Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Memoir: Carrou Mor Vignettes

Carrou Mor Vignettes: Memories of Kirriemuir
And So I Was Born
I cost my dad half a crown in old money. With wages only a few pounds a week I often wondered if my dad had to save up for the midwife, but I was aye ‘my Bonny Lass’, so I suppose he thought I was worth it.
            Lizzy Battie was one of the midwives who served Kirriemuir for as long as I lived there.  She carried all her equipment in a basket on the front of her bicycle, whose loud bell she would ring at each of ‘her babies’ when she passed them in the road. “Yohoo Tom (Dick or Harry), you behaving?” she would shout with one hand waving and her black stocking wrinkling at the ankles. 
On this particular day, she carried a black doll with her, something she handed to my sister,
“here you go Hen, here’s yer new babby,”.
My sister promptly burst into tears, ‘I don’t WANT a black sister,’ she wailed and would not be comforted until after she had been allowed in to the see the crinkled bundle in our mother’s arms.
“See here Maggie,” Mum said, “this is Amy, your new sister. Look she’s just like you and she has your Daddy’s chin.”
            I was born in one of the first flats to be built on the new council estate after the war.  In the upper flat of a two storey building, and in the middle of a thunderstorm I arrived, a baby girl with a head full of tight black kiss curls and eyes that would turn the colour of a stormy sky.
When I was two, we moved down the road into a brand new house, red brick with harled exterior of tiny pebbles we could pick off as it pleased us.  The windows were metal framed that collected condensation and attracted Jack Frost patterning, on the inside of the panes, every winter.  Ours was one of a block of three shaped like a backward L.   We lived in the first leg, the Bruce’s in the middle and the Gourley’s on the other leg.   There were five in my family, my brother, sister, Mum, Dad and me; the Gourleys were the same.   The Bruce family, however, had four boys and one girl, a few months younger than me.  We ran in and out of each other’s homes, interchanging mothers when we felt like it; mine was the cuddly mum, hers the glamorous one.   Dads were trickier, I wasn’t keen on sharing mine, and I was scared of hers. 
We had three bedrooms upstairs, down a dogleg staircase, a living room, bathroom and kitchen with a linen cupboard where the hot water tank lived (and where I hid when upset). There was also an under-stair cupboard called a glory-hole.  In the ‘60s, during the Cuban crisis, I remember being sent home from school with a leaflet to give to my parents about taking precautions against nuclear attack.  It involved stocking the glory-hole with food and water and blocking the door with a mattress.  Exactly how that was going to protect us, I have no idea, but that was our government’s answer at the time.  Mum and Dad were less than impressed by my insistence.
“You want us to do what,” I seem to remember being my mother’s query.
“That’ll tak some clearing,” my father added around the stem of his pipe referring to the accumulation of Christmas decorations, suitcases, shoeboxes and Mum’s tea trolley that Dad had made for her and was only brought out for visitors. 
The front hall had an intriguing trap door that led into the foundations.  For some reason I was fascinated by that trap door and scurrying around under the house.  I was less keen on the attic for some reason.  In the hall stood an old oak hallstand complete with mirror, umbrella/stick stand and hooks on which my grandfather’s police helmet hung.  I think the idea was that the helmet was a deterrent element for any conmen who might chance their luck at our door.  Beyond the kitchen was a back lobby, with hooks for coats and a coal hole, then the door leading out to the back.
Making up the square of land where our houses stood, was a drying green, divided into shares with iron poles.  Actually divided into four squares, the men took turns at cutting the grass, and the women at using the drying lines on that fourth square.  
It made a wonderful arena that back green, a natural gathering place surrounded on three sides by our homes.  We would hang halfway out the upstairs windows, shouting encouragement to those below or stringing cans together from house to house as telegraphs for playing spies.  In the long hot summers, the boys would take turns standing on a chair and dowsing everyone from a tin watering can.  I performed my skating debut there, in the dark, using the poles to twist and twirl, sliding gracefully from one to the next and back again and only stopped when I saw the Bruce’s curtains twitch. 
My father had worked all his life as a gardener, until the estate he worked at was sold.  The walled garden that was my father’s pride and joy, was torn out for a tennis court and a swimming pool, the house divided into apartments and the land given over to a caravan park. Just before I was born, he took a job as a municipal gardener with the town council. He also looked after the cemetery, including digging the graves, something I found a bit scary but which he reassured me,
“Och no Bonny Lass,” he said, ‘tis last nice thing you can do for someone, laying them to rest.” 
For my first birthday he brought home a black and white kitten he found in the cemetery, subsequently called Corky after the cartoon cat in the comics.
In truth I think the move into the town was prompted by my mother. She had followed Dad from estate to estate around the country all their married life but she was really a town lass at heart and she’d had enough of the countryside by that time. She loved company and rural living could be gae lonely for women.
Though he never worked professionally as a gardener again, there was no denying the earth was in his blood.  It was natural then that at home he had a huge garden. At the side of the house lay his vegetable garden. For me it seemed as big as a field and here he grew all manner of wonderful things; rows and rows of potatoes, early and late season, turnips, cauliflower, cabbage, beans and peas and strawberries for us to pilfer. I’m not actually sure that wasn’t the whole reason he grew them, so he could jump out at us while our mouths were full of his harvest!  Well maybe it had something to do with Mum’s strawberry jam too.
Between us and the next block there were bushes for Mum’s blackcurrants.  I hated those blackcurrants; if we had a cold Mum’s blackcurrant jam was diluted in hot water or if we needed any other dosing – blackcurrant jam hid the medicine.  
Along the path between the house and the vegetable plot Dad always planted ‘pinks’, dianthus, whose heavy clove smell perfumed the summer, a scent I have never been able to recapture with any of the dianthus I have tried over the years.   
Behind the vegetable patch was our own private bit of grass in front of Dad’s shed.  I could stand there like queen of the castle and deny access to all – i.e. those two feet away from me across a cinder path or across a simple wire fence on the other side.  Finally there was a rhubarb patch beside the garden shed.  We would take a jar full of sugar down there, hide from the three kitchen windows, and stuff ourselves full of rhubarb dipped in oodles of sugar.
Separating the kitchen garden from the front garden was a rustic wood fence covered in rambling roses and honeysuckle. A step down, Dad grew prize winning dahlias and roses for Mum.  In front of the living window was a square of grass bordered in summer by white alyssum, blue lobelia and big red begonias grown from tubers he bought the year my sister was born and carefully tended every winter.  They lasted forty years those begonias, they and their off spring, before they succumbed to the combined un-green fingers my brother, sister and I.  Funny the things you regret losing isn’t it?

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