Chapter 4 – ‘Where the Swallows Fly’

Chapter 4

Another day, I wake in my ‘Home’ suite of rooms. The accommodation is luxurious, my bedroom is delightful, the bed sumptuous, the wardrobes copious, the carpet thick and soft under my feet, it’s all splendid there’s no doubt about that.  Despite the bells and whistles, the quiet comfort, the privacy, it is empty, there is no soul, the house has central heating but not the warmth of home and never will be my real home.  I’ve been here some twenty weeks and it seems much longer than that. 

After my catastrophic fall, I was manacled to various beds in the health services both public and private. I suppose hospitals are never nice places for the inmates, and it certainly wasn’t great for me.  My injuries were very painful and I foolishly did my forward roll down the stairs on a weekend when the hospital emergency services are at a low ebb.  In any event, it was all very uncomfortable, very painful and to make matters worse I broke the leg with the gammy ankle. This posed the medics problems, which resulted in a complete cock up and they had to break my leg again because of some spurious reason, though I reckon the weekend crew had no idea what they were doing with an eighty something drunk who’d been doing acrobatics.

Be that as it may, my son David travelled across the ‘pond’ almost on a weekly basis and did his absolute best, I know.  But, really he wanted me locked up safely somewhere, anywhere.  I was in no position to fight him although I wanted, and still want to go home.

Home is where the heart is, and it’s not here.  Swallow House will never be my home. It’s an amalgam of my old school, a hotel and a geriatric nursing home, but it is not and never will be home.

I came from Apple Tree House in Bingham, twenty odd miles away, that is where my heart is, any way what’s left of my heart.  That is where I nursed my lovely Johanna when she was pregnant, that is where David grew up.  That is where I lived and loved living, where the creaking cellar door spoke of good things to come, where the draftee kitchen window reminded me of how cosy we were on winter nights. Where the pictures of Margaret were dusted and cared for by Johanna, where exam results were opened, where David brought his bride to be, where I slept in the downy warmth of home.  I miss all that terribly, I miss the blossom of the trees, my neighbours and the milkman.  I weep sometimes because I am no longer home, and no one, not even David understands.

It’s not as if I haven’t been around.  I’ve had a good life. My early days perhaps were amongst the hardest.  In 1940 my Dad was called up.   I was already in that dreadful school where the war was an excuse for maltreatment of often displaced children.  I missed my mum and dad and my sister, everything was ghastly, the food, the clothes, the beds even the teachers, who were all ancient as all the young men went off to war.  The whole regime was cruel and unforgiving, it was ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays.’ In spades.  The prefects were all bastards, and beat the juniors on a whim.  In my case that seemed every day.

I couldn’t get home even for half term, and my mum who was then working as a secretary in some factory could never get time to come and see me. And then in 1943 my dad was killed.  He was killed, I didn’t know where.  I only knew he was dead.  There was just a telegram to mum.  It was in the Easter holiday. No funeral, no letters from the King, nothing! Dad was not going to be home again. It was as if the family were slammed shut, no longer in the mainstream, no longer a family, just Mrs Betts and her kids.  I went back to school for one more term where no one took a single moment to talk about my dad, no one put their arm around me as I cried in chapel, and then it all ended.

 Mum brought me home and I loved her for it. We became a family again.  At fourteen, I was her man.  It was my first realisation of grief, as my mother wept quietly in her lonely bed, we wept as well, Jennifer and me bravely, separately in an unspoken sharing of grief.

Then followed the days of growing into manhood, discovering myself, times of confusion, and times of revelation.  Girls, getting to know them and not being sure why or how to behave.  The first marvellous fumbles, the thrills of cuddles and kisses. The first heat of hearts beating so close, so close as to be unreal.

Jennifer my sister was very pretty, and had hordes of admirers.  I was jealous in a fraternal way and more than once crassly interrupted her careful admission of new boyfriends.  Despite that, Jenni as I used to call her, and I always got on well, she had a great sense of mischief and laughter which she sustained all her lovely life.

The war ended and I was called up into the Army, I decided to serve three years on a short service commission and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Did you shave this morning….Sir”

“Yes Sergeant Major,”

“And was the bathroom crowded …. Sir”

“As usual,  Sergeant Major.”

The Sergeant Major took a step back.  He nodded in his strange tick of a way, his Welsh Guards peek almost touching the bridge of his nose.

“Well, you must have shaved the man standing next to you Sah!!  You’re a disgrace  .. and well…. Sir turning out like a tramp!  Turning out like a sack of spuds  … Sah!  Is that the reason I call you Sir is it?”

“No Sergeant Major.”

“Mr. Betts speak when I ask you if you please… Sir.  The reason I call you Sir is Sir, because you are supposed to be a leader of men.  Not a tramp, not a sack of spuds and definitely not an Officer Cadet who can’t shave properly.”  The volume of the Sergeant Majors voice had started as a whisper, I almost leaned in to listen, but by the time the Sergeant Major got to the ‘shave properly’ bit he almost deafened the square.

John Betts or Officer Cadet Betts of the Gloucestershire Regiment almost shook in his sparkling boots.  Sgt Major Morgan could frighten an elephant.

Some twelve weeks later, Sgt Major Morgan shook me, second lieutenant Betts by the hand.

 “Good luck Sir, You’ll do your regiment proud Sir.”

 He snapped to attention and I wanted to hug this giant of a man who had fathered the platoon from a shambolic and random assembly of young men into at least for the most part a cadre of well-trained infantry officers.

My mother stood by, unsure about her son’s choice of the army instead of just two years’ service like all the other boys.

My relationship with my mum seemed to have been segmented into pre-boarding school and post boarding school and the mighty bond we’d formed after dad was killed.  The changes were immense for us both, I understood even at fourteen that I had to grow up, and grow up I did. There was no dad, no more being lifted and thrown in the park, no more ball games, no more watching rugby together. 

Then without any warning, my new dad arrived three years after my real dad had died. I remember my mum introducing Walter, I could tell how nervous she was.  Jenni and I both reacted differently.  I was polite but distant, I tried desperately to pretend that things were as they used to be, but of course they weren’t.   I felt miserable when I went to bed, I knew things were not as before.  Since then of course I’d worked it out, Mum had kissed and cuddled and shagged Walter and as nice as he tried to be, I found there was part of me that hated him. 

Jenni was confused too.  She always loved her mother and her father but in different ways.  Mother had kept the family together and Dad had just gone off and died. Dad had died an unsung hero, he had left a huge hole in her heart. Who was this Walter she confided in me, what did mum see in him?

On Aldershot camp square I plotted a course of my own.  I would not go to university for sure, I didn’t know what if anything I would study, maybe I’d make a career in the army. 

“Thank you for everything Sgt Major.”  My eyes misted over.

A smart salute, a snapped about turn and the Sergeant Major marched sharply away, I was on my own.

As Second Lieutenant Betts I joined my regiment in Germany part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), it was like going back to school. I found my fellow junior officers all of similar background and one in four were like me short service commissioned to guarantee not being confined to the ranks for the duration of national service.  I was amongst the huge numbers to be ‘called up’.

Like school, the strict hierarchy ruled with an astonishing rigidity.

 My first month was an agony of doing all the jobs no one else wanted.  I was orderly Officer for my first four weekends in charge of an empty barracks commanding a group of soldiers most of who didn’t want to be there any more than Mr Betts as I was universally addressed. 

My first Officer pal was Ben Trimmer, though six months my senior enjoyed rugby as I had in my school days.  I soon made a place for myself in the regimental team where I lived and loved a completely different side of army life.  Captain Cox the team skipper was very much the leader and he was also the main man as far as the team was concerned.  All the men called him ‘Sir’ or ‘Coxy’ but there remained a respect and comradeship which I had never seen before.  .

I became altogether more comfortable, I was a member of the Regiment, a strange family of brothers, from junior subaltern to Colonel. 

With three of my brother junior officers we went out on the town.  It was just about my first free weekend.  The drinking started early with Haigh leading the way. 

“Cummon men, down to the Prussian Club. Time for Betts to see the world.”

By nine o clock all four of us were much the worse for wear we sat at a table laden with beer and eight places, I was already so drunk I barely noticed the arrangements when the four girls arrived.

Of the delectable ladies who joined us, next to me sat the formidable Magda.

“You are Johnny, a new boy, yes?”

She smelt divine, her perfume overwhelming,  her make up like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Confusion rained down on my 19 year old virgin frame.  I cannot quite remember what I said.  Something like..  “How do you do.”

They shrieked with laughter.

  I was until that time certainly a virgin and it was with the accommodating Magda a pneumatic blond some eight years my senior that I consummated my lust and became a man.  However much I enjoyed the experience it was somewhat vaguer than it might have been, addled as I was by a surfeit of alcohol and severe lack of skill.  However the alcohol slowed the rising of the sap so that Magda with consummate skill ‘blooded’ another young British officer, a task she found both pleasurable and rewarding. Lieutenant Haigh settled the bill with decorum and I was carried back to barracks unaware that my great adventure had been all part of the regimental family plan.

Two weeks later the Rugby team gathered for a home game.   It all ended badly for me with a horrendous injury to my ankle injury that turned out to be a disaster.  The disaster had been compounded by less than competent first aid on that fateful weekend in Osnabruck

The consequence was that I was kept in hospital, my plaster cast removed and the following Monday I underwent surgery to correct a complex fracture of ankle and lower leg system, not one  bone but several bones and ligaments were damaged.

Two weeks later I underwent further surgery and it became apparent that my injuries were limb threatening and that arrangements were made for me to be returned to the RAMC HQ Hospital at Aldershot.

In Aldershot things did not improve and my only consolation was a young nurse called Anna who made me much more relaxed during her night shifts.  Whilst my future as an athlete faded my sexual life skills were considerably enhanced. Nevertheless I missed the life, I missed my regimental brothers, I had been borne again and now it was all coming to a shambolic end.

In the meantime Walter married mum and she became Mrs. Ramsey, even less a member of my family, I was still very ambivalent about Walter, I knew that mum loved him but my boyish cuckoo syndrome still lurked deep within me.  Walter it turned out, was a wonderful guy who loved my mum with an obvious passion.  He was always kind and considerate and inclusive with both Jennifer and me. It still took me years to really allow myself to care for him as I know my mum desperately wanted. I hope he forgave me.

In hospital boredom was a huge problem as the days dragged by.  X-rays and pain killers were the order of the day. 

“Silly fucking game – rugby, I see more of you buggers than training casualties.  When will you guys ever learn?” The chief medic was not impressed.

It was the Chaplin who delivered the news that I was to be discharged from my army commission due to my injuries. I was expecting it but when the news came I was devastated, although of course the prospect had certainly crossed my mind.  Despite that I felt surprisingly hurt, I felt grief envelope me. I was losing my family for the second time.

I just nodded and held back the tears.

That night Anna visited, she sat beside me on my bed. I declined her ministrations and we sat together, me dosing and inhaling Anna’s strange mixture of perfume and hospital detergent.  I drifted off to sleep what a lovely girl Anna was.

And now this, I was to be cast away from the regiment, my new family who I had in such a short time grown to love.

Col Winter arrived an hour late on his rounds.

 “Well young man how are you doing?  Look I’m very sorry but I can’t see another way, I’ve had to recommend your discharge I don’t think that ankle of yours is going to be up to snuff for at least a year and maybe more.  Certainly won’t be playing that bloody silly game anyway for a while yet.”

The Colonel looked ill at ease, “I’m really sorry old chap, I hate good guys like you having to quit, it almost indicates that we’re less than competent.  In your case the damage was so great I don’t think we could have done any better and there’s more surgery to come, I hope we’ll get you out of here on you two pins.  But it will take a while yet.”

“What’s the long term view Colonel?”  I was desperately sad, what I’d heard so far sounded awful.

“We’ll not send you to the civilian hospital until you’re clearly on the mend, what I mean by that is the Army will look after you with every tool at our disposal.  As far as your injury is concerned I think you have a chance of a fairly full recovery, but I don’t think any of that rugby stuff will be on the cards.”

I still didn’t really understand what the colonel was driving at.  “Will I be able to walk and run?”

“Walk certainly, maybe with some support for a while, but I don’t think you’ll be running for a good while yet.  I think you have to take one step at a time if you see my meaning – sorry for the pun- but each patient is different.”  The colonel shuffled his files and produced the latest x-ray.  “the ankle is probably the most complex joint we have, it certainly has the most complex moving set of parts both bone and tissue.  In your case the first aid was strictly speaking correct but there were complications that were impossible to see.  We’ve corrected most of the bone damage and one more surgery I think may make a huge difference, but the ligament damage may take a very long time to heal that may also need further surgery.  All may go swimmingly but it will be long and complex road.  You are young and fit so I have every confidence that the prognosis will be good.  Up to you though, as much as up to us.  Physiotherapy will be vital in your recovery and the Army is pretty good at that.  I hope we can start that in a week or so.”

There was a silence, The Chaplin appeared as if by magic, he the first to speak.  “You have the strength John, here..” he tapped above his heart, “You will recover and find a new life where you will be an inspiration to others, I’m sure of it.”

The Medic departed in a flurry of his surgical greens, squeaking down the polished corridor in his theatre boots.

As he took his leave Coxy arrived disturbing the balance of my bed with his huge weight.  The Chaplin made his excuses and left.

“The Colonel sends his best, we were all very sad to hear of the discharge decision … very bad luck, very bad luck.”

“Roll of the dice Sir, I’m pissed off but the card’s been dealt and I have no other choice than to play what I am given.  What brings you to Aldershot?  Very kind to come all this way to see me.”

Coxy laughed, “You know how generous the MOD is, no I’m glad to have the chance to see you but I’m on a course at Staff College, hopefully on my way to field rank… you know the Army, we all do as we’re told.  What about you, what are you going to do?”

“I was just talking to the padre about that I have no bloody idea, university I guess but what after that I have no idea at all.”

Coxy unloaded a small pile of cards, from each Mess.  A bottle of Scotch and a small package that he placed on the bed.  I opened the cards, they came from my brothers in the officers’ mess, one from the colonel and his lady, one from my platoon Sergeant, one from HQ Company and one from the Battalion rugby team.  I felt moved to tears, when would I ever be part of something like this ever again? Coxy ruffled my hair, “Don’t let them get you down John, one door closes but I’m sure another will open. Be good and get that ankle sorted –  and that’s an order.”

I lay back and tried to sleep.  I couldn’t, so I idly unpacked the parcel that Coxy had left.  It was a little silver rugby ball set on the regimental Crest, It was engraved, To John Betts from his brother Officers – ‘To your future’.

I closed my eyes and let the tears fall, I stared at the little silver trophy, all I had left from my army career of seven wonderful months.

I was discharged from Hospital/rehab and the army after ten month’s service.  Armed with a travel warrant a small amount of cash and a pronounced limp, I arrived at the new family home.  Mum wrapped me in her arms, I could feel the slight reserve in her embrace as Walter looked on. Mum looked petite and attractive, the maturing country wife.  My step father Walter, despite my inner denial, looked ‘right’ in this new rather splendid house.  Walter was well to do, for the first time I had an inkling of how lucky mum had been to find a guy who was not only gentle and kind but also well off.

The warmth of mum’s embrace revived the memory of our interdependence of five years before.  That special mother son relationship, a bond with just the one unbroken link.

I held mum at arm’s length, “It’s good to be home Mum, you look well.”

She gently stroked my face, “My soldier boy, I’m so sorry things didn’t go to plan.”


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