Rambling house down by the River Thames where my in-laws lived and I spent much time.
A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
I loved the ordinariness of the countryside. It wasn’t spectacular country, but it contained all the elements of the things which are now becoming rarer. There were thick hedgerows, and wild flowers and long grass in the orchard where the fox sometimes slipped through, on his way to the field where the donkey grazed: little copses, with their bare, spare branches etched against the pale winter sky, or billowing with green foliage against a blue sky in summer: woodpigeons cooed, cuckoos called, thrushes sang, and the smells of cut grass and manure, of wet leaves and sweet lilacs scented the clean air.
There was no hum of traffic from a distant motorway and few sounds apart from the occasional drone from a tractor, the creaking braying of the donkey, and contented cows mooing on their way to milking.
There were other things which showed me the dark side of modem farming. Henry the farmer, who gently patted his thirty prize cows on their rumps as they slowly filed past to the milking shed, where they stood and gave up their warm, creamy milk to the strains of Viennese waltzes, showed me with pride, his solitary calves. Each one was alone and imprisoned in iron cradles where they stood unable to move, turn or lie down, trapped in compartments in pitch-dark sheds, preparing to become white veal. I’ve never eaten veal since.
The house had no mod cons – everything was as it had been since the Victorian aunt’s childhoods. We had never been able to afford a washing machine for the babies’ nappies, so the lack of one was no drawback for me. So, while each baby luxuriated in smocked viyella nighties from the White House in Bond Street and was aired daily in the expensive pram bought by doting paternal grandparents, their nappies were washed the old-fashioned way. In a boiler.
This was filled with a hose from the kitchen tap. I then switched on the heater in the boiler and let the water boil, bubbling and swirling the soap-sudded nappies. They always had the same smell, those boiled soap suds. At the end of the boiling operation which filled the kitchen with steam, I wheeled the pulsating monster to the kitchen sink, and gingerly prised the lid off. Then, with a pair of wooden tongs in theory, but in practise with a wooden spoon, I poked around the scalding nappies until one became hooked on the spoon. With a quick swing it was transferred from boiler to sink, and then the endless rinsing process began.
Nappy by nappy was hooked and swung from boiler to sink, steam misting up the windows, and billowing out through the kitchen door to the rest of the house. My fingers became so swollen that I couldn’t wear my rings any more. Some days I was only one dry nappy ahead of the babies. Now Newney Hall didn’t even have a boiler, but at least Napisan, (hurray,) had arrived on the market, and banished my boiling days forever, however un-hygienic the nappies may have been.
The amenities of the house began and ended with the calor gas stove, while the bathroom and loo were directly above the kitchen, presumably to economise on plumbing. Since the staircase was the other end of the house, this meant walking or running the whole length of the house twice to get upstairs to the bathroom, but at twenty- seven years old the inconveniences didn’t seem to matter.
Living so far away from the shops didn’t matter either. The village grocer delivered our food for the week on Friday afternoons. The butcher called in his van three times a week, as did the baker. The greengrocer called twice a week, and the milkman called every day to supply not just milk to use up the baby coupons, but also yogurt and butter.
My husband left first thing in the morning for the London train, taking the old Morris Traveller with him to the station. I found expensive purchases hidden in the back of that car – a hat from Lock’s, the oldest hat makers in the world, who’d been in business since 1676 – Nelson was wearing one of their tricornes at Trafalgar). There was a shirt from Gieves (Nelson was wearing a suit made by the original Mr Gieves at Trafalgar too). I worried my extravagant husband was getting into debt again while I couldn’t afford a new lipstick). When we’d waved him away, toddler peeping over the stable door of the kitchen, the baby perched on my hip, we returned to the kitchen table to finish our breakfast.
After hastily scrubbing the high chair before the spat- out cereal set like concrete, polishing the chrome on the pram so my mother- in- law would not silently notice spots or rust marks, I handwashed cobweb-like shawls and lacy matinee jackets in cold water so that my mother-in-law could not suggest I’d turned them yellow by washing them in hot water.
And then more vacuuming, (why did I think it all had to be done every day? – ready for inspection, ma’am – my mother-in-law lived miles away ) sweeping, dusting, regular stoking of the fire, the acres of red and white tiled kitchen floor to be washed free of mud, all kept me busy till the baby woke and lunch loomed, and then the sieving and straining and mashing began, before more face-washing and bib-tying and strapping baby into his high chair and hoisting the toddler onto a cushion on a kitchen chair.
The slow routine of spooning and cooing to the baby and answering the toddler’s continuous eighteen- month- old chatter ended, with more face-washing and changes of nappies, before putting both children down for an afternoon sleep. This was the one hour in the day to myself. I ate my lunch standing at the draining board – cheese and biscuits – reading the newspapers – Guardian and Telegraph from front to back – I’ve never been better informed. I didn’t dare read a book as I would have forgotten the time and my duties.
I was so tired I didn’t dare sit down either, or I would never have got up again. I hadn’t had an unbroken night’s sleep since the first child was born, and now, with the baby’s night feeds and the other’s broken nights ever since her father had returned from Cyprus, I was so ground down that I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be normal. Staying for Christmas with the in -laws, my mother- in- law told her son, who told me – how plain I had become. She was right!
The newspapers only lasted till the first child woke, and then their faithful slave would bound up the stairs or rush outside to the pram, checking the nappies, and freshening up their faces before we got dressed for our walk.
Living in a northern climate one becomes accustomed to the hours spent preparing to go outside into the cold or the rain. It must have taken twenty minutes or more to swathe each child in coats, hoods and zip-up jackets, ease tiny, bunched feet into warm boots, and wriggle fat, plasticine-like fingers into gloves or mittens. Then the strapping into the pram, buckling the harness, propping baby up on the pillows, tucking in the rugs to keep out the draughts, and finally, flinging on my sheepskin and gloves, wandering out at snail’s pace or toddler-pace, to gasp fresh air in lanes where the pram would go.
We never met another soul, looking across the frosty, bare, ploughed fields. We were five miles from the village and buried in primeval privacy. Back home, we watched the cows go past for milking, which was the signal for our tea-time. This meal, composed of much the same ingredients as lunch, but including any cakes I might have found time to make during my lunch break, began around four- thirty. This I know, because I switched on the radio when we started, to catch the five ‘o clock news, and so as not to disturb the children’s concentration by leaping up to switch on during their meal.
So I became a captive listener to ‘Mrs Dales’ Diary’, as I waited for the news to come on, and spooned food and baby talk into thrush-like, open mouths around the fireside. I listened with stilled breath to the Congo disasters, the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence, the bombing in Vietnam, the mistakes and injustices of authority all over the world, it seemed, yet these were almost incidental. The pressing reason for listening to the news was for the sheer pleasure of hearing another adult voice, to break the boredom and monotony of the endlessly repeated trivial tasks.
In summer, at twenty- past five every day, we watched the goose spoon water with her beak over her two goslings at the duck pond, before climbing the stairs for our baby bath-time and bed- time. It was always early – because they were ready for it, I said, and needed their sleep. So by six o’clock every night silence reigned. Perhaps they did need it – they certainly never argued and fell asleep straight away – but the real reason was that I needed it. People used to comment on how beautifully behaved they were – because they were always attended to – instantly!
Before the words ‘suburban neurosis’ had been coined, I’d have been ashamed to admit the boredom to anyone, but a wave of relief swept over me, unacknowledged every night, as I walked downstairs and poured a drink into a civilised, crystal sherry glass, for my one leisurely tot before beginning the cookhouse stint for my husband’s dinner.
My marriage was breaking down already though my husband refused to go for counselling with marriage guidance. But before we left for Hong Kong, I had made a life for myself and found a circle of friends, Margery, the farmer’s wife who wrote poetry and read her poems aloud with a group called Poetry in Pubs. My nearest neighbour, was the Hon Jean, who had children the same age, which was the only thing we had in common, but she seemed to need me. Lady Selina, who divided her time equally between her painting, the stables and her children, and was both a Quaker, and a sort of enfant terrible was stimulating, while sweet Jennifer, whose children always fought with mine, shared a passion with me for interior decoration and gardening.
Eventually we left that enchanted house to go to Hong Kong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times almost obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of that beloved house. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful.
There’s one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical… no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!
We spent the last few weeks in England with the in-laws at their rambling red brick Georgian house down by the river Thames. Built by Thomas Twining of the tea family in 1722, a big sun dial told the hours on the front of the house above the front door. Inside it was decorated with glorious colours and filled with treasures and exquisite antiques and china collected by my deaf, difficult, demanding mother- in- law, whose creativity and taste taught me so much.
The night we left, as we sat in a big car lent by friends of the in-laws to accommodate all our luggage, we four and the in-laws who were seeing us off on our plane, I looked up at the old house, illuminated by the street lights and wondered when I would see it again. No presentiment warned me it would be twelve years before I saw that sun dial again, after what had seemed like a life-time of heart-break, adventure, life in a far country, second marriage and extraordinary experiences.
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
A friend who has her mahjong foursome to stay here in the forest for a weekend once a year, usually brings them to my place for afternoon tea and we have a great girls natter. They always love my scones and want the recipe. This is it, so quick and easy: eight to ten ounces of SR flour, pinch salt and two to two and a half ounces of butter – I simply grate it cold from the fridge. Mix this altogether with an egg beaten in a cup of milk until it all comes together. Use more milk if you need, to make a soft dough.
I don’t bother to roll it or use a pastry cutter. Just gently knead it into a square, about an inch thick, cut it into small squares, and place with a space between them on a greased baking tin. Some say leave it in the fridge to cool… sometimes I do – if I don’t have time – que sera sera. Bake in hottish oven for fifteen minutes or until risen and done. Serve hot with butter, strawberry jam and whipped cream if you have it. If there are any left over (not often) I fry them with bacon and fried egg… nice…
Food for thought
You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to satisfy me… CS Lewis – a man after my own heart.