Granny in the Doorway

Jonathan Raban looks back

We were an inseparable couple, my mother and I. Our address was: The White House, Hempton Green, nr Fakenham, Norfolk. Here we stove in the shells of our breakfast eggs with teaspoons to prevent witches from using them as boats (the eggs came from Mrs Atherton, who helped my mother in the house and kept chickens at her nearby cottage). Here we listened to the News on the wireless twice and sometimes three times a day. My father was a distant rumour. He was away in the war, and my mother believed that she might hear something of him if she listened closely enough to the News. ‘Hush! It’s time for the News’ punctuated our days as reliably as a chiming clock.

First came the pips at one-second intervals, then: ‘This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the News and this is Alvar Lidell reading it’ – a voice like God, from far-off London. My mother frowned as she listened, while I wriggled around to peer inside the set through the ventilation holes in its fibreboard back. The valves glowed and flickered like a miniature city in the darkness, and the whole mysterious apparatus gave off the smell of its own importance: oil, solder, burned dust, electrochemistry at work. It was magnificently incomprehensible. So was the newsreader’s voice, issuing from the front of the wireless, to which my mother attended with a face of studious perplexity.

The squirming child was all skin and bone. I had a wasting disease known as coeliac, or so my mother had been told. Several times a day I would vomit in the lavatory, with my mother cupping my forehead in the palm of her hand. This illness (as an adult I was told that it almost certainly wasn’t coeliac) was worn by me as a sign of great personal distinction. It entitled me to the secret hoard of bananas that were kept in the cool and musty larder off the hall, whose darkness and echoey flagstone floor, a few steps down from ground level, spooked me sufficiently that I never dared to go there alone. The mice, who scurried over the draining boards in the kitchen, made their headquarters in the larder.

In wartime England, nobody had bananas except me. They were specially imported just for my benefit, my mother said. When they arrived, they were firm and green, but quickly ripened to black in the larder, infecting the whole house with the stink of their decomposition. I liked the taste of sweet, putrescent ooze, and it’s hardly surprising that, given such a peculiar diet, I spent much of my time crouched over the toilet bowl, emptying my stomach of these rare luxuries, which, I believed, were flown to Fakenham for me by aeroplane.

My mother was teaching me to read, for I was her chief distraction from the war. When she wasn’t listening to the wireless or writing her daily letters to my father, she and I were playing alphabet cards – sounding out the letters and making words. Cat, mat, hat, sat, rat, fat. Pretty soon, I could mouth the words in the headlines of the Times, which appeared in our letterbox each morning, even when I had no clue of their meaning. This wasn’t precocity on my part but a measure of my mother’s attention to her child and anxiety for her husband, a product of the special circumstances of war.

It was a job for which she was unusually well qualified. My mother had only a smattering of formal education (the Vevey finishing school, from which she graduated at 16, used books primarily as objects to place on students’ heads in deportment lessons) but she was an avid reader of Mrs Gaskell (Cranford), Flora MacDonald (Lark Rise to Candleford) and Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm). At 17, she took a correspondence course from the Regent School of Successful Writing (‘101 Infallible Plot Situations’), and began to send out stories to women’s magazines. Horner’s Weekly responded with an acceptance letter, and soon she was contributing tales of romance in the countryside, each between 10,000 and 15,000 words long, at one guinea a thousand words. Years later, she would belittle the stories, saying they were no good, and the magazine was ‘just for servant girls’. The war and the paper shortage killed it (and most of the servant girls joined the war effort as land girls, working the fields in headscarves and trousers).

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