When I was a little girl in the 1960s, my father, a self employed builder, worked very long hours. If I was lucky, he arrived home on weeknights before I went to bed, and I was allowed to perch on his knee and share a few mouthfuls of his dinner, which Mother would have kept warm between two plates on top of a saucepan of simmering water on the gas hob. The crusty shore at the edge of the plate gave it a distinctive, delicious savour which endures in my memory.
Mom was, and is, a “good, plain, cook”, and our evening meal was wholesome but unvarying: vegetables, which were often home grown, and meat, the plated-up arrangement topped by Bisto gravy. Chops, mince, liver, braising steak, or a smallish roasting joint were purchased twice weekly from Mr Cope’s shop on Aldridge High Street. With gloved hands – sheepskin in winter, cotton in summer, leather in-between – Mother pushed me on the mile and a bit journey to “the village” and back again in my tinny-metal, sky-blue push chair on fine days, or bundled me onto a bone-shaking “Harper’s” ‘bus in foul weather.
By the 1970s, the componenets of our evening meal would have been lifted out of the ponderous sarcophagus of a chest freezer which stood in the ex-coalplace just outside the kitchen door. (The hated – by Mother – Parkray having been superseded by the clean convenience of gas central heating.)
Seasonal gluts of produce harvested from our own garden and from the field at Keepers Cottage could be thriftily preserved in that freezer, and it was less than irrelevant that Walter and Geoff Yates of Yieldfields, Bloxwich, were amongst my Dad’s customers at that time. He worked on their slaughter hall as well as the family’s houses. I remember Mrs Yates’ huge warm kitchen one cold Sunday morning, and my diminutive self being pleasantly overwhelmed by two huge and enthusiastic, gritty mouthed Bassett Hounds. It was to be in another, far away abattoir, a quarter of a century later that I met my future husband…..but that’s another (romantic) story.
Childhood Sundays with my dad were delightful. At Redhouse Junior School, Monday morning’s “News” in my blue exercise book sang of my carefree and interesting week ends. In this 1968-9 “volume”. punctuation is dodgy, and some of the spelling is a damning reminder of the misguided fad that was I.T.A. – The “Initial Teaching Alphabet.”
There were visits to be made on Sundays, and my dad was happy to have me to himself, by his side, as he helped his customers to choose stone for their fireplaces, delivered estimates for jobs, or dropped a gentle hint about payment over tea and biscuits. The day always started well, too: When Mom vacated her side of the bed in the morning, I might slip between the sheets beside my bulky, cosy dad and read to him a couple of chapters from the Enid Blyton canon. Or we might be up first, and while Mother sipped tea, propped against a wynceyette pillow, bleary eyed, I would cheer my dad on as he wielded the sizzling frying pan, concocting the sort of “Full English” which Mom frowned on then, but was later forbidden entirely after my dad’s heart attack in 1972.
My curiosity, and my father’s eagerness to instruct were in harmony with each other as we set off on our Sunday rounds in the 1966 Ford Thames van, our family’s only vehicle.
At some customer’s quaint, unspoilt rural cottage (a speciality), or at a boxy modern house, or the grander home of decayed minor gentry in Four Oaks or Little Aston, the building job would be explained to me.
Rafter, purlin, truss, noggin, and facia; header, stretcher, weather-struck, raked: The vocabulary of carpentry and bricklaying was at my command from an early age. We called in on my dad’s Pop and brother Bill at Keepers Cottage, and where Footherly Woods met the bottom of their field was a magical Sabbath playground for us.
Streams could be dammed, flowers named and gathered, trees climbed, and wildlife excitedly identified, and, as I reached my teens, shot at. I trembled, and missed my target because of my great reluctance to kill. During my “training”, I wielded only my lighterweight .410 shotgun, with its beautiful walnut stock, which had been made to measure for my Uncle Bill by Thomas Wild’s gunsmith in Birmingham before the war. My dad had painstakingly beat out an old silver sixpence, engraved an elegant copperplate “S” on it, and set it into the stock of the gun for me. With skilful stitches, a relative’s stiff ginger leather “Sam Browne” belt from the First World War was cannibalised into a cartridge belt for .410 sized cartridges. What a painstaking, loving gift! I was paralysed by guilt on either hand: I abhorred the thought of being less competent than any lad would be at shooting or fishing, and frightened of garnering less accolades than I might from my beloved parent, but I passionately resisted the idea of inflicting pain on a beautiful bird or animal.
But what was part of my father’s identity I absorbed as part of my own. My father told me that as soon as he had been strong enough to hold a gun, he had been accustomed to stand under the holly bush at the bottom of the field at Keepers Cottage, watching for pigeons – (or pheasants put down by the Footherly Estate) – coming in to roost in the conifers in the corner of the wood. Not far into his teens, he began building work with Pop and Bill. Uncle Bill was a foreman for J.R. Deacon in Lichfield until around 1980, and my dad served his apprenticeship there too, before the war. Then Adolf intervened. Service with the 1st Battallion of the Welsh Guards saw my father busy in the armourer’s workshop, pursuing his interest in firearms for King and Country, against the backdrop of conflict in early post-colonial Palestine, until, in 1947, gun yielded once more to trowel and mortarboard.
A family tragedy saw guns put aside for most of the 1960s. They were innocent years. How fine it was, when constructing sand castles on a summer beach, but also in the snowy winter garden, to have a father, so skilled in laying bricks, with Sunday hours to give to you!
23rd February 1968: ” THE IGLOO! On Sunday my dad said he would help me build an igloo first we had to go to Ikins because my dad had left his wellingtons there when we came back we spent a good two hours on it first of all we made a big wall of snow and when we had done that we started on the bricks we used buckets and we made little castles like at the sea-side then my dad picked them up and put them on top we did this untill diner time then after dinner I called for Geraldine and she helped soon it was fineshed with a big tunell.”