Friday, 9 September 2016
A Decidedly Constant Narrative - by Bernard Hendy
My Grandmother Margaret Reardon married Edgar Constant in 1905 when she was nineteen years old and soon after gave birth to their first child, also named Margaret. Their second child Nellie was born the following year at some stage during the hop picking season. Nellie was to become my mother. She often told my sister and myself that as a very small child she could remember that the family home was a makeshift tent on the edge of a field. At the time we only half believed her, though my research in recent years has proved this to be absolutely correct. Theirs became a large family. Catholicism, ignorance, amazing fertility and agreeable natures were the combined causes of this and most of the Constant prodigy entered the world at the same time each year. Thus in the fields, hop gardens and the orchards of North Kent, to which the entire clan migrated for months on end each year, was delivered an eventual live litter of ten girls and three boys. Nellie was the only one of the brood, however, who drew her first breath atop of several bushels of springy, aromatic flowering hops. With the advent of mechanisation such an event could now never be repeated, at least not without considerable discomfort to all concerned. Nellie had followed her sister Margaret into a world of uncomplicated agricultural routine and they were rapidly joined by Martha, Maud, Rose, Phyllis, Violet, Freda and Edgar, not to mention others whose names are long forgotten by both my sister and myself and several who died at birth or soon after. At least two were squashed as new-borns when Gran rolled over onto them in her drunken sleep. Others succumbed to the dreadful childhood illnesses of the times. Despite the attrition there was still a sizeable number of children left to feed and clothe and life could not have been easy situated as they were at the very bottom of the social heap. There was no Social Security except The Workhouse and life dictated that they somehow had to earn a living and the annual harvesting of vegetables, hops and fruit was a lifeline for them. All else was secondary and nothing as trivial as the registration of births was allowed to interfere. Such matters could wait until the family returned to the grimy streets of Dartford and Crayford at the end of the various seasons. Owning neither clock nor calendar, and being totally illiterate must also have hindered my Grandmother and perhaps alongside the undoubted mischief there existed also some degree of genuine confusion. She conformed to a routine dictated by the seasons and the weather but most of all by the absolute necessity of spending all available time engaged in earning money. As a consequence she complied with the legal niceties as and when she could which invariably meant when the hop picking season, the final rural industry of the year, had come to an end in late September. To counter interrogation by any overzealous Registrar she would deploy a simple strategy of confusion and sleight of hand. Many a strapping, brown skinned infant was dangled momentarily beneath an official’s nose before being whisked away again whilst the entire Constant brood looked on with carefully cultivated expressions of poverty and pathos. She learned to sow utter despair by answering in the positive to every question asked of her. `Yes – a week ago’ and `Yes – she’s got a lot of teeth.’ Sooner or later the frustrated victim of this duplicity might even suggest a date himself just to get rid of them all. In a flash Margaret’s blank vacancy would transform into a smile, `Yes that’s right Guvnor…..that’s when it was. I remember now …’ and so the impasse was overcome. A testament to the persuasive power of a raw peasant guile. By this method did thirteen of Margaret’s shaky black ink crosses appear upon the legal documents of the period. My mother’s younger brother, Edgar must have been born at a completely inconvenient time because his registration never took place at all. As a result Edgar became first of all a family secret and later, as he grew to adulthood, a non person. In the eyes of the Law he simply did not exist and for the entire duration of his long and mostly happy life he was denied both the benefits and the protections of the Welfare State. He was never required to attend school for example which gave him a massive head start in the employment field. True he never enjoyed such blessings as Social Security and the NHS but he claimed that not being required to participate in the Second World War was a huge plus for which he was eternally grateful. Whilst others of his generation were giving their all to combat the evils of National Socialism, the youthful and energetic Edgar devoted himself unselfishly to combatting loneliness and want on the home front. He made a great many female friends whilst making tidy sums on the Black Market. The Constants were indeed a wild and unruly bunch, uncontaminated by the honesty and integrity of conventional working class society from which they stood apart. Whilst his wife engaged in encouraging the children to live by their wits, Grandfather took a more traditional stance and originally worked as a labourer where he could do so, finally and astonishingly, making his way through the labour market to become a prosperous wet fish merchant and haulier with his own `fleet’of two lorries. Unfortunately strong drink, an interest in horse racing and a touching faith in his fellow man meant that eventually he worked his way back down to where he had started which was disappointing. Sadly this demise was aided and abetted by a sizable proportion of his friends and relatives who were enthusiastically engaged in swindling him. It seems that he was a kind hearted man who could never bring himself to press for the recovery of a debt from a poor person or even to remind them of their indebtedness. I suspect that he knew only too well how it felt to be unable to pay and told himself that he would get his money in due course. As he was never known to refuse a plea for credit the inevitable consequences of his benevolence were, despite his entrepreneurial ability, personal disaster and poverty. Photographs of Grandfather Edgar show him always smiling and happy – a man with little dress sense, with trousers held up by lengths of string and so I suspect that economic ruin bothered him little. He was most definitely a man who liked a drink or two, beer merely serving to enhance his natural generosity. There are no tales of him brawling or even losing his temper although he was inclined to wreak retribution on those he felt deserved it. One such occasion was the time when he distributed fish heads to stray cats outside the house of one Ebenezer Puckett who disliked cats intensely and was not impressed. Ebenezer was unwise enough to remonstrate with Grandfather who responded by upping the daily supply of fish heads to felines as close to the Puckett residence as was possible and finally on the front lawn and doorstep. In the early days of his business Edgar would walk from Crayford to London arriving at Billingsgate just after first light to buy fresh fish. He would then push an old pram full of fish back to Crayford where it was hawked around the newly emerging council estates and sold mainly `on tick’. His enterprise was rewarded and very soon the pram became a barrow and then a horse drawn cart and later on a lorry. The girls were all roped in to help in the family enterprise. Nellie took the money, Margaret did the wrapping and the youngest knocked on doors. Once, in the early days, he arrived home at the end of the day empty handed because nobody had paid him and he had let all the fish go on credit. Gran took to him with the poker and that day the girls saw him hunched against the back door crying uncontrollably. It is true to say that although the Constant children feared their mother and were at all times wary of her, they loved their father unreservedly, be he drunk or sober. Margaret and Edgar were an odd match. Theirs was an attraction of opposites and Grandmother’s character differed significantly from her husband’s. A secret alcoholic all her life she vehemently claimed teetotalism even on her death bed, despite the evidence of a vast quantity of empty gin and Guinness bottles beneath it and the testimony of two local children who claimed they had seen her lurching towards the local pub only hours previously. Unlike Edgar, drink made her spiteful and vindictive and fired her dishonesty. She lied to get money for alcohol, lied to explain the effects upon her and the family finances and lied to avoid accepting any responsibility for her actions. When cornered she would simply place the blame on others including her own children. She routinely bullied her daughters with threats and violence into supporting her deceit. Her temper tantrums were truly terrible and only her husband seemed to remain ignorant of her true nature and to his dying day he believed in her implicitly and loved her to distraction. Despite her terrifying outbursts of rage and her frightening excesses the children also appeared to adore her and her misuse of them served only to fire fierce competition for her affection. She utilised her children’s love to her own ends, expertly setting one against the other to protect herself. She introduced them all into the use of deceit on a grand scale – against their father, their neighbours, local tradesmen, and each other until it became first nature to them all. She also schooled them in the dark art of obfuscation, enabling each to finely hone this ability over the years to cloud any issue with a veritable shoal of red herrings. They practised substantiating truth with half-truths and ramblings unconnected to the point in question until they were a match for anyone in any situation. Under her malevolent guidance they refined these skills to obtain both her ends and their own. Unknown to her the eldest among her brood used these abilities within the family to establish and maintain a warped hierarchy based almost entirely upon fostering mistrust. Within this set of disturbing circumstances my mother, little Nellie, survived and thrived and rose to dominance. That I ever hoped to entice her to confirm the precise circumstances of something as trivial as my own birth with honesty and integrity was perhaps merely a measure of my own naivety. That I, myself, grew to become a fearful child with a fanciful nature, often challenged by some aspects of Truth was possibly only to be expected.