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.


Russell Duffy said...

A must for the memoirs. Maybe a bit of cut and paste as it were. In other words 'shove' snippets like this lovely piece inbetween regular chapters. Good to read. '69 was a great years too. Abbey Road, Led Zep2, Taste, King Crimson, the last Cream album....

Perfect Virgo said...

Thanks Russell! I love to luxuriate in these fond memories. It's surprising how much comes back when you imagine yourself right back in those days.

rubymad said...

The sensory information you provide works to build a very nice window into the not-so-distant past. Your language is clear and concise. It makes the word economist in me very happy.

I really enjoy that you’ve kept the pleasurable aspect of smoking alive in your piece as well. Too often these days we contextualize smoking only through its negative and harmful aspects. This is not to say that smoking isn’t harmful, just that it obviously holds some appeal.

I would like to know more about the place/town you’re in. Also, what did you fill your afternoons with when you visited Nan and Granddad’s?

You are a talented writer, and I’m glad you’ve decided to share your work.

robertmadigan said...

I loved the imagery in this piece. I was drawn into the kitchen and developed my own sense of nostalgia as I read on.

Is this part of a longer memoir? You craft a great sense of place. I would love to read it, if so.

I really enjoyed the the intimacy you describe with imagery here. The shave and smoking together create a sense of connectedness and mutuality that I enjoyed. I loved the subtle differences in the way the two smoked their respective cigarettes.

This was a strong piece. I agree with Russell Duffy that these could e broken apart and bridge together a longer work. I am looking forward to reading more of your work.


Perfect Virgo said...

Ruby - thanks for your very kind comments. In recent years I've been following the modern advice to be economical with adverbs and adjectives by picking better verbs and nouns. I do like the more direct style and it is quite a contrast from stuff I was writing five to ten years ago.

I smoked for twenty years (quitting sixteen years ago) so I have a certain connection to that vice. Back in the seventies my entire family smoked and I became very familiar with everyone's foibles! Cigarettes, cigars and pipes - I did it all to excess then quit abruptly at forty.

For background, I lived on the south coast of England in Bournemouth, at the time a sprawling retirement conurbation. Saturday afternoons I played soccer in the park with my brother and cousins. Heck I miss those days!

Bobby - I've written a vast work spanning fifty years and although I call it my Memoirs really it's more of an autobiography. It's a warts-and-all account covering all my exploits from the sublime to the downright shameful. I was motivated by an interest in family history and a disappointment that no one before me has left any serious written accounts.

I write these vignettes from time to time and they bring powerful memories flooding back and I'm glad you liked it. The actual setting was every bit as claustrophobic as the written account! Not sure about opening the whole can of worms... we'd have to talk about that!

Michelle said...

Perfection. You told me you wrote this quickly, with little editing. Well, if that's the case, you should employ this technique more often! I couldn't find one misplaced word or awkward sentence. I really "felt" the scene. I like that you didn't come out and tell us that your grandfather was blind, but let us figure that out ourselves. Readers don't like to have everything spelled out for them.

It would make for a great project to start pulling some of your bare bones history/autobiography and fleshing them out like this. Perhaps publish a collection of memoir vignettes!

Perfect Virgo said...

Michelle - thanks very much. Scenes like this from my childhood are quite strong in my memory, which helped in getting it down quickly.

I'm guilty of editing heavily as I go and it's easy to get bogged down that way. I find the more simply I write, the smoother the immediate flow.

Pieces like this help break up the more pedestrian passages in a memoir so if I'm ever short of projects this would be one to pick up.

amber krauskopf said...

This piece again was another fantastic use of imagery. I felt like I was there with you enjoying the tea and warm bread. Fantastic!