More of Little Me

Our house was the typical Scottish home, with curtains, carpets, rugs, cushions; a veritable orgy of upholstery and shiny satiny remnants. There were three rooms on the ground floor: the kitchen, the dining-living-room - these two rooms being the centre of my universe from October to April - and the Sitting-Room.

The Sitting-Room was sacred. Bright, floral tones on an immaculate white background. The tiled fireplace with the fire permanently set, in waiting, ready to burst into flame when those unexpected, spontaneous callers dropped in for a cup of tea. Cushions embroidered by grandmothers and great-grandmothers. The deepest cherry carpet that swallowed bare feet in the most glorious of unimaginable caresses. Heavy curtains befitting a grand theatre, in an ocean shade of blue-grey. An Aladdin’s cave of smooth, dancing porcelain ladies, spit-and-polished tennis and rugby cups declaring this the home of a many-times junior champion, a bone china boy frying a bone china fish on a bone china frying-pan, and heady, perfumed flowers languishing in voguish, coloured glass vases. Tasteful clutter. The Sitting-Room was sacred. And Out of Bounds.

I played out my life quite happily against the friendly backdrop of reds, browns and autumnal shades in the dining-living-room, where I painted, ate, learned to read, watch sport with my father on rainy Saturdays, survived five bouts of German measles, and had tea and biscuits – one plain, one fancy – lying comfortably at my progenitors’ feet on the singed carpet in front of the fire. And my sister? Where was my sister? I don’t remember. An insignificant baby who entered my world when I had already been savouring life for 4 and a half years. Perhaps we’ll talk about her later on. Yes. I do remember her later on.

That day, my Daddy was away on business. My Beautiful Mummy and I were quietly safe and snug in the dining-living-room, lost amongst stories and pictures and darning. It was still too early to light the fire.

A tremendous, sudden, frantic crashing sound came from the Sitting-Room. Inhuman screams, banging on the walls, the sound of broken glass. A pause. A moment of silence. A woman of thirty-something with a skinny, freckly girl of four, alone, holding their breath. The silence continued, then

More glass, crashing about and guttural screams. A bad witch. Evil was a grown-ups’ word. This one was bad. Obviously. “Mummy! There’s a bad witch in the Sitting-Room! I can hear her flying!” Her cape was lashing against the walls like a silk whip. An ugly, bad witch, black from head to toes and from toes to head, flying round and round on her broomstick. Destroying. Our. Sitting-Room.

Suddenly, my mother vanished, and in her place Superman’s big sister appeared; braver even than Scooby Doo and his intrepid companions, she brandished a mop in one hand and a frying-pan in the other. “Stay behind me!” ordered this Viking Goddess, and we headed for the Sitting-Room door.

As swift as lightning, my mother pushed the door open hard and fast, splattering any witch that might have been hiding behind it. Another scream, this time coming from the throat, chest and diaphragm of my Superman Mummy. I could neither close my mouth nor utter a sound, so stood peeping out from behind my mother like a silent carp. For the first few moments, I thought my theory was correct: from the doorway, I watched as a witch covered our sanctuary in black ash, coal, black footprints, splinters and skelfs, filling the room with hoarse, wicked cackling. But then my mother leapt forward, and, like a Valkyrie, flew into the Sitting-Room waving her weapons and bellowing “OUT! GET OUT WITH YOU!”. Tippi Hedren at her best moment; Tippi Hedren combined with Mary Poppins as she danced on the rooftops of London.

The crow had flown or fallen down the chimney, and, finding itself filthy and trapped, it had turned into a blinded Fury, terror-stricken with panic and the urgent need to escape, to be free again. I don’t know how it left that room, whether dead or alive, but it was the only time I ever saw my adored Mummy cry; hot tears of powerlessness and frustration rolling down, in the face of so much soot and dirt, so much destruction in the Sitting-Room for Guests, for Sundays and for Christmas Day. The Forbidden Sitting-Room. Out Of Bounds.

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Playing at my grandparents’ house was quite a challenge; to keep myself entertained, alone, while staying silent and invisible. My maternal grandparents could tolerate a certain level of childish play-noise, but not so my paternal grandparents, so my activities were fairly well-defined in each household. “Ssssht! Grandpa’s working. Come into the kitchen.” The turban-Granny, now dressed in household attire, with a sensible brown tartan pinafore dress, even more sensible brown lace-up shoes, a green jersey and a brooch set with Welsh stones pinned over her heart. “You help me set the table, pet, and then, if you like, you can take Grandpa his cup of tea.”

Exactly eleven on the button. On the very dot. Knock, knock. “Come in.” The voice like distant thunder, the dark-grey-perhaps-black suit, the waistcoat (or ‘wesskit’), the tie. “Ah. Tea. Thank you.” If I was in luck, he would be sitting in his reading chair, and would smile at me and offer me a pastille of foreign chocolate, “Sssht. Don’t tell the women.”, and he would read to me from the National Geographic.
The chimpanzees……..please!” I have soft spot for chimpanzees even to this day; thanks to them, I was the only one of the grandchildren who ever managed to have some sort of relationship with that imposingly scary professor-gentleman, with his mane of snowy hair and his dagger-like fingers. Thanks to the chimpanzees and the tea.

But at my maternal grandparents’ house, there was a flying carpet. And there was magic, and porcelain-headed dolls, miniature sailors who had survived my mother’s entire childhood intact, but who, in the hands of my sister and me, well, you know how it goes. There was a Steinway piano and a whole stage-set of treasures brought from far off places with exotic, aromatic, romantic names like China, Egypt, India, Burma, and England. A whole mine of glowing coals to stoke my smoking imagination and keep it burning. And there was a bed - a sailing ship, a circus, a bubble-bath, an ocean – a mahogany box-bed with four posts and an eiderdown quilt like a silky, Damask-rose dream, a warm marshmallow that cuddled you to sleep. What a quilt! We jumped, we bounced, we laughed, we sang happy modern hymns and we danced on that quilt. My pretty blond sister with her rainy-day eyes, my Beautiful Mummy and me. And sometimes I simply wrapped myself up in the cloak of warm, pink luxury and lay, perfectly still, looking at the portrait of my mother, a child like me, arms draped around the neck and shoulders of my utterly serene grandmother, the portrait of a lady. Of a Woman.

Have you ever travelled on a flying carpet? I have. It’s not too difficult to handle, even in turbulence, and the technique is easy to learn. Stretched out, face down, propped up on my forearms in the upstairs sitting-room, the room with the piano, I flew over seas streaming with blue dolphins that played with silver-tailed mermaids, their hair held back with flame-coloured starfish. I glided over mysterious countries where pounding, pouncing tigers chased each other around trees so fast that they melted into puddles of butter. I went in search of Babar, the king of the elephants, and an Eskimo called Mo, and the castle of Camelot. I dipped past camels and brushed against peacocks’ crests raised in surprise, I frightened unsuspecting walruses as they chatted to carpenters down on the beach, and I was always accompanied on each and every trip by Big Teddy, Pink Teddy, Black Pussy, and Tessie. Big Teddy got left behind in France when we went on holiday one year; I imagine that eventually he learned to speak French but I was crushed by his loss and it took years to recover.

Table!” The happy sounds of doors, chairs, running feet. The table a rainbow of flowery china, the teapot with its bobble-hat cosy, embroidered table mats, coloured Irish linen napkins, soup tureens brimming with brilliant tomato soup sprinkled with fresh parsley and cream. What colours! What smells! Mmmm.
First one finished helps his neighbour” my Grandpa’s laughing perfunctory warning. The eternal war-cry of the most generous, warm-hearted, spiritually sane and healthy man I have ever met. Oh no! I have to sit next to him, and he’ll finish before I do, and he’ll eat my meatloaf and my vegetables and then I won’t get any pudding! Oh! My pudding! The fabulous puddings my Granny-Magic-Puddings conjured up from her book of child-enchanting spells in that tiny kitchen – ohhhh – lemon, apple or rhubarb meringue pies, clouds of lemon chiffon, fruit fools; fruit pies that were hot-hot-hot-be-careful-you’ll-burn-your-tongue. Bramble, cherry or apricot pies with plain ice cream from the Italian shop at the corner. Oh no! He’ll beat me! Mummy, help!

Colours, smells, sounds, flavours, sensations and feelings, but it was all beginning to fade………….

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