Friday, 9 March 2007
The handsome fellow in the cap is me. The boy behind me is my uncle Dave, now the patriarch of the family, then a ten year old boy. We’re sitting in the garden of 24 Helsby Road. As a child I found this place both warm and magical. They had a dog for one. Towser. We weren’t allowed dogs, or cats. But we got our revenge by inflicting upon our mum a never ending variety of rabbits (more about them later) mice, hamsters and guinea pigs, some of them albino. Then there were the frogs. Personally, I think she’d have been better of with just a dog and have had done with it.
Not only did he have a dog, our grandfather also kept canaries and budgerigars in a hand-made aviary at the back of the garden. As I said, 24 Helsby was magical.
I can imagine my children’s faces if they stepped back in time and saw a large wooden table inclined like a ski slope. The legs furthest away would be pressing down on tin plates which in turn were pressing down on meat salvaged from cows’ tongue or pigs’ head. Tongue or brawn is rarely seen now days, but it tasted alright. Better than a ‘chicken nugget’ or a ‘Turkey Twizzler’.
I have a strong, intensely visual memory of their kitchen with its deep red quarry tiles and the black cast iron range. The best way to describe a cast iron range is to see it as an open plan Aga cooker. A fire blazed, heating small ovens to either side of it. The room was dominated by a large wooden table - usually in a horizontal position.
I remember one Christmas and one particular cheese. Why does the mind play these tricks? Why, out of a thousand thousand memories do just a few stick out? As I’m writing this the answer becomes apparent. Mine are largely to do with food. I shall brandish the exceptions when they come. Anyway this was a large block of red Leicester cheese. It looked so good, and I wanted to eat it, and I was too polite to ask and then my dad looked at his watch and said we had to go, and I’m banging my head against the keyboard now, still salivating over that cheese. Yes, I’ve bought red Leicester since, but none of it tasted like that cheese would have done.
I was a toddler then and too bloody polite if you ask me. Politeness was prized, but what about the cheese?
I’ve heard since that not all was light and laughter at 24 Helsby, but to a small child, it seemed so - especially playing with my ‘uncles’ Dave and John. They must have been very tolerant.
Dave can talk the hind-legs of a regiment of donkeys, and sell them back again. He's also one of the funniest men I know. However for a ‘Patriarch’ he lacks gravitas and the obligatory white beard.
He remembers, as a boy, having a ‘vegetable round’, delivering fruit and vegetables balanced in a large iron basket welded to the front of the bike. He likes his food, too, often nibbling away at what then were quite exotic and expensive fruit. Unfortunately his life of crime was unexpectedly cut short when a customer weighed her produce and found it significantly less than she’d paid for.
Albert, the greengrocer was a frightening man with watery blue eyes and a big red face. He wore industrial strength pullovers, or tweed jackets that often looked too small for him. As I said, he frightened me as a child, but he had a soft spot for my uncle. Even as a boy, Dave was entrusted to haggle and buy fresh fruit and veg from the market for the shop. There’s more to life than school.
I remember him barely into his teens making toffee apples in our grandmother’s sink and selling them from a battered old van. Later as a manager of a shoe shop in the centre of Liverpool, later still as a man who bought a large house cheaply and rented out the rooms, whilst he and my ‘auntie’ Carol lived on the ground-floor pretending to be tenants like everyone else. I remember helping him shift some boxes in his ‘new’ house. I was sweating like a pig, and he handed be a tumbler of water which turned out to be neat cointreau. It’s beautiful stuff, sipped. Gulped down it’s like napalm.
I would guess that his favourite job - though he had his moments in the shoe shop - was working for the museum carrying and exhibits back and forth and talking to landed gentry and owners of stately homes as though they were his equals - something they appreciated - or at least he says they did.
Dave should be retired now, but I doubt if he’ll ever do that. He’s be working out how to make money from his funeral.