Either side of the council issued mantlepiece is a small figurine. One, an elderly lady, hands clasped wearing a pinny. Hair pulled back in a bun. The other side an old man with tartan slippers reclines in an armchair. They rest on small plinths. One says Grandma, the other Grampa. No one ever referred to my Grandfather as Grampa. He was Grandad Jean. Since he died we all take turns sitting in the chair opposite my Grandma.
It was different then. No one made a fuss. You just got on with it. I still had to go to work and look after the babies. I cleaned for the big house for ten shillings and six pence. The rent was ten shillings. I bought a packet of cigarettes once. Two pence. Just floated off and away. I thought well what was the point of that? I decided I’d be better off with a pound of apples.
Grandma Jean is softer with age. Arthritic hands knit with lightning speed. Little jumpers and hats for children in Moldova. The scraps of yarn she winds up and keeps in a bag in the back bedroom. She is not a small woman. Bosoms like barrage balloons are held up by structurally engineered bras that she methodically washes and hangs triumphant on the line. White bunting gracing the garden path. Her hair is styled like the Queen’s, and hasn’t altered in my memory. At 86 she has little grey. She doesn’t go far now. Not without either her walking stick, or wheelie frame, complete with brakes and padded seat in case her legs start to buckle.
Grandma lost girls. She had four boys. But lost every girl.
One came late, it was dark. And Rod bundled it up in newspaper and put it in the fire. The ground was frozen. There wasn’t much there…I wanted a girl. We thought Brian was a girl. He felt different. He came early. My own fault. Doing too much. We had just got the house on the Avenue, so I had to walk to The White Horse to get to Panters for curtain material. Got home and it was all measured wrong. I had to go all the way back to White Horse the next day. Did the curtains. But I’d lost a day then. I cleaned the new house. Moved everything, then cleaned the old house. I had to get back to work. He came early. Reckon he’d had enough. I’d done too much. He was ever so poorly. In an oxygen tank for a while. He went right back to four pound six. They didn’t have much hope for Brian. But I knew if I got him home I’d get him right. Now Raymond was an ugly baby. Came quick. He was all covered in this thick grey grease. I gave him to the midwife. Quite disgusted I was. I told her ‘I thought we could do better than that.’ But it all melted away and he went all pink. Pretty little thing then. But I didn’t go much on him at the start.
She has a Devon accent which flows along, comfortable and slightly threadbare. Her world is not large. A walking distance circumference of stories and memories. We have heard them all. Over and over. Tales that have become the bonds between us.
Mother had all girls. We would come downstairs and there would be another one. We didn’t know she was expecting. She still worked…
It is accepted amongst the family that Nanny Gill was ‘a bit of a flirt’.
They didn’t all live. She smothered one by accident. Fell asleep feeding her. We had gone under the table in case of bombs and mother fell asleep. She got in trouble for that one. Elsie Freda. I remember her. Nice little thing. Quiet. I remember she lost one one day. We all had to look. Found it all folded with the blankets where she had stripped the bed…
Her tone doesn’t change. Pragmatic. Sentimental. She smacked each of her sons before bed in case they had misbehaved in the day. She only got rid of her twin tub because they could no longer repair it. You never visit during Wimbledon. Racks of spoons gleam along the walls. Racks of chocolate tins in the kitchen contain rock buns and the everyday biscuits. We drink tea and talk over the clickety clack of needles darting away. When the scrap bag is full, I take it home to crochet colourful blankets.
Don’t you settle Deelee. You’re not suited. It would be like trying to cage the wind.