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Carenza and George

As a hospital Chaplain in the nineteen nineties I was very involved with death and grieving but it was very different when I experienced it first hand. I was called to the hospital at seven o’clock one morning in March four years ago and my first reaction when I saw George laid out in a side ward was that he didn’t feel as dead as I had expected. I can’t put it in any other way, he was certainly dead and at the same time somehow he was still with me; I sat in silence and held his hand for a while and then left to do all the things a new widow has to do. I was lonely but life as a naval wife had prepared me for that. There was plenty to keep me busy, things to be sorted, shared or thrown away but also a multitude of treasurers we had collected together over more than half a century.

We met when I was a very shy seventeen year old, a misfit in my family, bullied at boarding school where I had been sent when I was ten. I was destined for agricultural college and was filling in time by working as a housemaid in a country house outside Plymouth. George was among a number of young Naval Officers lodging there, eight years older than me and first lieutenant of a submarine in Devonport Dockyard. On the night of my eighteenth birthday we climbed from the attic onto the roof where he proposed to me under a full moon – of course I said yes and never regretted it! 

What is left? Among all the memories and collected treasures three things stand out. First George and I had to tell my employer who happened to be a cousin and friend of my mother. We had to tell her that we were planning to get married – the memory is as clear as though it had happened yesterday. I was terrified, I’d never tried to plan my life before; I had been brought up to do as I was told. George took my hand and led me across the huge hall, animal heads on the walls, worn rugs scattered on the floor, and as he pushed my cousin’s study door open he said quietly ‘Courage mon brave!’

If you marry into the Navy you have to learn to cope with whatever life throws at you. By the time I was twenty one I was living in Australia with two very small boys with a husband who was now Captain of a submarine and frequently at sea somewhere in the Pacific. In those days there was no formal welfare system and if there was a problem the captain’s wife was expected to solve it, even if she was the youngest one in the group. I needed all the courage George had wished for me. In those days we all knew that things could go wrong with submarines from time to time. In 1950 Truculent had been sunk in the Thames estuary followed by the loss of Affray with the whole of that year’s training class, 75 men lost their lives. Five years later in June 1955 13 men were killed in a torpedo accident in Sidon when she was tied up along side in Portland Harbour. We had to accept that submarine accidents happened and it made for a very close kni, matter of fact community. Very early in our married life George and I discussed what I should do if I found myself bringing up our two sons on my own and we discussed pensions, wills and insurance policies. He gave me one clear instruction ‘Don’t be lonely.’ This was the second bequest.

Three things remain – the third is this cap. It still hangs on a hook just inside our front door.

In George’s life the Navy, the demands of The Service, took precedence over everything else. As a family the children and I had to learn that we came second. This cap belongs to the other side of his life, it belongs to us. The sea was the joy of his life and his relaxation was offshore sailing. He always wore what he called his Cap Breton with the Trinity House badge when he was sailing, this is the second one, the first was
literally worn away.

I had been brought up sailing dinghies in Weymouth Bay so very occasionally I was allowed to join him Ocean Racing as the cook, not being considered strong enough to be part of the crew. More often we cruised together during his leave. In the summer of 1964 we were lent Andante, a lovely boat, 30 foot on the water line and with two friends who had never sailed before we set sail for France on a perfect evening with an ideal weather forecast for an easy crossing. The midnight forecast was very different, gale warnings for all sea areas. The gale had already arrived. We turned back and ran before a force nine  southerly, our friends had to stay below, George was the only one with the knowledge and strength do all that was necessary on deck so I had to take the helm – it was a long night. We spent the next three days in Weymouth Harbour until the storm blew out and we made an easy crossing to France. Nine months later our daughter arrived, I’ve done very little sailing since. This cap represents all that was good in the man I married, particularly his calmness in the face of danger and his ability to get the best out of people – that night I was terrified but faced with George’s belief in me I helmed Andante in a force nine and brought her safely home.

‘They that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters, these men see the works of the Lord and his wonders of the deep.’

George and I shared a quiet faith, it carried us through the dark times when he became increasing ill and depressed. We had looked forward to time together but towards the end of his Naval career I knew something was troubling him and thought it was the prospect of retirement. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered that he had had an appalling experience when he was working with NATO in the ‘80s. The Official secrets act prevented him sharing it with me, he had to keep it to himself, the memories must have gone round and round in his mind. George was always very protective of me and when I was a young wife wouldn’t let me watch the film ‘Morning Departure’ so perhaps he wouldn’t have allowed himself to unload the memories that were hurting him so much.

When I think of George I remember how he would support me in anything I set my heart on, whether it was studying for a degree, teaching myself to make pots, financing my first studio, setting up an art gallery, or supporting me through my days, and nights, as a Hospital Chaplain. His belief in my abilities was far greater than my belief in myself and led me into adventures like abseiling down Portland Light House to celebrate my 70th birthday – terrifying but great to look back on.

In the early days we were often really strapped for cash, we bought our furniture at auction and became adept at restoration. I made most of our clothes, even over coats for the boys and an evening waistcoat for George. A bikini? No problem – George designed it for me, the memory still makes me smile.

In my mind’s eye I am walking along the Chesil Bank after a storm. Yes there were difficult times in the life we shared, but those memories have been washed away by the receding waves. I make my way along the high tide line and bend to gather up what is left, every piece is good and lovely, washed and cleansed by the storm to become a treasured memory. If I could say one more thing to George it would be, ‘Thank you,  thank you for fifty five years of love and friendship, for your generosity of spirit and for telling me not to be lonely if the time should come when I must face the world without you.’

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