“The way to get on in the world is to be neither more nor less wise, neither better nor worse than your neighbours.” William Hazlitt
Although she was extremely small, Jenky was formidable. She stood well under five feet tall, but her personality rose mightily. She was our next door neighbour and as well as being my God mother (I recall no special favour around this fact – I don’t think she really liked me all that much.) She also led my mother astray and into debt.
Magdalena Jenkinson, to give her full name, was a big fan of hire purchase. My mother was young when she moved next door to Jenky and was easily taken off the solvent path.
Turner’s was a shop of many parts and folk were invited in to find the items that would give them the household accessories of their dreams. It was a trendsetter. Turner’s was also, incidentally, the source of a well-known British band’s name. TURNER’S it said in bold red letters, and just beneath ‘everything but the girl.’ Why? Because it assumed that men did the earning and the shopping and women stayed at home. Here, at this shop, a man could buy everything except the girl.
It’s a wonder to me how my father didn’t notice the various bit of furniture that began to appear in the house: the sleek sideboard, the state of the art wardrobe, but he didn’t. Neither, for several months, did he notice the Tally man who – wearing the giant boot of a man who had one leg shorter than the other – appeared at the back door for the repayment of monies owed. There was not much left from the house-keeping at the end of the week – as my mother’s repayments mounted up. Jenky’s solution was to get another loan. And so it went.
I didn’t really have much idea about the rows between my parents, certainly when I was very young, but I heard this legendary ONE: where my dad found out about the debt Jenky had encourage my mam in. When my mother said she’d only done what everyone else had done, what Jenky had suggested, he, my father, said this oft repeated and immortal line, “If Jenky was to shit in the middle of the road, why would you have to do the same?”
She would not, my mother said.
Not now. Not ever.
And yet, she’d sneaked a look at a different kind of life of having the latest thing, which came crashing to an end in that moment. And not just for my mother, but for us all. We entered then a period of austerity as the debt was, bit by bit, paid back. Dad withdrew all the savings he had managed to muster and taking on extra work paid off the debt. To his credit, he never mentioned it again and to hers, my mother became a paragon of virtue taking up budgeting as though it was going out of fashion.
Things picked up as he worked harder and harder, and with the additional work in the evening he drove things on: Jenky was jealous, getting more debt to keep up. The only thing my siblings and I have in common is that we’re all solvent and we’re all driven, the two things we learned on our father’s lap. The phrase about what our neighbours would do to compete was often trotted out: ‘if you had a shit in the middle of the road…” Occasionally, we would chime in with it together…but my mother had dug a hole and he had got her out of it.
Jenky was not ostentatious with the things she bought though they often squeezed the percentage of her available cash, and like our other next door neighbour she would pop around to lend a tenner or a fiver until the end of the week. My mother should have added some interest: she would have made a killing.
Jenky’s husband Tom was a trawler man so for months at a time he would be away from the family home and so, this formidable little woman, would man her household with her loving but sometimes wayward bunch. When her kids were twice her size she’d slap them to within an inch of their lives if they stepped out of line. (I’m not advocating this as a child rearing method!) And then Tommy would come home and he would drink his body weight in beer and, a happy drunk, would entertain us all with his dance moves and his terrible jokes. Tommy and Jenky would shout at each other but they loved each other – it was a warmth that entertained us all. I remember him sleeping on his sofa in the midday sun with the curtains half closed and being sort of shocked by this – but then, he’d had months of long days and no sleep, and soon enough, he’d be back on that ship on the edge of the arctic circle with the bitter cold, the biting winds and 14 hour-long days. And we would enjoy fish from the ship: cod and haddock from the deep seas.
Jenky’s house always had this strange aroma of smoked fish. We’d knock on the back door and let ourselves in on an errand from our mother and there it would be the enamel pie dish on the hob bubbling away, fish in tomato sauce. I often wondered who she was cooking it for and whether Tom was there or not, this concoction would be on the go.
The oldest two children were off on their way before I really noticed, one getting married, the other becoming a butcher. But I was very familiar with the remaining three and Jenky, we were in and out of each other’s lives. Laurina, a young woman and the eldest left, a few years older than me, would come to the front, and say to me as I was busy playing some kind fantastic game, “Will you go to the shop for me?” I knew that she would give me 2p for my efforts and for a time this was a good deal. This led to 5p and occasionally 10p from her or Jenky who’d ask me too. One summer, I was probably 14 or 15, Laurina – not yet 20 – asked me if I’d go and buy her some fags from Pawson’s. I remember the deafening silence when I said, “Laurina, is there something wrong with your legs?” She never asked me to shop for her again.
I was my own worst enemy.
Jenky and my mother would gossip about all those on the street. They were the arbiters of what was decent and what was not, and they would speak to each other every day. If there was a scandal, they would be at the heart of talking about it and if there was a disaster they would be in the middle of sorting it out. They would have an opinion about everyone and everything and they were not afraid to share it. Then it all came to an abrupt end when my parents moved away three weeks after my 18th birthday. (Oddly my parents moved the week I went to university – the first person in my family to do so – to a more upmarket area. Fortunately, they did tell me where they were going!) And I left all my childhood street, all my security, behind me.
I forget which event it was (probably my father’s secret 60th birthday party, the one where my younger brother had said in his card, “Enjoy your secret party”) and I encountered Jenky in the ladies’ toilet. I remember saying, “Jenky!” with genuine affection and she told me off for being cheeky. Smaller, older, but still formidable.
As she got older, Jenky shrank and she didn’t have much height to give. She and Tommy moved into a little mews property, newly built, on Coltman Street. He faded away with dementia and she looked after him even though her physical capacity was much limited.
I went to Jenky’s funeral and met again her five kids who were all late middle-aged. They waved. And I smiled. We were world’s away and I wanted to pay my respects. I did not enjoy the words spoken at the funeral as they were by a man who had never met Magdalena Jenkinson. But I enjoyed knowing that she was just as feisty at 80 odd as at any other stage.