I can imagine the room filling up with people. My grandfather, in braces and collarless shirt, chain smoking cigars – he would get through about half of a cigar before abandoning it and immediately starting on another. Sometimes there would be three or four slow-burning cigars at work at once. Windows were never opened, although my grandmother would sometimes come in and wave a dishcloth in the smoke and then go out again, back to the kitchen and the fatty fumes of her Saturday afternoon cooking.
The table would be set for tea. The menu was always the same. Fried plaice and chips for me and for my younger brother. Orange dyed haddock poached in milk for my parents and grandparents. The haddock looked like one of the worst foods in the world – seeing it lying there in the discoloured warm milk surrounded by floating discs of melted butter made me reflect on the horror of adulthood. But I had no sense of growing up and the possibility that I might one day be an adult. I just thanked my luck that I was me and did not have to eat poached haddock.
Tea would be followed by television, which meant watching the football results. To my knowledge no one in my family ever showed the slightest interest in football or any other sport, but it was deemed as if by law that we should watch the football results. This consisted of looking at a chart of names and figures shown as the final part of the afternoon Grandstand programme while the presenter Len Martin read out the results that were on the screen in front of us.
“Hibernian, one. Queen Of The South, nil. Dunbarton, nil. Dunfermline Athletic, nil. Heart Of Midlothian, one. Stirling Albion, nil …” and on through all of the football fixtures in the United Kingdom. Although this was a seemingly interminable and even malicious delay before the only important programme on television, I find I can remember the sound and atmosphere of the football results better than any of the episodes of Dr Who which followed. The words were soothing, the alien names like a temple chant, the strangeness amplified by Len Martin’s robotic delivery and Australian accent.
“Bolton Wanderers, nil. West Bromwich Albion, one. Crystal Palace, two. Sheffield Wednesday, one …” For all I knew these might have been the names of newly discovered planets or nebulae at the outer edge of the universe.
Much of what happens in childhood is a deep mystery to the child. I could not for example understand why anyone would willingly watch a game of football, the players moving in inscrutable patterns, the cheers and groans of the crowd uttered at inexplicable moments. But football was something to do with the adult world, someone had fixed it in the firmament of our experience, and like many things it had to be got through.
After Dr Who there was pudding: tinned mandarin segments, or rice pudding. One fresh food that had slipped through the net of prohibition was strawberries, perhaps because strawberries seemed as much a candied sweet as fresh fruit. Even my grandfather would eat strawberries. This was possibly the only fresh food that ever passed his lips.
Our strawberries would be covered in evaporated milk, which my grandmother believed to be the same as cream only safer, together with a large amount of that food which she considered to be the world’s most nutritious which was white sugar. White sugar was ubiquitous: added not only to every pudding but also to scrambled eggs, or roast potatoes, or stews, and no doubt to haddock in milk. I suppose now that in her childhood (which had been played out at the end of the nineteenth century in the most extreme poverty), my grandmother had been deprived of sweet tastes. Although long released from that poverty she was still making up the deficit. Almost manically she shook out more sugar from the silver castor over my strawberries and evaporated milk.
“Nana, enough sugar,” my mother said. “He will be just impossible when we get home.”
Strawberries and evaporated milk were the sign for the Saturday afternoon visit to close. Soon we would be packed into the Austin Cambridge and driving the two miles home to Westcliff, in good time for my father to do something in the garden at home, or to use the screws and Rawlplugs he would have bought that afternoon from Woolworths, or to hang up a new tool in the cupboard at the top of the stairs on a newly fixed hook with a newly printed label from his Dymo labelling machine.
Perhaps we would have stayed longer if there was anyone else visiting the London Road house, if there were more people with more conversation to extend the evening. Yet I cannot recall other people ever sitting down to a meal in my grandparents’ house. As far as I could see my grandparents had no friends.
That may seem strange now in a world where social life has become a duty and a valuable industry, but it did not seem strange at the time. My grandparents were exiles. They had escaped from their setting but they had brought with them no interests and no conversation.
The atmosphere of their lives must also have counted against friendship. My grandfather was a passive, incurious man who liked best to sit in silence, resting one hand on the pages of an unread newspaper, a cigar in the other hand. Meanwhile my grandmother existed in an aura of unrelieved neurosis. She spent the days moving from room to room in a state of vague terror.
Sometimes my grandmother’s sister Ethel might come from Hornchurch to visit the house in London Road, and stay for an hour or two talking in the kitchen although never sharing a meal. Ethel had a sunny soothing personality – she was the polar opposite of my grandmother who sucked all the positive energy out of any room. Sometimes a man I knew as ‘Elf’ might spend part of an afternoon. This was my grandfather’s brother Alfred who still lived in the East End of London, who wore an imposing suit with a gold watch chain, and who everyone understood to be a person of authority. It was only decades later that I discovered the nature of this authority, which was that Alfred was known to read books, and had revolutionary political views.
All such visits were rare, but none of them could match a visit from Aunt Jack, which called for special arrangements including bought-in cakes. Aunt Jack would always drive her Volkswagen Beetle the half mile down from the large and brooding detached house up beyond the Esso garage where she lived alone. She was the widow of another of my grandfather’s many brothers, and she threw a cold shade of unease wherever she went.
Aunt Jack was believed to be immensely wealthy, and her late husband Bob was said to have been a dangerous man. According to my grandfather who was always ready to criticise any member of his family, his brother had been a “dirty devil”: he was said to have slept with a knife underneath his pillow and to have told Aunt Jack that he had plans to kill her before he died to make sure that she did not spend his money on anyone else.
Aunt Jack seemed equipped to deal with such threats – after all she was alive and her husband was dead, taking his warning to his grave. Aunt Jack had no children: I was given to understand that remarkable things might flow when Aunt Jack died and for that reason it was necessary to pay court and exhibit impeccable behaviour. About once a year I would be taken to Aunt Jack’s house for tea, where we would sit in a large and cold room full of freakishly sized furniture – everything was either too large or too small – while we were served a meal which consisted of sliced bread spread thinly with margarine.
On one of these occasions Aunt Jack pointed to a vast mahogany-cased radiogram which stood at least twice my height, and which looked as if it might suit a very large Masonic reception hall. It had a slatted roll shutter at the front which concealed whatever was inside, and which was kept locked.
“What do you think of that?” she asked.
I said I thought it was good.
Very good, I added.
“Oh it is,” she said. “It is a lovely piece. You wouldn’t know how much it cost. Bob loved that piece. He wouldn’t let anyone touch it.”
There were other things in the house that had been special favourites of Uncle Bob, including a budgerigar in a cage which Uncle Bob was said to have loved more than any human being, but it was the radiogram that lived in my imagination. It was never opened, but it was so massive and sepulchral and seemed so imprinted with the lingering presence of Uncle Bob that I began to wonder whether Uncle Bob might not actually be inside the casing, perhaps preserved with waxy polish like everything else in the house.
Not long afterwards Aunt Jack suddenly fell ill, and a week or two after moving to a private nursing home she died. Her fortune did turn out to be considerable, including to everyone’s surprise the ownership of several houses in the nearby roads that Bob, a land speculator, had developed in the 1930s. The money flowed, but in an unexpected direction: Aunt Jack had left everything – including the Volkswagen Beetle – to the nursing home where she died.
There was one exception. She left the radiogram to me.
The radiogram was duly transported to our house where it stood in the living room as if carved from granite, massively out of proportion and out of place among the Habitat chairs and stripped pine. It haunted us for some months until with the help of my father I dismantled the innards of the machine, examining with the eye of total ignorance the heavy turntable with its primitive white Bakelite arm, along with the valves, the coiled transformers exuding some kind of oily varnish, and the fins of the tuning capacitor turned by a cable that was like a violin string. Soon these were all consigned to the dustbin and the mahogany cabinet was dragged outside and broken up to feed the garden bonfire.
Shortly before all this happened there was one other related incident. The physical body of Uncle Bob may not have been inside the radiogram but as I discovered his malevolent spirit was present and active.
Working alone I had opened up the rear of the cabinet and turned the radiogram on, so as to see the burning orange elements of the valves. I turned it on, and off, and on, and poked around with a screwdriver. I turned it off again, prior to further investigation. What I did not know was that valve electronics require very high voltages, and this electric energy can remain in the circuitry long after the power is cut off.
The electric shock that I then received was unlike anything else I have experienced. It was not the instantaneous convulsion I might have imagined. Instead there was a massive ripple of inner sensation that travelled up my arm and then down my body, a slow wave of gripping pain. It was like being rolled through a hot press. It was astonishing.
The shock also had a psychological effect. It produced an unexpected feeling of shame. I felt that I had casually conjured a demon and had paid the price for meddling. As soon as the physical shock had passed I went up to my room and hid myself under the blankets, staying there for hours.
And for a long time afterwards I lived in the fear that even then Uncle Bob might not have finished his business with me.