It felt like falling backwards into the dark. I became hot and frightened. Around that corner? No. That corner? No. I was lost, I was abandoned. The brown woodwork of the counters suddenly seemed threatening. I ran and ran into someone who said something I didn’t understand and then I stopped running. And then I stopped looking for my mother or father and devoted myself to shrieking as loud as I could.
This happened only once. But the memory of being lost in Woolworths was never erased. For years afterwards, for decades, while Woolworths still existed and long after they gave up on bare floorboards and brown counters like ecclesiastical furniture, I could not go into a Woolworths without experiencing a momentary inhibition before pushing through the door.
The Saturday afternoons did not change. Our routine visits to our grandparents’ house in Leigh was as much a fixture as Sunday church might be to another family. We drove, we parked outside Woolworths, and then we drove on.
We passed St Clements Church on the left, where I had made a brass rubbing using a special gold wax that my parents’ friend Jim had given me. The wax had proved very hard and difficult to use, slipping off the brass and smearing the paper. But I did not care about that, the gold wax was impressive even if I had made a mess of it. In any case I did not like preparing for anything, or practicing anything, and I was just as clumsy as my father. Every time we passed St Clements I would think: gold wax. There were other boys at school who had done brass rubbings with ordinary black wax. Lumley who lived in a modern show-like house in Rayleigh had done a massive one, with perfect borders and no mess. But no one else had gold wax.
We drove, and The Broadway turned into a smaller road where the shops sold uninteresting things like catering supplies and carpet offcuts, and then into Marine Parade where there were no shops and where (as my father never tired of pointing out) HG Wells and Rebecca West had lived during the First World War. The houses on Marine Parade were grand, with windows looking over the Cliffs Gardens and down to Old Leigh and the Thames estuary.
We drove until we came to Thames Drive. Now we had passed an invisible border. My grandfather considered Thames Drive to be part of his domain: whatever happened on Thames Drive was his concern. Not long before he had reported going to a house on Thames Drive to buy a trunk to add to his collection of trunks, although it had been many years or even decades since he had travelled anywhere further than a few miles from home or needed a trunk.
“Well now, what do you think?” he said. “A black man! A black man living in Thames Drive!”
“A black man!” chirped my grandmother who had a voice like a caged bird. “A black man! Oh love-a-duck! A black man!”
At the top of the Drive where it crossed London Road – the very last stub of the A13 from the city – there were a couple of shops and offices including my grandfather’s solicitors where gold lettering on glass high above the pavement announced that they were Commissioners For Oaths.
If this was 1966 then I was nine and my brother Martin was seven. Although I did not know it my mother was pregnant with her third child. My parents had been living in their house for almost a decade. The weekly pilgrimage to the house of my father’s parents was something – I now realise – that my mother saw as an irritation that was slowly, cumulatively growing more acute. Perhaps the irritation was like a kind of referred discomfort, a symptom of the fact that my mother was harbouring a secret that she might never feel able to reveal.
For my father it was different. He must then have been playing the opening gambits of his protracted contest with my grandfather over how to manage the slow collapse of the family business, an event that would eventually blow our suburban life to pieces. These things were only distant cloud shapes in the summer of 1966, but already my father treated the Saturday visits to his parents, in the house where he had grown up, with a resignation that did not admit of any alternative.
Today the house on London Road no longer exists. It was sold and demolished in the early 1970s and the land redeveloped as a small supermarket. Later the supermarket failed and the building became offices and small shops – a financial advisory company, a holistic beauty salon, and the number 1755 assigned to the Superstitch Sewing Machine Centre. At the back there is a small car park that occupies exactly the bounds of what was once a garden of seemingly unlimited extent.
All the shadows and the spaces where light would play – the old house, gardens front and back with their different moods, the balconies, the forbidden air-raid shelter which had been concreted over although some ghastly shapes deep inside could still be glimpsed through a vent, the high walls, the coal fires and the one surviving gaslight, the rooms that overflowed with an infinity of secrets and hiding places, are gone.
Gone like the picture that shrinks and vanishes to a point when an old TV is turned off.