This is the fifth installment of my mother’s memories of her childhood in Lancashire. You can read the other chapters here:
Our year is noticeably cyclical; passing seasons are marked by changes in the natural and domestic landscape, by the altering minutiae of household routines, by religious observations and by the food we eat.
Autumn is often glorious, bringing high blue skies and a sharp bite in the air; fruits ripen, leaves flame and become bronze. We gather blackberries and rowan-berries, the hedgerows drip with scarlet, sealing-wax hips and the crimson beads of haws. The purple bramble mounds crouch like brooding animals amongst the swirling trails of mist. Up on Duxon Hill, there is a smudge of mauve heather.
Autumn brings the husky smell of woodsmoke, bowls of golden rod and Michaelmas daisies, great shaggy dahlias, thick soups, hot-pots and stews. It brings the high, haunting note of the hunting-horn and the heart-racing sound of hound music, glimpses of scarlet by the spinneys and the pounding of hooves as horses stream along the horizon, across the fields and over the dark hedges and the lichened walls. Then the dogs in the kennels go go crazy; our ponies lift their heads and prick their ears, whinnying to the distant hunters. They gallop up and down the railings of their field, frantically trying to join in the hunt.
Now come the roistering north winds and treacherous winds from the east. When these blow, I am allowed out amongst the whirling leaves only if mittened,wearing a liberty-bodice under my vest and a jacket, invented by my grandfather, of red flannel with a chammy-leather lining, over a Fair Isle cardigan. To protect my supposedly-weak chest, these are worn back-to-front, and buttoned up the back, under my outdoor coat. I am effectively strait-jacketed, bursting and shedding buttons, so stout that I cannot bend to pick up the polished conkers that burst from the spiked husks floating like small green mines on the rustling sea of leaves.
The tennis-nets are taken down, the croquet-set is laid back in its wooden box; deck-chairs, their joints oiled, are stacked in the engine house where they become spotted with mould and gnawed by rats and mice. Only our bikes are still in regular outdoor use but the indoor toys come back into their own, We return to the half-forgotten joys of building bricks, stencilling sets, doll’s house, Noah’s ark, forts and farms, the Hornby trains, the model theatre, the dressing-up box and, a rare treat from my father, the magic lantern show.
Curtains are drawn early, fires lit at four. There are crumpets and potato-cakes for nursery tea. In the drawing room, butter-soaked toast lies in a covered silver dish kept warm by a hidden pan of hot water. The silver kettle steams and bubbles on its spirit-lamp which smells strongly of methylated spirit. I hate this smell; it reminds me of head lice. When we catch them, we sit with towels over our shoulders and our heads over an enamel bowl. The stinging purple spirit is ladled over our scalp and a fine-toothed comb scrapes over our skulls, removing the seed-pearl eggs
In September and October, the house fills with the smells of boiling pans of brambles jams and jellies, of windfall chutneys, the sharp, spiced scent of chrysanthemums. My mother reads to us after tea; John Halifax Gentlemen, The Girl of the Limberlost, Quo Vadis, Children of the New Forest, Helen’s Babies, The Maid at Arms, The Butterfly Man, The Cricket on the Hearth. When Bambi’s mother dies, I hide behind the sofa so that they cannot see my tears, ashamed of my grief, my aching throat … crying, for the first time, over a book, over a vicarious loss.
In Lancashire the winters come early. They are long, dark, windy and wet; well set in by the beginning of November. Oaks and elms thresh their gnarled black limbs against lowering skies. In late afternoon, a vast sun, red and shiny as a sucked lollipop, hangs over the west wood and burns through the fog. Fieldfares throng the long meadow. Up on the hill, Nigger and Captain, the feather-footed Shire horses, pull the plough from headland to headland, the furrows white with gulls.
Diversions are welcome, bringing some relief from the grim landscape. Halloween is the first of the winter festivals, although that alien and disagreeable import, trick-or-treat, is still long decades away in the post-war future. We bob for apples, sit at our mother’s dressing table by candle-light to glimpse our future lovers in the spotted glass, peel apples and throw the parings over our puny shoulders to form the initials of those whom we will marry… we pray for the Holy Souls;…. feasts come only after fasts, life after death, forgiveness after confession, salvation after sin and Heaven after Purgatory; it is a heavy burden on us, the saving of the Holy Souls.
Firework night follows on the heels of Halloween. For weeks we save up to buy sparklers and bangers from Ma Jones’s shop; my father, on business in Manchester, brings back slim boxes of rockets under his arms and hides them on tops of cupboards and under beds. My mother decides that, as Catholics, we can we hold it on any day but the Fifth of November and, out of respect, we will not have a Guy. The damp bonfire snaps and hisses, sparks fly up and glow like fireflies in the bare branches of the elms. The adults fuss, we have smoke in our eyes, smuts on our faces, sparklers in our wooly-gloved hands. Potatoes are pushed into the fire, catherine-wheels are nailed to posts, bangers and crackers splutter and snake between our legs. We stick rockets into ginger-beer bottles – they scream into the sky, our eyes are full of stars, our mouths crammed and sticky with gingerbread-men and glutinous parkin. We rake the blackened, half-raw potatoes from the embers and eat them with butter and salt, washing down the indigestible lumps with scalding cocoa and tomato soup. Night-lights flicker in skulls hollowed from bronze-and-yellow swedes. We scream with anarchic, atavistic joy or fall suddenly silent, our jaws locked by black wodges of treacle-toffee. For weeks after, the wood are full of rocket-sticks and coloured-paper tubes, littered with the rusty wires and grey husks of burnt-out sparklers; by spring, they are all gone, one of the many mysteries that perennially, if intermittently, puzzle us.