Or Are You Just Very Small?

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Before beginning this week’s blog I feel compelled to make mention of the Grenfell Tower Fire.  and the terrible tragedy that happened there; at least 30 dead and 70 missing  overall (including the 30).  If this blog is about anything – aside from loss of one kind or another – it is about the working class neighbourhood of my childhood and youth, it is about people living together, striving together and struggling together as well as laughing and learning and growing.  It’s about camaraderie and love.  I feel that I was lucky to grow-up in such a neighbourhood: it has shaped my sense of shared purpose and given me an understanding of endeavour, graft and belonging that not everyone gets to encounter.  It was not perfect and I spent a part of my life afraid of who I might run into around any given corner and another part worried about what my middle class friends who I went to school with might think of me, perhaps even something close to shame about not being quite like them. That’s what a dominant narrative does to people – it keeps them in their place, and it makes them feel bad for not being the same as those who have privilege, and then offering tempting sign-posts and pathways that not everyone can take. And calling people failures when they miss the chance – perhaps a single chance – on offer to them. I have been lucky. I was lucky that when I fell through a greenhouse and nearly died, the NHS patched me up, I was lucky because although we were poor we had enough food and a house that was warm, and that was our own. I was lucky I had somewhere decent to live. I was lucky that I was educated in the 70s and 80s before we imposed a curriculum that stopped people thinking for themselves and I was lucky to be able to go to university on a grant and fees paid (and just as lucky to receive bursaries for my MA and PhD).  I was lucky to get a good job, and have a career. No one gets to be that lucky now. Working class people have been marginalised and demonised – and options are increasingly limited even if they are educated, even if they have a job, even if they have a sense of place and community. But fundamentally people need to be safe in their homes because none of those other things can happen if they are not. David Lamy had it right in this video. People need somewhere decent to live – that’s the first and last of it.  People were crammed into that tower block – families of five and six sometimes, in two bedroom flats that were just 75.5 metres squared.  Families with young children and older people on the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th floors.  And higher still.  It beggars belief.  This was an accident waiting to happen and now that it has the only saving grace is that the community is angry and rising.  I hope they can translate that anger into real change so that this does not happen again.  So that political change will enable this working class community and others to expect a fair chance, and the power to effect positive outcomes in their own lives.

Or Are You Just Very Small?

Vera met her husband-to-be on a bus.  It was not the most romantic of venues and she was not the most romantic of people.  She thought she was on the shelf.  I asked her which shelf once, and she said, “The one at the back of the cupboard, where there’s all the stuff that you never really use.  Like tinned potatoes. And Spam.”

The reason she was on the bus was that she was a conductor.  They had to make a special cut of the uniform for her because she was short, very short (and not as slim as she might have been.)  It was grey and even with her child-bearing hips she looked dashing. And taller, elegant even. But she could climb up and down the stairs quicker than you could say Jack Robinson and never missed a fare.

“You’d always get folk trying it on, even in the good old days, but no-one passed me by.”  She would snap away the faces in her photographic mind and then whizz round each and everyone checking the fares. She enjoyed the power of her ticket machine.

Her husband was a bus driver and it was love at first sight.  Unfortunately, Alan was already married.  “He was unhappy, you see, Love.  He’d got married in the war, lots of people did and then lived to regret it.  Folk didn’t expect to live.  She was nice enough, but they weren’t well matched…but I’m bound to say that, aren’t I?”  Vera laughed.

Alan was more than 20 years her senior, almost in his 50s.  An old man really, by those standards, but she loved him anyway.  Right from the off – it was the way that he smiled.  Shyly.  He’d fought for his country – in the RAF – flying all sort of raids and was immediately a hero in her eyes.

They spent their dates dashing around on a motor-bike, Vera riding pillion.  “He used to go so fast, like a super-hero.  He was in my mind.  I could picture him in the bomber, flying low, battling…”

“Killing people, Vera?”  I smiled.

“Well, it’s alright for your generation,” she said, “Getting all moral about it.  You don’t know what it was like.  Hull was trashed.  Alan and his mates saved this city for such as thee and me.”

I shut up then.  Unlike most adults Vera had a habit of talking to you about everything and anything: she didn’t pull any punches.   We used to go together to the swimming pool to supervise the Cubs and Scouts who were doing swimming badges.  Not quite sure how I got dragged into that – must have been something to do with T, my brother, and my reputation for swimming with David Wilkie, I only did this once (on a sponsorship event) but you only needed to do something that often where I lived and then you were located there forever.  Mary Brearley, swimming sensation.  Not true.  I remember saying to Vera once, in the pool, “Are you kneeling, or are you just very small?” And she laughed a lot, and repeated it to anyone who’d listen.  “You’re funny, you,” Vera said. I wasn’t

I used to wait for T at the end of the Cub meetings where Celia Worley, the Akela*, seeing me, would make some disparaging comments about the Guides. I’d just smile. Mostly, I’d chat to Vera who was bringing her lad, Steven, to the Scouts.  The others used to tease him about the presence of his mam – but she liked to wrap him in cotton wool. And Steven didn’t mind.  He was a mummy’s boy.

“We never expected to have him.  But I was very careful until the divorce came through, and that took forever because she didn’t want to let Alan go, and you wouldn’t, would you?  I mean even now that he’s in his later 70s, he’s lovely isn’t he? So tall and handsome.”

It wasn’t a word I would use to describe him.  He just looked like an old man to me.  A bit like Michael Foot – the politician, thin as a pin and a shock of white hair.  I didn’t answer Vera, but she didn’t need me to, she’d just carried on.

“But eventually he came and we couldn’t love him more.” She smiled, and looked wistful.

They lived on the Boulevard and I used to be awestruck by the amount of Lego Steven had on the table in the front room.  I once asked what he was building and Vera just shrugged.

“That’s his dad’s department.  Sit in there for hours, they do, building away.  I don’t interfere – it’s important that he has time with his dad.”

There was a silence then, and I suspected that I was supposed to fill it but I didn’t know how to. I knew his dad was old. And that he might die soon. Steven was 13 going on 14 and people used to tease him for playing Lego with his dad.

“Alan won’t last forever, I know that.  I really do.  I knew that all along.  He wasn’t a mistake you know, even though I wasn’t a spring chicken by the time he came along – nearly 40.  But we love him.  Steven is the best thing that ever happened to us.” She paused, “We’ve talked about it.  He knows.  He knows his dad will die sooner rather than later.  And I know too.  It’s not like we’re prepared but it means that we take each day as it comes, and we love each other through every minute of it, because that’s all you can do.”

A few months later, when I walked past their house on my paper-round, the curtains were tightly shut in the middle of the day.  Upstairs and downstairs: shut against the world. I knew what this code meant.  Alan must have gone – he must have died over night.  I had sort of half been looking out for it. I felt for Vera who loved him very much and Steven too.

Then the news came through. At four in the afternoon, the day before, Steven had made his way home from school.  Normally, his mum would have been loitering somewhere close but she hadn’t come.  No worries, he’d just taken himself home.  He’d opened the front door, calling her, and then his dad, and still nothing had alarmed him.  Maybe across his mind, he’d thought about his dad and that maybe something had happened but surely his mum would have come to school and told him? But it was Tuesday and on a Tuesday his dad visited an old friend who was ill.  Maybe his mum had got caught up at the shops?  She liked to chat, that was true.  Many an hour he’d stood beside her as she’d told a tale or two.  So Steven walked in.  Through the hallway, into the kitchen and there, half into the pantry was his mum, on the floor: dead.  Of a brain hemorrhage.

He didn’t know what to do.  He rang an ambulance.  He was numb.

Then his dad had come home, and he’d taken over.

I often asked about them in my phone calls home from Universtiy: Steven and Alan.  Within a year or two, before his 16th birthday in any case, Steven’s dad had died too. And he went to live with his mum’s sister in North Hull.

 

*Akela – my aunt Joan – once said to my mum when she was talking about Akela, “That’s weird J, because the woman who runs the Scouts round here is called Akela too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Country for Old Women

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Mrs Swift wasn’t.  In fact, she hardly moved at all.  Her main journey seemed to be from the kitchen to the living room and back again.  She must have gone upstairs, but I never witnessed this. There was probably a time, years before, when she left the house. But something had happened to stop her.  And, aside from one occasion, she lived her life within the confines of her house on St Matthews Street.

Mrs Swift was the standard issue older woman of my memory: sober dress, wrap-a-round pinny with her grey hair permed or demi-waved.  The only woman who deviated from this template was Purple-Haired Lady who lived alone on Chomley Street.  She had been a professional.  A ‘professional’ what I couldn’t say.  The vibrant mauve gave her a certain swagger which my sister and I admired.  The rest, all the old women of my childhood, looked exactly like Mrs Swift.  They were women born at the turn of the century or in the previous one and had survived the great depression only to hurtle into a war-time of austerity that clung to them like dust. They were resilient.

One such survivor was the old lady who lived directly opposite us.  She had lived in the street, it transpired, longer than anyone.  Each day, dressed in a flimsy mucus-coloured mac, and a green hat at a death-defying angle, she would leave her house to go to town.  Her shopping bag, brown and misshapen, hovered an inch above the ground.  She seemed tiny. I don’t know where she went on those trips, but I do remember her determined walk and wondered how a woman could be so bent and still manage to put one foot in front of the other. When she died, my mother and her friend Alice, laid her out.  It transpired she was 98, had lived without her husband for 48 years and always in the same house.  She had also once been 5’8″.  My mother told me this with a kind of wonder as though she’d witnessed a miracle after seeing her finally straightened.

My mother worked in the fish and chip shop on Airlie Street and this gave her a special status that was a combination of agony aunt and social worker.  Mr Swift, who seemed to me to be austere, went to buy his and Mrs Swift’s supper twice a week.  My mother asked the sort of questions that allowed people to talk, deftly providing a platform for sharing.  That was how she discovered Mrs Swift’s agoraphobia. After that, she always gave him extra chips.

“I don’t suppose he mentioned the affairs that drove her to it?” Alice, who also worked in the chippy, said.  My mother dismissed this as salacious gossip. Not Mr Swift, he seemed a proper gentleman.

On a Tuesday and a Thursday, like clockwork, Mr Swift came in.  He wore his overcoat and trilby hat whatever the weather. And then, suddenly, he stopped. First one week, then another.  When it got to four weeks, my mother took action.

Taking her courage in both hands, she went and knocked on the Swift’s front door.  It opened enough to reveal a sliver of Mrs Swift’s face.

“Is everything okay love?” My mother said.  “It’s just I’ve been serving your husband for years at the chippy and I’ve missed him.”

The door opened and having been quickly ushered inside the whole sorry story came out. Not the why of it, of course, but the how and what.

Mr Swift had had a colossal stroke.  The front room had been converted to a bedroom, and that was where Mr Swift was sleeping. Each day, Mrs Swift would wash and dress him, and get him to the toilet via a walking frame of sorts. He would spend the rest of the day in his chair in the middle room watching a silent television.  He could not speak but grunt, each one rumbling like an earthquake from him. His noises meant nothing to the untrained ear.

“Our Matthew has been here,” Mrs Swift said, “But he has an important job and can only come once a week. At best.”

“Who’s doing your shopping, love?” My mother asked which was how she came to volunteer.  Twice a week she would go around, tap out a special code of a knock before going in, gather the list and sort the Swifts out.  Mrs Swift would insist on paying a few pounds for this service and after repeated arguments my mother would accept the coins for the sake of peace.

Somewhere along the line, this job came to me.  This must have been in the holidays and at weekends (where the mysterious Matthew would fail to make an appearance), I would go round, rap the special tattoo, and enter the house.  At first, I was terrified of Mr Swift because he growled and if you were unlucky enough to encounter him standing, which was a feat of engineering that barely seemed possible, you worried for your life.  As time moved on I got used to him, but the fear never really left me. I didn’t have my mother’s qualms about accepting the payment.

At 6am one morning there was a loud knock on our front door.  It was already a bright sunny day, and my father grumbled his way downstairs.  There was a dark, shadowy figure that could be made out through the frosted glass and the banging was getting increasingly urgent.  It was Mrs Swift.

She was dressed for winter.  Black coat, black hat, black – probably Sunday – dress.

“Do you want to come in love?” my mother was saying.

Mrs Swift was clear that she did not – and looking behind her with every other word – she somehow communicated to my mother that her husband had died over night and she needed the ambulance.  She was saturated with sweat and shaking.

She left then, and I watched her walk down the deserted street in ill-fitting court shoes as though a whole army of not very nice men were chasing her.

In truth, Mrs Swift was lighter and more at ease with the world with her husband gone, as if a weight had been lifted.  She would hint at what this was but never say much of anything at all, and I didn’t have the imagination or the experience to analyse what had caused her deep anxiety, what had made her lock herself away.   She would laugh and joke when I brought her three bottles of stout from the beer-off, and sometimes ask me if I fancied a sip.  The other thing she did was offer me one of her butter-mint bonbons which she bought every week (after that, I stopped pinching one from the bag on the way home from Pawson’s.)

We would enjoy an exchange about her shopping list.  I’d query what some of her writing said, and Mrs Swift would take out her large box of glasses and try one on for size until she happened upon a pair that meant she could see.   One time I asked her where they all came from and she said, mysteriously, “the dead.”

I only occasionally resented having to do the old girl’s shopping and I did it every week until I left for university. I never met her son Matthew but she was very proud of him, his achievements, and those of her two grandchildren who smiled out of posed photographs on the piano.

One day, Clive, the milkman, who still pushed a trolley around the streets to make his delivery, noticed Mrs Swift hadn’t taken her milk in. He knocked, the special knock, but the door was bolted on the inside.  He knelt and looked through the letter box and could see her at the top of the stairs.  He hefted the door with his shoulder until it gave way.

Mrs Swift had died the night before, of natural causes, wearing someone else’s glasses.

Putty

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My mother was not cast in stone but something malleable and occasionally combustible. Some days she was the life and soul of the party, others the spectre at the feast.  She was benign one day, and a raging storm the next.  She once, in anger, hit my sister with a cucumber (the nearest thing to hand), and then hit her again because it broke. That was my mother in a nutshell.

I’d lie in bed in the morning listening for the signs of her mood for the day: the way she moved about the kitchen, the crash and bang of the utensils and the speed of her step as the breakfast cereal made its way to the table, the tone she used to rouse us, the swearing if inanimate objects refused to bend to her will. It sometimes helped, but often she could turn on a sixpence: a shrug of a shoulder from one of us, a misdirected sigh and wham, we were on a different track.  She was unpredictable.

One summer holiday day, my brother K, my sister KM and me were arranged in a police style line-up in the kitchen. The baby, T, was still in his pram – I honestly believe he’d have joined us if he had mastered standing.

“Who did it?” she asked.

We looked from one to the other – there was a dangerous silence.  No one wanted to say anything.  She walked in front of us, staring closely at each of us in turn as though she would need to identify us at a later stage. We were clearly guilty criminals.

“I know it was one of you,” she said.

We none of us spoke.  It was potentially fatal to jump before being pushed.  And besides, the exact nature of the accusation had not been revealed. I tried to look innocent.  I was innocent.

“That mark in the putty,” she began her walk in front of us again: up and down.

In turn, we each denied it.  At first, I didn’t even know what putty was.  And it didn’t seem a good time to ask.

“In the greenhouse window pane. The new one. A fingerprint.” My mother looked down the line-up. I looked at KM.  She looked steadfastly forwards. K seemed more nonchalant.

“It wasn’t me,” he said.

“Or me!” KM half shouted.

“Well?”  My mother said, leaning over towards me.  She should have been in the Gestapo.

“I didn’t do it.”  I hadn’t either.

“I suppose it was Mr Bloody Nobody, was it?”  There was not a hint of humour in her tone.

“I’ve had enough of you all,” she said with controlled contempt.  “I’m leaving.  And I’m not coming back.”  She paused.  “Tell them to look for me in St Andrew’s dock.”

Deliberately, she grabbed the baby’s pram and left the house.

I was seven I suppose, KM eight and K, ten.

“One of you two better own up when she gets back,” K said.

“I’m not owning up.  I didn’t do it.” KM spat back.

“I’ll make you.”

“You and whose army?”

“Stop it,” I said, before they started.  They were always trying to beat seven shades of shit out of each other.

“Mary, you admit it.  She’s always easy on you.”  KM looked at me, half pleading.

“It wasn’t me.” I said.

We stood there for another ten minutes.  I think we expected her to pop up and say, ‘gotcha!’ but she didn’t.

“She’ll be back,” K tried to sound confident. I wanted to know where St Andrew’s Dock was.

“She’ll definitely be back.”

But she wasn’t.  It was early morning when she left.  Dinner time came and went, and there was still no sign of her.  We walked around the house like ghosts. We didn’t play.  We didn’t speak. We didn’t watch television.  It was a beautiful sunny day but we didn’t leave the house. It felt cold. Every now and then K would say, “She’ll be on her way home now” each time less certain than he’d been before.

At teatime, KM ferreted about the cupboards and found some tins of soup.  Standing on a stool, she heated them up then poured them into bowls.  She carefully wiped up the drips, even rinsing off the dishcloth as she’d seen our mother do. The three of us ate in silence.

Dad was working late but I was beginning to wonder how we would explain what we hadn’t done to make our mother leave and not come back.  I felt hollow, empty.  I wanted to say it was me who’d done the putty, even though I couldn’t reach it.  I wanted to take the blame for everything, to make it all alright. I started to imagine the words I would say.  I suppose the other two were making up their story too, but I didn’t ask.  Waves of worry washed over me.  My stomach hurt.  It would be bedtime soon. I didn’t want to go to bed without my mother home. Where was St Andrew’s dock?  Should we ring the police?

And then the door opened, and she came in.  My mother pulled the pram, a great big Silver-cross thing up over the step, parked it in its usual place beside the table. Then, she carried on as if nothing had happened.

I suppose the demands of motherhood just got the better of her sometimes.  And that St Andrew’s Dock day was one of those days.

Fast forward 10 years and I am standing in a phone box in Sheffield, a week or so into my first term at university feeling wretched and alone.  I am the first person in my family to go to university and the burden is too great.  I hate it.  I hate it and I want to come home.  I am out of place, skewed. I want to work in a factory, marry a man, have babies and not be clever. There is no-one like me here, no-one like us apart from the halls of residence porter and the woman who cleans my room.  I have made friends with both: she gives me the only cerise pink duvet available and, when I’m feeling down, he teases me about Hull, about how it smells like fish.

I am phoning my parents. The week before I’d told them I want to leave and over egg and bacon in a greasy spoon my father weeps, big, wracking, silent tears dripping down his cheeks.  My mother says I can leave if I want to.  What am I to do?  It’s the first time I have ever seen dad cry. So I get back on the train and resolve never to mention how hard it is again.

The phone rings out.  And then again.  Five or six times that evening I stand in line.  Five or six times the phone rings out.  Where are they? They are always in.  My parents don’t go anywhere. I feel alone.  Empty.  Hollow. It’s like the putty incident all over again. I don’t sleep.  I rock around my room, walking its tight dimensions like a prison cell.

The next morning my dad answers.  He should be at work.

“Where’s me mam?” I ask.

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Do I need to come home?”

“No!” he says.

He’s so firm that I take him at his word.

“How are you?”

I offer some platitudes.

“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” I ask.

Yes he says, she’ll be home next week.

So the following week I ring, and there my mother is bright and breezy but I know she’s holding back, holding in.  Week after week, we speak but say nothing.

Finally, I arrive home for Christmas and it is then I find out she has cancer.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I hold in my rage, my anger at not knowing about her pain, and at my exclusion.

“We didn’t want you to worry,” she says, “You’ve got enough on your plate.”

I can only return silence.  I want to say, ‘Please don’t do that again. Please tell me everything.’ But I can’t. I walk around like a ghost, too afraid to ask about her prognosis then finally pluck up the courage.

“I’m great,” she says, lying.  She has had a lump remove and the treatment is aggressive leaving her hair thin and her face grey.

“They’ve told me I’ll get better.”

And because there is nothing else I can do, I believe her. And we carry on as if nothing has happened.