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The Shining PlacesFrom the End to the Beginning
By Hetty Clews
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Hetty Clews
All right reserved.
Where to begin? Australian Bushmen speak of the "dreamtime," postulating that in the beginning a dream was dreaming us. As I retrace my own past, the process confirms that my memories are dreams in which I am both centre and sphere—in which I am myself being dreamed. And as I sift through memories in a backward journey through remembered happenstance and recalled sensory trivia, the remembrance of things past becomes a quest for patterns and an imposing of order on what is essentially oneiric. In short, it shapes itself into one long, re-dreamed dream. Thus the facts of history become overlaid by the truth of the imagination: a truth that has always mattered more to me than any factual record. In seeking to share the content of my own dreaming with those who have come after me, I lean upon the values of the envisioned, the embroidered, the imagined.
Therefore I begin the journey with Gran, the great embroiderer.
She it was who formed the centre of my childhood world, because she was present for me in ways my mother, who toiled for long hours in the factory where my father also laboured, never seemed to be. Gran looked after me when I was too small, it is thought, to have memories at all. She lived in a three-storied old house that accommodated two of her daughters—my mother and my aunt Edith—until such a time as they were able to purchase houses of their own. A third daughter, my aunt Rose, lived next door with her large and unruly progeny, only two of whom, Jean and Edith, were girls close in age to me. These girl cousins, along with the slightly older Ondar, daughter of Aunt Edith, were like sisters to me in the preschool days of a shared dinner table in Gran's kitchen. Ondar's brother Allan, slightly younger than I, was a much-loved brother figure. Aunt Rose's sons I strenuously avoided; they were noisy and boisterous and generally odious to a pampered only daughter, and too fond of chasing her with spiders in their fists. Fortunately they appeared among the rest of us only when hungry and lived noisy lives of their own away from us, being too old and too worldly-wise to play the board games we enjoyed at the cleared kitchen table.
Ondar and Allan, however, slept in beds above my bedroom ceiling and sent me nightly messages via taps on the floor. With Jean and Edith, the three of us explored the meadows at the foot of "Gorsty Hill"— so named for the fields of gorse bloom once flourishing there—and ventured as close as we dared to the "cut" (canal) with our jam jars for bearing home minnows or frog-spawn or blackberries.
We were inseparable, Ondar and Allan and I, for the first eight years of my life. It never occurred to me to ask for a brother or sister of my own, since these companions were already there, ready to join me in any exploit. Gran cooked and cared for the three of us until Aunt Edith moved out; soon thereafter my own parents had also saved enough to put a down payment on their own semidetached home, and the first significant change in the circumstances of my life began.
Gran, however, remained a fixture. She spent her days in our otherwise empty new house, preparing my father's lunch for me to take to him at midday, cooking a "tea" for us at homecoming time, shopping and washing and cooking indefatigably for her youngest daughter, my mother. If I missed the environment of the Gorsty Hill home, it was mostly the rituals contingent upon the older house I longed for: lighting the gas globe beside the mantelpiece, bathing and dressing for bed in front of the fire, standing on the table to reach the Christmas bough suspended above it and so to nibble the dangling sugar mice, awaiting my turn on the stone stairs during family parties.
These family gatherings were outstanding examples of Gran's feats of embroidery. Once she had left Gorsty Hill and come to live with us she kept them alive in my memory by continual recounting, or by herself re-enacting, the performances of others, or by herself reproducing her own favourite song, "Burlington Bertie." She would hike up her skirts and prance through "The Blasted Oak" in the manner of the soubrette Marie Lloyd. Her own mother had enjoyed a reputation as "the Marie Lloyd of Cradley Heath," and she herself had been reared among the songs and dances of the music hall. Top hat on head, stick in hand, she had been taught to perfect the male impersonations of Hetty King. As long as she presided over the family gatherings in her own home she perpetuated these learned traditions, and all her progeny joined her in celebrating them anew.
The occasion would be Christmas, a birthday, or any other conceivable anniversary. It might also be a visit from out-of-town cousins. The precise reason for the party mattered little, because the format was always the same. Uncle Sam, Gran's sole surviving son, would sit at the piano hour after hour, playing by ear whatever a performer might require. Each performer—Mom and her six sisters, every hapless husband, and every one of my many cousins—had a party-piece that never, it seemed, was allowed to change. Uncles clasped hats to their hearts as they besought Macushla to awake from her dreaming, or declared themselves loved because they were blind. Auntie Glad, the one who was a clone for Dylan Thomas's Auntie Hannah (singing as she did like a big-bosomed thrush) warbled "Ramona." Auntie Edie, a paper poppy between her teeth, tangoed her way through "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life." Auntie Pem, alone in her disinclination to sing, donned one of Granddad's dark suits, twisted one of the starched collars the wrong way round, and visited the company as the vicar, the Rev. Mr. Peabody. My mother, astonishingly transformed into his simpering wife by an amazingly bedecked hat, stood by loyally. There was one sketch I remember particularly well that encapsulates the witty banter in which my nonsinging aunt excelled. Around the group she would go, commenting on her siblings' various behaviours, until she reached Rose, her second eldest sister and mother of those noisy boys next door. How many children did she and Uncle Les have? That I don't recall, only remembering that they were many.
"Now, Mrs. Kimberlin, and how is that family of yours? I rarely see them in Sunday school these days. I seem to remember there's a christening scheduled for next Sunday. Two o'clock. I trust you'll be there on time. You were late last year, was she not, Hepzibar? [my mother would sagely nod] and you were late the year before—in fact, you haven't been on time for a christening for years and years!"
Sitting on the stairs, we cousins would wonder at the merriment about what didn't, to us, sound funny at all. Later in the evening our turns would come, and one by one we would descend to sing or recite our memorized party-pieces. As the youngest grandchild I was last—or at least so it seems to my rogue memory, in which I was also a star.
To Gran I was always the favoured child of her own youngest child, and she was overjoyed when I set my feet on the path leading to university by winning a scholarship to Halesowen Grammar School at the famous "Eleven Plus" examination of the time. My dear pseudosiblings Ondar and Allan also won places at a state secondary school in Oldbury, but neither of them chose to write university entrance exams—Ondar because of her wish to marry her childhood sweetheart Max, and Allan because of an intervening disaster described later. Gran, who had always told me I could be and do whatever I wished, lived on to see me well on the way to my first degree at the University of Birmingham before submitting to what I surmise must have been carcinoma. Gran spent her last few weeks in the marital bed of her own former home, now owned by Uncle Sam—the bed in which her twelve children had been born. The seven sisters took it in turn to sit through the nights beside her, which meant my mother would have been unpartnered had I not offered my company. The sisterhood agreed that would be most fitting. I was, after all, the favourite, and had reached the acceptable age of nineteen. I had always been the designated caregiver where my younger cousins were concerned; now I could repay some of Gran's caring of and for me in this special way.
Certainly I didn't mind sitting with my mother through the long watches of the night. I watched as Gran communed with her lost ones, who seemed to be gathered at the foot of her bed. I heard her conversing with her husband Harry, with her beloved sailor son Jim (lost at sea 1915), and with her sisters Alice and Millie and Sarah and Kate, all of whom seemed to be now welcoming her into some eternal communion. Being still the performer she had always been, she sang to them, "Yes, we'll gather at the river." For once the lump in my throat defeated me. I could not join in.
Our turn as vigil keepers came three times before she finally slipped away.
As I later stood beside Gran's grave I remembered those sisters to whom she had sung on her deathbed. One of them, Kate, I never knew except as a distant great-aunt who never visited us. Millie of Woodgate was a farmer's wife who sometimes brought dairy gifts to Gorsty Hill. Sarah was the one the three of us—Ondar, Al, and I—looked forward to visiting from time to time because she lived at Bournville, the Cadbury village in Edgbaston, and her upmarket home included an orchard of three fruit trees as well as tiled indoor plumbing, envied by her less well-cushioned sisters. The Cadbury family looked after the workers in their chocolate factory very well. We loved receiving the unusual bounty of misshapen chunks of "dairy milk" that Aunt Sarah, renowned for the stinginess of her larder (blue milk, would you believe!), graciously permitted us to sample. And we loved climbing the apple trees and picking other fruits from her well-endowed garden, fruits she declared much better for us than chocolate anyway.
Gran was closest to her youngest sister, Alice, who kept a greengrocer's shop in which I was allowed to polish, though not to eat, the apples. We frequently took the Midland Red bus to Leicester, via Coventry, and usually spent Christmas there when I was small. My very first boyfriend, at the age of four, was the son of the chemist (pharmacist) next door, who delighted in the name "John Fullylove," and who was later killed in the Blitz at the age of twelve.
These great-aunts of mine must have had husbands, but I recall nothing about those shadowy figures. The family seemed to be thoroughly matriarchal, and the "girls," as they called themselves, would frequently reminisce about their own mother, Annie Price, who had been one of the "belles of Quinton" and a rare performer of ribald music hall songs. It was said that her mother, my own great-great-grandmother, had been the bastard daughter of an earl, or some such titled profligate, and there were sundry other stories about blotches on the family escutcheon, which my mother's next eldest sister, my beloved Auntie Pem, would regale me with during the long winter evenings at Gran's fireside. Thus was my developing appetite for fiction nurtured by her embroidery as well as by Gran's.
Over and above all this fantasizing I can provide for the record some unembroidered data provided by my own mother, who also left a much briefer account of what she recalled about my father's family as follows: a famous "Anne Clancy from Cork," famed for both her cooking and her blarney, was the matriarch who gave birth to James Upton. He married above his station one Polly Barnsley, who had been a ladies' maid in one of the great houses of Worcestershire. She in turn produced ten children, two of whom died in infancy, before succumbing to puerperal fever at the birth of her son Walter, who was just a babe when I was born. So I never knew this grandma. Her eldest child, another Polly, took over the mothering of the others when she died, while her second eldest, my father (Wilfred Henry), became the breadwinner for the family when his father James, a builder, was killed by falling masonry.
After Wilf came Nancy, who laughably exchanged her surname "Upton" for "Downton" on her marriage to Arthur, and who produced four sons and one daughter, my dear cousin Margaret. Then came the crippled son Jim, who lived as a crusty old bachelor with my childless Auntie Polly. He bred pigeons, and I remember the loving care with which he handled them. Auntie Elsie came next. She had only one son, Brian, while her next brother George fathered three daughters. Carrie, who was a mere eight years older than I, was the youngest daughter. To her sorrow she was childless, and she is the only Upton survivor (at the age of ninety) as I write this. Walter, the baby of the family, died young. When I unfold next a scrap of paper marked "Bagley," I see at once that my mother must have had a lapse of memory, because the first name that leaps out at me is "Anne Clancy." Apparently she was actually the bride of Samuel Bagley, and therefore mother of my grandfather Harry (he of the tweedy lap), not of my grandfather James Upton, killed before I was born. Or perhaps there were indeed two formidable great-grandmas from Ireland. Certainly Celtic blood ran in my veins from somewhere, of that I am sure. In the present generation then, on the maternal side, Wilfred Henry Upton married Florence Minnie Bagley and left only me to tell the tale. But my husband, himself also an only child of the Depression years, agreed we should create a larger family ourselves. And so were born Simon Godfrey ('54), Alison Mary ('55), Margaret Elizabeth Jane ('58), and Madeleine Joan ('62)—to become hero and heroines of their own family stories—stories to begin in England before dispersion through Canada and Australia in the course of time. To these, our children, I dedicate this account of their origins and forbears.
Before beginning a description of my wartime memories I turn to a story from my childhood. It is an account given by my father of my aunt Polly's misadventure as a young woman of twenty. It appears she was put in charge of a group of even younger maidens from the Sunday school when the entire school set out on their annual Sunday school treat one summer Saturday. This day trip to a park some miles distant necessitated a thirty-minute train journey into the countryside on a little-used branch line. Polly's opposite number, a taciturn fellow named Alf, was a few years older than she, and by all accounts was a humourless chap well able to put the fear of God into his male charges. Between them they were supposed to act as chaperones to a couple dozen lads and lasses whose parents would later be meeting them on their evening return to the Old Hill railway station, so Polly and Alf were expected to be back at their respective homes by 10:00 pm. This was not to be.
Alas for British Rail. When a flurried Polly and a harassed Alf had finally ushered their mustered group into the late (and only) return train, there was a dispute about tickets with the station master, who apparently refused to permit them aboard, Polly having somehow lost her adult return pass and Alf having belligerently defended her right to accompany her charges aboard. The train bore the children away, but the two Sunday school teachers were themselves forbidden to travel until the affair was sorted—which apparently happened the following morning when Alf discovered Polly's ticket inside the band of his cloth cap.
Yes, you may well ask, as I did, how it got there.
The sequel is attested to by my father. Apparently my granddad Upton offered Alf's father a rare dust-up if the young man did not make an honest woman of Polly by marrying her forthwith. Her feelings were not consulted; indeed neither reluctant bride nor groom was considered to have any say in the matter. Unchaperoned chaperones that they were, they had spent a night in each other's company, albeit in a cheerless station waiting room, and that was that. It certainly was not a match made in heaven, despite its origins. There seemed to be little or no companionship between them, and Polly seemed to accept that her truculent Alf was the only child she would ever have. She was a loving aunt to me and to her other nephews and nieces, however, forever welcoming and generous.
As for Alf, of him I have two memories. One is more of a general impression. He was a punctilious washer of dishes, and whenever I visited their home in the evening he was to be seen swathed in an apron—either up to the elbows in suds or polishing silverware within an inch of its life, usually muttering complaints about the government of the day the while.
Excerpted from The Shining Places by Hetty Clews Copyright © 2011 by Hetty Clews. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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