Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The House By The Station In Northfleet

Hamerton Road lay between Station Road and Railway Street and probably still does. It was a hop, skip and a jump from Northfleet Station, so close that you could feel the rush of the trains from the end of Little Nanny’s back garden which was very exciting when the Express careered past headlong towards London. She was actually my Great-great Aunt Martha Irons but I called her Little Nanny because she was very old and very little and because I got muddled up with all the Greats. I was led to believe she was my Grandfather Edgar Constant’s maternal aunt and presumably she had married a Mr Irons but whatever became of him I never knew. We seemed to know very little about her apart from that and the fact that she had at one time lived in the village of Old Betsham, though we had a great deal to do with her when I was growing up. This might have simply been because she lived conveniently close by in Northfleet whereas my mother’s other relatives all seemed to live in Crayford. She visited us regularly every Tuesday afternoon all through the war regardless of air raids and flying bombs. It would have taken more than Adolf Hitler’s fun and games to deter Little Nanny from her walking routine because she had walked every day of her life. She always counted the steps from her house to ours and although I remember them being impressive in number I now completely forget whether they registered in the thousands or tens of thousands. On Thursday mornings we usually walked to her house and then sometimes we all went together on the bus to Gravesend to buy shrimps for tea, or even a crab if my mother was feeling flush.

I liked Little Nanny although her house was rather intimidating to me when I was very young, being taller and somehow more narrow than our own, with steps beside the front door that led down to a dark and mysterious basement where the Bogeyman lived. Later I learned that a fat woman with curlers in her hair lived there and her name was Bridie so I thought she might be married to the Bogeyman or even perhaps his mother. You entered the house directly into the front room just like ours but in Hamerton Road it was always called The Parlour and nobody ever sat in it not even at Christmas. My mother said you would take the Devil by the horns to light a fire in the grate because the chimney had not been swept for thirty years. By contrast our chimney was swept regularly. The Parlour held a great deal of soft furniture covered by dust sheets and several side boards and display cabinets. The sideboards tops were crammed with glass domes under which were a number of stuffed birds and animals. I remember a squirrel and an owl that I tentatively and unimaginatively named Nutkin and Owley. The glass fronted cabinets were home to various china keepsakes from long ago trips to Margate and Ramsgate as well as a grand collection of Bristol Glass Jars that were said to be Worth a Bob or Two. These items vied with each other for space and were too many for me to count. After the war my mother was given the Bristol Glass and I recall her being very pleased and a couple of her sisters sniffing a bit and commenting that they by rights were due to Old Nan.

It gradually became clear to me that although Great-great Aunt Martha seemed fond of me and my mother she was singularly unimpressed with others in the family, most particularly my Grandmother, and my mother’s youngest sister Freda. I knew I was never to address Freda as Aunt because she didn’t deserve any respect but sometimes of course I forgot and then my mother would close her mouth tightly and slightly shake her head in my direction. Freda did not deserve respect because during the war she developed a habit of selling non-existent nylon stockings to Northfleet residents. The money was of course collected in advance of the promised delivery which never actually happened. My mother tolerated this when the sales were confined to Railway Street and Station Road but drew a firm line when it came to Buckingham Road and Tooley Street. Then she maintained she had never been so ashamed in her life and would never be able to hold her head up in Northfleet again. The other reason that Freda deserved no respect was to emerge years later when to everyone’s surprise she unexpectedly gave birth to Baby Susan. Even Old Nan was very nearly Knocked Down By A Feather when that happened. Freda seemed quite pleased with her infant daughter, visiting all and sundry to display her and collecting knitted matinee jackets and bootees at each stop.

Little Nanny never called my mother Nell, like everyone else. It was always Nellie and sometimes even Helen. Somehow this was because she had been brought up Properly and knew how to behave. She certainly presented her four o`clock afternoon teas Properly. Her jam was always put into a little china bowl and you helped yourself with a silver spoon which I never quite got the hang of. Her bread was always thinly sliced and sometimes she made rock cakes that were never like my mother’s whose version always tasted like rocks, or as my cousin Des said, like ship’s biscuits. Little Nanny’s were soft and crumbly and the sultanas were plump and flavoursome. She always poured my tea into a miniature china cup with a design of cherubs that she said were hand painted. I was tempted to name the cherubs but couldn’t think of anything holy enough.

She generally wore black dresses down to the floor and white caps with a lace trim. Her winter coat was black too with a Persian Lamb collar that Old Nan said was probably full of moth and she wouldn’t give it house room herself because she had never held with Persian Lamb. She held with beaver though and once my grandfather had bought her a full length beaver coat with his winnings at Crayford Dogs. My cousin June told me that it was bought second hand and didn’t really count. Generally speaking Old Nan was not welcome in the Hamerton Road house for reasons that were never actually spelled out but had something to do with my grandfather scraping the bottom of a barrel which just had to be endured because not much could be done about it now and after all she was the mother of his kiddies.

Little Nanny could remember things from back in history like when Rosherville had one of the most popular pleasure gardens in the country that had been open to the public for more than seventy years. My closest brush with Rosherville was on the interminable walks back from Gravesend and the presence of a pleasure garden, which I was told was a kind of a fun fair for grown-ups would have made the walk much more bearable had I only known about it at the time. When she had been the same age as me families visited the gardens for the day, coming even down from London on steamers, and because the entrance fee was so high, they brought picnics with them and ate them whilst watching tightrope walkers and firework displays and even a dancing bear at one time. The Gardens had been a magical place back then. I once asked Old Nan if she remembered The Gardens with the dancing bear and she said it had always been a dead and alive place and could get very rough at times. Little Nanny said that was on account of them letting The Likes Of Her inside the gates. It seemed better not to delve into this difference of opinion too deeply and so it was left at that.

As I grew older and Little Nanny’s sight diminished I was detailed to visit her after school once a week to thread needles, always with robust lengths of black thread because her pastime when she wasn’t walking was sewing. She also sewed with an old fashioned machine which she said was going to be left to me When She Went. I wasn’t terribly keen on sewing myself, however, so this promise did not make quite the impression it should have done. She and my mother grew even closer over the years and it was at the Hamerton Road house during afternoon tea that sometimes a great many tears would be shed after the war when my parents ’relationship began to deteriorate. My mother would say that she dreaded getting onto a bus for fear of coming across one of his Fancy Pieces and Great-great Aunt Martha would commiserate and say that she would light candles on Sunday though that didn’t seem to help at all. She also spoke of wanting Helen to move into the Hamerton Road house When She Went and my mother always told her that would be lovely, nothing could be better but later said to me that she was perfectly happy at 28 York Road. This was because after all these years the agents for the landlord, Messrs Porter, Putt & Fletcher, knew her and had her down as reliable. It would not be easy to start again with perhaps a different agent.

The woman called Bridie who lived in the basement with the Bogeyman was also reliable and Little Nanny said she was always prompt with her five shillings a week rent. This was because she was on to a Good Thing for two rooms, a scullery and a share of the outside lavatory and knew which side her Bread was Buttered on. When I stopped believing in things like Tooth Fairies and Bogeymen I learned that Bridie had abandoned her husband who knocked her about when he came back from The Leather Bottle and for the low rent she also cleaned the upstairs rooms occupied by her elderly landlady. Nobody seemed to think she did a very good job with the cleaning but then when you get older and eyesight fails people like Bridie who was a Smarmy Cow are likely to Take Advantage. For years Bridie Kept Herself to Herself but as Little Nanny grew more frail she seemed to become rather more assertive and at times even hostile. When I visited after school with Molly one day to thread needles she met us at the front door and told us to Clear Off because the Poor Old Soul was sleeping. We did clear off but I was then nearly thirteen years old and uneasy about it. My mother visibly bridled when I told her and said she had never trusted that Two Faced Cow and first thing Monday morning she would go round there and Clean Her Rotten. If she actually did so is debatable because Nellie was always a master at blustering but not so good at backing up her indignation with anything concrete. A week or two later at the age of ninety four, Great-great Aunt Martha died and there was continuing drama because somehow or other Bridie failed to put a notice in the paper and it was only by chance her relatives found out where and when the funeral was to be. These unfortunate lapses of memory around funerals seemed to plague our family and Freda said it was most likely because grief does terrible things to people.

Although over the years my grandmother and aunts had had little to do with Martha Irons, they were collectively outraged. Aunts Maud, Mag and Martha spoke for months afterwards about it and maintained that considering how she benefited it wouldn’t have been much to ask for a notice to be put in the Kent Messenger. It would have given them the opportunity to arrange a Proper Send Off. You could have Knocked Old Nan For Six when she found there was to be only tea at the Wake and not a solitary drop of Gin. Aunt Mag said quite sensibly that maybe we should thank the Lord there was a Wake at all although she did think that Nell, being the Favourite after all, should have made it her business to find out. But my mother was bewildered and kept wondering why Bridie never handed over the Victorian sewing machine that had been promised to me. However, she took comfort from the fact that the wind would soon be taken out of that Brazen Cow’s sails when she was thrown out on her ear. But that did not actually happen because of an astonishing development. Somehow or other and Old Nan could never for the life of her fathom why Nobody Had Twigged, it had escaped our collective notice that far from being the tenant of the house in Hamerton Road, Great-great Aunt Martha appeared to be the owner. In a sudden Will made several months before she died she passed it on to Dearest Bridie Who Had Always Been Such a Support & Comfort.

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