A POIGNANT INVlTATlON

I found myself alone in a crowd. It was late November, 1943. I don’t remember the exact date but will never be able to forget the experience. I was making my first ever visit to war-time London.

It was cold and misty and I was feeling very apprehensive. Everything was in sharp contrast. I had recently left Algiers on the Hospital ship Atlantis. It was warm when I left there and I had become used to the quite orderly life in hospital where I had been for the previous 12 months and now the milling crowds swirling round me made me feel very vulnerable.

I had been injured while serving with 55 Squadron in the Desert Air Force in support of the 8th Army and, having recently arrived at Uxbridge to await posting, I thought to see something of the city. I almost regretted making the visit as I pulled up the collar of my Air Force greatcoat and snuggled down almost defensively.

It must have been obvious to any observer that I was a fish out of water and that may explain what happened next. I felt someone take my arm and I turned to find myself looking into the face of a tall man, a civilian about 60 years of age.

“Would you like to see a show tonight ?” he asked. I paused, taken aback by this most unexpected invitation and conscious that I had only a few shillings in my pocket. I wondered if he was trying to sell me a ticket. The gentleman seemed to sense my hesitation and, as if to reassure me, said: “Come and meet my wife.” The lady was waiting in the entrance to the Prince of Wales Theatre. I was introduced and they led me into our seats. They were very good seats giving us a perfect view of the stage. The show was ‘Strike a New Note’ with the great Sid Fields, Jerry Desmond and Zoe Gail. The show was fantastic with the audience exploding with laughter.

As the show went on I gradually became aware that my hosts weren’t laughing. I sneaked a look at their faces and they seemed unaware of their surroundings and lost in a private world of their own.

When we left the theatre they kindly took me to a cafe for a cup of coffee and, after a few moments, the gentleman – making great efforts to keep his emotion under control – told me the reason for my invitation.

He told me they lived in London and their only son was also in the RAF. It was their custom, whenever he was coming home on leave, to book seats for the best show in town and he requested them that if ever he was unable to come, they should ask the first airman they saw.

He didn’t return from his last operation and they had received a telegram, missing believed killed in action.

Dennis Makepeace