My mother’s mother was a mystery. I knew little and understood less about any of the adults in my family – if I considered them at all I considered them to be the equivalent of automata, robotic entities that moved in inexplicable, repetitive cycles. They were like machines that would very occasionally make sudden, unexpected and possibly dangerous movements as if driven by a quirk or fault in the machinery.
If the adults in my world were essentially machines, my maternal grandmother was a particularly well-regulated one. She did the same things – such as producing the same highly organised plates of food on all of our visits – without the slightest deviation from her pattern. Tea consisted of sandwiches made of white sliced bread with the crusts surgically removed, and cut into perfected triangles. The sandwiches would be filled with Shippam’s fish paste, or processed cheese slices, and very thin slivers of cucumber. There would be a pudding consisting of angel cakes from a packet.
In the living room the television would be turned on at exactly 6.29 pm in order to watch the early evening soap opera Crossroads. After Crossroads finished the TV would be turned off again, and the electric fire would be turned on irrespective of the season. On a low table in front of the television there would be a copy of the TV Times, the magazine that contained listings for all of the television programmes that were not watched in the household. The TV Times was the only literature to be found in the house, with the one exception of a very large leather-bound Bible with a clasp lock which was kept in the dining room and never opened. Like my parents, my maternal grandparents were without religion.
This house which was on the edge of the complex of suburbs that encircled our town was maintained in a state of cleanliness, order and emptiness. Carpets smelled of carpet shampoo. Items of furniture were placed at rigid squared-off angles to each other, like lifelong enemies condemned to the same cell. The kitchen never showed signs of any cooking having taken place – every plate or pot or pan was scrubbed clean and hidden from sight a moment after use.
Outside the garden gave an impression similar to a Mondrian abstract. A path of new concrete laid straight and narrow. A rectangle of lawn. Border beds that contained harshly disciplined rose bushes. In memory I see the lawn as made of artificial grass, but that is probably because everything looked artificial. At one end of the garden was a shed, a perfect cube of creosoted timber, where my maternal grandfather had his operational headquarters.
George was in fact my step-grandfather. My mother’s father had died when she was six years old. George had appeared in her life a year or so later, at the end of the war. I never established in my mind for sure exactly what it was that George did. To us it seemed he could accomplish many things.
George laid concrete. He loved concrete. I have a memory of George mixing concrete for some project: I recall his reverence for the concrete powder, the transformation of dust into live concrete mix, and the mysteries of timing. He would have laid the concrete path in his own garden, and built the shed, and certainly he would have creosoted it – George had an equal affinity for creosote, and on several occasions I helped him paint the rich dark creosote on to fences or wooden crates. He would invite me to inhale the manly addictive scent, and even today passing and smelling a creosoted fence in the street delivers a pulse of excitement.
But if concrete and creosote were bliss, for George asbestos was very heaven. Asbestos was something that in George’s world was very close to a miracle, being the opposite of most natural materials. It was rigid, light, easily sectioned by saw and drill, it worked as thermal cladding, it was completely fire-resistant, and it was cheap. I helped George with his asbestos sheets which he sawed outside the shed while I held the falling segment of panel, the grey asbestos filaments filling the air like an advanced form of smoke. This felt like experience at the leading edge of the modern world. For George, if something could be made of asbestos, then it would be.
In this house there were sometimes other people. George had been brought up in a village in County Durham. He had no brothers or sisters but there were cousins and seventy-year-old ‘lads’ who came to visit, bringing their musical north-eastern accents to the flatlands of Essex. I would be paraded before them.
“Oh aye, he’s a canny lad,” they would say. “A canny lad.”