- Road Trip to Norfolk
Here we are again! I am sharing another story with you. Not sure if I am even going to publish this one, so you may have the privilege of being the only people to read it. (If it is a privilege). This again, is based on something that really happened to me, but then went off in a whole new direction. This story put a big smile on my face, not sure why, it just did. I hope it does the same for you. Writing takes more time than I have, but is fun, and brings back lots of memories that would otherwise have stayed hidden away in the dark murky places of my brain. Hope you like the photo. The Norfolk Broads are indeed beautiful. My parents spent long summers there in their caravan. Enjoy, and please feel free to comment.
Thetford in Norfolk…….ever been? It is not a very big town. I think in 1974 the population was around four thousand people, and they all talked funny. Well not exactly funny, just different. The buildings were quaint, pretty. It was a big colorful village,(or small colorful town) a mixture of brick, whitewash and oak beams. Why was I there? Keep reading to find out! I had been writing to someone who was in the military and stationed abroad. You could say he was a ‘pen pal’! Pen pals were very popular in the sixties and seventies. I actually had two in America. One lived in Duluth and the other in California. My military pen pal had been on maneuvers in Norfolk and was given the weekend off before he returned to foreign shores. We planned to meet for the weekend in Thetford, our first meeting actually. We had talked on the phone a couple of times, but generally, we just wrote to each other. I enjoyed my drive to Thetford, it was my first long journey on my own. I was 17 so everything was exciting and new, don’t you wish life stayed that way? The drive there took me about four hours, A1 (M) to the M14 and ending up on the A11 (or was it the A14) who knows? I did manage to get there without getting lost, which was all that mattered. It was an easy drive, and full of anticipation. I felt very grown up. I think my parents were glad to get rid of me for the weekend, seventeen was a little young to be going off to spend a weekend with a boy you had never met, but I was strong-willed teenager and there wasn’t an awful lot they could have done to stop me, even if they had wanted to. My parents just wanted a peaceful life so they let me go ahead with my weekend plans, hoping I got home safely and didn’t break any laws.
I pulled over as I approached the outskirts of Thetford, just to collect my thoughts, powder my nose and look at a map. It was two thirty in the afternoon. The plan was to find a pub in the centre of town, called ‘The Bell Inn’, apparently it would not be difficult to find as it was famous for being used regularly in the ‘Dad’s Army’ television series which everyone one loved. I can still hear the theme music from it in my head now. “Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler, if you think old England’s down” and another favorite from the show
“Whistle while you work, Adolf Hitler is a twerp and his army is half barmy, whistle while you work”
It was one of the funniest shows on television, portraying those daytime civilians, who called themselves ‘the home guard’ during the second world war and donned military uniforms after work. They took their job of guarding the towns and villages of England against the Germans, very seriously. There wasn’t a person living in England who didn’t like this show. Anyway, I digress; I was sitting in my bright yellow Vauxhall Viva, just outside Thetford, wondering what on earth I was doing here. Wondering if maybe I should turn around and go home! How much complication was I going to bring to this pen pal relationship by driving across the country to meet this young man? I had seen a photograph of him of course, and he looked pleasant enough, no Robert Redford, but out of ten, he probably got a seven. I looked at my watch again. It was one thirty, and hour before the meeting. I pulled back onto the road, if I got there early, who cared. I was hungry anyway and sitting in the car was making me feel a little sick. It was pretty cold too. Norfolk in February wasn’t warm. You could smell snow in the air, along with the smell of coal fires burning. I approached the little town slowly, finding myself on the main street very quickly. This town wasn’t much bigger than Richmond, my home town. Of course it was much flatter which was why Norfolk was known as ‘Little Holland’. There are lots of canals and waterways, it seemed a canal ran along beside the road for the latter part of my journey. I didn’t have to look very hard to see ‘The Bell Inn’ it was right on the corner King Street and a very nice looking place! Steven had booked us rooms there, yes two rooms as we were after all just pen pals. We were just two friends meeting face to face for the first time.
I was starting to feel nervous now, not excited, just very nervous. I was a romantic at heart, and I think deep down, like any girl, I was looking for Mr. Right. I never admitted this to anyone, always said marriage and kids didn’t interest me, but isn’t everyone looking for Mr. Right? I parked the car in the car park at the side of the Inn and sat there, breathing deeply and telling myself just to relax and have fun. I opened the door and got out into the cold afternoon air, it was raw. It felt damp and cold with a wind starting to whip up. I quickly got my small overnight bag out of the back of my car and walked to the front door of the Inn. When I entered I stepped into a warm inviting atmosphere. There was a big fire crackling at the far end of the room which that was exactly where I was going to sit, warm and cozy by the fire. I needed to check in first and take my bag up to my room. That felt weird, I hadn’t checked into a hotel on my own before. I felt grown up and very small all at the same time. I suppose it was better that I was on my own, it would have felt even more strange if a I was checking in at the same time as a guy I had never met before. I asked myself again, what was I doing here?
As I approached the big wooden pulpit that served as a reception desk, a very pleasant you girl came to greet me. She was a little flushed and strands of her blonde curly hair were falling out of her pony tail, which looked as though it had been hurriedly put in. It she had white power on her lower arms. She smiled as she found my room number and apologized for her appearance. “One of the chefs called in sick today so I have been trying to help out” she told me. She giggled a little as she said it. “Not too good in the kitchen, but willing to learn” she said. She told me my room number and gave me a big iron key, which would not have looked out-of-place in a castle. It was an old building, and the keys were part of its history. “Up the stairs and to the right” she told me. “Your room is the second door on your left. Can you manage your case, only Mr. Manwaring is busy collecting glasses in the bar right now, he could bring your things up later if you can wait” I told her I could manage just fine, as I was only staying the one night, I didn’t have many clothes. “Mr. Manwaring really?” I asked her. “No” she giggled, just kidding. Mr. Mainwaring was a character from the ‘Dad’s Army’. I followed her directions and went up the red carpeted stairs to find my room. Room number 13, was that a sign? I almost asked her to give me a different room when told me the number, but that really was silly wasn’t it. Thirteen was only a number after all! It was a nice room, a little dark, old oak furniture and a big comfortable looking bed. The bed was very high and covered with a big red quilt that made me want to snuggle down and go to sleep. I had plenty of energy during my drive, but all of a sudden I felt it sapping away. I put my overnight bag on the chair and went to the wash basin. No ‘en-suite’ in those days, just a wash basin in the room, and a toilet down the hallway. I washed my face, I did look a little tired, so I touched up my make-up and put on a clean sweater. That felt better. I looked at myself in the mirror, yes a definite improvement. What I needed now was something to eat and a drink. I looked at my watch; it was almost three o clock, where had the last hour and a half gone? I was late!
I went downstairs and nervously walked towards the restaurant/bar area. I couldn’t see inside so I just had to be brave and walk right into the room. It was a nice room. The bar was at the far end, no fire here though, I never did get chance to sit by the fire did I? There was a formal looking dining room to the left, and then some bar tables and chairs over to the right. There were also some booths over by the window. I couldn’t see in all of them. There was no one sitting at the bar, or at any of the tables. Had he left already because I was a half hour late? That would be just perfect, drive for four hours or so, and then get stood up. I walked over to the bar, it was a little early for a brandy and coke, but I really felt like I needed one. At times like this (I was only seventeen remember, a year before I could legally drink), I would approach the bar ready to lie about my age. I was born on January 18th 1956,that made me JUST old enough to drink legally, as my real birthday was on year and one day later that. No one ever asked me my age, and hadn’t since I was sixteen. Now I don’t want you to think I was a heavy drinker, I was not, but when you live in a small village, there wasn’t much else to do apart from go to the pub, or the local barn dances, and no one really cared how old you were, as long as you weren’t getting out of control, or driving. The landlords and barmaids used to keep their eyes open for the local police, who occasionally raided the pubs trying to catch under age drinkers. If they saw a police car pull up, those not old enough to drink would do a runner out of the back door and over the back wall into the field. They would stay hidden until they got the “all clear” from the barmaid. The odd police raid added to the excitement of the evening sometimes, apart from when the weather was bad and you jumped over the wall into a muddy ploughed field. On one occasion I remember a good friend of mine jumping into a field with a prize bull, he wasn’t hurt, but got a nasty fright. Luckily for him he managed to jump back over the wall just before the charging bull reached him. The police actually saw what was going on, but were laughing way too much to arrest him. I’m pretty sure that story was told often back at the Police Station. Anyway back to Thetford and the Bell Inn. I was just about to order myself a brandy and coke, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and there, in the flesh, stood my pen-pal Steven. It was very awkward, we both started talking at the same time, stopped, and started again in unison. I really wished I had a drink before we met, at least I wouldn’t have felt so self-conscious.
The barman saved the day. “What can I get you?” he asked. Before I had chance to answer, Steven asked for the wine list. Now there was a novelty! The barman showed us to a booth and said he would be back with the wine list. Steven asked for the menu too! “So here we are, together at last” Steven said. For once in my life I was speechless, didn’t happen very often, but I felt way out of my comfort zone. The man sitting opposite me, and I say man because he was a lot older than I thought he was, probably in his mid twenties, which to a seventeen year old was old. He was about six feet when he was standing, was average build, had sandy red hair and freckles. He was quite pleasant to look at, which is what I thought when I saw his photograph, but I think the photograph had been taken a couple of years earlier as he seemed to have matured a little since it was taken. I smiled and luckily for me, before I had chance to say anything stupid, the barman came back with the wine list and the menu. Steven took the wine list, and I took the menu. My stomach was rumbling with the promise of food, breakfast has been a long time ago. I didn’t hear what wine was ordered, but the barman walked away and I concentrated on the menu. Fish and chips sounded perfect. I handed the menu over to my pen pal, and looked out of the window. He glanced at it and put it down. “Don’t be shy Sheila, we have known each other for a long time, we should be able to relax” I agreed with him and told him I was just a little tired after the long drive, and I felt a little overwhelmed with everything. This was the first time we had me and I felt awkward. The barman came back with an ice bucket and two glasses. He opened the wine which Steven tasted and then poured us both a glass. It was good. This man sitting in front of me was very intense, he looked me right in the eye as he told me all about the wine, which was German, and about the vineyard it was grown in, he had spent time in Germany and travelled around different Vineyards. He seemed to have done a great deal. As I drank my wine, I relaxed and started to enjoy the afternoon. As it got dark outside, snowflakes began to fall, not heavily, but the ground was soon white. By the time the food arrived, two plates of fish and chips, I was starting to feel a buzz from the wine. I was relaxed and actually enjoying the conversation. I heard about Military life and Steven’s travels. He talked and was very animated while we both ate and drank. I listened and found everything he had to say very fascinating, and then came the bombshell. “Sheila, I hope you don’t think I have brought you here for a dirty weekend, I haven’t, in fact quite the opposite, I am not attracted to women at all, but I need a female friend for this evening to meet my Sergeant and his wife for drinks, I want to convince them I am not a ‘Queer’, even though unfortunately that is what they would call me. I am due for promotion and I think I would have been promoted sooner, but there is a suspicion that I prefer men which doesn’t bide well in the army. My sexual preferences are well and truly locked in the closet, and always will be. The army is my whole life; it’s what I do, what I live for. From the moment we first started writing, I felt we connected, and I knew you could help me with this. I trust you”. I was stunned, and I have to say a little relieved. I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it, I just laughed. He looked taken aback and ready to get up and leave. I put my hand on his. “No don’t go, that’s OK, I would be happy to meet your Sergeant for drinks, I really would like to get showered and changed though, I feel a mess after my journey. Why me though, why did you chose me to come all the way from up North to pretend to be your girlfriend?” “Actually, you need to be my fiancée” he said, and produced a very nice looking ring. “It was my grandma’s ring; you can wear it for tonight if you would”. It was beautiful, rubies and diamonds and obviously an antique. It went well with the surroundings. I actually was starting to enjoy the whole intrigue. It let me off the hook a little and I could relax and not worry about what was coming at the end of the night. We talked a little longer, putting a plan together so we got our story together about how we met, going over difficult questions that may arise. When we felt like we had a plan, Steven paid the bill and we went upstairs together, his room was next to mine, he stopped outside my door, gave me a hug, looked me right in the eye and told me he really appreciated what I was doing to help him.
I went into my room and flopped on the bed, wow, this certainly was not what I expected! I had been writing to this chap for a year now, and didn’t know he wasn’t ‘my type’. I laughed softly to myself, I always managed to get into some sort of scrape or adventure, but I couldn’t lie, this was actually fun. I looked at my watch it was five thirty, I had crammed a lot into this day. When I got out of bed this morning I had not expected so many twists and turns along the way. Good job I had a good night’s sleep before I set off. We were meeting Sergeant Davies at seven o clock so I had an hour and a half to get myself together. I decided to have a nap, it had been a long day, and the wine had made me so relaxed I knew I needed to shut my eyes for a while. It seemed like five minutes later when I heard a knock on my door, I looked at the clock, it was six fifteen. I got up and answered the door to see my new-found fiancée standing there with a cup of tea in his hand. “I couldn’t hear you moving so I figured you had gone to sleep, here this will help wake you up, also I went shopping and I hope this fits” He had a Dorothy Perkins bag in his hand. He wouldn’t come in to my room just handed them both to me, smiled and they went back to his room. I undressed and washed and drank the tea. I laid the dress out on the bed, he really didn’t need to buy me a dress, but he was only the second ‘gay’ man I had ever known and maybe it was something they liked to do. The dress was very elegant. It was black jersey, with a sweetheart neckline and hung gracefully from the fitted bodice. A lovely cocktail dress! I wasn’t exactly twiggy and this sort of style suited me better than a tight-fitting waistline. I tried it on and found it was a perfect fit. I wasn’t sure if the military was the right career choice for this man, but that was none of my business. I put my face on, and made a special effort; after all I had just become engaged. I almost forgot to put the ring on. It truly was lovely. Good job I had brought some high-heeled shoes, they were black suede and went perfectly with the dress. I had been planning to wear them with the other pair of jeans I packed, but this looked much better. At about ten to seven there was a knock at the door again, I opened it and it was my fiancée, with a bottle of champagne and a glass in either hand. He was wearing jeans, a white shirt open at the neck, and a blue blazer, a little better dressed than the guys I usually dated. I actually felt quite sad that he wasn’t attracted to women, if he was, he would have been a good catch. The blue blazer brought out the blue in his eyes; he was a very good-looking man.