A postcard view
[Although we didn't quite see her in this light]
Leaving India was unreal. I was aware of what the country meant to me but there was such a feeling of shock; it was all dreamlike. Life seemed to drift along with me with it. My letter home was short "Do not expect me to look just the same as I as I did in England. I am older, greyer and my hair is not staying in."
I had brought the large tome of Romain Roland's "Jean Christoph" to read but did not start to read for a few days. It was to be an unexpected rest cure and was so different from my journey in the other direction that seemed a lifetime away. Last time, energy seemed endless, now, there was no inclination to start a lending library or a ship's newspaper, it was almost an effort to follow the routine of doing very little. As far as I was concerned, I had the only book on the ship.
Exercise consisted of walking round the deck. It was surprising how quickly everyone took to doing it clockwise to avoid bumping into people going in the other direction.
A most terrible reminder of the war was the merciful provision of chairs on the shady starboard deck which were provided for the returning prisoners of war. It is almost impossible to remember them without a clenching the teeth and eyes to hold back the tears. Skin tight drawn across the skull, skeletons with taught skin across the bones with huge knees and elbows joining the sticks of arms and legs; pelvis huge and bowl like. Small wonder that we walked on, eyes ahead.
"Ashamed of me Sparky?" I pulled up and looked at the row without recognition and again the almost mocking "I expect that I look a bit different." This time I saw the lips move. Perhaps memory has been kind because I can never recall his name but we had chosen to sit together in ground studies on my 'Wings Course'. At his savage insistence I felt every bone of his spine through his stomach. He said "How come you are going home so soon?" The words that I was being invalided home stuck in my throat. He was already tired.
A letter home dated 11th Oct 1945 was written from The Red Sea (to be taken off in Alexandria) mentions the same old glassy sea, the heat and the fact that I had finished reading "Jean Christoph". It was a very good read, a thinly disguised character study of Beethoven, a great book which helped to drag the pieces of my life together. I was still in love with Sneh but much troubled by the twists and turns of our relationship over the last six months or so. I was so very aware of her feelings of insecurity which I thought to be the reason for her continually flirting with the idea of us splitting up. There had been many times when she seemed to be determined to make life for us impossible only for us to continue as though nothing had happened. The last event in The Taj Mahal Hotel had left me feeling completely hollow and thoughts about our future ended in limbo. I had remained perfectly faithful to her in spite of many opportunities that had been offered; all thoughts attenuated to negation.
My life on the way home was as empty as it had been full on the way to India. There was the ceremonial throwing of all pith helmets over board as we quit the Straights of Gibraltar and there were many who had lugged the things around for years for this just this purpose! After Gibraltar spirits of everyone on board were rising on the anticipation of meeting loved ones. My own feelings were mixed on that respect. India had become a home for me and my parents had been under intense pressure from the bombings and flying bombs as they were right in the firing line being on the south coast within a hundred yards or so from the sea.
F/Lt Al Mann, a Canadian pilot who became an Air Fighting Instructor on the same course as I, had just arrived in England and I had arranged for him to come down to "Timbers" (my home). Perhaps I was funking being enveloped by family and wanted a member of my R.A.F. 'family' to 'buffer' the effect.
"Timbers", and the northerly facing back lawn
We were alongside in Liverpool in no time but no one was allowed ashore, two Red Caps at the gangplank saw to that. I just had to get to a phone. I waited until the Red Caps were replaced and by some miracle was able to get to my tin trunk and change into blues. Everyone else was still in tropical kit. Instead of hanging around and asking to go ashore I borrowed a clipboard from the Adjutant's office and boldly passed the two guardians of the gangway, gave them a curt nod and walked off. Quickly round the end of the building and, joy of joys, a row of public telephones but I had no money! In those days one inserted the money and on hearing the other end pressed button "A" and the connection was complete. If the call was not answered, press button "B" and the money was returned. Children would always press button "B" on the off chance of getting some small change.
My first button "B" brought a shower of small change. My mother answered and told me that she had an appointment in London, in Harley Street on the morrow. Quick instructions, jotting the address and time on my clipboard and back to the ship where I kept my head down.
The train pulled in to Liverpool Street station on time as they always were and I hailed a taxi, which set me down in Harley Street. At the same time a huge American Packard car with its gleaming vertical radiator grill drew to a halt about fifty paces away. I was irresistibly reminded of the prohibition gangster films. Two people got out. They were my parents! Rosy cheeked, plump, my mother in furs, my father in an impeccable suit.
I took it all in and hated them. I had been worried about them in that festering jungle, so yellow with taking 'Mepacrine' against malaria that my underclothes were stained with yellow sweat even the whites of my eyes were yellow. I was emaciated and run down; swallowed my feelings and shook hands with them. That is all that one did in those days --- no unseemly emotion. It would not have surprised anyone had I clicked to attention and saluted. My father and I sat in the car and chatted about this and that until my mother returned, when we drove home. I sat in the back feigning sleep while I tried to drag everything into perspective. My sister was to join us on 48 hours leave from the W.A.A.F. to celebrate my homecoming.
My first question was for my trusty old Ford Prefect. My mother just looked at my father who said "Afraid we have used her quite a bit old Chap. Never mind, we shall soon get you fixed up with something." It finally transpired that there were five motor vehicles for a family of five but my mother did not drive. There was garaging for three cars so there was always the odd one 'at the nursery' or in the back yard.
Cars, of a sort were available but petrol was a problem. Thus, my poor old car with its low consumption was the one always used as a runabout and looked very tired. I must admit to being rather prissily shocked that there was no sign of rationing. Dad must have been up to his old tricks. The weekly round of going out after dark loaded with tomatoes, mushrooms etc: Returning with a triumphant face with butter, sugar, meat, etc: Enough for several families but much would be given away over the week. Nothing was wasted. This habit of scrounging or barter had been learned by him in 'his' war as all soldiers scrounge and that war saw him buried alive by a shell in the ghastly shambles of the Somme.
He would spread his arms wide in feigned innocence and say "Who loses?"
"I produce hundreds of tons of unrationed food for the nation and give some to my friends." Tomatoes were in short supply as were mushrooms and whilst I was away he had bought a complete mushroom nursery in Lindfield, about thirty miles away to augment those grown 'at home'. A few mushrooms could make a meatless meal a pleasure.
My sister arrived looking well and happy. We were called into the kitchen where my father said. "I have been waiting for this day for years, the family is complete again." So saying he produced a bottle of cognac with a tattered label hand written in beautiful 'copper plate' and a cork buried in a mass of green sealing wax.
Real Napoleon Cognac! My mother produced the brandy glasses and we cracked off the sealing wax. The cork was reduced to crumbs so the contents were filtered into a decanter.
"Cheers Everyone.. Cheers!
God! It was awful! The alcohol was gone. The remainder tasted as though rotting straw had been soaked in it!
It was as though everyone had been told the punch line of the joke but there was a ghost at the party. I had promised myself not to be the first person to mention her and although no one had breathed her name; Sneh was at the back of everyone's mind.
I had to go to Insworth Gloucestershire to be accepted back into the R.A.F. and from there to Halton Hospital for Tropical Diseases.
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Edward Sparkes ©2001