I wasn’t keen staying at aunty’s but had no choice. And staying there had its tariff – behaving oneself, Bible study, church very regularly and aunty’s own home-grown, do-it-yourself prescribed course of moral code education and decent elocution – I sometimes still pronounce my vowels correctly, although not when I stub a toe, nic myself shaving or am made to deposit hard-earned pennies into the swear box at the office! Even many years pre-aunty, our school had a small selection of us ‘good readers’ reading in church on various important occasions, after having drummed us with elocution then too – a very nice lady used to come into school and we’d learn and demonstrate our polished dialects with consummate pride…until the lesson was over. To this day, I sometimes struggle with an accent that isn’t particularly from anywhere… As for the moral code, well, others can be the judge of how well that was embedded…
Aunty taught me manners too. “Yes please”, “No thank you”, speak when spoken to, open doors, carry bags and generally be a child that you could take anywhere without fear of embarrassment or shame. Wash behind your ears, clean your nails, change your socks, flush the loo, and so on and so forth… Looking back, she gave me a good grounding and these days manners come naturally and without pretense – even when they’re undeserving. However, at the time it was chorish, it was a bind to behave – I just wanted to be normal and say and do normal things; speak and do as my friends would… And I did to a point, though not in Aunty’s presence. Having said that, she was firm but fair. And dignified too. I reminisce and sometimes, just a tiny little bit of me wants to be back there with her. If I think hard enough I can still hear her – some of my aunt’s family had an only just noticeable whistle when they spoke; I used to work really hard to keep a straight face if she was being direct, waving the finger, and telling me God was taking note! The slightest whistle nullified the gravity of almost any chiding! I can still smell her ‘Tweed’ and the smoke from her candles after she’d blown them out during the odd power cut; I smell moth balls, ‘Fairy’ soap and ‘Vosene’ shampoo. She had a plastic bottle in the shape of Our Lady, filled with Holy Water that she’d brought back from a trip to Lourdes – always insisting that a miniscule drop would help heal the now and then cuts and grazes that little boys collect.
There were often times though that we’d laugh – she’d cuddle and squeeze me in, telling me I was cheeky but to keep smiling and I’d tolerate anything; her laugh resembled that of the gentle neigh of a horse – you know, if a horse could understand a poor joke and neighed a neigh of patronising approval. Despite her upstanding and strict(ish) mannerisms, I got her laughing with ease. Mind you, I could enrage her just as easily too.
My capacity for mischief though, and my ‘do first, think later’ approach, more often than not landed me in reasonably hot water – and set for more lessons on behaviour, responsibility and maturity. So I guess, missing home, it could be said that I was a little rebellious.
Aunty had some top teeth missing and wore a partial denture; sickly pink acrylic gum with around six nice, white pearlies… She’d often be about her homely chores without wearing them too. They could be found sometimes in the bathroom, wrapped in dry tissue in a little cream, plastic container. I remember once sitting on the edge of the bath at bedtime while she took them from whatever she was steeping them in, drying then wrapping them. I would tease and she would poke her tongue through the gap, and pulled faces I can still see.
Above the bed where I slept hung a thin cord, and when pulled, two lamps on the wall either side of the bed would come on. I pulled that cord more than several times one night and was told to stop. I did it again, she threatened to remove the bulbs, close my bedroom door and turn off the lamp that sat on a small table at the top of the stairs. I heeded that threat more because I did like the landing lamp to stay on until I fell asleep. However, me being me, the temptation to carry on pulling that cord and popping the lamps on and off, was far too great – pushing my luck was usual for me; and well, it meant that at least I’d have some company when I was restless and couldn’t sleep – even though it could be a telling off. Well, I wasn’t completely happy living there, I missed my mum and dad and my siblings. I missed my familiar comforts, and although locally I made some new friends, it wasn’t home. I snapped the cord.
For a couple of days I was brooding over the scolding I got for snapping the light cord and every single bone in my body ached for home. I was made to stay in for a short while and I wasn’t allowed to play out. I was furious and my childish mind was riddled with the urge for revenge.
Aunty was very forgiving. Although it took her a while after I stole her denture and painted the teeth with a dark, red nail varnish!