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.

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