On Armistice Day this year I went with my parents to visit my mum’s cousin, Barry, and her uncle, Cyril, who served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Twice a year we go to the dentist in Hayes, and we always combine our trip with a visit to Barry and Cyril – it was a coincidence that this time the trip fell on Armistice Day. I thought it was appropriate, and was glad I could commemorate the day by spending time with Uncle Cyril, whose wife Joan passed away in the summer and who I knew would look forward to having company.
We got to the house a few minutes before eleven o’ clock, when the two-minute silence is observed all over the country: the radio DJ was preparing us for the airwaves to fall silent. I thought that maybe we would stay in the car and observe the silence, but my parents got out and went around the back of the house, and so I had to follow. Barry let us in, and everything was as usual: the cats were running about, the kettle was boiling to make us tea, and Cyril was in his usual armchair, listening to Sing, Sing, Sing. He rose to greet us as we came in, shaking my dad’s hand, kissing me and my mum on the cheek, while Barry complained about the terrible weather. For some reason I half expected to be met by bowed heads and reverent silence, not jazz music and the whine of the kettle. I wondered if they even knew what the date was.
We’d printed off some photos of the flowers at Joan’s funeral to give Barry and Cyril, and my mum remembered that we’d forgotten to bring them in, so I ran out through the rain to fetch them from the car. As I was clambering across the backseat I heard the mighty boom of a gun being fired, so loud that it seemed to shake the sky, and I actually jumped high enough to hit my head on the frame of the car door – for a split second I was frightened, then I realised that it must have just struck eleven. I ran back into the house with the photos in my hand to find Barry and my dad talking, as usual, about motorbikes, while Cyril hummed to the music with a faraway look on his face.
“Did you hear that bang?” I said.
“Ah, yes,” said my dad, “Armistice Day. It must be eleven o’ clock.”
“Oh!” said Cyril. “It’s that day today, is it?”
He wasn’t concerned at all, and conversation soon moved on to the new rescue kitten Barry had bought, who wouldn’t come near any of us. No one else seemed to find it strange that to Cyril, who had fought in the Second World War, Armistice Day, eleven o’ clock, the poppy on my jacket and the two-minute silence meant nothing. I can’t begin to imagine what the horror of war was like, but he was there, he has real memories of it. He was on a ship that was bombed and sunk by the Germans; he stood on the beach in France and watched everything he owned burn; several men, maybe some of them his friends, died that day. But when we commemorate the war, in November and throughout the year, we don’t just remember the men who gave and continue to give their lives; we remember the men who survived too, veterans like Cyril, who lived to enjoy the peace that they fought for.
In spite of this, it didn’t seem to occur to Cyril that that gun was being fired for him. He doesn’t see himself as a hero in any way. Most people who looked at him wouldn’t see a hero; they would see a distant, thoughtful ninety-year-old man in slippers and an old worn cardigan, a man who gets lonely since his wife of more than sixty years passed away, who listens to Glen Miller in the mornings to keep him company. “Yeah, Glen Miller, that reminds me of my good days,” he said with a smile, lost in remembrance, while Barry explained how he’d had to take the CD player back to Argos twice because the bloody thing wouldn’t work. But I don’t want to patronise Cyril, because he may be old now, but he still is a hero. Old age is something that will catch up with us all someday – and when we’re sitting alone in our living rooms in our slippers, sipping milky tea and longing for someone to ring on the doorbell, will we be able to say we’ve done anything as great and heroic as he has?
In the summer, a week before Joan died, I went to Hayes to interview her and Cyril; I’m doing a module in literature of the Second World War at university, and I had to put together a presentation to give to my seminar. It was then that Cyril gave me his most vivid memories of the war, including the day in 1940 when his ship, the HMS Orford, was bombed and sunk off the coast of Marseilles, where it was evacuating troops. If you ask him about the war this is always the first story he’ll tell, and he’ll tell it over and over, remembering the tiniest details where he forgets major details about other times in his life, and I don’t blame him. I was traumatised when the pipes in our student house got blocked and the kitchen flooded when I turned on the washing machine – what would being on a sinking ship do to me?
“1940. June 1, half past 2 in the afternoon, we were bombed that day,” he told me. “I was in my bunker down below deck, and I felt it shake, and smoke, the smell of powder from the bomb.” He showed me a picture of a ship just like the Orford, and pointed out the place where the bomb struck and the chimney collapsed forward onto the ship. “That’s where the bombs went – that fell forward on the bridge, you know, belching smoke and flames, and the old flag was flying from the stern mast, the old Red Duster. It was burnt right through… And it was just flopping around, as if to say, I’m still going, you know, sod the Jerries!”
He described how he got to shore on the lifeboat and then stood with his comrades on the beach, watching the ship sink, while the German bombers still swooped overhead; at one point they came back to drop another bomb and he had to throw himself into a ditch, injuring his leg. He didn’t have a clue what to do next – everything he owned was on that ship. The seamen were put on the back of a train – “twenty-three of us with a bottle of water and a tin of corned beef” – and then a boat to Southampton, where they were given thirteen pounds each and told to “get on the best you can”. He was expected to make his own way home, and that was that. “I hadn’t washed, I hadn’t shaved, and I didn’t have anything,” he said. If anyone questioned his scruffy appearance, Cyril was to tell them he was a Distressed British Seaman, a DBS. But as he made his way back to Hayes on a series of trains and buses, with nothing but a bag of money, his trousers and singlet, and a pair of flip-flops a woman had given him on the beach in France, most people just looked at him as if he were mad. What did those three letters, DBS, mean to someone who’d never been at sea?
Eventually, with the help of a friendly police officer, Cyril made it back to Hayes. The man even escorted him to the front door of his brother John’s house. When John’s wife Winnie came around the corner and saw Cyril standing on her doorstep in his singlet, she fell into a dead faint.
Cyril also told me the story of how he met Joan, although he was confused about the exact details, something that frustrated him. Joan herself didn’t want to remember: “He gets annoyed, because he says things and I don’t remember them,” she said. “But I’m a one that looks ahead. Not backwards. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want to know what’s happened behind, it’s gone, you know. But Cyril, he’s like – well, it’s his memory now, I know – but he doesn’t want to look forward. I mean, he’s ninety!” Joan was always looking forward until the day she died, and I think that’s a good attitude to have in life. But I’m also glad that Cyril tried so hard to remember, because I think that’s important too. One of the saddest things about death is that our stories die with us, all those memories, those thoughts and feelings which we will never be able to fully communicate to anyone else. Cyril and Joan may not have thought that what they went through is worth telling – they may have thought, well, that’s just what happened to me, different things happen to other people, why should we waste each others’ time repeating what’s past? – but I disagree. That’s why I’m writing their stories down as best I can now.
It was 1943, and Cyril had returned from a journey to Canada and was home on leave. In one version of the story, he met Joan in the pub; in another he met her father in the pub, and went home with him to see Joan sitting at the bottom of the stairs. In the version he told me, he was bored one day and walking along the road with his friend. “I looked over at the gardens, and I see some bird washing her hair – it was right down her neck, that much!” he said, while Joan laughed and rolled her eyes. “I said, who’s that, Tom? He said, that’s so and so’s daughter. I said, cor, she ain’t bad, is she? He said, I’m gonna go have a drink, and I said, right, I’m gonna go and see her. And I crossed over the road and shouted out, I said, does your mum know you’re out? And I went in.” Three weeks later they were engaged to be married. “The next trip when I came back, I saved a few bob. We got married. I’ve been skint ever since!”
“You didn’t know each other for very long before you got married, then!” I said to them. I was surprised, because I don’t think I would even consider marrying someone unless I’d been dating him for at least a couple of years, but I also understood that that was how it was then: you had to be quick, because you never knew how much time you had. Especially if, like Cyril, your life was under constant threat. “Cyril was away at sea, and we were going to get married, and I got my wedding dress, and he came home and he had to go back again,” explained Joan. “So we got married quickly at the registry office. And my wedding dress was still up there [on the hanger]. Never wore it.” Of course, that didn’t matter to Joan, because she was in love. She didn’t need a big white wedding of the sort most girls these days fantasise about.
It wasn’t just Cyril whose life was in danger, though; Joan also experienced the terrible destruction of war first-hand when the EMI factory in Hayes where she worked was bombed on July 7th, 1944. Joan worked in a tiny ‘dust-free’ room, with duckboards and water on the floor, where she had to wear clogs and a white suit. “We used to assemble these little round glass things. We didn’t know what they were, because it was secret… But since then I’ve found out that it was the infra-red to go into the glasses for the pilots.” If the air raid sirens went off, the girls had to remove their suits before they could leave the room, which took some time. Joan remembers it was a Friday when the sirens went off. “This day we’d still got [the suits] on, it was emergency, and it was quite a way to go to the shelters from there. And we were walking out to go to the shelters, and this buzz bomb came, in EMI… and I saw it, it just dropped down, and it was about the length of this road away.” The bomb fell near to the entrance of a shelter; thirty-seven employees were killed and fifty-six injured. If Joan had made it to the shelter sooner – if she hadn’t had to take her suit off – she probably would have been added to that number.
One of the victims was a young girl who, like Joan, was engaged to be married. Soon after the bombing, someone approached Joan’s dad in the pub and offered him their condolences – they thought it was Joan who had died. “That’s how it was though, who had got killed,” said Joan, and Cyril added: “You never knew for sure.” Death had become a normality, always just around the corner. Whether you were a merchant seaman sailing in a tanker convoy, with submarines below you and torpedoes above you, watching the ship behind you go down and not being allowed to go back for survivors, or on the home front, listening to the wail of the air raid sirens, your life could be taken away from you at any moment. That made it all the more precious, I suppose.
Joan had plenty more stories to tell me about the war, but we didn’t have time for them all, and so she promised to phone me up later and tell me more – for example, how she and the neighbours used to have tea parties in the middle of the street, something that would never happen now, as the neighbours barely spoke to them. Sadly, she died a week later, so I never got to hear those stories. I’m just glad that, instead of dying on that day in 1944, she went on to live a full and happy life. As for Cyril, I wish I could disentangle the web of his memories and extract the stories from it, because he did so many things: he sailed to Australia and back eight times, travelled across America on a train to San Francisco, almost died from malaria in Sierra Leone, and he was in Canada when he heard that the war was over. But he’s too old to untangle these wonderful stories himself, and his memory fails him. There was one moment in our interview that really struck a chord with me, when Cyril was trying to remember the name of a tanker on which he was the leading hand. “It was called… I forget the name of the ship now.” There was a long silence, and then he said: “Maybe it’s just as well, really.”
Maybe his memories of the war are so indistinct because he would rather not remember them. But they’re always there, at the back of his mind, because who could forget a thing like that? All I see is an old man hunched over in an armchair with astounding dignity, whistling faintly to swing music, but inside that man is a world I cannot comprehend: a world of iron and steel, the roar of the sea and the roar of guns, explosions, smoke and fire, of cold and dark, uncertainty and fear, perhaps pain; but also a world of camaraderie, spirit and immense bravery, of whirlwind romances, of smoking and drinking on deck with his fellow sailors to cheer themselves, and most likely flirting with large numbers of women. Joan accepted that this was part of life at sea: “As I say, he was lucky, you know. I mean he was single and I think when they got into port, he had good times, you know… But no worries or anything.”
When we got back from the dentist we stayed for about half an hour, chatting about various things: the cats, hospital appointments, Wilkinson’s closing down, the motorbike dealers that had finally gone under, but not the war. Cyril said very little, but of course there was no way to tell what he was thinking about. We got up to leave and I kissed Cyril on the cheek; he grinned at me, and said, “Emma, you’ve become a very fine-looking young lady.” I saw a glimmer of the cheeky sailor in his eyes, and I saw him as the handsome man he used to be, the man who had won Joan’s heart. “See you soon,” I said, and I hope that I do – but of course, he’s ninety now, so who knows? I hope he’s not too lonely without Joan. And I hope that, if he read this, he would approve of it.
Cyril’s and Joan’s stories deserve to be remembered. They are just two of many wartime stories, some of which will be lost, some of which have already been lost forever, but all just as important as one another. As trite as it sounds, many trite things have become so because they are true: so long as we remember them, the heroes of these stories will never die.