This is the continuing story of ‘my brilliant career’ in the army! I had returned from my regime of prayer and fasting, otherwise known as a Religious Leadership course, none the wiser, but many times lighter from the in-edible food provided along with regular religious services by the Army Chaplain’s Department..
Back at my all women unit I prepared for my next adventure, and another opportunity to meet the young men we yearned to fall in love with, but never got within coo-ee of. Going on a course was the only opportunity of meeting the opposite sex, so this time I’d sent my name in for a fire fighting course.
The instructions told me to bring a boiler suit. This did not bode well for a non-athletic person, but I accordingly went to the quarter-master, a grim north countrywoman who’d served all through World War Two, and didn’t approve of frivolous young things like me. Accordingly she issued me with a khaki boiler suit with its outrageous measurements listed on a label stitched to my bottom. It was so huge I had to wear a belt round the middle of my newly skinny frame to keep it up, and was, as I assumed the quartermaster had intended, a perfect antidote to any masculine interest!
Arriving at the squalid house where a harpy ripped off the army by giving us abominable food and beds, I walked into the ante room, where a group of attractive -looking young men stopped talking and sat in frozen silence, while I wondered what on earth to say or do. Luckily an old boy friend arrived and took me out to dinner (my last decent food for a fortnight), and told me that while he waited for me to go and change, one of these young men addressed the room, and declaimed: “What was that!”
The next day we all gathered at the Maidstone Fire Station. We began with a long introductory lecture, the gist of which I found hard to follow, as the Chief Fire Officer repeatedly emphasized that there would be no blue jokes and sexual innuendo. Every time these remarks were re-iterated, the various young men stole sideways looks at me, and I sat there completely mystified. But after a few days of lectures, when the practical work began, light dawned. From now on, as we reeled hoses, and ran up and down directing icy water, and manhandled female couplings, man holes, male-female connections and a number of other technical terms, I realised what these kindly firemen had tried to spare me!
Every day when we staggered back to our digs on freezing foggy December afternoons, I for one, was absolutely shattered with reeling and running and sliding down greasy poles and even climbing out of a tower on what seemed to be a piece of white cotton, and being lowered to the ground. (where my knees gave way from the aftermath of terror, and I fell on them).
I made sure I was first into the bathroom to warm up with a hot bath, and it was only on the last day, I discovered that the extreme chivalry of my fellow sufferers had caused them to hide from me the fact that that was the only hot bath in the cistern. There was no more hot water until the next morning when I had my early morning bath! On the last day too, the lovely men at the Fire Brigade staged a ceremony at which they gave me their badge mounted on a piece of leather for me to wear as a medal, and said I could come back and join their brigade any time I wanted.
Back to my nunnery at the depot, I thankfully forgot about fire fighting, and never gave it another thought. Two years later, when I had unexpectedly been made a captain at the early age of twenty two, I was posted with this rank to another all-women unit – the training centre! Did they have something against me at the War Office?
When I was taking over the job from a much older and rather sporty woman who drove the latest model expensive sports car – a cream TR4 – she pointed out that I would also be taking over as fire officer from her as well. “Did you do that awful course at Maidstone?” she asked in her clipped tones. I nodded, feeling slightly intimidated by this very assured person. “Some bloody Amazon had done it just before me,” she continued, “and I was expected to run around and climb out of towers and generally behave as though I was on an outward bound course.”
Good heavens, I thought to myself. That must have been me. Didn’t I have to do all those hefty horrendous fire- fighting exercises? No wonder the Maidstone Fire Brigade had taken me to their hearts, given me their badge and offered me a job! My fire fighting duties here at Liphook were not too onerous, and consisted of regularly inspecting the seven rather dim General Duties soldiers, allotted to us to do any heavy work. When lined up for inspection they looked rather like the seven dwarfs. Our fire-fighting equipment consisted of rows of three red – painted galvanised steel fire-buckets filled with sand lined up outside each hut, along with a stirrup pump. Naturally we made sure that the ancient stirrup pumps were in good working order!
The camp was surrounded by bracken covered heath which often caught fire, and I would hear the Liphook volunteer fire fighters sounding their siren. One night I turned over hearing the siren again, and was just sleepily thinking that it sounded much nearer than usual, when my bedroom door flew open, and there stood my stout colonel, fearsome in riding breeches and a duffle coat flung on over her pyjamas. “That’s Our fire alarm,” she barked!
To be continued ! Three previous instalments of this account of my brilliant army career are in the archives under: ‘A Soldiers Life is Terrible Hard’ and: ‘Carrying on with the Army.’
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I’ve spent the Easter break knocking up dinners, lunches and morning teas for relays of family and friends who’ve come every day of the holidays. At the beginning of the holiday I baked a fruit cake which would last for the whole holiday, moist and too filling to gobble up.
It’s simplicity itself. The basic recipe is one pound of mixed fruit, half a pound of butter and a bit less of sugar, three eggs, half a pound of flour, pinch of salt and vanilla. You simmer the fruit in a little water until soft, then add sugar, butter, essence and salt, and when cool add the beaten eggs and the flour. Bake in a medium to slow oven for an hour or until cooked.
I’ve never made the basic recipe. I add extra fruit, things like chopped dates, finely chopped figs and sometimes prunes, a spoonful of fig and ginger jam or apricot, I use brown sugar, treacle or golden syrup instead of some of the sugar, and sometimes add spices and nutmeg, or orange and lemon juice…ginger marmalade… sometimes ground almonds, or oatmeal or whole meal flour – anything that I think will be delicious! It never tastes the same, but it’s always moist and more-ish. I dredge the top with sugar, so it has a nice crisp sweet top. Simple!
Food for Thought
Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song – the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter, the joy that sits still with its tears on the open lotus of pain, and the joy that throws everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word.
Rabindranath Tagore, the very sound of whose name is poetry, is one of my favourite poets. He was a Bengali, and lived from 1861 to 1941