Shoes and Nail Varnish

I miss my grandmother. Things so small can suddenly remind me of her. Elderly female patients with their painted fingernails or the way they bend and reach their fingers down to remove their shoe for an examination.

She was a force to be reckoned with on the outside, soft and insecure on the inside. Crabby sometimes, like the Cancerian she was. And vain. Oh so very vain. She needed prettiness in her life to brighten the dark evenings that being alone brought her. She once said to me when I complained about a boyfriend, ‘surely it is better to at least have a man in your life, rather than have nobody?’. She craved attention and whilst loved by many, in those last 20 years, it wasn’t the kind she sought.

Brought up with austere Victorian parents who apparently didn’t have much by way of loving parenting skills and by her own limited accounts, were shy of affection or warmth. Her own house apparently should have been a bungalow except her husband refused to sleep on the ground floor and so an upstairs was built – which was a shame – he ran off with another woman not long after.

My memories of the house are that it was cold and often felt ominous. Difficult to put a finger on why but it was the sort of place where you had to sing very loudly whenever you felt scared. Just in case. I couldn’t manage to enter or exit anywhere that was dark without loud singing, it was a Ghost Shield. Central heating didn’t exist in Woodpeckers and often it felt like there was literally no heating at all except for when you were practically sat on top of a two bar electric fire or sat directly in front of the open fire, competing for space with her oversized cats. And of course then you had the choice of having one side of your body absolutely freezing and the other burning to a cinder.. so you’d quickly turn round and repeat the process on the other side. I remember in the mornings before school, watching my breath above the counterpane.. knowing that I had to somehow race across the room, plug in the electric fire and then race back, grabbing my uniform on the way and hurtling under the covers again. I would dress inside the bed, getting tangled up in my knickers and tights. Only then could I brave the ‘outside’. The bathroom and toilet were the worst. You had to brace yourself before you sat on the toilet seat… the water from the bathroom basin burning your hands and face, it was so cold. The millions of spiders in the corners that kept watch, looking on, their eight knees a-knocking.

The kitchen, was a different story. I loved the kitchen. A coal boiler in the corner, the Heat Mecca; I would worship it first thing in the morning and straight after school. There was a wicker basket beside it, just big enough for a cat much wider to try and wedge it’s gargantuan body into. The walls were yellow and white painted French windows overlooked  the wild front garden, with a string of monkey nuts hung from one tree to another. The nuts were for the birds but the squirrels would often get there first; cue Phyllis racing outside shouting at them to go away. I would sit in the kitchen at the small dining table doing my homework after school, listening to her teaching the piano to another child. She painstakingly attempted patience but both I and the pupil could hear the rising irritation as she would try not to bark “back straight, shoulders back!”.

She had shoulder length brown hair that she would curl and pin every night. She practised her floor exercises every morning and I remember being tiny, laying beside her, desperately trying to do bicycles in the air. Her nails had to be painted, usually a coral sort of colour and she wouldn’t be seen without her lipstick. If you rang the doorbell before she was dressed she would shout ‘bugger, bugger, bugger!’, with each step as she came to the front door. Seething with anger that she had been interrupted. And sometimes if you rang her on the phone you could almost hear her angrily muttering “I can’t STAND IT” as she answered. She would tell you she had no time at all to talk to you but you couldn’t get a word in edgeways until she had finished regaling her current news.  Then in a fit of fresh annoyance she would protest that you had now made her late for something and  hang up. Left open-mouthed still trying to say hello, slowly you’d replace the handset.

She loved nature. Her garden was her world. She had somehow managed to create a fantasy world for me as a child. The French windows and doors opening up onto a patio that flowed onto a rockery – full of pink flowers and jumping spiders – which led to a a lawn split into two by a flowerbed. Then there was the woodland part, to the left a black metal swing with an uncomfortable rotting, wooden seat and upon which I spent many a day swinging on.. until I felt sick. To the right there was a little copse with painted white metal furniture and between two staunch trees, lay a hammock. She would lie in it whenever she felt she had time but most often I remember her retiring there in late summer evenings. Her safe place. Past the copse the path took you to the rose garden, the apple trees and the vegetable garden. Long, hot Summer days I spent there ‘helping’ her garden. As I grew up, the more I resisted, preferring to spend time with other teenage friends, getting wasted and preying on fresh blood who simply saw me as the London bike. She gardened up until 3 weeks before she died. Balancing awkwardly on a kitchen chair, bending down to slowly pick the weeds, she refused to be beaten. I remember climbing the apple tree with my (imaginary) friends, I would dress up and pretend to have adventures; she even had a rope ladder made for me. In this same tree, my mother once sat there in her early teenage years, angrily refusing to go back into the house after having locked Phyllis and her musician friends in the front room. She caused quite a stir.

We camped when I was young. She would put the tent up in the garden and I remember lying there, the sky still light. There were long walks with picnics. So many, many picnics. No season would, or could stop the picnics. Birthday ones were a favourite. The older she got the more scant they became. For her 80th I threw her a summer party at her house and I am glad I did, as she died less than two years later. She used to have one most summers; a midsummer party based on a theme.. She would always get cross with the guests not going into the right place at the right time. “But it’s warm and light outside, why aren’t they in the garden? They should be in the garden!”. She was a social butterfly but like a moth to a flame, she would return to the house, banging against its loneliness.

When the three of us were together, my Mum would inexplicably become naughty. She couldn’t help herself. Phyllis would start a conversation, Mum would snigger and make a joke and before we knew it, the three of us would be snorting, then howling with laughter. I miss that. I miss that so much.

The house was sold and within a few years it had been sold again and knocked down by developers. I have seen the new house, mostly in dreams. And I still see Woodpeckers. I am never afraid now and I know Phyllis is dead but she comes back to life in her bed upstairs and the doctors are baffled. And then I nurse her while she dies again. I put this down to guilt or grief, as the day I decided not to stay with her in hospital, happened to be the day she died.

Finally, my favourite memory is on Christmas Day and us squishing in her queen size bed, Mum at the end.. all of our legs managing to find space. And on the bed too, was a baby rabbit I had received just before Xmas, Cecily Parsley (later named Cecil.. for obvious reasons). S/he bounded about the bed, skipping and causing us to squeal with joy. Droppings pinging everywhere but we didn’t care. He slept in a box next to the cats, by the boiler until he was old enough to move into a hutch.

Whether our paths will ever cross again, who knows.. But each time I see a rose, or smell lavender, or I hear the word ‘Bugger!’ – I’ll always have her close to me.

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