My grandmother was not averse to general pilfering of one kind and another and probably this habit had its roots in the extreme poverty of her earliest years. I can’t ever remember her coming to the attention of the police on account of it which could have been due to uncommon good luck or more likely to the customary code of silence that was inclined to govern such behaviour in families like ours. She certainly had what were called Run Ins with authority on other matters such as drunkenness, fighting – most notably with other pickers in the Kent Hop Gardens each year, and forgetting to register the births of her many children but her frequent thefts from other people’s washing lines seemed to be at all times overlooked. This would have been considered a good thing because within our family ranks as long as stealing did not involve getting caught then it appeared to be largely condoned and often even the trigger for minor celebration. As we were at the same time firmly adhered to the doctrines of the Catholic Church It took me a long time to work my way through this particular dichotomy; it seemed confusing. The case of my Aunt Freda was less bewildering because this particular Crayford Constant was well known as a habitual thief and con woman but because of her special position as The Baby and the fact that she was thought not to have complete control over her various urges her misdeeds had always been tolerated by both parents and siblings and also the local priest.
Nellie, my mother was the second oldest in the family and her early memories were more concerned with drunkenness and hunger rather than whether any food or clothing that made its way into the family had been paid for or simply purloined from retailers’ shelves or filched from neighbours. Even so, years later she greatly objected to her youngest sister’s Black Market deceptions particularly where her own Northfleet neighbours were concerned and tut-tutted audibly when silk stockings and lipsticks paid for in advance by touchingly trusting housewives failed to be delivered as promised. She said that Freda would have the Shirt Off Your Back if you didn’t keep your wits about you and you needed Eyes In The Back Of Your Head when she was around. Old Nan was invariably quick to leap to the defence of her youngest child and explain to anyone inclined to listen that there was No Harm In Her, a view not universally shared. My brother and I were quick to notice that our mother’s own petty thieving increased with the death of our father though for many years involved such insignificant items such as cans of baked beans and the occasional packet of Garibaldi biscuits and mostly we chose to ignore it or as she would have said herself, Turn A Blind Eye. It was not a topic we were comfortable bringing up and we were both quite grown up before we actually openly discussed these episodes of lawbreaking together and even then it was obvious we still felt somewhat awkward and disloyal about the dialogue.
Bernard’s first wife, Janice, having been raised within a far more straightforward and honest environment, had considerably less reluctance for the debate and said that although she had found it very odd that every time a cupboard was opened in my mother’s cramped kitchen a dozen cans of baked beans were likely to topple out, she regarded her not merely as a thief but rather as a kind of latter day Robin Hood. After merely a slight hesitation Janice insisted that there was more than just a minor element of the redistribution of riches in my mother’s behaviour. Urged to further clarify she explained that she had found her mother-in-law particularly practiced at reallocating expensive items of children’s clothing around to those she decided were in most need and that her own small son had been the fortunate recipient of a number of items during the first year of his life. Naturally enough, now she had given voice to the aberrant behaviour, even though my brother cowed back into his chair looking vaguely embarrassed, I demanded to be acquainted with the full story.
Janice said that the situation under review largely concerned my older cousin Margery, she who had been Carrying On with Ron, her new boss once she left the job in the shoe shop in Dartford. By the time Janice and Bernard had met, Margery had not only discarded Jock her first husband, but The Boss had left his own wife and family, and they had both left the rumour and tittle tattle of Crayford behind and set up home in Vicarage Drive Northfleet. The new homes had been built on the site of the old St Botolph’s Church Vicarage and they were at the time quite the smartest residences in the area or at least we thought them to be. Even Old Nan, not given to compliments had said that considering what could have transpired, Margery had Done Well. As to the snags concerning The Boss’s reluctance to extricate himself from his Roman Catholic marriage, this was not openly discussed by any of us and Nellie pursed her lips and shook her head disapprovingly at me when I was once foolish enough to bring it up, talking of Layos For Meddlers in quite a threatening manner so I knew better than to persist. Whether or not Margery was to be made an Honest Woman of became irrelevant with the advent of the nineteen sixties and the birth of her first child, Nigel whom my mother was only too eager to babysit as frequently as was necessary. Eventually the house in Vicarage Drive was disposed of and an even more impressive residence in the form of old farm house was acquired at Wrotham Hill together with a number of farm cottages. My brother was foolishly confident that he might persuade Ron The Boss to part with one of the near derelict cottages at a reasonable price since it was his own dream to live in a truly rural environment. However, that dream was firmly dispatched into the ether when Ron decided he would rather demolish all the old farm buildings. This action caused a great deal of negative comment among the relatives and even Old Nan, not always a total supporter of my brother or myself or in fact any of her many grandchildren, was heard to say that even a fool could see that the cottages were habitable and Ron suddenly descended from being halfway acceptable to becoming As Ignorant As Pigshit. Perhaps it was simply that Ron did not want Bernard as a near neighbour which was understandable as he already had my mother as a semi-permanent child minding house guest and he might have feared a full on invasion of the immediate family with me bringing up the rear. However, for many years the cottage demolition was to greatly irk poor Bernard who saw it as needless vandalism and this view was generally supported by my mother though she was considerably more reluctant to voice her opinion.
Baby Nigel was a much doted upon infant which is probably not unusual with first children and from time to time his parents would bring back expensive hand embroidered silk baby outfits from Paris and Lucerne on their Urgent Trips Abroad that so frequently co-incided with Bank Holiday weekends. But with such an eager child minder as Nellie, ever admiring of Nigel and his lavish wardrobe, who can blame them for the timing of their Mini Breaks?
Janice and Bernard’s own baby was not born until Christmas Eve 1965 when little Nigel had already been joined by a younger sister, and brother, Jayne and Peter. All three would almost certainly have outgrown the distinctive hand embroidered silk garments from Continental Europe and these no doubt had been folded away awaiting the birth of some possible future baby. Things would not quite go to plan, however, because at some stage during her frequent child minding stays at the house at Wrotham Hill my mother had decided to distribute the baby finery more equitably around the pool of family infants and my sister-in-law found herself the recipient of a most impressive summer outfit for her young son, then several months old. She was astonished she said, for several reasons, the first being that when she commented upon the hand stitching and the French label inside the tiny collar my mother had insisted she had Picked Up the ensemble for Next to Nothing at Gravesend Market from Old Sid Strong the well known Gravesend Market Trader. Strongy had worked the market every Saturday for decades, moving on to Petticoat Lane on Sunday mornings and over the years, although he vended canteen after canteen of cutlery and a never ending line in Dinner Services, not to mention thousands of china ornaments and electric toasters none of us could remember him ever dealing in upmarket baby clothes. The declared origins of the gift therefore seemed highly improbable. Furthermore, Janice’s baby was accustomed to wearing ordinary Stretch & Gros and she wondered whether there would ever be an occasion grand enough on which he could don the dazzling outfit for an hour or two. However, her parents’ wedding anniversary party in Chatham a few weeks later seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. Janice said he looked quite splendid in the finery so much so that Bernard took a number of photographs of him. They set off from London for Chatham that Sunday afternoon in high spirits.
It was Bernard who suggested that on the way they might drop into the house on Wrotham Hill and say hello to his cousin and Ron who had by this time and at long last stopped being referred to as Margery’s Fancy Man or The Boss by the various Aunts and was now very nearly accepted by one and all. When the young family arrived, my mother was pouring tea on the terrace at the back of the house, completely and happily involved in the role she had adopted of being a kind of Faithful Family Retainer. Everyone seemed delighted to see the unexpected visitors and they were ushered into seats and urged to drink tea. Janice said she was halfway through her first cup when she noticed that Margery who was sitting opposite her seemed to be transfixed by baby Merlin on his father’s knee beaming in his dazzling infant apparel. Well why not? He was a simply gorgeous baby after all. A further moment passed before she realised that it was the hand embroidered silk baby clothes that Margery seemed so taken with. Janice had already begun on the explanation for the finery, purchased by his doting Grandma at Gravesend Market for Next to Nothing from Old Strongy when realisation dawned and she knew by Margery’s astonished expression and her faint echoing of `Old Strongy?’ that nothing was more certain than that a Robin Hood episode had taken place. In the same moment she knew that there was little further that could be said or done by way of explanation that would save the day. The best and only action she decided was to refuse a second cup of tea and hurry onwards towards the wedding anniversary celebrations in Chatham. The unplanned visit of the Hendy Family had lasted a mere twenty minutes.
It was a long time before they returned to the Farmhouse on Wrotham Hill, and neither was any invitation extended to them to do so. Strangely, my mother’s relationship with her niece and family seemed only to strengthen but possibly that was in large part due to pragmatism and the fact that willing child minders were hard to find in that particular corner of Kent.
Whatever the actual truth of the matter was, when the Robin Hood story was told to me thirty years after the event I listened with more than a little interest and began to rethink the origins of unexpected luxury items I had occasionally found myself in possession of as a teenager. For instance the No Longer Required though clearly nearly new woollen dressing gown I had inherited from The Lovells when my mother first worked for them. It was the very first dressing gown of my life because at that time they seemed to be garments belonging to people in books, not those from working class families like me. Even at the time I was struck by the bountiful munificence of the gift. Now I wondered what had happened to the note of thanks I had written for my mother to deliver on her next working day.