Thursday, 24 July 2008

Living over the shop

On BBC Radio 4's 'Womens Hour" this morning, there was item about women who had grown up living over, and involved with, their parents business; and women who were running theiroen businesses and taking their children to work with them. It set me thinking about my own childhood, and how it has formed many of my own attitudes.

My father, a merchant seaman, drowned at sea on Christmas Eve 1951, when I was 4 1/2 years old. My mother had just discovered she was pregnant again ( with my sister) and times were hard in this country, so soon after the War. Daddy was handsome, charming, loving, all sorts of good things, but he wasn't good with money, to say the least, in fact, his preference with bills was to 'hide them behind the clock' as my mother put it. When she came to sort out his affairs, she found a frightening level of debt - and I mean FRIGHTENING! Not only that, but he hadn't kept up his National Insurance payments, so she had little or no Widows Pension - enough of a challenge to make many women top themselves, but not my Mum! Most of the debt was owed to a friend, who wanted to say "Forget it" but Mummy said she intended to pay it all back - eventually. Thus began my wandering life, while my father lived, we had lived on a converted Lowestoft Drifter ( a 90 foot long fishing boat) moored in Poole harbour, where my father earned our keep doing a variety of jobs around the harbour - delivering fresh water etc to boats, putting on a diving suit that looked like a space suit and doing salvage and repair work under water . . . . . whatever. As Mummy was aquaphobic, this wasn't her ideal home, so that went and we started to wander the country, Mummy doing whatever work she could that also provided a roof over our head.

This lifestyle, combined with trying to pay off horrendous debts, was not particularly healthy for a pregnant woman, and we ended up being 'rescued' by my father's brothers, staying with 2 of them and their families on their respective farm/market garden. These few months contain the first clear memories I have - playing in the hay barn with my older cousins, picking cherries in the orchard, and my Aunt Phyllis's kitchen, with its red quarry tiles and cosy Aga cooker - it seemed the height of comfort and security to my 5 year old self. Once my sister was born we soon had to move on - snippets of memory come back, like snapshots; me in a posh school uniform, including a camel-hair coat, breakfast in the school dining room - my mother had a live-in job as Matron for the boarders at a small girls private school, finding my mother sobbing in our shared room in the attic with her fingers bleeding and her eyes blighted by 'styes'. At this point my father's family came to the rescue again. We spent some time with my father's cousin's father in a Devon seaside town, where my mother acted as his housekeeper. This was 1953, the year of the Coronation, which is full of memory-snapshots.

In the spring of 1953, we had a storm when all the blossom was whirled off the cherry trees in the garden - Mummy collected it all up, and the house was full of their heady fragrance for several days, floating it great bowls all over the house. I attended a small school, which my memory is determined was right next door, just up the hill! I vividly recall playing in the sandpit there, which was in a tray-table, at just the right height for small people. We practised for ages for our performance in the Village Hall on Coronation day, and Mummy made me THE BEST costume of all of them! We all had to be dressed as rabbits, and Mummy made me a perfect costume in white towelling, with pink taffeta-lined ears and an enormous cotton pom-pom tail. We kept that costume till I was nearly adult, but I'm not sure what happened to it in the end. I also remember the Coronation as my first experience of TV, all of us crowded into the Village hall, watching this momentous occasion on a projection set - to a little girl, it was nothing less than magic! The only sour note i can recall from that time is sitting on a red-ants nest in the garden, and having a very sore behind for a long time! I don't hate ants, though, so it can't have been too bad.

After this period my memory has vast lacunae in it, until I was 7, when my paternal grandfather died and left money in trust for my sister and I. My Uncles, who were the trustees, decided to use part of the money to buy a small house to be our home, and to invest the remainder to provde a small income, so finally we stopped our wanderings. They bought (for £500) a little terraced house in Canterbury, not far from where they lived themselves, and spent a further £500 to make it habitable. We moved in with almost no furniture - a big bed, which we all shared, a lovely old oval drop-leaf table and a Windsor chair. We had a cooker in the kitchen, but the rest of our furnishings were devised from wooden orange boxes!

Mummy got several part time jobs, and gradually she acquired enough furniture to make one bedroom respectably habitable. Then she carefully wrote out a sign (she was an artist with calligraphic skills) offering Bed & Breakfast and put it in the front window. Being summer, and Canterbury, it wasn't long before there was a knock at the door and her first client offered himself - she was so nervous, she told him she was full! However, it wasn't long before we were always busy and developed a healthy reputation for quality and value, and I was popular as a waitress with our friendly visitors!

Shortly before my 8th birthday, my life turned upside down again, when i was sent to boarding school. My father's family had again stepped in to find support for my struggling mother. Great Aunts had discovered that there was a school for children of orphaned Merchant Navy sailors, which would provide me with food, clothing and a roof over my head for 2/3 of the year, and give me a better education than could be had at home. This was an obvious boon for my mother, and she wanted the best she could get for her kids, as most mothers do - she would have been mad not to grab the opportunity with both hands, and she did. So, from then on I was only 'living over the shop' in the school holidays. I have to say, it made for a lonely childhood, being at home so rarely, I made few friends at home - they were mostly transitory, the people who were our lovely customers, and who gave me windows on so many wildly different worlds. To very real extent, they made me who I am today, for god or ill, so thank you to all the people who stayed at 43 Castle Street in the late 50's and the 60's, you made the school holidays magical and embedded my sense of wonder and curiosity, which have made my life enjoyable.

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