I was born in Ealing, West London on 1st February 1963 which gives some validity to my proud claim to being a Londoner.
At that time, my parents were living with my grandparents, on my mother’s side, in a semi-detached, three bedroom house in West London. My grandparents were what I can only describe as, wonderful people.
My Granddad was a London bus conductor, a magical career choice for a granddad. My parents moved to their own home in Reading shortly after I was born but having a Granddad who not only lived in London but was a London Bus Conductor was a thing of legend to my country bumpkin Reading friends.
Granddad was a short, slightly built man with a smile that simply oozed love and affection. He was, what I would imagine to be, the stereotypical granddad and he doted on his four grandchildren; myself, my younger brother Ian and our two cousins, Stewart and Andrew. He could be stern however, he once made no bones whatsoever about his dislike of my red, platform shoes that I had proudly shown him in the nineteen seventies. But time spent with Granddad was always magical, especially in the summer months when he let us loose on his beloved garden; weeding, deadheading and pricking out seedlings.
Granddads garden, always granddads and never grandmas, was a long, thin stretch of land that seemed to us to stretch on forever. Bordered by chain link fences on either side, the garden was divided into approximate halves by two dwarf conifer trees which stood either side of a set of stone steps half way down. The half nearest the house was the flower garden, which in the summer, would be an absolute cacophony of colour provided by the hundreds of neatly planted, home grown, bedding plants and shrubs and the rear half of the garden was given over to the vegetable patch. At the very end of garden was an old, wood framed greenhouse were Granddad grew his bedding plants from seed, tomatoes and courgettes and, next to the greenhouse; a battered old shed, door propped closed with a rusting old lawn roller and, inside the shed, ancient and intriguing garden tools that you would have found in a museum then, let alone now.
You could almost be lead to believe that it was some kind of idyllic country setting but we were, in fact, just a couple of miles from Heathrow airport and right under the flight path so the smells of the garden alternated between the scent of the flowers, aviation fuel and that of coal from the coal bunker.
Whilst it was always known as Granddads garden, it was actually Grandma who called the shots, both in terms of garden design and pretty much everything else as well.
Grandma, like her husband, was also fairly short in stature. Usually dressed in home-made, floral dresses, no tights, stockings or make-up, she was always busy. She used to get up early in the morning to go to her part time cleaning job at Bentals, a department store in nearby Uxbridge, and usually be home again, before we had even woken up, in time to cook the breakfast. If she wasn’t cooking, she was cleaning, if she wasn’t cleaning, she was doing the washing, she just seemed to never stop. It wasn’t all chores though, she still found time to play with us, do crosswords, read her gardening books and give Granddad his instructions for the day.
The thing that always struck me about Grandma and Granddad, noticeable even then, when I was still a child, was how much they so obviously loved one another and how much they loved their family. Family came first, whatever. During the blitz, my mum was briefly evacuated out of London. I say briefly because, apparently, Granddad missed her so much that, after just a few days, he simply said ‘sod this’ got on his bike and went and brought her back home again.
Grandma and Granddad loved each other like they were teenaged lovers all their lives. I have a wonderful picture of them sat together on a park bench when they were much older and Grandmas Dementia had just begun to take hold. The photograph just sums them up perfectly. Surrounded on all sides by roses in full bloom, they sit together, hand in hand, smiling.
Sadly, that was probably one of the last times that I remember my Grandma being completely with it, as it were. Her Alzheimer’s progressed fairly quickly. It started innocuously enough. She started to become more forgetful. It had always been a family joke that, when all four of her grandchildren were in the house and she called for one, she would always go through all four names before she got the right one. It ceased to be funny though when she started doing it when there was only one of us there. Things went from bad to worst fairly quickly. She started to forget to turn the cooker off so Granddad took over cooking duties. That did lead to some interesting menus though. Granddad, having never before cooked in his life, just served up what he liked which, for some reason, meant that there was nearly always a fried egg with the meal. Pork chops, cabbage, potatoes and gravy topped with a fried egg, for example.
Then things got worst. At times she wouldn’t remember who Granddad was and would wake up in bed thinking that a stranger was lying next to her and so would beat seven shades of shit out of Granddad. The worst part of it was that she would go in and out of reality. On one occasion she did a runner from the house, dressed only in her nightclothes, and managed to jump into the driving seat of a neighbour’s car where she sat making childlike car engine sounds and playing with the steering wheel. When Granddad eventually found her, she was having a burst of reality and was sat in tears because she knew exactly what she had done. She had never actually driven a car in her entire life.
Granddad stuck it out though. He cared for her right up until it just was no longer possible. He was in his eighties and looking after Grandma, keeping the house, doing the shopping along with the odd beating and jogging down the road to find Grandma again just wasn’t feasible.