Most of us are interested in other people – the pattern of their lives, the dramatis personae of their personal histories; and for many of us, what we grow up with is just our ‘normal’. It isn’t until we start to be aware of the lives of others around us that we can see our own lives in some kind of perspective.
That’s certainly how it was for me: I got to the age of ten before it dawned on me that my home life was unusual. For a start, growing up in the sixties in middle-class London, it wasn’t particularly usual for your mother to work. Mine always did; to the point where I often wondered whether she was more bonded to her work than her family.
It’s only been in the hindsight of middle-age that I have been able to put that apparent dilution of commitment into perspective – through dealing with similar competing pressures in my own life; but when you’re little, and all you want is a pink tutu, and to have PROPER parties with fairy cakes and glitter, the evident difference between you and your peers is all too clear if your mother is always running late, never has time to go shopping for the ultimate tutu, and has neither time nor inclination to make any sort of cake.
Actually, my mother made strenuous efforts to give us some of the things that our school friends had; but the effort clearly cost her a lot, and showed all too clearly. For instance, she made a First Holy Communion dress, worn first by my sister, then two years later by me. It was rather pretty – white Broderie Anglaise, with a fitted top stitched to the gathered waistline; but she didn’t finish it till the night before the ceremony, and what I remember vividly was how stressed that made her, how much she swore as she sewed, and how painfully effortful the process of putting the garment together actually was.
On another occasion, she baked a victoria sponge for one of my sister’s friends…and it was really very good; but it never happened again. It wasn’t lack of resource; I think it was just that she wasn’t wired with a domestic element – she had always been different, a renegade, a rebel, and she didn’t empathise one bit with a child who wanted to be part of the crowd. She had taken decades to break away from the conventions of a controlling upper-class background in Edinburgh, and ‘ordinary’, or ‘conventional’ were things to avoid.
My sister and I grew up in Barnes, south-west London, long before the days when this was the fashionable, expensive suburb it is today: in those days Barnes was a genuinely bohemian London village with a population demographic that included actors – Clive Dunn’s garden adjoined ours, Joss Ackland’s children were at the same nursery school, Sylvia Syms shared the ballet run and myriad well-known actors attended the same Roman Catholic church that we attended. There were musicians, writers, artists; but also what I would describe as ‘real’ people – on one side, our next door neighbours, Mr and Mrs Malcolm, were Armenian migrants who ran some kind of retail business - we were never too sure what; but we were sold cheap rice across the fence every month, and we saw their large, extended family come to visit most Sundays.
There were three plump, solemn grand-daughters, Mary, Jennifer and Angela, who were eventually joined by a plump solemn baby brother, Armen.
Mr Malcolm (I’m quite sure that wasn’t his real name, but calling yourself Malcolm Malcolm certainly does save complication if you have left a society where names tend to run to many syllables) built a row of enticing looking swings in his back garden for the Sunday family visitors: there were three different types of swing attached to the crossbar, and Catriona and I used to envy the colours and variety of the swings – there was even a two seater. In our garden there was a single swing, but it was held precariously in place by gigantic metal pins that would work loose and eventually break free. Once, my father pushed my sister so vigourously on the swing that the whole frame came out of the ground and she was catapaulted into mid-air, and then caught dramatically in mid-air by our father. One might describe that event as the sort of thing that happened regularly in our family – well-intentioned gestures that somehow went wrong. Gimmicks often captured my mother’s interest, only to end in half-success when something broke, or the interest waned. Life was littered with things unfinished, or fallen into disrepair.
Anyway, nice Mr Malcolm obviously caught a whiff of his small neighbours’ wistful longings, because he cut a gate in the fence so that we could play on his swings to our hearts delight.
On Sundays we often joined the solemn, plump children in the Malcolm garden, and it was at this point that I started to see notable differences in house style: Catriona and I were often dressed in clothes that had come from strange sources: it wasn’t just that they were hand-me-downs; it was the fact that the people from whom the garments were passed on were very often not known to us, were not remotely our size, and were frequently not girls. All of that is fine when you are blissfully unaware of how odd you look; but when confronted with the three Malcolm grandchildren, all dressed in tweely-matching clothes, you suddenly realise the oddness of your garb. Additionally, my hair was cut ferociously short – my mother had a fixation about curly hair being short, because she had been forced to keep her curly hair long by her mother, and in reaction to this had imposed her sense of redress onto me – and people often thought I was a boy. Which I absolutely hated.
The neighbours on the other side were an eccentric couple, Mr and Mrs W, who owned a laundry in Curzon Street. They had many lodgers over the years, and in the ‘60s these lodgers tended to be very much in the hippy mould: long-haired young men who drifted about the back garden in exaggeratedly flared trousers, playing guitars. Once, there was an anonymous tip-off to the police that one of these fey creatures was keeping LSD in the fridge, and there was a raid on the house; but nothing was found, and we concluded that the more conventional householders in Gerard Road were simply being malicious.
Apparently Mr W was an Old Etonian; but he had clearly binned his old school tie some years ago – he almost always wore carpet slippers, and there was a burning fag stuck to his lower lip at all times.
Opposite us lived the T family, who were salt-of-the-earth types, often stepping into the breach when things went awry with the child-minding situation, which it quite often did. I became rather fond of a jigsaw puzzle of the British Isles that I put together many times in that house…but it was only much later that I realised that all the county names and boundaries were wrong, because the puzzle belonged to the era of the Tomlins’s own children, who were about fifteen years older than us. For this reason, I have an absurd affection for the county of Rutland, the smallest jigsaw piece in the puzzle, even though the county has not existed for decades.
The backdrop to our lives, and to which I relate still on a daily basis, was music. Both our parents played and taught for their living; but it went a long way beyond that functional circumstance in terms of daily life. They were both rather obsessive people, and because work for performing musicians in those days was considerably more plentiful than it is today, they were busy, and travelled a lot too. In some ways, that single fact of repeated parental absence shaped my life more than anything else; and not in a good way. However, when our parents were at home, the house hummed with sound and life – generations of students from the Royal Academy of Music (where our father taught) populated the place over a forty-year period, often becoming friends to the family beyond the pedagogical context.
Catriona and I quickly learned that in order to ease household congestion at the weekends, we had to make vat-loads of tea/coffee for the students who waited patiently in the kitchen while our father ran wildly late in his lessons in the music room upstairs. In some ways, it was a terrific training ground for acquiring social skills: by the age of nine I was pretty fluent with the whole ‘hello-how-are-you-did-you-come-far-today’ routine, and had started to become confident enough to ask more personal things. The students always seemed happy to chat on, probably over-estimating my age and experience. I remember being surprised by one young man telling me all about the problem he was going to have with telling his parents that he was gay…because it seemed to me that his parents ought to be jolly pleased that he was so happy. I was only ten, and I knew no better.
In order for our parents to be able to travel, there had to be arrangements in place for us two children; and in the days when middle-class mothers often didn’t work, forming those arrangements was tough. That much I understand, and having gone through the process myself with my own two children, I know just how hard it is get the balance right…but it must be said that early on in my childhood, the Jenga wall of security started to wobble painfully under my feet when the absence of my mother became something to dread and fear.
Initially, my mother used au pair girls to help out: one was successful, the other not, but in any case, I don’t remember either. When I was two, she found a more permanent solution in the form of a Mrs P, or Pappy as she was known. Pappy was working for another musician couple in Barnes, the pianist William Blezzard and his conductor wife Joan Kemp-Potter. Their circumstances were roughly similar to ours, in that both halves of the couple worked, and there were two children to be accommodated. Willy played for a variety of well-known people – Joyce Grenfell and Max Wall in particular, with Elizabeth Welch and Marlene Dietrich making occasional guest appearances. It was in the Blezzard house that I first heard a Beatles record, played on a vast wooden clad record player. I don’t remember what it was, but the significance has stayed with me.
In a way, Pappy is a whole subject on her own: she must have been close to sixty when she came to work for us, although her age was a closely guarded subject. She had led a rather extraordinary life: born in Newmarket to a stable-hand father and a mother working in service, Pappy had gone through a whole raft of different occupations before becoming a domestic help in her later life. She often regaled us with stories of her early life – the time she had spent as an evacuee, working on a farm in Cornwall for instance, where amongst other things she contracted septicaemia and ‘lockjaw’ (tetanus) after cutting her hand in the field: potentially fatal conditions, her recovery was extremely lucky. She used to show us the scar on her hand by way of driving up the drama…and she always succeeded.
Pappy had been a Lady’s Maid to Lady Freda Dudley-Ward, and she recalled hiding the Prince of Wales (Edward the VIII) behind a curtain to conceal him from Lady Freda’s husband, William Dudley Ward.
Pappy had been taken on shooting trips to Scotland and would regale us with stories of what went on in the Balmoral set, most of which I think was authentic – all very much part and parcel of a bygone era, but good entertainment fodder for impressionable youngsters.
Because I was so young when Pappy first joined our lives, I don’t remember her initial appearance at all; the first things I recall are when she became a regular Tuesday night presence, because our mother had taken a job at The Colchester Institute, which required her to make an overnight stay each week. Our father was sometimes there on those Tuesday evenings; but not consistently enough to do regular child-minding.
We always enjoyed the times when he did look after us – Monster Babysitter, as he called himself – because during the times when had a whole day, he would take us on trips by train (he couldn’t’ drive) and show us places of interest, like Oxford, Ely, or Aldeburgh.
He was also terrific at reading to us: we started with Jane Austen when we were very young, and progressed through ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Emma’ before we were more than eight and ten.
On the Tuesdays nights when he was looking after us, he would put the wireless on while we had supper, and we were regaled with the best of Radio four drama: at that time, the BBC had serialized ‘War and Peace’ over twenty six weeks; and Catriona and I were introduced to this Russian classic at the tender ages of six and four. I still associate Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, used as the theme music, with the book; and the remarkable dramatic veracity of the production had me hiding under the kitchen table with my hands over my ears when Princess Lisa died in hideously distressing childbirth in an early episode.
Tuesday nights with Pappy will forever be associated in my mind with mushrooms on toast; for this was what Catriona and I were fed. Every Tuesday.
I don’t know how long the arrangement went on for; but I do know that to this day, I can’t stand mushrooms on toast. It’s also about this time that the situation with Pappy started to develop some cracks – small at first, but increasingly alarming, and to the two of us children, a disturbing and increasingly noticeable ripple in our domestic serenity.
To begin with, it is obvious looking back, that Pappy had an alcohol problem. One that is was easy enough to disguise when her role was a daily thing; but once she started to do nights too, one couldn’t fail to notice. Guinness was her favoured tipple in the pub – to which she took us quite often if she had care of us at the weekend. We would be parked in the garden with drinks and packets of crisps and left for what felt like hours while Pappy held court in the pub with one or other of her men friends; and this was the other thing that became apparent over time: that Pappy had a large cohort of men to squire her.
There was George – he was, in my memory, so old and crumbly that one feared he would disintegrate. I associate him with a fusty smell and hairy tweeds. He lived in a flat in St Leonard’s Road East Sheen, where occasionally Catriona and I would be taken on a Saturday or a Sunday after a trip to the Bull’s Head East Sheen. On one such visit, Pappy opened a box in George’s flat, revealing a heap of trinkets and intriguing little objects. She took out handfuls of things and gave them to us, urging us to take the things away with us. I still have a little Russian leather cigarette case and a silver bracelet that had, allegedly, belonged to George’s late wife Birdie. Of course George had no idea that his flat had been plundered in this way, and we were too young to know how to deal with such a situation; but I feel uneasy about the event even now, fifty years later.
Then there was Charles. I recall that Charles was short and dumpy, with a Colonel Mainwaring-like appearance. He was a great doyen of The Bull’s Head, but I think his real attraction to Pappy lay in the fact that he had a car. I even remember being in the car on quite long journeys, although I don’t recall where to.
Sometimes there was Bernard, who took us to a pub in Richmond. I remember wanting the loo badly on one occasion, but we were alone in the garden with only the option of a dingy outside lavatory, and the smell of disinfectant was so strong, I threw up.
The Bull’s Head was a vast pub, or so it seemed to us: in bad weather we were parked in a side room, in what was clearly a space used for dinners or dances. It was cavernous, empty of furniture, with a loud paisley carpet. The saloon bar was divided from this room by what must have been a former carriageway into the back yard, and it was playing there that Catriona and I made friends with the little boy, Patrick, whose parents ran the pub. That at least gave us some companionship in the distinctly non-child-friendly atmosphere of a ‘60s London pub. On one occasion, we heard a mighty group shout from inside the pub…the winning goal of the World Cup 1966.
I’m not sure what the context of these multiple relationships was for Pappy; but it was pretty clear that she took ruthlessly from these elderly men; and that they were cravenly adoring of her. They called her ‘Ireeney’: her name was Irene, but her affectation was to extend the middle E for exotic benefit; and they bought her any number of drinks. Amongst her gentlemen friends she would transition to cocktails rather than Guinness – Gin and It, or Dubonnet.
These doting fellows didn’t seem to mind how rude she was to them – which she was, very; and from their perspective, the only fly in the ointment was the fact that she often had these two little charges, who needed to be bought off with a drink and a packet of crisps. She seemed to morph into something slightly girlish and flirtatious – almost coquettish (had we known what that was) in the company of her pub coterie; and we simply became invisible. Conditioned to keep quiet and cause no trouble.
I started to learn something about our background on our mother's side, when I overheard Pappy boasting about our heredity to a burly Scotsman at the Highland Games in Richmond Park. I really have no idea why there was such an event in suburban London, nor why it was thought to be a good idea to take us there; but clearly, for Pappy, flirting with muscly Scotsmen in kilts was the equivalent of being trapped in a sweet shop overnight. As one drink led to another, she acquired a small court of kilted admirers; and her voice rose with the enthusiasm of her narrative.
She was telling the kilted men about children who 'are Lady Moncrieff’s grandchildren’. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about: my Grandmother died eight days after I was born, so I never met her; and neither the name, nor the title meant anything to me at all. It just blended into the general hyperbole of Pappy’s dramas; another story, into which she had woven the dramatis personae – us.
Tuesday evenings would move into the realms of sweet Sauternes for Pappy, which she would swill with faux elegance, in time to loud radio two – often Frank Sinatra, whom I began to hate. Pappy would sing along, sometimes encouraging us to dance on the kitchen table with the volume turned up fortissimo…and on the whole, she was good-humoured enough. As time went on, this would change unpleasantly; but at that stage, other than the fact that I missed my mother painfully every time she went away, we were not unsafe.
However, the insidious comments that Pappy made to us did start to drip negativity and unpleasantness into our minds: ‘you eat too much salad’ was one interesting comment on the rather unusual diet we had – in the ‘60s people didn’t generally eat salad regularly, unless it was a very tired, well-exercised lettuce leaf from a really taste-free plant, or was well-disguised root vegetable larded in commercial mayonnaise. They certainly didn’t have the garlicky, oily dressing that my mother made. Nor the natural yoghourt we ate as the only pudding every offered. Of course it wasn’t about health and nutrition really, more personal preference of our mother, rooted in time spent studying in Paris in the late ‘40s, where her love of European food and customs took hold in the grey post-war years.
Pappy was a person who espoused ‘theories’, most of which had absolutely no basis in science, or even in reliable received opinion. These were theories that seemed to emanate from years of living on the fringes of a bizarre collection of people – a sort of smorgasbord of folkloric mumbo-jumbo and utter nonsense. ‘You’ll end up fat like your mother’ was another prize piece of psychological perversion. For a start, my mother was the centre of my world, and having her insulted behind her back was upsetting enough; but to add to the confusion by suggesting that there was something bad about her that was going to be handed on to me…well, it’s hard to know quite where to start with the emotional disturbance of it.
Pappy also didn’t like being told what to do, and as our mother was a person of enormously strong views on absolutely everything, it was inevitable that there would be clashes between them. According to Pappy, our mother was ‘dictatorial’; according to our mother, Pappy just needed to do what she was told; and we were caught in the middle. Sometimes it was funny to listen to Pappy’s nonsense – she had a series of amusing Malapropisms, which even at a very young age, we knew were wrong: ‘ridicerlous’ was one, applied to behaviour she disliked. ‘Convent Garden’ was another; and ‘Auntie Perticia’, for my mother’s sister Patricia, was always guaranteed to drive our mother completely nuts. Increasingly though, the situation was wearing thin.
About two years after Pappy started working for us, my mother decided to instigate a building project. In a manner that was typical of our lives, this had a good basic idea behind it – to enlarge the house, and to update the very old-fashioned amenities; but the people charged with implementing the plan were two of the unlikeliest candidates for any kind of building project: a singer friend and his partner, who was a composer and teacher of harmony at The Royal Academy of Music.
Now our mother was someone for whom loyalty was an extremely important element in life, so when this couple decided to set up a building firm, she thought it was an ideal opportunity to throw business their way. Which would have been fine if either they had known what they were doing, or the people they employed had been any good.
I remember remarkably little about the whole escapade, other than the fact that the building process involved taking off the back of the house…for the entire winter; and we all had to sleep in one room in order to keep warm and maintain any level of security.
At some point in the process, the building company went bust, and elements of the project were not finished. A typical Kelly style project, where nothing was ever properly completed; but the main thrust of the plan was successful, in that we had a much-enlarged house with better bathrooms. The day the builders signed the project off, I went round all the windows on the extension and poked my finger into the barely-hardening putty. And ate some of it, encouraged by the smell. Lord knows how I survived either what must have been very poisonous stuff, nor, my mother’s wrath when she found the little imprints of my digit all round the new window frames.
Around this time, the Thames flooded, and I remember being taken down to the Thames towpath, which was at the end of our road. I had a pair of red wellingtons, in which I splashed happily up and down what was normally Lonsdale Road. A historic moment, because that was the last time the Thames flooded in that area – the Thames Barrier was built to prevent it happening again.
Pappy was always dressed to kill: she wore a wig, which changed colour as time went on. It wasn’t that she didn’t have hair – she did; but she had lost a lot of it when she had lockjaw; and in the same way that she seemed able to reinvent her whole life and history at the drop of a hat, she used the wig to create different personae. When she started coming to stay, we saw what was under the wig, and became fascinated by the rituals of dressing – both herself, and the wig.
She had an array of corsets, largely made of wire it seemed, with straps hanging down to which she would attach stockings. Her wardrobe was astonishingly large, and not at all the stuff of a woman whose work was largely domestic. Again, it was a matter of pride to her, and yet another point she liked to score against our mother, whose garb was often very shabby.
Pappy liked to boast about the other people she worked for: the Blezzard connection with Joyce Grenfell and Marlene Dietrich was a massive bonus; and another of Pappy’s employers, Lady Leslie (‘a titled Lady’) was also a Barnes resident. Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of Pappy’s conversation, was her habit of telling us all about her other employers, in great, personal detail. Which of course, led us to wonder what was being said about us. I certainly learned more than I wished to about the construction of one person’s bras, and another person’s underpants.
In a way, the slow decline of the childcare situation was so gradual that it didn’t become critical until too late; too late, that is, to prevent some collateral damage. Like all partially successful domestic arrangements, everyone was trying to hold onto the positives, to avoid having to confront something really quite troubling: that Pappy was not fit to do the job she was paid to do. That, and the fact that filling that domestic position would have been horribly difficult. As it was, Catriona and I had been farmed out to neighbours, local friends and relatives on a number of occasions, so the possibilities were becoming limited. One particular half term, our mother had been booked to play on the sessions for the film of The Boyfriend, directed by Ken Russell, with music by Peter Maxwell Davies. For whatever reason, Pappy wasn’t available, so we spent each day of half term with a family in Barnes. They had ten children, two of whom were roughly contemporaneous with us; so it seemed on the surface as though it would work; but it was another example of us being displaced from our home at a sensitive time, and I think we both found it difficult.
The last straws for Pappy came in 1970: a particularly busy year for our parents, because in addition to the usual comings and goings, they went on a tour to Bulgaria and Romania, lasting three weeks, shortly after which, they went away to Hong Kong and the far east for close to a month. One can only imagine the child-minding nightmare this would have posed; and of course there is no doubt that all the best intentions were at work; but what had not been catered for was the serious acceleration in Pappy’s alcohol consumption, and the effects that this had on her behaviour.
It now seems to me looking back, that this moment in our life was utterly miserable: almost the moment our parents had disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, Pappy became a monster. She was alternately bullying and mean to us, constantly telling us how badly our parents brought us up, criticising our diet, shouting at us. On one occasion, she flew into a rage because I wouldn’t eat the treacle sponge she had provided for our pudding: ‘All my other children eat it, and love it! What’s wrong with you?’
I don’t remember exactly how the episode ended, but I do remember running up to my bed, crawling under the duvet and sobbing. And I do remember Catriona coming into the room almost immediately after and creeping under the duvet with me, so that we clung together like terrified, miserable fugitives.
It wasn’t so much the incidents themselves that bothered us – although Pappy was clearly out of control; it was the sense of helplessness, and the fact that Pappy would say ‘of course I will have to tell your parents how bad you have been…’ so that we dreaded being shopped to our parents.
When our parents returned three weeks later, I remember the mounting anxiety of waiting for them to arrive. We had been told that they were coming back via Istanbul, and on the day they were coming home, news came that the plane was delayed. When they finally arrived home in a taxi, I remember running down the path towards the waiting cab, and clutching at the part of my mother I could reach (her waist) sobbing. Just before leaving for this trip, she had bought a new coat, with highly intricate metal buttons. I pressed my face to her midriff, my cheek connecting painfully with the raised patina on the button…but the discomfort mattered not at all: I had my mother back.
It later transpired that the neighbours in Gerard Road had spoken to our mother after this particular episode. One elderly lady had said ‘Mrs Kelly, your children were not happy when you were away’; but our mother was often bracingly optimistic about things, and probably because we ourselves had said nothing to her, having been bullied into silence, it did not dawn on her quite how difficult things with Pappy had become. So when our parents disappeared on their trip to Hong Kong, we were resigned and accepting. I think, looking back, that the promise of presents went some way to sugaring the pill, and indeed, we were brought some beautiful things from all these tours; but there was a wearying sense of vulnerability about it all.
I don’t remember any particular drama during the Hong Kong tour; so maybe enough had been said to Pappy to keep her under some kind of control; but things came to a head a couple of months later, and brought the whole Pappy-reign to a sudden end: just before Christmas every year, our parents would go up to Scotland for a performance at Stevenson House, just outside Haddington. The composer Isobel Dunlop lived there in an apartment built within the former stable block. Her brother Jack and his wife Betty lived in the big house; and as part of their Christmas celebrations, Isobel had written a Nativity piece, involving singers, a violinist, a pianist and a cellist.
There is no doubt that this particular event was one of the highlights of our parents’ year; and subsequently, when Catriona and I were fifteen and seventeen and were invited to come along, we could see exactly what the enchantment was: a beautiful house in lovely grounds; warm, hospitable hosts; delightful music.
A real sense of old-world grace and charm; but of course, what we found difficult was that the build-up to Christmas was imbued with stress and angst – the two of them struggling to conclude term whilst arranging to go up to Scotland in one of the busiest weeks of the year, returning in a totally frazzled state two days before Christmas.
I don’t remember all the details of the episode; but enough remains for me to know that this was an event of significant trauma, and one that finally brought home to our parents just how bad things had become with Pappy.
How it began, was with Catriona and I being separated: in a way, that was the most dreadful part about it – our emotional survival had been largely possible because we had each other. Whether Pappy actually intended this to be the case, I can’t say; I think she had probably reached a point where she just couldn’t cope any more, and was seeking ways to reduce her responsibilities. So, she took me on the number thirty-three bus to Richmond, to her flat, and left me there.
Pappy lived in a flat over a shop in the Twickenham Road, just by the bridge. In the flat beneath hers lived her oldest son Derek, his wife Irene and their two children Nicky and Spuddy. In my memory, Derek was like a cheap version of Peter Wyngarde – all moustache and sickly aftershave. Irene had blindingly bright peroxide hair and several inches of black eyeliner round each eye. Their children spoke through adenoids and whined a lot; but one really couldn’t blame them – their parents were simply vile to them. Catriona and I had witnessed Derek pulling off his leather belt and whipping Spuddy on at least one occasion; and although we had been smacked often enough, the crude violence of this beating terrified us both. Particularly when the crime seemed remarkably small for the level of punishment meted out.
Pappy had frequently complained to my mother that Irene and Derek were irresponsible parents, and they would leave their children unsupervised all night whilst going to parties; and unfortunately for Pappy, that’s exactly what happened on this occasion: having left me in the care of her charming son, daughter-in-law and their two children, Irene and Derek went out for the night; and didn’t return.
I honestly think that I was so innocent of such treatment, that I didn’t realise what was going on at first. I was much more concerned to avoid being kissed goodnight by terrifying Derek with his cloying aroma and slippery nylon purple shirt. It was only when both Nicky and Spuddy started to cry in the middle of the night, that it became apparent to me that we really were completely alone. We were all crammed into one small bed, Nicky sniffing and coughing with a snotty cold, Spuddy (who can only have been about four) whimpering. Even if I hadn’t been so hopelessly out of my depth, there would have been no way of contacting anyone – the shop downstairs was closed and the flat upstairs (Pappy’s) was empty.
Unfortunately for Pappy, my parents returned a day earlier than expected; and when they arrived in Barnes to find their younger daughter was absent, explanations were sought. I don’t remember being fetched from the flat in Twickenham Road; but what sticks in my mind clearly is the evident anger that both my parents showed towards Pappy; and it really was a deal-breaker: she never came back.
It would be unfair to say that the times we spent with Pappy were entirely unpleasant: I have some happy memories of getting into bed with her in the early mornings in our spare room, drinking tea and tracing patterns in the wallpaper – a reproduction of pre-Great Fire of London images, on which the old London Bridge was still there. At these moments, she was kind and a source of welcome warmth, literally and metaphorically. She also kept me in touch with a little of what was going on in the outside world: we had no television, and events of national and international importance sometimes passed us by. It was sitting in bed with Pappy early one morning that I learned of the disaster at Aberfan in 1966, and the following year, the Torry Canyon oil spill on the south west coast of England, that caused environmental damage that would last decades.
It is also true that whatever the failings of the system, we did learn a lot about life at this early age; and can still laugh at some of the more crazy aspects of Pappy’s behaviour. True, I shall never eat mushrooms on toast again; and true that it took me till I was in my thirties to realise that Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest artists of all time…but I do have handy hints of one hundred different ways to dress a wig, and it’s no loss to me that I hate Sauternes.