The Outsider

(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)

Five years have passed; five Summers, with the length
Of five long Winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.


from Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting
the banks of the Wye
, by William Worthworth

At last I was back home at Ty’n y wern – nestling as ever on its sleepy river back with no outward sign of a World War having happened. I could put behind me the struggles and trials of the past five years – a life of sharing, suffering together and caring for one another. When I arrived home there was a sense of desolation; it seemed as if I was a complete stranger, no friends to speak to which was so strange because I knew most of the people in Sarn and Aberkenfig before the War. It’s difficult to explain but maybe it was due to the fact that as youngsters we were all called up to serve our country at a tender age of twenty, grew up together and now we had to fend for ourselves once more. As a result I used to do a lot of walking on my own. Walk No. 1 (12–15 miles) start at Aberkenfig, over Cefn Cross, turn left to Laleston and Bridgend and then on to Ty’n y wern. Walk No. 2 Aberkenfig to top of Ty Cribwr hill to Penyfai and home (7–10 miles). Walk No. 3 Ty’n y wern to Brynmenyn, Bettws-Llangeinor, cross the railway and down New Road to Ty’n y wern (15–18 miles). Good training for the upcoming rugby season!

Walking the countryside in the difficult period of  adjustment to normal life

The army gave us three months paid leave and 90 clothing coupons. All clothing, boots, shoes and other provisions were on ration so unless you had coupons you could not purchase anything. I arrived home and had nothing to wear – not even a shirt and tie. A Demob Suit was issued after a few weeks and it was most welcome. To buy a suit you had to hand over 26 coupons. Before you bought all the clothes you needed your 90 coupons would have been used up, so you could not afford to give any away. Requests were made by some members of the family but sadly it was just not possible.

On my discharge book were written the words “A good reliable NCO who is intelligent and shows initiative, he has had considerable experience as a running shed foreman, in an operating and supervisory capacity and has a good technical knowledge. He is interested in sport and has given good support to unit rugby teams.”

I began this chapter by explaining how lonely I was when I returned to Aberkenfig; this was just one of the reasons for the chapter title – the other was that, from now on, I would be preoccupied by Gwyneth’s family (the Davies’s) rather than with my own parents or siblings; I say this with no tinge of regret or remorse – if I had the chance again I would have done the same. This was not for altruistic reasons – there is something deeply suspicious about people who proclaim that they have sacrificed their lives for others; it is just that I derive most satisfaction from giving a “leg-up” to those more needy than me, and so there is a degree of selfishness in it.

A Guide to Post-War Adjustment: Military Guidance Leaflet


Question: Since I returned home my family and friends don’t know
what to say to me. They either fire a volley of questions or there is an
uncomfortable silence. How do I deal with this?


Answer: Your family and friends want to make you feel comfortable,
but they are likely to be curious about what you went through. So
decide what you want to share and what is too delicate to talk about.
It is fine to say “When I am ready to talk about my experiences I would
appreciate you listening, but I don’t want to discuss it now”.

It was good to be back in my old job as an engine driver again in normal circumstances. On one occasion I was due to work a single-manned train from Cardiff to Chepstow, and I had an unusual dream. In the dream there was a policeman and a signalman involved and a man lying beside the railway with one part of his foot severed and the other badly injured. On the Thursday morning just after the dream, I was working the train from Cardiff to Chepstow and back (which I didn’t often do). At Newport, a policeman got on the train as on Thursdays his job was to escort the men carrying the wages from the bank for payment of staff. I walked to the phone on the signal and the signalman told me that there had been an incident just outside Cardiff. I proceeded with caution as instructed, and there beside the track was a victim with one foot entirely severed and the other damaged. He had apparently fallen out of a train.

 

A similar theme – though in a fictional setting, is used by Charles Dickens in his short story The Signalman – who is based in a deep cutting near a tunnel entrance on a lonely stretch of railway. In this tale, he receives prophetic warnings of danger when a bell rings in his signal-box that only he can hear, and each time an accident inevitably happens. Dickens had a deep-seated fear of trains resulting from an accident in which he was a surviving passenger. In my case, the dream was a one-off event which I never had reason to reflect on.

Classic Ghost Stories: The Signalman

Captain of Tondu Railway Rugby Team 1946–47

Around this time Gwyneth wanted to visit her sister Lilian who had married a French airman, Raymond, she had met when he was at Porthcawl during the war. They were now living at Arcachon on the South West French coast. Gwyn invited me to go with her. Having just completed nearly four years abroad and not particularly excited to be leaving these shores so soon, I told her that I would accompany her to Dover, and also wait for her when she returned to that port. After three weeks I had a letter telling me the exact date and time of arrival at Dover. We were both delighted to see one another again. We got on the train and didn’t stop talking until we arrived back home. The ticket collector told us that we were on the boat train and would have to pay First class fare, something of a shock, but who cares! It was one of those rare occasions when we were together – as Gwyn was a full-time nurse in Mountain Ash and I was on shift work.

 

After about one year, when I worked on passenger trains, I was able to avoid night work so we met up every other week in Cardiff and see a play at the Prince of Wales Theatre (now a Public House). Gwyneth began to tell me about the wartime tribulations of her own family, not least her younger brother Eddie, who had suffered from “shell shock” as it was known then. As with so many such conditions in those days, they knew no better than to send them straight to the local Mental Hospital in Bridgend. He had apparently been found wandering in the desert in Egypt asking for shelter, and had been sent home in 1942. He was first sent to a Mental Home at Barrow Gurney, outside Bristol. Gwyn used to visit him on her day off. He did not respond to her or anyone else; he would not speak to anyone so whatever happened no-one ever found out what had happened to him. To make life a little easier he was transferred to Bridgend Park hospital to be nearer his family. I would visit him with Gwyn but the Doctor could not tell us anything. He would always ask Gwyneth the same question, “How do you find your brother today?” In fact this went on for many years; she would feed him, read to him, talk to him, but he never responded. He did not improve one little bit and remained silent.

 

It was only after about twenty years in hospital (from 1942 to 1963) that a near-miracle happened. An art student called John Murphy went to work there for the summer break. Eddie would follow him around, “Now Eddie” he said, “Sit down and I will do a portrait of you.” Eddie replied “OK John”, and he never stopped talking then after nearly two decades of silence! When he “awoke” his awareness of the world was exactly as it was when he became ill. Of course, he had no clue about practical issues such as how the cost of living had increased in the interim, and he had no career or job experience to turn to.

John Murphy doing a portrait of Eddie before his “awakening”

It is hard to imagine the experience of “waking up” after all those years, to find the world around you so different – and that various people that inhabited your teenage years were gone forever – not least your father and your only brother. Remember also that he had lost his mother only three years before the War started. The first major challenge was to learn to speak again; he spoke rather in the manner of a deaf person; the difference was that he had been able to hear people talking but unable to process it correctly. However, he was much loved and visited regularly by several members of the close family, and that undoubtedly sustained him and eventually allowed him to recover and live as normal a life as someone in his position could manage. With great courage he passed his driving test and took a job at Boards Garage in Bridgend. In a letter to me dated 16 September 1986, the Dept. of Health and Social Security (DHSS) tried to claim that his initial illness was not linked to his wartime service, by implying that he had had a nervous breakdown at seventeen years of age. It is clear that after he was picked up in the desert when he was in a confused condition and they accepted what he was saying. After this initial period he never spoke to anyone for eighteen years. If his story had been true surely even the Marines would not have accepted him. In fact, the Marines awarded him one good conduct badge and one of ‘very good’ character, which is the highest such award in the Marines.

Photo of Eddie Davies – Gwyn’s
youngest brother

“What’s on the inside of a person is more important than their outward appearance”


Gwyneth Drake

Random Harvest film clip

Once he was out of hospital Eddie lived a fairly normal life until his death in 1987 – due to the effects of smoking.

 

I would take him to London to stay with his cousin Natalie and then take him back home. When we moved to Plymouth in 1950, he would come down and stay for a week or so; he was always very cheerful and had a good life. He was a very popular man around Bridgend. A vicar’s widow from London came to live next door and he would run errands and do odd-jobs for her. A number of other family members gave him love and support during his rehabilitation, not least Natalie Roy-Chaudhuri and another cousin Christine Elsey (née Davies).

The debilitating condition of shellshock which afflicted Eddie, thankfully unknown to the present generation, was immortally portrayed in the 1940 film Random Harvest starring Ronald Colman playing a man suffering from amnesia.

Screenshot for Random Harvest starring Ronald
Colman & Greer Garson

Thinking back on those days when I felt like the ‘outsider’ I remember vividly coming home from work one day in agony; my back playing me up. I said to my mother, “Have a look at my back, I don’t know if I have had a kick while playing rugby, but it is very painful.” She took a good look and said it was very swollen, “You had better go and see Dr Fitz.” Dr Fitzgerald was one of the four doctors in the village and he was the closest to our house (he looked after Gwyneth’s family as well). I told him it was bruising in the back and it is very painful, “Let’s have a look then, who told you it was swelling?” “My mother” I said. “That is fine lumber muscle you have and you have lumbago: I will mix you up some medicine.” It did the trick and the next occurrence was not until 1963! Dr. Fitz used to have a couple of Irish Setters and he would bring them around Ty‘n y wern for exercise. Sometimes they would get into the field and kill a chicken or two. My mother would say to him, “Now look here doctor, you owe me compensation for the loss of so many chickens.” He would have a laugh but no money ever changed hands, but if ever you needed him he was always there. On one such occasion, my younger brother John, who was in Pandy Infants School next door to Dr Fitz’s surgery, had an accident – one of his fingers got trapped in the very heavy gate. His teacher rushed him in to Dr Fitz with the top of his finger hanging off! I don’t know whether he stitched it back on but the finger is still there today!

 

Years later – in 1988, my son James was setting up his medical publishing business in London and looking for senior pharmaceutical executives to join his advisory panel. The name that came up on every list was that of Desmond Fitzgerald – then Medical Director for ICI (now Astra-Zeneca). He was on his way to Canada but willingly agreed to meet James at Heathrow to discuss the new venture. James tells me that his role as an advisor was crucial to the subsequent success of the business. How strange that the person who was best suited to help James in his career was the son of the doctor who tended to his grandparents on both sides of the family, in a tiny hamlet far from the Metropolis. I am a big fan of free will and the idea of “making your own luck”, but you can’t help concluding that there is an element of destiny in all our lives.

Dr. Fitz and his family including Des in open-top Ford in the 1930s