We knew that the war was over - when the BBC told us so. We knew that our father had survived as a prisoner of war - when the BBC had broadcast his name in their lists. But, we did not know our father when he walked towards us along the country road!
Hardly surprising. We had last seen him over three years ago when he went to war, and my sister and I had long since been absorbed into a different way of life without him.
Our Mother had taken us to Essex when war was declared. But, like many others, we returned to London during the false dawn of the 'Blitz'. Fortunately, our parents guessed correctly, and my sister Sheila, and I were soon on a train to Devon. Many who stayed were caught in the early bombing raids, and were not given a second choice.
I do not remember that train journey to Okehampton, Devon. As a five-year old the experience must have been new but not noteworthy. I do, however, recall with absolute clarity getting off the coach that had taken us from the station to the village of Northlew. We stood apart from others, shy and frightened - with a note on our lapels, 'not to be separated under any circumstances.' I believe that I tried to act the elder brother - without much inner conviction!
To be fair, there was just as much fear and apprehension for those on whom we were to be billeted. These were very much people of the country with experiences which had rarely extended beyond the local town on market day. We might just as well have been from another planet (although, I don't think planets had been invented at that time!) - we dressed differently, we spoke an unknown dialect and we certainly appeared to need fattening up!
To take one child would have tested the temperature of the water with the big toe; to take two invited drowning. However, an elderly couple took the plunge and walked us to their home. I mean 'walked' because in those days there were no school runs - there were no cars. Even if there had been, then petrol was very much at a premium - scarce, not grade! We grew up to love this couple. We called them 'Auntie and Uncle council house'. Within a few months their son and daughter-in-law took over and we lived with them for the next three years.
For most of that time we had no running water except that which was hand pumped; no light other than that from a candle or paraffin lamp; a 'thunder-box' at the bottom of the garden; no hot water other than that boiled on the range; and definitely no mobile phones! We were blissfully happy. Uncle Frank (the son) was a rabbit trapper so there was plenty of meat, the forty acres small holding provided milk and eggs and vegetables. Bartering filled in any gaps. Best of all, our Mother had joined us within a short time. This was against the rules but was allowed when she became a rabbit trappers assistant.
Imagine then our re-wakened fears when this stranger was introduced to us as our Father. I recall the rather stilted exhibition of affection on both sides - absence does not always make the heart grow fonder; it can often dull the senses. He must have worried how best to bridge the gap of separation and had brought some small presents as a peace offering. I remember only the boleros. I later wondered how it could be that this stranger, who had been taken prisoner at Arnhem and spent nine months in Germany at Stalag XIB, had obtained them. Then I remembered that he had won his Military Medal in Italy some time before. He had intended to survive to bring them back to us.
We moved back together and became a family again. I got to know him better, but not as well as I might have when it became too late. He 'jumped'; I became a pilot - which meant we could have shared experiences in the clouds. He had been a jockey in his youth; I later had my own horse. I was beginning to appreciate that this man that I had thought untutored had had the world as his experience - and that was 'learning' every bit as valuable as mine. I was forty-one when he died - in the week that he was due to retire.
I miss him.
Dad, is it too late to tell,
You did do well?
Born in London smoke, Bow Bells pealing
Little schooling. Family to feed.
France beckoned, then rejected
Jockey too heavy for horses to ride.
So he humped coal on Brixton Hill.
Gaining knowledge for taxi hire
gave more money, status and hope.
Then War tore family apart.
Fighting and killing in far off
places. Nightmares tormented
sleepless nights, before the relief of dawn.
Medal for bravery could not
replace dead comrades, nor give you
peace. Armistice would bring you what?
No preference for heroes.
Bombs blitzed previous gains.
Nothing left. Family grows.
Work too hard for cab hire.
Tried shop, hospital porter. Pensioned.
To find that the pressure had been
too great. Death, retirement brought.
He had no formal learning, but life itself.
My college taught me no better.
Too late to say how your strife
gave me a future for my life.
Did as you saw his duty.
No debts: no hurt: kind.
His family never wanted.
Dad, you DID do well.
NOW time to tell.