An inclement proposal

Letting down her hair

Bianca was at the door. I smelt her as soon as I opened it: rose and lavender with a hint of mothballs. Rose was that day’s theme. A floaty chiffon scarf around her shoulders, rose coloured. A gauzy print dress, rose patterned on deep purple, the asymetric hem falling  in as yet unfashionable waves. All topped off with a large straw hat encircled with faded silk roses, crowning shining plaited coils of fox red hair.

Purple was the background theme of my childhood, much favoured by members of The Order of the Cross. Their scriptures, invented in the 1930s and 40s by the Reverend J.Todd Ferrier (‘Our Friend’) were heavy tomes covered in …purple damask. Order members were all pacifists and vegetarian. On Sundays at the Sanctuary (an upstairs room above my father’s surgery) my parents and their friends, fellow members, would in turn transmogrify into preachers, cloaked in soft purple satin robes. During the long and incomprehensible services, with wheezing hymns pumped out on an organ, I watched the coils of incense rise. I listened to the caged budgies in Gloucester park opposite, and felt the hard rush seats barcode my bare thighs and dreamt of escape and the nut roast for lunch.

Bianca was just one of the colourful characters of my childhood, where a FatherMother was worshiped instead of god, Christ was ‘The Master’ and where angels hovered everywhere. Androgynous pictures of them in floaty garments hung over my parents’ beds. A Guardian Angel, I learnt, was always there to protect me. (A dangerous idea for an adventurous child addicted to the Famous Five books). Bianca, of all the members of The Order, transfixed me. She sits here by my desk. A little cloth sculpture by a fellow member. Her hands are suspended in front of her chest; the knitting needle pins that held a tiny ball of wool have fallen out of them long ago. Her neck is broken and her head would lol onto her chest without the strip of masking tape that holds it up, so you can see the coils around her head. Nevertheless she is every last stitch the Bianca I knew.

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A ‘grunge’ dresser long before the word was invented, before charity shops existed, she would trawl jumble sales to assemble her outfits; topping them off with gaudy paste broaches. She already seemed ancient when I knew her – but then most grownups did. By the hairs on her chin, and freckled arms, she must have been in her mid 50s or 60s when my five year old self opened the door to her.

In ‘reduced circumstances’, I believe Bianca lived in a grace and favour caravan in the woods next to Resthaven, an old people’s home near Stroud. On Wednesdays she would take the 56 bus from Pitchcombe to our house in Gloucester to help my mother with the ironing. Ours was a busy doctor’s household. In school holidays there would be shirts for four brothers and my father to iron, whilst my mother fed sheets through a rotary iron. But on quieter visits, when my big, rowdy, messy brothers were all away at boarding school, I would have quality time with Bianca. I would be ready for her with a little hoard of gold coloured hairpins clasped in my hand, pins that she had shed around the house the previous visit. Pins that held the coils in place.

Taking a break from the singeing hot kitchen, Bianca would retreat to the cool of the downstairs cloak room, which smelt of damp woollen coats and air-wick loo freshener.  There she would indulge me by letting down her hair. Hair that when released fell heavily down to her ankles in fiery Rumplestiltskin waves from the plaiting. She brushed and brushed it till it shone and crackled letting me feel it’s silky softness. How I envied that hair. My brother Ian once found me sobbing in front of the slightly foxed bathroom mirror after the savage haircut my mother favoured. “No one will marry me now” I wailed. It became the family joke for a while, making me blush to my roots each time it was mentioned.

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I asked Bianca one day “Did you ever have a fiancee? Didn’t you want to marry?”

“Oh dearie me. What a question. Well as a matter of fact I almost did. He was an emperor and a king you know.” My eyes widened. “Black and beautiful and his chest was covered with gold medals and chains. A neat silver beard – oh he was so handsome. “

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Emperor Haile Selassie

Emperor (and self appointed King) Haile Selassie was exiled during World War II to Bath, in the West of England. She told me that at the time she was a companion to *Lady Macaulay and often attended elegant social events with her. Presumably it was at one of these events she met Selassie. I found this picture of her in fancy dress. She stands on the far right, hair not yet ankle length, but well on the way.  I imagine him transfixed, like I was, by her long red plait, and graceful bearing.

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“He proposed to me darling, and gave me a black-stoned ring. I had to turn him down. He was King of Ethiopia. It’s very hot there. I didn’t think the sun would suit my complexion.”

Many years later, when I was in my 30s, it fell to my mother to clear out Bianca’s  possessions when she died. A kindly duty she often did for friends and one I was always eager to help with because who knows what treasure might be unearthed? Bianca had ended her days in a high ceilinged, but small room in Faithful House in Cheltenham. A home for elderly nurses who were on their uppers. The staff were rather keen for a quick and thorough clear out, she had piles of suitcases in her room and in their storage. I searched every little faded box, tissue paper screw and suitcase for that ring. I didn’t find it. Perhaps she gave it back? What I did find, however, was pure gold. In a long box, wrapped in tissue, tied at each end with a pale blue satin ribbon, was folded a fox red plait.

 

*A Wiki search for information on a Lady Macaulay has sadly revealed nothing.  However I did find this woman, a writer, Dame Rosa Macaulay, whose home was completely destroyed in the blitz. Might she have fled to Bath at that time? She too was drawn to deeper spiritual dimensions. Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity”; her writings reveal a more complex, mystical sense of the divine. Her unusual take on Christianity would have been right up Bianca’s street, she would have made a perfect companion. Like Bianca she too was a pacifist and between wars was a sponsor of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union, until she recanted in 1940, after her home was flattened perhaps?

I want to believe this is the Macaulay that Bianca companioned in Bath.  Who could not resist someone who writes this memorable first line from her book The Towers of Trebizond: ‘”Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

 

 

A Vegetarian Child’s Christmas in (1950s) Gloucester

Once upon a time Christmas began in December, with just a little tease, no baubles, no blast of lights. The tiny window, number 1, hidden in the busy picture sprinkled with glitter. When we propped the calendar against the window the picture always thrilled. Around the middle of the month, when I opened number 15, the delicious smells of Christmas would waft upstairs to my bedroom.

“Come and stir” she shouted. I whizzed down the mahogany bannister and thew myself at the kitchen door. She unlocked it, brow dusted with flour, housecoat awry, cursing “bloody patients” for the phone always seemed to her to ring while she was in the middle of something – which was always. I listened to her snap “Well how long have you had the cough? Then why didn’t you call Dr Horsley earlier? This is a very busy time of the year you know, you can’t expect him to just drop everything….” Afterwards the wooden spoon clattered harder against the side of the big cream bowl.

“Make a wish, and stir again.”
“You put breadcrumbs in there? Eeuw.” But when I stirred, feeling the heavy drag of the mix against the spoon, then tasted it – it was delicious.

Next came the cake, “far too late” she fussed “I should have done it months ago.” I became adept at dodging her cat’s cradle paths from the sink in the scullery to kitchen table, and stove. I learnt the importance of the ‘heavy drop’. Spoon suspended a foot above the bowl, I let the mix plop into the bowl like a cow pat. Not enough plop? More milk would be added. A splat instead of a plop and you’d blown it but with the drop just right the cake would be evenly moist all through. What we feared most in those days was not the soggy bottom, it was the soggy middle.

Biscuits were made in industrial quantities, almond and hazelnut. The smell of singed hazelnuts meant keep well away from the kitchen, for the stove was unpredictable depending on the direction of the wind. (The birds did well out of baking days.) Mum’s hands became shiny with butter as she rolled the dough into balls. My job was to flatten them slightly as I pressed a nut or a quarter of cherry into the middle of each one. The cooked biscuits were arranged on plates on a lacy paper doily and covered in greaseproof paper to be distributed to the receptionist at the surgery, Brewer our gardener, Mrs Grindle the cleaner, the dustbin men, the postman, Zigna Laarson (in exchange for her hated peppermint creams) and Bertie Robertson the sports master at my brothers’ school, also a vegetarian. Bertie, a bachelor with no family, would join us on Christmas day.

My poor mother had scant help from any of us as the day approached. My father would be fighting off his own asthma, struggling to cope with all the afflictions caused by the seeping, soggy, town of Gloucester (Dr Foster made a wise decision). I don’t remember my brothers, all older than me, lifting a so much as a scuttle. Perhaps the lock on the kitchen door was testament to my usefulness? Never easy about her relationship with her spinster sister-in-law who came to us most Sundays, Aunty Mamie would be fetched from her flat in Longford which overlooked the advancing floods. Sitting by the fire, knees akimbo, exposing long pink silk knickers she would read.

Aunty Helen in one of her good moods

Aunty Helen, another of my father’s sisters, who lived “Up North’ would be fetched from the station to sour the cream and spread misery with her interminable pessimism. (We’d beg to exclude her every year – it never worked.) In the afternoon the two aunts would vie for the spot in front of the fireplace, hitch up the back of their tweed skirts and rub the warmth into their buttocks and then turn like spits to do the other side, skirt held out. Banished from the kitchen, they bickered the day away in this manner.

None of this helped my mother’s crescendo of stress, which peaked around midnight on christmas eve when she’d finally get round to dressing the tree. Pernickety about how it was done, she left only the lametta for me to add in the morning. Sent early to bed I’d lie awake, fizzing with excitement, hearing her scuffle about in the boxes of decorations. I turned round and round in my bed like a dog in a basket terrified Father Christmas wouldn’t come if I didn’t sleep.

The weight on my feet and the rustle of tissue paper when I moved woke me before dawn. “Not yet,” she’d hiss through the door, “wait till seven.” After a few minutes I’d rap on the bedroom wall again until she gave up, and came in to perch on the end of my bed to share my surprise and delight as I unwrapped the gifts from their screws of tissue paper. The contents were deliciously familiar each year: a clicking frog, chocolate money, paper flowers that opened in a bowl of water, a few walnuts, plastercine, maybe a small cloth bag of brass jacks and ball, a few marbles. Lastly in the toe, without fail, a cox’s apple and a tangerine. (I’d completely forget that I’d spent the weeks before christmas with my head stuck between the gas fire and the chimney in my bedroom requesting a fairly costume.)

As soon as I was allowed up I’d race downstairs to be first to find the box of homemade fudge on the front door step. Each year Bertie ran all the way from from Stonehouse to Gloucester to deliver his present before dawn and then ran home again to change.

Opening our presents took up most of the morning; they were not the extravagant toys of today. Fuzzy felt, maybe an etch-a-sketch – one year a Mason Pearson hairbrush that I did my best to get excited about. A ten shilling note from Granny, the same from Aunty Mamie. I remember the year I realised that it didn’t have to be all one way. I had a small amount of pocket money and I used it to buy a pack of Price’s candles and some wax crayons. I melted them together on the stove and made big coloured candles in pudding bowls for my four brothers, aunts and parents. My brother Ian was withering, but I thought them very nice.

Bertie would reappear around 11, ice blue eyes sparkling in his tanned climber’s face, sheep white aran sweater; I loved Bertie from when I was about 4 years old. After he arrived we were rounded up to be taken for a long walk, leaving Mum on her own to cook dinner for 10. I’d bag the front seat in Bertie’s white sports car so I could have him all to myself. Dad loaded up my brothers and we’d drive miles to the Forest of Dean, the Malverns or even as far as the Black Mountains to ‘work up an appetite’.

Finally the meal: a great feast, spread out on the sideboard in silver serving dishes. Eaten off green Beryl plates on delicate white lace mats that only came out once a year. The silver candles, gravy boats, cutlery and crystal glasses had been polished to perfection by Mrs Grindle. Dad filled our glasses with fizzy apple Shloer – for there was no alcohol allowed for Order of the Cross members. The cake, the pudding and the trifle more than made up for it however.

We never had an hors oeuvre, the meal began with nut roast, gravy, roast potatoes and parsnips, and sprouts from the garden with the slugs washed out. The gravy was flavoured with marmite, the bread sauce by floating a onion studded with cloves in the milk and adding a rare treat: white breadcrumbs. There’d be jelly made from red currants I’d helped to pick in the summer. The Christmas nut roast was made special by adding a sausage roll of stuffing made from white bread, thyme, sage and grated lemon rind laid through the middle. When the roast was cut, circles of pale green stuffing appeared like magic in the middle of each slice. Pine nut kernels, rare and terribly expensive then, were sprinkled on top with dabs of butter to roast it.

Finally, the puddings. First we had Christmas pudding (brought to the table with blue flaming brandy licking the sides), served with a sweet white sauce. My mother, with sleight of hand, sneaked a silver 3p bit wrapped in greaseproof paper into each portion. Then we had mince pies served with top of the milk and strong cheddar cheese; trifle; fruit salad; meringues and brandy snaps stuffed with cream. Funny thing is, I don’t remember any of this being turned down by any of us. We even managed to end the enormous meal by eating one of mother’s favourite Elizabeth Shaw mints. The only thing we rejected were the Meltis fruit jellies (from a grateful patient to an ungrateful family) and Zigna Laarson’s dreadful peppermint creams.

With Chris at dinner