Time and Tide


My grandmother Elsie served mashed potato from an ice cream scoop. It would sit, bosom like and a little uninviting on the plate like the rock of Gibraltar. Curiously, I don’t remember what else was on the plate. Chicken? Carrots? Sprouts? I don’t know much, but I’m fairly certain the potato shouldn’t be main feature.  She lived at number 52, 6th Avenue: the house directly behind the library and among it’s many features was an outside loo that was equipped with Izal Medicated (look it up) and, when things were tight, newspaper cut in squares.

I liked her. She was easy to like. She had a little twinkle in her eye and naughtiness in her soul (and, quite frequently, in reality.) She had had a hard life – you could tell from the dip of the shoulder and the greyness of her hair. In my memory (although perhaps not in reality) she always wore a flowery wrap-around pinnie and fur-lined ankle boots with a zip at the front.   This bit can’t be right, because even in the frozen north of Hull we had summer and no one wears fur-lined boots in August.  I saw her a lot: we’d walk to her house as a family group every fortnight or so and I’m struck by how, because I saw her a lot, I can’t remember much specific detail about her: she was just always there – smiley and, by the time I knew her, benign.

She taught me to knit.  I learned this sitting on the floor looking up so now I knit backwards but as I do both purl and knit the wrong way, it comes out right.  She was encouraging: and I am certain that I made her at least one hat that she dutifully wore.  I always sewed her and my grandpa a tea cosy (and miss spelt grandad – as you do – although she evidently didn’t mind.)

She had a series of operations across her lifetime, mostly gynecological and was in and out of hospital. I don’t remember the detail but I do remember the visits. By the end, her insides were mostly removed or re-arranged. She was a living, breathing miracle.

She also made the best cakes and biscuits ever so that her house had the smell of sugar and baked goods: maids of honour, fairy cakes, flies graveyards, short-bread, jam tarts and all manner of other stuff. When we visited, we were spoilt for choice: but as the choice was limited to one it was often traumatic to ensure that you got the right one. For me, it was Maid of Honour. Always. Puff pastry shell, with curds underlined by almond and jam. I will never taste such wonder again. It was extraordinary that she could create such magic in the dinginess of that kitchen which was bleak: but wonderfully practical.  She baked on the kitchen table leaning over so that her back grew sore.  It was, for them, the best house – a council property that they saw as an extraordinary gift from the state.  The sink tap had a rubber nozzle on the end that could direct the water were it needed to go, and a jar full of the ends of carbolic soap (pink in colour, I think) which she would later press into a new, useable bar later down the line.  This was a legacy of the war: a practical no-nonsense make-do and mend approach that we could do with adopting again.

Legends surrounded Elsie. Like the time, for example, that her son locked her in the toilet and then she chased him half way round Hull and walked him to the police station for his crime. She was not above raging and rampaging the streets if her family strayed or someone upset her and, by all accounts, she had a vicious temper (though I never saw it.) But mostly it was the richness of her language that has been her legacy (look away now if you’re easily offended.)

So, you’d say, “I wish I had x or x or x.” And she’d say (as my mother said after her), “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which gets fullest first.” These words often dance around my head in the work context, but I’m smart enough to know that that’s not for sharing… or if a meal was hot and you made the not unreasonable observation that it was, she’d say, “You sit with your arse in the oven and you’d get hot.” Quite.  There were no flies on Elsie.

She was somewhat younger than my grandfather – and he died long before she did. I was never certain whether she got over this.  She also went deaf very early and I have a strong recollection of her being isolated because of it.  I have a visual memory of her sitting in my Aunt’s house underneath the budgie and not being part of the conversation – these were knockabout things that moved fast over numbers of people and it was hard to keep up when you could hear it all!  I am not sure how this isolation occurred or whether it was a deliberate ploy on her part.  I like to think it was: I like to think that the world in her head was somewhat more exciting than the world around us and she’d retreated because it was the best place on earth.  As time moved on, and she began to get elderly she withdrew further still and, one time, she disappeared.  By that stage she was in an old people’s home and though she re-appeared in time for tea, no one knew where she’d been.  In my head she had spent the day on one last adventure…seeking out a few final thrills on Beverley High Road, holding up the post office with her sawn-off umbrella and hiding her stash in the church yard of St John’s Newland.

I visited her in the old people’s home but she didn’t really know who I was.  She called me Joyce – which is my mother’s name – and that was good enough for me.  There were dozens of older women in the lounge ,one of whom kept standing up and saying, “What am I doing here?  Where am I?” only to be comforted by a nursing aide that she was exactly where she should be and it wasn’t time to worry.

My grandmother Elsie died soon after that visit and it was very sad.  I don’t remember going to the funeral and I suspect I didn’t because I was elsewhere – where, I don’t recall.  But I did, a few years later, take part in a Christmas concert at that old people’s home.  Half way through Once in Royal David City, that old lady stood and shouted, “Where am I?  What am I doing here?” and she was comforted again and reassured and I was grateful that my grandma hadn’t been subjected to that rather sad purgatory over the preceding two years.


(Many apologies for the lack of comments.  I am in a very busy work period and also lots of trips for family and friends.  I will catch up!)


Two and Two makes zero…


“Cystic Fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition affecting more than 10,800 people in the UK.  You are born with CF and cannot catch it in later life.”  Cystic Fibrosis Trust

Before going to University and still certain that I could change the world (single-handedly) I volunteered with a charity that supported parents with disabled children.  I met the volunteer co-ordinator, Davina at a predesignated spot and she told me all about the charity.  This was in the days before safeguarding and DBS checks so I happily got into her car to go and met the parents I would ‘baby-sit’ for (not my words!) All was going swimmingly until, as we walked to the house, Davina told me that she had got involved in this charity because two of her children had died and she just felt that she needed to put something back by supporting parents in need.

I’m aging myself here but this must have been 1982/3 and she was evidently reconciled – if deeply sad – about this shocking thing that had happened to her.

“I got all kinds of support from all sorts of people.  I was devastated of course, but I was expecting it.  They had CF and their prognosis was always terrible.”  Davina walked with purpose onwards towards the front garden of the house we were visiting.

“Does it help knowing that?  That they had a terrible prognosis?”

“No,” she said, “It didn’t help at all. But the schedule of caring for them was unrelenting.  Day and night I would have to help shift the mucus from their system and their hearts and lungs were compromised.  Some families get luckier – their children are less severe, they live a little longer but they still die sooner than they should.”   Davina sighed and then she put on a bright smile.

I didn’t know what to say.  But she was a woman of purpose, and strode towards the house…and I trotted behind hoping she couldn’t see the waves of sadness I felt on her behalf.

The family I met lived on a housing estate called Bransholme, and their house was absolutely boiling hot.  “Sara likes it hot.”  I have always been a cold person but still I found myself removing layers.  The job I was to undertake was to come back on a Saturday night and look after Sara whilst her parents went to the pub.  Sara had a learning disability and I learnt a very important lesson: in spite of the myth that everyone with Down’s Syndrome is jolly and loving, she was a royal pain in the arse.  I looked after her 3 weeks running and each time she basically wanted to eat her body weight in confectionery, biscuits and cake – and I’d been told that she absolutely could not have these items because she had a very bad heart and was on a diet.   This was not something Sara was interested in at all.  In fact, I spent the whole evening trying to wrestle Mars Bars and digestive biscuits our of her sticky paws (her fingers fat with poor circulation) which was followed by mass weeping, and tantrums.  I was very relieved when her parents arrived home. And even more relieved when a few weeks later I went to university and could, with total honesty ,say that I wasn’t available to look after her any more.

I have 3 degrees (I know, greedy) and my first is in English.  It’s probably hard to believe this given this piece of information but I was a working class kid on my first course (and the first in my family to go) and I was very much out of my depth.  It was a well-subscribed course but even so I was staggered to discover that two people had Cystic Fibrosis, both women Helen and Anna.  They were very different: the first, Helen, was a tiny waif like girl, who was bent almost double and who shared with Sara the bulbous fingers of someone whose heart was failing.  Helen’s hands seemed huge relative to her body, and as I was still in my changing the world mode, I tried very hard to make friends with her.  She was frail but I wittered endlessly as Helen walked with me to my room and we spent an awkward hour over cups of tea.  She was in my writing class and she was brilliant.  She had lived a hard life attached to machines.  Helen said that her dad was a doctor and he could not help.  I thought about this for a long time – imagine understanding the body and medication and actually being totally helpless.

I remember one of Helen’s poems still – an extraordinary feat for an 18 year old, about the marking of time and how it was slipping away.  The poem drove through a rhythm  of the heartbeat, and the machines that kept her oxygen levels up through the night.  And still I did not anticipate what was inevitable.  Half way through the spring term Helen died and the writing tutor told us in hushed tones.  I was sad, but as she had been absent for a few weeks and as my overtures of friendship had been well-meaning but futile, I think I just shrugged sadly and moved on.

The other girl with Cystic Fibrosis on the course, Anna, was a whole different kettle of fish. She had a reckless attitude to her condition but she enjoyed  much better health than poor Helen: if death was was going to get Anna she was going to make sure she had enjoyed large quantities of alcohol and a number of illegal substances before she went.  She was mostly well – but the diet, the lack of sleep, the cigarettes (unbelievably) and the occasional e meant she had periods were she disappeared, and retreated to her parents’ home to recover.    I don’t know what happened to her – Anna graduated like the rest of but as that was in 1986, I expect she is no longer with us.  That was 31 years ago and she’d be 52 if alive.   Nowadays the mean age for survival with CF is 41 in the UK so my feeling is she has gone the way of all things.

It was a strange business encountering this condition so often when I’d never heard of CF and then seemed to find it at every corner.  A part of me wanted to share what I learned about it with Davina, so I rang her about volunteering offering once again look after the difficult Sara.

“Davina here,” she said, bright and breezy.

“It’s Mary – I wondered if Sara still needed looking after on a Saturday evening?”

“Oh love,” she said, “Did no-one tell you?”

I knew what was coming, “How did it happen?”

“She just didn’t wake up.”

“Her heart, love.  Her mum and dad are fine though.  They knew it was coming.  Want me to find someone else?”

“Probably not worth it, I guess?”

“I’ll have a look and get back to you,” and with that Davina signed off and why I thought she would open up to a woman of 20 I couldn’t say.

Davina never got back to me and I then got a job at a printer’s.

Please donate to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust if you wish