My Great-Grandmother was a Victorian. When I was five in the 1950s, I went to see her with my Mum and my Nan.  We went to her house in Grove Green Road, London, E11. She had white hair pulled back in a tight bun, a long black skirt and button boots, a crisp white blouse with lace at the collar and a black shawl. Five of my great-aunts and two great-uncles still lived in the house, under her rule.

     My Nan, Emily, was born there in 1903, the second eldest of eleven children. She had already told me some stories. But she never said anything to me about her mother except ‘she was a hard woman.’ I thought so too because she had a hard face, thin lips, a determined chin, and she stood with a very stiff, straight back. My aunts all seemed nervous of her. I was a bit scared of her too, but she fascinated me, and she gave me a gift. It was a small bright red suitcase. It seems ironic now because she never wanted to go anywhere, and she tried to keep her whole family at home. Such a bright colour, that red. Nothing at all like her or her house.

     I remember her house. The front door led into a dark passageway. Our house had a big entrance hall. I felt the difference. A small table stood against one wall. There was a big black telephone on a stand and a scratched mirror on the wall. I thought about a story my Nan had told me about this passageway. One day she and her brothers and sisters had stood in a line against this wall, dressed in their coats, each with a small bag of possessions, like refugees. They had all been afraid because they knew where they were going, and the brothers and sisters would be separated.

     The workhouse was the dreaded destination of the poor in those days. They owed rent and had no money for food. They were, as my Nan put it, ‘saved by the bell,’ when an ancient aunt showed up on the doorstep. She was a portly lady in a coat with a fur collar, a big, feathered hat and a basket containing groceries. She had come to pay the rent and all the other debts. She saved them from the workhouse with thirty minutes to spare.   

     My Nan, Aunt Maud, Mum, and I went on a trolleybus to Oxford Street. I got sick on the bus and my Nan hastily passed me a paper bag to be sick in. She was wondering what to do with the results and Auntie Maud said, ‘Chuck it out the window at a cyclist.’ We all laughed, and she gave me a barley sugar to suck.  On the way back I saw the workhouse. It was still there, a hospital by then but no less dreaded. All her joking ceased. She shuddered and muttered, ‘Horrible place.’

     No wonder my Great-Grandmother was hard. Imagine bringing up eleven children in poverty in a house with two bedrooms, giving birth to them all and keeping them all fed. She must have been constantly pregnant.  My Nan told me about her father, who she clearly adored. He was out of a job sometimes and used to braid the girls’ hair in the morning, painfully tight.  He was a groom, more accustomed to braiding the horses’ manes and tails. She also told me how much she dreaded the doctor visiting the house with his black bag. She hated the sight of his bag because she thought it was how new babies entered the house. New babies meant more work and less food. My Nan was always hungry.

     When we got back from the trolleybus trip, I had a headache and was sent to rest in the parlour. This room was ‘kept for best.’ There was a cuckoo clock, thick curtains, a dark green chenille tablecloth and lace doilies on a gate-legged table with candy twist legs that stood in the window bay. The family always sat in the kitchen at the back.  I stared at the cuckoo clock waiting for the cuckoo to pop out until the aunts had done their allotted chores and dinner was served. At dinner, no one spoke. Except ‘please pass the salt.’

     Great-Granny had rules that went far beyond who did each job in the house. In thunderstorms they all had to hide under the kitchen table or under the stairs. She was a teetotaller and a Methodist, and her daughters were not allowed to leave her domain. They were allowed out on their own street only during daylight hours. Talking to boys was forbidden.

     They had fun in the street. All the kids played out there. Their favourite game was to run after the dray wagons and jump on the back out of the driver’s sight. They soon had to jump off. Someone in the street would yell, ‘Whip round be’ind gove’nor,’ and they all ran away before they felt the flick of his whip. The risk was part of the fun. They followed coal or vegetables carts collecting anything that fell off. It was competitive. They played ‘grandmothers’ footsteps’ and skipped with a piece of washing line. Nan taught me one of the rhymes; ‘my mother said, I never should, play with the gypsies, in the wood.’

     Great-Grandma never talked to any of her children about how babies really arrived. At seventeen my Nan still thought babies came from the doctor’s bag. She was still very naïve when she got a job working as a dressmaker’s assistant somewhere around the district of Soho. I don’t know how she had managed to work at a forbidden distance from her street. It must have been a rebellion; one that extended to sneaking out at night.

      Nan showed me her dance card and a little painted tin of palma-violet sweets the ladies sucked to make their breath sweet-scented. They were still in her dressing table drawer with her hankies. Years later I saw my Mum’s birth certificate. It didn’t make any sense with my grandparents’ wedding anniversary date. I asked my Mum about it. She told me the whole story. At a guess I think my Mum found out the full version from her Dad. He was never a prude.

     Pop was a messenger boy, born within the sound of Bow Bells. He had a delivery of pins for the dressmaker. He spotted the skinny girl with long blonde braids and blue eyes and asked her name. His was Arthur. He made sure he had other deliveries and one night she escaped with him. They laid down in the bushes on Hackney Marshes. She didn’t understand what they had done until her tummy started swelling. Arthur wasn’t perturbed as he planned to marry her anyway. Luckily, she had found the right man. He had to explain everything to her. He thought it was funny when he realised that she thought the doctor would just unzip her tummy to get the baby out.

     My Grandad said that when they met, he could join his hands around her waist. She wasn’t tall either. They had a standard repartee about that. My Nan used to say, ‘Good things come in small parcels’ and my Pop would reply, ‘Yes, and many a little apple is rotten in the middle.’ He didn’t mean it. He loved her.

     Before the Second World War my grandparents moved to a village ninety miles from London and in the 1960s the house in Grove Green Road was pulled down to make space for a dual carriageway. It still had an outside toilet, and they still used a tin bath in front of the fire so, when my aunts and uncles were rehoused on the eighteenth floor of a tower block in Leytonstone they were proud of their bathroom but nervous of the shower. They said they felt ‘like toffs and very modern.’ I liked the distant view of the Thames and the city lights at night that you could see from the balcony. They still had the cuckoo clock. They still hid during thunderstorms. One by one they died, unmarried and childless.

     Nan was widowed at fifty-six. When she was ninety, she went into a nursing home. She never mentioned her mother except on her ninety-first birthday when she leaned over and patted my hand and said, ‘I beat my mother’s record. She died when she was ninety.’ Triumph.

     Some of her stories weren’t real but she thought they were. She said she had been a gypsy, sitting on a doorstep and my grandad brought her blue ribbons home from the fair. I knew that was from an old folk song but perhaps there was a small symbolic seed of truth at the heart of it.

     Six months before she died, she told me she was bored. She couldn’t stand to read or watch films anymore. I suggested she should run her life over in her head like her own personal video tape. She said, ‘I have. Three times already, ducks. I watched all my favourite bits again too. Enough is enough. It’s time to go see Arthur.’ In that belief she died in peace. We find comfort in the stories we choose to tell ourselves.


Clowning Around

So much shoved in this flaming bag. I could chuck half of this stuff away. This is what comes of leaving in such a hurry. Should never have got behind on the rent. Where’s my red nose? Shoved in the toe of my boots of course. Toe to nose. Nose to toe. Smelly. Thought I’d get further than this at my age. Yeh, a clown would think that, arsehole. Ok got to get on with this. Forget my problems until after the show. I can sleep under the stage tonight if no one sees me but that won’t do for long will it. Had no breakfast. Had no dinner yet. Too late now. Not paid enough here to keep body and soul together. Damn this jar. Lids stuck again. At least the whitening covers these dark rings under my eyes. Slap it on thick. Wig is a mess. I am a mess. Life is a mess. I am supposed to land flat on my face. I can certainly do that alright. Might as well turn my toes up and be damned. Music has started. Time to go out and be funny. Funny ha-ha. What a joke. Too loud. The lights are too bright. No sleep last night. God I’m exhausted.

Penny’s Desk

Penny was trying to tidy her desk of the piles of stuff that had accumulated since she last did any work. She felt she couldn’t deal with the task at hand until the desk was clear. She looked at the withered poinsettia her mother had given her at Christmas. Like her mother, it had died. This made it hard to throw the plant away. It was the last gift her mother gave her and during the rushes back and forth to the hospital she had neglected it. She shut her eyes a moment and then, closing her mind to sentimentality she tossed it into the bin.

     Next, she looked at the business cards she had carried in her wallet for years when visiting clients. She certainly didn’t need them anymore, though she was proud of the corporate title she had once achieved. Into the bin they went.

     The Tarot pack was gathering thick dust, she wiped it over and put it in the drawer. That Tarot pack had been useful when she was made redundant. It had boosted her income. She had never charged for a tarot reading in her life before, but needs must when the devil drives. Those readings had paid for her groceries for several weeks. She hoped she wouldn’t need to do that again, but the future is always uncertain. She placed the silver locket on top of the pack and closed the drawer.

     She shifted a pile of books and papers and discovered a pack of red hair-dye. That must be well out of date. She gave up dying her hair as soon as she left her job. It was a relief to be able to stop using the dye and watch the grey roots grow longer after she didn’t have to look presentable to clients anymore. Penny was not interested in being presentable these days. Another one for the bin.

My Nan

Coffee, toast and three paracetamols were my Nan’s medicinal solution to everything. Ah, no, tea. And it was always aspirin back then. If your throat was sore, she would bring out her special mixture of lemon and paregoric and a little tin of Zoobs. I am not even sure what paregoric is, but I know you aren’t allowed to buy it now. She didn’t give you much sympathy. No coddling. We were just told to go to bed and get on with it but later she would bring up beef broth. I have tried making beef broth over the years but it’s never anything like hers.

My Nan used to crochet blankets made up of little squares and she was quite the wizz with a sewing machine. The clothes she made were better than we got in the shops. She told me her first job was picking pins up off the floor for a dressmaker. She was about twelve. After that she moved on to wrapping parcels. She was always very proud of her ability to wrap a neat parcel with as little brown paper as possible. Granny’s parcel boasts were a bit of a family joke. So were her fairy cakes. My father once said he liked them, so he got them every time we went round.

My brother went to live with her for a while. He said he liked the cheese and tomato sandwich she put in his packed lunch, which was wrapped in a neat grease proof parcel of course. I am sure you can guess what happened. Yes, cheese and tomato sandwiches, every blessed day thereafter.

My Mum used to say my Nan was hard. I think she just had a dry, caustic sense of humour. My Gran was a realist. She made me laugh. The best reassurance she ever dished out was ‘cheer up ducks, it may never happen,’ and I have found that it rarely does, whether you want it to or not.

His Spirit

If I compared him to a horse, he was sweet natured and easily lead. Faced with aggression he would posture, curl his lip and say grrrrrr. He was a teddy bear. But his wit was as quick as a monkey. His intelligence flashed. His memory was elephantine.

He passed through the doors of perception, almost unscathed, but his sensitivity was heightened until he could barely survive. Cut loose in a field with the gates open wide he ran and was lost from sight. There were too many tigers out there. They sunk their claws in his back.