Below is a further chapter from A Kerridge Childhood written by Enid Simpson. For a full introduction and index to all the stories please see the head page.
Christmas was always a special time for us, especially when we lived on Kerridge. Not because we ever had anything very special to celebrate – money was always scarce in our house. Somehow, Mother madeit a special time.
In those days the lavish giving of presents had not begun and the Christmas gifts we had were usually those from our parents. They consisted mainly of books: they were cherished, read and re-read many times over. Books for children came out annually in time for Christmas and any unsold for that year were put out at a cheaper price the next year. Mother generally chose these annuals for us and paid weekly for them, thus ensuring the longed-for gifts.
So we had a fairly good idea that Father Christmas would be bringing the usual annuals and we looked forward eagerly to receiving our books. Aunts and Uncles rarely brought us anything, they were all, like us, hard up. During the four or five weeks leading up to Christmas, Mother always put us on a ‘plain diet’, “because”, she said, “of all that rich food you will be eating at Christmas.” Our daily diet was always plain, so I can’t think how much more plain a diet could be. I realize now that she was a clever psychologist and knew that the more build-up she gave Christmas, the more likely we were to enjoy it. Another of her preparations was to give us doses of Turkey Rhubarb, about two weeks before the holiday. This was a foul-smelling, revolting-tasting, cathartic type of home remedy, the taking of which she believed would help enhance our enjoyment of the Christmas feasts. Much as we hated Turkey Rhubarb, we knew that by taking it cheerfully, we were bringing closer the much heralded holiday.
It was Mother’s custom to make a new rug in time for Christmas. It was ‘pegged’, an old craft, fashioned from cutting up old woollen garments – trousers, coats, dresses, in fact anything that could be salvaged for this purpose. A piece of canvas, rectangular in shape, was needed and a flour sack, unpicked down the sides, and washed and dried, Made the perfect foundation. The colours of the cut pieces were sorted into piles and a rough design was chosen. Mother collected suitable garments all year long, and towards the end of the summer the work of making the rug would begin.
Dad loved to read aloud to us in the winter evenings and whilst he did this, we would be busy pegging away at the rug. It had to be ready for Christmas, so everyone worked with a will. When it was completed, another washed flour sack was stitched on to the back as a lining- This gave the rug a bit more strength.
Several weeks before Christmas, Mother would start assembling the dried fruits necessary for the pudding, Christmas cake and mincemeat. She would, on the appointed day – usually in October – clear the large square kitchen table, making sure the already spotless top was thoroughly clean, then assigning us to help, would begin to prepare the fruits. Currants, sultanas and raisins were delivered to the shops in bulk then, and weighed out by the assistants. So, all this fruit had to be cleaned before it could be used. We would roll it all in flour, then wash and dry it. Nuts had to be shelled and chopped, cherries chopped, and stale bread grated to provide the crumbs for the puddings. Once all these preparations had taken place, the real work got underway. By this time we were all excited and felt that Christmas had really begun.
When Christmas Eve day finally dawned, Mother cleaned the house from top to bottom. Brass shone, the floor was newly scrubbed – we didn’t have carpets – the fireplace gleamed from black lead and elbow grease, the steel fire irons reflected the flames from the fire and the fender, also steel, was burnished inside and out. Mother always made a potato pie for supper on Christmas Eve and our aunts and Uncles were invited to join in the fun. At the last minute, she would put down THE RUG. Never did anything look more attractive, the pristine colours bravely reflecting all the hard work of the cold winter nights. The little house shone and sparkled and though the winds might be howling outside, all was cosy and warm inside.
We children, were of course, in bed earlier than usual to await the coming of Father Christmas. Dad loaned us his old socks to be tied to the bedpost and we would lie awake listening to the merriment, laughter and talking downstairs. Then Dad would start to play the old familiar carols on his organ and everyone would take up the refrain. No-one stayed out late and soon the Christmas quiet reigned over the house.
We tried, many times, to stay awake to catch Father Christmas, but never succeeded. During the early hours of the morning, the stillness was broken by the sound of Christmas music, coming from a brass band, who assembled at the Bull’s Head to bring the age-old tidings of good cheer to everyone.
This was our signal for us to open our stockings, now looking so important with bulges here and there. Mother or Dad would come in to light the gas burner – or candle – can’t remember – and whisper that as it was so early, we must be quiet and read our books. This was what we wanted most to do, and so by breakfast time we’d usually read our own books and were ready to swap with each other. The remainder of our presents were, generally, an orange, an apple and a threepenny bit! We were quite happy.
One year auntie Cissie bought us each a pair of bedroom slippers – a rare treat. I can still see the pretty slippers – blue trimmed with some kind of fur. After the initial stocking opening that year, Mother said we all had to go back to sleep as it was much too early. Joan and I put away our slippers but Peggy insisted on wearing hers and nothing would induce her to take them off. So we were all tucked in again and went back to sleep. When we got up at the proper time, Peggy’s slippers had moulted! All that was left of the trimming was a pathetic little grey band to which the fur had been stuck, and a bed full of feathery fur!
Christmas Day for us was spent quietly – the days of huge family parties hadn’t begun. We enjoyed our books and the unexpected treat of having a bowl of nuts to crack and raisins, the huge muscatel variety, to eat with them. The fruit (apples and tangerine oranges) had been collected and put into a bowl to be enjoyed by everyone after the Christmas dinner.
Another lovely Christmas gift I particularly remember took place five days after Christmas. In the Redway Lane house where we then lived, we had a door at the foot of the stairs and it was Mother’s custom to open this door when it was time to get up and call us. This particular morning the call came and I remember us saying to each other “it’s auntie Cissie! What is she doing here so early in the morning?” So we hurriedly dressed and rushed downstairs to investigate. She was there, laying the table for our breakfast. “Go in the front room and see what your Mother has got for you” she said. and there in a dear little cot at the foot of the bed, lay our new baby sister. What a surprise, and how excited we all were! There had been no hint of this coming arrival and though Joan was turned thirteen, I was nearly ten, and Peggy was almost seven, none of us had guessed that an addition to the family was imminent. We were much more naive then than children are now. We were very thrilled with our new baby and loved the name Patricia that Mother had chosen for her.
I think this must have been our last Christmas on Kerridge as I remember Pat still only being a baby when we moved to Greenfield Road in Bollington. The house we moved into had three bedrooms, which with a family of four girls, was badly needed. It was nearer to the station and to the shops, though not much difference in the distance from school.
Two Christmas memories I remember clearly whilst living in this house. The first one happened on a Saturday and it has remained in my mind for several reasons, chief of which I feel sure, was that it was the first time that Joan and I had ever travelled to Manchester alone. Dad, who worked for the Manchester Corporation, was to meet us at London Road Station after he had finished work. Everybody worked a five and a half day week then.
Mother escorted us to the train at Bollington station, leaving just before noon, and found a suitable lady with whom we could travel. Sure enough Dad was on the platform as our train drew into London Road and he was to take us on a tour of the shop windows in the City, so that we could see and enjoy the wonderful and artistic work of the window dressers.
I recall walking along Piccadilly towards Lewis’s. The pavements were packed with Christmas shoppers and each small shop had it’s exotic and colourful display for all to see. These were the days when kerbside traders were in their heyday.
Lewis’s was the big attraction, having 6 or 8 windows facing onto Piccadilly. Each window portrayed a special theme relative to Christmas. One window would represent a family sitting round a Christmas tree which was decorated with beautifully coloured balls and gaily striped parcels. The display that I recall most vividly was the one window which had, set against a perfectly plain black background, a swan, larger than life, which had been made from thousands of white or pastel coloured handkerchiefs. No doubt there was a wire frame underneath, but the sight of this huge, graceful bird covered with all these handkerchiefs was to stay with me for a long time as a masterpiece of creative art.
The other outstanding memory is of being asked to a private party by one of the neighbours. I shall have to go back a little to give a clear picture of why this particular memory meant so much.
Our removal to Greenfield Road was significant in that we left the small and intimate house on Kerridge for one of a different setting. A small housing estate had been built after the war by the local council – a great breakthrough following the long years of privately owned houses. This complex of houses all built of local Kerridge stone (a soft beige colour) was much sought after by semi-professional people. So headmasters lived there, and the clerk of the council was another tenant. So it was quite an elevation for a family like ours to live there. I’m sure we had no more money than before, but Mother was never one to let that worry her if she wanted something badly enough.
Our neighbours across the road were a Mr. and Mrs. Guy Walker. He had a jewellery shop in Macclesfield (some said a pawn shop too). Mrs. Walker was obviously of a different social class, much higher than her husband. Many were the efforts of the local social class to scrape acquaintance with her, but she would have none of it, and remained aloof. We, living across from their house, had a unique and free observation post. There was a family who lived at the end of our row of houses who were named Clark. He was a delightful man, but she was common – even I knew that. The fact that she used rouge and powder dammed her. The Clarks had one son, Horace, who was about twenty-five years old, on whom they doted and who was very handsome and eligible. Somehow there was, as they say now ‘something going’ between Horace and Mrs. Walker. It may have been something quite platonic and harmless, but Mrs. Clark tried hard to cash in on it to gain entry to the Walker house – without any success.
Mrs. Walker came across to our house once and set everyone’s tongues wagging as to why she wanted to visit us. Mother, who went along in her own sweet way, radiating charm and being completely herself, had no aspirations in the race for friendship with the Walkers, so she had nothing to gain or loose.
The story was that Mrs. Walker had a sister who lived in Singapore (I think) with her husband who was a top official in a British bank there. The Deacons had two daughters – Dorothy and Elise, who were roughly the same age as Peggy and me. They were, like most children of foreign-based English people, at boarding school, in Bournemouth.
School holidays were imminent and the girls were to spend the time with auntie Daisy (Mrs. Walker) in Bollington. Dorothy was taking piano lessons and as the Walkers had no piano, she had come to ask if Mother would let Dorothy use our piano to do her daily practice. She must have seen me going out each Tuesday to my piano lesson and had deduced that we had a piano.
Of course, there was no objection and it was all arranged. Mrs. Clark was furious when she found out and let it be known that her piano could have been used and she was a friend of the Walkers and why had webeen asked, etc. etc.
The girls arrived and in no time Dorothy came to do her practice. Mother, as always, went about her daily duties and Dorothy became more and more friendly. She would practice for about fifteen minutes and then spend the rest of the allotted time talking and generally enjoying the freedom of our family. We all became good friends and spent much time together during that first summer. Although we played together I never remember going into the Walker’s house.
Christmas came around and again Dorothy and Elise arrived in Bollington and our summer friendships were renewed. To listen to their accounts of life in boarding school was, to us, like a glimpse into an enchanted world. Every school story I had ever read (and I had read plenty) was a re-inaction of the stories that Dorothy and Elise told to us. They both went to finishing school in Switzerland after they left the school in Bournemouth, but that was a long way ahead.
Just before Christmas came, we received an invitation to a party to be held on Christmas Day at the Walker’s. No doubt we had new dresses for such a fitting occasion but these details did not stay in my mind. What did stay was the contrast between their house and ours!
To see a house carpeted in every room and with all the little luxuries, like fires burning in both downstairs rooms, the lovely deep red of the curtains and the wonderful spread set for us to eat was like a book coming to life. After tea we were taken into the sitting room where a splendid Christmas tree, laden with gifts, was the centre of attraction. We were given toys and I also had a little octagonal celluloid box, which wasn’t useful at all, but all the more precious for that, and a silver pencil. I lost the pencil but still have the little box.
Mrs. Clark, who with her husband and son were also guests, was not at all pleased to see the Oldfield children there and more than once asked Mrs. Walker if it wasn’t time for us to go. Auntie Daisy, ever master of her own mind, just prolonged our stay, and more and more games were added to the program, while Mrs. Clark’s face got longer and longer. It was a lovely party and one which I shall always remember as my first glimpse into the ‘other’ world.
© 1985 Enid Simpson