As part of the Ay-up family newsletter I was planning to include chapters from my mother’s memoirs about her childhood in Lancashire. I’ve always been more interested in family stories and photographs, than who begat who and whether there was a baptism certificate to prove it. Instead I’m going to add these chapters to the newsletter section of the blog. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did.
Introibo ad altare dei, ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meum….. I will go unto the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth….
If I lie back, close my eyes and keep very still, the past returns. Slowly at first … sounds and smells, tastes, textures. Then, as if glimpsed through clearing patches of hill-mist, come small, random scenes – as vivid and varied as the coloured scraps that on wet afternoons I glued into the book with the pages of rough black paper.
In the beginning, light oozes through the tulip curtains; grey at first but gradually becoming suffused with gold. Where the curtains meet, the edges turn to flame, split by a shaft of sun that sets the dust-motes swirling and warms the bars of my wooden cot; the acrid smell of hot varnish blots out that other, the deep, sweetly-malted smell … half-taste, half-scent … that I still catch occasionally even now, when I thought it had been lost for ever. I hear the susurration of sheets, blankets and eiderdown as my mother turns in her sleep, hear her breathing, those soft, regular breaths, each one ending in a little, whistling sigh … I push my hand out between the bars and touch hers … it closes round mine.
Perhaps that is not it … for now I am folded against his chest, my head flopping over his shoulder, my nose in the crease of his neck which smells of shaving soap, ironed linen and tobacco. His left arm holds me there; his right hand drums against my back, between the shoulder-blades. He paces up and down the darkened night-nursery, at each step bringing his weight down joltingly on one heel, in time to the thumps. ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ he sings, beating away, ‘Lord God Almighty...’ Despite myself, I become drowsy; his voice lowers to a hum, still keeping to the rhythm of the thumps … the coal fire flickers behind the crinkly diamond mesh of the high guard and gleams on its brass trim . ‘I won’t go to sleep,’ I whisper and drift off at once.
Or is this the beginning? I am lying in the high, fat-bellied pram, out in the woods at the back of the house. A fly buzzes round me. Somewhere nearby a hen lets out a rising scale of hysterical clucks. I watch the branches twisting above me. Light drips through the flickering leaves of oak and sycamore, splashing down over the pram cover… I wet the under-sheet and at first this feels warmly comforting but soon it turns cold, stinging my skin and I begin to whimper. Someone scoops me out of the pram and slaps me. My whimpering turns to crying. ‘Only a love-pat’ says whoever-it-is, but I know better. Yet apart from this first slap, I remember no other, it is a warm and safe-seeming world that I inhabit.
‘Look, darling, can you see the bluebird?’ The spring air is clear and cold, the sunlight thin … high up, I see a sudden flash of blue … in the photograph, I stand in the daffodil wood, looking up at the bare branches of the beech trees. I am round-faced and round-eyed, hair bobbed, warm in my navy-blue Luxembourg suit and beret. Mary, my eldest sister, a plump and bespectacled eighteen-year-old, has been sent to Luxembourg as companion to the young princes and princesses. Little Prince Charlie, the youngest, has sent me the suit, neatly wrapped in Bronco in lieu of tissue paper; later he sends a red-and-yellow jester suit of cotton sateen, trimmed with tinny, tinkling brass bells, a matching hat and a ruff of stiff white net, similarly packed.
Here I am in another pram, the battered, fawn-coloured push-chair; it has a wooden step for my feet, a little apron that is stud-fastened over my knees in wet weather and a hood of cracked American-cloth that folds back with a clunk on stumpy chrome elbows. I have on my new clothes of Harris tweed which are the colour of peeled conkers and have a rusty smell of peat, smoke and bracken, quite different to the smell of other wool. There is a coat with velvet collar and buttons, gaiter-legged breeches that end in spat-like flaps over my button-shoes and with elastic under my heels; hugging my head is a pudding-bowl hat with turned-up brim of brown velvet. Winifred, my mother’s friend, and Lilla, my second-eldest sister, take it in turns to push me down the pot-holed lane, stepping aside to let the lumbering van of the Chorley Laundry splash by, its canvas sides flapping as it goes. I sit up … ‘Roll along, covered wagon, roll along’ I say clearly, my first decipherable words, the refrain of a song popular in the kitchen just then, along with two others … ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ and ‘Moon at Sea’; this last I firmly believe to be the name of a girl called Moonatsy….. ‘Moonatsy,’ sing Molly and Hilda,rolling their dark eyes and gazing longingly at the kitchen ceiling, ‘shining so bright, guide my lover to night, Moonatsy...’
Winifred ‘Lady’ Smith is, I come to know, because I often hear it whispeered, a distressed gentlewomen but this puzzles me as she doesn’t seem at all distressed but is kind and and rather jolly in a gawky sort of way. She lives alone in a red-brick bungalow in Quakerbrook Lane. At this time, some fourteen years or so after the end of the Great War, our village, like many others, has several women like her, those whose fianceés have not returned from the Front and who find no employment open to them except that of governess or companion. If, like ‘Lady’, they have a small private income, they cling to their homes and their independence, making a little pin-money by breeding dogs and ‘helping out’ in a discreet, lady-like way, with other people’s children, by sewing and mending or by giving a few extra lessons here and there.
They dress in muted colours: browns, greys, heather-mixes and beige or, for best, navy blue with white touches; in summer, soft moss-crepes, cut on the bias; in winter, drooping jersey, all with lace modesty-vests across the vee-necks. The more daring have their hair bobbed or marcel-waved, the timid wear it long, centrally-parted, plaited, and coiled into earphones. They wear bangles, dangling earrings and long strings of beads of jet, jade, amber, ivory or tortoiseshell. I like to dig into their embroidered bags and to play with the contents: the monogrammed lace-handkerchiefs, several long, knock-kneed hairpins and kirby-grips, tortoiseshell combs, the fiercely orange ‘Tangee Natural’ lipstick which miraculously becomes a soft, deep pink on their lips, sachets of papier poudré , violet-scented cachoux, little gold-and-blue drums of Bourgeois rouge, tiny flasks of 4711 Eau- de-Cologne or lavender-water.
Such women often play the piano well, are skilled and prolific providers of crocheted shawls, baby clothes, initialled shoe-bags and nightdress cases. They sketch competently and are keen decorators of photograph-frames and powder-bowls with poker-work or Barbola. They take tea with my mother, saying ‘Oh Muriel, how ripping’ and ‘How absolutely killing , are graceful smokers and can knock back several gin-and-its without flinching. The many ‘good works’ they do are largely unsung and genuinely good.
Further down Quakerbrook Lane is a dwelling that has infinite fascination for us. Amongst the cow-parsley beneath a hawthorn tree in the middle of an unkempt meadow, is a railway carriage in which live two more unmarried women. They are not at all like Winifred and her friends and they do not have tea with my mother. They have a brisk, purposeful air, wear neck-ties, coats-and-skirts of brusque tweed, and pork-pie hats with small feathers tucked into the hat-bands. They breed ferocious fox terriers which terrify us by barking furiously and hurling themselves at the wire fences as we pass.