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.

No comments:

Post a Comment