Number Thirty Two

The house had once been an old farmhouse. Years later, I found it on a facsimile of a map from the seventeen hundreds, a small cluster of buildings in open countryside between the city of Leeds and the village of Holbeck. It felt like a farmhouse still, although by the time we lived there, the city had enclosed it; factories choked the air round about, the railways clanked in the distance and only the street names reminded you of a distant rural past:- Whitehall Road, Springwell Lane, names with a hint of green.
Number Thirty Two, Whitehall Road was where my grandparents lived. Next door was their shop where my mother helped out, selling boiled sweets and cigarettes to the workers who passed to and from the surrounding factories. And next door to that was the fishing tackle shop where my grandfather spent most of his time, fiddling with reels and rods and talking to little fat anglers in waistcoats and flat caps. “Ey up Joe” they would say to him and sit down to drink strong sweet tea out of china pint pots and reminisce about fishing trips to Tadcaster and York. He sold maggots for bait and kept them in a tin bath, flavouring them with sawdust and curry powder for enigmatic reasons of his own. When I was three years old I would run my fingers through them, fascinated rather than repelled by their constant motion. Nobody told me to be revolted by them so why should I mind?
As a very young man my grandad had sailed on the last of the tea clippers, and spent his free time making the intricate wool work picture of a sailing ship that hangs on our sitting room wall. My grandfather loved me unreservedly. I could wind him around the smallest of my small fingers, the way my mother wound my fat Violet Elizabeth ringlets and tied them up with red satin ribbons.
“My little queen” he would call me, using the old Yorkshire word for woman.
“Who sewed your hair on Gangad?” I would ask him, running my finger along the back of his neck where the sun deepened creases looked like stitches.
He was tattooed as well, and I would trace the pictures on his arms, loving his illuminated skin, reading him like a book.
Up above the shops was the two roomed flat where I spent the first seven years of my life, until my handsome Polish refugee father, managed to get enough qualifications to obtain a research fellowship at the university. At weekends my parents would take me on the bus to Old Farnley, to walk through bluebell woods, to see wasps’ nests and tadpoles and – on one memorable occasion – a grass snake curled up in a hollow. But most of my pre school weekdays were spent down in my grandmother’s kitchen at Number Thirty Two.
I remember every detail of that kitchen the way you always do when you’re very small. There was a big black-leaded range on one wall with a fire oven where my grandmother baked loaves and plain “oven bottom” cakes and sometimes curranty shortcakes, made with flour and the best butter and baking powder.The sink to the left of the range was set into the wall, and tiled in white. It smelled of bleach and more mysteriously of potatoes. To the right of the range was a big wooden bank of cupboards and drawers, a sort of early fitted dresser.
I remember the cool marble topped table where my grandmother rolled out her pastry, with the cupboard underneath where she kept Jacob’s cream crackers in a green coronation tin. There was a kitchen table made fancy with a ginger velour cloth and a brown leather covered stool, like a hovis loaf, which lived beside the range and always went by the name of “Rufty Tufty” like a person. My grandfather had made the brightly coloured rag rugs which softened the stone floor. “How about it on the rug Vara?” I would say to my mother’s sister, my Aunty Vera who used to sit on the hearthrug with me and read fairy stories and film magazines aloud while I picked at the tufts of cloth with my starfish fingers.
The house was a long, thin house with mysterious cellars beneath, and two rooms on each of the three floors above. Up in the attic was a “Galloping Scooter” a little carriage and horses, brought from London by my impulsive grandfather when my Aunt Nora (the eldest child) was a little girl. But it had only had one outing during which poor Nora was mobbed by curious children. Thereafter it was used indoors where it survived intact to become a later exhibit in York’s Castle Museum. I didn’t much like it back then. I preferred my teddy bears:- Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson as well as Brown Dog Dingo, a morose woollen dog, who seemed very large because I was so small.
At the back of the house was a yard, where my grandfather had once tried to make a duck pond, but his ducklings had left their mother too soon and drowned, one by one. Such tragedies always beset his attempts at country living, here where the city hammered against all his walls.
Beyond that again was a washhouse, with a copper and a big mangle, and the pungent smell of soapsuds. And beyond that was the outside toilet, with its scrubbed warm wooden seat and the scent of bleach and whitewash. I was too young to go through the washhouse by myself at nights, so someone would always take me: my mother, or sometimes my aunty, and I would sit on the lavatory and pick the flaky whitewash off the walls, and watch the comforting glow of her cigarette in the dark.
The house was warm too and dusty and yeast scented and safe. Yet things were changing. Relentlessly, time claimed us. My grandfather was a diabetic with failing sight; and ulcerated legs that grew gangrenous. My grandmother had a series of small strokes that left her confused and vague. But so fiercely did my mother and father and my aunt work to protect me, queen of the household, from the adult world, that I was never fully aware of their misery. It only lurked on the edge of my comprehension. I wished things were as they had been, but didn’t know why they were not.
And now, in middle age, I know that I have never again felt so safe, and so universally loved as I felt within those rooms. After my grandparents died, the house lay empty for many years. Once, in my twenties, I went back but it was derelict and very sad. Brown Dog Dingo lay in a corner, but the moth had got into him, and besides, he was amazingly small. How could he have grown so small? And then Number Thirty Two was sold to the factory next door which promptly swallowed it whole.
I live in the countryside now and tell people that I’m a migrant from the city. But it doesn’t seem like that. Instead I had a blissful country childhood in a house which somehow kept the memory of a rural past buried deep within its walls. But still it haunts my dreams, and it, at least, has not grown small with the passing years. The house has changed subtly and Number Thirty Two grows ever more beautiful and magical. In my dreams the house has begun to spiral outwards into underground passages and tapestried rooms, all richly decorated, and peopled with both the living and the dead.