The little wooden cigarette box is in front of me, seemingly begging for its history to be read. And that’s one of the real irritations of life, isn’t it? If only inanimate objects could talk, could tell you who made them, who touched them, who used them. This one is seven inches long and 4 wide (18cms by 10cms); inside there are two compartments each capable of taking 20 normal sized cigarettes. I say ‘normal’ because ‘King’ size only became fashionable in the 1980s. On the polished lid the crest of the Royal Artillery has been carefully carved by some skilled craftsman. You can even read the motto – “Ubique quo fas et gloria ducunt.” (‘Everywhere where faith and glory lead’); there is another extremely risqué interpretation which is only available on request!
Peggy gave me this box with The Gunner’s crest on the top when I became a Gunner officer. She’s long since departed after a full and rewarding life and only recently did I wonder who gave it to her. But then you imagine …..
It’s easy to forget, as time causes memories to fade, the heartaches that lives lost create. For this box probably belonged an officer killed in the Second World War, the boyfriend of Peggy. She never married and one can only assume that there was nowhere in her heart for anyone but her first love. I write ‘probably’ as I really don’t know for certain. It belonged to Peggy for sure, and it’s quite likely that any self-respecting officer at that time would have had a cigarette box. If it wasn’t silver, a beautifully carved wooden one would suffice and quite usual to have your Regimental crest carved into the lid. On his death I imagine his family gave her the box as a memento. But who was Peggy you might well ask?
Peggy was the P in C&P, Cynthia my aunt and Peggy, but she was equally the P in P&C to her family; it simply depended on your perspective!! They were Cambridge graduates but women were not officially admitted as members of the graduate body when they studied for their degree; this was rectified in 1998 when 900 of them assembled at Cambridge. They had met for the first time in 1939 and a year later they shared a flat in Walthamstow Hall School. That summer a bomb demolished most of the staff accommodation; no one had made it to the shelter and Peggy recalls seeing the tall Music mistress, the very short English mistress and Cynthia, blood pouring down her head, crawling towards safety through the dust – and thought they looked like three bears.
Having enlisted in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, both spent part of the Second World War at Bletchley Park, the secret establishment tasked with breaking enemies’ codes. Like many, they didn’t talk about their time there and it’s only by chance I found out that that was where they had worked. When the war ended Cynthia and Peggy embarked on highly successful educational careers (see note below) and lived together in Clapham, London. These days one might wonder whether there was anything other than companionship to their relationship but back then it was not something one could’ve raised.
Peggy and Cynthia on one of their European travels
Peggy and Cynthia ensured that their nieces, nephews and God children were introduced to London when old enough, with visits to the major sights, historic buildings, museums and pageantry; the Thames, the theatre and the zoo, the Monument (up to the top of course), St Paul’s (and again up to the Whispering Gallery – with Cynthia leading the way), travelling by double decker, escalator and tube. Then it was back to their flat to meet whichever cat was in residence, for supper and to play cards, playing pelmanism, a quiet intellectual game or more interestingly frenetic Racing Demon, when the sight of ‘Aunt’ Cynthia’s knees on the floor was quite a revelation to a young boy used to seeing the bun and rather long skirt.
I imagine this box sitting on Peggy’s dressing table in her single-bedded room, surrounded by hundreds of postcards that reflected the active travels that she and Cynthia had embarked on during their retirement. I don’t ever recall her smoking so it was probably full of ticket stubs from plays witnessed, for rail journeys made together, the menu from a favourite restaurant, little nick-nacks that mean so much to the owner but virtually nothing to anyone else; simply the flotsam of their short time together. Indeed currently it normally sits on my desk, full of odd keys from long lost padlocks, flints for old cigarette lighters, an odd shoe lace, three rubber bands and a piece of sealing wax – my flotsam you might decide!
Lives come and go …… but the little box on my desk continues to jog the memory.
Richard 31st December 2017
PS Happy New Year. May it bring you all you need and some of what you want.
PPS Peggy was the author of the definitive work ‘The London Experience of Secondary Education’ – Margaret Bryant 1979. Cynthia was Head of Modern Languages at James Allen’s Girls’ School in London.
PPPS Peggy died on 5th May 2006 aged 90 ….. and 4 days. Cynthia had died on 27th December 2004 aged 89.