Thursday, April 15, 2021

Special Recollections by Bryan Smith

There was no contest! It was clearly the proudest moment of his life, as he sat holding her hand in the specially assigned room in Whitehall. As they waited patiently for the ceremonials to begin Mark’s thoughts wandered back to his early childhood. He had been too young to remember the house move from the picturesque small village of Milton Keynes to the nearby town of Bletchley. Many years later he reflected on how names of a poet and an economist could be combined to give title to such a pretty village.Alas, it was no longer so.
The house move had been unavoidable, when, following his father’s death on the beaches of Dunkirk, the meager army pension had been insufficient to prevent a move into council accommodation. While never knowing his father, his mother had ensured his knowing of him through frequent references to his army career and earlier life. He had been a captain in the Warwickshire Infantry, with his last act being that of ensuring that as many of his men as possible reached safety of the boats during the evacuation. One of his earliest boyhood memories had been, when, with his mother, they visited her sister who lived on the north side of Rugby. He remembered the big red glow in the sky, his mother holding him in her arms, as they gazed out through a bedroom window.
‘The Jerries’ have bombed Coventry. By god they’ll pay for that’ He recalled the anger in her voice. They did of course; a few years later at Dresden.
When he had started school, he wasn’t the only fatherless child in the class, but no other pupil could claim a captain as their dead dad. Some of those with dads away at war talked proudly of them, and he guessed, with some exaggeration, but importantly, seeing them as role models. For him, that was a big gap in his young life, which he tried to compensate for, in part by cultivating a strong interest in the progress of the war; an interest which his mother encouraged by informing him of key events and campaigns; the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, Anzio, the Eastern front, the Battle of the Bulge, the Dam-Busters, and ultimately D Day and V E Day. Sharing his knowledge at school had seemed to confer upon him a sort of authority. Classmates asked him things and if he couldn’t provide immediate answers he soon could after talking to his mum. After all, he rationalized to himself, with my dad having been a captain, I should be able to show pupils a lead on things.
In addition, his mum had helped him to identify with another role model, William Brown, of Just William fame. She frequently read to him from the Crompton books at bedtime. Consequently, he recognized with William as his captain, and decided to take on both the title and role with his gang. Like William, he organized things, games, challenges. For Geoff, a ginger nut, in his gang, some pupils were merciless in their name - calling. He sorted them out and stopped Geoff getting bullied. There was ‘his Violet’ and occasionally he’d playfully pull her pigtails. She got to not mind much, but if anybody picked on her he thumped them. After the war in the seemingly endless winter of ’47, he organized sledging competitions with his gang; a captain’s role. He even allowed non - gang members to join in and often showed his authority by winning. He recalled it was also when he saw and ate his first banana. He remembered holding it up and saying, ‘Is this one of the fruits of war?’ A year later he identified with other role models when his Uncle Pete bought him Huckleberry Finn for his birthday. Along with Tom Sawyer he found them to be rebel achievers, go - getters, occasional chancers, but with good hearts. He could envisage them as getting on well with William, fitting in. The fact that they were from the US, which had arrived very late for the war, wasn’t something he would hold against them. A real clincher was that he and the author had the same first name. It had to be a plus, he concluded.
One post - war hardship was the occasional coal shortages, which discriminated in favour of miners, with their special allowances, and included both of their next door neighbours. This meant that with no coal there were limited supplies of coke for sale at the gas yard on a designated Saturday morning. His gang were prominent with trolleys, and while it became quite a procession through the estate, with women pushing old prams and pushchairs, they couldn’t compete with the speed of his trolley gang. Consequently, they would be close to the front of the queue. Then in the afternoon they would be at the front of the queue for the sixpenny matinee at the Regal.
As well as reading to him as a child his mum encouraged him in all his schoolwork. She also played lots of games with him. Cards were her favourite, teaching him Whist and Bridge. She took him to Whist Drives, which, while for adults, made an allowance with his mum being on the committee. He also accompanied her on bridge evenings with friends. Then there was Chess; she taught him the rudiments, he joined a club at school,
but not once could he beat her.
When, at eleven, he shared his anxiety about possibly failing the eleven plus, after discussion, she suggested he did his ‘William thing’ by taking a lead. The seed was planted. Talking with classmates the following day; those he recognized as the brightest, he shared his concern, mainly about not being stretched enough or worked hard enough to be in a strong position to pass. He also pointed to the fact that five had been the highest number of passes from the school in any year. As he did so he cast his eyes around, slowly at the ten others. Unsurprisingly, he became the spokesman in a group meeting with the form teacher. Following some initial amazement, of a group of pupils asking for more work, the teacher responded very positively. A few cursed him afterwards in response to the pressure of two months extra work, but the initiative worked, with a record - breaking nine passes.
As he glanced down at her bag on the floor beside her chair, he saw the tell - tail sign.
‘Another crossword book’ he whispered. She chuckled.
‘I’d completed the Times and Telegraph by eleven. What ever was I to do? I’ve also picked up a book of mind games; quite stimulating’
‘Just as if you need it.’ He rolled his eyes. Having spent over twenty-five years with the MOD, with the last five in Intelligence, Mark was probably the only person in the room who hadn’t needed to sign the document, similar to The Official Secrets Act.
‘How gullible could I have been down the years’ he reflected. He had said how he thought she had been too clever to be a secretary in a council office in town. But she had claimed, having a steady secure job was quite enough.
Then the ceremony started. She gripped his arm and kissed him on the cheek.
Achievements at the Park started to be described. There were lots of nods and smiles round the room.
‘It wasn’t all about Enigma’ the Brigadier General then said. ‘It was Ultra and Collossus’ There was a stifled cheer from along the front row and as Mark looked along the row, he recognized Daphne, another secretary and occasional Bridge partner of his mum. She was holding up and shaking her frail hand in a triumphal gesture.
‘Ladies Please!’ the speaker said, in a mild scolding tone before continuing. ‘Collossus, with Alan’s team in Hut 4, was aptly named, since its significance towards the end of the war was massive’
He watched as his mum, Daphne and two other elderly women along the row all did a thumbs-up, with delighted looks shared among them. It was as if they were excited schoolgirls about to be given an award for team success.
The speaker continued. ‘It was said that through Collossus, Hitler could have communicated quicker with all his generals through Bletchley Park than through any other channel’.
There was a collective roar of approval and celebratory stamping of feet, to which the Brigadier General just nodded and smiled. As it became her turn to receive her award, she turned to him. ‘Hold my stick. I think I can make those two steps onto the stage without it.’
‘Of course, you can mum!’ As he watched proudly on, he said to himself ‘What did you’re your mum do during the war Mark? She was a secretary, a very important job!’
‘Some secretary mum. You code-breaking junkie’

© Bryan Smith

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