Saturday, January 06, 2007

La Plume de ma tante (cont)

Over Christmas, I found out that my talented, lovely aunt had sent me more of her stories based on the past, but due to the impreciseness of the Internet, they never reached me.

I was distraught to think that she had sent them, and thought for weeks that I had not even bothered to acknowledge their sending.

Now I have had the chance to take a look, and realise what gems they are.

Here is the first one, based on auntie Alice, and a rather painful operation that was on the horizon for M


Worst Foot Forward

“You’ll need crutches,” the physiotherapist said as she thrust the poles towards me.
“So I was told.”
“Well, take them, they won’t bite. You’ll get nowhere without them.”
“Right, thanks.”
They had strong handles and rubbery bungs on their feet, but were lighter than they appeared.

She’s a bit brusque, I thought, but at least I’m being treated like an individual now. I had queued at the entrance desk, been ticked off the reservation list and had waited to be summoned in the reception area. I had been called, labelled and siphoned off into the appropriate area until I felt like I was on a production line. The ward was well lit, shiny floored, and full of complicated equipment. We sat on chairs at the foot of our beds all facing in the same direction, like parents in Disneyland waiting to be launched at “The Wall of Death.
“Just a minute! You are tall, aren’t you? Stand up!”
I did as I was bid, as my fellow travellers were watching.
“I’ll have to adjust them.”
“No! Stand still! Put your arm down.” She wrestled with one crutch after the other, there was a clicking, ratcheting sound and both shafts were extended.
“Try these. No!” she shook her head, “the other way round. “That’s better. Now, have a practice. You’ll need to get used to the feel of them. Worst foot first, then swing your weight onto your good one. Don’t leave it till afterwards and don’t expect it to feel natural.”
“Um…I broke my arm a year ago,” I said, tentatively. “I did mention it to the pre-assessment nurse.”
“Well, nobody told me,” she frowned. “A year?”
“And a bit… more.”
“Ah, you’ll be alright. Concentrate, don’t rush it.”
I swayed and tottered backwards, “O…ops!”
“Careful! Its not easy, is it?”
“Not when you’re my size.”
She didn’t agree but I noticed a nod.
“Now turn around. No! In stages! Don’t put your foot down to balance. That’s better. Got the hang of it?”
“I think so, but it hurts when I put weight on my arm.”
“Well, that’s all we’ve got.”
“What about ones that go under the armpits?”
“Haven’t used them since the First World War. They cause problems.”
I had an aunt who used them in the 1940s but I was cowed by her certainty. I began to get more of a rhythm into my hopping until I slewed sideways like an overweight skier. It was on the turn I had most trouble….


I pulled the curtains around me and changed into the open backed hospital smock we know and love. I tried to cover my rear end but failed, so I slipped on a dressing gown, and folded my clothes into my overnight case. I couldn’t stop thinking about my aunt. I suppose it was the bossy physiotherapist, but also Aunt Alicia had leg trouble. I’m the age she would have been when I first encountered her. I realised that it was not the operation that bothered me. My leg was marked clearly with red arrows, my details had been checked and double-checked, so what could possibly go wrong? No, it was the crutches: I would be moving around just like her.

Aunt Alicia was the eldest of Mum’s aunts. The Hopkins’ family were a typically large, Victorian family with all the children, bar the last one, given a trade. Alicia became a teacher. In the 1880s clever children were encouraged to stay on in school and teach the juniors. She had not received a formal training, her parents could not afford it, but she was bright enough to learn from her mentors and soon developed the natural talent she had in controlling her brothers and sisters. I heartedly disliked her. Mum did too. Whenever I visited the house, which she shared with Nana and Auntie Maria, who was the youngest of the aunts, who cooked, cleaned and cared for her, she tried to trap me.
“Come here, child. Sit by me and do this sum.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Here’s an interesting puzzle: If you were on a train and it was travelling…”
“Why not?” she snapped.
I wasn’t bright enough to think of an excuse. .
“Alright, maybe you’d like to practice your handwriting?”
“No, thanks.”
“How about reading out loud to me from the newspaper?” “It would be fun, wouldn’t it?”"
“Nah,” and I wriggled up my nose. “I don’t have to work on Saturdays or Sundays.”
“Come along now, you’ll enjoy it.”
“No I won’t.”
“Just think, you’ll get ahead of the others.”
“I don’t care.”
“It’ll do you the world of good.”
“I don’t wanna be done good.”
“Come here!” she lunged, and I ran out of the room and down the corridor to Nana’s because I knew she couldn’t chase me.

I pulled up a chair and speared a slice of bread onto a toasting fork and held it in front of the bars of the stove.
“You haven’t been long,” Nana said as she grated cheese into an old cup without a handle. She mixed it with mustard, a drop of milk and some salt and pepper. She sat it in a blackened saucepan of simmering water on the hob until the contents melted and formed a thick cream, which she poured onto the toast I had buttered. It was my Saturday treat. Nana never tried to teach me anything, she chatted and told me stories as we ate our rarebits and licked our fingers. Tales of Henry VIII and his six wives, The Great Plague and The Fire of London, she saved all the goriest tales for me, that’s why her stories stuck in my mind. We peeled and ate grapes and poured over illustrations in a set of ancient volumes of thin paper for hours.

I was chastised for being rude to my aunt and for carving letters in a leaf of her aspidistra with a nail file she kept behind the net curtains on the bay windowsill.
“It wasn’t me!”
“You’ve signed it, you stupid child.”
But I considered it was well worth it.

By the time I matured I realised that Aunt Alicia had meant well. She didn’t want to see me confined to a shop counter as my Mum had been. I put more effort into my studies and sat and talked with her in her front window, which I discovered was all she really wanted.
“Are you still doing the pools?” I asked, as I’d seen the forms on the breakfast table.
“Of course.”
“And the stock market?” She studied “The Times” religiously every morning.
“My broker’s become my friend.” I loved the idea that she was a gambler.
“Do you miss teaching?”
“D’you miss your pupils?”
“Oh, that’s different. Yes, I do, very much. They could be lazy little devils, you know, but they were so droll,” and she flung back her head and laughed. “They could make me forget everything.”
“The pain in your leg?”
She gave me one of her quick, searching looks. “That too.”
“What d’you mean then, your step-son?” I’d knew he’d died young, in the First World War. She nodded.
“And Uncle Joe?” I could vaguely remember the widower, a pocket sized version of Oliver Hardy in the Laurel and Hardy films, in a tightly buttoned waistcoat with little round spectacles. She screwed up her face and inhaled deeply.
“Would you tell your Aunt Maria that I’m ready for my tea?”
So I asked Nana.
“Alicia went in to hospital when she was a young woman for a simple leg operation. The surgeon cut the wrong ligament. It was disastrous, and there was nothing that could be done. There was no redress in those days, dear, it was just considered bad luck. In time she was able to continue with her teaching. She was lucky to find a good man like Joe, but she grew more and more arthritic and now in her retirement she needs help with everything.”


Back at home I bent sideways and fished around for my crutches. What cumbersome things they were, but I needed them as much as Aunt Alicia did. Mum and Dad had been wrapped up in their shop in those days and didn’t have time to help me with schoolwork. Nana had helped with history and writing stories, but it was Alicia, the experienced teacher, who had recognised a child who was running away from difficulties with numbers. She had tried to supply what I was in need of. I had never thanked her, not even when I graduated and became a history teacher.

I leaned back and prepared to hoist myself from her old rocking chair, which I had inherited along with her wooden, knobbly handled cane, which was kept “for special occasions.” I had never appreciated how well designed rockers are for people who have difficulty rising. When she died her portfolio turned out to be worthless and she never won a bean on the pools or her crosswords, but that wasn’t the reason she did them: they took her mind off her pains. If only we’d talked more, I could have learnt so much about the past. She had been a feisty old girl. Indignity in old age is often inevitable, but there should come a time when appearance no longer matters. What counts is mobility. So, saying a heartfelt “thank you” to all skilled and bossy women, I balanced on one leg and, taking a firm grip on each handle, swung my worst foot forward.


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