Obscenity

alpine-1325195_960_7201Did you wonder what I’ve done now when you saw the above title?

Surprisingly I managed to reload the “Solemn Curfew” collection without a hitch despite being a bit distracted at the moment. My dearly loved god mother passed away recently and left me her books, all 4000 of them. I defy anyone to behave in a normal and rational fashion when faced with that many books. And these aren’t paper backs, they are a life time of careful and considered collecting. They arrive next Thursdays – there maybe demands for walls to be demolished to make room.

However, back to the obscenity of the title. This is another story about my grandmother. Whatever else could be said of her, and there is much which could be said, she was never boring.

Obscenity

To Mother it was an idea of genius, but my ten year old self was filled with consternation. And, glancing up at my father and seeing the expression of horror on his face and the droop of the cigarette permanently glued to his lip, I guessed I was not alone.

“She’ll enjoy it,” Mother stated firmly, “And yes, you do both have to come! It’s going to be our birthday present to her.”

Gifts for my grandmother were a source of anxiety for my mother. The wish to delight a mother-in-law who although difficult, tactless, obstinate and opinionated, was also generous and loving, taxed her imagination and worried her.

I had already worked out Gran’s needs were few and her tastes ran towards the sentimental and the tacky, but to my mother, convent educated with exquisite taste and beautiful manners, Gran was a mystery.

I watched her try and balance her own need for refinement against Gran’s delight in china poodles, crocheted toilet roll covers and pictures of children with huge sad eyes accompanied by a dog of equally melancholic attitude.

This year Mother was triumphant, she had come up with the perfect solution; we would take Gran to see a film. Not just any old film, but an all singing, all dancing block buster of sugary sentiment and sweet mawkishness which must appeal to the owner of all those doggy ornaments.

Father protested and I sulked, but Mother was not listening, the night was going to be the perfect treat for one unpredictable old lady and like it or not, we were going to be there to see her enjoyment and Mother’s victory.

Young as I was, I could smell the whiff of danger even as we left the house.

My worst fears were confirmed when we got to Gran’s house and she was sitting primly in her chair wearing her duty outfit, the one reserved for attending such functions as funerals and visits to her solicitor. Her best black coat was buttoned to the neck, her hands were gloved and she was wearing her “going out” lipstick, a shade of red just past pillar box.

Seated beside me in the back of Father’s car, her “good” hand bag firmly clamped to her knees she fixed the back of Mother’s head with a basilisk stare.

“I have not been to a picture house since 1939,” she announced in arctic tones.

“Good God,” Mother ejaculated, startled into giving Gran an opening, “Why not?”

“I had no desire to see war news,” she replied, “Nor the sort of silly film they thought proper for us ignorant people.”

I watched mother stiffen. Gran was uneducated, forced to leave school at the age eleven to work in the Nottingham lace mills, but she was not ignorant, far from it, but claiming to be so was one of her greatest weapons in the game of being difficult.

“That was a long time ago,” Mother said, brightly, “You’ll find it’s all very different now and I’m sure you’ll like this film. It’s in colour you know.”

All this revelation got was a sniff.

“You must have heard of it,” Mother continued, by now assailed with doubts.

“I have,” Gran admitted, “Lilly was speaking about it. She’s seen it five times.”

I chanced a sideways look at her face and caught a hint of anticipation on her face. She was intrigued; her best friend and closest rival Mrs Rhodes had seen the film and while I would have bet my sixpence pocket money Gran hadn’t allowed her to gossip about it as much as she would have liked, sufficient information had been imparted to convince Gran she might be missing something.

Perhaps this hadn’t been such a very bad idea after all.

I knew I was going to hate the film when the opening shot ranged over some field and a lady began to sing. There were a load of nuns as well and I found myself feeling very sorry for Mother if she’d had to listen to singing like that all day in the convent.

By the time a lot of very silly children began to add to the noise I had finished my chocolates and was aware of just how uncomfortable my seat was. I did a great deal of wriggling and sighing and kicking the back of the seat in front to see how long it would be before its owner turned around.

Gran was between me and Mother, so I got away with all this. Finally the boredom and the darkness made my eyes grow heavy and I slipped into sleep.

I woke up when Gran shook me.

“Stand up,” she snapped.

I stumbled to my feet and realised the national anthem was playing and everyone was beginning to leave the cinema. The cool night air woke me up and I began to take notice of the adults.

“What did you think?” Mother asked father with a bright smile.

He just looked at her like a man who had been in pain for the last hour or so.

“Well I thought it was good,” she said with false gaiety, “The scenery was lovely. Did you enjoy it, Millie?”

“I did not,” Gran replied firmly, “It was the most disgusting exhibition I ever saw.”

Even Father seemed stunned by this pronouncement and I bitterly regretted going to sleep. What had I missed?

“Allowing a young girl like that to marry a man old enough to be her father,” Gran continued, “Disgraceful behaviour. Utter filth! I’m surprised they were allowed to make a film about it.”

Mother’s jaw dropped.

“And I’m ashamed of you, Alice, allowing your child to see it! It was obscene. I am only glad the lamb slept through the worst of it.”

With this she swept me passed the posters of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, covering my eyes to protect my innocence.

Bev Allen © 2015-2017

 

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Sam

It’s been a while since I posted a short story, so here is another one about my gran, the one with the improbable black hair. She was born in the middle of one of those long families so common in the early years of the last centaury. Her eldest brother was killed on The Somme, this is a story about her youngest brother and the last of her mother’s seventeen children.

 

xxxxx

“Do you want to take my arm?”

“No, I do not want to take your arm” she replied crisply. “I’m quite capable of walking.”

She planted her stick more firmly in the turf and moved ahead of me, her face rigid with determination.

I followed; concerned the long hours in the plane and the now crushing humidity had taken more out of her than she was prepared to admit.

Her slow, but steady progress forward defied both me and the heat.

When I caught up she was looking around with her assessing eye, the one I recognised from childhood, the one that was so often the precursor of some ego shattering comment.

“They keep the place nice,” she said, approvingly.

I sighed with relief.

“For natives,” she added, with a disdainful sniff.

“Gran you can’t say things like that,” I protested furiously.

“Why not?” she demanded and moved on again between the rows of headstones.

I didn’t argue. More than years separated us; the world she had been born into was very different from the one I had entered. A difference perhaps greater than the one between the country we were visiting and the one we’d left to come here.

Two great wars stood between her birth and mine.

Ahead of me she made an incongruous picture against the back drop of vivid jungle green. I wore the lightest summer dress I owned, but she was all in determined black. Certain clothes went with certain events as far she was concerned and neither heat nor location would alter her view.

Even more incongruous was the small wreath of scarlet poppies in her hand, aliens bravely holding their own in the face of tropical magnificence. As alien as the old lady who had brought them half way around the world to this land of streaming heat and palm trees.

She moved ahead of me between the rows of headstones and I realised tears had dimmed her eyes and she had walked passed him.

“Gran,” I said, gently. “He’s here.”

Turning she came back to Plot 18, row D, grave no. 10.

Silently her hand went out and touched the badge cut into the stone; then she traced the letters of his name with fingers twisted by arthritis.

“I thought you were out in the jungle somewhere,” she whispered. “All alone.”

I took her hand and we stood silently while the long ranks of his brothers in arms stretched away from us row upon row.

“He was our Mam’s last baby. God knows enough of us had come and gone before, but there was something about him. We all loved him.”

She made a small derisive sound,

“Even our Da.”

She bent her old bones down to place her little wreath and was finally able to say goodbye to the little brother she had loved so much.

 

Sam

KIA Burma 20th Jan 1945

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Florence Lester 1904-1907

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.