It has been a busy month or so…off to England for mother’s one hundredth birthday, to Spain to check on the house, back to England and then finally, blissfully, home, to meet the latest dog to arrive on the doorstep, a little mite named Scruff.
Although my mother’s friends were organising a party for her, on the day itself she had another appointment…one with her friends of seventy five years ago….those she met following the outbreak of World War II.
She was still marching past the Cenotaph in her early nineties, so she knew – through the grapevine – what had become of her friends in the ATS…..but after her basic training she had first served in Winchester, alongside the Royal Greenjackets and the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and so many of the men she had known (though not in the biblical sense) had perished with no further word reaching her….
Apart from the Light Bobs, she and her friends had met a young American army engineer, a history buff, while waiting for the opening of the church that had once been the chapel royal of William the Conqueror’s palace in Winchester and had signed the visitors’ book together. He had run tame in their families’ houses, a boy far from home….but he disappeared shortly after D Day.
She has his letters to this day…a young man whose frankness and charm seduced all the watchful mothers, some of whom had sons serving far away from home too…
We had booked an hotel in the centre of the city..the Royal Winchester Hotel…which mother remembered from her time there in the war: nothing could have been better. Super staff, a specially adapted room, and a peaceful garden in the heart of the town.
Somewhat better than her original billet with a maiden lady on Oliver Cromwell’s Battery whose gentility disguised an ability to use mother’s rations to feed the two of them which would not have disgraced a modern banker.
Mother and I have not been the best of friends: our prejudices do not coincide, our interests differ. As an adult I might understand her frustrations but as a child I resented her attacks on my confidence, the undermining: the armour I erected against her – and the world – only crumbling when I found unconditional love.
But she is my mother. Rancour cannot reign. So I was ready to accompany her on her pilgrimage and to respect it.
As always, humour assisted.
On a boiling hot day our train was delayed….station announcements advised passengers to carry bottles of water while traveling and not to pull the emergency cord between stations…
She remembered traveling north from King’s Cross in London on a wartime train so packed with passengers that each supported the other…the only drink on offer came at York when jam jars of tea without milk and sweetened with golden syrup were circulated – the men offering them to the women first – a train which, when the platform gates were opened, under bombardment, people desperate to leave London had run for the train, trampling over those overtaken in the rush…she remembered the feel of bodies beneath her feet, impelled by those behind, petrified of falling in her turn.
However, our train was a delight….staff to install mother and staff to meet her at Winchester to take her to the taxi rank, thence to the hotel.
She started her pilgrimage that afternoon…up the hill to the remains of the castle housing the Round Table. She remembered the hall being chock a block with stored furniture so it came as a great delight to see the Table clearly…with, of course Henry VIII enthroned within.
Going downhill again I was surprised that, despite the modern shopfronts, she recognised so many buildings: the tea shop that she and her friends frequented…the butcher…the shop selling honey…the Buttercross….
The next day, that of her birthday, we started in earnest.
First to the church of St. Lawrence where the friends had signed the visitors’ book…behind the Buttercross. A tiny church, once part of the Norman palace and still the mother church of Winchester.
A fire in the 1970s had altered the church beyond mother’s recognition, but we were fortunate enough to meet one of the curates who could show mother photographs of the church as it was when she knew it and, more importantly, could draw mother out as to her experiences in the period.
A super lady.
On to the cathedral…
I had to park mother outside while I went to enquire of the staff how best to assist her.
In that time two ladies asked her if she had been abandoned…makes you wonder just what goes on in Winchester…
Once my enquiries had been sorted, the head verger took charge : he opened the cases containing the rolls of honour of the two regiments and searched for the names she gave him.
He also put a fresh paper into the handicapped loo for mother…from the sublime to the cor blimey…with the same panache and care.
A super chap.
To our surprise, as we were about to leave the cathedral red robed vergers on duty sang ‘Happy Birthday’….which reduced mother to tears of happiness.
No wonder she loves Winchester.
On to the Greenjackets’ museum up the hill in what had been the Peninsular Barracks…now private flats.
Mother remembered returning there after church parade in the cathedral: there were various army contingents present, but the light infantry had to wait until the others were almost at the barracks before they could set out as their marching pace, one hundred and forty to the minute, would have had them overtaking the rest in moments and causing an unseemly traffic jam.
She remembered the lung draining haul up the last stretch of the hill and the bugles of the band blowing fit to bust from their stance on the parade ground to accompany the troops.
At the museum the big white chief – a brigadier general – came out to greet her and I was privileged to observe one of mother’s master classes in obfuscation.
He obviously thought he was dealing with a little old lady…and she took agin him from the start…
I have always been of the view that aspiring barristers should be given the chance of an examination in chief of my mother. Getting blood from a stone would be childs’ play in comparison.
He made the mistake of asking the question exact…what did she do?
She replied that no one was ready for the girls, like her, who were volunteers.
But what did she do in Winchester?
No shoes…no uniforms..had to dye our own blouses…
But what did you do?
Ah…now you’re asking.
They didn’t know what to do with us…but they thought the invasion was coming so they sent us down to the New Forest to stop the German tanks.
So you weren’t in Winchester very long?
Oh, yes, once they’d shown us how to blow up tanks…we came back.
And what did you do there, then?
He retired in the face of superior force.
As I pushed mother’s wheelchair down to the hotel – via a super caff outside the museum which had the best pork pies I have ever eaten – she commented that the sort of chap exemplified by the brigadier general was what had ruined Britain…complacent, conventional…but holding power.
These were the people that she had voted against in the post war election which saw Churchill out and Attlee in….but here they were again.
Needless to say mother had voted Leave in the referendum on Europe…
We recovered in the hotel garden, a green oasis in the midst of the city and at dinner mother was greeted by a group of the staff bearing a birthday cake….now that moved her: young people who did not know her had gone to the length of making her a cake for her birthday.
It was as if she had not realised that her age brought with it any recognition.
But it was clear that the visit had brought to mind all the friends that she had lost…not being next of kin she had had no notification…just the names in the illuminated manuscripts seventy five years down the line…
And yes, on her return her friends had arranged a super party and had had the forethought to book the hairdresser for her to avoid her complaining that she could not go because her hair was untidy. They know her well.