Part memoir, part fiction, an attempt to capture the mood of times past and some of the people who lived then. Something I may add to occasionally.
I was the eldest daughter, and very plain.
In a black and white photo, I sit with Nana at an outdoor seaside café while she smokes a cigarette.
She’s wearing a mid-length faux leopard-skin coat, her hair is set in a brittle white beehive, and her glasses are peculiar to the sixties, those ones which look slightly sinister, almost reptilian in shape, and flick up at the sides.
She wears elegant, high-heeled court shoes, her legs tucked together to one side as if she’s a model posing for the cover of a magazine. She looks down at me, her first grandchild, with an expression that can only be described as indulgent fondness.
In contrast to this vision, I am perched on the edge of my seat with a cup of tea on a saucer in front me, apparently in outsize proportions to my smallness. I’m leaning in slightly towards the plate of brightly wrapped chocolate biscuits in the middle of the table, a manic grin on my face.
My hair is dark and cut in an unflattering basin-shape with a fringe that looks roughly scattered by the strong sea-breeze. I seem to huddle inside a small duffle-coat like a baby hobbit; my short, plump legs dangle under the table, ending in white socks and a pair of sensible flat lace-ups which hover a short distance above the ground. I must be about two years old, yet have all the appearance of an escaped novice monk who can’t believe his good fortune.
Whenever Nana and Grandad came to stay, winter or summer, rain or shine, we’d go to the seaside café and have a ‘cuppa’ and a few treats.
Grandad must have been taking the photo that day, but he was equally as stylish as Nana and cut quite a debonair figure whenever he went out. He always wore a hat: ’Me Trilby’, he called it. Brylcreem had stained the inner lining band, leaving a dark, greasy tide-mark all around. It smelt quite distinctive, a mixture of maleness and tobacco smoke, as he made a ritual of his pipe and was never without it.
Another photo exists from that time of the three of us standing on another beach, somewhere equally breezy judging by the way our clothes are getting lashed against our legs.
I’m in the middle looking stocky and lumpen in a thin cotton, candy-striped dress and a hand-knitted cardigan (courtesy of my other Gran, the knitter). Because my dress is so short, you can see that I’m slightly knock-kneed which adds to the squat unattractiveness of me. I was never a chocolate-box pretty child, and I wonder how aware I was of that fact, whether it leached in from outside and coloured my whole bearing on life from such a young age, or whether that knowledge only crept in much later.
Both my arms are raised high as I hold the hands of my grandparents and we’re all doing a combination of smiling and scowling at the camera. It looks like a feat of endurance rather than a pleasurable day out.
Behind us looms the grey mass of my father’s old Rover, its distinctive rounded shape making it look like a giant sea turtle that got washed up and abandoned on the shoreline while we cluster in front of it and pose like tourists.
I’ve no idea why my father drove his car onto the beach that day, but it fits in with the man I later got to know: the kind of man who was quiet and mysterious, who followed his own agenda and often refused to toe the line.
He had an aquiline nose and jet black hair and was frequently compared to Gregory Peck by my mother’s friends.
It didn’t happen very often, but whenever he got ready to go out in the evenings, after he’d shaved and dressed, combed his hair and fastened his cuff-links and tie, he’d sweep over the shoulders of his best jacket with a special, hard-bristled clothes brush.
It always hurt my hands if I played with it, the bristles were unyielding and too sharp, but despite the pain I still remember thinking that he was the most handsome man in the world.