One of my Grannies was totally adorable, she was small and round and soft spoken, she had grey eyes and snow white hair.
The other one, the one who was born into poverty in the years between the death of Queen Victoria and World War One, was tall and had hair dyed the most improbable shade of black. Her eyes were brown and she had a tongue like a whip, she might not have been adorable, but she was never boring and she had a heart as big and brave as a lion.
The stories I will tell you about her are almost true. This one is about her childhood in Nottingham where the men and boys, if they had work, dug the coal from the ground and the women and the girls work in the lace factories.
Florence Lester 1904-1907
On bitter February afternoons in the days before central heating, the only place to be really warm was Gran’s back room where the fire hadn’t been allowed to go out since November.
I’d sit and watch the flames play over the coals and eventually tuck my heat mottled legs up under me away from the direct heat. The cat curled up the grate would open one baleful eye and glared at me, but he never moved even though the smell of burning fur sometimes scented the air as a spark landed on him.
As a favoured grandchild my comfort was enhanced by treats like crumpets to toast and lavish butter upon, or hot chocolate steaming in thick pottery mugs or, if all else failed, bags of toffee made pliable and yielding by the heat.
A piece I’d dropped on the rug had acquired a generous coat of cat hair, so I’d lobbed it into the back of the fire where it melted on the hot coals, adding the smell of burnt sugar to the ever present tang of Gran’s Woodbines.
After a while she flicked the long tail of grey ash off the end of her cigarette and said,
“It smelt like this before Florrie died.”
Turning away from my fire inspired day dreams I smiled up at her, thinking she must be as mazed by the heat as I was
“Florrie isn’t dead,” I said, “You spoke to her on the phone last week.”
She shook her head,
“Not that Florrie. My other sister Florence.”
“You had two sisters called Florence?”
She nodded, lighting another of the untipped cigarettes she would smoke all her long life.
“I remember her lying by the fire wrapped in a blanket. Mam had given her a sugar lollipop and every now and then she’d try and lift it to her mouth.”
Gran smiled, “I never took my eyes off it, just in case. I was about four and that jealous.”
I thought of the little she’d let me know about her childhood in that dirty old town in the years before The Great War.
“Wasn’t there one for you?”
“No,” Gran said, “I don’t know how Mam found the penny to buy it, not with my father and the drink.”
She drew on her cigarette.
“It seemed such a waste to me,” she said, “She’d give it a little lick, but she wasn’t enjoying it the way I would’ve. Eventually she dropped it and I was there like a shot, little guts that I was, but Mam shouted “No”, snatched it out of my hand before I got it in my gob and threw it on the fire.”
Our eyes met and we both knew in that moment old dead Mam had saved this daughter’s life.
The toffee on the fire bubbled and charred black.
“I don’t remember what happened after that,” Gran said, “She just wasn’t there anymore. And then, later, another Florrie came along.”
She gazed once more into the flames.
“Poor little soul. I’m the only one left alive who remembers her”
And just for a moment on that cold February afternoon, the small sister whose brief existence had made scarcely a dent in the passage of my Gran’s long life, lived again in the smell of sugar burning on a coal fire.