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"SHEMRAY"

by Lynn

You are browsing in:

Archive List > World > India

Contributed by 
Lynn
People in story: 
John William Donaldson
Location of story: 
Madras, India, 1943
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A1281070
Contributed on: 
13 September 2003

"SHEMRAY"
Written by my Gradfather
Corporal John W Donaldson
Madras, May 1943

Eight weeks at sea, except for a week in South Africa. A hectic journey over the breadth of India. From the cold North-East winds of England to the blazing sunshine of the tropics, and work in plenty, building a new station and preparing "kits" for their grim work. Months pass slowly, strange maladies beset the men of 240 - some disappear, never to be seen on the old squadron again, others came back, white and thin. Sweat and work , planes coming and going - patching, replacing, no spares - made them - "keep ‘em flying," is the slogan - and we did! Miserable food, no comfort, nights as hot as days - what a climate! Then came the rains, the rushing floods of yellow water, sticky heat and soaking clothes. Blankets and sheets as wet as the dripping thatti of the roofs.

Christmas and sunshine once again, the steaming earth, and the miraculous blue of the Southern Indian sky. How glad the boys were - to feel dry for the first time in weeks. Beds and bedding, clothing and shoes, all green with mould and damp, laid out on the hot ground.

Spirals rose, and life seemed not quite so bad, for it was the cool season - hotter than the English summer, but cool after the blazing fierceness of its Indian counterpart.

Soon after Christmas, the officers organised a dance to be held in the Banqueting Hall in Madras for the Squadron only, and all the ladies within range were invited. It was to be a treat for the boys but of course the officers must be there - to keep an eye on things. There was a bar, a buffet, a band and bright lights - the Squadron was en fete. It was a grand sight that met our eyes as we walked in, Joe, Paddy and I . The lovely dresses - colour splashed around the walls, with its background of khaki, like a garden in summer. Surely all the femininity of Madras was gathered in one place tonight - young and old, sparkling and scintillating for the benefit of 240.

We made for the bar first - some people are just made that way, they gravitate naturally as steel to a magnet. I left Joe and Paddy there after one drink and wandered idly among the chattering throng.

The band started, and I gazed around; I felt fastidious tonight, I wanted to dance, but not with a giggling girl whose snaky hips and jiggling shoulders would make me feel my age! Someone who would glide smoothly but not talk too much, someone like the lady with the tip tilted nose! I asked quietly and without a smile if she would dance. She would and could. Yes, she could dance - far better than - but she chattered. Once around the floor and we talked - at first she talked and I listened - and then to my surprise I found myself talking - telling things about my home, my wife, my baby - these months in the sun and weeks in the rain had made me more lonely and more despondent and fed-up than I knew! I should not tell these things - but I was to learn how difficult it is to resist when Mrs Moller sets out to do a thing.

We introduced ourselves, and after the dance I brought along Paddy and Joe - I had to! "Have you any particular friends? "Yes, Joe and Paddy." - "Please bring them to me." Just like that. "What, now?" "At once." - and there you are. Round a little table - three rather awkward men and a tall fair woman who simply radiated personality. There was another lady - in the background somewhere - she did not register anyway.

Joe danced with Mrs Moller, and Paddy too, they were under the same spell - though they could blame a little on the bar perhaps! Midnight, and Joe a little tipsy - his speech as broad as an Ashington collier and a funny little swagger to his walk. We said "Goodnight" reluctantly - for it had been good, and tomorrow would see us back again at work, in the heat of the smithy and workshop.

We had to promise to visit "Shemran". Delightful name for a house - why "Shemran"? I must find out. Back at work next day, I wondered, was she really so interested or was she just being kind to a soldier sort of thing - of course we had to go, we had promised - but was it to be tea and little cakes and awkward silences? We found "Shemran" in the late afternoon, standing back from the road, in its own grounds - lovely lawn - little bushes, big shady trees at the sides, and the big square house, white and serene with its deep cool veranda, beckoning a welcome after the hot dusty streets of Madras city. A figure in white ran down the steps under the porch, came eagerly towards us with both arms outstretched in greeting - "I am glad to see you - I knew you would not disappoint me!. " As though we were being good to her. I think we soon thawed out and were our natural selves - we admired the garden - who wouldn’t? Such a lovely place. The interior took my breath away, such lofty rooms - wide staircase and arched doorways ( without doors), the cool, quiet peacefulness of it - a lovely home indeed. A lovely home for lovely people - they were all grand! Mr Moller, small, very quiet - but with a sense of humour like my Dad - I liked him from the start. Marchen, ten years old - eyes like the sky in the morning and a smile quick and easy - accepting one immediately as a friend. Henrik - just a little fellow - about two or maybe a little more - very shy at first - but not for long. Skin like milk and hair like honey - prettier than Marchen in a way - but she has her Mother’s charm. Mrs Moller, frank and open - intensely interested in everything and everyone - quick warm smile- but a slight weakness for running herself down in a joking sort of way - very modest about her own accomplishments and efforts - and very charming. Obviously very much in love with her family.

Yes, tea and little cakes, but with a difference - no awkwardness - just as natural as my own home. It was grand to have the children at the table - it does a man good to watch them. Their smiles, their talk, their bright young faces - if there was a lump in my throat at times, I don’t mind admitting it - I am sentimental. There was, it appeared, a special cake in our honour - it was very special - but who cared when there was bread and strawberry jam? I think Paddy made a pig of himself, and anyway, I couldn’t keep on asking for the jam when he kept it so close to his elbow! Dinner was even better - steak and kidney pie! What pie crust!! Paddy and Joe talked about it all the way back to camp - I kept quiet and just thought about it. The ice cream was wizard - with chopped nuts and chocolate sauce - I hope we did not make it too obvious - but it was grand. I’ve wondered since - what did they think of us? But there was some excuse, for it was the first really good food in months.

Of course we had to go again - no getting out of it even if we had wanted to. A little red book came out , will it be this day - that day - or when? But it had to be fixed before we left. I think we all three felt the same - we did not want to impose upon good nature and kindness, but Mrs Moller made it seem as though we were doing a favour by going. "You will come - won’t you? You won’t disappoint me?" What can a man do in a case like this - and of course we did want to go again - and not for the food either! Such a happy home, such happy people, after an afternoon and evening there, one could face the week with a different spirit - India did not seem half so bad or half so far away.

Corporal John W Donaldson
Madras, May 1943

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