Grandma at home

Lorna Sage on her childhood

Hanmer’s pretty mere, the sloping fields that surrounded us, and the hedges overgrown with hawthorn, honeysuckle and dog roses that fringed the lanes, might as well have been a cunning mirage as far as grandma was concerned. They did nothing to alleviate the lousy desert that made up her picture of village life. She lived like a prisoner, an urban refugee self-immured behind the vicarage’s bars and shutters. None of my new school friends were allowed in the house, of course. You could get into the vicarage garden via a side yard, or by climbing over the walls, and that was the way we did it. The whole thing was clandestine, the other children weren’t supposed to be really there at all, any more than that picturesque backdrop of lake and trees and cows. Meanwhile, insulated and apart, vicarage life went on. In the church, in bars, in books (grandpa) or in a scented bedroom fug of dreams of home in South Wales (grandma). That is, of Tonypandy in the Rhondda, which rhymed with yonder, but with its Welsh ‘d’s softened into ‘th’, so that it seemed the essence of elsewhere.

Her Welsh accent was foreign – sing-song, insidious, unctuous, converting easily to menace. Asthma lent a breathy vehemence to her curses, and when she laughed she’d fall into wheezing fits that required a sniff of smelling-salts. She had a repertoire of mysterious private catch-phrases that always sent her off. If anyone asked what was the time, she’d retort, ‘Just struck an elephant!’ and cackle triumphantly. Then, ‘Dew, Dew,’ she’d mutter as she got her breath back – or that’s what it sounded like – meaning ‘Deary me’ or ‘Well, well’, shaking her head. That ‘ew’ sound was ubiquitous with her. She pronounced ‘you’ as ‘ew’, puckering up her small mouth as if to savour the nice or nasty taste you represented.

She had lost her teeth, and could make a most ghoulish face by arranging the false set, gums and all, outside her lips, in a voracious grin. This clownish act didn’t conceal her real hunger, however. She projected want. During the days of rationing she craved sugar. Its shortage must have postponed some of the worst ravages of the diabetes that martyred her later, for once the stuff was available again she couldn’t resist it, at all. She was soft and slightly powdery to the touch, as though she’d been dusted all over with icing sugar like a sponge cake. She shared her Edwardian generation’s genteel contempt for sunburn and freckles, and thanks to her nocturnal habits her skin was eerily pale. And just as she maintained that soap and water were too harsh for this delicate skin of hers, so she insisted that she couldn’t chew or digest gristly, fibrous meals with meat and vegetables, but must live on thin bread-and-butter with the crusts cut off if she couldn’t have tarts and buns. This, she’d repeat to me, was what little girls were made of, sugar and spice and all things nice – and I knew she was thinking of the sticky blondness of butter icing. Her ill-health had aged her into a child again, in a way: a fat doll tottering on tiny swollen feet. But in her head she’d never been anything else, she still lived in the Rhondda in her mother’s house, with her sister Katie. So powerful was the aura of longing surrounding the place, that it ought, by rights, to have been entirely fantastical, or at best only a memory. But no. True, her mother was long dead, but home actually still existed.

In the summer holidays we went there to visit, grandma, my mother and me, leaving grandpa behind. (This was called ‘letting him stew in his own juice’.) South Wales was an entirely female country in our family mythology, despite the mines and miners. A female place, an urban place and a place all indoors. Going there was like sinking into fantasy for all these reasons – and for one special reason above all, which was that home was a shop, and we lived over it, and when we were there all the money-horrors were magically suspended. Life was unfallen, prelapsarian, as though paying for things hadn’t yet been invented. When you wanted a chop or a tea-cake you just went and helped yourself without even having to cross the street. It was a self-sufficient kingdom, or almost: a general stores that stocked everything from tin trays to oranges to sausages to sides of beef and cigarettes, with a special line in Lyons’ cakes, and when I was small I could entirely sympathise with grandma in her resentment at having been persuaded to swap this blissful set-up for the vicarage and the dilapidations. Life at ‘Hereford Stores’ – named for her mother’s native town – was her ideal of luxury and gentility, the source of her unshakeable conviction of social superiority to everyone in Hanmer.

In fact, her sense of what class amounted to was remarkably pure and precise, in its South Wales way. Owning a business in a community where virtually everyone else went down the pit for wages would have seemed, in her youth, thoroughly posh. And the simple fact of not working when all around you were either slaving away or – worse – out of work would have been sufficient to mark you out as a ‘lady’. What could be grander than lounging around upstairs, nibbling at the stock when the fancy took you, brushing out your curls? She and Katie would still spend hour upon hour getting ready to go out – to Cardiff, or to Pontypridd, to some tea-shop, or to the pictures – recapturing the world of their girlhood, before men and money had turned real.

Katie was in her forties, and had never married. She too was very plump and a bit breathless, but her hair was still red, her teeth were her own, and her laugh had a tuneful trill to it, so that she tended on the face of things to bear out grandma’s belief that you were better off without men. There was a shadowy man on the premises – their elder brother Stan – but he didn’t really count, because (after, so they said, a dashing, brilliant youth) he’d had a colossal breakdown and was never quite right again. Now, in his fifties, he was seedy and skinny, with a faraway gleam in his eye, due to stubbornly wearing his mother’s spectacles instead of getting some of his own. Stan hardly dented the atmosphere of scent and vanishing cream and talc I thought of as Hereford Stores. He slipped through it sideways like a ghost. There were two other brothers, in fact, but they’d long ago left home, and were thought about as outcasts: elderly Tom, who looked after the butchery part of the business, was a pariah because he lived with a housekeeper who was not-very-secretly his mistress, and thus belonged to the same vicious male sect as grandpa; and Danny was talked about in the past tense as though he was dead, because he had actually had the gall to set up a shop of his own in another valley. So the magic circle of sweet, stale dreams stayed intact, up the crooked stairs over the old double-fronted store, with their family name, ‘Thomas’, fading over the door.

The house was overheated with high quality, jet-black, sparkling coal, swapped for groceries with the miners who got it for perks. There was a big old range in the kitchen, which was behind the shop on the ground floor in point of truthful topography, although imaginatively speaking it was upstairs. Here a serial tea-party like the Mad Hatter’s was in full swing all day and every day except Sunday, when Katie would ceremoniously roast a joint of meat (picked out by Tom) and get very red in the face. Otherwise we lived on grandma’s favourite diet of bread and butter, toasted teacakes, scones, sponges and so on, eked out with tinned fruit and condensed milk. It was understood that cooking, cleaning and washing-up were properly the duties of a ‘skivvy’, which is glossed by the OED as a maid-of-all-work (usually derogatory) – first example 1902, so very exactly a grandma-word, she’d have been ten in 1902 – but if you didn’t happen to have one then you tried to get through as little crockery as possible, for instance by hanging onto your cup all day, just giving it a cursory rinse once in a while. South Wales habits accounted for a good proportion of vicarage dirt I suppose: certainly it would have been very difficult to wash clothes, dishes or oneself with any regularity or thoroughness there, since the taps mostly seemed to be rusted up in disused outhouses in the yard, and the skivvies who’d once upon a time carried water upstairs for bedroom washbasins were no more. Still, somehow, in the Rhondda we never seemed so shamingly grubby as when we were in Hanmer. And the housework that spelt such unending, ineffectual drudgery for my mother in the vicarage simply wasn’t done, for the most part, and nobody much cared.

Hanmer hemmed us in and threatened to expose our secret squalor, whereas neighbours in Tonypandy’s steep, jerry-built streets seemed to have lost interest in the ways of Hereford Stores. Katie and Stan gossiped with customers, of course, and this functioned as a kind of insulation – a protective barrier of chat within which their eccentricities were contained, unquestioned. They no longer had a social life otherwise, and having quarrelled with their relations, they lived as they liked. There was something pleasurable and even thrilling about this, in the late Forties and early Fifties, when advertising and women’s magazines were so venomously clean-cut and conformist in their versions of how to be. You were supposed to cringe inwardly when you saw those Persil ads: a little boy’s head swivelling on his neck as another boy, the one with the Persil-bright shirt – strides proudly by. ‘Persil washes whiter – and it shows!’ Competitive cleanliness. Hereford Stores sold soap powder alright, and the miners’ wives scrubbed away on their washing-boards, and competed with each other in the whiteness of their lace curtains and doilies and antimacassars (an endless battle, in that atmosphere) but grandma and Katie scorned it all. They were heretics, they wouldn’t play by the rules. If society wouldn’t supply them with skivvies, they were damned if they were going to slave away.

My mother, however, got the worst of both worlds. She inherited the contempt for housework, and she was also imbued with the notion that it was a sacred womanly duty. So she dusted and scrubbed and mopped and ironed, but with self scorn, and – what made it infinitely worse – no idea at all how to set about it. All housework is futile in the sense that it has always to be done again. Hers was more blatantly so, since the vicarage didn’t even look briefly clean when she’d ‘finished’. When my poor mother mopped a floor she merely redistributed the grime – and it showed! That this wretched syndrome was magically suspended in South Wales added to the feeling of playing hookey from reality. Everyone was a girl again – not just grandma, who perhaps always was, but my mother too.

In the drawers upstairs were scented hankies, fake pearls, ends of embroidered ribbon, painted buttons, scraps of lace, lavender sachets, dyed feathers. They hoarded. Grandma especially loved anything made of mother-of-pearl. For her its rainbow sheen was the epitome of prettiness, and its very name was shadowed with extra glamour in that house. Their father had left nearly no impression, but mother was invoked daily as the standard of grace, sweetness, refinement. When grandma and Katie looked in the mirror, and titivated, and sighed, it was their mother’s face they were looking for. And when they unhooked their creaking corsets after an outing, eased off their tight shoes, and made yet another pot of tea, they were mothering themselves as she would have done. She must have spoiled them hugely, for they reposed in the mere idea of her, though nothing they said about her – nor her rather blank-looking photographs – gave her much character. Except for the hair. Her hair they rhapsodised about: naturally wavy, and not yellow, not red, not copper-coloured, but golden. ‘The colour of a sovereign,’ they’d sigh, for all the world as though she’d been a fairy-tale princess, able to spin riches out of her hair. When they remembered her, one or the other of them would sooner or later repeat the phrase ‘like a sovereign’ – it became her motto, the sign of her mysterious charm.

Hereford Stores was silted up with mementos of her era. There were hundreds of picture postcards filed away in chocolate boxes: glazed, embossed and glowing with unnaturally beautiful colours. One I particularly pored over from the time of the First World War (Katie’s first bloom) showed a handsome officer reclining in the arms of a pretty nurse, with a small, scarlet stain on his bandaged temple, and discreet puffs of smoke to indicate a battle in the distance. But all the pictures were sanctified by association. They belonged to the world of mothballed hopes, that eerie wonderland of kitsch innocence where, in some unimaginable corner of time, a juvenile grandpa and an even younger grandma had met and married, and inaugurated Hell.

How had it come about? How had he managed to fall for a girl with nearly no brains at all, and nearly no conversation except for curses and coos? With absolutely no interest in books or music or painting or ideas or anything much except peppermint creams and frilly blouses? And why did she accept a lean and hungry curate with his way to make? A clever, passionate, talented man if you believed in him, but a bookish boaster, lecher, snob, ham actor and so forth if you didn’t. They must have been mutually blinded by their dreams and needs: presumably he fell for her icing-sugar-and-spice flesh, not yet run to flab; and she for the pleasure of being courted, the prestige of being married. It seems safe to assume, from the outrage with which she referred to the whole messy business, that she married in entire ignorance of the mechanics of intercourse and childbirth, and found them hideous.

His discovery that she was barely literate and thoroughly philistine was (one imagines) less traumatic. After all, marrying a pretty, empty headed girl was considered par for the course, and still is, even in a world where couples get to know each other first. Hilda Thomas and Thomas James Meredith-Morris, back then in decorous 19 –, wouldn’t have been very well acquainted. In that, of course, they were simply figures of their generation. What made their marriage more than a run-of-the-mill case of domestic estrangement was her refusal to accept her lot. She stayed furious all the days of her life – so sure of her ground, so successfully spoiled, that she was utterly impervious to the social pressures and propaganda that made most women settle down to play the part of wife. Sex, genteel poverty, the responsibilities of motherhood, let alone the duties of the vicar’s helpmeet – she refused any part of. They were in her view stinking offences, devilish male plots to degrade her. When he took to booze and other women (which he might well have done anyway, though she provided him with a kind of excuse by making the vicarage hearth so hostile) her loathing for him was perfected. He was the one who had conned her into leaving her real home, her girlhood, the shop where you never had to pay for anything, the endless tea-party. It was as though he’d invented sex and pain and want and exposure. She turned patriarchal attitudes inside out: he was God to her. That is, he was making it up as he went along, to spite her, and with no higher Authority to back him up. There was no Almighty in charge, to excuse him, in grandma’s world-picture. She was an unreconstructed pagan herself, her sacraments a toasted tea-cake and a cup of tea, her rosary woven out of her mother’s hair. And she treated this life he offered, his shabby malicious invention, with contempt, and cocooned herself in memories. The visits to Hereford Stores were her lifeline back to the world before.

Life at the shop was running down, though. Bit by bit they’d gone off their mother’s gold standard. Tom’s butchery department still seemed fairly solid, meat-rationing had buoyed it up somehow, or at least disguised the falling-off in business. But once you turned your back on his suet-and-sawdust smelling counter and faced into Kate and Stan’s domain (which smelled acridly of tobacco, cheese, yellow soap) you could see that trade was anything but brisk. Customers came out of habit, the older ones, and because they couldn’t carry shopping bags up the hill. They bought tiny quantities in any case, rationed by poverty as much as by coupons. As I grew and 1950 loomed the world in general began cautiously to cast off austerity, leaving Hereford Stores behind, stranded and getting gradually dustier and emptier. When I could count money well enough to be allowed to play shop, I sold untipped Woodbines in ones and twos out of an opened packet we kept by the till. My customers were stooped men with permanent bronchitis and big boys of 13 or 14 mysteriously off school. Men in work and their wives shopped elsewhere, except sometimes after hours, when Kate and Stan could be relied on to serve late-comers. It was the sort of shop, in fact, that had almost as many customers when it was closed as when it was open. Feckless, improvident types rattled at the door at all hours wanting a few fags or half a loaf. And, of course, in search of that increasingly rare commodity that was turning out to be Kate and Stan’s special stock-in-trade: tick.

Katie doled out credit with a mixture of scandal, resignation and sympathy, clicking her tongue and sighing as she settled back into the kitchen’s fireside warm to gossip about the after-hours callers (‘There’s cheek for you, sent that Jimmy round again, poor little tyke’). But Stan had his own infinitely more elaborate and clandestine methods, which he’d evolved during the Depression. This was all meant to be a secret – part of his furtive lunacy – but he was proud of his system, and took me on a tour of the stock-rooms and the lofts above to show me how it worked. This whole building was separate from the house, a ramshackle barnlike wooden place with missing floorboards and shaky stairs. There were soap boxes, candles, piles of tin trays and jute mats, cigarettes in cartons on top away from the damp, nothing very exciting at first glance. It was only when you edged your way past this sensible stuff that you entered Stan’s Aladdin’s cave.

Piled up high, glinting and dusty, were curly metal antlers and wiry spines and whiskers that on closer inspection resolved themselves into dismembered bicycles – handlebars, wheels, plus the occasional fork or seat. There were smaller sets of wheels, too, that came in fours, from prams, and even some whole prams, parked dangerously on top of one another like an accident. He was proudest, though, of the contents of the sacks he kept, for fear of thieves, on the upper storey where the holes in the floor acted as booby-traps. Here he had sacks full of ivories: confiscated piano keys, which for Stan, you could tell, represented (together with his other trophies) a cunningly-accumulated fortune, the wealth of the world, pretty nearly, infinite riches in a little room.

His plan had been to confiscate people’s most vital possessions – their mobility and their music – as pledges against bad debts. They were never redeemed. Yet Stan didn’t mind, didn’t mind at all. In fact he was as excited and pleased as if he’d invented his own currency and was a secret millionaire in it. He cherished the ivories and the bike-wheels, and looked on the storerooms as a sort of safety-deposit. This was his treasure, his equivalent to the collections of scented sachets and beads his sisters kept in the bedrooms. They for their part tut-tutted over his inexplicable affection for this junk, but even at the time when I was small, I think I somehow understood – since I liked the prams and bikes, and was mystified and impressed by what I imagined to be the stolen teeth of all those pianos – that here was yet another annexe to the fantasy-edifice of Hereford Stores. They had (save butcher Tom) all-but forgotten that keeping a shop was about swapping goods for money; its real function was as a shrine to the past. Mother’s emotional generosity, her gift for giving, had turned all three into obsessive hoarders.

Their bankrupt idyll lasted for nearly ten years after the war. And even when Katie finally married, and died of a stroke horribly soon, confirming all the myths about men, Hereford Stores went on providing the ghost of a living for my mother’s disreputable brother, Uncle Bill, who joined Stan in the shadows until – some time around 1960 – he was done for receiving some hot Daz, and the CLOSED sign went up for the last time, and finally meant what it said.

Grandma all along eked out her visits with other fantasy-gratifications, in any case. She could hoard wherever she was, and although Shrewsbury and Chester were in her view not a patch on Cardiff, they would help recapture the security of streets, and their cafés and cinemas would cocoon her against the hostile whispers of the trees and the whiffs of manure. These outings were all-female too, and involved hours of getting ready, then a lift to the train from a blaspheming grandpa, or sometimes a taxi, all so that she’d be able to repose in the life-giving fug of a matinee at the Gaumont or the Majestic. The plush seats, the dimming of the lights and the sheen they caught on the swagged curtain as it rose, the box of chocolates, were as important as the film itself, almost. Though she loved the whole thing, and entered into the spirit of the illusion so enthusiastically that she swept aside the dimension of fiction altogether. The latest Ava Gardner movie was just the latest report on what promiscuous Ava had been up to since you saw her last: the changes of costume and setting and name were feeble disguises, and didn’t fool grandma for a minute. She was there to witness when Joan Fontaine, for all her icy blondness, fell for Harry Belafonte, and would (she said) never trust Joan again. Grace Kelly she watched like a hawk for signs of similar leanings, and was semi-confirmed when Grace married an Eye-tie. (She herself wouldn’t touch dark chocolate even, and anyone who acquired a suntan was suspected of a touch of the tar-brush.) Once television arrived in our lives she became an addict of soap operas, and in particular Emergency Ward 10, which saved her life day after dreary rural day. The box eventually became her babysitter, the last, many times removed substitute for mother. By then I was treating her with contempt, as a senile infant, though she scared me a lot, in truth, because she represented the prospect of never growing up.

Once upon a time in South Wales, when a friend of Katie’s came to stay, I had had to spend the night in a feather bed, sandwiched between Katie and grandma, and that ambiguous sensation of sinking back and back, down and down, in a deep nest of feathers and furbelows and flesh, came to stand for the Rhondda. Infinite regress threatened down there: promised, and threatened. It was pleasurable – how could it be otherwise? – to return to the smothering, spongy womb of the Stores. And yet I was always glad to get away. As I grew grandma got shorter, so that she sometimes looked almost spherical. She and Katie were such an exclusive club, really, that even my mother wasn’t a full member, and I was even further removed from the inner sanctum because I couldn’t recall my great-grandmother, so had to take her praises on trust.

There were other Welsh voices I could have listened to. Occasionally – and to my great surprise – people who dropped into the shop would congratulate my mother on my bookishness and talk with pride about how their grandchildren were ‘getting on’ and going to the grammar school. People in Tonypandy, as in other mining districts, were enthusiastic about education, in sharp contrast to Hanmer’s conservative scorn and inertia. The future was real, and a good thing, and even if you went down the pit like your Da you weren’t expected to give up reading, thinking, arguing or politicking; autodidacts flourished still in those days. Nonetheless the atmosphere of Hereford Stores dominated my sense of the place, so that for me the journey south was like slipping into a pocket of the past. I didn’t know who I was, there – didn’t need to know. It was as though I hadn’t been born yet.

Grandma saved paper bags inside paper bags inside paper bags ... Years later, when she died, and my mother and I were going through the trunks that by then held the compacted residue of her lifetime’s squirrelling, we came on a cache of letters from my grandfather, tied in the inevitable, banal shred of pink ribbon. His courtship compositions, they were, full of quotations from the poets, sentimental flourishes, promising plans. We looked at them with an awful embarrassment, and agreed (how I wish now that we hadn’t) to burn them, because they seemed shaming evidence of the mutual confidence-trick of that hateful marriage. There was cash in the same trunk, folded notes cunningly dispersed among the photos of Katie done up to the nines, and the bars of waxy, soap, and sugar lumps put by against the return of rationing. And that money was the clue to another part of her story. Where did she get it? Where, for that matter, did she acquire the substantial sum – around five hundred pounds – she’d accumulated in my name (so that my father couldn’t inherit it, she told me once) in National Savings? I didn’t think very hard about it at the time, and I took the theories that circulated in the family as tall tales. However, grandma’s way of blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality, and her power to draw me back into the past, have long outlived her.

About the money: I was asking my father just the other day whether some of the wilder things I recalled about the grandparents had any basis in truth. For instance, what about the story that grandma had blackmailed grandpa for years, by threatening to show his private diary to the Bishop unless he handed over part of his stipend every quarter? Well, yes, said my father, that was certainly true. But how do you know? I asked. Simple, he said, I’ve got the diaries, two of them. (Because of course she’d kept them as well in one of the trunks, though my mother had never let on.) Anyway, with a bit of persuasion, reluctantly, my father handed them over: two small, cheap, reddish diaries, for 1933 and 1934, both published by John Walker & Co, Farringdon House, Warwick Lane, EC4, filled with very small writing, and decorated at weekly intervals with coloured stamps he stuck in to mark the Church calendar. These left him even less space to write down the compromising details of his daily life, but he managed enough.