I was on my way to what was to be my home, on and off, for quite a long time, and the scene of countless exciting events in both my own life and of those around me. Some were happy and many thrilling; others sad, difficult, and even shattering; but all were in some way related to the dawn of a new era, the nuclear age.
Harwell was the site of the newly set up Atomic Energy Research Establishment, still a project under the Ministry of Supply. It was for this that my first husband, Oscar Buneman, had been made responsible for assembling a group of scientists who were to form the Theoretical Physics Division. The man who was to lead it had already been chosen. He was Dr Klaus Fuchs, and he turned out to be the most dangerous spy this country has ever known. The second head of that Division was Brian Flowers who, by that time, was my second husband. How he was to turn out I shall tell later.
As for me, I was in one hell of a sulk. Why had we returned to England when we could be living in the United States? Patriotism? Nostalgia? Even though I had been married for four years and had two attractive and intelligent little sons, I was taking my time over the process of growing up. Compared with the horrors suffered by so many, the war had treated me kindly, and most of the last two years had been spent in California. I had escaped from the dull, grey suburb of Manchester where I had spent most of my life. The industrial north-west became murkier as the bombs fell, food shortages worsened and small comforts harder to come by. I had also disentangled myself, or so I fondly imagined, from the tentacles of my father's and mother's influence, which, despite having a family of my own, were still wound tightly around me.
Shortly after our marriage, Oscar had joined ``Tube Alloys'' - the code name given to the British team working on the atomic bomb project - and we were despatched to the United States at very short notice in the conditions of secrecy and subterfuge required during hostilities. The Nazis were poised for attack just the other side of the Channel; Russia and the United States had joined Britain in the fight against Germany and Italy, who between them had just conquered all of Europe. On the other side of the world Japan was devouring her neighbours. Every Atlantic crossing that was undertaken was either a large military operation or a part of one. Our recent return journey had been quite different.
``This train is bugging me,'' I thought to myself in an American accent, carefully preserved because I thought it was smart and sophisticated. The noise of the steam-engine and the filth of the dingy moquette seats disgusted me. After all, I had travelled on the Southern Pacific Railroad. I had also boarded the ``Lark'', that streamlined dart that thrust its way along the Pacific coast together with the ``Zephyr'', its companion in luxury travel, both marvels of the New World. It wasn't so much the condition of post-war Britain. Progress had had to be sacrificed in favour of the burning necessity of winning the war.
It was the backwardness of British transport compared to American TRANSPORTATION, that had always existed and which, to my haughty frame of mind, was so exasperating. To cheer myself up I started humming the popular number of the times, ``On the Acheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe'', afterwards immortalized by Judy Garland in ``The Harvey Girls''. I had lived two blocks from this railroad's hacienda-style ``depot'' in Berkeley, California where the red and yellow engine pulled shiny carriages to a halt at regular intervals during the day and night, accompanied by the siren's haunting wail. It was a source of excitement and delight to my toddler son, Peter. How we had loved waiting for its arrival on that sunlit track!
I certainly didn't love the Great Western Railway - as it was then - and its smelly, out-dated locomotives, any more than I enjoyed travelling on it.
Although I sat there glowering, I felt that my appearance was the height of elegance and chic. Being tired of the grey flannel suits and Burberry raincoats, which my mother had always considered classy and ladylike, I had taken advantage of my sojourns in various North American cities to break out and acquire a wardrobe that was anything but. On this occasion I was sporting an emerald-green suit with the padded shoulders favoured by Barbara Stanwyck and other movie stars of the time. I was struggling to walk in red alligator shoes with heels that made up in height what they lacked in comfort, and wore the most ridiculous hat I have ever had on my head before or since. I had bought it on Forty-Second Street, where in those far-off days there were all sorts of little shops where prices could truly be described as ``dirt cheap''. (The discount radio stores and massage parlours were yet to come). This extraordinary confection had been part of my equipment for going to Manhattan night-clubs and bars, but most particularly for the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue. We were there for the first peace-time occasion of its kind since the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941.
I started humming again. This time it was Irving Berlin's classic. My much-prized ``Easter Bonnet'' was made of shiny black straw, covered barely half my head and sported a rather tattered and squashed, but certainly full-blown rose that smelt of glue. I trailed a little opossum jacket, not because I might need it to keep warm but because Rita Hayworth had wiped the boards with a chinchilla wrap in ``Gilda''. I had always loved movies, but now I was ``hooked'' on glamour.
However much I felt threatened by life in the wilds of Berkshire, I resolved to preserve a style that my new surroundings were obviously not going to provide. By this I didn't just mean tarting about like a cheap imitation of the Ziegfeld Follies, but in the way I would run my house. I had a pressure-cooker, an electric mixer and several gadgets unheard of over here, and I had made arrangements for parcels of commodities like cake-mix, canned goods and tissues, unobtainable in Britain, to be despatched by friends at regular intervals. I had had my appetite for innovation and convenience thoroughly whetted, and nothing was going to force me to regress to the dismally outmoded methods of housekeeping I had known before experiencing my taste of America.
I had left the little boys happily ensconced with their delighted grandparents in Manchester, a place I had dreaded returning to. Having these convenient baby-sitters I had lost no time in going up to London, ``whooping it up'' with friends, and spending more money than I should in restaurants, theatres and shops in order to take away the acrid taste of the drab provincial city. I wondered ruefully whether this back-water on the Downs, which had been chosen as the site for developing peace-time atomic energy experiments, was going to be any better. We had the firm promise of a house, which was something in those days, but whether it was going to be anything I would consider fit to live in was another matter.
I was obliged to acquire those ration-books again. Two years before I had gleefully bestowed the remaining coupons from my old ones on my friends and relatives before setting off for the land of plenty. Food rationing was, if anything, worse since my return to Britain. American rationing was an affluent joke by comparison and had ended when the war did. I still have an American cookbook published in 1942 with an appendix entitled ``War-time Recipes'' which seemed just as funny in those days of scarcity as that often sarcastically quoted command of Mrs Beeton's to ``take two dozen fresh eggs''! If I remember accurately, the only serious restriction on the other side of the Atlantic was a daily choice between beef and butter. Veal, chicken and a wide variety of fish were available in vast quantities without surrendering any of the little perforated tickets. All types of sugar - Britain only had the grey sort - and a few varieties of canned goods were limited to approximately the amount two able-bodied people could carry for a few blocks when gasoline was in short supply. ``I've left my ration book at home'', was a commonly heard taunt, ``bet you twenty dollars you're going to insist upon it.''
I could never understand who could possibly want all that food. Despite my conversion to ``the good life'', it seemed much more than adequate. I had caused quite a disturbance at the meat counter of my local supermarket for pointing out to a petulant old lady that the steak she was complaining about would have had to last a family of four for a week ``where I come from''. But back here not only was the provender sparse and dull, but clothes, furniture, domestic fuel - and that meant coal products, petrol and even commodities like upholstery material and sheets, were rationed. I had stocked up in America on cheap brightly-coloured linen and curtains as well as clothes for myself and my family. Alas, they were not to last long. My enthusiasm for novelty and brilliance had exceeded discretion and I had been more carried away by the plethora of pretty detail and trimming available than impressed by good quality during my last shopping spree in New York.
The worst thing of all was my new driving licence. I had foolishly allowed to lapse the provisional one I had held since the outbreak of war. Although I had held Californian and Quebecois permits to drive, I was tersely informed that as I could not produce the British document I should have to take the test. I was furious. Having driven hundreds of miles through deserts and snow-covered highways I should surely be in a position to teach the bossy, insistent little man in the post office a thing or two! I presented myself for the test with nonchalance and long-suffering boredom, only to have it made quite clear to me that I was going to fail before I even completed the required circuit! When the examiner pointed out: ``you nearly reversed into one of those expensive cars parked alongside the curb'', I lied that I was waiting for my Buick to be shipped over from New York as I really couldn't drive anything else, and left in high dudgeon.
In short, I was thoroughly sorry we had decided to return to Britain. Oscar had received an offer from the University of California to return to Berkeley. We had spent the last six months in Montreal, which had been neither easy nor amusing, but when the final terms from the Civil Service Commissioners recruiting for Britain were laid before him, a wave of homesickness overcame us, together with a loyalty that he, as a German refugee from Nazi oppression, felt to the country that had sheltered and educated him. So here I was, on my way to meet him on the station platform, the hub of what the rural Berkshire people called ``a festering sore on the face of the Downs'', the railway town of Didcot. Little did they foresee the eruption of the complex of Harwell buildings which, despite its eventual prestige, would resemble a suppurating carbuncle by comparison.
It was all dreary beyond belief, and one of those occasions when I felt that my life was over: all twenty-four years of it!
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