FOR BETTER, FOR WORSE

John and Grace Cole with their fust born, Martin, in 1943.

John and Grace Cole with their fust born, Martin, in 1943.

On the day when I received my very first bicycle I quickly fell in love with cycling, and this love persisted through 18in, 24in and 27in racing wheels. My last cycle was hand-built to my specification by a Mr. Freddy Grubb in Merton, London, so at last my dream of racing became a reality.

Although I spent hours on my own training, it never entered my head that I would be joining a cycle club until a school friend suggested the idea. There I discovered that all my new companions had girl friends, but it didn’t worry me at the time because, being something of a loner, my bicycle was still my first love.

One day I decided to visit the newly-opened Chessington Zoo, and having seen everything of interest to me via the animal cages I stopped to listen to a military band playing on a lawn facing a large mansion house in front of which, on each side of a magnificent doorway, sat magnificent St. Bernard dogs.

As the band played Hold Tight, a familiar tune of the day, there was a tap on my shoulder, and on turning round I found myself facing a very pretty girl. She introduced herself by saying shed noticed that I always rode away from the cycle clubhouse on my own, and wondered why.

This unexpected encounter with a girl was a new experience for me, but not unpleasantly so. To get used to the idea, a volunteered circuit of the zoo was suggested which, I must confess, I enjoyed rather better than my first one, alone.

Still cycling in 1948...

Still cycling in 1948…

She’d arrived at the zoo for the day with her mother, brother and a sister. The scene I discovered when I was taken to meet her mother wasn’t at all unfamiliar just before the Second World War. There she sat, cutting the loaf into slices, spreading the margarine and pouring the lemonade, which was made with yellow crystals and of which I reluctandy partook.

Although this wasn’t really my usual cycling fare of a crushed banana mixed with glucose and milk in twin aluminium feeders attached to the handlebars, I think they approved of my chocolate bar which contained fruit and nuts, for energy.So there I was, little knowing that my young life was changing. In fact my girl companion had already told her mother that I’d be taking her home, which meant a long walk – something I hadn’t originally planned or even foreseen.

I was confronted by a girl who didn’t cycle (and didn’t want to) meeting a young man who didn’t dance (which she did). It was decision time for me, cycle or girlfriend, and she won! She gave up dancing, but my cycle came into good use as I visited her from my home. From now on courting became our new-found pleasurable priority.

On the very Sunday morning after the Second World War was declared my girlfriend travelled by train to see me at my home in New Malden, Surrey. I’d become used to walking by now, and we walked into Richmond Park with our gas masks in their boxes, sat and talked about our future together, and shared our favourite Dairy Box chocolates (2s 6d!).

Thinking back, I feel I was rather shy. When I bought the engagement ring from Walker’s the Jewellers we went along to one of our local cinemas where, in the dark, I placed the ring on her finger while listening to Bobby Breen singing There’s a Rainbow on the River, which was the title song of the film of the same name.

Happy days before Grace’s stroke...

Happy days before Grace’s stroke…

At this stage we both decided that our respective parents would be told of our intentions. The reactions were entirely different as I remember.

My future mother-in-law told her daughter that: “You made your bed, you lie on it.” I rather liked that. My own mother said: “I thought you’d find a nice girl like that”, a remark I liked even better. It so happened that they both shared the same Christian name, Grace, so that might have helped a bit.

My father said that he and my mother had married young, and wouldn’t have any objection to our marriage. As for my future father-in-law, he had advanced into the situation by remarking that he could book the local Labour Party assembly rooms for the reception. Practical thinking, I con-cluded at the time, but as yet we hadn’t even arranged the church banns.

On my 20th birthday in the May, I received my calling-up papers for the RAF, the service of my choice. I’d finally got used to wearing my uniform when, in the August of the same year, I was granted compassionate leave to get married in Wimbledon’s Trinity Church, which faced on the other side of the road, conveniently, the aforementioned Labour Party assembly rooms.

Because of the wartime food restrictions, my girlfriend and I had been saving to ensure there was enough tinned food to go round.

My best man Jim, who incidentally was married to my fiancee’s sister, looked after me, and his views on marriage were extremely helpful and encouraging.

I served four years in the PJVF, but towards the end my health deteriorated. Eventually I attended a medical board and bronchial asthma was diagnosed. I was therefore discharged as ‘unfit for further military service’.

.. .and the family’s first seaside outing afterwards.

.. .and the family’s first seaside outing afterwards.

Back in civvy street my condition worsened, so that my doctor wasn’t able to treat me at night when the condition was at its worst. He recommended that I be installed in a home for disabled ex-servicemen and their families, where I could (and did) receive excellent medical treatment. It was called Sir Oswald Stoll Mansions at Walham Green, later to be changed to Fulham Broadway, London SW6, and this was to be my home from 1945 until 1960.

We’d married young, and had three wonderful sons – Martin in 1943, Peter in 1947 and Andrew in 1954.Eighteen months after the youngest was born, my dear wife collapsed in the street with a severe stroke, leaving the left side of her body completelyparalysed.

I soon learned to be both mother and father for Andrew’s sake, but remarkably at around this time my own health showed signs of improving, mainly because I had to forget about myself and concentrate on the one I love.

My job was as an aircraft component toolmaker in Kensington, London. One evening, while reading my local weekly paper, the Fulham Chronicle, I came across an advertisement seeking workers for Vickers, South Marston, near Swindon, Wiltshire. The job would include a rented house.
For some time I’d thought how nice it would be to get away from our ‘hospital atmosphere’ in London for the clean air of the countryside, and it was a decision I have never regretted.Before we left London our doctor explained exactly what had happened to my wife, and that my life would change, and he was concerned for.. .and the family’sfirst seaside outing afterwards. us as a family.
One thing I knew would never change. Our marriage vows of “for better, for worse” came into play, and would always remain so.

When my wife was finally discharged from the Atkinson Morley Hospital at Raynes Park, I set about moving from London to Swindon. I began my new job at Vickers and eventually moved to Pressed Steel Coy, as it was then called (now Rover), from where I retired after 26 years as a toolmaker.
Despite the many trials and difficulties we’ve experienced over the years, there have always been the wonderful memories of enjoying our three boys when they were young (as we were)!

Martin became apprenticed to the Swindon Evening Advertiser in 1960, but unfortunately was made redundant in 1995; Peter left school at 15 and promptly joined the Royal Navy, serving in the Falklands and reaching the rank of Petty Officer before retiring after 25 years’ service; and Andrew followed his brother’s example, joining the Royal navy, serving his 25 years and retiring as Acting Master-at-Arms.

On balance, my wife and I have a family to be proud of. In addition we have three wonderful daughters-in-law, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

So, from the early beginning of having one love, my bicycle, I accumulated several more on life’s journeys. Added to that, I’ve managed to find an outlet for several self-taught hobbies, including glass engraving, poetry (about family only), and as a folk music accompanying harmonica player. Cofounder of the Swindon Folk Club in 1960,1 handed over the reins because of my domestic commitments.

Throughout her disability my wife has always taken the optimistic view that she would eventually be cured. No stone was left unturned in pursuit of this aim, including a visit to Harley Street paid for by my then employer in London. This proved negative, as did a visit to Lourdes when she travelled from Folkestone while I stayed at home and looked after the children.

Physically there was no improvement, but it wasn’t a wasted journey because spirituality came to the fore and helped her enormously. Instead of “Why me?” she thought of people far worse off than herself.

For the past 59 years my wife has been the only girlfriend, wife and mother for me, and I have seriously believed that my initial encounter with her was not by chance, but had always been meant to be.

John Cole