When I was three, my greatest friend was Pop Figgit. He and his wife Margaret were two of the nicest people I ever met – and sixty years later I have found no reason to change my opinion.
Early in 1941, their house in a south London suburb was bombed. They were dragged from the ruins with fairly minor injuries, patched up and sent to the comparative safety of Tunbridge Wells. They had been billeted with us for three years, until the bombing of London had subsided to a degree that made their return relatively safe. It was with great sorrow that the Gardner family saw them off on the London train, with promises on either side to keep in touch.
Six months later, Pop was back with us, this time alone. That first evening I sat on Pop’s lap whilst he told us his story. My mum offered to put me to bed, but Pop said I should know what had happened to my Auntie Margaret.
It seems that they had been sitting in their newly rented flat on the third floor of a converted Victorian house in Greenwich, facing each other on either side of the fireplace, as was their custom. They heard a noise outside, “like a motorbike with a faulty silencer,” said Pop, “labouring up Blackheath Hill.” Suddenly, the motor stopped. “Let’s hope he gets that thing fixed before it falls apart,” and it was at this moment that their world fell apart.
The V1, dived vertically through the roof of the house, bisected the middle of their floor, and exploded in the basement. The blast came back up through the hole in the floor, their much loved piano flew across the room, taking Pop with it, and pinned him against a wall. He lost consciousness immediately, but the nurse told him that when he was found by the rescue men, his clothes had been blown off by the blast.
The piano was full of pieces of hot metal, which would certainly have killed him. He was miraculously uninjured, but as he was dragged out by a man on each arm, his bare heels were literally taken off by the broken glass. Whilst I listened I watched the second hand of his watch sweeping round the dial. Most unusually for those days, the dial was made of blue enamel.
I looked up at my mum and dad – they were watching Pop with dreadful anticipation. Even at the age of three, I could tell what they were waiting for. I turned round and looked up into his face. Tears were streaming down his cheeks and I pulled his handkerchief out of his top pocket and dabbed at him. I’d never seen a grownup cry before. “They never found her,” said Pop quietly, “not a trace.”
I suppose it was about two weeks later when we heard another V1 approaching. We had become used to them passing over our house on their way to London. Doodlebug watching had become something of a spectator sport in Tunbridge Wells that summer. It must have been early morning because mum had been looking at the clock, and remarked that my dad was due home from his fire watching duties any minute.
We were in the dining room and I toddled towards the back door to see the doodlebug. Before I could get there it gave a little cough, and the engine stopped.
For perhaps two seconds there was total silence. Then mum grabbed my wrist as I heard Pop shout, “down the cellar – DOWN THE CELLAR – DOWN THE CELLAR!” Mum dragged me across the kitchen and threw open the cellar door. She gave me a push down the cellar steps, and as I fell I turned and under her arm caught a glimpse of Pop, face half covered in shaving soap, hobbling as fast as his injured feet would let him. Mum lost her footing and tumbled down the steps to land on top of me. The last thing I remember is the sound of someone slamming the cellar door behind us.
My mum and dad are both buried in Hawkenbury Cemetery. When I got home after nearly ten years in America, I had an overwhelming need to go and see their graves. To my shame, I had to enquire as to exactly where they were buried. When I found them, there they were, side by side. Neither of them had seen old age – mum was fifty-nine, and dad had just made it to sixty. I stood there for a few minutes remembering…. Good times, like when I passed my eleven plus, and mum and dad gave me a wrist watch with an unusual blue dial; and bad times, like when mum and I were dug out of the cellar of our house one summer’s day.
As I left I passed a modest grave next to my parent’s. Something caught my attention and after a few paces I turned round and went back.
The stone said:-
Stanley ‘Pop’ Figgit.
19th December 1871 – 11th July 1944.
“A Friend Indeed.”