There are places that remain in our memories, the details may become slightly blurred, nostalgia may colour our thoughts, but they don’t fade. And how those places made us feel at the time is the one thing that remains.
Today I’m really pleased to welcome Liz Hines to Places in our Memories. She brings to life her memories of growing up in a house that was once a public house, and living in a strong matriarchal family.
It took the builders three days to knock through the wall of my bedroom to put in a window. Day after day, they chipped and hammered and swore until the hole in the four foot thick wall was big enough to let in the sun, but bigger than the view of Polly Garter next-door’s garden deserved.
My bedroom was at the back of the house in the part that had already withstood eight generations. In my great-great-great-grandfather’s day it had been a public house. Years later, when it was finally rid of the smell of ale and gin, my great-grandmother wanted the front, which at that time still bore the legend, ‘Albert Inn’, fashionably pebble-dashed. The work had scarcely begun before the local bigwig, Harry Libby, came thundering to the door, ‘What are you doing, woman? This is sheer vandalism, destroying the heritage of the village.’ My great-grandmother didn’t give birth to twelve and raise eight children to be told what she could or couldn’t do with her own home — especially not by an upstart village boy — and she told him so.
That house, the place of my birth and my home for twenty-five years, stands in the middle of a terrace in the heart of the village. It was a matriarchal household: throughout my childhood there were four generations of women living there, my grandmother being the dominant force. My grandfather was a quiet gentle man, content to sit in his chair by the window, listening to the wireless and smoking his cigarettes. The room he sat in we called the kitchen, though all cooking, and washing of clothes, dishes, and bodies, was done in the scullery under the corrugated tin roof.
The kitchen was a low-ceilinged room where the light was always on and the fire always lit. The one window looked out onto a limed wall, eight feet high and three feet away. It was a small room crowded with furniture – a settee, two armchairs, a bureau, and a dining table with assorted chairs. Shabby but clean and polished.
I see my grandmother now, bustling in.
“Put some more coal on, Jack, the fire’ll be out in a minute.”
Her husband chooses to not hear her.
“I suppose I’ll have to do it myself. Wait till I see that coalman, giving me this English rubbish, I’ll tell him.”
She rakes the fire and shovels on more coal. Standing up she wipes her hands on her pinny and then stops in her tracks. She picks up a candlestick from the mantelpiece and tuts.
“I’ll have to clean these tomorrow.”
It will take her all morning to polish the candlesticks and horse brasses and souvenirs of trips to Tenby, and when she’s done, the house will smell of Brasso for the rest of the day.
It is she who is largely responsible for my upbringing, my mother having to go out to work in order to keep me fed though I was clothed in hand-me-down dresses from my conveniently six-month older and much richer cousin.
My grandmother’s father had died the year before I was born leaving a legacy of legend. He – almost single-handedly if family history is to be believed – built Ford’s first factories in America. When the hiraeth became too strong, and he returned home to Wales, Henry Ford himself – again, the stuff of family myth – came to our village and begged him to return, offering to transport the whole family back to the States. But the women wouldn’t go and a good thing too else my story would be completely different.
As I said, my great-grandmother had eight surviving children and her presence in my growing-up home meant a constant flow of visitors. The encompassing of me within this extended family provided a shelter, the walls of which were stronger than bricks and mortar, and it was easy to ignore the non-existence of one person, to have only a vague awareness that something was missing but that it didn’t really matter much. I was surrounded with love and its Welsh synonym, good home cooking. When there were lots of us, the family, there for dinner we would pull out the table and I would squeeze onto the bench next to the wall. This was my favourite place, where the bricks I leaned against were warmed by Mr Shires next door’s fire. I sat quietly in the glow of conversation and knew that here I was safe.
In 1964 I passed my eleven plus and the door to the another world, to Glanmor Grammar School, a more precarious world of Latin and physics, was opened to me. There was one other fatherless girl in the class but her father had had the decency to die. I lied to those who wanted to know that my father worked abroad. The summer of love was still to come and, in any case, free love only applied to the beautiful people out there, not the parents of good grammar school girls in South Wales.
My French teacher was called Miss George. She was soft-spoken with a gentle face and greying uncontrollable hair. In her lesson she asks around the class the question, “Est ce que faites votre pere?” Thirty three girls sitting in rows waiting for their turn, or in my case, praying for the bell to ring, please, before Miss George gets to me, please don’t let her ask me. Shall I lie, make up an answer? “Il est un medecin. “”Tres bien,” where does he work? No, I’d blush, stutter, be caught out. “Mon pere est mort.” Convenient but they all know. The bell rings, the problem goes away for today, and I go home to steak and kidney pie and rice pudding.
So was that it? The worst I had to bear? It stands out in my memory but when I stop and think, try as I might, I cannot recall one unkind comment, not one slur on my parentage through the whole of my childhood and adolescence. If that was as bad as it got, then surely the family did its job well.
When I enter the house that is now my home, I breathe in the same sense of security that my first home gave me; I hope my children feel it here too.
I was the last of the family to be born in Albert House and I linger over the link with the past. I’ve looked on old maps, tried to locate the public house that was to become my home. I’ve never been able to find it.