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A Shout From The Attic: Nanny's Sanctum

...At Christmas when the cakes and puddings would be mixed, the best treat was to scrape the basin and lick the wooden spoons. Uncooked cake and pudding mix tastes far better than the finished product...

Ronnie Bray recalls in scene-painting detail his boyhood home.

The furnishings and appointments of the house were basic, practical and sparse, the last gasp of Victoriana, offering minimal comfort that served best to remind one of the temporary nature of one’s welcome. I lived there for the thick end of seventeen years without feeling welcome. To feel tolerated was very heaven but rare. It is easy at this distance to overplay the tensions and alienation that some children feel. Although my story is tinged with an acerbic and arcane humour, the sentiments they colour are honestly felt.

I learned that making others laugh would often forestall a beating. It has been known to stop bullies in their tracks but not vicious ones. Vicious bullies are invariably insecure and unintelligent, or if they are intelligent, their brightness is on ‘hold.’ Humour escapes them; more’s the pity.

The front room - Nanny’s sanctum sanctori - had a lush Persian carpet, curtains, and a luxurious three-piece suite whose settee 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. Lodgers occupied the big front bedroom on the first floor and the large attic room on the second floor where the steps were narrower - suitable for servants.

They once slept in the front room when nanny took in a dentist. He was a very 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 so 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 one stood outside its door, not a little fearful, knocked at the door and waited for the “come in.”

Once admitted to the presence of the potentate, one’s petition was delivered in suitably hushed and reverent tones after the fashion of Esther. 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.

The marriage took place several months after René's birth and 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 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. One doesn’t like to think about their grandmothers being up to no good, but its 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 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. 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.

Under the stone were some queer looking contraptions that were cockroach traps. They were round with sloping sided so the roaches could climb up and had butterfly wing shaped plates fixed on small rods, with a small dished section about the size of a half-crown in the centre. This could be filled with sugar to attract the little fellows who would clamber up the sides slavering with excitement at the treat in store and then with their ecstatic little legs scurrying onto the butterfly wings would be tipped into the dark interior to perish. They were never used to my knowledge; they just lived under the stone.

There were lots of dusty old beer bottles under the stone, and other things too dusty and mysterious for young hands to touch for fear of something nasty happening. The top of the stone was the normal resting-place for the large earthenware mixing bowls that were used to make the bread in. Mother and grandmother baked all their own bread. The bread was good and tasty. The kitchen table would be full of flour and dough as the kneading went on for what seemed like hours. When finished the basins would be stood in the hearth near the fire to rise. The rising was miraculous. Bits pulled from the rising dough were much better than the bread it made.

In the stone room was a small cupboard with perforated zinc sides and door held into the stonework with spikes having flat round bored ends through which nails were driven to hold it firm. This was called the safe and was the place that meat was kept to keep predators and insects from making free with it.

At Christmas when the cakes and puddings would be mixed, the best treat was to scrape the basin and lick the wooden spoons. Uncooked cake and pudding mix tastes far better than the finished product. We did not find money in our Christmas puddings. Just thought I would mention it in case you were wondering.

The house was just about fifty yards from the main entrance to Greenhead Park in Trinity Street. This provided me with a garden and plenty of play areas. I walked through it with Norma some time after my December 1996 heart attack and marked all that had changed since those days. So much of its glory has vanished. It seems that such places were safe back then. Maybe they weren’t, but maybe we were just lucky. Life is hell for unlucky kids.



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