At the end of February, my Nana, which is to say, my Dad’s Mum, pops into my head because she was one of those leap year babies, born on 29th February; and I think she might be the only person I’ve known to have been born on that date. I can recall us saying that Nana was only in her late teens or early twenties, and probably thinking we must have been awfully witty to have thought of such a conceit.
She was born in 1912 (“just before the Titanic sank,” she told me more than once). I think she would have liked to have been remembered as one of those indomitable northern working class matriarchs who ruled home and hearth with a rod of iron; and she was certainly that, but whenever I’m transported back to the end terrace at the top of the hill, it’s her cooking that takes me over. She was extraordinary, and it’s her food that I recall as a nipper, the best yorkies, the best roasties, mountains of molasses-dark parkin. Proust had his madeleines, and he can keep them: for me, it’s custard tarts.
I’m tucked in at the kitchen table, looking out into the back yard, Grandad out past the back gate, quiet with his pigeons, and Nana is waddling about like a beach ball on legs, busy with Sunday lunch, again talking about people and matters of which I know nothing, but treating me to ‘a custard’ as long as I didn’t let on to my brothers. If I see an egg custard now – and it has to have nutmeg across the top to stand any chance of being even remotely authentic – I’ll be back there, legs dangling from the chair, about to be treated.
Although it’s been a while, I find the house easily enough. We seemed to go there almost every weekend when I was young, but it was probably a lot less than that. The long streets of red brick terraces that used to point to and from the pitheads are mapped out and locked in. Across the river, clean and sparkly now but a frothy brown sludge then, down the hill and back up again. And still windy, still the same cold blast from years ago. I turn off the main drag without thinking, without checking the street names. They were almost at the top of the hill.
Beyond the house, when I knew it forty years ago, all had been coarse gale-ripped grass and collapsed, derelict buildings. Barbed wire fences that led nowhere and fenced off nothing. A great bleak expanse on the edge of the town. The pigeon loft was out here, lots were. I was only allowed to hold a bird once or twice, the soft warm feathers immediate and alive in the palm of my hand. An eye-blinking flutter of heart. The oppressive air thickened with life, the stink of the place, the bird scared and uneasy. It shat down my wrist, a sharp green flux shocking me.
They raced the birds, Dad told me, from Caen in northern France, rattling a tin of dried peas in the garden as they appeared, to try and entice them back on to the perch. Dad told a tale of how he lost his favourite bird on one such run, when he was a lad. It makes me unaccountably sad to think of it. Cannonball, the name has just come to me. That’s a boy’s name for a pigeon. We had breeders association catalogues in the house and I would look at the pictures wondering if his champion had looked like this or that bird.
Number 40 doesn’t exist now. It’s still there, but 38 has expanded into it, knocked the numbers off the wall and filled in the front door. It’s a different-coloured brick and to my slightly shiny eyes it looks incongruous and ham-fisted. Not that Nana and Grandad ever used the front door, well, perhaps on Sundays they may have. We would go around the back, up the step and in. At the rear of the house now is all new build, or newish build, lots of starter homes and retirement bungalows, streets all named after distant racecourses. Doncaster is only a spit and a drag along the valley, but somehow it seems a bit silly and patronising.
Grandad worked the coal trains, in and out of Sheffield. He was a tall man, and strong in his day, but he was already on the way to being pretty ill by the time I really knew him. Dad followed him onto the trains after he came out of the army, but not pit work, I don’t think Nana would have allowed it. Instead he opted for British Railways at Doncaster Station and Works.
It was there he met my Mum, who used to be the station announcer. I’ve always enjoyed that fact, and wondered if he was taken by the ‘telephone voice’ tones she still refuses to acknowledge she uses to mask her accent. Did he look up at the funnel shaped speakers and wonder to whom that voice belonged?
One of the earliest memories of my childhood is Mum reciting the slow train stops from Doncaster to Kings Cross. It has a poetry, a curious, happy, bucolic litany that runs like a train itself with internal rhythm. “Rossington, Bawtry, Ranskill, Retford.” Names of places I now know well, and then others I couldn’t hope to find, that I’m aware of just from that; spots on the line I must’ve passed a hundred and more times, “Tempsford, Sandy, Biggleswade, Arlesey.” She struggles with it now, there are gaps in the list bigger than those made by Beeching, but she always remembers one section, “Corby Glen, Little Bytham, Essendine and Tallington.”
She says it with the same tone and cadence she uses when remembering John Masefield’s Cargoes, one of her favourite poems, “Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.”
I was always taken by the name Essendine. It has a swift and tricky appeal. It’s there, on that stretch of the mainline, that Mallard broke the land speed record for a steam locomotive (126mph). Still holds it, if you must know, more than eighty years later, and I guess she always will.
When I heard that Mallard – could there be a more ironic name for such a beautiful, brutish, fearsomely fast engine? – would be gathering with her remaining sisters, the A4 Pacifics, for possibly the last time, I asked Mum if she would like to come with me to see them. For a few days it seemed she would, but eventually she declined. It was to be up in the north east, two hundred miles away, and very much a stretch for her. But she wanted me to go, and to take pictures and to report back. And so I find myself north, and standing in a railyard, staring at these extraordinary monuments to not just the past, but my Mum’s past, and my Dad’s and Grandad’s, and I guess mine, too. I am rarely taken by iron and steel and chrome, but the A4s are different. Dad worked around them, Mum announced them as they roared and belched and clamoured through the station. In front of these gigantic, ridiculous, brilliant things I call her and we cry with each other down the phone.
I am taking a photo of Bittern, which I am rapidly pushing to the top of some sort of nebulous list of things I don’t particularly understand but feel drawn to, and a man leans in from my right and says hello.
– I won’t get in your way, he says
– don’t want to ruin your shot.
A pause. No worries, I smile and turn to the loco again.
– Only, you might be interested, I know every bit of her. Bittern. I served my apprenticeship on her, engine cleaner.
He is grinning broadly, but his eyes are shining. When was this?
– ’62. Left school, but it was all I ever wanted to do. Told myself one day I’d run her, too, and I did. Worked up to be the fireman.
There are old men everywhere, by turns smiling and often a little overwhelmed. Grandads and grandkids walking among these splendid shiny monsters and just shaking their heads at them. You are allowed up to them, in them, to press your hands against the plates and to feel the heat inside. The sun bounces off the burnished metal and people look up and wonder.
I park by the cemetery and pick the flowers up off the passenger seat. Two flowers, just barely budded daffs. Nana would have chided me if I’d spent anything unnecessary. They will do as well as anything else, and pass into the earth all the quicker. Across the road and through the gate. The path takes me around the chapel of rest and the wind breaks in off the hill. We are barely a quarter of a mile from their house, it is the same hill they lived alongside. The same wind again.
There are no pigeons flocking, yawing, scything through the grey. All I can hear is the traffic as it hurries past.