I am going to end this week with an account of my relationship with my grandmother, Bella Lloyd. I cannot think of any other story that better sums up my feelings about the world in which I live. She was seventy-two when I was born and I had her in my life for a brief eleven years.
Born in 1880 in Brick Lane, my grandmother was the illiterate daughter of a market porter who worked in Spitalfields Market. The survivor of an abusive first marriage, her second was a love match with a man who sadly was an alcoholic. Yet it was love nevertheless, though he died leaving her a widow at the age of fifty-two.
Bella & Linda, 1962
You could have cut the smoke with a blunt knife leaving a slash which lasted minutes. It wafted upwards white and grey, like a tired hurricane circling slowly in a yellow plume, to rest edgily under the glow of the spotlight. The stage, like the floor, was covered with linoleum. At some time it had worn a pattern in shades of green, but now its edges were eroded and its surface pockmarked by cigarette burns and the scuff of heels. I sat on the bar and waited, the out-of-tune piano had been playing for some time when I saw her rise. She was, through the smoke, an unexpected dash of colour and movement, gliding towards the stage with a grace which belied her size. In a single movement she removed her false teeth, burying them deep into the pockets of her pinafore, and nodded to the pianist.
She must have been eighty at the time. Her age, like much about her, was wedged into the folklore of the area. Even to me, at six years old, she looked faintly ridiculous – a worn woman, with a mass of silver hair elaborately arranged into a hairnet – until she sang. Her voice, a shadow of a once-powerful instrument, caressed softly the notes of a blues number. With her eyes closed, I knew that she was transporting herself back to the time when she had truly earned her beer with her voice. Yet even now, cigarettes came to rest like an array of twinkling stage lights as the customers listened. They were not an audience from whom you would expect such – workers at lunchtime, men sitting over their hard-earned pints. Once she finished and had responded to the cries of “Come on Bella, give us another” for as long as she was able, we would go home.
Using me as her walking stick, our uneven procession ended at the bottom of a mountain. Two flights of urine-sodden concrete steps which always smelt of yesterday’s overcooked cabbage. “Go up,” she would say breathlessly, handing me the key to her flat, “Put the kettle on, there’s a love.” Finally, when the steam had been gushing for many minutes, she shuffled in, wheezing and gasping to settle down for her cup of tea and her snooze. Our lunchtime adventures in the Sebright Arms were our secret. Mother had enough reservations about Nan’s ability to handle a child without finding out that I spent my school holidays polishing glasses and emptying ashtrays in a pub.
Once Nan had settled into her armchair and the snoring had begun, I was free to roam. The flat had two bedrooms, one where my uncle Ted slept, the other hers. It was to this perfumed boudoir that I would retire until the time was ripe to waken her. What she had been in her youth, I would never know but the baubles and bangles attested to her flamboyance, and the faded old photos from the turn of the century to her time on the music hall boards. Smiling, huge in girth and dressed to the nines, she and her sister, Charlotte, looked down on the room. They had worked the boards, mostly at the London Pavilion in Shoreditch, until Charlotte’s marriage. She told me little of those days, the grinding poverty can hardly have been a pleasant memory.
One day when I was five, I had developed a toothache. Sitting at her old gate-leg table, my reading of the newspaper out loud was punctuated by a series of dribbles onto the type. I could sense her frustration as my pronunciation degenerated into nonsense. She could not read and I was her lifeline to the world.
“What’s up?” she asked none too pleasantly.
“It’s me tooth Nan, it’s all swollen.”
“Show me.” Bending over, she yanked my head with attached neck, nearer her eyes.
“Open your mouth,” she said, peering and poking at the afflicted tooth which throbbed beneath her finger. “Soon fix that.” Muttering, she opened the wood-panelled cupboard which housed just about everything from alka-seltzer to a shoe horn, and – with reverence – extracted an old bottle. It was one of a type I had seen on display at the local chemist as a container from a bygone age, small, squat and brown, with a plug-in glass stopper. The label, presumably once white, was aged to an amber colour, enhanced by runnels of past pourings over its surface. It was empty, she was annoyed. The dull sucking sound of her tongue against the roof of her toothless mouth indicated deep thought. Finally a wide grin erupted as she winked down at me. “Don’t worry. Soon pep it up.”
‘Pepping it up’ involved mixing a small amount of gin with the solidified goo at the bottom of the vial. I stood in the kitchen on the beer crate which doubled as my stool as she repeatedly immersed the bottle into hot water, working at the mixture with a thin handled spoon, her fat arms flapping like bellows with the effort.
“That’s it, good as new. Suck on this, push it over the tooth what hurts.” The sodden wad of cotton wool felt cold, then strangely warm, against my gum.
“Go in the front room and sit down, it’ll soon be better.”
The warmth from the pad electrified my mouth, coasted down my arms, through my abdomen, and into my legs. I sat on the floor, a molten mass of colours, and tried to focus on my jigsaw puzzle. The rain on the grimy window became a kaleidoscope of dancing rainbows, whilst a voice pierced the glow.
“Good stuff that, don’t know why there was all that fuss about it – never did me no harm. How’s the tooth?”
I looked up, she was drinking a cup of Guinness. I managed a nod before the world of light took me away. I remember going into her bedroom, whilst she slept, and playing with a string of pearls as I had a hundred times before. Only they were not the same, each orb had both a huge halo around it and a new clarity as if etched from ice. I held the strand up to the window, where it became a waterfall which flowed through my fingers and down onto the bed where I finally slept.
Next day, I pulled a chair over to the cupboard and found the bottle. The letters were faded to a pale grey, ‘Tincture of laudanum.’ It only was much later when I read ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ that I understood exactly what I had been given.
Summer was the best, we could get out of the flat. Rather than me for support, she would use an old pushchair – my shoulders could only carry her so far. When it was warm, we would make it to the first bench in London Fields and sit. There was a children’s play area which I was never allowed near. The local dogs viewed the sandpit as their very own territory and the sand itself had long changed from golden yellow to sludgy brown. I was never distressed at not flying through the air on a swing or pitching off the roundabout. If I sat and waited, I knew that – eventually – she would talk, not the ramblings of an old woman, but a kind of directed storytelling. She wanted to teach me, share with me her version of life. The slats of the wooden seat irritated my bum, but I never moved. In those days, she was substantial. Sitting back and squinting at the trees, she resembled a floral East End Buddha. We would look up at the patterns of the clouds, sometimes in silence, sometimes commenting on their resemblance to people we knew or those she had known.
It was here that I learned that her own mother, my great-grandmother, had fallen asleep in a drunken stupor upon Nan’s first children, twins, and smothered them to death. The mark of the blade with which Nan had tried to cut her own throat in grief was still, even now, evident. Here that she told me of the death and destruction of two World Wars, of the Blitz, of humour, and of love.
“This bomb went off, and we was all in this Anderson shelter. It had brick either end and corrugated iron over it. Well, we was trapped – the door blocked off by this pile of rubble. I heard old Bill Joyce outside ask if there’s anyone alive? ‘Course I bleedin am, and the rest of us too.’ He was a bright one, Bill. He picks a small hole in the brick and asks me to try and climb through. Head first I goes, the hole was just big enough for me arms and shoulders, ’cause being big I got stuck, so three of them pulls me and all the rest of the bricks out. I had them bruises for weeks.”
The veracity of her stories was always borne out by others, yet she lied. True, they had pulled her through the brickwork but, at her suggestion, because a gas leak in the vicinity threatened to blow them all to kingdom come, and there had been a baby in the shelter – and children to her were the source of light in the world.
More than simply relating her version of the past, she tried to indoctrinate me with her version of life and how it should be lived. “You mustn’t be like your mum, afraid of your own shadow. Always trying to do the right thing. There’s no such thing, you can’t live by a set of rules – it just happens to you. Like the pub, what harm does it do? You earn a few bob, get all the crisps you want, but she wouldn’t see it like that.”
“But she loves you, Nan.”
“I know, but she don’t understand. How could she, she hasn’t lived my life. You can’t always be respectable, sometimes you have to fight, break the law even.”
She had been in gaol twice, once in each of the World Wars. Born into the slums of London in 1880, or thereabouts, authority held little mystique for her. It was only in place, she knew, to protect the privileged from those such as herself. Had she not earned the nickname of ‘Bella the basher,’ my mother could have forgiven her digression, after all she had been playing Robin Hood. When she told the tale her eyes would glaze over and she was once more that woman of thirty-seven with eight children, all of whom were cold.
“It was a bitter November, that one of 1917. We’d burnt everything you could, some had even started on their furniture. I was coming down Brick Lane when I sees him, a young chap driving a coal cart all loaded up. He stops outside a pub and starts to unload. ‘Its all right for them as has,’ I thought. Then it came to me, I should nick the cart. He was a bit too quick or me a bit too slow, ’cause he caught me untying the reins from the lamppost. ‘Listen’ I says, ‘I don’t want no trouble but I’m taking it, there’s them as needs it more.’ He didn’t like that and tries to grab the reins, silly sod, so I lays him out flat, broke his nose. I’d never driven a horse and cart before, lucky the horse knew how to go in a straight line, cause I didn’t.”
By the time the authorities had caught her, most of the coal had disappeared and she had entered folk legend. I often wondered if the pile of coal which she insisted on keeping in her bath was more than a memento mori. As much as anything, I assumed that she kept it to annoy my mother who, try as she might, could not persuade Nan on the joys of having a bath. After her death, we found a neatly-wrapped pile of gold sovereigns beneath the coal – her own personal bank, ready for any emergency.
Our secret life together ended abruptly during the Easter break when I was nine. One of the men from the factory in which Mum worked sometimes came to the Sebright for lunch. She overheard him recounting the tale of an old woman who sang with a kid in tow. I was happily kicking my heels against the bar to one of Nan’s upbeat numbers when Mum arrived. Suddenly, I was grabbed and whisked out into the alleyway. Her eyes, a hazel version of Nan’s green, were manic as she shook me repeatedly, “How long has this been going on tell me? Tell me!”
Subconsciously, I heard the singing stop way before Nan appeared, “Leave her alone, she’s only a child.”
They faced one another. “If she’s only a child, what’s she doing here, you stupid old woman?”
“Listen love, she’s got to learn.”
“Learn what? About your bloody pride, an old wreck who still thinks she’s something?”
I heard the groan of disapproval from the audience assembled inside the doorway.
“Christ, you give my arse a toothache. I may be an old wreck but at least I was something once. More than I can say for some,” Nan spat out with venom.
“Have it your way. But she’s not ending up as a bar floozy or worse. Come on.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon filling in dockets at Mum’s firm, hoping that the storm was over. It wasn’t. My mother’s antipathy to pubs and alcohol came from the fact that my grandfather, her father, had been an alcoholic. The fights and tears, which she had experienced as home life between her parents were imprinted heavily onto her mind and no child of hers was going to be exposed at such an early age.
I never saw Nan sing again. I missed that. My school holidays in future were spent at home with my other grandmother, who had a whole set of other problems. Just before I went to Secondary School, I was allowed to spend one final afternoon with her. My mother had insisted that I wear my new school uniform.
Bejewelled and powdered, she lay propped on pillows, as it transpired just a whisper away from death. “What you wearing that for?”
“Mum said I should, said you’d like to see it.”
“It’s Spitalfields uniform?”
“Grammar School. Maybe your mother was right to take you away from me?”
I helped her on with the oxygen mask whilst she fumbled in her handbag for a crumpled note. “Here,” she said, “take this, for being clever.”
We sat in silence as she gulped air into what remained of her lungs.
The great pools of her green eyes wrinkled with amusement, “What are you going to do with it, Learning?”
I wanted to escape the smelly stairwells, the house with an outside toilet, no heating, no hot water. Lose an accent as thick as treacle. I wanted to be out there in what was, to me, the real world – full of other smells, other experiences.
“Don’t you shrug at me. I know what you’re thinking.”
“You want to run away – will run away, but you’ll come back one day.”
“I won’t. Why should I?”
“Because we’re real.”
“Other people are real.”
“Not in the same way. I’ve met them – afraid, anaemic scallywags. Not like you, you’ve got fight.”
“That’s why I want to get away, don’t you see?”
“I don’t want for you what me and your mother had. No, I don’t mean that. You’ll learn lots from books, you must, but there’s a bit of you that will always be here, even when you don’t know it. It’ll sneak up on you one day.”
“Nan, I love you all, but this life, it’s too narrow.”
“Just ’cause you’ll see more people, don’t mean you’ll see more.”
“We all has the same experiences, love – with or without money, with or without learning. We’re all born, live and die. If you’re lucky, someone might love you and you them. If not, it’s all the same.”
“So, if it’s all the same – Why should I want to be here?”
She coughed painfully, holding her chest, trying to contain the agony. Finally, gasping, she lay back with the mask all askew and I turned off the air, “Got any gin, Nan?”
Her smile was as broad as ever, “Thanks love, make sure you pep it up right now.”
I did, melding the syrup lovingly as I had been taught, and we sat sharing one last afternoon of colours and crystal light courtesy of that squat brown bottle. It was a bright and beautiful late spring day, the tree outside her bedroom window glowed hard with new greenery. Her once-powerful frame was shrunken into the bed, white on white, the only colour was a slash of red for her lips, and – as always – her eyes, which in that final laudanum haze challenged even the leaves for their splendour.
The sun had long left the room when I stood to take my leave. She lay more deeply now, almost buried, a wizened shadowed reflection of a life hard-lived. It was the last time I would kiss her still soft cheek and smell the oris root face powder warmed by her flesh. “Bye Nan.”
“Bye love, look after yourself.”
As I turned to close the door she was already asleep, her breathing uneven and shallow, enlivened by a gentle snoring. It was in the soft grey light of that early evening I said goodbye to my best friend.
In the many years since that conversation, I have often been less kind to myself than she would have liked, often not been the granddaughter she would have me be. Yet, even when I had removed myself from that past, moved – as I saw it – onto another plane, the shape of a passing cloud or a sudden rush of colour would take me back to her. Like an intimate friend, the memory would warm and remind me of her words of that long-ago afternoon. Much of what she said had been laced with fear for my survival in a world alien to her, yet the kernel of the nut had been sound. The native did return. In the end, she had been right both about reality – and my heart.
Bella and her daughter (Linda’s mother), also known as Bella, 1932
Bella Lloyd with her son-in-law, Harry Wilkinson, Linda’s father
Linda Wilkinson, portrait by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
Linda will be talking about her books at The Write Idea Festival today, Sunday November 16th, at 4 pm at the Whitechapel Idea Store.
On the evening of Tuesday November 25th, she will be speaking about her family and growing up in Columbia Rd as part of Where Do You Think You Live?
Copies of Watercress But No Sandwiches: 300 Years of the Columbia Rd Area & Columbia Rd – a Strange Kind of Paradise can be both purchased online direct from the author at www.lindawilkinson.org