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October 2016, vol 12 no 3

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Matthew Paul

Paris


A year into widowhood, Mum says she’s ‘still on the map’, as the Vicar puts it, but she’s never been taken to Paris and now she never will.

Her father, Gilbert, enlisted at sixteen, a year after the Armistice: being tall and solid, he wasn’t asked for a birth certificate so ended up assigned to the Medical Corps at Gibraltar; but after the army he, like many thousands, struggled for work until he chanced his arm and was hired as a nurse at St Thomas’s, where he served in the clap clinic for thirty-three years, and in the whole of that time was always called by his surname and worked harder and longer than I could ever imagine.

Gilbert’s father also toiled all hours, in a Fishponds foundry, and married three times; whenever he and his third wife came to stay, Mum and her sister, Pat, were made to sleep on the living-room floor.

Mum’s never been taken to Paris and now she never will.

When Mum started school, the boy—named Clifford Bristow—who sat behind her dipped her auburn pigtails in his ink-well every day, until her mother, Olive, caught up with the lad and scolded him for causing her extra laundry, which never quite removed the stains from Mum’s blouse.

While Hitler drove down the Champs-Élysées, Olive, Mum, Pat and her brother, Richard, were evacuated, to Cirencester, with three other children, from another Dagenham family. The first people who took them in happily treated them like their own. Within a month, word came that the other three children had been orphaned by a direct hit on their house back home.

When the bombing began, Gilbert was roped into general nursing: his long shifts were sandwiched between fire-watching from the roof of the hospital and ARP duties at home, in Dagenham, where he helped to dig out the bodies of half of Nuneaton Road. Among it all, he grew veg galore on his allotment.

Mum and Dad honeymooned in Bournemouth and only holidayed abroad together twice in their fifty-nine years of marriage: in Madeira for their silver anniversary and once on the Costa del Sol.

Mum’s never been taken to Paris and now she never will.

the memory of my dad
joining in a Mexican wave . . .
May Day sun


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