Love is such Sweet Sorrow
The wind and rain lashed both of them with venom as they alighted separately from the blacked-out tramcar. It pays to be cautious was their motto. Their clandestine meetings had taken them all over Belfast, into areas that would ensure their anonymity and safeguard their secret. Bars in working class areas that they knew would not be visited by any of her family or friends became their haunt. It was a time of war and people did not wander from the area in which they lived. Two people grabbing at the second chance presented to them to find love and happiness, in a world gone mad. Yet they were being dragged back by moral values that had not moved with the same pace as the weapons of destruction. They entered the bar through the blackout curtain and stood with water dripping from their raincoats onto the red tiled floor. The bar fell silent and twenty pairs of male eyes turned towards the two strangers, examining them from head to toe. Would anyone in the bar recognise them? They waited with bated breath as they had done in all the other strange bars that they had frequented during the past four months, waiting for the greeting that would shatter their dream and bring reality crashing down around them. No greeting, only the gruff tones of the barman saying: “The snug is up at the back there.”
The snug, a place where ladies entering a pub were banished to. The bar area was a male preserve. The noise
and banter returned immediately as they became old news. Was their relief noticeable to those present, as they hurriedly sought the safety of the little snug? It was comfortably furnished and empty, with the dying embers of a fire in the grate, just like the embers of their respective marriages. The difference being that the embers from the grate offered a little more comfort. The barman tramped down the duckboards and opened the little serving hatch and waited before speaking as the clock struck seven o’ clock. He spoke with a strong country accent, saying: “I’ll put a few bits of coal on the fire after I get your drinks, what will it be then?”
“Two hot whiskeys and a bottle of stout if you please barman,” Jack said rubbing his hands together as much out of nervousness as trying to generate heat. The drinks duly arrived and the barman breezed into the snug carrying a rusty bucket filled with coal, raked up the fire and dumped a few small lumps of coal on the re- energised embers.
“A bad night for our sons and neighbours on the ocean,” he said as he retreated. “We are in a seafaring part of the city, a place called Sailortown,” Jack explained to Margaret.
“We have got ourselves into a right mess, Jack.” “Are you absolutely sure Margaret?” “Yes Jack, there is no mistake. I am a nursing sister for God’s sake, I know about these things.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I could have made suitable arrangements before I headed back, we could have openly declared our love for each other and filed for divorce and got married. Margaret, we should make immediate arrangements to find a suitable house to live in.”
“For Christ’s sake, Jack, come out of the clouds, there is a war on in case you had forgotten, there are no suitable empty houses available in Belfast. Divorce and remarriage will just have to wait. You’re off back to the war in a matter of hours. We have made our bed and I’ll have to lie in it until you return. I’ll bluff it out with Billy; anyhow he is drunk most nights that I’m at home, he’ll never know the difference when I break the good news to him.” This statement hit Jack with the force of the bombs he sometimes dropped. “Jack, I just hope that you have no African relations in your family, a little black child I think he would surely notice,” Margaret said trying to lighten the situation.
“No, Margaret, no African relations hiding in the family tree”. “Jack, make sure you take care of yourself,” she spluttered as a wave of dread swept over her.
” Jesus, Margaret that’s not fair on you or Billy. I’ll make arrangements first thing in the morning, to have Dad’s company in Bristol secure suitable accommodation for you and our baby. Money is no problem.”
“Don’t you ever listen or think, Jack before engaging your mouth. O God, I’m sorry Jack, that was unkind, but your father- in- law is a partner in the company. How long would it be before your wife, Sandra, was banging on my front door shouting the odds? Better we do it my way. My Billy would kill me if he found out, and then he’d kill you if the Germans haven’t already done the job. He’s a vicious and vindictive man most of the time and I’ve given him plenty of ammunition to put in his gun this time.” “I love you, Margaret, how can I go back to the war leaving you in this pickle? You must have money; that’s the least I can do. Give me your personal bank account details. I’ll arrange for money to be transferred every month until I come home. No arguments, Margaret, I insist.”
“OK Jack, let’s enjoy these last few hours together. It’s my day off to morrow and I have to go home tonight. What time do you have to be at Sydenham?” “The RAF transport takes off at 23.30. We have about two hours before we have to leave. We’ll separate as usual before we reach the Co Down railway station. I’ll use the same train to Sydenham, the last train to Bangor leaves at 21.30. God, I can’t believe that I’m still talking this military crap.”
He watched as the German bomber he had just riddled with bullets belched flames. Seconds before, he watched as it started its death dance. He had counted five parachutes tumble out of the doomed bomber. That is the end of their war and a few less bombs to fall on Liverpool tonight, he thought. The big Merlin engine coughed and spluttered as he felt the heavy German bullets smash into the cockpit of his plane. Christ, he had committed a cardinal error by losing concentration in the middle of a dogfight.Flames swept back towards him and pain exploded through his left leg and he could feel a dampness fill his right flying-boot and he assumed it was blood, his blood. He calmly spoke into his microphone“Mayday,Mayday,”relayinghis approximate position to Fighter Command as being somewhere west of Liverpool over the Irish Sea. The silence unnerved him as the big engine stopped beating. He fell through the clouds like a wounded hawk accompanied by the crackling of flames and the stench of burning oil. He managed to push back the cockpit cover but he struggled to haul himself out of the cockpit, his left leg of no use at all as he attempted to get into position to parachute to safety. The altimeter registered 2000 feet when he finally parted company with his warplane. Drifting slowly down, he watched the moon cast a silver sheen on the calm surface of the Irish Sea. It won’t be so pretty when I’m up to my neck in it, he thought. Dawn was lighting the eastern sky when the crew of the armed trawler hauled him from the hungry arms of the sea, more dead than alive from the cold and loss of blood.
The rough crisp abrasive feeling of over-starched linen sheets, the smell of disinfectant and the soft calling of his name, “Jack, Jack, time to wake up now ” brought him back to consciousness. Through his swollen eyelids, he could just about make out the most beautiful face he had ever seen, topped by a mop of dark wavy hair half hidden by the headdress of a ward sister from the Royal Army Medical Corp.
“Where am I?” he asked in his Eton educated voice, no trace of his West Country accent. “You’re in Musgrave Park Military Hospital in Belfast. I understand your Spitfire was shot down somewhere over Liverpool, and you parachuted into the Irish Sea where you spent an uncomfortable six hours in the water before being rescued. The armed trawler that picked you out of the sea was returning to Belfast. So here you are. Your left leg was broken, not badly, it is a clean break, but you lost a lot of blood from shrapnel wounds in your right leg. You should be back in the air in about four or five months. You know, you were very lucky. If you had been serving in the Pacific, the blood you lost would have attracted half the sharks in the ocean,” she said smiling.
“It is good to be lucky then,” he replied. This was the beginning of their relationship. It was schoolboy stuff, love at first sight. He cherished and looked forward to those first few words she spoke to him every morning as she came on duty but then she spoke to all the patients in the same way, the mischievous smile and toss of the head as she moved from bed to bed gave many a seriously injured man a reason to hang on to life. She was known as ‘Sunshine’ by the patients due to the radiance of her smile. Those who were able, sang the popular tune of the time “You are my Sunshine my only Sunshine” every time she walked down the ward. Those who could not sing hummed the tune. He ferreted out pieces of information about her private life from the junior nurses who were always prepared to answer the questions of an officer and a gentleman. Margaret was part of the emergency team that had prepared Jack for surgery on his arrival at Musgrave Park Hospital. She offered her usual prayer of thanksgiving to God for delivering another brave young man from the sea. Her two younger brothers had been drowned after their ship, part of a convoy en route to Russia, was sunk in the Baltic Sea.
This personal grief gave her a particular interest in those rescued from a watery grave. She was five foot, seven inches tall, of slim build with dark wavy hair. A nursing sister, a civilian attached to the Army Medical Corps, promoted some thought beyond her 28 years. Married to Billy for almost six years in what was now a loveless and childless marriage. Once the war was over, she would take steps to change things she promised herself. Billy was from an engineering background and was employed as a draughtsman in the shipyard. He envied the men she treated in her job, but lacked the courage to join their ranks.“I’m too valuable to the war effort,” he boasted as he topped up his courage every night in the Great Eastern Bar before catching the eight o’ clock train to Bangor. His excessive drinking led to boastfulness about what he would do to the Germans if they ever invaded his Ulster or when he was finally allowed to join up and go to fight in France. He became aggressive at times to the point of violence towards her. Anytime she attempted to tell him about how her patients were doing or how and where they were wounded. Arguing that she was trying to slight his courage in doing so. Now they seldom communicated about anything, and she only travelled home to Bangor when she had a day off, preferring to sleep in the nurses’ home.
Sandra arrived in Belfast to visit Jack two weeks after his close brush with death. She immediately wanted to know why he, an officer and war hero, was not in a private ward instead of lying here among the enlisted men. “Daddy could arrange it immediately and pay for it if necessary,” she exclaimed.
Jack tried to explain that private wards were only for those military personnel who were very seriously ill and close to death and, thank God, he was not in either category. “ I don’t care,” she ranted, “ I refuse to sit in a tin shed,” referring to the corrugated iron material used in the construction of the wards. This was the true and real Sandra, a self-centred snob. She had been in the ward five minutes and had not enquired as to his well-being, not a word about Jack injured and lying in a tin shed. Not a thought either for the other blighters with horrendous injuries. Her only thought was about poor Sandra who had to sit among the great unwashed, the poor, and try to make conversation with her husband. Margaret passed his bed enquiring if everything was all right and Sandra lambasted her about why her war hero husband had to suffer the indignity of lying in a public ward. “That is enough Sandra,” Jack forced the words out through clenched teeth. Margaret smiled at Sandra saying: “How do you do, I am the Ward Sister, we have not been formally introduced, I’m really sorry to hear you’re upset about your husband’s accommodation, but everyone of my patients is a war hero, and they all receive the best treatment and care available.”
Jack was elated, his nursing sister had taken the wind completely out of Sandra’s sails. She stood speechless unsure as to what she should do next. “Sister, I would like to introduce you to my wife Sandra, she is on a flying visit from Bristol.” Margaret extended her right hand, saying: “ Very pleased to meet you, Sandra, sorry I can’t stay and chat but I have a ward full of war heroes to attend to, perhaps you’ll call again,” Margaret said before dashing down the ward. The astonished look on Sandra’s face reduced Jack’s recovery time by weeks. “Sandra, there is never a good time to bring up the subject, but we both know that our marriage has been over for years now. I know about your relationship with Charles Kennedy. I would like a divorce.”
She turned, looking at him through blazing eyes.” “No Jack, under no circumstances. Do you realise what a messy divorce would do to my political career?” “I wasn’t aware you had one, dear”, Jack replied. “I have been selected as a candidate to fight Bristol East for the Conservative Party at the election when this war is eventually over, and a war hero husband alive or dead will secure my victory. No Jack, under no circumstances, no divorce, it does not fit in with my plans”. “Sandra, I doubt if a front-page newspaper story of your affair with Charles Kennedy MP while your war hero husband was away at the Front will progress either of your political careers.”
“Now, Jack, let’s not be hasty, there is still a war to be won, we will talk about this after the war. You’ll see things differently then. I have to run along now, things to do, you know, Good Bye love, take care,” and she was gone.
Later that afternoon, one of the visiting chaplains told him that Charles Kennedy, an MP from his home city of Bristol, was on a flying visit to the shipyard and the nearby aircraft factory.
“The scheming bitch,” Jack cursed. The bond between Jack and Margaret grew day by day. His every day brightened by her presence, and Jack helped her to fill the void of friendship, companionship and love that was missing from her own marriage. After eight weeks, he was discharged and was allocated officer quarters close by, and attended the hospital as an outpatient. He joked that all he needed was a parrot and an eye patch. This new freedom allowed them to develop their relationship further. They spent Christmas and New Year 1944 together when Billy had to go on sea trials with a newly-built ship. They stole whatever hours of happiness they could as increased security on both their military accommodation was increased. Something big was being planned was the reason given to him. Finally, Jack was declared fit to return to duty and his recall letter duly arrived. The need for experienced pilots was dire. Their five-month journey had taken them from winter into spring. Would they ever get the chance to experience the warmth of summer and the splendour of autumn together? Sitting in the warm cosy snug they watched the clock tick towards ‘good-bye’, Jack, arguing with her all the while, attempting to put some sort of legal structure to their relationship. “I need to be sure that you and the baby will be well provided for should anything happen to me.”
While Margaret, fearful of the shame and effort of bringing up a child without a father and husband, was willing to live a lie with Billy and leave things the way they were until after the War.
”Jack you don’t understand the mentality of people in this country to mothers and children born out of wedlock.” “I’d marry you now if I could,” he blurted out. “I know, Jack, I know you would, but it cannot be until both of us get our divorce papers. Hopefully, we will have a lifetime together after the war”. She knew it was selfish of her but she had to put the baby’s future and welfare above all other considerations. Jack became increasingly frustrated, as the clock appeared to tick ever faster, and at Margaret’s insistence that her plan was the best way forward. At least she had agreed to give him her bank account details and to allow him to contribute to their well-being. They agreed that he would write to her at the hospital. They left the bar early and walked through the damp and blacked-out Corporation Street towards the railway station. The night was as dark as the mood of despair that hung over the young couple. They knew that they had to separate before they crossed the Queen’s Bridge, the main thoroughfare to the shipyard, and the threat of detection was ever present.
They clung together and pledged undying love to each other in the shadow of a toilet block close to the Customs House and the bridge. The sound of water overflowing from the large horse’s water trough nearby equated to the tears they shed. In the darkness, he pressed a large bulky envelope into her hand, telling her she was to give it to her solicitor immediately and contact him should she receive news from his father that he had been killed in the war.
“It’s time to go, Margaret, or we will miss the train.” He followed her into the station and onto the crowded train, sitting only feet apart. Being unable to speak was unbearable. Many times, he wanted to cry out to her but, instead, savoured the closeness of her, committing these last heartbreaking minutes to memory. He alighted from the train at Sydenham Halt and smiled at her as he walked from the carriage. He was tempted to wave good-bye, but was restrained from doing so by their circumstances. The darkened train sped away, leaving both of them to advance and fight in their own specific war, Jack in the skies somewhere over England or France, Margaret and his unborn baby in an equally hostile environment in Bangor, County Down.
The DC3 lifted off from Sydenham and flew over Bangor before heading east towards Bristol to his new posting. Sweet thoughts of Margaret and the unborn baby fizzed through his mind. When would he see her again?He smiled as he corrected ‘her’ to ‘them’. For the first time since he took up arms in September 1939 he spoke to God, praying for a safe return from the war now that he had something to live for. Jack fell asleep to the throb of the two large engines and awoke when the DC3 came to a halt. It was April 1944.
“Jack, you’re off back to the war in a matter of hours. We have made our bed and I must lie in it, be it with Billy and not you, until this war is ended and you return.” Brave words spoken with passion and dread by Margaret at their parting in April 1944.These brave and foolish words had haunted him in every free and wakened moment, even in his dreams or were they nightmares? Spoken by a mother-to-be desperate to preserve the dignity of their still unborn child, willing to handcuff herself to a man who abused her. All to ensure his name was entered on the birth certificate as the father. Jack understood it was what the bookies called an each- way bet, in case he did not return from the war alive. Billy would fill the fatherly role. “Damn this infernal war, it gets in the way of personal things,” he shouted.
The door to his quarters opened quietly. “Did you call, Squadron Leader, can I get you something?” asked his batman. “No thanks, corporal, I’m just having difficulty writing this letter to the parents of young Lt Barney Watson, who was killed yesterday. Corporal, did you pack his personal effects?”
“I did sir.” “Was there a photograph of a girlfriend among them?” “There was indeed sir. A signed photograph from his fiancée Jane, a pretty girl.” “Good man, corporal, I’ll add a line or two about her sorrow. How does one feel when a letter such as this arrives? What does one write to ease their pain?” “Sorry, sir, can’t help you there. I’ve no way with words you see.” “Thank you, corporal, you can finish now. I won’t need you again tonight”. “Thank you sir. Good night sir.” “Good night, corporal.” Margaret opened the hall door softly and, at the same time, slammed closed the door on her own happiness. Billy glanced up from his bowl of stew, surprise registering on his face as she poked her head around the door. “Billy love, I’ve something to tell you. It’s good news for a change and I couldn’t wait to get home and tell you.”
“What is it? What brings you home, you don’t usually come home on a Monday night. Is Hitler dead or something?” “This is about us Billy; we’ re going to have a baby. You’re going to be a father. I’m pregnant.”
“Are you sure, Margaret? When did this happen, when is the baby due?” “I’ve had it confirmed by one of the doctors in the hospital. I think it was Saint Patrick’s night. Remember, we both had too much to drink. Any way, the baby is due just before Christmas, won’t that be the best Christmas present you’ve, I mean we’ve, ever had Billy?” “Brilliant, Margaret, just friggin brilliant, We’ll be one big happy family. I’m away to the pub to tell my Da and Ma that we’re going to make them grandparents. Saint Patrick’s night you say we made this baby Margaret? I must have been really drunk that night; sure you think I’d remember something like that.”
He kissed and hugged her, saying: “You’ve made me the happiest man in Bangor. I couldn’t be happier, Well, perhaps I could if it had happened on the night of the twelfth of July instead of that Paddy the Irish man. It’s over four months. Why didn’t you tell me sooner love?” “I didn’t want to disappoint you and raise your hopes until I was certain; you know how often we’ve been disappointed before.”
“You’re right there, girl. I’ve been let down many times. Just wait until I see big Jack the barman. This news will wipe the sneer of his face. Have you any spare money Margaret? I’m skint, I’ll have to buy drink down in the pub, wet the baby’s head, you know the sort of thing I mean.” “Here, take that couple of pounds, Billy. That’s all I have until payday.” “Thanks, love, don’t wait up for me. I’ll probably be late. People to see, you know, and you need all your strength. There is a drop of stew left in the pot and I never got a chance to wash the dishes this past few days.” With the slamming of the front door, she sat down by the fire and buried her face in her hands, sobbing to herself: “With each lie it will get easier. I’ll make it work.”
The four months since their parting had passed quickly. Every minute filled with flying, flying, more flying and writing these dammed letters. D-Day had come and gone with little resistance from the Luftwaffe. Now, as the Allies pushed deeper into France, resistance and casualties were mounting daily. If only I could get wounded and transferred back to Belfast, he thought, I’d know how Margaret and our unborn child were making out, I’d know how Billy had reacted to the news, I’d know if she still loved me or if she had really reconciled with Billy. Is she still alive? Oh God, this not knowing is driving me insane. Why has she not answered any of my 48 letters. Had she used any of the money he had arranged to be deposited in her name at the Ulster Bank in Waring Street? He had spoken with his father, made his will and wishes clear in the event of his death in combat. All his estate was to go to Margaret and the baby. The burning sensation as the raw whiskey hit the pit of his stomach focused his thoughts again. He glanced down at the half- finished letter and felt ashamed that he had let his personal agony impinge on his sense of duty. His duty was to finish this letter of sorrow and pain and prepare himself to fight again in the morning, to survive and go home to Margaret and the baby. Another fireball crashed into the pit of his stomach as he re-read what he had already written.
Dear Mr and Mrs Watson,
It is with the greatest regret that I write to inform you of the death of your son, Lt Barney Watson. He was killed in action in France on the evening of July 31st 1944. His Spitfire was shot down during an engagement with enemy fighters. He will be buried here in France with full military honours. You will be notified of the exact whereabouts of the cemetery by the Agency responsible for war graves. He was a fine officer, a credit to himself, you, his parents, and the Service. An exceptionally courageous young man, a brave pilot who paid the ultimate sacrifice serving King and Country. His personal effects will be delivered to you in due course. Please pass my heartfelt sympathy to ,Jane, his fiancée.”
Christ, he was a fine young man, but now he is a dead young man who’ll never get any older. How many of these letters have I already written and how many more will I have to write before this carnage is ended? I need a few minutes shuteye then I can continue, just a few minutes and I’ll be right as rain. Jack was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
My name is Jack King Senior; I’m acting on the instructions of my son Squadron Leader Jack King Junior, late of his Majesty’s Royal Air Force. On his death, I was instructed to contact you.My only son Jack was killed when his Spitfire was shot down over Germany on the 27th Jan 1945. I have been instructed to inform you that you and the child of my late son, born sometime in Dec 1944, my grandchild, are the sole beneficiaries of his estate. I pray to God that you both are well so as I can say that something good came out of this insane war. I have been instructed to make arrangements to deposit half the value of the said estate to a bank of your choosing and arrange that the other half be held in trust until his child, my grandchild, is eighteen years old. It has never been my pleasure to meet you in person but, from speaking with Jack and reading his letters, I know that he loved you and the child that he never got to see or hold with a passion that was greater than life itself. It would give me the greatest pleasure if you would consent to meet with me and let me see and hold my only grandchild. There is some information that may be of comfort and use to you or your child in years to come. Jack told me after returning from Ireland in April 1944 that he was divorcing Sandra as soon as possible and hoped to marry you. Sandra, her fancy man and her father, my business partner, were all killed when a doodlebug type bomb destroyed a nightclub they were in, somewhere in central London on 14th May 1944. Forgive me if I show no compassion or grief at her passing but she almost destroyed my son with her shameful antics. Jack was only granted three days compassionate leave for the funeral as he was involved in the Air Force operational planning for D-Day. Since the night he last saw you on the Bangor train, he has written several letters each week to you until the day he was killed. He was demented with worry about you and the baby, were you both safe and well? Wondering how your husband reacted when you told him the prepared story? Had you enough money to support yourself and the baby in the weeks before and after the child was due? Were you both well; was he the father of a son or a daughter, and what name you had given your child? Many times I wanted to come to Belfast and seek you out but each time he told me that you would contact him when you were good and ready. He always argued that you had received his letters but that the time was not right for you to contact him. That your love for each other was stronger than bands of gold it had been fashioned from blood, guts and bedpans. This belief is what kept him sane during the last months of his life and for that I will be forever grateful.
Jack Watson Solicitor and grieving father.
“Squadron Leader, Squadron Leader. Wake up, new orders have just arrived by dispatch rider from Command Headquarters as well as a pile of letters all addressed to you.”
Jack rubbed the sleep from his eyes and thought about the dream or was it a nightmare he had just escaped from. “Are you alright, sir?” asked the corporal “you look like you’ve just seen a ghost” “I’m fine, just a bad dream, now stop fussing and give me the dispatch and that pile of letters. We have a war to win, man. Put the kettle on, there’s a good chap, and will you ask Captain Jones to pop in and see me?”
“Yes sir, right away sir.”
“Ah, Jones, good of you to pop in. New orders, priority one, I’m afraid, Our lot and the Yanks are starting a big push to capture the bridges in red sector, we need to pull out all stops on this one. Everything and every pilot that can fly to be in the air by first light tomorrow until we are able to walk with dry feet across that river. I’ll address all the men at 2100. See to it, will you captain? While I finish the letter to Watson’s parents”
Once again he was alone and his thoughts returned to his dream, was it an omen was he or someone close to him soon to die? My God, what nonsense! Sure, people close to me are dying every hour of the day. The letters, my God, the letters. I almost forgot about them. His excitement and the whiskey downed earlier dulled his dexterity and the bunch of letters fell like snowflakes from his shaking hands onto the hard earthen floor as he ripped open the waterproof covering that bound them. On his knees, he recognised Margaret’s handwriting, the classical sweep of her pen as she formed the capital J was unmistakable. Using the censor’s date as a time line, he slowly placed the envelopes in date order. They numbered twenty-nine in total. The last one dated 27th September 1944.