Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cleaning the cupboard. Netheredge, Sheffield, 1956

This is my mother's memory, not mine. Its appeal, for me, is in that little family of three, with me waiting to happen. My father paid for that house and told mum that's where they would be living. She trusted his judgment. Love the whole romance of my young parents, mum 25 and dad 27, taking horse-drawn transport from Ripon, North Yorkshire, to Netheredge, Sheffield, albeit in a blizzard.  Mum would never have called herself a writer. She wrote loads of letters home - back to England - but didn't embrace 'creative' writing until she was in her early sixties and joined a writing group. This is something she wrote:

We'd changed horses at the inn where we had stayed overnight, but after the long ride over the Yorkshire moors this last long incline had almost beaten the willingness from these once fresh beasts as they stamped and sweated, snorting at the entrance to the drive.

We arrived by carrier, together with bits of furniture, at dusk, in a snowstorm in February 1956. The driver, Miles, was so eager to seek out a friendly place to stay overnight he barely paused for a drink after delivering his load, so pressing was his need to depart.

My need, too, was desperate: to investigate inside this huge stone terrace house I had never seen. I was somewhat dismayed at the size of the bare, unwashed windows blinking a reflected firelight of welcome in the gloom.

It was a route march from the brass-kerbed step inside the front porch down the bare wooden floors to the distant kitchen and my first acquaintance with 'the cupboard'. When in haste I opened the door, thinking it was another room, I bumped into smelly shelves. Later we realised how fortunate it was that I had tried the cupboard door first as an almost identical door led to the cellar.

It is another story entirely, that first year in our first home, that mausoleum of a place we never quite converted into a comfort zone. The task was daunting, but we were too young to know that and we were in heaven.

The kitchen cupboard, however, haunted me. Its cleaning was just too big to tackle. But after we discovered that the slightly sulphurous smell, which occasionally permeated all the rooms, emanated from within its depths, I recognised the time had come. No two ways about it.

Meanwhile I had established nodding terms with the woman next door. Her back door faced ours, and I ventured to discuss the job in hand and she offered, on loan, a step ladder to ease the task. On noticing my advanced pregnancy she sent her son round with the ladder and possibly to get him to suss us out.

The ladder was a help. We literally moved mountains.

The cupboard, on investigation, was stacked with all the things the old man, the previous owner who had lived alone, didn't want or couldn't sell. Jars were leaking or smashed and stuck. Packets were opened and moving! The wretched smell was everywhere. The top shelf was stacked with blocks of white Windsor soap, hard as rock, and rusted tins of mustard and pepper powder. There were four shelves, four feet wide and three deep in the top cupboard, and one shelf separated the darkened abyss below.

The cleaning and subsequent sterilization of the cupboard became our project; our raison d'etre. Remember there was no radio or television. What was a threat to our existence in the beginning became a challenge. We worked on it together, my husband and I, in the early evenings when Reggie was in bed. It became our leisure time when we plotted and schemed and made plans for the future after the baby was born. Sometimes we were cross and raised our voices in frustration, angry that anyone could have left all this filth, not just in the cupboard but the whole house, for someone else to move. More importantly, could it be done before the baby was due to be born at home in September?

One time when we were both in the cupboard we heard a voice. We were more than shocked, but stayed close and silent, keeping even the noise of breathing to a minimum. It was a strange sound but definitely a voice; a tinny voice. What was it saying in that Punch and Judy animated fashion? Was it really saying, through clenched teeth 'Doyouwantacupoftealove?' How disappointing, we thought and laughed fit to burst.

We heard the same question over and over. During the day, on my hands and knees, wedged inside the cavern, I took comfort in the closeness of the unexplained voice. As I discarded ancient shoes and smelly slippers of pre-war vintage, some with socks still in situ - I never looked for feet - I never felt alone. The mud, muck and grime of years came forth and was vanquished. Afterwards when the scraping and sanding was over, of course we surmised that our inside cupboard wall was one and the same as the cupboard wall in our neighbours' home, now with visible cracks as we had scraped the paint and mortar away.

We did eventually finish the cupboard cleaning. Of course we did. It was beautiful, painted flat white inside and out, and sterile, oh so sterile. What a boon it proved to be in our less-than-furnished kitchen and dining room. We were left with a dilemma though. Should we make it known we would love a cup of tea?

The happy ending came after Judith was born at home in September. I was out in the back yard when a face appeared over the wall; a smiling face with clenched teeth. I introduced ourselves, the new neighbours from way back. Straight away she invited us to visit, and then and there, in her kitchen, I came face to face with the voice from the cupboard.

Mrs Baker had a budgie in a cage hanging adjacent to her kitchen cupboard door. Much to Reggie's surprise and delight and my almost suppressed mirth, the budgie said with no prompting, in perfect mimicry of Mrs Baker's speech, 'Do you want a cup of tea love?'

We could hardly wait.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Life long impressions: 1962 to 1964

Child years are like dog years. Seems to me that one year in a child's life equals seven, or perhaps more, in an adult's. Brief episodes in my childhood informed the person I became. They have lasted for ages in my memory. Yet my own children's lives, seemed to flash by. 

It's a few days before Christmas, 1962. I am six. Mum has a surprise for us for. It's cold outside and the three of us are in the sitting room in our new house. I'm in the armchair by the pretend fire - an electric heater with black plastic coal and an orange glow from a concealed light. The electric bars at the front of the fire are bright orange and warm the room. A television is angled into the space across the carpet beyond the heater but there's nothing on. Reggie is sitting on the long settee facing the heater. Mum is tempting us with a surprise. 'But if I give it to you now,' she warns, 'you won't have it for Christmas. Are you absolutely sure you want it now?' I'm a little scared of spoiling a Christmas surprise. What if we make the wrong choice? But our excitement wins out; we can't resist temptation. Mum relents as though it wasn't her idea in the first place. We're left in delicious fearful anticipation as she leaves the room before returning with our surprises. There will be no going back. It will be our fault if we've spoiled Christmas Day.

Why was I worried? Our gifts are wonderful. We each receive a small lidded cardboard box. Inside is a painted wooden cotton reel. It has six 'nails' protruding from its top. They're equally spaced. There are also a few small balls of wool and a plastic crochet hook. Mum shows us what to do. You thread a strand of wool down through the top hole until you can hold it underneath the cotton reel. You wind the wool at the top of the reel twice around the outside of the nails, hold the wool in place, then hook the lower strand of wool over the upper strand on each nail. You keep doing this and in no time at all a snake of knitting emerges and grows out of the bottom hole. You can tie on different coloured wool. Make sure the knot is in the middle of the circle of nails and you can have seamless stripes. Once your snake is long enough you can cast off. Mum shows us how to do this. You can make little dolls' hats from your snake by coiling it and sewing the coils together. It is immensely satisfying. I knit for ages and make hats for my dolls.

My dolls already have hand-sewn tops and skirts. We regularly visit my maternal grandmother in Goldthorpe, about a half-hour drive away. Big Nanna, we call her. She has a work basket full of fabric pieces and we make dolls' clothes from these. I cut and wrap oblong pieces of fabric around unyielding plastic bodies to get the fit right. My skirt creations are  pieces of material, tacked with running stitches along a single seam. I join the ends of the fabric and begin to sew with a piece of cotton knotted at the end. You moisten the end of the thread in your mouth to help it through the needle's eye. This takes a while. Then in through the top of the fabric, back up through the bottom. But sometimes I forget and go in through the top again and make a loop over the edge. It doesn't really matter. I just keep going. I finish with back-stitches as Big Nanna has shown me. I try the finished product on the doll. It slides on and fits. The doll's top is a piece of material with a split up the back and a hole cut for her neck. Big Nanna has shown us how to fold and sew the edges of the fabric to neaten them. The top is sewn under the doll's arms on both sides. Can't really sew up the back because I won't be able to get it on and off. It just gets tucked into the skirt. It looks fine. I look at what Reggie is doing. She's very neat and tidy. Her stitches are all straight and even and there aren't any loops around her seams. I don't care. I make more clothes. It is immensely satisfying. I love sitting at Big Nanna's table with my sewing. I sew for ages.

We love Big Nanna. Her kitchen has flagstones and there's a peg bag hanging on the pantry door. It's full of balls. When careless children lose them over Big Nanna's hedge, she collects them and keeps them for us to play with. She gives us fizzy drinks of Dandelion and Burdock. There's a lovely rag rug in her sitting room and on the sideboard, near the picture of my dead grandfather, George, there's a red tin filled with sweets. We're always allowed to eat a few.

When we stay with Big Nanna, Reggie and I sleep with her in her double bed. We giggle at her massive flesh coloured bra and corset as she undresses in front of the mirrored dressing table. It's all right to think she's funny. She likes to make us laugh, often reciting amusing poems and telling stories in her 'broad Yorkshire' dialect.

She lets us choose a book each to keep. They're on a shelf in a light, bare upstairs bedroom. I think it was our uncles' room. I choose The School of Poetry by Alice Meynell. Mum had pencilled her name inside the front cover when she was young.  Robert Louis Stephenson's The Sick Child resonates deeply. It also disturbs me. I love reading Going Downhill on a Bicycle When you read it aloud you have to think about the punctuation. I learn Wordsworth's To Daffodils by heart. (Later, when I'm in grade five, I write out the first verse, thinking I've made it up. I'm pleased with myself and show 'my work' to my teacher, Miss H, the dark-haired pretty but nasty opera singer, who's sitting at her front table. She glances at the piece of paper I hand her, quietly sneers and sends me back to my place. It's not that I've plagiarised. She just doesn't like me.) I treasure this old blue cloth-bound book. (I keep it in a plastic bag now. Its spine has disintegrated, as has old sticky tape that held it together. Its pages are brown. It's still a terrific anthology and I like what it says about the kind of child I was.)

Big Nanna is a frequent visitor in Sheffield. She comes 'through' on the bus. She wears a hat and keeps it on if she's not staying over. On demand, and we always ask, she dances a little jig to Knees Up Mother Brown holding her skirt up at the front. She makes the house smell of warmth, buttered tea cakes and ironing. Big Nanna is smiling, white-haired, tall, round and soft. She wears a pinafore to protect her dresses. It makes her knee slippery. When you sit on her knee you can easily slide off. But it's nice on her knee and she holds onto you. Big Nanna puts warm oil in my ear when I have an earache and strokes my head. The earache goes while I rest my head on her lap.  

When I last see my Big Nanna it's at the front of her Goldthorpe home. Mum is there. And Reggie. We say our goodbyes. Reggie wraps her arms around Big Nanna's waist and sobs hysterically. 'I won't leave you, nanna,' she weeps. Mum has to drag her away. Tears pour down Big Nanna's cheeks. I have never seen her cry. I am determined I will not cry. We drive away. I never see my Big Nanna again. I am eight.

Copyright. Judith Middlemarch, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

I can fly.

I'm on my haunches with my hands splayed open on my legs just behind my knees. There is a row of dark - I'm not sure of colours yet - houses behind me. I'm willing myself to take off. I'm making an inner effort; clenching my body. I'm unaware of muscles; it's just me and my determination. Then I'm in the air surveying the sloping roofs of that row of dark houses. I'm flying. Somehow I've flown - levitated vertically, I know now - above my house and it was wonderful and easy. I explain this to other people my size, perhaps my slightly older sister, Reggie, perhaps Jane, the daughter of one of mum's friends and a regular visitor, maybe everyone in Sunday school. If they follow my instructions, they too can fly. I'm not yet three, but I can fly. Surely.

When you go back more than fifty years to try to sort out your memories you wonder whether something you imagine was a real memory actually was. Well, this is a real memory. Interestingly, I was younger than three when this happened. It was wonderful to be that age. It's also wonderful to know that I've kept that same consciousness throughout the rest of my life. She was me; my essential self and she is still in my head. Nothing bad had happened to that little girl who knew she could fly, even if she hadn't sorted out the difference between dreams and reality. She was happy, carefully dressed, well-fed and loved. I can see it in a few photos.

 My first three years were lived in a double storey stone terrace house in Netheredge, Sheffield, in the north of England. In 2010, on my pilgrimage to Sheffield, a place I left because my parents sought and found another life in Australia, I returned to that house in Netheredge so I could see where I was born. In the front room. There was no one home or I would have knocked and asked to see inside. Perhaps I was lucky I didn't. I still have my memories.

This is my memory of the room I was born in. I used to think I could remember being born, but even I'm not that ridiculous. Both of my parents, especially mum,  kept the stories alive. But this is me, less than three. I'm standing in the doorway and looking into a high-ceilinged light-filled room, with a fireplace to my left and a bay window to my right. The floor is covered in livid maroon felt. I know now it was a felt underlay. We didn't go into this room much. I can't remember there being any furniture in there. Certainly there was no longer a bed. Prior to my birth, it had been brought downstairs by my very pregnant mother and my father. She was already in labour, so the story goes, and they were awaiting the arrival of the midwife. According to family legend, when my mother was groaning in agony on the floor, dad had made her screw the legs into the bed, seeing as she was already down there.

The Netheredge house was narrow with steep stairs along the left wall as you walked in the front door. In this memory, I'm upstairs in my parents' bedroom. I'm in a cot because I can see, through bars - I trust it was a cot - my parents across the room, facing me in their double bed . I can't sleep. Every time I shut my eyes a frog bites my toes. I don't like it and I want to get in with them. I don't remember being comforted. Instead they seemed amused, surprised by my complaint. 'Don't be so silly,' they say. They're sitting up a little against the bedhead, or wall, mum clutching the bedclothes up over her chest. They must have had a light on. The frog keeps nipping my feet, scaring me, waking me up. Wonder what sort of stories I'd been read.

My dad is holding me in his arms. It's morning. 'Dry daddy,' I tell him. My nappy is dry. I'm proud of this accomplishment, for I know that it is, not that I had any control over it. I am the important one, held against his chest in his arms, my face close to his chin. It is a warm time as he shares the news with mum, who praises this achievement. This story is often repeated to me by my mother. My other first words, much acclaimed in subsequent stories were 'Daddy, slip-slips.' I needed my slippers before I could be put down. So there she is, that adored kid; in those instances, the total focus of her parents' attention.

Another light colourful room in that house is the kitchen. It is huge. On the far wall is a window that looks out into the back yard. There's an enamel sink below this set into benches. To the right of this bench is the back door. On the shelf below the sink is a ceramic mixing bowl, smooth white on the inside and with a woven sand coloured glaze on the outside. One day, Mum quickly fills it with hot water and pours in something that makes the water go cloudy. Reggie has just been run over by a young man on a pushbike. He'd sped into us as we got off the back of a double decker bus and knocked Reggie over. In the kitchen, Reggie is lifted onto the bench. I watch. Mum is comforting and efficient. She swabs and dresses Reggie's grazes.

Reggie found a box of matches in the sitting room around this time. Not on the same day. She wasn't that accident prone. She'd emptied the matches and gripped them in her left fist and struck them against the flinty strip of the match box. She'd probably watched dad doing this, with a single match of course, as he lit his pipe. She got burnt and that fixing bowl came out again. I don't know if I remember watching Reggie burn herself or whether I'd heard the story. It was a big deal and a huge warning to be careful with matches. Didn't stop me, in some involved match play, setting fire to a couple of back gardens some time later when we moved to our brand new house on an estate in Gleadless Valley. That new house was half of a duplex and a couple of wires separated our 'garden' from our conjoined neighbours'. Must have been a dry summer day because that fire took off so quickly it terrified me. Mum and a neighbour suddenly appeared to put it out  before any real damage, apart from blackened grass, was done. Interestingly, I didn't get into much trouble, so clearly dad wasn't there. By that stage, he was an angry man of about thirty who scared the neighbourhood kids, and sometimes Reggie and I. That fire gave me a fright. No chance of pyromania for me.

In Netheredge, there's a cellar off the kitchen, just to the right as you enter. There's a closed door and behind that steps descend. The cellar is a bare, cold, storage place. There's an uncovered electric light globe swinging down into it. I haven't been down there much. Once or twice. I see it more from the top of its stairs.  It didn't hold any horrors that I knew of but it's not a place to play.

It's tea time on another day and all four of us eat in the kitchen. I'm at my place along one edge of the square painted table. Dad is on my right, mum facing me, Reggie on my left. I look down at my food just as one of my cooked mushrooms changes into a slimy, slithering creature and starts inching towards me on my plate. 'It's coming after me,' I cry, terrified. My parents pause in their eating, cutlery stilled in their hands. They laugh. 'Don't be silly,' they chuckle, not unkindly. They are sure of their own rightness and my silliness. I'm not, but I look again at my plate and find, simply, cooked blackish mushrooms in a little heap. But I didn't trust those mushrooms and they remained uneaten.

I've seen tiny photos taken in the back yard of that terrace house. There's a black and white picture of a smiling baby, me, with light hair sitting happily in a huge black pram outside the kitchen window. The same pram feels perilous when I am tipped forward from it when Reggie is swinging on its handle at the front gate. Another snap catches a joyous me running down the backyard path towards whomever is holding the camera.

Mum and her friend are in the kitchen. Reggie, Jane and I are sitting on the backyard path deep in concentration. We have a tin of watercolour paints open on the ground, a jar of water, paper and paintbrushes. We are all three wearing white sandals with cross bars and closed toes. Our shoes have tooled cutouts and white stitching. We briefly confer about whether we'll get into trouble before deciding to do it anyway. We carefully paint our white sandals with swirls of watercolour. Jane and Reggie leave me and I continue to paint my shoes, one foot in front of me at a time because I'm still wearing them. Total absorption in a lovely creative activity. No consequences. Suppose the watercolour washed off easily enough.

Until 2010, that house was huge. It satisfied all the needs of my three year old self. The back yard was enormous. I've explored its space in my memory for years, trying to get even further into its depths. My actual visit revealed a narrow single fronted two storey row house; front door on the left, bay window on the right. I went to the front window and peered into the tiny room into which I was born. It could barely contain a chair, a couch and coffee table in front of the fireplace. The back yard was just that. There weren't any structural changes to the house but the yard had been paved and a barbecue sat just outside the kitchen window. I could have walked to the back door in four strides.

Copyright Judith Middlemarch 2017