We had an old 1930s Morris Ten. It used to belong to a master carpenter who’d converted it from a van into a shooting brake by adding windows and rebuilding the whole back in seasoned timber. I was slightly ashamed of it – to me it was a poor approximation of a Morris 1000 Estate. In fact it was a really cool looking Woody, but surfing wasn’t popular in England back in 1963.
The front seats had been replaced with modern vinyl tip-up ones, and the original front seats, bucket seats they were called, were bolted together, covered with a blanket, and shoved in the back. The vehicle literally weighed a ton. It had big, flaring mudguards at the front, with the headlights stuck on top like backward facing bosoms.
The windscreen wipers came down from the top of the screen and were driven by a big electric motor mounted inside the cab, or if that failed you could work them by hand, using the lever provided. The indicators were illuminated orange arrows that folded out of the sides of the door posts. They weren’t very reliable – if they came out at all they tended to get stuck, and you had to bang the door post to make them go back in again, so it was best to do hand signals as well. It was a family car in the truest sense – the whole family was involved: pulling the lever to make the wipers work, checking the indicators, and either banging the door post or performing hand signals, according to what was required. Other than that it was entirely unsuitable.
We had an accident in it once, coming back from a family outing to Bodiam Castle. The spokes in one of the back wheels had rusted through. They were no longer holding the wheel together. The world went topsy-turvy, there was a big crash, and the thing was lying on its side with us in it. A nice man arrived in a Bedford Dormobile, opened the driver’s door like a hatch, looked down at us and asked if we were all all right. Then we were lifted out to safety. We sat at the side of the road until the ambulance came. My mum was concerned that people would think we were gypsies. Shock, I suppose. We were lucky to be alive – by some miracle none of us were hurt, except my mum who had cuts all up her left arm from the broken glass.
It was pretty sensational – the old Morris lying on its side like that. A policeman threw earth over the road to soak up the oil, then a bunch of strong men set to and pushed the thing upright where it did the best it could, lame in one back wheel. It came back to us a week later with new glass in the windows and all the dents knocked out. The spokes had been repaired too. Which was just as well because we were going to Oldham in it.
I was sworn to secrecy about the accident because it might worry Grandma, it might set her off.
It took an awful long time to get to Oldham. The Woody/Brake/Morris Thing did a top speed of forty miles an hour and was really only happy cruising at fifteen. It took two days, and we had to stay in a bed and breakfast hotel in Kenilworth. We had an itinerary, specially prepared by the RAC. Why we couldn’t be in the AA like all the other boys’ dads I just don’t know. We even met an AA patrolman somewhere on the way. My dad seemed to know him and they had one of those boring conversations that seem to last for hours when you’re a kid.
Why did we have to be in the RAC? Dinky did a really good AA patrolman on a motorbike with sidecar, just like the one we’d met in the lay-by, but they didn’t do an RAC vehicle. I don’t think Corgi did either, though Matchbox might have done.
When we got to Oldham it was just like Coronation Street, which was just like they said it would be. Grandma in Oldham was a bit of a disappointment. She lived on her own in a gloomy terraced house with a front door that opened straight off the pavement – 68 Orme Street. The streets where I came from didn’t have names like ‘Orme’. There was something infinitely depressing about the word ‘Orme’.
Grandma in Oldham was a widow. Her husband, Walter, died not long after I was born. Unkind relatives said she nagged him to death. They said she wore him out with her hypochondria. Over the next few years I grew to – I can’t say hate, because I don’t believe in hatred, I can’t think of anyone that I actually hate – but to loathe and despise Grandma in Oldham. For now, however, she was a mere disappointment.
I don’t really remember much about that stay in Oldham. My cousins had adenoidal mouths and big teeth. Grandma took us to a cemetery as a treat. She was a very morbid woman. We had to go into a crypt. There were a lot of panels, which were actually drawers with names and dates on them. One of them said ‘Walter Goulden’ followed by a date. The one next to it was blank. Grandma smiled, ‘That’s where they’ll put me when I die.’ It was only a small drawer and I wondered how they’d get her in there.
When we got home I told my mum all about it. She was incensed. ‘Imagine,’ she said, ‘showing that to a nine-year-old.’
After that, visits from Grandma in Oldham became a regular event, or occurrence as she would say. She came to stay on the flimsiest excuse. One year she came to measure the teapot because she was knitting us a tea cosy. Holidays came in two measurements: Just The Ten Days, and The Full Fortnight. Grandma stayed for the Full Fortnight.
When she’d gone home the resentments all came out and the rows started – she’d driven my mother mad while my dad escaped to work. He didn’t know the half of it – the old besom always made trouble. She sat in the kitchen all day, chain-smoking Park Drive filter tips. She smoked and smoked and smoked, and as she smoked she talked and talked and talked. Grandma in Oldham had two major obsessions - death and anything to do with going to the toilet.
While my mum tried to get the lunch ready Grandma would recount the tale of some lingering illness that resulted in hideous death and a funeral:
‘…and when we got to the cemetery all the Co-op Bakery bread vans were lined up, and as the procession passed through the gates they all sounded their horns and flashed their lights’.
‘Why did they do that, Grandma?’
‘Oh,’ she smiled, ‘it was the girl that iced the cakes, she died.’
My dad always came home for lunch. He washed his hands and face, sat down and ate, went in the bathroom and brushed his hair. He came back and drank a cup of tea out of the saucer, because it was too hot. By this time he was late for work because lunch hadn’t been quite ready because Grandma in Oldham wouldn’t shut the fuck up and my mum couldn’t think straight. Then he’d roar off in his Volkswagen beetle. Back to work in a bad mood. I was always there because Grandma invariably came to stay during the school holidays.
It seemed to me that any time I walked into a room she’d be in the middle of saying, ‘and then he died...’, and my mum would be making polite listening noises, ‘Oh’, and ‘Oh, really?’ and ‘Mmm, aha’, trying to keep the lid on the mounting tension that erupted from time to time with a hissing ‘Christ!’ or ‘Bugger!’ addressed to the inside of the oven.
Grandma in Oldham was at her worst in the mornings. Her arrival was heralded by the flushing of the toilet. Then the shape of Grandma would appear behind the frosted glass panels of the kitchen door. She’d take forever to turn the handle and open it. You could hear the springs in the lock moaning in sympathy. And there she was – wearing a dark blue pac-a-mac over a blue brushed nylon nightdress, topped off with a hairnet. It was as though Death itself had just walked into the kitchen. She always wore the pac-a-mac because a dressing gown would have taken up valuable space in her suitcase. The suitcase was huge – heavy with floral print summer frocks, pink and blue Trivera two-piece combinations, denture glue, and for all we knew, her own tombstone.
‘Morning,’ she bleated – never Good morning – that would have been too positive. Being a well brought up boy, I’d spring up, put the kettle on and offer her a cup of tea. She lived on tea, drained it down by the pot-load. Cold, stewed or two hours old, any condition, it didn’t matter. The Oldham contingent were all the same in that. They’d burst through doors, all teeth, gums and lips and go, ‘TEA?’
But Grandma didn’t always want tea first thing – particularly if she’d had A Bad Night. A bony, arthritic hand would descend on my shoulder and Death would say, ‘Don’t worry about me, love, your grandma’s feeling a little bit hazy this morning.’ She’d put a tremble into the word ‘hazy’, and swoon ever so slightly.
One morning she staggered into the middle of breakfast and announced that she’d just left half her insides down the toilet. She kept a mental tally of who was ‘on the toilet’ at any one time – never the tasteful ‘in’, always the more graphic ‘on’.
‘Have you seen my dad?’ I’d ask.
‘He’s on the toilet,’ she’d reply triumphantly.
She’d sit down, light up the first Park Drive of the day, and cough all over the breakfast table. And then we were off – one death would lead to another, interspersed with little gaps for appreciation of the distant flushings of the toilet (‘…that’ll be our Doreen...’), and then she’d be on to the pensioners’ club, of which she was Entertainments Secretary – ‘Last week we had a penis. He was very good’.
She was also a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party. The Oldham Conservative Association presented her with an engraved silver cigarette lighter in appreciation of twenty-five years loyal service. The local paper took a photo of her wearing a two-piece and a string of pearls, smiling with all her dentures, and holding up the lighter. She died of heart disease bought about by smoking.
Copyright 2003 & 2016 by Eric Goulden
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