Leav­ing the Navy to fol­low for­bid­den love

Malta Independent - - NEWS - Gabriel Schem­bri

Back in the 1960s, Malta was very dif­fer­ent from what it is to­day. The coun­try was still try­ing to get back on its feet af­ter the war and many still strug­gled to make ends meet. De­spite all this, the mood was pos­i­tive. It was, af­ter all, a time of peace and the young peo­ple who lived in those years, Mal­tese and for­eign, wanted to make it all worth liv­ing for.

Re­la­tion­ships did not gen­er­ally last long and se­ri­ous af­fairs be­tween women serv­ing in the Royal Navy and Mal­tese was prac­ti­cally for­bid­den.

Com­ing from Sh­effield to serve with the Bri­tish Navy, Elaine Zer­afa (née Eyre) was in her twen­ties and one of the 250 WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice staff, com­monly re­ferred to as ‘the Wrens’) sta­tioned on the is­land.

“With all the ships com­ing in and out of Malta’s ports, the par­ties were in­cred­i­ble,” she re­calls, as she shares her story with The Malta In­de­pen­dent. She ex­plained that steady re­la­tion­ships were not com­mon, in fact re­la­tion­ships would usu­ally only last for a cou­ple of days. “A ship might come in one day and leave two days later. Still, there was me and a friend of mine who were go­ing steady with two Amer­i­can guys. You would only go out with a Mal­tese man if there are no ships com­ing in.”

Her friend’s boyfriend ar­rived but she was left wait­ing, that is un­til another friend came by and asked if she would like to go out for a meal the next day. “I asked her with whom and she said she was go­ing out with a Mal­tese chap who was go­ing to bring a friend. I asked her who was pay­ing – and she said they were – so I said ‘yes’.” The four of them went for a rab­bit meal at a place in Qawra – her friend, who was ac­com­pa­nied by a cer­tain Max, and Elaine and a Mal­tese man who was soon mov­ing to Aus­tralia. This man went to the other side of the world and that was it.

The fol­low­ing week, Elaine was sit­ting qui­etly out­side White­hall Man­sions and Max turned up. She told him that her Amer­i­can friend was stuck in Naples and he de­cided to take her out to a pop­u­lar dance club in Ra­bat.

“That night went re­ally well, but then I didn’t see him for a cou­ple of weeks so when my Amer­i­can boyfriend came back to Malta, I ac­cepted his in­vi­ta­tion to a party.”

But Elaine had al­ready set up a date with Max and so she had to find a good ex­cuse to ex­plain her be­ing ab­sent. The navy had taught her some good tricks. “I re­mem­ber putting a wet hand­ker­chief over the phone to dis­tort my voice and I told Max that I couldn’t make it that night

be­cause of ton­sil­li­tis.”

But Max and Elaine would even­tu­ally meet again.

“That same day, Max came to our res­i­dence with a box of choco­lates be­cause he be­lieved my story that I was sick. But the girls in the reg­u­lat­ing of­fice had seen me sign out and told Max I was not in the sick bay – I was out at a party!”

Max found another girl and went to the same party, so the four of them ended up go­ing out al­to­gether.

“This is how it started, al­though at that point I didn’t re­ally know him that well. We had only met on and off, just like ev­ery­one else.”

One day Max went to talk to Elaine and told her he wouldn’t be able to see her for a cou­ple of weeks as the daugh­ter of a friend was com­ing to Malta and was ex­pect­ing to meet him.

“Re­la­tion­ships were just like that – open-ended. It was a time of par­ties. I re­mem­ber me and my friends would rent an apart­ment, fill the bath tub with al­co­hol and bits of fruit and have a good time.”

But de­spite what many peo­ple think, the Wrens’ time in Malta did not mean sleep­ing around. They had strict or­ders to be in­side by a cer­tain time and se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ships were ba­si­cally for­bid­den.

“You have to un­der­stand that the Bri­tish govern­ment would not in­vest all that money in se­cret jobs just for you to get preg­nant. We had to be­have and this is why they flipped when they re­alised that Max and I were in a sort-of-se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship.”

The Navy did, in fact, find out that Elaine was dat­ing ‘a lo­cal’ and were not happy about it – in

fact it did try to phys­i­cally sep­a­rate the cou­ple.

“They called me in and told me that they were go­ing to trans­fer me to Hong Kong be­cause they did not want me dat­ing a Mal­tese.”

One par­tic­u­lar Ad­mi­ral did not agree with the Navy’s view and de­cided to meet Max. “They met and the Ad­mi­ral told me that Max looked like a nice guy. Then he just opened his di­ary and started leaf­ing through it.” Then the Ad­mi­ral looked at Elaine and asked: “Are you free on the 27April?”, to which she replied “What for?” “To get mar­ried,” he said, to her sur­prise.

And that is how, on 27 April 1967, Max and Elaine came to be mar­ried in Malta. Be­fore she could tie the knot, Elaine had to leave the Wrens. “I re­mem­ber Max flew to Eng­land to meet my fam­ily and then he bought me this ring from Zachary Street that was too big even for my thumb! I had to leave the Wrens and from that day on­wards, I was a civil­ian again.”

Asked if she missed those days in the RN, Elaine says that she did, es­pe­cially the very par­tic­u­lar sense of hu­mour that peo­ple in uni­form have. “Be­ing in the Navy, you get to see a lot of hor­ri­ble things and so your sense of hu­mour is some­how shaped by it all.”

Hav­ing stopped pur­su­ing her pas­sion for danc­ing to join the Navy, back as a civil­ian Elaine found an op­por­tu­nity to dance again by join­ing a teacher in Malta. To­day, she serves as Sec­re­tary to the Malta branch of the Royal Naval As­so­ci­a­tion and, at the age of 75, still holds dance lessons three times a week.

Elaine Zer­afa

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