This is the third installment of my mother’s memories of her childhood in Lancashire. You can read the other chapters here:
The wind rises to a high-pitched scream, changes direction and now seems to attacks the house on all sides. It claws at the doors and forces its way through the window-frames. The oil-lamp above my bed oscillates, the white glass shade tilts and rattles in its brass frame, small flecks of plaster flutter down over the bedspread. I think of the pear tree in the next-door garden; it was here before these late-Victorian houses were built … if the wind turns west and the tree falls, it will crash through my roof. The chimneys begin to shake; with a great roar, the roof lifts off the house some six inches and hovers for a second or two before falling back into place. I think there has been a bomb. When the landmines fell near our home, the roof rose like this. A thick flurry of soot swirls down the chimney and fills the room with its dry, acrid smell. I lie rigid, trembling; my teeth chatter, the wind dies away, there is a great silence …the telephone rings …
‘Your mother is not at all well, she’s had a great fright … trees fell round us all night long … the door is blocked, … Babs, my mother’s housekeeper is on the line … ‘we haven’t slept, can’t get out… I think you should come and get her … she’s asking for you.…’
‘Lullah, lullah …, lullah, lullah, bye bye.. do you want the moon to play with … the stars to run away with? Hush now, don’t you cry ….’my mother sings. I cannot sleep, I am lying in my bed beside hers. Her voice trickles over me, her fingers tramline my forehead … the words and fingers trail gently over my skin, to and fro, to and fro … the wind mutters round the house, wuthers in the chimneys, hurls itself, screaming, through the nearby treetops … the branches of the fan-trained plum trees knock at our window .. black clouds scud accros the moon, stars struggle in the meshed twigs of the weeping ash, the house shakes and groans like an old sailing ship under way.
The winds makes the rats restless …. they run backwards and forwards in the roof, their feet skittering across the thin lath-and plaster above us … I know that, if my mother goes downstairs, they will break through the ceiling and fall, squirming, over my bed … I hate rats …. when the cats bring them, half-eaten and still alive, into my bedroom and lay them on my pillow, I scream for my mother … my father protest but she stays with me, tram-lining my face and arms until I fall asleep.
If the rats don’t get me, I know the tigers will. There are tigers everywhere … out in the garden and climbing up the walls; they are under my bed, behind the curtains, in the corner by the fireplace … only my mother’ presence keeps them at bay.
My father sleeps alone in the room next to us; it is his dressing-room… sometimes I go into this room through the communicating door and climb into his bed … ‘Jesus, permit Thy Sacred Name to stand as the first effort of a female’s hand’ … above us hangs his mother’s sampler and ten sepia photographs in fumed-oak frames of his brothers and sisters in their Great War uniforms …
I love him… I love his smell,the stubble on his chin, the black hairs on his arms and on the backs of his fingers, the thick white hair on his head. I never see my mother go through this door nor my father come through it into our room… sometimes when I wake in the morning I hear him tossing in his bed …. he rumbles, moans, mutters to himself … I think he is a bull, I think he is the Minotaur … that he will burst, roaring, through our door,will toss his head and stamp his feet … old Mr.Arthur Threlkeld was killed by his bull …. he went into its pen and it gored his stomach right through until he was dead … I hear Hilda telling Molly … Hilda goes out with Peddar the Irish hay-maker who arrives every summer with Seamus…. Hilda takes them cans of cold tea or Dandelion and Burdock … Peddar has curly black hair and red patches on his white cheeks … he tells Hilda there was blood all over the farm … when Peddar coughs there is blood on his handkerchief …
My mother comes to live with me … ‘Oh, Darling, how lovely, I can’t believe I’m here’ …. I help her out of the car, to find her stick, to settle her wig. She takes up her position in the winged fireside-chair, surrounded by several push-button radios, all tuned to Radio Four, her Talking Books machine and the remote control for the television; she canters through the channels with blithe impartiality, castigating each with cries of ‘absolute rubbish!’, ‘oh, do shut up!’, ‘Really! Really! Really! Whatever nonsense next!’ She likes the News, old films, the occasional quiz show, dramatisations of Dickens or Jane Austen and, surprisingly,Bruce Forsyth and Dallas; her greatest praise is reserved for those programmes which she considers are ‘absolutely charming, darling, nothing unnecessary in them at all; . ‘nothing unnecessary’ means no F or C words and not a nipple in sight let alone heaving buttocks. Under her wandering fingers, the volume-control soars from total silence to a roaring blast and then swoops down again to a whisper. She curses herself for her ineptitude… ‘ bloody fool!’… ‘ oh, come along, come along, come along’ .. ‘ bugger it! … really, woman, it’s time you died, you’re old enough...’
In November we have her ninety-fifth birthday party; her seven surviving children and their three remaining spouses, her twenty-five grandchildren and her several great-grandchildren are there, even the babies come. The white tablecloth is swagged with trails of green smilax; the silver shines under the chandeliers, the glasses sparkles, … she sees none of it; glaucoma has finally taken the last of her sight away. Small and stooped, she struggles to sit upright in the brocade wing-chair; her legs are swollen at the knees with arthritis and they sag bandilly as the result of childhood rickets, rare in affluent families but probably due to the lactose-intolerence so many of us inherit. She grieves for the loss of her softly-waved brown hair, covering the remaining white wisps with a grey wig.
I cut up food for for her and clasp her fingers round the champagne glass. One by one her descendants come to sit beside her, to kiss her powdery cheeks, to hold her hands, to tell her all their news. She holds the babies on her lap, kisses the backs of their necks, rocks them in the crook of her arm, nods her head at them, talks nonsense to them. Her hands, the painted nails filed to elegant almonds, are swollen knuckled, liver-spotted and criss-crossed with thick blue veins; they fold back shawls from wrinkled faces, fondle crumpled feet to test for warmness…. as she makes the still-deft gestures, the diamonds on her fingers flash blue, yellow, red. When complimented on the new dress of red silk, she lifts a finger to her chin in the unconscious, gracefully-mannered gesture of an Edwardian belle.
‘Happy birthday, darling Mue … happy birthday to you’ …. my eldest brother makes a speech and we stand to drink her health …. ‘To grandmother, to Mue ‘ … the next day she has the first of what we later come to realize are a succession of small strokes. ‘Are you all right, Darling?’ I stand outside the downstairs lavatory. She has been in there for over an hour, but the door remains firmly closed. I hover outside for if anyone even sees her enter a lavatory, she is quite unable to perform there. ‘Yes, thank you’, her small, clear voice is polite but firm. ‘Call me if you want me ‘ I say. ‘Yes, thank you’ she repeats. I return from time to time but she will not leave until, inspired, ‘Teatime!!’ I call gaily and she emerges at last, stick in hand, her clothing a little awry but otherwise appearing to be her familiar self.