Grandma and Grandpa on their wedding day. I search their faces for clues about where we came from.
Why are we the way we are? Tall, stubborn, argumentative? Our father was tall, but a quiet man. Probably the talk and strength came from Grandma. In their wedding photo Grandpa Maurice is seated, cropped dark hair and a moustache that surely says something about him; it has long filaments catching the light for about three inches. But his round brown eyes seem innocent of vanity.
She, Herself, as they say in Ireland, is standing at his shoulder. Thick brown hair piled up in an Edwardian style, a broderie anglaise dress, with a small waist, a plumey hat and shining rimless spectacles. One says instantly, ‘What a handsome woman.’
In her family, Grandma was known as Aunt La. We lived in her house. I didn’t know this for a long time, but in the early days it was still polished and shining under her rule, with the garden, the chooks, the stained-glass bluebirds round the front door as clean and bright as they were meant to be. Later on, my mother, who had so many children, and who liked talking on the phone and reading books, had let things slide. She had Mrs Jacobs to dust and wash the lino. Mr Harrington to mow the lawns, but no one waxed and polished and fed and watered like Grandma.
On Sundays, visitors came to see her. She made scones and strong tea and they sat at the big table in the billiard room, with the light shining green through the glass and talked and laughed. If I could, I’d hide under the table and listen, very quietly. Dinny Downes told about the time he threw a dead rat in a Persil box on the steps of Parliament house (they all hated the Government). Aunt Moy told about Uncle Joe’s wake in Ireland where they had him sitting at the head of the table and pulled his arm with a string, so he saluted every time they toasted him. They talked about Sinn Fein, but I didn’t understand that. And sometimes Grandma would tell stories about the Banshee who came shrieking round the house when someone died. Other times she’d talk about Changelings, where the fairies took the real child and left one in its place the parents could never love. I remember wondering if perhaps I might be a Changeling.
Grandma was responsible for a big change in my life. She and I had to share a bedroom. My bed was blue iron, the wallpaper pale brown with little wreaths of roses. Before Grandma came to bed I used to read under my quilt with a torch. My books were often scary and then in the night I had bad dreams. I was down in the tunnels under the world and an evil little girl with long scratchy nails would come and pull my arm and try to get me down into the red dark. I screamed and tossed and turned and Grandma had to climb down from her high bed and pat my back. She couldn’t sing much, but I remember her deedling, ‘Dee deedle dee, dee deedle de dee,’ in an Irish sort of tune. When I heard that I’d settle down a bit.
My mother didn’t know what to do with me. I was in so much trouble at school and always tormenting the little brothers and sisters and having bad dreams. Grandma suggested she take me in to see Mr Cecil M. Wells, in the City.
I didn’t know who he was. I thought some kind of doctor, probably. But it went like this:
Grandma would put on her best shiny lace-up shoes, I would still be in my school uniform. We walked up to the station. She asked for, ‘One and a half to the city, please.’ She got two square tickets and put them in her glove. Then we had a nice train ride into the city, where we walked one block to the Manchester Unity Building. For the first time in my life I went in a lift, up to the ninth floor. I had to get undressed down to my knickers and put a white gown on backwards. The first time I made rather a fuss. Then while Grandma waited outside, I had to lie face down on a leather table. Then I heard footsteps and saw some shiny men’s shoes under my head. Cool hands on my back, then a press and a twisting crunch that almost took my breath away. And that was it. My first visit of many to a chiropractor. Mr Wells said I had something out of place in my neck that was giving me the bad dreams, and I would have to go for treatment for a long time.
After a few visits I, who was only ten years old, was allowed to go into the City on my own. I bought my own ticket and put it in my own school glove and went into town by myself.
I soon made friends with a girl on the train who told me about the Myer Library, one block further on. And soon I could walk to Myer’s up the escalator to the third floor, get books from Mrs Stewart, the librarian, who became a great friend. She couldn’t believe that any girl could read twelve books in a week and more on school holidays She had to tie them up with string. My mother agreed with Grandma that my visits to Mr Wells were making me much easier to live with, but I knew it was the city, and the library and Mrs Stewart.
Grandma always wore a shiny black apron and her hair was in a bun with two sharp pins through it. When she fed the chooks they’d come clucking up to meet her as she threw down the grain, but she’d kill one as quick as look at it if she needed to. Then she whacked off its head with her axe, and once it had stopped running around, she would sit in her cane chair under the peppercorn tree plucking out the feathers.
I am the only one who remembers Grandpa Maurice, and I can barely remember him. I know he liked singing (as do I) and that he was an Auditor, possibly, The Auditor, for the Victorian Railways. I wish I could hear his voice. I wish I could know how he made enough money to buy the house in Grace Street with stables at the end of the garden, with the billiard room and the bells for the maids, with the flame tree and the bird of paradise plants in the front garden, the pittosporum hedge, the terra cotta tiles bordering the garden beds, the wistaria trellis, the orange trees, the peppercorn trees. I always said I would buy it and live there when I was grown up. But after we had killed the garden and scribbled all over the walls, and Grandma and Grandpa were dead, my father sold it to a man who pulled it down and built twenty-four flats there where our home had been.