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.
Having previously been cancelled and rearranged twice, the actual day of the second eye-operation arrives. I turn up, as instructed, at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead at 11.30am for a midday admission. I now know the place so well that I'm getting to know various staff members' anniversaries and their children's names. This time, opthalmology buffs, I'm having a vitrectomy. The procedure involves some laser surgery, a new lens, and some readjustment of the detached retina which I had cryo-buckled last August. Too technical for you? Okay then. From a d.i.y enthusiast's perspective, try to think of it as some electronic chiselling, a bit of smoothing-out with a small rat-tail file, followed by a repositioning of the eyeball, which is then held in place with two tiny counter-sunk screws. Finally, they tap in a small plastic shim, to straighten it all up. That's all there is to it. The human body – God's own flat pack.
Honestly, you'll be fine. The surgeon is a whizz. He works very fast, apparently. At this point I must recount a story which the Yorksire chansonnier, Jake Thackray used to tell on stage. He'd gesture at the guitarist in his band and say: “This one's a proper musician. No, really. He's that good. He'll get to the end of the song long before the rest of us do, just you watch.”
I was unlucky. The last turkey in the shop. They finally trundled me into theatre at 7.30 in the evening. The process took about an hour. I was conscious for the whole procedure, having opted for a local anaesthetic. Disappointingly this was administered in London rather than at Marks Tey as I'd requested. Fancy some eye surgery in Hampstead this evening? It may be uncomfortable and painful at times but at least it's terrifying. On balance, however I'd still opt for a vitrectomy over being forced to sit through We Will Rock You.
I could hear the laser-work crackling like arc-welding in my head during the procedure. The light show was amazing, though, if mostly in monochrome. In younger, more psychedelic days I'd probably have paid good money for visuals like that.
They wheeled me out. A nurse gave me a whole carrier bag full of medications, far too many instructions to take in and a sheaf of paperwork. I found my way out, down the stairs and staggered into a now deserted reception area. Down the corridor a cashpoint glowed enticingly in the closed cafe. I also found a minicab sticker on a broken phone-point. I dialled it on my mobile phone. You know when they ask you, before an operation: “Is there anyone who can meet you?”
That's why you should have someone there. Otherwise, you end up one evening on a north London street, with a carrier bag full of medicine, only one eye working, feeling faint and hoping that a taxi will come soon. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, actually. He's a good cabbie and when he sees the state of me with my bandaged eye, he is kindly. In an earlier life he'd been a contract driver for the Labour Party. In his time he'd ferried nearly everyone. Mo Mowlam had been his favourite, along with Roy Hattersley. For some reason, he'd never really gelled with Mr Blair or Mr Brown. No, I didn't ask.
London at night is rather different nowadays to the one which I once knew. In Old Street for instance, during my own gadabout evenings, there'd been not much going on there but the rent. These days, the pavements are thronged with pubby Londoners all puffing and guzzling for England. It's 9.15 pm and the traffic's inching along, for all the world as if we were cruising Soho during rush-hour. Bright lights, big city and all that. It's been reconfigured but it's still there.
At Liverpool Street, I really begin to wilt. I find that I can barely read the electronic notice boards and now that the anaesthetic is wearing off, there's a deep, naseating ache behind my left eye. Somewhere around 9.30, I board a Colchester train. I didn't expect it to be so busy. The carriage is almost full. I would estimate that about half of my fellow passenger are eating; stuffing their faces with hideously unfragrant franchise food. The remainder are fiddling with, or bellowing into their mobile phones. As I sit down in my seat, two men gawp at my appearance. I stare back with my one good eye, until they look away. As people finish their food, they too, take to their phones. The train fills up still further at Stratford. Mercifully, at Romford it empties out to just under a humanitarian-crisis level. Further down the carriage, a bulky twenty-something, with a ticking
i-pod has spread himself out, his filthy be-trainered feet up on the seat opposite.
I do not know when England's old peasant class disappeared, but someone should tell the sociologists that there's a brand new one in germination right now. Semi-literate, greedy, loud, half-sozzled, ignorant and unmannered, you may meet them mid-evening on the rattling, uncleaned trains of suburban south-east England. At 10.30 pm, emerging into the cool night air of Colchester North, I swear could have kissed the holy platform out of sheer gratitude. And never was a man so glad to see a blonde of a certain age, standing at the ticket barrier with her car keys.
A tall slim female bear stood with her hands on her hips frowning at the horse and his blanket.
"Good morning, Clare.” said Brian. “Cup of tea?”
Clare the Bear sat down on a fallen tree. “Ooh, yes please, Brian. I'd love one. And then, if these two pea-pods will stop arguing for a minute or so, perhaps we could talk about arrangements for our Early Winter Party?”
“Oh great. An early winter party. “ said Morris Horse. “Might there be a bus?”
“Heaven preserve us all!” said Blanky.
A small catty voice from behind a tree asked. “Will there be lots of food there. Only – it'll be winter and I always get a bit more... hungry on cold days.”
Clare the Bear glanced in the direction from which the voice was coming.
“You can come out from behind that tree Matt. I know it's you. I don't suppose there's any point in me asking you, if you'd seen a fish pie, which I left round here for Brian yesterday ? Is there?
“A Fish ...pie?” asked Matt, thoughtfully, as he crept slowly out from behind the tree in order to warm himself by the fire.
“Yes, Matt.” said Clare. “A fish pie. Two words: 'Fish' and 'Pie'. Meaning, literally, some kind of a pie...containing chiefly, fish, I suppose. I mean, which bit of 'fish' and 'pie' did you not understand?”Matt sat down and scratched himself, in a puzzld sort of manner before asking. “ Would this pie have been in an oval-shaped dish...with very delicious-looking perfectl- cooked crusty pastry?”
Clare The Bear said, “Yes...”
Matt asked.” And did the pastry have a sort of fish design drawn on it, then there were two holes made in it, to let the steam out? “
“Yes...” replied the Bear.
Matt continued. "And was the pie still quite hot and put on a special little tray, with a red and white chequered cloth to cover it over later...And then might there have been a little note on it which read: 'Dear Brian, here's the fish pie I made for your tea. Hope you like it. See you later. Lots of Love. Clare' "
Clare looked at Matt and said,” Yes. That's exactly it. That's the pie that I'm talking about. Why? Did you see it then?”
Matt gave an little innocent shrug and said, “ Oh er...no. I never saw anything like that.. And it wasn't left by the tree outside Brian's house, at about 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon. Definitely not. But rest assured. If I ever do see such a thing, I'll certainly tell you.”
Clare the Bear and Brian the Lion looked at each other. And then they looked at Matt. And then at each other again. “Thank you for you honesty Matt.” said the bear.
Matt the cat sat down rather awkwardly, licked his paw and pretended to be cleaning behind his ear.