My last telegram – the lost comb
Try asking an older person if they can remember the last time they sent a telegram. Like me, they might remember the telegram service which was operated by the Post Office. Telegrams were a left-over from the early days of modern communications when messages were tapped out in Morse code, dots and dashes that operators could read, and transmitted along telegraph wires.
To send one you walked into a post office and dictated the shortest possible message – you were charged by the letter. They were delivered in small brown envelopes – narrow strips of paper on which the message was typed – by a telegraph boy, riding a bicycle or a small motorbike. In the days when many homes still had no telephone they brought the first news that many of us received, about births and deaths, successes and failures.
“Don’t worry – comb found.” This was the last telegram I sent, in about 1968 or 1969, from the post office in Cold Norton, near Maldon in Essex.
Every morning then I started work at 5.0.am, rounding up a herd of about sixty cows, milking them, taking the milk back to the farm where I set the churns up ready to be collected by a lorry from the dairy. It was hard work, and it was difficult to keep clean and tidy; dairy cows do not trouble themselves with clean and tidy and when I returned to my cottage for breakfast my hair would be untidy, at the very least.
Eight o’clock on weekday mornings, I would open the cottage door and greet my then wife. She had slept on for another two hours and this was the first opportunity we had to speak to one another. Frequently her first words concerned the need to comb my hair. On this occasion I said something to the effect that I had no idea where I had put my comb and that I was not going to trouble myself looking for it until I had eaten something; I was ravenous and she was about to set off to school where she taught French. The door slammed and I was left in peace to get my breakfast.
Three hours later I came across the comb and an idea occurred to me. The comb, or more accurately the need to find a comb, had become a regular topic of our early-morning exchanges. Now, perhaps, things might change. I set off to the post office.
The headmaster knocked at the door of my wife’s classroom and swept in – it was a well-respected private school where everyone was most polite. He stood to one side until there was a suitable pause then handed over the small brown envelope containing my four words.
While my wife read my words the headmaster and her pupils maintained a concerned silence. Whatever the news that the headmaster had brought, it must have been very important. When telegrams were delivered the telegraph boy would always ask if there was to be a reply. The class and their headmaster waited.
No, there would be no reply. The headmaster asked quietly whether everything was all right. It was as much as the poor woman could do simply to nod her head. She dared not utter so much as a word and struggled to hide her reaction to the message. The headmaster turned away, paused in the doorway and left. There was a moment’s silence then the lesson continued. It was my wife who told me this when she came home later that day. The most difficult part of it all for her had been keeping a straight face, which of course was part of my intention and we both laughed. The next morning there was no mention of my untidy state but the first thing I did when I came in was to comb my hair.
What sort of messages were usually sent by telegram?
What is the importance of the headmaster’s presence in this story?
Why do you think the writer combs his hair when he returns from milking the next morning?