She had to have the last word!

Bury

Sylvie always had to have the last word, no matter what.

As it turned out, this even was to be the case when it came to her death.

It was a cold Thursday evening in mid January and I had popped in to Sylvie’s to pick up my daughter on my way home from work.

On the stove was one of Sylvie’s lovely stews, bubbling away and smelling delicious. As I was helping myself to spoonful, Sylvie was trying to get me to have a bowlful of another of her specialties – a treacle suet pudding. I laughed and said no, I just wanted a taste and that dinner would be waiting for me at home.

Sylvie followed me down the hallway to the front door to see me out. As we opened the front door, a freezing cold blast of air swirled in and we shivered, pulling our clothes tight around us.

I gave Sylvie a peck on the cheek saying, “See you tomorrow,”  and adding, “Get yourself inside out of the cold and keep the heat in.”

Looking up to the sky, Sylvie replied, ” I reckon we’re going to get some of that bloody snow from America.”  (The east coast of America had suffered heavy snow falls that week.)

She died suddenly and unexpectedly at Home the next morning.

One week late it was Sylvie’s funeral. She had wanted to be cremated, and so we decided to bury her ashes in her mother’s grave.

As we stood at the graveside in heavy snow, freezing and ankle deep, I looked to the sky and said to myself, “You were right weren’t you, we got that snow from America. – You’d have to have the last bloody word!”

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I could have done it with one hand tied behind my back!

Polish

The endless hours spent on domestic chores; washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning and such had equipped me perfectly for the subject of Home Economics (as it was known at that time). It was the days when girls were given lessons at school on how to properly iron a shirt, to cook, how to properly polish the furniture and to clean the home.

Producing the pastry to make a pie was second nature to me, and the ironing of a shirt was something I could have done with my eyes closed. The daily task of generating a meal for anything from eight to twelve of us was something I had been having to do for years.

I’m sure it is a subject I could easily have obtained a one hundred per cent grade at ‘O’ level,  had I continued it as one of my options, but the years I did have to participate in the lessons were something that was to cause me a constant headache.

Every week we were given a list of ingredients to bring along for the next week’s lesson,  to cook up the chosen recipe ourselves. Every week I would return home with the list, ever hopeful of a positive response but Sylvie’s replies were always the same; “You needn’t think I’m shelling out for that bleeding lot!” or, “They’re having bleeding laugh aren’t they, I could feed us all bloody week for what  that lot costs, tell them to get lost! Who the f**k do they think I am, bleeding Rockerfeller!”

Every week I would have to make up some excuse, “Sorry I forgot, or sorry, my mum forgot to go shopping, and sorry, I left my cookery bag at home.” Only on rare occasions when it was something simple like a rice pudding or and egg custard would Sylvie grudgingly agree,  and would I be able to pilfer the ingredients from the pantry at home.

At the first opportunity, when choosing our ‘O’ level options, I dropped the subject, with an enormous sense of relief. I used to watch the girls who continued the subject, turning up at school with their pretty little cooking baskets, ingredients weighed out in Tupperware tubs, cooking up that weeks’ dish with enormous concentration, struggling to get it right, knowing I could have done the same things easily with one hand tied behind my back.

Clear my Plate.

Portion

Sylvie could make good meals out of very little and she could talk for hours about how she learned this from her mother.

The softer side of Sylvie would emerge at these times, and these talks with her was one of the things that seemed to lighten things, take the pressure off, if only for short time.

I always recall these times with a warm glow, the memories of them conjuring up a sense that it was a time of normality, everything was pleasant and I had a feeling of being loved and cared for.

It didn’t matter that the talks tended to happen when I’d been ordered to help with laborious task such as washing, cooking, gardening or cleaning. It helped lighten the load, made time pass quicker, and was a time when Sylvie would actually remain pleasant.

She would go into great detail about the wonderful meals her mother cooked for the family and how she had preserved fruit, made jams and stews and ensured they all well fed, despite not having much money.

Sylvie wasn’t an incredible cook but she taught me how to make good, wholesome meals and to make the most with the things you have. She could turn the cheapest cuts of meats into lovely tender and tasty meals and make delicious stews, bolstering them with lentils and pearl barley to make them more filling.

Meat was expensive and with so many of us in the house, portions of it needed to be small. However, our meals were always supplemented with extra vegetables, potatoes, bread or a Yorkshire pudding to make them more filling. Sometimes, she would make delicious rice puddings, egg custards and jam or treacle suet puddings, conjuring them up from things found in the fridge or larder.

Wasting food was something that could never be considered. The use of seasonal fruit and vegetables was the norm,  as was the use of leftovers for another meal.

Ingrained within me is an inability to waste food and an ability to make good meals with whatever is available.

To this day I find it almost impossible to leave food on my plate and need to polish it off, however full I am. This was bought about by years of being forced to clear my plate, with Sylvie hovering over me with the threat of ‘You’ll bloody well sit there until you’ve finished it!” followed up with, “or I’ll paste the bleeding living daylights out of you,” or “You’ll eat it cold for your f*****g breakfast!”

I don’t recall any of these threats actually happening, most likely because having the certain knowledge that she would carry them through, none of us would ever dare to take the risk.

Detonate Something Within Her.

Detonate

The dog grooming obviously provided a substantial portion of the income into the house and was essential to keep things going. Even though Bridget and I would be forced to help with the bathing and drying of the dogs, a lot of the work, and all of the the skill, was down to my second eldest sibling, Lily.

I don’t know that there was ever any proper arrangement regarding payment or wages of any kind, or whether Sylvie ever gave Lily any amounts of cash. Lily didn’t pay any board money, rightly so, given the amount of money bought in from the dog grooming.

Sylvie must have supplemented things in some ways, as Lily always had nice things. She dressed nicely, in fashionable clothes, had lovely shoes and handbags, and the latest expensive perfumes such as Dior, Rive Gauche and Chanel. I am guessing that these were a sort of ‘payment in kind.’

Apart from the short time working in a pet shop after leaving school, Lily had never really gone out to work and was quiet and shy, very much the opposite to Sylvie and her older sister Gina.

Sylvie always put Lily’s quieter ways down to her not getting a chance to speak when she was little. She said that Lily would not get the chance to open her mouth, as Gina always spoke for her. If Sylvie asked Lily if she wanted a biscuit, before she could open her mouth, Gina would pipe up, “Of course she does, what are you asking her for?” It was Gina who would declare, “Mum, Lily wants a drink,” or “Mum, Lily needs the toilet,” regardless of whether she did or not.

For a long time, working at home and grooming the dogs had suited her, saved her from having to go out to find work, hampered by her lack of confidence. Now in her early twenties and still at home grooming the dogs, Lily was immensely attractive and very slim with long brown hair.

At this point, there must have been something that ignited a spark, that was to detonate something within Lily. She had started working a few nights a week, in nightclubs in the town, working as a barmaid. It gave her some independence, her own money, some freedom, friends, and a social life.

From this time, Lily was to date a string of men of various ages and statuses, and so started to live something of her own life. Some of the men were single, some were married, many were ordinary and working class, others were very well off, driving expensive cars such as a Lotus or a Rolls Royce. Regardless, Lily always dressed up to meet them. I would sit and watch her preparing for her evenings out and be spellbound by the glamour of it all.

She would curl her long hair into the heated rollers everyone used at that time, and whilst these were setting her hair into soft curls, she would apply her make-up and put on her chosen outfit for the evening. She dressed tastefully in the latest fashions of the time and being so slim, she could carry off anything beautifully.

Once dressed, she would unpin the now cold rollers, and her long brown hair would tumble down in large, soft curls past her shoulders. After a quick spray or dab with one of her heavenly perfumes, she would be off, gliding out of the door until the early hours of the morning.

“Work wonders and S**t cucumbers!”

Descend

It seems that Sylvie and Larry had always had a somewhat tempestuous relationship. They had always argued, shouted and swore at each other. Then eventually, they would make up, they would go off on holiday together and then things would seem OK for a while.

Gradually, it seemed to worsen and they appeared resentful of each other, they argued more, wouldn’t speak to each other, and tension constantly hung in the air. Sylvie would talk disparagingly about Larry, openly using terms such as, “He’s a fat, lazy B*****d!”, often when he was within earshot.

For a long time Larry didn’t work due to his arthritis and his sickness benefit didn’t amount to much. This obviously impacted on the upkeep of the home. “He’s about as much use as a chocolate f*****g teapot, ” would commonly be heard whenever Sylvie was annoyed or had a another bill to pay.

Larry would occasionally attempt some sort of DIY,  but invariably, it didn’t get completed or would even make things worse. Time and time again I can recall Sylvie’s shouting and swearing, adding “F*****g typical of him, going to ‘work wonders and shit bleeding cucumbers’, he reckoned. Look at the bleeding mess he’s left again; worse that when he f*****g well started!

As tense as things were at these times, Sylvie’s many phrases and the way they just spilled out of her, would always have us all laughing. However angry Sylvie was, she would delight in our amused responses, continuing to swear and come out with more of her sayings, laughing to herself along the way.

Over time, and so slowly I didn’t notice it then, things were changing. Looking back, it seems that things were slowly winding down within the house. Sylvie’s son Christian and his friend, the lodger, were long gone, and Lily, who was now in her mid to late twenties, was living her own life more and more. Her life working in the nightclubs, her social life and her many love affairs were gradually taking over.  The monopoly that Sylvie seemed to have had on her previously was evaporating.

The dog grooming was still going on but on a much lesser scale, and the dog breeding and boarding had all but ceased. The financial impact was obvious in many ways, but none of it occurred to me at the time.

Over the years, slowly and gradually, everything started to descend.  The house started to become jaded; the investment put into it ten years previously was worn away with time. The carpets became faded and worn, the decor dated and aged, cupboards falling apart and windows old and rotting.

The house was permeated with the smell of dogs.  Years of grooming, breeding and caring for them, had caused the odour to become ingrained into the wallpaper, the furniture and the carpets. As well as the dog aroma,  was the ever present whiff in air of the Larry’s cigarettes and pipe tobacco, which had also caused yellow staining to the walls and ceilings of the main living rooms.

Any jobs that needed tackling were immense in labour or finance. It seems that there simply wasn’t the money, the capability or the inclination any more.

Notorious – ‘A Meat Market.’

Notorious

Among the women who traveled to RAF Alconbury regularly each week, for some time in the early to mid-sixties, was my adopted mother, Sylvie.  Seeking some excitement and glamour away from her typical working –class lifestyle, she would often travel with her long-time friend, Josie, who lived close to Sylvie on a large council estate.

During the early 1960’s, The Airman’s Club at  RAF Alconbury became known as the ‘Aquarius Club’ , and  was said to be one of the best nightclubs in the UK. Every week on Friday and Saturday evenings, two to three coach loads of women, mainly from Huntingdon, but also from the outlying areas, would make the trip to the airbase to socialise with the airmen.

They were able to make this journey for the affordable sum of fifty pence for the round bus trip. Doubtless many had romantic notions of handsome American Air Force men, who would whisk them off their feet, marry them and take them away to the USA.

Some regulars made the trip every weekend,  but most weeks would see several new faces appear, enticed by their friends with promises of romance and excitement. This was despite the fact that the ratio of women to men was two to one at weekends. For this reason the club became notorious, as many saw this as a ‘meat market’ with women freely available, and making them ‘easy pickings.’

The Aquarius Club became extremely popular, and every weekend there was standing room only.  Most of the people there were in their twenties but there were some groups of slightly older members in their early and mid-thirties.

They went along to enjoy the atmosphere, music and dancing, to indulge in cocktails and pizza, and to play the slot machines. Undoubtedly, the biggest attraction would have been the chance to enjoy the company of the opposite sex.

Many did go on to meet their future spouses and make the move to the USA and some US airmen married and remained in the UK.

For many though, the attraction dwindled over time, and for many there were illicit affairs, on either side, leading frequently to heartache. The result for some women was to be abandoned with an illegitimate child, the father long gone back to the USA , and no chance of tracing him, the repercussions of this extending for generations.

The Coal Man had Called In!

Qualm

My natural mother’s sister, Bessie, was very much like Sylvie in that she liked to talk, and so the conversation flowed once they started chatting.

Having become friends, Bessie sometimes visited Sylvie at home. It was on one of these visits that Sylvie was wearing a white skirt. As she turned around to put the kettle on, Bessie noticed black hand marks on each buttock of the skirt.

“Sylvie, what on earth have you done to your skirt?” she said. Sylvie looked down and without a hint of a qualm, just laughed, saying, “Oh nothing, that was Nutty Slack, the coal man, he just called in!”

Bessie had told me this story as one of her memories of Sylvie and I was unsure if it was completely accurate. When I repeated it to Sylvie’s older daughters they burst out laughing and straight away confirmed it.  On seeing my face, they added,  in between fits of laughter, that it had always been well known, gossiped about, and absolutely typical of Sylvie.

Not that she had any qualms!