Monday, 16 January 2017

Remembering To Hate The Greeks

One Sunday afternoon a black taxi swung around the corner into York Road, scattering the big, rough boys like John Dyke and his cronies who were playing marbles in the gutter. The boys ran beside the car as it slowed and finally stopped outside our door, right in front of me sitting sedately on the doorstep reading a book, which was just about allowed by my mother on Sundays during her bouts of pursuing upward social mobility. There was to be `no racing the streets of a Sunday just like it was any old day of the week’. A car coming to our house? Surely not! Out of the taxi stepped three plump women in fur coats, impossibly high heels, and small velour hats each adorned with a feather and a veil. Two were old like my mother and the fattest one was very old like my grandmother. They shrieked at each other in a foreign language as the driver was paid dramatically, with a white five pound note, the first I had ever seen and much fuss was made about the change being handed over in notes. Then they checked the numbers on the doors either side of our house, now surrounded by the interested group of boys who had somehow been joined by a couple of mothers who tried to look nonchalant without much success. I kept my eyes as far as possible on The Further Adventures Of Worzel Gummidge whilst paying great attention to their shoes. A pair of puffy ankles in silk stockings wobbled towards me and I was tapped smartly on the head with a hand laden down with rings. Her nails were an unseemly length and colour for her age. My Nan never grew her nails and my mother’s were bitten to the bone. `And you must be dear little Jean….’ My name came out all wrong from her mouth and sounded more like John. A wonderful aroma pervaded the air around her; this old lady was so impossibly glamorous I was struck dumb and could only nod but by that time my mother had appeared on the doorstep behind me with `….I think you must have come to the wrong place – who are you looking for?’ They told her they were looking for `dear Bernard’ and as Nellie tried to narrow the door space, my father also appeared and then all three of them threw themselves forward and covered him with kisses. I had never seen such a public display of emotion and could only gawp, my mouth open. Later my mother was to describe this scene as disgusting and maintain that their behaviour `turned her stomach’ but at the time she, like me, simply stood and stared. By this time the three women were inside our front room, now suddenly made smaller by the sheer volume of their combined furs and the pervasive fragrance emanating from them was stronger than ever. Inside our house! Strangers simply did not come inside our house. Only family and the occasional close acquaintance were ever allowed over the threshold. Strangers were kept firmly on the doorstep but somehow or other these three alien women – foreigners to boot – were actually inside our front room, the older one by now had settled herself on the arm of the sofa with a kind of thud, her fur coat opening at the front to reveal a shiny red frock that seemed to me so beautiful it could have been a bridesmaid’s outfit made for a very stylish wedding. At some stage in the next few minutes my mother ushered me upstairs, pulled my grey skirt and pullover off me and out of the wardrobe came the lemon cotton summer dress recently bought at Gravesend Market that was supposed to be saved for going to church and for visiting. I was hastily re-dressed – clean white socks, hair brushed. She fluffed up her own hair, dabbed some Velouty for Beauty on her cheeks and pushed me downstairs again. The three women were still in the front room, now all seated with coats off, hats still on, the younger two also garbed in bright silk and adorned with strings of glittering beads. They perched on our drab and dreary 1930s three piece suite with easy self assurance like a clutch of exotic birds, filling the room with an unfamiliar thrill of excitement. I began to observe them with growing enthusiasm, already rehearsing the stories I was going to tell the girls at school about their glamorous lives. My father had recovered his composure and was talking animatedly. My mother’s mouth was set at a grim angle. One of the younger women hugged me and told me I was a `beautiful little girl’ and greatly heartened by this I asked her if she thought my new dress was pretty and added that I was wearing it because she was a very special visitor. My mother pinched my thigh painfully as I said this and told me to speak when I was spoken to and not to interrupt grown-up conversation. The woman who my father said was my new Aunt Philomena, told me that my dress was very lovely and she was humbled that I should wear it in her honour, and that of her sister (my new Aunt Mariella) and her mother who was not an aunt but a Madame Something Very Foreign. I became much more chatty at this stage and told my new Aunts that they were wearing the most beautiful dresses I had ever seen (except at weddings) and they must have come from very expensive shops and they all laughed and again said how truly sweet and clever I was. My mother then called me into the scullery to `help’ her make the tea and hissed: `…you just button your lip for once or I’ll give you what for after they’ve gone!’ So I reluctantly buttoned my lip and with very bad grace because there were so many questions I wanted to ask. Who were these extraordinary women and how could it be that they knew my father so well? Just how did he get to be on such obviously good terms with foreigners who dressed in silks and furs and paid their bills with five pound notes? Later in the afternoon I was sent across to Troke’s Corner Shop because they were the only people for miles around with a telephone, to ask them to telephone for a taxi to take us all into Gravesend to the Nelson Hotel where they were staying and where we were all going to have a cooked tea! Only my brother was to be left behind, with Mr. and Mrs. Bessant next door. The Trokes were very interested. Who are the three ladies? How do they know your Dad? Are they friends of your Mum as well or just your Dad? Did they write and tell you they were coming to visit or was it a lovely surprise? I was thrilled to provide information that was later to incense my mother and truly make her `blood boil’. `The three ladies come from a country called Greece and they’re my new aunts.. They met my Daddy during the war. They’re just Daddy’s friends – not Mummy’s. Their visit is a lovely surprise!’ For the very first time in my life I rode in a motor car. A huge black shiny taxi that had to make two trips to get us all to the hotel. The old lady with many dramatic gestures insisted on paying for it. The excitement mounted as we sat in the hotel lobby whilst one of the new aunts negotiated a table in the restaurant for us all and a chair with a booster cushion for me. My mother, by now changed into her Sunday best black taffeta dress, also worn for funerals, her black Cuban heeled shoes and wearing crystal beads, looked more and more miserable. My father in his demob suit looked somewhat overconfident and strutted a little saying he had heard the food at the Nelson was extremely good to which she responded in a loud stage whisper that she wasn’t hungry and anyway her stomach was churning and she wouldn’t be able to keep a thing down so to tell them not to waste their money on her. The restaurant was quite the most dazzling place I had ever been inside with tapestry wallpaper and glass chandeliers and a very sombre atmosphere. The narrow tables were covered in starched linen cloths and each place was set with a considerable amount of heavy silverware. There were napkins rolled up and secured with silver bracelets. I had never seen such glamour before and I was entranced. I was allowed to choose what I was going to eat and was urged to choose chicken because it was very special and only normally eaten at Christmas time. Then I ate something called a Peach Melba which was a tall glass filled with tinned peaches and ice cream covered in a delicious jam sauce. A bottle of wine somehow appeared on the table which the foreign women shared. My mother of course only drank lemonade and my father ordered beer. Poor Nellie looked more uncomfortable than ever and sat mostly in silence eating very little. After a while the new aunts stopped trying to draw her into the conversation and instead reminisced with my father about things that had happened during the war when he had apparently, been great friends with them. Sometimes they spoke in their own language – and sometimes even my father spoke some of this strange language! They began to bring photographs out of their lizard skin handbags and these were scrutinised with care over cups of Nescafe coffee. There was a lot of laughter and as it grew dark and the evening drew to a close, there was also a great deal of kissing and hugging and tears from the younger women. We did not go home in a taxi. We waited for the 496 bus and while we were waiting it began to rain a soft, seeping drizzle that relentlessly soaked through our Sunday best clothing. My mother kept up a non stop diatribe in a low voice, waiting at the bus stop, on the bus, on the walk down Springhead Road, all the way home. `I never thought I would live to witness the day you would show me up like that. Shown up I was in front of the `ole street, in front of all me neighbours. I’ll never be able to `old me `ead up again after wot you’ve done. Fancy `aving to put up with yer `usband’s fancy pieces coming and knocking on me door – and on a SUNDAY if yer don’t mind! And not just one of them – three fancy pieces- THREE! – three tarts all dolled up in fur coats and silk stockings. And the way they carry on! All this kissing and cuddling in front of people! `ow `ave they bin brought up that’s wot I’d like to know. You’d catch things from trollops like that. And the old girl as well – sixty if she’s a day and all dolled up like a spring chicken.. I’ve never seen the like of it in all my born days. And on a SUNDAY! I can’t get over the nerve of them – coming into my `ouse, stepping on all me mats, without so much as a please or thank you. Coming into me front room and sitting on all me chairs in their fur coats and their silk stockings and their painted fingers!’ After the visit of trio who came to be known as The Greeks and who never visited again, the relationship between my parents got much worse, the arguments and insults more frequent, my mother’s tears more or less constant. She never had to be reminded to hate the Greeks and as the months passed I often thought about the strange new aunts in their bright shiny frocks, their high heeled shoes and the heady, piquancy that wafted about them, a fragrance tantalisingly reminiscent of both bluebell woods after a violent rainstorm and heavily spiced bread pudding fresh from the oven. The neighbours asked me about them: Old Mrs. Bessant next door – `Has your Dad heard any more from those Greek friends of his dearie?` Mrs. Bedford from across the road – `When are your foreign relatives coming to visit again?` Mrs. Troke from the corner shop – `Has your mum had any news from those friends of your Dad?` And to each one of them I replied: `We get letters from them every week and next summer I’ll be going all the way to Greece for a holiday at their big house.` Whether they did send letters or not I cannot recall but I do know that my mother deftly steamed open a fair amount of mail before resealing it and placing it in front of the mantelpiece clock. Sometimes my parents did not speak to each other for days and my father would come back from his shift to be greeted with a vacuum of quiet. His dinner would be placed before him, eaten quickly, then he would wash and change and disappear `off for a walk’ and he stopped taking me, or even the dog, with him.

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