Friday, 13 March 2009

Spinster aunties and Mr Kipling

My mum died when I was 7. No one spoke of her again. Overnight I turned from a precocious, chattering child to a silent, introverted loner. My mum was gloriously warm and creative: birthday cakes in the shape of mermaids, bedtime stories, home made dresses strewn with silk ribbons and velvet roses. Suddenly I was alone in a house with 2 older brothers and a grief stricken father.

However, I was blessed (or maybe cursed) with lots of aunties. I had 12 of them. Most of them were elderly, apron-wearing, spinster aunties. Ladies with brown overcoats, headscarves and rough hands. When school holidays came around I would be packed off to stay with them: one week here, one week there. I loved time with Aunty A, in a rambling stone house in the countryside near Darlington. I remember a whole lanquid week there lying in the dappled light of her walled garden, imagining I was Maid Marion (I had just seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in the church hall). Aunty A had a portly, waddling beagle called Becky and a sly ginger cat called Norman. Like my mum, she had been a teacher, and read me wonderful stories every night.

Aunty D would take me camping in Bamburgh. I adored days on the beach, swimming in the sea and daydreaming in the dunes. Aunty D was considered to have dubious morals, as she dyed her hair a rather lurid auburn and favoured flowing cheesecloth sundresses and chiming silver ankle chains. These days she is more Rita Fairclough than Rita Hayworth, but at 81, she still hasn't given up the auburn hair.

The most eccentric was Aunty J, my mum's youngest sister. She still lived in the colliery house she grew up in. Like many people who have lived too long on their own she was socially inept (and is even worse now). She would launch into rambling, incoherent monologues about the 'good old days' and how we were all 'going to hell in a hand-basket.' She would make terrifying prophesies about the end of the world: nuclear wars, famines, alien invasions, all of which she claimed were foretold in the bible. Unfortunately for me, she was the closest aunty (geographically speaking), so I had to spend a lot of time with her. However, she did have an encyclopedic knowledge about film. She loved the films of the 30s and 40s. Those Sunday afternoon films were the only time I have ever known her to be quiet. The curtains would be somberly and ceremoniously closed, sinking the tiny parlour into a premature and leaden dusk. She would switch on BBC2 and we would watch in reverential silence. There would be weak, milky tea in dainty china cups and Mr Kipling French Fancies. I loved a romance (my first love was Clark Gable in It Happened One Night). She loved wholesome and slightly camp musicals (Deanna Durbin and Nelson Eddy were favourites). When the film was over she would babble on about the stars: their real-life scandals, triumphs, disappointments and romances. She had piles of dusty, fading movie magazines she had kept since her teenage years. Then, gradually, the movie's enchantment would wane, the curtains would be ripped open and we would find ourselves back in the grimy reality of colliery life.

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