Elsie goes for a big change in her life.
|WAAF=Women's Auxiliary Air Force. LACW=Leading Aircraftwoman.|
I was in a foul mood when I got home. How dare he let me down like that? That's the last time I'll accept a date from a blinking sailor. But then I mellowed a bit thinking that perhaps he had a good reason not to turn up. I didn't want to write Hughie off completely. I quite liked him.
Dad was sitting in his usual armchair. “I don’t want you parking that van in the front of the house anymore,” he said.
“Today is only the second time I have come home in it.”
“I don’t care. It looks unsightly outside the house and will only attract petrol thieves. You are just being lazy.”
“I can’t bloody well do anything right, can I?”
“Don’t you dare talk to your father like that,” Mother said.
“You are not too old to feel my belt,” Father added.
“I think I am,” I said. “If you ever try to hit me with that strap again, I’ll snatch it off you and wrap it around your neck.” I was expecting him to attack me and I made myself prepared. I doubt if I would win in a fight with him but I would have a bloody good go. He did make a movement in his chair but must have decided against it. I am not the frail young child anymore.
“See, Mother," he said. "See what I have to put up with. We took her in as our own and she speaks to me like this. She’s a bad egg.”
“Well, this bad egg is going up to bed. I have an early start tomorrow. In the van.” I went up to the bedroom which I shared with Alice.
Alice was lying on her bed reading a book. “What was all the shouting?” she asked.
“Just Dad having a go.”
“Nothing new there then. Why are you home so early? Did he not turn up?”
“No, and I don’t want to talk about it thank you. I just want to go to bed.”
“It's a bit early to go to bed. Don't get upset over that idiot, Elsie."
"I'm not, I'm just tired."
"All right. I’ll go and read my book downstairs so as not to disturb you.”
The next morning I set off to the Baker’s just before five o’clock. An hour later we had the van loaded.
“There’s a big load today, “Mr Freeman said. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“There is no new orders so I know all the drop offs,” I said. “I can go on my own and you can get things done quicker here to help Mrs Freeman out.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, it is not a problem for me now.”
“I did the deliveries as quick as I could. We didn’t have deliveries for Greenwich anymore but I set off through the Blackwall Tunnel making my way there. I was soon at the navy base. It was a big naval centre attached to a Royal Navy college. I pulled up outside at the barrier in front of the guardroom but was stopped from going to the guardroom by a naval sentry. A navy Military Policeman walked over and cast a disapproving stare at the van before speaking. “Yes, and what do you want?” he said.
“I need to get a message to my boyfriend. He is a sailor and his name is Hughie Roach. Is he here today?”
“Wait there,” he said and walked to the guard room.
I felt optimistic because he was going to check up.
He was soon back. “He is no longer on the strength. Do you know what that means?”
I remembered the phrase from Kenley. “Yes I do. It means he’s not here. Can you tell me where he is?”
“No, I can’t. If he wants to contact you, you will get a letter from him. If he doesn’t, you won’t. Now clear off.”
I pulled out from the gate. What a nasty man, I thought. As I was going along I saw six sailors making their way to the entrance. My luck had changed. I recognised one of them as Johnny. I pulled over the road, got out and called after him.
They all stopped and turned around. “Elsie’ is that you?” he called back.
“Johnny, can I have a word?” He walked back towards me to a chorus of yelps, wolf whistles and other weird noises from the other sailors. “I’m trying to find, Hughie. But the man at the gate won’t tell me where he is.”
“He’s not here anymore, Elsie. He’s got a ship the lucky sod and has gone down to Plymouth.”
“Have you got a contact number or something?”
“No, of course not. But he was unhappy about not meeting you. He knows I’m meeting Alice at the dance on Friday and asked me to tell you that he will write to you at the Bakers as soon as he can.”
“At the bakers,” I said.
“He don’t know where you live but he knows where you work. Look I’ve got to go. I’ll see you and Alice on Friday.” He dashed off after his pals.
I set off back feeling a lot better knowing he had not let me down on purpose and I look forward to getting a letter from him.
The weeks turned into months. Alice had a few dates with her sailor, Johnny, before he too got a ship and went away. I was disappointed that I never received a letter from Hughie. I was still enjoying my work and although my day could finish around twelve o’clock, I usually stopped on until the shop closed at about five and I would not hear about getting any extra for it as I knew that they were struggling. I no longer took the van home because of the attitude of my father. A bleak Christmas came and went, then spring passed and we were getting into summer.
I had finished work and was walking along the Mile End Road when I noticed an RAF recruitment van parked on the wide pavement. I thought of Ronnie and his RAF friend Chalky and I decided to go into the van to make inquiries and maybe do something to take revenge for their loss. After a few minutes discussing my options, I signed on. The young RAF officer in the van said I should wait at home until further information was sent in the post.
It was a Monday seven days later when the letter arrived from the RAF Careers Information Office. There was a rail warrant and a letter telling me to report to the WAAF Depot near Gloucester on the following Monday. It also said that due to my driving experience I was selected as a Motor Transport Driver. Because I only had a provisional licence the letter said that I would be issued with a military driver’s permit at a later date following an assessment. I was delighted and read the letter over and over again. Seven days. Seven more days and I would be off on an adventure.
I waited until after our dinner to tell of my news while we were all still at the table. Alice looked happy. My father gave a stern serious stare at me.
“That’s good news, Elsie.” Mother said. “You’ll have the time of your life.”
“Good news, Good News,” my father shouted. “What the hell do you know, Mother?”
“Come on now,” Mother replied. “It’s not a bad thing for young women.”
“Not a bad thing. If you had seen your friends blown to bits in front of your eyes, like I have, you wouldn’t think it was not a bad thing. I forbid it. You are not going.”
“Too late, I’ve already signed on so I am committed.” I took the letter from my bag and held it up. “Here is my confirmation. I have to be at Innsworth near Gloucester next Monday.”
“Idiot, you’re a bloody idiot. You are not going on a holiday you know? You will live to regret it. We will all regret it.”
“I won’t,” Alice said.
“You shut your mouth, girl,” he said, got up and stormed out of the house, got in his taxi and drove off.
The morning came for me to fly from the nest. Father had gone off to work without a word and Mother had gone off to the shops. I did not want to think that she did it deliberately. I was alone in the house with Alice.
Alice gave me a fond cuddle as I was about to leave. "I will miss you, Elsie. Promise you will write to me."
"Of course I will, and you must write back. I will get leave now and then so I will be able to come home and we can go out dancing."
"I love you, Elsie." Alice said and started to cry.
"I love you as well, Alice. And you can stop them tears or you will start me off." I gave her a kiss on the cheek and set off on my adventure.
I got the shuttle bus from the station to the WAAF Depot along with six other young women. They seemed a strange bunch but we were all feeling a bit nervous, I suppose. We talked to each other while we travelled on. There was a girl from Liverpool who smoked cigarettes almost continuously. A girl from Manchester who looked as if she had applied her make-up with a trowel and her skirt was so short that you could almost see her pants. A girl from up North somewhere who looked like she had not bothered to wash for a week and smelt of body odour: I avoided her. An aggressive looking girl from Glasgow who looked like she would strike fear into a heavy weight boxer. I avoided eye contact with her. A girl from Kent, who said she didn’t want to be there but was forced to join up by her parents. And a timid girl, who I sat next to. I don’t know where she was from as she hardly spoke to anyone.
We got off the RAF bus and all of us looked about the place feeling a bit lost and bewildered. There was already a dozen or so girls waiting there. A WAAF corporal came over and right away started shouting. “All right you lot, get into two lines one behind the other.”
No need for the shouting, I thought. But I knew somehow, not to make a comment.
“I said two lines not one and a half. It’s not hard is it? Now get into two lines.”
We were soon marching, or should I say ambling along the road. The corporal was shouting: “Left, left, left, right, left.” But no one seems to be taking much notice. After registering at the camp reception office we went to a classroom and listened to a stream of lectures, some interesting, some boring and some quite horrific. We were then taken to our home for the time being. A cold corrugated Nissen hut. Twelve to a hut and I managed to secure the second bed. There was a girl already in the first bed and she was in uniform.
“Hi, I’m Janet,” she said.
“Elsie,” I replied. “You have a uniform already?”
“Well spotted. I had to be put back. I did the first week and then went into hospital with appendicitis.”
“Was it hard going, the first week?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Don’t want to spoil it for you. Watch out for Corporal Coutts. She’s a right bitch and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her.”
“So, what do we do now?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Relax, it all starts tomorrow.” She opened up her side locker. There are some magazines here. Help yourself.”
I liked Janet; she seems to be the only sensible person I have met so far. I made my bed and got settled for the night with one of Janet’s magazines.
The tannoy on the wall was blasting out a tune at five o’clock the next morning. I was used to getting up early but some of the girls struggled. Two corporals walked in and they reminded me off Laurel and Hardy. One was tall and thin and the other short and tubby. “Get down to the ablutions and get ready to march out at six sharp. If you are quick you can grab yourself some breakfast at the mess. Your eating utensils are in your locker. Don't forget to take them with you. This morning you are going for your medicals and later for kitting out. She looked at Janet. “After we have gone get this place cleaned up and get your bed ready for a full kit inspection demonstration.”
They left and I looked at Janet. “Ablutions?”
“The square washroom across the way. You have a treat in store at the medical. It’s known as rabies, scabies and babies. But they also check for nits and VD.”
“I should be all right.”
“Yes, but some of the others look a bit suspect. By the way, that short tubby one is Corporal Coutts.”
We got to the medical centre and we had to go into the centre twelve at a time. I was in the first twelve. The tubby corporal walked in. “Right all of you strip off ready for your medical. Leave your clothes on the benches. Any valuables you can leave with the LACW at the desk.”
I wasn’t expecting this. I thought we would have a bit of privacy and there we were all in our underwear.
The corporal came back in. “What the hell,” she said. “I told you to strip off. You’re going for a medical not a fashion show. Now get the rest of your clothes off, you need to be naked for the examination. We all just looked at each other wondering if she were serious.
“Well, get a move on then. The quicker you are naked the quicker you can get dressed.”
Some of the girls were embarrassed, myself included. I was not happy about this as if we were being visually violated. Some of the girls, however, were laughing thinking the whole scene was funny. There we were, twelve naked girls of all shapes and sizes.
The corporal walked back in. “That’s better. Now form a line.”
“This is wrong.” I said. “Making us stand here naked.”
The corporal looked me up and down. “I don’t know why you are so worried,” she said. “You’re nothing special to look at.”
“Says the short fat woman,” I said.
“What did you say?” she shouted back at me. But her words were drowned out by laughter from the girls.