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Sheila Rosemary Algas
I found this story written by my mother, Sheila Algas, when clearing out her belongings after her death. She had told us about this incident but I did not know that she had written a story about it.
Romance of a Different Kind By Sheila Algas
In June of this year I cleaned out the bookshelves in my spare room in readiness for the annual visit of my grandson, so I had a double reason for remembering my little adventure of fifty years ago when I picked up a small leather-bound copy of Thackeray’s ‘Pendennis’, with ‘Salisbury! 3. June.1944’ inscribed in still unformed hand on the fly-leaf. Memories came crowding back, and I was an awkward teenager once again, seated on a hard bench of a sandbagged corridor in the bowels of Broadcasting House, waiting in some trepidation to see a Mr Courtney-Browne. I was totally unaware of the fact on that afternoon it was that Friday before D-Day.
Why had I been called to see the illustrious Mr C-B? Who was he anyway? For the hundredth time, I guiltily ran through the possible reasons. He had heard of my abysmally low score on the Acoustics paper, or was it my second late arrival to class this week? It could be my smart back answers in the incredibly boring lectures on Electrical Circuits. How had I landed myself in this mess? A bored trainee Programme Engineer with the BBC. Somewhat sheepishly, I admitted to myself that I had joined the BBC mainly for romantic reasons, but had become disillusioned, shuttling backwards and forwards between my Surrey home and Maida Vale studios, with frequent sallies into the nearest air raid shelter when the need arose. Except for a leery encounter with a battered looking War Correspondent, a quick glimpse of an ageing Music Hall comedian, I hadn't met anyone remotely famous. Even the food in the Canteen was inedible. As usual, eternal optimism asserted itself, and my fertile imagination ran a riot of roses. Of course, I was to be congratulated! ‘Your instructors wish me to convey their thanks for your excellent work... despite your youth ...quite the most promising trainee on the course ... etc., etc.’
Sitting in this rosy haze, I was suddenly aware of a snappy little voice addressing me. ‘Anna Driscoll?’ it queried. Looking up I saw that it came from one of the army of (what seemed to me) coolly sophisticated, smartly dressed secretaries swarming about BH at that time. ‘Follow me’, said the vision, and set of a brisk rate into the catacombs. Picking up my shabby gray bag, which held My All, I loped after her, at the same time devouring her crisp Horrockes cotton dress, nylon stockings (what had she done to get hold of those?), and her elegant strap sandals. Where do they get their coupons from, I wondered sourly, this secretarial league, who managed to wear something new and glamorous every day. My mother would speak darkly of the Black Market, and continue to cut up her old dresses into blouses for me. Last winter, carrying patriotism too far, she had even cut up an ancient blanket and made me a winter coat. Talk about my Winter of Discontent- it was the most humiliating one of my short life. Sitting every morning and evening in the Underground had been a fresh agony. Surely everyone must know that my coat had once been a blanket-a used one at that. Plunging up and down corridors with these gloomy thoughts almost caused me to lose my guide, who suddenly pulled up sharply outside an impressive door. She paused to pat her immaculate hair nervously, looking at me disapprovingly. Did she expect me to do the same? As my hair style owed its somewhat home-made look to Friday night Amami shampoos and rag curlers, I decided not to bother. She then knocked reverently on the door and opened it in a surprisingly respectful manner.
I don’t know what I had expected to see; certainly nothing quite as bizarre as this. In the first place it was very difficult to see anything at all, for although it was three o’clock on a warm June afternoon, the blackout curtains were drawn and the large room was lit only by lamps on side tables and one larger lamp on a vast desk at the far end of the room. Seated at this desk was a sinister-looking man of indeterminate age, wearing dark glasses. Nowadays dark glasses are common, but fifty years ago they were only sported by Middle Eastern royalty or White Slave traffickers, so this set of jangling alarm bells within me, so I looked, or rather, peered around wildly for reassurance of some kind. This came immediately in the shape of a really drab, tweed jacketed young man standing expectantly at Mr C-B’s side with a bulky file in his hand. My guide, who was by now reduced to a state of stunned awe, announced me, but true to character to the end, making sound ever so faintly derogatory, added, ‘She’s the last’.
By now my eyes were becoming accustomed to the gloom, and I began to see things more clearly. At first I had thought that, apart from Mr C-B and his minion, the room was empty, but I that there were several shadowy figures sitting on chairs around the room. On further inspection I realised that they all bore amazing resemblance to each other. ‘Clones’ is the word that comes to mind today. They were, in fact, callow, spotty, adolescent youths of the type I met daily in my courses at Maida Vale. Most of them were wearing that looked like ex-6th form blazers, grey flannels, less than white shirts and school ties. All were shuffling around uneasily on their seats. Thank heaven; I don’t look so feeble, I thought smugly, as I slid onto the nearest chair. I suddenly caught sight of this figure in a mirror on the opposite wall. Through a glass darkly, as the saying goes. I regret to say I looked every bit as unprepossessing as my companions, being attired in a rather creased navy skirt, white blouse and navy cardigan. My hair looped back with what was known in those days as an Alice Band. My expression was one of alarmed puzzlement.
Mr C-B and his assistant were now concluding a whispered consultation over the impressive file, and the tweed jacketed young man asked us to bring our chairs up in a wide semi-circle round the desk. By this time the feelings of uneasiness had reached their peak and there was more shuffling and clearing of throats as we settled down in the fashion of children about to hear a terrifying bed time story.
Mr C-B looked at us all piercingly and (in disappointingly middle of the road accent) began, ‘First of all, let me say, you have each been selected to go on an assignment- very much connected with the war. Absolute secrecy is demanded of you all. You will receive detailed instructions as to your destination. If all goes as planned, you will have returned here by tomorrow evening. Those of you whose parents are expecting you home tonight will be allowed to make one phone-call from here. You will explain to your parents that you will not be home until tomorrow evening a very important job has turned up, which necessitates your being away from home for one night’. He then went on to explain that, what he referred to as Absolutely Vital Information, had to be carried to every BBC Transmitter Station in the British Isles and we were the lucky ones who has been chosen to do it.
Most of us were so relieved that we had not been called out for our various misdemeanours that an air of elation was beginning to sweep the room. If we had been asked to go to Alaska, I doubt if any of us would have raised the slightest objection. A box was produced and we proceeded to dip into it to pick our destinations. Please God, let it be Newcastle, I prayed. I had this handsome friend stationed near there, a Captain in the Black Watch. He would invite me out to dinner at Tilley’s (not because he really wanted to, but because my Mum and his were old school friends) and would ever so regretfully turn him down. ‘So sorry Joss, I’m here on business- have to be back for this evening. I just called to see how you are.’ All very casual and mysterious. I leapt up as my name was called and drew – Salisbury!
The most embarrassing part was yet to come. I was the only girl in the room. I suddenly had this horrifying vision of my mother’s face when I had to tell her that I wasn't coming home that night. And with that grinning bevy of youths around me. My family lived in Surrey, in what was known as Bomb Alley, so my mother had become quite nervous as a result of having to spend most of her days and nights in the Anderson shelter in the kitchen. I sighed, picked up the receiver and gave the operator the number. My mother’s voice, slightly apprehensive as usual, answered immediately.
‘Hello, Mum,’ I said in a rather over-bright voice.
‘Is that you, Anna?’, queried my mother, in surprise, ‘aren't you at work? ‘
‘Well, not exactly’, I said. Then, in a voice that fairly screamed false bravado, ‘I’m just ringing to say that I won’t be home this evening.’
I suppose that nowadays it is a fairly exceptional event for a daughter to come home at all, but in 1944 saying this was tantamount to exploding a bomb in the living room, and my mother reacted pretty much as I had expected.
‘Not... coming... home...this...evening,’ she gasped, her voice rising to a rousing crescendo. ‘Where are you?’
By now her anxiety was drifting out of the receiver like a coloured mist, filling the room, or so it seemed to me. Behind me I was aware of the gloating amusement of the boys.
‘Are you alone?’ she was fairly screeching now.
‘Oh no,’ I answered soothingly, thinking quite incorrectly that this was the right answer.
is reply fired my mother’s imagination to even greater heights. ‘Are you being threatened?’ she yelled. ‘Tell me where you are.’
At this point I took the cowardly way out, ‘Look Mum, I’m perfectly safe and well, but i have an important job to do. I promise I’ll be home for supper tomorrow. Don’t worry. Bye-bye’ and I replaced the receiver to the mocking cheers of my colleagues.
The rest of the afternoon and evening is a complete blank to me. I suppose we were given something to eat, then one by one, according to our destinations, we were dispatched with our Absolutely Vital Information. My train didn't leave until after midnight, so I must have kicked my heels for some hours before the Security Guard accompanied me to Waterloo Station and put me in a First Class compartment of the train to Salisbury.
‘Don’t do anything I wouldn't do’, he leered ‘and don’t forget –No Careless Talk!’
I sat down thankfully in the empty compartment, lit by the regulation blue light. Thank heaven, there was nobody I had to make conversation with. I must have presented an odd sight in my Orphan of the Storm clothes, clutching my bag full of AVI. I was just congratulating myself that I should have a solitary journey when an elderly couple, laden with suitcases and small packages, bustled in. My heart sank. By the time they had settled themselves, the train was starting to move off. I closed my eyes to evade the gimlet eye of the woman, I felt sure I would have terrible trouble explaining to her why a 17 year old (who didn't look a day over 15) was taking a midnight trip to Salisbury in a 1st Class compartment. I tried to get my imagination moving, but sleep got in the way.
I awoke suddenly in the eerie blue light to find my companions heavily asleep. They were still the same two ordinary people, not replaced by autocratic countesses or sinister nuns like the characters in that film I’d seen. What was it called? ... ‘The Lady Vanishes’. Well, fortunately they seemed out for the count, so that saved me from any explanations. Feeling a desire to stretch my legs, I rose cautiously, dutifully clutching my bag with its ‘vital’ contents, pushed the door open gently and eased my way into the corridor.
As I stood in the dim light, the moon suddenly rose above the trees as they flashed past and lit up a figure leaning on the bar of the window next to mine. What I saw amazed and delighted me. He was every young girls’ dream of the romantic hero; tall, handsome, with his clear-cut profile silhouetted in the moonlight. He was wearing an Army uniform of a Major, I think. Now you must remember, I was a teenager of the ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Dangerous Moonlight’ generation, and at times like these the stirring, yet syrupy chords of the various ‘concertos’ and ‘rhapsodies’ of the period rang constantly in my ears. As he turned towards me, the most alarming desire to ‘romance’ came over me. To be honest, when I say romance, I really mean lie. And everything I said from this point on until we left the train at Salisbury was a downright, calculated lie.
Under normal circumstances I was certainly not in the habit of lying, but to my continuing amazement, I found that, as I warmed to my story, it was easier-much easier- than telling the truth. To say that I intrigued him was putting it mildly. He tried all ways of discovering the whys and wherefores of my journey, but I steadfastly parried his questions with evasive answers until I reached a point where to romance seemed the best solution. And, after all, what had we been warned about at BH before we left ... No Careless Talk.
It was a prosaic enough story that I told him. I was running away from an impossible situation at home. My (imaginary) mother, who was a war-widow, had fallen in love with this wing-commander. My real father (who was a respectable solicitor) would have been quite frosty if he had known. The whole affair was making me so unhappy that I had decided to run away to my Aunt Winifred in Salisbury. How could I bear to have Mervyn as a step-father-my own dear father, killed at Arnhem, such a short time gone? Alarmed, he pressed me for details. Did my mother know of my flight? Where did Aunt Winifred live? He could help me find her as he knew Salisbury well. Perhaps he even knew Aunt Winifred. Hastily, I invented a safe surname and told him she had only recently gone to live there after being bombed out of her house in London. Was she meeting me? I assured him I had sent her a telegram. He tried so hard to give me good advice. He made me promise to ring my mother to tell her where I was. He even suggested that I should give Mervyn (How did I dream that name?) a second change. Perhaps he really loved my mother, he said.
The story I had invented was already no tissue of lies, but a huge impenetrable brick wall, growing by the minute, and I realised that as we got nearer and nearer to our destination that it was becoming impossible to back-track. All our conversation was devoted to the mutual, painstaking building up of this totally fictitious story of my life and its problems. I produced the bricks and he mortared them neatly together for me.
We reached Salisbury about 4 o’clock in the morning. There was a heavy mist. We got out of the train in silence and walked towards the ticket barrier. As I went through, two men rushed forward: the elder one said, ‘Miss Driscoll?’ in an inquiring tone; the younger one, who has obviously been weaned on wartime spy thrillers, hissed, ‘Have you got the papers?’, which I remember thinking was pretty gauche. I then asked for identification in my haughtiest voice, and they obligingly flashed BBC passes at me. Meanwhile, I turned back to catch a last glimpse of my handsome companion, now looking ghostly in the morning mist. Even as I was hustled into the waiting taxi, I remember imagining how he would end his story in future years. ‘Before she stepped into the taxi, she sent me a heart-rending look of despair’.
My new companions, who were yawning loudly and anxious to get me safely into a hotel, were unflatteringly amused. Fancy entrusting important information to someone out of the schoolroom, they sniggered. It would have been safer in the post. But not so quick, I snapped. Secretly, I agreed with them. I couldn’t see the necessity of sending a horde of irresponsible adolescents all over the British Isles on an amateur cloak-and-dagger mission such as this, but I had no intention of arguing the point. After the romantic euphoria of the train, I was feeling exhausted and in no mood for bantering exchanges with these dull-looking characters who were engineers of some kind.
They took me to an old coaching inn and awakened up an aggrieved young porter to show me to my room. The adventure, such as it was, had reached a total anti-climax. The next morning I went to look at the Cathedral. There was a bookshop just outside the Close where I found an attractive copy of Thackeray’s ‘Pendennis’. Sitting in the station buffet over a cup of disgusting ersatz coffee and a sticky bun, I wrote on the flyleaf: Salisbury! 3 June 1944.
I took the midday train back to London, and after reporting to BH, I went home where my mother was anxiously waiting. Fortunately, I was saved detailed explanations, as the minute I stepped into the house the ominous sound of a V2 was heard, so we both made a dive for the Anderson. I crawled to my corner and lay looking thoughtfully up at my pin-ups of George Sanders (so suave) and Laurence Olivier (so romantic), but seeing a very different face in my mind. All I said was ‘Something is going to happen pretty soon’, in the most mysterious voice I could conjure up.
On the following Tuesday, 6 June, something really did happen, and all the world knew about it. In a diffident teenage way I felt pleased that I’d been involved in it, however trivially. That part of the adventure had been real, so had the romantic meeting in the moonlit corridor of the train. The rest I could forget.
Nearly seventy years on, sitting in front of these dusty shelves, I reflect on my reasons for telling that story. Was I just dutifully following instructions about No Careless Talk; or was it because I had spent five drab years growing up behind blackout curtains or in air raid shelters, with ‘Bandwagon’ on the radio on Saturday night as the high point of any week? No, let me be honest. I was beginning to feel the stirring desire to ‘romance’ when my life was at a monotonous low. In fact, rather like the time I met that gullible couple from Southport in a cafe in Venice on St Mark’s Square.
But that is a different story.
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