The start of the school holidays had that special Friday evening feeling. Routine vanished and who knew what the next day might bring. There was the anticipation of spending time with people whose company I loved but didn’t often see; grandmothers, aunts and uncles but most particularly my cousins.
By the time I was seven My bedroom was ready to accommodate guests. The old tin toy chest had been replaced by a second bed and another of my mother's saleroom bargains was crammed in too – a chaise longue. The chaise longue wasn't really comfortable enough to be a bed. Its surface was slightly convex which 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.
My extended family seemed to exist as a series of happy bubbles and during the school holidays, family members would travel between them. The most vivid and important of these bubbles was the one in Wigan which contained my cousins Kate and Margaret and my Auntie Cissie and Uncle Eddie. Kate was only two years older than me and a great deal of our school holidays were spent together. We would take turns staying at each other’s homes, especially during the summer. Staying with cousins was the way that most of my school friends passed their summers too. Like many families, mine couldn't often afford to go away on holiday, so this kind of exchange gave everybody a welcome break. Someone else’s family always seems more forgiving than your own, or at least they seemed less generally aggravated by me, but then I was the youngest of the cousins and I wasn’t going to be staying for long.
Kate’s family, the Coombes, lived near Wigan which seemed a long way from Cheadle Hulme and involved several bus changes. Auntie Cissie and Uncle Eddie had been childhood sweethearts; he would carry her books and her violin to school for her. Auntie Cissie was a very talented musician and, even as a child, had played with the Liverpool Philharmonic. She wanted to be a professional musician but to develop her talent she needed time from school for lessons elsewhere. Her headteacher refused. It was a needlessly cruel act but she was apparently a very unpleasant woman. Uncle Eddie was a professional soldier and so served for the entire six years of the Second World War. He began as a cavalryman on the Northwest Frontier and by 1945 was fighting in tanks in northern Europe. Yet he carried nothing of the devastation he must have seen into his civilian life. He was one of the gentlest and most amiable people.
Even routine activities were enjoyable with Kate’s family. Aunty Cissie, Kate and I would walk to Beatrice’s, their nearest corner shop. Beatrice’s shop had a wonderful smell because she made a lot of the baked goods on sale herself. But not fresh cream cakes. If we wanted that particular treat we had to walk up the hill to a different corner shop, near the library.
Like Aunty Cissie, l had a sweet tooth. She and I could happily spend time carefully studying the stock displayed in a sweetshop window before we went inside to buy our treats. Her favourites were Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls, mine was fudge.
It didn't seem to matter whether I was walking to the bus stop near Gran’s (my mother’s mother) or to the train station at Nana’s (my father’s mother) or around Stockport with my mother, there were hundreds of these tiny corner shops like Beatrice’s in the north west of England. They were just terraced houses that had been converted. The living room became the shop, the rest of the downstairs became storerooms, and living accommodation was condensed into the upstairs rooms.
Aunty Jessie and Uncle Arthur owned one in Bolton for a while, (here's Jessie behind the counter) until Uncle Arthur became ill. Many of their customers lived close by and came in for tiny amounts of groceries. For instance, on a Saturday and Sunday morning, one lady would arrive multiple times to buy a single egg and a rasher of bacon for each member of the family as they got up and wanted breakfast. For other customers, Auntie Jessie would sell individual teabags or split small packs of sugar and weigh tiny amounts into triangular paper sweet bags.
Part of the pleasure of staying with my cousin Kate was Auntie Cissie’s cooking. Her meals were always delicious and always came with cakes or pudding. I was fascinated to watch Auntie as she mixed cakes using her hands. She told me that Philip Harben, the famous chef, always creamed cake ingredients that way. He said the warmth from the cook’s hands helped the butter to soften and combine perfectly with the other ingredients. Watching the soft yellow mixture squeeze through her fingers, I thought it looked a wonderful way to mix a cake but I was fairly sure that my mother would never allow me to bake like that. I much preferred the butter the Coombes family used. The bright yellow New Zealand Anchor butter was saltier than the pale, silver foil wrapped Lurpak my mother liked. (I think she chose it because it reminded her of French butter). Very occasionally, in the evening, Uncle Eddie would make everyone his delicious speciality – a cheese toastie. It wasn’t often that the men in my family cooked. Sometimes my father would make drop scones for Sunday tea and we’d eat them doused in golden syrup. My mother regarded this as a mixed blessing. Cooking the pancakes seemed to require the use of every utensil we owned, leaving the kitchen looking as if it had experienced a localised tsunami.
The only downside to staying with the Coombes family was going to early mass on Sunday morning. I was awakened early and had a hot drink but food was not on offer because everyone else would take communion. As I had no hat I was loaned a headscarf by Kate. My cousin Margaret wore a very beautiful black lace mantilla. Their church was very well attended so it wasn’t quite so chilly and full of echoes as going to Bramhall with Nana. However, taking me along was a nerve-wracking experience for them. I did once manage to disgrace the family by dropping the collection plate as it was passed to me! At the time I couldn’t understand why they would go to the early service when there was one on offer at about 10 am. I realise now, of course, that an early start like that meant there was time for Aunty Cissie to get back home and cook one of her wonderful big Sunday roast dinners to be ready for lunchtime instead of mid-afternoon.
In 1957 my family did manage a seaside holiday. We stayed in a rented bungalow in Ffrith Beach, Prestatyn. Looking back, I don't think that bungalow was meant to sleep more than four but somehow, over the course of a week, several different family groups and generations managed to squeeze in. I don't expect my dad mentioned that to the landlord. I don't expect he mentioned our dog either. Family members arrived from Wigan, St. Helens and Yorkshire at different days and times. As people came and went we all moved around. I remember at one point sleeping in a child's cot, which I thought was really funny. For part of the time, I did get to share a room with my cousin Kate. She had to have a proper bed and brought her own special pillow because of her asthma.
A sandy beach was literally just down the road, so we spent a lot of time there, paddling, swimming, playing French cricket. So long as we had a ball, there were always more than enough adults available to ‘give us a game’ of something. Sometimes we just walked; once we went all the way up the beach to the new holiday camp.
There was a big boating pool close by too. It had little two-seater boats powered by furiously hand-turning the small paddle wheels at each side. My cousins Judith and Kate and I had our pictures taken for the local newspaper sitting in one of those boats. We had to buy about a dozen copies to give to different family members when the picture was finally printed in the ‘Happy Holidays’ section. Nobody but Nana was at all happy with the result. Kate was really cross because the paper printed her name as Kathleen. Judith was cross because they put her age down as much younger and the caption to our picture was ‘Three little girls ’. I think Judith might have been 14 at the time. Nana was delighted because she now had a newspaper cutting to show to her neighbour, Mrs Garrity. My cousin, Margaret, was far too grown-up to join us on holiday that year. In the autumn she would be starting at Liverpool University and she had to find ‘digs’.
Most communication arrived through our family’s letterbox. Postage was cheap, it only cost pennies to post a letter. Nana was a great letter writer but I am sad to say that I was a terrible correspondent. ‘Never a scratch of a pen!’ she would say when we met - and it was true. I think just about the only time I did write was a minimal note on a holiday postcard. Nana loved to get a letter but a postcard was at least something to show Mrs Garrity. The choice of holiday postcards was very limited.
They either showed views of the holiday location or brightly coloured cartoons, often involving ladies with large bosoms, with really rude jokey captions. I don’t think anybody would have dreamed of sending Nana one of those! I can remember my cousin Judith getting an oversized postcard whose shiny picture side was covered in plastic and made into a record. I was fascinated by watching something square illogically going around and around on the turntable. It played a wobbly recording of George Formby singing ‘Ting Tang Wala Wala Bing Bang’ but Judith and I listened to it over and over again.
There was one extended weekend when aunties, uncles, cousins and a few of my parents’ friends, decamped to a gloriously expensive hotel in Blackpool which had (oh rapture) an indoor swimming pool. By the end of our break, I had spent so much time immersed in chlorine saturated water that my eyes were as swollen and pink as a lab rat. Auntie Cissie took my mother shopping to a very expensive dress shop and used some more of her inheritance to buy her the most beautiful black velvet cocktail dress for the hotel’s Saturday evening dance. They both went to the hairdressers that afternoon and my mum had her hair done in a French pleat. She looked just like Kim Novak.
I should explain the mention of an inheritance. I began life with two Auntie Cissies; big Auntie Cissie (my great aunt) and little Auntie Cissie (mother to Margaret and Kate). Apparently, big Auntie Cissie had been considered quite beautiful when she was young. In 1919 she had waist-length wavy hair and in the parades in St. Helens to mark remembrance of the great war she was chosen to ride on the main float (back of a lorry) as Britannia.
To me, she was a very tall, unsmiling lady who always seemed cross and I was terrified of her. When she died, big Auntie Cissie left all her worldly wealth (several hundred pounds and a Ford Prefect car) to her niece, little Auntie Cissie. Apparently, when the hopeful bank manager asked little Auntie Cissie what she intended to do with all this money she replied ‘Spend it’, and so she did.
When my Aunt Fran married, she and her husband went to Jersey for their honeymoon. This was the furthest anyone in my entire family had ever travelled for a holiday. Nobody even had a passport. That changed completely when I was eight.
French had been my mother's favourite subject when she was at school. Now that the war was over she wanted to go to France and speak French with real French people and eat real French food. So Nana came to stay and my parents went to Paris for a few days. (In reality, they had no money to pay for this so they postponed paying our bill with the Co-op. This sort of behaviour was very badly thought of in the 1950s but the trip made my mother very happy and that made my father happy too.)
Paris was in love with Brigitte Bardot at the time so my mother came home with a new hairstyle. She always wore her hair in a bun like a ballet dancer but now the bun surrounded a long ponytail of fake hair. I wasn't quite sure about that or about the French sweets they brought back, but I absolutely loved the little umbrella hat they gave me. It was like a tiny clear umbrella, but instead of a long handle, there were two ribbons which tied under my chin and pulled the umbrella into shape, so I wore my little umbrella on my head - as a hat. Apparently, everybody in Paris was wearing them.
My mother loved everything about France, especially the corsetry which she said was so much more elegant and better made than at home. When he went to France for work my dad would take a list of my mother’s measurements (converted into centimetres) He would bravely venture into the lingerie sections of department stores and explain in his terrible French what he wanted to buy for his wife. Once he brought her back some perfume called ‘Tweed’ by Lentheric. I have no memory of its smell, I just really loved the unusual shape of the bottle. It was like the flat, gold-wrapped caramel in a tin of Quality Street.