Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Getting To Know The Neighbours
My mother always considered herself fortunate to have secured the rental for 28 York Road, Northfleet an area curiously known in the nineteenth century as Barrack Field. She said the alternative had been a flat at The Overcliffe end of Pier Road, Gravesend and she had never really held with flats. `You don’t even get your own lav half the time,’ she added and said that she had never held with sharing such amenities. In York Road not only did she have her very own lavatory but also a little stone flagged yard where clothes could be mangled, hens could be kept and children, should she have any, could play safely. She was not an overly outgoing or sociable individual and so it took time to get to know the neighbours no matter how closely packed together we then lived but she soon became friendly with Old Mrs Bassent at No 27 and when I was very small avoided The Willis family on the other side at No 29. This antipathy involved several nappies my mother claims were stolen but more probably borrowed by the family matriarch who also lived there, one Edith Freeman who was in fact the paternal grandmother of my future best friend Molly. The Bassents had an adopted daughter called Ina who was living in Burch Road, Gravesend with her second husband and her vastly overweight daughter, Evelyn. At various times during my childhood Evelyn, who had a much nicer nature than I did, was my friend and grateful to be so, a fact that fed my ego when I was five and she was six. At some stage after the war, Mr Bassent died and his wife moved out to live with Ina and I never saw her or Evelyn again. They were soon replaced by The Newberrys, Charlie and Mary and two small daughters called Janice and Barbara. When the Newberry girls started school they had freshly washed and ironed dresses morning and afternoon because their mother’s hobby seemed to be washing. Mary Newberry often washed and ironed into the small hours of the morning and because there were no machines to help shoulder the load, her hands were red, raw and blistered. My mother said she brought it upon herself, there was no doubt about that. There were no children at No 26, just Mr & Mrs Morris and their adult son, Norman. Mrs Morris had TB and was described as being a hopeless case by my mother who always covered her mouth with her hand, and sometimes even the corner of her apron, when standing at the gate in conversation with her. I was so frightened of catching TB that I always passed the Morris gate at top speed and without breathing. On one occasion when early on a Monday morning Mrs Morris gave the remains of her Sunday joint to our dog, I removed it from him fearful that he might catch the disease. He was not co-operative and I risked being bitten but I wrenched it off him all the same because in those days even the youngest child was aware of the dangers of TB. The Finch family were at No 24 with their little boy David and later their adopted daughter Nova who my mother said might be the ruin of them because with adopted children you never knew. Mrs Finch did not altogether approve of me because on more than one occasion I encouraged David to play unacceptable games and expose what his mother called his Lily. They later moved out to a new Council house at Erith with three bedrooms and an inside bathroom, close to the trolley bus stop. The Laytons replaced them, Cis with her grown up son Ramon, her second husband Bill and their young daughter Jeannie. Cis was a large and affable person and quickly made my mother her closest friend, swapping paper back love stories and confidences about men that were whispered during their afternoon tea drinking session and which, irritatingly, I could neither hear nor comprehend. Those living further up the street remain a mystery to me although No 19 was I think the residence of May and John Bardoe and May’s sister, Amy. May and Amy were so alike they must have been twins and also in the house were two well behaved girls, Vera and Audrey. At some stage John Bardoe had a work place accident gossiped about locally for months and said by some to be murder although finally whoever was responsible was charged merely with manslaughter. The only other family I recall with clarity was the Banfields at No 7, Doug and Hilda and their two children Pearl and Derek. Hilda strived valiantly to ensure that the children kept themselves a little apart from the rest of us. This was not an easy task but I never knew them to be allowed out playing on the street or taking part in collecting for the Guy. Neither did the family ever indulge in field work, even Hop Picking. My mother even called them Toffee Nosed but that was only after the sad Eleven Plus Affair previously recorded. The Giles family lived further down the street towards Springhead Road at No 30 with several grown up daughters, Ada, Amelia, Edith & Grace. The girls who all looked alike to me, knitted socks for soldiers during the war years and put notes inside them hoping to catch a husband which made my mother sniff disapprovingly a great deal and call them desperate. For one of them at least, this strategy worked beautifully and in 1946 she married a rather overweight soldier whose name I’ve forgotten and rented a house opposite us where on account of her culinary ministrations he gained even more weight. The house I knew best and visited frequently was No 31 where Molly Freeman lived with her big sister Pam and younger brother Georgie. Ivy Freeman was a small woman with admirable posture who always wore high heels. It was rumoured she had been a maid in a Big House and she certainly spoke well and knew how a table should be laid though the family were clearly on the same level of poverty as ourselves. My mother for some reason best known to herself claimed to be scandalised to find Ivy Freeman ordered coke from the Hardy’s delivery man rather than coal though why she thought this was any business of hers is hard to know. She also criticised the family for having newspaper on the kitchen table seven days a week. It should be pointed out that at 28 we had a proper cloth on Sundays which undoubtedly placed us in a slightly elevated position on the social scale. Apart from this, apparently the Freeman children did not have proper blankets on their beds in winter and were allowed to Race the Streets on Sundays whereas I was only permitted to read a library book or play Ludo once I had come back from Church. Naturally enough I envied them. Next door to Molly lived Aunt Maudie Obee who was a very elderly lady dressed always in black and not really anyone’s aunt. She lived alone in her little house surrounded by china knick knacks from days out long ago to Margate and Southend and even grew vegetables and made Parsnip Wine. On one occasion she gave us a bottle to celebrate some major occasion but my mother poured it into an outside drain once darkness fell and told her later it had been delicious. Ernie & Flo Eves lived at No 35 with a grown up son and when our father died she gave Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck soap in gift boxes to my brother and myself and when he lunged towards Mickey, reprimanded Bernard and said he must let his sister choose first like a gentleman. I was greatly impressed. The Hinkleys who repaired cars and ran a taxi service lived at 37 on the corner and always had gleaming black vehicles parked in the small space beside the house. Opposite them was the corner shop run by Hilda Sims and although we saw it as our very own York Road shop I think more properly the address was in Springhead Road. Sims’s Shop sold most things that were available during the war years but later specialised in newspapers, magazines, ice cream and jars of sweets. Molly and Georgie had a weekly order from Sims’s of comics such as Film Fun and Rainbow and their mother took Picture Post and Reveille all of which were later usually passed on to us, my mother protesting each time that it wasn’t necessary. Whilst turning the pages of Picture Post on Sunday afternoons she was often heard to mutter comment that a lot of money was wasted in the Freeman family. Meanwhile, I was more than thankful for this habit of extravagance and vowed that when I grew up I was definitely going to squander money.