WRITTEN BY LYDIA JONES
You had changed me beyond recognition – and now I had to move on
I’m early. The station platform is deserted; just me and the government posters. Careless Talk Costs Lives. And my personal favourite of course: They Can’t Get On Without Us – Join The Women’s ATS.
An ancient porter shuffles past; he nods in a way that manages to convey disapproval of me but respect for my khaki uniform.
I stare back down the platform.
I should have said it.
I just couldn’t bear a proper goodbye, final and forever. I’d much rather remember the smiles. They’ll sustain me.
The grudging porter’s trailer scuffs my kit bag; I shift it closer with my boot.
It seems ridiculous, now, to think that six weeks ago I could barely lift it.
How on earth are you going to operate a searchlight if you can’t even manage to lift your kit bag?
“Dear-oh-dear,” you said, deep blue eyes twinkling at me on my first day. “How on earth are you going to operate a searchlight if you can’t even manage to lift your kit bag?”
“I’m fine.” I hated to be seen struggling.
“’Course you are,” you said, lifting it for me as if it were a feather.
“I said, I can manage.”
“All right, keep your hair in place. What’s your name, Lance Corporal?”
“Jennings,” I said, wary of my position. “Lance Corporal Mary Jennings.”
“Mary, Mary quite contrary – very apt.”
I scowled. It was an old joke.
It was only later I realised that you were the officer in charge of bringing us ATS girls up to scratch.
“Come on, ladies – under that wire and up the wall in five.”
“All right for Silver Spoon over there,” I heard a fellow recruit grumble.
“What d’you mean?”
I bet their lot don’t have to do this
“Heir to some swanky estate down South – didn’t you know? I bet their lot don’t have to do this.”
“To be fair,” I panted, “Captain probably did have to do this.”
“Hey-up, here it comes now.”
“Jennings,” you smiled. “A word? I just wanted to say ‘well done’.”
You looked uncertain. Just how I felt.
“You’ve really improved. We’ll make a searchlight operator of you yet.”
“I’m not horrible on purpose.”
Your voice was low. I wondered why you were telling me but I saw loneliness and longing in those blue eyes.
“There’s opposition to using the women’s ATS as searchlight operators in anti-aircraft batteries. Consensus in some circles is that girls can’t do it – not up to the physical side of things. It’s my job to prove them wrong.”
I remember thinking the starchy upper class speech was strangely at odds with the soft blue eyes. Did I know then? Probably. But I also knew nothing could be allowed to compromise your work.
The platform is filling up. Over by the posters a pilot is kissing his girl.
We only ever shared one kiss.
Everyone had gone to the pub with their pass-out. I was walking by the prom, trying to work out my feelings.
“All alone, Jennings?”
The crisp, aristocratic voice was unmistakable.
“Yes – I’ve never been to the seaside before,” I explained.
“It’s a bit far from Birmingham.”
The arm was an invitation to stroll.
I took it, all the while terrified that I was somehow misunderstanding.
That walk was like a trip into an alternative universe; a place where position, class and social norms meant nothing.
“Chris – call me Chris,” you said. “We’re off-duty.”
When you kissed me it was as if everything in my life suddenly made sense and although it never happened again, it changed something inside me; made me want to be true to myself.
I should have said it when you brought my orders to join the anti-aircraft battery in East Anglia.
“Well done,” you said, and I wanted to explode with the want of saying it.
The pilot is still kissing his girl. There’s a muffled announcement: my train is delayed. Something inside snaps… still time after all.
As I rush out into the foyer, I see you hurrying in. You look smaller out of uniform and more feminine.
“I love you,” I say as we pull back from the hug.
“I know.” A sad smile. “I love you too.”
This war is changing everything. Hopefully one day we will live in a more enlightened world. But for now, it’s enough to have said it.