‘Ghosts of South London’ by Catherine Watson

South London

Illustration by Andres Garzon

In my grandmother’s garden there was a stunted, knuckled tree near a ramshackle bomb shelter, a sheet of corrugated iron curved over a shallow hole. My grandmother lived in an Edwardian terrace house in a dull London suburb: the house had only four rooms, one front and one back on two floors.  My father was the oldest child and the oldest son – there were three children – and he was the one with the most responsibility and the deepest awareness of how much hope and happiness had been destroyed.  His burden of suffering was part of my childhood: it wasn’t the only way I knew him, but it did form the kernel of my understanding of un-rightable wrong.  Whatever cruelty, violence, fear or disappointment my father had known in his early years lay deep inside him and was never softened or set aside.

As we approached my grandmother’s house, a grimness settled on my father like a deadening blow.  He was someone who could shut off feeling in an instant; when he was really tense or anxious the side of his nose would twitch and the rims of his eyes would turn red.

My mother was scornful of my father’s family. She picked up pieces of family lore and turned them into humourless fun, like calling the house “7GR” – for 7 Guildford Road – which was how my grandfather headed his letters to my father. “7 GR, ugh!” she would say when a visit was planned, and we all knew it would be very unpleasant.  Her reasons were unexplained.

This is the story of what I learned about my father’s family at different ages and what my father’s family meant to me.

 

My father was an internal revenue inspector.  At the height of the Depression he studied by correspondence and sat the open civil service exams.  He passed second in the country, entering the British middle-middle class at a single stroke.  He left school at sixteen and had previously worked as a clerk.  Both my parents were from the same area of London, the northern part of Croydon, but my mother’s family was more stable than my father’s. They helped my father when he was struggling to escape poverty.  My parents married after my father completed two years’ probation with the civil service.

I was born in the spring of 1945, two weeks before the end of World War II in Europe.  (I am now seventy-four.)  I was born outside London as my father worked in Gloucester, about ninety-five miles to the west.  My family traveled up to London periodically to see both sets of grandparents, although I doubt we went often as almost no one had a car.  For me, as a young child, post-war London was an almost mythical land: escalators in the Underground tunneling deep into the earth, bomb sites filled with weeds and rubble, blown-out buildings standing stark against the sky.  In the neighbourhoods where my grandparents lived, houses were older and closer together; they let in less light.

My family moved back into London in 1950, when I was five-and-a-half.  After the move, we also lived in Croydon – in South Croydon, the other side of town.  My first complete memories are from around that time, possibly the year before; I have fragments of memory from a couple of years earlier.  My first memories are still split between those that have colour, movement, cheerfulness (from my everyday life) and those that are darker and stranger (memories of my grandparents, and especially my father’s childhood home).

We continued to visit my grandmother (my father’s mother) almost until she died in 1969.

______________________________________________________

I can recall my grandmother’s house almost exactly.  The front room, called the parlour, was kept for special occasions and I can remember going in there only to look.  There was an upright piano and a short, flat sofa with thin, sausage-shaped arms.  The sofa was upholstered in carpet-like material and the arms were secured at the ends with disks of carved wood.  In front of the window was a table with a large china pot.  The curtains were yellow net, machine-made.

Family visits took place in the back room – was it called the breakfast room?  I can’t remember now what my grandmother called it.  It was there that we sat at a long wooden table and ate bread and butter and small, hard-iced cakes bought at the local corner store.  My brother and I drank what the English call squash, meaning concentrated orangeade diluted with tap water, and the adults drank tea out of stained china cups.  There was a hanging gas lamp over the table lit from a tiny pilot light that flared when you pulled a string.

The kitchen was called the scullery.  This was a sort of annex and had a deep stone sink, a gas stove and a big cylindrical contraption used for laundry called a copper.  The outside lav was reached by a short path through the garden and had a flimsy door made out of wooden slats.

The only running water was in the kitchen.  There was no electric light because no one had had the money to put it in, not grandfather and not the landlord as there was rent control on smaller houses that had been rented for a long time.  My grandmother had lived there since 1915: she stayed partly because of poverty but also because she had an inherited blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and could not live independently anywhere else.  The condition was progressive and, by the time I knew her, she could only distinguish light from dark.  She wore the round, white-framed dark glasses of the blind.

One person is missing from the picture I have of my grandmother’s house – my grandfather.  He didn’t die until I was seven and so must have been present at family teas, but I have no recollection of him there.  I have one clear image of him, probably taken from a photograph: he was stocky and had white hair.  I have another, indistinct memory of the one thick, raised boot he wore.  He had one normal boot, flat to the ground, and another which dragged slightly and made him hobble; this marked him as a veteran of World War I.

The survivors of WWI were still around at that time.  Some sold newspapers on the street.  They were crippled, abandoned men who sat vacantly in parks, resigned and faceless in the weak English sun.

My grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Harold, was of this type.  He wore the same boot as my grandfather and occasionally came to tea. My grandfather was more outgoing than my uncle, but his sociability had a disturbing edge.  Once, during a visit to our house, he said to my mother, “You’re looking pasty, Margaret,” and this upset her greatly. There was an aura about him that couldn’t be reconciled: he was neither normal nor abnormal, neither shunned nor accepted as a member of the group.

I don’t think anyone was upset when my grandfather died. Sometime afterwards, my mother told me, “Your grandfather died of prostate cancer,” but I wasn’t sure what that meant.

As a young child, I believed his spirit lived in my grandmother’s bare, wasted garden.  I pictured him living underneath the rough iron roof of the bomb shelter, which I then believed was from his war.  I know now it was from the Second World War, the war my parents lived through and which my older brother had some memories of.  It was an Anderson shelter, assembled at home.

My brother had his own ideas about my grandfather’s last resting place.  After my grandfather died, my brother told me, “Grandpa’s buried under that tree,” meaning the tree in my grandmother’s garden.  My brother is called Robert.  He is almost three years older than I am and can’t have believed himself what he said.  (He would have been at least ten.)  I half-believed it, I think because there was a logic to it:  my grandfather never quite died, not for my parents and not for any of us.

I can’t remember ever seeing that tree in leaf; it was always bare, twisted, like the land you see around the trenches in WWI photos.  I remember Robert said, “If you plant trees upside down they grow with their roots in the air,” and I believed that too.  I knew he was referring specifically to that tree.

When I was eight or nine, I went through a religious phase – we said prayers and sang hymns at school – and I said to my father, “I think we should forgive Grandpa now that he’s dead.”  My mother came and told me my father was very upset I’d said that.  I knew I’d done something wrong.

At the time of our family visits, my father was secure.  He had been working in the civil service for more than a dozen years and had been married to my mother for almost as long.  He had two children of his own, whom he loved.  But I think he was frightened of his father.  My earliest memory of my father, and my first clear memory, is of him coming to pick up Robert and me at another house.  My mother was in the hospital, but coming home, and we’d been sent to stay with another family.  We’d got into some trouble with the other kids, but Robert and I hadn’t been punished because we were guests.  The two of us were waiting at the gate when my father appeared at the top of a slight rise.  I saw him before he saw us, and I remember he looked bereft and alone.  It was as if he’d forgotten all about us, forgotten he had anyone to care for, or who cared about him.  I knew then I was stronger and more self-confident than he was.  I was five.  He was forty-one.

By my late teens, and because I wanted to learn about my own history, I knew most of what I know now about my father’s family. My grandfather was a sergeant in World War I.  He volunteered at the beginning of the war.  He survived but with an untreated shrapnel wound that caused him to spend the year of 1918-19 as a prisoner of war in Russia.  After he got back and got fixed up, he couldn’t get a job anywhere and he didn’t lie down under life’s injustice. He vented his anger on my grandmother and my Aunt Helen, the youngest child and only girl.  He used to say to my father, “I can’t get you, so I’ll take it out on them,” and my father would flee the house.  I heard this from my mother, never from my father.

My father was born in 1909.  He was four years older than his younger brother, seven years older than his sister.  When my grandfather returned to the family, my father was ten, possibly older, making him a more difficult target for my grandfather’s aggression.  This my father understood.  I remember my mother telling me, à propos of nothing very much, “Your father believes he escaped because his father was away in the war.  By the time he came back, your father was big enough to fight back.  That’s why he left him alone.”

My father was the one successful child.  His younger brother worked as a supervisor-mechanic with the Outer London bus service – a steady job but nothing to be proud of in my parents’ view.  My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, worked as a bank teller until her mid-thirties, when she was admitted for treatment in a psychiatric hospital.  I was six at the time, possibly just seven.  She was hospitalized for eight years and died of a codeine overdose about two years after her discharge.  I don’t think anyone knew if her death was a suicide.  I was sixteen.

My parents connected my aunt’s illness to my grandfather’s abusive treatment of her, but they could never talk openly about what my grandfather had done.  After my aunt died, my mother told me, “Auntie Helen used to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room,” and I knew my mother meant more than she said.  At another time, my mother told me, “Your father found her another place to stay.  She rented a room with another family, at nineteen, once she was working.  But it was too late for her.  She used to eat and eat and eat.”  When my mother spoke about my aunt, she almost always called her “Helen” in a tone of quiet distaste.  It was rarely “your aunt,” never “your father’s sister,” certainly not “my sister-in-law.” My father hardly talked about her at all.

It’s clear to me now that my father authorized my aunt’s hospitalization (although she was a voluntary patient).  After her discharge, my mother told me that my aunt had been arrested for shoplifting and psychiatric treatment was an alternative to being charged in court.  My mother added, “The police came to our door at six in the morning.”  My mother didn’t need to tell me that; I always knew that my aunt had done something irrevocable and bad.

After he retired, my father began to write his autobiography – his early life in fictional form.  He was a good writer and I learnt to write from him, from his letters; I learned to put on paper what was in my mind.  When he was younger, my father had written plays and some short stories, and the theme was always the same:  his uncertain sense of belonging in the middle-class world.  His novel was to be more personal and direct, staying close to his memories of childhood.  My mother typed up the first chapter and sent it to me in Canada.  I was by then married, which for my parents meant that I was a full adult.

The chapter was devastating in its honesty.  It describes how my father and his younger brother used to hang out in a park outside the family home – a place where they knew they would be safe.  The boys talk, they plan, they spot pretty girls, and it was all so unlike my father. My father read books.  He went to work every day in a suit.  He was the decision-maker; his word was usually final, and as far as I knew, he didn’t stray.  But there was something else I didn’t know about him, or hadn’t seen laid out in the clear light of day:  in the consciousness of the main character is an alien presence, a living force which threatens to destroy.

The young man’s father never appears in the novel, and he never acts nor speaks.  But when the young man thinks of returning home, he anticipates a clash over some pointless, nameless issue, and it is then that his father takes on flesh and blood in the young man’s mind.  Only the father knows the reason for the clash and assumes that he is in the right.  Seeing that he must fight, and not knowing why or to what end, the young man starts to shake uncontrollably.  He is humiliated in advance because he knows he is weak.

My father never finished his novel.  My mother said, “It’s therapy for him.”  In the chapter I read the young man calls his father “the old devil.”

Both of my parents died in 1987, my mother six months before my father.  They outlived my grandmother by less than twenty years.  My grandmother died at eighty-nine and lived in the same house until two years before her death.  My parents died in their seventies.

After my mother died, when my father was in the hospital, I stayed alone in my parents’ house.  I found old letters and papers scattered in almost every room. Two of the letters were from my grandmother and my aunt to my father, written following one of my grandfather’s violent attacks.  My father was then married to my mother and living away from home.  The letters were passionate, copious cris de coeur describing headaches, sickness, despair. The two women wrote as if my father was their only hope on earth.  My grandmother’s letter ended with remembrances to my mother, and then, “God bless her sweet face” – in an appeal to a still higher source of help.

There was another letter from my father to my grandmother announcing my birth.  His letter ended, “Here’s dibs for the week,” referring to the weekly money he sent to keep her afloat.

After my father died, I found fragments of his diary, scribbled pencil entries in a hard-cover notebook, written first on scrap paper and then transcribed.  “I had too much responsibility forced on me as a child,” my father wrote, as if his chances for happiness ended there.  Even his handwriting betrays him: cramped, spidery, f’s, h’s and l’s curled in the old-fashioned way, other letters faint and broken, the spaces too large between each word.  It’s the writing of a man who fears judgment at every turn.  My brother’s comment on my father’s private writings was that it was like seeing the other side of the moon.

__________________________________________________________

When my parents left out those old papers, what did they want me to find?  What had they been looking for?  I don’t think they were looking for any sort of justification for themselves or their lives. They wanted to bring back who they had been, what they’d lived for.  They wanted closeness to their past.  Three decades after their deaths, what am I looking for?  I think some sense of how much I am still like them, how far their lives are repeated in mine.

 


CATHERINE WATSON taught sociology for ten years in Montreal and outside Quebec and has worked as a survey interviewer in Montreal.  She has published poetry and prose in Montreal Serai.  She is presently a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.

Copyright © 2019 by Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.