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A Shout From The Attic: Illuminating Auntie

...She was unable to deal with anyone’s anger or disapproval. However, only a churl and a blockhead could take offence at this pleasant, retiring lady with gentle smile and sweet round eyes, whose only demand on life was that it leave her alone to get on with her simple occupations...

Ronnie Bray tells of a night of disaster, followed by a night of joy.

Blackpool Illuminations is an annual event that has been fascinating visitors to the promenade of this Lancashire watering hole since Victorian times. Mile after mile of the sea front carries imaginative illuminations made from millions of light bulbs set in symbolic groups or in fairy tale tableaux that delight young and old alike. Visiting them is a ‘must’ so each year starting mid-October tens of thousands of people every day head for Blackpool to cruise through the six miles of seasonal illuminations that have become part of each winter’s essential activities.

Auntie Rene was not, as far as I can make out, anyone’s auntie. She was an old friend of Christine’s mother, whom Christine had known since her earliest days in the long gone when life was different, and Christine had kept the friendship alive after her mother, Ivy, had passed away. Auntie Rene has gone to her rest and I think was well ready to make the trip.

She left school at thirteen and went to work in textile mills in Huddersfield, working as a weaver. When she was seventeen, she lost an arm in some textile machinery and received some money in compensation, not really an arm’s worth, but she took it gratefully after the manner of the times and according to her disposition, and banked it.

She didn’t like men. She didn’t trust them due to some unspecified occurrence in her younger life. She was too nice to make it in business, she gave too much credit to poor risks who let her down, and the shop she eventually bought with her nest egg soon dwindled into nothing. She retired and lived a gentle quiet life attending the Salvation Army each Sunday to worship as she had done since childhood.

To paraphrase Wordsworth of his Lucy, ”She lived alone, and few could know when Rene ceased to be …” Her life was lived in quiet ways, disturbing no one, troubling no one, asking nothing, content to be a mere passenger on the ship of life, too timid to make much noise for fear of upsetting someone. She was unable to deal with anyone’s anger or disapproval. However, only a churl and a blockhead could take offence at this pleasant, retiring lady with gentle smile and sweet round eyes, whose only demand on life was that it leave her alone to get on with her simple occupations.

For some reason, Auntie Rene had not been to Blackpool, and had never seen the illuminations although she harboured a secret longing to do so. One late October evening in 1974, Christine mentioned this fact to me, and so it was that we went to visit her and told her to get her hat and coat on because she was going to The Illuminations. She could not believe her ears. She was, as Yorkshire folk say, made up! She was overwrought with an attack of jolliness and was all but running around in circles in her living room. “Oh, my!” she repeated, “I just can’t believe it!´ Blackpool! Illuminations! Oh my!” For most of the hour and a half journey to Blackpool, this was the main thrust of her message. She was clearly a very happy auntie.

Entering Blackpool, we followed the signs that led us to the start of the illuminations. The commencing point was the South Promenade at Lemon Tree Corner, so called because the Lemon Tree night-club stood at the T-junction where we would turn right to begin the heady procession along the illuminations. The lights were red when we reached the intersection. We waited at the light for it to turn green and start auntie’s big adventure. The lights went green. I put my foot on the clutch pedal to engage first gear and my foot met with no resistance as the pedal stomped noisily on the floor. I pumped the pedal, but nothing happened. The clutch was gone and we were going nowhere.

Stuck in the dark evening a long way from home with a now anxious auntie in the back blaming herself for the breakdown I racked my brains for a solution to our predicament. I had never belonged to a breakdown service, although right at that moment I could think of at least one good reason for doing so. In desperation, I called the police and asked their advice. They suggested calling the Automobile Association or the Royal Automobile Club and joining them. So I called them and asked them if I could join. They were very pleased to talk to me and to accept me as a member – and my membership would become active in twenty-four hours! I called the Samaritans and they suggested suicide! Finding a mechanic’s listing in a telephone book, I called and he was with us in ten minutes.

He was a motor engineer for a bread delivery company – when bread companies made home deliveries – and diagnosed the problem in a matter of seconds. He towed us back to his garage and looked at the vehicles in for repair to see if one of them had a slave cylinder that he could use on my car to get us going. He could not; none of them matched. He apologised and sped off into the blackness of a Blackpool back street, leaving us with an apology, a broken car, a problem, but no bill for his services. Unable to help us, he graciously refused to charge us for his brave attempt and had gone in less time than it takes to say “Thank you.”

We could just sit there outside the garage and starve to death, or we could try to get home without a clutch. Those who have not driven a stick shift will not appreciate the difficulties this presented. I put the car into first gear, forcing it to engage whilst not spinning and then started the engine. The car moved forward slowly but surely. Accelerating gently, I moved the stick into second gear. It snicked in without complaining. Weaving our way back through Blackpool, grateful that all the heavy traffic was going in the opposite direction, I managed to use the engine revolutions to speed up the car, slip the gear lever into neutral and gauge when to push it into the next gear, upwards or downwards, when the engine revs seemed right. In that fashion, we reached the motorway where no gear change was necessary.

Huddersfield’s narrow streets were more problematic, but by watching well ahead and slowing down if they showed red, I managed to proceed to drop Auntie Rene off without stopping. Fending off her protestations of guilt and the wad of apologies she had prepared when I showed her into her home, we bid each other sad ‘goodnights.’ She was sad because she imagined herself the root o the problems with the car. I was sad because I had disappointed a sweet lady. From her home to my home, the journey was interesting but uneventful.

Next morning I walked from Colne Road to Quarmby Spares Services at the far end of Firth Street where, for a measly seventeen pence, I bought a slave cylinder repair kit for my Singer Vogue and half an hour after getting back home, the torn rubber diaphragm was replaced, the repair completed, and the clutch good as new. A short telephone call to tell an incredulous Auntie Rene that the trip was on again tonight and it was time to get on with the business of the day.

Arriving at her home about the same time we had the night before, we were met with rosy-cheeked gurgling about how a miracle was happening; how she had coped with and overcome her disappointment and culpability of the previous night’s fiasco – what is one more disappointment to those used to so many – and now could really not believe that she was going to Blackpool again!

This time the trip went as planned, and Auntie ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ all the way from the Lemon Tree to the end of the trail seven miles north. Millions of twinkling lights in thousands of shapes, lit up the Blackpool night as the sea front road was dedicated to six lanes of slow moving charabancs, vans, and cars whose occupants goggled wide-eyed and moved at the splendour of the feast of lights that indulged the visual senses and filled the hearts of young and old with an excitement peculiar to dazzling displays of lights. Blackpool Tower thrust itself into the purple night with outlines traced in brilliant white lights with pulses running upwards and downwards at the same time. It was a night to remember.

Auntie Rene was like a kid in Fairyland. Her eyes grew bigger and rounder to take in everything, but there was too much to see in one lifetime. Her heart overflowed with joy as she watched and felt all the wonder of the Illuminations, something she had long since abandoned all hope of seeing years ago, and which on the night before she had excitedly stood at the threshold only to see her dream evaporate into the gloom of forgotten and abandoned dreams. It is easy to see Blackpool Illuminations. For five pounds you can catch a special bus and see them in the warmth and luxury of a coach.

Anyone can do it. That is, anyone except for the Auntie Renes of this world who fear to go to unfamiliar places and be with unfamiliar people. These souls need special attention, special consideration, and special loving to ease them from their hiding places from where they watch the world at a safe distance but never become involved in it or feel its joys for fear of being hurt. What little trouble it takes is repaid a thousand fold by the glow in their eyes, the thanks in their hearts, and the smiles on their faces. And even in Blackpool amid the spectacular display of lights, none shone so bright that night as Auntie Rene’s face, for the light that fell on it was weak and dim compared to the light of joy that shone right back at them. It was a wonderfully satisfying experience, illuminating Auntie.

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