not realised that there was more than one entrance to the cemetery, and I did not go out the way I went in; I had walked some distance before realising that I was lost. Not only was I lost, but I did not know the name of the hotel where we were staying, nor the street. I was not carrying my passport and spoke no German. I walked miles getting more and more agitated, until I thought I recognised the florist’s shop that was near the hotel. I have been lost before, but not in a foreign country where I could not ask for directions.

Another frightening “lost” story was when Helen and Jules came to visit us. I arrived at Heathrow to meet them and long after all the passengers for that flight had cleared customs, they had still not arrived. Then I was paged, went to the desk and was told that the girls could not come through because Helen’s passport had been handed to a ground hostess in charge of a minor who was now on her way to Australia! That took quite a bit of sorting out, but the 'lost' incident happened when I took the girls for a picnic in the nearby woods and could not find our way out. Helen has an uncanny sense of direction and she kept saying “It is THAT way, Biddy,” while I was trying to work out our position according to the setting sun. It was almost dark and, inwardly, I was starting to panic so I said “OK girls. We will follow Helen and if she is right I will give you each a pound.” She was right, it cost me, but it was worth every penny.

But, back to Macdonald Gardens where we settled down, prepared to see out our days, in spite of missing the sunshine and the family. The houses were built around a circle of lawn and nice garden which was maintained by the oddest man I have ever met. He was about sixty, bent over, terribly thin with a pointed nose that ran uncontrollably and who, in the summer, would garden in very loose fitting jockey underpants. He was the most unsightly, most talented gardener I have ever known, and he not only had a wife but a girl friend as well! We paid him to work in our garden which he kept supplied with beautiful plants free of charge, so we had the most magnificent display of dahlias, the colours were quite dazzling. I always remember one tip he gave me when he saw me watering the seedlings. He said “Don’t water them, let them make roots first”. And I have just remembered his name, Mr. Dempster.

Watford had changed a great deal since last I had shopped there. The outside market was now all undercover and there were far more Asian stallholders than before. The Watford theatre was still open and, as before, I enjoyed seeing many of the pre-London shows there. The difference between then and now was that I now had a bus pass!

Across from us lived a dour ex-army chap who, every morning, apart from during the very worst weather, would raise the Union Flag on the pole opposite my front door, and every evening he would lower it. One morning the flag flew at half mast because one of the residents, an ex-Naval Officer, had died. He was a war casualty in his seventies, paralysed and blind. It was the aftermath of his death that upset me. Mary, his widow, had lived in the house for more than twenty years, and all her friends and her charity work were in that area. She received a letter from the Officers’ Housing Association advising her that the house was now required for another disabled officer and that she must move to a block of bed sitters, near Southend ,which was designated for officers widows. Now in her seventies, not only had she lost her husband, but she was about to lose her home, her friends and everything that was familiar to her. Over the next few weeks I helped her to pack and then drove her to her new home, followed by the removal van. The building was bleak, facing the road with no surrounding garden; the room was small with a minute kitchen and bathroom. No one was there to greet her; not even a booklet giving her basic information, she did not know where the nearest shops were, where to find a doctor or where to catch a bus,. Everything was strange and bewildering. The furniture was unloaded, I made the bed and unpacked a few things, and stayed with her as long as I could, but I had to get back to Tom, and I left her sitting on her bed, looking absolutely bewildered; I cried as I drove away. Was that her reward for looking after her war disabled husband for so many years? Was that to be my future before very long? The following morning I looked out of the window as the flag was raised to greet another grey day and knew that a plan would have to be made.