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…
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