Ch3 pt6 Friendship at the Fire Station

My work at the Homerton Fire Station was that of wages clerk to the firemen on our station’s ground – the same job that I had carried out at Burdett Road. The Accounting Officer was Harry S, a middle-aged man with a lined, tired face and a hacking smoker’s cough. Harry had a withered right hand, which he still managed to use for writing although with a degree of awkwardness. This was the result of shrapnel wounds received in the First World War in the Palestine Campaign. He was seventeen years old at the time. Harry S and I became very good friends, and our friendship prospered, even into the future when I was in Australia, until he suddenly died from a cerebral haemorrhage at the early age of fifty-eight.

The other clerical assistant was Harry F. He was a small stooped man with a long wandering nose, black hair flecked with grey combed straight back, and thick horn rimmed glasses. He was very intelligent and had an enormous capacity to drink pints of beer. He tried to get into the army while I was at the Homerton Fire Station, but was rejected because of defective eyesight. Harry F and I also became good friends but lost touch after the war. 

One day we heard that the authorities had decided that we were overworked and had allocated an extra clerical assistant to us. We were upset when we learned that it was to be a female. We imagined an angular, horsey looking old crone who would cramp our style when we wanted to get away early on Friday for a couple of beers at the pub. Also we would have to moderate our language. Harry S said there was no way he was going to moderate his language. A good expletive relieved the tension when he had added up a column of figures incorrectly. If the old crone didn’t like what she heard, she could bloody well get.

A few mornings later I came into work, and Harry S was already there. 

“We’ve got our new clerical assistant,” he said to me. “She’s in the toilet powdering her nose.” In a few moments the new assistant came out.

“Jimmy,” said Harry S, “I’d like to introduce you to Julie. Julie, this is Mr Foxon.” 

I blinked my eyes and a little alarm bell rang in the back of my head. I was confronted with a vision of loveliness such as I had never expected to see. The new clerical assistant had black, beautifully combed hair, smiling eyes and white teeth surrounded by moist red lips which reminded me of a magnificent single stemmed rose on the front of an invitation card to a birthday party. She wore a medium length black dress with a modest neckline, belted tightly at her slim waist. From there it dropped in pleats to just below her knees. She had dark silken stockings and dark shoes with Cuban heels. I suppose I must have murmured some formal greeting and she must have done likewise. We returned to our desks and got on with our work.

After a couple of days, Harry S said to me, “How do you like our new clerical assistant, Jimmy?” 

I told him that I thought she was all right, and he said to me with a conspiratorial air, “From tomorrow morning, I’m going to call her Julie.” 

From the next morning, she was “Julie” to everyone. All of a sudden life at the office was gay. Julie had a bubbly personality, an irrepressible sense of humour, and a capacity to laugh in even the most awkward situations. She also had enormous compassion and seemed incapable of committing an unkind act against anybody. She was the life and soul of the office, our mascot and our joy. I do not think that I have ever enjoyed coming to work so much anywhere before or since. Although Harry S was nominally in charge of the office, we were all friends and comrades and liked each other’s company tremendously.    

Julie was supposed to be a typiste amongst other things, but clearly she had not done a great deal of typing. Nevertheless, she set to work with a will to learn. One of my jobs was to type out a daily attendance report of fire fighting personnel. I always disliked detailed time-consuming reports of things that did not greatly interest me, so under the guise of improving Julie’s typing ability, I popped the daily report on to her. She made no objection, to my secret relief, because I was a little bit ashamed of playing such a dirty trick on her. However, after a little while, I began to wonder how I could make use of this situation to obtain a few laughs in the office.

I began a campaign to wreck Julie’s typewriter. Every time Julie went out of the room, I would make some small adjustment to put the typewriter out of action. Sometimes I would disconnect the spring so that the carriage would not move. At others, I would tighten up the spring so that the carriage moved too fast. Sometimes I would put the ribbon on “stencil” or on “red” so that either no typing came out at all, or the colour would change. On other occasions I would remove the ribbon altogether and hide it. Sometimes I would shift the roller slightly so that only half the typeface was imprinted on the paper. At other times I would take the roller out altogether and conceal it in her drawer. Julie would come back, sit down at her typewriter, and begin with very great care a one-finger effort to copy the daily report. Often it was several minutes before she would wake up to the fact that something was wrong.

Of course, everybody in the office was in the know, and they would have one eye on their work and one on Julie to see how and when she would react. Suddenly she would realise that something was wrong and give vent to a cry of frustration. Then she would turn around to the rest of us with a huge grin on her face. 

“Somebody’s wrecked my typewriter.” 

Everybody pretended to be completely unaware of what had happened. After many expressions of surprise that I should be suspected, I would finally agree to examine her typewriter and rectify the situation. Sometimes I would rectify one fault but leave her with another, giving rise to further frustration on the part of Julie.     

All this nonsense was followed by gales of laughter in which Julie was always the leader. In those wartime days when we were under continuous tension of one sort or another, we needed to let ourselves go sometimes. So when we laughed it seems in retrospect that we did so more freely and happily than at any other time in our lives. I have often wondered why Julie never belted me over the ear for some of my silly antics. But she never did – she always laughed, and her good humour made the rest of us laugh too.   

Julie was twenty years old at this time. She had been married at eighteen, and Dave, her husband, was about to embark for army service in India, where he stayed until the end of the war.

When he left, Julie remained scrupulously faithful to him. She was a most attractive young woman, and could easily have found herself masculine company had she wanted. Many people separated from their partners by the war entered into extra marital liaisons, and with the stress that war brought, this was often understandable. But Julie never wavered. Her marriage was of supreme importance to her. She saved her money carefully and tried consistently to make a decent home in a flat she had in Phillip Street, Hoxton, for Dave when he returned. Yet she was always in good spirits, always friendly, always helpful, always concerned about other people.

In a way, Julie was the least “Jewish” girl I ever met. She was not orthodox in any way whatsoever. But when it came to quiet and serious concern for the importance of the family unit and kindness to all members of the family, then she was the embodiment of all that was best in Jewish life, and I admired her greatly for it. Of course, I suppose I was not a particularly “fromm goy” either, so from the very first moment that we met Julie and I accepted each other exactly as we were. The artificial barriers of religious orthodoxy which people erect to shut themselves off from others never rated a mention as far as Julie and I were concerned, and that was simply wonderful.

When Dave returned at the end of the war, he and Julie had grown apart from each other. It was a common enough phenomenon which most of us experienced who had to make the traumatic change from life in the services back to civilian life, and no doubt the civilians had to make their adjustments too. Nevertheless Dave and Julie settled down to get to know each other again. He got a job in a cigarette factory where he eventually became foreman. His income was not great, and Julie often went to work to help out. They later moved to a Council flat at Woodberry Down, between Upper Clapton and Finsbury Park. Dave might not have been rich, but he was utterly reliable and never missed a beat. I came to have considerable respect for him. Between them they raised two fine children, a boy and a girl, of whom any parents could be proud.         

Julie became my dear and lifelong friend. I regarded her as my number three sister. As I write these lines, forty-one years later, we still exchange regular letters. And the friendship we have is for me, and I believe also for her, one of those intangible things in life which cannot be bought, but which give enormous pleasure and satisfaction.

The blitz tapered off. Work at the Homerton Fire Station settled down to a steady routine. And peace once again descended on battle-scarred London. The ruined houses remained, but were tidied up as much as possible and in some cases fenced off. In Europe, now occupied from the Baltic to the Mediterranean by the armies of the Third Reich, the German Air Force licked its wounds and regrouped and re-equipped for a new battle. This was the battle now raging on the Russian Front, following Hitler’s insane attack on that country. In the background, General Winter was already gathering his forces of cold and snow to deal the Wehrmacht the same deadly blow that he had dealt to Napoleon’s Grande Armée a century and a quarter before.

In London, I awaited my call-up to the army.

2 thoughts on “Ch3 pt6 Friendship at the Fire Station”

  1. From Lynda
    Julie was more than “nice”. She was both clever and empathic, understanding how important it was to laugh. I admire her patience with their pranks. Jim had already learned humour in difficult times from his grandfather, and intuitively knew its power. Jim valued these friendships, founded on shared experiences.

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  2. From Trish
    I can still hear Vera Lyn singing “keep the home fires burning” as I read this chapter. This fire station hosed humour and friendship to those employed in its confines. It enabled a “get on with it” attitude, despite the knowledge that it was only a respite from war.
    Jim waiting to be called up to fight left him anticipating the outcomes of either life or death. The fun with Julie and co-workers would have been a valuable distraction from the anticipation of the battle to come.

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