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.