Nameless Souls on Sepia

They were just nameless souls on sepia, staring out seemingly into space:  a peer into a time long since past and now, not often remembered with any degree of regularity. With its jagged edges, it was evident that part of the photograph had been torn away, why is a mystery. Someone in the family, though I cannot recall who, had once mentioned that there had been a rift within the family back in the days when they used to gather at the beautiful hill station of Mussoorie, when escaping the harrowing heat of the city. That was as much as was known. There was no accompanying documentation and nothing written down to suggest who the people in the picture may have been. That they were ancestors seemed a little more than likely. The photograph depicted a wedding scene. Three people remained in the frame. Two seated and one standing or rather two standing but as one had been unceremoniously decapitated he could not be counted. He could have been anyone. The bride wore a lavish wedding gown of lace with what appeared to be a full layered veil laid lightly and carefully, so as not to interfere with her elegant upswept hair which was so fashionable in the early 1900s. Seated beside her was an older man with a head of thick snow white wavy hair, and sporting a long white beard: a little like Santa Claus in a suit. Beneath the hairy façade was a man not unlike my father. In fact, but for the beard it could have been my father sitting beside the bride.  It was the eyes that gave it away. They were the same eyes that had watched over me all my life. Only my father’s eyes had seen different things to those of the apparently stoic figure of the man pictured here. Their worlds were far apart but their narrative of origin was one and the same.

Aunty Paddy had been a gifted and animated storyteller who had a penchant for making colourless characters come to life. She would captivate us with stories of heroes, heroines and travellers tales. “Children….are you listening carefully?” would be our queue to gather round to hear how our ancestors had sailed across oceans in search of fame and fortune. The story told so eloquently and consistently by Aunty Paddy, revealed that long ago when great vessels with billowing sails ruled the waves, travelling the trade routes carrying spices, silks and other luxury commodities, and when George III was King; two or possibly three brothers had set sail from bonny Scotland for the far off and exotic land of India. One of them or maybe all of them had been seduced by what the East had to offer, fallen madly in love with and married an Indian princess, and lived out his days happily ever after in India. This was perhaps a rather romanticised account but this was how the story had been told and retold. One brother had perhaps been a doctor, one a sea captain and the third, if indeed there was a third could have been anything Paddy decided him to be. Such is the power of the narrator. The stories were most likely a mixture of myth and reality but to us as children they were fact rather than fiction, impressing upon our imagination that we were indelibly connected to this mysterious and mystical other world, where gods were more than one, and princes were one and many; a world that had captured the hearts and souls of our forefathers and that was forever in our blood.

Shared experiences, cultures, customs and habits all go some way to forging our identities. What we are told as children often stays with us as adults. However, there are other commonalities that can engender an inherent sense of identity and belonging, such as the idea of shared stories and myths. There is no hard definition of myth. Myth is sometimes seen as being synonymous with fantasy and fairy stories, and little to do with fact. The notion of myth often conjures up images of superheroes and superhuman beings that create an idealised view of where we come from, therefore adding to our sense of worth. To us, these pioneers were real life superheroes; they represented the true to life fodder of fairy tales and fiction, that filled our minds with the machinations of an ‘Other’ world. 

Linking myth to the narrative form is relevant, especially when considering Anglo-Indian narratives of origin because their change in circumstances, and the transitions they underwent in adapting to a colonial and a post colonial era both in Indian and in British society is shrouded with princesses both real and imagined. Of particular interest is what has become known as the princess myth which seems to circulate in many Anglo-Indian families. The myth suggests the presence of a noble ancestral connection and more specifically an Indian princess. What is of importance is why this myth has been created and the reason why some families lay claim to a princess in their midst.

Aunty Paddy’s version of events is echoed in a letter dated 19th December 2004 written by Marjorie Williams to her niece;

     …thank you so much for sending me a copy of the family tree…It’s very interesting that so many Howatsons lived in India. Where does the Scottish side come in? I suppose Thomas Howatson who was originally married to (an Indian Princess)? So I heard. My story was that two brothers, Thomas and George set sail from Scotland – one a doctor and the other a sailor or captain of a ship. I can’t tell you where I got this story from – maybe Paddy…

The letter demonstrates firstly, that we find our narratives of origin appealing at any age. Marjorie Williams was 81 when she wrote the letter. She is unable to remember where she got the story from, ‘…maybe Paddy’ she asserts. Paddy was her elder sister who had died some years earlier and who it is purported knew more about the history of the family than anyone else. When Paddy past away, so too did much of the family narrative.

In addition the letter typifies the element of the ‘Indian princess’ myth that circulates in many Anglo-Indian families. Marjorie Williams is Anglo-Indian. Her father was Hugh William Howatson born in Calcutta, India, in 1886, habitually resident in India until about 1900 when he was sent to Britain to finish his education and later to follow a successful career in medicine. It was in Scotland that he met, fell in love with and married his own princess. His princess was Annie. It was close to one hundred years earlier, when Hugh William’s great grandfather Thomas Howatson had set sail for India. What Thomas would have thought of the Britain that his great grandson Hugh returned to can only be guessed at. It is known that following an irregular marriage in Glasgow, Hugh and Annie journeyed to India and travelled about with their young family for a few years, only to return permanently to Britain later. The reasons for their movements between these two great lands, is unknown. The Diaspora to other lands following partition and independence is well documented but what of those who returned to the fatherland beforehand. What are their stories? Our sense of ‘self’ is governed by what is going on the world and is in a constant state of flux. 

It is only by telling our stories and passing them on to our children that we can preserve the memories and myths of past lives. Many stories are passed down between one generation and another, while other stories remain untold and are lost forever. So next time, when you are gathered cosily around the dining table after a sumptuous Sunday lunch as is quite common among families, laughing at the crazy antics of dad’s schooldays,  finding out about grandma’s culinary gifts or hearing of an aunt’s penchant for telling tales, take note and listen very carefully to the snippets and anecdotes of your elders for these are your stories, your narratives of origin: savour every word and share!

© Liola Lee 2010

This was a piece I wrote a few years back. I was lucky enough to have its included in a lovely Anthology titled ‘More Voices on the Verandah’ which was the final in a series of works by Anglo-Indians and those of Anglo-Indian descent. The Anthology is available still and is edited by Lionel Lumb

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Memoirs ~ Head Sore

Class six proved as ineffectual educationally as class four. I don’t really remember learning that much in either class, as most of the time the teacher was shouting at the class trying to gain control. It was a losing battle for the teacher most of the time. She was soft, and the kids knew it! Miss Lawrie mentioned previously, was far too nice to be teaching at Kelvin Grove. She might have been safer teaching the infants! What her memories of Kelvin Grove Junior School must be, can only be guessed at but it is my guess that when she left, it was like being set free from a horrible period of punishment.  

At this time in educational establishments boys were still given the cane if they were really naughty. I often remember taking the register up to the Head Teacher’s office, and seeing a queue of boys sitting outside waiting to be caned. It was just accepted as the norm. I was glad I was a girl at such times as boys really did seem to have a much harder time at school. Mind you, I always felt that they shouldn’t be naughty then. Whether the punishment fitted the crimes committed is debateable. 

One day, a day like any other at Kelvin Grove but not like any day I had ever had Miss Lawrie left the classroom, a common occurrence, to fetch assistance from another teacher to help calm the class down as it was beyond her skills to achieve this. While she was away from the classroom a boy named Paul took a ball of hardened plastacine and hurled it hard at the windows between the classrooms; a good throw if he had been playing cricket. One of the windows smashed. There’d be trouble now. Paul hurriedly went round the classroom threatening that anyone who told on him would get it. By that he meant he would hurt them. Even in class six Paul was the best fighter in the school and not someone you upset intentionally, at least not if you had any common sense. He was a volatile and unpredictable boy who could be charming one day and a monster the next. Paul was blond, blue eyed and athletically built. He had a nice voice that gave little indication of the stormy nature that brewed within but he was a troubled boy who was just dismissed as naughty. That was the thing if you misbehaved you were quickly labelled and the label would stick and over time you lived up to the label as if you had decided to give people what they expected.

My mistake that day was being little Miss Goody Two Shoes. Rather than say I knew nothing about the window I told the truth and told the teacher that it was Paul who broke the window. I am sure he got the cane for that, not something that I had given any thought to at the time. I found out later that Paul used to get beaten by his dad at home not because his dad was necessarily a bad man but because that was how he viewed fatherhood and had probably had a similar upbringing himself by his own father. I think if I had known that about Paul I might not have said anything but as it was I thought it was the right thing to do.  With hindsight I know that I was more scared of getting in trouble from lying than I was of anything Paul could do to me. I had been brought up to tell the truth and shame the devil. It was better to admit to a lie than to prolong the lie and get found out that you were lying. I paid the price for informing on Paul. He waited until dinner play when there was the minimum of staff supervision. It didn’t matter that I was a girl. At that age boys rarely think that they mustn’t hit girls. Paul took my bag off me which I recall quite clearly was a dark maroon colour with a white rim or edging that I took off my toy shopping trolley. He roughly snatched that bag, swung it high above his head and then brought it down hard on mine with forceful anger. The pain was excruciating. How my neck didn’t break I don’t know. No one did anything to protect me as they were all too afraid to stand up against him. They could only help and support me in the aftermath when I cried my eyes out. It seems that very few people stand up to bullies, not because they are cowards necessarily but just because they are trying to survive in a tough world and let’s face it they are scared of getting hurt themselves.  At these times you don’t always think about standing together and uniting against the bullies not when you’re children anyway; not always even when you’re an adult.  

I only ever remember one person standing up to Paul. The girl’s name was Sharon. I don’t remember why they fought, just that they did. As the fight started, cheers of “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” could be heard chanted across the playground. The children descended on the fight as vultures to a rotting carcass, surrounding the two figures in the middle. No child present tried to stop the fight; it was n’t the done thing. Paul repeatedly punched Sharon with precision to the head while Sharon’s flailing fists tried to fight back. She did n’t, would n’t back down. Never before have I seen such determination to stand one’s ground. Whether she was brave or stupid depends on where you are standing but on that day in my opinion that girl was the bravest person that I had ever seen. She had no way of beating him; her tear stained face was red with crying but she kept going. She was the first person I ever saw stand up to a bully even though she was scared. Whether he ever felt any remorse for hurting me, Sharon or anyone else I have no idea or whether he felt he was justified in punishing me for telling, again I have no idea. I had been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and either way I would lose. I didn’t ever tell on Paul again. That was the first time anyone had really hurt me physically. It wasn’t to be the last. I got over it and Paul  forgot about it, even being kind to me when he kicked a football against my head.  He was a strange boy who puzzled me. 

Paul was one of those boys always in trouble for fighting, and losing his temper, yet it was unheard of to involve Educational Psychologists back then. The boy would get in trouble, possibly get the cane, maybe a letter home. At home he would probably get a smack from his mum, even worse from his dad. Parents knew that kids could do wrong, and invariably did do wrong. If the child was in trouble it was a case of “What did you do. You must have done something”. Parents did not go in, and accuse the teachers of unreasonable behaviour. Parents let the teachers do the teaching, and the teachers left parents to do the parenting. There was no overlap. Parents didn’t crowd the playground at the beginning or end of the school day. The minute children entered the school gate ,the kids became the school’s responsibility. Each understood their role in the development of the child, and neither interfered with the other. That’s just how it was.

In Kelvin Grove it was better to just flow and fit in with the main crowd, if you didn’t want trouble. Back then it didn’t do to be too different. The kids that were different were the ones that tended to get picked on. I remember some of the kids that were given a hard time. Among them I remember a boy by the name of Sinclair Hart. What were his parents thinking giving him a name like that, then sending him to a like school like Kelvin Grove.  Personally I think it is a beautiful name! A film star’s name! His name was different, and he himself was a little eccentric to our rather limited life experience. In fourth year juniors he was still wearing grey knee length shorts, another no-no. On top he would wear a tank top over his shirt and sport a bow tie; no kidding, a bow tie. He wore his hair short and smart unlike the other boys who had longer, messier hair that was typical of the 1970’s.  Sinclair looked out of place, and his appearance along with his name made him stand out as did his beautifully pronounced diction. I do not know what became of him but think that maybe his parents eventually withdrew him from the school and sent him elsewhere. With retrospect I now think he was a real character but never attempted to be friendly as it would have brought trouble on me. Yet earlier on in the school my younger sister and I had been among only a few pupils who bothered to wear school uniform. So maybe we were not that different after all. That didn’t last long when we saw that wearing uniform didn’t fit in with the other kids. As I grew up I decided that I did n’t want to be the same as everyone else and tried my best to be different. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I did n’t. It would get me into trouble from time to time but by the time I was an adult, I had learned that it is okay to be different, although to be honest there were plenty of times when I chose to be different just to be awkward, and not because it was the right thing to do for me. Mostly it was because I did n’t like being told what to do.

Another pupil who was treated with disrespect was a young South East Asian boy by the name of Barrett. I think he too was friendly and decent, and never remember him doing anything to hurt anyone else. Yet he was berated at times, which looking back was not only unfair but pretty dehumanising. Children can be heartless at times, and demonstrate a ruthlessness one would not usually associate with childhood. It is often not until we are adults that we realise how cruel, and thoughtless we have been and even though we have been so thoughtless ,we brush it aside as just part of growing up. 

For the most part I managed well enough, just every now and then would I do something that landed me in trouble with those kids, I would have rather steered clear of. Even the nicer kids could sometimes be cruel. Maybe they didn’t realise it at the time. I know that in Secondary School I was guilty of being inadvertently cruel in a secondary sort of way. That in a way is even worse than the ones being overtly nasty. 

I look back, and know that I could have made a difference to the likes of Elaine and Kay  who at secondary school were often the butt of cruel and snide remarks. Both girls acted like they did n’t realise it but I am sure they knew it and felt hurt. Elaine was a skinny girl with blond hair and freckles who reminded me of a pop star called Clodagh Rodgers, a winner of the Eurovision song contest with a song titled  I’ll be your Jack in the Box.  She used to be picked on, and called skinny ribs but it’s Elaine who’s had the last laugh now as I am sure that many of those who made these remarks are overweight with middle-aged spread, and would now die for a figure like Elaine’s.  Then Kay who was very short and busty was given a hard time for being big chested. Some of the girls used to taunt her about having greasy hair as they did Elaine, and yet don’t the majority of teenage girls suffer with greasy hair from time to time. What was the big deal? Kay actually looked to me like a young Liza Minelli, although her hair wasn’t as dark. I never told her or anyone that but had I let her know that she was like the famous caberet star then it may have helped her self- esteem. Instead I watched in silence from the sidelines minding my own business. As an adult I know now what I ought to have done but growing up is difficult. No one tells us how to do it. We just do it the only way we know how.

Today is the day ~ A Little Princess

The truth is kids grow into teenagers arriving at that crossroads in life when they are neither child nor adult not fitting neatly into one camp or another and my god, do they let you know it at every given opportunity. They are a breed apart from mainstream human society. I do not use the term breed lightly as I believe there is a certain animal quality inherent in any individual between 13 and 19. They think they know it all, they accuse you of not caring and tell you constantly that you do not understand them. They are constantly bored, always critical, totally self-obsessed, self opinionated and make it their aim in life to get on your nerves on a daily basis. Where once they were endearing and cuddly, suddenly they are obnoxious and rude to the point where you really cannot believe that they are yours and that you actually gave birth to them. It seems strange that at this moment I should recall Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein. I guess she was not the only one to create a monster. Perhaps I am being too hard on the little darlings and they are not the least bit like monsters but with retrospect, I sincerely think not. There is definitely some connection. Teenagers really do exist. We as parents often ask ourselves what is it that we did to deserve such treatment from our offspring, when all we ever have is their best interests at heart. Surely they should be grateful to us for putting a roof over their heads, food on the table, clothes on their backs and giving lifts to concerts, clubs, parties, friend’s houses, school, shopping and of course the school run which would not have been too bad but with my middle child that meant to school and from school until he left at 16 and doing the same for his mates was a bonus for me on most days. And what about holding their hands at the dentist, the orthodontist, doctors and in the school playground, well at least until they got too embarrassed by you and would rather you kept your distance. This last observance about distance seems to last well into their teens. God forbid that their friends, most of whom you have known since infants should see them with you, their parents. On the rare occurrence where our daughter granted us with her presence, on the premise that she would get a new iPhone saw her walk several paces behind with her hood up so as to avoid recognition by any of her friends that may be loitering in the vicinity.  In my own particular case the list also included daily trips to the stable yard, and weekly trips to the local golf club. Did I mention the ballet classes and the weekly football? Yet all we get in return for our considerateness is eyes up to heaven, monosyllabic grunts, tuts, shakes of the head  and mutterings under the breath to indicate how irritating they find you. You are old and are not the least bit clued up about where they are coming from or where they are going. They speak a whole new language…’you get what I’m saying like’ and so on and so forth. I have given up correcting speech and grammar in favour of a peaceful life by simply turning a deaf ear when they do speak. However, by doing this I get accused of never listening but then why should I when the language I grew up with has been murdered and mutilated beyond all recognition. I am on my third and final teenager now. My first two are now in their 20s and parents themselves. If what goes around comes around then I will take great pleasure in watching my children suffer the storms and strops of the turbulent teens in turn, a sort of divine retribution shall we say where the Piper is paid back in kind, and when mum can sit back with a smug smirk on her face in an all knowing way. 

Just now our baby girl, currently 16 going on 26, is uppermost in my thoughts. It has been like that a lot lately. Until a few short months ago she was a wild unkempt tom boy who resembled a pikey rather than a little princess. For instance, if I had mentioned the word bra to her she would have recoiled in mock disgust at the thought of it. It was all I could do to broach the subject when she eventually developed sufficiently ample bosoms to require one. I remember one time watching Trinny and Susannah unashamedly grab the breasts of a woman they were restyling on their makeover tv show only to be accused by my daughter of exposing her to pornography. If she had seen a couple kissing on television she would have looked away, genuinely embarrassed. How times change, now she has realised that she has a fine pair of what my husband terms man magnets, a really cringe worthy image, he is a builder and such terminology frequently finds its way into the house, and she is more than a little proud of what she has in common with Jordan and not the least bit shy or modest even. Oh yes, times have certainly changed. My little girl has gone and grown up on me without warning. She is no longer my chicken in the library or my ferocious lion with sharp teeth and claws but has donned the appearance of a diva come rock chick right down to her perfectly pointed stilettos. On the subject of stilettos, she did insist on wearing them the other day to go shopping with her mates. I did warn her. My exact words were, I think “ Are you sure you want to wear those shoes?” well of course she was sure, she liked them and they looked ‘dead good’. I had to agree they looked great but mentioned that she might feel differently about them after wearing them for a few hours around the shopping centre. I was of course proved right, and there was no need to rub it in by saying ‘I told you so’. It did not need to be said…the pain in her feet and legs said it all. I do not believe she has worn those shoes since. To think that we use to watch From Ladette to Lady on television, and laugh laboriously at the dreadful pits to which these young girls would sink. It never occurred to me that I was harbouring a ladette in the making, although I like to think that she still has a few ladylike leanings but that is most probably wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps it is just a passing phase, just one of many. I thought it would be easier this time, firstly because I have done this before with two boys both delightful little cherubs when they were born, well at least for the first few weeks. They do not remain babies for long, and before you know it they soon grow into the men they are to become albeit bit by bit. If the law of attraction is true and I have no reason to believe that it is not the old saying many a true word spoken in jest takes on an entirely new meaning. Why oh why did I ever jokingly liken my sons to notorious twins. What was I thinking? Actually, I clearly was not thinking at all. How was I to know that by saying such things I was tempting providence, and unknowingly urging the Universe to accommodate me.

© Liola Lee 2010

(image is one I took of my lovely daughter who is and will always be my Little Princess)

‘Today is the day’ …was a collection of musings I wrote during the Peri menopause years. It’s spoken in the first person, and was based largely on my journal entries written around that time. Journalling is a wonderful way to express this, that and whatever else needs to be said whether aloud or silently…

Memoirs ~ The Orange Moon, Wolf Man and Flight of Fancy

The Orange Moon sounds like the stuff of fairy tales and magic. The Orange Moon was in fact an orange sandy slope that had its beginnings beyond the bottom edge of our garden at number 5 Hillcrest Road, and that stretched way down towards the newly built Hillcrest Estate, where the new tower blocks had been erected; towering brick built boxes.  The Orange Moon linked the past of a bygone Victorian era with modern 1960s architecture.  I wonder how many children sat on the Orange Moon dreaming of bright futures both before and after me. I am not sure who thought up the name but it was what it became known as and provided a wonderful platform for play, and make-believe. We would meet some of the kids who lived on the estate there, and play and mess about. It was a wonderful slippery slide, and quite steep and was the stage for many stories. The Orange Moon didn’t belong to anyone; it was just there and bought kids together who might not otherwise have played together. It was a childhood haven where there were no visible divisions at least not in my eyes. Issues like class, religion and colour had no place in our childhood; childhood was a time for play and a time for being children; a time for fairy tales and fantasy with the odd argument thrown in for good measure. The Orange Moon was a meeting place and playground all in one. Back then all those issues that now provide meat for myth to ambitious Politicians did not exist or if they did, we as children did not tend to think about such things. 

Hillcrest Road only had a few houses still standing. Those still there and occupied were numbers one through to nine. If there was any house beyond number nine I am none too sure. One through to nine, are the ones I remember. Next to number nine was the wood and in the woods lived the Wolf Man, so –called because of his pet wolf. He was a big man with a dark countenance. He had thick black eyebrows and dark menacing eyes and long messy wiry hair, the original Gruffalo. He had giant shovel like hands that looked as though they could have easily strangled someone to death, in the instance of a breath if he so chose. He looked dirty like he had been crawling through the dirt or had somehow got covered in soot. He must have been dirty as he lived in the woods and probably had nowhere to wash. He looked almost not human like a wild man who was part animal. He never spoke but roared if he caught us near. He didn’t like children and use to chase us away. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he had a pet wolf or wolf companion. Either way it was a ferocious beast with large yellow glinting eyes, and sharp teeth that wouldn’t think twice about ripping you apart limb from limb. It was wise to take heed and not venture too far into the woods. It was common knowledge what had happened to Little Red Riding Hood. It was also known that curiosity killed the cat but as I was neither Little Red Riding Hood nor a cat I felt that gave me some sort of advantage over the situation and decided to investigate. I was always a curious child and liked to find things out for myself. 

One day I was playing outside with Tina who lived with her family in number nine. Tina was a playmate before she too had to go to school. Tina was a pretty girl but had scarring on her stomach where a boiling hot cup of tea had fallen on her and scalded her. I had never seen the scarring but had heard what had happened to her as a lesson never to reach for boiling hot drinks on the side where I could n’t  reach. Now Tina was also quite a curious child and together hand in hand we ventured towards the wood to see what we could see, although what we thought we’d see and how we thought we’d act we hadn’t as yet given any thought to. As we got closer we could smell a fire burning. The fence was a mixture of grey corrugated iron and wooden post railings that had seen better days and beyond that lay the woods. You hear tell that you can’t always see the wood for the trees, but for a wood there really didn’t seem to be that many trees. It was more waste land than woods. So this was where we were supposed not to go. What was all the fuss about? Then, “ROARRRR” it was the Wolf Man and his wolf coming after us chasing us. We turned on our heels and ran as fast as we could screaming all the way back to Tina’s house where we bolted through the door, quickly slamming it shut behind us. We hadn’t looked to see if the wolf man was coming, we didn’t dare in case he caught us up. How long we lay against the door I don’t know but it seemed like ages. I can still recall vividly how breathless we were, how afraid and excited by the fact that we had escaped. We did n’t go looking for the Wolf Man again. 

Following the excitement with the Wolf Man of the wood was another wonderful experience. There was a dog kennel at the side of the house, although Prince, our dog who I was scared of was now living with a nice old lady down the road, although my mum and dad said she had lured the dog away by giving him treats. I distinctly remember flying, that’s right flying from the roof of the kennel to the back door in broad daylight. I can remember the sensation of flight. Although I had only flown a few feet in the air, it gave me quite a thrill and sense of awe and wonder.  Unfortunately, I had no witnesses so couldn’t prove it. You’d have thought they’d have believed me after all, I’m a girl and if I said it, it must be true, mustn’t it? Girls don’t tell lies do they? At least that’s what I’ve heard said in recent years by those that claim to be in the know.

Time turns things upside down and inside out, and addles our brains like nothing else can. The wolf man turned out to not to be a wolf man at all. He was the Watchman whose job it was to keep trespassers and unwanted children away from a waste site, where there was much debris and potential danger to unsuspecting individuals, especially children. The wolf too was a figment of my imagination and was actually the watchman’s guard dog, a German Shepherd. Yet, as a small child I was adamant that I had seen a wolf man and his faithful lupine companion. The reality was he was just a workman but the story of the wolf man and the wolf makes for better reading and was what we told everyone at the time; and at the time it was what we convinced ourselves to be true.  As for my flight of fancy, that is exactly what it was. Perhaps I jumped or dreamed of flying but as to actually flying, you tell me. If I could do it then, I would do it now wouldn’t I? Or just maybe you forget how to fly when you’re an adult.

© Liola Lee 2010

Memoirs ~ Hillcrest Road

home is where the heart is

Mrs Haynes was as I recall a large old lady. How old I cannot say but at the age of five or six she appeared to me to be the oldest person in the world. She must have been of a great age as she remembered a time when the land surrounding Hillcrest Road had been farms and pasture land; green and grassy as opposed to the granite grey and concrete that it later became. There had been no flats at the back then. Hillcrest Estate, as the flats at the back were affectionately called came to be built many years later. The estate was constructed when all but a few of the large Victorian homes still remained. 

Mrs Haynes used to wear her silvery blue hair parted straight along the middle and pulled really tight and flat revealing the pale pink skin of her scalp which somehow seemed to contrast well with the shimmering hue of her hair. She always wore her hair in two plaits wound round and round, one each side of her head worn close behind her ears. I am sure that should she ever have let her hair hang loose then it would have fallen in long tendrils down to somewhere below her bottom, possibly even reaching as far as her knees; a real life, though aged Rapunzel. I use to wonder if she ever let it down or if she had ever had it cut. Mrs Haynes complexion was ruddy with a rawness about it that reminded me many years later of well worn creased leather. Her steel blue eyes appeared incredibly small in relation to the size of her face and yet they sparkled much like tiny stars, shining and shimmering as a show of diamonds flashing in a crimson sky. There was a hardness of face, in a rather rugged, not masculine sort of way that hinted at a life that had perhaps seen troubled times but then she had lived through two world wars, and the Great Depression, having been born some time during the late 1800s. Her voice was dry and crackly and seemed to scratch the air in breathy tones. She used to call us ‘ducks’ as a term of endearment; nobody apart from her ever called me ducks and I’ve never heard the term used since. Seemingly pretty rough around the edges with her angular jaw line protruding in a proud, yet unpretentious manner, a long narrow nose and wide thin lipped mouth she was as I recall a kindly old soul, more than happy to share memories of Hillcrest Road as it was when she was a young woman newly married to the late Mr Haynes who must have died before I was born as I don’t remember ever seeing him.

    Perhaps he had died a hero fighting in World War II against Hitler and the Nazis helping to bring the Third Reich to its knees or maybe even in the First World War as not much more than a boy, a war in which many boys left home, only to die unceremoniously in the stinking stench of the trenches, never to return as grown men. 

     Thinking of this I was reminded why I buy a poppy each November. An unwelcome image of blood spilt spreading needlessly, carpeting miles and miles of sodden trenches flashed through my conscious mind. My imagination was fully engaged and working overtime. Mr Haynes could just as easily have died of some horrible illness or perhaps had just passed away peacefully in his sleep; perhaps and maybes? Who knows? I never thought to ask so now will never know.

     At any rate Mrs Haynes was left a widow, living alone with Billy.  She use to give my three sisters and I, each a sixpence which we spent on sweets in Adams in Wells Park Road, round the corner from Taylor’s Lane and not too far from Kirkdale. Adams was an Aladdin’s cave for the serious sweet eater. Rows and rows of large screw top jars with coloured plastic lids filled to the brim with a rainbow of sugary delights stood on shelves inviting every sweet toothed kid, which pretty much meant everyone to come and try out the deliciously tasty treasures on display in this cabin of confectionary comfort. An assortment of pear drops, cola cubes, sherbet pips and sweet peanuts, toffee crunch, bonbons, Murray mints and lots of chocolate and so on and  much more besides. There was something for everyone. There were penny sweets, flying saucers made from sugar paper in an array of pastel lemons, pinks, blues and greens, sherbet dips, white mice, brown mice and pink bazooka bubble gums with a joke and fortune included which were always popular, laid out to entice. There were gob stoppers, aniseed balls and lollipops in all shapes and sizes all set out to tease the taste buds and decay the teeth. 

     That dear old lady would press the sixpence into the centre of our eagerly opened palms pushing it down firmly with her thumb then close our small chubby fingers tightly round the shiny coin until we made a fist and then she would squeeze our hands ever so tightly within her own. She pressed the coin so hard into our hands that it would leave a circular imprint embedded into the flesh. It caused no pain though and by performing this ritual it seemed as though she were wishing us well and casting a ring of protection around us. As children we have a gift to see the magic in the world around us. At least we do until we are taught not to.

     Mrs Haynes always wore a wrap-over floral pinafore over her dress tied securely at the waist on one side. In my mind’s eye it was tied to the left but it may have been the right. I particularly remember small pink flowers and tiny green leaves on a white background and a dark blue though not navy trim or was it a navy background with tiny pink roses. What we remember and what actually was can get confused as the years go by. I can almost touch the crispness of well laundered cotton and smell that outdoors freshness that only clings to laundry that has been allowed to dry outside on the washing line on what can only be described as a good drying day. Of course I may be mistaken, after all children see things so differently, and I was just a very small child starting out on the journey of life. Mrs Haynes’ large frame accommodated her drooping breasts which never ceased to amaze me as to how they had grown that long. At the time I wondered if all ladies had bosoms stretching down towards their knees when they got very old. I hoped that this was not the case. At the time I remember thinking that if this happened to all women when they reached a certain age, then “Please God, don’t let me get them “. I wondered too if others, my sisters included ever pondered over the same sort of things as I did or whether maybe I was odd. Again, I never thought to ask. Maybe I could ask them now. 

     The rest of her attire usually consisted of extra double thick flesh coloured tights or stockings or maybe they were pop socks, and black very sensible looking leather lace up brogues that looked as though they were cleaned and polished daily with regimental fervour or maybe it was just a natural sense of pride in looking after something that had been gained from hard work; a way of showing gratitude. It’s strange the things we notice as children. We seem to see so much more than we do as adults.  Our senses seem to leave imprints on our memories of sights, sounds, smells and tastes that linger long into the future, at least of things that make an impression on us whether or not they are for good or bad.  Sometimes what we see as children is not what it was like at all as things look different through the eyes of an infant or maybe it’s through the eyes of an adult that everything changes.  

     Mrs Haynes lived in the house next door to us in Hillcrest Road. Unlike us who only occupied the ground floor at number five, she and Billy were the sole occupants in number seven. Theirs had a powder blue front door whilst ours was a deep leaf green. Both doors had two glass panels placed in the top half of the door though what they were like is hard to recall. They may have been stained glass or leaded glass. Perhaps my sisters may remember. Mrs Haynes and Billy must, I decided, be very rich. Two people living in such a large house and having it all to themselves was unheard of in the rest of the street. The other homes were occupied by two or more often three entire families. At the time I believed that it was the norm for more than one family to occupy a house that size.  I was convinced that only very wealthy people could afford such a luxury as an entire house to themselves. I had no idea that once upon a time all the houses in Hillcrest Road would have each been occupied by just a single family and maybe even a few servants. 

As already told, Mrs Haynes lived with her son Billy. He too appeared to me to be old. He too had silver hair but only around the sides being totally bald on top; the top of his head looked really smooth and shiny. He was most probably not that old at all but this was my perception back then; the perception of a child. Even fairly youngish or middle aged adults appear old to small children even to older children. Billy too was kind. One of my sisters was unwell with asthma so Billy bought her a beautiful white and navy blue Wedgewood pendant set in a solid silver setting. Gestures such as this may seem strange in a world where we now teach our children to mistrust from an early age but it was merely a kind gesture with no hidden agenda from a well meaning neighbour. She was just one of the little girls from next door who had been very poorly for a time. Her poor health had clearly tugged at his heart strings, perhaps stirring an unsatisfied paternal yearning.

Mrs Haynes and Billy are just ghosts from early childhood but I can see them as clearly now as I did then. Mrs Haynes memories and knowledge of a past era have most probably long been laid to rest but her kindness will be remembered when I think of my sisters and I eagerly reaching out our outstretched hands to receive sixpence for a bag of sweets.

I have wonderfully happy memories of Hillcrest Road even though I only lived there until I was seven and seven months old. My earliest memory takes me back to when I could only have been about two or thereabouts as I am certain that I was still in a cot. I clearly remember Daddy coming in with a cup of tea. The cup was plastic and coloured blue with a lid much like today’s training beakers, in fact most likely the same or similar. Daddy always made us all a cup of tea every morning from when we could first drink tea until we left home. I shared the big bedroom in Hillcrest with my parents and my little sister , and later we shared with our big sisters when our parents moved into the smaller bedroom. It was a large room that had French doors that opened out onto a large laid to lawn back garden. In front of the windows I remember a very dark green dressing table that went the full length of the windows. It had bevelled glass mirrors on either end, then it sunk lower in the middle than at the sides. I remember sitting on top of the dressing table looking in the mirror trying to loosen my milk teeth with a magnetic letter (the magnetic letter was part of a set in an assortment of bright colours that came with an easel that had a magnetic board one side and a blackboard on the other). I wanted money from the tooth fairy, and I was also eager to have my two big second front teeth. Some of the things I did as a child horrify me these days. I remember brushing my hair over and over in front of these mirrors many times. I remember one time hiding behind the dressing table with my little sister waiting for Freddy who lived upstairs with his mum and stepdad, to appear at the end of the garden all set to show us his willy. Yes, I did say his willy. I was definitely an odd kid to say the least. Why we should wish to look at his or any other willy at the time is beyond my comprehension now, I can only hazard a guess that it was idle curiosity or just plain old meaness. This he had promised to do if we allowed him to have a go on our swings. What a terrible price to pay for a go on a swing. Freddy kept his word and showed us his willy from a distance as agreed which set us both howling with laughter.. How horrid of us! We on the other hand did not keep our promise to let him play on the swings, and to his dismay we went back on the deal.  To make matters worse we told our big sisters and all our friends so that they too could have a laugh at Freddy’s expense. Poor Freddy! I wonder if he ever got over the humiliation?    Although, if my memory serves me right it was more disappointment than anything else.  I genuinely believe he just accepted the situation and went about his business; most likely thinking that girls really were mean! I look back now that I am in my fifties and think what a wicked thing it was that we did although to be fair to my younger sister (I was the ring leader and it was my idea) and she  just went along with me. I am not even sure if this incident left her with any feelings of guilt as it did me when I became an adult; she was after all younger than me and by no means to blame. At the time though, we meant no real harm and certainly never gave any thought as to how it might have affected him either then or later in his life. The consequences of our actions couldn’t have been further from our thoughts. Even in our teens we laughed about it but now I look back and see how cruel this was on our part. Freddy, wherever you are I want you please to know that I am truly sorry and hope we did you no lasting harm.

Going back to home that was Hillcrest, my elder sisters shared the smaller of the two bedrooms; at least until they swapped over with our parents when it was considered a more appropriate arrangement. I don’t remember much about their room apart from the carpet which was coloured red with a dark blue, maybe black diamond pattern with white jagged edging around the diamond shapes. The red was not bright enough to be scarlet and not dark enough to be crimson but red it was. I believe that it had been a new carpet at the time but I remember nothing of it being laid down or who laid it down, although most likely it would have been Daddy as he was a dab hand at DIY and anything else he had a mind to do.  The carpet was flat, unlike the shag piles of today’s modern carpets.  In fact carpets are losing ground to hard wood and laminate flooring.

Of the sitting room I recall a washable vinyl wall paper, a floral print of large bright in your face pink flowers on a dark brown background. If I saw it in a shop today I am sure I would recognise it. There was an upright piano placed against one wall veneered in walnut. I recall that it was to be sold, although why I cannot even now say for sure. However, people generally sell things when money is short, so maybe that was the reason. To my parent’s horror I wrote on all the keys, the corresponding piano notes in blue felt pen, which was actually quite clever seeing as I wasn’t even learning the piano. I remember getting told off and Mummy having to use bleach to remove the pen before the people purchasing the piano arrived to take it away. Perhaps I didn’t want the piano to be sold. Also, in the sitting room was a radiogram. Now that’s an old fashioned word that you don’t hear anymore. We used to play records on the turntable and sing along loudly ,and mostly out of tune. Particular favourites were Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, The Clancy Brothers, Guy Mithcell and Bill Hayley and his Comets. One other piece of furniture that I remember with great fondness was a table that Daddy had made. It had a square veneered table top. There was a dark plain painted moulding around the edge of the table top. The fours legs were bowed outwards and down to a small square shelf at the bottom of the table and there were four rounded bun like feet that had some indented pattern that sort of looked like thumb prints set into the wood. The reason I recall this table was that we used to turn the table onto its side and make believe it was a sailing ship. The legs served well to rock the imaginary vessel back and forth. As make believe seafarers we made many an imaginary journey sharing make believe adventures and laughter as children tend to do.

I vaguely remember the kitchen and the bathroom which led off from the kitchen in Hillcrest Road. We had quite a large table on which to dine and Sunday dinners were always lovely affairs with everyone sitting around the table to share a Sunday Roast or a lovely stew. The smells from our kitchen were warm and delicious as were the meals that were cooked there. Mummy always spent a lot of time in the kitchen. She was a fabulously talented cook though now arthritis prevents her from doing those things she did so well..  Daddy too was a dab hand in the kitchen and could make a sumptuous stew with a hint of curry spices (we used to call it worried chicken), something he must have inherited from Nan who spent several years in India as a young woman. There was always something wonderful cooking on the stove. If I inhale in my imagination, I can almost smell those stews and feel the heat of a bubbling pot.

As we lived on the ground floor we had the largest part of the garden. The Leavenses had the small plot and whether the Blands (they lived at the top of the house) had any garden at all, I am not too sure. Our garden was a lovely place to play and grow as small children. There was a rockery on either side of the steps that led into the garden proper. There was an old pear tree that stood on it’s own in the top end of the garden. In the bottom half of the garden, Daddy to our delight put up swings for us. We played many and varied games as small children and always played together. We were the Howatson girls and were as close then as sisters could be. That is not to say we never fought, of course we did but we were a happy foursome for most of the time.  Maureen used to be in charge and would make us play Tarzan which was one of her favourite TV characters or she would dress up as Batman, another firm favourite. Shivvi and I were always the girly girls in our games of ‘Let’s Pretend’ and would always need rescuing by Maureen aka Tarzan or Batman. This was in the days when Johnny Weismuller was playing Tarzan on our screens and Adam West was starring as Batman. My sister Sammy was at that particular point in time a little too young to be left without adult supervision, even though we were only in the garden. We always had clothes to dress up in. I mean what little girl doesn’t want to play dressing up or even what little boy for that matter. We were no exception, dressing up at every opportunity. I particularly recall a couple of dresses that our late Aunty Eva gave to us on one of her trips over from Ireland. One was a beautiful golden shiny satin dress and the other was a beautiful shimmering blue that I can only liken to an evening summer sky on a clear night. The blue one had tiny star like flowers finely embroidered into the fabric. Both must have been party dresses as they were the epitome of high fifties glamour, simply gorgeous! They were in the style of late 1950’s early 1960’s dresses with full circular skirts and tight bodices and loads of petticoats beneath. Women were a lot smaller than they are today. Having a twenty two inched waist was not considered that unusual. Mummy had a waist that small when she married Daddy.  In fact we would often dress up in her wedding dress, again in the 1950’s style.  To say we ruined the dress is an understatement. All the dresses would today have been a vintage enthusiast’s pot of gold. They were simply stunning and sensational. As for some of our dressing up shoes, they too were just exquisite. I remember a beautiful pair of silver glittery peep toes. I can see them in my mind’s eye as I think of them sparkling like brilliant diamonds. 

Hillcrest road holds a special place in my heart and of course my imagination!

© Liola Lee 2010

Having recently watched the series The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix I was taken back to where my life began in Hillcrest Road. We all have Ghosts and memories from the past. Some  good, some bad and some mad as a hatter…