I was my grandmother’s playmate. Now I’m sure that a great many people say this, with fond memories, if, like me, they were fortunate enough to have a grandmother living nearby (or, as in my case, in the same house!) and a close relationship with her. But I don’t just mean that she willingly participated in hundreds of games of Snakes and Ladders, or that she taught me how to turn string into a cat’s cradle on my hands, or that she helped me dress my dolls up, often in clothes she’d knitted for them herself, though she did all of these things.
Bridges across time can be paradoxically long and short, especially in a family like mine where, particularly on my mother’s side, people have tended to marry and have children quite late in life. Though I’m still not entirely past it (not that there aren’t days I feel as if I am, and I swear some staircases are starting to get steeper) in the third decade of the 21st century, when I was a child my Grandmother (and, perhaps oddly, though she wasn’t an over-formal sort of person, and I don’t think she’d ever have made an issue of it, I did call her Grandmother, not Granny or Grandma or Nanna) could clearly remember her own childhood before the First World War.
I couldn’t pinpoint the exact date or year, let alone month or season, when I started to go to school with Grandmother. I’m not even sure if it happened all in a flash, or evolved gradually, but I do know for certain that it had started before I was five and went to school myself.
It wasn’t as if there was anything unusual exotic about Grandmother’s family – and she stressed that point herself. She was one of five children (two had died in infancy) in a family that was poor, especially by today’s standards, but compared to others at the time – and others in the same little village in the area of Eastern England now christened Wolds Country by the tourist board, by no means grindingly poor. In those days they’d have laughed at the notion of people going there on holiday. Their father – Our Dad, as she called him, was a cobbler, and knew himself that the time was rapidly coming when most folk would go to the shop to buy their shoes. But he was a proper craftsman, and had an awl and a last. He was stern but loving. There was a strap on the wall, but Grandmother could not recall it once being used for punishment. Our Mam really preferred to be called Mama, but the other village children teased them if they heard them saying that, though Betty could give as good as she got. And when she was my playmate and schoolmate, Grandmother, whose given name was Elizabeth, became Betty. I didn’t see anything daring or disrespectful about calling her by her first name. Our Mam’s family had always been a bit disappointed she only married a village cobbler, though they had to admit he was a good man and provided for her. When she’d been a child herself, her family hadn’t exactly had servants, not like the family at the Big House, or even the doctor’s family, but they still had someone who did for them. Still, Our Mam went into her new life with open eyes, and kept a clean and tidy home. There was no electricity, nor an inside toilet, but they did have gas lamps, and our Dad would have been ashamed to have a privy like some of their neighbours did. Like most mothers, she knew she shouldn’t have favourites, and like most mothers, though she loved all her children dearly, she couldn’t always help herself, and Betty was her special pet . She was neither the oldest nor the youngest, and there was a boy in the family, but Betty said mama, and it wasn’t to curry favour, she genuinely liked saying it. All in all, there was something ladylike about Betty. She was good at sewing, and hardly ever had to be told not to shout.
I was interested, to put it mildly, in Grandmother’s home life, but considerably more interested in her school life. She had always liked going to school, and it seems that Carsby Village School was ahead of its time in some ways, and blessed with some imaginative and dedicated teachers. True, the headmaster, Mr Hopwood, was stern and forbidding, and his cane was used. But he wasn’t some kind of Gradgrind who only believed in his charges learning, and chanting, facts (that weren’t necessarily true) by rote, and gave his teachers a degree of autonomy.
Grandmother spoke especially fondly of two particular teachers. Miss Hathaway was gentle and patient with the little ones, and not fazed by the occasional “accident”, as she delicately termed it. But her own favourite was Miss Pollard, who was in charge of the big ones. I knew exactly what Miss Pollard looked like, because there are photographs – and plenty of them. This was about the time when taking photographs was becoming far easier and more frequent, and it seems that Mr Hopwood was a big fan of photography, though he’d probably have used the word advocate. She wasn’t a tall woman, and some of the big boys were already taller than she was, but her stance was graceful and confident. This was before women shortened their skirts, and hers were down to her ankles. On most of the pictures she is wearing a dark skirt and a blouse that looked white on the picture but, Grandmother told me, wasn’t always white – she liked pale blue, and lemon yellow, and sometimes there were little flowers that didn’t come through on the photo. “And she had lovely hair – that black and white photo doesn’t do it justice. Rich chestnut.”
Some are the regular kind of school or class photo that basically hadn’t changed much to this day, but a couple were unusual. Miss Pollard was a devotee of Scottish dancing, and there are pictures of the girls in white dresses with tartan sashes, or sometimes in white blouses and tartan skirts. Grandmother could remember Our Mam making the sashes and dresses and skirts on her manual sewing machine, but said she did wonder where some of the girls got their costumes from, because not every house had a sewing machine, and a Mam and Dad who were prepared to spend their time and money on such things. She was pretty sure Miss Pollard must have helped out. Betty was one of the keenest of the Scottish dancers, and I could have picked her out without being told on the picture – the same delicate but determined features, clear skin, and the dignified way she held out her dress. Some of the girls were smiling, some looked a tad nervous or embarrassed, but she had an expression like a proper dancer, taking the whole thing seriously. “I had a bad toothache when that was taken,” she told me, but proudly, reflecting on the fact that, toothache or not, she had danced to the very best of her abilities.
On both the class pictures and the Scottish dancing pictures, she pointed out her especial friends, or otherwise. There was Doris, whose hair was as strikingly blonde as Betty’s was jet black. Doris was one of those placid and passive people that Our Mam used to call “Come Day, Go Day, God Bless Sunday”. The only boy in the family, Fred (as he was always known, to distinguish him from Our Dad, who was called Frederick) who was starting to develop an interest in girls, despite growing up surrounded by sisters, once remarked that she was undeniably pretty, but “Looks like she could do with a rip rap up her back end to liven her up.” Our Dad had looked meaningfully at the strap and said, “Let me never hear you refer to a lady like that again!” but there had still been a twitch to his lips. “He wasn’t wrong,” Grandmother admitted, “But you couldn’t meet a kinder girl.” Susannah was from Home Farm, and she looked like a farmer’s daughter, too, rosy cheeked and hearty. Only later on did Grandmother tell me that appearances could be deceptive, and Susannah died of TB when she was only in her twenties. Ellen was non-descript in appearance, and even in black and white her hair looked mousy, but she was the kind of girl who had an answer for everything. She and Betty had once been close, but then she had pushed Betty into the village brook, and though she was never really in any danger of drowning, she’d felt as if she was. Ellen had insisted it had been a pure accident, and Betty hadn’t snitched, but she bore a grudge against her.
And now they had another playmate – me, Rebecca, seventy years down the line. Though there was an anomaly about that. Most of the time I was Rebecca, or Becky, but sometimes I morphed into Betty. Yes, the two names did sound very similar! Reminiscences turned into re-enactments. I learnt the Scottish dances ready to participate in the display. I went to the school harvest festival and I learnt poetry with Miss Pollard. We called it Playing Carsby Village School, but it was more real to me than my everyday life. That school before the First World War with Mr Hopwood and Miss Pollard and Miss Hathaway, with Doris and Susannah and Ellen and Betty. And Becky. Scottish dancing and the brook and my own ability and need to re-create and re-write. Yes, as I grew a bit older, I wrote down stories about it, except they didn’t seem just like stories. I wasn’t averse to changing history either, and there was a “version” where Ellen had a last minute attack of conscience and jumped into the brook to save Betty. For a while I thought it was entirely our secret, but it turned out that Mum at least had an idea. At first she was indulgent and, indeed, wholly approved of it. But bit by bit, she began to have her doubts. I only found out much later that she had, more than once listened in at the door (and to this day, though I love her dearly, I still bear the shadow of a grudge about that!) and had told Dad about it, and they had serious misgivings. In some instances, I may be putting words into their mouths, but can still imagine the phrases.
Of course I’m glad she’s close to her grandmother, and likes hearing her stories, but she’s living in a little dream world half the time.
It was fine when she was a little girl, but she’s nine going on ten now, and it’s time she was growing out of it.
Sometimes I think she really does believe she was at school with her own grandmother. It’s getting weird.
I don’t know if they had a word with Grandmother, or whether it was her idea anyway, but she started to tell me stories about after she left school. She would have loved to be a teacher, and her parents were both sympathetic and said they wished that was possible, but she knew it wasn’t. They weren’t poor the way some people were poor, but once the children were fourteen, the age you were allowed to leave school then, you had to be earning. Miss Pollard did what she could for Betty, though. She managed to find her a place as a nursery governess, as she termed it. And the little girl she’d be caring for was four years old already and so her parents, who knew Miss Pollard well , said, highly intelligent. Betty wasn’t fooled. She was still really a nursemaid, not even the status of a nanny. And as soon as the little girl was a bit older, she’d either get a proper governess or, if her parents were progressive in their thinking, go to school. But she also knew – and Our Dad had stressed it to her on a walk they took together only a week or so before she left, talking like two grown ups, “You could do much worse, lass. I wish we had the means to let you train as a teacher, but if you put your mind to this, I reckon you’ll enjoy it, and it’ll certainly be an experience. Miss Pollard and I had enough trouble getting your Mam to agree to going down to Suffolk!” That was true, and Betty knew it.
Well, I just wasn’t as interested in looking after little Mercedes (her mother was a Spanish lady) at Brecklands Hall. Grandma did her best. And you’d have thought it would appeal, as I was very much a fan of Upstairs Downstairs (the original series, though I think it was already onto repeats by then!). But that’s the point. It did appeal, and I was interested. But it was a story I was being told, not one I was a part of or much wanted to be. It meant getting to know new people and a new way of life and the whole point of Carsby School was that it was the same people and the same way of life. Yet, contradictorily, in my other life (even now something stops me saying real life) I wasn’t one of those deeply conservative children. I was always willing to try new food, not that I liked it all, and didn’t want the same bedtime story over and over.
My parents must have been worried that I wasn’t even thinking of giving up Carsby Village School as my own transfer to “big school” was looming – but then they must have wished that was all they had to worry about. Grandmother had a stroke. It was touch and go for a week or so, but then the doctors said she’d probably pull through. But they had no idea when her speech would stop being slurred and when she’d regain use of the right side of her body.
I truly wasn’t only being selfish and wanting to carry on with Carsby School when I sat by her bedside (my parents having decided I was old enough) and tried to coax her into new adventures and back into the old routine. I had read those children’s books where someone is brought out of a coma by sitting by their bedside and talking. Or even singing. For a while Mum and Dad let me do it and, presumably, thought it was doing no harm. But after a few days, Mum took me to one side, and said, not angrily, not in a lecturing kind of way, but making it plain her words were to be taken seriously, “Rebecca, please stop going on to your Gran about Carsby School. I don’t doubt you’re trying to help, and you’re a good girl, but it’s not going to work, and I know you wouldn’t want to distress her.”
I’m not going to make one of those statements like “I grew up in that moment”. Life rarely has such clear cut and one way transitions. But I suppose I did realise, even if I wasn’t prepared to face it yet, that it was an end of Carsby School.
So far as Grandmother was concerned, I’m afraid there isn’t really a happy ending. She made some improvements, but whether her speech ever really did improve that much, or whether we just got used to it, I’m not sure. The family longevity didn’t apply in her case, and not much more than a year after her stroke, she died.
I mourned and missed her deeply, but decided it was probably best not to say that the real Grandmother had died more than a year ago. That was the kind of thing that ran the risk of a child being accused of being hard-faced and all self, though to be fair, my parents rarely made such accusations. And I overheard Mum, once, saying it was for the best. But there are things adults can get away with saying and children can’t.
Well, I did well at school and decided I wanted to be a teacher. Mum and Dad were supportive of this, though the former did once ask, gently, “It’s not just because of your grandmother, is it?”
I could truthfully say it wasn’t.
I did my degree and my teacher training course, and then it was time to apply for my first job on my own and without a supervisor. I’m pretty sure the Internet probably existed by then, but hardly anybody “normal” had it, and it was done the good old fashioned way, with newspapers and advertisements and the like. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw there was a vacancy for a junior school teacher at Carsby in Lincolnshire! I applied for the job, of course, and was successful. I found accommodation in the village and yet even as I made my way there it still felt vaguely surreal. It was definitely the same village. And I was going to teach in that red brick building where Miss Pollard and Miss Hathaway had taught, and Mr Hopwood had wielded his cane (though I was glad that bit had changed!) and stand in the hall where they’d practised their Scottish dancing.
Except it didn’t quite work out like that. The old school had been demolished twenty years ago, and it was one of those modern buildings that already looked past its prime, with add-on prefab classrooms. It was like a dash of cold water on my fantasies.
But you know what? They still had the tradition of Scottish dancing, and an award given to the best dancer called the Edna Pollard cup!