One of the most memorable features of ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was the wardrobe portal itself. Its description reminded me of those enormous, solid and forbiddingly dark pieces of wooden furniture I had already met in my grandparents’ homes. They were freestanding and their imposing doors had rickety fastenings which locked with tiny, elaborately shaped keys. Pulling open their doors released a faint waft of mothballs. Travel through one of those wardrobes into the magical land of Narnia didn't seem at all far-fetched.
In my early years, I was surrounded by the heavy furniture of my grandparents’ generation because my parents began their married life living with Nana, my father’s mother. My mother was working but my father was still a student so there was no money to think about buying their own furniture and nowhere to put it in Nana’s tiny council house. This meant that moving to our own flat when I was four wasn’t a complicated business at all.
There are only a few items that I’m certain came with us. One was something my parents called a tallboy which went to live in my parents’ bedroom. It was a combination of a few deep drawers (rather like an office desk pedestal) and a full-length mirror. Desirables like my mother's makeup and jewellery lived on its surfaces and in its drawers. A waft of rose-scented face powder hung around the tallboy’s drawers but investigation of their contents was usually quickly interrupted.
The television came too, though I’m not sure if that can be called furniture. There was a lot of fuss about moving it carefully up the stairs – our new flat was on the second floor. It was cumbersome and had something called a tube which apparently needed considerable care. Its screen was tiny and displayed the world in black and white. My parents had bought the television for the new queen’s coronation in 1953. Everyone from both parents’ families who could squeeze into Nana’s tiny house came to watch. Despite the protests of their hosts they brought sandwiches, cakes and biscuits and sat riveted to the small monochrome screen. The only way to enjoy the colour of the coronation was by seeing its highlights in the Pathe News at the cinema.
Nana was given coronation tea towels and my older cousins, Kate and Margaret and Judith all got special coronation mugs and crowns. At three I was considered far too young to be given anything breakable like a china mug. I didn’t really want one. I would much rather have had my own tiny replica of the Queen’s golden coronation coach and horses, just like the one Kate and Margaret owned. It lived high on the bookcase at their house – well out of my reach.
I’m not sure where our dining table and chairs came from. Mostly they lived in the kitchen because that was where we normally ate our meals. At Christmas, our dining furniture was transported into the living room because the fire was constantly kept alight whilst we were all together for the holiday week and we could enjoy the day-long warmth. During a normal weekend, the chairs would be moved in and out of the living room when guests called, and more seats were needed than our small red three-piece suite could offer. This set came with us when we moved to our house, but the table never really recovered from its role as a pasting surface during my parents’ decorating phase. (See the previous blog post – ‘Decorating’.)
We also had a small, rather wobbly table with two shelves that moved on casters. This was loaded in the kitchen with tea, sandwiches, cakes and biscuits when family visitors called on a Sunday afternoon. Then it was wheeled through into the living room for guests to help themselves. Most of the time it was used as a side table. Resting next to her armchair, its upper surface would hold my mum’s hot drink and ashtray as she sat knitting and watching television in the evening. The shelf underneath would slowly accumulate papers and magazines and general life detritus until it needed to be cleared for visitors’ food again. There was a similar, taller version of this item, minus casters, which lived by the cooker in the kitchen. It was a vital piece of furniture as it was the resting place of the matches which were needed to light the cooker. Its lower shelf was the home for our (many) used newspapers which waited to be repurposed into firefighters or rubbish wrappers or whatever other use they could be put to. Apart from the draining board, there were no what would now be called work surfaces. Whenever the need arose, the dining table became my mother's food preparation area.
Our living room was also home to our sideboard. The sideboard in the picture (below)has a different arrangement of drawers, but the colour and the general shape were the same. The dog would often sleep underneath it.
The better glasses, teacups and saucers (nobody used mugs) were kept in the sideboard as were table knives, forks and spoons. Cutlery lived in its right-hand side drawer. This drawer was divided into three sections and had a sort of velvety green baize lining. I think it was supposed to remind its owners of the soft interiors of expensive boxes of cutlery. The other two sideboard drawers were filled with a jumble of oddities and, when slid open, released a smell like packs of old playing cards. The cupboards underneath the drawers were filled with a random selection of objects including my mother’s sewing basket and her button box.
This box had begun life filled with Christmas gift chocolates and was kept because it looked nice. Over the years it became home to buttons of all kinds. There were extra buttons from the clothes my mother had sewn, spares provided with good quality new garments and shirt buttons carefully cut from very old shirts of my father’s. The shiniest and most unusual buttons were the ones my mother bought when she left her temporary job with the prestigious dressmaking company, Horrockses. (The company was immensely proud when the young Queen Elizabeth wore many of their dresses on her first Commonwealth tour.)
When we first moved into the flat the space under my bedroom window was filled by a very old tin trunk which was initially home to my toys. It deserves a special mention. The trunk had travelled on board ship to Australia with my father and his family when he was a small child in need of a warm dry climate to aid recovery from tuberculosis. It lived with them in their home on the Parramatta Road and came on the return journey when my widowed grandmother and her young family returned to St. Helens. I don't remember seeing the trunk at Nana’s house, but it must have been there because it arrived in Cheadle Hulme. (I think it may have lived in the nearby Nissen hut). Many years later I crammed it with everything I could fit inside and took it to university in Liverpool. Over the years I moved house so many times that my mother had to buy a new address book, but the trunk always came too. Its final resting place was Oxford, almost a hundred years since it had first been bought for some improbable sum. Its last contents were half-used tins of paint whose combined weight inevitably crumbled its rusting base and consigned it to a skip.
As time passed and school friends and cousins came to stay, my room acquired a second bed and a battered chaise longue, nothing like as elegant as the one in the picture. It was one of my mother's bargains from the Salesroom and was periodically used as a third bed. The chaise longue wasn't really comfortable enough for a reasonable night’s sleep. Its raised convex surface meant that I always felt I was in danger of rolling onto the floor. But if it meant that an extra guest could be squeezed in, it was bearable for a night or two.
I should tell you a little more about the Salesroom, my mother’s favourite shop. Cheadle Hume village had a long ribbon of shops. They offered more variety than the ones we usually went to on Cheadle Road, but it meant a longer walk to reach them. Judging by their uniform pale stone frontage, all the newer buildings in the village were constructed at the same time. The biggest of these was the King's Hall which, when it was first opened, was apparently a rather nice café. By the time we moved to Cheadle Hulme it had become a shabby dance hall. To this day it still proudly displays its name in large letters high on the stone frontage. Sandwiched in between the King's Hall and a dress shop called ‘Mirabelle’ was the modest entrance to my mother's favourite place. This was where much of our furniture came from. The Salerooms sold everything that nobody wanted any more. It was a huge, high ceilinged dusty room split into two similar-sized areas at different levels divided by steps. It was filled with old furniture, old tableware and old books. They weren't antique, just old. The best items were the completely random objects tucked in odd corners, like the horse’s hoof, complete with metal shoe. The Saleroom smelt like a cross between a charity shop, a church hall and a library.
The salerooms were open for two days a week, one for viewing and one for the actual sale. The viewing days were more enjoyable. I was free to clomp about on the echoing wooden floorboards, jump up and down the step in the middle and climb on and off the furniture - until my mother stopped treasure hunting and noticed what I was up to. Dust lived there like a silent life form. On sunny days I would sit in one of the armchairs for sale, watching its noiseless dance captured in random beams of light.
Auction days were not great fun. I was told to keep both still and quiet to avoid distracting the auctioneer. I think my mother really enjoyed the excitement of bidding and over the years our flat became home to a variety of objects - bits of china, including a tiny vase shaped like a hand, a pouffe, a copy of a Rubens painting and the horse’s hoof I mentioned - we used it to prop doors open.
Later additions, when we lived in a house, were a tinny upright piano, an electric washing machine and a fridge with a door handle that worked like an old-fashioned slot machine. I think at the time companies were quietly trying to disown this type of appliance. Broken fridges like this had been dumped, children had used them to play hide and seek, closed the door and suffocated because the seal was firm and the latch was inoperable from the inside. It was the kind of cautionary tale Nana loved to share with her horrified grandchildren.