Gladys and George

This is a duplication of Blod which appears later.

Auntie Gladys and Uncle George were part of the fabric of my life before I left for university – pre 1966. 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, two down and three up. The staircase went up from the front door. Only ever opened for the doctor. Everybody else came in through the back kitchen.

Our family had a visiting rota. Every Sunday tea someone would come to them or they would go to mum’s sister or to Gladys’s (dad’s older sister). 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’e 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, dad’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 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 remember 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 to 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 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 buildings 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 don’t know when or where George arrived on the scene, but he came with Gordon whose own mother lived in The Midlands. He 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 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 nearly caught sight of her left breast as she was changing out of her swimming costume. She laughed because I hadn’t.

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 must have been clueless as usual, totally unaware of the gathering storm. ‘Watch out’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘David 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 hadn’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. I 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. Smoked forty Senior Service a day, scorch marks on all the shelves and long trails of ash in the trays. 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. Rose bushes planted and overgrown, goldfish pond covered in unpleasant green slime, a greenhouse with glass incorrectly 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.

It wasn’t just the chocolates that made me 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. She was massive.

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 he 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 Gladys and George’s rented terrace, but the new house was out in the country, opposite a hockey club. No members there on a Sunday to tell me I couldn’t and the goals were a good size. Then a friend of Gladys’s said I 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 much weight but skilful enough to win praise. Pity I couldn’t go every week.

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.

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 the new market, but the business didn’t flourish. ‘Whitehead’s’ photographers sign could still be seen over the stall until quite recently. There wasn’t enough coming in to keep pace with costs and there was a lot more competition. Dyce’s 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. Good move for an obese lady living with a respiratory cripple. He actually changed to a pipe and then gave up smoking altogether. Still five rooms but the lounge had a helluva view. Sunday tea carried on with the pink plastic dessert dishes. George liked watching the Sunday afternoon cricket on TV. Then he died, Gordon divorced Adrienne and then she died. Gladys eventually became one of my patients but she didn’t last long. Gordon is still around.

Gladys and George were never married.