Strange to reflect upon the knick-knacks we collect over the years, things that remind us of happy times, significant moments we are reluctant to relinquish.
I seemed to grow up surrounded by such souvenirs, little mementos of noteworthy instances in life that presumably served to lend my mother a glimpse back to times past. The most precious of these lived on the mantelpiece above the kitchen stove that she considered to be a Victorian eyesore and couldn’t wait to replace with what was called a Tiled Surround and was Modern. But I loved the stove, black and solid in its chimney alcove and I never entirely adjusted to its insipidly pink and pale replacement.
The kitchen mantle was the place for the reassuring paraphernalia of daily life, the trappings of a working class presence firmly placed in the middle of the twentieth century. Items evoking less poignant memories of days gone by were firmly positioned on the Front Room mantelpiece, that room accessed immediately from the street and hurried through by all in their haste to reach the warmth and security of the kitchen. It was only in later years I paused to consider it odd that her wedding photographs were consigned there.
The little china ornament importantly announcing that it was A Present From Margate sat always in the kitchen warmth, it’s base of reproduction sea shells losing colour over the decades but regularly prompting the story of the summer day of its purchase. It was a day she would always find difficult to forget because it had definitely been her sister Mag’s idea to lend her the old blue shoes in the first place on account of the smart new ones she had just bought in the market and Mag was determined to wear those new ones come hell or high water to impress her new husband. Well they must have been newly-weds, Mag and Harold, as there were definitely no babies as yet to be cared for while they all, the four of them, skedaddled to the coast for the day on the early train and their little Harold had come ever so quickly after the wedding. Very premature little soul he’d been. The Four of them had been Mag and her Harold together with his brother Les and of course Nellie. Even before the lunchtime pint and cheese sandwich at that pub along the Front in Marine Gardens, she thought it was called The Elephant, Mag was Creating Something Awful and saying that her feet Was Killing Her. Demanded her old blue shoes back and wanted Nellie to wear the new ones if you don’t mind! Would you credit it? But that was Mag all over. There’d been a right set to outside the pub with Mag saying well who did the old blue shoes belong to in the first place? And her Harold joined in too, well he would wouldn’t he? The long and the short of it had been that Nellie was forced to give the shoes up and walk around for the rest of the day in Mag’s new ones that really crippled her. So it hadn’t been much of an outing except she’d won a box of chocolates at Dreamland and on their way back to the station she’d bought the little china ornament – A Present From Margate. Les had wanted to buy it for her but she didn’t think he was much cop, not after her Poor Fred, so she bought it herself which really gave him The Pip.
The grey and white porcelain kitten playing with the ball of wool was another seaside purchase and had come from Southend in the summer of 1939 just before she had, with a certain degree of reluctance, married my father at the Catholic Church in Crayford. Off they had gone on his motor bike to sample the delights of a day by the sea. It was he who had bought it on this occasion along with a manicure set. He had laughed, shuffled his feet a bit in the motor cycle boots and talked about Plighting His Troth. She hadn’t entirely understood the term but had a good grasp of what he meant by it. Well she wasn’t completely daft after all was she? Later Mag and Old Nan had nearly piddled themselves laughing at the manicure set because she hadn’t got no nails of course; bitten to the bone they were and had been ever since Poor Fred Went. By rights it was Poor Fred she should have married of course and they’d been properly engaged for several years before the TB took him but then he would not have wanted to see her On The Shelf would he? She had loved him dearly. Once or twice she showed me the special card he had given her on the occasion of her twenty fifth birthday, ivory satin with red and gold lettering. It was wrapped in tissue paper. Inside he had written To My Sweetheart From Fred.
So it hadn’t been easy to marry Bernard Joseph Hendy and in the days before the wedding she had discussed the momentous decision more than once with Mag, and sometimes also with Maud and Martha because after all that’s what sisters were for and blood’s thicker than water. In terms reminiscent of the young Diana Spencer in a time that was yet to come she reminded herself and her siblings that he was a Good Man and didn’t drink nor use bad language. Her sisters anxiously observed their bridesmaids’ dresses and enthusiastically agreed and so of course did her mother, reminding her that The Bleeding Church was Booked and calling her a Silly Mare Who Didn’t Know Her Arse From Her Elbow. And so in August of that year the wedding duly took place and although the photographs of the event were to live always in the chill of the Front Room, the porcelain kitten played happily with his ball of wool on the kitchen mantelpiece from that day forward. She couldn’t for the life of her remember what had happened to the manicure set.
The cobalt blue vases and little jug decorated with enameled flowers had been given to them as a wedding present from Great Aunt Martha who lived near the station in Northfleet and always appeared to me to be very, very old indeed. My mother admitted once or twice that at the time she was given them she couldn’t honestly admit to being as Keen as Mustard but Great Aunt Martha had said they were antique and known as Bristol Glass and hard to come by. Nellie was not altogether taken with antiques but my father had investigated the history of Bristol Glass which by the time they received them was an art that had almost died out and it was his belief that they should be treasured as one day they might well be Worth Something. And as Great Aunt Martha was a frequent visitor they were kept always in pride of place in the kitchen and over the years my brother and I became fond of them and most reluctant for them to be sold when this was suggested by Old Nan after the death of our father at a time when we were particularly short of the readys.
The kitchen at York Road was where we routinely made our rag rugs each winter to replace those so worn they had to be discarded. Old clothing was harvested and laboriously cut into strips then pegged onto squares of sacking. Such an easy task that a child of five could learn to master it, and did so. We sat in the dying firelight on winter evenings from November to February and worked whilst listening to the radio – Life With The Lyons, Journey Into Space, Round The Horne and Meet The Huggetts. And of course the fruits of our labour were seen as a necessary winter pastime rather than possible future mementos of days gone by. I had completely forgotten about Rag Rugs and our annual ritual of producing them until I visited my brother’s house in Lincolnshire decades later. Rag Rugs had been utterly abandoned to the depths of memory until I came face to face with one once more in his Lincolnshire study, neatly settled on polished wood and announcing its presence with riotous colours. Then I was at once aware how overwhelmingly powerful these mementos that connect us with the past are. Instantaneously I was propelled back into that long ago kitchen at 28 York Road, harking back with longing to a time that had gone for ever and would never return.
Later I realised that he had kept safe all those knickknacks and keepsakes of our mother’s and I was suffused with gladness, a hard to describe delight akin to love for A Present From Margate and a Porcelain Kitten. But the most agonizing tug on the heart was unquestionably for the ivory satin card with red and gold lettering - To My Sweetheart From Fred. The tissue paper had gone though.