family secrets
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Every Picture Tells a Story by Harry Downey.


‘There’s something up here that might be important, Guv. I’ll fetch it down for you. You won’t want it burying for ever under all that insulation, I reckon.’

The voice wakened me from my doze. A moment later I was handed a white cardboard shoebox, wrapped around with a navy ribbon. ‘It was round the back of the cold-water tank – it looked as if it had been put there and forgotten. I’m off now. The loft job is finished. I’ll be here same time in the morning to finish off the other bits and pieces.’

Sam ‘No Job 2 small’’ Wilkins went out through the kitchen saying something to Win as he went, and left me holding a box and its contents I thought I’d lost for good.

I quickly undid the ribbon, saw the assortment of folded papers, photos and envelopes and things; all apparently in the same condition as they had been years before when I’d seen them last. No time for more then as Win came in with a tray of sandwiches. I know better than to pay less than full reverence to anything that comes from her kitchen so I closed the box.

Win. You remember that box of her bits and pieces that my mother gave me just before she died? The one that went missing so I never really had a chance to go through and sort out? Well it’s turned up in the loft. Mr. Wilkins found it just before he went.’

‘You mean the box you lost, dear. Fine. Nice lady your mother. I always liked her.’

After we’d finished Win popped out for a chat with Sue - I could never properly remember her surname. When Win spoke of her it was always Sue Next Door. That was my opportunity for some peace and quiet for an hour or so.

Photos first, I thought. Right on top was a photograph in grainy old black and white on shiny card with curled up corners. It was the only one I ever had of my parents wedding. There they were - a short, stocky, severe-looking middle-aged man and the young, pretty woman who was inches taller than her husband. He had a flower in his buttonhole and she was holding a little bunch of something. The two were staring into the camera with the unease people often have in formal, posed photographs. It was clear the ceremony had been in a Registry Office and not in a church. I already knew it was a wartime wedding in the days of austerity.

I had just picked up the second picture in the pile and had begun to study it when I heard a key in the kitchen door. Win’s voice called out - ‘Next door’s cousin from Newark has turned up I’ve left them to it.’ That was the end of the box for now.

Even so, I’d seen enough on the second photograph to get the old memory cells going like mad. I was in it and it took me back donkey’s years. I’m sixty-six, and there was I was, about eight years old, so you can do the maths for yourself - that would date it about ’50 or ’51. Anyway, if I’m going to tell you the story of the photo I should go right back to the beginning.

We were living in Lincoln at the time. My father, mam and me. It was in the school summer holiday and the weather had been hot and dry for several days. I knew something special was happening as I heard my parents whispering together and then if they saw me listening they’d stop, or talk about something else. Anyway, about teatime this particular afternoon mam told me that that I had to go to bed early that night as we were going off to the seaside next day and I needed all the sleep I could get. It was just to be mam and me. Father worked for the County Council and was very busy in his office - he couldn’t spare the time to go away with us.

Before I went to bed mam looked out all my best clothes, checked them over and laid them out ready for the morning. Then she put whitening stuff all over my plimsolls and left them to dry overnight. I rummaged around for my bucket and spade and made sure they were where I wouldn’t forget them in all the excitement when we were ready to go. In the morning I saw father giving mam some money — I think I saw some pound notes, crisp ones as if they’d just come straight from the bank — then he went to work. Minutes later we went to the ‘bus stop on Kelling Road. Even though it was just a short ride to the station mam let me go upstairs and I stood at the front and held on to the metal bar at the window all the way. At the station mam joined a queue, bought the tickets and we went on the day excursion train to Skegthorpe.

We got there sometime in the late morning. I had a list of things in my head — things that mam had said we were going to do and I could have — and I was determined not to miss out on any of the promised delights. Ice creams, a ride on the donkeys, a play on the sands with mam helping me to build a sandcastle, lots of bottles of pop, and fish, chips, bread and butter and tea in a proper sit-down café (the tea would be for mam, of course). Not for me though, tea’s ordinary stuff — and today we were at the seaside.

As far as mam was concerned all these delights had to wait. First she insisted on rubbing something on my face, and the same oily stuff on to my arms and legs before we left the station, then it was to be ‘a nice cup of tea’ for her to start off the day. Me — I had a big glass of dandelion and burdock with two straws. Then we made our way through all the crowds to the promenade and had our first look of the day at the sea.

It was later on, in the afternoon, very hot, and we were having a smashing time. We’d just been to see the Punch and Judy show and mam was tired and wanted a sit-down. She managed to find two empty seats, plonked herself down in one and put her bag on the other to save it for me. I remember wandering off to the big rail that overlooked the beach, but staying in sight as I’d been told to. Then I went back and found there was a man sitting in my seat. Mam spoke.

‘This is Mr. Bennett, Richard. He’s an old friend from back when I was at school.’

The man stood up and we shook hands formally like father had always told me to do. Mr. Bennett was a very tall man and as he spoke he smiled at me.

‘So you’re young Richard, eh? My name’s Richard too. And how old are you then, young man?’

‘I’m nearly seven and three quarters now. I’ll be eight on November 10th. My birthday’s on a Friday this year.’

He looked across at mam and repeated what I had said.

‘Eight in November, eh? Is he a good boy then, Marge? Do you think he deserves an ice-cream then for being a good boy for his mother?’ Mam smiled and nodded and Mr. Bennett reached into his pocket. He held out his left hand and passed me something. When I tried to take whatever he had it was an empty hand. Then he opened his right hand and there in the palm was a shiny shilling. ‘Go to the kiosk there at the corner and buy the biggest cornet he can find for you.’ He winked, stooped down towards me and his voice dropped to a whisper -‘And I don’t want any change either.’ I ran over to the little cabin and had to join a queue to be served.

When I got back mam and Mr. Bennett were talking quietly. I was busy with my cornet and trying not to spill any on my new shirt and wasn’t listening, but I seem to remember hearing some of what they were saying. I heard things like ‘how was I to know?’ ‘had to move away,’ ‘no address,’ ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Mr. Grant.’ And there were other words that I didn’t understand. They both looked very serious about something.

Mr. Bennett stood up. ‘Young Richard Grant. Why don’t you, me and your mother have a picture taken? Come on, Marge - it’ll give me a souvenir of today.’ He put his hand in the air and called out to the man with the camera and black shoulder bag who was patrolling nearby.

He went over to the man and they spoke. ‘He wants us walking. He says it’s more natural and makes for a better snap.’ The three of us, mam, Mr. Bennett and me in the middle holding hands with both of them did our best not to look too silly and self-conscious with our smiles as we walked towards the photo man.

‘I’ve told him we’re here just for the day and he’s going to rush them especially for us. I’ll see him right for his extra trouble, of course.’

Taking me by the hand and grabbing the beach ball I’d bought that morning, my new friend took me down the steps onto the beach, and we happily played football till mam called us from up above. Mr. Bennett found the photo man, handed mam her copy of the picture, went to the kiosk again and bought me a stick of rock. White inside, pink on the outside with Skegthorpe printed inside it in a curve. It was very sticky and crunchy on the teeth I remember. Mam put it away in her bag to take back home with us. ‘You’ve had enough for now’ she said. ’If you have any more you’ll be sick on the train going home.’

Then it was time to go, and Mr. Bennett insisted on walking to the station with us and he bought a special ticket that let him go through on to the platform and the trains with us. As we said goodbye he pretended to put his right hand up to my face and he found a shiny half-crown in my ear. He did make me laugh. Mam didn’t look very amused though, I think she must have been tired out by then. From the platform he waved and I waved back until he was out of sight.

On the way back mam made a big fuss and she showed me how I looked in the mirror she had in her handbag. My face had gone all red and mam said my nose would look like a ripe tomato in the morning. She said that father wouldn’t recognise me looking like that but I knew that he would really, so we laughed at what she’d said.

I wanted to talk about Mr. Bennett - for instance why was she ‘Marge’ to him but always ‘Marjorie’ to my father — but mam said she needed a little nap so she turned away to go to sleep. I must have dozed off, but remember that when I woke up mam was looking out of the window. I could see her reflection in the window and she looked sad. We’d had such a lovely day too. It must have been because our little holiday had nearly come to an end. Then she saw me looking at her and smiled at me.

Then mam said things that I’ve never forgotten. I was only a child back then, but even if I don’t get all the words right I remember what she was trying to say. ‘We owe everything to your father. He’s a very good man. He’s been as kind to you and me as any man ever could be. He doesn’t show his feelings very much, and he doesn’t make a fuss of you like some fathers do with their children, but he loves you very much. That’s something you must always remember.’

All this reviving of long, half-buried memories started me thinking. Next morning - remember I’m retired so I’m my own boss and can do what I want when I want, except when Win’s around of course - I had a quiet time on my own. Yes, she who must be obeyed was round with Sue Next Door. So I lifted down the box for another look at its contents.

I looked again at the wedding picture then turned it over and looked at the back. There was an address on it, the sort of thing you do with a rubber stamp and an inkpad. It gave the name of a photographer in Leeds. There was also a handwritten date in black ink. I scrabbled into the box and found what I wanted. A yellowing single page document that most of us have, or will have sometime or other – a Marriage Licence. William George Grant to Marjorie Thelma Burnett. The date matched the date on the back of the photograph. I didn’t need to find the other document. Like everyone else, I knew my own birthday. So when my parents married I was already fourteen months old.

So the old dog had jumped the gun had he? That he had didn’t bother me in the least, but no doubt back then it must have caused serious problems for the two of them. Society was different in the nineteen forties. Stigmas were attached to events that no-one seems to bother about any more these days. No doubt it would explain the Registry Office wedding, and might even explain why the family home I remember was in Lincoln and not in Leeds.

It was the following Sunday morning. Our son Jimmy, Margot and young Rick were with us for lunch. I was taking a quick glance into the shoebox when Rick came into the room. He’s twelve, bright as a button and can wrap me round his little finger. I know it, he knows it and he knows that I know it.

‘Caught you, Grandad. So this is where you hide all your secrets. How much will you give me not to tell Nan? It must be worth fifty pee? Honestly though, if they’re anything to do with the family I’d like to see them. I watched a programme the other night about genealogy and it was fascinating.’

I tried to close the box with ‘Another time, Rick’’ but he was too quick for me. He picked up the picture from Skegthorpe. ‘Well then. There’s a lady and I think that’s you so that will be your mother, my Great Grandmother. Is that right, Grandad? Very pretty, wasn’t she? And the man must be your father - anybody can see that. You’re so alike. You, dad and me - we’re all tall. I’m nearly six feet already.

Rick picked up the old photo of my father and my mother on their wedding day. ‘And the old man in the photos with Great Grandmother when she was young? He doesn’t look like anyone else in the family. Who’s he then?’

He was an elderly gentleman who was very good to my mother and me many, many years ago. He died when I was about your age. I didn’t get to know him as well as I should have and now it’s too late. He was a very kind, very generous man and I wish now I’d got to know him better. And you’re quite right, Rick, he wasn’t any blood relative - more a sort of in-law. You know, honorary family, related to us by marriage’.

Had Rick been a few years older I might have told him the full truth. That’s what I tell myself anyway. I should have: after all Rick was mature enough then to take it all in and understand the implications. But I didn’t. Should have, but didn’t. Trying to protect my long-dead mother’s reputation? That’s what I told myself anyway. But I shouldn’t have lied to him like that. I wish I hadn’t.



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