Learning the Alphabet: A Memoir

(900 words)

Resemblance to a schoolmaster gone for the moment, Dad would appear, jaunty, as if holding a big secret, which in a way I suppose he was. “Listen, children” – he never called us ‘kids,’ they were for goats, apparently. “We’re going to grandma’s next week.”

My sister Helen, brother Steven, and I would wait expectantly; there was always the big question. Would it be Grandma Wood in Blackburn or Grandma Briddon in Wigley? Then, losing patience, “Which one?” we’d cry. Dad would take his time, playing the game … then, “Grandma ….”

Grandma Wood, my dad’s mother, lived in a terraced house on Azalea Road, though I never saw any azaleas, just rows of streets that all looked the same, lined with houses that all looked the same, their red bricks now blackened with a hundred years of grime. Grandma’s house was special though. It had a small glass conservatory which acted as a glorified porch, distinguishing it from the other houses in the row. Small cacti and succulents stood to attention on glass shelves as we went in.

The kitchen backed onto a small back yard against a high brick wall. A door opened onto a ‘ginnel,’ a public path running between our wall and an opposite wall, presumably sequestering identical back yards. The kitchen always smelt of cabbage and the ceilings were much higher than at home. “Were people taller in the old days?” I’d asked grandma. “No, but they could jump higher,” she’d replied.

Grandma had two cats, Tibby and Thomas, and I was amazed that they would eat bread and butter, though mum and dad told us not to feed them. Of course, when they weren’t looking we’d throw them scraps under the table. Then grandma would cook us ‘bubble and squeak’ – cooked cabbage fried with potatoes and mutton which we’d eat, just us kids, at a round kitchen table.

Grandma would take us along the ginnel to the ‘toffee shop,’ which would signify her treating us to paper bags full of sticky boiled sweets – I never saw any toffee – and sometimes buy us ‘chips and fish’. My brother and I would play Ludo on the floor of the lounge, which was always gloomy, like a cave. The brighter front room wasn’t used, the furniture was shrouded and a photo, standing on a dark sideboard, showed a young airman, some kind of relation, killed in the war. And grandma usually gave us games meant for children younger than ourselves, so we’d connect the wooden sticks and cogs together in double-quick time, leaving us with nothing to do.

Grandma herself was rotund, and short and always bustling around, wearing a pinafore. She would always say ‘anyroad,’ instead of ‘anyway,’ with a strong Lancashire accent. Grandad smoked a pipe and sat in a chair, ‘his’ chair, reading the paper and barely noticing us. He died when I was very young. I just remember him as ‘fierce.’

Grandma Briddon, by contrast, lived on a remote farm in Derbyshire – Wigley Hall Farm. She was wiry and brown and silent, the opposite to Grandma Wood. Grandad Briddon was an invalid and died when I was six. The farm now stands empty, forlorn and in need of major repairs, if not demolishing, but I remember it with tractors driving in the fields, hens running around the farmyard, a dog called Rosetta barking, and a neat lawn surrounded by flowerbeds at the front.

An uncle who worked as a farm hand would lift me up – I must have been very young at the time – and pretend to dump me in a horse trough in the yard. I would shout and scream, and I think he really would have done so if no one had been around. “Do you know your alphabet?” he’d asked. I didn’t understand, and when he recited it, to my young ears it sounded like a strange foreign language. But I learned something that long, long-ago day.

There were cowsheds with their earthy smell and cow poo on the concrete floor. Then all the milking machinery which, with much noise and fanfare, pumped milk into large metal churns, where huge fronds of froth would have to die down before the lids could be fitted.

Outside were much-anticipated haystacks and we children would remove bales to make ‘secret tunnels,’ wriggling along them in the dark, feeling excited and getting prickled. Outside of our ‘hideout’ the fields ran down to a reservoir and I remember looking through the clear water down to stones and pebbles, surrounded by dipping boughs of yellow and gold autumn leaves, and wondering if there were any fish in there. There were.

And all around the reservoir and all around the fields were the dry-stone walls of Derbyshire. Thousands and tens of thousands of stones laid atop each other in a seemingly random pattern but fitting together hand-in-glove, to form barriers to sheep and trespassers alike. They stood through the blistering heat of summer and the numbing ice and snow of winter, decade after decade, without a care in the world for all we knew, biding their time and holding their secrets.

The ‘toffee shops’ and ‘chips and fish’ of Blackburn’s grimy streets hold childhood memories, but for me it was always those walls, the fields and haystacks, and the moorland that stretched for miles over the ancient, empty landscape of Derbyshire.

Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories

2 thoughts on “Learning the Alphabet: A Memoir

  1. A peek into your childhood, I’m guessing. And from the looks of it, a happy one it was. Lovely story with wonderful memories. After my grandmother passed away my grandfather remarried. She was a warm and loving woman, tall with silver hair. I remember there was a cupboard in the front porch and she’d always have some new little toys for us bought at the ‘5 & 10 cent store’. Those toys stayed at grandma and grandpa’s house – they weren’t meant for us to take home – but we knew every time we went to visit there would always be something new for us to play with. She was always thinking about us and we loved her for that and so much more. Anyroad, a touching and truly relatable story. Thanks for the memories, Simon. 🌟

    1. Thank you, Nancy, and it sounds like you should be publishing a memoir on your blog too!

      Yes, it is almost entirely true and we kids used to love those visits to grandma’s farm in Derbyshire, alas now derelict. Grandma had six daughters, the second eldest was my mother, who spent her childhood – according to her – slaving away on the farm. That would be in the war years when things were hard enough anyway.

      Funnily enough, when I was checking the article through I didn’t remember the stuff about the milk churns etc. but when I wrote it, only a few short months ago, those images were quite vivid in my mind. Sometimes I feel it’s a memory of a memory, like the horse trough episode; if I hadn’t heard of the alphabet I must have been extremely young!

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