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A Shout From The Attic: Nanny's Room

"The room boasted a Pianola that I coveted, a radio that was never turned on, and a gramophone that was never played. The gramophone was driven by clockwork and the sound reproduced acoustically by a steel needle vibrating in the groove...'' Ronnie Bray, continuing his vividly-remembered life story, recalls the room in his grandmother's lodging house which served as her refuge and place of shelter from the world.

The front room - Nanny’s sanctum sanctori - had a lush Wilton or Axminster carpet. I thought it was Persian, but René was in the know. The bay window had lace mind-your-business curtains, a set of floor-to-ceiling heavy curtains, and a luxurious settee that converted into a double bed. It became a bed for Nanny and René when they vacated their little front bedroom on the first floor. This they did from time to time to make room for another lodger, or on the occasion of a visit from Uncle Joe Burgess and his second wife Mary. Lodgers occupied the big front bedroom on the first floor and the large attic room on the second floor where the steps were narrower and were used in olden days by servants. I remember an easy chair matching the bed settee, but René says there wasn’t one. Maybe she just didn’t look carefully enough!

They once slept in the front room when nanny took in a dentist. He was a nice, cultured, and gentle person but he wet the bed and so he had to go. Another time she took in a bus conductor who had more than a passing affection for small boys when I was a small boy, and he had to go.

The room boasted a Pianola that I coveted, a radio that was never turned on, and a gramophone that was never played. The gramophone was driven by clockwork and the sound reproduced acoustically by a steel needle vibrating in the groove. To enter the front room, the only wallpapered room in the house, one stood outside its door, not a little fearful, knocked at the door and waited for the “come in” from the sole occupier, Nanny.

It was her refuge and place of shelter against whatever realities she did not enjoy. Keeping a lodging house is not an easy profession, and although mother was the maid of all work, Nanny was the hand on the tiller, the Captain, and the First Mate.

Once admitted to the presence of the potentate, one’s petition was delivered in suitably hushed and reverent tones after the fashion of Esther, but with a less queenly stance. Adopting the attitude of a child seemed to work well enough. This was no place to be bold. I sometimes think at the luxury of distance that Nanny may have been a lot nicer than she appeared to be, but she didn’t seem to get close enough to anyone to let them find out if she was so it remains highly speculative. René recalls that “Nan lived by Victorian values that children should be seen and not heard, and they should be unwaveringly obedient.” Amen!

The marriage of our parents took place several months after René's birth. Then, father moved in with mother in the first-floor rear bedroom. This room had a large window and a cupboard on the left side of the fireplace. The cupboard, known as the airing cupboard contained the ‘copper’ that was a hot water cylinder. In my memory, this cylinder is about nine feet high. Mother confirms that it was only six feet high, tall indeed for a hot water storage cylinder.

She also told me that my Nan would hide herself in this airing cupboard when she wanted to go out without anyone knowing. Mother says she has no idea why this subterfuge should have been necessary, and René says she has not heard of this, but can’t see our Nan hiding from anyone, and neither can I. Even so, one doesn’t like to think about their grandmothers being up to no good, but it does seem suspicious.

Along the inside wall of the bedroom stood a chest of drawers. This also I remember as being of an unusual height. At the very top, a secret drawer could be pulled out by those in the know. I was in the know. I don’t remember what was in there but I don’t recall ever finding anything exciting, just bits of broken cheap jewellery. Childhood is full of disappointment. There was an ornate old-fashioned cross on a chain. Looking through a small spy-hole at the crux a mediaeval church somewhere in continental Europe was displayed. There were also some bits of Whitby jet. This had been very popular as mourning jewellery after Queen Victoria mourned Albert for too many years.

All the floors with the exception of the scullery, stone room, and wine cellar had lino on them. These places had stone paved floors that were occasionally scrubbed bright. Linoleum was adequate and normal for those who were not rich. The walls of the living room were gloss-painted dark green at the bottom and yellowish at the top.

The rest of the walls downstairs such as the scullery, which was the kitchen, and the stone and wine cellar were whitewashed at about yearly intervals. I would be despatched to the builders yard through the archway in Trinity Street opposite Portland Street with a tin bucket and threepence in proper money for a dollop of limewash. The limewash was applied with much enthusiasm and little skill. The floors had to be scrubbed after the application.

No room in the house had a lampshade except Nanny’s palatial retreat, which had a three-branched timber and brass lamp fitting attached to a cigar shaped centre bound with brass or copper. Other rooms had a naked bulb hanging from dark brown, twin-twist flexible wire that was perfect for sticking one end of a cobweb to. Spiders were not the only unusual animals we provided with a habitat.

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