Albert

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I know very little about him. I know my uncle was born in Southampton on 20 July 1921 and that he died in Scotland in January 1944. He was the eldest child of Hedley and May Mabey, my grandparents. He worked as an industrial chemist before his service in the RAF. He was a clever, handsome man and a keen photographer.

Were I to write that he was a presence in my childhood, I would be lying. All I remember is this photograph that was in my parents’ bedroom, finding the ‘big black compass’ and the book of poetry.

Ours was not a house filled with photographs but paintings hung on every wall in every room. The only two photographs on display when I was a young child were Albert’s and my Father’s mother. I knew that they were both dead, and thus in my solemn way I equated photographs with mourning.

We got into trouble once through playing with the ‘big black compass’ in the wild part of our garden. I think my sisters and I were being spies. The misdemeanour was my doing. It was I who rummaged around in the airing cupboard, pushing my small hands under the ‘good tablecloths’ at the back. There, amongst the bars of yellow soap and Imperial Leather talcum powder, I felt a leather handle to pull at. This was attached to the curious block of metal, which I furtively transported downstairs and out to our spot in the garden. Later Mother scolded me for taking what I should not. I knew I had done wrong but I could not understand the hurt upon her face. She never said it belonged to him. We called the heavy, square box a ‘big black compass’ because of its glass-faced display of semi-circular dials and red needles. It was a mechanical mystery. My uncle, what he did and who he was, was another type of mystery. I know now he was a flight navigator, but the function of that instrument will remain a puzzle, for Mother made sure that we never saw it again.

The book of poetry was the collected works of Keats. There was an inscription in it, from his girlfriend Joyce. Mother let me borrow it when I was at university, on condition that I took good care. I looked for the book after Mother died, but she must have given it away. What happened to the big black compass heaven only knows. The photograph stayed on the chest of drawers until my parents moved to live with my sister. ‘Long enough’ I suppose she said to herself – 40 years was long enough.

I have sent away for Albert’s service record and I hope that it will yield more concrete information, I’m waiting another week before starting on his letters, in the hope that I will receive the record soon. So it goes that more than 70 years since he passed away, almost everything I will know of Albert will come from his own hand.

Detective Work

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I opened this bundle of letters from 1943, thinking of my Grandmother who secured them together how many decades ago?

I mentioned in These Letters that many of my Uncle’s letters did not have complete dates, in fact most do not show the year. It’s not a problem if the letter is snuggled in an envelope, as the postmark will do the job, but there are many that have survived loose, so for example ‘Sunday February 28th’ is all I have to go on.

Oh the wonders of the internet! I can, with a few clicks, search the calendars of 1941, 1942 and 1943 and pinpoint the year for each letter Albert wrote. It has taken me about an hour to go through 50 or more letters. February 28th fell on a Sunday in 1943, in case you wanted to know!

Filling in the missing years to sequence the letters in chronological order would have been an impossible task without access to the ‘universal brain’, which we seem ever more reliant on. Being the age I am, I feel ambivalence about the virtual world that we collectively stride ever deeper into  – because for most of my life I have lived without it. The library used to be my place to find things out, and I recall many contented hours searching for information in reference sections. I show my age when, asked how I decided to retrain as a speech and language therapist, I say  I went to the careers section in the library and read about it. It sounds quite archaic!

I have not been to a library in over a decade, for I have no need. So libraries, deemed no longer ‘necessary’ by us former patrons, have lost their status in society. By eschewing their primary service I forgo their secondary free benefits: peace, a comfortable chair and a magazine to read, some friendly faces, acknowledgement, warmth, and a sense of being in a safe place in the outside world. I have no need of these things now, my home, my friends and my occupation provide all of the above. But in later, more isolated years,  will there be any libraries left for me to visit when I need a change of scene?

I procrastinate; Albert’s letters lie waiting and I look at them and feel cowed by the task. This is all there is of Albert. Can I do him justice? I have wondered about him ever since I was a child. Only ever wondered, for I knew I could not ask my Mother. If ever I picked up his photograph that stood on the chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom, she was quick to chide me with a look. ‘That’s my brother’ she would say, her expression underlining that no more would be said. Mother would make herself more busy and I understood I was to occupy myself with something less contentious. In my childhood adults still talked about ‘The War’ and I learnt a fair bit about it, but one would think nobody died, in spite of the bombs that fell on Southampton and my father’s 6 years of service. Death was not to be spoken about.

Back then my parents deemed that Albert was not a subject that their daughter needed to know a thing about. Not so now, now I can do as I please. It’s a notion on which I have floundered; what do I want from this process of opening up the bundles of letters and publishing them in this virtual world? It is to let him speak again. To have as many living souls as I can muster listen to his words, and know that he was in the world.

 

These Letters

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These letters are from my Mother’s brother Albert. He did not live long enough to become an uncle to any of his four nieces. It is these letters that I always knew of. These are the letters that I knew were stored and safeguarded, because one day someone would read them again and Albert would come back to life.

He died on 12 January 1944. He was 22 years old. My Mother was 13, an evacuee in Bournemouth. His brother, my Uncle Peter was 17 and at Cambridge University.

The three bundles of letters are from 1941, 1943 and 1944. Those loose are from 1942 – I believe – although many have incomplete dates and so could be from other years. I look at this pile of letters and wonder where do I begin.

I think on how their contents are all I shall ever experience of him. The Letters as a whole entity are all I shall ever know of my Mabey relatives passed away, yet Albert’s letters have a particular poignancy. His death was the tragedy of my Mother’s family. She rarely talked of him but the silences of grief were still palpable in my young childhood.

I have two letters left from 1939, which I will publish in the next two weeks. Then we move to 1941, when the world is at wholeheartedly at war and thus Albert’s voice will take centre stage, and I shall come to know my uncle.