Saturday, 28 June 2003

Lake District Relatives

I think I had a passing comment about having tea but not being able to sit back on the sofa for fear of denting it, at which point they extracted a story about my relatives in the Lake District from me.

My mother used to take my sister and me up to the Highlands of Scotland every half term, summer and easter holiday to visit her parents. It was a very long drive and on route we would stay with her Auntie Lizzie in Ulverston.

Auntie Lizzie was very ancient. I can't recall her husbands name (he died when I was very young) -- my only recollection of him was sitting in his armchair by the fire with a broken ankle in a cast drinking tea out of the saucer. Auntie Lizzie lived in a house with a black door that had an oval window in it at the top, her front garden had a steep slope and concrete steps with an old persons tubular handrail. When we stayed here we usually had to do a tour of the relatives living in the vicinity.

Cousin Betty lived on a farm, died her hair black and wore a black bra under a lemon yellow twinset. Her bussom was enormous and encased in an industrial strength brassiere - everything pointed outwards and in total control. She clattered around the farmyard in black stillettos, calfs clenched. She held the speed record for making sandwiches - this was a twice daily activity for the farmhands' breaks - she could butter a whole sliced white loaf with one knifeful of margarine in twenty seconds and slice tomatoes so they were see-through (the trick was to dampen the bread but only just).

Then we would pop in on Cousin John and Margerie's farm and would have to listen to the competitive bitching (much rivalry between the two). She once showed us round her eldest son's new farmhouse (wedding present from them) that they'd built a silage pit right next to so the winter feeding would be very convenient (just drive the cows right up into it) - not sure how the smell would be in the summer, however.

Then we would visit Great Auntie Winnie's - huge old house in an orchard - and look at the apples in the attic.

And finally if we were really unlucky we'd have tea with Great Auntie Dorothy (don't know why but I can't remember any of these women's husbands). They lived in an old peoples estate, new build bungalows, characterless houses and gardens with grass and paving stones that were mowed for them. There was nothing to do but sit very still on the perfect settee without leaning back so as not to dent it. She had anti-macassars on all the chairs and protective arm-coverings. She would bring tea in china cups and saucers out to the sitting room on a tray with brass detail around the raised edge and handles on two sides. She walked very slowly and everything on the tray would rattle in that china teacup way. We would all sit round the coffee table talking, a little. Her husband slurping at his tea. Eventually it would seem that hours had passed and every tick of the carriage clock sitting on the mantlepiece would hit you on the head. With every passing 5 minutes you lost a day of your life. And the only animated thing in the whole house were the four balls twisting back and forth on the pendulum of that clock...

It was always such a relief to get back to Auntie Lizzie's so we could use her eiderdown quilts to slide down the stairs (sit on the top step, at the end of the quilt, fold it over your feet, hold both corners and launch yourself over the edge). She always chastised my mother for not getting us a house with stairs in it.

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