In the next instalment of his memoirs, local actor and playwright John Bartlett recalls halcyon summers, a family rivalry and revenge exacted with an ice-cream cone…
My favourite room in my grandparents’ house had a sideboard with a dusty collection of vases, glass decanters, silver gravy boats and other things that had been forgotten about. At the far end of the room was a pair of French doors that opened out into the wooden greenhouse wherein Grandpa grew delicious red tomatoes in terracotta pots. The pots were ranged around the greenhouse on slatted shelves on either side of two rickety wooden doors leading to the kitchen garden. At the height of summer, I was almost overpowered by the heat and the pungent smell of the lush tomatoes mingling with decaying wood and dubious-looking concoctions in tins and bottles hidden in the corners and under the shelves. These days, whenever I enter an old greenhouse I am instantly transported back to that halcyon time of seemingly perpetual sunshine.
It was just outside the greenhouse that a curious game took place between myself and Uncle John, who was on a rare visit from Canada with Aunty Sonia and their two daughters Barbara and Jennifer. It was a beautiful day and the sun’s rays poured like liquid into the small rose garden in front of the greenhouse.
Uncle John turned to me and declaimed in his soft Canadian accent, ‘Now John, I want to make you a deal.’
‘A deal?’ I said.
‘I’ll put my hands in my pockets,’ he said in a serious tone, ‘and if I find a sixpence it’s yours. But if there’s no sixpence you don’t get anything. So do we have a deal or not?’
I quickly calculated that there was nothing for me to lose in this deal of his. ‘Well let’s see what have we here!’ I cried.
Uncle John fished out his change and I was stunned to see five sixpences in his palm. ‘There we are,’ he smiled, handing them over. I couldn’t believe my luck as at that time my pocket money amounted to two bob a week or, put another way, four sixpences. Now my finances had more than doubled thanks to Uncle John’s kindness. This little story has stayed with me and, in later years, I grew inordinately fond of Uncle John. Sadly he passed away on the 1st of September 2013. I’ll always remember him as a wonderful man with a great heart and a great spirit.
At the back of my grandparents’ house were the main dining room, pantry and kitchen – or I should say the scullery, as the word ‘kitchen’ conjures up a picture of something much grander than it actually was. The dining room was homely, had a dark wooden table mock wheel-back Windsor chairs all along its perimeter. I have many happy memories of this room because I used to sit here with Nana – who had been a ballet dancer in her youth – while she regaled me with family stories of distant relations, smugglers, a school mistress jilted at the altar and shady goings-on in the old South Africa House building in Trafalgar Square, London. I adored hearing these tales and would often ask Nana to repeat them.
As you came into the room, which was painted pale Regency green, immediately to the right was a floor-to-ceiling built-in dresser also decorated in the same calming green. Plates and ornaments occupied the top half, while the central section comprised three drawers containing cutlery, napkins and various bits of string, scissors and all sorts of odds and ends. Three cupboards filled up the lower part of the dresser. The bottom right cupboard was for medical purposes. I remember Grandpa with a bottle of medicine that always separated out into two parts: a clear brown liquid at the top and an off-white creamy substance at the bottom. Grandpa would then shake the bottle before administering it. I have no idea what it was for, but I found it intriguing and, in equal parts, ghastly.
The table and chairs took up most of the room but could be pulled out still further if other family members were visiting. I always sat opposite Grandpa with my back to the window, with Nana in the centre and Grandpa with his back to the dresser. After dinner he would push his chair back, the legs scraping along the floor with a wooden squeal, and walk out to the front room to sit in his armchair beside the fire.
After my father died when I was not quite three, my mother took lodgings in an imposing white house diagonally opposite Nana and Grandpa’s. I don’t recall that house having a cosy or homely aspect to it. Out the back of it was a large, rusty, rectangular iron tank containing oil for the boiler. I often played with my toy cars in the sandy gravel around the base of the tank.
I must have been three or four when, one bedtime, I decided to escape from my mother. In a fit of giggles, I eluded her clutches and made a beeline across the road, her in hot pursuit. Even at three I was too quick for her, breaking away through the long uncut grass and fruit trees, from one side of my grandparents’ garden to the other in a sort of demented game of British Bulldog. The longer I avoided capture the more amusing I found it.
Later on, at the suggestion of her lifelong friend Eileen, my mother used the money from my father’s life insurance policies (fortuitously he had taken them out just before he died) to buy an enormous house in East Molesey, near Kingston upon Thames, Surrey. She had got a job as a midwife at a maternity hospital in Walton upon Thames. We were now far away from Nana and Grandpa and I couldn’t wait for the summer holidays to come round so we could visit them.
After school was done for the year, my mother and I would travel down by train from Waterloo Station, changing at Havant for Emsworth. For a treat we’d visit the cream and brown Pullman car, situated in the middle of the train, for tea and toast or hot buttered buns, served by smart waiters in pristine whites. Yet to have its tracks welded together, the old railway was a clickety-clackety affair. It was hilarious watching the waiters jerk rhythmically from side to side, pouring great brown cascades of steaming tea from tall silver pots. The tables were covered in spotless white table cloths upon which were cups, saucers and plates. The silver cutlery was heavy and unwieldy. When the toast and buns arrived I enjoyed choosing one of the enticing pots of jam served in miniature glass pots. There was something decadent about being waited on while speeding through the countryside, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
The walk from Emsworth train station passed Northlands – now demolished – where my mother first started nursing. I’d be filled with expectation as we turned into Westbourne Avenue for my grandparents’ home. The whole summer was ahead of me. I couldn’t wait for the fields, the seashore and the pleasure of reacquainting myself with a different set of friends from those I had left behind in Molesey.
Two or three weeks into the holiday, the Shellbournes would come to see us. It broke up the routine of living with Nana and Grandpa to see Aunty Joan (my mother’s sister), Uncle Jack and my cousins Christopher and Jane. My horizons grew beyond all proportions because now we had the use of a car for trips to the beaches of Hayling Island or for walks up Kingley Vale and Racton Ruin.
At first I got on with Chris, then soon enough we’d be trying to kill each other. This hostility didn’t last long, though – it must have been about boys establishing boundaries or something of that nature. Jane was quite a different matter, she was much younger and a girl! It seemed to Chris and I that girls had, in true Just William style, been put on the planet to plague boys, ruin their games and generally muck everything up. Cricket was always a trial as Jane could never be out first go, she had to stay in for innings after innings even if she had been caught, bowled or stumped. When we played French cricket we’d have to hit her below the knee with the ball several times before she relinquished the bat in a fit of pique.
Uncle Jack had flown Hurricanes in Burma during the war. He sported a classic fighter pilot’s moustache. A kindly but pompous man, he could make my life difficult. My anticipation at the Shellbournes’ pending arrival was outweighed by an expectation of discomfort. On reflection, I must have then been on the autistic spectrum and slightly dyslexic – conditions that were not recognised in the late fifties and early sixties. Sharing a meal with the Shellbournes filled me with the joy of family but also with foreboding about what was to transpire after dinner. When we’d finish eating Uncle Jack would set spelling and multiplication tests, neither of which I was proficient at. On the other hand, Cousin Chris was a mini Einstein.
With the advent of computers my spelling has improved beyond recognition, but in those far-off days combining letters in the correct order caused my head to go into a fog. I dreaded those outwardly genial but essentially undermining tests. ‘Come along then John,’ Uncle Jack would smile, ‘how do you spell “success”?’ or ‘What are eight nines?’. He knew full well what the traumatic, embarrassing, stuttering outcome would be, and he knew full well that I would fail the task.
I have often wondered why it was so important for him to behave in such a cruel way to a young boy. What was he trying to prove? Perhaps it was his way of taking pride in the intellectual superiority of his son who could spell or multiply anything… but, as I was to learn later, wasn’t capable of sucking ice cream through a cone. Oh bliss! What glorious everything-comes-to-he-who-waits revenge!
One day Uncle Jack took us to Stafford to view the construction of a new motorway. He was a County Surveyor with special responsibility for this important project. He bought Chris and I an ice cream cone. Once I’d eaten most of mine I did my usual trick: biting the end of the cone off and sucking the rest of the semi-frozen ice cream through the narrow opening. Chris looked at me with amazement. Gingerly he tried to do the same, but couldn’t master the simple act of sucking rather than blowing. In, out, in, out went the globule of ice cream, until finally with an almighty puff it all shot out! How I laughed at his sticky predicament whilst his irate father admonished him. ‘You stupid boy, what did you do that for?’
Now to return to my favourite room in Nana and Grandpa’s house. On the other side of the table, situated in the old chimneybreast that had been an open fire, was the boiler. This was both Grandpa’s responsibility and the bane of his life. Every day he would sink his overweight body down onto one knee and riddle furiously with the hot, ash-laden coals. Taking out the tray that collected the ash, he would sieve the contents for any vestiges of half-burnt coal which he would then ceremoniously place back into the fire. Curiously, now that I have a fire of my own I can’t stop myself from tossing the larger coals back into the fire – ‘waste not want not’ as they say.
In the corner next to the pantry were two or three steps and a doorway leading to a flight of stairs. I assume at one time these had been the maid’s entrance. As a child this steep staircase was totally off limits, especially if you were descending. The thought of opening the door, expecting to step onto the floor but in fact falling into empty space was too terrible for the adults to contemplate. Indeed such a feature in a modern house would not be tolerated, but back in my childhood these mysterious, partially hidden back stairs were like a magnet. I often fantasised that this secret stairway led to smugglers, pirates or robbers. Although it was strictly forbidden, I sometimes crept down these steps, buzzing with the anticipation of being discovered or falling forwards upon opening the door.
Next to the forbidden stairway was the pantry in which, many years before, Grandpa had missed his footing and fallen down the single step. The family roared with laughter at his gaffe. They only stopped laughing when it became clear he had broken his leg. On more than one occasion, Nana told me the story in a hushed voice, as if she were still embarrassed by it.
Due to the advent of fridges, pantries are a rare sight these days. They were rather grand in the fifties and sixties, and most made do with a utility cupboard, basically a cheap wooden frame encased in plywood and a series of holes drilled in a circle on either side, but a necessity nonetheless. I didn’t often have reason to venture into this strongly sweet smelling place, but it was always a treat for the nostrils when I did. I remember apples, dried fruits, musty vegetables, spices, cakes and blackberry and apple pies.
The pantry was also a repository for disused objects of little or no practical use. Amongst this jumble was a milk cart partitioned into four, with white painted sides, scarlet steel wheels with solid rubber tyres and a pram-like handle to push it along. It even had two wooden milk bottles, which eventually got lost. I was occasionally allowed to play with this funny curio. At that age, I wasn’t hugely interested and I’d soon discard it for something else.
I don’t ever remember being bored as a child as I always had great plans and ideas. The sudden discovery of a spent rocket on November sixth could, with a little application, easily become a mast to for a pirate ship, which of course didn’t get any further than the planning stage.
On the other side of the room to the secret door was a corridor running the length of the pantry. Halfway along this passageway was the back door whose latch always made a comforting noise when the door was opened. The corridor led to what can only loosely be described as a kitchen, but was more accurately known as Nana’s scullery. I can still picture her in my mind’s eye, standing in front of the window at the old worn butler sink, wearing a floral pinny, peeling potatoes whilst clenching a cigarette between her lips. There was always a long arc of ash hanging from the smouldering tip of the cigarette. I used to marvel over how that ash stayed in place, never crumbling onto the floor. Now that all of my eldest relatives have passed on and I am the eldest grandchild, I am not sure if any other members of the family remember Nana smoking, as she kicked the habit in later life.