Farewell to Southampton

And in keeping with the character of that city it was both low key and somewhat alternative.

Thanks to flight times and the pretence of security which in effect traps you in airports for sufficient time to be tempted to buy the overpriced rubbish on sale airside I am used to leaving Southampton in the early hours, keeping lonely guard over my piles of luggage by the bay into which I hope that the coach for the airport will arrive. I think one can judge the nature of a coach driver by his choice of bay…those who pull in where there is a queue and those who do not.

This time, though, I was not alone. A friend had accompanied me to the bus station, our journey enlivened by a sighting of her husband returning from the casino somewhat the worse for wear as he crossed the river by the Itchen Bridge using both hands on the parapet to propel him homeward like a crab seeking the safety of its rock.

Neither were we alone. As we trundled the suitcases to the waiting area a figure emerged from the shadows. Woolly hat a la Compo, jowly beard, puffer jacket and sock lined wellies, with a bag resembling grandmother’s knitting bag writ large, he addressed us.

Would the Pullman arrive?

Supposing that he meant the National Express coach we reassured him that it would.

But there are no signs!

No…the bus station offices are closed…you look at the timetable and it will tell you when the coach arrives.

Please? I am Italian. I do not understand. I am student at university. I am going home. I need the Pullman to come or I miss my flight.

Both wondering how he would benefit from a course at a British university if he had limited English we assured him that the Pullman would indeed arrive. Just look at the queue which was gathering!

How they know? There are no signs….

The coach – or Pullman – arrived and pulled into our bay….one up for the driver.

Our Italian friend was the first in the queue as we marshalled my luggage, assisted by a couple of students going home for the Easter holiday.

He faced the driver.

Gatwick Sud?

Ticket?

Gatwick Sud?

I tried in Spanish. I have no idea what ticket is in Italian but he seemed to get the idea, produced the e mail on his phone and was allowed to board.

Once underway all went well except that at every stop he would rise and enquire

Gatwick Sud?

To which the driver, face ruddy from stress, would reply

No Sir. If you listen I will announce each stop. The bus runs through Fareham, Portsmouth Hard, where we are currently standing, then Chichester, Gatwick North and finally Gatwick South.

At which our passenger announced that he was sorry to be breaking the driver’s balls but was this stop Gatwick Sud?

I had the strong impression that if the driver had not voted to leave the European Union previously he would now be doing so at the earliest opportunity which presented itself.

So…goodbye Southampton.

It being early spring the parks had been alive with flowering trees and swathes of daffodils, while gardens enjoyed from the bus windows showed camellias, their blossoms brown edged by frost, jews mallow flopping against walls and fences, flowering currant with the buds just colouring up over jewelled clumps of primulas, and everywhere a haze of pale green buds against a hard blue spring sky.

A fine last sight to remember.

Over the years I had become fond of the place….village style high streets in the suburbs with proper shops, good public transport, a restaurant where the owner’s Staffie bitch trotted among the customers, old fashioned pubs in the old town and all the glitz of the entertainment and shopping complex at West Quay.

Certainly there had been downsides…more and more people sleeping in shop doorways….. whole blocks of city centre premises torn down to be replaced by blocks of student residences as the two universities pulled in the money from overseas students’ fees…… the deterioration of the Friday market from one with a bit of everything for everyone to huts selling New Age balls and overpriced food.

But there was still a real market down at the pretty village of Hythe, so all was not lost to the forces of destruction.

I shall miss Southampton, but my reason to go there ceased to exist when my mother died in late March…my last visit was thus to attend to her funeral.


Home again, home again, joggety jog.

alfred

It has been a busy month or so…off to England for mother’s one hundredth birthday, to Spain to check on the house, back to England and then finally, blissfully, home, to meet the latest dog to arrive on the doorstep, a little mite named Scruff.

Although my mother’s friends were organising a party for her, on the day itself she had another appointment…one with her friends of seventy five years ago….those she met following the outbreak of World War II.

The dead.

She was still marching past the Cenotaph in her early nineties, so she knew – through the grapevine – what had become of her friends in the ATS…..but after her basic training she had first served in Winchester, alongside the Royal Greenjackets and the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and so many of the men she had known (though not in the biblical sense) had perished with no further word reaching her….

Apart from the Light Bobs, she and her friends had met a young American army engineer, a history buff, while waiting for the opening of the church that had once been the chapel royal of William the Conqueror’s palace in Winchester and had signed the visitors’ book together. He had run tame in their families’ houses, a boy far from home….but he disappeared shortly after D Day.

st-lawrernce

She has his letters to this day…a young man whose frankness and charm seduced all the watchful mothers, some of whom had sons serving far away from home too…

We had booked an hotel in the centre of the city..the Royal Winchester Hotel…which mother remembered from her time there in the war: nothing could have been better. Super staff, a specially adapted room, and a peaceful garden in the heart of the town.

hotel

Somewhat better than her original billet with a maiden lady on Oliver Cromwell’s Battery whose gentility disguised an ability to use mother’s rations to feed the two of them which would not have disgraced a modern banker.

Mother and I have not been the best of friends: our prejudices do not coincide, our interests differ. As an adult I might understand her frustrations but as a child I resented her attacks on my confidence, the undermining: the armour I erected against her – and the world – only crumbling when I found unconditional love.

But she is my mother. Rancour cannot reign. So I was ready to accompany her on her pilgrimage and to respect it.

As always, humour assisted.

On a boiling hot day our train was delayed….station announcements advised passengers to carry bottles of water while traveling and not to pull the emergency cord between stations…

Mother sniffed.

She remembered traveling north from King’s Cross in London on a wartime train so packed with passengers that each supported the other…the only drink on offer came at York when jam jars of tea without milk and sweetened with golden syrup were circulated – the men offering them to the women first – a train which, when the platform gates were opened, under bombardment, people desperate to leave London had run for the train, trampling over  those overtaken in the rush…she remembered the feel of bodies beneath her feet, impelled by those behind, petrified of falling in her turn.

However, our train was a delight….staff to install mother and staff to meet her at Winchester to take her to the taxi rank, thence  to the hotel.

She started her pilgrimage that afternoon…up the hill to the remains of the castle housing the Round Table. She remembered the hall being chock a block with stored furniture so it came as a great delight to see the Table clearly…with, of course Henry VIII enthroned within.

round-table

Going downhill again I was surprised that, despite the modern shopfronts, she recognised so many buildings: the tea shop that she and her friends frequented…the butcher…the shop selling honey…the Buttercross….

buttercross

The next day, that of her birthday, we started in earnest.

First to the church of St. Lawrence where the friends had signed the visitors’ book…behind the Buttercross. A tiny church, once part of the Norman palace and still the mother church of Winchester.

A fire in the 1970s had altered the church beyond mother’s recognition, but we were fortunate enough to meet one of the curates who could show mother photographs of the church as it was when she knew it and, more importantly, could draw mother out as to her experiences in the period.

A super lady.

On to the cathedral…

winchester-cathedral

I had to park mother outside while I went to enquire of the staff how best to assist her.

In that time two ladies asked her if she had been abandoned…makes you wonder just what goes on in Winchester…

Once my enquiries had been sorted, the head verger took charge : he opened the cases containing the rolls of honour of the two regiments and searched for the names she gave him.

He also put a fresh paper into the handicapped loo for mother…from the sublime to the cor blimey…with the same panache and care.

A super chap.

To our surprise, as we were about to leave the cathedral  red robed vergers on duty sang ‘Happy Birthday’….which reduced mother to tears of happiness.

No wonder she loves Winchester.

On to the Greenjackets’ museum up the hill in what had been the Peninsular Barracks…now private flats.

Mother remembered returning there after church parade in the cathedral: there were various army contingents present, but the light infantry had to wait until the others were almost at the barracks before they could set out as their marching pace, one hundred and forty to the minute, would have had them overtaking the rest in moments and causing an unseemly traffic jam.

She remembered the lung draining haul up the last stretch of the hill and the bugles  of the band  blowing fit to bust from their stance on the parade ground to accompany the troops.

greenjackets-museum

At the museum the big white chief – a brigadier general – came out to greet her and I was privileged to observe one of mother’s master classes in obfuscation.

He obviously thought he was dealing with a  little old lady…and she took agin him from the start…

I have always been of the view that aspiring barristers should be given the chance of an examination in chief of my mother. Getting blood from a stone would be childs’ play in comparison.

He made the mistake of asking the question exact…what did she do?

She replied that no one was ready for the girls, like her, who were volunteers.

But what did she do in Winchester?

No shoes…no uniforms..had  to dye our own blouses…

But what did you do?

Ah…now you’re asking.

Well..he had.

They didn’t know what to do with us…but they thought the invasion was coming so they sent us down to the New Forest to stop the German tanks.

So you weren’t in Winchester very long?

Oh, yes,  once they’d shown us how to blow up tanks…we came back.

And what did you do there, then?

Served.

He retired in the  face of superior force.

As I pushed mother’s wheelchair down to the hotel – via a super caff outside the museum which had the best pork pies I have ever eaten – she commented that the sort of chap exemplified by the brigadier general was what had ruined Britain…complacent, conventional…but holding power.

These were the people that she had voted against  in the post war election which saw Churchill out and Attlee in….but here they were again.

Needless to say mother had voted Leave in the referendum on  Europe…

We recovered in the hotel garden, a green oasis in the midst of the city and  at dinner mother was greeted by a group of the staff bearing a birthday cake….now that moved her: young people who did not know her had gone  to the length of making her a cake for her birthday.

It was as if she had not realised that her age brought with it any recognition.

But it was clear that the visit had brought to mind all the friends that she had lost…not being next of kin she had had no notification…just the names in the illuminated manuscripts seventy five years down the line…

And yes, on her return her friends had arranged a super party and had had the forethought to book the hairdresser for her to avoid her complaining that she could not go because her hair was untidy. They know her well.

From One Market to Another

harlemfoodlocal.com
harlemfoodlocal.com
I had come home from shopping in San Jose…and was glad to offload the two heavy canvas bags whose contents had survived the hour’s run in a hot bus.
I enjoy poking about in the two main markets, the Central and the Borbon and go to my favourite shops where by now, like the other customers, I am included in the jokes and the teasing that dart across the stalls and today, just after the election results, the discussions.

Here, Jorge, shouts the butcher in the Borbon, here’s a gringa that likes our new president!
Can’t be a gringa, then, replies Luis who sells hot peppers.
She’s not a proper gringa, bellows Jorge on the greenstuff stall. She’s from England!
Scotland, shouts Henry from the petfood stand, making what I now know to be his imitation of bagpipe music….which, curtailed as his eldritch shrieks might be, inevitably brings to mind the title of the pibroch ‘Too long in this condition’…

Things are quieter over in the Central where I buy my coffee at the Moka stand just inside the backstreet entrance.
There are better known coffee brands…particularly one which controls the airport shopping lounges and has the tourist tours pretty well sewn up…but for me the best coffee on general sale is to be found on this little stand at the quiet end of the market.
I know the men serving there by now; we enquire as to each others families…and, of course, today, we discuss the election results as with other customers I drink a coffee while waiting for my order to be to be ground and bagged.

journeytotheperfectcup.blog
journeytotheperfectcup.blog
For ‘normal’ coffee,made in the chorreador (sock) I buy Poas suave…grown on the slopes around volcano Poas north of San Jose….but as I have just been presented with a new gadget – an expresso and cappuccino maker – and have learnt how to use it without either blowing it up or scalding myself I asked for advice on the best coffee to use and returned home with a bag of Caracolillo, or Peaberry, coffee…beans which, instead of splitting into two as do normal coffee beans, remain unitary and are supposed to roast more evenly.
We shall see.

Recounting my morning over lunch, my husband said it reminded him of his days on the floor of the London Stock Exchange…when it still had a floor, and a wooden one at that.
The atmosphere was, he said, that of a real market….people you saw every day in the same place, jokes that built up, nicknames, daft pranks…before, as he gloomily added, they let women in and ruined it all.

stockexchangeHe had had no wish whatsoever to work on the Stock Exchange…or anywhere else for that matter.
He was, at that time, a student in Madrid having been sent there so as not to be under the feet of his father’s mistress and was having a whale of a time: the days in the Prado, the nights touring the bars in the company of the son of Franco’s chief of police.

But the mistress produced a baby whose imitations of the pipes put an end to the romantic idyll and, mistress and child gone, the father called his son back to the roost….he had to have someone to collect the rents on his property….thus ending the Madrid idyll as well.

Father then saw an advertisement seeking to recruit a trainee stockbroker: whoopee, with a son on the market he could gamble on shares without paying commission…and the die was cast.
Leo went to the Stock Exchange, where his employers promptly decided that ‘Leopold’ was too foreign a name and called him Paul.

It was a world to itself….no mobile ‘phones in those days. If you were on the floor and your office wanted to contact you they ‘phoned the waiter – a proper waiter – who worked on the entrance which your office used and he would flash up your number in lights on a board to alert you.

You fulfilled your clients’ orders by walking the floor and talking to the jobber who ran the book in the shares in which you were interested, playing a game of guess as to whether you were buying or selling, trying to get the best deal….you learned how to trade shares in a dead market…you learned who the dodgy dealers were and how they got away with it…you learned the nicknames – the Weasel, Mr. Round and Round…

He became very good at his job, enjoyed the challenges…but he says that what he enjoyed most was the sidelines of work…
Exploring the City in his lunch break, finding little tucked away caffs in the roof of Leadenhall Market, walking through double doors to find himself in a street between two office blocks that led to another street….and another…a complete maze.
And he enjoyed the people…not, on the whole, the Eastenders nor those who spent their time in the pub until summoned by their juniors to do a bit of work, but those who treated the place as somewhere to pass the time from more important matters, as exemplified by a friend of his who ran the smallest brokerage firm in the business but whose passion was frogs.
Word had it that if you were married to a wife like his you could understand his preferences, but be that as it may, this gentleman would collect frogspawn in his garden in Harrow and, in the season, solemnly bring in jars of the same for his colleagues to distribute around their bijou Surrey residences.

Then there were the pranksters, who would set fire to your Financial Times as you had it spread out in front of you…who would fill up their water pistols in the loos and let rip on the floor…even at the top hatted brokers in gilt edged stocks…and the elderly gentlemen who would while away quiet moments by fashioning aircraft from sheets of paper and attempting to launch them into the dome with the aid of rubber bands.
Successful attempts would see the fragile craft circling for weeks on the air currents.

Those were the days when your word was expected to be your bond…and when brokerage firms had to assume their own liabilities. Go bust and the firm was ‘hammered’.
Everyone was called to the floor and a waiter would tap with his gavel and announce that the firm of So and So was no longer trading.
It was a solemn moment, and one to give rise to second thoughts in those contemplating risky dealings.
No banks trading then on on their own behalf…no tax payers’ bailouts when they got it spectacularly wrong…no one was too big to fail.

He wasn’t around to see the Big Bang which swept away the working world he had known…he had had a final row with his father, obtained a mortgage on a wreck of a house which he restored and sold and decided that, as he could never afford to be a partner, there was no future in working all his life for others.
A series of events unrelated to work decided him…he packed it all in and set up his own business….but when he talks about that, his eyes don’t shine as they do when he talks about his days on the floor of the London Stock Exchange.

Which may explain why he always comes back laden with bargains when he does the shopping in the Borbon and the Central….

Midnight Express from Paris

traindejardin.forumparfait
traindejardin.forumparfait

To make the best use of my ticket for a fortnight’s freedom of the French railways I used to take a long distance train just after midnight from one of the Paris terminals, though the destinations and the company varied over the years.

There was the train to Brest, full of inebriated sailors returning to base – Genet would have been ecstatic – or the train to the Tour de Carol in the Pyrenees, empty but for myself and the staff once it had passed the red roofs of Foix.

A packed train to Avignon…an empty one to Grenoble.

I soon learned to use the loo on the train to wash and brush up before starting the day.

Firstly it was free and there was soap, secondly it was usually reasonably clean and, thirdly, it had a proper loo, not a hole in the ground with or without raised emplacements for the feet known in France as a Turkish toilet. Goodness only knows what the Turks call it.

I remember travelling in the same carriage as a group of elderly American ladies who resolutely refused to use the train loo for fear of being trapped within.
I saw them again on the platform, clustering wonderingly around something that looked like a corrugated iron sky rocket, painted a virulent green: the station conveniences.
One unwary fart and there would have been lift off.

They were still clustered by the time I had left my luggage in a locker – one forgets the freedom of the pre terrorist days – and headed for breakfast in the station buffet, all hissing coffee machines and blue overalled railway staff looking for sustenance before coming on duty.

It must have been a toss up between drawing straws for the first victim or ringing the American consul.

I seemed to change trains at Avignon quite often over the years and thus became acquainted with the loo on the long distance platform, a hefty walk under the brassy sun of the south.

It had, of course, a Turkish toilet which involved the usual gymnastics in disrobing sufficiently while ensuring no garment touched the floor, light bag slung over the shoulder.
You did not take a heavy bag in there as there was nowhere to hang it when the periodic flush….like opening the Aswan High Dam…bore all before it.
Handbags shot under the doors and rucksacks became sodden.
You could tell if an international train had just come in by the polyglot cries of the afflicted within.
It did not, however, suffer the defect of the time switch on the light, set nicely to have you in gymnastic pose when it expires and you are alone in the gloom.
It had, no doubt, a time switch but someone had nicked the light bulbs.

Stations usually had separate loos for the sexes, unlike civic or caff loos, where you would walk past the peeing men to reach the cubicles…and being a somewhat shy young person, I preferred the provisions at the stations.

But a fortnight in France enabled me to see more than the range of loos available to the traveller.

I had prepared my trip, I knew what there was to see and I saw it, from the temple and arena in Nimes to the black swans in the moat at Nevers and by economising on eating I could afford to hire a rowing boat to go out on Lake Annecy, lying back under the late afternoon sunshine, utterly at peace.

There were still branch lines dodging everywhere….on a drizzly afternoon in Bayonne the single track line up to St. Jean Pied de Port was alight with fiery crocosmia all the way to the little town which was the gateway to Spain via the Roncevaux Pass….site of the death of Roland.

Another took me from Grenoble down to the Rhone valley….mountains giving way to hills and then to plains, passing the tower of Crest on the way to a long wait at Valence and a distinct longing to be able to take the steam train at Tournon….but it was outside the system and pennies were tight.

pyrenees-cerdagne.com
pyrenees-cerdagne.com
Inside the system, however, was the little yellow train running through the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent, Vauban’s fortified city under the flanks of Mount Canigou, around the Spanish enclaves tucked within the frontier proper since the time of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659…when some legal eagle had blundered because while Spain ceded all villages north of the Pyrenees to France it ceded no towns! The train with its toast rack carriages was a favourite of mine….travelling on spidery viaducts through the mountains from the main line at Perpignan, where I was lucky enough to see people dancing the sardana….spontaneously, not organised by some cultural body…not far from the Palace of the Kings of Majorca…to La Tour de Carol where the express for Paris waited, the carriages hot and stuffy in the sun.

A Sunday afternoon would see me on a slow train from the violet city of Toulouse……passing the twin spires of the cathedral of Niort in the Marais Poitevin, where boats replaced roads…..and the town of Lucon where Richelieu was bishop before his rise to power, eventually pulling in under the walls of the chateau at Nantes which faced an art deco biscuit factory on the other side of the tracks.

But what was I seeing of France?
The sights…and the countryside between.

Who was I meeting?
Ticket inspectors.

What was I eating?
Apart from a roll and coffee for breakfast in the station buffets it was cheap picnics…a loaf, some cheese or pate which was soft by the time it came to squash it into the sandwich, cheap wine.
I could look at the pissaladieres and quiches in the windows, but I couldn’t afford them until the end of the trip when there might be a surplus while the idea of eating a meal was in the realms of financial fantasy.

I really was on the outside looking in.

How I came to France

I blame the nineteen thirties Popular Front government of France and the BBC.

In pursuance of that government’s efforts to rouse a nationalistic revival to counter the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, Jean Renoir, son of the painter, made a patriotic film, ‘La Marseillaise’, following a group of ordinary men on their journey from Marseilles to Paris and their participation in the first bloody acts of what was to become the French Revolution.

I saw this film on the television when a schoolgirl and Baroness Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel went out of the window.Tout de suite.

I was enthused by the young nation of France….its battles against the armies of the monarchies of Prussia and Austria…its advances into the states of Italy….the brilliant soldiers it threw up from the mass armies invented and supported by the great Lazare Carnot, ‘organisateur de la victoire’ (organiser of victory).

Forgive me…..I was young.

A blue revolutionary coat had a similar effect on me as did a scarlet one on the younger daughters of Mr. Bennet….but without the risks brought about by physical proximity.

France took a hold…I read its history, fell on ‘Les Rois Maudits’ (the accursed kings), in which the end of the Capetian dynasty was recounted by Maurice Druon, at one end of the spectrum and the Paris Commune at the other…..but I did not go to France until I was a student, in command of my local authority grant.

The grant was not munificent…but it felt like it.

Carefully managed it would keep a roof (leaky) over my head, allow me to eat in Chinese and Indian restaurants, buy books without stinting and, finally, allow me to buy a fortnight on the trains of France.

In those pre internet days one booked a ticket by going to the offices of French railways in Piccadilly and handing over the ready, but before parting with the uckers forward planning was necessary.

I could not afford hotels as well as the train ticket, so with the aid of a copy of the Thomas Cook railway timetable for Europe I would plan out a series of journeys by overnight train, allowing me in those pre terrorist days to leave my luggage in a station locker for the day while I explored the area before taking another overnight train to a new destination.

I became an adept…crossed hammers and jours feries held no terrors for me as I plotted my way round the main lines of France!

Inevitably it was best to buy a separate ticket to Paris to get most value from the fortnight’s ticket….the first demonstration of how everything in France begins and ends in Paris…so with my rucksack charged with changes of clothing and a bag of sandwiches I would set off from London for the ferry to Calais, aiming to arrive in Paris in the evening, ready for the first train out after midnight for the first day of my adventure.

At that time you did not need daylight to know that you were arriving at Calais….day or night on the approaches to the dock you were overwhelmed by the smell of drains. The only smell to compare with it is the stench which hits you when you open the door of a French restaurant serving andouillette (cow gut sausage) as the dish of the day in mid August.

You know you are in France.

Calais docks always seemed pretty derelict as far as passenger infrastructure was concerned….one would leave the ferry via the gangplank and wander off along the cobbles to a sort of concrete wasteland inhabited by trains…..sleepers off to the Alps and everyday trains to Paris, stopping at every halt en route.

Of course, we had to climb up into these trains from a low level platform….no problem when young and agile, but advancing years present the traveller with the alternatives of mounting the steps and swinging the luggage forward or throwing the luggage first, caber tossing style, and following after.

Why do the French think the British have proper platforms if not to avoid lower back injuries and claims for tights ripped in the crotch.

The train itself at that period had compartments linked by a corridor, plastic seats and somewhere to hook your rifle should you be called to the front because the Germans had reverted to type and invaded in August.
It had conductors with hats resembling those of admirals and no toilets for the convenience of its passengers as it hauled its way to Boulogne via Wimille-Wimereux, then Etaples and Abbeville to Amiens before collecting itself for the last gallop over the chalk downs with their clumps and clouds of woodland to the valley of the Seine and Paris itself.

The Gare du Nord was shabby and grubby, with toilets guarded by dragons with saucers for the (obligatory) tips, but it marked the start of the adventure.

I would pick up my bags, walk down to the Algerian Stores on the corner to buy a bottle of wine with a plastic top and five stars on the neck, a chunk of sausage and a roll or two and then, turning my back resolutely to the glowing neon sign of the Hotel Kuntz, would head for whichever station held my midnight express.

Shopping with Mother

flickr.com

No, not shopping with mother as of recently…the scythes on the hubs of the wheelchair, the walking device held in rest as if pricking into the lists and the purse providing a safe environment for elderly moths…..

Shopping with mother when I was a child and we had just moved to Surrey.
We moved further into Surrey a little later, but this is the period I remember – perhaps because it was all different.
Different accents, different houses, different schools.

We could go in two directions.

To the right it was a long walk along the ribbon development of thirties houses, detached or semi behind their gates and hedges – privet much in evidence with the sharp smell of its flowers in summer; old man’s beard showing its feathery heads in autumn.

We would pass the unmade up lane with the wooden weatherboard houses one of which was home to an elderly maiden lady who would give me moss roses in season while she and mother drank tea under the trees….
We would pass the house on the corner with the monkey puzzle tree – home to a cantankerous and incompetent doctor who is responsible for the damage to my middle ear (I have a long and unforgiving memory when it comes to health professionals)…
Further on there was the house ruled by the whims of an African Grey parrot, companion of an old Scottish lady – relict of a minister – who used to give me Beauty of Bath apples from her tree while my father tidied up her garden…
Then to the parade of shops near the church to which I was despatched for Sunday School on the dominical afternoon to allow my parents time to dispute the nature and availability of marital rights.
For some little time I suffered a confusion between marital rights and Marian rites – probably due to the High nature of worship on offer at said church as commented upon by the minister’s relict – but kept my confusion and subsequent enlightenment to myself.

The fish and chip shop…working up for its lunchtime trade…the sweet shop next door, beautifully positioned opposite the zebra crossing serving the children from the school opposite.
I remember the dragon of a crossing keeper who would shout at children who crossed the road to visit the sweet shop only to want to cross back again with their booty once selection had been made among the pear drops, wine gums and chocolate bars.
I used to wonder whether she was responsible for the accidents to children on the sharp bend by the church back down the road…but, again, kept my thoughts to myself.

Past the photographer with wedding pictures in the window where mother would drop in rolls of film to be developed or collect the results in heavy paper envelopes, strips of negatives tucked into the special pocket.

The pet shop opposite was not on my mother’s rounds…my father would take me there to buy biscuits for my dog,Sandy; large ones of different colours…I remember beige, red and green…and black, charcoal ones, said to counteract the flatulent effect of the green ones.
Clearly, no one had told Sandy. I learnt to take cover whenever he would stir, heave himself up from his rug and take a stroll down the hall; seconds later the lungs would be overwhelmed by a smell so virulent that you would think that thirty school canteens had simultaneously decided to boil cabbage to death.
Silent but deadly…that was Sandy.
The pet shop was a delight as its owner had a mynah bird which could imitate …as I recall…every regular customer and I was thrilled when I in turn had the mark of its recognition as it gave forth what was evidently my standard cry…’There’s the mynah bird…’

But, back on mother’s path, the road began to run downhill into the main shopping area…butchers, bakers, grocers and – to me the high point – the Co-op.
The Co-op did not stock food…but it seemed to have everything else and above all it had those wonderful change machines…little metal tubs on wires which would whizz at ceiling height between the wooden counters and the cash desk.

There was a Marks and Spencer but we did not darken its doors. Mother objected to their prices and to that fact that they had no changing rooms, so that if something did not fit you were obliged to make a special trip to return it.
I wonder if they were placing their money on the markets overnight even then…
If so they made nothing from mother.

British Home Stores on the other hand, did have changing rooms and their quality was every bit as high as that of M and S so while knickers and liberty bodices – was there anything so ill named – were bought at the Co-op, dresses blouses and skirts were bought at BHS.

This was as far as we went, unless taking the train to London, or when, occasionally, my father would walk us all down to the old fashioned pub near the station where we would sit in the beer gardens – lush borders worthy of a country house garden – while Sandy would eat crisps – the twist of blue paper containing salt having been removed and added to my bag – and I would sip at my sharp, fizzy lemonade.

If we turned left when leaving the house then the walk was shorter…but steeply uphill. We knew no one on that stretch and clearly did not enter The Cock Inn which had no beer garden but did have a door mysteriously labelled Snug.

At the crossroads at the top of the hill was a large pub….white, with car parking space in front. Going straight ahead led to the swimming baths to which schoolchildren would be bussed to have their heads held under chlorinated water in a laughable attempt to teach swimming. Luckily I contracted what was unblushingly known at that time as African Foot Rot which released me from that particular torment.

On the right was the wool shop. I dreaded mother turning that corner as it meant sitting on a chair for a long time while she and the owner discussed exactly what sort of wool would be suitable for yet another knitted skirt and jumper set to make my life unbearable. To this day mention of ‘heather mixture’ can depress my spirits and make me start to itch.

On the corner itself was a butcher’s shop. A proper one. Poultry with ruffs of feathers hung head down; rabbits swung by their hinds, blood at the nose. No turkeys…it was before turkey time…but geese, yes. What were called ‘green’ geese in the autumn, fresh from feeding on grass, and ordinary geese at Christmas.
No meat on display…everything was kept in the cold rooms behind and I used to position myself to catch the waft of cold acrid air as the door was opened.

To the right was the row of shops leading to the cinema.
I remember the Home and Colonial Stores with its gold lettering on a black ground, where mother bought tea and bacon – often, all too often, the ultra salty Ulster for boiling – and J. Sainsbury, all marble topped counters and white tiled walls, where she bought breakfast sausage…a liver based delight which I would gladly meet with again.

On that road too was the bus stop where the chocolate and yellow coaches of Surrey Motors would pick up passengers for day or afternoon trips in the good weather.
Mother and her sisters would sometimes book tickets for themselves and their children; cream teas figured largely as did historic houses, though I also remember a trip to the Cheddar Gorge notable for one young dare devil standing on a cliff edge shouting
Look, Mum…no hands!

No, not one of us.

And on the same road was the ironmongers, delighting in the name of Sprange, which I used to think might be the name of one of the utensils sold there…for it sold everything from buckets to mouse traps via sink plungers and tools.
Crowded shelves lined the walls; there was a wooden counter in the middle; items hung from the ceiling and the men in brown warehouse coats who served knew where everything was.

They might have been traditional, but they were not behind the times.
At a time when aerosol cans were a novelty they stocked them, bearing a product for disseminating scent for use in the loo, which came in colours supposedly appropriate to the smell of the contents….pink for roses, blue for lavender….
Several ladies were interested in these delights to the detriment of their family budget and they were selling fast on a day when I followed mother inside.

What was to happen next would confirm for me that the British – at that time – were a very self controlled race.

One of the brown coated gentlemen approached the elderly lady at the head of the queue.

Yes, madam. how may I help you?

I want an arsehole.

Not a twitch from the man at the counter. Not a sound from the customers.

Certainly madam. Which colour would you like?

A blue one.

Certainly, madam…I’ll just have it wrapped for you.

No comment was made, no knowing looks were exchanged even after she left, purchase tucked in her shopping basket.

Once mother had bought the steel wool she had come to buy we too, left the shop.

Did that lady say….

Yes she did.

And then we both had to sit on the seat by the traffic lights, laughing until our stomachs were sore.