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Auntie Rose

posted 6 Nov 2016, 12:58 by Fran Brady
Auntie Rose lived far, far away. It took us two days of travelling in my father’s pride and joy: a 1933 Hillman, bought with his ‘demob’ money, polished every week and parked proudly outside our prefab.  
Auntie seemed impossibly glamorous to my sister and me. She had enormous amounts of clothes, three coats and five pairs of shoes. She had the most beautiful bedroom. It smelt of spicy flowers and had three mirrors on its dressing table. I sneaked in one morning and perched on the satin stool looking from side to side through endless corridors of images of myself. It was the first time I had ever seen my profile. I pouted and winked and smiled and frowned. 

Auntie had no children so she was free to go off each morning on a train into London to ‘the office’. It seemed incredible to me that anyone would ride on a train every day. Train journeys were for holidays and special days out. And the very word ‘office’, spoken in Auntie’s hybrid drawl, belonged between the covers of a book. No one I knew back home in Scotland worked in an office. Factories, shops, mines and building sites, yes. But not an office. 

Auntie’s hands were beautiful, soft and white, fingers long and very slim, nails perfect-pink with delicate white half-moons. I had thought all grown-up women’s hands were chapped, seamed with soot lines, sore with winter hacks. Her makeup was a wonder. I had only ever seen a slick of vanishing cream and a daub of powder. Occasionally a smear of hard red lipstick like tomato ketchup. I preferred Mum without it. 

Mum’s beauty routine took about two minutes. She did it standing up, peering into the mirror above the fire. Auntie settled down at her dressing table and spent more than two minutes considering her strategy before action began, turning her head from side to side, appraising the multiple images, fiddling with strands of hair, pinching cheeks, pouting lips, wiggling eyebrows. 

Then she would open the small top drawer on her right hand side and consider its contents, rummaging lightly among them. Finally she would nod slowly and extract the first pot or tube and it would begin. I would sit glued to the performance, eyes wide, breath held. Before my eyes her thin, pallid, slightly greasy face would become warm and iridescent, cheekbones lustrous rosy, eyes deep in shadow, brows arched in black, lashes thick and heavy, lips rosebud glossy. She would finish the performance with several shots from the cut glass bottle, pointing the nozzle at her throat and pumping the gold cloth ball with unerring aim at the base of her throat and behind her ears. The scent was intoxicating. I swooned and once I almost toppled to the floor. I longed for just one shot from that perfumed weapon. It would be, as Dad said of a man who fell into a vat of whisky and drowned, a great way to go.

It became our annual summer pilgrimage: Dundee to High Wycombe. They came to us for New Year. Auntie was not yet anglicised enough to stand being out of Scotland for Hogmanay. Uncle Roy, English to a fault – he had been one of ‘the few’ in the Battle of Britain and one of the even fewer who survived – went along with all the traditions enthusiastically. He had a way of making everything seem like a kind of charade, a ‘wizard prang’ he called it. I thought he was wonderful – straight out of Biggles.    
Theirs was a wartime romance, one of those brief encounters that miraculously survived the turmoil of men missing in action, women and children wandering through refugee camps and the blustery panic that passed for military action. It was the late summer of 1940, about three months after the Dunkirk evacuation. He was going home to High Wycombe for a short leave before returning to his airbase near York.  She was returning from leave in Scotland to the ATS unit she was stationed at, near Peterborough. She got off the train at Crewe to make a phone call to her unit, to tell them the train was running very late and it looked like being nearer ten o’clock than seven before she could report. She had been assured by the guard that she had plenty of time. But the queue for the only public phone box in the station was long and she eventually gave up and turned back towards the platform just in time to see the guard slamming shut the doors and the first puffs of steam appearing. Frantic, she raced down the platform, alongside the already moving train, until she found a door not quite shut. She managed to jerk it open and throw herself inside, landing at the feet of a handsome young airman who leapt up gallantly to close the door and help her to her feet. 

The compartment she had catapulted into was full but the train was crowded, as all wartime trains were: there was no point in her setting off to hunt for a seat. Thanking him for his timely assistance, she asked demurely if he would mind if she sat on his kitbag which was tucked into a corner of the compartment, the luggage racks being both full to overflowing. RAF men were renowned for their style and polish, never more in evidence than when a lady was present. He assured her that he would not dream of such a thing and ceded his seat to her, assuming the position on the kitbag himself. 

They began to chat. The train obliged by stopping several times in the middle of nowhere and maintaining, when it did move, an average speed of no more than twenty miles an hour. By the time it meandered into Peterborough, they knew a great deal about each other and liked what they heard. Home addresses were exchanged as being the most reliable. The process of letters going to their homes and being sent on to wherever they were at the time would slow the correspondence down but it was the best they could do. Neither of them voiced or perhaps even thought of the fact that one or both of them might be dead soon. The threat of invasion was in everyone’s minds and the task facing the navy and the air force to defend Britain’s huge coastline was urgent and desperately dangerous. The blitz had already begun in London and no centre of population was safe. But they were young, neither of them yet twenty, and they were falling in love. That seemed much more real and exciting to them as they reluctantly parted in the September sunshine on Peterborough platform.

Over the next five years, they would see very little of each other: snatched twenty-four hour passes spent in rundown guesthouses somewhere close to where their paths happened to be crossing; missed opportunities when letters went astray or were delivered too late; crackly telephone lines that permitted only short, half-heard conversations. Only twice in all that long war, the chance to spend a few days together with time to linger over cups of tea in a forlorn seaside café, huddle together on a stormy winter beach, walk and talk dreamily of the future they hoped to have together – when the war was over, when the boys came home, when bluebirds instead of bombers flew over the white cliffs again. By the end of the war, they were engaged. With victory in Europe assured at last, it seemed safe to make the public announcement, a testament of hope which would have seemed too much like tempting fate before then. 
They married in 1947. He used his wartime experience as flight engineer to land a job in the Rolls-Royce aero-components factory near his home town of High Wycombe. It came with a house – a coveted perk in the post-war years – a simple ground-floor flat in a hastily erected housing estate. 

My earliest memories are of a black and white photo of Rose in a swimsuit, sitting on a mat, looking over her shoulder at the camera. Her shoulder blades were as sharp as axes, her back a scrawny cedilla, the buttocks on the mat no bigger than the cabbages my father dug out of the garden. She remained pin-thin all her life and often deprecated her figure but only with a coyness that belied any real concern. She wore her thinness with elegance, even in the era of the full-busted and curvy-hipped Hollywood stars of the fifties. Of course, in the sixties, she was made. She said the advent of Twiggy as a supermodel showed there was a God and prayers do get answered.  

Other early memories, predating those of actually meeting her, are of ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’, just like in the song. They came with red blobs of sealing wax and bold black writing on both sides. I have no clear memories of what was in those parcels, only the excitement of seeing them delivered and helping to unpick the string and roll it into little balls to put in the string tin. String had been a wartime luxury and possibly still was in the fifties. The brown paper was smoothed out and folded to be stacked away in the sideboard. Mum would start some new knitting soon after the arrival of a parcel so probably wool, pins and patterns featured a lot. There might have been food items, I suppose, but I was never much interested in food as a child. In return, Mum rolled up the Dundee Courier and the Sunday Post into a tube and posted them off to Rose every couple of weeks.  

It was not until I was seven that the adventure of driving down to see the fabled source of the parcels, the stick-figure of the photograph, was mooted. Mum and Dad argued for hours about it. Mum imagined all sorts of disasters in the old car, at the very least freezing to death since it had no heater and let in rain at most of the windows and ‘muck and gutters’ up through the floorboards, Dad hotly defended his beloved ‘old jalopy’ which he declared would never let us down. 

They were both right. We did make it over the switchback Roman road through the Yorkshire moors and down into the heart of England, through endless picturebook-pretty villages without a flushing toilet to their name. And we did almost freeze to death one night when a mist came down and we could not find our way. Dad turned the car into what he thought was a lay-by, switched off the lights and said we would have to wait till morning to see where we were. As the cold, damp night progressed, we all became aware of a dreadful smell. At first, it was presumed it was Dad – it usually was. He denied it but wound down the window to let the smell escape. The stench immediately intensified. We choked and begged him to close it. In the morning, at first light, we could make out a huge pile of steaming dung right in front of the car, touching its radiator. Dad had mistaken an open farm gate for a lay-by.

It was but one of many traveller’s tales that our trips to see Auntie would spawn over the years.