Friday, 27 July 2007

The three irregular amber beads had been in the window for as long as I could remember. Golden chunks on a thin gold chain, they were hopelessly old and completely unattainable. The shop was painted black with a small three cornered tear in the faded front blind, but to me it was mysterious. I sometimes walked by with my Dad. Occasionally he’d stop and chat in the street, then I’d look through the door. There was a small side counter. I think I even went into the shop once, when we had our old clock repaired.

At the back, the doorway was obscured by a curtain of long, brown glass, bugle beads. I thought them unspeakably exotic. I imagined the sound they’d make if you walked through. I suspected there might be treasure on the other side.

Things came and went from the main window, but the display in the little side window never changed. There was only a couple of bits of dusty silver and the amber necklace, three lonely chunks on a bit of gold chain.

Looking back there was nothing special about those amber beads. They had trapped no Jurassic fly, nor were they glamorous, but I wanted them so badly.

I never mentioned it to anyone. What would have been the point. My father frowned upon jewellery, my mother would have said it was a waste of money and my big sister had a passion for startling fake pearls. All my friends wore crosses or little silver lockets, of the type you could open and show your boyfriend’s picture, hopefully.

At fourteen I got a Saturday job. For a while I worked in a sweet shop, but jumped at the chance of being a Saturday girl in Woolworths on the High Street. Once a week I was queen of the haberdashery counter. I sold needles, cottons, coloured tapes, embroidery silk, that sort of thing.

Every Saturday afternoon an old woman came and stole bits and pieces from my counter. Though terrified I’d be blamed, I never told. I knew what it was like to want something really badly. I knew, if left alone with that necklace, what I’d be tempted to do. Instead I saved.

One lunchtime, braving snooty disapproval, I asked the shopman the price. It was a huge sum. I think £5, but I can’t be sure. It was a while ago. I saved what I could in secret, checking that little side window when I walked past. The more I saved the more pressing was the need to own that necklace.

Eventually one Christmas, probably about six years after I first saw it and almost a year from when I’d checked the price, I had enough. I couldn’t wait for Saturday to come.

But a shock was waiting at the shop. The necklace was gone. There was a space in the window where it should have been. In alarm I went in, hoping it had just been moved, but no. It had been sold, the man said, just a few days before. Back out on the street I wanted to weep. It was a scruffy, down at heel street then, narrow and congested, just a few tatty shops including a corn chandlers, a café, chip shop and that seedy little jewellers.

It’s upmarket now, smart antique shops on both sides, traffic restricted to one way.

I’ve owned amber, jet, lapis lazuli. I’ve collected every type of exotic bead you could imagine. I make glass beads myself, but I’ve never wanted a necklace as much as I wanted that one.

Just three rough amber beads on a thin gold chain. Nothing special, but if I saw it now I’d still be thrilled.

Monday, 23 July 2007

The importance of big knickers

This is my big sister’s favourite story about me. It’s one she loves to tell but I am not so sure.

Sunday afternoons saw us both packed off to Sunday school. I now realise my parents’ religious fervour had little to do with our spiritual well being, and more to do with, ‘a little lie down’, on Sunday afternoons.

However, after lunch, the woman who ran our local G.F.S group, (Girls Friendly Society - an organisation deserving a whole blog to itself) would pick us up in her little green van. Off we’d go to endure an afternoon of stultifying boredom. In the little ones’ group I’d cut out pictures and copy an uplifting text. ‘Suffer the Little Children …. was one of the most appropriate.

I was a free range child and being indoors when I could be out playing on a sunny afternoon was torture to me. My 8th year was a year of rebellion. One inviting Sunday afternoon, lunch finished, we were sent to wait in the lane for our lift. I rushed out in front of my sister and shot up the big old yew tree that grew close to our garden boundary. There I hid among the dense branches.

My pious sister called and called but I couldn’t be found and off she went on her own.

I waited until the coast was clear and started the descent.. Topping forty five feet, the yew tree was mammoth and I’d scrambled right to the top. Getting down wasn’t easy. Yew trees are dusty and bits got in my hair and eyes. Irregular twigs stuck up from the massive branches and I got caught up.

Scared, grubby and stuck fast on a branch about twelve feet from the ground, I waited for my sister’s return. Seeing her just about to enter the gate I called out. She appeared beneath me, more than usually pious and disapproving. I tried to explain I was stuck and caught up. She tutted and said,

“Oh just jump. You’ll be O.K. The grounds soft”.

I was doubtful but jumped. My knicker leg was hooked firmly over a sticking up twig and, after falling forward, I was left dangling. Far from helping me, my rotten sister collapsed with laughter as I was slowly lowered by my tearing underwear. It says something for the quality of the fabric and quantity of the material that it was some time before, with a sudden rip, the navy interlock gave way and I was dropped unhurt onto the ground.

Pious sister was hysterical, she’s still laughing about it fifty years later. I guess if she had a computer this is the first blog she’d write. She never let on to our parents though. As I’ve reminded her on more than one occasion since, some things are better not disclosed.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Tantrums and vests

My mother used to knit my vests which, even for the 1950s, was unusual. Most of the other girls my age had hand knitted cardigans, mine were often shop bought, but for some reason she always knitted my vests.

Nearly 40 when I was born, my Mum was also the product of older parents. My maternal Gran and Grandad, what little I remember if them, were true Victorians, very religious, very stern, clothed in black and ancient.

Grandad in his nineties, still wore a bowler hat and waistcoat; Granny had an umbrella with a duck’s head handle and a fierce expression. I longed to be like other girls, have a Nana with blue rinsed hair and wear Marks and Spencer’s vests, preferably the ones with blue or pink ribbons. And how I longed for dainty aertex knickers. Mum didn’t knit them, thanks goodness, but I swear the ones I had to wear would have withstood a nuclear blast.

I had an early rebellion about wearing liberty bodices, I always chewed up the rubber buttons, but those knitted vests were indestructible. Grown out of, they would be unravelled, a bit more wool bought, and a new set knitted up in no time. Women who had lived through the war knew a thing or two about recycling.

My big rebellion came when I was about eight. Firstly I tied my knitted pixie hood to the top of the tallest tree I could climb. I did contemplate doing away with the vests but didn’t dare.

Quite by accident I found a way out. On a trip to town to buy shoes I threw an enormous tantrum. I wanted a cherry red pair with straps not my usual sensible laceups. My Dad made my big, brown shoes so shiny with polish that the boys on the school bus had started to call me ‘conkers’. I desperately needed different footwear. To my amazement the tantrum worked. I got the shoes and the power I wanted. If used sparingly those tantrums served me well.

I didn’t get the dainty vests I craved, much too frivolous, but at least the scratchy horrors were replaced by sensible white interlock. I even managed to tantrum my way into a pair of blue and white baby doll pyjamas and a startling pink swim suit, complete with saucy skirt. Only occasionally I took the tantrums too far and all I got was a smacked bottom and sent to bed but, on the whole, it was worth the risk.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

For lovers of cats and mysteries

I don’t really believe in ghosts, I’m too much of a cynical realist, but I’ve never been able to explain what happened in our previous house. When looking for suitable furniture to do up our Victorian kitchen, we saw a dilapidated old pot cupboard standing outside a junk furniture shop. The owner of the shop said they’d just cleared a Sussex farmhouse and this had been ripped out of the kitchen. We snapped it up as a bargain and, when stripped and cleaned of years of grease and grime, it looked gorgeous. It looked like it had always been there, completely filling one wall.

Initially nothing unusual was noticed until on day my neighbour, perched sipping coffee and admiring the renovations, suddenly brushed something away from her legs with a shudder. She has a fear of cats and insisted a large cat had brushed past her legs . I pointed out that my cat was asleep in the garden, but she insisted a cat had been there.

I thought no more about it until a few weeks later. One afternoon I was sitting reading at the kitchen when my cat jumped in the chair behind me. I felt him squeeze in the space between me and the back of the chair. We often had minor battles as to who owned that particular chair and this time I was determined to win. I turned round to pick him up and chuck him off, but there was no cat.

A little nervously I told my husband, expecting my story to be dismissed as a fantasy, but he took me seriously. He said that when he was rebuilding the kitchen, plumbing in the sink unit to be precise, he’d felt a cat brushing round his back. He hadn’t liked to mention it before as it seemed so strange, no cat being there.

We lived for several years with a vague feeling of a benign presence in the house. Our children were teenagers at the time and they never mentioned anything and we never told them about our extra ‘cat’.

Maybe it was our imagination but we sometimes felt it was just out of sight, in the corner of an eye, in another room. It was no way scary, just there.

Only once more did it make itself known to anyone. On her last visit to us , my mother, in her late eighties and with her mind meandering far into the past, suddenly smiled and put her hand down and stroked a cat, saying, ‘Nice puss’ or something like that. She had owned many cats in her lifetime and was an enduring cat lover. Her mind may have been wandering but I am sure on that occasion, even though I couldn’t see it, she stroked a cat.

As I’ve said, I can’t explain it. When we moved the first things the new owners did was rip out the old kitchen We saw the cupboard lying broken and forlorn in a skip in the street. They told our old neighbour that they loved the house but hated that gloomy cupboard in the kitchen. A pity, they don’t know what they missed.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Diary of an Ordinary Woman?

Before starting this book I was unsure. It certainly wasn’t on my list of ‘must reads’. I’m a fan of pre 1930s literature or yarns of daring adventure. I suspected ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ to be some ghastly kitchen sink drama. I was wrong.

Certainly the first few diary entries don’t quite ring true. Millicent seems a very fictional thirteen year old to me and I was looking for faults to dislike. However I quickly appreciated the subtle way the author hangs back from telling everything, revealing some incidents, glossing over others, always leaving the reader wanting more.

It would be easy to mistake this book for a real diary, and not recognise it as an unusual work of fiction. In my own family are stories of young men joining up to fight in wars, with equally tragic results, I think George’s story is very real. The account of life in the First World War hooked me and from then on I couldn’t put the book down.

I feel for this woman. How she wants more from life but is challenged at every turn, though really she has far more opportunities than many of her time, male or female. She annoys me. I am irritated by her lack of staying power and even slightly jealous of her job on the bohemian, artsy magazine. I scoffed when she fails to realise that, when a young man says he admires her ‘critical faculties’, he really wants to get his hands on something else. I could understand her rage and frustration, trapped in that dreadful Brighton school with a head teacher she scorns and detests and all the time wanting something better. I wanted to find out more about her life. I began to really care about what happened next.

My heart goes out to her, with a life so full of duty and even love, but so devoid of true friendship. The lack of anyone close to confide in goes well with the conceit of a confessional diary.

Was she an extraordinary woman or just an ordinary woman living through extraordinary times? I haven’t made up my mind yet, I’m still thinking about it, and to my mind that’s the mark of an extraordinary book.