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A Shout From The Attic: A Soft Heart And Hard Boiled Eggs

...After the Second World War, St Luke’s was where they put people no one else wanted. My father’s mother, Lena Willis Bray, ended her days there, not because there was no one who could have cared for her, but because no one would. They said she had thirteen children: twelve of her own and one she rescued from the woman next door who was about to cut the baby’s throat with a carving knife...

Ronnie Bray tells of visiting his grandma in the dreaded workhouse. To read further chapters of Ronnie's autobiography please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

Few words struck a chill into the hearts of poor folks as did the whispered, ‘Workhouse!’ Those there were then alive who remembered the cold meanness, and desolation that bored into the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who entered that gloomy place. Most knew that when the heavy doors swung shut, their hard echoes signalled that hope of a return to home, family, and friends must be abandoned. Husbands and wives forced by straitened circumstances in their cruel world to throw themselves onto the merciless benevolence of the workhouse system, once inside the fortress gates parted in a hushed despair too deep for tears, too remote for comfort, and too heartless to be human - forever.

The workhouse in Huddersfield was Saint Luke’s. Although renamed as St Luke’s Hospital, it lost none of its terror for those poor whose lives swung down towards the bottom of the pit, and whose lamentable wages had vanished from broken health or lack of work. Poor people had no savings, did not trust banks, but could spare nothing to save in them anyway, because they earned hardly enough for rent, fuel, and food.

After the Second World War, St Luke’s was where they put people no one else wanted. My father’s mother, Lena Willis Bray, ended her days there, not because there was no one who could have cared for her, but because no one would. They said she had thirteen children: twelve of her own and one she rescued from the woman next door who was about to cut the baby’s throat with a carving knife. It was her husband’s child, but grandmother raised her without distinction because of her parentage. It is told that Irene was the most dutiful of grandmother’s children.

When Grandma became too infirm to care for herself, her daughters agreed to take her in for six months each. Aunt Annie and Aunt Irene each had her stay with them but when it was Irene’s turn, she put her into the workhouse. It would have been kind for one of her sons or daughters to take her out again.

I was about sixteen when I found myself in the company of my sister René, walking the long avenue from the trolley bus stop in Blackmoorfoot Road, through the grounds of St Luke’s, to visit my Grandma. It was a forbidding place to young people, because it was dark, dismal, and smelled of old people, cheap medicine, and stale urine. We were ushered into a stark ward where a handful of knitted old ladies were waiting out their days.

I have wondered why I did not see Grandma more often and get to know her. Maybe even brighten her days somewhat with childish prattle. The answer is frightening. It was indirectly related to my parents’ divorce whilst I was young. In my mental picture gallery, the divorced half of my family inhabiting the periphery of my consciousness was painted in a faint, colourless shade of near dusk. I was slightly aware of them but knew not their shapes, their faces, their voice, the sounds of their laughter, what gave them pleasure, nor the concerns of their hearts.

Names they were: not full and robust names such as real people had, but names written with a finger of smoke against a greying sky, whose formless owners were less substantial than ghosts, and who I sometimes misremembered, and more frequently forgot. Grandma Bray was one of the unremembered. Besides the fact that she was thus rendered invisible, I had not permission to see her. Without permission, all doors were locked, unless I was specifically invited in. An unseen, but powerful, hand prohibited even places of common amusement. Where others freely entered, I feared to follow, feeling that I was the interloper, the uninvited, the unwanted. Unless explicitly summoned, I did not dare take the risk, and I had not been summoned before to Grandma’s side, and never knew if I was summoned back. It is from René that I learned that Nanny Bennett was the engineer of those visits, and also the provender of whatever gifts we took with us.

Now I know that no summons is needed, except the pleading of a forlorn and yearning heart. Then I did not know. Now I picture her with sad face, teared eyes, and vanished smile in her lonely bed, amidst all the sights, sounds, and smells of the workhouse. Then I despair, as she must have done for all the days and years when no one who came into the ward was for her. And so to wait until her eyes closed against the yellow light of that place for the last time.

Grandma was in the very end bed, set lengthways against the short wall opposite the door. Behind her iron bedstead, a pair of short crutches leaned against the wall. She could not walk without them. She was short, much shorter than other grandmas seemed to be, with voluminous long straight grey tresses falling about her face and shoulders that she would not allow them to cut, and a chubby round face that never stopped smiling ‘welcome,’ showing the one remaining tooth that she would not allow them to extract, all the time of our visit. In later years, my sister Norina’s smile reminded me of Grandmas Bray. René says that Norina was her double and that whenever I went to see Grandma Bray, she cried because I reminded her of Dad Bray, who she loved dearly, but who never visited her.

She raised herself up on one elbow as we sat on wooden chairs at the side of her bed. We hardly knew what to say to her. But we had brought a gift. In a brown paper bag nestled two fresh brown hen eggs, the gift of Nanny Bennett, together with a punnet of strawberries. Having endured the war and it not being long over, it was a gift of great worth. Even children knew that, but Grandma knew it better. No stranger to hardship, she had always sacrificed her own small comfort to her babies.

In earlier years when abandoned by her husband Oliver with a houseful of babies and infants in an unlit house, she fell whilst shopping in the centre of Huddersfield, breaking her leg. She was about mid-distance between the Royal Infirmary on New North Road and her squalid house on Beaumont Street. Anxious townspeople laid her on her back on the floor of a Hansom Cab, pressing her to go to the hospital and have her leg set. She refused to go there, insisting that she needed to go home and look after her babies.

“My babies! My babies!” she cried through her pain, and so they drove her home with her broken leg dangling through the open door of the cab, every rumble of the ironclad tyre increasing her suffering. She never walked without the aid of a crutch again. Now this courageous lady was come to this sorry end and her babies did not come to her.

She took the eggs from the bag and held them in her small pretty hands as if they were the treasure of Croesus. She reached for a stub of pencil and wrote her name on each egg. “That’s to make sure that I get ‘your’ eggs when the nurse cooks them!” she smiled. Reflecting on her words, I was struck by the generosity with which she received the gift, intending to eat the very ones that she had from our hands.

We did not talk much that I remember. I was tongue-tied in the presence of strangers. Now I know all the questions I wished that I had had the presence of mind and the courage to ask of her. Most of all, who she really was, and what her life had been, and what were the hundreds of thousands of insignificant pieces of the jig-puzzle that had formed themselves into the uniquely precious and plucky woman that was Lena Willis Bray.

Strangers we were when we briefly entered her untidy world that day. And just as strange when we walked out at the bell. Yet I was filled with an inexplicable and unexpressed sense that we had been in the presence of a great soul. A soul whose greatness had not become dimmed even though the hardships of her uncommon life and was still was expressed in a smile that betrayed her still tender and loving heart in anticipation of her hard-boiled eggs.


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