Wednesday, December 15, 2010

63. Bluebird and looking for a nest

The son-in-law of one of my ranch friends was a pilot with BEA and spent some time in England between flights. He agreed to find me “a nice little runner” which would be left at Heathrow in the aircrew’s parking lot ready for my arrival. I collected the keys and found the car, how I did this with all my luggage in tow I do not remember, and the “nice little runner” was a Bluebird, whose manufacturer I do not remember but it was more of a dead duck than a bluebird. This was in 1983 when the Vehicle Licensing Department was not as strict as it is today. Bluebird had once been a very nice, top of the range car, but now she was badly rusted and obviously ready to retire, or fall to pieces, and she was certainly not the Bluebird of Happiness! She started reluctantly, as if to warn me of things to come. I had been driving in Bulawayo for the past fourteen years where there were probably ten sets of traffic lights in the whole town, and five of those on the main road. Five cars stopped at a set of lights constituted a hold up!

Now, I was preparing to drive from Heathrow Airport to Thundersley in Essex, the place of my birth, without a road map or the slightest idea which way to go. My sense of direction is minimal, I can barely find my way out of a paper bag without a road map, and this paper bag was major. In fact to this day I do not know how I got there. I do remember going round and round one roundabout about six times with taxi drivers honking at me like mad and a policeman regarding me helplessly as I went round and round, too scared to take any of the off roads, not knowing where they were leading!

In Germany I always lost my way after visiting Stan and Rachael and the only way I could find my way home then was to follow the signs for Wippertahl Zoo and the overhead railway. Once at the Zoo I knew my way. Trying to find my way to a particular hyperama in South Africa, where a television my mother wanted was for sale on “special”, I stopped at a garage to ask for directions. The man looked at me totally bewildered, walked me outside and, pointing into the distance, said, “You see that range of mountains over there? Well, it is on the other side of them”. I tell you no lie! I could go on, but I think you have the picture. Later that day, much later, I found my mother’s little house in Thundersley. Two activities always bring me out in an unladylike sweat, one is losing my way and the other is screwing cup hooks into a hard piece of shelving. There used to be another activity, but that was a very long time ago.

Where to start looking for accommodation? Buying was out of the question, what little capital we had was frozen in Zimbabwe and even if I could get it out it would barely buy a garage – and I don’t mean one complete with petrol pumps. Daltons Weekly was read from cover to cover and it seemed I would have to look in Lincolnshire, or somewhere in a farming area, for anything affordable to rent. I looked in the “Lady” for a live-in domestic post. Most of them wanted a couple, with the husband doing the gardening and odd jobs. In the peak of fitness Tom was never a gardener, and could not even mend a fuse, so that was out. The hours of work and dog walking some people wanted in exchange for use of small bungalow were, I thought, excessive.
One advertisement caught my attention. The Marquis and Marchioness of Reading wanted a mother’s help. They lived in the Cotswolds, had a toddler and a baby expected within days. I telephoned, arranged an interview and was invited for lunch. How to dress was a problem. If I was to have lunch with them there might even be a butler, or at least a maid serving at table. I wanted to look like a cross between a lady and a Norland Nanny. It was a very tricky journey from Thundersley to the Cotswolds which comprises a mixture of hidden little villages, so of course I got hopelessly lost and arrived an hour late, apologising profusely. What a charming couple! He was dressed in tennis clothes, she highly pregnant wearing a duffle coat. The little girl was a sweetheart although still in nappies. Her ladyship said “We saved you some lunch”. I hoped the butler was not too annoyed at my spoiling the lunch arrangements. We walked in through the back door and into a huge kitchen which was in total disarray with washing and ironing forming colourful mountains. I sat at the big kitchen table where the Marchioness herself served me with a cold potato in its jacket and a slice of spam. Not a butler or maid in sight, let alone a silver salver. It was obvious that the poor girl needed help. Most of the houses in the Cotswolds are either the original manor houses, or beautifully converted labourers’ cottages, occupied by the wealthy, and there are not enough cleaning ladies in the area to service them all.
Their house was an original old manor house into which the family had only recently moved. The massive main hall opened up to the roof with a huge minstrel’s gallery running around it. On the floor, leaning against the walls, were dozens of ancestral oil paintings waiting to be hung and everything was in disarray. The house would be impossible to heat in winter. We walked through the hall, up the grand staircase to the minstrels’ gallery and then climbed a short, steep flight of wooden stairs to view the staff quarters. These were situated up under the eaves of the house where the sharply sloping roof was so low that Tom would have been unable to walk through the rooms other than down the middle. High up in the living room wall, too high to see through, were two little windows. The central heating did not work and we would have to buy gas cylinder fires to warm the place. A great deal of work would be needed to make the place comfortable.

The Marquis was very interested in Tom’s background and thought he would be able to find him some work to do in his office at home. They were such nice people, and I would have been happy to work for them but once Tom had climbed up to the flat I don’t think he would have got down again, and the thought of carrying everything up and down that little staircase and out through the house was a bit daunting. I thanked them for the offer, and hoped the new baby would be a boy.

A couple of years ago I was looking at a copy of “Hello” in the hairdressers when I came across a wedding photograph. Ringo Starr’s sister-in-law had married the brother of the Marquis of Reading, and there were the Marquis and Marchioness, with their two grown up daughters as the bridesmaids. So the second child had been a girl, too. However, I just looked them up on the internet and I see that a son was born about two years after the second girl, so the title is safe. They won’t remember me, but I have never forgotten their kindness, and the fact that they gave me a cheque to cover the cost of my petrol and a picture postcard of the house.

I had written to a housing association for retired officers, something I should have done before I left Zimbabwe, and was told that there was a flat vacant at Tunbridge Wells, and to phone Admiral X who lived in the other flat in the converted Victorian house and he would give me the key. Well, from titled gentry to Admirals, we were really mixing with the upper class. I took mother with me for the outing, mother loved ‘outings’; just open the car door and she was into it like a terrier. Now, how do we dress to meet an Admiral? Hat and gloves would be over the top, so I settled for a suit with sensible shoes.

We left home in plenty of time, Thundersley to Tunbridge Wells is quite a distance and I had to allow at least an hour for getting lost. I found the house and nervously rang the bell. It was opened by a tall, handsome, distinguished looking man wearing slippers, unpressed trousers and an old pullover with a suspicion of weetabix down the front. His wife stood beside him, hair uncombed, wearing a bright yellow cardigan, buttons missing, held across the front with a large safety pin. I was so pleased I had not worn a hat! The flat was on three levels, with very steep stairs in between. The windows in the main room, which looked out on to a large, neglected garden, were at least eighteen feet high and would have cost a king’s ransom to drape. Short curtains I have made and hung by the dozen, but these windows were beyond me. Regretfully, I refused the flat on the grounds that Tom would not be able to manage the stairs. I did not add that I was not prepared to clean yet another dump.

Next I went to Lincolnshire where property was available for rent. I leased a furnished house in East Dereham owned, strangely enough, by an RAF Flight Lieutenant who was serving overseas. It was pretty dirty, the plaster was pealing off and redecorating was long overdue. So I cleaned all the carpets with a heavy machine, and gave the all clear for Tom to join me and for our household effects to be shipped and put into storage. I liked the surrounding countryside and Bluebird was holding together, which was just as well because I would have to get to Heathrow, find Tom and drive back to Lincolnshire.

I did learn something at that house. If you want to avoid doing a lot of washing up, have a minimum of utensils. I had a basic survival kit, two cups, saucers and plates, two knives, forks and spoons, one mixing basin and one saucepan. You cannot make a big pile of washing up out of that. We had been in East Dereham a couple of months when the RAF Housing Association offered us another place, this time it was a little bungalow in a complex of twelve dwellings for disabled ex officers, and by now Tom was definitely disabled. The complex was called MacDonald Gardens, situated at Leavesden, just outside Watford. The owner of the house in East Dereham would not release us from the rental agreement, so we continued to pay rent until the end of the lease. I thought the owners could have been a bit more co-operative, considering he was also RAF and could easily find another tenant. However, I think he came from somewhere in Jamaica, and perhaps they think differently there.

Tom stayed with Beryl and Mac in Kensington for a while until our furniture arrived. There were three bedrooms and so I bought an extra bed to sleep on, wardrobes, a cooker, microwave and a refrigerator. Pickfords delivered our stuff, curtains were hung and the place made reasonably comfortable, and then I drove to Kensington to fetch Tom. Beryl and Mac were living in Kensington not because they were wealthy, but because Mac was the gateman at Kensington Palace Gardens.

And here I would just mention that one night, when Tom and I were staying with them, Mac received a call from one of his friends in the Special Branch, to say that Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh were just about to leave the French Embassy, and would be driving through the gate any minute. Beryl and I rushed out to the gate and saw Her Majesty drive past in her illuminated royal car, flag flying from the bonnet. We were the only people there and she turned and gave us a most beautiful smile and a wave. She is really so pretty in the flesh, not at all like her grumpy looking photographs. It surprised me that the inside of the car was all lit up, making her an easy target, and I could not help but compare her escort, of two policemen on motor bikes, to the Mugabe cavalcade that nearly drove me off the airport road in Bulawayo, with the dozens of outriders, escorts with headlights blinding and sirens blaring. I had heard from other people who had met Queen Elizabeth how pretty and charming she was, and I was very thrilled to see her for myself.

And the Duke? Not one of my favourite people, not since he visited an Air Force Base where Tom was Security Officer and designated to be the Duke's escort. Tom stood beside him most of the day and he also introduced him to a number of men in his unit and never once did the Duke acknowledge his presence or say “thank you” at the end of the visit. There is a photograph somewhere of Tom standing next to the Duke, they were all in civilian clothes, and the Duke is bending over, looking at the tie worn by one of the men - it was probably the RAF Police tie - while Tom was wearing the rebel Rhodesian tie on which was embroidered the Zimbabwe bird!

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