I remember my first drink very clearly.
Or, more clearly, I remember my brother’s first drink.
Mine was a sip of beer my father gave me from his half pint glass when I was seven and complained that I wanted what he was drinking, rather than the orange squash that was the only other option ever on offer.
I thought the beer was disgusting and spat it out. My brother, at four, took the glass with all the firmness of a fly half catching a rugby ball and racing for the line, and downed it. Mum, Dad and my maternal grandparents thought it was hilarious. So did my younger sibling Nigel, who, thrilled with the attention this act of rebellion had brought him, tried to grab the glass for a second sitting.
My mother’s parents, Tom and Elsie (nee Culliford) Jones, had been publicans all their lives and were then managing the Old Globe pub in Rogerstone, just outside Newport. Situated between the main road and the railway line, it was an enormous, imposing building, with a large car-park which, despite the large numbers of pastie-eating customers (the staple snack of South Wales Saturday afternoon drinkers), rarely had any cars in it. Only my grandfather’s Jaguar was permanently parked there. He never drove it anywhere, but every two days, he could be seen polishing it, buffing the silver blue to an almost transparent silver.
I could understand why he never wanted to take it out onto the road and bring it into contact with all that dirt and grime. Years later, and long after his death, the tax office failed to understand why a man would have bills for the upkeep of a car and no petrol receipts, and my grandmother was stung badly for my grandfather’s passion.
Despite the punishments that were an inevitable part of growing up, I was always happiest at home. When I was taken away from my familiar territory, I was overwhelmed with sadness.
Irrespective of how much fun was anticipated in our visits to friends and relatives, after two hours I would begin to long for my own room: the white candlewick bedspread, my books, my cuddly toys.
Most of all, my pens and paper.
The strangeness of other people’s rooms and other people’s belongings oppressed me: ornaments which struck the air with their alien shapes and unfamiliar shadows.
What started out as a great adventure – packing the car, locking up the house, driving past different fields and buildings – soon turned to sorrow, when the constrictions of having to follow another family’s set of rules was imposed.
At my maternal grandparents’ pub, there were many rules, but my grandfather introduced an air of unpredictability to the place. He was a born entertainer. A natural musician, he played the mouth organ and the banjo for customers, while my grandmother, between trips to the kitchen, looked on admiringly.
I remember him standing at the corner of the bar, cigarette in hand, chatting to the old men -so they seemed to me – who always surrounded him.
I remember him most clearly on my 11th birthday, shortly before he was taken ill and two years before he died of lung cancer. My grandmother brought my wrapped present up the stairs from the living-room and set it on a small table just outside the bar. A satin shade was peeping out of the top, and a dangling plug at the bottom.
I quickly ascertained what the gift was, but Grandpa said: “Close your eyes.” “Don’t be soft, Tom,” said Grandma, “she can see what it is.” His face fell, and when I removed the wrapping I tried to look surprised, to save him in some small way from the knowledge that, in my grandmother’s eyes, he had made a fool of himself. But Grandma adored him and never stopped thinking or talking about him until the day she died, 15 years later.
We went to the Old Globe every week, and much as Ioved my grandparents, it was a place that frightened me in the little resemblance it bore to anywhere else in my life. It had two bars, one floor up from the kitchen. One was a lounge bar and, on the wall, there was a picture of my grandparents holding a large silver tray, which they won in Rogerstone’s annual competition to find the best kept garden. Grandma was smiling in the photograph, and her jet black hair was backcombed high like a mosque, and set as firm as bricks, for the big day of the presentation.
Doubtless my mother, then a hairdresser, did it for her. Grandpa looked more tentative, guilty perhaps, that he had had nothing to do with the perfect flower-beds that won them the prize. I loved the photograph and marvelled in their small success, yet more smiling proof of the safety of my world.
The main bar was darker and full of the old men who made me nervous when they spoke. This was almost exclusively my grandfather’s side of the pub. Above the bar was a photograph of him dressed in a strange hat and smoking a large cigar. He was also in uniform, and I learned that he had been something of a performer among his soldier friends during the war.
When he came back from the war, he was different, my mother says: it knocked something out of him. When I began to show an interest in music he gave me his mouthorgan. I heard him play it just once.
The bar smelt of spilt beer, the floor was sticky,and the rubber soles of my Clarks sandals stuck to it. I was uneasy in its strangeness, but before the pub opened at 11a.m., I loved the fullness of it all: the freshly made fire, packed with logs and paper; the full crates; the rows of clean glasses; the bags of bottle tops from the night before. Most of all, I loved the feeling that this was what it was like to be a grown-up.
Grandpa let me unpack the crates filled with bottles of Schweppes orange juice and load them onto the bar’s shelves. Sometimes, being an extraordinarily strong and well muscled child, I helped him carry them up from the cellar to the kitchen. He also let me keep the bottle tops. I collected hundreds and adored the intensity of their colours: the turquoise from the beer, the orange and yellow from the soft drinks, the “Courage” bottle-tops, with the finely drawn cockerel lording it over the corrugated edges.
I loved the rattle of the tops when I carried them away in one bag, their sharp pointed dents where the bottle-opener had forced them off the bottles; the smells of orange, pineapple, stout and bitter brushing against each other. It was a world a hundred miles (although in reality, about five) miles away from my own: a world of weekend.
The pub was on five levels, each with its own distinctive smells and shades. The kitchen was at semi-basement level, between the cellar and the living-room, and had a stone floor and a window that overlooked the railway line.
The pantry was packed with catering sized bags of flour and boxes of lard, and every morning, at 5.00a.m., my grandmother raided them to start making pasties. On public holidays, she rose even earlier than dawn to load the Kenwood chef, an enormous cement mixer of a thing, with the freshly boiled potatoes for the hundreds of snacks she was sure of selling.
When I stayed at the Globe, I woke to the smell of cooking pastry that travelled up every floor. Long before the sound of barrels being rolled
into the cellar began, Grandma was mixing the flour with the lard, boiling potatoes, and chopping meat and onions together. It was a hard life, but I never heard her complain.
Still, though, I felt the slow passing of another life when I watched her carry the saucepan over to the sink and saw the thick blue veins on her legs: the blue ridges straining under her thick stockings as I helped her carry the trays of freshly cooked pasties up two flights of stairs from the kitchen to the bar.
At opening time, when she took the first batch of pasties into the lounge bar, the previous night’s stale beer was already a world away. Suddenly, the optics were trophies, multiplying in the mirror on which they were screwed; the red velvet chairs, tiny thrones.
I felt more at ease on the floors of activity: the kitchen, and my grandmother in her apron; the bar, and my grandfather’s hand, drawing on the three truncheons of beer pumps. But on the floors where they lived their private lives, I felt imprisoned and scared.
Nigel and I were left alone, in an alien world where, as strictly disciplined children, we were left undisciplined, without any fear of our wrecking anything or coming to harm. The potential for disaster was terrifying; the fact that we never fulfilled it, even more so. A lifetime of wrath from the God we feared could never have made up for our daring to switch on a light without asking permission first. So we sat in the dark as dusk fell, silent.
It was always dark because my grandmother reckoned that every unlit light-bulb was another year’s worth of free sewing machine use – or whatever the bizarre, logic-saving electrical device of the week was. When we were first deposited in the room on Saturday afternoons, the last of the afternoon sun was always leaving the piano (never played – “Too noisy”) in the corner; by the time Dr Who appeared on the TV, there was no light, and we were left in the sinister, quiet stillness of a forgotten room.
When the synthesised wooing of the Dr Who theme started up, I retreated to the safe and dark shadows behind the sofa. I hated the daleks. It was hard to see how any child who wanted to sleep well at night could respond otherwise to them. I hated the way they slid quickly across the floor, swifter than any human. Their voices were threatening croaks that came from deep inside their impenetrable steel bodies; they possessed some human qualities, but each one was a distortion of the essential qualities of human behaviour: colour, fluidity, warmth.
No matter how often I saw Dr Who defeat them, I never believed that, next time, he would emerge victor again. The long exterminator rod sticking out of the daleks’ foreheads, together with their cry of “Exterminate!
Exterminate!” was the most terrifying thing I had ever experienced, and I could never understand why we were left alone to endure it. We could not turn it off, because we had been told never to touch anything belonging to anyone, especially the piano and TV belonging to Grandma and Grandpa. One afternoon, after I sat sobbing and shaking behind the sofa, I disobeyed the order and turned off the TV. The fear of doing so was just marginally less than the fear of falling victim to the daleks.
The worst floor was the one at the top of the building, where the bedrooms were. When I stayed over, I was put in a cold room in a bed with a dark wooden headboard, beneath which I barely slept. It was like a coffin lid just waiting for me to close my eyes before folding down and trapping me forever.
Before she went to bed, my grandmother came into my room and knelt on the floor, where we said our prayers together. When she went next door to sleep, I could hear her snoring and, every ten minutes, several snores would run= together, as if they were being poked with a stick to hurry them along. One night, when my grandfather was ill, Grandma shared the bed with me, and the snores woke me constantly right through the night.
When I looked at Grandma’s face, I saw that her lips were folded in on themselves, and her teeth were in a glass on the bedside table. I wondered whether losing your teeth was the thing that made you snore, and feared losing my own. Eventually, I dropped off again and tried to smother my ears with the pillow; but it seemed I slept for less than an hour by the time the smell of the baking pasties for bar lunches woke me .00a.m.
The room I disliked the most was my grandparents’ room. When Grandpa was ill, and, though I did not know it, dying, he was in bed all day. We visited him there, along with other relations, and we sat on the bed, trying to tempt him back to real life with our stories, much as I would do in later years with my own father.
But at 13, I did not recognise in the sick room those details I would later come to know as the precursors to death: the pyjamas too big for the body, a face slowly sinking into shadow, the half-empty bottles of soft drinks. Grandpa always had Lucozade on his bedside table, and each time we visited there were more sticky rings on the dark, scratched wood. I stared at these, tracing their patterns with my eyes, rather than look at my grandfather’s shrinking features. His moustache, which had always been a tiny Hitler-type rectangle, suddenly seemed to be taking over his face.
There was never any light in that room, either. Whether it was my grandparents’ war-time experience that made them want to save electricity throughout the whole of their lives, or whether they just an aversion to light, I don’t know; but from the bottom of the house to the top, the light faded.
The cellar was bright with bare bulbs; the living-room, in which no light was turned on until absolute darkness, flickered only with the TV playing its shadows; the bars were dimmer still, with the fire in one corner, and only glasses to catch the little light it threw; and then, at the top of the house, just wood. Dark, dark wood, relieved only by the fading white light of my grandfather’s face.
It was always exhilharating to go outside. I would stand by the black fence beside the railway line and wait for trains to go by. Every movement was a welcome contrast to the stillness of the living-room and bedrooms: the long grass sweeping towards me as the trains rushed past; the crunch of gravel in the car-park when a customer drove in or out. Indoors, there were daleks and sickness; outside, a world that carried on, regardless: safety, and thoughts of home.
When Grandpa became too sick to stay at the Globe, he was moved to Cefn Mabley hospital near Newport. Every time we visited him, there was bright sunshine and the smell of cut grass. In the ward, he looked the same as he had done at home, and despite the bright, crisp whiteness of the hospital, the scent of dark wood still seemed to cling to him. “D’you think he’ll be all right?” I asked my mother, one day as we were leaving. “No, Jac” she said, “I don’t think he will.”
The sun heated the car, and I longed to be outside in the fresh air. Never again would I feel comfortable around dark furniture. I hate antiques, and every house and apartment I have ever lived in has been filled with pale, fresh wood, chrome, and everything modern.
I would happily live in the Habitat shop window.
Death made me a Conran girl.