Writing about Johnny brought so many memories back to me of wonderful days in my Grandmother's house. She loved Roses which is why I have chosen the picture above. Whenever she went into the garden she would always smell the Roses which grew on the only two bushes she had, one pink and one yellow. She also loved Irises which she always grew in memory of her baby daughter, Iris, who lived for only two weeks. Apart from that Lily-Of-The-Valley was much loved as well. She decorated her garden, as you know, with seashells, pieces of brightly coloured glass and unusual pebbles. Well, it was not so much of a garden but a yard. Down one side she had an enormous chicken run. I have never since tasted eggs like the ones she got from her birds. They were delicious probably because she fed them on household scraps, they had earth to peck in and sunlight to shine on them and she talked to them. Even though they were eventually destined for the oven, they all had names. This seemed strange and heartless to me at the time but Nan believed in giving her birds the best life she could before they rewarded her with their meat.
Her name was Mary although for some reason everyone called her "Nellie" and I have never found out why. She had a tough upbringing. One of several children she lost her Mother when she was just thirteen and she had to bring up her younger sisters and brother whilst the eldest children had to work to supplement the family income. Shortly after the death of her mother, her father uprooted the family from Scotland and settled them in the East End of London - thus Nan was removed from her Aunts who helped and supported her. She was not close to her Father and twice ran away from home. On the second occasion she was fifteen and ran off with a Magician to be his "glamorous " assistant. They had not got far when Great-Grandfather dragged her kicking and screaming home. She moved out of the house shortly afterwards and took a room in a boarding house.
I have no idea how she came to meet my Grandfather although it is thought he lived in the same boarding house. Well, life is life and she found herself pregnant at the age of nineteen - a great disgrace and stigma in those days. She was thrown out of her lodgings and tried to return home only to have her Father slam the door in her face. She never forgave him. Happily things turned out and she and Grandfather married. Then the second of her tragedies hit her, she gave birth to twins but the boy, Robert, lived only a few weeks. The other baby was my Mother and, although sickly, she defied the odds and survived. She went on to have two more sons and little Iris whom, as mentioned above, died in babyhood. Then, at twenty, she suffered the loss, in mysterious circumstances, of her Father . Although there had long been a rift between them it dealt her a dreadful blow and haunted her for the rest of her life. Later, she had to deal with the loss of her youngest brother and his five year old son within months of each other from Tuberculosis. Life was much tougher in those days.
So Nan learned to make do and mend. She could take the plainest ingredients and turn them into a feast. She could make a pound stretch a very long way, she hated waste and utilised whatever she could to make her little home cosy. They were poor people living in a poor district but she had her pride. Being poor did not mean being dirty.
It was a small terraced house in a street of terraced houses with hundreds of identical properties throughout the area but it was her pride and joy. On the other side to the chicken run she had her flower bed which she tended with great care and made as pretty as she could. The rest of the yard was just bare earth, it became a swamp in the winter but in the summer she would spend as much time out there as was possible. She would sit at a little tablet to peel potatoes, chop carrots and push fresh new peas from their pods. I loved to help her with the peas although I ate more than ever got into the pot!!
The one thing she hated, we all hated, was the outside toilet. In those days people just did not have their lavatories inside unless they were middle-class or above. It was an object of terror for me especially at night-time. There was no electric light out there. Once you left the kitchen via the door to the yard, there was only blackness. Outside the back door and along in front of the toilet was a wooden verandah to keep off the rain. You had to feel your way along the walls until you reached the toilet door then pull the door open and enter the black interior. It was like being underground. Just a huge wooden seat facing the door but luckily it did flush. Hanging next to the toilet was a wad of cut up newspaper which you had to use for the necessary. Well, I told you Nan was thrifty!!! When I was very little it did not worry me because Mum would take me , but when I got older I would hang on until I was in agony rather than go out there. Can you image sitting on a cold wooden seat, facing a closed door where only a small diamond shaped hole let it in the air??? You coud hear bushes rustling, the wind rattling things around, vague shadows thrown by the moon. It made it even worse later on when Mum told me she had seen an apparition out there (yes, I must have inherited it - she saw things as well). I learned as I grew older, to go to the toilet at the Railway Station before entering my Nan's, then not to drink much so that I would not have to go to that place!
There was one place even worse and that was the cellar. Houses now do not have cellars and I cannot say I am sorry. The cellar was accessed through a door in the kitchen. The kitchen itself was bad enough, stone floor, always freezing cold. How Nan's poor parrot stood it out there I do not know but the bird cage was on a marble-topped dressed in front of the kitchen window. The poor bird must have frozen in the winter and how it stood the steam from the washing and cooking I do not know but "Polly" lived to a ripe old age being as gentle as a lamb with women but ripping to shreds the hand of any man that dared try and touch him/her.
The cellar. Once you opened the door your were confronted with very steep steps leading to darkness. The cellar was where the coal was kept. No central heating then just coal fires. The walls by the steps were white-washed to throw some little light but once you got to the bottom. - stygian blackness - and the cellar went around a corner. I used to be send down to get a bucket of coal. I trembled every inch of the way. Whilst hastily shovelling the coal I was always imagining that "something" would creep around the bend in the cellar and get me. Obviously it never did but oh how I loathed and hated that place. There was also always the fear that the cellar door would slam and you would beshut in the darkness. I have never liked confined spaces and I think it must stem from then.
To be continued.........