Great Aunt Maud to the rescue

My mum hated her name. Winnie. She said it was either Dad with his “Winnie, where’s my tea?” or my granny, known as Nana, shrieking out “Winnie! Winnie!” whenever a disaster occurred (which was frequently where Nana was concerned.)

Nana was my dad’s mum. She moved in with my parents only a matter of weeks after their wartime wedding. Mum wasn’t keen on the idea but my dad was too soft to say no. Ancient childhood photos show him in a dress with a full head of blonde ringlets, as was the custom at the time. As far as Nana was concerned, he’d never advanced beyond that stage and my mum could never measure up to the standard of care befitting his status of the apple of her eye. Mum said Nana had stolen her marriage. They were for ever at loggerheads.

In the 1950’s we lived in an idyllic but isolated thatched cottage in the wilds of Essex. One day we heard the familiar cry of “Winnie! Winnie!”, emanating from the kitchen, followed by a series of alarming crashes. We rushed in to find Nana had placed one too many items on the shelf that stretched the whole length of the room. The Rawlplugs had dislodged from the soft plaster and daub of the old cottage wall and one end of the shelf had come away. Nana was crouched on the floor as one by one the pans, colanders and other utensils slid down the shelf as if on a conveyor belt and deposited themselves on Nana’s head. Even at eight years old I couldn’t help noting the look of satisfaction on Winnie’s face.

Our cottage was very pretty and in Spring the front garden, which was one big rockery running down to the edge of the road, became a solid bank of white Alpine flowers, giving the rather extraordinary illusion that the house was perched on a huge snowdrift. Tourist coaches, heading for the historic towns of north Essex would stop briefly, disgorging their passengers while Nana staged an informal photo call posed sweetly in a wheel-back Windsor chair by the rustic arch that graced the front door. We suspected that she charged for this service.

Once again the hysterical cry rang out “Winnie! Winnie”. One leg of the Windsor chair had slipped off the crazy paving path and had sunk into the soft earth of the flower bed. Dashing round the corner of the house, we discovered a group of camera-wielding Americans staring agape at the sight of Nana inverted in the Alpines, legs akimbo, with her pink satin bloomers and many varicose veins on full view.

The kids from the farm called Nana ‘The Witch’ and wouldn’t come and play unless she was safely ensconced in her room. Indeed, on many occasions we would return home to find her in the scullery holding a séance over the tea leaves with a passing tramp that she’d invited in. We worked out that the increasing frequency of these occasions was due to the secret signs left by these gentlemen of the road in the form of knotted clumps of grass, strange arrangements of twigs and even chalked hieroglyphics on the lane outside. We kids were immediately sent out to tear up, kick down and scrub out these ‘messages’.

There were a lot of tramps about in those days, many of whom were soldiers returning from the war with shell shock who found they couldn’t settle into civilian life. Once mum allowed one such fellow to kip for the night on the little bank of grass adjoining our garage. This corner was overlooked by an ancient pear tree. Despite my father being head gardener at the nearby stately home, he’d never got round to pruning the tree. As a result, it had grown to towering proportions and would produce a vast crop of tiny uneatable rock-hard pears.   There was a great gust of wind in the night, and hundreds of pears rattled down on the corrugated tin roof of the garage and onto the sleeping tramp, causing the poor chap to leap up screaming, thinking he was back in the trenches.

During the many verbal confrontations that went on between Nana and Winnie, the subject of ‘the jug’ invariably arose. This was a large antique ceramic item, brown in colour and decorated with stencilled roses. Its rim was solid hallmarked silver. It was quite the most valuable thing in the house. Nana had given it to Winnie as a wedding present and subsequently never let her forget it. According to Nana, mum had never properly thanked her for it. During one particularly angry exchange, up came the subject as usual, and after years of imagined ingratitude, Winnie finally cracked. She must have given said jug an almighty swing for it came flying out of the scullery (where it had miraculously survived the aforementioned shelf incident), passed as if in slow motion through the whole length of the sitting room that made up the larger part of the ground floor, and where I was standing transfixed, and carried on at precisely Nana-head level through the door of Nana’s room.

However, instead of the hoped for (on my part) crash of breaking china or (on Winnie’s part) the thud of jug on Nana-skull, it bounced off Nana’s elaborately quilted bed and landed safely on her fluffy hearth rug. It was never seen again until after Nana’s death whereupon it was immediately dispatched to a car boot sale and the profits used to pay the deposit on a caravan holiday in Norfolk!

Only months after Nana’s demise, her sister, my great aunt Maud, moved in and took over Nana’s room. Unlike her tall, plump and domineering sibling, Maud was a frail and bird-like spinster. Nana had been almost bald, with what remained of her hair permanently gathered into sprouting clumps wrapped in curling papers. Maud however had been a bit of a goer in her time and still sported the vestiges of a Marcel Wave. She and her best friend, who bore the splendid name of Maudie Brush, had been the first females in Gravesend to have owned a motor bike. Just imagine the pair of them, Maud and Maudie, haring round the Kentish lanes on their shared Royal Enfield!

What we didn’t realise when we invited her to come and live with us was that she couldn’t stand my dad! She too regarded him as little Jackie, the aforementioned apple. But unlike Nana she wouldn’t put up with his nonsense. On hearing his “Winnie, where’s my tea?” for the first time, she put down her copy of Woman’s Realm and glared at him over her half-moon spectacles. “You know where the pantry is” she said, “Get it yourself!”

Brilliant!

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