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Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Restless Friend

From Great Heck and the Norfolk Broads to Southern Rhodesia: the contrasting lives of childhood friends.


High on the mantelpiece in the back room of the house where I grew up, were photographs of my mother and father taking turns to wear a captain’s hat at the wheel of a houseboat on the Norfolk Broads. My dad’s pipe is jauntily raked at an angle that would not have been out of place in someone commanding a much larger vessel. He puts on a show of self-importance while my mum looks relaxed and happy. How young and carefree they seem; from a time before I was born. 

My dad remembered this post-war holiday fifty years later. They went with his school friend Freddy and wife Sylvia. My mum, Freddy and Sylvia went on ahead because Dad had to work the first Saturday. He took his suitcase in the firm’s van and was dropped off at Heck railway station, between Selby and Doncaster, where he took a direct train to Norwich. He remembered the splendid sight of Ely Cathedral in the evening sun. He was young, the war was over and he was off on holiday with his new wife and friends: for all of them the future was rosy. 

You might be surprised to learn there was ever a direct train from Heck to Norwich, but during the war the tiny station at Great Heck gained unusual importance due to its proximity to No. 51 Heavy Bomber Squadron, R.A.F. Snaith, a short distance along a country lane between Heck and nearby Pollington. Also at Pollington were army barracks and one of the largest Women’s Land Army quarters in the country. Some 3,200 extra personnel were drafted into a village of 650. My dad’s train was a residual wartime service. He actually caught it on the very last Saturday it ran.

Great Heck has no railway station at all now. It disappeared around nineteen-sixty along with its neighbours at Temple Hirst, Balne and Moss. My dad once took me there in the nineteen-fifties to watch powerful Atlantic and Pacific locomotives race through non-stop on the East Coast Main Line between York and Doncaster. By then the station had already declined into obscurity and might never have been heard of again had it not been the site of the terrible Great Heck rail crash in February, 2001. Even that is often referred to as the Selby rail crash.

Pollington Airfield has also gone. A few derelict hangars remain but the runways and taxiways have all but crumbled and the site is used now by haulage and storage companies. For much of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies it was a popular off-road spot for learner drivers to make their first juddering attempts at starting, steering, stopping and changing gear.

Back in the photographs, it is Freddy’s cap they are wearing. On leaving school he had initially begun to train as a ship’s officer, but wartime on the ominous North Atlantic convoys had left him restless. He exchanged his sextant for the cricket team and a job in a railway office. The drudgery was too much. While my dad remained in his small Yorkshire town, Freddy left for the champagne air of colonial Southern Rhodesia, seeking excitement and adventure over caution and insularity. Sylvia followed soon after with their two young children. That is what wives did in those days whether or not they really wanted to. 

They left in 1952 and lived very comfortably for a time. Whites in Rhodesia had servants, sizeable houses with pleasant gardens and swimming pools, and good health care and education. The climate was wonderful and it was one of the richest communities in the world. I don’t know whether Freddy ever came back. Online ships’ manifests only show Sylvia and the children spending five months in Yorkshire without Freddy in 1955, but the records are incomplete.

What I do remember is that each Christmas Freddy sent my dad a subscription to the Reader’s Digest. My dad thought it the affected urbanity of a smug high-flier and was irritated by the complacent, patronising content. But children have time to read such things: the features such as ‘Laughter the Best Medicine’, ‘Humour in Uniform’, ‘Life’s Like That’ and ‘Test Your Word Power’, the biographies and articles on technology and medicine, the condensed books. I still, for old time’s sake, go straight to the piles of back-issues in holiday cottages and waiting rooms. Thankfully my word power fairs better now. It is easy to see why it was once one of the highest-circulation periodicals in the world, despite all the junk mail that comes with it.

The gift subscription continued into the nineteen-sixties despite nothing ever being sent back in return, not even a Christmas card, as we did not know Freddy’s address. It may have been in Bulawayo. One year the subscription stopped. Perhaps he had decided not to bother any more. We gradually forgot about it. It was a long time before we heard what had happened.

Two decades later, Sylvia unexpectedly returned to England, alone and penniless. It transpired that Freddy, clever with money, had made a small fortune on the stock market, but had also developed an alcohol problem. Eventually he left and moved to Hong-Kong where he later died. Sylvia had remained in Rhodesia (by then Zimbabwe) until, forced by the economic and political situation there, she returned to Yorkshire. She had not been allowed to bring any money out of the country. She came back to be near her daughter, but her daughter died fairly soon afterwards. Sylvia spent the rest of her days in our small Yorkshire town on benefits in a bedsit, surrounded by second-hand furniture.

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