‘Can I stay at home, please?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ my mother said. ‘Rattling around in this house all on your own. Go and put your coat on.’
I have always hated shopping and I blame my mother for that.
During the long wait while she sat at her dressing table, which was itself dressed in starched crochet frills, I would watch as she powdered her nose, rouged her cheeks, and then the five-minute search for her hat, sometimes a scarf.
First stop: Mr Thomas, the cobbler above Bromley South station. I say above as there was a row of small shops built on the bridge. The trains shook the stacked shoes and jangled the blank keys waiting to be cut.
My mother handed him my Clarks school shoes. ‘I don’t know what he gets up to,’ she told him as if I wasn’t there. ‘He’s always running everywhere. Why he can’t keep still I don’t know.’ She looked at me, her face a brief smile. ‘You little rascal.’
‘Keeps me busy,’ said Mr Thomas. ‘Wednesday morning all right for you to collect?’A nod, then on to Cullens, the grocers.
‘Good morning, Mrs Douglas-Wilson. May I have your list?’
My mother would sit on a wicker chair at the far end of the counter while Mr Roberts, in his long brown jacket, climbed a ladder which ran on rails along the line of shelves. He called down, ‘Two tins of sardines today? These ones in brine are very good. Only half a pound of sugar this week? How’s the doctor? Saw him on Masons Hill on Saturday. Appeared to be having trouble with the motor. It was coughing a bit on the way up. I’m afraid this corned beef has gone up a ha’penny.’
‘Can we have some ginger snaps?’ I always had to remind her to buy biscuits.
Mr Roberts would open a large bin and scoop a dozen pieces into a paper bag. He would then hold the two corners of the bag and twizzle them several times to seal it.
Then to Importers, the coffee shop at the top of the High Street with a café at the back. I liked the aroma of roasting coffee revolving in the drum in the window.
‘Half a pound of Continental, please, Mr Barraclough. Ground two and a half. I’ll go and have my coffee and pick it up on my way out.’
I had to sit listening as my mother chatted to Naomi Peters, Dorothy Somers and Patty Masterson, her three friends, who were always there and always talking. Occasionally, they smiled in my direction through their unbroken words.
‘The tennis match has been cancelled with this rain. My daughter is so upset.’
‘My husband gets home so late. It’s hard keeping dinner warm for him.’
‘You must go to David Greigs. They have some excellent fresh salmon in today and their eels are always good.’
The local library was just across the road. Literature was my escape from my mother and her nattering friends. ‘Can I go and get a book?’
‘Yes, but be careful how you cross the road. Be back in 15 minutes.’
My favourites were Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows and Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, an illustrated and probably abridged version. The first was a rural escape from the suburbs, but safely English, while the second took me as far away as you could get.
And as much as I could find of Lewis Carroll so as to escape logic altogether: ‘and the moral of that is – be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’
In the winter flu season my mother would place Alice and her Wonderland friends in the oven for an hour ‘to get rid of the bugs, dear’. I always had a warm feeling when I read these books and I’m grateful to those talking women at Importers for encouraging my love of literature.
In Market Square there was Medhursts, the local department store, which had an extraordinary contraption for making purchases. The cashier would place the customer’s money in an envelope and pin this with a clothes peg to an overhead wire ‘track’ that whizzed the envelope way across the ceiling. Change and receipt came back the same route.
I remember my mother taking me there to meet Father Christmas for the first time. I sat on his lap and he gave me a Meccano set. How did he know?
That was the year my faith in Santa Claus was destroyed with a little help from my sister Liz. On Christmas Eve my mother told me to call his name up the sitting room chimney and ask him to visit.
I bent down close to the fire and called out, ‘Father Christmas, please come tonight.’
A voice came back. ‘Yes, child, I will.’
My sister started to laugh and I turned round to see my mother talking in a deep voice through her cupped hands. A dead giveaway, but I didn’t want to believe my own eyes or ears.
That night I asked my mother if my sister Joanna and I could leave a glass of sherry for Father Christmas as it was a cold night and he’d appreciate it. We had lost Liz to the faith.
Yes, of course, dear.’
We put the glass outside my bedroom. The next morning it was empty, with a note beside it. ‘Thank you for the most welcome glass of sherry.’
Hang on, that was my father’s writing.
I don’t remember my mother ever being upset with us children, but she often argued with her husband. That’s something I blocked from my mind, but my sisters remind me that plates used to fly. My father worked a seven-day week and had little time for us and her. When she was very old, she told me that he was less than attentive in bed.
Like my father, I think her own childhood had left its scars. My mother and her younger sister, Enid, were the daughters of Rees Bevan, the General Manager of Briton Ferry steelworks in south Wales. His wife had been killed in 1920 when my mother was twelve years old. My grandparents had been travelling in an open-topped car from their home in Pontardawe to Swansea. A lorry pulled out in front of them and because she was standing up to enjoy the sun and wind, her neck was cut by the windscreen.
Two years later, my grandfather married Betts, the under-matron at Malvern Girls’ School where he’d sent his daughters. Betts was only six years older than my mother and she saw to it that both girls were cut off from their father’s money. Thanks to Betts, there was never going to be help for either sister from their wealthy father.
They had a younger brother, Ken, who died of diphtheria, aged eight. Betts told the two sisters that he was ill because he’d eaten too many sweets. The girls nursed him and my mother told me that his last words were ‘I want to see my mother’. She said her brother had been popular in Pontardawe and all the shops closed on the day of his funeral. Throughout her life, she talked about Ken and how much she’d loved him.
At bedtime, if I was fooling around and disappeared under the sheets, my mother would get angry with me. I think it reminded her of Ken’s death. When she was dying, she kept mentioning his name.
After my mother left school, Betts made her feel unwelcome at home in Pontardawe so she went to Italy and took a job as a nanny for a contessa in Florence. She became fluent in Italian and used to entertain her charges on the piano and violin; she played both well. Her father came to visit her and got a small comeuppance on the journey there. He got off the train in Milan in his pyjamas to buy a newspaper and the train left without him. My mother always laughed when she told us that.
She spent her life trying to fit in with English middle-class conventions. At meals she would say, ‘Take your elbows off the table’, ‘Don’t scoop your peas’, Turn your fork over’. Salt had to be poured in a small pyramid at the side of the plate. When eating soup, the bowl had to be lifted away from you, never towards. Spread over your knees was a table napkin, but never a serviette When the meal was finished, knife and fork had to be placed together and set at six thirty on the dinner plate.
We were told never to say ‘toilet’, but ‘lavatory’. Never ‘pardon’, but ‘I beg your pardon’. We had to greet guests politely and say goodbye when they left. When my mother held her regular coffee mornings, she would call us down from our bedrooms: ‘Children, come and say goodbye to Mrs Paterson.’ If we were visitors at a friend’s house, we should never ask to look around.
Language and behaviour were codified to distance the upper and middle classes from the standards of common people: they were non-U to our U.
My mother had a slight Welsh accent. When she was with her sister, Enid, the accent became broad Swansea. I remember them gossiping about their cousin.
‘Do you remember Mathonwy, Betty?’
‘Oh yes, I do that,’ my mother answered.
‘She was a one, she was.’
My mother would then deliver the punchline. ‘Only had to hang her knickers on the end of the bed and she was pregnant.’ Dialogue worthy of Under Milk Wood.
One of the things I’m most grateful to my mother for are the holidays we took on a farm at Llangennith on the Gower Peninsula where Dylan Thomas had his first kiss. My father rarely came with us and would wave us off at Paddington station. We would visit her father in Swansea – God knows why – and then take the bus to Llangennith where we stayed on a dairy farm.
I loved climbing on the back of the tractor trailer each morning as the farmer loaded his milk churns. He let me sit beside them as he took them to the depot in the village.
Back at the farm, my sisters and I used to spend hours jumping from the barn loft into the deep straw below. When we got bored with that, we would stand on the rails of the gate leading into the field, staring at the cows. They, of course, stared back.
The beaches on the Gower were an adventure playground. My sisters and I played hide-and-seek in the dunes and, when the tide was out, we’d hunt for razor clams. They burrowed below the sand, but left small round depressions. We’d run to the sea line and fill milk bottles with water which we poured into the holes. We’d been told the clams would think the tide had come in and emerge from their burrows to feed through their siphons. Nobody really knows the truth of any of this. We never caught any. I would have liked to stay on that farm forever because I hated the journey home.
I hated Bromley and the London suburbs. North of London’s inner periphery road, the North Circular, and south of the South Circular has always been enemy territory to me, their streets living graveyards, their houses full of repressed emotions. Give me the inner city with its noise, sirens, dirt and anger.
We had moved to Bromley in 1946 when I was one. My first memories are from three years later. I remember a lot of snow, followed by a very hot summer. 1950 is recorded as being unusually warm with temperatures in the high 80s.
Perhaps childhood memories play tricks on us, but each trick contains a truth. Snow above the knees and watching my father dig a path to the pavement. The coal man tipping sacks of anthracite down the coal-hole. The bread van, the milkman, the rag-and-bone man with his horse, cart and bell. Running into the back garden to watch the sweep’s brush emerge from the chimney stack. The buses coming up Westmoreland Road: the 126 to Beckenham, the 138 to Hayes Common.
Of all the telephone numbers in my life, I can only remember Ravensbourne 4510. Of all the cars, I can only remember the registration of our Morris Oxford, RKE 595. I remember my first bicycle, a black Raleigh which, on summer mornings, I’d ride through affluent streets to the swimming pool at Bickley School on the other side of town. There is a strong smell of roses in those memories and the smell of the swimming pool itself, a chlorine memory. The more adventurous bicycle rides were out past Hayes Common to Westerham. I would cycle past RAF Biggin Hill and watch the Meteor jets take off and land.
There are memories of trains: steam giving way to electric as childhood gave way to adolescence. Standing on the pedestrian bridge at the far end of Bromley South station, waiting for the Golden Arrow to Dover to pass underneath my feet, steam enveloping me in a thick cloud. A temporary excitement, unlike the longer-lasting smog that gripped London in the early 1950s. Going to school with a handkerchief over my mouth which turned yellow on the journey, unable to see my hand in front of my face.
One memory still makes me feel guilty. May 1st, 1953, my mother’s 45th birthday. It must have been that year because the shop windows were full of Union Jacks and pictures of the new Queen. My sisters gave me one shilling and sixpence and told me to buy our mother a box of chocolates. I walked into Woolworths and spent the money on marbles.
When I got back Liz said, ‘We told you to buy chocolates for Mum and you bought marbles!’
I started to cry and ran upstairs to my parents’ bedroom. I placed the marbles on my mother’s dressing table. My sisters stood at the door.
‘What are you doing, David?’ Joanna asked.
Through guilty tears, I lied. ‘Look, they’re a lovely present.’
Elizabeth was born on August 18th 1941, and Joanna two years later on the same date. Curiously, the daughter my mother’s stepmother, Betts, had with Rees Bevan – also called Elizabeth – was born on August 18th and Betts died on August 18th. I don’t know what a numerologist would make of all this, but a bookie would say the odds are wildly against it.
My mother told me pointedly that my two sisters were ‘planned’.
‘And me, Mum?’
‘You?’ She would laugh and give me a hug.
In 1944 my father had been based at a military hospital in Shaftesbury. In July he was in the second wave of the D-Day landings. Although not with the front-line troops, he was entering a war zone to treat the wounded and traumatised. Perhaps on that last night in the house at No 39 Bell Street at the top of Gold Hill (some readers will remember it from the Hovis ads), he and my mother would have said their goodbyes. I can imagine her asking him if he had any condoms. He didn’t and probably didn’t fancy walking down that steep hill to get them from the hospital. ‘Betty,’ he might have said, ‘we can’t worry about that. I’m leaving at dawn.’
'Ah well,’ she would have replied, ‘I’m probably safe.’
I am proof of how safe she was. Whenever I visit my eldest son in Cornwall, I stop off in Shaftesbury and walk up Gold Hill. I love it. I like to imagine that that hill gave me life.
A year before she died, I visited my mother with my partner, Anne.
‘Happy birthday, Mum.’
She turned to my father. ‘Is it my birthday?’ ‘Yes, Betty, it is.’
Her face lit up. ‘Oh good.’
‘You are ninety today,’ I said.
‘Am I?’ She turned to my father. ‘Am I ninety, Ian?’
‘Yes, Betty, you are.’
‘Oh good,’ she said.
I gave her our present. Four packets of Marlboro Lights. She looked puzzled and handed them to Anne. ‘I don’t smoke. You have them.’
‘Your ashtray is full, Mum,’ I said. ‘Dad doesn’t smoke.’
‘Anne doesn’t smoke either, Mum.’
She looked at Anne. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you two married?’
‘No, we’re not,’ Anne said. Then looking at me, ‘Not yet.’
My mother looked concerned. ‘Ian, are we married?’
She smiled at him. ‘Oh good.’
She then turned to me. ‘Why aren’t you married?’
Before I had a chance to answer, her attention had drifted back to the cigarettes. She fumbled one out of its packet. ‘Will you light this for me, Ian?’ She took two puffs and left the cigarette to burn. ‘I’m tired. I’m tired, aren’t I, Ian? I think I’ll go and lie down.’ I took her to her room and pulled back the covers. I kissed her and she smiled up at me. ‘I love you. No, I adore you.’
In the last months of her life, and after 20 years of looking after her, it all became too much for my father. He told me that every evening he found her banging on the bedroom window and screaming, ‘I want to die. Let me die!’ She had to be moved to a care home. At the end of our visits there, we’d say goodbye and get up from our chairs. She did, too. ‘Oh good. We’re all going home now.’
When my mother died on the eve of the Millennium, aged 91, I didn’t cry. I’d been mourning her for years. The operation 28 years earlier had been a success, but as soon as the surgeon’s knife left her brain, the mother I had known was no longer there. She was confused and unable to do anything for herself. The only positive result was that she was cheerful for the rest of her life.
As I write this now, my father is clinging on and my mother’s ashes are in the attic where they’ve been for 13 years. She is waiting for him. When my father dies, my sisters and I will take them both to the Gower where we spent those childhood holidays. We will scatter their ashes at Worm’s Head. He’ll be able to spend more time with her there than he ever did when we were children.