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To War With The Bays: 65 - If Only

Jack Merewood, engaged in combat in Italy, receives an unwelcomed letter from the girl he met in North Africa, telling him she is engaged to be married.

"I felt miserable for a long time and I couldn't get the thoughts out of my mind. But I had to put my mind to other things; tanks, mud, war, and above all, thoughts of home. I'd not seen home for almost four years. Surely this war must end soon, and some day, if I managed to continue dodging shells, I'd be back in England...''

I saw the envelope from Aumale with Suzette's writing, and I couldn't open it quickly enough, but I read the letter with dismay. She was very sorry she hadn't written for such a long time. It was difficult for her to have to do so, but she must tell me now - she had a boyfriend, and not only that, they were engaged and he didn't want her to write to me any more.

I couldn't believe it. Engaged! She was only seventeen! For nine months we had been writing, and I'd hoped we'd be writing for a long time yet, and then somehow, sometime in the future we'd see each other again. If only we'd had the chance to spend more time together: If only I'd been able to see her again at Whitsuntide. If only...

I tried to be logical, but the frame of mind I was in wouldn't listen to logic, and I was in no mood to be practical either. Surely, I thought, things could have worked out, in time.

And yet if the Regiment had never gone up into those mountains, and when we did, if Yves hadn't come to the camp, I'd never have met Suzette. Even after that first meeting I hadn't expected I'd see her again, let alone spend a week with her. I found some consolation in thinking that no matter what happened in the future, nothing could ever take away the memory of that blissful week. But I'd lost part of my life, and I was inconsolable. I hadn't heard from her for over two months, so perhaps I should have guessed that something like this had happened. Perhaps I didn't want to think so.

Suzette's Aunt Nanette wrote to me regularly those first few months we were in Italy. I had come to regard her as an ally, and I wrote to her saying that I was upset at the news from Suzette. I suppose I was looking for a shoulder to cry on. I wrote to Suzette too, saying how much I loved her letters, but now if she was engaged, I could understand her fiance not wanting her to continue writing.

I felt miserable for a long time and I couldn't get the thoughts out of my mind. But I had to put my mind to other things; tanks, mud, war, and above all, thoughts of home. I'd not seen home for almost four years. Surely this war must end soon, and some day, if I managed to continue dodging shells, I'd be back in England.

The 12th of February was my twenty-sixth birthday. I was having breakfast at 7 a.m. when I had a very nice birthday present. The SSM came and told me that my name had come up to go on leave to Rome, and I had to be ready by 9.30 a.m. I drew some pay - 20! -and then found that Topper was going to Rome as well.

Topper had been writing to my sister for some time. I got along well with him, though I sometimes felt he looked a little 'wild-eyed'. He was one of the regulars of the Bays, an excellent musician and a very active member of the band. The Bays were particularly proud of their band and had reason to be. Before the war it regularly took part in ceremonial parades.

Topper suggested he and I should go together. I didn't know anyone else in the party, so I agreed. We arrived in Forli in the afternoon.

13 February: 'On a lorry to Rimini where we caught a train, leaving at 1 p.m. Carriage uncomfortable, but not too cold. Travelled all night, uncomfortable to sleep, seven in carriage. Arrived in Rome at 7 a.m. Lorries waiting to take us to rest camp. Had breakfast there served by Italian waiters! C.O.'s lecture at 11 a.m. After a very good dinner, Topper and I down to Rome on one of the many trucks provided.'

The rest camp, which was clean and had good food, was a few miles out of Rome, but lorries ran there often. Alternatively, if we wished, we could stay in Rome overnight. This we decided to do, and found a small hotel in one of the piazzas where we booked in for three nights. From here it was only a short walk to St Peter's, which is where we went first.

Michelangelo's Pieta was just to the right after entering the Basilica. We knelt at a rail quite close to the statue, and gazed in wonder. We stayed a long time, looking at every detail, the folds in the dress, the lifeless arm of Christ, but every time we
were drawn back to the beautiful face of the Virgin Mary. From that moment I was a Michelangelo addict. It was the most beautiful sculpture I had ever seen.

The rest of St Peter's was fascinating too. We marvelled at the wonderful paintings - then marvelled even more when we found they weren't paintings at all, but mosaics. It was only on coming very close to them that we realised the pictures were made from tiny pieces of stone and glass. The way the shading was achieved was miraculous.

We climbed up to the Whispering Gallery, where whispers at one side could clearly be heard at the other, then climbed steps and a ladder to get right up inside the bronze ball at the very top of the dome.

Then next day it was to see Michelangelo's work again - this time his painting, and especially the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

We walked the streets of Rome. It was tiring but we were having a great time. And then we were lucky, for Captain Wilson, one of the Bays officers, pulled alongside us in his staff car, picked us up and drove us all round the city. We really enjoyed that.

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