Mostly blogging here:
I seem to have lost my early years at school and only retain the bad memories – much what I have done with my grandmother The Dragon. I remember being excited at the thought of going to school and my brother being so impatient that he often disappeared from the house only to be found sitting in the janitor’s room drinking a little bottle of milk. I imagine the first time it happened the neighbourhood would have been out looking for him but after that the dragon just popped up to the school to drag him back home, or the janitor brought him.
My first teacher was Miss McIver, The Witch; she had a thin, nervous and seriously waspish manner that didn’t include smiling or any kind of kindness – I think she put a spell on me so that I can’t remember most of what she did. I was four and a half when I joined her class; she had thirty children around her, some of whom were still on the breast, according to a tale told by the dragon – she was standing at the railings to pass me some toast at play-time break when another woman popped her breast through the railing and suckled her five-year old (I was always the youngest in my class).
The only real memory I have of her is when I swapped pencils with the boy behind me; he had been given a red one and I a blue – I desperately wanted the red pencil and he wouldn’t swap me so I took it and he told the witch. She sent me to stand in the corner of a cold cloakroom all by myself, for what seemed like a very long time. I was distraught and frightened. I have no memory of the outcome of all this; whether the dragon came up to breathe fire on her or not, or if my mother berated her into sullen silence…but that takes up a year of my life, or more, and that’s all there is – The Witch.
Though, there is a vague memory that I came first in her class at the end of the year, second in the next and third in the third – after that it was downhill all the way!
‘Help, help! Teddy, I’ve won the bingo!’ My mother would wake up the whole street two or three times a year. We’d get a quick glance at all the prizes and the handful of paper money waving through her laughter before we were pushed back into our little cupboard bed; it was folded away during the day so my brother and I had space to play.
There would be lamps, cutlery, tea-sets, clocks, ornaments, toys, chocolates and games for us to admire and squabble over in the morning. The cash was always £25, well it is in my memory – that was about a month’s wages for some people then. My mother was such an excitable woman; a bit like me now whenever/if-ever I win anything…you should see me at a roulette table!
When I compare my parents to anyone else’s, from that time, mine won on all counts, all sides – my friends always loved them. There were only two of us so money probably wasn’t as tight as it might’ve been, and the dragon looked after us while both parents worked. My friend Anne, who lived in the next close, had seven brothers and sisters so she’d never been to the seaside until we took her with us. I have an image of her mother’s washing line; it was full every single day. My mother used to accuse her of washing clean clothes. Anne was very clean: I sat in dirt every chance I got – I seemed to love it and was always covered in it. When we played at marbles I sat and she hunkered.
Only my mother was mad enough to feed all the children in the street; she made us chips for supper sometimes and served them up in a paper bag – so we asked her to make some more for all our friends. When we brought back blackberries and raspberries and demanded she make a pie, she did. Thinking back on all this now – she was pretty fabulous.
It smelled of old grass
and Magnolia paint.
My brother and I would ease
our bodies in backwards
pulling the door shut
through coats hanging
on the inside, jangling
half-crowns and florins –
Fanny Hill lay on the top shelf.
Sometimes, there would be
pickles and cheese in Dad’s pocket
with crackers and wooden spatula.
We talked quietly on Mars
it was very dark
my brother was small and hushed.
I’d scoop out a fistful
of coins, squeazing tight
for silence, and spend them
into my dress
counting the clicks.
He would snake his fist in
for his share – I’d feel his eyes shine
and whisper a coin on to his palm.
Published in Verse Spring 1992