Tobacco, mints and perfect pitch – that’s my dad.

Stanley Frederick, now there’s a good old Edwardian name. An only child who spent a lot of time with his grandfather, he could play chess and read ‘The Times’ at the age of five. These early experiences obviously ‘maketh the man’ for he gained a place at Lincoln College, Oxford where he read Latin, Greek and philosophy or Greats as it’s apparently known
He was sporty too – although enthusiastic rather than talented and, forever the eccentric, he kept shedding big toe nails whilst playing rugger and took to tying them on with string.
His huge calves came from long distance cycling and, having met and fallen in love with mum, he cycled most weekends from Oxford back to Portsmouth to see her.
He became classics master at his old school, Portsmouth Grammar where he earned the nickname of Elfie on account of his large ears. Over the years, inevitably, Elfie became corrupted to Alfie and he used to get letters from parents addressed to Mr A. MacGregor. But to colleagues and family he was simply known as Mac.
Daughters came along and with them Dad’s opportunity to be eccentric. When my sister’s goldfish was ailing, he broke half an aspirin into the water, whereupon it swam round like a maniac for a few minutes before passing to the great goldfish bowl in the sky. He sat up all night when my other sister brought day old chicks home from the market, trying to keep them alive in the airing cupboard. Sadly, they didn’t survive either.
As a father, he gave us huge amounts of freedom and we were certain of his unconditional love. But if he asked you to do something he expected that it would be done. If you took your shoes off without undoing the laces he simply cut them off. If you neglected to turn lights out he simply removed the bulbs.
He was known to cut the small lawn in the back garden with a razor blade or nail scissors as the mood took him. As a child,I had pigtails and once when mum was away he couldn’t plait my hair so took me to the hairdressers and paid the girl 6d to do it for him.
It was great fun having him as a dad. He taught us to make owl hoots with our hands and say the alphabet backwards – this has actually proved to be quite a useful tool in later life and not a bad party trick.
He set us fun challenges such as promising to pay us £5 if we could still spread our toes when we were 21. That was a lot of money back then.
Of course, he often drove mum mad. She was a small woman and I remember the sight of her drumming her fists into his chest in frustration for he could be infuriating. He had huge hands with clumsy, sausage fingers – if he tried to mend something he inevitably broke it and was constantly dropping things but would catch them again before they hit the ground and declare cheerfully – ‘It’s alright I’m not hurt.’ One memorable Christmas, he managed to push a tray laden with the best crockery and glasses straight through the hatch. Amidst the shattering sounds from the stone-flagged kitchen floor we could hear ‘It’s alright I’m not hurt.’
Another Christmas, he brought home a huge 18lb turkey which inevitably wouldn’t fit into the oven. Whereupon he attempted to suspend said bird from strings inside the oven. Failure and repercussions were to follow.
Despite the clumsiness and sausage fingers, Dad was a talented pianist with what I think is known as perfect pitch. If you played a record or sang a tune he’d not heard before he could instantly play it on the piano.
When I came along, in the later 1940s, things were difficult financially so dad, along with two other masters, took on managing the school’s boarding house. In an old crumbling villa on Southsea seafront, where Fastnet House now stands, Dad was in charge of fifty boarders and later in a smaller establishment with twenty boys. One of these masters had a tragic cricketing accident and went totally blind. Dad helped Ted to manage his teaching job by reading to him every week, whether it be the newspapers or the boys history essays, and patiently helped him to master Braille.
Dad was a deeply kind and self-effacing man. Yet, he was also incredibly self-conscious and exasperated mum when he found it necessary to talk in a loud voice in public, addressing remarks to nearby strangers.
He sometimes made deliberately provocative decisions. When, at the age of fifty, mum decided to learn to drive and bought a car, Dad’s answer was to buy a scooter. It was lilac in colour and called a ‘Triumph Tina’. I’ll leave it to your imagination mum’s reaction to this development. There were no crash helmets in those days so dad bought a trilby hat which he wore when riding it. He was a well-built man with a large head and he looked nothing short of ridiculous on his new machine – a bit like Biffo the bear riding around a circus ring.
He did eventually learn to drive himself and passed his test after three attempts. But it wasn’t a happy experience to be in the car with him. Although he had a good understanding of road sense from all his cycling, he struggled with the mechanics of driving and if something went wrong his response would be to simply turn off the engine whilst underway.
He was also a man of ritual. He smoked a pipe all his adult life favouring Three Nuns Empire – what’s that name all about I wonder? I swear there’s more ritual in pipe-smoking than having a fix – all that tamping down of the pungent smelling tobacco, placing the box of Swan Vestas across the bowl and sucking deeply. His tweed jackets always smelt of tobacco and extra strong mints and the pockets were never without a clean handkerchief.
When his beloved Kay died, dad coped by immersing himself in his favourite dusty, Greek tomes. In her honour, he kept the house going just as she had – always a tin of rock cakes ready for visitors and he could produce a mean Sunday roast.
He still cycled, of course, and would appear at my house, red faced and eyes watering but always with a lovely bunch of flowers or some fruit in his saddlebag.
He never judged when we made mistakes and taught me ‘don’t let the bigots get to you’ – which has been a valuable lifelong lesson.
I’m well-proud to say that he was my dad.

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SUZANNE

Her hand closes over his. She laughs – it’s a deep and throaty laugh. Her hand closes over his – it’s a strong hand, a brown hand; ornate silver rings glint on every finger.
He allows himself to be led along the mossy brick path. The morning’s rain drips from the shiny beech trees which loom resentfully around the small cottage. She pushes at the door. Swollen with damp, it resists her for an instant. He gazes into her clouds of hair. It is so blond that he wonders if it is white – white, candyfloss hair. Child-like, she has attempted to restrain the frothy strands with strips of tatty, coloured cotton, twisted randomly.
He knows what will happen, what always happens. He should be at college this afternoon, facing the turgid delights of ‘A’ level geography. He knows he will spend the night beside her. His throat tightens in remembrance of their nights of exploration, each knowing the other so completely within their separateness.
They step into the room. Familiar smells greet him – incense and oranges – glossy, swelling oranges piled into her much loved blue and white bowl. They were ever-present those oranges – unchanging. Did she not eat them? Did they never rot?
She gathers the sleek black cat in her arms, plucked reluctantly from the lumpy armchair, and turns to face him. The low autumn sun, a honey gold, slides between the soggy towering beech trees and thrusts dustily into the room. It shines on her smiling face. He blinks, slowly and deliberately. He is reluctant to turn away from her gaze; reluctant to face the truth of that sun so cruelly illuminating the lines on her face.

‘Tea?’ she asks and, stepping towards him, the brown hand strokes his face.
They sip the scalding pale liquid, each savouring the delay. Damp fungal air sweeps through the open sash windows. Beyond the low garden wall, lush grass slopes towards the river – glistening where the sun strikes, yet blackly mysterious in shadow. She lifts her head in recognition as a fishing boat pushes upstream towards Totness – chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk.
He looks into her eyes, those crazy-lady eyes, beech leaf brown in their wisdom. She has unlocked for him the beauty of the river – the joy of discovery of the blackest beetle wandering amongst the leaves or the dusty, gossamer wings of an insect in momentary stillness. She sees things in him too that others, his ever-distant parents or those inaccessible, unfathomable girls of his own age, all fail to notice.
He lies beside her in the dark quiet and she makes his heart soar. Not with love, not for her, but for the validity she offers him. She has held up her mirror, enabling him to glimpse who he is and who he might become.
His hands travel over the contours of her hip; his fingers trace her small breasts. Brown eyes on his, smiling, childlike, they draw close. Body to body, their minds melt together until the daybreak. Yet each day break he spends with her is harder. He is pulling away from her. He fights it; his body and his mind want to stay with her in this place by the river but his rational eighteen-year old brain intrudes with the coming of the light. She is a traveller lady at rest; their paths have crossed. He longs to travel with her, to share her longings, share her every moment but he must make his own journey.
The faded, floral curtains move gently in the early breeze. From the bedroom window, he watches the empty tripper boats making their way from the overnight moorings back to the quay at Dartmouth; the dark waters of the Dart are churned in expectation of the new day. He loves this river, her river, her chosen place. As a youngster, he’d never given it much thought. It was just a place to swim in summer and mess about in a dinghy with his mates. He knows now its magic and its menace. He sees how it echoes his mood – placid at slack water on a July day as he lies in her arms or tide -running, in full flood, turbulent in its insistence to move on.
Eyes fix on his, their fingers entwine.
‘Time to go,’ she smiles.
He moves towards her; his eyes cloud into a frown. She smiles and nods.
‘Trust me; it’s time for you to go.’

Early Memories

I’m in my cot. The curtains are drawn but daylight shines through. I am hot and pink skinned, a warm soft jelly baby. I wriggle and kick at the slippery satin eiderdown that still lies heavy on my legs. My bedroom is small but through the opening, and not far away, is my haven, my oasis where my mother and father sleep.
I’m still sleepy, looking around at my special things. There’s my Noah’s Ark lamp and my Noddy books. I’m surprised every time I wake that they are the same, and still there. My blonde hair is blackened with sweat and clings like curly worms to the back of my neck.
Ah footsteps.
Hands reach into the cot and grab me underneath my armpits. My cream flannelette nightie flows downwards and I feel my toes dangling, wriggling free in the cooler air. I’m lifted over the white painted bars of the cot. But wait, no cuddle, no comforting words. This is not my mother.
“Pooh, she stinks!”
Charming I think to myself but secretly I feel ashamed and rejected. Held at arm’s length, my body is rigid. We are rushing and I feel the cool breeze waft passed, cooling my pink cheeks.
What’s going on? I notice my sister’s school blouse near my face. We are in another room now. I’m cold. Where’s my mother? Thud, my head meets the nobbled bath mat as I’m laid none too gently on the cold floor.
“Pooh, it’s disgusting! I’m not changing her; you do it, Jill”.
I try to wriggle round; there’s dust and brown marks under the bath. The soggy and yes stinking nappy is held, as I was, at arm’s length and flung into the tin bucket. I long for the baby powder feeling when my mother does the business.

It’s just not grandmotherly

 

Exhausted, B.B. laid back, her coarse grey hair fanning over the lumpy pillow. She sighed, suppressing uncharitable thoughts about her youngest granddaughter who she looked after in the school holidays. She really didn’t feel up to the task today having been in bed with flu for the last three days. She had planned a trip to town to visit the beautician to have her moustache waxed but had reluctantly been forced to cancel. That was the trouble with the countryside B.B. had moaned to her cronies after the move from town.
‘It’s so bloody far to get one’s hair done, darling.’
‘Gran are you there?’
B.B. used her bony arms to heave herself into a sitting position.
‘Come along in.’ She was surprised at the gruffness of her voice but she did have a sore throat and remembered that she hadn’t spoken to anyone over the weekend.
‘How do I look?’ She couldn’t help but enquire.
The child came nearer; her blond locks swung healthily around a creamy peach- like skin – irritating!
‘I’ve never seen you without your hair but you look just fine, Gran,’ the child ventured after the merest pause.
It had not however gone unnoticed.
‘Baa!’ replied her grandmother. ‘I don’t believe you; fetch me that mirror. I was too ill to put on my hairpiece.’ She never could refer to the wretched thing as a wig.
Fine, indeed. Beady eyes stared malevolently back at her, seemingly huge in the grey shrunken face. Her stiff hand tentatively inspected the coarse black hair that had spread from upper lip to include part of her cheeks and pointed chin. B.B. drew back the thin cracked lips in a hideous grimace to inspect the lengthening canines.
‘It’s true, then,’ she murmured. ‘I truly am getting long in the tooth.’
‘Whatever are you doing, child?’ she enquired irritably.
‘Just checking the bottom of my shoes, Gran. I thought I must have trodden in some dog’s muck but I haven’t.’ She smiled brightly. ‘There’s a funny smell in here though, Gran. Can’t you smell it?’
Her grandmother watched for a moment as the button nose wrinkled in distaste. Faced with yet another confirmation of her fears, her heart sank further. She could indeed smell it. Despite her cold, she had been aware of a dog-like odour that she just couldn’t get rid of. Usually, she liberally sprayed a heavy floral scent to mask the essence of dog but had neglected to do so since she’d been ill.
‘Stop your nonsense,’ she barked unkindly. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
She struggled to contain a filthy rage that gathered within her. Beneath the duvet, her bony limbs shook with anger and a slug trail of spittle coursed from the side of her mouth.
‘Gran?’ The child backed away from the bed but not before B.B. had seen the fear in her eyes.
A loud knock at the door startled them.
B.B. shook herself grateful that reality had returned to smooth out her rage. She took her granddaughter’s hand kindly.
‘It’s not you, child; it’s me trying to cope with growing older that’s all.’ She sighed; it was hard but she’d just have to accept that she was just an old dog now.
‘Time to give in gracefully I think,’ she said softly.

A Moment of Power

He waits; I wait, and both stare at the other. But once again the moment passes.
He bends to pick up his paint tin. He is so close to me now; I breathe in the familiar smell of pipe tobacco and long to reach out and let my fingers explore the soft greying hairs of his beard.
He turns away.
‘Damn fool girl’. His voice isn’t angry but there’s a sad resignation in his tone.
I stare at the back of his head. He’s now several rungs up the ladder; his dark hair curls over his collar.
‘Jack.’ I am unable to keep the pleading note from my voice. It’s cold in the boat shed. There’s nowhere to sit down. I shove my hands into my coat pocket, wrapping it tighter around me, and wait.
Jack continues with his task of painting the topsides of his beloved old wooden boat ‘Calico’. I wish that the boat was in the water so we could be down below together. I remember the smell of the paraffin lamps, lit early on winter’s afternoons; the red enamel coffee pot simmering and pungent on the calor gas cooker; long dark afternoons of closeness.
We talked then, for hours sometimes, about sailing and foreign harbours, about philosophy – it was Jack that first persuaded me to read Karl Popper. Other afternoons, it was just companionable chat and gossip about his fellow residents on the river or colleagues at the University. Everyone wanted to spend time with Jack. He was witty and articulate and certainly knew how to enjoy himself. Once a term, he invited his tutor group over to the boat and would cook wonderful eye-watering curries and open many, many bottles of red wine produced from a seemingly endless supply under his bunk.
He comes down the ladder carefully, purposefully now and wipes his hand on an old piece of canvas.
‘What are you doing here, Alex? Haven’t you got any lectures to go to?’
I take a step closer, encouraged by his light-hearted remark, welcoming the creeping wave of desire. He returns my gaze but in the rich brown of his eyes there is a troubled, haunted look. I push it firmly from my mind and touch him lightly on the arm.
‘Don’t, Alex; I can’t do this.’ He turns away from me once more.
Always a strong, direct and confident man whether he was lecturing, sailing or just being sociable but now all directness has gone. His head is lowered and there’s a stoop to his shoulders as he begins clearing away his painting tools.
Impulsively, spurred on by the feeling of humiliation, determined that I shall be a strong one here and nearly driven to distraction by a deep longing to go to bed with him, I take his hand and pull him by the arm.
‘Yes, you can, Jack.’ I am bright, cheerful, encouraging. I lead him out of the boat shed towards the car.
As we emerge into the bright sunlight I glance at him. He’s crying and I am ashamed. I hesitate briefly and he turns towards me. I wait, he waits. Both stare at the other.

Christmas in Prague

 

Wetherspoons at Gatwick was trying hard to be festive three days before Christmas but Eve was too tired to appreciate it. Her eyes felt sore and gritty as she screwed them up to peer vacantly at the departure screen. Prague flight delayed by 90 minutes. Hell, now she wouldn’t arrive before midnight and the trams would have finished by then.
She hadn’t wanted to spend Christmas in Prague but sadly it was the best alternative. Her beloved and only son Mark had recently married a young Czech girl who was adamant that they must spend their first Christmas together as a married couple in her own country. Eve let out a deep sigh for sadly, adamant and must described Alexa, her new daughter-in-law only too well. She had tried to tempt them with a traditional all singing and dancing Christmas in England but to no avail. In fact, Alexa’s response to her latest entreaty had been ‘Oh no, Eve he’s mine now.’ Boy had that stung.
She sent Mark a text about the delay and settled down in the spirit of endurance, ramming the headphones of her MP3 player into her ears and closing her tired eyes. She’d just have to get a taxi to their flat – it was no problem.
Her spirits lifted when the taxi passed Charles Bridge; the bridge was always beautiful at night and especially so in the festive season. She’d not been to their new flat but it was a delightful surprise. Enormous wooden doors, allowing entrance to the old four storey building, stood at both the front and the rear. Eve could picture carriages driving through those doors enabling the well-heeled residents of times gone by to alight at the magnificently ornate marble staircase. The flat itself was high-ceilinged with carved woodwork and stained glass in the skylight windows.
She hugged them both.
‘This is so charming’, she declared.
In the sitting room, a Christmas tree stood in the corner by the huge window. The tree was weighed down by an extravagant number of, in Eve’s opinion, rather gaudily decorated gold baubles. There were bowls of traditional Czech crescent shaped almond biscuits on the table. She bit into one expecting it to be hard and dry but it was soft and deliciously buttery.
Next day, Alexa was clear that she didn’t need or want any help with the preparations so Eve took the tram to the centre. They agreed to meet up in Wenseslas Square, in the afternoon, to have a look round the Christmas market.
The market took her breath away. Mark linked arms with his declared two favourite ladies as they wandered past stalls selling traditional carved wooden figures and homemade sweets. They bought mulled wine and hot pastries, eating them to a background of Christmas music and traditional dances. Then, Mark led them back to the main road where he treated them to a carriage ride. The light was fading and the beautiful city was at its most beguiling.
Next day was Christmas Eve and the most important day. Eve slept well, rose early and wandered, in an unexpectedly serene state, to the bathroom. Her screams caused both Mark and Alexa to rush to her side. Wordlessly, Eve pointed to the creature splashing frenetically in the half-filled bath tub – she had no words. Her horrified expression caused Mark to bend double helpless with laughter while Alexa looked disdainfully at her mother-in-law.
‘It’s Czech tradition to have carp for dinner on Christmas Eve and the fresher the better,’ she declared haughtily.
The carp wasn’t the first tradition to come Eve’s way but it was the cause of the first discontent between her young hosts. Dispatching said beast was clearly no easy task and was delegated to poor Mark. Tempers frayed and Alexa’s nagging reached a crescendo only abating once the deed was finally done.
The nagging continued throughout the day. Eve’s offer of help was firmly rejected yet Alexa who was clearly overwhelmed moaned, whined and belittled her son thus allowing the atmosphere to become increasingly tense.
Eve was puzzled to see the table laid for four guests.
‘I didn’t know we were expecting company,’ she declared in her brightest fashion.
‘We’re not.’ Alexa gave her a withering look. ‘Here, we believe that an odd number such as three will bring bad luck or even death,’ she added dramatically.
She then decided to invoke another tradition that no lights be lit in the flat until the first star came out allowing dinner to be served and was then disgruntled when the sky was found to be leaden and overcast.
They ate the traditional mushroom soup which Eve found surprisingly tasty then finally, and accompanied by a beaming Alexa smile, the festive carp appeared in pride of place at the table. As Eve lifted her plate to be served. Eve noticed, somewhat grotesquely, a round and shining fish scale left behind on her placemat. Deftly, and hoping that no one would notice, she flicked said article to the floor.
‘Eve, what are you doing?’ Alexa’s horrified voice echoed around the room. ‘The fish scale is to bring wealth for the next year and now’…. she looked round dramatically. ‘Bad fortune will follow.’ She lowered her beautiful brown eyes and shook her head. ‘Oh Mark’ she sighed.
Eve fought the part of her that wanted to say ‘ Oh, for heaven’s sake, stop being such a drama queen.’
She held no truck with old wives’ tales. Nevertheless, they came thick and fast. It was true she had wondered about the bowl of garlic under the table.
‘For strength and protection’ Alexa declared. ‘And this..’ She lifted a pot of honey. ‘This is to guard us against evil’. She looked pointedly at Eve. ‘Perhaps it will make up for the fish scale’.
By now thoroughly bewildered, Eve looked at her son for reassurance. But Mark was a wise boy who judged it was better to upset his mother than his volatile bride. Besides, typical man, he’d not actually picked up on many of his wife’ barbed little comments.
The fried carp was accompanied by potato salad.
’It’s very bad luck not to eat everything on your plate,’ Alexa informed them just as Eve was struggling with a mouthful of what appeared to be wallpaper paste mixed with fish bones. She smiled feebly.
‘I’ll do my best, dear.’
Thankfully, pudding was good. Vanocka turned out to be a gold coloured, sweet Christmas bread with raisins inside the brioche like folds. Hoping it was diplomatic to do so, Eve added a little honey in the spirit of warding off evil.
Once the meal was over, Alexa sank, in exhausted fashion, onto the settee whilst Eve and Mark tackled the take-your-breath-away mountain of washing up. At least it gave Eve a chance to speak to her son alone.
A bell rang before they had accomplished their mission of washing up completion.
‘Time for presents,’ Alexa trilled in her heavy accent and pointed to the Christmas tree.
At least Eve’s gift of a pretty silk scarf was well received.
Then, the rested Alexa got her second wind and organised yet more Czech traditions. She appeared with a bowl of water containing empty walnut shells each filled with a tiny lit candle.
‘If your candle reaches the other side of the dish you will have a long and healthy life. Should it sink that would be very bad luck.’
Eve knew, she just knew, that her chosen shell – unstable from the outset, would not make the other side.
Longing for a gin and tonic, Eve, nobly in her view, participated in the next game. Alexa, with her straight black hair and pale face looked strikingly like Snow White as she appeared with three shiny red apples. She grasped her apple by the stem.
‘Cut your apple in half, like this,’ she demonstrated.
‘What’s the pointy of this one,’ Mark had the temerity to enquire.
Accompanied by a dark look, Alexa informed them that if your apple core was star-shaped it meant that everyone will get together next year in health and happiness. But if it was a four-pointed cross this was a bad omen and someone at the table would fall ill or even die in the next twelve months.
‘That’s not a very cheerful thought, dear.’ Eve couldn’t resist the comment.
At last the time arrived when it was acceptable to go to bed. Eve sank into the cool, white and surprisingly crisp sheets. Christmas, if not exactly enjoyable had at least been different and Alexa had worked hard – she’d give her that.
Next day, however, things really kicked off. Alexa went ballistic at the sight of the carp poo and sundry scales which still lurked in the bath. Her anger was further fuelled when she discovered that Eve and Mark had failed to finish the washing up.
Eve could hear the row from her room.
‘I can’t do everything Mark, it’s just not fair.’ This was followed by tears and further recriminations. They were relentless, her voice rising between the audible sobs.
Eve listened through gritted teeth. Mark can you help with this? Mark can you? can you ? had been yesterday’s theme. Surely Alexa could see that her placid son had done his best.
By the time she reached the kitchen, Alexa, wild-eyed and screaming abuse was hitting Mark in the chest
‘Whatever’s going on? Stop it, Alexandra; for goodness sake get a grip of yourself.’
Mother-in-laws, as she very well knew, should never, ever interfere and Alexa flounced off to her bedroom, accompanied by a furious torrent of Czech. The exasperated Mark took himself off for a walk whilst Eve tidied the kitchen. Mission accomplished, she tried reading her book but found it hard to concentrate. Where was Mark? He’d been gone a long time.
Eventually, a red-eyed Alexa appeared.
‘Where can Mark be?’ She enquired in a small voice
Mark, her sensitive son, distraught and distracted had apparently been run over by a tram and was now in the hospital with a head injury. The doctors were unable or unwilling to tell them whether he would suffer any long-term brain damage.
The two women who loved him held each other close and in the weeks that followed, despite Eve’s initial fears that Alexa would be put her own needs first; instead she witnessed a deep love and dedication. Yes, Alexa, he’s yours now.

 

The face in the mirror looking at me

 Why is the immediate reaction to make faces, to grimace and inspect for spots or new wrinkles Haircut yesterday so not supposed to be a bad hair day today. In the right light the roots don’t show too much and unless I look closely the grey is mostly hidden.

     Blue eyes, red-rimmed looking out through a large square glasses on a large square face. A lined face, fine lines everywhere unless I take my glasses off. Quite a red nose really but perhaps that’s the gin-and-tonic.

     What sagging jowls, wonderful word jowls. Thin top lip some say that indicates meanness – could be!

     Chickenneck – 0h to be 20 again.

     When I take my glasses off I look even more tired with that  slightly pathetic peering stare.

     Not pale, never pale. I was wanted to look pale and interesting at 18fat chance. Still a slight tan, an English complexion, fair hair no longer flowing now cut to touch the collar.

     Heavens it’s a sensible middle-aged face. Not motherly, no the mouth turns down in a hard expression. Not smart, the hair’s too messy; no make up just a boring face these days.

Men’s faces look lived-in, women’s just look tired.