SW3 sounds like a very swish postal address and indeed the terraced Victorian houses, with their smart railings, huge bay windows, and stone steps leading to handsome doors, give promise to luxurious décor within.
123 Beaufort Street, Chelsea, one in a line of terraced nineteenth century mansions, is entered through a black gloss painted door, at the top of a flight of stone steps. To the side below the crenulated first floor bay window, black painted railings surround steep steps down into the narrow basement well, where dustbins nestle about a window and doorway, shaded by a tree.
Here between the Fulham Road and the Kings Road live my paternal grandparents in a cluttered third floor flat. Grandpa is a remote owlish figure. He lives close to his wife, but beyond the odd ironic observation, this proximity does not seem to lessen his isolation.
Nanna seems tall and angular – I have been taught to see her as the Red Queen to my other grandmother’s untidy disorganised White. She is not the grandmother who gives kisses and hugs. She is driven by a sense of duty, first to her family and then to the outside community. She is a woman of decisive opinions on all subjects, slightly feared and resented by my shy mother.
Open the main front door and enter a dark hallway of hat, coat and umbrella stands. The main sensual impact is the smell of gas and linoleum, underlaced with burnt cabbage stew. Ahead is the steep narrow staircase steps encased in green snakeskin lino that leads straight upwards and curves into the second floor landing. The hand rail, which is slender, brown polished and serpentine, offers a boy vertiginous invitation to a suicidal slide.
On the second floor is the house’s only bathroom, linoed throughout with heavy rubber mats by the bath and toilet. Over the bath is an ancient gas water heater, with fading instructions printed on yellowing paper, stuck to its surface, and a handy box of matches on a cork topped green painted stool nearby. The water pipes are lead and the taps, dribbling green onto the white porcelain, are brass.
Pass along the landing, past heavy closed doors, whence the secretive gay chemist seldom emerged, you reach the next steep flight of stairs leading to the master floor where Grandpa and Nanna live. Round the first turn and hugging the wall, you hear the measured tick of the grandfather clock from their landing. The steps wind round again and you are standing, breathing heavily, checking the time. The open door to your right, facing out over roofs and the tiny back garden three floors below is the kitchen, where Nanna is often to be found, in the narrow space between dresser and sink and gas oven and floor to ceiling cupboards, so crammed with crockery and foodstuffs that any attempt to retrieve a saucer will likely result in some messy substance flying over the kitchen floor. The kitchen is always hot – and the placing of the meat safe, just beside the door, ensures a merry buzzing of flies about its mesh door in the summer months.
The third floor landing offers a view of the mighty drop through the long narrow stairwell and the iron bars that support it to the hall corridor two floors below. Beside the kitchen is Nanna and Grandpa’s bedroom. The bed seems to be Grandpa’s favourite abode – Nanna doesn’t seem to think much of it. I remember rarely seeing her in it, as she is last to retire and first to rise.
Grandpa’s second favourite location is the much be-cushioned armchair in the front room. Once Nanna has lit the fire, he sits, facing the door, with the unused piano, behind him, leading to the large window that looks down onto Beaufort Street and the number 45 bus stop, from where Nana sets out for Saturday shopping expeditions in the cheap Battersea street market.
Over his right shoulder sits the television, behind the heavy dining table that is covered by a deep blue velvet cover. When the television is on, he has to twist his body to watch it. This unnecessarily awkward position could be explained by a wish to demonstrate a certain detachment from this new fangled machine that nevertheless never fails to distract him from the more important newspaper on his knees.
Nanna has no such problems. In the evening she sits with her feet up on the long sofa/divan that runs the length of the opposite wall from the door that bangs into the radio stand to the television. So she is able to face the Television and particularly enjoys costume dramas and traditional musical shows. Her favourites are the The Forsythe Saga and The Black and White Minstrel Show. The divan is a fascinating construction. Heavy braded gold ropes are looped round padded stanchions.
After just thirty minutes in the heat of this front room, and you feel the cold when you go out onto the landing. To your right is a narrow bedroom and dumping ground. Tall bookcases surmounted by oddly shaped cardboard containers march down one side of the room towards the window overlooking Beaufort Street. The back wall behind the door is a two door cupboard, with a glass fronted book case above it. The doors of the cupboard are jammed against the single bed that has a fitted cover, the same colour as Nanna’s cups. At the foot of the bed is a chest of drawers crammed to bursting with items collected for fetes, bazaars and rummage sales.
On the bed against the wall is a long yellow bolster. Held at arms length, it is almost as tall as me and so is there to have its head and stomach biffed and pummelled. This is one kid I can beat.
I lie in bed in the mornings and attempt to open the cupboard door an inch. Through the gap I glimpse a treasure trove of toys and games for children. But this is forbidden territory. These are toys and games to be sold to parents of fortunate children for the benefit of those who, unlike me, cannot even imagine the existence of such temptations.
At nine years old, my girlfriend Sabrina visits me and we bounce upon Nana’s divan. Nana’s dislike of my choice of consort is confirmed when one of the stanchions breaks. After her departure Nana’s well chosen words leads to a row where to my surprise, my father takes my side. Cue a migraine from Nanna and a rare daytime retirement to a darkened bedroom.
Nanna is passionate in her expectations. When these are thwarted she will retire to the kitchen and her hurt will roll around the flat like ball lightning. Indefatigable, she measures each day in timed activity inside and outside the house. Up early, she busies herself in the kitchen, listening to important news on the Home Service. Grandpa lies in bed in the next room and dozes till late. Heavily milked tea and coffee is served in light green cups.
Later she takes me to the nearby hospital, where she serves on the Committee of Friends. I sit nibbling biscuits in a heavily polished room, looking at Country Life magazines, while she counts provisions and plans fund raising events. A Conservative Councillor, she takes me on a leaflet drop. We climb dark echoing stairways in tenement blocks. On the top landing she explains to a young artist in jeans and hair to the waist how she can register to vote.
As part of another more shady committee, she keeps an eye on local subversives. She is particularly exercised on the subject of personal appearance. In the sixties, girls with hair falling over their eyes are described as “little mucks”.
She is a great believer in Borassic Crystals and Dover Aspirin, but accepts that bed is the best remedy for Grandpa’s many ailments. My mother is forcibly persuaded to try a Dover aspirin for one of her headaches. The world spins for days afterwards.
In comparison to Nanna, Grandpa is a fairly reticent man. He rarely gives opinions, never tells me anecdotes, but he always shares his store of factual knowledge. He enjoys all kinds of sport and has written detailed notes on young players as a scout for Chelsea FC. Over his shoulder he watches boxing and is able to discuss the finer points, as I sit opposite him, feet warmed by the fire. Behind me is a glass fronted bookcase that I only once see opened. This happens when I am about nineteen, shortly before his death. We are talking about my University studies. He suddenly jumps from his seat and walks to the cabinet behind me. From it he fishes out a volume and begins excitedly leafing through it, even as he returns to his chair. He finds the place and sits. In a voice, that I have previously never heard, he reads a Keats poem. I get a glimpse of a passionate man whose Norfolk roots have made him feel insecure, especially when exposed to London and the successful actress, Truda Morena, later to become Deputy Mayor of Chelsea.
Sometimes I snap my fingers to remind myself that these two isolated individuals went on foreign holidays every year for most of my later childhood. They swapped kitchen and armchair for exotic locations. I still have an eggcup from Bled and castanets from Seville. It would take the imagination of a novelist to convincingly recreate the conversations they had on such holidays
Nanna seldom talks about her theatrical background, though the tours she undertook before her marriage, have given her a basis for trenchant opinions of the economic and social variety of the British Isles. As I pass through London, on the night before returning to boarding school in Hertfordshire, she takes me as a treat to the West End. We sit in plush red seats, with opera glasses, available in the seat backs in front of us. I marvel at the guilt decorations, wonder what it must be like to sit in a box. We see Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence, Harry Secombe in Pickwick, Lally Bowers in some office/drawing room drama, Jimmy Edwards and Eric Sykes in a comedy sketch show and Bruce Forsythe in a song and dance concoction.
As I get older, we become much closer emotionally – this despite our growing political differences. By this time I am sleeping on the fourth floor, up the steep stairs again, past rolls of carpets standing like sentries on the turn, where the steps narrow to points over the void. Up there I share a sky-lighted landing with first Mademoiselle Paul – known as Poulet – and then the dominatrix of my adolescent dreams, Fraulein Zuckertort. Up there in the heavens, is a bedroom with a wider bed and a window looking out of the back of the house towards Worlds End. On a single wooden shelf over the bed is a collection of my father’s paperbacks, the kind to offer a wild escape from the gas laden atmosphere of temporary London residence.
Grandpa enjoys taking to bed as a tested road to recovery – that is until at last he realises the road is a dead end. I visit him in the Brompton Hospital. He looks at me and tells me he wants to go home. I am on my way to Norway, having told the interviewer I have no ties in the UK. I leave knowing I will never see him again. This was the man who taught me how to bowl a cricket ball, by taking me into a park, marching 22 yards and putting down a piece of newspaper as a target to land the ball.
Nanna continues to live at 123 Beaufort Street after Grandpa’s death. She is there to greet our young family on our return from Bulgaria. She never gets fully to grips with our daughter’s name, confusing her with a large brown envelope. All too soon, body and mind begin to fail and my father has to manhandle her out of the Beaufort Street flat, step by step as she clings to the banisters in desperate resistance.