Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Gaslight and ghastliness

Since yesterday's post, I have been thinking a great deal about that childhood introduction to gaslight. My sister and I had gone to stay with my father's stepmother in a small Cumbrian village. This was sometime in the mid-1950s, but could have been a century earlier, if you ignored the electric light, which in any case did not extend to the row of three outside toilets, each with a diamond cut out of the wooden door to let light in. (Three toilets may seem excessive, but there had been a working bakery attached to the house, with staff requirements to be met. My modern sensibilities refuse to dwell on the lack of handwashing facilities,)

The local accent was so unfamiliar that we barely understood a word that was said to us, and the village seemed to be populated entirely by old men in caps, who stared openly at us, and might occasionally offer a peppermint drop from a paper bag. We felt, and were, completely alien.

We shared a large feather bed with a satin eiderdown, and the whole thing was so high that once
in our pyjamas we had to take running jumps at it from the bedroom door, often failing to vault in far enough, and slithering hilariously down to the floor again. That, and watching the trains that ran past the long garden, was the most amusement we had, as I recall. Grandma was a gruff, very large woman who wheezed, walking with great difficulty and two sticks, and perhaps if we had seen her more often, and got used to her, we wouldn't have found her quite so daunting. Or, if I'm honest, rather frightening. Poor Grandma; she would no doubt have been shocked to think of two small girls being scared of her, but we were perpetually on our best behaviour, and were probably seen as two rather dull children, with little life in us.

One evening I was taken over the road with her and introduced to Grandma's neighbours. With the distortion of time and more than a tinge of horror, my memory of that visit was of a dark cavernous kitchen, lit by one flaring gas lamp on the wall, and a group of people
sitting round the table, who smiled and nodded at us in the shadowy gloom. One of the women was plucking a goose, which lay limply across her knee, the feathers falling into a zinc bathtub beside her. The whole scene had an intense bad-dreamlike atmosphere, and could have been lifted from a 19th century engraving of domestic life, from one of Dickens' less cheerful scenes.

The next time the possibility of a visit to Grandma was raised, my sister and my father went together, and I was, most mysteriously, permitted to stay at home with my mother and the baby. The relief that this decision brought me remains as vivid in my memory as that first visit to a strange and incomprehensible world. Years later, visiting again, I found that it had lost some of its terrors, aided by the kindness of an aunt, now grown up and able to see that a paintbox and colouring book might occupy a child more happily than being marched round the village for inspection.

A few years ago, I drove past Grandma's old house, long sold up to strangers, and was struck again by its grimness, set on a featureless main street in a village blasted by wind, rain and economic depression. I recaptured instantly some of the feelings of the child I had been on my first visit, in knitted cardigan and ankle socks, who had endured what was supposed to be a happy holiday, instead accumulating memories that my mother would never have intended for me as she packed our little suitcase and sent us forth to the bosom of my father's family.

And peppermint drops? No, thank you (said very politely).....

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