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Saturday, 23 February 2019

Pals

Bill and Jack

The well-turned-out chap on the left is my great uncle Bill. I never met him. He died in his early thirties a decade before I was born. He is pictured with his friend, Jack, neat in a bow tie. They were inseparable. They had this postcard made of themselves together. They look like a nineteen-thirties American songwriting duo: Rogers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin, perhaps.

For some years, Jack lived with Bill and his parents. Jack was undoubtedly the liveliest of the pair, and Bill, rather his sidekick. In the makeshift pre-war census known as the 1939 Register, Jack is constantly on the go as a window cleaner, transport driver and police despatch rider. Bill is simply a general labourer in a paper mill. When Jack played in the village football team, Bill had only a supporting role as treasurer. When Jack played drums in a nineteen-thirties dance band, Bill would sit next to him on stage, even though, as someone who knew them once said, “he didn’t have a musical bone in his body”.

When Bill died, Jack ensured he was buried in one half of a double plot with a single stone surround. He reserved the other half for himself and had his own name inscribed on the vacant side with the dates to be added later. The two plots were divided by only a small marker bearing the word “Pals”.

I’m sure I can guess what many of you may be thinking: something that would never have been mentioned, suspected or even thought about in a self-contained, out-of-the-way, nineteen-thirties Yorkshire village. You may be right, or at least half-right, but a few years after Bill’s death, Jack got married. It was during the war, somewhere in the Midlands. Jack was thirty-nine and his wife, twenty-two. They returned to live in Yorkshire and had several children. The names and dates of both Jack and his wife are now inscribed on the stone surround on the other half of the double plot.

I never knew Bill, but have two memories of Jack. One is at my grandma’s house when I was no more than four or five. Jack was smoking heavily, talking in a loud voice, agitated about something. Every other word was “bloody” – “bloody” this, “bloody” that, with the occasional “bugger” thrown in. He spat out the words with the cigarette smoke, jerking and shaking his head, his whole face wobbling as if to emphasise everything he said. I’ve no idea what it was about but he seemed entirely unconcerned that a young child could be watching and listening.

I saw him once more, maybe seven or eight years later. By then he was important as Secretary of the local amateur football league for workplace teams such as Thorne Colliery and the railwaymen, pub teams such as the Victoria and the Buchanan, village teams such as Pollington, Eastrington and Swinefleet, and even a team of Methodists. It was Jack’s duty to present the league cup to the winning finalists. All gathered around after the match for the ceremony and Jack made a short speech. I was surprised he did it without saying “bloody” or “bugger” at all, not even once.

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