Nan

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.

My excuses and some good news.

I am aware that I am neglecting this site. I have had quite an intensive time on my Creative Writing degree course and the moment the summer break began I rushed to start a novel (I was bursting to get started). I hope to have the first draft finished before my friends come on a visit from Australia in September. Then I go back to my studies in October. Time will fly, but so is my novel right now – I hit 20000 words yesterday. I am loving it but I know I will enjoy all the editing and improvements later on too.

Meanwhile, I came across this and would like to share it with you. The Dandelion and the Meaning of Life ~ https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/06/12/g-k-chesterton-dandelion/?mc_cid=f4c959f56b&mc_eid=058398db73

Jam

‘Why do you always get blackcurrant jam?’

‘Because it’s sweet but also sharp. I like a little bit of sour.’

‘Well, try this jam.’

‘OK. Ahhhh, strawberry. Tastes like a childhood love affair when there were fairies at the bottom of our garden. We grew them there. I forgot how much I like strawberry jam.’

‘Yes, I realised that. You are stupid. Forgetful. Neglectful. I suppose we forgive you though, frail human.’

Is that the wind?

Is that a train or the wind?

It’s a wind full of crows

flapping their wings over iron gates

as black as their feathers.

One swoops and I duck. 

It just missed my head.

Imagine a train full of crows,

Suffocating with all those feathers.

Something is coming in that wind. Something bigger than crows.

A big flapping giant striding the land.

Those crows are alarmed.

I hear a huge wave.

Tsunami.

There’s more to be feared than giants or crows.

Masks

In Venice

Under the beautiful mask

Is there a wonderful face?

The skin of their necks looks delicious

Youthful and covered in kisses

Her fingers bejewelled with stars

His thumb on her wrist is possessive.

His cravat is ironed and starched.

I can only see his dark eyes.

The crowds, the music, the singing,

The laughter that echoes on walls,

Amplified by the water, where the gondola rocks on ropes.

This postcard fell from my sketchpad.

It fell on the floor as I drew.

I have never been to Venice and probably never will.

In the old people’s home, my daughter makes sweet conversation

While I draw the old people’s hands.

Hands tightly clasped.

Fingers plucking at cloth.

Hands hanging limp from the wrists.

A hand leaned against a forehead partially covering eyes.

Rings hang loose on old bones

In a room with a faded carpet and a circle of straight-backed chairs.

The faces are lined and creased.

Sunken lips. Fleshless cheeks.

Sans taste, sans sight, sans sound.

Everything slips.

Masking the beauty of youth.

********

Footnote

‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ Shakespeare, ‘As You Like It’

Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve. I watch the families come and go, grandchildren in warm Santa hats and muffled in mittens, daughters and sons, each come to spend an hour in the company of grandmothers, mothers, grandfathers, fathers, uncles and aunts, to show that they care; sharing seasonal greetings, the news and some laughter before they retreat down the wet evening path. They carry gifts wrapped in bright shiny paper and carrier bags filled with seasonal food.

I watch from my window, this coming and going. It’s raining out there. If in the morning I wake early enough while it’s still dark, and I am lucky to look at just the right moment I may see the fox trot up that path and briefly look up.

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.

The Carpet

I stepped down from the beaten-up old bus and was dazzled by the headlights as I collected my bag from the roof rack. All the words not understood, and the darkness after the light was overwhelming. My eyes were still adjusting.

I heard a man’s voice, in French, offering a hotel.

‘I am English’, I said, as I moved away.

I stopped a moment, pulling out an old guidebook, adjusted my rucksack, and looked back. He was leaning against a wall, hands deep in his pockets, wool hat pulled down, shoulders hunched against the cold, scuffing at the dusty road with his shoe. Reassured by his lack of interest, I went to him.

He looked up and bowed slightly. ‘You want hotel? Cheap. Clean. Fes my city. You follow? ‘

He led me down a dark narrow street. Like a wary cat I trailed after him, wondering about my rash decision. We walked far enough for me to get anxious, but he left me safely at the hotel as soon as he had arranged my room. He refused my offered tip saying that I was welcome in his city and very politely, he bowed again and left me.

I woke to the sound of rattling buckets and looked out of my window onto the street. The sun was still low, but the sky was clear blue and bright, still a little chilly, and the café next door was just opening. I could smell strong coffee. I dressed quickly and went down. I sat at a table sipping hot coffee, making notes in my journal, and watched the street grow busier. The man at the table next to me wore a suit and very British wool check slippers. Incongruous. I tried not to stare.

I saw my guide of the night before coming towards me. He had what looked like donuts threaded onto string. A gift for my breakfast, they were fresh and delicious, and I offered him coffee. He said he would get it. When the inside of the café filled up, I realised there were no women and asked why.

‘Moroccan woman no come here. European woman is like man and lady same time. No problem. Like have two ticket,’ he said and laughed. His laugh was sudden and unexpected. He had been so constantly polite and serious. I noticed his eyes were green and looked away quickly. He told me his name was Rashid.

‘Come,’ he said, ‘I show you my city.’ 

We went down narrow steps through a street smelling of olives and coriander and fresh bread. He skipped down the wide, shallow steps.  I was careful, unsure of their rhythm. We entered a square where he paused, bought a single cigarette, and then set off into a maze of streets.

Donkeys and mules pushed their way through the narrow passageways as light filtered down through straw mats suspended above. We visited street after street. I would have been lost there without him, delightedly lost, but lost. 

In the silk district, the alleys were full of boys spinning thread onto bobbins from hooks in the walls. It was a street of rainbows. The apothecary was medieval. The shopkeeper, offering a dried hedgehog skin and herbs, told me some things were for medicine, and some for magic. Every shopkeeper who spoke any English joked with me. It was hard to know what was true.

I could sometimes hear running water. Next time I heard it I asked Rashid where it came from.

‘River runs under street,’ he said. ‘Listen. Walk back. Now walk here. Sound different your shoes? River echo. Find echo, follow river. Need no guide. I go now?’

I laugh, fascinated. ‘I think I feel safer following you than the river.’

We stopped for mint tea outside a cafe. The sun was strong now. I watched the street. Smiles lit up on shop keepers faces as tourist groups entered the street and then faded away as they passed.

After a long silence I said, ‘I could find my way here by the smells and the sounds, if I could memorise them.  Here I can smell woodsmoke, meat cooking, and mint. The brass workers street is like beating gongs. The smell of cedar is strong near the carpenter’s street. The tannery stinks. The silk street is secret.’

‘No secret,’ he said. ‘Only no noise.’ I had confused him.

I looked up.

‘Why is that basket up in that tree?’ I asked, suspecting an explanation of symbolic significance.

He shrugged. ‘Wind put it there.’

I laughed, ‘I am an idiot.’

‘Not idiot,’ he shrugged, ‘New here. Hungry? You like meet my sisters? We buy chicken?’

With a freshly plucked chicken in a carrier bag we went up bare concrete steps into a block of flats. The main room had peeling plaster, soft blue and pale green. The mosaic floor was chipped and worn. Three of his sisters were sitting in a group stitching busily at a pile of Adidas trainers. Another was doing intricate embroidery. Caught off guard they tidied up quickly. He looked slightly worried about something and went out with his brother.

By the time he came back the chicken tajine with cous-cous and olives was ready. I was hungry. We all sat in a crowded circle and ate from one big plate, our fingers sticky with meat juices. It was fun. They were all so friendly and mimed whenever words didn’t work. One sister spoke good English. Rashid kept pushing the best meat towards me. His sisters laughed when I pushed some back and he pushed it toward me again, smiling. Later we walked back to my hotel through the empty streets, taking our time. The stars shone bright above us. He said he would come back in the morning.

The next day we went to a carpet factory and sat on the roof for hours in the sun on a beautiful carpet. Of course, I wanted to buy such a lovely carpet. It would be a meaningful memory back home. I paid a fair price. As we left, he asked if I was happy. I was very happy.

‘You look happy too,’ I said. ‘Why?’

‘Commission! Ten percent from this shop,’ he said, hefting the carpet over his shoulder, grinning.

I was glad. 

Over the next month I spent every day with him and visited his family often. In cafes young men would ask me about visas to Europe. I tried to explain how hard it might be for them in England.

Rashid took me to see his cousins, out on a farm. It was paradise. He was more relaxed there than in the city. I ate oranges fresh off the trees. We rode a horse through the river to a quiet meadow, to rest on a blanket, talking. He doodled an imaginary house in my book. I loved his family. I didn’t want to leave them or him, but I had to. 

I was near to tears at the bus station. He became polite and formal, enclosed, his face blank. I had clung to him on the back of a horse. We had leaned against each other sitting on the sedan with his sisters. I had slept in the women’s room in his home. He has kissed my hand the night before. He was a good friend, familiar, not my guide. I couldn’t understand this sudden coldness. I cried on the bus. On the plane I hid my face from curious tourists. I struggled with the carpet on the train, but it made me happy when I looked at it in front of my fire. I beat it in winter when the weather was cold and washed it in summer to dry in the sun just as he had told me. It improved the colours.

I sent a letter when I got home. He sent me a postcard. I meant to go back but I didn’t. Four years passed. When I decided I might go back I wrote to his sister to see if he was still there. She wrote back quickly.

‘My brother has been sick. We will be very happy to see you.’

I booked a flight. The only one I could get.

I arrived in Fes, late and tired, from a very long journey by bus and train the length of Morocco, from Agadir. It was dark and pouring with rain as I arrived through the old city gate in a taxi. The tarmac shone smooth in the moonlight but there weren’t many lights on. I peered through the car window as we passed my favourite café, but I couldn’t see well through the distortions of raindrops on the glass. I asked to be dropped at the hotel. The taxi driver didn’t know the way, but I did. The hotel looked run down.

I saw a figure slowly approach from the far end of the street, walking uphill, huddled in a thin plastic coat with the hood up. He looked familiar but made no sign. He kept coming.  At last, sure it was him I raised my hand. He waved and walked a bit faster. Then his arms were round me. He buried his face in my neck and leaned his full weight against me, unmoving. I let him rest there. I felt like a life raft. I held him and noticed how thin he’d become. He let go of me and swung my rucksack onto his shoulder. It looked like a strain. He went in and argued with a boy behind the counter to get me my old room again. He seemed angry.

In my room he sat on the side of the bed with his head down and said, ‘No mint tea. Man in reception not friend.’ He passed me a can of Tango. ‘From café before close. In morning, I fetch you.’

He got up and left.

I was tired and puzzled.  I went straight to bed, but I had nightmares and kept waking up.

The next day he came and took me to his house. He told me to walk behind him, not beside him or he might get arrested. Shocked, I asked why.

‘Later I tell you. Come now.’

At his house his sisters greeted me, but their smiles lacked sunshine. The house was shabbier. Rashid and I went and sat in his small, pale blue room with the windows wide open to street noises. His sister came in with coffee. He told her to stay.

‘She say you,’ he said, ‘My English no good.’

His sister’s voice was warm and her accent pleasant. The story she told me was neither.

‘Some tourists, they bought a carpet. When they washed it at home the dye ran. Yes? You understand this?’

 I nodded.

‘So, they contacted Moroccan tourist board and made a complaint. The police, they went to the carpet shop to arrest the shop keeper. He paid them the bribe they wanted.  They arrest Rashid instead. He couldn’t pay bribe. He went to jail for six months. Now, if he is seen in the street as a guide, they will arrest him again. There are no jobs,’ she said. ‘What can he do? My brother is a good man. He brings us our food and pays for our books to study. My father brings only olive oil and flour for our bread. My sisters and I earn only little. You understand? This is why he is thin. You see this? Prison made him like this.’

‘But the dye does run,’ I said, horrified. ‘It improves the colours. Isn’t that why the older carpets cost more?’

‘Yes,’ Rachid said. He turned to his sister. ‘See. She understands carpet.’

The next day I sat in the café with coffee before I went back to his house. I watched police in shabby uniforms taking bribes from poor market traders, moving them on if they didn’t pay. I put my notebook away. It was no place to be seen taking notes. I used to feel liberated in Morocco. That had gone, along with what was left of my naivety after hearing that story. I suddenly felt I had to be the strong one.

That evening I told Rashid, ‘I will get you out of Morocco. I will get you the visa all the young men want.’

He looked shocked. ‘You promise this? How?’

‘I will marry you.’

‘You marry me?’

‘Yes, if you want,’ I said, realising I had just proposed. ‘It won’t be easy, but I will get you out. I promise.’

‘I still help sisters?’

‘Of course.’

He laughed. I heard his relief. He took my hand and gripped it to his heart.

 ‘Oh yes! I marry you. Real marriage. Not only visa.’

Little Red

It was a tormenting time. Small children were taken. Far away from their homes. Herded like cattle. The men said for education. But that wasn’t true. They were made to unlearn. All these children were abused. Their culture stripped from them. Their ancestral language denied. The men called them vermin. Ignorant men, so cruel. Claiming it was God’s Law.

Little Red was a boy. Son of a medicine man. Little Red was brave. Born under the wolf star. Blessed by the firebird. He had a secret cloak. Made of red feathers. No-one could see it. Only he saw it. It gave him great courage. He understood all he saw. He knew the forest ways. He could talk to wolves. They came to his call. One moonless night. This caused chaos. In the darkness he ran. Ran with the wolves. Deep into the forest. Far, far away. Away from all humans. The wolves were protective. He learned all their ways. He did the wolf dance. He sang to his star. For seven nights he waited. Wearing his red feather cloak. Wrapped tight around him. Feathers faded to grey. They became fur. He became a wolf.

He missed his home. He missed his grandma. At last, he went home. She knew him at once. She was happy. But she knew the danger. The danger was great. The men often taunted her. She always refused to speak. They stole her food. Food she had grown. Food from her own toil. They chopped down trees. She wasn’t afraid. She feared for the boy. So, she hid him away. He came out at night. In the day he slept. Hidden under her bed.

One day the men came. They lit a fire. They took grandma. They called her a witch. They set her on fire. The boy could do nothing. The wolf fears only fire. Little Red stayed hidden. Later he crept away. He howled alone. Alone in the woods. Later his tracks were found. Found near the lodge. Wolves can’t burn people. But they blamed him anyway. They made up some story. They always spoke lies. Wolves always get the blame.

Just like Geronimo. Just like Cochese. And Sitting Bull. Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses. And Running Bear. Little Red belongs amongst them. It’s the same old story. Over and over again. Always the same. Never think it can’t happen. It might happen to you. Listen with care, my child. Hear my words. It’s not easy. Living like Little Red.

(This story has sentences of 5 words or less – try one)

The Changeling

She never answers when I call but sits alone and mutters or goes amongst the old ash trees and whispers to the leaves. I can’t decipher all she says, the words are never plain, but the music of their pattern is always much the same.

She plays with mud and twigs and lays them out repeatedly in one ornate design. Like hieroglyphs, they seem to have significance, but she will never write her name. Her teachers and her parents are much disturbed by her. They say she’s on the borderline of a broad and complex spectrum that I don’t understand. I ask, in jest, if she might be a special rainbow child. No-one smiled. I’m here as the au pair and I just let her play.

There’s avoidance in her eyes. She simply won’t obey. That much is very clear. They want her analysed, pinned, defined and measured. I know she’s wild, but I have secrets I’m not prepared to share.

She chases hawks away from mice. She calls the birds to comb her hair and lets them hide in there. When she sleeps the owl hoots twice to let the forests know, the fox creeps from its lair and sidles past my fireside chair to rest all night contented, dreaming at her feet. The family is completed.

She’s turbulent. She’s troublesome. She’s stubborn and she’s free. She’s very gifted too, but she won’t let them see. I know it’s very strange indeed, a little fae for sure. She’s always been my own sweet child, there’s no changing that.

We have to make a plan and spin it very soon. We have to get away from here.

I must discuss it with my cat before the next full moon.