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
Copyright. Judith Middlemarch, 2017