Out Of His System

By Tony Greenfield

Lilly left when I was seven because Father kissed her under the mistletoe.

I’d forgotten about this until 25 years later when Granny and I were rambling through shared memories.

We sat on the sitting room floor of her widow’s bungalow in the middle of a field in Esh, seven miles to the west of Durham. I was doing some business in Durham and Granny gave me a bed for the night. I took her a bottle of port. She liked to sit close to the Yorkshire range, within reach of the black simmering kettle. She poured an inch of port into a half pint glass and topped it up with boiling water. Several hours later, the bottle was empty and it was time for bed. It was almost time for breakfast.

We sat and reminisced and I didn’t make a single note. That was more than 40 years ago and the regret has stayed and grown ever since. I didn’t take a single note because I was spell-bound. The only light was the fire-glow and its reflection from Granny’s ancient but still youthful beauty.

We talked about Granny’s family; and Grandpa’s too. Oh, how I now yearn for those notes I didn’t write. Her memories were those of her own Granny’s memories as far away as the 18th century. Granny was born in the pub in Lanchester and worked behind the bar as a teenager. That put her off pubs and she had rarely been in one since.

But then I remembered some of my own childhood and that we went to Whitley Bay every year, or so my memory told me. Granny said, yes we did but only until I was about seven. The war loomed; Father thought the east coast might not be safe so we went to Keswick instead. Until then, Granny, Mother, Auntie, my brother and I, all went to Whitley Bay and stayed in a guest house on North Parade. Lilly came too. Lilly was our maid. Oh yes, every middle and upper working class family had a maid in those days: a pound a week and her keep. Lilly left when I was seven because Father kissed her under the mistletoe. I thought that was nice and in the spirit of Christmas but Mother didn’t agree. Lilly had replaced Daisy when I was three. Daisy had been sitting in with my brother and me while my parents went to a dance. I was crying when they returned because Daisy had told me that if I was naughty the big lion sitting behind the sofa would jump out and eat me. Father was cross. Daisy packed her bag and left next morning.

So, back to Whitley Bay, what did I remember? Bucket and spade, stripey swim suit, floppy white sun hat, sand between my toes, perfect weather always, tiddley winks in the evening (no TV or computer games). A bee stung my brother’s bottom which was immediately treated with blue bag. Do you remember: bee for blue bag; V for vasp and vinegar? I didn’t know that when I was little and for years I believed that a bee sting would make your bottom turn blue.

More …..

Father wasn’t there; he was always doing secret work for the government. Nor was Grandpa; he went to Blackpool.

When did that begin,” I asked Granny.

Soon after we married,” she said. That was in the Naughty Nineties. “Whitley Bay was lovely, relaxing and romantic. We walked from Lanchester to Durham, only seven miles, and then took the train to Newcastle.” I can’t remember if she told me how they went from Newcastle to Whitley Bay.

But then we had children: five, apart from the three who died as infants. The journey was much more difficult. He would settle us into our guest house and then go to Blackpool with his friends. He came back to collect us two weeks later.”

I don’t know what he did there,” she added, “but it got it out of his system.”

Granny didn’t tell me what “it” was.


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