When I was a little girl, my mother had the most beautiful waist-length hair. Perhaps every small girl thinks her mother beautiful, but mine truly was, with her Spanish colouring (courtesy of Sephardic Jewish ancestry) laughing face, slender figure and buck teeth, which gave a winsome imperfection to her smile. I even liked the lipstick on her teeth which later, as a teenager, I found embarrassing or even disgusting. Her perfume, her small waist, her stocking seams, her merry femininity were all entrancing to me — as they surely were to my father. In our small flat with our cheerful overweight cocker spaniel my mother ruled the roost. Her nonsense rhymes, extravagant serial stories, peculiar but tasty meals (smoked haddock in milk, bananas and sultanas in custard) and cavalier attitude to housework, which largely involved dancing madly around with duster in hand while listening to “Music While You Work” in the hour before Mrs Dale’s Diary on the Home Programme, were fun.
After my third birthday, things began to change for the worse. And not only because a horrid boy from the flats lost my special furry tiger in the grass. We were playing musical chairs, a spiteful game with built-in misery. My Nanna had died, bequeathing us not only Desmond the budgerigar but also nowhere to go for Sunday lunch. Then Aunty Kathleen died from breast cancer. My father, being a doctor, had been assigned the job of telling her that she would never see her children grow up. Even though she hadn’t seen Kathleen much for years, my mother felt lost without these two dominant female forces. My father meanwhile responded in time-honoured male fashion and my mother fell pregnant. It was a terrible pregnancy with nausea and vomiting throughout and massive depression. While I was sent off to my Aunty Barbara, Mum was sent off to a Convalescent Home (or loony bin). My dad went house-hunting.
The house he bought was a semi-detached four bedroom Edwardian villa in Belsize Park, the kind of house he felt fitting for an aspiring doctor from an affluent German background. To my mother it was the salt mines of Siberia. She begged, she pleaded, for a smaller, modern house, nearer the school so that there wouldn’t have to be a rush in the morning. No good. My father’s mind was made up.
He would buy the house, which he felt was a bargain; and … he liked it to be “in ordnung”, or clean and tidy. The amount of work that such a house represented to a captive housewife in the 1950s was phenomenal. Books have been written about it, stressing the isolation, the dreariness, the exhaustion. The house was a prison, exacting menial labour from its denizens.
From time to time my father would go on a domestic spending spree. Light fittings were a big favourite, but fancy furniture, kitchen gadgets or carpets might make their way home from John Lewis. Then they would have to be kept nice, a torment to my mother.
It is almost impossible to convey how much she hated housework. Suffice to say that in the four decades from when my father died to when she became seriously ill, no one ever scrubbed the tiled walls or floor of the kitchen.
It was hard to find cleaning ladies. Ours was Irish and a bully. She drank tea (“What’s this? Gnats’ piss?”) and complained about how untidy everything was. My mother only found the courage to sack her when she broke a treasured ornament. Appliances were not much cop, either. An inordinate quantity of dust collected on shelves and window ledges. Where did it all come from? In the face of the relentless march of small particles of dust; Mum took evasive action: don’t shake the curtains, they might release dust clouds; don’t poke under the beds, you’ll only find dust balls. The day Dad boarded up both downstairs fireplaces was a happy one for Mum: no more soot!
Being so averse to housework instilled shame and deepened isolation. Already shy, Mum was not keen to ask other, critically-eyed wives back to ours. She felt it was not quite right but it was beyond her to fix it. Children were ok, she got on well with them, little knowing how critical some of the little madams were. But my father, who was gregarious and hospitable, insisted on bringing guests home for supper, putting up foreign connections and all kinds of relatives on the couch and “showing them London”. There was one meal that Mum felt confident about making, featuring salad and hard-boiled eggs followed by roast lamb and a pudding (the only fun part as far as she was concerned) but after that she was running on an empty tank. Thereafter guests would have to make do with toast and scrambled eggs like the rest of us until inspiration struck for another meal.
We took this all for granted. However, when I was four, I made a request. Unlike my third birthday, I didn’t have a party that year. My sister had been born a week before. Nor did we go away, as we had for my second. Hastings, the ballroom of a hotel, white curtains blowing sunshine in the sea breeze; a brass band plays Happy Birthday while the management (in white gloves) leads a confused little girl in a frothy skirt round the tables to polite applause. Nothing happened, as it seemed to me, to celebrate this important day for me except them asking me for a good name for the small sister. “Saucepan would be a nice name,” I ventured. They called her Angela Daphne. So I asked. “Can I have an angora bolero like the other girls?”
Fluffy white angora boleros were all the rage. I wanted one, to be like the others. I was fully aware, since Mum demonstrated it frequently, how slow progress can be knitting such fine yarn. Equally, the speed of progress is dictated by application. Within two years, Mum pointed out that the half-knitted bolero (to be accurate, the back and one half of the front, no sleeves) would not fit me even if completed. Daddy suggested it be given to Angela instead. Not the response she was hoping for, but she agreed. Two years later, the bolero was no further forward and Mum was developing a serious detective novel habit that took precedence over most other activities. Fifty years after its inception, we opened the knitting bag and there it still was, not even grubby. Ridiculously small and unfinished, but the stitches still held in good tension.
“You could finish it,” suggested Angi, mischievously.
I looked at her.
“Maybe not,” she said hastily.
I had never really forgiven my mum for not finishing the angora bolero and not making me like the other girls. It was surely time to lay it to rest, along with the long disused knitting needles and old skeins of wool, in a decent black bin bag.
My Aunty Barbara