Saturday, 15 February 2014

A guest at my table - Elizabeth

Some people come out simply surrounded by an aura of energy that clings to them like water from the lake from which they've just emerged. They don't glide into a room unseen or mingle inconspicuously with other guests. Their very personalities are infused with life and blood and vividness. My guest is of this ilk. I shall call her Auntie Liz, because this is what I've always called her, though she is not related to me by blood.

Energy glows vividly in her face. Bright eyes, tight curls and the sort of natural large pink cheeks that children like to paint on pictures. Her voice is penetrating and clear, slightly clipped, tempered by a smattering of newly-inherited raw Cumbrian vowels. It can reach the end of a Rugby pitch without changing key, bringing dogs and small boys to heel. For this is the voice of Matron, the House Master's wife at a small public school in West Cumberland, which dominated the tiny village of St. Bees in which I grew up.

Although brought up in a different world to us there were no airs and graces to her. A life dedicated to Nursing in one form or another had cut through to the practical. And, although her children were often away at boarding school whilst we went to the ordinary village primary school, the two families were very close. Uncle Tony was the Latin Master at the school, and often away in his own little world in the clouds. Two more different people it would be hard to find. He was the Yin to her Yang.

We spent holidays together on Cornish beaches and tramped up snow covered hills in the Lakes 'for fun'. There was no getting out of it. We didn't stop to argue. You didn't. There was great command in everything she said and we all just fell into line. But she was great fun too and demanded as much from herself as anyone else. She never appeared tired or unwilling, whatever the weather. Everything was an adventure, drummed into something greater than a few sandwiches by a boggy stream.

For a child who didn't inhabit that kind of closeted world of an English Public School, we spent a fair bit of time in it. It was there that I saw my first film, at the tender age of four. Whilst most people's parents were taking them to watch 'Bambi' or 'Cinderella' mine took me to see a Foreign Art film without any words in which the central character - a red balloon - is on the run for the entire film, eventually meeting his demise in a rather deflating ending. I have been traumatised ever since.

We went swimming in the school pool, tramping all over the Rugby pitches and feeding the Pony in the field. Inside was even better. Few get to see the inner workings of these large old school buildings with their dumb waiter lifts that we dared each other to climb into, which took food from the kitchens to the Master's flat and piles of freshly ironed sheets. But my favourite place of all was the basement where the enormous washing proceedings took place. A maze of tunnels and huge overhead pipes,of heat and steam all drenched in a fog of washing soda.

It was down here that I first held the tiniest of little black fur balls in my hands. All nose and feet, eyes firmly closed with a tiny whip of a tail. I was seven years old, holding the tiny wriggling two day old mass that was to be my childhood companion, Luckie, with  infinite care and gentleness. It was a moment. Auntie Liz's dog Sally watched me carefully, never happy until her puppies were all returned. As the days grew longer we would walk the dogs regularly along the beach and up the headland to look at the view. Sometimes, on a clear day, you could see as far as the Isle of Man.

Famous only for being one end of the Coast to Coast walk, and a certain schoolboy by the name of Rowan Atkinson (who my mum regularly picked up on arduous cross country runs and deposited a little closer back to base), the tiny village has remained virtually unchanged. Framed by the old red sandstone school buildings and the church tucked behind the Dandy walk, it nestles in a valley leading down to the sea. I went back a couple of years ago, expecting to see the sort of increase in housing and change of use you find everywhere, but found only a handful of houses more built over the last thirty years, and everything else as untouched as if it were yesterday. There is a strange timelessness to this that shouldn't be, somehow, and it unnerves me and I'm not quite sure why. As if, it is here and I am not.

The main village itself is built of the same degrading pink sandstone as the school. It rubs off to the touch. Main Street, where we rented a house whilst ours was being built, is a wind of cottages with heavy stone mullions painted in black on white, or perhaps brown on white . 'The Funny house', as we called it, was a tiny mid-terrace cottage in which one of the front rooms was used as a Bank several days a week. I was small then, my brother and sister even smaller. Mum would bundle us up with my brother in the large carriage pram, my sister on top and me trailing behind, and march us up the road to Frank Irving's shop for slices of ham and packets of cereal.

All in all, we ate a lot of home cooked food and cakes, compared to other people it seemed. So it was always a great treat to stay at Auntie Liz's for tea whilst my mother was busy elsewhere. I would be allowed to sit and watch TV and have my tea on a tray (something which was unheard of at home). Auntie Liz was busy, busy. She didn't have time to cook. Meals came from the school kitchens and cake out of a packet. There would be Battenburg and French fancies with their pastel fondant coverings, jaffa cakes and a line of crisp chocolate wafer fingers. And somehow, however nice the homemade scones and Victoria sponges back at home, there was something nicer for a child in all these treasures slipped out of packets with their gold writing and coloured foil and slipped onto a plate.

But my favourite image of all, which seems to sum up everything to me about Auntie Liz, is of her on the beach in Cornwall. Uncle Tony is trying to sleep in a deckchair, my mum is busy with her cine camera. Auntie Liz erupts from the sea in a large child's swimming costume with a flippy skirt and a rubber swimming hat with flowers on clamped to her head. She is carrying a six foot blue inflatable sausage and jumps over the waves, in as much as her comfortable matronly curves will allow, and chases us children up the beach like a ten year old, whooping like a Red Indian.

She sits here now, at the table, her napkin on her lap, tucking in with gusto. Age doesn't seem to have slowed her down much and her conversation is just as bright. A force of life, one might say.

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