07 March 2013

woodbines in the kitchen

(Nan outside Coombe Avenue, Ensbury Park c1960.)

I prop my bike against the wall of a red brick house in Ensbury Park and mount the single concrete step to the side door. Saturday morning at Nan and Granddad’s has quickly become something of an institution now that I’m allowed to ride on the road. It’s 1969 and I’m twelve.
Without knocking, I twist the wobbly door handle and step straight into the kitchen. “Hi Nan. Hi Granddad.”

Nan beams broadly. She is standing at the sink shaving Granddad who has a hand towel wrapped under his chin like a child’s bib. He grins sheepishly, inclining his head in my general direction. One of his cheeks is white with soap. Nan places the razor on the draining board and wipes her palms down her apron.

“Cuppa tea, Paul?” Her soft Irish brogue is like singing.

“Please,” I say and perch on a plain wooden chair squeezed between the back door and the sink. Nan turns, almost on the spot, produces a cup, balances a small strainer on it and pours from a pot whose spout peeps out of a knitted cosy. Her woollen sleeves are frayed at the cuffs. She adds a splash of milk and stirs. “There,” she says gently, handing me the dark orange brew.

Granddad stands patiently, hands by his sides and fingers trembling ever so slightly. He is stripped to his vest, and his braces hang to his knees in loops. Nan picks up the razor and resumes shaving him. There are little rasps then she dips the razor in the sink and shakes it underwater. “Chin up, George.” She puts her fingers under his chin and tilts his head back, a little firmly, and starts scraping at his neck. “Nearly done,” she nods at me and gives that barely audible gasp, that short intake of breath with which she emphasises her points. I smile and sit waiting for this ritual to finish.

The kitchen is perhaps nine feet by seven and contains most of their needs: a gas stove, running water, a tiny Formica table, three unmatched chairs, an ancient radio and a window to the garden. In addition to the side door, there are two internal doors. One leads to the hall, the other to a small larder with shelves of tinned food. My grandparents spend much of their time here. The house is unheated but the chill is taken off this small space by body heat and the low flame which burns constantly from one ring of the gas stove. There is a stale atmosphere which I am used to by now, cigarettes, damp towels, unwashed clothes, potatoes and cabbage, the aroma of the elderly.

I hear a squeak as Nan turns the tap and rinses the sink. She pulls Granddad’s bib off, blots his cheeks and helps him into his shirt. Granddad puts his arms into his braces, turns and shuffles towards his chair. It is barely four feet away but he takes several tiny steps, his slippers scuffing the lino. He sits and sweeps the table with his hand, locating his Woodbines. I watch fascinated as he pulls one from the pack and places it between his lips. He holds a little silver lighter a few inches from his face and flicks it until he can feel its warmth then guides the unfiltered cigarette to the flame.

“Want one, May?” His voice carries a trace of his South London roots. He extends the pack into the room and she leans forward to help herself. Nan fires up too and soon the room is wreathed in rich, blue smoke. I observe their techniques noting that Granddad pinches his cigarette between thumb and forefinger, stroking off the ash with his pinky whereas Nan brings her whole hand to her face, fingers spread wide with the cigarette lodged at the base of the first and second finger. I tell them about school, about my brother and sister and my cousins. Nan is enthusiastic and Granddad smiles wistfully.

Now Nan stands and cuts fat slices of bread. She re-lights a spent match off the gas ring and opens the grill door on the stove. At the turn of a knob the jets hiss and she reaches in with the match. There is a little 'woof' sound and soon the smell of toasting bread and a lingering scent of gas join the fug. She settles back and switches on the ‘wireless’, a huge valve radio, all Bakelite and twill. There is a pause while the valves heat up then we hear the clipped tones of a BBC newsreader. He is telling the nation about the latest bombing targets of the I.R.A. Nan gasps quietly and shakes her head. “Oh, Paul... Northern Ireland.” It is what she always says, and it summarises Nan’s despair over her homeland without need for embellishment.

From time to time Nan pulls out the grill pan to check progress. I am hungry by the time she smothers the hot toast with butter and we all munch as we listen. The grim news bulletin gives way to the galloping theme music of ‘The Archers’ and for a few minutes we listen to the goings-on of a fictional farming family.

Nan switches the radio off and folds a newspaper to the racing page. She fishes a magnifying lens from her apron pocket, hovers it over the small print and begins to read aloud. The recitation of runners and riders is familiar and strangely comforting – the horse, the jockey, the trainer, the form in recent outings. Granddad gazes into space and listens to the litany for minutes on end, unaware of the blood spots on his shirt collar. He never needs a repetition and with the information in his head he stands, opens the door to the hall and inches to the telephone trailing his hand on the wall. We hear the rotary dial then he speaks slowly and clearly to the bookmaker.

Granddad scuffs back along the hall and soon he is back in his seat feeling for his Woodbines.

Nothing is rushed here. Life is slow.