Oh dar­ling, if I was there you wouldn’t need a blan­ket to keep warm

Aching with yearn­ing, the sur­pris­ingly frisky letters that sealed an epic wartime ro­mance

Daily Mail - - News - My Dear Bessie, by Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, edited by Si­mon Garfield, is out now, pub­lished by Canon­gate, price £8.99. For more in­for­ma­tion about live events fea­tur­ing Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Chris and Louise Brealey as Bessie, visit let­ter­slive.co.

LATE in 1943, a 29-year-old Post Of­fice clerk named Chris Barker wrote a let­ter from his dull wartime post­ing in Libya to a friend named Bessie Moore.

They were just friends. Bessie, who also worked for the Post Of­fice, was step­ping out with a mu­tual ac­quain­tance called Nick.

Her re­ply took al­most two months to reach Chris, who was serv­ing in the Royal Corps of Sig­nals, but it changed their lives for ever. No longer with Nick, 30-year-old Bessie re­mem­bered Chris with great fond­ness — and made her feel­ings plain.

And so be­gan an ex­tra­or­di­nary love af­fair: a ten­der, long- dis­tance ro­mance ex­pressed in more than 500 letters de­liv­ered across war-torn con­ti­nents and against a back­drop of un­fold­ing world his­tory, which would cul­mi­nate in a joy­ously happy mar­riage.

Then, 70 years later, the letters — more from Chris than Bessie, as he had to burn most of hers to save space in his kit­bag — were dis­cov­ered by the writer Si­mon Garfield. He put some of them into a book on the lost art of let­ter- writ­ing and they im­me­di­ately struck a deep chord with all who read them.

Last year they were ‘per­formed’ live on stage by the ac­tors Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch and Kerry Fox. Now they have been col­lected in a vol­ume in their own right. This is the mov­ing, and some­times hi­lar­i­ous, story of two or­di­nary peo­ple made heroic by the war they lived through, and the grand pas­sion that sus­tained them.

21 FEB 1944

Sig­nal­man Barker H. C., Base De­pot, Royal Sig­nals, Mid­dle East Forces, To­bruk, North Africa. Dear Bessie,

I re­ceived your let­ter of 1st Jan­uary on 7.2.44, since when I have been bust­ing to send you a smash­ing re­ply, yet feel­ing clumsy as a bal­le­rina in army boots. I could hug you till you dropped!

The unashamed flat­tery that you la­dled out was very ac­cept­able — I lapped it up gladly and can do with more! Yes, I could hug you — an ac­tion un­con­nected with the acute short­age of women in these parts and mostly sym­bolic of my plea­sure at your ap­pre­ci­a­tion of qual­i­ties so very few oth­ers see, and which re­ally I do not pos­sess. Best wishes, Friend. Chris

15 MARCH 1944

Dear Bessie,

I am hope­lessly lost in con­tem­pla­tion of YOU — and I last saw you when? I feel like a king. I think I made a mis­take about you years ago and I rush to make amends. I was quite OK be­fore I got your first let­ter. I was ra­tio­nal, ob­jec­tive.

But now that you have my ear — I must give you my heart as well! I am al­ways con­sult­ing my diary to see how soon you will get my letters, won­der­ing how soon I will get yours.

Chris

13 APRIL 1944

Dear Bessie

I won­der what you look like (don’t have a spe­cial pho­to­graph taken). I know you haven’t a bus-back face but I have never looked at you as now I would. I won­der how many times I have seen you and how many we have been alone.

Now my fool­ish pulse races at the thought that you even have a fig­ure. I want, very much, to touch you, to feel you, to see you as you nat­u­rally are, to hear you. I want to sleep and wake with you.

Let me know if you think I’m mad. When my sig­na­ture dries I’m go­ing to kiss it. If you do the same that will be a com­plete (un­hy­gienic) cir­cuit.

Yours, Chris ALL the while Bessie sends him en­cour­ag­ing letters back and even­tu­ally they swap pho­to­graphs. But she also men­tions more mun­dane mat­ters, prompt­ing Chris to re­ply:

11 JUNE 1944

My dear and lovely Bessie,

I am sorry about your gum­boils. I should leave your pri­vate (ac­quis­i­tive) den­tist and pay at least one visit to the Den­tal Hos­pi­tal at Le­ices­ter Square, which is con­cerned with sav­ing teeth, not mak­ing money through ex­trac­tions and den­tures.

Don’t have your teeth out be­fore you need do, and with­out see­ing the Den­tal Hos­pi­tal. They are good peo­ple. Do you want me to tell you, here, that I love you though you be mo­lar-less? I do! AND a day later, as if to prove it:

12 JUNE 1944

Dear­est,

I’ve never re­ally asked you, have I? Will you marry me, Bessie (for bet­ter or for worse)? There are no good rea­sons, but the only ex­cuse I can of­fer is that I will love you al­ways. Re­ply by or­di­nary let­ter card, won’t you?

Chris

29 JUNE 1944

Dear Bessie,

I thank you for the yes yes yes ac­cep­tance, the hon­our that you have done me, and the con­fi­dence you have re­posed in me. I prom­ise to do all that I can, at all times, to for­ward our union, to work for your hap­pi­ness and to care for your in­ter­ests.

I shall try hard not to be wil­ful, un­heed­ful, thought­less. I shall try to be con­sid­er­ate, kind and help­ful, and where I fail I shall ask and ex­pect your for­give­ness.

I love you, Chris AT THIS point in the war, living with her fam­ily in Black­heath, South-East Lon­don, Bessie is in more dan­ger from Ger­man bombs than Chris in Libya. And her be­sot­ted fi­ance wor­ries about her end­lessly...

3 JULY 1944

Dear Bessie,

A smack in the eye for me to­day, noth­ing from you. I am won­der­ing about these pi­lot­less planes. I hope you go in the shel­ter, and do not try and be ‘brave’ by go­ing to bed.

4 July. No mail to­day. I do hope you are OK. I know you must be se­ri­ously dis­turbed at least. It doesn’t mat­ter about me get­ting letters, but it does mat­ter about your safety...

I have never seen a break of seven days be­tween your letters be­fore, although I am be­gin­ning to know the ter­ror of these new bombs and the greater job you must have in find­ing con­di­tions en­abling you to write... send me a scratch telling me you are safe... AT LAST Bessie replies — but now the ta­bles are turned and it is Chris who is in grave dan­ger. Posted to Athens, he finds him­self in the thick of a Greek civil war be­tween the so­cial­ist anti- Nazi re­sis­tance move­ment and the Right- wing roy­al­ist party, which the Bri­tish back. Some of Bessie’s letters from this time sur­vive:

27 Woola­combe Road, Lon­don SE3

6 DEC 1944

Dear­est,

So very wor­ried about what is hap­pen­ing in Greece. On the news tonight it spoke of it spread­ing and seems to have be­come a bat­tle...

Well I am glad you have four blan­kets to keep you warm, if I was there you wouldn’t want any, you’d be hot enough.

Here am I, a bloom­ing ice­berg of a maiden wait­ing to be roused into a fire, not just melted but changed into a fire, and there are you, miles and miles away, need­ing an ex­tra blan­ket.

I had to gig­gle about my ‘brav­ery’ in bombed Lon­don. I live here, work here and there isn’t any­thing to do but live here and work here and like most things up to a point, you get used to it.

Dar­ling I love you, love you, so very much.

Bessie

10 DEC 1944

My dear­est Bessie,

But for us — US more than any­one — life will be grand in days to come if we will it so, if we trust.

I shall come back to Eng­land, to an Eng­land that I knew and in my fash­ion loved (have you ever been chest­nut­ting at Sun­ning­dale in Oc­to­ber or black­ber­ry­ing at Cater­ham in Septem­ber?).

And I shall brighten up your scene, I hope, and make you see things in a new and bet­ter light, so that we both re­alise we had not lived till we met, till we loved.

Chris

11 DEC 1944

Dear­est Christo­pher,

What I feel for you, dear one, is love. This is not set­tling down, get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing chil­dren, it’s some­thing so much more, so much big­ger.

You have caused an up­heaval within, an up­heaval that con­tains so much sweet­ness, ec­stasy and pain, some­thing that I didn’t think I was go­ing to know, some­thing that I thought did not ex­ist be­cause I had not known it.

It is new to me, you are new to me, I trust my­self to you so gin­gerly, a lit­tle afraid of, not you Christo­pher, but of the un­fore­see­able...

Good­night, Dar­ling, Bessie ON DE­CEM­BER 18, 1944, Chris is taken pris­oner by the Greek Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army af­ter a siege in an Athens ho­tel. Bessie con­tin­ues to write:

26 JAN 1945

Dear­est,

Surely there will be some­thing in the press when pris­on­ers are ex­changed. Un­less I have missed some­thing in a cor­ner — don’t think so. Oh! Where oh where are you, Christo­pher My Dar­ling? Days have be­come weeks and still no news. I can’t set­tle down to read, not even in the train...

I love you, Bessie CHRIS is set free in Jan­uary 1945, and re­ceives the much-an­tic­i­pated news that for­mer pris­on­ers will soon be shipped back to Eng­land. He de­scribes his im­pris­on­ment to Bessie:

28 JAN 1945

Dear­est...

We spent the first ten days march­ing. About 120 miles through rain, snow, hail at times; al­ways very cold, al­ways hun­gry. Our over­coats were taken and we had no blan­kets. [My com­pan­ions] and I had ter­ri­ble nights. No sleep, very cold.

Many chaps had very bad times, boots stolen (you can imag­ine how this af­fected one, stockinged feet in the snow), un­der­clothes taken, trousers and blouse re­moved and very thin ragged clothes given in ex­change...

31 JAN 1945

IT IS a strange thing but I can­not seem to get go­ing and write very

freely. All I am think­ing about is ‘I am go­ing home. I am go­ing to see her’. And I ex­pect you are feel­ing the same.

I may be home in as lit­tle as a fort­night. It is no longer spec­u­la­tion or hope, or pos­si­bil­ity. It is a fact, a real thing, an im­pend­ing event, like Shrove Tues­day, Xmas Day or the Lord Mayor’s Ban­quet.

You have to be abroad, to be her­met­i­cally sealed off from your in­ti­mates, from your home, to re­alise what a gift this go­ing-home is. I can say no more, no less, than that I love you.

Chris BESSIE is over­joyed, yet also anx­ious. This will be the first time they have seen each other since the ‘love af­fair’ be­gan.

6 FEB 1945

Dar­ling, dar­ling, dar­ling,

This is what I have been wait­ing for, your free­dom left me dumb and choked up, but now, oh now, I feel re­leased. Oh Christo­pher, my dear, dear man. It is so so won­der­ful. You are com­ing home. Golly I shall have to be care­ful, all this ex­cite­ment is al­most too much for my body...

Also con­fi­den­tially I, too, am a lit- tle scared — ev­ery­thing in letters ap­pears larger than life- size. Like the pho­to­graph it didn’t show the white hairs be­neath the black, the de­cay­ing teeth, the dark­en­ing skin. I think of my nasty char­ac­ter­is­tics, my or­di­nar­i­ness. Yes I, too, feel a lit­tle afraid...

I Love You, Bessie. CHRIS and Bessie meet at last. He spends three weeks on leave in Eng­land and the cou­ple share five days alone in Bournemout­h. Their time to­gether is a suc­cess, yet Chris is posted to Italy im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards. He starts writ­ing again to Bessie as soon as he gets on a train. Grand dec­la­ra­tions of love are in­ter­spersed with more banal sub­ject mat­ter...

16 APRIL 1945

I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. Don’t just read and pass on. Please read this re­it­er­a­tion care­fully and hear me say­ing it. Blow me, I am mourn­ful at the thought of our dis­tance. It seems so ab­surd, so wrong, so im­pos­si­ble that only a lit­tle while ago we were to­gether and now we are apart. I can’t help hav­ing a cheated feel­ing and not much in­ter­est in any­thing else but you.

Chris

19 JULY 1945

My Very Dear­est,

I read with re­gret the ex­trac­tion of your teeth. The rack­e­teers. I think I should go ahead and have the whole lot out now. It will save you a lot of trou­ble later on. And you’ll al­most cer­tainly find a den­tist who will tell you you would be bet­ter off with­out them.

Chris

21 JULY 1945

Dear­est Chris,

You bloom­ing Old Dar­ling, I could hug and hug and hug you, for some­how say­ing all the right things, and be­ing your beau­ti­ful self, do you won­der that I get so blue? Look what I am do­ing with­out.

I guess I haven’t felt a ‘calm­ness of spirit’ since Greece, it came home to me then how eas­ily I could lose you, just like that, and I haven’t been able to erase it from my mind, it im­pressed me too deeply.

Bessie SIX weeks later, on an­other short leave, Chris and Bessie are mar­ried in Lon­don. He goes back to Italy but Bessie quickly dis­cov­ers that she is preg­nant. Chris re­turns just in time for the birth, and at last he is leav­ing the Army. Al­most three years since they be­gan their long- dis­tance courtship, he writes his fi­nal let­ter in sol­dier’s uni­form to Bessie.

7 MAY 1946

Dar­ling,

Tonight I spent my last night in the Army. To­mor­row I spend the night in the train. As you go to sleep Wed­nes­day night think of me speed­ing along the rails to­wards you, sleep­ing this fi­nal sep­a­rate sleep. And re­mem­ber that when you awaken in the morn­ing, it will be to hear my voice and see me.

Dear­est dar­ling, only one, thank you for all that you have been to me through these years, and be sure we shall over­come with our love any dif­fi­cul­ties there may be later on. I can never be as good as you de­serve, but I re­ally will try very hard, and I know you will help. We shall be part­ners, collaborat­ors. Man and woman, hus­band and wife, lovers.

I love you. I want you. I need you. AL­WAYS.

YOUR Chris THIR­TEEN weeks later their son Bernard was born, fol­lowed in 1949 by their sec­ond son, Peter. Chris and Bessie lived a long and happy life to­gether. He went back to the Post Of­fice and worked his way up the ranks, while Bessie spent hours in her beloved gar­den and be­came an ac­com­plished ama­teur artist.

To­gether they trav­elled a Europe fi­nally at peace and, when Bessie’s mem­ory be­gan to fail, Chris cared for her at home. She died, aged 90, in 2004; Chris fol­lowed, aged 93, in 2007.

Long-dis­tance love: Bessie and Chris

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