Memories are funny things. The older one gets, the more vivid they become, especially when related to things that happened long ago. I was sitting and thinking about nothing in particular, when a childhood memory flashed up from somewhere in my brain and there I was, about eight years old, sloshing through puddles in a yellow raincoat with matching sou’wester hat and black wellington boots. The turned-down broad brim protecting my face and the back of my neck from the rain which was falling like sheets of pins, like the ones my mother used when pinning paper patterns to the material she somehow turned into dresses and things for me, and for herself.
This particular memory resurrected itself while I was in Pershore a couple of months ago, house-sitting for my daughter and looking after her elderly dog plus two doves because she and my grandson were in Sussex at the wedding of her goddaughter and his childhood friend. It was Saturday morning. I had ventured as far as the garden intending to get a few things at the local shops but changed my mind as the first large drops fell just as I reached the gate, even so, I got soaked to the skin by the time I had got back to the door.
It was while I was sitting, watching the water swirling along the footpath and road outside the front window that the memory flooded back.
It was as though a shaft of sunlight had opened up so I could see myself, an only child; never lonely because wherever I went my faithful Judy came too. Judy was a black cocker-spaniel; we were the same age. I couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been there beside me. She even walked me to school, and returned to collect me when it was time to come home.
On this particular day we were doing our sploshing by going down a long set of steps leading from the house where we lived, to a tiny cottage that was home to Flan.
Gwendoline Flanagan, known as Gwennie or Flan, chain-smoked Woodbine cigarettes and seemed to live on sips from a small silver flask kept in her pocket. I was on my way to see Flan, to reach her house I was walking down those steps. Arriving at Flan’s, there were three more steps up to the front door. Knocking first, I lifted the latch and stepped into her wonderful world. There before me was the grand piano; its gleaming woodwork inlaid with different woods and decorated with pictures of small figures dressed in the clothes of long ago. It filled half the living room; its yellowing keys smiled the welcome they always did because the beautiful instrument was standing directly in front of me as I crossed the threshold.
A huge mirror covered the yellowing wall above the piano, the contents of the room appearing in its smoky reflection. Facing me as I entered the front door was, to my eyes, a gigantic age-blackened oak dresser. Its gleaming shelves lined with lustrous china re-appearing in the mirror, making me think I could see another identical room, but the other way round, through the archway of the mirror. For a small child, it made Flan’s tiny place look enormous.
The smell of ironing wafted round the room. With small puffs of smoke escaping from her mouth as she spoke, Flan put the iron down on the stand in front of the coal fire with one hand as she lifted a cigarette to her lips with the other and said, ‘I’ve been pressing Jim’s suit. Get those wet things off. I won’t be a jiffy. Make yourself at home. Come on Judy, lie down like a good girl and get dried out. I’ll find you some biscuits in a minute.’
She never seemed to care too much about her own clothes, but James, her tall handsome Irish husband always left the house immaculately dressed. I watched her fussing to make sure his tie was straight, his clean handkerchief peeping just the right amount above his pocket and, stretching tiptoe on sparrow-thin legs she tweaked his buttonhole as he bent down and pecked her cheek with his lips before twirling his waxed moustache, then with a quick look in the mirror, and with Flan’s help, Jim shrugged into his caped raincoat, put on his hat, and with a twirl of his umbrella and a ‘’Bye Gwennie’, was off to join his friends at the local.
Alone with Flan, I could delve into the large, sandalwood lined cabin trunk in which she kept her collection of memories from her long-ago time. Above it was a portrait of a beautiful and fashionable young woman in Edwardian clothes. It was Flan as Gwendoline. The trunk, breathing out its special fragrance; a mixture of fading perfume and scented wood that never failed to enchant me as my hands descended into the make-believe, never-never land of the world in which I was a grand lady, even a queen, and wore large hats, sequined, beaded and embroidered evening shawls, held feathered fans and elegant long black driving whips as though they were the everyday belongings that such a fine person would possess. These treasures were such that with one careless move could disintegrate disappear or fragment into thin air – yet I knew they were mine for the next two or three hours. My mother permitted visits to Flan. She knew I was safe and was doubtless glad to have some peace and quiet.
Helping me dress in my finery, Flan might instruct me in, among other things, the language of the fan, or we might discuss the news, or indeed any programme that happened to be on the wireless. I was even offered a cigarette to smoke through a long holder, as well as a glass of lemonade into which Flan put a tiny drop of what was in her silver flask and, she, unlike other grown-ups never reminded me that ‘Little girls should be seen and not heard.’ In this wonderland, so much that was forbidden was allowed. Here, I was encouraged to be me.
Unbidden, the long gone memories of happy times spent in the small house had lain dormant for seventy years, re-emerging with startling clarity, like a champagne cork released from its wire cage by the sight of swirling leaves jostling each other as they joined those already in the flowing water before all were caught in the vortex that was the drain seen from a Pershore window.