Faces of War

January 27, 2014 by Legion Magazine

Published in Legion Magazine, March 1984
By Rosemary Hutchinson

Exclusive Audio Version:

My friend Charlie and I are cruising down the Strand in a Hillman. Now a Hillman, to the uninitiated, is a type of car spewed out to meet the emergency of wartime. It is extremely small, and much inclined to rattle at an early age, especially this one under Charlie’s heavy hand.

A vitriolic mustard shade, it sports two orange blobs of special paint on the hood. In the event of a gas attack these blobs will change color. Charlie and I are at a loss as to the action necessary if this catastrophe occurs, because our gas masks are somewhere in the bedsitter we rent on Earlscourt Road.

At the moment I am more concerned with this girl’s driving. Her approach might, at best, be termed nonchalant. “You are the most gawd-awful driver,” I tell her as a traffic light stops us at full belt.

A taxi pulls up beside us. The driver, in a dusty cap and shapeless raincoat, leans across his steering wheel and shouts: “Hey Canada, where’d ya learn to drive, on one of them Rocky Mountains you have over there?”

Popping her head out the window, Charlie replies: “Na Guv, on one of them h’icebergs we have over there.”

The cabby starts to laugh, I laugh and Charlie, overcome by her own wit, laughs hardest of all. The traffic light turns green and the taxi cuts us off neatly. “Serves you right,” I remark, bracing my feet on the dashboard.

But the cabbies of wartime London are kind to the Canadian girls who drive here. They give us endless patient directions when we get lost in the maze of the city, sometimes holding up long streams of traffic to do so. I suppose that after years of blitz and blackout our remarkable driving habits are a source of amusement. The war is nearly over, soon we and our tacky cars will disappear. Perhaps they will even miss us.

This war has made Londoners of Charlie and me. We are the grateful recipients of a living-out allowance, 12 shillings a day, that enables us to rent the bed-sitter, a vast, shabby chamber with a permanent smell of cooking.

We also get civilian ration coupons for milk, margarine, cheese and endless tins of corned beef. We admire the British housewife, who manages for a week on this meager supply; we devour ours in two days. However, we are lucky: The Sally Ann and the Knights of Columbus canteens fill in the void.

Food, any kind of food, interests us greatly, so we are pleased when some affluent boyfriend asks one of us out to dinner. A great gastronomic event is the arrival in town of Charlie’s father, a big gun in the navy. He always finds time to take us to the Berkley, where he sits and frequently remarks: “I don’t know how you kids can eat so much and stay so skinny!”

We are enjoying ourselves. Life is not as traumatic as at an operational station where people you know and like have a tendency to disappear – permanently. Each morning, we board the Underground at Earlscourt and eject near Russell Square, site of the RCAF motor-transport section. From this vast subterranean garage we are let loose on our daily ploys. We drive hither and thither about London with important people or documents, or both, and often make runs through the lovely countryside.

We are on such a trip today, bound for the plastic-surgery hospital at East Grinstead. Charlie is delivering sealed documents and, on my day off, I am keeping her company – at great peril to my life, I think, as we wheel down the Mall at a great rate. We have planned this safari carefully. We will take the long route home with many stops to contemplate nature and refuel the inner man. The night shift, which tends to be more casual, will have taken over by the time we get back and we are hoping our tardy return will go unnoticed.

In due course Charlie delivers her papers, getting all the right signatures in the right places from the proper people, and we wheel down the drive towards the main road.

Two figures standing by the entrance have their thumbs out in the universal gesture. They are sergeants with pilots’ wings. I know what is coming, so I turn to Charlie: “Are you ready for this?” She glares at me: “Of course I’m ready.”

We stop. I lean out the window and shout cheerfully: “Are you bound for the Big Smoke?”

One of the sergeants leans in the window: “Can we get a lift then?”

I smile, determined he will not guess that I am shattered by his face. It is a patchwork of pink and white skin crisscrossed with surgical stitches. His nose is a queer shape and he has no eyebrows. But his brown eyes are cheerful and when he smiles his teeth are white and even. But then, I think, teeth don’t burn. His pal, an Australian, has fared somewhat better facially but his hands are like claws and he tries to hide them behind his back.

“Hop in,” I cry. “We run a super taxi service here!” They laugh and squeeze into the narrow back seat.

As we drive along we learn they are going on leave, but must return to the hospital for further surgery. They hope to reach the one lad’s Yorkshire home by catching the night train north.

Conversation languishes, but Charlie saves the day by shouting “Pub Time” and wheeling down a leafy lane to a drinking place she knows. We sit in its little garden quaffing beer and things improve dramatically. By the time we cross Putney Bridge we are all chirping like little birds in the spring.

Charlie debates hanging on to the car for the evening and suffering the inevitable wrath tomorrow, but caution prevails. We dump the Hillman back at the section and take our new friends to Soho where we eat spaghetti in an Italian restaurant.

This is augmented by beans on toast, a couple of fried black-market eggs, chips and a slice of spicy chicken that Charlie claims is really “London alley cat.” It says much for the quality of the wine that nobody finds this remark upsetting. We finish with spumoni – water ice streaked with violent colors of red, green and yellow.

Our pals have three hours before train time, so I suggest we go dancing. This idea is met with shouts of approbation, so we take a cab to Hammersmith, where the mighty beat of the band surges out to engulf you before you can even see the Palais de Danse.

We join the rocking humanity on its enormous floor. They are playing our music – Glenn Miller, the panacea of wartime youth. Gone are thoughts of ruined faces and clawed hands. We jitter and jive to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Jersey Bounce and The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy. I am so hot I tear off my jacket, then pull off my tie and wave it round my head. I would take off my shirt too were I not afraid of being thrown out. We dance in twos, we dance as a foursome, soon we are dancing with people we have never seen before. We dance away the dreary sadness of the war.

We barely get our ‘outpatients’ to their train on time. At Kings Cross we push them past the irate guard at the barrier, but when he sees their faces he becomes kind and gets them on board. We wave frantically as the train slides away from the platform.

Charlie and I walk to the station entrance. It is wet and dark and the euphoria is beginning to wear off.

“Do you think too much drink, too much food and too much exercise is good for plastic-surgery patients?” Charlie asks anxiously.

“Dunno,” I reply. “It’s too late to worry about it now, but they had a good time, and you know so did I.”

Charlie looks surprised. “Me too, and you know we never even found out their last names.”

Coat collars turned up, we plod through the rain to the Underground to take the long trip back to the bed-sitter.

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