I’ve always romanticised the story of how my grandparents met during World War Two. They were both cooks in an army camp, based at Balgowan, Perthshire. As I looked into it more, through records and speaking to my father and uncle, I learnt the reality of what this love story was and our connections to my new home here in Scotland.
Leaving Scotland was the last thing I thought I’d do, but then I did. My love for Frank was so strong, I longed to be close to him again after the end of the war when he returned to the south.
I settled back to family life, out in Dunbar. It wasn’t the same. The Pillars pub hit and under repairs, and my favourite dance hall a pile of rubble and dust. Dundee didn’t look the same. People did their best, helping, talking in the streets, offering whatever food they had to give. The children were back playing in the street. The fear had gone but I still remembered it. The sirens, the men returning. I’d remember the bell every day, waking up at five each morning. We’d be up first, Lucy, Jeanie, May, Violet and myself. We’d get dressed, sort our hair, make our beds immaculately, have our own breakfast and start with boiling vats of water. The men would come in for breakfast about six o’clock. The noise is what you could hear first…
We could set our clocks to their precise time-keeping. A sea of uniforms walking the trodden path into the large tent. Stopping, pausing then drawing back their chairs and sitting down, bringing the chair back under the tables with them. Next would be the chink of the cutlery and the glasses. Juice was poured, light chatter, one man next to his neighbour asking: “would you like tea?”. We always laid out the first batch of tea while we plated up food for serving. The hot platters smashed up against each other as we put them side by side. The boiled eggs always went last. As soon as the last man was seated time was called by a large bell being rang. Each table would take turns forming an orderly queue to take up their plates and fill them up.
When I spied a photo of Frank in Jeanie’s locker, I knew he was the one for me. I was so mad. I spoke with Frank and said “that’s it”. The rest was then history.
The first place we stayed in together was a tenement. But we were not always made welcome by the neighbours with Frank being English. I preferred it when we were together during the war. At least we all got on then.
Once Frank wrote me a letter to join him in Bournemouth, I arranged everything right away. I packed what I could carry – with Evelyn to carry too – and some food for the journey. It was a long train journey there. I didn’t look back. I only thought of being reunited with Frank and our new life together.
Why did they give me all girls? And ones that had never boiled an egg in their life. The war depended on these bellies being full and content, not ill. They were always talking. If their ability to cook had only been as good as their good looks, I’d have an easier life, but, oh no. Then there were those relentless soldiers asking for more to eat when they knew we were on rations. Annie knew the rules but would still tell the lads: “Come back at the end of service and I’ll top your plate up. Can’t go hungry now can you, fighting a war”. Cooking for a thousand hungry men was no mean feat.
On our rest days we would sometimes go to the pictures. I took all five girls with me. Annie offered me one of the plums she’d brought with her. I bit into it hard, juice exploded everywhere – tomato juice, they weren’t plums. We got chucked out because the girls were laughing so much. Always chattering those girls.
I tried and tried to find work after the war, but an Englishman – and a cockney at that – finding work was not easy. I left Annie with our first born, Evelyn, and travelled to my brothers in Bournemouth, England. Poor Annie was accused of stealing just because she was married to an Englishman. I was not made to feel welcome there and it tarnished poor Annie’s reputation. I was embarrassed. I didn’t feel I was a good husband to her. I soon found work and soon we were staying with my brother, Ernie, and his wife, Betty. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than no work at all.
My grandmother only returned to Dundee when we took her on holiday some fifty years later. The Scottish family would always come to visit Bournemouth to take the sea air and enjoy the warmer weather. They were always welcome. Now I find myself living in and calling Scotland my home. An English lass with her Scottish partner back here in Stirlingshire, not far from where my grandparents first met. I have never been made to feel so welcome and have never been treated like an outsider. For my partner, coming back was like a great homecoming. Back to his roots, his beloved Scotland.
How I’d love to talk again with my grandparents about Scotland, sharing stories of what it was like then and what it’s like now. And I could finally ask my grandmother if she really couldn't boil an egg.