Remembrance of Christmas Past

Like many others, my mind turns back at this season of the year, recalling events which have established a place in my memory and which come easily to the surface of consciousness to be pondered over with nostalgia.

In April 1940 I completed my five years apprenticeship as an Engineering Fitter in the Sirocco Works and though teetotal then (and now) I was prevailed upon to stand a few colleagues a drink (which was the custom) in a pub close to the works.

Much to my relief, for my cash was limited, only a couple of journeymen came plus a few young apprentices. The latter, being under 18 years, had shandies, the journeymen craftsmen pints whilst I had a lemonade.

One of the apprentices, a dark haired and good looking lad called Harry who attracted women and girls with ease and who is the central person in this story, travelled home with me as he lived close to where I lived in Strandtown in East Belfast.

On the tram he told me of his father, to whom he was greatly attached, who had served in the Royal Air Force (or as it was called then, the Royal Flying Corps) in the First World War, had been caught in a gas attack, had subsequently been in poor health and was very ill at the time.

He and I became quite friendly and I helped him as he was progressing through his apprenticeship which, as seniors, we were expected to do.

In our workshops, conveniently tucked in corners behind metal screens, urinals were situated in proximity so that time away from the workbenches was minimised.

One morning on visiting one I found Harry, who had been missing for some time from his workbench, with his face to the wall, sobbing and distraught. He told me that his father was dying so I did what i could to help him recover his composure and return to work in order to take his mind off his trouble but, as one would expect, he only just managed to get through the rest of the day.

The following day he was absent. I learned that his father had died and he was away for a few days until after the funeral.

In the following weeks we talked from time to time and he often expressed a desire to follow his father’s footsteps and join the RAF. I confess that I tried to persuade him not to, that his father though it had been delayed a few years, had sacrificed his life in one war and that it would be unfair to his mother to take such a step so soon after his father’s death. However, as it later transpired, I only delayed the decision.

In October, I had a dispute over a piecework price with the foreman (a James Connolly, in fact), asked for my cards and left.

Within a couple of days I commenced work in Short and Harland’s aircraft factory and afterwards only occasionally ran into Harry.

Then on Christmas Eve the same year I was on night shift but although it was wartime we were to have a break of a couple of days – perhaps it was only one – so I was having at least the Christmas Eve shift off.

After spending the morning as usual in bed, I took a walk or a short tram ride along the Albertbridge Road to Mountpottinger, thinking of going to the pictures, but instead popped into the old Armstrong Siddeley Garage which had been turned into an indoor fairground with dodgem cars and the usual sort of equipment.

It was there I ran into Harry and a friend of his, Willy, and they subsequently attached themselves to two girls who I think they knew, although I can’t be sure of that, and I went along with them.

In a short while we all tired of the amusement centre and the girls said they were going to a party, so Harry asked if we could come and they agreed to ask at the house when we got there if we could join in. So, through the streets in the darkness that then had fallen, and of course the black out was in force, we arrived at a terraced street where we waited until the girls gave us the OK that we could join the party.

There were lots of cakes and sandwiches. How they had been produced despite rationing I cannot guess although the system was not too strict or onerous in the early years of the war, if my memory serves me right.

Much of the time we spent talking, telling stories and playing the usual type of party games of the period. Harry and Willy partook of the beverages available whilst I stuck to tea and lemonade.

Every now and then Harry would come up to me and remark that the other thought he was drunk or assured me that they were only social drinkers, only drank to pass themselves in company, they said.

Around 11.30 pm they came to me to ask if I would stay in the house until they returned for the two girls were going home and they were going to see them safely there. I agreed to do so and off they went, saying that they wouldn’t be long.

The party continued with a bit of singing, joking and laughing for some time. I’m not sure for how long, as time seems to fly on such occasions. Suddenly, there was some consternation when a lad, dressed in air force uniform – apparently he was returning to his unit after Christmas – stood up holding a half empty pint glass, placed it on top of the radio cabinet, and collapsed in a heap.

There were only two sober persons in the very full house, me and a girl whose name I didn’t know or now remember, so we roped in a few others to assist and carried him bodily into the back yard to recover in the fresh air and the moonlight was sufficient to see what we were about.

I returned to the house and along with the sober girl in this house I’d never been in before or since we tried without success to find some coffee that might help to sober up the airman. He had come round in the back yard demanding to know who had hit him and needed a few people top restrain him from creating a fuss.

We had to settle for tea so we made a as strong a mug of milkless tea as we could and administered it to the factious airman. It transpired that it was not the heat of the room and the alcohol that had caused his collapse but the fact that he had been flicking the ash of his cigarettes into his glass all night which was, of course, the equivalent of knockout drops.

When this hubbub had subsided the next thing to concern the sober girl and myself was that one of the girls in the company collapsed in a fit, clearly epileptic, and there was a search for a spoon (a practice not allowed today) to prevent her swallowing her tongue.

She was made comfortable on the floor and when she came round was taken care of by the other women there who themselves seemed to have been sobered up by the two events.

I suddenly realised that a lot of time had passed and Harry and Willy had not returned and I began to feel concerned to find it was 2.00 am but decided to wait for thirty minutes before setting off home on my own.

However, they returned before the half hour was up and told me that they’d caught a late tram and had taken the girls home to the Donegal Road or Donegal Place area – I imagine from my geographical knowledge it must have been the latter – and had also managed to get on another returning to the Mountpottinger Depot.

How they managed to find their way back is beyond me for I, stone cold sober, had no idea of the number of the house or the name of and location of the street.

They had a few more drinks and something to eat and I finally persuaded them to start back for home. So off we went with me in the middle along the Albertbridge Road staggering from side to side on the pavement. When we reached the point opposite the indoor fairground they stopped and of course so did I and Harry exclaimed loudly, “I love Do Do”, his pet name for the daughter of the owner, who was, he said, his girl friend. Willie too shouted out his devotion to her and it was only with great difficulty, holding tightly to both of them, that I prevented them from fighting.

We proceeded then via the Hollywood Road, veering off first to leave Willy home, laughing at his uncertain walk and his fumbling at his gate, then to Harry’s home, he being in a similar state of inebriation to Willy.

I never met either of them more than once afterwards in the succeeding years, changing my job several times and eventually crossed the water to work in England.

On a visit to Belfast in 1944 I met Harry’s sister by chance who told me that he had in fact joined the air force, been sent to the Far East, had first escaped with his colleagues to the Dutch East indies but was taken prisoner by the Japanese.

Later, about 1946, when I had returned with my wife, who is English, to Belfast, I met harry’s sister again and when I asked her how he was she sadly told me he had died in the prison camp.

So he had indeed followed his father’s footsteps and his life had been even shorter.

At Christmas each year the memory of that Christmas Eve and morning in 1940 surfaces in my memory with some sadness. Even though it is 65 years ago it’s quite easy to recall most of the details.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 19 December 2005.

Samuel H. Boyd

Christmas Readings