Thursday, 9 March 2017

Auntie Queenie of Stonebridge Road, Northfleet

If I am not mistaken there seems to be a growing delight and satisfaction in the burgeoning publicity pertaining to all matters transgender these days and I imagine for those immediately involved in defining sexual category on a regular basis that must be rewarding, a step forward. On local radio, excited discussions frequently emerge on the possible complications regarding such topics as Gender Neutral toilets, particularly in schools where it seems mounting numbers of under tens are now in the throes of personal discussion around whether they are male or female and what their preference might be. Thoroughly modern up-to-date parents appear to take this process of decision making in their stride, insisting that the choice has to be made by the six year old him/herself and displaying to one and all that they are completely at peace with what would certainly have been a very unusual and disturbing problem sixty or seventy years ago. Had I been thrust into such a situation as a primary age child although I would have found it quite thrilling to choose a new name, which in my case might well have been Sebastian, I cannot imagine my parents being at ease with the dilemma on any level whatsoever.

In those first few years after the War, we like scores of other families around us were certainly not in any danger of becoming progressive thinkers particularly where matters associated with sex and gender were concerned. Accepting the customary developments and practices alongside being male or female was hard enough - to add a further dimension was simply out of the question. To harbour someone within your immediate family who was afflicted with a problem relating to sexual identity of any description was a horror hard to imagine and discussion around the subject was inclined to be insufferably shameful rather than simply awkward. There was therefore no open debate and very little closed debate concerning those among us who might ultimately turn out to identify simply as Gay or Lesbian which must have made some lives within the community harder than they really needed to be. We children were all expected to conform to standard norms in every way, playing together in amorphous groups, boys mostly with boys and girls mostly with girls. Although some girls were indulgently allowed to be Tomboys, boys who were clearly a great deal more comfortable playing with the girls rather than boys were frowned upon, tut tutted about and given footballs and motor cycle magazines for Christmas. It was also anticipated that we would each of us make one or two Best Friends with whom confidences could be shared and of whom our parents would largely approve and those who failed to attract Best Friends were a disappointment and might even be castigated for the social failure.

The parameters around social acceptance as far as adults were concerned were even more stringent. Little wonder that poor Auntie Queenie of Stonebridge Road set tongues wagging so violently. She seemed destined to always cause a stir wherever she went. As my Aunts all agreed, you could never rely on her to keep her head down. I never quite knew how she was related to us because she wasn’t a subject that anyone cared to speak of in any depth but she was definitely a relative from my mother’s side of the family because at one time Aunts Mag, Martha, Maud, Rose and Freda were all more than familiar with her and when her name was mentioned they each sniffed a bit and tried to change the subject – even Freda. She always seemed to be quite an old lady to me, but decidedly eccentric and with attitude which of course would be one of the reasons why my grandmother disliked her so much.

She had lived in Crayford at one time but left because of some social misdemeanour and her leaving caused Old Nan to loudly proclaim that The Day That Dirty Doxie Left Was A Day For A Knees Up. She moved quite close to us to a couple of upstairs rooms in the house that took in long term lodgers on Stonebridge Road, Northfleet where one of her neighbours she was proud to relate was Young Arthur Greenslade who ultimately became a famous pianist and conductor. She had actually spoken with both him and his mother several times. Aunt Mag said they would have crossed the road to avoid her if they had Known Anything About Her. But she only said that later of course. My mother agreed adding that People Like Queenie Ought To Be Kept Away From Normal Folk and her roaming all over the place just wasn’t right.

Meeting her outside the Northfleet Council Offices one afternoon my mother pretended to be pleased to see her and asked why she’d decided to come to Northfleet and Queenie lit a fresh cigarette and waved it in the air, pursing very red lips saying she wanted to be close to Huggens College because she’d Had Her Name Down for a while now. My mother generally pretended to be delighted when she came across Queenie but I knew it was all an act because if she dropped by our place, I would more than likely be told to be very quiet because we were going to pretend we were not at home. As far as Huggens College was concerned Aunt Martha said they’d never let the likes of her through the gates because places like that were for the Toffs and everybody knew that. I asked if Auntie Queenie was a Toff but I was ignored.

She always designed and made her own Outfits because she said she had always been Fussy About Clothes and the garments she wore were so colourful and adorned with so many beads and trailing pieces of silk and chiffon, she always managed to look as if she had stepped out of the Chatham Empire Christmas Pantomime. When she was younger she had even been on The Halls dressed as a man and singing songs like Burlington Bertie which Old Nan said suited her down to the ground and Oh Yes, She Was Right Where She Wanted To Be Then. This was confusing because my grandmother had done a fair bit of singing for money herself when she’d had a skinfull, though she stuck more to cinema queues and pubs on a Saturday night. Auntie Queenie wore exotic hats with veils attached over her very long and very red hair that my mother said was Not Natural, making it sound like an adjunct to her unfortunate Condition because on the occasions when she came under the scrutiny of whispered discussion she was always described first and foremost as Not Natural. Old Nan said she was Dyed Up To The Eyeballs and always maintained that the basic problem was most likely due to something that had Happened to her Poor Mother when she was Carrying but wouldn’t go further than that because she’d never been one to gossip. But then Old Nan was given to saying a lot of things that turned out not to be totally true.

Whatever it was that so sadly divided Auntie Queenie from the rest of the family and couldn’t be spoken of, we children were absolutely certain of one thing. We must Never, Ever Go Into a Lavatory with her. Until the moment I was given this particular directive it had never occurred to me to do so but of course from then on I was driven to distraction by curiosity as were all my cousins except Margaret who was older and sensible and about to get a job in Dolcis in Dartford. On an afternoon visit to our place with her mother my cousin Pat wanted to know what she should do if she was Busting To Go and was told to Just Bust which was of course disappointing. Aunt Martha related, in a suitably low voice, to my mother that she had been forced into that very position on Gravesend Prom one Sunday afternoon, coming across Queenie out of the blue who she was sure had Had One Or Two. Anyhow, whether she had or not, after two cups of tea from that fella who ran the tea-stand with the striped awning, where they sold iced buns as well, they were both of them Busting. Like it or not she found herself inside the Public Conveniences with Queenie who was Bold as Brass about it. Wouldn’t you think that she would have more idea of what was decent? More consideration for others, for Normal People, but No – Not Her! Pat and I exchanged Looks whilst my mother commiserated and said she would have been All Of A Fluster if it had been her and wouldn’t have known where to put herself and that Queenie had always been Known for being a Brazen Cow which given her situation could only make you Wonder. She reminded Martha that their only brother, my Uncle Edgar had come across her actually Piddling up against a wall at the bottom of Harmer Street one Friday night and he could always be relied upon; he’d never been known to tell a lie. After all, he’d been at Dunkirk hadn’t he? They agreed that when it came to being Bold as Brass and Brazen, Queenie was right there at the front of the queue. Never forget there’d been that airman she’d met out Shears Green way at the Battle of Britain when it first opened, the Poor Bugger she’d led up the garden path with all her talk of going to live in Swanscombe. Look where that got her. He’d had the wool pulled over his eyes good and proper hadn’t he? My mother poured more tea and said it fairly made her hair stand on end just to think about it; in fact it didn’t bear thinking about at all.

When the Aunt and Cousin had been despatched on the bus back to Iron Mill Lane, Crayford, and I had gone back to my Circus Colouring Book because it always paid to be half engaged in something inoffensive when asking questions on matters that might be deemed offensive, I asked my mother what made Auntie Queenie Bold as Brass when going into the Public Lavatory with Aunt Martha. But the only reply I got was that I had Big Ears and should not be listening to things that didn’t concern me and I would Feel The Back Of Her Hand if I wasn’t careful. So I stopped because the back of her hand could be painful. However, the next time a Family Day Out to Southend was suggested I was most enthusiastic. A Day Out was in itself something of a treat particularly as we would undoubtedly at some stage find ourselves at The Kursaal where more than likely we would come across Auntie Queenie herself selling candy floss or raffle tickets which she often did at fun fairs and circuses. Aunt Mag said this was because nobody in their right mind who ran a decent business would give the likes of her a job and you couldn’t blame them could you? Old Nan said that it was because she was a Bleeding Freak Show In Herself but because we were standing waiting for the Tilbury ferry at the time, her daughters quelled her with hostile looks which wasn’t easy because she was not known to be easily quelled. Later on she insisted it was no exaggeration and May the Lord Strike Her Dead if she was telling a lie and that even the Hospital up in London had taken photos of her Down Below, regular as clockwork, Year In and Year Out. I listened to all of this with the greatest interest whilst pretending to examine a poster extolling the virtues of a Day At Southend On Sea.
It was a bitterly cold Spring day when our ungainly family group comprising of Old Nan, all the Aunts, most of the cousins and even several Uncles either on Shift Work or Out Of Work emerged from the station, my father leading the way because his love of fun fairs was great. But first of all we had to eat our picnic on the beach, huddled against the groynes in a brutal and penetrating wind and then there was a lunchtime visit to the pub so that the men and Nan could down a pint. But eventually we headed in the direction of The Kursaal, at that time quite the largest fun fair in the South of England and mid afternoon found it relatively empty with no queues for the rides. However, as afternoon turned to evening the crowds would grow thick, the laughter loud and the music deafening. The men with the teenage boys close behind headed for the shooting range, the women to the ghost train and most of the children to the roundabouts and swingboats where Auntie Queenie could be found Large as Bleeding Life according to my grandmother, and with no shame on her, dispensing Candy Floss with her coils of hair redder than ever and a big smile on her face. She seemed surprised to be immediately enveloped by an eager group of female relatives under twelve greeting her with an enthusiasm that was clearly unusual and causing her to hug each one of us hard and say how lovely to was to see us all. Our mothers, some still in the ghost train tunnels, but some hard on our heels were visibly less excited to come across her and later Old Nan claimed you could have knocked her down with a feather but that was undoubtedly an exaggeration.
As soon as we had eaten our free candy floss which Cousin June said was all very nice but Auntie Queenie had made sure she gave us very small portions which went to show that she was Tight, just like our grandmother said, a chorus arose. We all needed to Do A Wee – and it was urgent because we were all Busting to go and did Auntie Queenie know where the Lav was and if she did could she take us? Margaret, about to have her sixteenth birthday, stared around at us coldly disapproving as Queenie rose to the occasion and ignoring protests from our mothers, collected us up like some kind of colourful Kursaal Pied Piper. We skipped along behind her in a flurry of excitement. To our great disappointment she simply directed us into separate cubicles and we did not get the slightest glimpse of her underwear which June had said would most likely differ substantially from anything our own mothers might wear and be a most unlikely colour – even perhaps black satin. Mostly our mothers wore voluminous white or peach winceyette bloomers at the time, from Gravesend market, elasticated at the knee. Auntie Queenie stood waiting patiently with Little Ann and Little Violet, the last two To Go as the rest of us strained to produce trickles and by the time we re-emerged several mothers were hovering anxiously. My own painfully pinched my arm hissing through clenched teeth that she had told me again and again Never Ever to go into a Lav with Auntie Queenie and why didn’t I ever listen because when we got home she was going to give me What For.

Despite all our best efforts we seemed destined never to solve the mysterious scandal closely associated with Public Conveniences that clearly revolved around Auntie Queenie though Pat and June maintained it was simply that her tits were not in the right place – they were hanging down round by her bum. Little Violet thought that must be wrong because how did she feed her babies if her tits were not in the usual place? June said people like her never had babies anyway. Little Violet wanted to know why. Margaret said that tits being in the wrong place could happen to anybody but she wasn’t going to join in the conversation any further because it Wasn’t Right and we had no right to be discussing other people’s tits in the first place. Some People, she added mysteriously were just Different and there wasn’t anything that could be done about it.
I was still consumed with an insatiable curiosity. It was to be years before I would discover that our extremely exotic and exceedingly eccentric Aunt, who could always be relied upon to give rise to rumour and gossip and whose real name was not Queenie at all but Victoria Eugenie Dorothea, was in fact a True Hermaphrodite and had indeed at one stage been of enormous interest to and greatly photographed by the Medical Profession.

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