By Alex Gabriel
Since the god I believed in died, it’s my mum’s stories I’ve turned to. Her grandmother, one of the last Victorians, schooled her in Roma tradition while she was a child, and although Mum had swapped card readings for hymnbooks by the time I arrived, her touch for oral history remained. Numerous relatives, having wed and bred later than usual, died before I was born, but I met them all in bedtime stories: her father Bill, whose hair turned white when he abandoned ship in the North Sea and swam ashore; my other grandfather Silvestras, who lost a homeland to Stalin and countless shirt buttons to British beef; and my great grandmother herself, whose real name must have been Catherine but whom Mum always called Kitty. Lately, I’m remembering meals with my own grandmothers.
To understand my gran, you have to understand how she used food. Like many children born after the war, Mum spent her first holidays in the north, including in Blackpool. In my twenties, I heard about the aftermath of one such trip: on coming home, her mother approached a small boy who lived across the road, offering him a stick of Blackpool rock with a smile. On unwrapping the gift, the boy found only a long and thin stone disguised with left over wrappers, and so began to cry. Loath as she was to acknowledge her older sister’s birth in a vardo, Gran was a storyteller too: even in her nineties, fifty or sixty years later, serving the greedy boy over the street his just dessert was a favourite of hers. ‘That boy,’ Mum once replied with laser eyes, ‘was four years old.’
I’ve often wondered how Gran knew the boy was a glutton. At any rate, ‘very greedy’ was the way he was always introduced. Not having lived with him, she could hardly have known how much he ate at mealtimes. Was it a sign of greed that he accepted the gift she held out, or that as a young child, he liked sweets? (In the fifties, before or shortly after rationing ended, an entire stick of rock must have been quite a prospect.) I can only think Gran had decided he looked greedy, being perhaps less of a rake than other council house kids on their street, and so needed to be punished. His sobbing done, she would insist, the boy was given a real stick of rock. But did that make the trick more or less cruel? And if she thought he ate too much sugar in the first place, why give him more?
When Gran got married just after the war, she moved onto the road where Mum grew up, and where the two of us stayed roughly once a year. Even in her old age, Gran saw only so much of her daughter, and what interaction they had was strained. While it was a ten hour round trip, Mum’s stories make me think it was her choice to put three hundred miles between our childhoods. The Lakes, where she raised me, had been the site of other holidays, as well, she said, as her first encounter with God aged five, a happy interval in her upbringing by a man whose anger upturned furniture and a woman who heaped the blame on her. I often glimpsed a violent husband’s legacy in Gran, but nor did she seem to have been a bystander. ‘I will never understand that relationship,’ Mum told me once, her voice far away.
For someone who detested greed, food was obligatory with Gran. On our visits, breakfast — tea, toast, fruit juice, butter and Oxford marmalade — was laid out every day, even though she knew very well that when Mum and I bothered with breakfast, we preferred to eat on our feet, cereal bowls in hand, and then be done with it. When Mum travelled to see her during my degree, Gran sweated over complex meals she’d been asked not to make, only to sulk when they went uneaten; when I avoided sandwich crusts aged six, she asked pointedly if I had weak teeth, and struggling with dessert meant scoldings about African children. Yet Gran was always quick to comment if she thought someone was overweight, and I can’t recall a time before Mum thought herself fat.
Gran’s recipes weren’t flash, but got results. I’ve never managed to match her pastry, but it was from her that I learnt how to work tomatoes into a quiche, and that spuds should be baked in ovens, never microwaves. She cooked with skill, but never emotion: when she made food having been asked not to, you couldn’t say she did it for pleasure. Most goodies in her larder, it followed, came from the shops: cherry Bakewells, Blue Riband biscuits, soft scoop ice cream and assorted cakes. If you sat on her sofa long enough, these would be handed to you wordlessly between crosswords, summoned without proposal or request. I must have been five the first time I reached to take the plate and felt her iron grip on it. ‘I won’t let go,’ Gran announced to the room, ‘until he says thank you.’
Until my early teens, this too was a habit of hers, sporadic enough that I couldn’t preempt it. I never got why I was meant to say thank you before being passed the plate when every adult I’d observed did it just afterward, and it occurs to me in hindsight that since food had never been offered — just thrust at you — taking it at all was polite. Only when thirteen year old me quietly wrenched the china from her grasp did Gran desist, but in some ways the victory was hers. The entire exercise, I think, was about showing you were too rude to be trusted with a moment’s grace, just as the stick of rock had been to prove another boy greedy, and hours cooking unwanted meals were meant to prove her daughter ungrateful. Gran always needed someone to demean.
Because my other grandmother lived in a prefab too, her house was of the exact same design: on the ground floor, you could walk anticlockwise and pass through each room. As a result, my memories of eating with her play out like stage hands have redressed the set from the last scene. Her cooking, too, was similar, dating from the heyday of roasts and rice pudding, but I think I preferred the things she made: salty boiled veg, cabbage better than you’d believe, dumplings and buttered potatoes cooked with mint leaves. Though she must have, I don’t recall her ever serving meat, except the only carnivorous meal I still miss, bacon and eggs with cheap English mustard, or, better still, brown sauce — something which, like the cook’s ash trays and unpronounced aitches, you never found at Gran’s.
I was fourteen, perhaps younger, the last time I saw Nan, who lived at the edge of the London sprawl; she’d have been in her mid seventies then. I don’t know whether we spoke on the phone later — only that in the summer of 06 her son, homeless after starting to hit the woman who’d replaced my mum, moved back into her house aged fifty-four. Not seeing him since has been no great despair, but often my thoughts wander to the woman I half knew, guessing whether she might still be around. Gran, ninety-three when I broke off contact, was a solid eight or nine years older, but salted veg, pork pies and fags must have evened the odds. When Nan’s husband died of a heart attack, their son apparently held her to blame, and certainly he always made a point her being fat, a fact that passed me by.
Nan’s maiden name was Ethel Robinson, more like a jazz singer’s than a housewife’s, and though Mum called her by her middle name, it’s stuck, symptom of some impulse to complete her like a half-finished book. I don’t know if Nan drank, but guess she did; don’t know how she voted or which paper she read, though something tells me the Mirror, and have no clue what she’d have made of having a bisexual grandson, but know she took a Soviet name in the Cold War, conceivably a sign she didn’t care what people thought. No one, however fond, saw Nan as a thinker, and she did seem at times as ignorant of children as of nutrition, but her heart managed to make up for it, and unlike Gran’s, her meals tasted of love. An ice cream cone or glass of pop sometimes meant welcome, sometimes sorry, but never obey.
In one of Mike Leigh’s plays, both of my grandmothers appear, one affected and snide, a bully and an inconsistent snob, the other as transparently simple as she is kind. I sometimes wonder if like Angela, Nan was ever oblivious half on purpose — whether she really couldn’t see who her son was or overlooked it for the peace of mind. In any case, I’m convinced that deep down she was all right. It’s Mum’s stories of how well she and Gran got on that puzzle me — Gran, with whom nothing sweet was just dessert, who made food into a weapon and declared war at whim. Whatever she may not have known, Nan fed you because she understood children had to grow; Gran needed people she could belittle, and knew for her own part that the smallest were easiest.
They’re dead now, these people, to me if not altogether, and I don’t believe they’ll rise again in some far off place. If they survive, it’s in the convoy of stories that now stretches far back, past my mother and hers, then all those before and beyond, to unknown origins. There’s no reason I’m telling you of them except to keep it going, neither having nor wanting my own kids, and perhaps to serve justice of some kind on each of them: to honour Catherine, Ethel and my mum, whose histories deserve to be consumed; to tell on Bill, my dad and those like them, who fed on other people’s lives; and to bury my gran at long, long last, whose name no one will know and whose cruel trick proved all those years ago that now and then, what appears sweet belongs back in the ground.