Thursday, 2 October 2008
My Grandmother's House - Part Two
Before going farther I will try and describe my Nan to you. She was of only middle height but very round and plump. She was the only one of her sisters to be over-weight probably because they made what were then assumed to be "better marriages" although none of them was as happy as she was. She had never been what you would describe as a pretty woman but she was caring, intelligent and popular. Her accent was almost pure East End London although now and again a little Scottish burr would be recognisable. She never lost her love of her Mother country, adored the skirl of the pipes and always kept Hogmanay having persuaded one of her neighbours to "first foot" carrying a lump of coal. Her crowning glory was her hair. She always wore her hair tightly coiled in two "buns" one over each of her ears with a hairnet to keep all in place. It came as a wonderful surprise to me then when, one day during a conversation she suddenly took off the net, unhooked all the countless pins and let her hair fall. I was stunned, it was thick and lustrous and reached right down to her behind! I could never understand after that why she always kept it up - practicality I suppose. Maybe it was loosened only during intimate moments with my Grandfather.
What is more, not one grey hair was to be seen, in fact she had only a very few grey hairs up until the day she died. I decided to grow my hair from that moment but, alas, my locks would never descend farther than my shoulders no matter what I did to them so after a few years I abandoned the idea. Nan also had very strong views, especially on politics. When she eventually came to possess a t.v. and a politician she particularly disliked appeared, she would throw something at the screen and yell comments. Thankfully her aim was not very good especially as her eyesight deteriorated.
Her weight was, of course, the result of her diet. As I have said previously - they were poor people. So the cheapest fatty cuts of meat were purchased and the fat was not skimmed off in those days but saved to eat cold on thick slabs of bread or used to make gravy another time. She cooked the most wonderful suet Steak and Kidney pies, treacle pudding, Spotted Dick, all types of delicious cakes and pastry emerged from her kitchen along with thick broths and stews. Everything made with either lard or suet. Butter was a luxury. She cooked what she could afford to buy. She was very partial to Jellied Eels and the East End favourite of pie and mash. She also liked her drink, they all did. They were not drunks you understand but they got their pleasure where they could and this was mostly at the pub which was their only regular outing. Nan loved her Guinness and never drank less than two bottles per night and frequently more.
When she was in her forties she had a stern warning from her doctor. He told her that she had a "fatty" heart and unless she changed her ways she would not see her fifties. Nan had no truck whatsoever with doctors, to her they were all "quacks". The doctor told her to change her diet and start eating more salads and fresh fruit. Red rag to a bull those words were. She went home enraged and yelled to my Auntie Bet - "Salads 'e says, bloody salads - salads aint food, salads is decorations!" Such greenstuffs were not readily available in those times. People could grow some salad stuffs from seeds in their own little plots but Nan did not have the room and to buy in shops then was almost unheard of. So she never did eat her salads but carried on in her own sweet way with her eating and drinking and lived to the ripe old age of ninety.
Here I must say a word about Aunt Bet. When Nan's youngest son, Alan, married Bet they moved in with my Nan as Granddad was already sick by that time. Bet was a real character in her own right. She stood over six feet in height and had to stoop when coming in through the door, a big beefy woman with a very attractive round face and large laughing eyes. She had a great booming laugh that would rattle the ornaments on the mantlepiece but she was as gentle as a lamb and one of the kindest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She was the daughter of a Canadian serviceman who disappeared back off to Canada leaving her mother and the children. I have often wondered what height he must have been as, at one time, a brother of Bet's was listed as being the tallest man in England at well over seven feet tall. Bet stood head and shoulders over her husband who relied on her for everything. I never knew Bet when she did not have the whole of one leg bound up due to Diabetic ulcers that would not heal yet she worked hard from morning until night, holding down a job, raising her son, doing a lot of the household cleaning. Life never got Bet down. When she eventually passed away, the church could not hold the number of mourners and many had to stand outside. Would that we could all be so loved.
Now we come to the back room which, for some reason, Nan always called the kitchen but, of course, it was not. I think because she practically lived in there, prepared the vegetables there in the winter, it was easier for her to call it the kitchen. Just a square room with a large sash window overlooking the back yard, a small fireplace, a large plain table and an assortment of chairs. This was where my Nan held court, just like a queen surrounded by her minions. I have explained how my Nan until very late in life, never closed her front door. You did not need to in those days, people would never dream of stealing from their neighbours. So, early in the morning the door would be left ajar and anyone who wanted to visit would just walk in - and in they came.
The regulars were Mrs. Tapp, Fat Agnes and Big Annie. I must explain here that I am not being politically incorrect. Fat Agnes was exactly what she was called and she used to refer to herself as such. "Yoo hoo, it's only Fat Agnes" would come the call. Big Annie was so called to distinguish between herself and Fat Agnes as they were both very large ladies. So they would gather around queen Nellie. Fat Agnes, Big Annie, Mrs. Tapp, Aunt Bet, my Mother, often a couple of older female cousins of mine and sometimes other neighbours whose names I cannot now recall or never knew. Mrs. Tapp was the exact opposite of Agnes and Annie being very tiny and birdlike .Then the gossip would commence. As for little me, I was well supplied with comics and sweets and was told to curl up in a comfy armchair in the corner where I was expected to see and hear nothing. Little did they know that I learned more about life and people sitting in that chair than I have ever learned since.
It would start quietly enough, discussing what had been in the newspapers, what everyone had been doing since the last gathering, then the juicy parts would start. A piece of gossip about somebody local. Mrs. Tapp whose favourite topic of conversation was Mr. Tapp's "waterworks" ( I was always intrigued by Mr. Tapp but I never did get to meet him although in my mind's eye I imagined him as having lots of metal pipework dangling from his trousers) was slightly deaf so often things had to be repeated as the old girl said "Eh? "Eh?" Mrs. Tapp was always called Mrs. Tapp even by Nan who had known her for countless years, so I have no idea what her first name was. Mrs. Tapp also always referred to her husband as Mr. Tapp and never by his Christian name. Every so often all eyes would turn to me to make sure I was occupied. I soon learned how to appear as though I was oblivious to the world whilst my ears continued to flap.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God" would issue from Fat Agnes and she would hastily cross herself when a particularly spicy story emerged from one of the party or sometimes "Jesus, Joseph and Mary." Of course, when it came to Fat Agnes's turn she always started by saying "Of course, I am not one to gossip" before launching into stories that seemed far worse than any of the others. So I found out who had run off with somebody else, who was having an "affair" who had come out of or gone into prison for some misdeed, who had been fired from their job, who was "on the game" i.e. the local prostitute etc. etc. When discussing "female parts" or operations the voices would all drop to a low whisper but I always got the gist of it even if I did not always understand. If a newcomer arrived halfway through, the whole procedure had to be gone through again with Fat Agnes making the same interjections. All this washed down with copious cups of strong tea and large slices of fruit cake and Nan, in her element, holding sway over all. This cast of colourful characters gave me an education that money could never buy.
To be continued...................