Friday Night at Grandad's
North London, 1932.
Sometimes, on a Friday evening, we would stay late at my grandad’s house. My grandmother had died when I was about nine. The only memory I have of her was being taken to a shop called Penny Bazaar which was in Fore Street, Edmonton, the part of London in which I was born.
When my grandmother died, my Auntie Bet — my dad’s eldest sister — left her job working in a factory in Preston, Lancashire, to come and look after Grandad, old Auntie Sally (my grandmother’s sister), and Ernie, Mirrie and May, the remainder of the seven siblings who were still at home. Home for them all was 65 Sweet Briar Walk, opposite Pymmes Park.
The kitchen at Sweet Briar Walk was where the family spent most of its time indoors; it was more of a living space than kitchens are today. The room was small, with a tall sash window looking out on to a tiny yard and back garden. Through this window the ghostly grey shape of a long tin bath, suspended in exile on the wooden fence by the back door, gazed in upon us. I couldn’t understand why they had a bath hanging outside, when they already had one along one wall in the tiny kitchen. This was covered with a board and tablecloth, and used as a table. My dad used to say that you could have a bath and fry your sausages on the gas oven at the same time.
Attached to the kitchen was a tiny scullery. The size of a cupboard, there was only room for a sink and a draining board on one side. A large tap, when turned, produced cold water. Hot water had to be from the kettle, which rested permanently on a wrought-iron plate, attached to the fire grate or, when needed in summer, heated on a gas cooker ring. A small window provided natural light. There was only room for one person to stand at the scullery sink, their posterior protruding into the kitchen.
In the corner of the kitchen was a built-in brick boiler with a small fire beneath to heat water in an integral stone bowl above it. Buckets were used to fill it with cold water from the tap in the sink, the fire lit and a wooden lid put in place to cover the bowl.
Bath night was once a week. The family took it in turns to bathe in the privacy of the kitchen, the next one in the queue to use the same water, topped up with another bucket of fresh hot water. There were also communal facilities in the town for those who wanted to use the public baths. My dad used to talk about the alternative to both. “You could always have a strip wash,” he’d say. “Wash down as far as possible, wash up as far as possible, then wash possible.”
A door, always ajar, led from the living room, down one linoleum-covered step into the kitchen where every day my Auntie Bet concocted the most appetising meals from the limited contents of her shopping basket. She went every day to the Co-op in Silver Street to buy food, fresh for each day’s meals. We had no fridge or freezer, just a larder with an air vent and a cold marble slab to keep things cool. In the summer it was a never-ending task to try to keep the bottled milk from going off. We had terracotta-coloured bottle covers that were soaked in cold water to slip neatly over the milk bottle, but the milk still went off. Butter too, often went rancid. We didn´t normally eat margarine, which at the time was pretty awful.
Dinners were eaten at midday and afternoon tea was at four o’clock. Cake was only eaten once a week, usually on a Sunday. The evening meal was supper: a cut off the cold joint, accompanied by a simple salad. Afterwards there was often tinned fruit salad with thin bread and butter. Sometimes it would be shrimps and winkles and brown bread and butter; pins stuck into the tablecloth, for spearing and prising the winkles from their shells. I didn’t mind twirling them out but I couldn’t eat them.
Watching Auntie Bet lay the table with care, setting the cutlery and the salt, pepper and mustard in their silver-domed pots on the virgin white damask tablecloth, was an added pleasure to the excellent meal that always followed. On Friday evenings, supper things cleared away, the table would be covered with a warm russet-coloured chenille cover with silky tassels.
In the evenings, Grandad and Auntie Bet used to enjoy a game of cribbage and sometimes, on a Friday evening, my mother would join them. My father worked in the evenings. He was a compositor on the Times newspaper and did not get home until after midnight. My sister Jeane and I were allowed to stay up late at their house, as there would be no school the next day.
Fascinated, I would watch the quick slap of the cards on the table and the deliberate placing of pegs in the cribbage board, which Grandad would allow no-one else to do. As the players counted their cards they would utter strange joyful sounds of ‘fifteen-two’, ‘fifteen-four’ and ‘one for his knob’.
If I got bored I would join Jeane by the fire, cutting out paper shapes. The scissors crunched through the paper deliciously, like eating celery. Crouched on the hearthrug we would draw pictures. I loved to sketch people, whole families. You could tell that they were related as, apart from their clothes and size, they all looked exactly the same: round faces, round eyes and oval mouths as if caught crying ‘Oh!’, surprised at being suddenly and miraculously brought to life.
The fireplace in this cosy room was a work of art. The large iron basket containing the glowing coals shone black from the morning’s rubbing with the blacking brush, and the glow from the fire danced on the brass fender and the long poker and tongs, crossed like swords guarding the precious hearth. Hanging above, attached to the mantelpiece, were looped and draped curtains in heavy brocade, held securely away from the flames by huge brass rosettes, linked by heavy brass chains. A long shoehorn, a real piece of horn, was suspended on one side of the surround, and on the other a long-handled gleaming toasting fork.
Among all this grandeur in the hearth, near the fire, stood a stone hot-water bottle, warming slowly, and a cup with a broken handle containing a foul-smelling brew of senna-pods, soaking for my Auntie Bet’s nightly ritual. She was a devout believer in regularity. Later, during the Second World War, she was delighted to learn from my cousin Bill, who was in the Eighth Army, that Montgomery shared her doctrinal values. It was rumoured that he told his troops, “Trust in the Lord and keep your bowels open.”
Before a game of cribbage started, my grandfather, as a preliminary step towards eventual retirement to bed, would undo the front of his stiff collar, releasing it to flip back and to remain all evening like a pair of miniature wings suspended from his back collar stud at the nape of his neck.
Halfway through the evening, we children would be given a steaming cup of cocoa and some thick slices of bread and dripping with the rich brown jelly scraped from the bottom of the basin and spread in blobs and swirls on the creamy dripping. The adults seemed content with their glasses of beer.
At last, as we grew drowsy before the fire, the game over for the evening, the coats and scarves, cold and clammy from their long sojourn on the couch in the freezing front room, then called the parlour, would be fetched to enfold us in their icy wakefulness. Aunt Bet proclaimed that a brisk walk home would blow the cobwebs away.
A kiss from Aunt Bet and Grandad was followed by a brief hopeful pause as we gazed, mesmerised by the dangling gold sovereign and watch, suspended from his massive watch-chain, stretched across his stomach as he rummaged in his waistcoat pocket for the customary penny piece for being good children.
Leaving the comfort of Grandad’s house to travel stiff and cold, our footsteps echoing through the empty streets, we were marched with steady intent from golden glow to golden glow, counting the lamp posts until we reached our house.
Our other grandparents, my mother’s parents, with whom we shared our home, would always leave a welcoming gas light burning in the hall, which spluttered irritably through the fan-light above the front door as if annoyed at being kept up so late.
Once inside, Billy, our yellow mongrel dog would welcome us ecstatically by alternately licking our frozen legs and beating them with the wag of what was left of his tail. It had been docked by his previous owners and was a source of constant regret to me that it had been mutilated in this way. It was as common a practice in those days as having your tonsils out, even when there was nothing wrong with them. But that’s another story.
Divesting ourselves of our outdoor clothes and receiving a goodnight kiss from Mum, we climbed the lino-covered stairs to the back bedroom that we shared. Too tired to fold our clothes we flung them in an untidy heap on the large wicker chair by the window and climbed gratefully into bed.
Once enfolded in the warmth of our feather mattress and thick eiderdown, my sister and I would surrender to dreamless sleep, blissfully aware that in the morning, being a Saturday, we would be allowed to sleep in.