What’s that you’re drinking Daddy?

In the Beginning – part 2 (for part 1 scroll down to August 2011)

Lorna’s recollection of her brother’s entry into this world is vague, she was 2 years old or thereabouts. Subsequent research into her background has shown that John Francis Charles, my Grandfather, Adelaide Joan’s first husband (there is a question mark over this, however, he may have been the second), adopted Lorna shortly before Uncle Geoffrey’s (his real name) arrival. It was 1946 and John was still serving in the army – based out in Burma.

John Francis Charles (I’ll call him Granddad because its easier and that way we’ll all know which John I’m referring to – stick with this and you’ll see that there are many, many Johns in my life!) is worthy of an entry in his own right. He was an honourable man if prone to a touch of the Eeyores and Melancholy. I think, from what I’ve gleaned from his own background, he did not have a particularly good childhood. A phenomenally bright man, born in a different age he would have undoubtedly gone to university and had a stellar academic career. He really was so bright. Oxbridge bright.

However, he was born in the 1920s, grew up in the shadow of depression in a house governed by a tyrannical mother (Kathleen Frances – yes her real name, aka Mamen) with an absentee father – portrayed as a feckless Scotsman named Patrick Watson (I’ve traced him from Aberdeen, to Newport where he married Kathleen and then back to Glasgow where the trail goes cold). Patrick was a knicker salesman (or purveyor of ladies undergarments as we like to say in the family).

There are references to the “Aunts” in stories about my Grandfather. Mamon was of irish descent (allegedly from a family that could trace its roots back to the Dukes of Norfolk and Lady Jane Grey – yeah right, I am the true Queen of England – on the very wrong side of the blanket!). The Aunts were once genteel ladies (Little Britain’s David Walliam and Matt Lucas flash into my mind) fallen on hard times. They all lived together in a huge house in Newport – it was permanently cold. The one enduring aim of the family was to ensure that NO ONE ended up in the work house (please whisper that place name for full effect).

John, to his dying day was terrified of “ending up in the Work House” – to the point where Lorna gave up all her spare time in his final years to ensure that he stayed in his own home. She cooked for him, organised his care package, went with him to hospital etc etc etc.

Which I still find surprising – he was an honourable man and I stand by that evaluation but, and its a pretty huge BUT, this is the man who also made his daughter testify against her own mother in his divorce proceedings on the threat that if she did not she would be made homeless – and then promptly sold the house anyway and, but for the fact that she’s got herself entangled with the man who became my father, would have made her homeless. She was 17. But more of that later.

John couldn’t go to university because he had to earn a living to support his mother and his younger sister (Patricia – aka Paddy – always Paddy or Pad, a wonderful woman married to a wonderful man. They both suffered greatly as a consequence of 1942 and Singapore). And so he joined the Army.

And this was odd because – he came from a family of Sailors – Royal Navy to be precise. His maternal Grandfather was RN (also rumoured to have pursued slave ships and liberated those unfortunates shackled aboard – or that may have been his Great Grandfather, time becomes blurred in a family with a strong oral tradition). Anyway, Nuncky Ron (Guildford Ronald Edwards), husband to Paddy and second cousin to John and Pad (don’t ask, I haven’t had the courage to examine that issue too closely yet but I think it was legal), Nuncky Ron was also RN so Granddad’s decision to join the Army was odd and a departure from family “tradition’.

I think his time in the Army may well have been his happiest. When I knew him, and I was fortunate to know him for 37 years, he was disjointed. As though he didn’t really belong anywhere. This was so even when he married his second wife, Sybil (odd woman, with an exceedingly odd family and I don’t intend to dwell on her – she was married to my Grandfather and that is as far as her relevance goes).

He always maintained that he wasn’t a very good soldier and was dishonourably discharged after WWII – his service record and discharge papers say otherwise. He never spoke of the War in any detail other than to say that he “never saw a Jap and never saw a German” – yet he spoke fluent French and is believed to have served with the Marquis. He also told tales of eating sheep’s’ eyes in the dessert and was in Burma. My favourite stories were from the time he was in Burma – particularly the one about the tiger and the toilet.

My Grandfather was an avid reader of science fiction (that university career he had to forgo would have been one in science, probably physics). One night he took a book and a torch to visit the toilet on the edge of camp. He didn’t take his gun. While about his business and engrossed in his book he heard a noise and growling sound outside the loo and lifting the flap a little saw the rear end of a rather large tiger sat down directly in front of the toilet tent blocking his exit. Whether it was the smell emanating from the latrine or the intervention of some god, we will never know but the tiger sat outside the tent all night without smelling or finding Granddad. And Granddad sat on the toilet all night reading his book!

He was also a bit of thief, somewhere in Lorna’s house are a set of silver dessert spoons bearing the legend “Simla Rest” – he took them as a memento – apparently!

Special Forces was often referred to in my mother’s hearing when she was growing up – he and Nuncky Ron exchanged stories regularly. Ron, who was RN, was at Singapore when it fell to the Japanese in 1942 and spent the remainder of the War as a POW in conditions I cannot bring myself to imagine.

I can imagine my Grandfather as SAS (or its forerunner). He was about 6’3″ and lanky but physically very strong. I think, but need to confirm, that he was Royal Engineers – which would also explain his presence in Burma and involvement with the Chindits. He had huge hands – permanently stained with tobacco from the Woodbines he smoked. He was a bald as coot and I don’t think he ever had any hair – certainly not after the war, all the photos of him from when my mother was a child show him bald. And spoke with a Welsh lilt (he’d been born and brought up in Newport).

If his life had been hard growing up, it got a whole lot worse after he met and married Adelaide Joan. If I haven’t made this clear before I must let it be known that Adelaide Joan was not a well woman – ever. She had serious mental health issues and in the latter part of her life finally being diagnosed as Bi-polar. While that mitigates her behaviour to a very great extent it does not prevent the assessment that for the very largest part of her life the women was a Queen Bitch from Hell who poisoned the lives of those she was close to.

Mental health issues are now identified and dealt with more swiftly so as to minimise or manage the impact on the individual concerned and the family. I know now that my Grandmother in large part was not in control of her behaviour but I still find it very hard to excuse it. The impact on her immediate family was devastating and it continued long after that family fell apart.

But more of that later.

Lorna’s enduring memory of Granddad is his returns home. He was a Works Study Engineer – time and motion man, and frequently worked away from home. He would often return late at night and make himself a fry-up and a pot of tea. He drink his tea so strong I swear the spoon could stand up in it unaided. And he drank it without milk, a deep red liquid, from a big white mug

Lorna would sneak down to see him and join him in his midnight feast. She asked him “what are you drinking Daddy?” and the answer came back “Blood!” – and for many years she believed him.

To be continued….