This is part five of my Dad’s story…
Twice Lost, a personal memoir by Harry Milner Howard
Chapter Five – back home and Irene
When I first came home, I’m sure I had a chip on my shoulder. It was mainly civilians I couldn’t get on with. I would remember the times that my friends were getting killed or maimed and back in England workers were going on strike for more money. I remember particularly the miners going on strike, which was very upsetting for us on the front line who would have been shot if we’d gone on strike! It seemed like everything had altered. It was difficult to explain but people seemed foolish and trivial. I had seen brains spilt out of someone’s head, gaping open wounds, stomachs ripped open, and all this normality seemed ridiculous. People irritated me. All through the war, in and out of action I had been fine. Many times I’d enjoyed the excitement of it, but now I was home I was full of tension and nerves. There were many times when I felt I couldn’t breathe and would jump at the slightest sound. I was afraid of going on the top deck of a bus, convinced that it would topple over when it went round a corner. I smoked sixty cigarettes a day. They were in short supply and shops would serve regular customers only. How could I be a regular customer when I’d been overseas for five years? I got to the stage of pleading for cigarettes. I felt degraded, but hadn’t I been away prepared to give up my life for my country while these regular customers had been sitting pretty earning good money?
I started working back at the textile firm, Bronnert’s and something happened that would change my life, for it was here that I met my wife, Irene. She changed me from being a cynical ex soldier, she even changed me from the type of person I had been before I went into the army into a fairly normal happy person. She made me realise that all the problems I had were of my own making. When I was convinced that I had T.B. she insisted we go to the hospital for tests to prove that it wasn’t and she started me on the road to a normal life.
When I first went back to Bronnert’s, as I was one of the last back from the services all the best jobs had gone so I was put in the warehouse doing odd jobs. Eventually I worked my way up to be in charge of one of the warehouses. I gave up smoking – from sixty a day to nothing. It was hard but I did it. At first I was a confirmed bachelor. I spent my time drinking with the boys mainly at the Royal Oak in Chorlton-cum Hardy, and I could sink quite a few pints in those days I dated a few girls though I never got serious – mainly just taking them for a drink. Then this young lady called Irene Sibbles came to work at Bronnert’s. One of the office girls introduced me to her. We used to have one and a half hours for lunch, enough time for me to go home, and I would wait at the bus stop and watch Irene pass on the other side of the road. I remember one outfit she wore, a long tweed coat with a brown band at the bottom she wore with short yellow boots. It was called ‘the new look’. She was a beauty. I was attracted to her but kept my distance, just a passing glance and a greeting. After work I used to walk to Piccadilly to get the bus home and would often walk with Irvine, one of the boys who I worked with. (I say boy, but he’d actually been in the Air Force during the war). After a while Irene started to accompany us, as she got a bus from Stevenson Square to Blackley on the other side of Manchester. We gradually became more friendly and Irene used to like to link arms as we walked along. This was difficult with her umbrella and handbag so she asked if one of us would carry them. I refused to carry either, but Irvine had fewer inhibitions than me and volunteered, so the three of us would walk along chatting away. On Saturdays we only worked half a day, so afterwards on our way home a crowd of us would go to a milk bar on Mosely Street. This is where I found out that Irene was more lady like than the rest of the girls. We were in the milk bar and a few smutty jokes were being exchanged when Irene suddenly got up, announced that she didn’t listen to this kind of thing and marched out! The following Saturday no more rude jokes were told and everything was O.K. Irene was in the Operatic Society, and Irvine, George (another friend) and I went to see a show she was in. The show was ‘Gypsy Love’ . I think that seeing her on stage was the real turning point for me. I had been very fond of her, but looking at her on stage was when I fell deeply in love with her, a love that hasn’t diminished to this day.
Shortly after this Irene had her 21st birthday (December 13th 1948). Unfortunately I was unable to go to her party because we had a party at home and it was important that I was there. However I bought her a magnificent box of Max Factor Make Up. The time had come to make a decision so I asked her for our first serious date. It was on December 23rd and we went to see the carol singers in Albert Square and afterwards we went for a meal.
In the following January (1949) we got news that my father had died suddenly, so I went to Brighton to see if I could help. Irene was very sorry but also very sad because she thought that there was a chance that I might stay in Brighton. As you know I didn’t but many other things happened when I was there. My mother wouldn’t divorce my father, so Vera changed her surname to Howard. I went to my father’s funeral and the route was lined with his brother Masons and across the hillside was his name in flowers. My mother came down for the funeral and so it was discovered that Vera was not my father’s wife. He’d been taking her to the ladies evenings as his wife so from then on she was ignored and my father’s name was put on the Mason’s blacklist.
I returned to Irene and Manchester and we had our first holiday together the following Easter weekend when we went to Blackpool. It was a lovely weekend. The next holiday together was two weeks in the Isle of Man. Here something quite unusual happened; we met a couple called Mr and Mrs Howard (Charlie and Enid), yes, the same name as me, and the same names we were going to be! We had decided to get engaged and planned to do it on 23rd December, the anniversary of our first date. While we were on holiday Irene saw an engagement ring she liked but unfortunately we didn’t have enough money for the ring. We were telling our new friends when we got back to the hotel when Charlie said “Go and get it, we’ll lend you the money”. We must have had honest faces, well on second thoughts I think it must have been Irene he trusted! Anyway, we didn’t take up the offer, but bought a ring from Hancock’s jewellers in Manchester when we got back. Irene had childhood illnesses in her twenties, and on the 23rd December when we got engaged she was ill in bed with Scarlet Fever. I sat with her most of the time, and put the ring on her finger in bed! When she recovered we did it properly. I took her out to dinner and she wore a lovely black hat with red flowers and a long black fitted coat. She looked gorgeous and I’m sure every man in the restaurant was envious of me. The next twelve months were spent enjoying whatever we did; we went to the theatre, dancing, sitting with my Grandma every Wednesday night, visiting friends and playing cards. Then on 23rd December 1950, on a beautiful bright cold day, we got married. We had a lovely church service, a wedding breakfast then off we went on our honeymoon. We went for four days over Christmas to a private hotel in Llandudno. All the other guests were regulars who stayed every Christmas so on our first night we joined in playing games and singing round the piano. On the second evening I entered into the games with such gusto and had a few drinks, and what was the result? Can you imagine it, on the second night of our honeymoon I was up most of the night being sick! I must have been making so much noise that eventually there was a tap at the door and a lady guest was there offering me a small bottle of brandy to make me feel better! The next morning everybody in the hotel must have known about it and the manager came and told us to stay in bed and had our breakfast sent up to us. Many of the guests came and knocked at the door to see how the honeymoon couple were feeling after being up all night – sick!
When we came back from our honeymoon we lived in two rooms in Irene’s mother’s house, just a small living room and bedroom, and shared the kitchen and bathroom. We paid a rent, and had many happy evenings in our living room on our own or with friends. We got on so well with Irene’s mum and dad, and always respected one another’s privacy. We had a small knocker on our living room doors and we always knocked and waited to be asked in and they would do the same. Early one Sunday morning after we had been married some eighteen months there was a knock on the front door. We were still in bed and I put on my dressing gown and opened the door to find a policeman standing there. He said “Have you got a sister called Joan Fidler?” In a daze I just said yes and he said that she had died and would I go round immediately. I just couldn’t comprehend it I was in such a shocked state. I went upstairs to tell Irene who calmed us down and we left. Sister Betty and her husband George managed a large pub, the Alexandra, and Joan and her husband Doug lived with them. Betty and Joan had never been separated and being twins were extremely close. We travelled two bus rides across Manchester to get there and when we arrived we found out that Joan had gone to bed as usual but woke up at three in the morning feeling very unwell. Doug had called the Doctor who came immediately, checked her, put her in his car and took her to hospital. I think she was dead on arrival. It was found out that she had cancer of the heart which is very rare. She was thirty two years old. Neither Betty nor Joan had any children at the time, so Irene and I stayed with Betty, George and Doug for two weeks to help them. Irene was a great comfort to them and helped as much as she could. My mother was a great strength to us all, though she must have been suffering terribly. Irene remembers us all sat at the table for a meal with none of us eating anything, and my mother saying quite firmly “Come on, we must now eat or we’ll all be ill”, she was a strong minded person all right. Betty was absolutely distraught, she and Joan had been like one person they were so close. As the weeks passed naturally we all began to accept that Joan was dead except Betty who gradually got worse. I think she was actually dying of a broken heart and was having visions of Joan coming to her in the middle of the night. Then a miracle happened – she became pregnant. I believe that this saved her life. She gave birth to a baby girl and called her Joan and from that day to this she idolised her.