Now I was attached to New Cross Depot I had to work late Saturday and early Sunday duties which meant walking from home to depot and back. I don't know which I liked least. There were still quite a lot of drunks about after a late night Saturday duty and after at least eight hours on my feet I'd be dog tired but I hurried along as fast as I could - never having to put up with anything worse that a few whistles and occasional shouts of "Fares please" or "Look out, lads, or she'll give you a fourpenny one." For all that I was glad to close the front door behind me and fall into bed.
The rotas started at 6 a.m. on Sundays, so the walk to work would often be in the dark too. I remember one Sunday morning in particular. There was a full moon still and the streets were quite empty with only the sound of my own footsteps until I got about two-thirds of the way then, just as I was passing the gasworks where the old asylum and workhouse building still stood I became aware of another sound of footsteps behind me. Thinking it might e a friendly copper who would be company to talk to while walking, I turned round and found myself looking into the face of a big Negro. The moon shone, lighting up the whites of his eyes and flashing teeth. I was terrified. It might sound rather odd now, but the fact remained that I had never seen more than one or two coloured people in my whole life before and this man was huge and very, very black. Poor man, he must have seen how scared I was - he called out, "Please don't be frightened, miss. I'm only walking to work - same as you. Would you like me to stay behind you or shall I walk in front?" The kindness and understanding he showed made me feel thoroughly ashamed of myself and I waited until he got a little closer and told him I would rather have company to talk to while I walked if he didn't mind. So the friendly black giant and I walked together down the road to New Cross where he - gallant to the last - saw me across the road to the gates of the depot before continuing on his way. I know a lot of people reset the influx of thousands of coloured people into our society in recent years but, at least, people are no longer scared just because some have darker skins than we do. That can't be a bad thing surely.
The summer slowly passed - then the autumn and my second Christmas on the trams approached. Of course, we had to work but we were guaranteed one day off over the Christmas period - either Christmas Day or Boxing Day. All trams were back in the Depot by 4.30 p.m. on Christmas Day - early turn workers doing a full eight hour shift and being paid for sixteen hours, the late turn crews only did half a duty and paid for the whole day. So for Christmas 1942 I struck lucky - my normal day off fell on Christmas Eve and I was scheduled for a day off on Christmas Day, so I was able to go over to Staines to deliver my presents to my own family and Bill's family too. I thought my mother-in-law rather subdued, but I knew she was worried over her sons - Bill in the Navy and his elder brother, Stan, in the Army with young Frank still at school and longing to be old enough to join the RAF. I wanted to be back in London before dark if possible so I wished everyone a Happy Christmas and went back to Gran.
We had another addition to the family now, Uncle Harry - my father's older brother - who had left his job in a hotel on the coast and now worked in London. The air raids had eased off in the last few weeks otherwise Harry would not have returned. Badly shell-shocked in the trenches in 1917, he was still very nervous and apprehensive, unable to hold down any job calling for responsibility and initiative, he worked long hours as a kitchen porter, the butt of his workmates who mistook his nerves for stupidity and were constantly taunting him, calling him "Dummy" and remarking he was "only ten to the dozen" or simple minded. It was a great shame, he was a very shrewd man, really - and provided you had time to listen and wait while he collected his thoughts between sentences - he was very interesting to talk to. The casualties of war are not only the dead and maimed and I prayed that Bill would get through without suffering like poor Uncle Harry.
Of course, I should have liked to have heard from Bill but there had been no letters for some days. Not that this was particularly unusual, we wrote to each other every single day but, of course, being constantly at sea his letters tended to arrive in bulk weeks apart. I kept all his letters for years after the War - they nearly filled a small suitcase - but finally destroyed them when several went missing in a very amusing way. My two eldest children decided to play postman. They must have seen me reading the letters from time to time and knew where they were kept, and the first time I knew anything was amiss, was when several neighbours knocked on the door to return them - the children had delivered about a dozen all down the street! I didn't have the nerve to knock on doors and ask for their return. We all sat up to see the New Year in and hoped that 1943 would see the war over, it had been raging for over three years by now and we seemed not nearer the Victory we all longed for.
A few days later in the early morning there were two knocks on the front door, thinking it was the postman, I rushed downstairs to open it - and there was Bill. It was wonderful to see him again, but he looked very drawn and pale and I suddenly realised he was in a completely new uniform with no badges on his sleeve - even his collar and cap were brand new, and I suddenly realised he must have lost his ship. We hurried upstairs to tell Gran and Uncle Harry the good news that Bill was safely home again and sat listening to his explanation. It was awful - HMS Partridge had been torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean on my birthday, December 20th. After several hours swimming around in the oil covered sea, Bill was picked up by another destroyer and taken into port. Clothed in whatever garments the crew could spare, he and a few other survivors were later transferred to a troop ship which finally delivered them safely to this country. Then followed a day of re-kitting from scratch - the only thing he ownd when he arrived in this country was his identity disc around his neck - everything else was at the bottom of the sea, somewhere in the Mediterranean. His greatest loss was of his mates, though especially “Shady”, a boy who had gone through training school with Bill right from the time he had joined up. I suppose the one who understood most of all was Uncle Harry. He couldn’t say very much but he knew what it was like all right.
Of course, I dashed of to the Depot. When the Depot Inspector heard that Bill was on survivor’s leave he told me to ring in again in a week’s time. I saw the sheet later - I had been covered for every day that week and had five crosses which meant I had only lost two day’s pay. Of course, Bill wanted to see his mum, and, as he had to wear his uniform, I spent that evening sewing on his new badges and hoped there would be no more raids while he was home. He was very shaken and restless and could talk of nothing else but seeing the ship breaking in two and each half going down, taking so many men with it, and the sea covered in burning oil and hearing his rescuers calling to him to grab the rope and almost drowning in his panic because he couldn’t see it with his eyes covered in black oil.
Bill’s mother was overjoyed to see him and laughed and cried together - I had never seen her like this before - usually a very quiet, reserved woman - I had misjudged her, mistaking her calmness for a cold nature. Then I was told why she had been so subdued on my last visit on Christmas Eve. She had been listening to Lord Haw-Haw, the traitor who broadcast from Germany - and he had reported the lost of Bill’s ship. Of course, a great many of his broadcasts were propaganda and had no truth in them, they were aimed at breaking our morale. His call sign was “Germany Calling” and thousands of people used to tune their wireless sets to listen and then pray that he was not telling the truth, especially if their loved ones were involved in the disasters he described. On this occasion he had been telling the truth and my dear mother-in-law had not mentioned it to me for fear of spoiling my Christmas. I’ve often wondered if I could have been so thoughtful for others under similar circumstances.
We spent that week visiting members of the family. Gran wondered if it was good for Bill to be constantly telling people about his experiences but I noticed he slowly began to grow calmer and less jumpy and decided it was probably helping - to be able to talk about is and get it off his mind: until the day we went to the cinema. I had carefully chosen a programme of comedy films but had forgotten the newsreels. We saw a convoy of ships crossing the Atlantic, suddenly one of them opened fire and Bill was out of his seat and several steps down the aisle before he remembered where he was. Survivor’s leave was always twenty-one days and now I know why. It wasn’t long enough but the men couldn’t be spared for longer than that. Of course, I had to go back to work and the weather wasn’t particularly good but Bill was feeling better all the time and soon he began to laugh and joke again and I began to think of the future and what I would have done if he had not returned.
Then we had our first argument - not a row - but a real, definite difference of opinion. I wanted a child and Bill was totally opposed to the idea. Of course, I could see his point of view - he believed that, if he did not survive the War, I should find it very difficult to find another husband and eventual happiness again if I had a baby to bring up. I absolutely rejected the possibility of ever replacing Bill with another man and, if I lost him, I wanted more that just a framed photograph and a bunch of letters to keep his memory intact. We have re-lived this argument several times over the years when discussing the situation with friends and relations and almost invariably the men have agreed with Bill and the women have decided that their, view would have agreed with mine. So it would seem that the difference between men and women isn’t merely physical after all.
After the first week I had to return to work and Bill would often spend the day on my tram. He found that he rather liked the job and the happy atmosphere in the Depot - several of the older drivers had served in the Navy in the last war and he enjoyed exchanging yarns with them, and I think he was a little surprised at the way I had blossomed out too. He was used to a rather timid and painfully shy girl and here she was - chatting merrily with the passengers completely in her element. There was no doubt that I loved my job and would be sorry to have to leave when the War ended.
All too soon the day arrived when he had to report to Chatham again and we each started the old routine of writing every day and looking forward to Bill’s next leave.
After a few weeks I was able to confirm my suspicions and write to tell him I had won the argument after all and he could expect to be a proud father in late September. He was thrilled - and so was I when he told me that he was still not at sea but in Scarborough, with a proper civilian address. It was much more pleasant addressing my letters now, “c/o GPO London” was so impersonal. His landlady was very pleasant too. For the one and only time I cheated - I went to the doctor with a very mild sore throat and got a certificate for three days. It was a lovely weekend - but Bill had to tell me that his stay in Scarborough would not be a log one - he was just waiting for his new ship and would be off to sea very soon - North Atlantic Convoy Duty.
We were sure the baby would be a boy and decided he would be called Michael and always referred to him by name in all our letters from that weekend. I hadn’t told anyone at the Depot that I was now expecting a baby and kept it a secret for as long as I could but, despite several alterations to my uniform, there came a day when I could no longer push my way past standing passengers in the rush hour an I had to give in my notice. I was persuaded to apply for Maternity Leave - just in case I felt like getting a relation to look after a baby and returning to my job. I’m very glad that it didn’t occur to me at the time that they were really making it easy for me to return in case anything should go wrong - such a thing never entered my mind. I used to sit at the open window waving at the trams as they went by all through August and September and on October 10th the baby arrived - our son, Michael.
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