Nasturtiums in my garden
My brilliant career in the army, making unconscious mayhem as a recruit and scrambling through officer training, had not quite lived up to my expectations of discovering gorgeous young men, eager and willing to escort me into a glamorous high life of dancing and dates, which was what women’s magazine of the fifties sold as the ideal preparation for marriage.
They also suggested that a touch of white around the neck, and spotless white gloves were the final touches needed for any ambitious girl to find her beau. So far the army had not given me much scope to achieve these dreams of social success. First recruit training in an all woman training depot, and then a year at an all woman officer training unit cut off from all other human contact in the middle of a bracken – covered heath dotted with silver birch woods.
Absolutely beautiful, but at nineteen I didn’t have the same thirst for nature and for beauty that I have fifty five years later. So it was a blow when I found myself back to the nunnery for my first posting, at my old stamping ground, (literally) the Depot. There were still people there who remembered me enraging the Colonel by marching around in a red coat because I’d arrived on the wrong day, and ingenuously behaving as though I was in Harrods when fitting my marching shoes at the Quartermaster’s store.
But they let this pass now that I sported one lonely little pip on my brand new officer’s uniform. They even saluted me, and I gingerly returned the courtesy knowing that I hadn’t actually earned the respect they were forced to give me.
The one bright spot was that I was simply one of half a dozen girls like me, even though I was the youngest, and some of them are still friends after a life-time. Our main ambition was to escape the depot and get a posting overseas, which was our idea of heaven. But we had to make the best of it in the mean-time, and an intermediate stage of paradise was to get oneself on a course – this could be anything from a pay course to a signals course.
The unspoken idea was that while we were escaping from our nunnery, we would meet some of these gorgeous young men we were sure were lurking in the rest of the army, and while they were there to learn about pay or signals and maybe further their careers, we went to enjoy ourselves.
I immediately put my name down for a religious leadership course – that seemed an easy one, and a fire-fighters course – this happened to be with the Maidstone Fire Brigade, and I was the envy of the other girls because I actually had a long distance boyfriend who was ADC to a general not far from Maidstone. I planned to see plenty of him during the course.
I was accepted for both courses, and accepted the congratulations of my friends. All I had to do now was wait for the time to come round – they both were six months away. Anticipation kept me soldiering on through the regular rituals of documenting recruit intakes, inspecting said recruits and their barrack room floors and giving them boring lectures on pay scales, army routines and regulations; signing pay books on pay parade, and getting myself on parade every day on time to march the recruits round the huge parade ground. Not exactly romantic, but you have to start somewhere.
December came at last, and all excitement I set off for the religious leadership course. It was set in a large country house, Bagshot Park. Then, it was the headquarters of the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department and sported a notice by the lake saying ‘Please do not walk on the water’. It had been a royal residence for hundreds of years, before being pulled down and rebuilt for Queen Victoria’s third son, the Duke of Connaught. He died in 1942 and the lease went to the padres. Today this Queen’s third son, Prince Edward, lives there with his wife and two children in the 120 room mansion.
I arrived on a cold foggy day, when the depressing rhododendrons were dripping damply around the red brick house. Inside it was swarming with young men – very heaven!!! There was one other girl on the course. We had this concourse of young men to ourselves! However, on closer inspection, few of them were up to scratch for the destiny we had in mind for them.
Not many of them were dashing, only one of two had glamorous little sports cars – and only some of them seemed interested in us. However, bearing up, we made the most of our opportunities, and I for one, enjoyed the luxury of a huge bedroom and bathroom which had once belonged to the dead Duchess of Connaught.
We now had ten days of getting up at dawn for Holy Communion, and attending various services like Matins and Evensong throughout the day in the chapel, ending with Complines (a lovely service) at ten o clock and lights out. In between all this church going we listened to unmemorable lectures, which never seemed to actually give any information on how to be a religious leader in one’s community (I am in still in the dark fifty five years later).
I nearly starved to death, the food was so awful. A handful of us were driven to bribe the cooks to leave the side door unlocked, and we sneaked out in search of food, sometimes as far away as London … The only places open for a hearty meal at that time of night tended to be transport cafes, catering to long distance truck drivers. We pigged out gratefully on fried bacon, egg, chips, sausages and tomatoes, before tiptoeing back to the sleeping padres.
After two days of what felt like fasting, and churchgoing, we were called together for an announcement. The padres considered it unseemly that the two young maidens (us) should be using the same staircase up to our bedrooms as the young men. Forty of them and two of us. So the in-offensive young men were banished to the back stairs up which once valets and skivvies and ladies maids had toiled, while we used the grand heavily carved main staircase which led down into the great hall where we gathered before meals and lectures.
Josie and I sailed down this great staircase in our high heels and solitary state several times a day, the cynosure of all eyes. Head held high, straight spine, carefully nyloned legs, manicured hands sliding gracefully down the smooth stair-rail, we made the most of it, especially at night when we had to change for dinner.
What the prim padres, anxious to protect our virtue didn’t know, was that my soaring bathroom had a spiral staircase up to the maid’s room above. And in the maid’s bedroom were crammed five lusty young men. On the nights when we weren’t roaming the streets desperately looking for food, and sometimes on those nights too, the trapdoor would open. The chaps would all perch on the narrow steps of the spiral stairs, while Josie and I sat on the edge of the bath in our dressing gowns, and made ovaltine for us all with hot water from the tap, using our tooth-mugs.
We shuddered to think what the padres would think of this depravity. Honi soit qui mal y pense.
(The next instalment of this thriller/chick lit/ dubious autobiography will come when I can’t think of anything else to write. Previous instalments are under the headings of A Soldiers life is Terrible Hard..)
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Tomatoes are still cheap and plentiful, and when we had a celebration dinner for our national day, Waitangi Day this week, I used this tomato recipe with roast chicken legs tossed in flour and fried to make the skin crisp; plus roast potatoes parboiled and thrown around the saucepan in flour to give them a rough edge so that when they were cooked in hot oil they were crunchy and crisp, leeks and carrots. The tomatoes, which should have been a starter, lubricated the meal so we didn’t need any gravy. We followed this unusually elaborate meal for two with a left- over Christmas pudding – sweet, aromatic and enhanced with glorious brandy butter!
The tomato recipe comes from a French doctor and cookery writer Eduard de Pomiane. I’ve used it for the last fifty years or more, but he is now becoming a bit of a cult, and I saw this recipe re-produced recently in an article by English novelist Julian Barnes.
It’s simple as, and de Pomiane suggests it as a starter. Slice six tomatoes and put them cut side down in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Puncture the skin at intervals with a sharp knife. After five minutes turn them over and cook for five more minutes. Then turn them back again for ten minutes, and finally turn them again, cut side up. The juices run out of the slits in the skin. When they are cut side up the last time, pour about three ounces of thick cream into the pan to merge with the juices. As soon as it bubbles, slide onto a dish and serve immediately. The taste is utterly unique.
Food for Thought
You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation … and that is called loving. Herman Hesse 1877 -1962 German – Swiss writer and painter, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature