Frith House, Canterbury. 1951
PARISH’S FOOD was on the table again. My father and I groaned, but inwardly because we wouldn’t have dared to do otherwise. There we sat at the breakfast table, the three of us, or four if you count the PF, my mother Madge, my father Roy, and my nine-year-old self, Anthea, all silently regarding the bottle. It was eloquent, it spoke on behalf of Madge who was masticating her fourth rasher of bacon. It said: “I suffer greatly and nobody in this house appreciates what I, a woman at a very difficult time of life, have to put up with: there is my own trying mother to deal with, and how few women would do for her what I do? Then there is my husband, and although he has a degree from Oxford University and holds the prestigious position of SENIOR ENGLISH MASTER AT KINGS SCHOOL CANTERBURY, he does not push himself to become important, as he should, and furthermore he is a vegetarian, and how many women at a very difficult time of life have to cook two different meals every day? But worst of all is my daughter Anthea. I never thought when I had to undergo an operation to have her, I would have such a trying child. No wonder I am so ill and need to take PARISH’S FOOD.”
I could feel the silence, (not total for my mother was putting lavish amounts of marmalade on her toast), was beginning to get on my father’s nerves: PARISH’S FOOD was doing its work. I wondered what action he would take. Ah! It was a cunning one because instead of addressing her with words of commiseration which would have been instantly scorned, he addressed me: “Your mother’s not well; she can’t go on like this, running this great house, cooking the meals, seeing to her mother…..”, (this was an old ruse, I used it myself, to make out that Barnie as I called my grandmother, was the root cause of all this trouble)… “If she goes on like this, she’ll have a breakdown.” I cast a surreptitious glance at my mother to see how effective Roy’s words were. I caught a glimmer of triumph there, but my voice must be added to make Madge’s victory complete. He paused, but I missed my cue. I was meant to say: “and just think of all she does for me!” But as always, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and now her wrath was to be directed not against my father or Barnie, but against me. “You can see that child doesn’t care… (I was always called ‘that child’ when I incurred disapproval). “If I fell down those stairs, as I might well do, that child wouldn’t bat an eyelid, and then she might realise how I’ve worked my finger to the bone all my life for her, and had The Operation.” The Operation’ was much mentioned (I believe it was a D&C, a scrape out, performed in minutes, but we were never allowed to forget this huge sacrifice Madge had undergone to produce me). Thus I was made aware that I had been trouble, not only after my birth, not only before my birth (“such a dreadful ten months”), but even before I was conceived! Conception and the like were much discussed in sotto voce dark conversations held with Barnie, containing expressions such as ‘heavy flow’, ‘time of life’, ‘those times’ and even more darkly, but not so sotto voce if my father happened to be passing through on, say, his way to the compost heap, ‘Nature’s needs’, ‘certain urges’. Although they were mysterious to me, I could tell my father intensely disliked these conversations which I discerned, were somehow directed against him.
To return to the breakfast table: my father knew that the crisis point was near and action must be taken if some sort of peace was to be restored; he resorted to the fail safe ruse: “what you need, Madge, is sea air.” Turning to me: “your mother needs sea air.” Silence; she was as yet prepared to make no concessions.
“What about Whitstable… Herne Bay…. Tankerton?”
“I don’t know that I am strong enough for the journey.”
We all knew that a solution had been reached, that Madge would indeed be strong enough for the seven-mile journey in the Ford Popular to Tankerton. Madge loved such outings, and most of all she loved them in the winter when it was freezing cold, for unlike Roy and me, she had a thick layer of fat to keep her warm.
Breakfast was finished. PARISH’S FOOD replaced in the cupboard. Oddly, it had not been touched, but then, it never was; it possessed the unique power of curing by its mere presence.
A Trip to Tankerton
t would be difficult to say which member of the Purnell family (with the obvious exception of Madge) disliked going to the seaside most; it was a close-run thing: firstly, Roy really hated the sea; like me he felt the cold, and his clothes bought in The Sales by Madge were cheap and not warm; also, our trips to the sea were seldom taken on sunny days, nor did they involve any sitting on the beach, they involved walking along a bleak and dirty promenade in the biting wind with the grey sea of the Thames estuary beating against it. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to do or see, one could only walk, gritting one’s teeth against the cold. Barnie, Madge’s mother now in her seventies disliked going anywhere or doing anything; what she liked best was to sit in a chair next to her bed in her nightdress, brooding on her miserable life, she hated being made to get dressed and get t in the car. The dog, Simon disliked it because instead of being taken for a long walk (by Roy and me, never Madge), and running free across the fields, he had to submit to the lead for the endless concrete walk; and lastly, me: I hated sitting in the back of the car with Barnie and the dog who covered me with white hairs which I would have to spend ages brushing off when I got home; I too, hated the cold, and the utter misery of the walk. Madge, however, loved it, ‘breathing the life-giving ozone’, as she described it. Quite why she enjoyed it so much I could never quite work out, perhaps her enjoyment was given extra zest by the triumph of having forced us all to do something we loathed, it was a vivid proof of her power.
The trips were formulaic. Barnie would be deposited on a bench and left to sit shivering in the cold, staring unseeingly at the sea, her mind meditating on the miseries of her life. Roy and I walked hunched up against the cold in our thin cheap clothes; Simon pulled at the lead, excreting odiferous offerings in the middle of the concrete path in front of us. “Mind you don’t step in it,” Madge would say. She was recovering her spirits; she alone (even Simon shivered) did not feel the cold. “Now,” she says, “breathe in the air. We stop and stand obediently, but we must demonstrate our enjoyment: “Now breathe in, go mmm…ahhh, mmm…ahh.” I look round nervously to see if anyone has seen us and is laughing, but there is no-one, no one but a Purnell is foolhardy enough to brave the cold.
The walk along the concrete front is endless: we pass beach huts mainly shut up and stare miserably in front of us. Tankerton, Herne Bay, Whitstable all are identical in my memory as equally depressing, but Reculver is the worst: it is the end of the world, the sand, if sand it is, has a sinister reddish hue, the pebbles make a melancholy groaning, and ahead in the distance is some sort of ruin; I feel utter misery, there is nothing but cold, concrete and desolation.
Daddy and I long to receive our orders for About Turn, but Madge, so lately at Death’s Door, is now indefatigable, rejuvenated by the ingestion of the ozone, unmindful of the misery and the cold and Barnie shivering on her bench. Once we came across a lone man on a bicycle with toffee apples for sale. God knows to whom he hoped to sell, there being no one but the Purnells on their ozone walk. A glimmer of light opens up in the misery and I pluck up courage, suddenly there is life and hope: “Please…” How foolish I was! The suggestion is laughed to scorn: they are labelled 6d. “6d! Why, you could make a dozen for that, and besides, you know you don’t eat between meals, do you want people to think you are common?”
Here are Madge, Simon and I breathing in the ozone on the front at Tankerton. Surprisingly it looks like a warmer day than usual.
Even when we are back in the (comparative, there’s’ not much) warmth of the car, the day is not over. Now that Madge has been invigorated she will go round the antique shops and buy herself a little present: “you deserve it, Madge,” says the treacherous Roy. Why does she deserve it? I do not know. In the meantime I am dispatched to buy a pot of cream. There is a place which sells off old cream cheap. I return to the car; Barnie shuffles uncomfortably on her seat, she has uncertain bowels, Roy shivers behind the wheel. We wait. We wait. At last Madge appears clutching something wrapped in newspaper; she gets into the car and says it is time we went home, she is getting tired. The parcel is unwrapped on the journey home; it is apparently a bargain: “a real Worcester jug.” True, the spout is chipped and there is a great crack down the side, but nevertheless it is a bargain. It is handed to Barnie, whom Madge (although not Roy) believes to have knowledge of china. “What do you think, Mother?” But Barnie’s response is as Eyore-like as ever: the jug doesn’t have the Worcester mark and it’s not a good colour. Madge is incensed: naturally it’s Worcester, the man in the shop – a pleasant cultivated man with a good accent, had said so… and couldn’t Mother ever show any enthusiasm for anything? And she hadn’t even thanked her for the lovely afternoon out, most old people would be full of gratitude….” It was such a relief to Roy and me when Madge’s wrath turned against Barnie rather than ourselves; we had no shame, we were craven enough to encourage it: Roy concurred in condemning Barnie’s ingratitude, and not to be outdone, I said how lucky she was to have been allowed to sit on the bench while I had to walk along the front. This was a tactical error; now the wrath swerved from Barnie to me: most little girls would be grateful that they had had a lovely walk, they would at that very moment be saying how kind it was of their mummy to take them to the seaside, but of course…here she swivelled round in her seat with amazing agility, to give me the full force of her wrath, “ it is all of a piece with your general behaviour, sullen, disagreeable, selfish….” Here Barnie hoping to redeem her behaviour over the china, breaks in, in an effort to confound my sins and thus get back into favour. “She used to be such a nice little girl, too.” Barnie often had recourse to this remark and I found it very upsetting since it seemed to question the nature of my whole being: how was it that I was no longer nice….what had happened to that little girl…had I in fact been taken over by an evil spirit…was I doomed… would I never be nice again…, had some horrible incubus had taken me over? Who was I, then? I still bore the name Anthea Margaret Purnell and lived at Frith House, 120 Whitstable Road, but if I was somehow no longer me, who was I?
“Yes,” said Madge, “I don’t know what has happened to her, but I think she needs to be punished more often…of course any proper father would see to that, not expect his wife to do the disciplining.” Now here was a glimmer of light, now the wrath had turned against Roy. However, Madge was right, Daddy did not like punishing me, and his admonishments would be of the ‘try not to upset your mother, she’s not strong’ kind.
We return home in silence except for the sound of Simon’s yapping in the back. He alone has no fear of Madge. As I grew older I began to receive intimations that other children’s seaside visits were somehow not like ours, and were actually enjoyable. I could not imagine it.
Once home, everything followed a predictable pattern: Barnie returned to her lair, and having attended to her bowels, put on her nightdress (no need to wash) and retired to bed where she sat upright and devoted herself to brooding. Roy put the car away in the garage, this always took a very long time, a fact that nobody questioned since Madge did not drive and assumed that ‘putting the car in the garage’ required enormous skill and patience, such as someone engaged in sheepdog trials might exercise when finally getting an errant sheep back behind hurdles. Actually, I now realise it was a clever ruse on my father’s part to gain some time to recover from the afternoon’s skirmishes and gird his loins ready for the evening offensive. By now Madge was tired and I could see wrath was again going to be forthcoming as the ominous words were spoken, “can’t that child do anything to help?” I must get busy to forestall it. “Shall I lay up tea?” Silence. I lay up tea. Silence is broken: “I suppose you expect me to do the cream?” I get out the Kenwood mixer and whip the cream: “mind you don’t turn it into butter like you did last time?” I put out three bowls for the cream, a large, a medium and a small; a bit like the Three Bears’eating arrangements but different, because Mummy Bear gets the big bowl, Daddy Bear the medium and Baby Bear the small. The car has been put away; we sit down to eat, spreading the cream on the bread.
“You look tired, Madge.”
“I am tired, running this great house.”
This Great House
All my life I had heard these three words. Even in the beginning, when we lived in all of it, it had been not large, but merely a medium sized 1920s detached house: sitting room, dining room, kitchen, breakfast room and a strange awkward added-on room at the side; four bedrooms, loo and bathroom upstairs; but 120 Whitstable Road was never a comfortable house: the rooms were too small and dark, and the stairs took up a lot of unnecessary space; but it was larger than anywhere we had lived in before and to Madge it was a palace. She was delighted when she found some previous owners had called it ‘Frith House’, and writing paper was printed with FRITH HOUSE emblazoned on it. Roy indeed, had been embarrassed about the nomenclature, tentatively he suggested it would be better to omit these words and stick with the 120. This suggestion was not well received: did he have no idea of his status, of her status, how would people appreciate the splendour of the house if it was merely 120 Whitstable Rd., surely he could see that? But since the postman did not know of such a place as Frith House, and letters ceased to arrive, the writing paper had to be amended in biro: FRITH HOUSE, 120 Whitstable Road.
‘This Great House’. I am standing at the gate waiting for Roy to come home in order to intercept him before Madge tells him of my sins.
It was a step on the ladder of her ambition and her eye magnified it into ‘this great house’; however, great houses, even if they are extremely small great houses, require some looking after, even housework. Madge had not taken this into her calculations. For a time a Mrs Smith was employed ‘to do the heavy’. I liked Mrs Smith because she bought me presents, something to which I was unused: presents, I had learned were the province of Madge. Mrs Smith’s presents had the added attraction of being ‘unsuitable’. When the Coronation happened, she bought me a replica gold coach which I thought unbelievably glamorous and exotic; she also gave me a wind-up child’s gramophone; admittedly it was hard to tell what tunes it was meant to be playing, but I did not mind that in the least, I actually owned a gramophone! These gifts were not to be mine for long, Madge had Roy carry them up to the loft where they ‘might come in useful’ if Madge had to make a contribution to something or someone. Anyway, whether it was because of her unsuitable gifts or because her work was unsatisfactory, she vanished and Roy and I appointed to do her work instead, but we too proved unsatisfactory, we failed to do our work thoroughly enough and the PARISH’S FOOD was constantly on the table. Finally a solution of sorts was found. ‘The Great House’ would be divided up and we would live upstairs. Downstairs, Barnie would have a bedroom, a kitchen and a lavatory in the old coal hole; she did not, apparently require any bathing facilities or a sitting room. The other half of downstairs would become a ‘flatlet’, consisting of a bedroom, kitchen and tiny bathroom, this was apparently a clever move since it would be let out, preferably to someone like a spinster schoolmistress, and make money for the Purnell coffers. Upstairs there was now a sitting room, kitchen-diner, bathroom, toilet and two bedrooms. It was an extremely unsatisfactory arrangement because the only spacious feature now about the house was the long staircase with its awkward sort of dog-leg in the middle, up which everything now had to be carried; there was an awful lot of carrying up and down for Roy and me. Also, it was now extremely poky upstairs and the smell of burning cooking fat seemed to permeate its every corner. Much was spoken about what a wise move this had been: less for Madge to see to, the imposing address maintained – it was not after all, called Half a Frith, nobody need know that we actually lived in four poky rooms. The resulting revenue from the ‘flatlet’ proved disappointing, nobody, not even the hoped-for spinster schoolmistress, was prepared to pay much for three tiny rooms, and the money expended on the venture was never recouped, nor was the occupant ‘the sort of person’ that Madge had thought worthy of Frith House; it was finally was let out to a policeman who committed the sin of sitting on the bench in the garden, which he should have realised was for Madge’s exclusive use, and besides, you couldn’t have lower class people taking liberties. Words were had and he departed leaving the flat as dirty as he could; the flat remained empty and the Purnells got caught by the tax people for capital gains. Nevertheless, Frith House remained ‘this great house’, ‘too much for Madge to see to’.
There were pros and cons to having Barnie interned downstairs: the chief pro was this: when the idea of a black and white television was first envisaged, there was the question of where it should go; Roy had to prepare his lessons and mark his books in the one very small sitting room, there was nowhere else he could use in ‘this great house’, even Madge could see that. So an ideal solution was found: the television would go in Barnie’s small bedroom. Barnie wasn’t averse to this, not that she wanted to watch television, she didn’t, she much preferred to concentrate on the brooding, but it meant that she now had an opportunity to do the brooding in bed as there was nowhere else for her to sit since the room was now filled up with furniture: a large chair was imported for Madge to do her viewing from, there was a smaller chair for Roy, in case he should find time for television, and there was a footstool for me, so along with the large commode ‘to save mother’, there was no room for movement at all. This arrangement suited everyone (except the dog who was excluded from proceedings and sat outside the door and whined incessantly to be let in). Roy could now remain in the sitting room and listen in peace to the classical music he loved. Madge, too, always claimed to appreciate it, calling it ‘good music’ to distinguish from any other forms; but now he was undisturbed since the ‘good music’ did not hold Madge’s attention for long, and bored by it, she would decide there was ‘an intellectual programme’ on television which she mustn’t miss.
Madge loved watching anything, including all the things she would not have liked Roy to know she liked watching; also when the television palled, there was an opportunity to converse with Barnie on the favourite subjects: ‘ the flow’, ‘the needs’, ‘time of life’, ‘soiling’, and all the other interesting topics without the fear of Roy’s overhearing. I liked the arrangement too, since I was actually allowed to do some goggling, if it could be justified as ‘educational’; but even better than the television itself was the new freedom of the sitting room; this needs some explaining: in the far wall was the two bar electric fire and parallel to the fire was Madge’s chair; the chair and its occupant took about 90% of the heat; Roy had a chair to the left of the fire from which he gleaned a few rays, and I, a stool to the right which caught the few remaining calories. Now with Madge downstairs we could both edge nearer to the fire – we didn’t of course, dare to sit in Madge’s chair, but without her bulk absorbing the heat, we gained a little warmth, and Roy would lay down his marking pen and talk to me of books and music and old things that had happened long ago, and he listened to me, too, and although he was often intolerant of my ignorance, there was no talk of my manifold failings and the need for me to be punished; it was a happy time for both of us, but then we would hear the heavy footsteps on the stairs – or perhaps we didn’t, and then the happiness of the evening would be dissipated: “I thought you had your marking to do, Roy, and that child sitting idle again. I don’t know why you’re not in bed. Roy, you should have made her.” And to bed I would go.
Ironically, because the house was badly designed, the two large, or larger rooms, (they were not big rooms, and one had now become the sitting room),were at the front of the house overlooking the main road, whereas the little bedroom overlooked the garden; there was no way round it, I had to have the one room with the view! Nor was I allowed to forget how fortunate I was; it was another thing I must ‘learn to be grateful for’. So although we apparently lived in splendour in ‘This Great House’, we actually lived in extremely cramped conditions in four rooms: the bedrooms, the sitting room, the kitchen-diner, with forays downstairs to Barnie’s bedroom. But so used was I to hearing the expression ‘This Great House’, that it never occurred to me that it wasn’t – that is, until I was playing ‘Steps’ in the school playground with my new friend Lindsay. This was an extremely esoteric game that we had invented, so esoteric that we didn’t understand it ourselves.
“You must go from Easter Island to Japan in two steps,” she commanded, (the rules of the game were extremely complex). I moved two steps up on my way to the Orient.
“I’m standing in China now,” said Lindsay from the top of the steps, and then, out of the blue: “does your mum go out to work?”
This unexpected question embarrassed me horribly because I knew she shouldn’t use the word ‘mum’; only working class children did that, and Madge had warned me when I went to the Grammar School to be careful whom I mixed with and be on my guard against lower class children, and not forget the ‘proper way of speaking’; secondly, how could I tell her without appearing superior that no, of course Madge didn’t go out to work. I put off making my reply, by saying that I was now in the lifeboat on my way to Africa. But Lindsay continued, “Mine does, she’s a teacher.”
This was all very odd: mothers shouldn’t go out to work because only lower class women did that, but if Lindsay’s mum/ mummy was a teacher, how could she be lower class? I remained in the lifeboat in puzzled silence.
“Well, does she? You have to swim now, your lifeboat’s sinking.”
“Um no. Anyway my lifeboat’s not sinking.”
“Yes, it is, Why not, why doesn’t your Mum work?” And Lindsay took a bold jump from the first to the fifth step. How to explain? Various phrases came to mind: ‘a woman in my position’, ‘wife of the senior English master at Kings School, Canterbury’; ‘my husband a vegetarian’, ‘mother to see to’, but finally I knew: “She has to run This Great House. I’ve been rescued now, look I’m in Hong Kong”, and I too, took a bold leap on to the third step.
“ That’s not Hong Kong; that’s Tok…somewhere in Japan.What great house?”
“Where we live?” Lindsay’s attention was caught, she didn’t even continue about Hong Kong.
“ Gosh, does it have salons and halls and corridors and things?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“How big is it, then? How many bedrooms have you got?” Difficult to explain about how we lived in Half a Frith, and now there were only three bedrooms and one was Barnie’s sitting room. I lowered my head and muttered, “three. Anyway this is Hong Kong.”
“Three!” Lindsay’s voice was full of scorn, “I thought you’d have thirty from what you were saying. We’ve got four, but we don’t go boasting about it being great, especially when it isn’t.” Humiliation and puzzlement beset me, and Lindsay hadn’t finished.
“So why doesn’t your mum go out to work, then? By the way, I’ve won …” Lindsay leapt down beside the netball post, “because I’m at the North Pole now.”
I had no reply: the ground beneath my feet had shifted, all that I had been told as matters of great pride were apparently not so: the house was not great, the not going out to work was not an affirmation of superior status, but something that had to be excused. My brain again went through all the old mantras: ‘a woman at the change’, ‘women of my class’, but none seemed to fit the bill. I temporised.
“You haven’t won because I’m at the Equator.” I walked three times round the netball post and sat down on the ground.
“No, you’re not. Doesn’t she get bored sitting around at home? And…,” (final shot) “you haven’t even got any brothers or sisters. My mum sees to the three of us, four if you count dad, and she goes out to work.” I had no words, so I continued sitting at the Equator in silence, but Lindsay was kind.
“Never mind, I expect you do lots of nice things together.” I tried to think of things we did together, but the only one I could come up with was the walk along the front at Tankerton, and that wasn’t nice at all.
“There’s the bell,” said Lindsay, “race you in!” But I remained sitting by the Equator. I had thought that however irrational and incomprehensible Madge and life at 120 Whitstable Road, or rather, Frith House was, it was right, immovable, absolute, the only possible way life could be lived. But apparently it was not so; it seemed other people did things differently; perhaps they did them better. Suddenly I perceived there might be a flaw in the ethos of Frith House.