Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Beryl was an 18-year old ATS girl in the Pay Corps when VE Day came. She was working in an office in Knightsbridge. Billeted in a requisitioned, rather luxurious townhouse near Lowndes Square, if she or her friends were ever running late for work, they simply took a short cut through Harrods. One morning in early May of 1945, Beryl's lieutenant breezed into the office, announcing: “War's over, girls. Get yourselves down to Piccadilly.”
There, somewhere among that delirious throng was another young woman of the same age. Princess Elizabeth, at that time a driver-mechanic, also in the ATS, had to first ask her parents' permisssion to join the heaving crowds in London's West End. Sixty miles away, in Oxford, another young woman, the same age as the first two, was studying for her degree. Margaret Roberts, a future Prime Minister, moved to Colchester in 1947 and took up her first job as a chemist. These three young women, only months apart in age, were the dynamic New Elizabethans. All three soon married and began raising families. Much is known about Elizabeth and Margaret – this is Beryl's story.
Beryl, who in 1950 married a Medical Corps sergeant, soon became accustomed to moving house at least once a year. The couple's first home was a hut in an army barracks in Surrey. Early on in the marriage, her husband was posted, in quick succession, to Libya, Egypt and Germany. Beryl remained in the UK. By 1956, she'd given birth to two sons, both born in different counties. There followed more house-moves:Watford, Millbank in London and then, back to Surrey. In April of 1961 the family put their few possessions in storage and were posted to Cyprus. They returned to the UK the following November. The postings came came in thick and fast.
Eighteen months in Dundee were followed by a year in Chester, then in autumn of 1964, her husband received a commission and they moved to Singapore. Beryl was by now a veteran of that arcane ritual, known to the British Army as 'Marching Out'. Household goods, furniture, books, pictures and most of the children's toys were wrapped in newspaper, boxed up in tea-chests and put into storage, often not to be seen again for many months. Now she'd scrub the house from top to bottom. All army issue items on the house inventory had to be accounted for. So adept at moving house was Beryl, that she once received a letter of commendation from the MoD for the condition in which she'd left their quarters.
In Singapore, now an officer's wife, she'd been given an amah, a local woman, paid for by the Army to help with the domestic chores in the oppressive tropical heat. Naturally, the house would already be immaculate each day before the woman even arrived.
In April of 1966, Beryl's husband was posted to Tanah Rata, a jungle hill station in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands. Her boys, it was decided, one now 13 years old, the other only 10, would have to return to England for the sake of their schooling. She stood at the airport in Singapore, fighting back tears, as she watched them board the aeroplane.
In early 1967 she gave birth to a third son, this time on the island of Penang, where she'd been flown after going into labour. Although her two older boys returned to Malaysia during the longer school holidays, the family weren't fully reunited until July of 1967 when her husband, by now a captain, was posted to Chelsea Barracks in London.
In 1970, after over twenty-six years of service life, Beryl's husband left the army. They settled in Colchester temporarily, where her younger sister, also a military wife, owned a house. Beryl spent most of her next 40 years, doing exactly as she had been doing – organising things. An ex-army wife straight from Central Casting, she continued to run the house like a small barracks. Typically there were always one or two Jack Russell terriers running around the place, assiting her.
Occasionally over the years she'd have to step in to sort out her three sons' various muddles. She'd put this one up for a while when he became homeless. She'd have a serious word with a second about his behaviour. She'd sort out a third's financial problems, cutting up his credit cards and rationalising his small debts. Good with finances, she'd sometimes provide her boys with cash bail-outs. These were always conditional upon payback, if not in actuality, then in kind.
Always willing to listen, she'd say: “Girls? They will usually talk.” Here she'd narrow her eyes and puff on a cigarette. “But if a boy ever comes to you and wants to talk, then you had better listen.” Long past 80 years old she was still helping out 'older people'. In later years she drank brandy steadily throughout the day and still smoked like the ATS girl that she'd once been. She was involved in the Royal British Legion until it finally became too tiring for her. Sharp as a pin, she took no nonsense from any salesmen or suppliers trying to palm her off with shoddy goods. She pursued consumer battles relentlessly by telephone and letter until she'd won. Beryl was just over two months short of 88 years old last Thursday, when her system finally packed up and she let go of the rope. She'd come a long way from Piccadilly. Rest in peace, Mum.