A game of bagatelle

I seem to have written a lot about my maternal grandparents. They lived in the same street as us, further down, on the opposite side. I would walk past their house on my way to school. I would seek sanctuary there when things got too bad at home – Nan got all the sessions of hysterical sobbing Mum never saw. I would spend nearly every Sunday with them – so obviously they loom large.

I would guess my parents thought of my Sundays with Nan and Grandad as a welcome break, allowing them to focus on my two younger sisters. To me, it was a lifeline. Nan and Grandad gave me safety, space, solitude, old-fashioned books to read, peas to shell, mint sauce to make, brass to polish, a fat old labrador to pet, splendid Sunday Dinners and a fund of family stories and happy memories that I continue to draw on and console myself with. Those Sundays made the difference between survival and drowning, I have always felt.

There’s a TV ad at the moment for Workplace Pensions. It’s the Government trying to drum up a bit of interest in something worthy but really dull. In this advert, Workplace Pensions has become a giant, multi-coloured parrot-like creature with bulging eyes and a pleasant, puzzled expression. He pads through the park on his giant feathery feet, occasionally pausing to sit on a park bench next to someone, who ignores him, or to wave hesitantly at a group of Nannies with pushchairs, who also ignore him. No one notices. And that was how I felt as a child – the cuckoo in the nest. Nan and Grandad saw me as I was, in all my hugeness, with my puzzled expression and my multi-coloured feathers, and did not waste words, energy, slaps or sarcasm trying to convert me into a sparrow.

However, everyone has two sets of grandparents – and what a bonus that is.

My father’s parents lived three towns distant in the broad ribbon of suburbia we all belonged to, so we visited them less often. My mother was always tense during these visits, and that made us all on edge. My mother was the supplier of moods for the whole family. It was a bungalow in a quiet street. You walked in and down the hallway and the floor seemed to bounce underneath you. I was always half afraid it would collapse. Everything jingled oddly, all the way along to the kitchen at the end. Inside the front door, Grampa’s hat stand with its disused umbrellas, the grey belted mackintosh, the soft black hat. One day he went out to post a letter but died of a heart attack in the street. Sometimes I wonder, who was the letter to? Did he manage to post it before he died or was it still in his mackintosh pocket when they found him? That’s the advantage and the disadvantage of a brain wired like this. You lust after details, crave the whole story. Wood, of no consequence – look at the trees – no, look at the twigs, look at the leaves – no, just look at the patterns the sky makes, between the leaves…

The musical walk down the hallway seemed very long indeed. On either side, glimpses of double beds with shiny, eau-de-nil quilts and candlewick bedspreads; dressing tables laden with antiquated bedroom clutter – powder-puffs with ribbons on the back, for holding them; heavy hairbrushes and combs to match; little sea green pots with lids on, for face-cream maybe. It was all rather alien, like landing in Edwardian times. The closer you got to the kitchen the more all-pervasive the smell of Wrights Coal Tar soap became, and in the kitchen was a gas stove (the most likely source of the jingling) and over it a wooden contraption for airing clothes, which could be lowered and raised.

And so we would sit, in winter, in their living room, with the threadbare plush curtains drawn. Grandma abhorred windy weather – a trait I have inherited – and would always attempt to shut it out. “Devilish wind, devilish wind”. And because of Mum’s being so ill at ease we all, even Dad, seemed to be perched on the edge of our armchairs. The adults had tea, with a teapot and proper cups on a wooden tray with a cloth. We had warm, over-watery lemon barley-water in clear plastic beakers. The adults conversed and we knew we must be silent. I would let my eyes wander to the letter rack stuffed with mysterious bills and letters, the blue china plates on the wall with their scenes of canals and windmills, the Chinese scroll with the letters written downwards and dragons loosely coiled in the margins; the roll-top desk with the paperback books beneath, a string-holder with a trail of white string from a hole in its top, the sheets of postage stamps, letter-knives, sealing-wax, glue bottles with glue-scabbed orange rubber tops, and a bottle of blue-black ink. Blue-black. The right colour for ink, I always thought.

Grampa sometimes tried to help me with sums, since my parents told everyone who would listen how dreadful I was at arithmetic, but he was stymied by the residual terror from my father attempting the same thing, losing patience almost immediately and triggering yet another screaming, smacking and door-slamming session. Tears, tears, tears. All this unfortunately transferred itself to my mild, helpful Grampa. He kept talking about something called ‘minus’ when the sum seemed to have the sign for ‘take away’ in it. I was precise and intransigent about words. There was one ‘right’ word for each thing. Words meant what the dictionary said they meant, not what somebody casually decided they meant. As a child I took them at face value; as an adult I trained myself not to.

Occasionally we were allowed to go into the front parlour, though never without an adult hovering behind us, on tenterhooks. In here was a gramophone with a trumpet for sound to come out of, and a brass arm with a tiny needle in it to swing across and lower very gently onto the record. It had a handle you inserted in the side and wound, and this made the record go round. And there was a bagatelle board.

As a child I assumed there was a gramophone and bagatelle board in every front parlour throughout the land. The only reason neither we nor Nan and Grandad had got them was that we didn’t have front parlours. We would take one of the silver ball-bearings from the wooden slot at the side, place it against the end of the spring, pull back the silver piston and let it go. The ball would shoot out onto the board and bang around, sometimes getting caught in one or other of the semi-circles of rusty pins, sometimes going free. But it always ended up back in the slot, rolling down the side of the machine, joining the queue of other silver balls waiting to be fired again. I suppose that’s where pinball came from.

I’ve been thinking these last few days about the way we retrace our tracks throughout our lives, walking up and down the same roads, decade after decade, visiting familiar corners of familiar cities, sitting on the same park bench or at the same café table, year on year, in different circumstances, scarcely aware of all the times before. For instance, I grew up on that one street where my parents and maternal grandparents both lived. As a teenager I courted on the corner of that same street, while my mother sat sourly knitting in the kitchen. As an adult I returned to my parents’ house in the same street for visits. As a child I sat in that living room and watched the boy next door build a snowman for me. Now I sat with my new husband, restless, wondering how long before we could escape. My sisters and I sat on the floor opening our Christmas presents in that room, surrounded by discarded wrapping-paper. Now it’s full of cane conservatory furniture that’s uncomfortable to sit on and my mother sits alone in one corner, where Dad’s armchair used to be, unable to read, trying to follow television programmes she can neither hear nor concentrate on.

I imagine it in time-lapse – the parquet floor suddenly covered with swirly-patterned ‘70s carpet, then once again exposed; chairs and sofas coming and going, people scurrying in and out like ants, new curtains, net curtains, the TV flashing on and off like morse code. I think of those housewives in the Fifties and Sixties, being tracked around their kitchen for time and motion studies, light bulbs or some similar contraption attached to their wrists – back and forth in an endless cats’ cradle between stove, sink and refrigerator. And sometimes I think, what if you tracked a person like that throughout their entire life, recording this same drive superimposed on that one, this visit on that visit, this scenario on that scenario – what would that light pattern look like? This may be possible soon, I suppose, since we all now carry mobile phones. I believe they already track crowd build-up in potential riot situations that way.

And – straining the metaphor considerably, but for the last time, I promise – it seems to me that we humans are not unlike those silver bagatelle balls. We are shot out into the world by some invisible force, pinging and crashing around in a severely confined space, knowing of no other space, unable to control our trajectory; and sooner or later most of us will be snared by those little rusty nails. The rest remain free – but only for so long as it takes for their momentum to run out. Then they find themselves back in the slot again and rolling back down to the start.

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