Tag Archives: Tall Family Tales

The lady vanishes, or at least, the kids do …

So a light one this week from the non fiction family stories thing. The other day, there was a spoof article from SuffolkGazette – a jokey ‘news’ site on Facebook; ‘Girl, 9, disappears after putting on cream that makes you look 10 years younger.’  It made me think about this story about the antics my grandmother and great aunt got up to one evening when they were youngsters. My grandmother told me this story, herself, so it does come straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. She swore it was true and my mother thinks it quite probable that it is, so here, for your delectation …

The Vanishing Cream …

In this tale, Nye, my grandmother, was twelve years old, which would make Aunty, her sister, four. Nye comes over as a great deal less streetwise than twelve year olds today, but then, it was another era and having lived with ‘Granny’ Mum’s view was that she would have kept her children as young and naive as possible for as long as possible. Nye and Aunty didn’t go to school. They had a governess, who was French. When this story takes place I can only assume that she was elsewhere, or believed her charges to be in bed. 

Anyway, Nye had discovered a pot of Pond’s Vanishing Cream on her mother’s dressing table and was extremely intrigued as to what it did. Vanishing cream was first introduced in 1892 and got the name because it’s a cream that disappears when it is rubbed on. Nye’s Mum would probably have used it as a moisturiser or a colourless base for makeup. However, Nye had convinced herself that her mother wore it to make herself invisible. Reading a bit too much E Nesbitt, perhaps? Who knows, but whatever the reason, one night, while their parents were downstairs entertaining friends to dinner and the Governess was … elsewhere … Nye and Aunty, went ‘exploring’ around the house and crept into their mother’s bedroom. 

Immediately, Nye’s eye lit on the pot.

‘Look!’ she said, showing it to her little sister. ‘Vanishing cream! If we rub this on ourselves it will turn us invisible.’

‘Really?’ asked Aunty, saucer-eyed.

‘Yes. That’s how Mother knows when we have been naughty in lessons,’ Nye explained, never thinking, for a moment, that this might be because the Governess reported it to her when she reported on their progress.

The girls decided they would test how effective the cream was. Aunty went first and was disappointed to discover that she could still see herself. Nye put some cream on, with similar results. 

The two of them thought for a moment. 

‘I know what it is,’ said Nye. ‘We should undress because otherwise, even if people can’t see us our clothes will be visible.’

‘Is that why we can see one another?

‘I don’t know, let’s try.’

The two of them took of their clothes and put vanishing cream on literally every part of their bodies, I do hope, for their mother’s sake, that it wasn’t too expensive. They stood back and regarded one another.

‘Can you see me?’ asked Nye.

‘Yes,’ said Aunty.

‘I can see you too.’

‘Perhaps it isn’t working,’ said Aunty.

Nye thought for a moment. 

‘There is a way we can find out.’

‘How?’ 

‘I’ll tell you …’

Aunty was all set to try Nye’s cunning plan and so together, the two of them, still as starkers as the day they were born, crept downstairs. 

From the dining room came the sound of cutlery chinking gently on plates and genteel voices having refined and proper dinner time conversation. Nye pushed the door open a crack. Nobody took any notice. She turned back to her sister.

‘Remember, they can hear us, even if they can’t see us, so we mustn’t talk,’ she whispered, and put her finger to her lips. Aunty mimicked the gesture and nodded.

Nye opened the door a little more and slipped into the room.

The two girls stood there, in silence.

No-one reacted.

Nye walked round the table. The grown ups carried on talking, oblivious. Aunty’s hands flew to her mouth to try and muffle her gasp of delight. She went to join Nye and the two of them danced, cavorted and skipped about the room in silence. The grown ups made absolutely no sign of noticing anything. Perhaps if they were a bit older, our two heroines might have noticed Grandpop’s demeanour take on a somewhat stoic set, or might have seen the visible loss of colour on their mother’s face. They might even have noticed the atmosphere among the adults become a little strained, seen how a couple of the guests eyes bulged or heard how the conversation had taken on a somewhat stilted tone. But as it was, they were twelve and four, and not yet sufficiently aware of human nature to hoist in any subtleties like that.

After about ten minutes cavorting about without being seen got boring so Aunty and Nye left the room and returned to their bedroom; upstairs, next to the nursery. The Vanishing Cream Experiment had been an unmitigated success and the two of them slept soundly that night, dreaming of the wonderful things they would be able to do and places they would be able to visit now that they could become invisible.

The following morning, Nye and Aunty heard the governess being told off, extensively. When the two of them were called in to see Granny and Grandpop in the drawing room after breakfast they knew something was up. 

‘What do you think you were doing last night?’ asked Granny. 

‘Sleeping?’ asked Nye with more hope than conviction.

‘Before that. When you were cavorting about the dinner table divest of every single stitch of clothing.’

Nye was surprised. 

‘Did you see us?’ she asked. 

‘Of course I did.’

Oh dear. Although, thinking about it, maybe family members could see one another, yes, Nye reflected. That would explain why Aunty and her could see one another, too. However, she was sure none of the guests had noticed.

‘But we thought we were invisible,’ said Aunty.

‘Why on earth would you think that?’ asked Grandpop.

‘Because we were wearing vanishing cream,’ Nye explained, ‘and that’s why no-one else noticed us.’

‘You utter fools! Of course they noticed you!’ said Granny. 

She heaved a sigh and then Grandpop stepped in and went on to explain that some things are ‘not quite nice’ and those things are ‘not talked about’ and that two nude child children cavorting around the table at dinner would fall into the category of ‘not quite nice’ and ‘not talked about’ hence the gathered guests would do what any British person should do when confronted with such a disgusting spectacle. Ignore it stoically until it went away.

Nye was in a home by the time she told me this story and sadly, Aunty had already died, so I was never able to get her side of the story, and I’d have loved to have heard it. I remember Nye saying, 

‘Can you imagine it? There they were eating while two little girls danced around the dinner table naked and they were so stuffy they pretended we weren’t there.’

She clearly felt it served them right. I suspect Granny and Grandpop may have had more of a sense of humour than family history gives them credit for. But it’s quite clear that, whether or not they did, Nye was unrepentant, if not at the time then certainly in her late eighties.

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A family take on remembrance

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to post about our sneaky weekend away to look at the battlefields of the Somme. What better time to do it than today, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War?

It’s complicated, but basically, McOther had two grandfathers on his dad’s side, one who gave him his name and one who is his blood relative. Both are held in love and revered. Name grandfather was injured at the Somme so we went to have a look at where he was. McMini is very keen on flying and aviation, mainly from the Second World War but also from the First World War, especially Baron Von Richoften. So as well as going to see the spot where McOther’s namesake grandfather was shot we thought we’d see if we could find the area where the Red Baron was shot down, too.

McOther’s grandfather was found in no-man’s land by the Germans, with a sizeable head wound, taken to the first aid station and patched up. He had lost almost a third of his brain and was repatriated in a prisoners swap. The Germans, I think it was the Germans, had given him a metal plate in his head. Subsequently, he was paid £200 each year to go up to his nearest teaching hospital – Glasgow, I think – where the metal plate would be removed and eager medial students would crane in to see what a live brain looked like. He made his living on this – it’s the equivalent of … I dunno, about £8.5 – £10k today? As much as some people earned, anyway, and definitely close to a living.

Naturally McOther’s family were very pleased to get their son home with a Blighty wound that would ensure he didn’t have to go back to the front. However, there were hidden aspects of his injury that only became apparent as he grew older. Part of the problem was that the large part of his brain that was lost was to do with maturity and its departure meant that his personal, emotional and mental development stalled; frozen, forever at eighteen, the age he was when he was shot. This wasn’t so noticeable, at first, but as he aged he still behaved like an eighteen year old. As his wife grew older, and her outlook matured, his stood still. He began to find it difficult being married to someone so much older than him. He felt eighteen, he expected his wife to be the same age as him, and, more to the point, look eighteen. This woman was more like his mum. Likewise, McOther’s grandmother began to find the maturity levels of an eighteen year old husband a serious challenge when it came to the responsibilities of being a father and raising children.

I remember one of McOther’s uncles telling me that his father still expected to be as fit as an eighteen year old aged sixty. He would come out cycling with said uncle and his friends and couldn’t comprehend why he wasn’t able to attain the same fitness, stamina and speed levels at the young lads around him. It wasn’t an affectation, he literally, didn’t know or even comprehend that he was older. Unfortunately this caused a bit of tension at home, which is why, eventually, he and McOther’s grandmother divorced and she married again. The children all kept the original family name, including the two sons she had with her second husband. This just goes to show how, on top of the death rate, the mental scars the survivors carried may often have been as significant, if not more so, than any physical injuries they endured.

Thus it was that, a few weekends ago, we went off to France and went to the Somme.  Over the weekend, we looked at Beaumont Hamil which is where McGrandfather’s regiment went over the top and where he was injured, the site of the Red Baron’s death and we visited the Australian Memoral. We also visited one of the best air museums I have ever been to which I’ll have to leave for another post.

Site of Baron Von Richthofen’s death.

The weather was lovely on the first day so first we visited the area where the Red Baron died. There’s not much there. Just a plaque by the side of the road, a bit like Agincourt.

Apparently, shot and mortally wounded as he was, Baron Von Richthofen managed to crashland his plane, clipping a chimney with the wheels as he flew over and landing roughly in a field. This photo shows the chimney on the left hand side. Allied soldiers rushed to the plane and he whispered the word, ‘Kaput,’ slumped over the controls and died.

McMini, who has devoured every piece of literature he can find about the Red Baron, explained that Baron Von Richthofen was one of the true knights of the air, in the tradition of chilvalry, because he was always at pains to stress that his pilots should try to break the opponent’s plane rather than kill the person flying it. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but it sounds plausible. He was buried with full military honours by the allies, anyway and it’s the reason McMini admires him so much.

Afterwards, we stopped in a couple of cemeteries and walked through the graves reading the inscriptions. The thing that always strikes me about these places is the atmosphere of calm and peace. It feels as if these people are, well … if not at rest then, at least, reconciled to their deaths. There is an almost healing intensity to that calm which I can’t really explain but it is special. Some of the families of the fallen had inscriptions put on the headstones. There was a limit to this. Sixty characters, including the spaces. A world of love and grief to express. A life to sum up. Sixty characters to do it in. That’s pared to the bone, raw, sometimes powerful and often moving.

Every war-mongering idiot in charge of a nation should be made to read these before taking office and then one or two every day. Sixty characters may be all they had but, done with feeling, sixty characters is all it takes, trust me.

Perhaps it’s because I’m peri-menopausal, perhaps it’s because, as a mother, I know how much effort and energy it takes to make a life and raise one child, let alone more. Whatever it is, I only need to read a few of these and I’m distinctly moist about the eyes. Linger too long and I’m in danger of bursting into tears and blubbing like a four-star nut-bar. There’s one grave at Beaumont Hamil with an inscription from a wife to her husband which reads something like, ‘Husband, best friend, I loved you in life and I love you still’. I think the guy was about 40 when he was killed. Thinking about it, perhaps I’m not menopausal, because I found that 10 years ago and I cried then. I didn’t find it this time, so I couldn’t check the exact inscription but as we walked about the other cemeteries, I found more. And as it’s the 100 year anniversary of the end of hostilities in the First World War tomorrow, I thought I’d share some of the inscriptions with you.

One of the first things that strikes you, coming to these places, is that people have come from the four corners of the earth to honour their fallen just as those family members travelled thousands of miles to fight, before. Not just in the main memorial areas but in any cemetery you cared to stop at along the road, there were knitted poppies, and even, in one instance, a little knitted flower and Australian flag on one unknown Australian soldier’s grave, which was almost more poignant than if the occupant’s name had been known.

Some inscriptions were religious, ‘he was a good catholic’ one French Canadian grave reads.  Another Australian grave, ‘Christ will clasp the broken chain closed when we meet again.’ Others while grieving, are kind of upbeat, ‘A noble son, a brother kind, a beautiful memory left behind.’ Or on the date of a sargant in the medical corps, who died so tragically late in the conflict; on 1st November, 1918, aged 28, ‘With Christ, which is far better.’ And the strength and raw power of feeling behind the beauty of this one; ‘Still living, still loving, still ours.’

Then there are the stiff upper-lip ones, ‘As a soldier and a man, one of Australia’s best.’ Laid at the grave are two crocheted poppies and a little Australian flag. On the grave of a 20 year old sapper, ‘In memory of our dearly loved son and brother.’ Or on another, ‘Far away but not forgotten, Mother’. Or the one that still makes me cry, ‘In loving memory of my darling son, sleep on in peace dear’. Jeepers. ‘Not dead in hearts left behind.’ Or on the grave of a member of the Gordon Highlanders, ‘One of the best, Drumoak’. And another, a member of the Black Watch, which was McGrandfather’s regiment, ‘Time makes his memory still more dear,’ or on a member of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire regiment, ‘Sleep on, dear son, and take rest.’ On another sapper, a British one this time, the achingly poignant, ‘Only good night beloved, not farewell.’

Then there is the out-and-out anguished, ‘Oh how I miss him, no tongue can tell, the happy face I loved so well,’ or there is, ‘His war is over, his sun is set, but we who loved him can’t forget.’ Or ‘Sleep on dear son in a far off grave. A grave we never see.’ I wonder if they were going to say ‘we’ll never see’ but were left, two characters short. The message comes over well enough without.

Lastly there is the occasional political one, ‘Who lives if Britain dies, who dies if Britain lives.’

Even now, 100 years on, it is incredibly poignant to visit the cemeteries and read the graves. There is a world of grief and love in sixty characters.

Drawing by an Australian solider

 

 

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How a battery charger saved my bacon …

…And the danger of over confidence when coupled with good intentions.

This week, I was going to talk a little more about happiness being a state of mind, but I only have a few minutes to do this in so it’s more of a dump it and leg it!

It’s been a busy week with a bank holiday at the beginning, a weekend away and a trip to my Uncle’s funeral today. It began with a bit of a dodgy start. Up at 5.30 expecting to leave by 6.00 but cocked it up and was late, finally leaping into the car at 6.15, I was not a happy bunny when pressed the starter and it turned over once and died. Tried again and it went ‘click’. I pulled the lever to open the boot and the cable snapped – for the second time in a year, I’ll have to book it in to be fixed. Luckily, it wasn’t all bad. Before snapping, the cable had actually unlatched the boot lid so I was able to get it open easily enough and access the battery to put it on charge. I was already fifteen minutes late departing, fifteen minutes too late to be able to take McOther’s car – it doesn’t go fast enough when there is quarter of an hour to recoup. As you can imagine, there followed a very tense ten minutes while I waited for the booster to charge the battery enough for the car to start. Yes. There was swearing.

On the upside, it did work, the car started and I was there just after nine because I missed the worst of the traffic on the dicky bits, i.e. the entire M25 which was uncharacteristically clear. Sure it was an hour early but that wasn’t a problem; there were cousins to chat to by ten past! I am so glad I got there. It was a lovely service, planned by my Uncle, himself, and it spoke eloquently of what I gather was a very peaceful and ‘good’ death. The priest was a lovely chap and spoke well about him, too. I did cry, and the bit that got me was the point where we said prayers for the sick and the list comprised Mum and Dad, while the prayers for the dead, apart from my uncle, were for my aunt, his wife. It was very moving, and a positive and uplifting, if sad, experience. It was wonderful to see my other uncle and aunt, and my cousins and my brother and all my cousin’s children who have grown into splendid young people, one with a microdot in tow. Well worth braving the roads.

However, there’s not much to say after that, at least, not in thirty minutes, so instead I’m going to share a story from Setting Tripwires for Granny and Other Tall Family Tales.

Learning to throw and missing …

This is a story about the disastrous consequences of having a sport obsessed older brother and the dangers of learning to throw, over arm. When my brother and I were little and lived in the school we used to run with the other housemasters’ kids. The amazing thing about it was that we probably had the kind of upbringing our parents, or grandparents, had rather than our contemporaries. We walked around the school, which was the size of a small village, and the adults kept an eye on us. If Mum wanted us home for tea she’d just ring round the other housemasters, starting with the most likely, to see if we were playing with their kinds and then the housemaster’s wife would come and tell us it was time for tea. This was standard procedure for all of them so we got to play alone much more than we might have done.

During this time, most of the kids I hung out with were my brother’s age so they were boys. As a result, their first priority was to teach me the most important things in life, how to kick a ball properly and how to not throw like a girl.

Actually, I used to be able to throw reasonably well but I’ve never managed to get a chuffing ball to go that far overarm, maybe it’s the bingo wings interfering with it or something, there seems to be a bit too much flexion in my arms and not enough … um … hurl. Yeh, whatever it is, they failed. My nine year old can throw as far as me. Anyway, on with the story.

My brother decided, when I was four, that he must teach me to throw over arm. After weeks of intensive coaching, I did finally crack it and could do a very passable overarm throw for a four year old girl. The day came when one of the lads had his birthday party. There we were, a massive group of kids running riot on the lawn and I was anxious to show my throwing prowess. Anxious but nervous. Some of the boys were throwing a lump of wood about, the foot rest from one of those turned wood chairs (check name). The point came when it landed at my feet.

‘Hey, I can do this!’ I thought and I picked it up. Flung my arm back over my head to get a really good overarm lob on it and … oh dear … let go. The wood flew up into the air, hit a window, which broke and landed back at my feet in a shower of glass.

The others stared at me in silence.

I had no idea if they were horrified at my pathetic attempts at throwing properly, or just thought the way the glass had showered down on me was really cool. All I could think of was how surprised I was that the throwing had gone so badly.
Never mind, I’d remembered how it felt to throw, muscle memory and all that, I would be able to throw over arm.
The window belonged to the house next door and the housemaster of said house came striding across the lawn looking a bit stern.

You did what???

‘Oi! You’ve just broken a window.’
‘I’m very sorry, I said.’
He looked up at the window and down at me and the piece of wood.
‘What on earth were you doing?’ he asked.
With complete confidence in my newly acquired throwing prowess I replied,
‘I was just trying to do this!’

I picked up the piece of chair and threw it, over arm, towards the assembled crowd.
Except I didn’t.
I did exactly the same thing again. And guess what?
Yep, you’d better believe it.
I broke another window.

Which just goes to show that even when you are absolutely sure of yourself, and have the most well-meaning intentions, it’s sometimes best to be cautious, engage your head as well as your heart and think before you act, otherwise, it can all backfire horribly.

In light of the storm rocking the independent publishing world this week, it seems that’s still an important lesson.

 

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A bit of a sad one …

Last Friday night I got a Facebook message from one of my cousins, out of the blue, telling me one of my uncles was very ill, by Sunday morning he was dead. He was in his 80s and had lived a long and fruitful life. I believe he was refusing treatment and I think I was supposed to have received an email about it the week before but due to the joyous vaguaries of the internet it never arrived. Due to the joyous vaguaries of my mother’s memory loss, I never heard from her either – she would be the usual source. She thinks she wasn’t told but she has dementia too. I suspect she simply forgot.

My uncle was a lovely chap, the oldest on my Dad’s side, and a great character. He used to phone me up every couple of months for a little chat which would last exactly eight minutes. I was always touched by this, after all, he didn’t have to and as our most distant (geographically) uncle, we didn’t see him as much as our other uncles so I didn’t know him as well. He was also kind enough gave me a stunning print of Ely Cathedral – because we used to live in Ely – which now hangs, resplendent, in our hall.

He and my aunt and cousins lived near Colchester for 33 years. Ironically, just up the road from where I live now. He was vicar of a parish just outside Colchester. Needless to say, we lived in Sussex at that point. We used to go and spend a night in the Marks Tey Motel on our way to holiday on the North Norfolk coast and pop in to see him. We would spend a day running wild with our cousins and the dog, Seager, and then go on to holiday. Later, after my aunt died, he moved to near Glastonbury, eventually living with one of my cousins. A few years ago he moved again, to Guildford, which was great because it was much nearer to Mum and Dad so they were able to see him far more often. One of my other cousins, who lived near him, would bring him over for tea and a chat with Dad several times a year.

The highlight was always a trip over during Wimbledon. They would have lunch together smoked salmon sandwiches, salad, crisps and strawberries and cream which they would eat off their laps, while sitting in front of the telly while watching the tennis.

Usually, after lunch, Mum and my cousin would take a wander round the garden while Dad and his brother had a good old chat. Last year, I managed to get to the Wimbledon get together, too, so it was great to see him. The home had managed to put his hearing aids through the wash in his trouser pockets so the poor man was ‘without ears’ but we had a very pleasant lunch, nonetheless. I did what is known in my family as ‘Mum’s Joyce Voice’ after the way she used to speak to a deaf friend. It’s a bit embarrassing and you can feel a bit condescending doing it to start with because it’s basically loud and clear (but keeping the treble up).

However, it seemed to work and apart from the fact that my Dad behaved abominably, mainly because he is too far gone to understand that you need to speak a little louder and more clearly to deaf folks and then got annoyed with my uncle asking him to repeat himself. Even so, it all went off pretty well. Luckily this is Dad’s older brother, so maybe he had enough memories of little brothers behaving badly to remain unfazed and unperturbed by a modern day repeat! He was sweet with Dad, anyway.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Mum and I were discussing arranging another visit and talking about how much we were looking forward to it and also, naturally, our faint hopes that Dad would behave himself this time. Wimbledon will not be the same this year, indeed, I doubt there will ever be another Wimbledon without me thinking fondly of my uncle. I think his funeral is going to be sometime during the week after next so I will go to represent my parents. There’ll be no-one to look after McMini not enough notice for McOther who is too busy so I’ll have to take him out of school and bring him with me but it should be OK. If it looks like it’ll be a long service, we’ll bring Beanos.

I don’t normally post pictures of my family but here is one of my uncle – on the right of the picture in the smart light brown suit, having a laugh with Dad (bottom left) in better days and Mum (fuzzy head in the RH corner) at Mum and Dad’s sapphire? 40 anyway, wedding anniversary party. The one below that is my uncle on his 82nd birthday, I think, back in 2011 anyway. Lovely shot sent by my cousin Matthew just afterwards.

 

 

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Sleigh that again?

It’s been all go this week. Snow has fallen (snow on snow) and it’s been fucking freezing (pardon my French) all week. We’ve had about 8 inches of snow, going by the pile on top of the wheelie bins, but the first four inches melted a bit before the second four arrived so it was only ankle deep here in town. Still looked cool though (see photos). What I like about snow is the way it lets you see the world anew; the same old same old, yet so different. I don’t know about you, but a quick dose of snow always helps me to appreciate my surroundings more. For us, here, there was just enough to be pretty and fun and not so much that things began to get a bit dicey.

That said, I believe there are folks out towards Norwich who have seen some impressively big drifts and now have a good grasp of how the average raspberry feels atop a pavlova. While others have no power. Definitely less fun for them.

On Friday, after school, I took McMini tobogganing. Our sledge is a plastic one, but slightly different to the usual in that it has a raised back and a lowered front. Apart from the fact makes the thing look more like a boat it also makes steering harder and you can’t use it lying down, face first. That didn’t stop fourteen stones of British lard from careening down the hill though – I lay back, skeleton style – but McMini was rather more cautious. I understood his reticence, my first memory of tobogganing is of me, my brother and my dad, all sitting on our toboggan and feeling very frightened.

Judging by the size of our toboggan, I must have been very small, in fact I’m amazed that the three of us fitted on. My misgivings soon disappeared when I discovered I could lie on it and proceed face first. Our toboggan was some ancient thing that had belonged to my mother as a child so it had steering, which helped.

On the down side though manoeuvrable, it was extremely fast – although that was also an up, in many respects. I remember visiting my uncle, aunt and cousins in Kew over New Year – a visit that was famously cut short after I ate an icicle off the bottom of a car and was violently sick about fourteen times but that’s another story. Where was I? Ah yes, tobogganing with my cousins. We took our toboggan to a hill in Richmond Park. It was icy, very steep and rammed with other folks on toboggans, mostly plastic ones or the Blue Peter home build (like the one my cousins had). All were going very slowly.

Our toboggan was not only the one Mum and my uncle had used as kids, it was the one which, in turn, my grandmother had used when she was a child. Antique and battered it may have been but this thing went like shit off a shovel – it still does. It looked rubbish, it also still does, and as you arrived on any packed slope you could almost feel the other kids watching you go past thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ and snickering contemptuously at your toboggan POS.

Then you’d take a run down the hill and the impression you got was that they were still thinking,

‘What the fuck is that?’ but with a different inflection entirely.

On this occasion, it was like trying to drive a Grand Prix car at full speed through a shopping centre without hitting anyone. You know the first car chase in the Blues Brothers, when they’re trashing the mall … that’s our toboggan with all the other kids pootling about around it. My cousins’ Blue Peter model seemed faster than everyone else’s as well, so it was kind of a rinse and repeat on theirs only with no steering! Unnerved by a couple of rounds of toboggan frogger we decided to move to another part of the hill which wasn’t being used.

Despite being a bit mad and fast, things were much easier with our toboggan on home ground. I grew up in two places at once, the staff side of the house in the school where Dad was a housemaster and our own actual home, which we lived in during the school holidays. Both places were half way up a down … well … the housemaster’s one was more three quarters of the way up but you get the picture. The point is, you could walk out of either house and pretty much onto a big hill. Five minutes and you’d be away. On the few occasions it snowed in the holidays, we’d spend hours up on the hill. There were thrills, spills and luckily, no injuries.

This is a ‘Down’. As you can see from the photo, the downs could be more appropriately named, ‘ups’.

The other great thing about living on a down was that you are not going to get that many people up there, and if you do, there’ll be plenty of room. The downside is that they look smooth but in reality there are a lot of sheep tracks up there so try the wrong slope and it’s like tobogganing down steps. Also there are fields up there, and the thing about a field is it usually has a fence. Hedges were getting pretty rarified in those days so said fence was usually three strings of barbed wire and some shuggly posts.

My father embraced the joy of tobogganing with even more enthusiasm than his children so we usually went as a family, or depending on school holidays etc it would be me and Dad or Dad and my brother and Mum back at home getting some peace and quiet. One occasion, I remember we had already moved out of the school for the holidays into our actual ‘home’ but needless to say, my school term hadn’t ended. Dad and my brother went for a tobogganing session while Mum collected me from my last day at school. We returned to find the two of them at home, which was not expected. There was a perfect field, just as you come into our village; a nice gentle slope, someone was even skiing on it one year, but it did have hedge at the bottom, in the middle of which was the ubiquitous knackered downland barbed wire fence, and beyond which was a trunk road. This wasn’t troubling the four or five other sledgers who were out the day Dad and my brother went but our mad toboggan was faster than all comers, as usual, so it went further. After a few runs it was clear that my dad and brother could only ride safely from half way up the hill, unless they wanted a close encounter with the hedge.

The field was L shaped and the road turned away taking the hedge away and leaving a lovely big square of unsullied virgin snow. My brother and dad wishing to experience full tobogganing joy trundled along the hill until they were above this. Now they could go from the very top and would have a huge amount of run off ground where the toboggan could come to a safe halt. Unfortunately, they moved along at the top of the hill so they didn’t hoist in that, where the road and the hedge turned the corner, the crappy barbed wire fence from the middle carried on, across what they thought was a wide snowy gap.

Dad went first and as he careened off down the hill, three things occurred to my brother:

  1. He noticed the barbed wire fence for the first time.
  2. He realised that Dad was short sighted and still hadn’t seen the fence.
  3. He realised that, not only had his loving father not noticed the fence but that he was unlikely to do so until he caught it in the neck while riding a toboggan at speed.

My brother set off running in hot pursuit shouting, ‘Dad! Fence.’ My father was sitting on the toboggan and steering with his feet. It had picked up some serious speed and there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of it stopping before it hit the fence. Luckily some other folks further down heard my brother and also ran towards Dad, relaying the message, with a bit more volume. Dad heard them and saw the fence, at a distance of about ten feet. There was no time to think, no time to steer and for whatever reason, it didn’t occur to him to bail out. Instead he lay calmly back, flattening himself against the toboggan – and probably the ground behind it – as if he was doing the Luge for real.

According to my brother, Dad passed under the fence at high speed. He took a slight scratch on the nose and it whipped off his red woolly bobble hat but otherwise, he and the toboggan came out the other side unharmed. My brother said it was one of the coolest things he’d ever seen because Dad had been so calm, but also one of the scariest because he felt he was about to witness his father’s untimely death. That said, I suspect Dad may not have felt as calm as he looked, since he suggested that they’d probably done enough tobogganing for one day and that they head home for a cup of tea, some biscuits and a plaster.

I guess the moral of this story is that few things are as they seem, ever.

On a side note, it turns out that the toboggan, itself, is not as it seems either. Indeed, it is a collector’s item. Which just goes to show that, coming from good Yorkshire stock who are too tight to throw anything away has its benefits (even if it was via five or six generations exiled down south to soften them up).

The toboggan is in Sussex and I’m in Suffolk so I can’t send you a picture. I can, however, show you what it looks like.

Thanks to Sledhill.com for this. Check out John’s Sledhill P1 in the menu for details of ours; it’s either a FFNo2 or an FF2B.

Like the snow on Bury, trying to find a picture of our toboggan has made me see it afresh. I knew it was old but it had never really occurred to me to think how old. Over 100 years. And it’s from the USA. I can imagine Grandpop (my great grandfather) going to Harrods or somewhere – possibly Hamleys – to get it for his son and daughter one Christmas.

That’s a hell of a thing.

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The pool-eyed lady

A light one this week, a quick extract from one of my Non fiction things, Setting Tripwires for Granny and other Tall Family Tales. I hope you enjoy it.

The Pool-eyed Lady

Every family has its ghost story and it seems mine is no exception. Indeed, just to be enthusiastic we have two but they are about the same ghost. This one comes from my maternal grandfather’s side of the family so it was great grandfather Castle. The story happened in a house called Woodbines which was in Kingston Upon Thames and which was haunted, sporadically, by what we British call ‘a grey lady’. Basically this is a Puritan lady from the time of the English Civil War. The first story about her comes from my Uncle.

One day Great Grandfather Castle fell gravely ill. The doctor was called and he told Great Grandmother Castle that she should employ a nurse to watch over him. But Great Grandfather was the family breadwinner, the illness looked as if it would take a fair time and all the while he wasn’t earning. The family were civil engineers at the time and so earnings peaked and troughed enough already. With the family breadwinner ill and possibly about to die, Great Granny was worried that there wasn’t the cash in the kitty for a nurse.

A few days later the doctor called again but the patient was asleep so after a quick peep in, he went downstairs to wait until Great Grandfather Castle woke up. He congratulated Great Grandmother Castle on taking his advice to employ a nurse.

‘But I haven’t employed anyone,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said the Doctor, ‘then, who was the woman sitting by his bed?’

The second story is from my Mum. Great Grandpa Castle had recovered from his illness and enjoyed a return to robust good health. He was outside playing croquet with a friend on the lawn. As they played they were having a debate about cricket. I do not know what they were discussing, batting averages, test scores, who knows, but they disagreed and each of them was adamant that he was right. Eventually, Great Grandpa Castle suggested he go get a copy of Wisden, the Cricketer’s Almanac, from the house so they could look it up and settle the dispute once and for all. In the library, to his immense surprise, he happened upon a lady whom he’d never met. She was wearing an old fashioned grey dress and her face was drawn, her eyes so sunken that in the light it was as if she had nothing but dark pools where they should be.

‘Ah,’ said Great Grandpa Castle quietly and then he got over her strangely old fashioned dress and apparent absence of actual eyes. ‘Hello there, can I help you?’

She said nothing but just smiled at him.

‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ asked Great Grandpa Castle again.

Still nothing.

‘Ah. Right. Then, if you’ll excuse me a moment, I just have to get a book.’

She smiled and inclined her head.

He flashed her a nervous smile back.

‘Just a moment,’ he said.

He turned and went to the shelf to get the volume that he wanted.

‘Now then,’ he said as he turned back to face his unknown visitor, book in hand, ‘there really must be some way I can h—’

The lady in the grey dress had gone.

Later, I’m not sure when, but probably in the late eighteen hundreds or early twentieth century, the house was demolished. The demolition company got in touch with Great Grandpa Castle who was one of the last owners, I believe. Apparently the wrecking ball had uncovered a secret room. For a split second the workman wielding it had seen a seventeenth century gentleman in fine clothes; a cavalier. He was sitting at a table, slumped forwards with his head on his arms, as if sleeping, or, perhaps, in despair.

Apparently, this sort of thing happens from time to time, usually, the body has decomposed but the lack of draughts means the dust into which the object has dissolved just kind of sits in the position it was in when it was part of something else. The minute the smallest draught hits it, it collapses but in this case, as in many others, it stayed together just long enough to catch a glimpse. Obviously, the demolition was halted while the workmen searched the rubble for a body. Nothing could be found of the man but they did find the tin breastplate he’d been wearing.

Clearly someone had secreted him away to hide him in a secret room, an old priest’s hole perhaps? He’d either died from lack of oxygen or dehydration. How long had he sat, trapped in the room, unable to escape? How long had it been before he realised that those who loved him and had hidden him to preserve his life were not going to return? What must he have felt as he sat there, all hope fading, waiting to die? And who had put him there? Was it a relative? A lover?

Was it the puritan maid who had sat by Great Grandpa Castle’s bed and whom he had met later in the library? Is that why she was there? Was he her brother, or a cousin, her son? Or had she returned to release her long lost love? What happened that meant she was unable to free him at the time?

Had the Cromwellian troops commandeered the house and forced the family to leave? Had someone realised the family were hiding a Royalist, arrested them and carted them away. Was she killed? Is that why she never came back? Or was our Grey Lady’s father some tub-thumping puritan elder who knew something was going on and kept her under lock and key, too tightly monitored to escape and free her lover. She was a woman, she would have had little control of her destiny in those days. Was she married off and whisked away? And if she wasn’t killed, she must have had to go through the rest of her life knowing that she had left a man, possibly a close relative, her son, her brother or even the man she loved, to die, how horrible for her that must have been. Imagine her, unable to act, thinking of him suffocating, or dying of thirst while she fretted and pined, with no way of reaching him, no way to apologise, no way to explain.

These people are not my relatives, the house wasn’t in my family for that long, but even I can feel the tragedy of it. How sad it is. We don’t even know their names. They’re just another pair of anonymous casualties in one of the most uncivil of wars.

The priest’s hole at Oxburgh Hall – through this door across the room beyond and into the raised trap door – photo courtesy of the National Trust Website.

 

Priest’s hole at Oxburgh, close up. I did get in there as a child and it was properly scary; you could feel the fear in the walls. Interestingly, that is pretty much what the fellow who wrote the article from which I snipped this photo also thought. This photo courtesy the imaginative conservative, who explains about priest’s holes and gives a potted history of religious persecution in the British Isles – Christian on Christian (we’re VERY good at it, unfortunately). It’s written from the perspective of a man of faith – there are some rather right wing things on his blog but you can read his account of persecution and his visit to this priest hole here.

 

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Excerpt from one of the W.I.P.s #amwriting #comedybooks

This week, another joyous example of the logic of children. The children in question being me and my brother. This is also another story that will be making it into my family stories book: Setting Tripwires for Granny (and other tall family tales). And yes, as per, neither my brother nor I is reflected in the best of lights. Anyway, enjoy.

No parking …

When he hit the age of eight, my parents made the difficult decision to send my brother to a nearby boarding school. According to Mum, he was beginning to strongly resent the amount of time Dad spent in the house and wasn’t enjoying living in a school. So off he went.  It sounds draconian but by the time the events in this story happened he’d been there some time and was thoroughly enjoying it.

Every Sunday, we picked him up and he came home for the day to have lunch with us. Four weekends each term he was allowed home for the night and these weekends were red letter occasions. At the end of each Sunday, my brother had to be back in school at around six pm. Meanwhile, the boys at Lancing who’d been out for the weekend, or the day, had to come back, too. Lancing operated with Saturday night out every other weekend and the boys (and the girls, there were girls in the sixth form at that point) had to return for evensong at six pm. This meant there was always a difficulty with us leaving when the tide of traffic up the drive was coming the other way.

The building we lived in fronted onto the car park for the next door house, Fields. We had a small fenced off terrace, but otherwise it was Fields House parking and then Fields House Lawn. Obviously, there were usually cars parked everywhere. There was one particularly tidy spot at the end of our terrace but if anyone parked there, the angle was such that you couldn’t get our car out of our garage. Usually Mum remembered to get the car out before the boys came back and then park it in a lay by a little further down the school drive so the family cars of the Fields House boys wouldn’t box it in.

However, on this occasion, our car was still in the garage. When Mum found out it was boxed in, we knew she would be all in a dither. She’d have to venture into the twilight zone that was Fields and find the owner. It was a job of sleuthing that always took ages and on one ghastly occasion the person was in chapel. Mum was not good company when she was all in a dither so as far as we kids were concerned, anyone who was inconsiderate enough to put her there was bad news.

One day, when my brother came home for the weekend it snowed. We were only a couple of miles from the sea so this was something of a rarity although it did tend to hang around slightly longer, on top of our hill, than it did in the valley. After a weekend of high jinx, snowman building and tobogganing it was nearly time for my brother to go back to school. With twenty minutes left, some parents turned up and buttonholed my Mum and Dad in the kitchen. My brother and I were upstairs, looking out of his bedroom window when we noticed that there was a car parked in The Spot; the one that blocked our garage. We knew two things about this car.

First, we knew that Mum had already asked the owners not to park there on other occasions, two, it was occupied. There was a woman sitting in it reading a book. We knew a third thing, too; Mum hadn’t moved our car yet, it was still in the garage.

My brother immediately had horrors about Mum failing to get the car out in good time and him being late back to school. I should point out here that, for him, being late to school involved missing a meal rather than missing evensong which was an altogether more disastrous outcome for a ten year old boy. And also there were plenty of other parking spaces, the car didn’t need to be parked there. As kids, it never occurred to us that Mum had probably seen it too, and seen the woman in there, so known she could just pop out and ask when the time came. No, all we saw was bad person parked in bad car.

We opened the window to get a better view and we looked at the car. It was something big, executive and expensive; a Merc or a Jag.

‘Let’s give it a couple of minutes,’ my brother said. ‘If it doesn’t move, I’ll tell Mum.’

It didn’t move and Mum was still busy with Dad and the parents in the kitchen.

Perhaps we could help Mum by making the car move ourselves?

We would ask but the lady was unlikely to pay any attention to our request because we were children. And anyway where’s the fun in that?

I think it was my idea to go downstairs, out of the door at the other side of the house, onto the upper quad, make a couple of snowballs and bring them back. One of the wonders of living in a school is the weirdness of the accommodation; a handful of rooms, miles of corridor and an astounding variety of exits, should the incumbent housemaster wish to escape from rampaging parents, or the kinds of talkative ones he couldn’t afford to let himself run into when he was late for lessons—housemasters pack a lot into their days so they are usually late for something.

Off we went, sneaking out quietly because we weren’t one hundred percent sure that our parents would approve of our actions, and into the upper quad where we made a couple of snowballs each. Back indoors we trundled, trying not to spill any tell-tale drips of melt water or giggle too loudly as we made our way back up the stairs to my brother’s room where we had opened the window, a fair bit but not too much. Standing well back so that we were indistinguishable to anyone looking up at the windows we lobbed the snowballs out. Our attempts to avoid being seen hampered our aim a bit as it took a fair bit of skill to get the snowball through the window on the right trajectory from a safely anonymous distance back. They landed near the car with a satisfactory splatting noise but not near enough to make an impression on the woman inside. We waited, just to see, but she didn’t react or move the car.

Back down we went through the house, out of the door, down another flight of concrete stairs into the cloisters and through the archway into the quad. We made another couple of snowballs each using the snow on the grass and retraced our steps to my brother’s room. This time one of our efforts skimmed past the wing mirror, sputtering the window with water droplets and the other landed on the roof with a hugely satisfying bonging noise. The woman inside was royally startled from her book and looked about her. We watched from well back as she tried to work out what had happened. Clearly deciding that a lump of snow must have fallen off the roof of our house and hit her vehicle in some freak episode, she settled back into her seat and carried on reading.

She didn’t move the car.

Foiled!

The snowballs weren’t doing enough. Or maybe the rate of fire wasn’t fast enough? Yes, that was it, we decided. We needed more ammo for a sustained attack.

We got the old nappy bucket the lived under the sink in the bathroom and headed down to the quad, filled it with freshly made, if somewhat claggy, snowballs and returned to my brother’s room. Standing well back from the half open window we subjected the car to what I guess you might call a fusillade of snowball fire, culminating in a particularly slushy one, thrown by my brother, which landed with a massive splat right across the windscreen. The woman looked up at the anonymous windows of our house and scratched her head. She seemed thoughtful for a moment but then she did, finally, move the car.

She never parked there again.

PS, if you like the picture you can buy it as a greetings card from here: https://www.zazzle.co.uk/frosty_the_abominable_snowman_card-137112259617806813

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