13: THE WILTON ROAD STORY:
My mother, exiled from the busy-ness of Holborn, the customers and the browsers coming in and going out of the bookshop, must now transfer her interest in people to our neighbours. Opposite to us at No. 14 live the Misses Vernon, Dolly and Nellie, residing in the house in which they have grown into adolescence, maturity and now late middle-age. Their parents and siblings leaving the girls one by one until the two women are left together as if shipwrecked. Aware of the value of money, Dolly Vernon, whom we call always ‘Miss Vernon’, has let the ground floor which means that the parents’ heavy furniture and numerous ornaments must be crowded together in the upstairs flat. Tables, sideboards, whatnots, old clocks, rugs, faded prints in dark frames of sweet obedient Victorian children, simpering china shepherdesses, candle sticks with and without used and unused candles, bowls of all shapes and sizes, the list is endless. All these objects pushed together in this flat where over the years the dust collects to hang over the rooms so that Dolly and Nellie grow older every day in mustiness.
Miss Dolly Vernon comes often into our house for my mother’s proffered cup of tea and toast. She is a short, dumpy figure, her mousy hair worn in a bun, her nose doughy, her complexion high, but the general effect is not unpleasing, for her brown eyes are soft and her manner gentle. Nellie, for some years we know only from a distance as a thin bird-like witchy creature, clutching at the evergreen for support, as she traverses the length of the outside garden wall only to turn at its end and hurry back into the house. We watch her progress from our front window. "She’s got a corset on over her dress!" says my mother. "Miss Vernon says Nellie does it to embarrass her - whenever they quarrel and Nellie can’t get her own way!" I watch Nellie uneasily for her actions smack of infirmity which frightens me. At that time I could not bear to see the odd, the deformed, amputees struggling on crutches, or standing on the remaining stumps of their legs and begging in the streets, twisted bodies in wheelchairs, the blind. These deprived human beings threatened my completeness. "She’s been no farther than the front of the house for thirty-two years!" says my mother. "Thirty-two years!" To me several lifetimes. I look across at No. 14 and imagine Nellie waiting behind the drab curtaining. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, awaiting the ending of youth. The changes of middle-age. The failures of old age. Awaiting death. How could she bear it? What did she do all day in that gloomy house?
"Years ago Nellie used to lie with any old tramp in Lovers Lane" gossips our next-door but one neighbour from No. 13, Mrs. Sarginson (whom we call ‘Mrs. Sargie’). She is sitting in our living-room sipping at a cup of tea. Lovers Lane was an unmade-up road off the North Circular. "It were a scandal" says Mrs. Sargie. In time, my mother hears from Dolly herself the Vernon story. It seems that years before when the Vernons had occupied the whole house they had been a family of mother, father and four children, two girls and two boys. "A brother was killed in the war, in France" my mother tells me and the screen in my head shows him lying on the field of battle. His face is pale, his eyes closed, his arms outstretched, around him gather grieving comrades. Perhaps Sir Philip Sidney himself is there to offer his sacrifice of a drink of cool water: "Thy need is greater than mine":
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried,
No soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.
We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light
And the lantern dimly burning..... (31)
"Miss Vernon’s other brother" says my mother "was wounded very badly and wears a metal plate in his head." I wince and feel my own head to assure myself that its bone structure remains intact. If I suffered a terrible injury and my head was held together by a metal plate, would I be able to think for myself? Could thoughts and ideas pass through metal? I see this brother of Miss Vernon’s as a kind of zombie, but my mother tells me he is married and has children. "He never comes to visit Miss Vernon or Nellie" says my mother. "His wife’s a snob and wants nothing to do with them." I take it for granted that this brother must do as he is told by his wife, for I had heard of a blind man claiming that his wife was his ‘eyes’. This wife must be the man’s mind. My mother continues. "Miss Vernon’s fiancee was killed in the war and that’s why she never married." This is the stuff of romance, but try as I will I cannot equate the stubby Miss Vernon with a romantic heroine. "Their father, James Francis Vernon Esq., was very strict, but he spoiled Nellie because she was delicate." I see a young girl languishing on a couch, dressed in long garments, her hair tumbling about her shoulders. She calls for smelling-salts and they are brought to her in a cut-glass decanter. "So Nellie stayed at home and helped her mother who was a quiet, sad woman, a semi-invalid." On screen: A woman still and faded, lies on the couch alongside Nellie. "Their father was something in the City." On screen: Dark suit, watch-chain across an ample abdomen, bowler hat, furled umbrella. "The mother had money of her own and when she died she left it to be divided equally between her daughters and son." On screen: Everyone dressed in black. The curtains at No. 14 drawn-to. The solicitor reading the Will to the mourning relatives. "Miss Vernon banked her money because she was earning a salary by writing the Children’s Corner and an advice column on a local newspaper." My mother’s voice indicates her admiration for Miss Vernon in undertaking this almost literary occupation. "But Nellie, a week or two after receiving her inheritance, disappeared." Disappeared! The screen flickers. "It was some months before Nellie returned, and she was penniless!" On screen: Nellie dressed in rags and singing in the streets. "Where’s the money mother left you?" her father and sister demand. "Tom’s keeping it for me" Nellie replied simply "he said I could have it back when I wanted it." Neither Tom, nor Nellie’s money, is ever seen again. "Didn’t they try to find him?" I ask. "I dareseay they couldn’t risk too much of a scandal" replies my mother. "A scandal would have ruined the family’s good name." I recognise that we are back once again at sex outside marriage and suppose it fortunate that Nellie had not landed herself ‘in trouble’! "Mr. Vernon, the father" adds my mother "decided that Nellie was weak and couldn’t be trusted with money, so he changed his Will. Everything was left between Miss Vernon and her brother, with the proviso that Miss Vernon, the younger of the two girls, take care of Nellie for the rest of her life." My mother’s voice shows her disapproval of this arrangement for in this manner were the two sisters locked together. And Nellie completely dependent upon her sister.
However, if Mrs. Sargie is to be believed, for some time after these events, Nellie continued to walk the neighbourhood, making her way down Colney Hatch Lane and across the North Circular to Lovers Lane. Maybe she is sure that one day she will find Tom waiting for her and together they will walk off into the sunset. Instead, she finds passing travellers, itinerants on their ways from one place to another, and each one plays his part in regaining for her the ecstasy she had known with Tom. Her journeys to Lovers Lane are of hope and serendipity. What later makes her cease her wanderings and shut herself away in the house? Continual disappointment, tiredness, illness, disillusion, bitterness? Who can tell. But this is not to be the end of the Vernon story.
Mrs. Sarginson was a countrywoman, a comfortable body who bustled in and out of our house, offering assistance and advice. She wore her grey hair screwed back, her complexion was high, her nose beak-like resembling that of the green budgie which flew about her living-room. Her father, a poor farm labourer, had resented every morsel of food his children fed into their mouths. "It’s time she put her feet under someone else’s table" he had grumbled when Mrs. Sargie was but ten years old. And at the first available opportunity she had been put into service. "The children of the house taught me to read and write" Mrs. Sargie tells us. She claims to have had virtually no schooling, possible I guess in an isolated country district where the provisions of the various 19th century Education Acts trod softly into force. Over the years Mrs. Sargie progressed as a domestic servant, to be employed by County families. "Edward the Seventh used to visit one house I was in when they held balls, big occasions. Me and the other maids watched over the banisters. It were lovely" she says. I hear the horse-drawn carriages draw up with a clatter and see the ladies entering into the mansion to remove their long velvet cloaks under which they wear long satin dresses. Their hair swept-up and beautifully coiffeured bearing diamond tiaras. Around their throats jewelled necklaces....golden bracelets, rings set with precious stones... The men in black evening dress, starched white shirt fronts, bow ties, long coat-tails. I hear soft voices and laughter. All in a kind of haze as the music plays and the company move to the Blue Danube in a dream-like Hollywood sequence beneath the sparkling prismatic chandeliers. "I had to show my mistress my diaper with blood on every month" Mrs. Sargie tells my mother "to prove I weren’t pregnant. All the maids had to do that, in all the houses I were in."
Mrs. Sargie, and her husband who is a bus conductor, have one son, Guy, born on a Guy Fawkes Night. Outside Mrs. Sargie’s bed of pain, and throughout the land, beacons burn, effigies in the red and orange flames are consumed and fall to ash. Fireworks explode reverberating in and rending the cold night air to shower the darkness with golden sparks. Golden rain, whirling wheels, shooting stars of green, purple and scarlet! To be born on such a night! It was difficult to equate the lanky, slightly stooped man peering through wire-rimmed spectacles with such a magnificent entrance. However, there must have been more of the 5th November burning in Guy than showed on the surface, for against parental advice he married lively and fiery Mariella, her long hair black, her complexion dark and in her ears dangling gold rings. Guy and Mariella have a baby son named Alan, about whom Mrs. Sargie worries constantly. For Mariella’s next door neighbour, a Mrs. Jones, had told her that when Guy was working on late shift, Mariella would go out all dressed up and leave the baby alone in the flat. Sometimes she heard him crying. Mrs. Sargie had made up her mind not to interfere in her son’s marriage, but tentatively she asked Guy whether Mariella sometimes went out on an errand in the evenings, leaving the baby alone. "She wouldn’t do that!" he replied shortly and Mrs. Sargie does not know what to believe. But it is not too long before we are to find out the truth of this matter.
Mrs. Sargie tends to malapropisms and always speaks about knitting her son a ‘gherkin’. This gives us a vision of a green pickled cucumber emerging from her knitting needles, so that we are almost disappointed when she exhibits the finished article and we find it to be no more than a plain, dull jerkin! My mother is often amused by this novel use of words, but hides her smiles out of politeness and in admiration for Mrs. Sargie’s good nature. For it is Mrs. Sargie who goes into the Reeves who live in the downstairs flat in No. 11, taking with her a shovelful of coal, a tin of soup, a loaf of bread, a few vegetables.
The Reeves family had moved into No. 11 two or three years before WW2. Mr. Reeves is unemployed, but his wife earns a little money from home dressmaking. The remnants from orders she makes into dresses for her two small daughters Sylvia and Shirley, so that the two blonde curly-haired children are always beautifully dressed. "He lies in bed most of the day" Mrs. Sargie says in disgust, speaking of Mr. Reeves, a man of middle height, his shoulders broad, his arms muscular. "I were in there this morning and she were in tears. There weren’t a scrap of food in the house, nor coal, it were bitter cold in there. She’d wrapped the little girls up in blankets! She’d got a bruise on her cheek and she didn’t say, but I’m sure he hit her." During the war, the Reeves are to cause my family problems and a great deal of anger, but at this time we know them only to nod to and pass the time of day over the garden fence. And, of course, from Mrs. Sargie’s account of their lives.
Our next door neighbours at No. 7 are the Lazenbys, separated from us by a right of way, the intention of which had been to allow the dustmen and tradesmen access to the back of houses from Nos. 1 to 7. Chestnut fencing marks off our garden from this grassy strip entered by a high wooden gate facing Wilton Road. A gate which the Lazenbys keep locked so excluding us from entering. My mother grumbles that on buying the house we had been promised the right to make use of this strip of ground. Often I and Oonagh scale the chestnut fencing and lay claim to this land, only to be chased away by Mrs. Lazenby, whom we call ‘Old Vinegar’. "Get back on your own side!" she snaps. Her mean mouth hissing. Her small eyes angry. Her long thin figure towering over us. Quickly we climb into our garden and once on our own side shout in fury "It’s a right of way. My mother says we can play there. It doesn’t belong to you......." She makes no answer, but triumphantly passes through the gate which forms part of the high fence which surrounds her garden. "Old Vinegar face!" I shout. With what glee we read the name of the Lazenby house, declared in gold letters on the glass above the front door ‘Foulden’, and from our point of view, she couldn’t have moved into a house with a more appropriate name! We, of course, separate the syllables: Foul Den!.
I have no memory of Mr. Lazenby, but my mother who gleaned information from the air, tells me that the Lazenby grandfather had been a trade union official for the Railwaymen’s Union. "And now his son and son’s wife are Tories!" My mother could never understand these transmogrifications. Sometimes now I wonder whether the Lazenbys were in reality the family of old Samuel Lazarby of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants who had walked Fairbridge Road so proudly, on his head a high hat. The Lazenbys have one son, Peter, a small blonde boy, a little younger than me and older than Oonagh. A lonely child, he stands in ‘no-man’s land’ and watches us through the palings of the fence. But because of his mother we will have no truck with him.
At No. 41, in the upstairs flat, live the Pearces, husband and wife. That is the old No. 41, not the postwar house which replaced it. And sometimes I wonder whether the present residents feel the presence of the former home, the rooms at times seeming to take on different sizes and altered shapes. Do they lose their way down a passage, or find themselves in the wrong room? Or conversely, had the old No. 41 ever felt insubstantial to the Pearces, the new house shaking it apart as it grew up in its midst? Or had Mrs. Pearce ever sensed the children of later generations making their home in the space of her flat - the children longed for by her, but denied? Mrs. Pearce I remember as a tall, over-thin young woman, dark hair, green eyes, long dangling ear-rings and a face on which the expressions were mobile. Mr. Pearce of stocky build, average height and ruddy face. The Pearces make local children welcome in their home and Twi visits them often, so that I am jealous. After all, it is I who live in Wilton Road! At last Mrs. Pearce invites me and Oonagh to tea. We sit at a table next to a window which overlooks the back garden - to be the scene of the future tragedy. I look out at the tall line of poplars in the background, each one at that time standing firm and straight as if they are soldiers on guard. We eat bread and jam, cakes, drink lemonade. Mr. Pearce smiles at us and Mrs. Pearce shows us her collection of long ear-rings of all colours and shapes, and lets us try on shiny bead necklaces, gold and silver bracelets.
At the last house in Wilton Road, No. 94, live the Spurgeons, a stage family and the son and two daughters are all dancers. Mrs. Spurgeon herself being an old trouper. How my mother admires Elsie and Marie as they walk with a dancer’s lilt down the road. Their backs straight, their legs moving from the hips. My mother sees her might-have-been if only she had been allowed as a girl to join Hayley’s Juveniles. As she watches the pasing-by of the young women, my mother straightens her own back and holds in her stomach. For a time I attend ballet classes in the Spurgeon home, held by Marie, the younger and taller of the two sisters. A fair-haired friendly girl, slim and long-legged. Elsie we watch from a distance for she has no interest in neighbours. Her face over made-up, her nose in the air.
Above one of the shops in the parade in Colney Hatch Lane, the back windows overlooking the yard off Wilton Road, live the Willis family. From our back garden we can see the Willis flat rising with those alongside, chimney pots, windows, back doors leading to flat roofs, dwarfing our small suburban houses. Eva, a girl small for her age with straight short brown hair and wearing glasses, enters the front door behind which are the stairs leading up to the Willis flat, by pulling the key attaached to a length of string, out through the letter-box. Mrs. Willis, a small, dark, pretty woman had lost Eva’s two younger brothers within a week of each other - one from diptheria and the other from scalds. The little boy having fallen, or climbed into, a tin bath filled with boiling water before the distracted Mrs. Willis could add cold water. For the flat was without a bathroom and water was brought from the floor below. I can barely comprehend this tragedy. Two such small bodies to drift onto the pile of history. Covertly, I watch Mrs. Willis for an ineradicable mark which set her apart from more fortunate mothers. Eva, for a year or two, remains an only child, but then a baby girl named Freda, for her dead brother Fred, is born. On meeting Mrs. Willis in the street with the baby, I say blithely "I bet you hope what happened to the other children doesn’t happen to her." Then I turn away in confusion. I have spoken out of turn. Mrs. Willis, a pleasant, gentle woman, is taken aback, but says nothing.
At another time, I take Eva’s education in hand. Having learned that all my friends and acquaintances apart from Eva have learned how babies are born, I try to explain the process to her. She doesn’t want to know. Isn’t interested. Eva, the only one of us whose mother has been recently pregnant. I am determined that she shall learn the facts of life and put a book written on the subject for children through her letter-box, pushing it past the the string and the key at its end. A book showing illustrations of spermatozoa and ovula, the foetus developing the the uterus and the struggle of the baby down the birth canal. Mrs. Willis returns the book to my mother. She is not angry, almost apologetic as she tells my mother that Eva refuses to look at the book. She does not want to know about the process of conception and birth. Does she know then that she, when married some yers later, will give birth to a chiild with cerebral palsy? A photo in my album shows Eva, my sister and me together with Ena Macfarlane, standing to the front of our open shed at the end of the garden, a shed which we call a theatre. My sister and I wearing my mother’s dresses hitched up in the middle by a belt, Eva and Ena wrapped in curtain cloaks. Here we play games which we call ‘plays’ and on one occasion my sister and I, having recently seen the film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act out the film, taking all the parts, and watched by visitors to our home!
We climb also onto the the flat roof of this ‘theatre’, sometimes taking a chance by jumping up and down, for my father’s hasty building methods have left it unsafe. Two small pale faces watch me from the upstairs flat of No. 11, and I wave to these young daughters of an Austrian family, refugees from Nazism who are to live there for a short time. My parents take an interest in this deeply unhappy and unsettled displaced family who bring with them an air of desperation. My mother, having visited their flat, tells me that they have barely a stick of furniture, the children sleeping on a folding camp-bed and the parents making do with mattresses on the floor. As winter approaches and with no warm clothing, the two children become prisoners in the flat.
My mother knows Mrs. Macfarlane only to nod to and perhaps pass the time of day when meeting in the street. Mrs. Macfarlane, a tall woman with light brown wavy hair and a mouth which twists cynically, is wary of us Lahrs, we are not what she is used to. But she has no objection to Ena, an only child, spending hours in our house. Ena can be a bit of a madcap, her movements quick and often unrestrained, however, she will settle for the day with Oonagh and me to play Monopoly. On one such occasiion, when we have sat at our living-room table in front of the board for several hours, my mother complains that we have had no ‘fresh air’, and so the three of us run across the road and back again claiming. "We’ve had some fresh air" and get back into our game. At another time, I have assured my mother that we have been given a day’s holiday from school. My mother, unsure about this, sends me across the road to check with Mrs. Macfarlane. I stand in the Macfarlane porch and then return to tell my mother that Mrs. Macfarlane has agreed that today is a school holiday. Of course, I am found out. My mother has met Mrs. Macfarlane in the street and she says "no", I have not knocked at her door. She knows nothing of a holiday. My mother is furious. Not because I have missed school, but because I have lied. She hates liars. I am ashamed. After that, I creep shamefaced past Mrs. Macfarlane when I meet her in the street.
The day’s holiday takes place in the followeing week, for one saint’s day or another, and as a punishment my mother delivers me to the Convent. The nuns receive me with an expression which tells me that they are aware of my sin - venial, but a sin nevertheless. I spend this warm, sunny, day on a daisy covered lawn in helping the boarders to clear away the sweet trimmings of May blossom from a Hawthorn hedge. Nevertheless, it is a punishment to be exiled for the day from home. A photograph of me on this same lawn, dressed in white and standing second in a line of children, is shown on page 131 of Highgate and Muswell Hill: Compiled for the Archive Photographs Series by Joan Schwitzer and Ken Gay (pubd. Chalford 1995). The small child sitting on the ground, I believe to be my sister, Oonagh.
Over the years, even when I am an adult and have left home, I am to hear from my mother stories and snippets about neighbours’ lives: The woman in the bottom flat of No. 11 whose partner, a married man, has deserted his wife and children on her behalf. She finds a second lover and becomes pregnant by him. "Guess what! She’s living with two men!" says my mother. The woman throws out the first lover, but the second lover leaves her. The first lover, whose wife refuses to take him back, kills himself by carbon-monoxide poisoning, sitting in the back of his car to breathe in the fumes from a hosepipe run from the exhaust. And my mother, like me, brought up on morality tales, feels that this is a fitting punishment for this woman whom she finds rude and unpleasant. There had been a dispute over a tree. One of the soldier poplars had fallen in a storm. An occurrence which reminds us of the Pearce tragedy. The tree decimates everything in its path, including part of the fence and our peach tree, which is never again to bear fruit. My mother, intent upon helping, offers to claim for the fence on Lahr insurance. "What do you think we’re doing!" the woman snaps impatiently. "We’ve got our own insurance." Her look at my mother is one of suspicion. When the fence is renewed, not only the part broken is replaced, but the whole length of fencing. "She thought I wanted to claim and do her out of some money!" my mother says angrily.
Mrs. Ridgeway, Miss Vernon’s downstairs tenant at No. 14, who locks her little boy in a dark cupboard when he is naughty. However, there is a problem. "The little boy likes being in the dark cupboard, so she’s got to think of another punishment!" my mother says wryly. I shudder at this tale. To be locked in! All alone in the dark! My worst nightmare! When I see the little boy out playing I look at him with respect. Mrs. Ridgeway’s mother, Mrs. Walker, like her daughter tall, thin and yellow faced. Mrs. Walker runs Vi’s Cafe at the Orange Tree, Friern Barnet, and one Christmas attempts suicide by putting her head in the gas oven. This because her frequent borrowings from the Christmas Club saved by her on behalf of customers, had dribbled all the money away. Attempted suicide is to become a residential hazard at No. 14.
Our involvement is not entirely in the immediate environment, for frequently we have visitors to our home from the world outside. My father on becoming friendly with a customer in his shop invites them for Sunday tea. Often not telling my mother about the expected guest until the day in question, when she panics, hastily constructing a salad and what we would now call ‘a buffet’.
For years, Bob Mauker, whom my parents refer to as ‘the wireless boy’, a man in his early thirties, calls upon us at least once a week and often twice, or more. He spends his time in tinkering with our wireless housed in a home-made wooden box and run by accumulators. On each visit taking it apart and then putting it back together again. Therefore, our wireless is in a constant state of flux, thus proving the theories of Heraclites. Unemployed, this is how Mauker spends his time. Mauker had first been wished on my mother by my father when they lived at Roseberry Crescent. "A boy’s coming to put a wireless together for us" announces my father. While, at that time, Mauker, born in London the illegitimate son of a German girl, tinkers with wires and accumulators, my mother sits reading. I, her infant daughter, am abed and my father is out on business of his own. She feels no compunction to entertain him. For to pull a wireless apart, and then, like a conjuror, to restore it as if it were his world, is for Mauker entertainment enough. These visits continue until war is declared, when Mauker is one of the first to enlist and comes to see us dressed in Air force uniform. He walks me up the hill to the Convent and I feel proud for my schoolmates to see me with an airman!
A second regular visitor is Joe Cohen, a chemist. Dark curly hair, small of stature, sallow of complexion. He arrives every Saturday evening armed with a 1lb bar of milk chocolate. After a time, we become bored with this excess of chocolate, and so my mother melts it down and we drink it as cocoa. My parents and Joe Cohen spend the evening in playing cards, a game called Hearts. Sometimes, when Oonagh and I refuse to lie in bed and invade the living-room where the adults play their hands, the card table is set up in our bedroom. Unknown to all of us at the time, as Joe shuffles, tuberculii microbes are at work tearing apart the lungs in his slight frame. When Joe dies, my mother is distressed, but she shudders at the realisation that she has brought her children into close promimity with a contagious killer disease. She runs her fingers down the light-brown wall-paper in our bedroom and then, holding her hand away from her, hurries to the bathroom to scrub the hand clean.
My parents’ friends, can be divided into the literati, the left-wingers, the lame dogs and customers for whom my father has a liking. Several falling into more than one category and a few into none. While I am astute enough to determine the differences in acceptable behaviour at home and school, unless warned otherwise, I assume that visitors to the house share my parents’ political views. This leads me into error. For instance, with regard to the Boylans. This-aged husband and wife are frequent visitors, he with grey mutton chop whiskers and wearing a dark suit and tie, white shirt, broad-brimmed black hat. She, dressed in a long frock of indeterminate colour, her grey hair worn in a neat bun. Tortoiseshell spectacles across her face. My sister and I like Mr. Boylan for on each visit he gives to us a shilling and immediately we run up the road to spend it at Torrys which stocks also a few toys. With one of these shillings we buy a tin drum and my mother grumbles at such waste, for a shilling would buy the ingredients for a meal. "He means you to give the money to us" she says. However, we have a child’s view of our parents parlous financial state and so we continue to spend the shillings on ourselves. Mr. Boylan plays the piano and on one such visit he sits at our Stromenger to play Marching Through Georgia, to which I sing the only words I know:
The land, the land, God made the land,
The land, the land, the land on which we stand,
Why should we be beggars with the billets in our hands,
God made the land for the people....
My mother becomes agitated. She calls to me and my voice wavers and then dries up. I go over to her. "Those are the wrong words" she whisspers, one eye on Mr. Boylan at the piano. Later, she explains that the Boylans are conservative church-going Catholics and all mention of politics should be avoided while they are in the house. As it happens, Mr. Boylan is a diabetic who falls into comas while he and his wife are out shopping. If they are in separate stores, she tells us, she waits hours for him unaware that he is being ambulanced to hospital. Until worried at his prolonged absence, she at last wanders the streets, to ask passers-by if they have seen a small old man with grey whiskers and wearing a black broad-brimmed hat.
I wander to your graveside,
And place each flower with care,
For the Husband I love so dearly,
Is peacefully sleeping here.
I read on a gravestone in Finchley Cemetery. Gay Taylor has called upon us and Oonagh and I have taken her for a walk. We enter the cemetery through a hole in a broken fence in Coldfall Woods. For slim, tense Gay winds in and out of our lives and we take her for restless walks. The headstones are heaped around us, white and shining, marking out the individual gardens under which the dead lie mouldering. We wander here often with my mother who in January 1970 is to end her days here. However, when a child on one of our visits to this cemetery, I spoil for her a phantasmagoric love affair. My mother, longing for romance to overshadow the realities of her life, had invented a phantom lover named ‘John’. Kind, attentive, rich. She and I make up stories about him and my sister listens. One day, or once upon a time, while wandering in the cemetery I notice a new headstone, the name of the deceased etched deep into the stone. John -. "John’s dead!" I say teasingly to my mother. "Look! Here’s his grave!" She blenches. I have killed him for her, reminded her of unromantic inevitability. We never play the game again although in reparation I try to substitute a ‘Rudolph’ equally kind and rich, but my mother rejects him. And ever since John has followed me to cast his shadow. However, I say nothing of this to Gay in whose life romance has figured too largely.
One long-term affair entered into by Gay was with Alec Bristow, also an aspiring writer and a customer in my father’s bookshoop (32). A tall young man, brown haired and smooth complexioned, some years younger than Gay. He is to marry eventually a young woman who following WW2, and having produced six children, is to write articles for the Daily Express to complain bitterly about the difficulties of bringing up a family under a Labour government. Before the planned wedding takes place, my father advises Alec to warn Gay of his impending marriage. But she takes Alec’s letter badly for she sees him as bragging of his intended betrayal. I meet the new Mrs. Bristow only at a distance. The Bristows live at Barnet and my father who takes invitations to call as if they are meant, insists that Mrs. Bristow would welcome a visit from my mother. We take the bus to High Barnet and in the heat of the summer traipse along several side roads. At last my mother asks a passing postman for directions, which he gives, at the same time passing to my mother a letter for delivery. On arrival, we see a woman sitting at an open upstairs window, a baby in her arms. "We have a letter for you" my mother calls out, holding it out and looking upwards. "Put it through the letter-box" is the curt reply. A reply which sounds so final that my mother does not know how to proceed with the visit. Therefore, we leave and trudge back to the High Road and the bus which will return us to Wilton Road.
Alec and his sister had been orphaned at an early age. His mother dying as the result of a kick received from an anti-suffrage yob at a suffragette street meeting and his father dying soon afterwards. Left in the care of a solicitor, the two children are sent to separate boarding schools. However, part of the holidays they spend together in the house of the solicitor’s two maiden sisters. "Wasn’t that Alec Bristow I saw in your garden?" one of these two old ladies, both now living in Sutton Road, ask my mother on meeting her at the shops. "Ask him to call on us." My father relays the message to Alec, but he refuses such contact. The solicitor had swindled him and his sister out of a substantial inheritance.
For a time, Alec is the Zoo Man on Children’s Hour radio. Desperate to retain and advance his position, he gives my father the answers to the programme’s quiz, together with a request for the competing child to name their favourite programme. My sister and I to reply ‘Zoo Man’. I demur. "I might like something else better" I say to my parents, who are a little shamefaced at involving their children in this subterfuge. However, as I rarely listen to Children’s Hour, I know of nothing better. In due course both my sister and I each receive a prize of a box of chocolates.
Rhys Davies visits us occasionally, a gentle spoken man bringing in his train the argumentative, devious characters from the Welsh Valleys who swagger down Wilton Road. And while Rhys visits with us, their sharp challenging eyes watch us from the four corners of the room. I show to Rhys an unfinished story which I have written in response to urgings from my parents. I never finish them and spend most of my efforts on the illustrations. Rhys, having little knowledge of a child’s interrupted span of concentration, expresses surprise and disappointment over my sparse entry, so that once again I feel guilty. At another time, Rhys calls upon us to find my sister and I performing the rites at a doll’s funeral. The broken china doll laid out carefully in a shoe box and a grave dug in the earth of a small part of the garden allowed us by my father. Peter Lazenby watches us through the chestnut fencing, his face pressed against the struts. His light eyes in his pale face following our every move:
And if today my tide of life
Should ebb away,
Give me the sacraments divine,
Sweet Lord, today...
Oonagh and I intone over the grave, dug by use of a metal seaside spade held by its long wooden handle. Rhys the observer sees not only Oonagh and me in this play, but Peter’s vain endeavours to be included. Returning home he writes a sombre short story based on our game (33). Rhys, I always claimed at my beau and said that I would marry him when I grew up. A promise neither of us took seriously, especially Rhys as he was a homosexual.
At another time, I stand beside the piano, violin under chin, wielding my bow. At the piano sits Beatrice Hastings, one-time model for Modigliani and his mistress. Together we work over the libertarian democratic anarchist songs, words and music written by herself. Beatrice, her head of short, straight, greying hair, nodding in time to the music. Her dark eyes flashing, the fingers of her hands giving each note its true worth as she sounds clearly and tunefully each revolutionary word. When she goes, leaving for us a copy of the music, I will turn the page upside down and play it back to front. A possibility that I have only recently discovered. Beaatrice visits us quite often for she is fond of my mother. Frequestly, she spends the greater part of the visit on annotating her grievances against Sylvia Pankhurst. "She’s not coming here again to talk about Sylvia Pankhurst!" I exclaim to my mother when I know that Beatrice is expected. I am never to learn the reasons for Beatrice’s grievances, for by the time I am old enough to ask and understand I am caught up in my own life. It is I who spoil a holiday for Beatrice, so that when, during the war, she commits suicede by gas in her Worthing home, I am sure that in some way I have contributed to her death. Now, when in galleries, I avoid the eyes of Modigliani’s paintings of women with long necks, in case one of them should prove to be Beatrice. For I could not face the reproach in her eyes.
Welcome visitors are always the young Jones, Lawrence and Maud. Lawrence tall, gangling, auburn haired, a librarian who plays the violin. Vegetarian, pacifist, a quiet gentle man, as if the cancer which is to kill him many years later has already sapped at his energy. Maud, however, has vigour enough for two, but as her accent identifies her as a Londoner, my mother’s feelings are ambivalent towards her: "Some of these left-wing people like to sound working-class" she says. Maud had been a dancer and loves ballet, so when we visit them in their Stoke Newington flat she entertains us by exhibiting her ballet shoes. I stroke the long, shiny pink ribbons, wishing the ties on my ballet shoes were not black tape. My mother enjoys this part of the visit, but is not so happy when the Jones introduce us to their pet white rat kept in a wire cage, removing it from its prison to allow the rodent to run back and forth over their hands. In 1940, my mother in my letter to my Aunt Mary, is to call the Jones "good, honourable and sincere friends" and in the same year, Lawrence is to enter Oonagh’s and my lives briefly in the performance of a kindly act.
The brothers Philip and Eugene Lahr visit us several times a year. They are not relatives although they share our surname. In the future, both are to become engineers. Eugene emigrating to Brazil with his wife and two children, Philip to work for the Rockwell Group. At this time they are very young men and while Philip has dark hair and eyes, Eugene’s hair is blonde and his eyes blue. Explaining the difference in appearance between the siblings, my father blithely tells me "their mother Johanna was an anarchist and she had a number of lovers and children by all of them. None of them are really Lahrs." I eye these young men, the fruit of her womb, with interest and envision their progenitors as shadowy men who pass in and out of Johanna’s life while she sits writing pamphlets.
"The journeymen bakers of London are at last making themselves heard, being urged on by the lessons taught by the skilled and unskilled Labour Strike of the dockers, and the sweated tailors in the East End, which showed what can be done if workers are united and organised...do you toil and suffer such lives under these wretched conditions for yourselves and your families, or your masters? Where are the fruits of your labour?...what hopes have you when you are past work?...Have no trust in your Houses of Parliament. The sooner they are turned into a washhouse or bakehouse the better for the workers. I am with you heart and spirit, and will never tire of helping you to a brighter future, where freedom, love and harmony shall reign; where the dawn of the morning shall be greeted with gladness, and work be only a pleasure; and where the burden of life and sorrow-stricken faces shall disappear like a snow-white mist in the morning." (Pamphlet written by Johanna Lahr at the end of the 19th century.)
A little while ago, I asked Oskar Lahr, Philip and Eugene’s brother, about Johanna. "I know very little about her" he says. "She was not my mother. Johanna died when her own children were very small. My father’s second wife was my mother and we were a large family as my father had children by both marriages."
On to Dancing and Playing
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