Thursday, 30 January 2014

A guest at my table - Auntie Jane

She shimmies into the room in her pointed slingbacks and starts drumming on the table absent-mindedly with her coral coloured nails. There is a multitude of gilt rings on each hand holding back a tide of wrinkled knuckles. Everything about Auntie Jane is in a state of constant alert. She asks me about the children but one eye is on the clock and the other catching her reflection in the glass of a photo frame. She pats her hair, picks something off her teeth and flashes me a smile of off-white dentures. It is the early '70s in Auntie Jane's world and teeth, if you have them, are a luxury to be cleaned in a glass of fizzy water by the bed each night. My Grandpa cleans his with soap and a nailbrush and one of the highlights of my visit is to watch him take them out each day as he stands there is his vest and stripy pyjamas.

Auntie Jane's house is just up the road from my Grandparents; a curving drive of 1930's semis with beautiful stained glass panels in the landing windows. My Grandparents seem to have lots of this pretty glass in all their windows - a house that was new when they bought it and made just for them. Auntie Jane's house has had all the pretty glass removed and there are diamond panes and a different door that plays songs when we ring. Even as a young child I can tell the difference between the house I love and this one. This one is full of toys - the sort of toys I would never find in our house or my grandparents.

The front room has what Uncle Billy calls his Bar. It is a curving structure made of outside rock with lots of upside down bottles screwed to the walls. On the wooden top there is a doll. It is like my Sindy dolls and is wearing a bikini. But unlike my Sindy dolls this one does a wiggle and shakes up drinks. It makes Uncle Billy laugh and we laugh too. We are easily pleased.

Auntie Jane makes us sit in the back room which has been extended somehow into the garden. My Granny has a back door that opens out of the middle of the bay window but Auntie Jane's has lots of glass and space and nowhere for the tomato plants to sit. I am too young to realise why I like the curving dark wood doorknobs or the picture rail which has pictures on chains. I only know that they are part of what makes Granny's house special and so different to our own. Auntie Jane's is full of toys that they like playing with. There is a large water fountain made of translucent orange plastic sitting in the middle of the room. I have never seen one before. It is arranged in three tiers and is lit from within when Auntie Jane plugs it in. We spend ages interrupting the flow of water with our fingers and trying to plug the hole to make it stop.

Eventually Auntie Jane grows bored with us and our stories about the picnics in the Lake District we go on each weekend and the dull afternoons hanging around the sailing club as our parents leave us to go off racing. (How times have changed). She marches us into the lemon grove that is her kitchen to hunt for sweets. It is like being in the jungle here as there are creepers looping all over the ceiling. From them are hanging lemons and oranges and bananas - a veritable fruit salad - all made from the finest plastic. I am never sure what you are supposed to do in this room, whether it is for sitting in or cooking.

My Granny still cooks in the little lean-to behind the garage where the mangle still sits in the corner of the room glaring at the newer washing machine. But fish is fried there, and lots of steam, and Blackbird it is like a sunny foreign country which I have never been to before, since the furthest my parents would take us to was Cornwall. Auntie Jane has strange orange arms and freckles and a nest of dark orange hair that is set firm and reminds me of those outside doormats with bristles on them. Her arms are always bare, the flesh somehow loose and coming away from the bone. (She likes these sleeveless dresses, even in the middle of winter, and she is wearing one today even though there is a light scattering of snow outside and I am layering up to keep warm.)

We sit in the back room again and pay homage to the three perfect boys who sit in photo frames smiling out at us from the fireplace. They fade a little more each time we visit; these nephews of hers who live all the way in America and never write or ring or visit. But still we have to talk about them each time we come. I often wondered why my Granny sent us up the road each time to visit 'Auntie Jane', who wasn't our proper Auntie of course. And I think maybe it was because of these three perfect boys who lived so far away and yet so near to her heart.

As children, you never stop to think how old anyone is. Everyone is old to you, unless they are a child. A twenty one year old mum is an adult and old people have grey hair and comfortable laps to sit in. Auntie Jane has orange hair - a strange colour like the fizzy drinks that I don't yet like. My Granny tells me that she is as old as Grandpa and quite a bit older than her. But that can't be right. Uncle Billy is not much older than my Dad and he still plays with dolls and laughs. My Mum says Auntie Jane is actually called Auntie Gladys, but at some point she decided she wanted to be called Auntie Jane instead. Perhaps it is because she seems much younger to us. Only when she blinks, and her eyelids are like solid blue shells coming down and sort of crinkly, do I see a different kind of 'old' that I am unused to in my fresh-faced Mother and my gently powdered Babushka-shaped Granny. The coloured nails frighten me. I am unused to seeing them around. They don't look like the kind of hands that I would want to hold.

Auntie Gladys had another life that I knew nothing about. I only know the Auntie Jane that I see now. My picture is  a different picture to the one my Mum and Granny knew before. If people are going to reincarnate themselves they had better do it to a child or else move house. A little fronting on the windows and a string of fruit salad is not going to convince the huddle of arm-folded Geordies down the street. But a child only sees what he sees.

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