BY MANDY BALDWIN
They were faces of safety to think of in the nights when my blood pumped so hard in my ears I’d sit up and look at the moon sliding across the small high window, rather than put my head down on the pillow. On the top bunk my brother stayed sleeping, and if I called out that I was afraid, he’d laugh at me.
Mum and Dad had gone out – to the pictures, they said – and I imagined them in some hall full of old glass cases of stuffed fish, like the library in the High Street, examining fold-out boards with pictures from magazines pinned there. It didn’t seem much fun, but I thought, when I was grown up, I’d do it, too: go out after dark with my hair back-combed high and my face smelling softly of powder, heels tapping on the frosty pavement as I walked with a man who wore a suit and shaved his blue chin twice a day.
One of the Nans would sit with us and Mum and Dad would be back before morning. There was the Nan who looked like Dad. She didn’t like Mum and Mum didn’t like her (I knew that, despite their politeness over the tea-cups) and I wondered, sometimes, if she didn’t like me, too, because I had light-coloured eyes like Mum, but I knew she’d look after me anyway, because she was a Nan.
And there was the Nan who smelled of butter and Fairy soap, and knew the Latin names of all the flowers in her garden, which sounded funny when she said them because she came from Gateshead. She had a long plait, dark like my hair at the bottom, growing greyer, until the hair which curled around her face was white.
She’d delivered me herself when the midwife didn’t turn up, and I knew she loved us all passionately, me, my brother, and all the cousins on that side. I don’t know how I knew, because she never had a fond word to say to any of us and the only time I hugged her, she kept her arms by her side, and when I looked at her face, tears were streaming down it. That Nan had scars on her back, glimpsed if we caught her in her petticoat, coiling her plait into a bun at the nape of her neck.
The Granddads were like different species. The Granddad belonging to the Nan who looked like Dad had been a soldier in two wars which he never talked about. He loped everywhere, an upright stride just short of a march, and he ate only once a day and drank endless brick-red sweet tea, which did no harm because a German had already knocked all his teeth out with a gun.
He could plant a whole garden of regimented rows in a morning, fuelled by nothing but a pint of milk from the door-step, and yet his hands were always busy rolling a cigarette to join the one behind each ear, and the one burning on his lip. He moved in sifting layers of blue smoke, sometimes without warning he’d put his head in his hands and rock, and although I remember his Buckinghamshire accent, he was mostly silent, so I only remember one thing he said, after watching a war film, the boy cousins and my brother at his feet.
“We won, didn’t we Granddad?” Robin said, gazing with pride at the old soldier.
“Nobody wins a war, sonny,” said Granddad.
The other Granddad – the one who belonged to Mum and the aunties – would take us out in rotation, just one of us alone, every Saturday. It could be to London, to see the lights on the huge Norwegian tree in Trafalgar Square, or it could be down to Seaford, where they’d had their short honeymoon. He carried our sandwiches in an old gas-mask case, taught me Cockney Rhyming Slang and the dozens of poems he knew by heart, and played the piano, his big, graceful hands stroking the music out of the keys.
He was domesticated when I knew him, but had once been wild, playing in jazz clubs and fighting Blackshirts, before he made an honest woman of a girl from Gateshead, and learned to drive trains for love of her.
Mum and Dad met when they were fifteen and seventeen, which I thought was just as it should be. They kissed in the kitchen, and if I went wandering after bedtime I’d find them dancing slowly in the little front room with the orange walls and the electric fire. We weren’t welcome at night, although they belonged to us by day.
Mum was the prettiest mother at the school gate, blonde hair bright among the woollen coats and paisley head-scarves, and Dad was the handsomest Dad, with his head of black curls I’d cling to when he carried me on his shoulders. She was always slightly hysterical, he was always slightly absent-minded, they were so humble for themselves, and so proud of us: and there hasn’t been a single thought, or feeling, or action which I’ve taken, in all my life, which wasn’t in some way because of them.
The little flat was always full of aunties and cousins, people who shared Christmases and family rows, and mattered greatly – but I don’t know where they are, now, and I don’t know why that is. I still look for them all in the empty spaces. I’m poorer now that we ever were, so I’m sometimes afraid, and I long for my family, then.
Or maybe I just long to be as I was when they were faces of safety to think of in the nights when my blood pumped so hard in my ears I’d sit up and look at the moon sliding across the small high window, rather than put my head down on the pillow.