Sisters and Nanas
When my younger sister hadn’t arrived home from school, mum went out in her warmest coat and no nylons to search the regular haunts and left me in the house in case Debra returned. While Debra often came home late because she liked the attention, she wasn’t usually this late. It angered me. Mum’s pinched face showed how anxious she was although she tried to hide it. In an effort to not give my sister the satisfaction of concern, I picked up a book.
An hour and a half later, I heard the ominous siren of an ambulance. I ran out of the house, leaving the front door wide open, to the junction at the top of the street, fear searing like hot lava. The siren stopped and I looked to the right where the flashing light of the ambulance continued to blink while a huddle of people obscured the view.
With my heart pounding and legs trembling I stood at the edge of the crowd until it opened for me. How mum would cope if Debra died, I couldn’t imagine. I prayed I wouldn’t see her body.
I’d seen a body twice before; Nana Burns and Grandmother Fulham.
It was a decade or more since Janice and I started secondary school on the same day. I pulled her pigtails causing her to squeal and the teacher hauled me up to the front of the class where I had to stand for ten minutes with my hands on my head. Afterwards, Janice came up to me and we stared at each other. I turned round eventually and over my shoulder said, “Go on. You can pull my hair now.” She did and from then on we became firm friends.
Her Nana Burns was really old and she used to tell stories of when she lived with her aunt in a grand house when she was just a girl. Tales of bakers and grocers and butchers delivering their products to the tradesman’s entrance at the side of the house. They left their horse and cart while they stepped inside the labourers kitchen for a cup of tea then collected one shilling and sixpence, or five pence for the meat or the milk .
Her Aunt had a rope knotted around her thick waist upon which hung a large iron key ring. The keys, Nana Burns said, were for the pantry and other assorted rooms which her aunt kept locked to prevent theft by the servants.
The idea of servants both amused and horrified me.
From Nana I first learned of kedgeree
which they had for breakfast, and junket
, a dessert made from milk and sugar and rennet, which they fed to sick children. Neither appealed to me.
Nana Burns said that after their breakfast, her two sisters and three brothers stood in age order and trotted up the stairs to the nursery school room for lessons from a teacher that resided in the village. The girls learned to read, write, and do sums; their lessons finished for the day at noon. After lunch, the girls went out for exercise before receiving instruction in knitting, sewing, painting, or piano lessons and general housekeeping duties while the boys returned to the classroom to study serious subjects like Latin, chemistry, and history.
She had a wealth of stories from the Edwardian era onwards. She talked about the changes she had seen in sixty years. The wonder of the aeroplane and the car that replaced the horse and cart. The fashions when hem lines moved up, down, then up again. The house being used as a hospital during the First World War and losing all three of her brothers in the conflict. Learning to drive an ambulance in the Second World War. I never tired of hearing her stories and wish now that I had written them down.
Nana lived with my friend and her parents. I often wondered what she made of the modern world. She abhorred the novels of Ian Fleming calling them fit only for the waste-bin
and exhorted me not to waste my time reading them. But I did read them and they were thrilling - and then the films came out.
Nana Burns was tiny with long, white hair that she put into a single plait that fell to her waist.
They laid her out in the front room in a dark wood coffin lined in white shiny fabric. She looked even smaller, her hair looked whiter, and the plait had been spread over her shoulder to lie on her breast. With the heavy drapes drawn across the window no light entered the cold room. I touched her hands, folded over her abdomen and pulled away quickly at the unexpected hardness. Many tears flowed in that house and mourners paid their respects in murmurs with black mantillas and doffed hats.
In contrast, my other best friend, Louisa, whom I had met in third year, had a harridan for a nana. She insisted on being given her full title, Grandmother Fulham
, and I never heard her utter a kind word. Her face scowled permanently and had more lines than the London Underground.
Like Janice, Louisa lived with her parents in her Grandmother’s house. I heard that it was because her son had a rather poor paying job and that Grandmother Fulham didn’t trust his wife who came from an orphanage. This old lady had dirty blonde hair twisted in a tight bun at the back of her head and she wore a dull blue pinafore.
When I knocked at the door her face would peer through the coloured glass quarter squares before answering. Then she would look me up and down with pursed lips before allowing me entry.
“Wipe your feet,” she would bark at me.
“Hang your coat up properly.”
“Don’t run up the stairs.”
“Keep the music down.”
Grandmother Fulham kept a lot of knick-knacks in her house. I recall Beswick horses galloping along the mantelpiece in the front parlour, Wedgewood in glass-fronted mahogany cabinets, and silver candlesticks on damask covered side tables in the hall. In the living room stood pineapple faceted sweet bowls on the sideboard. Lace edged doilies decorated the dining table and pristine antimacassars covered the backs and arms of chairs.
She, too, was laid out in the front parlour in a dark wood coffin. In the end, no different to Nana Burns – icy cold and so very still. No more angry words from her mouth. I said my goodbye, as was proper but didn’t regret her passing.
I looked down at the body stirring on the pavement. Relief and guilt choked me when I realised it wasn’t Debra. It was someone else’s daughter or sister. Before I could gather myself I heard my name. Coming up behind me was my nonchalant sister, dismissing my stares with a shrug of her shoulders and turning away. She had always been selfish, seeking attention and causing trouble. Mum hadn’t appeared and was no doubt calling into the police station by now but did my sister care?
While the small crowd began to chatter and the injured girl lifted on to a stretcher, I grabbed Debra’s shoulder, pulled her around and slapped her face.
Our relationship after that was never the same.