Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Songs:Bridging Two Continents by E. Alana James

© 2011

As I sit down to write this, I have just downloaded Christmas music, updated with such new names to me as Michael Buble', Harry Connick and Diana Krall.  Heaven only knows where our standard Christmas CD collection is, buried, I am sure, in the piles of boxes that inhabit the small cubbie holes around our house, some so small we have to squeeze to get into them.  My partner has already made her way to the States, it being the in-between year where we go back to spend time with our family on the coast of California.

The holidays in our house span two continents and six decades of memories.  And, just like with the music, some traditions seem old and are tucked away in the closets yet still available, while it is the new in both technology and relationships that have become the mainstay of  our Christmas Holiday Season.  For those who are new to our story, we moved from the United States to Ireland five and a half years ago.  At 50+, what seemed at times like a courageous act, has given us a new lease on life and no where is this more obvious than at the holidays.

As an example, before I walked into our Cork NonFiction Writers Group Christmas meeting in downtown Cork this morning I sauntered up the street to Brown Thomas where, for a small donation, I added a ribbon to the Rememberance Tree.  While no longer a Cork Bishopstown Rotarian, I worked the booth at this tree for too many years not to always want to add our parents names to the many others whose yellow ribbons cover the tree from base to its top three stories above.  The streets were packed with people and I was delighted to look at the variety of decorations in shop windows.  The rain was light, but my mind was on snowflakes.

Christmas is time to mark the changes and to remember the sheer joys that come to us through this blessed life.  For some it is a religious centering as well, as is appropriate for the darkest part of the year, or at least seems apropos for any in the Northern hemisphere.  Yule logs bring light to dark times and our adopted land makes this tradition resonate with our souls as we see the sun come up at around 8am and our world goes dark well before 5pm.  Our dogs remind us that the requisite two walks a day just need to be closer together. As I walked this morning past the graves of the three furry friends who moved with us five years ago "Joie de Vivre,"  especially as it has to do with playing ball, cut through the rain showers.

Life on two continents, virtual communications, daily work relationships with people all over the world, these have become commonplace.  Perhaps it is the strangeness of these new things, or maybe the time of year that makes me nostalgic – not for the perennial white Christmas, as that often was accompanied by cars stuck in drifts and rotten weather – and not for deeper relationships long past as the new people in my life mean as much to me as any others I have enjoyed – but rather nostalgic just because of the joy of memory.  It's fun to recall where we were, and indeed who we were, as we pull out the decorations each year.  Equally wonderful are the old songs done new ways, and old traditions carried out in new places.

And so I take a line from the lyrics that are playing, and "fall asleep counting my blessings."  Old friends and new, golden memories to be brought out, dusted off and appreciated and silver ones to be created.  These are the joys of the holiday season and I know they are joys shared by all who take the time to reflect no matter what this time of year means to them.  As we move from darkness to the light may 2012 bring all the joy and fulfillment you can imagine to all who read this.

SANTA IN DISTRESS: How flattery ensnared Father Christmas by Victor Sullivan

SANTA IN DISTRESS: How flattery ensnared Father Christmas

by Victor Sullivan © 2010

The village community was determined not to be out-done by the near-by town where Father Christmas annually arrived by some flamboyant conveyance at the large illuminated Christmas Tree in the Town Square. Something would have to be done about the matter. The topic was raised on the village street and in bars, in the hairdressing salon and barbershop. A committee was formed and the committee appointed sub-committees. Brain-storming sessions spawned conflicting brilliant ideas that were voted on and the results were ignored or adopted with multiple modifications. Delegation of responsibilities followed. Every child would expect a gift so a financial sub-committee was established to raise funds. A tree was selected and felled. It arrived by tractor and was erected prominently at the point in the village where four roads meet.
A shortlisted potential Father Christmas was approached, was asked, requested, begged, cajoled, implored, blackmailed, threatened, beseeched and flattered to play this essential role in the proceedings. The flattery did the trick. How could I could refuse such an honour.

I received a delegation from the Santa Transport Sub-Committee (the STSC).
It was explained that a member of the STSC had a sister who knew a garage owner thirty miles away who had a genuine Model-T Ford that could be hired for weddings and carnivals. It was to be Santa's mode of transport. At a strictly-to-be-adhered-to hour, in my own car, I was to arrive at a large farm shed about 3 kilometers outside the village. There, hidden in the shed, the Model-T would be waiting with its owner at the wheel. On the passenger seat would be a large cardboard box containing a Santa suit, gloves, beard, hat, boots, sack and even a pair of glasses to which had been added bushy white eyebrows. Departure time had been determined with meticulous military accuracy. The word 'synchronicity' kept popping up. It being decades before the mobile phone era, lookouts had been posted along the arrival route to signal the progress of the Model-T by raising a Santa flag to ensure the synchronicity of the piper starting his mournful droning welcome.

On the appointed day, at the appointed minute, the piper preceded the ancient vehicle bearing Father Christmas into the village main street to where the local dignitaries were waiting at the foot of the Christmas Tree. Clergy of three denominations graced the occasion together with a creamery manager, a policeman, the doctor, a couple of school-teachers, the undertaker and several others.

Speeches were minimal, conspicuously monitored by a stopwatch-wielding committee member. Soon it was time for Father Christmas to deliver my own carefully prepared and well rehearsed speech to the children and their parents. The concluding words were met with rapturous applause and the children pressed forwards squealing and shrieking in their excitement as I gestured to Fairy Godmother to start the distribution of presents with the help of her three Elves. Everything went without a hitch. Everyone was happy, the children were pleased with their gifts, the parents were delighted with the professionalism of the entire event and the organising committees were justifiably proud of their achievement. It was to this merry background that Father Christmas took the microphone to make my farewell speech that ended with advice to the children to .."hurry home now, continue to be very good boys and girls and remember to hang up your stocking on Christmas Night."

As the applause died down I expected to hear the harsh growl of the returning Model-T. My prolonged farewell hand-waving session was becoming both absurd and tiring when I detected an air of consternation among the committee members. Frequent furtive glances in my direction increased my anxiety. Had something been forgotten? Had I omitted to perform some important function? While the parish priest was thanking Santa for visiting the village and wishing everyone a safe journey home, the undertaker approached me and muttered "The Model-T took another Father Christmas to children in a couple of hospitals. He won't be coming back for you."
"Then how..?" I began.
The undertaker shrugged and said as he left me, "You'll have to think of something."

Something tugged at my trouser leg. I glanced down and met the innocent blue eyes of a blonde four-year-old girl gazing up at me, utterly awe-struck. She held my red trouser-leg in a white-knuckle grip that proclaimed unquestionable permanence. I scanned the waiting throng for a possible parent, grandparent, aunt, brother, sister or anything else that might remove my latest charming but unwanted attachment. She tugged again and spoke clearly and distinctly:
"Steve says you're not the real one but Mummy said don't listen to him. I want a yellow teddy."
(Where's my Model-T? That undertaker was just trying to be funny... wasn't he? How should a Father Christmas talk to a kid like this one?).
"I said I want a yellow teddy, like the one Anne's got."
"Er.. A yellow teddy is it. How big is Anne's yellow teddy?"
"He's huge, he's huger than Anne. I want mine to be bigger."
To my horror I realised that my blonde attachment's desire for a yellow teddy had become a matter of communal interest. People gathered closer to enjoy the yellow teddy specification debate.
(Where's my Model-T? Where's that incompetent Santa Transport Sub-Committee? How the hell am I to get out of this situation with the reputation of both Santa and myself intact?).
"Will you bring me a yellow teddy bigger than Anne's?" This time the tone was more demanding.
(STOP! Pause... Think... Don't tell her to say 'please' nicely. What would the real Santa say? ...And don't use that sort of language either!).
My trouser leg was shaken violently. My charming blonde attachment was becoming decidedly less charming.
"Will you bring me a yellow teddy?"
"Er... I'll have to er check ... er..."
"Well? Will you?" challenged a male voice from the crowd. That did it!
"Go on! Tell the child you won't bring her a yellow teddy, you old fraud."
"Say you will!" – "Oh no he won't!" – "Oh yes he will!" – "Boooo!" – "Boooo!"
Charming blonde attachment started to bawl.
"Now look what you've done! Call yourself a Father Christmas, do ya?!" "Boooo!"
From then on it got so worse that my traumatised memory fails to recall any further painful details that led rapidly to my state of terminal despair.

Never doubt the powers of Fairy Godmothers, especially the one who assisted Santa on that fateful day. Assessing the grim situation from which there appeared to be no escape for Santa, she grabbed the microphone and declared that Santa was clearly tired after his journey and would appreciate a quiet cup of tea in a private room in the Hotel down the street. She successfully appealed to the parents of 'This angelic child' to come and detach their daughter from Santa. She declared that a Police escort would clear the way to the hotel for herself and Santa. The man in uniform responded instantly to his unexpected new duty and uttered dire warnings of eternal incarceration to anyone contemplating impeding Santa's progress. He then led the bemused and expectant mob towards the Hotel, where, having successfully delivered both Santa and Fairy Godmother inside the door, he stood stoically barring any further entry.

That obnoxious red outfit was quickly removed and I made a rapid, unobserved exit via the hotel kitchen to the service yard at the rear. Then I legged it, covering the three kilometers back to my car in what seemed to be mere seconds. Adopting a puzzled facial expression, I drove slowly through the village, past the denuded Christmas tree towards the hotel where people were still crowding around the entrance. I stopped the car, lowered the window and asked an elderly onlooker what the excitement was about.
"It's Father Christmas." came the reply, "He's in the hotel. We're waiting for him to come out again."
"I'm afraid he's gone. I met him in his Model-T. He's miles away by now." I informed him.
A familiar piercing wail rent the evening air: "I want a YELLOW TEDDY!"
I closed the car window and drove home.

Don't bother to ask me again. Flattery no longer works.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Blackboard by Laurence A. Gea

(Le tableau noir)    ©2011

Anna, still wearing her coat and shoes, drops her flowery backpack in the hallway. She zips it open, pulls out a sheet of paper and waves it in front of my face. 

“Look!” she says, beaming.

I read the first of the questions: 

“What was your favourite toy? Hmm...”

I see myself at her age, playing for countless hours with blond, red or dark-haired dolls; one is missing an arm, another has a funky eye, permanently shut no matter how vigorously you wake her up. But the image that stays with me is that of a three-legged easel at the back of which – on the plywood part - I used to write “secret” messages.

“My favourite toy was a blackboard,” I say. 

Anna lifts her eyebrows. 
 “A blackboard? What is a blackboard?”

In Anna’s school, all classrooms have interactive boards. From her desk, the teacher opens and closes folders on the white screen that faces the pupils. A large “Good morning,” displayed across a bucolic background of cows and green hills finally appears to greet everyone. The shape of the letters will look the same tomorrow. There will be no way to tell if the teacher has had a good night’s sleep.

I have often wondered why I do not feel the expected nostalgia whenever I take Anna to school. I recall a picture taken when I am her age, entitled “Ecole Primaire Arthur Rimbaud, Cours Préparatoire.” I am sitting at a small desk, similar to the ones I see in her classroom. I am wearing a white pullover with a large emerald green shamrock splayed across the front. My mother’s inspired needlework was my uniform for that day. 

Suddenly it dawns on me. The smells. I recall the scent and velvety feel of chalk; the sponge smelling of the past, that feels like a frog, and that you have to squeeze above a bucket with water the colour of a pond. The noises are different too. The clanking sound of the pointing stick dropped on the teacher’s desk, the occasional teeth-jarring screeches of chalk on board, the soft snap of a long piece being broken in two to better fit a small hand... All these sounds have been replaced by modern ones.

Tap, tap, tap, on the keyboard. 

Click, click, click, on the mouse. 

The voice of my godchild draws me out of my reverie.

 “Marraine, what happened to your blackboard?”
 “Well, I was probably too big for it.”
I clearly remember my disappointment the day I found out it had been given away; I suspect my mother wanted to help me let go of the past, so I could grow.
On the way to school the next day, I carry my imaginary tableau noir under my arm. Anna is hopping around me, showing off her Irish dancing steps. Her arms are slightly lifted for balance. 

“Look what I learned yesterday!” she says, beaming above her dicky bow.

Her feet tap, tap, tap the ground. 
My hands tap, tap, tap the keyboard. 

I pause, and decide to save those lines.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

William Cosgrove VC by Aidan O'Shea

A forgotten Irish Hero.
© 2011

The coast of East Cork has a modest charm of its own. Rostellan, Farsid, Whitegate and Roche’s Point lead on to Guileen and Inch bay.   This is the area where we spent seventeen summers, staying in former coastguard houses at Poer Head. That name (from the Norman-French de la Poer) tells us that this is fertile tillage land of large estates and relatively poor Irish tenants. 
I heard that a local man had been a First World War hero, and I set out in search of his story. William Cosgrove was born on October 1st 1888 at Ballinookera, near the little fishing village of Aghada. He was one of five sons to farmer Michael Cosgrove and Mary Morrissey. A daughter, Mary Catherine, died aged thirteen from tuberculosis. Life was harsh for the Cosgrove family, and Cosgrove’s father journeyed to Australia to seek work.
Mary Cosgrove and her six small children moved to a cottage in nearby Peafield. William attended the local school at Ballinrostig where his academic career was undistinguished. As soon as he was old enough, he left to become an apprentice butcher in Whitegate, a neighbouring village on the edge of Cork Harbour. He regularly delivered meat to Fort Carlisle army camp. The military establishments around Cork harbour were an important part of the local economy, drawing supplies and personnel from the immediate area. 
As the years passed, William’s thoughts turned increasingly towards the Army as a career, and in March 1909 he enlisted in the 1st battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers and was assigned regimental number 8980.  The Munsters had developed from the private army of The East India Company, which explains why their cap badge featured a Royal Bengal tiger. Life in the army for William up to 1914 would appear to have been very mundane, but the declaration of war in August, 1914 drastically changed all that. At the outbreak of war, the 1st Battalion of the Munsters was stationed in Rangoon, Burma. They left Rangoon on the 21st of November, 1914 and landed in England on January 10th, 1915, still in their Indian issue uniforms. They stood on the quays shivering in their khaki drill shorts. The battalion was then assigned to the 86th Brigade of the 29th Division, in preparation for the landings at the Dardanelles. This was a narrow strait in North-eastern Turkey, joining the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

The 1st Munsters together with the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Hampshire Regiment were on the converted collier ‘River Clyde’ when it ran gently ashore at ‘V’ beach on the 25th of April 1915 at 6.20am. On departing from the ship the 2000 British troops were subject to the most ferocious enfilading machine gun fire from the Turks. Some of the Battalion’s finest men fell at this stage of the battle; those who managed to get ashore could not advance due to this withering Turkish fire. On the following day it was decided to destroy the wire entanglements that the naval bombardment had failed to do. It was during this attack that Cpl Cosgrove performed the action that was to earn him the regiment’s first Victoria Cross of the war. The action is best described by Cosgrove himself.
Our job was to dash ahead, face the trenches, bristling with rifle and machine guns and destroy the wire entanglements. Fifty men were entailed for the work, poor Sergeant-Major Bennett led us, but was killed, a bullet through the brain. I then took charge, shouted to the boys to come on, from the village near at hand came terrible fire to swell the murderous hail of bullets from the trenches. Some of us got close to the wire and we started to cut it with a pliers, you might as well try and snip Cloyne round tower with a scissors.” He then grabbed hold of the stakes holding the barbed wire, “I dashed at the first one, heaved and strained and it came into my arms … I believe there was wild cheering when they saw what I was at, but I only heard the screech of bullets and saw dirt rising all round from where they hit. I could not tell you how many I pulled up. I did my best and the boys around me were every bit as good as myself.

He was also wounded during this action and was promoted to Sergeant and saw no further action due to his wounds. The award of the V.C. was gazetted on August 23rd, 1915, stating “For most conspicuous bravery leading this section with great dash during our attack from the beach to the east of Cape Helles on the Turkish positions on April 26th, 1915. Cpl Cosgrove on this occasion pulled down the posts of the enemy’s high wire entanglements single-handed, notwithstanding a terrible fire from both front and flank, thereby greatly contributing to the successful clearing of the heights.” 
A popular ballad celebrates the bravery of the Munsters, who lost 4267 men in World War One. 
The Kaiser knows the Munsters
By the Shamrock on their caps,
 And the famous Bengal Tiger, ever ready for a scrap,
 And all his big battalions, Prussian Guards and grenadiers,
 Fear to face the flashing bayonets of the Munster Fusiliers.

Cosgrove transferred to the Royal Fusiliers in 1918 to the Leinster Regiment in 1920, the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1922 and later went as an Instructor to the Indian Territorial Force in 1928 to become 7042223 Staff Sgt Instructor. These regimental changes came about following the disbandment of Irish regiments in July 1922, because of the establishment of The Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann). He came home in 1935 pending discharge to pension; unfortunately his plans were all to go wrong. He was admitted to Millbank hospital, but took discharge before he was fit. After a short leave in Cork, he returned to London, where he was admitted to Middlesex hospital with complications caused by shrapnel still lodged in his body. He was later transferred to Millbank hospital, where he died on 21st July, 1936.

William Cosgrove’s body was conveyed from London to Fishguard by road en route to Upper Aghada for interment in his native place. About five hundred members of the Old Comrades’ Association (O.C.A) of the R.M.F., met the vessel at Penrose Quay, Cork, and formed a guard of honour as the coffin was being taken from the boat to the waiting hearse. When the remains reached Upper Aghada, the coffin was removed from the hearse and shouldered by members of the Cork O.C.A., and local people to the burial place. The last post was sounded, while other ex-army men stood to attention. A British serviceman’s funeral was an unusual spectacle in those days, following the struggle for Irish independence. . On the 16th of June, 1940, the O.C.A. of the Royal Munster Fusiliers unveiled a memorial over the grave.

Every year, a small ceremony takes place at the war memorial in Whitegate village, to honour Irishmen who fought and died in all wars. Irish Army UN veterans mingle with British and US forces veterans in mutual respect and remembrance. A guard of honour is provided by the Irish Naval Service. 
Footnote:  The Dardanelles landings ended in failure and the withdrawal of Allied forces after ten months of intense fighting, at a cost of 200,000 lives. William Cosgrove’s portrait is given a place of honour in Collins Barracks Military Museum, Cork, beside veterans of the War of Independence. History has come full circle.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Doodlebug by Victor Sullivan

 A true story of Essex in World War Two    © 24/4/2010
"Please Mummy, may I go across the road to play with Carol?" eight-year-old Jane requested in a stage-whisper as she entered the kitchen where her mother was preparing one of the family's many rabbits for the evening meal. With a swift movement the rabbit was skillfully deprived of its skin as Jane watched the familiar procedure.
"That's not one of our own rabbits, is it, Mummy?"
"Er— of course not. I got this one from the butcher's shop. Why are you whispering?" asked her mother.
"Because Grandma is asleep in Daddy's chair again and I might wake her."
"Humph!" grunted her mother, the rabbit being of greater interest at that moment.
"Mummy, when Daddy comes home from the War will he let Grandma sleep in his chair like she does now?"
The eight-year old had asked that question more than once since her Grandma had come to live with them at number 14, Heath Drive in the quiet village of Theydon Bois at the edge of Epping Forest. Grandma's home and shop on Plaistow Road had been badly damaged by Luftwaffe bombs during one of the many air raids on the East End of London. Grandma had arrived on the doorstep of her married daughter Ivy's rural home accompanied by Jane's Aunt Cissy, a roll of carpet with a kitten inside it, some items of furniture and a piano with glinting shards of bomb-blasted window glass embedded in one end. Grandma felt safer, much safer, in Theydon Bois. Aunt Cissy went by train each day to work in London where her job entailed censoring mail. The Mansfield family and their next-door neighbours, the Johnstons, had jointly constructed an Anderson Air-Raid Shelter in the Johnstons' back garden. It had been used several times when the sirens wailed their rising and falling warning.  The village had experienced a few air raids.

Digging Party for the installation of the shared Anderson Air Raid Shelterat 14/16 Heath Drive. L to R: Mr. Moore,  Hod Mansfield (Jane’s father), Colin Dibble, Mr.Johnston. Mrs. Ivy Mansfield watches from over the fence.

"Will Daddy make Grandma sleep in some other chair when he comes home?" Jane asked again.
"We'll have to wait and see what happens when Daddy comes home, won't we."
"Mmmm. Please Mummy can I go to play with Carol?"
"Oh go on then!... Don't make a mess all over Carol's house... You should both play outside on a fine day like this."
"Yes Mummy!" Jane replied over her shoulder, already trotting down the driveway heading towards the home of her playmate directly across the empty road. As she reached the front door Jane became aware of a faint distant noise. An aircraft from nearby North Weald Airbase? She had often counted the Lancaster Bombers as they flew out on their deadly missions. She listened. No. This noise was not a Lancaster, nor was it the powerful snarl of a Spitfire. It gave her a creepy feeling, then, as she rang the bell she remembered what it was. She had heard it a few times before. The door opened and the welcoming, smiling face of Carol's mother looked down at her visitor as Jane pointed to the clear blue sky overhead said quietly,
"That's a Doodlebug, isn't it?"
Mrs. Forster's kindly smile vanished as she listened for a moment to the steady, harsh drone that was getting louder.
"You're right, Jane. It's a Doodlebug. Go home to your shelter!"
As Jane crossed the road her other friend, Meryl Brewley, was approaching and both girls pointed up at the sky together then ran to the back door of Jane's house. Jane burst in followed by Meryl and announced:
"There's a Doodlebug!"
"You'll call wolf once too often, young lady!" Jane's mother admonished her daughter and just then she became aware of the sound and realised the child was right as the rising wail of the Air Raid Siren confirmed the approaching danger.
"SHELTER!" barked her mother.
Jane and Meryl ran to the shared Anderson Shelter in the adjoining garden reaching it just as the now very loud noise of the Doodlebug suddenly stopped and Jane heard her mother yelling,
"Mum, Doodlebug! SHELTER! NOW!"
Jane leaped down over the few steps and dived into the Anderson Shelter followed by Meryl. The cramped metal structure was half under, half over the lawn, its roof covered in grassy turf. Glancing back Jane saw her mother run from the French window that led directly from the living room to the garden and almost throwing herself down the shelter steps. Meryl remembered her school training sessions, grabbed some pillows and clamped them over Jane's and her own ears. Jane's mother, Ivy, turned and screamed frantically towards the house:

The end of the word was obliterated by the most ear-shattering explosion they had ever heard. The shock-wave hit and they sat listening to the the tinkling of shattered glass followed by thuds and thumps outside. They waited. How long should they wait? Would it be safe to go out now? Would the house be still there? Would the other houses be still there? Would Carol's house be there? And what about the rabbits and the chickens in their flimsy accommodation under the apple tree at the end of the garden? It suddenly grew darker, much darker, as a dense cloud of black smoke enveloped the garden.
"Grandma?" said Jane.  Her voice didn't sound right. Her ears were not working properly. She repeated it, louder this time and it came out as a shriek:
Without a word her mother ran towards the house. There was a changed and darker world outside. Where there had been fresh green grass, clear skies and sunshine there was now a pall of thick, black smoke. Black smuts fluttered down onto the grass where bits of strange stuff lay smoking between larger fragments of twisted metal. Glass splinters from shattered windows were scattered everywhere.
The siren's wail began again, this time holding a continuous steady note denoting ALL CLEAR.
They rushed towards the house, relieved to see that it was still standing. On the way they passed one half of the French Window leaning against a rose bush. All its glass panes were still intact. It's other half was still closed and bolted in its place but every one of its glass panes had been shattered.
On the living room floor Jane's Grandma was getting to her feet in the midst of broken glass, books, knitting wool, an empty wooden biscuit barrel and knocked-over chairs. Only her dignity had been injured and the gentle old lady said things about Germans that her little granddaughter should not have heard her utter. But then, her own house and butcher shop had been destroyed by an air raid.... There was a limit to one's polite tolerance.
"Did the Doodlebug throw you on the floor, Grandma?"
"Of course not."
"Tea?" asked Ivy.
"Yes please, Ivy. Unless there's something stronger?" 
As Ivy went towards the sideboard her young daughter and Meryl went exploring into the hall. There they stepped over the attic hatch-cover that had tumbled down the stairs and now lay beside the door-mat. The girls cautiously ventured out through the hole where the front door had been. It now dangled crazily from one hinge having been blasted open. What an exciting day! Doors blown off hinges, windows broken and thick black smoke swirling about. Now Jane could definitely say that her home had suffered real bomb damage. Her status in school would be assured. 

"JANE! MERYL! Come over and see what's happened to all our windows." Carol called excitedly from across the road but before Jane and Meryl could respond a convoy of emergency vehicles led by an ancient Fire Engine with a clanging bell came up Heath Drive, heading towards the column of smoke rising at the end of the road. Two trucks of ARP men followed and some Home Guard volunteers on bicycles. 
"I must go home first," declared Meryl, "they will be worried about me." 
Jane crossed the road to join her other excited friend.
An ambulance drove slowly past and a Red Cross nurse called out to the two girls:
"Is there anyone injured in there?"
"No thank you, not today!" came the cheeky reply.
The ambulance progressed slowly along Heath Drive, unsuccessfully seeking injured victims, closely followed by the village Policeman, P.C. Hart, panting along on his bicycle. The next vehicle to arrive was far more interesting. It was a large van with steam rising from a vent in its roof. Jane and Carol followed it and watched as the side panel was raised to reveal a counter from which tea was immediately offered to everyone. FREE!
"It's the WVS! C'mon, let's get some tea." prompted Carol. Jane hesitated. 
"Better ask at home first." She did and regretted her decision.
"No!" Jane's mother dismissed her daughter's pleading request abruptly. "We have our own tea, even if it is rationed. The Women's Voluntary Service has come to help those people who have had their homes and their kitchens destroyed. It's not for the likes of you."
 Jane was about to argue when her mother grabbed her by the hand and said,
"I'm coming with you to see what damage was done to Heath Drive by that Doodlebug."
At the gate they found another neighbour, Mrs. Wiltshire and her young son Raymond, calmly watching the spectacle. Other neighbours had also emerged from their houses or from shelters. Friendly hand-waves were exchanged but few words were uttered. Jane and her mother didn't get far. A team of men were approaching with ladders, rolls of tarpaulin, a wheelbarrow of tools and an assortment of other emergency materials.
"Temporary windows and roof repairs at your service! Anyone get hurt here?"
"Nobody hurt. Windows smashed, even the taped ones, doors off hinges, attic hatch came down. Haven't had a proper look around yet."
"That'll do for starters. Just show me around while these guys run up a ladder and check your roof-tiles. We don't want loose tiles sliding down on anyone."
"Anybody hurt further along Heath Drive?" Ivy asked.
"Just one caught by a bit of flying glass. Two houses at the end of the Weind lost their back walls. One old lady got a bad fright when the back wall of her house came down. The house at the end of Heath Drive is badly wrecked, Bennett's they told me. Mostly windows smashed in the rest. Lucky everyone at that end of Heath Drive had gone on an outing, a picnic in Epping Forest someone said. They'll get a hell of a surprise when they get back, especially the Bennetts."
"Which house did it hit?" asked Ivy.
"None! Hitler missed! Bloody thing landed in the field. The farmer came down and is hopping mad as it burned one of his haystacks."
"My Grandma is hopping mad too." said Jane, "She said awful things about Germans. She said they were...."
"JANE! That will DO! Go play with Carol."
And she did. 
The two friends began to collect bits of Doodlebug from Carol's garden. Some of the bigger pieces were still warm. When Meryl returned and joined them they collected pieces from Jane's garden, then from the roadside and from other people's gardens. By the time their mothers came looking for them they had assembled a satisfying collection of twisted Doodlebug souvenirs. They intended to bring a few samples to school as evidence. That would show them! What an exciting day it had been. Pity about the WVS tea though.

That evening Jane's Auntie Cissy stepped from the LNER train at Theydon Bois station on her way home from her job censoring letters. There was an unusual buzz of excited chatter in the station booking hall as she passed through and she overheard "Doodlebug… Heath Drive… houses... V-1... destroyed... bomb... fire engines... many damaged…" 
Cissy ran all the way from the Station through the village, along Dukes Avenue and into Heath Drive, arriving breathless and gasping at Number 14, and found it was still there with everyone in it unharmed. She had to ask several questions  to elicit what had happened. They told her  that a V-1 flying bomb had exploded at the end of the road and broke some windows.

Jane,leaving her home on way to school. In her left hand she carries her gas mask (not visible)
The V1 impact site is at the end of the footpath, 125 metres away.

I lived in Theydon Bois for a few years in the late 1950s. The crater left by the V-1 Doodlebug was still clearly visible at Heath Drive then. So was Jane. She came down a snow-clad hill on a toboggan and crashed into me. We got married in 1960 and moved to Ireland where we celebrated our Golden Wedding in 2010. 
I count myself very fortunate that Adolf Hitler's V-1 Doodlebug missed Jane Mansfield of 14, Heath Drive, by 125 metres!


Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Dance that Never Was by Victor Sullivan

© 2010

The band was playing but where were the dancers?

The ballroom had been swept clean in readiness for the well advertised dance. The proprietor, Curly O'Donovan, personally carried out his final inspection, ensured that the toilets were clean, that fire extinguishers were in position and serviceable, that the rolls of admission tickets were in place and finally he drew the bag of cash from his overcoat pocket and placed it in the drawer of the  desk in the cramped ticket office. Satisfied that all was ready he sat down at the side of the empty dance-floor, unfolded his copy of the local weekly newspaper and studied the back page once more, trying to determine what opposition, if any, his planned dance might be facing. During the nineteen sixties in Ireland the back page of many local newspapers displayed entertainment and public dance announcements and there were no other dances advertised for the same night. The band he had booked was very popular. It would be a profitable night. 

The Bluebell Quartet had established a popular niche market offering a mixture of 'old fashioned' ballroom dancing with sing-along music that was well suited to a wide age-range market. Confident that its reputation would fill his hall for the well-advertised dance, Curly eagerly awaited the arrival of the band.  

At 8:30 pm he opened the door just as the band's minibus drew up outside. A quick greeting, some speculative remarks regarding the size of the crowd that could be expected and the four musicians began transferring their equipment from the minibus to the stage. At 9 o'clock the first notes of the evening were played to the empty dance-floor. Few, if any, patrons were expected to enter until after 10 pm, that was normal. Then a brave early trickle would quickly build up to a rush at the door and by 11 pm the polished floor would no longer be visible from the stage. 

The band ran through its warm-up selections for the first hour with only Curly as audience. By 11:30 there was a whiff of anxiety in the air. Where were the usual early fans? Curly approached the stage and spread out a copy of local newspaper, jabbing his finger on the generous display advertisement. There it was: Dance from 9 to 2  with music by the ever-popular Bluebell Quartet. 
Unease, puzzlement, worried glances and dismissive shrugs on the stage as the proprietor paced the bleak floorboards, eventually seeking solace in the projection room above the balcony.

The Bluebell Quartet played on, now well into the repertoire that should already have had scores of early feet on the dance-floor.
What could have happened? Had there been some major disaster that they were unaware of? Had the President died suddenly? Or the Pope? Never before had they played for an event where nobody turned up. Where were the Bluebell's devoted dancing followers? Had somebody started an unsavory rumor about the band, or about the hall? 

At midnight Curly strode out into the street, returning quickly to announce glumly from the centre of the dance-floor, "We'd better abandon the dance, lads. There's nobody coming. The street is empty. There isn't a living soul… OH!"
Four pairs of eyes stared down at him. He seemed to have been struck dumb or was about to have some sort of fit. He quickly regained his composure however.
"Pack up, lads. Pack up your gear and come to my house for a cup of tea."

Curly sat on one side of the empty hall, staring bleakly at the very clean floor like one defeated in battle while the four musicians dismantled their kit and loaded it into the minibus. Each one returned to the stage to make a final check that nothing had been forgotten and then sat beside the man who had booked them for his doomed dance.
"What's happened? Why did nobody turn up?" Edward enquired.
By way of reply Curly took out his wallet and began to count out notes.
"No!" Edward stopped him, "It's the business policy of the Bluebell Quartet never to take more than is taken at the door from a dance promoter. You took nothing tonight so that is what we charge. Nothing."
"No! Nothing!" echoed the other three, Harry, Willy and Victor as Curly waved the wad of notes towards them. 
"We'll hold you to the tea though!" added Harry, always quick to defuse an awkward situation with humor.
"But it wasn't your fault, it was all mine." declared Curly. The four pairs of eyes stared at him, silently demanding an explanation from the very embarrassed proprietor of the hall.
"I booked you for tonight but I forgot to check what night it was. Nobody would stay out late anywhere around this part of the country on this night. They're all afraid of the ghosts! It's All Souls Night. It's Halloween!"

                    © Victor Sullivan, 2010       (former Bluebell Quartet Organist)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

En Route to Congo by Bus by Gerry Mulcaire

Civil unrest and political instability on an Irish bus 
 ©  2011

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  While sitting on the bus on Merchants quay in Cork, feeling a mixture of apprehension and excitement, and wondering if this trip was worth the risk involved. After-all, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a country which is politically unstable and ravaged by war. Being one of a few white people in a mainly black population, I would stand out like a sore-thumb and with little of the local language it is not going to be easy.

 I read an article in the Examiner about Pat Falvey, the Mountaineer and adventurer from Cork, in which he spoke of his regret in spending so much time away from his family due to his adventure travels. I too have a passion for adventure travel, but also conscious of losing precious time with my kids, or even leaving them without a dad, as has happened to others. This causes conflict in me, but I am consoled by the thought that the good which will come out of this trip is worth the risk.    

 My wife called on my mobile to tell me they would be passing the bus shortly as the kid's wanted to wave at me, so I positioned myself by the window in order to catch their attention. Their eyes searched frantically for me, but they did not see me. My heart sank as I waved at them passing by. "Why did she not slow down driving past," I thought to myself. My attention turned to the other passengers on the bus, which was almost empty, and to the bus driver who had a very abrupt manner. A mother was standing outside the bus as her kids entered and the driver stopped them with an angry tone, hold it! He said. 'What's wrong with him now?', 'they have their tickets!' she shouted.

My attention then turned to the smell of alcohol and urine coming from the back of the bus. A man was lying across the back seats obviously drunk. After the driver was finished checking tickets he went to the back of the bus and tried to wake the drunken man, 'hello! Come on, wake-up! You can't sleep here!', while at the same time calling the Gardai, to have him removed. He then called his supervisor to advise him or her of the situation. Being aware of how much time was already being wasted in travelling by road and ferry to catch my flight in London to my final destination, DRC, which is situated in Central Africa,I did not need this unnecessary delay, nor expect to experience civil unrest so soon.

In the meantime the angry mother was still complaining loudly about the driver's attitude while looking for a seat in the middle of the bus as she moved from the back due to the stench, and probably not wanting to be near the driver either. It was obvious that the driver was irritable and taking it out on the passengers. As it was hard enough leaving my family for two weeks, not sure if I would even see them again, I was trying to stay positive, so not wanting to become a sounding board for her dissatisfaction with the driver and foul smell on the bus, I avoided eye contact with her.

Two Gardai arrived and managed to wake the man at the back and removed him from the bus. He looked to be in his sixties, and I tried to imagine what his story was. "Was he one of the Irish emigrants who went to London in the sixties and seventies?", and ended up alcoholic and homeless like many others. Had he come home for a visit and was now attempting to return to the UK, but had one or two too many to drink. Thinking to myself, 'There go I but for the grace of God', having been like him many years ago. 

All of this put a damper on my romantic thoughts of freedom and adventure. I missed my family already. Anyway, "No turning back now"! I thought to myself as we pulled away from the bus stop.

Things started to look up as we changed drivers in Waterford and the new driver was much friendlier and cheerful. We were not sorry to see the back of the other one. His departure triggered sighs of relief, and comments about his aggressive manner could be heard around the bus.

Eventually we arrived at Rosslare harbour and had to wait a while before we could board the ship. Some of the passengers got out for a smoke, as they had done at every opportunity on the way. Noticing a family with young children playing outside the bus, I missed my own kids already. After a while the driver informed us we would have to get off the bus with our hand-luggage to clear customs, and get back on the bus again to board the ship. Driving straight on would have been more convenient, besides being on the ferry would feel like making more progress on my journey.

As we would be travelling through the night on the ferry, I explored the decks and lounges searching for somewhere to sleep. At one stage while lying across seats in a lounge I heard the voices of the family who were playing outside the bus. The mother was complaining about a man who was being aggressive to the kids. Later, overhearing one of the kids saying that the man looked like he was going to grab one of them, and sensing there was a bit of paranoia going on, I moved to another spot in case of being a suspect, as I was travelling alone. 

Next morning as we were waiting for the deck door to open , this family were also waiting at the same door, and the mother gave me an accusing look  as she said to her daughter 'Come over here love!,' while keeping her gaze on me. Feeling offended by her look I was hoping she could see the picture of my kids on my mobile phone, which was at an angle so she could see them, and see I am a parent too. Then, another frightful thought, 'What if she thinks I am taking photos of her kids?' Later on I was regretting not saying something like" Don't worry I have enough of them at home."
Maybe I should be more understanding as I am very protective over my own children. At this stage, having enough of this paranoia I was hoping the deck doors would open.

It was good to be back on the bus making headway on my long journey. We had a few more stops before we reached London, and eventually arrived. As if there was not enough paranoia to deal with on the journey, worse was to come here. Mainly due to the terrorist threats and the Glastonbury festival which is a major event in the UK there were police with sniffer dogs checking commuter's bags. Being conscious of the fact that I would be waiting for some time, and the police being on high alert, my presence would seem suspicious to them. Loads of people were being stopped and searched, and although I had nothing to hide having two suitcases and a ruck-sack it would have been very inconvenient, besides I was tired, and impatient to start the next leg of my journey. Being so eager to get on the bus for Heathrow I jumped the queue without realising it, but on hearing a sarcastic remark from the driver, promptly apologised to the other passengers, and boarded the bus, happy to see the back of Victoria.

Finally we arrived in Heathrow, where I could begin to make faster headway to my destination. After rearranging the contents of my bags to sort out the stuff to carry in my hand-luggage and weigh the bags again, there was another long wait for check –in. With my suitcases checked in I was able to relax and felt much freer. 
Boarding was announced and I was finally on my way, feeling foolish for wasting so much time travelling by road and ferry, when I could have been here in less than 2 hours if I had taken a flight, but on second thoughts considering my budget was tight  I saved myself a lot of money.