Our tablecloth is a large print of a world map. It covers a rather beautiful oak table that we bought in a moment of impulsive consumerism. We would rather like it to survive until after the children have left home, although I suspect it will continue to be covered for a long time after that, until one day our great grandchildren come to clear the house of our possessions and shout “I do declare – there was a beautiful oak table under here all along!”
But I digress. The tablecloth seems to initiate conversations and discussion with just about everybody who sits and has a cup of tea with us. For some people it’s a raised eyebrow and comment on how ‘interesting’ it is. For others it is a chance to indulge in some curiosity sating walks around the world with their fingers.
Our own family plan imaginary (hopefully real one day) trips and trace the steps of previous journeys and adventures; it is a tablecloth of dreams and desires. To add to the excitement our world is often populated with little extra islands of Weetabix and archipelagos of sticky cake crumbs.
When granddad comes to stay he uses it to show us all the places he went to and talks about the things that happened to him during his time in the navy during and after WW2. This visit he told us the story of Bermondsy Bill;
When he was billeted with a family in Hounslow – with Mrs Collier and her unattached 18 year old daughter Barbara, who was sent to accompany grandad on any and every errand and excursion he left the house for – he was sharing a room with another sailor called Bill, from Bermondsy. Bill didn’t particularly like the authority aspect of being in the navy and found it hard to bite his tongue at times.
Naturally this resulted in lots of ‘opportunities for Bill to reflect on his conduct’, but eventually he went a step too far and was transferred, disappearing from the house and the base overnight. He was replaced with a married man who spent all his spare time fiddling his leave and forging passes and tickets so he could visit his family in Torquay.
Some years later grandad ran into Bermondsy Bill again, at a transit camp in India. He found that Bill had been given a ‘special duty’ on a patrol boat in the Arctic Ocean. He spent his time shivering with cold, watching for German boats sneaking down from the North and crying himself to sleep at nights. He had never progressed beyond stoker and thought perhaps he maybe shouldn’t have answered back quite so much.
We all felt there was a moral in here somewhere, but I will let you decide for yourself what it is.
After a lengthy spell teaching in London I moved back to my native Westcountry just before the start of the new millennium. I knew it was going to be a culture shock initially, from a school set in the middle of one of Hackney’s finest housing estates, to a school surrounded by houses with gardens! During my first week in my previous school the Headteacher was chased through the school by an irate parent wielding a knife. My new school, in stark contrast, had a floral settee in the entrance lobby, a flower bed by the front gate and the parents weren’t armed.
For the first month or so it was like being on holiday, lots of walks on the beach, a big (by comparison to our old house) garden to dig in, new lanes, shortcuts and roads to explore. This was followed by a new baby to distract us through the Spring. We celebrated and enjoyed the differences, while at the same time missing the vibrant multi-cultural community we had left behind.
The following winter I was at school late one evening. A meeting had been planned for the governing body. I had held on rather than go home and back and so was there when the governors started to arrive. I made tea and offered a plate of biscuits as we made small talk and waited for the meeting to start.
Most of the Governors at that particular time were elderly ladies, retired teachers, upstanding members of the community, local residents. They turned up with their M&S cardigans and matching skirts with handbags neatly tucked under their chairs – it was what I had always imagined my Grandmothers Women’s Institute meetings to be like.
As I chatted to one of the governors, grey hair and a trace of an accent I politely enquired what the accent was as I could not place it. She told me it was German, but it had faded as her family had moved to the UK straight after the war, when she was a young girl. Naturally this led to me asking about her experiences as a child in such a turbulent and monumental moment in modern history.
I was interested in the response she gave. She talked a little of her impression that everybody wore uniforms, of how she was protected from the reality of what was happening and was largely unaware of events unfolding across Europe. She casually moved on to talk about how she vividly recalled a party her parents had hosted, when Rudolf Hess – Hitler’s Deputy – had attended. She had met him and been sat on his knee when she was introduced.
It gave a new perspective to a set of events that I had previously only read about in books and been told about in History lessons. In a small infant school in Devon I met someone who lived through this period of history, and met a monster – who it turns out was just a person sometimes.