Benedicta Leigh 1922—2000 [photo: David Sim]
My mother, Benedicta Leigh, was in her late teens when the Second World War broke out. She signed up to be a VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment] nurse and was working at a hospital in London when Germany’s surrender was announced. In her memoir, The Catch of Hands, she describes the end of the war in 1945 as it felt to her.
In the [hospital] staff room, we lit cigarettes and read newspapers, listening to the wireless at tea-time before getting up and checking the time from the watches that were pinned to our blue frocks.
‘You really wonder if it’s going to end,’ we said, nodding sagely, stubbing our cigarettes out in the shone-up brass ashtrays. One of us said: ‘ Who’s taking Matron’s tray up?’ I was, and did so, checking that my apron was clean, and the tray as exactly laid as rationing allowed.
When the war ended, it was slowly, like a breathless unwinding of nerves that still might pull too dangerously, and having felt them a little we flapped our expectations somewhat. But we never quite got back to the silly selves we had been before, and busily began work on the selves we felt we should become, but dandifying them rather.
So we all kissed each other, said we must meet again, but I think did not, and wished each other luck. We went home, and I packed away my uniform, was touched and pleased to be given an award, with others in the village, and felt inside me an expansion and an emotion, as though something had passed me that needed recognition, refused perhaps for lack of time. It was, I think, my father’s death [Calais, 1940].
The Catch of Hands
Published by Virago Press Limited 1991