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To War With The Bays: 46 - The Delights of Aumale

Jack Merewood and his colleagues in the Bays are still in North Africa, bored, waiting - for what they did not know.

But there are surprise meetings to brighten the days.

To read earlier chapters of Jack's story please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

On 20 March we found ourselves in exactly the same place we had been a month ago, on the outskirts of Aumale. We were told we would be here a few days, and then be returning to Chebli, the exercises concluded. This was very welcome news, for it had been a miserable, cold and tiring month.

The morning after we arrived, while we were eating breakfast, Yves appeared, delighted to see us again. He said his grandma lived at the farm on the hill across the road, and would I go with him to see her. I had of course already met her, but was glad to go and visit her once more. She really was a lovely old lady, and we stayed quite a while. She produced two copies of the Illustrated London News dated i860 and 1870 - souvenirs of bygone days.

Later in the day Yves arrived at the camp again, to be followed shortly after by a man riding a big grey horse. It was Yves's father, M. Hugnit. Yves excitedly introduced me to him as 'my English soldier friend,' and we shook hands. M. Hugnit said Yves had been telling them all about me (this in French, for he couldn't speak English either), and would I like to come and have a meal with them that evening. I was pleasantly surprised and willingly accepted.

They both left, only for Yves to return yet again with the news that his sister had baked a cake especially for my visit.

'Oh - you have a sister?' This was interesting news.

'Yes, her name is Suzette, and she is sixteen.'

At about six o'clock I walked the half mile or so down the road, through the little gate, up the path, to be greeted at the door by M. and Mme Hugnit, Yves and his sister.

When I saw Suzette I took a deep breath. She was gorgeous! Blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin, the most beautiful thing I'd seen for years. Suddenly Aumale wasn't the miserable place I'd thought it was. A few hours ago I'd been delighted at the prospects of returning to Chebli. Now I wasn't looking forward to going back at all.

I don't remember what we ate for the meal, but I do remember the cake, decorated with white icing. What could I say except that it was the most delicious cake I'd ever tasted, a remark which brought a blush to the cheeks of Suzette!

M. Hugnit was a large, friendly man. He told me they had come from Marseilles some years ago to settle on this farm. Suzette played the piano, we sang songs, and I returned to camp thinking how lucky I was to have spent the evening with such a happy family, but above all to have met Yves's lovely sister. Before I left, M. Hugnit said I must come and spend a week with them sometime if I possibly could. I said I'd love to and really meant it, but I knew the chance of that happening was extremely remote.

Then next day, as we were packing up to leave, M. Hugnit rode up on his horse again. He said he'd come to say goodbye. We shook hands and he repeated his invitation to come to see them, any time.

Now it was tanks on transporters and back to our farm, once again to a warm welcome from our friends. There was mail waiting for us, a note from Ronnie too, saying he'd been over to see me the previous Sunday and was disappointed to find I was away in the mountains.

Bachir looked anything but happy. Soon, on the verge of tears, he told me his wife had left him. It appeared that they had had an argument about something, I wasn't sure what, and she had walked out. I was sorry; I didn't like to see him so downcast, but could only offer my commiserations.

My sister Jessie, besides writing to me, wrote to a number of boys in my troop and to Ronnie. She would also knit for them, running whist drives to raise money to buy the wool. The scarves, gloves and so on that she sent were much appreciated. She had left school at fourteen to work as an assistant in a high-class clothes shop in Huddersfield.

When she was nineteen she wrote to say she had joined the Land Army and had been sent to work on a farm at Northallerton in North Yorkshire. It was hard, manual work, very different from a quiet shop, but girls were being recruited to release young men who were drafted into the Army. She was helping with the war effort like many other young women, but she continued both her knitting and her letter writing. We were always glad to hear from her.

Life settled down to the old routine, though my thoughts were rarely in Chebli, they were eighty miles away, up in the mountains. One of the sergeants, 'Smudger' Smith, had come up with a girlfriend in Algiers and commissioned me to write letters to her in French, but I should much have preferred to be writing letters in French to Suzette. One day I tried, without success, to get a pick-up and take a trip to Aumale.

On Palm Sunday, 2 April, we went off to church parade, and Marie went off to Mass, proudly wearing the dress my mother had sent for her. She had had her hair permed and everyone said how nice she looked.

On Easter Sunday a cricket match was arranged between our squadron and B Squadron. Ted, Jack and Harold played, I was scorer. B Squadron made 63 but we were all out for 19, of which Jack made 12, as well as taking seven wickets!
In the evening Ronnie came over and Topper too, complete with accordion, to round off what had been - in spite of our defeat - a very enjoyable day.

On Easter Monday Stan, Sid, Harold and I had passes to go to the RAF station at Blida, but to our disappointment we were just too late to take a flight. We enjoyed looking round all the same. My diary for the next day says: 'The orange blossom and lilac in Blida was wonderful last night, and what a marvellous scent. A letter arrived from Jessie with a photo in for Marie, and Marie was delighted to get it.'

The days came and went; we were bored, waiting - for what, we didn't know. My diary says there was a mutinous feeling in the air as we spent monotonous hours cleaning our brasses and equipment, and all the time my thoughts drifted to that beautiful town with the lovely freezing snow - Aumale.


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