Gulls called constantly in the Sussex seaside towns. The sun had a peculiar intensity, and the wind was always keen. In such a town there was a row of Victorian terraced houses. They all looked the same from the outside, but one had barely changed its interior during its life of a hundred years. It was rented by two sisters: my grandmother and an aunt. There was never a man, at least not in my lifetime.
The hall confused the senses with dinginess and sour mustiness, opposing the outside brilliance and the smell of chip-shop frying. There was a formal parlour on the right, with dark drapes, dour patterned walls and the door ajar. I heard from a cousin that old people went in there to die, which was easily believed by a young imagination. Nobody ever went in while we were there, which both relieved me and fired my curiosity. Although I never dared ask further, I quickened my step while passing it, just to be sure.
All life was led in the crowded back room and kitchen, smelling of pets and boiled vegetables. There was no heating as such – just a black iron stove for burning coal. The only light came reluctantly through one sash window. It was covered in lace with a tint of sepia, acquired by years of nicotine. A miscellany of studded leather chairs almost climbed on top of one another, scattered with finished and unfinished crochet. The floor was patched with shabby linoleum in various shapes and designs, partly concealed by an assortment of well-trodden rugs. There she would be in a halo of white curls: my little Nan, apron over a nylon dress, tiny feet in misshapen slippers, tears of love in her eyes just to look at me.
Families started big when Nan was born. They probably had to, considering all the things a person could die from in those days. I was never sure who belonged to whom: there were lots of them still, all robustly healthy, some with their own families in the same road. The neighbours were all known as aunts and uncles, even if strictly speaking they were not. They leaned over the yard fence in their slippers, to pat me on the head and to grin at me with whatever teeth they had. It was bleak, grubby and Dickensian, but brim full with laughter and affection. Love to them was steadfast and unquestioning, it went beyond age or blood or social standing. It was given with two open hands and no bargaining.
One deep sink in the kitchen served all washing purposes. There was no bathroom, just a dismal outdoor water closet that I dreaded having to visit. I went upstairs only once, and returned silenced by the bare walls, candlewick bedspreads and chamber pots. The landlord would neither sell the place nor allow any improvement, and they never thought to move away. They had lived there always, so everything stayed the same.
Their mongrel dog was older than seemed possible. Shambling, blind and almost completely bald, he would sooner bite than give the benefit of the doubt. A cat replaced him later – he was enormous, and had a combative streak too, but did not waste his energy on humans. His head was hard and round, like a cannonball with ears, and covered in scars. He walked like a wrestler entering the ring, and ate whatever was left of anything. He was known as Smudge because of a mark on his face, but he probably would have chosen something like Cudgel or Bludgeon instead.
Tea was always stewed so as to be harshly strong and barely warm. It was served in floral china mugs, the like of which are seen only in the windows of charity shops nowadays. The milk was kept in a glass bottle on a marble slab, because there was no fridge. Sunday dinner was usually a chicken, and tinned fruit cocktail for afters – the sort with glacé cherries mixed in. I would have turned my nose up anywhere else, but the eagerness with which it was served made it the most delicious thing in the world. Other times we had ice cream, which meant an expedition to the corner shop between courses, as it would not keep long on the marble.
The telly was always on for some ancient film, or for the sport. If the two sisters were having a flutter on the horses, racing would be on for hours. That was their luxury, along with a soft pack of cigarettes and a roast once a week. If they could go to the Social Club in the evenings to play darts, and travel by coach to Spain for a week each year, they were complete.
Whenever Nan took us out, she would want to buy us choc-ices, or sneakily give us big brown pennies to play on the slots. I felt such a wrench in my heart when she reached for her purse, because I knew there was barely anything in it. Her eyes – two pale spangles of blue – spoke for her every time though. I knew in that look that she only longed to give to us. She would never take from anyone, because there was nothing more she wanted. Her life worried me, and I was puzzled by her contentment in it. I already suspected that happiness did not necessarily come from the places people thought it did though, and Nan was further proof of that, only it took a while to sink in properly.
Nan had a stroke eventually. Until that day she remained spritely and uncomplaining, well into her eighties, and could often be seen riding a bicycle around town. I went alone on my last visit. She was propped up in the hospice ward under a thin cotton nightie, at first indistinguishable from all the other geriatrics, each staring into their own private emptiness. Someone had painted her nails for her in pearlescent apricot, and combed her hair. I kissed her on her bad side, which left a trace of drool on my cheek. She looked ashamed, but I could not see why: she was still my reverend Nan, in a halo of white curls. Her hands were dry and useless, like vacant seashells. I clung to their warmth anyway, and we sat in quietude. Some things do not need to be said.
I was relieved for Nan when she was finally gone, but so sorry for me. I carried her letters until they were ragged and blotted with tears. I could still read her love through the decreasingly lucid thoughts on the page, the addresses on the envelopes almost illegible and littered with notes from determined postal workers:
‘Not Doxford, try Oxford / Yoxford.’
‘Jingle? Try Dingle.’
It was love that Nan taught me, mostly. She taught me the value of inner wealth, irrespective of outer wealth. She also proved to me that a man, or the absence of a man, need not have any correlation to happiness. To be single – either through widowhood or choice or any other circumstance – need not mean to be incomplete, or to live without love. It certainly need not mean aloneness. Far from it.