“OK, Dad, I’m off now.”
He gets up from his chair and comes to me at the front door. He extends his hand for me to shake.
“OK, son. Well, the best of luck. Make sure you write.” He lets go of my hand and I open the door.
I assure him that I will, then I’m out of the door and walkingalong the landing to the stairs that take me to street level. It’s a fifteen minute walk through the streets of South London to the local railway station where I catch the train into central London. I’m no stranger to travelling alone through the big city. Peckham Rye to Victoria, then on to Paddington and the unknown. The rush hour's over so the ttrain's quiet. I have the carriage to myself for most of the journey.
Less than 2 hours later and I’m sat on the train that will take me the west of England.
It’s a two hour journey, boringly uneventful, but I haven’t travelled on this route before so I look out for the stations, wondering what places like Reading, Swindon Bath and Bristol are like. My curiosity was satisfied over the years as I visited these towns on business or pleasure.
There are other young men like me on board. I wonder if they’re going to the same place as I am, but I’m too shy to ask.
At Weston-Super-Mare I walk through the quiet station, recognising some of the youths who travelled with me, but there are others who were in different carriages. Some joined the train at Bristol, having travelled across the country by other routes. There are about thirty of us queuing to get on the bluish grey coloured bus. A thick-set, uniformed man,
three stripes on his arm, asks us for our names and ticks us off a list.
We have to wait. There are more young men expected on the next train. The Sergeant says we can smoke if we stand next to the bus, so cigarettes are offered and accepted as we stand on the chilly station forecourt chatting excitedly in a multitude of regional accents. Sea birds call and we wonder what the town is like. Will we be allowed out that night to find
out? Will there be lots of girls to meet? Hardly. Its Autumn and the holiday season is long gone. Lifelong friendships are formed in those minutes of chatting and waiting.
The later train arrives and three more young men join us. The Sergeant hurries the smokers back onto the bus and it lurches away towards our new home with a clash of gears.
I stare out of the window taking in the bungalows and houses. They all seem to be advertsing bed and breakfast accommodation. Hot and cold running water in all rooms seems to be a big selling poin, as is the use of a TV lounge. Turn right at a pub, The Heron, then lurching over to narrow railway bridges. This route will become so familiar to me over the years. Past the airfield, nothing to do with the RAF, as I will find out, and then up a long hill. Turn left at the top and in past the Guardroom. Ahead stands a plinth om which there should be an old spitfire, but its on loan to a film company. Round the one way system and behind the sports fields. The bus grinds to a halt beside a red brick bilding.
The Sergeant stands up and starts to call our names and directs us to our accommodation.
“Armstrong: Bishop Block downstairs room on the right. Find yourself an empty bed. Back outside in five minutes to go and collect your bedding. Baker: Jackson Block upstairs room on the right. Find yourself an empty bed…..”. My initial is C so I’m near the top of the list. Bad luck Underdown.
I find myself in a long room with 18 beds in it. Half are made up, the carefully folded sheets and blankets of the hated “bed packs” suggest that great care has gone into their appearance. I find one with a bare mattress on it and place my small case on top, claiming ownership. On one side stands a tall wardrobe, the door slightly ajar to show its empty. On the other side of the bed is a smaller locker, also open which doubles up as a bedside table. Along the room stand other identical trios of furniture. Those beside the made up beds have padlocks and carry name labels to show who is using them. Beside each bed lies a small rectangle of carpet. Three feet by two.Otherwise the floor is bare, glemaing with polish. The air is thick with its cloying smell? Who worked so hard to get that shine. My question will soon be answered.
When I return outside the last of the party are still coming into the barrack block. More waiting.
It’s a long walk to the bedding store. The Corporal now in attendance doesn’t try to make us march, that will start the
next day, though he does form us into a column in the hope that we might look a bit more military and less like civilians. Burdened down with blankets, sheets and pillows we sign on the dotted line and return to the barrack block, or billet as we will learn to call it.
The existing occupants of the rooms have returned from work, resplendent in their blue/grey uniforms and polished boots, hair cut so short the white skin of their scalps is visible. We’re greeted with cat calls and jeers, but they’re well meant. Just a bit of banter for the new boys. More friendships ready for the making. We start asking questions of the 'old hands'. What tinme is tea? being the most import
Seven hours before I had left home a mere child. Now not only was I starting a career, but also a new life.