Reading Between the Tiles – Cold Feet

Written words never made sense to dad as a child. Letters jumbled off the pages, morphed into shapes and pictures, became visualisations and plans for gadgets. At the age of 12 he built his own bike from bits and pieces, and the urge to fix and construct, rode away with him.

Several years later, he found that verbal words or rather the lack of them, did not make sense either. On returning to England from Korea, he was greeted by a wall of silence. That is if you discount the ‘Here, peel the spuds’ and ‘Go look for your brother, he’s disappeared again’, instructions from his mother. Britain was still limping after WW2 and had not the capacity to acknowledge its troops from the Korean war. There was to be no talk of what happened. So Dad blended back into civilian life, a warm blooded veteran ghost, not given voice to his experiences.

It was the coldest of Cold Wars’, he tells me, ‘We were so poorly equipped for the bitter winter. The American troops had better footwear than us so one night Billy broke into their stores and returned with a pile of boots.’ Then Dad lets out a roar – one of those laughs that warms you from head to toe – and in between gasps, ‘they were all left feet’.

I pressed him for more details. I researched facts and found old images online. We looked at his medals and I photocopied the personal letter of thanks he received from the Korean President, but when Dad started having night terrors, I could no longer justify my probing of an 88 year old, even for memoir. There are no words for some experiences. (His…tory, Her…story)

He met a girl. She complained of chilblains, painful itching and swelling of her feet, caused by poor circulation in the skin when exposed to the cold. He decided to marry her to ensure she would never have cold feet again. They wed on 21st January 1956.

This is how Mum describes their early years:

We loved our flat in spite of the inconveniences. I had to do our washing in a bowl on the kitchen table but was able to use the wringer downstairs before I hung it out in the garden. The dirty water was then put in a bucket and carried down to the toilet below. We washed ourselves standing up in a bowl every night except Friday when we could bath. …

We bought a house in Ebley, very solidly built of Cotswold stone, semi-detached, in a row of 8 and 3 storeys high. There was no bathroom and the toilet was outside the kitchen. Although electricity was laid on, the only light was a single bulb hanging on a cable inside the back door. There were gas lamps in the other rooms and an old gas stove for cooking. The kitchen consisted of a stone sink with a cold water pipe coming through the outside wall. There was no hot water and we had to use a tin bath for bathing. Every spare moment Jim used to wire the whole house for power plugs and lighting. Then, in the cellar, he made a sink unit and several cupboards for the kitchen. He found a second hand electric water heater in a scrap yard which he repaired. One Sunday he asked me to take your brother out for a walk and, when we returned about 2 hours later, he had knocked down a dividing wall in the kitchen with a 14lb hammer to make it larger.

Within 2 months of moving in I had a lovely kitchen with plenty of hot water and we bought an electric fridge, a Burco boiler to do the washing and I could use my electric stove. However, we were still bathing in the tin bath! So Jim’s next task was to convert one of the top rooms into a bathroom and toilet. His sister’s husband had a hardware and plumbing business in Cirencester so Peter did the outside piping and connection to the main sewer while Jim did all the inside work, painting, tiling, installing the bath, toilet and washbasin, a hot water tank and wall heater. What a luxury! It was such a lovely bathroom, pink, grey and black and ours was the only house in the row that had inside facilities!

And there, in that final sentence glowing of new love, is a reference to coloured tiles. My siblings and I fret over the latest styles and what colours to choose in a renovation. We get cold feet and retreat to a neutral aesthetic to protect our reputations and the ‘resale value’ of our homes in some nebulous future. We’re afraid to leave a footprint of our own style or personalities. Yet dad, even though they moved excessively, made it his priority to provide mum with the colour and comforts she wanted in the present. No justifications. No apologies. He never built with the thought they’d be ‘moving on’ and he was never afraid to speak out his love for mum. We were the ones who just did not understand his language.

This is chapter 2 of my series ‘Reading Between the Tiles’. Chapter one is here. Chapter three is here.

Background notes

While I was in South Africa during 2019 I introduced Google Street View to Mum and Dad. We walked their childhood lanes together – amazingly little had changed! Mum pointed out her teenage bedroom and we found the first home that Dad had renovated. The top photos of Mum and my brother are taken at the same home.

The first home that Dad renovated, mentioned in Mum’s letter above. Image source: Google Street view

The Korean war – June 25,1950 and July 1953.

U.S. military planners at the Potsdam Conference (July 1945) near the end of WW2 had chosen a line the 38th parallel as an army boundary, north of which U.S.S.R. was to accept the surrender of the Japanese forces in Korea and south of which the Americans were to accept the Japanese surrender. When soldiers from North Korea crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950, the newly formed UN responded by sending international troops. This was the first action of the Cold War and is referred to as the forgotten or unknown war for the lack of public attention it received compared with the global scale of WW2 and the subsequent publicity of the Vietnam war. It was a bitterly cold winter with relentless subzero temperatures. My father was in the Middlesex Regiment and was one of the first troops to land at the beginning of the war. He served 9 months.

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