The worst of times: Newly wed, cold and lonesome in Osnabruck: Penny Vincenzi talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Paul went into the Army to do his national service, and so I was an army wife at a very immature 21.

Most of the people Paul had done his training with were sent to sunny Gibraltar, or Belize. Osnabruck, where we were stationed, is in the north of Germany, near the Dutch border; it's bleak, flat, barren country, and we arrived in the dead of winter, so it was freezing cold.

I'd never had anything to do with military life and it was a bit of a shock. I was very lonely, surrounded by these battle-axey wives, who seemed enormously old and dressed like my mother.

The us-and-them element was incredible; every single aspect of life was divided into officers and other ranks, even in the waiting rooms at the doctor and the dentist . . . it was like South Africa.

There was an incident which still upsets me terribly to think about. Paul was having terrible headaches, so he was taken to hospital in Munster to have some investigations, and his driver, who was a sweet lad from Devon, gave up his Sunday afternoon to drive me down there to see him.

When we got back, I asked him in for a cup of tea to say thank you. The very next morning, the colonel's wife came down - goodness knows how she'd heard - saying, did I realise what an extremely indiscreet thing I'd done? Officers' wives could not entertain other ranks alone in their homes.

I felt really cross, because I thought it was so kind of him to drive me, which I attempted to put across, but she was very fierce. 'Whatever he did for you,' she said, 'you had no business inviting him into your quarters.'

We had a civilian flat in the town, so I didn't get to know any of the other wives, and I didn't really see much of the men either. I went for a lot of long walks by myself and it was pretty depressing. I felt very estranged somehow in this bleak, rather lonely place, with no job, and nothing to do all day, except clean our little, tiny flat.

I did a lot of cleaning. I became quite obsessive about our lino floor, thinking, I really must make the floor clean and shiny. And I do remember, one morning, finding myself washing as many roof tiles as I could reach through the kitchen skylight and thinking I must be going mad. I must have been terrific fun to come home to.

I read an enormous amount and started writing short stories, which I'm sure were terrible. But I sent them off endlessly to women's magazines - and they all came back with rejection slips, which increased my depression.

I used to listen to the British Forces Broadcasting Service endlessly. I have only to hear Elvis singing 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' and I'm back there in the flat. That was number one for almost the whole of the period we were there, and I would sit and think: Elvis and me, lonesome together.

Throughout my time there, I tried to learn German, I went on and on trying to learn German. And after about six months, I was sitting on the bus one day, and in front of me were two old women talking to each other, and I suddenly realised with absolute amazement I could understand what they were saying.

And then it was Christmas, our first Christmas as a married couple, and Paul was orderly officer on Christmas Day, which meant he had to stay in barracks. I was terribly upset, but they said I could have dinner with him in the mess, which was completely deserted. That was quite nice. I went in and we had dinner, and one thing led to another, us being newly married - and he looked frightfully handsome in his blues, with the high collar and narrow trousers - and we ended up slumbering sweetly in the orderly officer's bed.

We were awoken by the adjutant and his alsatian doing the rounds: and there was 2nd Lt Vincenzi, who was supposed to be on duty, in bed with his wife, for which terrible felony he was confined to barracks for a whole week. There can't be many men these days who've been punished for being found in bed with their wives.

When we returned home to England, I used to dream about Osnabruck a lot, that I was still there, walking down the cold road, feeling lonely, but fortunately that stopped after a few months.

It was a very intensified experience of the first year of marriage. The first year is tough anyway but, because we were so thrown together, we had a lot of rows and I made more of a fuss about it than I should have done, and certainly more of a fuss than I would make now.

Penny Vincenzi is a writer.

(Photograph omitted)

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