When I was three, our dad became sick. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him, but they knew he was dying. They suggested that my Mum might like to take him home to die in England. We left Ghana. My dad disappeared into the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. We – my mother, my brother and I – moved into her childhood home – a three bedroom terraced house in Haringey, North London, with her parents, her grandfather, her sister, Penny and their dog, Fred.
It was the winter of 1962/63; the coldest winter since 1739/40. I remember the cold as an almost physical presence. It laid in wait in the house which had no central heating, and crept into the scullery with its coal fire that roasted the front of you, but never quite warmed your back. I didn’t like being cold then: I don’t like it now.
For my mum it must have been an unspeakably terrible time, but although I was aware of her unhappiness, there were plenty of things in that icy house that gave me pleasure. After the months of living in a first floor flat with our uncharacteristically silent mother, a crying baby brother and a father who lay in a morphine-induced stupor, I loved the talk and the buzz of the busy house. I loved my Nan telling me stories about her childhood. I loved being allowed to pick out tunes on the piano in the unused front room. I loved Fred the dog, but most of all, I loved my Aunty Penny.
Every night I would go to sleep, alone in her single bed cuddling a hot water bottle and listening to the rattle of the trains, and every morning I would wake with her next to me, chattering as she pulled herself out of the bed and got herself ready for work.
To me, Penny, was an exotic flower. She wore black eye liner with cat-eye flicks. She had a coat with a real fur collar and a pair of red high-heeled stiletto shoes. Of course, I couldn’t wear eye liner, or own a coat with a real fur collar, but I was allowed to go into the shoe cupboard under the stairs, with its leathery, feety smell and pull out the red, shiny stilettos and put them on. The slope of the sole made my feet slide forward. For hours I would teeter and tap tap my way around the house oblivious to everything but the pleasure of pretending to be Aunty Penny.
Memories live within us, steering us without us even knowing. Many are never far from the surface. I have always known, for example, why I so dislike being cold. For me it is linked to the confusion of my suddenly absent parents: my mum who had become emotionally unavailable, and my dad who had simply gone away. But some of our memories and experiences remain hidden. Waiting. Biding their time.
When I set out to look for shoes for my daughter’s wedding, I went to a vast selection of shops and tried on lots and lots of pairs. I wanted them to make me feel confident, more able to assume the role of the mother of the bride with style and sophistication. I guess I was asking rather a lot of a pair of shoes! As I sat in Russell and Bromley, feeling utterly defeated, I saw a pair of shoes. They were absolutely not what I was looking for, but I tried them on anyway. They were navy wedge sandals with enormous platforms. When I stood up, the slope of the sole made my feet slide forwards, and all of a sudden I was back in my grandmother’s house happily absorbed as I tap tapped around the shop. How odd. I had thought I was looking for shoes that would make me feel grown-up and sophisticated, and what I found were shoes that made me reconnect with the pleasure of wearing high-heeled shoes I had felt when I was three years old!
On the occasions when we’ve talked over the years, Penny and I have touched on that time when we lived in the same house, but I’ve never told her just how much better she made my life was when I was three. But I’m telling you now, Penny.
This article was about Penny, but in case you were wondering what happened to our Dad, he recovered and lived for another 37 years. We miss him still.
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