[Memoir: using facts from my father’s war to create a 3000 word story]
A face like Dorian Gray
All during the film I couldn’t help feeling my face, following the fine line of the rebuild across my cheek to the bridge of my nose, straight down and across my lip to my chin and back up – the great divide between my two faces, old and new. Unlike Dorian Gray I carry both my faces with me. Yes I am two faced, but I am no longer useless.
VJ Day – Victory over Japan, the final stroke of the war and my victory over the world which had branded me ‘Useless’. There are two aspects to being ‘useless’: as looked at by others and how you see yourself. They said I was useless and I proved them wrong. I felt I was useless and proved myself wrong.
Edith saw the hard face at first.
I heard her voice first – from the stage. I was making myself useful at our Amateur Dramatic society, managing the door and penny programmes. I was standing at the back and was struck more than any High Explosive or even that Landmine in the Blitz. ‘Whose is that voice?’
Ray Mort and Fred Warburton were holding forth centre stage. The three womenfolk listened in. Tension built in me as none of them had a line for a few minutes. It couldn’t be Edith Pooler – she was playing a crippled girl. Joan Carty had been in our Peggy’s class and I had heard her babbling. No, it must be Yvonne Lees – I don’t know her.
Ray then turned to his two ‘sisters’ and Yvonne spoke first before…
‘It’s Edith Pooler!’ A voice pealing, true as a bell. I had known her all her life – I was really going to get to know her now.
Crumpled then crushed by my war, at twenty one in 1943, I had dragged myself from the wreckage that was me. I had shaken off the dust, removed my invisible bandages and touched up my new face with a hard gloss. I couldn’t add a smile, so what Edith saw that first time was an arrogant smirk. It had taken a whole week to pluck up the courage to ask her out. I didn’t ‘await my opportunity’, I strode up and knocked on her door and she knocked me straight back.
It was wartime and lovers – most lovers – seized the day. That next day, Edith knocked on my door and made me a reluctant proposition: her friend’s beau was home on pre-embarkation break – would I like to make up a foursome with Edith? Though she tried, she couldn’t get rid of me after that.
It took a long time for her to see beneath my hard face. The first time she saw, she saw a face twisting in the agony of an epileptic fit, and I didn’t see her afterwards.
I had had some ‘blackouts’ as I called them throughout my youth – I had fallen out of a tree at Thorn Leigh School when I was sixteen and everyone thought that had brought on my ‘fainting fits’ as they called them. They didn’t recognise the reason for the fall as one of those fits. I refused to go back to ‘Turd Leigh’ – it was all very well having no corporal punishment, but I didn’t like the way they tried to get their hands on my body. The knock meant I had lost my way to my Higher School Leaving Certificate; anyway I had gone AWOL to cousins in Ireland.
When I came back with my tail between my legs, Pa got me into De La Salle in Manchester for the 1939 year, but I had to ‘start again’ with lads mostly two years younger than me. This was no hardship – from a large family brought up through the depression, a dead pan face and a nonchalant air were the only means of carrying off the fact of wearing cast-off or grown-out of clothes and maintaining face, both in school and with social acquaintances. Two faces. At home we jokingly referred to ‘carrying things off in the Grand Murphy Manner’. It was not in fact a joke – rather a family complex, to show or admit internal upset was a sign of weakness and in very bad taste.
People think it strange, but ‘The Boss’ – Brother Columba, at De La Salle – had made an instant impression on me – a good one. After my first misdemeanour: he ‘had’ to give me the strap on each hand. Then he immediately asked ‘Do you play Hand-ball? See you on the court at five.’ Offence – Punishment – Forgotten, and no long lecture with a creepy hand on my knee.
He also showed tacit recognition of my extra years, giving me prefectorial duties and some privileges – one of which led to my need for a new face. This was a combination of right and responsibility – if I took a major role in maintaining the school boiler, I could smoke my pipe in the boiler house. One time I pulled out the boiler’s ash-tray and was overcome by fumes. I was apparently rescued by two lads and I woke up in the neighbouring Hope Hospital. There they took a patch of skin from my thigh and made up my face – and a good job they made of it too. They said I wouldn’t grow hair on my cheek, but on VJ Day five years later I missed a section of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as Edith stroked my stubble and kissed my lips.
Ironically Salford’s other Hospital – The Royal – itself needed a new face a couple of years later after Fritz blew it off, killing 16 nurses – that’s a crater in the foreground.
The Boss tipped the wink at me after recuperation: “I’m confiscating your bacca, Patrick, I reckon that John Cotton is too strong for you – knocked you out!” My Pa had given me a tin of his favourite ‘John Cotton’ – maybe he shouldn’t have made it the strong one – but when Columba eventually gave it me back for the holidays, I barely restrained myself from accusing him of helping himself to a good few pipefuls out of it.
In the Christmas Blitz of 1940, some of us senior boys were encouraged to be Stretcher Bearers for our two hospitals – Hope was only half a mile away – and it was another lad’s affliction that saved my life: we were sheltering in one of the small concrete-roofed, brick Air Raid Shelters thrown up on all sorts of open spaces – Piccadilly was covered with them. It was full-to-bursting with old folks and mothers with children – hot sweaty and tense. A man with a mouth Organ was leading everyone in a jolly old sing-song in the hope of distracting the little ones at least.
Johnny then came over with an attack of claustrophobia. He asked the warden to let him out, but he refused. We sat back down but poor Johnny started to tremble, then to moan and eventually was wailing and screaming. The mothers were put out with him upsetting the infants, tutting him and telling him to grow up Eventually the warden threw us out.
Fritz was having a great party and we were invited. We hadn’t gone a hundred yards when we felt the whoomp before we heard the bang of a landmine from where we had just come. We rushed back and one of the worst sights of my life, one that will never leave me, was the man with the harmonica, bolt upright, eyes open, organ in mouth, silent and still – his legs cut off by a slab of the fallen roof. Everyone inside was killed.
As well as parachuting down the odd huge landmine, the raiders mainly used a combination of bombs – High Explosive to break up brick, stone and concrete, followed by a hail of tiny incendiaries that burn up all the wood – and people. The incendiaries were only the weight of a bag of sugar and could be extinguished with a bucket of sand. Also lots of them were duds – didn’t go off – and could be thrown to safety.
The second incident that has stuck with me, was our rugger captain taking on one of those little blighters. A crowd had gathered outside Hope Hospital pointing at the fin of an incendiary sticking out of a roof gutter.
The old Victorian building was constructed as pairs of wards. The brave sport got a ladder and climbed to a window on one side, hauled up his ladder and perched it across to the opposite window, zigzagging – only three storeys, but high ones – to a growing roar of the crowd. As he reached the top, we were all hushed as he peeped over the weapon … and it blew him off the ladder.
After my accident I was given a letter or exemption from military service, but I had done alright in the Blitz hadn’t I? I got my call up in 1942 and reported to Hinckley just before my twentieth birthday in April. I passed A1 in my medical. The initial impression on most of us students, clerks and office workers was complete culture shock – three chaps committing suicide in the first week – one a pal of mine, a solicitor, simply jumped off a roof.
The first fortnight was tough for me too: I was issued with a blanket which had fresh vomit on it. I asked politely for another and was told in certain words to get on with it. I told the corporal that there was no need to swear, and for my blushes I was given a litany asking me to explain what the strips on his arms were, “fucking birdshit?” The upshot was that I got blanket rash on my new fresh face, leaving my chin scarred for life. This attitude of the NCOs really so grated on one of my new pals, that he planned to cosh the Sergeant Major in a blackout with a sock-full of sand. Whether he actually did or not, the officer was not seen again on our parade ground. However, his ghost won the day. The pal was put on Jankers for a far smaller breach of discipline, and after spending two weeks of chores at the double, he was a broken man and didn’t recognise me thereafter.
After the initial weeks of square bashing and rifle training and a week’s leave in June, I settled to it and was deployed as a storeman and soon a clerk in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.
Then the fun started. I blacked out getting into a lorry – basically I fell out. I could have passed it off as falling onto my head and knocking myself out, but it was apparent to my mates that it was nothing of the sort. I had a week’s leave to recover in September and everything seemed to be going tickety-boo, when in November I blacked out on machine gun practice, gripping the trigger as I collapsed, almost shooting the Sergeant Major’s head off.
I had to face a full Medical Board and my Christmas present from the British Government in 1942 was to be deemed useless – unfit for service.
I had to admit to being very ill – I lost my memory – completely for a few weeks – and didn’t recognize my Pa when he came to visit. There was such shame in Epilepsy, that I always felt that he thought I had just ignored him – far from it, I had never needed a loving father more.
The next period at home was not happy as I felt that my family had no sympathy for me – simply that I was sulking and swinging the lead. I recall my perfectly robust eldest brother – now a parish priest – paying a home visit, and me being told to stand up and let ‘poor Father Dermot sit down’.
I put in a few weeks at the local Coop shop and enjoyed the simple ribaldry of the women working there. I used to mimic them at home and was castigated for ‘lowering myself’ to their level.
My mother couldn’t think why I had destroyed my medical certificate when I was called up. There weren’t any heroics involved – I just wanted to be like all the other men – big bro Kevin was climbing aerials in the RAF.
It was he who got me back on course – not without a very heavy hand on the tiller. On leave as I was into recovery, he professed the family all dumbstruck when they heard that I had not used my ‘sick note’. He asked me what I had been thinking of to put other people’s lives in danger (on my own side!) by handling armaments when I knew I had epilepsy. Ma said it was one of my ‘Megrims’: a capacity not only for developing crackpot notions but for holding onto them through thick and thin until they became hallowed – the given truth. Well – she was an Irish Seanachie, always telling us fanciful tales – she would know.
What my brother winkled out of me was that I had indeed developed one of my famous ‘megrims’,and had convinced myself that epilepsy was syphilitic in origin and that to produce such a medical certificate was tantamount to saying that one of my parents had syphilis! He inveigled me into going to see our family Doctor – indeed our father’s close friend – who spotted that my assiduous study of available encyclopaedias at De La Salle, had led me to conflate the sentence ‘Neurosyphilis has symptoms of Epilepsy’, into ‘Neurosyphilis is Epilepsy’ – and of course vice versa. I believed the doctor, where I mistrusted my own brother, and started the regime of medications that kept me if not seizure-free, then at least steady, and as normal as I could feign. He also told me to ‘stay off alcohol’, which wisely or not, I failed to heed.
With Ma’s Seanachian tendency to escape to fantasy with 8 children during the depression and the thirties, you can see reminiscence as a kind of poultice or a basket of lost dreams – I certainly had lots of those: I was going to inherit the family farm in Ireland, but unbeknown to us, my uncle had already sold it; I was going to teach – but I didn’t even have my Highers. Though I was the sixth of eight, now I was the last – even my younger sister and brother were succeeding – a nurse and another airman. I knew my place – the black sheep.
That unwanted face again.
I persevered with Edith and she eventually saw that the arrogance was a cover – I had nothing to be arrogant about, even if my family were a different class from her cobbling and mill-worker family, she saw that I loved people – and fun. We sang together, and made a lovely couple on the dance floor. Shy as she was she transformed on stage and she could that the person most people thought was me was just an act.
We went to a lot of flicks, and I my love of the horror films – “The Monkey’s Paw” and “Pandora’s Box” – didn’t frighten her, they were a tease. And now here we were at the Heywood Picturedome watching “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.
Dorian’s true face was hidden in a locked loft. He had sold it to the devil for the price of an image of eternal youth. Mine was buried deep inside and I prayed God it would one day come together and melt away the plastic one. The warmth of Edith’s hand got the process going; would her warm heart light up my eyes?
We had caught the early house at the ’dome at Heywood, to be sure of getting a bus back to Bury.
As we left the horrific painting of Dorian gurning over his dead body in the dark loft, we went blinking into the bright light of that August evening and it was the noise that hit us first – cheering and church bells, whistles and bangers laughing, roaring and singing. “Pack up your troubles” – pack them up indeed.
Sights swung in on that sunny night – swaying and waving crush – with and without flags – kissing, cuddling, and canoodling. “Hey, that’s my girl!” Edith – my girl. Another girl kisses me! I better get hold of Edith and kiss her, but why, what’s it all about? Because I am bursting with love, of course. No – it’s…
“…it’s what you say?”
No buses or trams. Everyone was out dancing in the street. We knew it was coming … but what has actually happened? We were swept up into the swirling delight, Edith almost pulled my fingers out of their sockets, but she held on, held on to me.
“Victory! … Japan’s…!”
Edith shouts in my ear – “Japan’s surrendered Pat – it’s all over!”
Oh no it’s not – it’s really just got going – for us. But hey, Okey Okey Cokey! We are putting our whole selves in.
“War’s over!” over the roar. Grasping, linking arms, loosening again and move on, be moved. Where too? Down into town. I drag Edith towards the Bury Road. Maybe a bus down here. No. Well down there.
I’m not sure our feet touched the ground all the way back home to Bury, but I do know that after we had passed through the town centre and seen the bald headed Bobbies laughing at the lads updating Bobby Peel’s hat and giving him a scarf of bunting and a flag to hold … that on Bury Bridge we had each other to hold. One last … one first real kiss before I carry her over the Irwell.
“Give over, you daft ’ape’orth!”
To a new life of Peace, to face the world anew, to face the world with somebody. I knew it. I could no longer be a nobody going nowhere, I just could not. I’m a somebody, going somewhere looking the entire world in the face, with Edith by my side.