In 1947 I married an old family friend whose wife had walked out leaving him with three attractive children; a girl of 11 and twin boy and girl of 9. Unable to contemplate children of my own without the right father, I did my best to give them a stable family background whilst pursuing my own rather odd career. Trained for the stage but now unable to give time for an acting career, I won a national verse speaking competition in London and was offered work as a Poetry Speaker. Recitals, festivals, education, judging etc., took me around the country – and spread to the USA and South Africa as the work grew. Ten years with a Jazz Trio!
In 1976 my second husband died of a heart attack, and I was forced to sell our house in Shropshire and decided to move to Brighton, where in Sussex Mews I was lucky enough to have as my friendly and helpful neighbour, none other than David Watkin.
In 1973 the first of a series of strange things happened. I was driving to Carlisle to join the Jazz Trio and in early dusk stopped at a garage to ask the way. A complete stranger heard my request and offered to lead me to the address I had mentioned. He did so and turned out to be an ex RAF pilot who had known my husband, now owned a book shop and mentioned a book on 609 Squadron? I knew nothing of this book, having of course changed my name from Thornton Brown to Mulcahy on my second marriage. He drove back to his shop, collected two copies of the book, one for my father-in-law and one for me. Refused any payment, but suggested I send a donation to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which I did. His name was Eric Moffitt and when acknowledging the donation the Benevolent Fund people said it was typical of Eric, who was known for his good deeds. That was thirty years after Pat’s death.
In 1996, now another 23 years on, David invited me to dinner to meet his close friend and associate, the American opera director, Peter Sellars. Driving him back to Glyndebourne where he was working, we discovered a mutual admiration for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Peter gave me a copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and wrote in it his good wishes. At the time I was absorbing Training the Mind through Yoga to help me clear my mind for the poems I was paid to speak, so put the new book aside to read later. Much later!
Somewhere around 1998, I came home from London to find the ‘phone ringing and it was David in Canada, where he was filming. He said “Betty, what was the number of your husband’s squadron?”, I said “609, but why on earth…” He said “there’s someone here to speak to you”. And a slightly foreign voice said that he was flying with my husband on that last mission but was sent back because his reserve tank had jammed. He said “Your husband saved my life”… He was Ken Adam – born Klaus Hugo Adam, a German Jew whose family had escaped the Nazi regime and who joined the RAF and was in in Pat’s Squadron on that fateful mission. We arranged to meet in London and did so, just before Christmas, on 21st December!
December 21st is a so-significant date to me. It is of course the shortest day in the calendar, and the longest night. It was certainly the longest night for me back in 1943, when I waited and waited for the ‘phone call that never came.
Ken Adam spoke highly of David and we were both amazed at the “coincidence” of our three lives having touched briefly in so strange a fashion and all centred round Pat, my dear husband.
But that was not the end. In February 2007 I received a letter in pidgen English/French, from one Joss Leclerq informing me that he had found Pat’s grave, untended and overgrown, and wanted all and any information about his life, to be included in a local museum he was creating in Caumont, Northern France, devoted to some unsung RAF heroes of World War Two. I leave you to imagine how this latest “contact” affected me. The awkward language made the request seem more intrusive than intended, I eventually realised, but the thought of the neglected grave was shocking. Was the request genuine? I contacted the Air Ministry and was directed to the Imperial War Museum, and on February 14th went up to meet James Taylor – an RAF consultant. (It was Valentine’s Day. Pat always sent me a Valentine, even after we were married). James Taylor reassured me that the request for information was quite genuine and that the proposed Memorial Museum was known to them. In due course Joss Leclerq sent me pictures and was kind and helpful and sorry that he had unwittingly upset me. A corner of the museum is devoted to Pat and his story.
But still the coincidences continued. Leaving the Imperial War Museum, I noticed their small cinema was showing films for children of Animals in War. I glanced at the programme and saw that at 2:15 they were showing 609 Squadron with their Goat Mascot… (I have on my window shelf, a picture of Pat with the goat – called William). Too weak to stay and see the film, I requested a copy to be sent to me, and in a distressed state I returned to Brighton. I felt the only person who I could tell was David and I rang him as soon as I got in. He was so sympathetic and helpful and then told me the name of the man in charge of War Film who would be sending me a copy. Toby Haggith. When the copy arrived it was indeed from Toby Haggith – a colleague of David’s from his early film career.
Thank you David. It was a privilege to have known you; one of the wisest, kindest and most knowledgeable and talented people I have ever met. I am proud to have been a friend and to have the following, hand-written in my copy of his second autobiography: For Betty, always young, who opened the world of poetry to me. With thanks and love, David… and the date? December 21st 2007.