This evening is my last session with ECT but she has been rather coy about its format. The CrossTalk with Kath was very illuminating, she said, so much so she might alter her own practice with older people. She had been smitten by The Science of Letter Writing.
So I was quite excited as I prepared to strain my ears at the Entry Gate and wait for an invitation to come to the couch.
The sounds of corks sliding out of bottlenecks and a male voice giving elaborate instructions on elderberries and premium dried yeast were not what I was inspecting. A note lay on the table next to the armchair:
Your efforts are much appreciated (if verbose), and I almost feel like we are back in that Uckfield shed after I gave you the heads up on love and procreation. You remember how I then went on to talk about how wonderful my marriage was. I am surprised that the talk on your childhood and vignettes on Kath have not included her major undertaking in life – a long-term and wonderful marriage with me. Your ECT needs to know some of that environment to have a chance of understanding the children and grandchildren. Hope you don’t mind but I have taken your appointment in our short time back at base. We had forgotten a few things for our trip, and you know that I never travel without my Army compass. Keep up the good work but keep it simple. Love Wal (PS. I love the idea of WikiWalt down the Pub!).”
I was dumbfounded – Dad was always a good one for upstaging a nervous Nellie like me. Images flashed back of him bodyline bowling to a six-year-old and much later suggesting I was overdoing the Maudlin after my divorce, when I quite obviously had such a wonderful new partner. But then it made sense; marriage was a major omission in the account of a life. ECT could spare the mental rod with me if Dad filled her in a bit. I just hoped that the stories of Australasia would outnumber those of India!
I was awoken from my reverie by the popping of Dandelion 1983 made to commemorate Ryan’s birth. Perhaps Dad would weigh into the 1980s when they were both in their early 60’s and ready to travel more….
ECT If I have another glass, Walter, you will have to ask the questions! First, let me start by finding out how you and Kath met. What was Kath’s competition? How did you overcome the Young Farmers?
W At that time, every red-blooded soldier was seeking out his Florence – mine came to me! Kath was a nurse at Crewkerne Hospital and caring for my mother. She became very friendly with my sister Iris who was a frequent visitor; Iris invited her home at a later stage and Kath met the family. She went out a few times with my elder brother Phillip while I was out galivanting! I saw that she was one exceptional lady, jettisoned my entire love-life and made intimations of my interest. Kath let it be known that I was closer to her Ideal Young Farmer, but I might have to cater for her doing some concentrated nurse training in a major hospital well outside Somerset. She was fun, of great depth and so practical and somehow our personalities interleaved. Does this realisation make sense?
ECT What headspace did you come from? I believe that, like Kath, you had one parent who suffered a less than full life?
W Yes, my father was a casualty of trench warfare in 1917; he suffered shell shock and chlorine gas poisoning. The recognition and treatment of PTSD was very preliminary in those days and he never went back fully to his job as a Post Office Sorter. I was thrown into the role of Head of Family, even though I was not the eldest; I apparently had a good administrative and practical bent. I left school at 16 and worked in the Post Office where I could keep an eye on my father. I would so have liked to go to university but there was no chance. I could offer Kath that I too might have a travelling career if I went up the Post Office management hierarchy, and who knows what might then happen.
As you know, she started her Nurse Probation in August 1939; WW2 was declared on 1 September 1939 but in a very strange way, so that war preparations proceeded at no great pace. I was called up for training with the Royal Signals Corp due to my career of training in the Post Office.
Kath finished her training in 1942; I was chosen for duty in India in 1943. In such an uncertain future, we married on 23 December 1943 and I departed a month later to the Far East, not to return until after war had ended for us some time in 1946.
Our first child, Gillian Margaret, was born in February 1947. We left Somerset in 1953/4 with a family of three children in tow. Both Kath’s father and mine died at an early age and we eventually took responsibility for my mother incapacitated in her 80’s. You are correct, the fate of our parents did affect us.
ECT What were your first years together like?
W Well, everyone tends to prowl around each other’s moods, but we had additional differences from our recent years apart. I was used to living rough and then in opulence in India. We would go bush for many days and live off our wits. In camp, I was the quartermaster, we had plenty of food and drink and I got on well with my Indian collaborators. I got home and still wore my purple suit and wondered why people were staring. I was used to having things done for me and having plenty of time to myself. But I was keen to have a family and keep an open mind about where we would end up.
Kath had had her fair share of adventures but within the relatively strict nunnery of nursing. She was a great organiser and so obviously Matron material, so a decision to have a sizeable family changed her perspective, but in later life she always wanted to do part-time work. For Kath, she was well-schooled in food and clothing rationing, and very rarely would go out on a shopping spree for herself. Kath was much closer to her family and so a move away from Somerset was a very big deal. Kath was shy in groups but great in person, Making friends in strange places was usually daunting and we did use a variety of church denominations when we frequented the closest or most attractive communities to settle in too. We had the luxury of always living close to my Post Office, so I was able to come home to a cooked lunch and an Indian meditation every day. Looking back, I had a pretty easy time, and my slippers were often waiting on the hearth as I returned in the evening.
Weekend activities reflected our wartime exposure – digging and maintaining an edible garden, making ginger beer and alcoholic beverages, and doing our own interior decorating (and family too later). I had a succession of hobbies (none too appreciated) whilst Kath would knit and sew. Such was the male-female divide in our era.
ECT Walter, your candid confessions are more than enough, and expectations are quite a bit different these days. You also had a wife who, like her peers, was very unlikely to want to leave England. Your 1974 trip to Australia was therefore quite a leap for you both. What was the experience of being away from home like back then?
W As James and David saw, we ha to save very hard to make the journey. I had promised Kath we would go after Gill left in the mid-sixties, but it seemed a very far away dream then.
ECT Your coach trips were the stuff of legends – what is your favourite memory?
W There are so many, especially in the more out-of-the way places, but I especially enjoyed our midnight breakdown in the middle of the Northern Territory Plains. I think Kath did too because the survival of that night brought together both of our skill sets. The driver was required to be a half-decent mechanic, but he emerged from under the engine brandishing an offending alternator or like and swearing that he needed a bloody replacement now. We were decamped onto the nature strip and asked to gather wood for a campfire. The driver was going to walk and hitch to the nearest garage 80 km away and return with the bloody thing refurnished. He just went and we were left to face the fears of the night. There was little moon and the darkest set of stars you have ever seen. Kath comforted some of the nellies and plotted a course to some bush tea and tucker. I summoned my Indian remote signals knowledge to organise a team to light and maintain the fire and quieten the imaginations of those looking into the shadows for salvation. There were no mobile phones and no nearby phone service to contact home. We chatted multi-lingually and indicated where we had been and what we might do if the driver absconded. Kath and I made it into a great adventure that we should be pleased to come upon,
ECT Upon retirement, you settled back into a life in your original home-town – did the memories of old get shared between you?
ECT What was your joint child-rearing philosophies?
W ECT, this is an interesting one. By looks and temperament, our family divides into two. Gill and Dave take after me, Pete and Jim after Kath. We are of firm opinions and sometimes stubborn dispositions; we are adventurous and not afraid to lead. They are the peacemakers, unlikely to go to bed on a disagreement and using subterfuge to get their own ways. They hate conflict and will be likely to be found in the background looking for that old-fashioned compromise.
So, Gill grew up locking horns with me trying to look after her or keep her in check. She felt that she was fighting the battles for the rest of her siblings. Dave had a similar view but with a different range of parental conflicts. For both Gill and Dave, Kath would console, support me in the face-to-face but be very sympathetic in later discussions with the affected child. Compromises would get worked out without loss of face.
Somehow I was less strict with Pete and Jim. Pete was well covered by his sister who often disagreed that he needed toughening up. She very much looked after his transition into teenage rebellion from Sunday School teaching and accompanying me on forays into the Lincolnshire Methodist wilderness.
ECT Did you ever have any doubts of how Kath would fare once you were no longer?
I was always very matter of fact about my death and how things would be thereafter. Kath handled the grieving process much better than she would have believed and lived another 15 very fruitful years. Her running the house and financial matters took advantage of her administration experiences and she had the good sense to call on family when and as soon as necessary. I could not have imagined how much she would miss me. And I regret not making more of the final year.
ECT Kath and you had many roles throughout life – what ones are you particularly proud of and why?
ECT What are your ideas of a good walk and a good life?
ECT How did you both feel as you ended your sixties?