Auntie Gladys, Uncle George, Gordon
This is a story but based on what actually happened.
I sat quietly gazing out into the tidy garden. Summoned an hour earlier. My aunt was dying in an upstairs room, attended by a colleague. As nursing homes go, it wasn’t bad. Large entrance hall, tall windows, plush carpets and curtains. One of many large properties built by wealthy Victorians and no longer viable as a place for a family to live. Flats for students or homes for the frail. Not that my aunt was frail, she was twenty stone at least. Mum said she was big-boned. Thighs like rugby balls, uncontrolled by stocking tops, indecent in knee length skirts and low chairs.
She’d taken a turn for the worse six weeks earlier. Admitted to hospital and fully worked up as they say these days, but never really responded to the treatment. Kinder to let nature take it’s course. She wasn’t paying.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” a teenage girl in a light green overall stood in front of him.
“No, not really.” She disappeared behind an imposing wood staircase and a mature lady in blue took her place. “Nice to see you again, doctor.” I visited the nursing home regularly as part of my duties, “Not the best of circumstances I’m afraid.”
“True. These things happen.”
A young man in a smart suit came down the stairs and joined them.
“Matron, this is Dr. Miles.”
We stood side by side. Dr. Miles looked anxious and appeared to be checking out the carpet’s floral pattern. I wondered what he’d found down there that was so interesting. These youngsters could be so shifty. You knew where you were with colleagues of your own vintage, usually with a knife in your back. He coughed, straightened his back and fixed his sights on something indeterminate in the distance.
Matron touched Dr. Miles on the arm, “Dr. Walker would like to know how his aunt is.”
“Yes, sorry. I’m afraid she’s in a coma. Probably won’t last the day.”
“No need to apologise. It’s been expected.” I turned, picked up my coat and walked out of the front door.Pausing at the end of the drive next to a sturdy stone gatepost, I turned up the collar of my coat against the autumn weather. A storm was brewing. I realised I’d not said thank you.
Auntie Gladys was not the last of her generation, nor the first to pass over, but as my dad’s only sister, I sensed the thin end of the wedge. At least, she’d ended up on Nob Hill. Recognition for the seventy years or so she’d spent muddling through the food chain. From meagre to grand in six short weeks. She’d certainly the figure for it.
Gladys and Reg, my dad, had been born and raised in the next village to the nursing home. Today there was no distinction, just a main road, but in 1920’s it had been them and us, plebs and patricians, workers and the bosses.
I’d always had an interest in sketching out the family history, keepinge a note of snippets dropped casually into conversation, intending one day to include them in a formal account. Gladys was the eldest, born just before the first World War. Dad came second, just after. According to my mother, when Gladys was asked what she wanted her younger brother to be christened she replied Reggie and Reggie went on the birth certificate. One of my teachers refused to put Reggie down on some document or other. It can’t be Reggie. Must be Reginald. Well if you say so I thought. Dad always refused to discuss it, conferring a deeply silent black look on anyone who tried to. The same black look appeared regularly during my childhood, for good reason sometimes, and sometimes not. Dad didn’t talk much about his own childhood, though he once admitted that my grandparents had been strict. They rented a greengrocery business near the town centre where Gladys and Reg had to stand at the dinner table to eat. I once came across a 1915 greetings card from France. Grandad must have been there during the war. It addressed Gladys as his sweet little darling, signed Da.
Auntie Gladys and Uncle George had been part of the fabric of my life before I left for university. My first memory was of them living in a district that now would politely be called rough. Then it was fashionable enough. Council housing. Rented, but lots rented in those days and lots bought their own during the Thatcher years. Long terraces with greeen spaces front and back. A little bit of country in the town. Most people made an effort to turn them into gardens. The house had five rooms with a staircase leading up from the front door. Only ever opened for the doctor. Everybody else came in through the back kitchen door.
Our family had a visiting rota. Every Sunday tea someone would come to us or we would go to mum’s sister or to Gladys and George’s. Same meal. Cold meat salad, bread and butter, tinned fruit and carnation milk. Move all the furniture back in the main room and open up the loose leaf table. Only differences were the house smell and the colour of the dishes. Gladys had pink plastic pudding bowls and the house smelled of liqid you put down the toilet to freshen it up.
George’s’s son, Gordon, had the spare room. He also had a James Dean haircut, a loopy greased coiffing forever needing a comb. He must have moved out when Granny Walker, Gladys and Reg’s widowed mother, moved in. A brief bout of leukaemia and several openings of the front door. An Irishman with syringes mixed up with fluff from his tweed jacket. She was eventually admitted to the hospital. An imposing pillared frontage with a statue on a plinth and the names of the worthy in gold lettering on the entrance hall wall.
I remembered the Sunday morning dad was unexpectedly called away. Kitchen still damp from the weekly wash and the smell of Sunday dinner on its way.
‘Granny Walker’s dead,’ I informed older brother.
‘Crap,’ was the reply. But she was. I wasn’t allowed at the funeral. Went to the tea afterwards, in the upstairs room of a pub. Beef in gravy with all the trimmings. I was impressed, as any primary schoolboy was impressed by food and football. I’d often tried to picture how dad had taken it, but nothing came to mind. Mum said he’d gone as quickly as he could to the hospital but when he arrived granny’s bed was empty. ‘It upset him a lot’, she said. I would never have guessed.
Gladys and George had in a small business in The Market. Along with The Town Hall, a large grimy stone building of civic pride. Hundreds of rooms and corridors, steps, doors, big spaces, little corners, shadows and bright lightbulbs. They had a shop on the side street and a studio up in the attics, separated by one hundred yards of cobbled street and ten flights of stairs. Gladys had worked for the previous tenant. She would have still been at home with Gran and Grandad Walker when he died and she must have taken over the lease. I didn’t know when or where George arrived on the scene, but he came with Gordon whose own mother lived in The Midlands. Gordon had a brother of no fixed abode between long spells on a merchant ship. Rumour had it he had children in Newcastle.
The business flourished so they took on a mortgage and moved. Another five rooms, semi-detached, but more of a hall and landing. They took their pink pudding bowls with them. And, they got a car. Three gears, sliding doors and seats you could adjust. Daytrips entered the Sunday rota. I remember going to Southport beach. It was the day before older brother’s ‘O’ levels. Mum said if he hadn’t learned it by the day before then he wasn’t going to learn it then. Fast stream at a boys’ grammar school. Destined for Oxbridge. I couldn’t see the problem. Older brother already knew it all.
Two significant things happened to me that day. I batted for hours at cricket on a perfect hard packed sand wicket. Whatever they chucked down at me I negotiated safely or swatted toward the sea several miles away. The other glorious event involved Gordon’s girlfriend. I caught sight of her bare left breast as she was changing out of her swimming costume.
Along with their prosperity, Gladys and George’s Christmas presents took a turn for the better. I got a two-storey garage with a lift that really worked. An army tank and a transporter. A punch bag on a stick that whipped back and smacked the unwary. The pearler was a space gun that fired plastic darts tipped with suckers. Lick them and they’d stick to anything. You can’t give a lad a present and not let him play with it. I knew I must have been clueless as usual, totally unaware of the gathering storm. ‘Watch out’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘Be careful’. And then bull’s eye, perfect contact in the middle of dad’s forehead, brilliant, and everybody falling about laughing, trying not to look at dad who hasn’t seen the funny side. Another black look. I kept the gun, but the darts went missing.
It was hard to see what had attracted Gladys to George. He wore a leather harness down his back and between his legs. A war wound dad said. He seemed to be all made out of corners, particularly in his preferred black double-breasted blazer with regimental badge. Even in a sweater his corners didn’t soften. Never without a collar and tie. Arthur wondered if he ever went to bed in them. His straight wiry grey hair was raked back and, despite cream, refused to conform to the contours of his head so the ends at the back became spiked. With chubby cheeks and yellowing teeth he had a devilish look about him. Two weeks every year, in winter, he went blue and breathless and wouldn’t let Gladys get the doctor.
George had fads and a habit of not finishing things. Gordon said he couldn’t even finish a cigarette. Smoked forty Senior Service a day, scorch marks on all the shelves and long trails of ash in the trays. Rose bushes planted and overgrown, goldfish pond covered in unpleasant green slime, a greenhouse with glass overlapping so the rain and the wind blew in, the latest tape recorder, big TV, an organ, a cine camera. Dad said Gladys tried to keep her eye on him, but he simply bought loads of stuff for her as well, mostly chocolates. Hundreds, thousands of them, in huge presentation boxes. Sort of thing that’s around at Christmas time Gladys had every week. He must have had a standing order down the tobacconist. It was one of those shops that shared entrance with the one next door. Right into the tobacconist and left into the sweet shop. Right to be engulfed by the smells of St Bruno and Twist and left to pear drops and chocolate.
George played the violin. I had a go at school, so we’d play together after tea on Sundays. Rousseau’s Dream. The rest of the family were deaf or meditating or something. I didn’t keep at it. Too many strangled cats and football was more important. I was never selected for the school orchestra.
It wasn’t just the chocolates that made Arthur smell a rat about Gladys’s diet. Everyone at some time will have reached across the dinner table for a morcel that had tasty and eat me written all over it. But Gladys did it every meal, always for the fatty bits. The greasier and bigger the better, enough for an eskimo. I assumed she had always been massive, but photographs of her as a younger person didn’t bear this out.
As I got older so Sundays got longer and more boring. The women would get the tea and wash up. Older brother went to church, which was an excuse to see his girlfriend. Dad and George would talk. I did none of these and even if I was allowed to watch TV, which I wasn’t, it was the god slot. Relief only came when everyone gathered for Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
It wasn’t boring every Sunday. Depending on the time of year and the weather, I could play out with a soccer ball. There was no room around the rented terrace, but the new house was out in the country, opposite a hockey club. No members there on a Sunday to tell him he couldn’t and the goals were a good size. Then a friend of Gladys’s said he could join an organised game down on open ground in the middle of an estate nearby. Older boys and men, but a few lads. The star attraction was the manager of the local town team. Bill Shankly, played professional in the twenties and went on to be a half decent manager of Liverpool. I couldn’t punch any weight but was skilful enough to win praise. Pity I couldn’t go every week.
Football was the reason to get up in the mornings. Impromtu games wherever there was a bit of space for two sets of coats. The year I took eleven plus, the school formed a team and joined the local league. Proper practice on the pitch after school dinner. No kit to start with. I borrowed a shirt from Gordon which laced up at the front. Couldn’t afford too much in the way of boots. Cork studs, half of them missing after the first game. But Christmas and birthdays were helpful. Eventually I swapped folded up newspaper and magazines for shin pads, and red stockings replaced old pairs of darned grey school socks. Big for my age, I commanded the right back position. Solid, dirty according to many left wingers, but not the referees, and I could pass and kick a dead ball a fair way. He never crossed the half-way line. That was for the dribblers, the good players. Won promotion to the first division. Knocked out in the semi final of the cup. Pie and peas, jelly and ice cream and Hopalong Cassidy films as a treat one night after school. They gathered behind the goalposts every other Saturday to watch ‘Town’. They walked to the ground where dad gave me the ninepence for the lads’ entrance. The players were legends and I could recite the team sheet. I dreamed of being just like them.
Only three out of the team went onto grammar school. Mum said I’d never have passed without it.
‘What are the arrangements?’
‘Crem at 3 o’clock and a ham tea back at The Co-op.’
A standard J. B. Priestley then, I thought. Gordon and my dad had managed the arrangements so far. They were now waiting for the vicar. Gladys had never been religious, but it was still the done thing.
‘What kind of person was she?’
‘She got into business and did well. Managing stock, advertising, attractive shop window, helpful to the customers. Our Joan here,’ indicating my mother, ‘worked for her.’
‘Yes. Fifteen years. It was all very new when I started. One of two shops in town, as well as the chemists. It needed the artistic and technical side, so she sent George off to night school. It was his hobby you see. That’s how they met. He was a customer.’
The vicar paused, weighing things up, ‘I don’t mean to pry, but my notes refer to Gladys Walker. Who is George?’
My mum and dad exchanged a rueful glance. Gordon chuckled, ‘My dad,’ he said, ‘He died a while ago. Never divorced from my mum. Gladys took his name but it wasn’t official.’
‘Brought you up as her own though,’ said dad.
‘I see,’ but I sensed the vicar did not see. Gordon hadn’t said anything that explained anything. I knew that Gladys had done everything she possibly could for Gordon, particularly when they first moved in together. A teenager, lifted from one life and catapulted into another, a school in the wrong part of town, no levels and no prospects. Gladys cared for him and got him off to evening class. A role in the business, marriage, a gushing wife and a son Richard. Not a blood relative but still a proud grandmother. Gordon had always been great with me, a snotty nosed schoolboy after all, and I had looked up to him. Football was the link. Gordon had been good enough to sign forms as a goalkeeper with a team in The Midlands, but it lost momentum with the move. Dad said he’d been a bit stubborn as well.
‘We can manage that,’ said the vicar. After some discussion about hymns and readings he left, followed shortly by Gordon.
‘Gladys never had a family of her own then,’ I asked.
‘Well there was a good reason for that.’ said mum looking across at dad who looked gloomy but didn’t interrupt. ‘George was a cook during the war. Served in the middle east. That’s why he was always spouting arabic. Typical George, nothing to do with guns. There was an accident in the kitchens and a serious injury. Pensioned off and had to wear this dirty great leather harness down his back between his legs. Gladys had to put it on for him. We never knew, but we thought it might have had something to do with the break up of his first marriage. It seems when Gladys and George started a life together there was an understanding he couldn’t have more children.’
‘But there were other things going on. She left home to set up with George in her mid thirties. She’d been her dad’s favourite and it looked like she was going to be the daughter that stayed at home. Dad took it bad and mum crossed Gladys off for a while. But dad was the worst. His darling shacking up with a married bloke. Not what he’d expected. It wasn’t long before he died, when you were born. One in, one out. Death certificate said Cardiac Infarct. Sixty years old. He was portly and smoked but his heart was broke for other reasons too. Gladys carried that around. She was a stout teenager and young woman. We were a stout family, but she ballooned after dad died. Tried all sorts of diets. Doctor set her off smoking would you believe? She kept the smoke in her mouth, never inhaled. It was a waste of time like the rest of them. If only she’d been as good at counting calories as she was at business. Mind you they spent it all, enjoyed it during the good times.’
You move on. Negotiate the difficult third and fourth years at school when you fancy the girls and hate the books. Spend too much time at the youth club and the local park. Then get your head down in the sixth form. Get a summer job. Working for Uncle George in the attic studio, helping Gordon develop and print, watch the drier going round, finishing off the black and white prints. Mum served on in the shop, as I did Saturday mornings. Dad helped out upstairs in the summer when there was too much work for George and Gordon. Adrienne did a bit. Was that where Gordon first met her? They then fell on hard times. Competition, colour photography and so on. Not keeping up with the trends. I think dad loaned them money. Quite the reversal of fortune.
I used to make mistakes in the studio, like leaving my paperback on the drier. The prints came out with black smudges and George couldn’t work out why. The pay was dire, but I wasn’t getting a lot elsewhere.
I used to make mistakes in the studio, like leaving my paperback on the drier. The prints came out with black smudges and George couldn’t work out why. The pay was dire, but I wasn’t getting a lot elsewhere.
The market was condemned as a fire hazard. Pulled down and replaced by a concrete box. Civic pride no longer. Gladys and George moved into new premises, but the business didn’t flourish. There wasn’t enough coming in to keep pace with costs and there was a lot more competition. My mum and Gordon left. Debt replace profit. Asset turned into liability. Time to retire. Not a lot left after selling the house and business. They rented a high rise flat, eleven storeys up, reachable by lift. Still five rooms but the lounge had a helluva view. Good move for an obese lady living with a respiratory cripple. He actually changed to a pipe and then gave up smoking altogether. Sunday tea carried on with the pink plastic dessert dishes. George liked watching the Sunday afternoon cricket on TV. He died suddenly here, eleven storeys high. Aortic aneurysm on the death certificate. Taken to the new concrete hospital. State of the art replacement for the marble pillars, stone statues and gold letters. I was in Cardiff and took time off to attend his funeral. 1973 or so.
Funerals just are, or those in the Walker family just are. To be endured. The crematorium was in a fashionable suburb of town. We started from Gladys’s high rise rental, a select party admiring the lounge view. Older brother had come. Richard, Gordon’s son, looked like he’d been hit by a bus. Gordon quiet and pale. Dad had to prompt him, ‘The cars are here Gordon. Best get organised,’
‘Yes,’ and he opened the front door. Hope the lifts work I thought. Gordon sat with the coffin. The rest followed. Black limo’s. Well within the speed limit, a tight schedule to meet the crem’s timetable. Mostly not on the main roads, a council estate to negotiate first. I recognised some of familiar landmarks near New College, alongside some uncomfortable memories. What’s happened to your results? You used to get good marks. Spending too much time playing out on that building site. You should know your lessons as well as you know the adverts on tele. Who is that girl you’re walking out with? The adolescent hiccoughs settled enough for me to get good levels. Then it had been one campaign after another. Mum and dad got off my back. But then someone else got on. You got rid of him and yet another climbed up. Exams, bosses, interviews, disappointments, successes, deaths. Being punch drunk must feel like this I thought. Gladys had always seemed happy enough, though one of her favourite sayings had been ‘Death where is thy sting?’
‘There’s the nursing home where she was,’ said dad. Then onto the main road for a couple of miles followed by a turn up a wide road flanked by grass verges, pavements, high hedges, and glimpses of roof and chimney tops that suggested exclusive mansions. At the end, it was left through the entrance to the golf club and right to the crematorium. Quite a choice. Long waiting lists for both.
Right at the end. Stragglers from the previous event were walking up the long sweeping drive through sparse autumn gardens. So quiet. A good turnout. I had no idea who most of them were. A dire oration from the vicar. How could he have done justice to someone he’d never met? But then they hardly heard it. My dad was an atheist. Older brother a cynic. Mother a lapsed presbyterian. None of it made sense. Then the curtain closed with the final hymn and we were away down the long exit.
Gordon went in search of Richard who’d disappeared into the gardens, leaving my dad to say thanks to the congregation and invite the long-distance travellers back to the Coop for tea.
Gladys died owing money which my dad paid off.
(Some of the information in this is speculative, but it has a ring of truth. Did Gladys and George actually move in with Granny Walker? They lived at Sheepridge. Previous address was the grocer’s shop on Leeds Road. Did Granny Walker live here alone when Frank died (1943). She died around 1954. Frank’s upset with Gladys is fiction. Though it could have been true.
Gordon divorced his wife and then she died. Gordon is still around, last time we heard. Richard was musical and taught kids how to play instruments in a local private school. Sadly he got caught making advances or some such to the kids.
George’s disability was said to be the result of the war. I vaguely remember something about X-ray treatment and he was a funny shape. Did he have ankylosing spondylitis?
Auntie Mary, Uncle Ray, Colin
Highlands Avenue, Almondbury. Above the main road as it levels off at the top of Somerset Road. Enough above to need steps which began next to a public convenience. A long stone terrace. Small back garden which could just about stand a game of cricket. It was part of the rota for Sunday tea. Ham salad. I didn’t like lettuce but I had to eat it. On a put up table that filled the main room. Three people don’t need much room do they during the week? Sunday tea was a bit of a squash. They had a massive cupboard with a sliding glass front. Everything in there. Snowstorms and spoons, little Blackpool Towers. Next to the fire was the place where Ray kept his policies. Mary said he was forever dusting them. It was meant to be funny.
Mary was one of mum’s older sisters. A seamstress. Good at meringues. She held her right arm awkwardly, like it was too heavy. I realised later she had the ‘Porter’s Tip’ or Erb’spalsy, a legacy of the midwife stretching the shoulder during Mary’s birth. Nerve damage and all the muscles it supplies were thin and didn’t work. The final posture was ‘I’ll be leaving you now.’
Ray was large and red-faced. He worked for the council, in accounts I think. Can’t have earned a lot. I got his overcoat when he died so I know how big he was. I got some of his shirts as well. The sleeves were all too short. Auntie Mary had done something to them. Ray must have been an odd shape too. His red face came from the war when he’d served with the desert rats. He went to Huddersfield Town’s home football matches every week. He and Mary tripped off to the cricket a lot in summer. On a bus with a shopping bag full of food. His home team was Almondbury which was just down the hill. He drank one Long Life beer out of a can at Christmas. I called in during the week as part my roaming. Thirty minute walk from Beadon Avenue. There was always pop in the pantry. A back kitchen that overlooked the garden cricket pitch.
In the 1970s, after Ray died, Mary moved into the village centre above the shops. There Colin found her one day peaceful. Colin is over ten years older than me. He went away to university in London. Never sure what he did and never got to know him. Served in the RAF. He married a teacher called Pat from Chingford I think and they set up in a flat near Blackheath. I visited once after the rugby league cup final. Eddie Shoesmith and I stayed with Richard Backhouse at Imperial College. Colin and Pat had a nice set up and no kids at the time. A young girl trapped her fingers in the door of my compartment – an older style with no corridors. Managed to open the door before the train set off. Could have been my fault?
Colin got at job at University of Huddersfield. Eventually a prof no less, Human and Health science. Well known for his book called Real World Research on methods like the case study, questionnaires and interviewing and now to analyse the results. In the 1990s, I spent some time with him on research projects. He was always helpful and remote. Pat was more lively. An English teacher at Greenhead who became a novelist. She helped our Chris out with his English. They had a boy and a girl – my goddaughter though I’ve never been any good as a godfather. She wrote books too. I don’t know what he did but he lived near Brighton with his family. Colin and Pat now, 2017, live in Bath. Colin is also a Huddersfield Town fan.
Auntie Nora, Uncle Jess, Pat and Barry
By the time I came along this part of the family had moved to Coventry. They did come back, usually around Christmas. Jess was a sheet metal worker from Liverpool and Coventry was one of the beating hearts of car manufacture. He was short, bald and opinionated. Nora was the other older sister of mum’s. She had an endearing habit of repeating everything she said, just the once. I’m uncertain whether she knew she was doing it. We visited Coventry several times, usually by train. I think we went to Nora’s daughter’s, Pat’s, wedding. It was the year of the Asian flu – 1957 – and I was in the middle of a bout. Mum and one other, could have been auntie Mary. Change at Stalybridge, Stockport and Crewe. Missed a connnection somewhere. Great for a train-spotter. More old fashioned carriages. Unconnected single compartments and no escape from the smoker sat opposite. I also spent a couple of summers with them on my own. Early teens. Another train, change at Birmingham. The attraction was paddling a canoe on the Avon at Stratford, alongside a large building with balcony overlooking. They lived on a big estate, streets and streets of terraces, much like any suburb. Nora spoke northern, Jess harsh Scouse and everyone else a mild Birmingham. She threw their waste food onto a pile across the road at the back of the house. The local pig farmer collected it regularly hopefully. She and Jess had Pat and Barry. He worked for Michelin tyres I think and well into middle age had strange cradle cap. It was never talked about. He married Iris and I was best man. He had a heart attack and died about three years ago. I think they had children but I couldn’t say how many. Pat married Sid and there’s a family dynasty now. Sid had a bad stroke, heavily dependent for ten years or so and Pat was a brick looking after him. Nora moved to Kenilworth when Jess died. He smoked a lot and his dockers were massive.
Coundon, the district where Norah and Jess lived was also home to Coventry RUFC. In the 1960s and 70s before the leagues, they were hot, dominating the Warwickshire county side and plenty of English internationals. We played them at Waterloo and lost.
Warwick/Kenilworth was a destination for grannie and I on the canal boat but we never called in on the family.
Pat met another carer during that time Sid was highly dependent, a man, and I think they are an item now that their respective partners have died. He’s minted.
The building on the river Avon, I learned later, was the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.