|HMS Ark Royal (later version)|
After my first tentative foray into dating with Harry, (see my blog post Coronation year 1953) I didn’t have a boyfriend for ages The boys of my acquaintance didn’t seem to fancy me. Maybe it was because I was so stick thin with under-developed breasts. I was very lonely and spent all my time and pocket money on going to the cinema. It says something of the era too, that I often went alone without any kind of fear whatsoever. I’ve already mentioned about my home town having three cinemas (see my blog post Film Stars, Hair-dos and Reminiscences) so there was plenty of choice.
Looking back, I must have seen hundreds of films in those years and it was my love of the cinema that gave Mum an idea that might help me make friends. Both Picture Show and Picturegoer ran a pen-pals wanted column. Why didn’t I, she suggested, put a request in myself to see what turned up?
The response was phenomenal. I received dozens of letters, many of them from young men doing their National Service. I wrote to a number of them initially, but as the months passed, I found myself corresponding more and more with a Northern Irish sailor. His name was Bill Lyttle from Portadown in County Armagh and he was serving on the aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, which gave him a kind of glamour in itself. Who hadn’t heard of the Ark Royal? His letters were amusing, interesting, often accompanied by postcards from far-flung places he called at on voyage
By the time we arranged to meet on his next leave, I was already more than half in love with him. He was to stay with us for part of his leave in order for us to get to know each other. Not knowing what to expect aroused feelings of both trepidation and anticipation but I needn’t have feared. We liked each other immediately. Perhaps as importantly, Mum and Dad liked him too. And little brother Mark followed him round like a puppy! He was tall, with broad shoulders and a slim waist which he tended to exaggerate with short zip-up jackets. His sailor swagger, extrovert manner and strange accent confused the neighbours and nearly everyone thought he was American. He talked excitably and volubly about his many adventures and I was totally smitten. Yet he frightened me a little too. He was so sophisticated, so mature, for his then 23 years that I, a naive sheltered 17-year-old, almost found him too much.
That first visit lasted only a few days as he’d promised to visit his folks as well. After his return to the Ark Royal, he wrote to me every day and it was obvious from the tone of the letters that he felt as I did. When he came for his next long leave, the whole of which we were to spend together, we got engaged. I think I must have been 18 by then and we went to Prestons of Bolton (a famous jewellers in Bolton now sadly closed down) for an engagement ring, a two-stone small diamond set in some silvery metal. I learned later that it is traditionally bad luck to choose a ring with an even number of stones. Had I known then, I would have scoffed for I was deliriously happy.
He was stationed at Devonport by this time and able to get up for a long weekend about once a month so I was seeing more of him. Then, surprisingly quickly, things started to go wrong between us. At the beginning, I’d been over-awed by his glamorous personality. After a silly argument about him wanting to take some fish and chips on the bus, which I didn’t approve of (still don’t), I decided I’d had enough of all the arguing and gave him his ring back.
‘We’re not through yet, you and I,’ he yelled as he stormed out. ‘I’ll keep turning up in your life like a bad penny.’
A couple of years after I’d broken our engagement off, he telephoned. ‘Do you know who this is?’ I knew instantly, of course, his accent was unmistakable. Much had happened to me in the intervening period, I was older and wiser now, I thought. I was not, however, prepared for the excited flutter I felt as we spoke. ‘I’ve got some leave coming up,’ he explained. ‘Could I come and visit you all for a few days?’
|HMS Ark Royal (1957) the ship Bill was on|
I hesitated. ‘Just as friends,’ he was quick to point out. ‘Besides, I’m married now.’
Mum and Dad agreed that there didn’t seem any harm to the proposal and so he came. That first visit passed as he’d said it would, just as friends, although we knew we were still attracted to each other. He told us all that the girl he had married, Sally, was from his home town and he’d known her since they were children. I guessed he wasn’t happy in the marriage. Why else would he want to come and visit us?
We soon realised we were still in love but marriage was out of the question. Bill was a Catholic and there could be no divorce from Sally. Eventually the strain became too much for me and we broke up again. ‘You can’t do this to me again,’ he begged but I knew I had to be strong. There was no question of us living together. Couples simply did not do that in the early 1960s.
It wasn’t to be the end even then. In 1963, when I returned from the United States, he telephoned once again. ‘Is Ron Williams there?’ he asked. You don’t know someone for nearly 7 years and not know their voice yet I pretended not to. ‘Just a moment, I’ll get him for you.’ My heart was thundering so much I could barely speak so perhaps he didn’t realise it was me. I called Dad and shakily passed the phone to him.
Minutes later, Dad was back in the kitchen. ‘Bill is passing through and wants to know if he can call and see us,’ he said. ‘What do you think?’
Mum and I looked at each other and I shook my head reluctantly. I was pregnant and having an illegitimate child was something to be ashamed of then. Dad went back to the phone and told Bill that it was probably better if he didn’t come, although not the reason why. Our hearts were heavy with sadness that night for all the family were fond of him.
There was to be a sequel some years later. I’d often thought of him in the intervening years, especially with the troubles in Northern Ireland, for Bill had been brought up a Catholic in the largely Protestant town of Portadown. I was by that time, separated from my husband and, on a whim, I decided to try and find out what had happened to him. I placed an advert in the Portadown newspaper asking if anyone had any news of him. To my surprise, his sister wrote to me, via a box number, understandably very cautious about why I wanted to know. I wrote back frankly saying that I still thought about him and genuinely wanted to know how he was.
The reply, written this time by Bill’s mother, devastated me. He’d left the Navy a year or two previously and while cleaning out some boilers he’d been overcome by noxious fumes, the effects of which had killed him. She reported that he’d left a wife, whether this was Sally I don’t know, and daughter.
I cried for a long, long time, unable to believe that Bill was dead. He’d been so full of life, so vigorous, when I knew him that it seemed impossible that he should be no more. Somehow, I’d always believed that he would turn up again in my life, like he’d always promised. Now it was too late.
Yet, in writing this, I have realised that he lives on as a very treasured memory of my first love.