Sometimes when I was still quite young, perhaps under five years of age, instead of taking the bus back from Gravesend, we walked and I always complained bitterly because the journey seemed overly long and mostly tedious. There were times when I was pushed in my pushchair because we had walked both ways. In those days pushchairs were less mobile and not taken onto buses unless the situation was dire because there were conductors who seemed to greatly disapprove; at least that was my impression. Anyhow, my mother largely ignored my complaints and whether I was forced to walk or being pushed when we almost reached the Pier Road point of The Overcliffe, she would point out the Northfleet Parish boundary stone and tell me to stop grizzling because now we were back in Northfleet again. I never believed her because I knew we were entering Rosherville and that still seemed to me to be far away from Northfleet. From time to time we stopped off in Burch Road to visit a woman who had married my Uncle Arthur Steele who had previously been married to my mother’s younger sister Poor Vi who like another sister, Poor Phyllis, had died in childbirth. Poor Vi had just given birth to Little Doris who, unlike Poor Phyllis’s daughter Little Violet, was not forced to live with Old Nan ever after, but was passed around the family who all had turns of her. We had two turns and as she and I did not get along at all there was a great deal of relief when she was bundled onwards to her next foster mother. Little Doris had lovely curly hair which reminded everyone of Shirley Temple and I clearly recall a game of hairdressers when some of the curls might have been cut off. Meanwhile her father had remarried to a large and domineering woman called Edna who had an equally large and domineering daughter called Josie and a previous husband who had somehow been Lost in an Accident Before The War. My mother was very keen to persuade this new Aunt Edna, to take responsibility for the future nurturing of Little Doris but Aunt Edna was not so keen. The problem seemed to be Her Josie who needed to be an Only Child on account of being Delicate. Old Nan said, `Delicate my Arse – what she needs is a good kick up the Jacksie’ and there the matter rested for the time being which I cannot help thinking was probably fortunate for Little Doris.
Old Nan said that once, long ago there had been a very posh hotel at the bottom of Burch Road, a proper hotel with bedrooms that you could hire and sleep in upstairs and a lounge downstairs with red carpets and a bar that sold all manner of drinks, not just gin and whiskey. She said you wore your Sunday Best to go there and that one time when she and her Edgar had won at the races they went in there on a Saturday evening and had a few. She had entertained everyone in the bar with her singing. A week later she went back and sought out the Manager to tell him she would not be averse to singing for them on a regular basis but he said No, not to bother. Her Edgar had told her it was a silly idea but she wasn’t good at listening to him. Her Edgar was my grandfather, dead from a heart condition and mostly a mystery to me.
I quite liked some of the buildings that we passed as we walked towards Northfleet. There was a tall and square brick building that was the Ministry of Labour Employment Exchange and it had separate entrances for men and women so for a long time I thought it was a school for much older people, who could already read and write and knew the capitals of countries. This was simply because I knew that at St Botolph’s school where I would be going as soon as I was five, there were separate playgrounds for the boys and the girls. Molly Freeman was already a pupil and had told me all about the place. Near St Marks Church we came upon the typical late 1920s style shopping centre always called The Parade by my mother. There was a fish and chips shop on the corner where we sometimes bought three pennyworth of chips to sustain us on the rest of the walk and then Mrs Kean’s Haberdashery where you could buy elastic and buttons and odd bits of felt and cotton. My Aunt Maud once rushed in there for a couple of pins because her knicker elastic had snapped while walking around Gravesend Market and she said that soon her drawers would be round her ankles to which Old Nan made some remark so rude that neither my mother or aunt spoke to her for the rest of the afternoon. Mr Reason, the grocer was a bit further on and from time to time when feeling flush a few slices of ham would be bought for our tea, especially if one of the relatives was coming back to have their tea at our place because it was agreed that Mr Reason had the best ham in the district. Once or twice, when accompanied by other members of the family we even paid a visit to the nearby café the name of which is long forgotten and had cups of tea from a big brown pot. Then if one of my cousins was present we would whine and nag until a plate of biscuits appeared in the middle of the table and we were told we were Greedy Little Buggers. I remember also Jo-Anne’s Hairdressers close by where my Aunt Martha once had a Wave and Set causing my mother to shake her head at the extravagance of it all. Years later Pearl Banfield told me she always had her hair shampooed and set there on Saturday mornings because it was a great pity if she couldn’t do that after working all week. When she got married she vowed she would continue to do so come what may. Further on but on the other side of the road was a Post Office and a general store which we never visited but where the owner did his own deliveries on his old fashioned bike with a large wicker basket on the front. There was also a little school badly damaged early in the war standing defiantly on the ridge and looking as if it was prepared to take on anything Hitler could dream up. It was constructed partly from flint like my future boyfriend Barrie’s house in Springhead Road and it stood perilously close to the chalk pit and alongside it were a number of grand detached houses overlooking the river. I used to linger as we passed these houses, greatly admiring them and contemplating even then what kind of bathrooms they might have. My Aunt Maud said you could never tell what the insides of places like that were like and some folk who should know better were filthy in their habits. There were people living in Crayford Council Houses where the khazi wasn’t fit to enter unless you held your breath. Old Nan said she didn’t hold with inside khazis anyway because it stood to reason. She also told me I was a Right Brahman and needed to be Told. I didn’t know what this meant but realised it was not complimentary.
If we were by ourselves, to keep me amused as we got closer to home my mother would tell me the same stories each time we did this walk. The house at Number 11 London Road belonged to John Lincoln the chemist who had two shops, one in Dover Road and the other in Northfleet High Street and he was a very rich man but said to be tight with his money. He was choosy she said about who he extended credit to and only showed leniency to the rich, never to the poor. In other words, she elaborated, He Wouldn’t Give His Shit To The Crows! Next door to him was Dr Outred at De Warren House, he who had saved my life when I was four and was to kill my father when I was eleven. He probably later also had blood on his hands regarding the death of Mr Davis of Tooley Street because didn’t he drop dead inside the chemist’s shop having just come from the doctor? Though had he not had to wait so long for his prescription things might have turned out differently so there the blame should probably be shared. All this slightly convoluted reasoning I concluded years later at a stage when walks back from Gravesend were not quite as draining. Very shortly I knew we would reach the house known as Fernbank that had recently become the first Northfleet Branch Library which my father would within a year or two insist that I join and which afforded me information and amusement for years into the future. But this was in that time when I had not yet become a Borrower and Fernbank seemed simply another grand house, belonging to grand people with front lawns and flower beds, people who often employed others to do their housework and even their gardening, people who my mother firmly maintained were, `Better Than Us.’