Chapter 4 The Return of the Hero
Little by little the war news became less depressing. It seemed to take a very long time after the D-Day landings, but the day came when Paris was liberated by the Allies, and then the Rhine was crossed and progress through Germany was talked about by the adults. Most of this passed me by. Nowadays I cannot believe how I could have been oblivious to these momentous events. I think we children had become anaesthetised to the news, totally blinkered. All I was aware of at the time was a certain lightening of the oppressive gloom that had been the prevailing mood everywhere.
Then came the momentous news that the war in Europe was to end on 8th May. Plans were laid for a mammoth street party on that day. Carefully guarded supplies of goodies were plundered. After all, peacetime would surely bring an end to rationing? Wouldn’t it?
From my seven-year-old point of view, it was all a dead loss. The excitement and anticipation turned for me to deep disappointment. The day before the party had been particularly hot, and as I walked home from the ‘bus I felt increasingly weird, having to sit and rest on the low pebble-dashed garden walls every few steps. By the time I eventually made it home, I was delirious, and was put to bed in broad daylight with the curtains pulled. It seemed to be my fate to miss all the treats by being ill – this time with heat-stroke. So I can only tell you by hearsay about the unheard-of luxury of sardine sandwiches, cakes and jam tarts, jelly and trifle. I still seethe with resentment at the memory.
Of course we expected that the service men would be coming home soon – although the war in Asia was still going on, surely they didn’t need our Dads any more? But no, the peace-time dragged on with rationing just as difficult. That year we had a glorious summer after a very snowy winter. We could play outside without fear of bombing raids or traffic dangers. Sylvia had the idea of putting on a sort of jumble sale in the garden to raise money, and with neighbouring children, we set up a stall in our garden full of rubbish from our toy boxes, old comics, crazy drawings. After five years of war, the pickings were not exactly rich! Crookedly painted notices appeared on the front fence and the gateway to the back garden: to the sale. Prices must have been very low – the farthing, a quarter of an old penny, was still in circulation. We didn’t sell much. And then Mum came home from shopping. Boy! Did she go mad!?
‘What do you think you’re doing? What must the neighbours think? Blah, blah, blah. You must give every penny back.’
‘But we can’t Mum, how do we know who bought what?’ Sylvia was for once on the defensive.
‘In that case, the money must go to the Red Cross.’
I was so disappointed not to get my share, but not really surprised. And I was secretly gleeful because it was Sylvia who was getting it in the neck rather than the usual guilty one – me of course. I was a horrid child. We were made to make another notice
the sale made four shillings and threepence ha’penny for the Red Cross. Thank you.
to replace our hopeful one from the morning.
Completely over my head, devastating stories filtered out of the appalling scenes as the allies relieved the concentration camps throughout Europe. We children were, thank God, anaesthetised from such horrors.
A dull, grey, debilitating period followed, as we suffered from ever more meagre rations, and the absence of our menfolk from life in damaged London. It wasn’t until late in 1946, more than a year after VE day, that we heard the exciting news that at last Dad was being demobbed.
We learned that meant de-mobilised, ie the end of his career in the Royal Air Force. He was sent home with a shoddy demob suit in which to face civilian life (and stringent clothes rationing) again. During the war, we had referred to any good meal or treat, as being like “a rich family in peacetime.” Now we were to learn that peacetime wasn’t going to be much different from wartime – treats were few and far between.
Sylvia and I and all our friends spent days preparing banners and bunting and Welcome Home Dad posters to decorate Colbourne Way for the return of the hero. We did him proud. Mum made a cake, using pulverised parsnip to sweeten the icing. It was something of an anticlimax when he finally did come home – exhausted, in pain from severe rheumatism contracted from the damp conditions under which he’d been living, and – I realise in retrospect – depressed at his loss of status as Sergeant looking after a group of men, all with a common purpose.
What was worse, gone was the smiley, jokey Dad of the brief leaves he’d enjoyed. He was determined to change the free and easy discipline we had enjoyed with only Mum in charge. He was horrified to discover that we’d been allowed to read at the table during mealtimes, that our table manners had ‘gone to pot.’ He introduced a cane to the dining room which was used to rap us over the knuckles at the least infringement of genteel behaviour. He instituted a system of stooge days, where my sister and I took it in turns to do all the ‘stooge’ duties such as clearing the table, washing the dishes, or cleaning all the shoes. For a while, life for us children was hard, and we wondered why we’d longed for his return.
Little by little, life returned to normal – though it was some years before we saw the end of rationing. Dad’s rheumatism was diagnosed as osteo-arthritis, and a medical board agreed that it was caused by his war service. He was invalided out of the RAF for good – instead of serving as a reservist like most others – and awarded a tiny pension. He went back to work at the bank, and for some while he was shunted about from temporary job to temporary job, before finally finding his niche as number two in a big City branch. Slowly the depression lifted and we regained the lovely, silly doggerel-writing Dad of old.
…..maybe I will continue this: Tilly wants a happier ending
….. later, there’s a post-war memoir here: https://vivinfrance.wordpress.com/war-memoir/post-war-memoir-the-river/
I enjoyed all of this, but can’t get the post-war memoir for some reason. BTW, we had two spells at Aunty Hilda’s, once from the ordinary bombs, and then from the doodlebugs. Uncle Bim was so suspect of our private education that he was sure we would be behind his school children. The very first morning after we had arrived the night before, he beckoned me into the school to sit the exams that had just started. To his embarrassment, I came top, but he marked me second “because of my handwriting”. Like you, I went from capitals to cursive writing, which probably accounts for the fact that I have never had a good hand. As you explained, Uncle Bim was so scared of promoting nepotism that he was always very hard on us – I frequently had the cane, and also had to wear a dunce’s cap and stand in the corner. The time you descibed when I had mumps and had to stay in bed, I amused myself by waving at a boy I could see sitting at his desk – our room overlooked a classroom. Suddenly, I heard steps up the stairs sounding like a wild animal, and in came L’oncle, as I called him, wielding a cane on my backside, in spite of the mumps. I remember how cross he was with me for falling into the cesspit while trying to follow-up his chickens, and only realised much later that his relief was so great that I was o.k. that it turned to anger. The water with which he hosed me down was icy cold, and he didn’t allow me to go indoors for ages. But the sliding on the ice in the playground when it was freezing was one of the joys of my childhood, and probably the most activity of an athletic sort that I ever had.
We had a fortnight at Aunty Hilda’s the year before, in the summer holidays, but I kind of telescoped the two periods into one. Try here for the postwar one: https://vivinfrance.wordpress.com/war-memoir/post-war-memoir-the-river/ though I think you may have read it, as I remember you correcting the year we went to St Bernard’s