As part of National Novel Writing Month, (#NaNoWriMo) I've set myself the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel (1700 words a day), consisting of short stories about my memories of primary school. Today I'm writing about my nan and great aunties in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. Just so that you know, all names of people have been changed unless they are publically known. Each story is based on my own memory, so may not be an exact representation of events, especially since I am writing this over 40 years after things happened! But I hope you will enjoy each story all the same, and that perhaps it will spark your own memories of life at primary school.
My nan was from a big family of about 8 boys and girls who got on very well together. She missed them a lot, especially being the baby of the family. Her brothers had been killed during the war and now just a few of the girls were left but they were much older than her. Aunty Effy lived on the corner near nan’s house and I wished I had seen her in her prime as a young girl because she sounded like a lot of fun from the stories Nan told me. When I met her she was a large lady, almost house bound and in her late 90s, she had a sweet tooth, smoked a pipe, had a deep voice, and seemed to have a lot of children who were already grown up because there were always a lot of visitors calling in to see her. We didn’t visit aunty Effy quite as much as Nan’s other sisters, but she was always welcoming and kind. Effy had left home when Nan was still small and was already married with children of her own.
Nan’s other sister, my Aunty Elly lived on another street, the opposite direction from Nan and Effy’s homes. Not once did I enter Elly’s house through the front door! As family, we always entered through the side door that opened straight onto the kitchen. The door was never locked and your face would be hit by a rush of warm air and the smell of white bread and bacon sarnies. It was a wonderful combination and especially welcome on the days when it the air outdoors was bitingly cold.
Elly would be busy bustling about in the kitchen, but she always had time to stop and welcome you with a big kiss on the cheek. I loved those kisses and welcomes, even though she had a little bit of a hairy chin, like most ladies have when they get to a certain age. So it tickled a little bit. She would smell just like nan. A mixture of Vaseline on her lips to stop them chaffing in the cold outdoors, and powder from her compact make up and blusher, and with an aroma of a soap bar mixed in. Nan did her make up down stairs in the kitchen. She had a round, silver coloured frame, hand held mirror to look into as she applied her make up. Nan said the light was better in there, plus it was warmer than the rest of the house, and she liked to listen to Terry Wogan on the ‘wireless’ as she called it, but I knew she meant ‘radio’. Nan had a little bag for her make-up and some neon yellow or pink rollers for her hair which I loved to sit and fiddle with in her bag.
Aunty Elly was kind and gentle just like nan and her voice was a cross between a friendly cackle and a bird tweeting. Nan and Elly always called me Sarah Jane, not just Sarah, or sometimes they would call me SJ or Sar for short which I liked. Aunty Elly for some reason always reminded me of the children's programme on television called Willo the Wisp but I never worked out why and we never watched television together because Elly was always busy in the kitchen. But whenever I was really tired or sad or not feeling very well after a day at primary school I would watch Willo the Wisp and somehow it always reminded me of Aunty Elly and made me happy again and feel like I was back in her warm and cosy kitchen with aunties and nans who loved me.
There was nowhere in the world that was more friendly or welcoming than aunty Elly’s kitchen. Whenever you arrived, you felt like you were home, and it was impossible to leave in a bad mood. Sometimes if mum or dad had driven all the way from Dorset they would be tired and a bit grumpy, so aunty Elly was a good place to visit first, before we went to stay with my Granny, my mum's mum who lived in Henley. Aunty Elly would somehow soothe them and they would always leave with smiles on their faces, ready to face whatever criticism that granny might have about their parenting or careers or finances or whatever it was that granny felt they were doing wrong because she had read some article in the newspaper that day and if it was in the paper then it must be true.
The secret to Aunty Elly’s magical kitchen, was the wood burning stove in the corner of the room that was always toasty warm, with a kettle of water boiling on the top so there was always a cup of tea to welcome visitors. In the middle of the room was a round table and wooden chairs with newspapers on the seats which you could either sit on top of and have a lumpy pile of papers under your mum, but be a foot taller in your chair, or you could move them aside. The table was covered in newspapers too, and aunty Elly’s large ginger cat sprawled across the table fast asleep. He was such an old cat and it seemed like he would live forever. I would have been heartbroken not to find him asleep on the table whenever I came to visit, he was such a part of the furniture.
In what was often referred to as ‘the back room’ of Aunty Elly’s house was a room that was actually at the front of the house, overlooking the tiny garden and the cul de sac. Whenever I visited aunty Elly with my nan, I would be allowed into the back room to say hello to aunty Elly’s husband, my Great Uncle James or ‘Jimmy’ as everybody called him. Though he never seemed to change in any of the photos of him over the years or on visits, he always looked exactly the same, never older or younger. He always looked like the oldest person I had ever met. In fact the only recollection I ever have of him standing up is from a photo of him at my christening as his and aunty Elly’s only child, their daughter Abi, (my dad’s cousin), was my Godmother. Uncle Jimmy would always be sat in his chair in the back room watching tv or reading the paper and was usually dozing away by the fire. He was the loveliest, happiest, and smiliest person in the world.
It was very hard to understand what Uncle Jimmy was saying, because he spoke very fast, with a thick Scottish accent, and he didn’t have any teeth, just gums so I would call him ‘Gummie’. It was Uncle Jimmy who first gave me the nickname Thumbie, partly because he said I was so small, like Thumbelina from the fairytales, but mostly because whenever I visited him I would always be sucking by thumb. ‘Alright Thumbie’ he would say, and then he would chatter away and I would stand there all quiet and smiling with my thumb in my mouth because I never knew what to say to him. Sometimes we would spend ages just teasing each other. Jimmy would call me ‘Thumbie’, I would call him ‘Gummie’, and so it went on, both of us grinning at each other.
I loved to watch his smiley face and hear his funny accent. I wondered how my Godmother Abi who was just a teenager herself had such a different accent, because it wasn’t Scottish like her dad or as broad Wallingford like her mum’s, but a mixture of the two. That was probably just as well because she had just got a job as a receptionist working for the local council so she had to speak to people all day.
I loved to hear Abi speak, because she spoke softly and quietly like me, she didn’t have a big voice like my dad or my nan or Elly, Pip, or Effy. Abi still lived at home and her mum Elly loved nothing more than looking after her daughter and uncle Jimmy. It was a house that always felt full of love and I could see why my Nan was always there for Sunday dinner or for fish and chips on a weekend. Aunty Elly even had a washing machine, one of those new, fancy ones, so Nan would often bring her washing around because she didn’t have a washing machine at her house, or a freezer, and no one had microwaves back in those days. Nan washed her stockings and underwear in the bath with a special bar of soap whenever she took a bath, which had the benefit of saving water, especially in the summer when there were things like hosepipe bans because of water shortages.
Nan’s other sister, my great aunty Pip lived the furthest away in a village called Berinsfield and later in a place called Cholsey. It was just a few miles away from Wallingford, but nan would still walk there to visit Pip, or sometimes Pip would catch the bus into Wallingford and they would go for a coffee and a slice of cake or a cooked breakfast at a store called Petits. It was like a tradition to go to Wallingford’s only department store and have a coffee and any visit was not complete without a Petit’s treat!
Pip was quite different to the other sisters and definitely the one who worried the most, but nan said she wasn’t always like that but became more so as she got older, especially after her husband died, and in the final years before she died. I wondered how a person could change so much and have all these amazing adventures in the Far East and Middle East but be so afraid of not having a routine, or of what seemed to me like everything. Pip was in my mind a great explorer and I always imagined her in a Safari suit riding a camel across the desert or visiting the pyramids in Egypt, or discover mummies in tombs. Her house was always filled with the most weird and wonderful objects from her visits to faraway places; wooden masks, colourful shells, furniture with ivory from elephants as decoration. All of it very, very old, or presents from friends she had made in other countries. I didn't know anyone who received so many letters from around the world, and she had an amazing collection of foreign stamps from penpals.
Back in the 1940s, Aunty Pip had been quite a one for the tea dances and dances with sailors and she and nan would go to the dances together as often as they could. That was before Pip joined a convent and became a nun. Part of me understood that a little bit, because I loved to dance and have fun with my friends, but only if I could balance it with time on my own because I much preferred my own company and I got irritable if I had to be with people all of the time.
One day, when Pip was still a nun, she met a man called George, a Sergeant Major in the British army. He was a funny little chap, sarcastic and very, very grumpy. He had strawberry blonde hair and freckles and a long moustache that he twisted with wax to make it stay in position.
If anyone telephoned the house on the landline, he would pick up the receiver and say things like ‘good morning, Battersea Dog’s Home’, or ‘What do you want?’, or ‘Pip and George’s home for the clinically insane” even though he had no idea who might be calling. The person on the other end of the phone would be so taken aback, they might forget why they had called, and then George was annoyed for them not getting to the point or for wasting his time. He wasn’t one to waste words! He was always to the point, and he never never said goodbye at the end of a telephone conversation. Instead he would slam the phone down, even if the person calling had not finished speaking. If Pip caught him answering the phone she would shake her head in despair and say ‘Ohh George’ and then let out a long sigh and an ‘ahhh’ because she knew it was pointless to draw his attention to his poor telephone etiquette.
Pip was the opposite when it came to answering the telephone, she would have a posh and clear accent, and would recite the telephone number to the caller, or say something like ‘Good Morning, Cholsey, zero, five, eight, seven, nine, Pip speaking’. And George would mutter to himself in the background and say ‘whose calling? Pip, who is it’ and if Pip answered him, he would say things like ‘ooh them’ or ‘ohh her’. ‘What do they want. Calling you at this time of day. Haven’t they got something better to do’.
George was very rude to people but that was just george and everyone knew what he was like and just accepted it as part of his eccentric character. On Remembrance Sundays or special days, George spent days polishing his shoes just so, cleaning up his gold buttons and medals, brush off his beret, and go all the way to London to take part in the Remembrance Day parade and service. I think he even met the Queen a few times. He was very proud of his contribution to the war effort and enjoyed catching up and reminiscing with his military friends about life as a soldier even though he spoke little of it at home. Army life had really suited him and it seemed like he really missed it, especially his friends.
When George left the British army, he got a job doing something with gold and diamond mining in Saudi Arabia, but I don’t know what he did exactly because I would never have been brave enough to ask him, and he most likely would have said something like ‘none of your business, now buzz off and leave me in peace. I have enough chitter chatter from your great aunty Pip without you joining in’.
Aunty Pip and Uncle George weren't what you called posh, but they always seemed to speak in proper BBC English, or at least their version of it. I took great delight in observing and listening to the both of them as a child. They were so mysterious and they had been to so many faraway places, but I knew so little about them. They were both a mystery to me. I especially loved how they wouldn't just say 'Wallingford' or 'Oxford', instead they would always over emphasise the end of the word to make it sound more ground and regal - 'Walling-FAWWWWD' or 'OxFAAWD'. Sometimes I had to hide a little smile or giggle because to me it just sounded so funny and I didn't want them to think I was rude or naughty and I loved them both dearly.
George didn’t meet my great aunty Pip until he was already working in the ‘Middle East’ as he and Pip would call it, because it somehow sounded more exotic and exciting. It seemed to me that he preferred Saudi Arabia to Britain because he was constantly complaining about the cold British weather, especially the rain and frost.
Sometimes he, Pip, and Nan would go on coach holidays with a company called Tappins, and George liked that because he and nan would have some banter and they both loved places like Bournemouth where the sun would shine and be a bit warmer. It was nice for Pip too, because Nan was so laid back that whenever George started to complain on holiday, Nan would just laugh to herself, and say ‘ooh George. You are a one’ or ‘you are funny George’. Where great aunty Elly’s special power was to sooth you and cure you of any misery, Nan’s special power was to diffuse any tension that existed and to make it disappear. She did that through her smile and her laugh.
But how Pip and George met in the first place, I have no idea but their relationship suited them both, even if it was more of a business agreement and somewhat unconventional.
George needed a wife to join him at dinner parties in Saudi, and Pip wanted to rescue girl babies thrown into the sea because girls were less valued than boys. So they got married, and moved to Saudi Arabia. George working in the mining industry, and Pip adopting abandoned girls.
For the whole of their lives they slept in separate bedrooms. Coffee was served at 11am on the dot regardless of whether you wanted it or not. It was lovely coffee, always made with the cream from the top of the milk, and heated up in a saucepan on the stove.
Pip never put the heating on in the house even if you could see your breath in the mornings. It wasn’t because she couldn’t afford it, and old people were given grants in the winter to help them cover the cost of the bills. She simply refused to put the heating on because it was a luxury and was wasteful.
As a result, almost every winter, Pip would end up in hospital with a medical condition called hypothermia which happens when your body temperature drops too much. It can be a very serious condition and eventually you can fall unconscious and die. Sometimes she would get pneumonia too.
This seemed very silly to me especially because she was the first to tell you to put on extra layers in case you 'caught your death from the cold' even if it was the summer holidays and you were sweltering. I never understood why someone who was such a great explorer and travelled to so many strange and dangerous places could allow herself to become so ill from something as simple as refusing to put the heating on.
It was hard for me as a child to hear that she was unwell in hospital because she wasn't the kind of person you could fuss over or tell what to do, and instead of feeling sad for her being unwell, a part of me just felt annoyance because she would get herself so unwell when it could have been avoided. It split me in two because a part of me knew that she was tough and stubborn just like I was, and fiercely independent, but I also knew I would be very upset if she died and didn't need to die. Especially as she got older and developed Parkinson's and shingles.
I always felt like somehow she had just given up and that no matter how much I loved her and wanted her to live for as long as possible, there was nothing I could do to make any difference, especially living so far away. And no one else would argue with her or boss her about because she wouldn't listen anyway. Sometimes grown ups can be very complicated to understand and just won't listen to children even when the child knows best.
Pip would wake up very early in the morning each day, boil the kettle once, and fill up her Thermos flask with boiling water, and that is what she used to make her cups of tea each day. Even if you were frozen or thirsty or hungry you still had to follow the regime. No wonder George was always so miserable!!
Pip was the polar opposite to great Aunty Effy who loved to eat sweets, and to nan and Elly who drank copious amounts of tea and really liked biscuits and sweet things. But aunty Pip was also very kind even if she was always worried about absolutely everything! She was especially worried for my nan, what with her living on her own, and being the baby of the family.
‘Your nan had a very hard time when she was your age. We didn’t think she would live because she nearly died so many times and they didn’t have doctors or hospitals for free like you have today. That was before the NHS started and you had to pay to see a doctor or to get medicine back then’.
Luckily by the time my dad was born in Oxford on the 23rd February 1952, the NHS had had been around for four years and things like penicillin had been discovered thirty years earlier. That meant that medical treatment was free of charge and after World War Two in the 1940s, medicine and medical treatments were getting better, but still not as good as they are today.
A while after dad was born, nan was very sick with a bacterial infection called TB (Tuberculosis or ‘consumption’) so she was made to stay at a special hospital called a ‘sanatorium’ in Oxford. Nan was in hospital for a very long time, months and months, so great aunty Pip looked after my dad until the doctors decided that nan was no longer contagious and was well enough to come home.
‘oooh it was awful’. Nan told me.
‘I was kept in isolation, and they opened all the windows and doors because they said the cold air was good for you, and then they would stick long needles through the spaces between your ribs and into your lungs to drain off fluid. It was very painful and you had to keep completely still whilst the air made a hissing and popping noise as it escaped through the needle and all the tubes’
'And there was no anaesthetic like you have today so it really did hurt a lot'.
Nan told me that the worst thing was when she made friends with other patients on the ward, and half of the time they just got sicker and sicker until they died.
‘You just had to get on with it really, and be thankful for your lot. The nurses were very strict and it was very boring, you couldn’t have visitors and you were made to rest and stay still a lot. You weren’t allowed to walk around or to go out if you wanted to’.
My nan was incredibly brave and I never once heard her complain about anything or say a bad word about anyone. She was my favourite person in the world.
Dad said she was very strict with him and his brother when they were growing up, but I couldn’t imagine it at all. She was the kindest person I knew and not half as strict as my mum and dad were with me.