Friday, 16 August 2013

Roast Watch

I was an only child, born in nineteen-sixty. Dad insisted on naming me after his mother, so I was christened Kate - Kate Willerby. All through my childhood we lived in the council semi on Bromley Road where I was born and the only transport we ever had was Dad's old Raleigh bike. Some people might have agreed with Mum and called him ambitious – what with him starting from such a low base but with such big ideas. At least, Mum always said his money madness was ambition. I never called it that. To me he was just plain mean – and more than a little crazy.
Looking back, I remember no end of odd details about Dad’s tight-fisted, money-saving ways, every one of them etched on my memory like little scenes carved in a slab of marble. It's strange how things like that can take such a grip on you. You could say Dad scarred me for life if you like to think in those terms - the terms my social-worker uses.
‘If only things had been different,’ my social-worker sometimes says in that silly, wistful way she has. ‘You might never have done such things....’
She goes on about me because it's her job I suppose, but I'd rather hear about what's happening outside. When I was a kid in the Sixties, Dad worked as an accountant for the Borough Council. He cycled off to work each morning with his briefcase dangling from the handle-bars and came home for his tea on the dot of half past five. I realise now that we could probably have afforded a car, but obviously Dad stuck to his bike because it was so much cheaper. He thought he was going to be Clerk of the Council one day, but he never was - never even got within sniffing distance of the oak-panelled office.
Dad must have made Mum’s life a misery with his penny-pinching notions of driving a family up the social ladder. He certainly made mine pretty grim. I vividly remember the day when Annie Faulkner, my best friend, took me into Cullen's sweet shop near our school.
‘How much money have you got?’ Annie asked. She wanted us to go halves on a quarter of mint humbugs because she adored anything sweet. She’s never put on a pound of extra fat to this day though. Lucky cow.
‘None,’ I said. I never had any money.
‘Not even threepence?’ Annie held out three of those big pre-decimal pennies in her pink scrubbed hand as if she was inviting me to count her amazing wealth.
‘I spent it,’ I lied.
‘Didn’t you get your pocket money on Saturday?’ Annie asked in that mock innocent way of hers. That was Annie all over – she was never one for giving up easily. It was Monday, so she couldn't believe I'd spent my pocket money already and she wanted to know what I’d done with it. It never occurred to her that some kids might not get pocket money – even those from the ‘better’ families at the top end of Bromley Road.
‘I had my pocket money, but I spent it,’ I lied again. I knew not to embellish it too much because Annie would follow it up like a bloody terrier. I never had pocket money, except for the odd few pennies and halfpennies Mum slipped me when she’d found a few bargains on a shopping trip. Till that time with Annie in Cullen's sweet shop, I never knew normal kids had pocket money every single week. So Annie shrugged her shoulders and bought herself three penny chews. She didn't share a single one.
Bromley Road was much the same in the nineteen sixties as it is now, except for the cars which clutter up the narrow road these days. Every year we went on holiday for a week in a Skegness boarding-house like most people in Bromley Road, but that was our only luxury. Actually, I always called the landlady Auntie Elsie, so I suppose we were getting special relative’s rates. Dad would see to that. I never found out who Auntie Elsie actually was – never placed her on our narrow family tree. I don't think Mum liked her – once said she was blowsy – whatever that is.
‘Here we are, buy yourself a few ice-creams, young lady,’ Dad would say when we arrived at Skegness.
He would hand over a couple of Irish two shilling pieces for my holiday spending money as if presenting me with a pools winner’s cheque. Mum told me years later that he took the Irish coins from the tea fund at work and wrote them off as foreign coins - worthless.
Dad was a great one for all kinds of investments. He invested piddling sums in the stock market while Mum darned socks and made my dresses out of cheap cotton prints, or knitted him his next pullover. He kept a blue notebook with columns of figures in tiny, crabbed writing. A complete history of family expenditure and Mum’s attempts to make a shilling stretch into half a crown.
One day, while I was playing with Annie near the railway bridge, I saw Dad on his way home from work. He was zooming along on that old Raleigh with one of his trousers flapping round his ankle where his bicycle clip had come off. I could tell he was excited.
When I got in for tea, I found out that he'd bought a watch which he said was valuable. He bought it off old Mr Greenway who had been some kind of businessman before the war. I think he once owned a textile factory. Anyway, Mr Greenway had gone bankrupt years ago and people said he'd lost his marbles. At the time, I didn’t think that losing marbles should make anyone go like Mr Greenway.
This watch was supposed to be something really special - a rich man's watch - a real gold one. Dad was thrilled with his bargain. He said it was worth a lot of money, much more than he gave old Mr Greenway for it.
As I grew up, I came to wonder how Mum tolerated Dad. Once, when I was about fourteen, I even dared to ask why she put up with him when he refused her the money to buy a new dress for church. I don't think she knew what to say to me. She was rather shocked and obviously embarrassed that I knew how things stood between them. I didn’t mention it again.
Mum went to church every Sunday and she made me go too, but Dad never came. She would prepare the Sunday dinner and put it in the oven on a low heat, then she'd get herself changed into her best clothes and make me polish my shoes till they shone. When she was all ready, she'd ask Dad to keep an eye on the dinner. Then it was on with her pair of white gloves and off we’d go down Bromley Road to St. Michaels. The vicar of St. Michaels was the Reverend David Swain who always had a special smile for Mum, a pat on the head and a few words for me.
When I was sixteen, I got a job in Worrall's bread shop. I enjoyed the work and got on well with the customers, who mostly liked a chat. The women loved me to tempt them with cream buns and ├ęclairs as a special treat before their husbands came home for tea. I became quite good at it.
I think my bit of independence must have brought me out of my shell because I've always got on with people since those days. Mrs Worrall and I had lots of laughs together and for the first time in my life I had some money. I handed half of my pay packet over to Mum, who lied to Dad about how much I was getting so I could buy things and go out. Mum called it telling little white fibs to father.

One night, just after my seventeenth birthday, I came back from the pictures with Annie and her boyfriend to find that Dad had been rushed to hospital with a massive heart attack. Early next morning, Mum and I were at the hospital waiting to see him when a doctor came up to us and said he'd passed away without regaining consciousness. Mum cried, right there in the hospital. I didn’t.
Dad's death had come straight out of the blue though – nobody had the slightest inkling. Mum was heartbroken for a while, but I don't remember feeling anything much. Maybe a mild sense of release is all I'll admit to. Mum was softer than either me or Dad, but even she picked herself up pretty quickly.
Dad didn't leave much in his will. As I said before, his investments weren't going to make us rich. Mum says some of them were hardly worth cashing in. She married the Reverend David Swain six months after Dad died, so in the end, none of it mattered very much. It was as if our lives had been ticking over till Dad went, waiting to get properly started. From that time I got the investment bug on a grander scale than Dad ever imagined....But you've read all about that in the papers.
Years later, I did wonder about Dad's investments, particularly Mr Greenway's old watch. Mum had passed our few family photographs to me and among them was one of the watch. He'd had it taken by a professional photographer because of the watch’s value. I took the photograph to a dealer, who said it was a gold Patek Philippe made in the nineteen thirties. He valued it at £20,000 to £25,000. I was pretty interested by then because I had a few cash-flow problems, so I asked Mum where the watch was.
She pondered for a while then she laughed. ‘I put it on his wrist just before the funeral, I didn't want poor old Mr Greenway's watch whatever it was worth.’

I had to laugh too. What's £20,000 when you come down to it? Won’t even buy a decent car. Dad would have been furious though, especially as Mum had him cremated.

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