Biting my Nails with a Bunyip

Around 1955 Mum and Dad finished building their bungalow on the site of an old orchard. This particular plot of orchard land, and most of the land in our street, had once been the inheritance of a mysterious great, great aunt. As time went by she began to sell it off in separate plots to other members of the family, and they all built houses. At one time, my grandmother, her parents, my grandfather, his parents, and a second cousin all lived in our street. My grandfather married my grandmother and his brother married her sister. There were thirteen or fourteen siblings in each family, plus a number un-commented upon reverse baby adoptions, by the older generation from the younger, which complicate the family tree. Many of the brothers died in the First World War. One, Uncle Walter, was blinded. He had been an officer, but when he came back all he could do was weave stools and baskets. They taught him this skill so that he could contribute to the family income. The children used to mock him, sometimes, at the dinner table. This made my great grandmother very, very angry.

My great grandmother was often very angry, and also disaster-prone. There is a story of her in church one Sunday – a large woman in a long, black, Victorian skirt, with her children following behind her. The children were giggling because she had left her blouse untucked at the back. Worse was the story of a favourite chicken that had strayed into her kitchen while she was trying to sweep it. Enraged, she swiped at the bird’s behind with her besom broom, but instead of exiting the kitchen the poor thing fell dead on the floor. Great grandmother wept and wept. Another, less harrowing, story was the one we used to call ‘Jelly Alice?’ which involved great grandmother offering my great aunt Alice a plate of jelly during a family meal – which promptly slithered into her lap.

There were many such catchphrases. If something had gone astray it was likely to be ‘Up in Annie’s room, behind the clock.’ If you asked what was for dinner you would be told ‘Cold kippers and custard,’ or ‘Cold cabbage and lard.’ If a storm was approaching the sky would be pronounced ‘Black as yer ‘at over Will’s Mother’s.’

And there were songs. My mother lacked my grandmother’s ebullience and rarely sang, though she used to whistle, which embarrassed me. Nan, however, used to come out with snatches of unseemly ditties such as:

Chase me, Charlie, / Chase me, Charlie, / Lost the leg o’me drawers…

And Carmen Miranda’s

I, I, I, I, I, I like you very much

(which embarrassed my mother).

When I first began to notice things, in the 50’s, the adults around me seemed preoccupied with the War – remembering it, trying to forget it, but always talking about it. I lived in a forest of voices, reminiscing, way above my head. In Nan’s living room, in Mum’s kitchen, in other unplaceable rooms, there always seemed to be these stories going on. They were about having to eat horsemeat, covering your legs with gravy-browning to look like stockings, making wedding dresses out of parachute silk and dressing-gowns out of blankets; babies slept on unscathed in buildings demolished by doodlebugs – wonderful name, horrible purpose. The doodlebugs came over making this noise, and then they stopped making this noise, and then you were for it.

I was shown, at intervals, a piece of white embroidery Grandad had made on the boats going over to France during the War. He had been injured by shrapnel (indeed, when he died at ninety-four he had shrapnel still inside him, plus the double hernia he got from having to haul great guns around on the battlefield) and this was the ‘easy’ job they gave him afterwards – travelling back and forth on the transport boats, looking after the horses. His embroidery was so delicate. I could never imagine Grandad’s rough hands, with their black and broken carpenter’s fingernails, scabby with Evostick, Bostick or whatever, embroidering. I had watched him in his workshop sawing up bits of woods and hammering in nails, of which he kept a huge collection on a shelf above his bench, in rusty tobacco tins labelled with sticking plaster. I imagined the boat rocking in a cross-Channel storm, the horses spooked, salt water everywhere, and being surrounded by hundreds of other men, most of whom, like those poor, requisitioned horses, were going to be killed. How could you embroider through all that? Imagination is a curse sometimes.

I could never get enough of my family’s above-the-head stories – well, any stories – but at the same time they made me realised how insignificant I was in the greater scheme of things. I even wondered sometimes if I was becoming invisible. I used to walk along the road and think, can people see me or not? Will I become invisible if I believe I am? Sometimes I quite enjoyed playing this game, it made me feel safe to disappear, but at other times invisibility just came over me, unannounced, and I seemed to be melting into the scenery, becoming air and bushes and fences and raindrops, and I was never sure whether I would get myself back.

How was I to compete with the War, this great cuckoo’s egg of an event, which had ended only seven years before I was born? I think I was a bit of a cuckoo’s egg myself. I didn’t fit in. Nobody seemed to know what to do with me or say to me. Everything seemed to be going on over my head. Nothing happened.

So, for something to do, I began to dig.

In the building of their bungalow, Mum and Dad unearthed small pieces of treasure. These things remained unnoticed at their feet. No doubt they would have been too exhausted to look down after all those evenings and weekends of heavy labour. In Mum’s case, I don’t suppose she could see the ground over the bump that was shortly to turn into my little sister. She was still carrying tiles up the ladder to the roof, though.

At first I thought I would tunnel to Australia. I was a bit worried about the hot stuff in the middle but I liked the idea of emerging, upside-down, among the kangaroos and aborigines. In one of my books there was a story about a Bunyip, who sat on a log most of the time, biting his fingernails. Since I bit my fingernails (and I suspect may have taken up biting them in imitation) I hoped that when I got to Australia I would catch sight of a Bunyip, and that maybe we could sit side by side on the log, nibbling companionably. To this day I am not sure whether wombats actually exist or whether they come into the same category as unicorns and flying elephants.

Unfortunately I got no further with my little tin spade than a cool layer of sand and worms. After that I contented myself with surface workings, raking around with my fingers to find, for example, great lumps of Kentish flint sheared off at unlikely angles. It was ugly stuff but supposed to be good for building walls and lighting fires. I tried knocking two of them together but no sparks came. I tried to knock bits off and make arrowheads like the cavemen, but the flints were heavy and resistant. My mother was going through one of her depressions at the time and feared that we would all be squashed by the awful Atom Bomb, which could fall on us at any moment. I began to wonder what it would be like when the Atom Bomb fell and we all had to fend for ourselves. Could we master the Kentish flint quickly enough to make arrowheads and spears?

There were all sorts of bits of china, as if someone had broken six or seven different willow-pattern tea services out there in the orchard. There were pink bits and blue bits and occasionally – much prized – green bits. Some of them had handles on. I washed them in bowls of soapy water to bring out the patterns. I tried fitting them together but time or the weather had worn away the edges.

There were bits of clay pipes, similar to the ones you could still buy in the corner shop, for blowing bubbles. I imagined our garden full of sailors dancing jigs and carelessly dropping their pipes.

Once I found a fossil, a complete starfish imposed upon a large round stone, as if it had just come to rest there one day and fallen asleep. Another time I found a fire-damaged medal with scorched, rainbow-coloured ribbons. It had an angel on it. Grandad said it was the Angel of Mons.

The best find of all was Evenings in Paris, a small, stoppered glass bottle – dark, midnight blue. Mum helped me to open the bottle and out came the most delicious smell I had ever smelt. I kept sniffing and sniffing. The smell itself seemed to be dark blue. Thick, warm and velvety. I have since been told that Evenings in Paris was considered a cheap scent, Woolworth’s sort of stuff. Maybe it was because it was my first experience of perfume, or because smells, like tastes and textures, are more vivid to children. Oh, the appalling tinny taste of cabbage; the poisonous bitterness of rhubarb; the viscous, boiled-slug texture of rice pudding!

At infant’s school you were supposed to eat up all your dinner before you were allowed back to your lessons. I remember our attempts to smuggle gristly meat and cold, lumpy mashed-potato past the giant, white-overalled dinner-ladies on pig-bin duty. You had to heap it up under your knife and fork or turn your spoon upside down to conceal the disgusting stuff. All this teaches you is that it is sometimes necessary to deceive grown-ups. I was the most cowardly child, and haven’t got much braver since, but sometimes I get pushed into corners by people. I can remember sitting in the empty canteen until three o’clock in the afternoon with a teacher urging me to finish my rice pudding, and just looking at this plateful of stuff, with its dob of synthetic red strawberry jam in the middle, wanting to be a good girl, frightened of the consequences, but not eating it. They must have given up in the end.

The other thing people used to say was ‘Eat up your cabbage/rhubarb/rice pudding because the Starving Children in Africa would love it.’ I could never believe that they would love my rice pudding; however Starving they were, but I would have been only too happy to ladle mine into a cardboard box and post it to them.

Anyway – Evenings in Paris. I promised myself that when I grew up I would buy myself a whole bottle of it and carry it round in my pocket, always. If the Atom Bomb hadn’t dropped by then. It never did. I never did.

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