Monday, 12 December 2016

After The War....Forlorn Reminiscenses of Fathers Returning

My father did not feature in my early childhood and existed only as the photo on the wall, handsome, smiling, in his army uniform. Every night at bedtime I had to blow him a kiss. I knew that children had real fathers of course because even in wartime some still did; most though had what I suppose we would now call virtual fathers and that seemed a very satisfactory arrangement as far as I was concerned. He had been in the Eighth Army and his war was spent variously in Italy, Sicily and North Africa. He had loved the war and proved to be a natural soldier, rising rapidly through the ranks and though decidedly working class in origin was rumoured to be officer material. He was demobilised long after most husbands and fathers had returned and were back working again in local factories. He came back reluctantly with the aim of a rapid return to army life because what he really wanted was to become a `regular’. Towards the latter part of the war he had suffered some kind of medical condition, possibly Amoebic Dysentery which kept him in hospital for some weeks and afterwards convalescing for even longer. But he was spoken of regularly and from time to time there were letters and cards from him and once even an exciting parcel with dried bananas, dates and two dolls in strange costume. On VE day I was woken early, my mother waving red, white and blue hair ribbons in front of my face and jubilantly telling me that the war was over, all was going to be different from now on and my father would be coming home. This news, told to me again and again that morning as we drank our tea and ate our porridge, filled me with a great unease. Why was it so good that the war was over? The war just `was’. The war was what made life full of purpose. What was going to happen to us if it was over? And if everything was going to be different from now on was that necessarily a good thing? If it was true that my father was coming home what were we going to do with him? Would he live in our house, having his meals with us? Where on earth would he sleep? It might be better if he lived in the Working Men’s Hostel in Gravesend like some of the men who now emptied the rubbish bins. I had heard Joan Bedford’s mother discussing how good the conditions were there. Or perhaps he could rent a room from Mrs. Bessant’s daughter Ina who took in lodgers at Rosherville . Everyone said her `rates’ were reasonable. As days went on it became more and more obvious that my life as it had always been was definitely over and this was about to be celebrated in some style. On Saturday there was to be a street party with jelly and ice cream and little cakes with pink icing on them. Mrs. Robbins was making tray after tray of toffee apples. `My Dad is coming home!’ my cousin Pat told me as she and her mother tripped down our back yard path on the day of the party. Pat was going to attend the York Road party and I was going to attend the Iron Mill Lane one to ensure that we got plenty of partying. Aunt Martha was crying with joy and waving a telegram in my mother’s face, `My Paddy is coming back from Italy….I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. My Paddy’s never seen my little Pat….’ Little Pat Bounced up and down, anxious to be seen, but it transpired that was never to be as the next telegram received was one informing my aunt that her husband had been killed in a fall from an Italian roof whilst celebrating the end of the hostilities. I felt a bit confused and wondered if we would get a similar telegram and for a long time afterwards whenever I saw Pat I asked her about the outcome regarding the doll he had promised to send her from Italy and I couldn’t help noticing that her answers were always evasive. I had started school some months before my own father finally appeared and was, apparently, confronted by him when I emerged from the playground at 3.00pm. Instead of my mother, a strange man telling me he would take me home that day. I was not impressed and remained so for the next several years. He must have found life very difficult. I was the daughter he did not know. He had seen no part of my growing from baby to schoolgirl. He undoubtedly felt depressed, confused and inadequate and there were no army mates to laugh, joke or exchange trivial banter with, no camaraderie at all. In their place was a wife who had, after nearly six years of war, become used to managing alone and a suspicious and unlovable six year old daughter who clearly was not going to warm to him overnight. He had been plucked from trauma himself as a small child and brought up by convent nuns in a disciplined, clean and orderly environment. When they had finally tipped him out into the real world it had been harrowing but now the British Army had restored the order and regulation missing from his life for so long. He had reveled in the discipline, the good food, the regular pay and the respect that his rise through the hierarchy offered. His horizons had been greatly broadened now that he had seen the world and he was anxious for his family to join him in as rapid return as possible to army life. We too, would be able to see the world. He had undoubtedly had fantasies about introducing his family to a better life and was not prepared for my mother’s strenuous opposition which did not waver. Although he had many friends in the army, he now found it difficult to make friends. It was easy enough to exchange trivial conversation with neighbours but he had nothing in common with them and felt their values were empty. He was contemptuous of the bomb stories discussed with him. On a practical level in the army he had no money worries but now, if there was no possibility of returning, instead he had to find a job. He was reluctant to enter factory work. He disliked the appearance of the female factory workers in their turbans and peep toe shoes, their smoking and their `utility’ make-up. To him, in 1946, they compared unfavourably with women in uniform and after the initial euphoria of the welcome home from his many sisters-in-law, there was little sympathy for an ex-serviceman who did not immediately knuckle down to the mundane facts of life in post-war Britain. He resented the easy manner in which my mother now seemed to be able to manage household affairs and the fact that somehow her emotional dependence upon him had disappeared along with daily life in North Kent. To make matters even worse, having been exposed to Greek and Italian culture, he had developed a taste for foreign food and there had been an explosion of his intellectual development so that he was now intensely interested in art and opera. He took my mother to London to art exhibitions which were just beginning to reappear here and there. She was not totally appreciative. I had the greatest difficulty knowing what to call him and felt uncomfortable addressing him as `Daddy’ which was of course what both my parents wanted I clearly remember calling him `Uncle Bern’ once or twice because that’s what my cousin Margaret called him. Margaret remembered him fondly from before the war and delighted in his return. It seemed to me during that first post-war year that my father loved Margaret far more than he loved me and the feeling of him being a stranger persisted and subsequently always lurked beneath the surface of our relationship. Of course it did not occur to me that he would naturally respond warmly towards his excited niece with whom he had a remembered rapport and who ran into his arms eagerly; that it would be hard for him to feel similarly about the daughter who screamed hysterically when embraced. For the first few months of his return I insisted on giving his photograph on the wall a goodnight kiss rather than himself because I hated the strange, hard, stubbly feel of him and his constant presence in our house shocked and depressed me. I wished hard for him to go away again because the fact that my mother seemed to belong to him as well as to me was hard to comprehend. In so many ways he now became the prime focus of her attention and I was less important to her as he edged further into my place. He began to institute a number of rules that applied only to me. He insisted that I have a proper bedtime at seven o’clock, where once I had been allowed to sit up with my mother listening to the radio and drawing pictures as I did so. Now she seemed somehow perpetually pre-occupied with cooking him a `proper tea’ where previously we simply shared melted cheese on toast together. He tried very hard to take an interest in me but I rewarded this with suspicion. In spite of all the problems with flying bombs and broken sleep and streets from time to time demolished, the war that had initially deprived me of him, had offered a strangely comforting environment. People helped each other, I was a much cherished only child, my mother talked to me a lot, helped me with my drawings and taught me to write my name, read me passages from the newspaper and told me stories of her childhood. Despite the much talked of food rationing I don’t remember being hungry because bowls of porridge and slices of toast seemed plentiful enough. Once my father returned and life slowly got back to something akin to normal for the adults, things went downhill as far as I was concerned. Presumably he began to feel the same. He gave up trying to persuade my mother that life as an army wife would suit her. He got a job at the local cement works as a shift worker which meant that he was often available in the daytime to fetch me from school. This did not please me and so I began to maintain that I was big enough now, being seven years old, to walk home by myself. I said this with not too much conviction, hoping my mother would take over the collecting once more. She did not and so I ran the gauntlet of the dangerous big boys each afternoon. The big boys in my class, John Dyke, Billy Elliot and Peter Jackson struck terror in my heart. They were loud and untidy. They pushed each other into puddles, walked on walls and sang songs on the way home. There was no escaping them. They did not actually do anything to impede the progress of my daily journey from school to home but I was filled with alarm at the thought that they might. Each day I tried to be the very first one out of the classroom, streaking across the junior playground, towards home. My mother, always amazed at how quickly I covered the ground from school to home, advised me to walk `nicely’ with other girls like Milly Foreman or Joan Bedford. For almost a year, however, I declined to take this advice and continued my self inflicted training for the four minute mile. I was totally unaware that a far worse blight was on the horizon in the form of my baby brother. Just before my seventh birthday the midwife arrived and so did he – Bernard John Hendy, all nine pounds of him. My father came and collected me from playing in Milly Foreman’s yard at five in the afternoon and, bubbling with excitement, told me I had a baby brother and if I was very careful I would be able to hold his hand. He was upstairs in my old cot, beside the double bed which I used to share with my mother in the good old days during the Adolf Hitler years. I stuck my hand through the bars and was told to be careful with him. I could have cheerfully throttled him and indeed over the next few years tried to bring about his infant demise a number of times without any success. He became another close relative to despise because by now I realized that my dislike of my father was turning into something more tangible like hatred. My father was quite naturally immensely proud of my brother and could love him unreservedly as he noted every aspect of his growth from baby to small child. He was eager for him to grow bigger and stronger so that he could introduce him to the delights of fun fairs and country walking. His undisguised excited anticipation of the father-son relationship of the future filled me with apprehension and hardened my attitudes. He was a relatively devout man and went to Mass every Sunday if he was not working. My mother, whose attitude to the Church was an odd mixture of defiance and deference, generally avoided entering the building for anything other than a wedding or a funeral and certainly could not be accused of being pious. When it became clear that I had spent my first six years as a non-attender my father was horrified and quite determined to change all that. He took me to Mass himself as regularly as was possible, while my mother stayed home and cooked the Sunday dinner. The boring Sunday ritual did nothing to improve our relationship and I longed for Sunday shifts when he could only go to an evening service which was considered far too late for me. Ultimately I began to dread Sundays and that undercurrent of trepidation has stayed with me all my life. Because he had been brought up in an orphanage he had acquired basic standards of hygiene that my mother’s diddicai upbringing had been devoid of. He was shocked when he realised that I did not own a toothbrush and immediately bought me a bright pink celluloid Minnie Mouse one together with an even pinker tablet of Gibbs Toothpaste in a round tin. I hated the taste of it and rebelled immediately, telling him that my teeth would stay clean without all this palaver. Until he had reappeared in my life I had not known anyone who actually cleaned their teeth! Not only that, his horror knew no bounds when he found I had not been taught to wash my hands after visiting the lavatory and vainly tried to instill this habit into me, largely without much success. He took a great pride in his highly polished Sunday shoes and took to polishing mine for me which filled me with fury so that I took delight in scuffing them as much as possible on the way back from Mass. I had been accustomed to eating most meals, on my knee and with my fingers if I so wished, in front of the kitchen grate alongside my mother, listening to her chatter on either slandering her sisters or the neighbours and from time to time adding views of my own. Now he was back we had to eat sitting up at the kitchen table and I was compelled to use a knife and fork! My mother, for some rebellious reason which never became totally clear, had enrolled me at St. Botolph’s school which was Anglican although when discussing the matter by letter with my father before he returned, it had been agreed that I would of course be going to Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception. He rectified this immediately and I was unceremoniously uprooted and told that I would love my new school. This lasted a few very miserable weeks and then for some reason, presumably instigated by my mother, I was returned once again to St. Botolph’s to my great relief. These disruptions to my life turned my dislike for my father into hard bitterness and accordingly over the next year my behaviour grew worse and worse although I was blissfully unaware of this and uncomprehending when it was regularly pointed out to me. It was in desperation I believe that he took to beating me. Now the beatings became more or less a regular event in my life. To me it seemed that I was thrashed for even the most minor infringement of the baffling rules – from the forbidden boiling of a kettle to provide a play bath for my doll to the strange incident where my two year old brother’s arm was apparently wrenched from his shoulder joint. Between beatings, however, he continued to make valiant efforts to build a paternal bond. He took me on day trips to London to visit museums and art galleries which except for the Egyptian tombs at the British Museum, I found relatively boring. He bought up large quantities of second hand books, mostly encyclopaedias but interspersed with Charles Dickens at auctions which I was, somewhat guardedly, more interested in but they were way beyond my comprehension which baffled him. He was what was in those days called a `womaniser’ and had over the years acquired a succession of female friends recruited mostly from the Gravesend & North Kent Bus Services, clippies with names like Else and Glad and finally one called Sadie of whom he become inordinately fond. As I have said he had a weakness for women in uniform. Despite this, however, I now believe he was basically a good man, eager to do his best for his family. Unhappily, because the war disrupted any vestige of essential social cement, his homecoming was never going to be a success. I have no doubt that many others of my age and background have similar sad stories about fathers returning to the bosom of the family.

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